Now published for the first time, these conversations offer a portrait of a vanished world, when the village seemed a timeless place.
Although village life could be harsh, Lee recalled that it ‘was like being broad beans in a pod, so snug and enclosed and protective’.
Inspired by the books he found in the local library, Laurie left to explore the wider world, but returned at last to the home so vividly depicted in this enchanting book.
So this kind of rehash book does him few favours. Those familiar with his work will see it as barrel-scraping, offering nothing new. I know that the still unpublished true voice of Laurie Lee the writer can be found elsewhere – in his wartime diaries, among his archives in the British Library. Raw, honest and passionate, these reflect the emotional life of a young man, wildly in love with his mistress, Lorna. His nightly words, written from the heart without constraint, are in my view a match for any of his later posturings and fantasies – especially those obligingly served up by the rogueish old charmer at the end of his days.
The wild extravagances of phrasing that power every page of Cider with Rosie find no match here. Even when Lee is repeating an anecdote from the earlier book the language remains unremarkable. That should remind us that Cider with Rosie did not just flow from him like birdsong. Not published till 1959, it cost him years of toil to fashion it into something marvellous and to make it seem spontaneous. When he wrote verse rather than prose he did not bother to make it seem natural and spontaneous, which is one reason it was relatively unsuccessful.
In fewer than 100 pages, this attractive but slight book treads some familiar territory, then – meaning territory familiar to readers of Cider with Rosie, or Lee’s later books and essays. Here is Miss Flynn, drowning in the village pond. Here is a little variation on the tale told in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning about how Lee luckily received a replacement violin in Spain after his “imitation Stradivarius” was crushed by “a passing bull who had a very bad ear for music”. Poems are recited (“Each bird and stone, each roof and well, / feels the gold foot of autumn pass”) and the local, myth-rich maps lovingly spread out. Age is taking Lee’s eyesight but polishing up the anecdotes and deepening his characteristic note of wistfulness for a lost age. He was “seven-eighths fantasy”, as another interviewer had observed, and much of the reality of his life is omitted from Down in the Valley. It is, nonetheless, a fine thing to revisit this writer’s landscape and hear his amiable voice in it again.