The Shiftiness of Reality and Laurie Lee

10 June 2021

Today I went on a walk with a woman I’d never met to find a man I didn’t know who wrote a book I’d never read.  Radical Stroud walkers Stuart Butler, Andrew Budd and I were joined by singer/songwriter Lisa Fitzgibbon who is undertaking a two year Arts Council funded project Down In The Valley to write a song cycle based on Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee.

To my shame, I don’t think I’ve ever read it. This feels slightly heretical in Stroud, as Lee grew up just up the road in Slad village having moved there when he was three, and spent most of his life there until his death in 1997.  Though it was an experience, walking with people who were so familiar with his work – in fact Stuart had been heavily involved in the creation of the Laurie Lee walk – and coming to Lee’s work through their words and reflections

The weather has been strange today in the run up to midsummer, that peculiar humidity that is oppressive but carries a slight chill, whilst at the same time making me prickle with heat.  We walk along narrow country lanes from Painswick to Sheepscombe, falling into conversation as our feet fall in rhythms on the roads. Fen the dog trots along, happiest when we are all together and close as our group of four forms and reforms as different conversations spin different threads.  As a group we don’t know each other, so we each give a potted biography. Fascinating, what we choose to tell or not-tell in these conversations. How do you sum up an entire life in a few lines?

I can call myself wife, mother, manager, and

box myself up neatly for you

or I can tell you that

when I was 6 I

had two wooden beads, a

blue one and a red one, and

I loved them, inexplicably, and

I wished fervently, nightly, that

if I put them under my pillow

and wished hard enough then, when

I awoke they would have turned into

two tiny ponies, one red, one blue.

 and then

maybe you will know me better

that way.

The lanes are hazily edged by cow parsley, herb robert, hawkbit, fox and cubs, softening the sharp delineation between tarmac and verge, and I trail my fingers through feathery mares tails and wheat ears of grasses that nod as we pass as if in agreement with all that we say.  Every now and then a gap in the green startles us with a vista that opens out, unexpectedly, like pages in a  pop-up book on an unrealistic idealised version of the forever English countryside.  But it is real. This is Laurie Lee’s Gloucestershire, and at this time of the year, much that Is modern is masked by the rich verdant greenery of the rising summer and it is easy to imagine it as he saw it, and timeless.

We talk about Cider With Rosie and the nature of truth. Lisa is turning out to be an absolute delight to walk with. She describes the book as ‘creative non-fiction’; Stuart as ‘documentary fiction’. We wonder whether the two are different, or the same, and where truth lies when creative non-fiction is presented as fact. Lisa describes the women in the book, their stories, and the songs she will write about them.

We reach Sheepscombe, and stop at the graveyard. Lisa reads aloud a scene from Cider With Rosie, that is shocking to modern ears, and dramatic. It’s the story of a local young man, who returns from New Zealand having been shipped out on subscription and subsequently making his fortune in the New World. He enters the local pub on a freezing winter’s night, swollen with wealth and pride and disdain for the life he left behind. He drinks and boasts until, alight with whiskey, he makes his way home. On the way he is set upon by local lads, beaten senseless, thrown over a hedge and left to die of his injuries in the snow.  The whole village closes ranks. No-one ever speaks of it; everyone knows who did it; the police are not assisted in their enquiries.

Stuart then reads a piece of his research carried out with the aid of the Stroud Local History Society, which gives a very different version of events for this riveting story which is presented as fact in the book. By looking at news reports and the census from the time, we see that there was indeed a local man who was murdered on the way home from The Woolpack, and the killers had never been brought to justice. However, he had lived his entire life locally in Longridge, was awarded a serviceman’s grave, was sober as he walked home, and was killed in April, not in winter – though to be honest, snow here in April is not that unusual.

We stand by the grave of this man, 121577 Corporal Albert Victor Birt, Royal Air Force, April 10th 1919, who was murdered a year after he married Elsie Hogg.  Andrew explains that all soldiers regardless of rank had the same simple marker to show that we are all equal in death. 

Lisa takes some footage of Stuart speaking on the subject, and we walk on, reflecting on the powerful trope of a village closing ranks  protecting their own against outsiders. Like all good legends, the story sounds somehow more believable than the truth and it instantly appeals to the folk horror, British sci-fi lover in me.

We walk up the hill past the church and the folk horror feeling intensifies as we pass a solitary verger slowly trimming the edges of the churchyard with long handled shears. He is literally ‘verging’ if that could ever be a verb. In any decent recount, he would stop his work and sullenly, silently, sinisterly watch us pass by through this seemingly deserted sleepy  village where  unseen eyes must surely observe us hungrily through the lace curtains and the hollyhocks and terrible things with pitchforks and baling hooks would await us in our very near future.  In actuality he is of course a very nice man, and cheerfully says hello.

We reach Bulls Cross where many roads meet and an apple tree grows, and down the other side to Slad and the shade and coolness of the woodland is welcome.  I think of the nature of rural footpaths, and how they’re mostly walked for pleasure these days but in the past, when walking was most people’s main method of transport, they were the highways and networks of the day vital links of community and commerce connecting villages, families, home and work.

We come out onto the road by the Slad war memorial. Stuart and Lisa go hunting for the name Hogg, an old Gloucestershire name and the name of Corporal Birt’s wife. Fact again meets fiction as Lisa points out the hurdle hedge behind the memorial, which was the exact spot that Birt’s body was found in 1919.

Suddenly, this place feels uncanny and disorientating and I am struggling to remember what is truth and what is story, and as the others look and talk I become very aware that I am at a crossroads, a liminal place, at a spot where a violent unlawful death occurred and violent lawful death is honoured. Lisa has been talking about the ‘old fella’s’ songlines from her native Australia, and I start to feel pathlines, walklines, layer upon layer of footsteps passing along this road, each carrying their stories across the centuries.

I can sense them, almost see them, and I feel an historical shiver as the crossroads start to talk and the impact of this unexpected topolalia renders me a bit inarticulate. I start to wave my hands around in the form of the lines that I see muttering about layers and footsteps of all the people.  Luckily Stuart is not only used to this, but understands it.  I can’t help but think of the legends we’ve discussed concerning gallows and crossroads and how they are supposed to confuse the ghosts of revenants and criminals so they cannot return to plague the living. It feels like many hungry ghosts might be wandering here.

I peer into the hedge where Birt was killed and there, in a gap in the scrub, a tree forms the silhouette of a woman throwing her hands up in anguish and grief, a solitary member of an arboreal Greek chorus. Elsie has lost her husband, the mothers have all lost their sons, and this wooden handmaiden and stone pillar stand witness to it all. 

We end up, of course, at The Woolpack. Mythogeographer Phil Smith talks of the importance of going to the pub after an immersive, transportative walk in order to leave that psychological space and return to the real world and he is right. I feel the strangeness of our walk slipping away with a mix of regret and relief, and I’m reminded of how we feast and chat after a ritual for exactly the same reason. While I land, I leaf through the opening pages of Lisa’s well-annotated copy of Cider With Rosie.

We are joined at the pub by landscape photographer Deb Roberts and her partner Mark, both of whom have walked the landscape hereabouts for years and know much. Deb shares some delightful gossip about the local’s reactions to Cider With Rosie, many of whom are angry at the creative re-imaginings (to be generous) in Cider With Rosie.  Lisa has invited Howard Beard, local historian extraordinaire and a relative of Laurie Lee’s. Howard brings some incredible contemporary photos, including one of a very young Rosie, dressed up in her best and a tiara to celebrate Peace Day in July 1919, a handful of months after the murder of Corporal Birt. In such a small community it is inconcieveable that Rosie would not have known the killers.

Lisa is particularly interested in writing a song from Rosie’s point of view (in my mind, this is instantly titled ‘Siding With Rosie’) and so asks the inevitable question regarding the truth of what happened under the hayrick.  Howard replies with the quiet emphasis of one who has answered this many times, and  continues to be happy to do so.  Rosie herself was adamant, according to her daughter, that she did not bring cider to Laurie – she brought a jug of cider, as was custom, to all the mowers working that day. And there was no intimacy amongst the dust and chaff.

The conversation turns to chat and catch up and a Euro 2020 sweepstake, and then we all go our separate ways home.  I leave Lisa and Howard ‘talking Laurie’ and I set off down the Slad Road on the couple of miles home. Fen the dog is very tired and requires carrying for a while, and I am happy to carry her warm little sweet – breathed furry self.

Later, I remember that today saw a solar eclipse and I relish the perfection of the timing of this with a day concerned with the blurring of boundaries, of shadowy truths and half-truths, of crossroads and the dead, tales of suicide and murder, and mostly I wonder what it must be like to live somewhere where the very integrity of the place is being consumed, subsumed, by an iconic tale of a fictional village laid like a parasitical overlay on top of the real one. Because soon, there will be no-one left who was alive when Laurie Lee was, to refute his claims or challenge his imagined truths, and I can’t help thinking that eventually this small Gloucestershire village will pass some event horizon of hyperreality, and the Laurie Lee myth will endure where mere reality will not.

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