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Laurie Lee and Henry Lawson: Twice-told tales

Like the great Horace Rumpole, I have reached the age where I prefer mostly to read books I have read before. Thus, I have recently been enjoying two old favourites, and in both I found stories which will appeal to fellow-foresters and cricket afficionados.

My first story is from Cider with Rosie. This is Laurie Lee’s beautiful and poetic recollection of his childhood in a Cotswolds village in Gloucestershire, England, in the years during and just after the First World War. Lee had five uncles on his mother’s side, two had fought against the Boers and all five were cavalrymen during the Great War. He remembers them “as khaki ghosts coming home on leave from the fighting, square and huge with their legs in puttees, smelling sweetly of leather and oats”.

After he returned from the war:

[Uncle Charlie] took up work as a forester, living in the depths of the local woods with a wife and four beautiful children. As he moved around, each cottage he settled in took on the same woody stamp of his calling…the house would be wrapped in aromatic smoke, with winter logs piled up in the yard…and in the kitchen there were axes and guns on the walls, a stone-jar of ginger in the corner and on the mountainous fire a bubbling stew-pot of pigeon or perhaps a new-skinned hare.

[Uncle Charlie] became one of the best woodsmen in the Cotswolds. His employers flattered, cherished and underpaid him; but he was content among his trees. It was a revelation of mystery to see him at work, somewhere in a cleared spread of the woods, handling seedlings like new-hatched birds, shaking out delicately their fibrous claws, and setting them firmly along the banks and hollows in the nests his fingers had made. His gestures were caressive yet instinctive with power, and the plants settled ravenously to his touch, seeming to spread their small leaves with immediate life and to become rooted for ever where he left them.

The new woods rising in Horsley now [1958], in Sheepscombe, in Rendcombe and Colne, are the forests my Uncle Charlie planted on thirty-five shillings a week. His are those mansions of summer shade, lifting skylines of leaves and birds, those blocks of new green now climbing our hills to restore their remembered perspectives. He died last year, and so did his wife – they died within a week of each other. But Uncle Charlie has left his mark on our landscape as permanent as he could wish.

It would be good to think that Lee’s Uncle Charlie might be recognised more widely than in this lovely memoir, but this seems unlikely. The work of the forester matures slowly and late, and is nearly always taken for granted by subsequent generations.

Woodland in Gloucestershire - Laurie Lee country

Cider with Rosie also contains a wonderful memoir of another of Lee’s uncles, the "moody and majestic" Uncle Sid. He remembers:

Uncle Sid was the fourth, but not least of the brothers. This small powerful man, at first a champion cricketer, had a history blighted by rheumatism. He was a bus-driver too, after he left the Army, put in charge of our first double-deckers. Those solid-tyred, open-topped, passenger chariots were the leviathans of the roads at that time - staggering siege-towers which often ran wild and got their top-decks caught under bridges. Our Uncle Sid, one of the elite of the drivers, became a famous sight in the district. It was a thing of pride and some alarm to watch him go thundering by, perched up high in his reeking cabin, his face sweating beer and effort, while he wrenched and wrestled the steering wheel to hold the great bus on its course. Each trip through the town destroyed roof-tiles and gutters and shook the gas mantles out of the lamps, but he always took pains to avoid women and children and scarcely ever mounted the pavements. Runaway roarer, freighted with human souls, stampeder of policemen and horses - it was Uncle Sid with his mighty hands who mastered its mad career.

Sid's career began in the South African war where he gained a reputation for his cunning, silence and strength. But it was his talent for cricket that set him apart from his fellow-cavalrymen, and earned him special privileges.

Quite soon he was chosen to play for the Army and was being fed on the choicest rations. The hell-bent technique of his village game worked havoc among the officers. On a flat pitch at last, with a scorched dry wicket, after the hillocks and cow-dung of home, he was projected straightway into regions of greatness and broke records and nerves galore. His murderous bowling reduced heroes to panic: they just waved him good-bye and ran: and when he came in to bat men covered their heads and retired piecemeal to the boundaries. I can picture that squat little whizzing man knocking the cricket ball out of the ground, his face con­gested with brick-red fury, his shoulders bursting out of his braces. I can see him crouch for the next delivery, then spin on his short bowed legs, and clout it again half-way to Johannesburg while he heard far-off Sheepscombe cheer. In an old Transvaal newspaper, hoarded by my mother, I once found a score-card of a match in 1899 between the Army and the province of Transvaal which went something like this:


Colonel 'Tigger' ffoukes-Wyte 1

Brig-Gen. Fletcher 0

Major T.W.G Staggerton-Hake 12

Capt V.O. Spillingham 0

Major Lyle (not out) 3

Private Sid Light (not out) 126

Extras 7

Total 4 (dec) 177

Transvaal: 21 all out (Pte Sid Light 7 for 5)

This was possibly a highlight of Uncle Sid's career. His post-war job as a bus and charabanc driver was blighted by the fact that he was mostly drunk when he drove ... although the general consensus was that he drove more carefully and skilfully when drunk. He was finally given the sack, the Bus Company having forgiven him many times, finally drawing a line.

Lee concludes his memoir of his uncles with these lines:

Uncle Sid never drove any buses again but took a job as a gardener in Sheepscombe. All the uncles now, from their wilder beginnings, had resettled their roots near home …these men reflected many of Mother’s qualities, were foolish, fantastical, moody; but in spite of their follies, they remained for me the true heroes of my early life. I think of them still in the image they gave me; they were bards and oracles each; like a ring of squat megaliths on some local hill, bruised by weather and scarred with old glories. They were the horsemen and brawlers of another age, and their lives spoke its long farewell. Spoke, too, of campaigns on desert marches, of Kruger’s cannon, and Flanders mud; of a world that still moved at the same pace as Caesar’s, and of that Empire greater than his — through which they had fought, sharp-eyed and anonymous, and seen the first outposts crumble....

I have also recently been re-reading Henry Lawson’s wonderful short stories from his While the Billy Boils collection.

One of these stories, His Country – After All, concerns a stranger, travelling in New Zealand. The stranger is an expatriate Australian now living in the USA and he regales his fellow coach travellers with a prolonged and sour criticism of Australia, enumerating all the reasons he no longer lives there.

I went away first when I was thirty-five – went to the islands. I swore I’d never go back to Australia again; but I did. I thought I had a kind of affection for old Sydney. I knocked about the blasted country for five or six years and then cleared out to Frisco. I swore I’d never go back and I never will.

Cobb and Co coach, Palmerston, New Zealand

The traveller re-emphasises his disdain for his homeland at length and is full of praise for the beauty and rich utility of the New Zealand landscape. Then:

The coach had climbed the terraces on the south side of the river and was bowling along on a level stretch across the elevated flat. ‘What trees are those?” asked the stranger, [breaking his unpatriotic argument] and pointing to a grove ahead on the roadside. ‘They look as if they’ve been planted there’.

‘Oh, they’re some trees the government imported’ said the coachman whose knowledge on the subject was limited. Here the stranger sniffed, once by accident, and then several times with interest. It was a warm morning, after rain. He fixed his eyes on those trees. They didn’t look like Australian gums; they tapered to the tops, the branches were pretty regular and the boughs hung in a shipshape fashion. There was not the Australian heat to twist the branches and turn the leaves. ‘Why!’ exclaimed the stranger, sniffing hard. ‘Why dang me, if they aren’t Australian gums!’”

As the coach approached the plantation the stranger became aware that:

there was a rabbit trapper’s camp amongst the trees; he had made a fire to boil his billy with gum-leaves and twigs and it was the scent of that fire which interested the exile’s nose and brought a wave of memories with it.

‘Good day, mate!” he shouted suddenly to the rabbit trapper, and to the astonishment of his fellow-travellers.

‘Good day, mate” the answer came back like an echo – it seemed to him – from the past.

After a long and meditative silence, it transpired that the stranger might after all “take a run over to Australia” after he had finished his business in New Zealand, and have a yarn with an old mate in Sydney. “The smell of them gum leaves set me thinking” he says.

Like many of Lawson’s stories this one has an element of sentimentality, but there is also the dry, sardonic humour of the bush, and the characters are drawn with precision and economy. I liked this story very much. Like so many Australians (especially foresters) I once had a similar aromatic experience catching the whiff of a burning gum leaf when I was overseas, and I remember the nostalgia it generated. Lawson’s comment that “it was a warm morning, after rain” also strikes a chord, as I recall many occasions when the day was humid and the bush reeked of eucalyptus.

My friend and former colleague Peter Kimber once told me about a time in the 1950s when he was a young forester, working in the misty highlands of East Africa. One humid morning he walked into a plantation of Eucalyptus citriodora, the lemon-scented gum from Queensland. The aroma was almost overpowering, and although Peter had never been to Australia at that time, his mind always retained the memory of “the smell of them gum leaves”. At the time this was an echo from the future, not the past, as Peter moved to Australia in 1964, where he soon became one of our finest foresters.

Henry Lawson could have made a story out of that.

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