Laurie Lee is a very local author for me and one I have loved since my teenage years. At that time I preferred As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning to the more famous Cider with Rosie but having read the latter again recently I am not now so sure. Cider with Rosie always strikes 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, particularly one featuring Christmas, about which Lee writes so well. And initially I was not disappointed. The first piece in this anthology is called Village Christmas and is a lovely evocation of a time long past about which we 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…”
Unfortunately this is by far the best piece in the book. For after my elation at this wonderful evocation of a lost time, what followed was a massive disappointment. There are a total of thirty two separate pieces in the collection which in entirety is a little over one hundred and fifty 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? Worse still, there is 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.
A longer version of this review appeared in The Star (Malaysia) www.star2.com/culture/books.