Village Christmas And Other Notes On The English Year
Author: Laurie Lee
Publisher: Penguin Classics
I live just a few miles from the valley and the village that British author Laurie Lee made famous, and his local pub, The Woolpack, is one of my favourites. Slad remains a tiny unspoilt village and the house where Lee lived as a child, and which he immortalised in Cider With Rosie (1959), is easily visible from the road. The house he later owned and lived in lies directly behind and below the pub, and just across the road is the churchyard in which he is buried.
The Slad valley is a gem, an area of unspoilt natural beauty which has resisted all attempts to develop it.
I offer this background detail to stress that Lee is a very local author as far as I am concerned.
He is also an author I have loved since my teenage years. At that time I preferred Lee’s memoir As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969) to the more famous Cider With Rosie but having read the latter again recently I am not now so sure. Cider With Rosie has always struck me as a quintessentially English book, in love with the heady attractions of the countryside and village life, nostalgic for a simpler era despite its poverty, full of charm and childish naughtiness, a deserved classic of the English bucolic canon.
You can imagine, then, my excitement at the release of a new volume of Lee’s work last month, particularly one featuring Christmas, about which Lee writes so well. And initially I was not disappointed. The first piece in this anthology of pieces is called “Village Christmas” and is a lovely evocation of a time long past about which we Britons seem to feel deeply nostalgic. Here once again is that little band of village urchins clutching their jam jars with candles burning inside, calling at the Squire’s house before working their way through all the bigger (and usually more generous) houses of the valley to collect pennies, sweets, or seasonal treats.
“We hurried onward up the valley, calling at the houses of lesser gentry. Beneath frosted windows, in echoing stable yards, under great Gothic porches and in tapestried hallways we sang, eight voices, clear and sweet, ringing out through the winter’s night….”
Interesting, too, to see how Lee’s village Christmas differed from our far more commercial era. Only late on Christmas Eve would they go into nearby Stroud searching for presents, “as part of the season’s dramatic crescendo, joining the rest of our neighbours who were all now heading to the shops to catch the last glitter of Christmas Eve”.
And only late that night did the Christmas tree even arrive at the house, brought by a cousin, where it is smothered in Chinese lanterns, “Mysterious and sparkling, still dripping with melted snow, its feathery branches filling half the kitchen, the tree was our Christmas crown”.
And so to bed, to stockings, to a traditional lunch (goose not turkey), some snowballing and then, when it was dark, to a lighting of candles on the glittering tree and finally to bed with new toys piled at the foot of their beds: “We clung desperately to this last moment”.
I have stayed with this piece for so long, even though it is only six pages in length, because, yes, it is very beautiful to read at this time of the year, but primarily because it is by far the best piece in the book. For after my elation at this wonderful evocation of a lost time, one that triggered memories and emotions of my own childhood Christmases, what followed was a massive disappointment.
There are a total of 32 separate pieces in the collection, which in entirety is a little over 150 pages. Few are as long as the first one, many are just two pages. In short, this is a collection of ephemera and incidental pieces decked up to be something more.
Admittedly the word “Notes” appears in the title and I suppose that should be a warning, but at this point I take serious issue with the publishers. There is no introduction by an editor (and no evidence of the existence of an editor) to explain where these pieces came from, how they were selected, or the circumstances under which they were written.
Were they commissions? Magazine articles? Personal notes? Extracts from longer works? There is no indication whatever of sources and, worse still, no indication of when they were written. Surely the absolute minimum one can expect from a respectable publishing house presenting the work of a much loved author is an appendix saying where the piece you have just read was published (or not) and a date. I found this, I admit, unseasonably infuriating!
There are, of course, some good things in the remainder of the book, and one of the better ones is Lee’s defence of the Slad valley, an area developers have forever been trying to get their hands on. Again, though, a date would have helped – the battle is still going on.
Lee is a patchy writer and most of his best work was done when young. Much of what is here is not really worthy of an anthologised collection. But nearly all is forgiven for the lovely opening piece. Buy it for that if you wish – but don’t expect that blisteringly high standard to be maintained throughout.