One bright June morning in 1934, aged 19, Laurie Lee left his quietly bereft mother standing alone in the garden of their Cotswolds home and started an epic, life-changing walk. This young English poet had no money and had never been abroad before; he had no pre-planned route or itinerary - only his final destination, rather randomly decided on, in mind.
Lee chose Spain because he knew how to ask for a glass of water in Spanish and because of a hazy childhood dream of “walking down a white dusty road through groves of orange trees to a city called Seville”. It was a fateful decision. Written 34 years later, As I Walked Out One Midsummer’s Morning is Lee’s exquisitely-crafted recollection of his first travels through Spain, a country that would come to dominate his life and work.
It wasn’t until July 1935, over a year after leaving home, that Lee had his first taste of Spain. It was of Vigo in Galicia, where he arrived, via steamer, after a year working as a labourer in London: the city “seemed to rise from the sea like some rust-corroded wreck”. Here he spent his first ever night abroad, sleeping at a rustic inn next to a snoring old man tethered to his goat, his head “roaring with Spain”. Lee’s imperious poetic economy enables him to pack more into those three words than lesser writers could in fifty.
High up in Jaén’s Sierra Morena, after three months’ walking down through central Spain from Vigo (Zamora, Segovia, Madrid, Toledo and Valdepenas), Lee first glimpsed the “spiced blur of Andalucia” and experienced his first dose of southern Spanish heat - “a new kind of heat, brutal and hard, carrying the smell of another continent”. He immediately realised that this was a region set apart from the rest of Spain; a region of mixed and troubled heritage, more African or Arabic than European. Lee quickly fell for “the air of listless anarchy” that seemed to hang over every town and village he encountered here.
Andalucía was Lee’s great muse and inspired his first book on Spain. A Rose for Winter, published in 1955, is an unforgettably evocative and moving homage to this intoxicating region. Its shockingly immediate contrast with the country Lee had left behind seduced him instantly and irrevocably; Andalucía had had the same impact on many English travellers before him, and would continue do so in the future. Parts of southern Spain’s heat-hammered countryside are still wild and untamed, but when Lee arrived in late 1935, Andalucía was a lawless land of roaming bandits and limbless beggars; of swaggering, penniless bullfighters and rootless coachmen forever driving horses across its dusty, barren plains. Lee’s love of Andalucía was inherently English; fundamentally, he loved its otherness, its almost violent repudiation of what Orwell had called “the deep, deep sleep of England”.
Lee arrived in the “dazzling” Andalusian capital of Seville, the city of his childhood dreams, for the first time in September 1935. Then, he could have had no notion of “adored” Seville’s singular status within Spain - a status it still enjoys. His description of this incomparable city’s standing is not, therefore, an untarnished first impression; rather, it is informed by what he learnt later on, when living in Spain. It is a strikingly beautiful passage, just as true now as it would have been 80 years ago:
“[Seville] was a city of traditional alegria, where gaiety was almost a civic duty, something which rich and poor wore with arrogant finesse simply because the rest of Spain expected it. Like the Viennese, the Sevillanas lived under this burden of legend, and were forced into carefree excesses, compelled to flounce and swagger as the embodiment of Andalucia….”
Lee was always able to summon an effortless lyricism when describing Seville, a city he came to adore and one which exceeded the dreamily romanticised expectations of his early years.
But in late 1935, this wandering poet’s time in southern Spain was overshadowed by the threat of imminent war. Late one night, while Lee was smoking on a bridge over the Guadalquivir river in Seville, a young sailor approached him and offered up an ominous prophecy: “If you want to see blood, stick around - you’re going to see plenty.” And so it would be; because, for the next few years, Lee would find himself in the thick of what became one of the most bloody conflicts Europe had ever seen.