The proposer noted that the three books for which Laurie Lee
(1914-1997) is remembered are autobiographical.
“Cider with Rosie” (1959) covers his life up to 16. His father abandoned
the family and left his second wife to bring up a large group of kids. They
lived outside Stroud in Gloucestershire.
Then he spent 4 years as a junior clerk in Stroud. Next “as
I walked out one midsummer morning” he travelled to London and then across
Spain. “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning” was published in 1969, ten years
after “Cider with Rosie”. Finally, “A Moment of War” (1991) covers his return to
Spain to fight in the Civil War.
He also published books of poetry, one of essays and records of some of his foreign visits. In this we see him going to Ibiza to write “As I Walked Out.” He was largely unimpressed by the tourists, but enjoyed the booze, the grub and the talent.
After the Civil War he married. His wife also died in 1997. He
was a poet, writer, lecturer, and journalist, and was awarded the MBE. He died
in his home county. Life was made easier for him because “Cider with Rosie”
sold 6 million copies.
He kept a notebook on his travels, not with a view to
writing books, he said, but rather to be able in the future to relive the
Why did the proposer choose the book? He was very fond of
Spain, and 1934-6 was a dramatic time for a writer to be there. He had also
enjoyed books about Spain by V.S. Pritchett and Gerald Brenan. But Lee’s
poverty, honesty, compassion and charm drew him back to the book and its beautiful
evocation of his Spain.
Finally, he noted that Almunecar has changed and is now like Marbella Old Town. And he wondered if Lee had a map? He hoped so, but he chose some areas with no roads and it must have been difficult to avoid getting lost!
This book was well received by the Group. “It was a delightful read, beautifully
written …his language is poetic and lyrical” said one absent member. A
surprising number of the group knew Spain well, through the decades, and had
undertaken various walks there. One had walked through the Pyrenees into Spain,
and one had been reading the book while olive picking near Malaga. Another who
had driven across Spain now wished he had walked it!
The book was published some thirty five years after the
events described. The book falls into 3 sections. The first describes his
decision to leave his country village and set off on a great walk, with
destination unknown. He carries a violin, and becomes skilled in busking for
money. “It’s really a description of two
journeys, one through part of England and the other through Spain. I love his
description of life in England in the early 1930’s and the fascinating
characters he meets on his journey. It amazed me how many others were wandering
around the UK about the same time. On reaching London he manages to earn some
money pushing a wheelbarrow for a year. The reason he gives for going to Spain
is because he knew the Spanish for “Will you please give me a glass of water?” and
is almost laughable”. As well as
meeting other tramps and the great army of unemployed searching for work on the
way, he has a brief relationship with a rich girl, which is brought to an
abrupt end by her father, and he finds work on a building site.
Then he sets off for Spain, saying he knows nothing about the
country and does not speak the language. The central and most powerful section
of the book describes with great power his journey south through the searing
heat and immense poverty of Spain, how he adapts to their way of life, and
picks up the language. “Having made a
similar but swifter journey by car from south to north a few years ago, I was
able to picture the vastness of the country, its unforgiving climate and the many
delightful places he visits. I had forgotten how desperately poverty-stricken
and wretched a lot of country folk were at that time in Spain”.
Everyone really liked the power and precision of his
“The thick silent
dust, lifted by the shudders of heat rather than by the presence of any wind,
crept into my sandals and between my toes, stuck like rime to my lips and
eyelashes, and dropped into the breathless cups of the roadside poppies to fill
them with a cool white mirage of snow.”
“His face was as dark
and greasy as a pickled walnut and a moustache curled round his lips like an
“Green oaks like rocks
lay scattered among the cornfields, with peasants chest-deep in the wheat. It
was the peak of the harvest, and figures of extraordinary brilliance were
spread across the fields like butterflies, working alone or in clusters, and
dressed to the pitch of the light – blue shirts and trousers, and with broad gold
hats tied with green and scarlet cloths.”
At Toledo he comes more into contact with expats, and there
is a change of tone as he travels to the south coast, and gets to know
Republicans worried about an impending challenge to their new Socialist government.
Then the book ends with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and his
short-lived return to Britain. He soon leaves for Spain again with the ambition
of playing his part in the Civil War.
Also very striking were his descriptions of how easily war breaks
out, and how quickly violence can escalate:
adrenalin in the young which makes war easy, and welcomes it, drew me
voluptuously to Altofaro”.
“It was not victory,
however,…. when the militia returned, round about midnight, there was no singing
or cheering welcome. The wounded, the shocked, the dying and the dead were
unloaded in bitter silence…El Gato walked speechlessly away trailing his rifle
like a broken limb.”
There were many aspects of the book which attracted
discussion. One was the issue of how honest he had been in what he wrote. Some
felt there was an element of selective memory, and perhaps distortion, in his
account? For example, he presents himself as a rural peasant who knows nothing
when he sets out. Yet he has a rich girlfriend in London, can play the violin,
goes in for poetry competitions, and seems able to mingle easily with the
eccentric poet Roy Campbell and his partner.
It seemed amazing that he could recall so much of the detail
of his journey. He often says “I remember…” but does not own up to having kept
a notebook, as we now know he did. Just for the purpose of reliving the
experiences, he said, but it is commonplace for writers to undertake great
walks largely for the purpose of writing a book at the end. Or is he simply
grafting later memories of Spain on to the walk he conducted as a twenty year
He falls into a long tradition of British writers describing
walks in Spain – such as Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, J.B. Morton
(Beachcomber), George Borrow – and there are a group of French writers who have
done the same. And they all seem to find the same Spain. So was his choice of
Spain less random than he claims?
Much of the book contains talk of sexual experiences of
various kinds, some briefly described, more hinted at. But we now know from
biographical information that he met his “muse” while he was in Spain, and that
she supported him financially, yet the book does not refer to her and suggests
that busking was his main source of income.
And the fact that the British Embassy was aware of his
presence and rescued him from the Civil War, along with other British
nationals, again made us wonder if were quite the peasant tramp that he presents.
Even his amusing story of climbing into a girl’s bedroom by
ladder in London had the cynics amongst us wondering if it had really happened
or whether he had been reading “Le Rouge et le Noir”.
But in the end we concluded that it did not matter if he
were selective or inclined to embroider – wouldn’t most do that in an
autobiography? It only mattered if while
reading the book you found yourself doubting his veracity. One of or two of us
had had that feeling, but all had enjoyed the book, even if, in the words of
his biographer, Lee was “mythologising’ his youth.
His use of language was another area of discussion. It was
argued that his great strength lay in his ability to describe in very visual and
striking terms (“the road ran like a
meridian, like a knife-cut through a russet apple…”). This flowed largely
from his stunning use of imagery – of similes and metaphors – which were always
fresh and arresting. It was no surprise to find that poetry was his first love.
He did on occasion go for a description that also used the
sound of language, its rhythm and cadence, – e.g “submerged in the wheat, sickles flickered like fish” to convey
meaning. But most of the time his sentences concentrated brilliantly on poetic imagery
rather than poetic rhythm. This differentiates him from many other writers of “poetic
prose”. And the rhythmic inertia of his little poem that he quotes may illustrate
why his poetry was less successful than his poetic prose.
And his approach was by no means a bad thing in this book.
It gave the language a muscular feel that suited the descriptions of the
exhausting walk, the wild interior and the grinding poverty.
Another factor, illustrated in some of the examples above,
was that he was inclined to write sentences in an unexpected order of words,
which similarly increased the arresting effect of what he was saying, while
slowing down the flow of the words and the drive of the narrative.
What then of his politics? Although he was very
compassionate towards the Spanish rural poor, to the extent of returning with
the aim of fighting in the Civil War, he did not reveal any party political
leanings. “Unlike so many of my age, for
whom Spain represented one of the last theatres of political romanticism, I
hadn’t consciously chosen it as a Cause but had stumbled on it by accident,
simply by happening to be there.”
Some felt, however, that he might have exaggerated the
poverty he encountered, while others said they had seen similar things. At any
rate, we strongly suspected his focus was on describing and empathising with
the poor. Any one better off is dismissed with scorn. This reminded us of J. B.
Priestley’s lop-sided description of poverty in his “English Journey”.
And one of our travellers noted that when travelling,
whatever your background, you tended to be approached by people of all social
classes who were equally friendly. It was hard to imagine this had not also
happened to Lee. And even at the outset of the book he was at pains to
establish his working class credentials with his work on a building site. But
such attitudes are hardly unusual at the age of 20, as was the way in which he fell
in love with all things Spanish while rubbishing all things British.
An interesting question was the relationship between the young person portrayed and the older person writing the book. The older persona does not appear much, other than in “I remember” mode, but occasionally there is a characteristically terse aside fro the older Lee- e.g. “I’d developed an ingrowing taste for the vanity of solitude.” Such remarks disarmingly acknowledge the naivety of the young man.
Being written in the mode of a journey, one might see the
shape of the book as the naïve and immature young man at the beginning has
through his experiences come of age in both his outlook to life and his
sexuality. Nevertheless, some felt he still had a lot of maturing to do, and
one who had read the third volume did not see much sign of that happening in
that book either.
Perhaps the truth was that he remained throughout his life
an Epicurean, for whom wine, women and song were his joys, and who was fairly
lazy when it came to writing, having only produced the three books of real substance.
The proposer drew our attention to an interview on an arts
programme when Lee volunteered that Paradise would involve unlimited capacity
for food, drink etc, with friends always accessible when required. He thought
his writing was voluptuous and secret as he never allowed others into his
office. He claimed he had a tape of typing and switched the recorder on when
reading Playboy or admiring the view from the window! He came over as charming.
We debated, but did not resolve, why this book had been less
successful than “Cider with Rosie”, as this book seemed better. Not as
fashionable a subject as a nostalgic idyll in the English countryside? Too big
a gap between the books? Spain of less interest than France or Italy? Too many
other books in the same vein? Too long and vague a title?
We also noted that the books were fairly short, around 200
pages. Some of us would have wanted them longer, giving more detail of the
travel in the way of Eric Newby. Perhaps this reflected his laziness, and the
minimum target given him by the publisher. More charitably, his writing was
very succinct. If you viewed much of the book as a kind of prose poem, 200
pages was long enough.
What about the title? The first line of a folk song. Was
there perhaps also an echo of Piers
Plowman’s famous medieval walk:
“In a somer seson, when softe was the sonne…
[I] wente wide in this world wondres to here”
We concluded it was a fascinating book and a very enjoyable
But we were in a Scottish winter season. Behatted and
begloved, we left to find frost thick on the ground……