Lee, Laurie: As I Walked out one Midsummer Morning

                 

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 events.

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 descriptive writing:

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 adder.”

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:

That special 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 old?

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 discussion.

But we were in a Scottish winter season. Behatted and begloved, we left to find frost thick on the ground……