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. Lee also seemed unperturbed by the possible dangers that he might encounter. Having arrived late at night in Valladolid he was advised that the nearest place to stay was run by ‘El Borracho’, who was also described as an ‘ogre’. When Lee arrived at the place ‘El Borracho’ who Lee said had the luck of a murderer told him to ‘Go sleep in the river’ and yet Lee insisted that the man provide him with lodging.
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.
Seeing Islamic, Arabic and African Influence in Spain
Spain has a conflicted relationship with Islam, Muslims and North Africans. I am not well read on Spain in the middle ages but I do know that, more or less, no such thing as Spain existed until about the 1500s. Going back two thousand years ago or so, Spain consisted of various different tribes and kingdoms, which put up, for the most part, with new coastal colonies established by Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans. When the Roman Empire began to collapse, Spain was ruled by a series of Visigothic kings from Germany. In about 700 AD, a large part of Spain, most of the south and the middle bit were invaded and subsequently ruled by a series of Islamic leaders, who had come from north Africa. The Moors ruled for some eight hundred years, but were eventually, driven out, by a Catholic sect and their armies and communities.
The Catholic sect defined themselves in particular in relation to the fact that they were not Muslim. Once they had established their authority, they established a totalitarian dictatorship, in which they put to death anyone who refused to renounce their Islamic or Jewish faith and identity. They invented the concept of Spain and created a tradition and precedent in which to be Spanish was by definition to be anti-Islamic and anti-Moorish. So much so that some families took the sirname Matamoros (Moor killer), a sir name still in use today. Furthermore Spain likes to celebrate famous battles against Moorish armies and leaders.
Of course, all of this anti-Muslim sentiment, and its central role in defining what it means to be Spanish, is an attempt, and ultimately a failed attempt to deny Islamic and Arabic in its culture and roots. The Spanish language, many of its words and names are Arabic in their roots. It is interesting to note the tendency of English travel writers to see the Islamic, the Arabic and the North African in Spanish culture, physiognomy and architecture.
For example in her book on travelling through Spain, written in 1949, Rose MacAulay claimed to see the ethnic and cultural traces of the different peoples who had commanded some part of the Iberian peninsular over the last three thousand years. She could see it in peoples’ faces. For example, in Valencia she said the people had a ‘classic beauty so often the outcome of the happy fusion of Moor, Iberian and Roman’. She could also see it in peoples’ behaviour, dress, language, music and architecture. She saw Africa in the ‘minaret-like, lustre-tiled deep blue church domes’ in the Valencia. She comments on seeing what she considered to be the ‘handsome brown Moors’ of Villajoyosa having its annual fiesta for the defeat of the Moors seven centuries ago. The fiesta, which is called Moros y Cristianos, still takes place in late July (here for the organiser’s web page). In Burriana MacAulay fancies that the town and its inhabitants are Moors, Moors living under the yoke of the Spanish state.
Oranges, even in high summer, are piled on every market stall in the towns, and in the panniers of the small donkeys that smaller boys ride about streets and roads; one can eat as many as one has a mind for, thanking the Moors for their intelligent irrigation. Moorish engineering, Moorish castles, Moorish-looking minarets and domes, Moorish faces and songs, memories of Moorish battles against the armies of Jaime the Conqueror, who fought them all down this coast and hinterland and finally beat them and took their kingdom, but still they stayed on the land, and their Moorish-Iberian descendants now darkly and beautifully ride their donkeys about the roads, and walk gracefully from the water troughs with their tall Moorish pitchers on their heads.
She referred to ‘the little African town of Callosa de Segura’. She described the surrounding land like so:
Each village had its little domed and miniareted church. The landscape, the buildings, the climate, seemed of Africa: so did the dark turbaned people riding their asses long the dusty road.
Laurie Lee, too, saw Islam in the scenes and behaviours he came across. He described a boy singing in the street one morning:
The boy was leaning against a lamp-post beneath the barrack walls and carrying a basket slung over his shoulders. He was about twelve years old, thin, and scrub-headed, and was obviously singing for what he could get. But he sang with the whole of his boy, his eyes tight-closed, his bare throat rippling in the sunlight, and his voice had a nasal wail that obliterated the city around him – the voice of Islam, aimed at the sky and pitched to an empty landscape.
In Andalusia he saw:
Girls with smouldering Arab faces. Villages had Moorish names – Andujar, Pedro Abad.
In Seville he saw the legacy of Moorish domestic architecture – each dwelling with its own patio and fountain – and each dwelling, in the Arab tradition, made private from the public gaze by grilles and doorways. Tarifa, the southern most point of Spain, was described as ‘skulking behind its Arab walls’ and ‘a bit of washed up Africa, a decayed abstraction of Casbah-like alleys wandering among blind and shuttered houses’. Walking just inland of the south coast between Malaga and Gibraltar he saw ‘the running channels of water laid out by the Moors eight centuries before’.
Its worth noting one more point too, that in Laurie Lee’s account of the civil war, Franco’s troops were often referred to to as ‘Moorish’. I am assuming that the troops were actually Spanish but that they were stationed in Morocco. Nevertheless Lee cites his friend at the time Manolo, who saw an equivalence between the Moors driven by Spain by the Catholic Kings and the Moorish soldiers that Franco had used to invade Spain:
The Catholic kings were the first to drive the Moors back from Spain. Now the Catholic general are bringing them back. What can we do? There’s nothing to stop them. The war is over, I think.
Civil guards – the poison dwarfs of Spain
I have never really reflected on it a great deal and have certainly not studied it, but over the years I have never heard much said in defence of the Guardia Civil. It seems that their relationship with the public has been strained for almost one hundred years. Laurie Lee called them ‘the poison dwarfs of Spain’ a name seemingly designed to both convey contempt and demean.
They would suddenly ride down upon you on their sleek black horses, far out in the open country, and crowd around you, all leather and guns, and put you through a bullying interrogation. Most of them were afraid, and lived in a social vacuum which could only be filled with violence; they had few friends in this country an were suspicious of strangers and indeed of anyone on the road.
Later on Lee referenced Blasco Vallegas a farmer from Almuñécar, who exasperated, explained that whilst he and his sons had spent the last forty years working the farm, they owned nothing, working for the landlords. Vallegas, who it appeared had been the victim of a violent and murderous suppression of the land owning classes before, suspected a new war was about to start. Whilst he felt the soldiers would be on the side of the people this time round, he thought ‘the Civil Guard with the Devil, as usual’. Such a statement speaks of the way in which the Civil Guard were perceived to have utter contempt for the peasant classes.
A land without cars
I particularly enjoyed Laurie Lee’s descriptions of the Spanish countryside. It was noticeable, that in 1935, Spain was a land ’empty of motor cars’. You were more likely to see a ‘mule-train’ piled with ‘vines and flowers’ than cars, when walking along the roads in the countryside. Lee reckoned that this form of transport and the culture and methods that went with it, were ‘unchanged since the days of Hannibal’. He noted that the drivers of these mule-trains were a ‘race apart’, with ‘flat, almost Siberian faces’.
Sleeping with animals
In the 1930s alot of people in Spain, being poor and agrarian, depended on animals for transport and labour. They also tended to sleep with them. Laurie Lee found himself staying in the homes of people, rented out to travellers, and called posadas sleeping in rooms with ‘the mules and wives and children’. In another house he found chickens walking around and a pig sleeping in the corner.
Idler par excellence
Laurie Lee was an idler par excellence. His mission was to devote himself to wandering wherever his heart took him and doing whatever he wanted. He was a true drifter.
Never in my life had I felt so fat with time, so free of the need to be moving or doing. For hours I could watch some manic ant dragging a piece of orange peel through the grass, pushing and pulling against impossible barriers in a confused and directionless frenzy.
The spirit of idling, the spirit of flaneur has always been in me, like I alluded to in the beginning. I knew I had something of Laurie Lee in me when he mentioned the ants, because back in 2003, when I visited Gijon, I too penned an account of a brief interlude spent studying the behaviour of ants.
I reach the port, and to be more precise, Puerto de Musel, gate C. There is a criss-cross of roads, a rail track and fencing all around this port. I sit down because I can’t quite work out whether the public is allowed into the port. If you’re not sure what to do in a situation, you sit down and watch others. Two men appear from nowhere and walk through the checkpoint, which would seem to be there principally to stop vehicles. I wait and watch, and take notes like a member of ETA. I decide to walk along the footpath towards the port. I walk past the checkpoint. I haven’t set any alarms off. I stand at 100 yards from the sea, bathed in the hum of industry, looking at a ship in port. I don’t want to go any further. I have the feeling that something criminal is going on. There’s all this big machinery everywhere, and a few people – what are they doing in this port on a Saturday afternoon? They could be doing anything and the rest of the world and maybe even God herself would not know. I turn around, and walk backwards. As I walk back I pass two obsolete concrete posts, each a metre high, and each with a cup-sized hole in their tops. The second post has a plastic bottle stuffed inside and there is a hundred ants scurrying inside and outside of the bottle. I drop them a bit of one of my croissants and watch them smother it. I spend quite a lot of time watching them. These little ants, doing things which no one, but me, is aware of.
Ants are everywhere but I never saw such a diversity of ants as in Spain (I’ve never been to Africa) and ants seem to leave much more of a palpable presence in the dry cracked earth of Spain than in the UK.
Lee sought to both learn, experience and develop his skills in enjoying the simple pleasures in life. He admired the Madrilenos for the culture of socialising that they had developed: the way in which they always ate whilst they drank, they never got drunk and the way in which they talked, talked and talked into the night. Laurie Lee loved to spend large tranches of his life zoned out, as it were, connecting with the energies of the country, as he walked and swam. From time to time he meditated in the sea:
Sometimes, leaving the road, I would walk into the sea and pull it voluptuously over my head, and stand momentarily drowned in the cool blind silence, in a salt-stung neutral nowhere.
Sleeping outdoors was another way, in which he immersed himself in the energies of the world:
When twilight came I slept where I was, on the shore or some rock-strewn headland, and woke to the copper flow of the rising sun coming slowly across the sea. Morningswere pure resurrection, which I could watch sitting up, still wrapped like a corpse in my blanket, seeing the blood-warm light soak back into the sierras, slowly re-animating their ash-grey cheeks, and feeling the cold of the ground drain away beneath me as the sunrise reached my body.
He described the beautiful experience of emerging slowly from one’s sleep, one morning in Valladolid:
I was awakened the next morning by the high clear voice of a boy singing in the street below. The sound lifted me gradually with a swaying motion as though I was being cradled on silken cords. It was cool crisp singing, full-throated and pure, and surely the most painless way to be wakened – and as I lay there listening, with the sun filtering across me, I thought this was how it should always be. To be charmed from sleep by a voice like this, eased softly back into life, rather than by the customary brutalities of shouts, knocking, and alarm-bells like blows on the head. The borders of consciousness are anxious enough, raw and desperate place; we shouldn’t be dragged across them like struggling thieves as if sleep was a felony.
Hot days and amiable lethargy
I’m not sure, if in 2020, whole towns and cities still take siestas in Spain. In 2003, when I visited, they did. I remember getting the shock of my life, one afternoon, when I had woken up very late, at about 1 in Gijon, famished, and intending to buy a bit of bread and chorizo for lunch. When I wandered into the town centre everything was shut and there wasn’t a soul on the street. What was even more incredible was how this state of affairs seemed to last three to four hours, during which time my stomach developed cramps.
The Spanish, perhaps until recently, have long had a tradition of splitting the working day into two, with a long long break in between. In Gijon, the working day got up and running again at about five and would go on into the evening. The tradition was for families to take long lunches and then go to sleep for the famous siesta. The reason for
In Laurie Lee’s adventures he talked about the relaxed air that Malaga had when the sun is at its height.
The moist hot days began to fill up the city with a kind of amiable lethargy. Gypsies from the river started to rob the markets, and nobody tried to stop them. Children swarmed in the belfries, madly ringing the bells, and nobody interfered. Even the mules stopped working and wandered aimlessly round the streets like sightseers in from the country.
Lee described an almost carnivalesque time, during which the underclasses, the gypsies, the children and the mules held court in the deserted town, unbeknownst to the rest of the slumbering town. It did remind of that strange feeling I had when I ventured out into the streets of Gijon between two and five, when it felt like the city had been left to me and a few other odd bods with nothing better to do than tramp the streets.
Lee’s reference to gypsies reminds me of one of my first memories of Spain. I had just arrived in Bilbao, in 1999, one summer, and was eating with some friends in the old part of the city. I remember there being this child, who I think was playing a pipe or something, and was dressed in black knee length trousers, and a striped black and white shirt. It was difficult to work out the age of the child, she could have been anywhere between thirteen and a young adult with stunted growth. She wasn’t very good at playing the pipe and seemed to be annoying people, but from what I vaguely remember had been collecting a few pennies. Then I remember another group of children, who really were children between six and eight, wandering around the al fresco diners, asking for money. They were cute because they were young, but they were also unkempt and dirty, beautiful faces, but with a wild look in their eye, and generally surly. At some point, some incident flared up, I seem to remember one or two of the waiters shouting loudly, and when I looked it appeared that the children had attacked the pipe player, who I think was bleeding from the mouth. The pipe player looked bewildered and incandescent at the same time, and it looked like she might attack the children, who were alot smaller than she. But then the children were numerous and seemed absolutely fearless, like a herd of mini tyrannosaurus rexes. Everyone else, the diners, the waiters, just wanted them to go away, like they would a flock of unwelcome pigeons, but didn’t want to do anything to agitate them further.
This incident, together with Lee’s account, reminds me of how gypsies in Spain are often seen in the towns and cities, often begging or trying to sell something that no-one really wants. In the UK, there are communities of gypsies but it is my perception that they tend not to play such a prominent and visible part in the life of Britain’s towns, rather, to my understanding, they tend to go around doing work in the different places they travel to and form, and otherwise keep themselves to themselves.
Palacio Real de la Granja de San Ildefonso
I remember once visiting the royal palace known as ‘La Granja’ situated some 100km north of Madrid, in the centre of Spain. It was a very hot day, there was hardly anyone there, and I seem to remember some part of it being shut, perhaps the gardens, the palace or the fountains.
Laurie Lee had a similar experience, some eighty years before:
Acres of writing statues, walks, and fountains rising from the dust like a mirage. It was a grandiose folly, as large as Versailles and even more extravagant, and I found it in the peak of bloom and entirely deserted except for a few old gardeners… who went shuffling about as though under some timeless instruction, preparing for the return of some long-dead queen.
Throughout his time in Spain Laurie Lee talked about collecting letters from the post office in Madrid. This got me scratching my head, because it made me wonder what address people sent the letters to, for him to collect them from the Spanish post office? There must have been some kind of system in operation where one could purchase some kind of P.O.Box the contents of which could be sent to whichever post office one wanted to collect them from.
Spanish people rarely get drunk
Its not true to say that Spanish people never get drunk. Some do. But when you walk in the street you realise that the British custom of going out and getting sozzled is not a great Spanish tradition.
It really hit me, in 2003, the night I found myself walking around Pamplona on one of the evenings of San Fermin. There were crowds of people here and there drinking outside bars, charangas playing gay tunes and hundreds of pairs and groups wandering around with beers in their hand. However, I noted, that at no point did I feel cowed or scared. Unlike in the United Kingdom I found that whilst the Spanish liked to drink, wine and beer, and many other things, they seldom got drunk, lairy or aggressive. It seemed that everyone was in pretty good spirits and that if they weren’t they weren’t going to try and ruin it for everyone else.
The Spanish tend to drink when they eat, and eat when they drink. Young people might get a bit drunk, but not very, they don’t make it their raison d’etre on a Friday or Saturday night. For starters pubs and bars stay open all night long, which means they learn to prize the enjoyment of each other’s company rather than frenzied consumption, and they are just as likely to take other types of ingestible drugs as drink alcohol.
The dominant custom of drinking whilst eating it seems stretches back for at least a hundred years. Laurie Lee noted that in 1935, nobody in Madrid drank without eating and that to do so would be considered uncivilised. This helped him explain why he never saw people in a state of drunkardness. He was impressed:
I think my most lasting impression was still the unhurried dignity and noblesse with which the Spaniard handled his drink. He never gulped, panicked, pleaded with the barman, or let himself be shouted into the street. Drink, for him, was one of the natural privileges of living, rather than the temporary suicide it so often is for others.
He considered the Madrilenian custom of drinking alcohol whilst eating seafish, and chatting into the early hours, in cavern like bars a cultural achievement in the art of pleasure.
Rose MacAuley, travelling through Spain in 1949, found the same thing. She said:
Another thing about the Spanish – they never seem to get drunk. The only intoxicated people I saw in Spain were one or two Britons.
Laurie Lee, besides commenting on the Madrilenian method of consuming alcohol also mentioned the tendency of the denizens of the capital city to chew carobs and sunflower seeds. I don’t know what carobs are, but the practice of eating sunflower seeds, known in Spain as pippas is as common now as it was a hundred years ago, as witnessed by the millions of shells you see scattered amongst the pavements and playgrounds, mixed with the cigarette butts and chewing gums.
Madrid – twenty four hour city
Laurie Lee was quite taken with Madrid. He admired how the culture of socialising that the city had developed. In particular he enjoyed the way Madrilenian took food with drink, talked incessantly into the night and the way in which the city seemed never to go to bed.
All was snug, drowsy, and closely wrapped, like life in some public bed… There seemed no programme to life in these narrow alleys; nothing stopped and all hours were the same….
Walking into a War
One of the most fascinating aspects of Lee’s adventures was how he literally walked into a war, the war waged by the Francist terrorists, which began with an invasion of southern Spain by elements of the Spanish army located in North Africa. There is nothing in Lee’s book or reflections to suggest that he had political views on anything in particular, and no reason to suggest that he felt a strong sense of duty to defend the values of democracy, republicanism, liberalism or the interests of the common man (as opposed to the landowners, including the Catholic church). Instead what Lee presents is a situation in which he simply became involved in the war, on the side of the Republicans, because he happened to have fallen in with a group of people, in the town of Algericas, who fought on the Republican side. This in turn was, to some extent, the inevitable end point for a traveller with little money or connection in Spain. For when a person travels through Spain, with no connection and especially with no money, he or she is likely to fall in with peasants and commoners, who are generally more available on the street and open to human discourse and interaction on the street. The rich tend, I imagine, to be more private, bunkered in their castles and mansions, and suspicious of anyone who doesn’t have an equal amount of wealth.
The Seeds of the War
There was little in Laurie Lee’s book that saw the war coming. There was no sociological, economic or political analysis, he had not gone to Spain for that reason. Nevertheless there were perhaps snippets. In Tarifa, a young fisherman pointed out that he had no work and that the women ‘prostrated’ themselves for money. This speaks of a situation where the rich of Spain were only willing to share the wealth of the country in return for sex.
It was in Almuñécar, on the south coast of Spain, in the summer of 1936, that Lee witnessed the beginning of the civil war in Spain. His reflections on the time appeared to set the context for the war, a Spain which was divided into the very poor and disenfranchised, and the rich landowners, who took everything, including the dignity of the poor. He described witnessing how some thirty men worked in vain to make the most paltry of catches of fish, and ended up with a paltry handful of sandy sardines for their labours.
The only people with jobs seemed to be the village girls, most of them in service to the richer families, where for a bed in a cupboard and a couple of pounds a year they were expected to run the whole house and keep the men from the brothels.
Lee referenced Blasco Vallegas a farmer from Almuñécar, who exasperated, explained that whilst he and his sons had spent the last forty years working the farm, they owned nothing, working for the landlords.
Rocking quietly in his chair, the old man seemed to be talking to himself, recalling riots that had stirred the past – ploughing up derelict land in times of famine, soldiers coming to destroy the crops, Civil Guards on horses the size of elephants riding down the women and children. Starvation, martyrdom, jail, massacre, the slaughter of animals, homesteads burning…
The situation for peasants was stark:
Peasants could work this land for a shilling a day, perhaps for a third of the year, then go hungry. It was this simple incongruity that they hoped to correct; this, and a clearing of the air, perhaps some return of the dignity, some razing of the barriers of ignorance. A Spanish schoolmaster at this time knew less of the outside world than many a shepherd in the day of Columbus. Now it was hoped that there might be some lifting of this intolerable darkness, some freedom to read and write and talk.
Lee painted a historical context to the Spanish civil war, one in which the landowning classes periodically smashed, slaughtered and suppressed the peasants who from time to time would rise up out of desperation. In many ways the peasants of Spain were treated as western democracies tend to treat poor immigrants, squirrelling them in to do the backbreaking farm work for little compensation, whilst all the time denigrating and humiliating them, and giving them a good kicking once in a while.
Lee also witnessed how an ideology of a better future, that of socialism, that of communism, was beginning to take root amongst the poorer people, with whom he was mixing and living.
Centuries of darkness stood behind them. Now it was January 1936, and these things were suddenly thinkable, possible, even within their reach.
Lee suggested that the church and state heavily censored any literature and films that the peasants of Almuñécar (and of Spain) had access to. Apparently this began to break down by 1936, I assume the effect of the more liberal and anti-clerical Republican government that had been voted in by then. Lee said that the influx of books bought ‘for the first time in generations, a keen breath of the outside world’.
It got me thinking that for people who lived with poverty and threadbare conditions, who did not know how to read or write, and who had not spent a life considering and reflecting the lessons learned from history, and had not studied sociology, politics and economics, it would have been easy for them to believe that socialism and communism offered a solution to all their pains and aches – it is not difficult to understand how the wave of hysteria sweeping Europe, swept through the peasantry as a fire through tinder.
Laurie Lee, said that, even before the war had started in Spain, there was knowledge amongst the peasantry that there were now guns in the town that hadn’t been there before. This suggests that Franco was not the only one who was thinking of imposing his will on the people by force, and that there were socialist and communist movements with similar designs and plans.
What is particularly fascinating about Laurie Lee’s account is that in some sense, a type of war seemed to have begun before Franco invaded Spain with his terrorist army. In Almuñécar an ice plant and power station, belonging to the local marquis, were blown up, a tax collector was driven out of town, shops were looted and churches were fired and stoned.
Lee’s account showed how Spanish peasants had a deeply ambivalent attitude towards the church, perhaps explained by the fact that whilst they resented the power and control and abuse perpetrated by the church and its officials, they found that without the traditions of the church, there was little sense of an identity. So in Almuñécar one week after firing and stoning the church, on Feast Day the locals filled the smoke-blackened church with lilies and re-enacted what was an annual religious festival in the town.
The invincible Christ had risen again – the private Christ of Almuñécar, scorched and defiled, yet returning to forgive his sons…. Then, a few days later, the church was fired again, and this time burnt to a shell…
Rose MacAulay noted throughout her book that the Spanish were given to fits of church burning. She called it Spain’s ‘second national sport’. 1835 was noted as a vintage year, and she referenced several churches burned down during the war in Spain in the 1930s.
MacAulay explained that in 1835 the context to the resentment directed at the church related to the feudal powers of the monastery and its monks, which included possessions of the estates, but also included kidnapping, torture, extortion and rights to the bridal night. Nice people these Christians.
The War Before the War
In December of 1935, seven months before Franco decided to invade Spain with his terrorist forces, Laurie Lee decided to winter in Almuñécar, sixty miles east of Malaga. He described Almuñécar as a ‘tumbling little village built on an outcrop of rock in the midst of a pebbly data’.
What is particularly fascinating about Lee’s account is that he describes the beginning of an insurrection in the town, long before France decided to invade Spain. The insurrection was inspired by communist ideas but had a very local flavour, in that it was not concerned with bringing justice to Spain or the world, but rather to the town and its surrounds.
Each considered his struggle to be older than Communism, to be something exclusively Spanish, part of a social perversion which he alone could put right by reason of his roots in this particular landscape.
During his time in Almuñécar Lee fell in with a fisherman called Manolo. Lee did not talk explicitly about what was going on in Almuñécar in January 1936 but he explained in cryptic terms about a view that was taking hold, in Almuñécar that a war must be waged in the interests of the workers, and that guns had been imported into the town to start that war.
As Manolo talked, the fishermen listened, bobbing their heads up and down like corks. Their fathers had never heard or known such promises. Centuries of darkness stood behind them. Now it was January 1936, and these things were suddenly thinkable, possible, even within their reach. But first, said Manolo, there must be death and dissolution; much to be destroyed and cleared away…. Everyone knew, all the same, that there were now guns in the village which hadn’t been there before.
Lee went on to describe how ‘Councils of War’ were held, aimed at ‘the local enemy they knew’. He described notices pinned on the walls of the town calling for ‘revolution’.
In February, Spain held a general election and the Socialists benefited from it, heading a coalition of republican parties; and replacing a previous republican leader who had led a coalition involving a centre-right party. You might have thought that this would have given the inhabitants of Almuñécar reason to calm down their revolutionary thoughts and activities, and instead to wait and see what was about to happen. However Lee intimated that the election and the result had provoked an increase in tension between those on the left and the right, and in practical terms, in Almuñécar, was not a victory for anyone but instead ‘a declaration of war’.
Lee described the atmosphere in Almuñécar from that point on as ‘uneasy’ with the village split in two. He also noted an increased carnality in the sexual relations between the villagers, which not only contrasted with the impending sense of peril, but was, in Lee’s opinion, triggered by it.
So what we get from Lee is a sense that Spain felt war was about to break out before Franco invaded. This, in the case of Almuñécar, led to the villagers starting their own war against the landowners. Lee was directly involved in these efforts. He helped organise for the receipt of a consignment of hand grenades. In the weeks that followed an ice plant was sabotaged, shops were looted, the tax collector was driven out of the village, the church was set on fire twice.
The War Itself
Lee provided a fascinating account of the confusion that took hold in Almuñécar once it had been understood that Franco had invaded Spain. There was no reliable source of news, beyond the rumours. The police disappeared leaving a power vacuum. A militia was formed and organised. Arrests were made. The militia left town to take the fight to a neighbouring town, but had forgotten to take their ammunition with them. A destroyer then crept into the bay at nightfall, and started shelling the town, by mistake though, it was a government destroyer that had mistakenly understood the town to be a terrorist stronghold. The militia later mounted a second attack on the same town, this time with their ammunition, but suffered heavy losses, which destroyed their morale and capacity for good.
Cadiz, geographically speaking, is an interesting city. Its located on what is, in essence, an island, called La Isla de Leon, located off the south coast of Spain, although one would never call it an island city. I first became aware of its peculiar geographical feature when reading through Rose MacAulay’s account of her 1949 trip through Spain.
Rose MacAulay called the road that ran across the causeway (the CA-33 on the map below) one of ‘the lovely wonders of the world’ being built on arches and having the smooth blue of Cadiz Bay on one side and the ‘dancing silver immensity of the Atlantic’ on the other. Cadiz, MacAulay explained, has an ancient heritage being a site for Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks and Romans. She paid Cadiz, which apparently was known to the Romans as Gades a one page homage.
Laurie Lee, travelling through Cadiz, in 1935, had less to commend Cadiz.
A kind of Levantine ghetto almost surrounded by sea – a heap of squat cubist hovels enclosed by medieval ramparts and joined to the mainland by a dirty thread of sand… a rotting hulk on the edge of a disease-ridden tropic sea.
The red earth of Spain
One prominent feature of Spanish geology is the orange to red earth, which is less present in the rain soaked north but plentiful down the east coast and middle of the country. The colour, I suppose, owes its present to the iron contained in the earth and rock. Laurie Lee, who stayed in Almuñécar during the winter of 1935 to 1936, talked of spring coming with ‘a rush of snow-water from the Sierras which carried a long red stain out to sea’.
The most extreme example of a red river is the Rio Tinto, which was referred to by Rose MacAulay in her travel book of Spain.
Gibraltar would appear to be a source of fascination and embarrassment to British travellers, a slice of Britain that isn’t Britain, or a slice of something that’s trying to be Britain, or simply a British colony.
Rose MacAuley pointed out that the British invaded and took Gibraltar in 1704. She noted that the behaviour of the British army was ‘atroicious’.
They seem, according to the contemporary records, both Spanish and British, to have become (as always when they took towns) excessively intoxicated, and to have rushed about sacking and looting houses, violating women and churches, attacking the many shrines and convents in which old Gibraltar abounded, and destroying and mutilating images and relics in an orgy of drunken lust, robbery, anti-popery and anti-Spanish triumph.
Six thousand Spanish fled from the town, leaving behind them a good many Jews, Genoese and Moors, who were prepared to adapt themselves and their commercial activities to any regime, and a few women, whose activities were also adaptable.
The Spanish people in Gibraltar fled and set up a new town, called San Roque some miles away, to the north and in the interior. Visiting in 1949 MacAulay noticed that many of the British people living in Gibraltar were Jewish, although she did not note whether they were the descendants of the old Spanish Jews, or newly arrived British Jews. MacAulay described Gibraltar, as a unique place, and not entirely British. She described the streets being full of shops selling ‘gaudy trash from the bazaars across the straits’, its ‘Main Street’ being, ‘a bright, fantastic nonsense, which seems to connect with no European country’.
When he had visited in 1935 Laurie Lee had the following reaction:
To travellers from England, Gibraltar is an Oriental bazaar, but coming in from Spain I found it more like Torquay – the same helmeted police, tall angular women, and a cosy smell of provincial groceries. I’d forgotten how much the atmosphere of home depended on white bread, soap and soup-squares.
In Gibraltar, Lee was treated with suspicion, and was invited to spend each and every night asleep in the police station, although free to roam around the territory during the day.
Taking a look at Main Street in 2020, it would seem not a lot has changed, although it might be argued, that for at least in London, many of the suburban shopping streets have slowly converged upon the style of shopping street first described by MacAulay in 1949 in Gibraltar. MacAulay also felt that the architecture of Gibraltar was business like, and in that sense British, in contrast to the picturesqueness of the Spanish plazas.
I do wonder what was going on in Gibraltar during the Spanish civil war, and whether anyone tried to escape over the border to flee Franco’s forces. I know the British government of the time were keen to avoid getting involved in the conflict, as they were keen, initially to avoid getting on the wrong side of Hitler. As far as I understand it, this was because the British were less bothered about ideologies and more bothered about protecting their own wealth and dominions, and so long as these were not threatened they were not going to make sacrifices.
Where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic
When Lee walked east of Tarifa, the southernmost tip of Europe, from the hills, he described being able to watch
The slow blue currents of the Mediterranean snaking towards the Atlantic’s green forked tongue.
I’ve had a look on the internet to see if I could see a photograph depicting this. I found one photograph taken from El Cabo del Trafalgar, which depicted the contrast in colours between the two bodies of water.
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.
The issue of child sexual abuse is addressed on one occasion throughout the book. On one night returning home to a hotel in Valladolid the owner of the hotel is found to have raped his daughter. There is another description, which could be an allusion to a culture or practice of child sexual abuse in Spain. In a description of the men who drove ‘mule-trains’ across the Spanish countryside, Lee talked about some having ‘boys to look after their comforts’. Lee does not expound on what a boy looking after a man’s comforts entails, but it does leave one wondering.
Other British authors who have written on walking across Spain
VS Pritchett, Jan Morris, Michael Jacobs, Chris Andrews, Jason Webster and Hamish Fulton.