Posts Tagged ‘Spain’

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning

July 15, 2013

As I Walked Out One Midsummer MorningLast 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!

Laurie Lee by Anthony Devas in 1944, at the NPG © Prosper Devas & Associates

South from Granada

September 14, 2011

I feel very remiss in not having posted anything for over two weeks. The suspense from last time’s Emily Game cliffhanger question must have become near unbearable! The answer is Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, thanks to Saleem’s magical power.

This blog hiatus has been thanks to the happy circumstance of having been in a Spanish villa with friends, and without internet. The villa is in a beautiful part of Andalucía, on the outskirts of a national park. We lazed by the swimming pool looking out at a magnificent hilly backdrop, occasionally spotting a stag in the distance, or an eagle soaring overhead. The garden was planted with thick bushes of rosemary and lavender, so the smell – especially after the sprinklers played their 1.30am trick of turning themselves on for a while and getting us and everything else very wet – was intoxicating. As was the vast amount of sherry that we drank, from as soon as we awoke till when we went to bed.

We all swiftly began to ignore our phones, which soon lay abandoned in our bedrooms, and this, coupled with the fact that we were several miles from even a village, meant that we felt wonderfully cut off from the outside world. There was no need to stress about anything – I was released from the worries of work and wedding planning and everything else. We spent most of the week with no idea what time it was. (Until that moment at the end of the day, when climbing into bed and hunting for my phone to try and switch it off. Then it was a bit of a shock to see that it was four or five o’clock. I blame that on the rum and anis that we started drinking after dinner, by which time the day’s sherry supplies were usually exhausted.)

This trip to Spain was in many ways the perfect opportunity to take my own advice and read something Spain-related – see this piece here for the Spectator. Indeed I was flattered and thrilled to see that some friends had done exactly that and brought with them all three of the books that I’d recommended for reading in Spain. (Luckily they enjoyed them.)

I brought with me South from Granada by Gerald Brenan, which is a very good book. Essentially Brenan moved to a tiny Andalucian village in 1920 and spent several years there. The book is a very personal study of the Andalucian way of life, such as the villagers’ beliefs and customs, interspersed with accounts of visits made by various members of the Bloomsbury crew. Brenan’s account of Lytton Strachey’s visit is my favourite. Lytton’s frail and delicate constitution makes for a rather tiresome trip, and Brenan’s description is peppered with sentences like this:

He sat there silent and bearded, showing no signs of enthusiasm.

At the end of the chapter, Brenan mentions his relief at Lytton’s departure, followed by:

And he must have been even more relieved at making his escape. When, three years later, Leonard and Virginia Woolf were preparing to come out and stay with me, he advised them strongly against attempting it, declaring in his high-pitched voice that it was ‘death’.

I definitely enjoy reading about someone else’s experiences of the place where I am. For instance, Brenan’s observation that the women of his village used ‘bushes of rosemary, thyme, and lavender’ for their cooking fuel, cast a new light on the rosemary and lavender bushes in the garden. And here is his description of sharing a meal of salt cod and rice:

There were no plates. Each man, keeping his hat firmly on his head in the manner of a Spanish grandee asserting his equality to everyone present and to come, chose his section of the bowl, and after inviting myself and the others to do the same, dipped his spoon in it with great formality and began to eat. He continued eating till the partition that divided his section from his neighbour’s had worn thin, when he laid down his spoon and, as soon as the others had done so too, got up and washed it at the pitcher and returned it to the faja or red-flannel waistband where he usually carried it.

I can’t pretend that this didn’t give me some ideas for how to eat our own meals, especially as one of them was an immense and delicious paella, in a gigantic pan which needed to be carried by a minimum of two people. But, aware of the risk of turning meal-times into prolonged versions of The Chocolate Game, I didn’t suggest it. Instead, we just occasionally put some rosemary branches on the barbecue.

But, sadly, this is the moment when I have to confess to something a little shameful.

I find it very hard to read when I’m on holiday.

I know this is terrible! I feel like a fraud.

Summer holidays are the time when most people find it easiest to read. June, July and August see the bookshop filled with customers buying stacks of paperbacks to read on the beach, or by a pool, or in a villa. And I – I who recommend all these books, I who have written about how important it is to read relevant books while holidaying abroad – I find it very very difficult to do it.


Usually, at home in London, I read at least a book a week. I read as often as possible – in my lunchbreak, in the evenings, on my days off. If it’s a book to which I’m particularly addicted, I might even sacrifice cycling to and from work in order to get the extra tube commute time to spend a bit longer with the book. Why is it that on holiday, when all I do is laze around, I find it so hard to concentrate?

After giving it much thought, I have decided that it boils down to being on holiday with friends. I know that over the past few years a vogue has arisen for thinking of reading as something of a social activity. This is the age of book clubs and reading groups. And yes, for sure, I love to talk to people about books. But reading – the actual process of reading the words on the page – surely has to remain a solitary activity. It simply isn’t feasible to expect to be able to read with lots of friends.

Lazing by the pool all day with friends seems to me more of a blissful opportunity to natter, rather than to impose the solitude of reading. And, inevitably, even if one does try to read, some people will start to natter, and gosh it is so incredibly difficult not to listen to their conversation and to resist the urge to join in. Maybe, just maybe, if I were reading something like Harry Potter, I might be able to close my ears. But, frankly, lyrical and fascinating though he may be, Gerald Brenan doesn’t cut it.

So I was rather ashamed to find myself at the end of the week, barely half-way through the book. I made a bit of headway on the aeroplane, but, frankly, as I’d only had three hours sleep the night before, it was hard to persuade myself that the time wasn’t better spent with closed eyes. And then I found myself back in cold, windy London with half a book about Andalucia left on my hands.

I returned from holiday to enter an incredibly busy and intense period of work, for which I had to work from 7.30am till 10pm, three days in a row. There was usually a break in the afternoon for a couple of hours, for which I’d wander, semi-catatonic, up to Hampstead Heath, search for a relatively-sheltered spot, try to tuck my hair out of the wind and try to read for a little while.

Then I discovered that there is only one thing worse than reading about England while one’s on holiday abroad … and that’s reading about somewhere abroad – hot, rural and remote – when in England, back from one’s holiday.

Hampstead Heath is usually one of my favourite spots. But, over the past few days, it has just seemed cold and autumnal, strangely busy and bustly in comparison to the empty landscape of Andalucia. The trees were wrong, the smells weren’t right, my smoked-salmon bagel was no more than a poor imitation of boquerones.

So now reading South from Granada is an exercise in nostalgia. I read it and can’t help but remember the blissful escape of last week – the heat of the Spanish sun, the sweet taste of sherry, the company of friends – and long to return. This is not helpful in the slightest, when I have to accept the fact that the holiday is over and real life must begin again.

Oh well, only another seventy pages to go. I think the next book I read had better be related to Hampstead Heath …