by Laurie Lee, 1969 (about events in 1935)
A friend thinks that The Economist magazine goes out of its way to find odd choices for its weekly obituary. It was there I read about Laurie Lee (and you can, too, on the web version for May 22, 1997), and so found Cider With Rosie, the nostalgic book about his childhood in the Cotswolds, which ends with a kiss of cider and Rosie (which she later said was fabrication!).
So I was glad to find "As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning" recently, and continue the story, when Lee walks out of Slad with just his violin, to make his way in the world. He slowly takes the quiet roads to London, learning what tunes work best for drawing money from a crowd. Then he works for a while as a day laborer in London. What makes this different from other travel books is his desire, for women and for the world, as filtered through his writing over thirty years later. He felt the need to go somewhere, and only the fact that his single foreign phrase was "Will you please give me a glass of water" in Spanish led him to Spain.
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.
Spain is beautifully described, though his most vivid personal interactions were with foreigners. At first some German "students", with whom he organises a dance:
...But the girl took charge -- she just wrapped her damp arms round me, propped me snugly erect with her bosom, and away we went over the flapping floorboards as though skating on Venetian blinds...Several times I would have fallen, but the girl was like scaffolding, like a straight-jacket of cushioned bones...finally the waltz was over...as she left she drew her finger down the length of my body, as though sealing an envelope...
Artur had fixed it: roast kid and beans -- a miracle at this hour of the morning. We slumped round the table, weary and famished, and an old woman brought us some wine. Then we gorged ourselves, using our fingers and winking at one another. The meat had a flavour and tenderness I shall never forget, it came off the bone like petals from a rose.
Parts are very dreamy and poetic, and evocative of the heat:
The cries continued for a while, bouncing hard on the water, almost visible in the dark red light; then suddenly the shouting ceased, and the girl turned in the river and began to cross to the other side, wading strong and deep towards the waiting boy, her short legs stockinged with mud...
In fact, he meets and stays for a while with the South African poet Roy Campbell and his wife.
He'd sailed whalers, swum Hellesponts, broken horses on the Camargues, fought bulls and caught sharks bare-handed. He'd stirred up two hemispheres, as well as the olive-belt between, and restored blood and muscle to poetry. His voice, growing hoarser as though blown through a shell, continued to boom like an ancient mariner's, not so much determined, I felt, to convince me of the truth of these legends as hoping to suggest that this was how a man should live.
David wrote: This sounded like a good one. Except for Hemingway's participation, the Spanish Civil War never got much airtime during the Cold War, since it made the Soviet Union look good, fighting against Fascists. Of course, when the docs came out, they were slaughtering their friends all along.
Bill wrote: I've read Cider with Rosie and As I Walked Out, and enjoyed them both.
I think Cider is a standard literary work assigned in British schools -- almost everybody has read it or is supposed to have read it. I liked the sense of what village life was like in the 1920s. The two old ladies that live in symbiotic hatred of each other, the pub waitressing, the being "in service", the "glue-eye", the taken-for-granted poverty, the charabanc excursion with the beer-drinking driver, etc. Whoever denied being Rosie, I think there were several who came forward claiming to be Rosie.
As I Walked Out retains some of the dreamy poetic quality, but in circumstances that seem to call for more seriousness. It was endearing -- taking a violin but no change of underwear -- but I kept wondering why this kid wasn't being stood up before a firing squad. Lee's naivete and dumb luck seem so unheroic as to be nothing to brag about, which gives the book some credibility. Still, others have called the truthfulness of this story into question.