Saturday, 6 September 2014

Re-reading Cider with Rosie: From Rural Idyll to Social Realism

                                               Re-reading Cider with Rosie
                                          From Rural Idyll to Social Realism

Born in 1951, I grew up with Cider with Rosie even though I grew up in redbrick, new town Swindon. This was only partly determined by ancestry and the consequences of the coincidences of time and space. But my dad was born in the same year as Laurie Lee and my mum a year later. My paternal grandfather married a woman from Stroud in 1914 and some of Granny Butler’s (nee Elsie Bingham) forebears hailed from Steanbridge Tything, near Slad. Gran and gramp retired to Leonard Stanley in the early 1960s and we were constantly up and down the branch line to Stroud from Swindon Junction, with a certain book never too far from someone’s family hand.

Other historical factors were at work as well, however; factors way beyond the personal: the generational impact of a couple of centuries’ worth of industrialisation upon southern English society as a whole, and upon the working class in particular. As I grew up and read more widely, I could see how my late 19th and early twentieth century parents and grandparents were carrying on with some of the ways of a pre-industrial working class. And not always deliberately and consciously – and certainly never with irony or in a knowing self-referential way: it was rather more that they thought that the old way of life was more authentic, I suppose.

My grandfather’s dad moved to Swindon from London in the 1880s to find work in the carriage and wagon works but grampy was devoted to his suburban escape to a half-remembered folk dream, symbolised by the vegetable plot. Dad carried on these traditions and, I still can vividly recall how when he rose early to plant the spuds on Good Friday, he would look at me and say:” You want to breathe the air before it’s been breathed on, son.’ This was the folk wisdom of the town dweller that still had the world of Thomas Hardy and William Cobbett fresh in their veins, I thought.

Mum’s side of the family was similar: agricultural labourers from Wiltshire and Berkshire villages around Swindon, drawn from the barn and farm to the forge and furnace. But Mum was a village girl at heart and would sing and perform rustic tales with gusto, right up to the end. I have the 19th century family bible and her father’s choir book; a member of the church choir at Wroughton, he met his future wife there, before life in the railway works and the birth of his children in Swindon. It seemed destiny that Edward Thomas should write ‘For These’ (a list of rural delights and reasons for enlisting) on the day my mum was born in July 1915.

I mention Cobbett, Hardy and Thomas deliberately – for even though these authors were not in our home, their atmosphere was. How well I remember walking into my grandparents’ bedroom at the age of four and smelling autumn in the air: I peered underneath the bed to see the whole space filled with apples fresh from the trees. Good old fashioned russets. So, when Cider with Rosie was published, it quickly (and unusually, for ours was a non-fiction household) appeared on the welsh dresser.
So through no conscious thought on any of our part, we completely fitted into the wider national context, a context that guaranteed a lost rural idyll reading of the text of Cider with Rosie. Macmillan’s governments (‘Most of our people have never had it so good’) were hell-bent on modernisation: slum clearance, the age of the high rise flat, cars, motor ways, the end of steam, the Beeching Report, HP and easy credit, consumer goods, the end of rationing, ITV, ‘Butskellism’, low unemployment – the list went on and on and sociologists, needless to say, talked endlessly about the embourgeoisement or the new affluence of the working class. Keynesian economic growth was seemingly here to stay and it was modernity all the way. Products would validate themselves through advertising with just one self-justifying word: ‘New!’ The publication of Cider with Rosie seemed to be an almost deliberate act of juxtaposition.

The literary and cultural context also emphasised the singularity of the book. The late 50s and early 60s ushered in the age of the urban working class hero in novel, theatre and cinema. Look Back in Anger, Room at the Top, the Liverpool Sound, Billy Liar, Elsie Tanner, Arthur Seaton, Shelagh Delaney, This Sporting Life, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and so on, and so on, and scooby dooby do, all helped hallmark a new decade with the cultural stamp of urban modernity.

The oxymoronic consequence of all of this was a new nostalgia for the past. Cider with Rosie came along at just the right time, but the wider cultural interpretation of the text and its subsequent mediated messages were almost predetermined - not so much Granny takes a Trip, as Rosie leads us up the garden path with cider along old memory lane. With so many contemporary cultural messages about social realism, the social realism in Cider with Rosie was often ignored or forgotten. It seemed to portray, for many, a lost world of innocence.

Christina Hardyment points out, in her wonderful Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands, that Cider with Rosie is ‘equally lyrical’ and ‘unsentimental’; and is ‘both lyrical and pragmatic’.  The ‘novel spoke powerfully’  ‘to an age’ that was metropolitan, urban and suburban and even though the book proffers an obvious reading based on ‘social realism’, the surrounding context, coupled with the imagery of dazzling lyrical writing that is also ‘frequently comic’, and buttressed by the elegiac tone of the final chapter, all contributed to a reading of the text as a lost world of community, rather than a lost world of poverty.

The last chapter is heart-achingly nostalgic: the motorcar and the bus; the pictures and the wireless; the church year, the Sunday rituals, the decline of the church; the death of the squire; the deaths of the elderly; the courtship of Lee’s sisters and of Harold; the quarrels within the family – both the family and the village community have lost an earlier innocence. You feel that you might well meet John Betjeman on the road to Stroud, moaning about Slough and friendly bombs, or JB Priestley complaining about arterial roads, filling stations and Woolworth’s.

Priestley, in fact, offers an interesting optic with which to view Cider with Rosie. He wrote English Journey in 1934, and decided, on the basis of his journeying from ‘Southampton to Newcastle’ and ‘Newcastle to Norwich’, that there were, in fact, three Englands: the guide-book Olde Englande; industrial urban England and modern ‘post-war’, ribbon development England. Cider with Rosie’s final chapter seems to fit perfectly into Priestley’s jigsaw: the locality and the community seem to be moving from the first to the third of Priestley’s Englands. It is easy to forget, however, that Lee’s community, a century or so before the book’s narrative, was almost a part of Priestley’s second England: Slad was part of the industrial England. It was no rural idyll at all.

A wave of strikes took place throughout industrial England in 1824-25, when trade unions were given partial recognition; Slad and the Stroudwater area were no exception. John Loosley’s The Stroudwater Riots of 1825 paints a vivid picture of the dipping of clothiers in the brooks and waters; a mass meeting of 3,000 weavers at Vatch Mills threatening GBH and destruction; more duckings of clothiers in Stroud, Woodchester, Minchinhampton, Frogmarsh, Bisley and Chalford; the swearing in of special constables; a mass meeting of 6,000 at Selsley; the reading of the riot act; the dispatch of a squadron of hussars. This was no innocent rural Eden; this was more like a crucible of class struggle: “I have the honour to inform you…that the squadron under my command was called out yesterday to disperse a mob…which had proceeded to acts of violence. We accomplished this object with some trouble including the slash of sword only.”

So much for historical and publication contexts, what about the text itself? What is there specifically within Cider with Rosie that could lead to a reading based on a perspective of social realism? The impact of war? The impact of Empire? A hierarchical class system based on deference?  A patriarchal society? A gullible, credulous and inward looking community? Limited state provision of education? Limited old age pensions? The workhouse? No national health service? Limited job opportunities and horizons? Poverty? Unhealthy, damp and crowded homes?

Now it is well known that every age rewrites history, and different ages can also suggest new interpretations of literary texts.  Laurie Lee was able to walk away from Slad, go to work in London, wander through Spain, and then see military action in Spain in the fight against fascism. Today, young people still migrate to London in search of work, but face the prospect of exorbitant rent or house prices. Unemployment is reaching unimaginable heights for young people in Spain and far right parties are on the march in Europe. The welfare state, set up to ensure there was no return to the 1930s after ‘The People’s War’ is waning. More and more young people in our country are returning to live with their parents and carers: it is not so easy to walk out anymore.

The stock response to this is: ‘Build more houses! Anywhere and everywhere!’ My reading of Cider with Rosie suggests: ’Build more houses on brownfield sites! Built by local councils!’ A new age of austerity might well require a new reading of Cider with Rosie, a reading based upon social realism rather than rural idyll, but contemporary social and ecological realism also demands that we protect the rural idylls – but not for the few. But for the health and wellbeing of the many: ‘The Spirit of 45’.

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