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Revisiting Laurie Lee’s Spain

It is 20 years since the completion of Laurie Lee's classic autobiographical trilogy, ‘Red Sky at Sunset’. His descriptions of travels and war in Spain may hark back to the first half of the 20th century, but they remain fresh and insightful today.

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The vista below me spread from Ronda to the Rif, a classical arrangement of sea and rock, with the mouth of the Mediterranean pierced by the wash of ships tracing a course as old as Homer. Kites and kestrels swung silently overhead, smouldering in the evening sun; and twilight approached, the pillars of Hercules turned purple and the sea poured between them in a flush of lavender. Alone, with my back to a sun-warmed rock, I finished the last of my food, gazing where Africa and Europe touched fingertips in this merging of day and night.

It is over three-quarters of a century since a young Laurie Lee disembarked at the Galician city of Vigo, having crossed the Bay of Biscay, with a violin under his arm and ready to walk across a country he knew barely anything about. His ensuing travels, recounted in his second memoir, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, describe his journey down through the heartlands of Old Castile to Madrid and eventually the Andalusian coast, where Civil War is about to break out. The final volume, A Moment of War, covers his experience as a volunteer in the International Brigade during the conflict.

Re-reading his books on Spain, 20 years after the publication of the final part of the trilogy, underlines how few writers have explored and described the country, its people and its landscape, in as much depth and with as much lyrical exuberance as Lee.

Laurie Lee

Lee: Lyricism mixed with brutal realism.

Plenty of foreign travellers have written about Spain, but hardly any have done so after such raw, first-hand intimacy with the country. Lee is no Jan Morris: a well-travelled, well-read intellectual who flits in and out of Europe’s great cities with aristocratic ease. Instead, Lee roughs it, sleeping out under the stars, on the floors of welcoming strangers or of dodgy inns. This puts him closer to Norman Lewis, author of Voices of the Old Sea, a highly personal view of the transformation of the Costa Brava in the fifties. Lee’s style of travel also pre-dates the footloose backpacking made so popular by Bruce Chatwin in the seventies.

Lee visits Spain decades before its democratic transition transformed the country. Now, in the wake of further changes wrought by EasyJet, the euro and the property boom, some of his impressions are so alien it’s hard to believe. “I passed through occasional cork-woods smoking with the campfires of gypsies squatting by little streams, through scented beanfields rushing with milky water and villages screened under veils of fishnets”, he writes, on approaching Málaga. Such scenes are now utterly locked in the past.

His willingness to rough it – or rather his lack of money – ensures Lee has some uniquely madcap moments, such as when he shares a room in an inn with an asthmatic ventriloquist, four dwarfs and a “white-whiskered bird-tamer” who sleeps in a top hat and boots. These kinds of memories might conceivably be embellished by the passage of time, but the writing is always sublime and often remains fresh today. Lee is known for his verse and his poet’s eye never ceases to crystallise what he sees and feels with a well-chosen metaphor or image, such as Segovia’s Roman aqueduct “stepping like a mammoth among the houses”, or the plains of La Mancha “smudged like a sore with distant Madrid.”

The disillusionment of war

Lee’s travels have an undoubtedly romantic quality. That is perhaps inevitable given that he was a young man with literary pretensions wandering through an unknown, unspoilt country, playing his fiddle for his dinner. And yet, to his credit, the lyricism occasionally gives way to a brutal realism, especially in the final volume of the trilogy. “Albacete, this morning, was like a whipped northern slum”, he sighs, as his ideals of helping the Republic start to fade in the face of Franco’s unremitting advance and his own side’s disarray.

The entire trilogy, starting with the bucolic English idyll of Cider with Rosie, and ending with the stark violence of A Moment of War, is above all the story of lost innocence. When Lee, exhausted and disillusioned by his lack of contribution to the Republican cause, finally sees action, the terror of it is tersely evoked: “There was the sudden bungled confrontation, the breathless hand-to-hand, the awkward pushing, jabbing, grunting, swearing, death a moment’s weakness or slip of the foot away.”

Fortunately for the reader, Lee is a traveller who easily attracts eccentric characters and finds himself in weird and extreme predicaments. The misguided decision to make his own way across the Pyrenees in the winter of 1937 to join the Republican cause almost leads to his death in a snowstorm. After a lucky escape his relief is short-lived as he is mistaken for a Francoist spy. At one point he is minutes away from execution, a chilling episode recounted through the cool eyes of his younger self. But happily he survived to give us this masterful collection of memories of a country on the brink of, and then locked in, civil war.

‘Cider with Rosie,’ ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’ and A Moment of War’ are published by Penguin together in one volume, ‘Red Sky at Sunrise’.





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Published: Jul 13 2011
Category: Uncategorized
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
Short URL: http://iberosphere.com/?p=3343
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4 Comments for “Revisiting Laurie Lee’s Spain”

  1. What a shame they didn’t include in the collection A Rose for Winter, which describes his return to Andalucia with his wife in 1951. It was actually written before the others, in 1955, and the style is a bit less flowery.

  2. Ann - Mallorca

    I have read and enjoyed all of Laurie Lee’s books and can recommend them. They give a real insight into life as it was then and of Spain in those times.

  3. For me, Lee’s sickly drool ruins what might have been very good books but I couldn’t get past the first couple of chapters without wanting to throw up. There are many far better authors to read if you want a good taste of Spain.

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