Laurie Lee’s best-known book, which has the dubious distinction of being a set book in many schools — when I was training to be a schoolteacher we were expected to have read it — is ‘Cider with Rosie’. It’s an idyllic account of growing up in the perpetual summer (ha-ha) of the English countryside, including sexual initiation by Rosie. It’s a lovely book, and a hard act to follow — some of his other books have been dire.
I’m still not quite sure what to make of ‘A Rose for Winter’. The winter was spent by Lee and his wife in Spain, and the descriptive passages have much of the lyricism of ‘Cider with Rosie’. Like so many Englishmen abroad, he regards all foreigners as amusing children, to be indulged in their quaint ways. They had, generally, a jolly time.
BUT, and it’s a very big but indeed, the book was first published in 1955, and their winter travelling through Andalusia must have been only a year or two earlier. I started reading with the expectation, continued with the hope, and nearly gave up with despair, of finding some indication that there had once been something called the Republic; that there had been a village called Guernica; that many of his contemporaries had gone from England and other countries to fight and in some case die in defence of the Republic, that the country was now ruled by a brutal dictator. Not a word; not a hint even. By the time I was two-thirds of the way through the book I was pretty sure Laurie Lee was a moral imbecile.
But I gave the book the benefit of the very large doubt, and persevered. Finally, in the last quarter or so of the book, a few of the happy, carefree, irresponsible overgrown children who have been so generous to Lee and his wife take him aside and furtively whisper their stories; admit that, much of the time, they live in fear, with horrible memories.
Is the book thereby redeemed? Have I been crassly insensitive? Did Lee paint such an idyllic picture so that, when towards the end he reveals some of the truth, it will shock the reader all the more? I should like to think so. But I’m afraid it’s more likely that he regarded ‘politics’ as an unpleasant distraction, something about which he reluctantly said to himself ‘Oh, I suppose I’d better put something in about all that.’