Laurie Lee was born in Stroud in Gloucestershire and moved to Slad when he was three in 1917. He died there in 1997. His best known book is Cider With Rosie (1959) which I loved. It covers his childhood years in Slad and it is absolutely fascinating. He was also a poet and this book reads like a prose poem throughout – I wrote about it here.
I’ve recently read another two of Laurie Lee’s books – As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969), which is about his life after he left his home in Slad, and A Rose for Winter (1955), which is a record of his travels in Andalusia 15 years after he first went there.
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning is the second of his autobiographical trilogy which began with Cider With Rosie followed by A Moment of War (1991). It begins in 1934 when Laurie Lee left his home in the Cotswolds and set out ‘to discover the world’. First he walked to London where he got a job on a building site and supplemented his income by playing the violin. He left for Spain a year later, landing at Vigo and then making his way on foot through to Castillo on the south coast, playing his violin in exchange for food and a bed for the night. Then the Spanish Civil War began in earnest and he came home on a Royal Navy destroyer that had been sent from Gibraltar to rescue any ‘British subjects who might be marooned on the coast.’ In an Epilogue he explains how he had shameful doubts about leaving Spain and so he returned to join the Republicans.
Lee writes vivid, lyrical prose with beautiful descriptions of the countryside, the scorching heat, the poverty and the people, so although I haven’t been to any of the places he describes it was easy to visualise the scenes. It’s not just the scenery he captures, but also the atmosphere, the splendour and squalor, and the desperation and also the love and enthusiasm for life.
In A Rose in Winter Lee writes about his travels in Andalusia which he visited with his wife fifteen years after his last time there during the Spanish Civil War. Again, he describes the towns and countryside beautifully, portraying the poverty, the hospitality and the changes the Civil War had inflicted. He takes part in religious processions, goes to a bull fight and watches the ‘most fundamental, most mysterious of all encounters in Andalusian folk-music – the cante flamenco’, a most dramatic and erotic performance.
Reading them one after the other I was struck by his descriptions of the towns – Seville, for example, in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning was
… dazzling – a creamy crustation of flower-banked houses fanning out from each bank of the river. The Moorish occupation had bequeathed the affection for water around which so many of even the poorest dwellings were built – a thousand miniature patios set with inexhaustible fountains which fell trickling upon ferns and leaves, each a nest of green repeated in endless variations around this theme of domestic oasis. (page 126)
and in A Rose for Winter
So Seville remains, favoured and sensual, exuding from the banks of its golden river a miasma of perpetual excitement, compounded of those appetites that are most particularly Spanish – chivalry, bloodshed, poetry and religious mortification. (page 34)
Katrina commented on my previous post about As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning that she was disappointed to read that Laurie Lee’s Spanish experiences were almost all fiction. I tried to find out more about this. There are doubts that Lee falsified and embellished his involvement in the Spanish Civil War in A Moment of War (which I haven’t read). However, his widow denied this. In an interview recorded in The New York Times, 24 February 1985, Lee, talking about Cider With Rosie said “… it is not so much about me as about the world that I observed from my earliest years. It was a world that I wanted to record because it was such a miracle visitation to me. I wanted to communicate what I had seen, so that others could see it.”
Whether his books are fictionalised accounts of his life or not, I like them. They evoke the past – a world long gone – and give a sense of what life was like. I like to think they portray truth, even if all the facts may not be strictly accurate.