Thursday, 27 March 2014

Review: Laurie Lee, After Cider With Rosie....

Laurie Lee has been labelled by some as an author who peaked too soon. His Autobiographical work "Cider With Rosie" a tale of boyhood in his Gloucestershire village home, has sold six million copies worldwide and has been school curriculum material for many students in the UK for generations.
I have to say at this point I have somehow managed to accidentally avoid the best efforts of educators, and the rest of the literary world, and have never read it, which may or may not help me to have clear a run at reviewing the following two books.

My interest in Lee's work came about by recommendation, when Rallou at Fully Booked in Thornbury was helping me extend my knowledge of Spanish Civil War authors. (I read in ever increasing circles... or perhaps tangents, one book or story leads to another and another. It's not an officially sanctioned system of knowledge acquisition, but it works for me...)

The consequence of this is my coming across Lee's work in the form of the second part of the autobiographical trilogy "As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning", which I immediately followed with the final part, "A Moment Of War". I'm borderline Attention deficit disorder, I think, unless a subject really grabs hold of me, so short books are wonderful things for me, inspiring, but not too demanding. Running to only 186 and 178 pages, each, they certainly fill this requirement, but I can't help thinking Laurie Lee is one of the authors I could commit to in a much bigger way. His work is florid, poetic, purple. Not adjectives I'd usually apply to the sort of book I'm inclined to read based on passed experience, but the beautiful lyricism that Lee brings to each phrase, each narrative paragraph, each moment of his story, lays new colours to the canvas, builds the picture in your mind. When we join Lee's story he is fresh-faced and fancy-free, trudging his way like a latter day jongleur, violin in hand, across England to his then lowly target destination, London. The amount of time he apparently lingers in England's capital, far out-weighs the amount of time he dedicates to it in the book. One gets the impression that his stint as a building labourer might actually be as much about establishing his working-class credentials, in the decade when polemic political opinions were the bread and butter(or dripping) of the masses. 

These were times when heroic working class warriors with clenched-fist salutes were positively pouring onto the streets, eager for a fight with anyone not of their own opinion, (as well as, with a good number of people with very similar ones). After introducing us to some suitably colourful London characters and scenery, designed to demonstrate the beauty that lies beneath the film of filth and poverty that accompanies city living, Lee wends his happy way toward Spain. 

Strangely, for a man who loves to wax lyrical about his surroundings, he spares no time for describing his sea journey, jumping right into the soulful changes that flood over his young, impressionable mind. (Though we best not forget here, Lee actually wrote these memories of youth from the perspective of a man thirty years older, and, one cannot help thinking, under that equally influential decade of the twentieth century, the sixties).For me, there is a lot of sixties influence in the style of this thirties journey. 

The rest of Midsummer Morning describes Lee's growing love affair with Spain as he treks across the
country for a year, his position as a violin player giving him numerous inroads into local communities. 

The story comes to a temporary end when the fermenting violence of Spain's emerging rebellion physically impacts on the small coastal town that has become Lee's temporary home. Plucked from the heart of a workers war against fascism, before he has found it in himself to become a part of it, Lee returns to England, his mind overflowing with the rebelliousness of youth. 

Even if he wasn't planning a follow-up book at that point in his life, he was clearly coming back.

A Moment Of War follows on directly from the previous book, literally moving into what is effectively the next chapter of the same story. The big difference is obvious from the start, however, as this immediately becomes much darker, a harsher reality, a level of threat hanging heavily over every moment. Lee's involvement in the tragic events of the Spanish Civil War are almost an analogy for the dis-organised, chaotic and ultimately futile path the war took. An entirely untrained, politically naive, ill-equipped, well-intentioned socialist is pushed from pointless pillar to irrelevant post, mistrusted, ill-used, threatened, underfed.To the rolling background of grey, cold, hardship. The only defence against all this, was the belief of the young men and women that they fought against something they knew to be the greatest evil of their time, fascism. 

Just like the defence of socialism, Lee's time in Spain ended in a dark, dirty, sordid, sad, anti-climax. It must have been forever in the minds of the men and women from so many corners of the world who went to Spain and lived to escape the fascist victory, only to watch, or, once again participate, as the spectre of fascism spread it's black shadow across much of Europe in the following years.

Laurie Lee died in 1997, in the village of Slad, where he had spent his early life. A poet who accidentally became a prose author, it is impossible to read his work without seeing his poetic urges rise to the surface. I'm not a fan of poetry personally, I know, for some that fact will forever condemn me as a Luddite and ne'er-do-well, oh well, never mind. But reading these books by Laurie Lee has opened up my tiny poetic appreciator. Of course my bloated inner cynic will smother it immediately with thoughts of his personal 'dressing up' of the story, and, possibly even a handful of untruths, for the sake of poetic license. 
No matter.  As I Walked Out One Midsummer's Morning and A Moment Of War are wonderfully entertaining books and are worthy of any readers time.

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