1959, 231 p.
I’m rather appalled at the thought that I first read this book fifty years ago! How could that be? It was another of those books that seemed to lurk on the school library shelves, and I read it as a 15 year old. Segments of it felt very familiar, and I am sure that it was anthologized in various readers at Years 7 and 8 level. It is part of an autobiographical trilogy first published in the late 1950s and it seems to have been in print ever since.
It is an autobiography/memoir of a childhood spent in the Cotswold village of Slad, near Gloucester and it is an elegy for the passing of a simpler, horse-drawn, feudal village past in the years immediately following World War I. We meet Laurie (or Loll) at three years old as he is unceremoniously dumped from the cart that is taking his mother, siblings and half-siblings to a crowded, decrepit cottage on a steep bank above a lake. We learn that his father, an older man, had deserted his second wife – Loll’s mother- leaving her with four step-children and three sons of her own. Money is tight, as his father sends little financial support, and the family scrapes by financially through the networks of the village and through the wages that the older girls bring into the house when they start working.
The chapters are all pretty much self contained vignettes of different aspects of village life. They proceed more or less chronologically as Loll goes to school, joins the other boys in their adventures around the village, becomes interested in girls and as his sisters eventually marry and move away. He speaks of the two ‘Grannies’ of very different temperaments and habits- Granny Trill and Granny Warren – who live in the cottages adjoining theirs, and his uncles and their families, who loomed large in this father-less family.
Probably the most clearly developed character is his mother. After working in service in Big Houses, she returned to help her father run a pub. Tiring of dealing with drunks and her rather feckless father, she answered an advertisement for a housekeeper in the newspaper by a widower with four children. Reader, she married him. She remained in love with him for the rest of her life, even though he deserted her, leaving her with the care of his children from the first marriage. ‘Mother’, as she is always addressed in the narrative, was a rather fey, disorganized, extravagant woman: qualities that did not sit well with the poverty in which she and her family were living. In many ways, Loll was brought up just as much by his older half-sisters as by his Mother. The large family crammed into the kitchen, which was the heart of the house; food was sparse and the house-keeping was minimal.
Although steeped in nostalgia for a simpler time, there is an edge to the hierarchical, closed nature of village life. The church pews are arranged according to wealth and standing, there is poverty and hunger, lives are constrained by the village boundaries. In an essentially feudal and pre-bureaucratic system, crime is dealt with by the villagers themselves, with all the possible injustice that could entail.
Our village was no pagan paradise, neither were we conscious of showing tolerance. It was just the way of it. We certainly committed our share of statutory crime. Manslaughter, arson, robbery, rape cropped up regularly throughout the years. Quiet incest flourished where the roads were bad; some found their comfort in beasts; and there were the usual friendships between men and boys who walked through the fields like lovers. Drink, animality, and rustic boredom were responsible for most. The village neither approved nor disapproved, but neither did it complain to authority. Sometimes our sinners were given hell, taunted and pilloried, but their crimes were absorbed in local scene and their punishment confined to the parish.p. 206
The title refers to his first sexual experience – although he is not explicit about how sexual it actually was- with Rosie, who took him under the wagon where they drank fermented cider. In a way, it’s a misleading title, because Rosie is a minor character who only appears in the second last chapter. She was one step on from some fairly innocuous ‘doctor and patient’ sex-play as an 11 or 12 year old with a younger girl. Rather more disturbing was his description of the Brith Wood rape “if it could be said to have occurred”. Half a dozen boys planned to attack sixteen year old Lizzy Berkeley, a deeply religious girl who they designated as “daft in the ‘head”. They decided to waylay her on her journey home from church and
We thought of little else but that coming encounter; of mad Lizzy and her stumpy, accessible body which we should all of us somehow know.p.212
It seemed that Lizzy wasn’t going to arrive, but at last she did. The boys barred her path, one laid a hand on her shoulder and she hit in twice, fell down, got up, looked round “and trotted away through the trees”. Although the boys felt guilty there were no consequences. This was, he claims, because early sex-games were “formal exercises”. They were “readily forgotten; very little in the village was either secret or shocking, we merely repeated ourselves.” (p 205) It was just part of this nostalgia-tinged, gentler world, although I doubt that Lizzy would have seen it that way. The ease and chuckling tone of this chapter unnerved me, and I can’t imagine that the book, with this chapter intact, would find its way onto a school library shelf today.
Although I can’t really imagine that a 15 year old would be particularly attracted to this book anyway. A series of vignettes from a lost past might appeal to adults, or those interested in social history, but it seems particularly quaint. The writing is beautiful -indeed, some paragraphs read like poetry- but the sentence structure is formal and rather arcane, evoking the voice of an elderly British actor at the National Theatre or on the BBC. I’m not a 15 year old anymore (far from it), and I don’t need solid plots and excitement. I was happy – until that problematic ‘First bite of the apple’ chapter- to steep myself in a quiet, sepia-toned elegy that captured a lost, simpler, ordered time with beautiful language and the perspective of distance.
My rating: 8/10
Sourced from: CAE bookgroups.