Those of you who know me know how much I love all things English. I love strong tea with milk. I love narrow country roads with hedgerows on both sides. Desserts are ‘puddings’. People are ‘keen’ on things. Good ideas are ‘brilliant’. I love Jane Austen and Terry Pratchett. I think Jamie Oliver is both cute and principled. Those fast-disappearing red telephone boxes! The London underground! They may have giant office skyscrapers in London, but they don’t name them blustery, braggy names like “Freedom Tower” or “Trump Tower”—their two biggest ones are The Gherkin and The Shard.
England is a country that has gracefully learned how not to be an empire. Yes, they were an empire once, a very thoughtless and cruel one indeed (imperialism doesn’t exist any other way). But now they are pretty much happy living as gently as possible on their tiny little island. Their National Trust is conserving land and coastline like crazy, protecting butterflies and iron-age burial sites and Georgian country houses all over the place. Their hundreds of thousands of public footpaths are protected and well-used by hikers (they call them ramblers) from 5 to 95 years old. They have a national health service!! Not perfect, but it’s there. Their art museums are free!!
I’ve spent as much time as possible in England—visiting at least once a year, and wallowing in books by English people or about England much of the rest of the time. I’ve walked across the island on the Coast-to-Coast path, a mostly unmarked 192 mile ramble cobbled together by a misanthropic accountant named Alfred Wainwright. When I was 64, four friends of mine and I went to the Isle of Wight; we walked around singing the Beatles’ song “When I’m 64” for a week.
All this is to give you context for a book recommendation I’m going to make. It was written in the 1950s by an Englishman who is known primarily as a poet, but whose most well-known book is this one. It’s called Cider with Rosie and the author is Laurie Lee. Cider with Rosie is enormously evocative, a bit like Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. It’s the story of his childhood in a Gloucestershire village in the 1930s, one of seven children raised by a single mother in a tiny cottage—no running water, the latrine out back, never enough to eat, but flowers in the garden, a piano in a corner, lots of books, a pond to skate on in the winter and a huge valley to run around in. The squire was still the squire and everyone else doffed their caps. Things hadn’t changed much in 500 years. Lee chronicles a rural childhood before cars, electricity and antibiotics—a whole way of life, for good and for bad, that has disappeared in a flash.
Lee’s life as an adult, when he left the valley and the 20th century hit him full in the face, was full of ups and downs, with lots of stops at the pub. But let all that go for the moment. When you are in the mood, being a little boy in Gloucestershire in those dark ages is just the place to be.