How much we miss movement in our suddenly still, stay-at-home pandemic era. Gone the footloose and fancy-free travel of our rose tinted imaginations, replaced by domestic gloom, pessimistic prospects and shrinking horizons. There seems something pleasingly necessary, then, about revisiting one of the great literary road trips, which celebrates movement for the sake of it and revels in youthful, devil-may-care vagabondism in a Europe basking in its last years of peace.
Not for Laurie Lee a narrowing world of masks, Covid tests and self-isolation. In 1935, staring across the rooftops of London, the 20-year-old made a life-changing discovery: ‘I could go anywhere I liked in the world. There was nothing to stop me, I would be penniless, free and could just pack up and walk away.’ Europe was wide open, ‘a place of casual frontiers, no questions and almost no travellers’. Bliss, in other words.
The road trip, in fact, had begun the previous year. Shaking off the bucolic Gloucestershire childhood in Slad which, decades later, he conjured up in Cider with Rosie, the teenager resolved to walk to London but, never having set eyes on the sea, he did so via the south coast. Armed only with a violin and a walking stick, he quickly realized that busking could pay the bills. ‘Those first days in Southampton were a kind of obsession; I was out in the streets from morning till night, moving from pitch to pitch in a gold-dust fever, playing till the tips of my fingers burned.’ In just over an hour one day, he earned 38 shillings, ‘more than a farm-labourer earned in a week’. It stood him in good stead for the long journey ahead.
This is all knockabout, high-spirited adolescence, but the older Lee was writing decades after his escapades as a pedestrian, just as his contemporary Patrick Leigh Fermor recalled his own walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople through adult eyes more than forty years afterwards in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Here, in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, first published in 1969, Lee is sufficiently self-aware to understand that there was much more to life on the road than youthful japes and innocent fun. While the young man ‘pretended I was T. E. Lawrence, engaged in some self-punishing odyssey’, the later Lee wrote with empathy about those trudging the English roads in the 1930s not out of some frivolous dream of adventure but from the imperative of survival. This was the ‘host of unemployed . . . a broken army walking away from a war, cheeks sunken, eyes dead with fatigue’.
Here as elsewhere Lee makes a little language go a long way. The poet’s prose may be rich and well-formed but rarely, if ever, does it tip into the ornate baroque of Leigh Fermor. A sentence, or even a clause, can lay claim to an entire world. In London where, saving up for his adventure, he spends a year pushing barrows of wet cement alongside his fellow builder’s labourers, he writes affectionately of a motley collection of safe-breakers, cat-men, dopers, a forger, a bigamist and a rapist. The description teeters on the romantic before reality bites. Each man, he writes, is ‘shrivelled by years of attrition, by the staleness of poverty, doubt and suspicion, and by the diminishing returns of jail’.
For anyone who has read Cider with Rosie, Lee’s descriptive powers require little introduction. In this second volume in the trilogy they are on display within the first few pages. The sea is ‘a great sweep of curved nothing rolling out to the invisible horizon . . . revealing more distance than I’d ever seen before. It was green, and heaved gently like the skin of a frog, and carried drowsy little ships like flies.’
The pen portraits ring with humour and resonate with accumulated detail. Every evening his Cockney landlady Mrs Flynn emerges ‘in laminated gold, with silkily reconditioned hair, to engage the world in a monologue of bubbling non-sequiturs, full of giggles, regrets and yearnings’, describing the Richmond deer ‘wearing their beautiful antelopes’ and offering her views on ‘the Russian revulsion’.
So with the world on his doorstep, where did Lee go? He chose Spain, he tells us, for no other reason than that he knew how to say, ‘Will you please give me a glass of water?’ in Spanish. Why not? It is as good a reason as any. Landing on the Atlantic coast at Vigo, he heads inland for his first night under the stars, observing from the hills a dark, glittering coastline that looks ‘like sweepings of broken glass’. On his way to Zamora he sleeps in a ruined castle next to the skeleton of a sheep picked clean ‘like a wicker basket’. The days soon blur into ‘a continuous movement of sun and shadow, hunger and thirst, fatigue and sleep’, leavened by a steady flow of Spanish hospitality.
Look at a map of Lee’s wanderings across Spain and you get a striking sense of the spirit in which he made them. This is no linear journey from A to B. It is instead the most languid, alphabetical curve unfurling across the Iberian Peninsula, from the Atlantic coast into the Galician heartland, on to Valladolid, through the sun-baked delirium and ‘electric haze of heat’ of the Castilian plain, then south over the Guadarramas, from Segovia to Seville via Madrid and Toledo, across the Sierra Morena into Andalusia and then south again to Cádiz before squiggling again, this time east along the Mediterranean coast, to Tarifa, Málaga and Almuñécar. It took him a year.
Crossing the interminable Castilian plain, he watches harvest-workers strung across the fields like butterflies. ‘Submerged in the wheat, sickles flickered like fish, with rhythmic flashes of blue and silver.’ He confesses to experiencing ‘that faint sour panic’ when arriving in an unknown city without having found a bed for the night. Yet time and again the quick-witted traveller pulls out his violin, earns himself a few pesetas, a bowl of seafood here, a glass of brandy there, and secures his roost. Wine is a constant companion on the road, shared with peasants and fishermen, beggars and ne’er-do-wells. Like the most interesting travellers Lee opens himself to all the experiences of the road, to all the people and places he encounters, from priests to prostitutes, from dismal Valladolid to his final destination of Almuñécar (disguised as ‘Castillo’ to protect the villagers), where in 1936 he inhales the first heady whiff of the Spanish Civil War.
Footsore and virtually penniless, he eyes the rich from a distance while breaking bread with the poor. Though he knows nothing of Spain on arrival, by the time he leaves he has managed to gulp down the soul of the country through this street-level immersion. Again and again the itinerant fiddler offers closely observed portraits of the suffering indigent, especially the beggars of the cities through which he passes, ‘creatures of every imaginable curse and deformity’ and ‘mute concentrations of martyrdom’. If Cider with Rosie is too idealized for some readers, then this later book does not shrink from confronting the ugliness of poverty, from the drunken landlord trying to rape his daughter to downtrodden, serf-like villagers simmering in southern revolution.
Lee was a crowd-pleaser from a young age, a talent that never left him as he held court into his dotage before admirers who had made the pilgrimage to The Woolpack Inn in Slad to see him. Half a century later his prose still gives great pleasure – and for the most part it is timeless. Reading him can often feel like a guilty indulgence. Perhaps the only off-key moments, sharpened by our knowledge of Lee’s famously wandering eye and his highly controlling behaviour towards the various women in his life, especially his daughter Jessy, come in his physical descriptions of girls and women: a would-be girlfriend in London is ‘a smooth leggy figure, lithe as an Indian pony’, another is ‘heart-stoppingly voluptuous in her tight Californian pants’, while in Toledo he dreams drunkenly of ‘silken thighs’.
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning marks the stylistic as well as the chronological midpoint between the light-filled lushness of Cider with Rosie and the darker, honed-to-the-bone economy of A Moment of War. Here, as Lee bids farewell to the retreating coastline of Spain, he can still smell ‘its runnels of dust, the dead ash of its fields, whiffs of sour wine, rotting offal and incense . . .’ He retreads ‘the great gold plains, the arid mystical distances, where the sun rose up like a butcher each morning and left curtains of blood each night’. With the final promise of ‘a winter of war’, he warns us there will be more blood to come.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 69 © Justin Marozzi 2021
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 54: As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning