Last week, I re-read Laurie Lee’s second volume of classic memoir As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. It was up for discussion in the Walking Book Club on Sunday, so I wanted to refresh my memory.
Re-reading a book is a funny thing. Certain aspects leap out and grab you which slipped past last time, whereas other passages which one remembers as magnificent now seem barely significant. The book stays the same, of course, so I often wonder what your own shifting perspective reveals about yourself.
This particular re-reading was undertaken while suffering from a horrid summer lurgi, which gave an extra hallucinatory sheen to Lee’s passages of sunstroke:
By mid-morning I was in a state of developing madness, possessed by pounding deliriums of thirst, my brain running and reeling through all the usual obsessions that are said to accompany the man in the desert. Fantasies of water rose up and wrapped me in cool wet leaves, or pressed the thought of cucumber peel across my stinging eyes and filled my mouth with dripping moss. I began to drink monsoons and winter mists, to lick up the first fat drops of thunder, to lie down naked on deep-sea sponges and rub my lips against the scales of fish.
Let me assure you this is unnerving reading when you’re lying there sweating, drifting in and out of sleep, and your brain’s feeling far from screwed on right. Small wonder these passages seemed particularly impressive this time round! (I have to confess to still not feeling a hundred per cent, so my apologies if the post is a little feverish…)
What really surprised me in this re-reading, was how much I was struck by the book’s violence. I remembered it to be a sweeping romantic haze, whereas this time round it seemed far more sinister.
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning begins when nineteen-year-old Laurie Lee bids goodbye to his Cotswold village and ‘the stopping figure of my mother, waist-deep in the grass and caught there like a piece of sheep’s wool’, setting off in search of adventure. The first chunk of the book is taken up with his walking to London and the year he spent there lodging in Putney and working on a building site. It reminds me of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, with his descriptions of endlessly processing tramps and acute poverty. At least Lee is rather better fed than Orwell, who survived on ‘tea-and-two-slices’. He moves into rooms above an eating-house, which has a menu offering:
Bubble. Squeak. Liver and B. Toad-in-the-Hole. Meat Pudding or Pie.
What particularly endeared this section to me was the fact that it was all set in Putney – such an unromantic, unglamorous, unliterary part of London. No offence Putney-ites, but its not quite Fitzrovia.
After a year, on a whim, Laurie Lee decides to get a boat to Spain, where he walks from Vigo in the north down to the Southern coast, as Civil War approaches. For the most part his journey is one of happy adventure, of walking and playing the fiddle and being given wine, food and shelter. Lee’s writing is lyrical, lush with imagery, beautifully crafted and so perhaps you can forgive my memory for fixing on the many passages like this one:
Green oaks like rocks lay scattered among the cornfields, with peasants chest-deep in the wheat. It was the peak of harvest, and figures of extraordinary brilliance were spread across the field like butterflies, working alone or in clusters, and dressed to the pitch of the light…
These pastoral images almost entirely eclipsed my memory of the episodes of violence which pepper Laurie Lee’s route. For instance, early on, there is a horrific moment when he returns to his inn late at night in Valladolid:
The huge front door had been ripped from its hinges and lay in splinters across the street. The three youngest children were huddled inside, half naked, moaning with fear – while the Borracho’s wife, storm centre of the scene, stood screaming at the foot of the stairs.
She says that her husband has tried to rape their daughter, and then:
I found the Borracho on the landing, about half-way up, sprawled on his back, wet with blood and wine. He lay like a slaughtered bull, breathing in painful gasps and weeping to himself in the dark.
A domestic dispute, with a father’s awful desire for his daughter at its heart, explodes into the public realm as the door is ripped off its hinges, revealing the bloody screaming mess inside. This heart of violence suddenly refusing to be contained by the huge front door could almost figure as a metaphor for the coming Civil War.
Individual violent moments like this do eventually boil into Civil War. By then, Lee has settled in Almuñécar, playing the violin at a hotel and falling in with a loosely Communist crowd. Then there are the first shootings, dead bodies and the assertion of ‘that powerful minority who would rather the country first bled to death’.
Laurie Lee is rescued by a British ship. As he stands on deck looking back at Almuñécar, he notices:
The whole village had turned out to witness our departure and stood in a long dark frieze round the bay, waving and calling across the water, some of them running up and down the sands. There was also something desperate, almost sinister, in the way they packed the edge of the sea, as though in dread of the land behind them.
It’s a powerful image, not least because Lee has just traversed that land, trodden on it, slept on it and written about it so beautifully. Here the violence has triumphed over the pastoral idyll, leaving the people scared of the land, on the edge of the sea.
I wonder why I noticed this thread of violence that winds across Laurie Lee’s path so much more this time. Perhaps it was thanks to the strange emphasis a fevered brain gives to his words. Perhaps a slight impatience with Lee’s restless youthful spirit made me concentrate more on the political side of the book. In any case, it was definitely worth re-reading and has left me longing to read the final volume in the trilogy, A Moment of War, which is about his return to Spain during the Civil War. Luckily, I am off to Andalusia to broil in the sun with some friends in a couple of months, so there will be the perfect excuse. I can’t wait!