A Beautiful Fraud

Cider with Rosie celebrates a past that never existed

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 27th May 1997.

When Laurie Lee died a fortnight ago, the heart of England missed a beat. Cider with Rosie is one of those very rare books which almost every literate person in Britain has read. Unlike Richard II, Chaucer’s Prologue or even Lord of the Flies, which were also mercilessly inflicted on us at school, this small plain tale of an ordinary village boy’s life has enchanted almost everyone.

It is, of course, beautifully written, with an attention to the microscopic that suggests both a supernatural memory and a voluptuous imagination. But it also captures something that all of us, in this world of perpetual upheaval, crave. Cider with Rosie is the tale of a place that, though threatened, has undergone no significant changes in millenia. “The village”, Lee tells us, “in fact was like a deep-running cave still linked to its antic past … we just had time to inherit, to inherit and dimly know – the blood and beliefs of generations who had been in this valley since the Stone Age.”

Cider with Rosie is the hearse at the head of a nation in mourning, bereft of the stability and continuity of which we have been so brutally and so recently deprived. It is one of the cruellest frauds ever perpetrated upon the English people.

The history of the British countryside is a story of tumultuous change. The people of Laurie Lee’s village might still have been able to discern a whisper of the beliefs of the Stone Age, but they are unlikely to have possessed much of the first inhabitants’ blood. The limestone valleys of southern England, being well-drained and easy to cultivate with handtools, would have changed hands earlier and more often than almost anywhere else. From the early Stone Age to the Norman Conquest, periods of relative calm were terminated by violent invasion, clearance and re-population.

The rural revolutions initiated by the Conquest still reverberate through the British countryside. The enslavement of freemen, the replacement of serfdom by tenant labour and the forcible alienation of land all precipitated massive change. Repeated rioting over tithes, game laws and enclosures and the ruthless repression that always followed; the Corn Laws and their repeal; labourers’ enfranchisement and the First World War ensured that life in the countryside remained almost as uncertain as life in the towns. The period of which Laurie Lee writes was perhaps the most turbulent. The big estates were breaking up, land prices were collapsing and thousands were leaving the countryside to find work in the towns.

Of course, Laurie Lee never set out to deceive his readers. Children see – and want to see – stability, not change. Nor is he solely responsible for our misapprehensions. Bates, Housman, Vaughan Williams, Gurney and Butterworth, even Evelyn Waugh all sounded laments for the passing of an unchanged world. Strangely, thanks at least in part to their efforts, it is the traumatic interwar years whose images we cling to as the pillars of true nationhood. The British characteristics, “unamendable in all essentials”, so famously evoked by John Major are drawn from a Georgian countryside.

Our veneration of the fabled immutability of the countryside has brought it nothing but harm. Laurie Lee fought for years to stop his Slad Valley from being turned into a vast housing estate, due to have been inhabited by people jostling to experience his timeless past. At weekends the roads bellow with traffic rushing to places where time stands still.

Now that the Tory Party is confined not only to England but to the English countryside, British Conservatism has been reduced to its essence: a campaign for the retention of a bogus rural tradition. The Tories have retained control of the countryside for two reasons: people retire there in the vain hope of escaping from change, and people have to be rich to live there, as the demand for second homes and rose cottages is squeezing out the poor. Attempts to challenge the snobbery and deference, the failures of accountability and accompanying destructiveness which govern rural England are dismissed as running counter to the way the countryside and country people have always been. Writing in Country Life three weeks ago, the retired Tory MP John Patten claimed that “urban notions of the ‘politically correct’ … are swamping rural communities and rural tradition.” The cultivation of organic vegetables and laws preventing the persecution of badgers were cited as examples.

Laurie Lee records a world containing many of the things we seek in our countryside – rural employment, tranquility, safety and biodiversity – and there’s no question that these wonders did exist in his day. But we won’t recover them by seeking either to burrow back into the past or to keep things as they are. Rural peace – and the means to enjoy it without destroying it – will only come about through noisy revolution.