Village Christmas And Other Notes on the English Year by Laurie Lee.
I can't think of anything not to love about it.
That cover for starters.
I mean it would be worth it even if the book was rubbish.
Which it isn't of course. Laurie Lee's daughter Jessy discovered seven pieces by her father in the British Library archive and they are published for the first time in this collection...
A Cold Christmas Walk
The English Spring
Chelsea Toward the End of the Last War
Notes on Marriage
The Shining Severn
Arranged by season these pieces, along with many others, reflect Laurie Lee's love for his native Gloucestershire (pronounced Glostershire for anyone abroad who may be struggling to say Glow-cester-shire) as well as casting his astute eye further afield.
My attention was immediately drawn to a piece called The Lying in State.
There haven't been that many of these in my lifetime (Diana, The Queen Mother) but the one I remember most clearly was that of Sir Winston Churchill which happens to have been in 1965, the only year that I managed to keep anything remotely like a diary and which I still have. Apparently I was 4ft 7" tall and I weighed 4st 7lbs which seems nicely symmetrical of me.
I have noted the Sir Winston died on January 24th when it would seem I also had a bad cold. Some family friends are emigrating to Australia so that gets a mention, we have had a telephone installed (still a novelty in 1965, Mitcham 0740) it is my friend Shirley's birthday, the Lieng (sic) in State starts on the 27th and my dad went to the Catafalque on Friday 29th. The next week I heard I had passed the Eleven Plus (even with that spelling) I passed knots and flags at Guides, we did the Kon Tiki expedition at school and made a balsa wood raft, I had to have a filling at the dentist (child of the 1950s) , my friend Anne's troll came for a holiday (seriously...I looked after it while she was away) and I knitted it a suit, and I was, week in week out, going to Confirmation Classes.
But how well I remember the Lying in State as recounted by Laurie Lee...
Through the comfortless morning treads a mile-long queue, shuffling forward on icy feet..'
'Every resounding event seems to be followed by silence as history catches its breath. So it is this morning in this great bare hall - a silence like a fall of snow, holding the city and the world in a moment of profound reflection, reducing all men to a levelled pause...'
And Laurie Lee also mentions the Catafalque...
'He lies on his catafalque, lifted on steps of purple, in a hall built by kings for kings, his coffin wrapped in a flag like a wave of water as if already seaborne for some distant haven.'
I remember my dad coming home, frozen to the bone having queued for hours, but pleased to have been witness to the moment, one of the thousands upon thousands who 'still come, snow-footed down carpets of silence,'
'The streams divide softly, passing on each side of the bier like water flowing around a rock. Each stream for a moment thins to a single person, alone in his private homage. It seems sufficient to have been here...'
Looking back, as children we had no concept of how relatively recent the Second World War had been. It was something that had happened and we had grown up in its aftermath, and the plethora of black and white war films on a Sunday afternoon, but the death of Sir Winston Churchill most certainly recreated, as Laurie Lee suggests 'a shared emotion,' and we definitely understood the passing of greatness as well as that sense of reverence.
'This was a man who knew what was possible in men, could touch their nerves with fingers of sulphur, stinging them briefly alive into postures of glory or sacrifice, suffering and triumph.'
I remember well my dad telling of his ship's journey home during the war with Sir Winston Churchill on board. The great man had been taken ill in Africa with pneumonia, parts of the ship were walled off by tarpaulins, not only for privacy but my dad always thought so that the ship's company wouldn't see their leader in such bad shape. Imagine the universal haemorrhaging of morale, the chink in the impenetrable armour that was required to win the war.
The Lying in State One brilliant piece among many in this special little volume...
'I love the world and all its trivialities,' says Laurie Lee,' the little domestic details, the post box on the corner, the wet gutters, the leaves, the buses, the sunset,' and this book is Laurie Lee's beautiful paean of praise to so many of them....to his garden, to Spring, to water, to the village pub.
A book to have and to hold and to keep.