Cider with Rosie
This is a series of autobiographies (not as fiction as far as I can tell) about growing up in the Cotwolds between the war. Laurie Lee is born in the middle of the first World War in a small town in the middle nowhere in southwest England. He describes his childhood home as being 17th century, and when I look up what that likely means, it looks to be the most England house I could imagine. It had thick clay walls, carved windows, and a dankness. It seems like it would be about as wet and cold as I could imagine.
The first of the series begins with the above sentence, and it feels to me as honest a way to look at memory — as a kind of coming to. When I think back about my own life — I have some vague memories that could have occurred between 3-4 years old (likely four). I remember early birthdays but couldn’t for sure tell you what year each was until I was in school to really cement them in place. So the image of coming to in memory works. Laurie Lee’s childhood has a lot of the same trials and traumas of a lot of memoirs. His family was decided working class (from an American understanding of class), with his mother coming from a serving class. She married his father, became stepmother to this man’s children, and then had more children. When his father left the family, this through stability out of the window. Like with a lot of families, his was hit hard with health problems. He had a sister die from a childhood illness, and he also nearly died.
As he grew older, he and his friends became consummate scamps to their parents, the village, and their teachers. We close the narrative with his first forays into romantic love — the cider with one Rosie being a formative moment there.
As I Set out One Midsummer Morning
Book two really moves things forward. We find Laurie in his late teens deciding to set off into the world. He moves first to London, which he finds scary and alluring and exciting. After some time there, he decides to move to the continent and really give a go on being some kind of tramp.
It turns out that there’s some wars there, and this makes things difficult. For one, England isn’t involved in any wars, and in addition to that, England doesn’t exactly have clear enemies and allies in this time period. Also complicating matters is that Laurie is an 18 year old twerp who knows nothing about the world. This book is funnier, more serious, more consequential than the previous work, but also less sentimental and meaningful as well. This most reminds me of the Patrick Leigh Fermor travelling books, but with a tighter focus.
A Moment of War
One of the few things that Laurie takes with on his travels is a violin. He takes this in part to pass the time and have something to be doing with himself. He decides he’s going to busk and there’s a funny moment where he’s trying to play for a Spanish audience and they do not get it. They keep crowding him and crowding him and stepping on his hat and not putting any money into it. This becomes a clear indication of the rest of the book. He joins up the war effort in a kind of accidental way switching sides, not really knowing who the enemy is and why they’re the enemy.
There’s a great moment of self-possession where he realizes for the first time he might die in a war that no only doesn’t matter that much but that he has ZERO connection to or sides about.
This final volume really speaks to the value of the whole series. Like every single teenage boy ever, he knows nothing about the world and is complete and utter fool. Different from a lot of other boys in this same predicament, his lack of knowledge might actually get him killed. That’s both deeply upsetting for him, and obviously a little exciting too. Luckily and obviously he makes it out of there alive and arrives back home in England having at least learned that he knows nothing about the world, and recognizing his arrogance and flippancy about this fact has very nearly killed him. We all learn that sometime and we don’t generally get such clear and focused feedback on it.