In 1934, aged just 19, Laurie Lee walked out of his family home in rural Gloucestershire, carrying a rolled-up tent, a violin in a blanket, a tin of treacle biscuits and some cheese.
I was propelled, of course, by the traditional forces that had sent many generations along this road – by the small tight valley closing in around one, stifling the breath with its mossy mouth, the cottage walls narrowing like the arms of an iron maiden, the local girls whispering, “Marry, and settle down.”
For the next 2 years, he walked. To the south coast of England, to London and then the length of Spain, from Vigo in the north-west to Andalucia – and briefly across to Gibraltar – in the extreme south.
He survived by busking, labouring on a building site in London for a year, and – briefly, when his trusty violin disintegrated in Malaga – as a tour guide.
With beautifully poetic language, he describes his experiences in green northern Spain and in the unrelenting heat of a southern summer, and the many kindnesses he encounters along the way, even from the very poorest people in the most remote villages.
In the valley of the Guadiana I saw herds of black bulls grazing in fields of orange dust, and square white farms, like desert strongholds, protected by pack of savage dogs. Somewhere here, in a barn, under a roof crusted with swallows’ nests, a mother and daughter cooked me a supper of eggs, while a horse watched me eating, chickens walked on the table, and an old man in the hay lay dying.
And then war intervenes. He gets caught up in the first skirmishes of the Spanish Civil War and, reluctantly, returns home.
Laurie Lee wrote this memoir in 1969, as a sequel to his more famous Cider with Rosie. And in the epilogue to As I Walked Out….he talks about his sense of betrayal in leaving his friends in Spain just as the Civil War is starting, and about his dangerous return – across the frozen Pyrenees – to rejoin the struggle. A Moment of War – the last volume of his semi-autobiographical trilogy – tells of his time fighting there, from 1937-38.