LIKE few writers before him, Laurie Lee captured the delights of growing up in the English countryside in his evocative post-World War I memoir, Cider With Rosie. To celebrate his 80th birthday, Laurie was recorded by TV producer David Parker as they walked around his home village of Slad in Gloucestershire. Here, in our final extract from a new book of those reminiscences, the author recalls the schoolroom where a strict headmistress first inspired in him a love of reading, and discusses village legends that fired his imagination...
MY fIRsT school was a school for four-year-olds to 12-yearolds. I remember the windows looking out onto the valley. We were half prisoners and also half special, to be able to see the valley and everything that was happening.
The far end of the room was just called ‘the infants’. The young four-year- olds, five-year- olds used to come in through a little door at the end, that was their entrance.
The ‘big ’uns’ from seven or eight onwards used to come in through a door at the other end of the room, and they didn’t meet.
And then you had this great occasion when you were filtered through from the infants to the other end of the room when you had to start a new system of education and behaviour. It was a great day.
The walls were covered with maps the colour of tea. All the colonial possessions marked in red and we used to sit there; we were very poor in those days, poor but uncomplaining, we lived on boiled and baked cabbage, the poorest of the poor. And we used to look at this world map and think, we are the greatest in the world.
We own all those pieces of red on that world map. The whole of Africa, the whole of India, all those islands across the Pacific. Then we’d look at each other as if we were centurions, as we were, politically, in those days. We were the Roman occupiers, except that we were the serfs, we didn’t know that, but we were.
But particularly I’m grateful for being introduced to some of the old country songs and some of the longer poems of Milton and shakespeare which I wouldn’t have known otherwise. so I have only the deepest gratitude f or these various stepping stones of education.
There were two rather waspish teachers who didn’t think much of me, especially Miss Wardley, the headmistress. I used to go home to dinner, it was just up the road, I had baked cabbage or something and it’s still a habit of mine after lunch, or dinner as we called it, to drop into a heavy sleep, like an animal on safari. And she would come round with a ruler and poke me and say, ‘Wake up you, you with your little red eyes.’ And I thought, that’s no way to talk to a sensitive youth, but that’s how she is.
Then I also had a steady sniff and she used to say, ‘Laurie Lee, will you please go outside and blow your nose and don’t come back in until you’re clear.’ And I used to go outside seething with rage, thinking, I’m really a prince, she doesn’t know that and one day, when I come into my throne, when I come into my kingdom, I’ll see to her. I won’t be too unkind, I’ll just lock her up for a few decades.
Eventually when I had got that indignation off my chest I’d come back in and she’d say, with a freezing smile, ‘ A little less beastly now, I hope.’
But on the other hand, Miss Wardley, who used to wear glass jewellery that would swing and tinkle as she walked, introduced us to poetry and I know yards of poetry, thanks to her and her assistant teacher.
I can to the point of boredom tell you the whole of Il Penseroso by Milton, l earned when I was about eight.
And some of the country songs like Down In The Valley and Early One Morning, that still means this valley to me:
Early one morning, just as the sun was rising, I heard a maiden sing in the valley below, Oh! don’t deceive me, oh never leave me, How could you use such a poor maiden so?
I’ve carried that around as an amulet of conscience ever since I learnt it here, and anyone who says I have a casual attitude to women is lying in their feminist teeth.
When I came back from mooning round the world, just after I had published Cider With Rosie, I came back to the village.
My school was still there — but the local council wanted to close it down and I wrote to the Minister of Education and said this is a community, this is where we began. This is where the children get to know both the valley and themselves. They don’t just get to know the inside of a bus. They’re here. And he reprieved it.
FROM a seat at Bull’s Cross, a place where many roads from the valley meet, Laurie Lee recalls the people, places and shocking local stories that made a lifelong impression on him:
I USED to meet a girlfriend from Gloucester who stayed with an aunt in Painswick and would come over. she used to meet me on the hill and we’d go into the wood and read shakespeare together, Macbeth. she played Lady Macbeth until the middle of the play and then she discovered there was no other part for her, because Lady Macbeth disappears. so she took over my part. I was Macbeth but then I had to be Duncan. Women, they impose their own rules.
she was older than me and went to a grammar school. I only went to the local school. so that was my first lesson in shakespeare and also in f emale domination. But I still remember every word.
There is an old stone milestone here, it’s really worth looking at closely, because it’s cut into steps where the old men used to get on their horses. The other milestone is in the wall of the village school, opposite The Woolpack, down in slad. And there’s one further milestone beyond the village, it still exists, it’s been protected by time. Most of them have gone now.
It’s on a corner where a sweep once lived. He had a van, a van full of soot. Once, going round the bend very fast on the wrong side of the road, the car turned over on him. It smothered him with soot and he choked to death.
We still, happily, call it sooty Corner. Well just round sooty Corner is the other milestone where I always stopped and kissed my knee when I was running to my secondary school, in stroud.
I’d always get a stitch coming down the hill towards sooty Corner. You sat on the milestone and kissed your knee, it was supposed to cure your stitch.
AnD then I would go into the second lap, get to school i n 25 minutes, running. On the way back, the three miles would take two hours with Eileen Brown, discovering the landscape, and Rosie and Edna who went to the neighbouring girls’ school. That’s when education begins, as you walk out of that gate and sprawl over the landscape and discover just what the quality of this valley was and discover your own qualities.
And also if it was raining, or if girls l i ke Eileen or Doreen weren’t around, I used to slip into the stroud public library for which I am still enormously grateful. They are talking of shutting down public libraries. But the amazing difference that it had to me was going on a cold night, for there was always heating on, there wasn’t always heating at home.
I did all my early reading in stroud library. I discovered people I had never heard of, like Joyce, Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, Eliot. I remember finding Huxley’s Brave new World. I borrowed it from the library and I was sitting by the war memorial in slad reading it when the vicar came out of the vicarage.
He saw me reading it and snatched it from me.
‘That profane book! Ye who doth read profanities shall be destroyed by fire,’ he said, ‘and I quote.’
But he didn’t, though he sounded as though he were quoting some dramatic death sentence from the Bible. But he took the book away. 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.
Well I thought I’ve touched something very sensitive here. I’ll follow up Huxley, so I read Chrome Yellow, and others. I did some immensely important reading there, but the particular quality of it that remains when I look back was that it was uninstructed reading. It was the public library that provided it, and still provides it.
JUST behind me where the signpost is there was a gibbet. When the whole country was run for wool the various lords of the manor were very keen on stopping sheep-stealing, so they had a gibbet here, and on the war memorial near the green in sheepscombe.
now the hangman used to live down at Dead Combe Bottom, in a lane going down through the wood,