Laurie Lee, by his own account, had some balls. In June 1934, after having lived in a sleepy Gloucestershire village called Slad for nineteen years, he took a bag, a few bits and bobs, a violin and decided to walk and busk his way to a new life in London. He worked in London for a year, and then on a whim, took a boat to Vigo, Spain, with a view to spending an indeterminate amount of time wandering through the country.
Years later, 35 in fact, he published his memoir of the time, in the book As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.
Lee’s memoir is not an analysis, it does not really seek to draw conclusions about Spain, its people or himself. It is literally a series of memories, listed chronologically. The emphasis and the beauty of Lee’s work lies in his ability to evoke the romance in the moments he experiences: the people, the situations, the feelings and emotions, the smells and tastes.
Lee did not appear to have used his experience of travelling around Spain to reflect on his experience of growing up in Slad, or if he did he did not write about it.
Lee appeared to be equally as comfortable travelling and being alone as he was with people. He had an enviable ability to bond with strangers of different types, he was like a twentieth century Louis Theroux.
Lee appeared unaffected by many of his experiences, which given that he had worked so hard to remember and write about them, makes his accounts incredulous. Great dangers were experienced, but Lee would describe brushing himself off and moving on. Similarly Lee could establish all types of relationship: plutonic and sexual, and then walk away as easily as walking away from a rock or tree – throughout his account there was no hint of missing someone or feeling a lasting resentment. Was this because he didn’t want to write about his traumas or the impact of his experiences, or because he really didn’t feel anything?
The way in which Lee constructed his trip so that every encounter fills up the senses, the way in which he brought the warmth and life out of all the characters he met, the dangers and their happy endings, and the ceaseless bounding from one place to another imbues Lee’s accounts with romance.
So jaunty was Lee, so much did he bound and bounce along, that at times it is as if we are reading of a journey made by Christopher Robbin’s friend, Tigger. But is this just a function of the way Lee wrote, or of the way he wanted to remember things? Lee was extremely selective. He missed out huge chunks of his trip, but doesn’t try to sum them up even briefly. By tying the rest together he perhaps gives the misleading impression.
Another fantastical aspect of Lee’s account is that whilst he claimed to have started off his journey knowing almost no Spanish, he recounts very detailed conversations in Spanish from very early on in his adventures. Is there any possibility that when he wrote the book some decades after making the trip that he used artistic license to imagine what people might have been trying to communicate?
I came across Lee’s work through a conversation with a friend. I had been explaining how I was reading Rose MacAulay’s book on her 1949 road trip around Spain, when my friend remembered that she too was reading about a trip around Spain. My initial interest in MacAulay’s book was to understand what Spain had been like in the years following the end of the civil war, and I had been disappointed to find that MacAulay whilst presenting a general picture of Spain, did not really explore the ramifications of the war in any great detail. My friend pointed out that Laurie Lee had actually been walking through Spain when the civil war started. At hearing this and later finding out that he had written a separate memoir on his experience of the war, I was excited to order myself copies and get stuck in.
As I read the opening chapters to Lee’s memoir I was struck by certain similarities with my life. Like Lee I too had once set out for Spain on a one way ticket, and had spent a good deal of time in different towns and villages, relying on the charity of an old friend or through new opportunities provided by people who I had met in the country. Like Lee I had also spent some short amount of time plodding across Spain, doing the Camino de Santiago. And like Lee I had also at some point moved to London to make a life for myself, travelling, like Lee, via Guildford to do it. The similarities stop when we consider the length of time that Lee spent walking around Spain, far longer than I ever did and with Lee’s ‘devil may care’ attitude to the risks and dangers of walking everywhere. However that day I set out to Spain on a one way ticket, I shared Lee’s sense of excitement in the unknowable adventure that was to come and the optimism that this could only go well. For both of us there was something about the idea of Spain that was deeply appealing.
In the rest of this article I draw out parts of Lee’s experience which resonated with my own and those of Rose MacAulay, and other interesting observations.
Although Laurie Lee embraced Spain his first instinct in arriving in Vigo on the west coast, was to get away from the place as quickly as possible. Vigo is a port city, looking on to the wild Atlantic Ocean and Lee described everything looking, ‘barnacled, rotting and deathly quiet’. I travelled through Vigo myself in 2006 and felt similar. There was something about the place that I didn’t quite like – it felt business like and cold – and in contrast to other places in Spain, not the kind of place where bonhomie and warmth rose up from the streets and between people. It was a fleeting visit that I paid so I could have gotten the wrong end of the stick. I also remember some kind of horse monument, which was both stunning and tacky. In many ways Vigo reminded me of a crappy English town, of which there are many to chose from, and quite out of place in Spain.
Laurie Lee, having quickly moved into the Galician countryside from Vigo, remarked on the peasants that he saw:
Women and Spanish, unknown and doubly inscrutable – their thin bent bodies knelt over the water, jerking up and down like drinking hens, and as they worked they shrieked, firing off metallic bursts of speech that bounced off the rocks like bullets.
You might have thought that the peasant way of life had become a thing of the past in Galicia with the modernisation of Spain in the 1980s. You’d be wrong. In 2006 when I walked some of the camino through Galicia, I was astonished to see, here and there, on mud tracks, the occasional Galician woman, very old, built like a tank, dressed in black cloth, shepherding a handful of cows. John Hooper, English journalist resident in Spain, who published a book on the country in 2006, noted that historically Galicians found it more difficult to emigrate, bordering Portugal as they did. The effect of this was that families in Galicia grew in size, and land was apportioned in smaller and smaller portions to individual family members, perhaps accounting for some of the subsistence style farming that I saw.
Whilst I was doing the camino in 2006, I saw that living alongside the Galician cowhearders were other elderly Galician people appearing to live in poverty. I remember one old man, trying to sell carved walking sticks outside his home to passing pilgrims. The sticks weren’t that impressive, but the desperation in his face was. I remember one evening feeling stunned by the contrast between the way of life that was being led by the subsistence farmers along one muddy track, and the prices being charged in a new rustic restaurant that was built next to a modern new road, just ten minutes walk away for the moneyed pilgrims. To be honest I found it difficult to put what I was witnessing in Galicia in any kind of context, but my friend did it for me when he explained that it had reminded him of the kind of poverty he had seen when working in rural China some years back.
There was one violent occasion that I witnessed in Galicia, when my friend and I had stopped off at a monastery for the night, and walked into a neighbouring field to find a man selling drinks and snacks from a tent he had set up. The man had been preparing some drinks and things, when an old woman, again dressed in black and looking like one of the old Galician subsistence farmers, approached and started talking to him. She seemed to be moaning about something. I can no longer remember very clearly quite what happened, but I seem to remember that he had hold of her hands and wouldn’t let her go away, and she was struggling and whining to get away, and/or that at some point he hit her. I think she may have squealed or panicked, but somehow got away (for the time being). Whatever happened on that evening, it was violent, and the man clearly felt no shame in having others see what he did to the woman, who by dint of her age, appeared to be an elderly relative, perhaps his mother. I was reminded of this familial violence by Lee’s account of what he saw one evening whilst staying at a family owned inn. The father of the family was bathing a one year old child in a horse trough, in view of the child’s mother:
The infant screamed, the old crone roared, the father shouted, sang and lathered. Then suddenly, as by a whim, he shoved the child under the water and left him to see what he’d do…. In a fierce choking silence the child fought the water… his whole body grappling with the sudden inexplicable threat of death…. Then just as he was about to give in, the woman picked up a bucket and threw it at the father’s head, and at that he snatched up the child, tossed him in the air, smothered him with kisses, and carried him away.
Being mobbed by children
In 1949 Rose MacAulay travelled around the east and south coasts of Spain, by herself, in a car. She was consistently mobbed and often stalked by children, as she entered and made her way through the different towns of Spain. She put it down to being a foreigner, a woman and a woman with a car. She made it clear that, in 1949, women in Spain were not commonly seen driving motorcars, and certainly not by themselves. Laurie Lee had mentioned being mobbed by children who conveyed him through the streets of ‘poor stone villages’ in the mountains of Leon.
‘Look at the foreigner!’ they cried, as though they had made me up. ‘Look at the rubio who’s come today.’ They aped my walk, and grinned and beckoned, and finally led me to the village inn.
Being mobbed, I had assumed, after having read MacAulay, would be a recurring theme in Lee’s account – it wasn’t. One can’t be sure whether this was a reflection of Lee’s reality or of his disinterest in the phenomenon. Either way it makes an interesting contrast with the account provided by Rose MacAulay. There’s every possibility that, as MacAulay half implies, a woman driving through Spain by herself in 1949 would have, generally speaking, aroused more interest than a man walking in 1935.
On being ‘French’
The Spanish, throughout the twentieth century, had a habit of assuming or at least affecting to assume, that anyone foreign looking was ‘frances’. Laurie Lee noticed it when he was presented to the landlady Dona Maria:
The children crowded the doorway… We have bought you a Frenchman. Dona Maria, look at him!
Rose MacAulay, when she visited Spain in 1949, noted the same:
…walking about Barcelona bare-headed after sunset, mixing with the cheerful crow that thronged the ramblas, with only a finger pointed now and then, and an occasional cry of ‘Frances’, was very pleasant.
All of this jogged my memory of a time I stayed with a family in Gijon twenty years ago (in 2003). One of the family, a man with Down’s Syndrome, consistently spoke with great fascination about having a frances in the family home. He also remarked on how much I looked like Jose Maria Aznar, principally because I had facial hair.
Laurie Lee said that he chose to orient his journey towards Valladolid because the sounds of the syllables in the name of the town. There is something enigmatic about the name. For years I had, when reading the Spanish football results always read the word as ‘Vallalodid’, which flew off the tongue so much easier. When I finally realised decades after, one day, that the d and l were reversed, I couldn’t quite believe it, it seemed diabolical to alternate the l’s and d’s, making the word so much harder, and yet in some ways, so much more a delicious prospect to pronounce.
Britain’s tramps of the 1920s and 30s
British society has historically betrayed and neglected ex-service men. Furthermore the British media and government by foregrounding all the wonderful concrete monuments that get erected to service men and its plethora of memorial events and occasions, serve to hide this betrayal and neglect from the shared consciousness of the nation. Consequently the suffering of ex service-men and women becomes a thing of shame (they are known as ‘tramps’ and not ‘heroes’) and a private problem, if not torture, rather than a social problem.
It was thus quite shocking and incredibly saddening to hear about the tramps of the 1920s and 30s in Britain, many of whom were ex service-men during World War I, who Laurie Lee accounted for in his walking in the south of England from Slad to Southampton and then on to London. Robert MacFarlane, who wrote an introduction to the latest edition of Lee’s book explained:
The unhappy population of Britain’s roads boomed in the years before Lee left Slad. Many of the men who survived the First World War had returned to find no settled employment and no home. Life on foot was the only option available to them, and in the two decades after 1918, plumes of smoke rose from copses and spinneys as the woods of England filled with these shaken-out casualties of war – men who slept out and lived rough, begging as they went and working where they could. Their numbers grew further when the economic crash of the 1930s left millions jobless across Europe and America.
A Sexily Confident Child of Eight
In his account of life in London Laurie Lee talked about a family he stayed with, one of whom he called ‘black-eyed Patsy’ and who he described as, ‘a sexily confident child of eight’. I was taken aback by this description in that ‘sexily confident’ is not the kind of description that you would expect to hear of a child. Later on Lee describes Patsy visiting him before going to bed:
“Ma says anything else you want?” Squirming, coy, a strip of striped pyjamas, Miss Sweater Girl of ten years later – already she knew how to stand, how to snuggle against the doorstop, how to frame her flannel-dressed limbs in the lamplight.”
Lee decided to stay with the family for quite some time, during which time he worked on a building site. By the time he had decided to leave to go to Spain he had described how Patsy had begun to wear lipstick and make-up. He recounted the day he left the family and house to take the train.
Patsy walked half-way to the station with me, and we stopped on Putney Bridge. It was a fine chill morning, with a mist on the river and the tide running fast to the sea. Patsy stood on tip-toe and grabbed hold of my ear and pulled it down to her paint-smeared mouth. ‘Take me with you,’ she said, then gave a quick snort of laughter, waved good-bye, and ran back home.
Lee seemed to be insinuating that this eight year old had was at least mimicking and/or had already developed an understanding of sexualised behaviour.
Other British authors who have written on walking across Spain
VS Pritchett, Jan Morris, Michael Jacobs, Chris Andrews, Jason Webster and Hamish Fulton.
Latest posts by Vanguard Online (see all)
- British soldiers – heroes or victims? – August 31, 2020
- As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee – August 31, 2020
- An English review of ‘A Vivir Que Son Dos Dias’ – August 23, 2020