If reading could make you fat then this is the book to do it, every paragraph is so dense and luscious in its descriptions, we’re as enveloped in a world of marmalade colours as the baby Laurie in his mother’s arms.
Written in 1959 Laurie Lee is remembering his childhood in the Slad Valley in Gloucestershire, where in June 1918 at the age of 3 he is set down by the carriers cart at a cottage on a steep bank above a lake; there are frogs in the cellar, rooks in the chimneys and mushrooms on the ceiling.
One of 8 children he lives with his three older sisters all ‘wrapped in a perpetual bloom’, his three brothers, younger sister and their mother in a chaotic, giggling flurry of activity, while their absent father ‘in his pince-nez up on the wall looked down like a ‘scandalized god’.
‘When the kettle boiled and the toast was made, we gathered and had our tea. we grabbed and dodged and passed and snatched, and packed our mouths like pelicans.’
Granny Wallon and Granny Trill live in the adjoining houses, living on each others nerves with their ‘sickle-bent bodies, pale pink eyes, and wild wisps of hedgerow hair’; these ancients from the 19th century remind me of Roald Dahl witches fermenting wine and taking snuff! From these old crones to the beautiful, consumptive Miss Flynn ‘twisting her hair with her fingers and looking white as a daylight moon’ to the village bully Cabbage Stump Charlie, ‘a nourisher of quarrels, as some men are of plants, growing them from nothing by the heat of belligerence and watering them daily with blood’; the characters, seasons and home life are described with such vivid freshness and detail that open at any page and its impossible not to be swept up and along!
‘I belonged to that generation which saw, by chance, the end of a thousand years’ life’, the horse still sets the pace, the church is the centre of the village and the church year holds close to the seasons and its’ festivals, throughout Laurie Lee reflects that this is a time on the verge of change. But as well as the romance I was surprised at how honest he is about village life. Rape, robbery, arson were all absorbed into the local scene. He tells a story of a pale, bony youth packed off to one of the colonies sent by ‘subscription and the prayers of the church’. When he returned a successful man, he made the mistake of boasting about his fortune in the pub and was beaten to death, the police enquiries were met with stares, the village turned in to protect itself, it was no ‘pagan paradise’.
Of all the wonderful descriptions perhaps the ones I like the most are of his life in the kitchen where the lentils are boiled in a huge pot later to be used for boiling bath water, or where a mouse is found in a loaf of bread! And his mother and her flower garden:
‘She grew them with rough, almost slap-dash love . . . she was as impartial in her encouragement to all that grew as a spell of sweet sunny weather. She would force nothing, graft nothing, nor set its head, and was the enemy of very few weeds.Consequently our garden was a sprouting jungle and never an inch was wasted. Syringa shot up, laburnum hung down, white roses smothered the apple tree, red flowering-currents (smelling sharply of foxes) spread entirely along one path; such a chaos of blossom as amazed the bees and bewildered the birds in the air.
Potatoes and cabbages were planted at random among foxgloves, pansies and pinks. Often some species would entirely capture the garden – forget-me-nots one year, hollyhocks the next, then a sheet of harvest poppies. Whatever it was, one let it grow. While mother went creeping around the wilderness, pausing to tap some odd bloom on the head, as indulgent, gracious, amiable and inquisitive as a queen at an orphanage.’