Laurie Lee is a writer who is not just a national treasure in the UK, but whose descriptions of his childhood in the tiny Gloucestershire village of Slad, in Cider with Rosie, have been embraced by the world. The New York Times called it ‘magically contagious’, and the villagers of Almunecar in Spain, where Lee lived in the 1930s, erected a monument in his honour. Now a newly published book gives us fresh insights into Lee’s life and work, both before and after his success as a writer.
Down in the Valley: A Writer’s Landscape comes from conversations Lee had with the filmmaker David Parker in 1994, three years before his death. It is a valuable document, providing a colourful and unguarded account from Lee, who rarely gave interviews in later life. Unearthed from recordings thought to be lost, it is both a lively companion piece to Cider with Rosie and a behind-the-scenes look at Lee’s beloved home.
This is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. By the time Lee spoke to Parker, the childhood memories he recalls were more than 70 years old, and here they are pared back to their essence, as clear as the water (‘liquid sky’) Lee played with from the scullery pump in the opening scenes of Cider with Rosie. Throughout Down in the Valley Lee comes across as human, likeable and unaffected: ‘I could go on,’ he says at the end of one chapter, ‘but that’s the church bell ringing and the pub opens at seven’.
Often we can see in the book the genesis of episodes from Cider with Rosie, including the dark matter that forms some of that book’s most memorable scenes. (Death, wrote Lee, was his ‘childhood’s continuous fare … during one particularly gloomy season even the coroner did himself in.’) In the opening chapter he gives a raw account of the suicide of Miss Flynn who ‘came down in the night, lay down in the pond and pulled the water over her head.’ It is all the more powerful for its conversational tone, and there is something enticing about the scene-of-the-crime tour Lee gives us of the village pond and its centrality to village life.
In Down in the Valley we also get insight into Lee’s approach to writing. Nobody who has lingered over a page of Cider with Rosie will be surprised to learn that he values the ‘richness’ of the language of the King James Bible, dislikes cliché and writes slowly: ‘you have to reinterpret it, recycle it, reawaken it. If you use someone else’s language people are not going to be interested.’ His early literary influences, discovered in Stroud Library, included Lawrence and Joyce, and he tells a lovely story about the vicar in Slad snatching a copy of Huxley’s Brave New World from him. ‘I had to tell them at the library that the vicar had seized the book and destroyed it as being profane. And could they let me off the fine.’
As a writer, the success of Cider with Rosie took Lee by surprise: he had always considered himself primarily a poet, and joked that ‘I was an expert on badgers when [Ted Hughes] was still mewing and puking in a buzzard’s nest.’ Down in the Valley gives us a glimpse of his poetry, which is as rich in imagery as his memoirs. Often the poems came more easily than the prose, with one poem composed in its entirety on a bus ride (‘you may say, it’s a pity the bus ride wasn’t further, giving you a chance to correct a few more of the verses’) and another, under deadline from the BBC, written literally overnight.
Cider with Rosie made Lee a legend in his own lifetime, and one of the most valuable aspects of Down in the Valley is what it tells us about how success changed his life. He tells the story of how he was approached by two schoolgirls outside his local pub, The Woolpack, and was asked, ‘Excuse me sir, can you tell me where Laurie Lee is buried? (His reply: ‘He’s in the public bar, otherwise he’d be up in the woods.’) He had some resistance by others in Slad to the fact that he had ‘told a lot of stories about the village. It took me a lot of time, living that down.’
But it didn’t stop him from returning. Lee first left Slad at the age of 19 to travel in Europe, and described his journeys in his later books As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and A Moment of War. ‘The stooping figure of my mother, waist-deep in the grass and caught there like a piece of sheep’s wool, was the last I saw of my country home as I left it to discover the world.’ The success of Cider with Rosie enabled him to buy his old childhood home, and returned to Slad at first gradually – living there with his wife at weekends while he worked in London – and then permanently. ‘I went to about forty countries while I was away,’ he says in Down in the Valley, ‘but I knew I would have to come back here. This is the world.’
Down in the Valley by Laurie Lee is out now.