Scottish Daily Mail - - Life - by Lau­rie Lee

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,

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