The Sensual Versus the Ideological: Political Agency in Laurie Lee's As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning Laurie Lee (Penguin Modern Classics reprint, 2014)
Many writers considered the Spanish Civil War, which eventually drew in thousands of volunteers from over fifty countries, to be the proving ground for the clash of ideologies that would later erupt in the Second World War. However, in his lush and imagery-rich memoir As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969), Laurie Lee leads the reader to this conflict of ideas by an oblique route that also illuminates the contemporary socioeconomic conditions in both Spain and England. First of all, the book's expansive timeframe, which begins in 1934 --two years before Spain's Nationalist generals rebelled against the Republican government-- suggests that it will delve more deeply into the roots of the Spanish conflict than other well-known English writers, such as George Orwell, Stephen Spender, and Sylvia Townsend Warner, who entered the war after it had begun. Secondly, instead of dry ideological discussion or presenting the reader with an alphabet soup of political parties, Lee enchants the senses with vivid depictions of people and landscapes, both in England and in Spain. This immersive approach carries the reader forward, almost unconsciously, to the crisis of the final chapters—and conveys a subtle message about political agency and the tragic inevitability of one of history's bloodiest conflicts.
As I Walked Out is the second of four autobiographical books, written over nearly four decades, which began with the story of Lee's Cotswolds childhood in Cider with Rosie (1959), and continued with his account of fighting in the International Brigades in A Moment of War (1991), and his travels in Francoist Spain in A Rose for Winter (1955). It describes the year that Lee spent as a casual labourer in London and his subsequent travels as a street musician in Spain. While political tensions are clearly rising towards the end of the book, Lee`s focus is the intense natural beauty that surrounds him, and the scenes of daily life. His eventual decision to enter into the war is presented only as an epilogue.
Admittedly, the sprawling structure of As I Walked Out risks a certain discontinuity of tone. For most of the book, disquieting images of poverty and decay, such as the despair of young military conscripts or the grotesque beggars of Valladolid, are so interspersed with sunlit images of pine woods in the Guadarrama mountains, or peasant girls singing beside a river, that their accumulated impact is not felt until more than two-thirds the way through the book, when awareness of the impending catastrophe finally breaks upon the author. However, the book's leisurely pace paints a convincing portrait of a war growing, not from impersonal political abstractions, but organically, out of the collective experiences of real people. Like Orwell at the beginning of Homage to Catalonia, Lee presents himself as politically naïve: "Until now, I'd accepted this country without question, as though visiting a half-mad family." He had viewed the shocking inequalities as "part of the scene, not asking whether it was right or wrong" (172). However, while Orwell insists that we must educate ourselves about the shadowy politics and propaganda that control us, Lee steers clear of abstractions, seeming to argue that our actions are driven by something deeper and more primitive than a political doctrine. The great forces that the twenty-year-old Lee encounters on his travels have nothing to do with idealism, but are physical: hunger, cold, heatstroke, alcohol, violence, and of course, sexual desire, which, with its taboos and terrors, is shown as permeating all stages of life. Outbursts of destructiveness or cruelty, such as villagers tormenting a disabled boy in Castillo (204), or burning a church (214), are simply a release of tensions; their lack of ideological meaning is demonstrated by the religious impulse that drives the villagers to worship in the ruined church the following week.
These natural forces also act on an historic scale, from the opening pages when Lee sets out from his mother's cottage, "propelled…by the traditional forces that had sent many generations along this road" (14), to the Spanish fishermen who, on the eve of war, "each considered his struggle to be far older than Communism, to be something exclusively Spanish, part of a social perversion which he alone could put right by reason of his roots in this particular landscape" (216). It is refreshing to read a convincing account of these events that does not resort to the obtrusive political agendas of many writers of the period. However, the extent to which this depiction of apolitical human movements is accurate requires a closer look at events in England and Spain in the late 1930s.
The division between an England section and a rather longer Spain section invites a comparative reading of the socioeconomic situations of the two countries. Lee had already touched upon the decline of traditional English rural life in Cider With Rosie, and some of his hostility to urban development seems to carry, at least subconsciously, into his descriptions of Spain, where cities are often described as corruptions of the landscape: Toro is "dried blood on a rusty sword" (87), Madrid a "sore" on the plain of La Mancha (128), and Cadiz "a rotting hulk on the edge of a disease-ridden tropic sea" (160). The extent to which these feelings coloured his observations can be appreciated through the contrast with Orwell, who reported on the Civil War from Barcelona, one of Spain's few industrial centres. Orwell saw rural landscapes with a more jaded eye, regarding England's countryside as a bucolic dream that masked the urgent (and urban) issues of the day: a "deep, deep sleeping … from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs" (Orwell 1959).
Objectively, however, rural regions in the two countries were living through periods of development so different as to be scarcely comparable. As I Walked Out begins by describing "That host of unemployed who wandered aimlessly about England at that time… a maze of jobless refusals, the treadmill of the middle-thirties" (24). Lee's departure from his childhood home was part of the ongoing and widespread migration out of the rural areas and northern cities and into London, where growth in the construction industry promised better employment. In contrast, Spain, with its underdeveloped industrial sector, saw this rural-to-urban migration delayed well into the mid-century. This was particularly true in the southern provinces where Lee was traveling, which were characterised by vast plantations (latifundios) employing large numbers of seasonal labourers (Silvestre 2007). Other English writers during the Civil War took note of Spain's under-mechanised, labour-intensive agriculture: for example, it led Sylvia Townsend Warner to frame the conflict as between the mediaeval and the modern (Warner 1937), and Lee himself draws explicit attention to the archaic organisation of Spanish society, "this pattern of Spanish life, which could have been that of England two centuries earlier" (82).
However, while Lee's description of the Spanish economy is likely accurate, his portrait of political activity in England and Spain emerges as somewhat one-sided. While Lee describes a strike at the building site where he worked in London (led by an organiser who is not named but whom Lee identifies in a later book as the colourful Fred Copeman), he does not report on, and may not have witnessed, the rising wave of strikes by agricultural workers in the 1930s in Castile and Andalusia (Domenech 2012), two provinces in which he spent much of his journey. Madrid, which, just two months after Lee's visit, would host a rally half a million strong during the lead-up to the 1936 elections (Vincent 2007), appears in the book as little more than a city of genial taverns. One feels that the omission of political activity may be less a reflection on Spain than on the preoccupations of Lee's twenty-year-old self, whom he describes as "self-absorbed" (44) and "innocent" of his own ignorance (63). The older Lee may wish to draw a parallel between his own heedless youth and a country teetering, oblivious, on the brink of disaster.Maintaining an emphasis on vivid, everyday details rather than on the fervent, but perhaps rather dry, struggles of political and union leaders heightens the impact of the author's political awakening in the last third of the book, while at the same time contributing to his vision of the war as emerging, not from ideology, but from individual experiences.
Nevertheless, the descriptive and narrative movement of As I Walked Out is not politically neutral. Lee's gift for engaging the senses, whether he is showing the reader the smoky barn where a Spanish family sleeps amongst its animals or the brutal heat of the country's central plains, has the effect of inviting the reader so fully into his skin that we ultimately identify with his actions and decisions—even up to his fateful choice to join the International Brigades. This invitation to vicarious engagement is an interesting solution to what Stephen Spender (also a memoirist of the Spanish Civil War) considered one of the greatest dilemmas for writers of the interwar period, to safeguard the apolitical nature of art in a hyper-politicised age (Spender 1964). Yet there is something disingenuous about the immersive sensual world of As I Walked Out, making it easy to forget that it is still a literary product; that, in between having these actual experiences, Lee must have spent hours holed up in the room of his posada scribbling down notes. By omitting nearly all political events before Spain's 1936 elections, it also raises questions about the degree of political agency that foreign writers were willing to imagine for the Spanish people. If, as Lee suggests, historical changes arise collectively from ancient and quasi-mystical forces, or personally from our physical experiences, then to what extent are they inescapable?
In retrospect, the course of the Civil War seems to justify a fatalist attitude. Lee's third, far more sombre memoir A Moment of War recounts his disillusionment with the Republican cause and its methods, shared by many other English writers who fought in the Civil War. The appalling disorganisation of the Republican army was a keynote of these writings, though some, like Orwell, charitably pointed out that it could be explained by the complete lack of supplies caused by the non-intervention policies of their potential anti-Fascist allies abroad. Lee has his own stories of a village militia setting out to battle, only to return ignominiously, having forgotten their ammunition (228). The stereotype of the chaotic Spaniard may have its roots in the British Army's frustration with their Spanish allies during Napoleon's Peninsular campaign, but it seems to have grown in prominence following English experiences during the Spanish Civil War, expressed, for example, in C. S. Forester's historical naval adventures. Seventy years on, however, it is time to question whether these perceptions were really accurate.
When Lee landed in Spain in the summer of 1935, both it and he were at a crossroads. Like the England that he had left behind him, Spain was seething with new political ideas, but it was also exotic, unindustrialised, and subject on all sides to powerful external agendas. Before long, it would come to be a symbol of ideological conflict for writers in England and elsewhere. The extent to which the future would be within the control of countries or individuals, shaped by natural forces or directed by shadowy ideologies, is a question which may never be fully resolved for a complex and multi-faceted conflict like the Spanish Civil War. However, by avoiding abstractions and focusing on the sensually concrete, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning paints a rich and warm-hearted portrait of a young man on the brink of adulthood and a country veering towards disaster.--Mary Thaler
Domenech J (2012), Rural Labour Markets and Rural Conflict in Spain Before the Civil War (1931-6). Economic History Review 66: 86-108. Lee L (1969) As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. Worcester and London: Ebeneezer Baylis & Son Ltd, The Trinity Press. Orwell G (1938) Homage to Catalonia. London: Secker and Warburg Silvestre J (2007) Temporary Internal Migrations in Spain, 1860-1930. Social Science History 31: 539-574. Spender S (1964) World Within world: The Autobiography of Stephen Spender. London: Hamish Hamilton. Vincent M (2007). Spain, 1833-2002: People and State. Oxford University Press. Warner ST (1937) Soldiers and Sickles. The Countryman (in Journal of the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society 2008, pages 17-18).
Dr. Mary Thaler is a Canadian scientist with an extracurricular passion for literature. She is also a writer of fiction, and has been published in a number of literary outlets including Eclectica, Prairie Fire and Crossed Genres.--The Editor
Review of Patrick Leigh Fermor's The Broken Road
The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos Patrick Leigh Fermor (Ed. Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper, John Murray, 2014)
Finally, here is what all Patrick Leigh Fermor acolytes have been anticipating for decades --the third volume of the acclaimed travelogue in which, as a very young man in an old but restless continent, he set off to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (as he insisted on calling it).For decades, readers were left stranded in Rumania, while Leigh Fermor was paralysed by perfectionism.Now his estate have had the remaining notes and diaries posthumously edited together and the result, happily, is almost as good as his other two volumes.While it may occasionally lack their polish and coherence, the magnificent prose is as arresting as ever, and the author's enthusiasm positively bounds off the page.
The entire book is superb, but certain episodes are particularly fresh and revealing.Due to his mother's connections, Paddy was able to stay with various notable pre-war personages, and even somehow got hold of a letter of introduction from the Patriarch of Constantinople.Famous figures --Robert Byron, Rubinstein, and others-- sparkle here and there in the descriptions of parties and conversations.These occasionally verge on the Tatler-esque, a fact which Leigh Fermor ruefully acknowledges, and which he would probably have addressed in later revisions had he been spared the time.They are not, however, the most interesting apect of the book.Two particular themes emerge.One is his encounter with the Jewish minority in Eastern Europe, flourishing despite the evident threat from the virulent anti-Semitism surrounding them. Their soon-to-be-lost universe is recorded with careful attention to detail.(He finds Sephardic Jews still speaking fifteenth-century Spanish in Bulgaria, whence they had been driven by the Inquisition). The other is the cultural and religious remnants of Ottoman rule: elderly hodjas issuing the call to prayer in isolated Balkan villages, decaying mosques of striking beauty, powerful sweetmeats and coffee.
In this volume Leigh Fermor seems far more aware of the oncoming catastrophe than in his other two books.His particular concern for Eastern European Jewry is one aspect of this, but there is also a poignant sketch of the doomed German diplomat Josias van Rantzau, with whom he stayed in Bucharest.Van Rantzau was later to die in a Russian prison camp, and at the time of Leigh Fermor's visit he was tortured by the conflict between his family's traditional commitment to diplomatic service and the moral difficulty of representing a repulsive regime. Similarly, at one point Leigh Fermor, looking back on his youth, worries about his friends in Rumania trapped under a murderous regime (including his former lover Balasha Cantacuzene).
These sombre foreshadowings are interspersed with moments of extraordinary beauty and joy such as only Leigh Fermor could conjure, as well as with occasional, completely bonkers episodes (which will not surprise anyone familiar with the other two books). The evidence of Leigh Fermor's extreme youth is plentiful: lying in a peasants' hut in the middle of nowhere, he begins to feel quite down, and summons up visions of his ideal woman (who, apparently, miraculously materialised six months after the end of the book).Later in Bulgaria, his spirits substantially raised, he sings Austrian popular songs (such as Farewell, My Little Guards Officer) with his benefactress, the owner of a local hotel. Surprisingly, the whole push of the narrative is not, ultimately, to 'Constantinople,' which, when it came, seems to have been an anti-climax, but to Greece, the country that Leigh Fermor would eventually make his home. (A large part of the book is dedicated to his sojourn on the monastic island Mount Athos.) Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the best moment in the book is a description of one type of traditional Greek dancing (mas ta rebetiko) in Bulgaria, which must be one of the most brilliant pieces of writing on dance ever set down. It is closely run for brilliance by the story of the strange meteorological phenomena which caused the moon to rise and set repeatedly over the surrounding hills during one part of his trip, and Leigh Fermor's companion, a stray dog, to go berserk in response.
There are many reminders of England's connections with a part of the world that may still seem to us remote.For example, there is the startling information that Michael Arlen, author of novels (such as The Green Hat) beloved of Bright Young Things, was born into the Armenian minority in Bulgaria as Dikran Kouyoumijian, while Leigh Fermor meets a couple of working-class Northern English people settled in Eastern Europe.There is a slightly amusing feeling of surprise in these passages, as of a young man who had not expected to find any compatriots in these exotic new lands, and was disconcerted to discover that a Mr Barnaby Crane had got there first.
Where the actual narrative tails off, poised in mid-sentence with a haunting 'although', the editors have filled in the gap with contemporary diary extracts.These confirm the suspicion that, when writing the narrative of his journey, Leigh Fermor made his youthful self more worldly-wise and sophisticated than he actually was: "We had a very well-done fowl, and there was lots of red wine; it was a very jolly party; the monks were all excellent chaps, especially one called Father Sophronios, and before long we were all singing." (Incidentally, those who have wondered how he came by his unique sensibility and occasionally over-the-top prose style will find the excerpt from one of his mother's letters positively eerie --"the only sign of autumn was a lonely spray of gold in the green leaves of one plane tree, like Whistler's solitary lock of silver hair.I was peacefully watching the pelicans....").
This work summons up mixes emotions.Simply put, there never was anyone like Leigh Fermor with his trademark combination of erudition, warmth, high spirits, and total disregard for practicality or convention.Readers can be grateful for this posthumous box of delights, but on the other hand, it is extremely melancholy to reflect that we will read no more from this delightful mind.--Isabel Taylor