By Matt Hibbert
With covid restrictions set to be lifted on July 19th (here’s hoping), I have found myself reflecting on our time spent in lockdown – particularly the first few months. Alongside Zoom quizzes and baking, simply going for a walk was a preferred method of passing our newfound surplus time. It was in those early days of lockdown that my Uncle recommended As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning to me, the second book of an autobiographical trilogy by English poet Laurie Lee, MBE.
Whilst the first book in the trilogy Cider with Rosie describes romantically Lee’s upbringing in Gloucestershire post-First World War, As I Walked Out instead focuses on his desire to discover the world. Writer Robert Macfarlane said of both, that if “the power of Cider with Rosie derives from its dream of dwelling, the power of As I Walked Out derives from its dream of leaving”. In fact, I’d say more generally that As I Walked Out derives its power from its youthful dream of freedom.
Lee’s account … describes pleasures eternally familiar, yet in an almost alien time of idyllic simplicity
I found Lee’s depiction of the joys of wandering to be both relatable and captivating, particularly first reading it at a time when one of my only pastimes was government-prescribed daily exercise. My love for walking is perhaps partly cultural; as the Spaniards who rescue Lee from heatstroke remark: “They [the English] walk all over the place”. I’d say in response to this teasing stereotype (which undoubtedly continues today), there’s good reason for our affection for ambling. As Lee points out, whilst a car could have made his journey across England in mere hours, by “treading it slowly”, one is able to soak up all of the enchanting minutiae of the English countryside.
Lee encapsulates the pleasure of walking for its own sake with beautiful yet precise prose: “I wandered…in a state of aimless benignity, loving all things, even this baleful city”. In the phrase “aimless benignity” alone, Lee captures the essence of his naivety and freedom, and one sees this frequently throughout the book – Lee reflects on his travels with over thirty years of retrospection, and as a result is able to recognise how lucky he was. Today, travellers may not find Europe (or indeed anywhere) quite so open, and Lee’s freedom was certainly in part a result of the time period, as he puts it: “Europe … was wide open, a place of casual frontiers”. Lee also recognises himself in As I Walked Out as “at that age…when the body burns magic fuels…smoothly obeying its intuitions”. Macfarlane comments that this writing style “lends much magic” to his journey, and I would agree. Lee’s account is both charming and fascinating; it describes pleasures eternally familiar, yet in an almost alien time of idyllic simplicity.
His journey through Spain, which forms the bulk of the book, is far from easy, and so the romanticism of his wanderings is sullied at times. Lee faces various dangers, usually resulting from the harsh Iberian summer, or the social and political backdrop of the incipient Spanish Civil War. Yet even when recounting such peril, As I Walked Out remains enthralling, reading more like a novel than an autobiography. The Spanish heat is a “brass-taloned lion” with a “rasping tongue”, and the description of the hallucinations it causes are enough to make anyone thirsty, for example: “Images bubbled up green from valleys of shining rain…with streams running down from the lime-cold hills into buttery swamps of flowers”.
We were given an unprecedented opportunity to hit “pause” and focus on the present
Lee includes bittersweet passages reflecting on particularly poignant moments in time from his excursion, writing: “Gulping the fine dry air and sniffing the pitch-pine mountain, I was perhaps never so alive and so alone again”. For me at least, looking back at lockdown evokes similar feelings, as we were given an unprecedented opportunity to hit “pause” and focus on the present. His relatable descriptions of people, places, and feelings – one of reading’s highlights for me – are unabashedly honest, recounting “the unease of arriving at night in an unknown city – that faint sour panic which seems to cling to a place until one has found oneself a bed”.
As I Walked Out is an encapsulation of the naivety and freedom of youth, the unrivalled joy of walking for both travel and leisure, and the effect of the social and political issues of the 1930s on an impressionable young man. It is the simple spectacle, however, of a 19- year-old man setting out alone from his countryside home, with no plans and only a violin to earn his keep, that lingers with me. Perhaps after covid restrictions lift, we can remember Laurie Lee’s journey, and the simple joy in going for a walk which we relished during lockdown.
Image: Jim Roberts Gallery via Flickr