This month seems to have been about walking - whether it was the team walk, the journey of Don Quixote, or my latest read, Laurie Lee's memoir of his travels into the heart of Spain, As I walked out one midsummer morning. Laurie Lee was brought up not that far over the English border from where I'm from in S. Wales - in a little village called Slad. I used to pass the turn-off to it on my way home from Cambridgeshire following the route over the Cotswolds. As a teenager I loved his earlier memoir about his childhood in Slad, Cider with Rosie; not least because I was one of those lucky people who hadn't been forced to read the book to death in school.
As I walked out one Midsummer morning sees an older Laurie leaving home for the first time. He decides to walk to London, but has a brief change of plans going via Southampton to see the sea for the first time (the sea in Southampton docks is a huge disappointment). Travelling on to London he meets the vibrant community that was the roads of the United Kingdom in the 1930's (shades of George Orwell's Down and out in Paris and London and The road to Wigan Pier). After a spell of working as a labourer, getting into a Bohemian set, and winning a poetry competition, he decides to head for the Continent; and, as the only phrase he knows outside English, is how to ask for a glass of water in Spanish, Spain is his next destination.
The mid-'30's are tumultuous times though. He finds Spain little changed from the Spain of Cervantes, but huge changes are ahead as Spain is on the brink of a civil war. As I walked out one Midsummer morning brilliantly contrasts Lee's own innocence and joy in the new against a deeply conservative country in a period of upheaval. In many ways the comparison with Orwell's Homage to Catalonia is inevitable, and also accurate; though Lee's time spent in Spain before the clouds of war gather (which is for most of the book) means that the reader gets more of an idea of what this country was like before it was thrown into the tumult of the civil war (a swaztikaed German airship marks the transition in the memoir from a state of peace to a state of war). Lee's first experience of war too is muddled and messy - a city bombed by "friendly" fire - a precursor to the confusion that would become the Spanish Civil War.
What makes Laurie Lee's memoir really special though is his use of language. Lee was a poet. And, oddly enough, I'm not a big fan of his poetry; the language is too rich and romantic for me - it feels like one chocolate eclair too many. But when he uses the language of a poet in prose something quite magical happens. It's easy to say that a work is beautifully written, but As I walked out truly is, with striking imagery that is every bit as colourful as the Goyaesque-vision that still populates the landscape of the Spain that Laurie Lee became a part of. The colour of his language also hints at the savagery that was about to be unleashed on Spain - "Some girls we knew had been gathering poppies in the field, and now they came down the path towards us, walking slowly in the heat, the red flowers wilting at their breasts, looking as though their bodies had been raked by knives."
Set against this brutality though is the story of a young man living and loving life. Nowhere has that enthusiasm and joy in the moment been so perfectly captured as here "I felt it was for this I had come: to wake at dawn on a hillside and look out on a world for which I had no words, to start at the beginning, speechless and without plan, in a place that still had no memories for me."
Life changes swiftly for Laurie when he is unexpectedly rescued from Spain by a Royal Navy destroyer, only to find himself wracked with guilt for missing the conflict. His return and the final chilling words "I was back in Spain with a winter of war before me" mark the transition from boyhood to manhood.
Cider with Rosie is sweet and funny and a happy book, As I walked out one Midsummer morning takes the baton from its predecessor, but becomes a much deeper, darker book. In it Laurie Lee truly comes of age.