Today the UK enters its twelfth week in lockdown. Over 80 days of being anchored in one place. Almost three months of diminished freedoms (trips to Durham excluded). Thankfully, Covid-19 has begun to relax its grip on the country. Alongside the undoubtedly more serious problems of the economy, the bereaved and the Black Lives Matter protests, it leaves a nation itching for the freedom to get out and travel. The government’s easing of isolation rules has begun to release some of this pent-up frustration. And yet, across the UK, summer lies in tatters with any future travel plans looking uncertain or, at the very least, restricted.
As a tonic to your cabin-fever I present: the travel book! The vaccine you never knew you needed and a substitute for the travel you so dearly wanted. This series will consider a few of my favourites, in the hope they become a few of yours…
Laurie Lee, ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer’s Morning’
‘As I Walked Out’ follows the wanderings of a 19-year-old Lee as he travels through Spain in the 1930s. Arriving in the top left corner of the peninsula, he crosses from the Gothic north of the country, through the scorched Castilian plains, before entering the Moorish south and Andalusia. Travelling on foot, armed only with his violin, a change of clothes and the Spanish for “can I have a glass of water?”, he plays for his supper and sleeps where he drops. Lee imparts to the reader images of an undeveloped, anarchic Spain. Marbella is still a fishing village, and the country moves to ‘rhythms unchanged since the days of Hannibal’.
And yet, his journey taking place from 1935-1936, this Spain is one stumbling towards a bloody civil war. One can trace the origins of the conflict through Lee’s journey, as a sense of disquiet in the streets grows into whispers of dissent in the south before war in actuality is declared. Lee allies himself to the republican effort in the small fishing village of Almuñécar, before being whisked away to safety by a passing Royal Navy vessel. This hands-on approach is one he adopts throughout his journey. Always involved, rarely a watchful observer, it is this immersion that allows him to create such a personable and vivid portrait of a country’s final days before civil war would change it forever.
‘As I Walked Out’ is one of my favourite books. Less for its portrait of Spain than for Lee’s attitude toward life and travel in general. He describes setting out from his Gloucester home buoyed by a ‘confident belief in good fortune’, and this sense of optimism pervades his journey. He doesn’t plan or worry but works things out as he goes along. He takes the decision to visit Valladolid ‘not because [he knows] anything about it, but because [he] liked the sound of its syllables’, and if he isn’t invited into the homes of locals, he happily sleeps outside. All the better to enjoy the morning…
Lee’s approach is slow-paced and spontaneous. He describes feeling ‘so fat with time, so free of the need to be moving or doing’ that he might find himself ‘[f]or hours [watching] some manic ant dragging a piece of orange peel through the grass’. This decidedly unhurried approach is reflected in his decision to walk from place to place and, married with his whimsical spontaneity, comes together to form a charming attitude toward the world. It is this attitude, combined with the small but flexible income available to him through busking, which serves to infuse the book with a sense of almost limitless freedom. And yet, this chilled-out, stripped-back approach to travel is countered by exciting moments of genuine danger, whether they be wild dog attacks or naval bombardments, heat stroke or snowy mountain passes.
All this makes for a truly captivating read but what sets this book aside for greatness, in my eyes, is its poetry. I actually think Lee’s grasp over language is unrivalled. Using simple words, he creates vivid images which beautifully convey the concept he is trying to transfer to the reader. He describes the ‘ancient, eroded, red-walled town’ of Toro, sitting atop ‘gigantic shelves of rock’ in the distance, as looking like ‘dried blood on a rusty sword’. Cadiz, on the horizon, is ‘a city of sharp incandescence, a scribble of white on a sheet of blue glass, lying curved on the bay like a scimitar and sparkling with African light’. He conjures images of timeless Spanish villages, perched on their rocky outcrops, describing them as ‘piles of squat houses like cubes of pink sugar’. The Spanish language is relayed on separate occasions as sounding like: ‘[a] dry throaty rattle of pebbles being rolled down a gulley’, the ‘firing off [of] metallic bursts of speech that bounced off rocks like bullets’, and ‘like a clashing of knives on stone’. In Lee’s Spain, old crone’s needles ‘dart like silver fish’ and one’s only relief from the Iberian sun, ‘the brass-taloned lion which licks the afternoon ground’, is the luxuriant shade where one can ‘slip off the heat like a sweat-soaked shirt’.
Laurie Lee is first ‘propelled’ from his country home by his ‘cottage walls narrowing like the arms of an iron-maiden’. This sense of confinement, of stifling claustrophobia, is one we can all relate to at the moment. Lee’s solution, although not to available to us, makes for a pretty great read in the circumstances.
By Will Bruce