As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee

Voluptuous…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Aged 19, Laurie Lee left his home in Gloucestershire to see something of the wider world. Travelling on foot and subsisting on the money he could earn by busking with his violin, he headed south, walking round the English coast till he arrived in London. There, he worked for a year on a building site, saving enough money so that when the job came to an end he could afford to buy a ticket on a ship to Spain. He would spend the next year tramping round Spain, earning enough to keep body and soul together from his violin, until his journey came to an abrupt end with the start of the Civil War. Returning to England and learning more about the wider ramifications of the war, he would then decide to return to Spain to fight for the Republican cause.

At least this is the story he tells us in the book. The truth would appear to be somewhat different. His travels were apparently funded at least in part by a wealthy older woman, a kind of patron who believed in him as a writer and poet. Lee doesn’t mention her, but her very existence makes the idea of this naive teenager setting off to see the world rather dubious, since clearly he must already have been mixing in artistic society. We do get occasional glimpses of him staying with some of the ex-pat writers living in Spain at that time, which rather throws into doubt the truth of the hand-to-mouth existence he describes. But more than that, the references to art and history which our young rural innocent throws casually into the narrative makes it clear he was either far more educated and cultured at this stage in his life than he wants us to believe, or else, as I suspect, that he was allowing his mature personality at the time of writing to intrude itself into the mind of the youthful adventurer he is trying to show himself as. For example, he compares Spanish peasants to Goya’s paintings, leaving me wondering where he had seen these paintings. If he spent time in either London or Spain visiting art galleries, he fails to mention it, and I doubt there were many Goyas hanging on the wall of the local museum in his Gloucestershire village.

Book 9

These points may appear to be nit-picking, but I mention them because all the time I was reading, these and other similar oddities left me with a strong feeling that the whole story had been so embellished it was difficult to see what was true and what was fictional – a problem when a book is presented as a memoir. It also meant that I never felt I got to know the Lee of this period – his itinerant existence, hard-drinking and living in squalid conditions alongside the local Spaniards doesn’t gel with the fact that his patron was trying to get TS Eliot interested in the poetry he was writing, since he never mentions writing poems or even a journal as he travels. I felt that older Lee (the book was published in 1969, more than thirty years later) was trying to create a character of this naive boy busking his way round Spain, rather than revealing himself as he really was. There are all kinds of serendipitous moments that simply didn’t ring true to me – like when his violin fell apart, and a complete stranger just happened to offer him another one for free. Again, this made me assume he was neither as alone or as without means as he is projecting.

Some of the descriptive stuff is beautifully written, which makes the book worth reading despite these problems, (although he often stretches too far for an original simile – “a hand was raised in salute, showing among its sun-black fingers the glittering sickle like a curved sixth nail”. Huge hands, then, or a very small sickle?). The scorching heat and the changing landscape of Spain come to life in a way that the people he meets rarely do. Having recently read Hemingway, Orwell and Brennan on the Spain of this period, I’m afraid I found Lee to be quite unperceptive about the people or the political situation. He describes the poverty, often extreme, of the places he travels through, but he doesn’t show much of the contrasting wealth – the inequality that is at the root of the Civil War. He talks about the rising anti-clericalism, but in a way that left me feeling he hadn’t really understood it. In a sense, this lack of perception ties in more with the naivety I’ve questioned, and I’m sure it wouldn’t have bothered me if I hadn’t read so much recently about the causes of the war.

I’ll restrict myself to a mini-rant about his attitude to women, who are all either voluptuous, if he fancies them, or buxom, if he doesn’t. (Everything is voluptuous though – the heat, the sky, exhaustion, hunger, war. It’s the most over-used word in the book and made me wish he’d packed a thesaurus.) On one occasion when a drunken father attempts to rape his young daughter, Lee steps in to protect the father from the irate mother. Just as ickily, at another point he describes a girl as “black-eyed Patsy, a sexily confident child of eight” and goes on to say of her…

She’d pay another brief visit before going to bed. ‘Ma says anything else you want?’ Squirming, coy, a strip of striped pyjamas, Miss Sweater Girl of ten years later – already she knew how to stand, how to snuggle against the doorpost, how to frame her flannel-dressed limbs in the lamplight.

Times change, but was it ever acceptable to write of a child so young in such explicitly sexualised terms?

I was going to rate this as four stars, but honestly I’ve talked myself out of it as I’ve written this review. Like cheap wine, the aftertaste it has left feels synthetic and a little unpleasant, so despite the many beautifully written passages I can only bring myself to give it three.

Amazon UK Link

52 thoughts on “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee

  1. So glad to see you back, FictionFan! It’s a shame this didn’t really draw you in more, as it could have been a brilliant memoir – lots of potential there. But if it doesn’t seem genuine, and doesn’t leave a good taste in your mouth, well… And please, please don’t get me started on the whole voluptuous thing. I will spew rant all over your comments section, leaving you with a nasty mess to clean up! I am glad you found a few things to like about the book, though, even if it didn’t really ring true and gel for you.

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    • Thanks, Margot – finally found the off-switch for the news channel! 😉 Hahaha, yes, that’s pretty much how all his voluptuous descriptions of women and girls made me feel too! It was a pity since I was expecting it to be good, but in reality it’s the weakest of the Spanish Civil War books I’ve read so far – added nothing but a mild distaste…

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  2. I’ve been thinking a lot about the International Brigades lately, with this talk about people from the UK possibly going to fight in Ukraine. It doesn’t actually sound as if more than a handful of people’ll go, but it’s that same idea of going to fight in a “foreign” war, for idealistic reasons rather than as a mercenary soldier just going because fighting was their job. It happened with the American Civil War and to some extent the Six Day War (although, obviously, that only lasted 6 days!) as well, but the Spanish Civil War is *the* example.

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    • I have too, and have been wondering if many people would actually go. It doesn’t seem so from this end, though the Ukrainians say 16,000 have turned up. Of course, that’s probably exaggerated but I wondered if maybe people from the former Soviet countries might be inclined to go, to try to stop Putin before he starts invading them all. I didn’t know foreigners had gone to fight in the American Civil War – interesting! Did many go from Britain?

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  3. Oh dear – I also dislike memoir where it’s very difficult to tell what is an embellishment and what is fact. And the quotes sexualising children are pretty stomach-turning. I have Cider with Rosie sitting on my bookshelf unopened, and I‘ll probably still read it, but I’m much less inclined to rush to it having read this review!

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    • I’ve never read Cider with Rosie and thought I might after this – but now having read it, I have no desire to read more of him, I’m afraid! Yes, the way he spoke about women was bad enough, but the sexualising of very young girls made me feel quite ill. I don’t think that was ever considered OK, surely – not eight-year-olds!

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  4. I was hoping you were ok – so I’m glad to see you back. I read some of Laurie Lee’s books about 10 years ago and I loved Cider with Rosie. I also read As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and A Rose in Winter in which Lee wrote about his travels in Andalusia which he visited with his wife fifteen years after his time there during the Spanish Civil War.

    I was disappointed to read that Laurie Lee’s Spanish experiences were almost all fiction and I tried to find out more about this. There are doubts that Lee falsified and embellished his involvement in the Spanish Civil War in A Moment of War (which I haven’t read). However, his widow denied this.

    Whether his books are fictionalised accounts of his life or not, I like them. They evoke the past – a world long gone – and give a sense of what life was like.

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    • Thanks, Margaret – yes, I’m fine. Just obsessively TV watching as I seem to do every time there’s bad news – no will-power. I’ve never read Cider with Rosie though I’ve always meant to. I think I’d have liked this one much better if I hadn’t been reading it as part of my Spanish Civil War challenge. It just didn’t match up to Orwell or Brennan from that aspect. But his descriptions of the landscape were wonderful so if I’d been reading it simply as a travel memoir I’d have been less critical. I’d still have been horrified about sexy eight-year-old Patsy though – ugh!

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    • Thank, L. Marie! I really prefer memoirs that are taken from journals made at the time rather than written years after the event, where I doubt if they’re ever really “true” – we all fictionalise our past to some extent.

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  5. I read this a couple of years ago after Cider with Rosie and agree that the problem with both books is that he’s looking back with rose tinted glasses (although he does say he is somewhere). I find his writing about women (a part from his mother and sisters) cringingly awful, the sexualisation is shocking, in Cider as well and stops me from being able to say that I’m a true fan. However, as you say there are moments when the writing is beautiful and that’s what keeps me going. I have A Moment of War to read soon I wonder if that will be any different?

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    • I haven’t read Cider with Rosie and originally intended to after I’d read this – but now that I have read it, I have no desire to read more of him sadly! I did think his descriptions of the landscape were wonderful, but in general I found his people not very well-drawn, his attitude to women awful, and the sexy eight-year-old was just too much for me to take! As part of my Spanish Civil War challenge, it was a bit of a let-down to feel that he’d been mostly oblivious to what must have been going on around him – even when the war started he really didn’t seem to know why.

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  6. Good to see you back! (I actually checked on Twitter to make sure you were still among the living!) This is not a book for me and that last little bit clinched that decision. Definitely creepy in a bad way. 😒

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    • Thanks! Ha, sorry – just got caught up in obsessive news watching, as tends to happen to me every time there’s a major event! Yes, I already had my doubts about him because of how he talked about women, but sexy eight-year-old girls? Ugh! Too much for me!

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  7. Sounds terrible. I am not too much into memoirs anyway so would not try it anyway. But in the context of your Spanish Civil War reading, I can see it as an interesting read.

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    • I’m not much for memoirs in general either, but I’ve read a few from the Spanish Civil War time, and this one really didn’t compare to either Orwell or Brennan in terms of shedding light on the time. And the stuff about women was bad enough, but those passages about “sexy” eight-year-old Patsy were the end – ugh!

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  8. Hm, I’m not sure I could get past some of the more unsavory elements here. And I know that after the third, fourth or fifth voluptuous/buxom, I’d be tempted to throw it across the room. So I’d best stay away from this one, because I don’t like damaging books.

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    • Fortunately sexy eight-year-old Patsy came near the end, or I’d have thrown the book at the wall too. But even before that I was so fed up with voluptuous and buxom women, and the voluptuous everything else! Don’t think I’ll be reading more of him… 😉

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    • Thanks, Debbie! Managed to find the off-switch for the news channel at last! 😉 I don’t often read memoir either and only read this because of its connection to the Spanish Civil War, but it didn’t shed much light on that and the stuff about sexy eight-year-olds was too much to take – ugh!

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  9. What you say about this book reminds me of the books by Patrick Leigh Fermor, especially the trilogy about his walking trip across Europe when he was 17. Of course, these books were written years later, and they clearly are augmented with what he learned since then, although my impression was he was a very knowledgeable person even at the time.

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    • I’ve heard a few people mention Patrick Leigh Fermor and I get the impression he was generally more knowledgeable and a better writer overall, plus he seems to be quite open about the fact that he’s using more mature reflections when writing. He’s on my wishlist! The problem with Lee was that he seemed to be suggesting that these were thoughts and impressions he had at the time, and that didn’t ring true to me at all.

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  10. I binged on his books in the 1970s when Cider with Rosie was popular with schools, but when reading this one I had exactly the same thoughts as you and it really annoys me that he was less than honest as a writer. I read that he was actually rescued from Spain by a British ship along with other stranded Brits at the beginning of the civil war, he actually admitted that, but claimed he had gone back later when he realised what it was all about. Hmmm!

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    • I think I’d have enjoyed it more when I was younger and less judgemental, and also when I knew less about the Spanish Civil War. But it seemed to me he had managed to wander round pre-war Spain oblivious to what must have been going on around him. I toyed with reading the later book about him “going back” to the war, but his attitude to sexy eight-year-olds and my lack of trust in his truthfulness has put me off. I don’t think I want to read more of him, sadly.

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  11. If this is presented as nonfiction, I agree the author shouldn’t embellish the story. It must be difficult to write a truthful picture of yourself as young 30 years later, though. You need a good memory and a great dose of objectivity (and the one thing I got from “The Sense of an Ending is that we remember the past as we want to remember it). Anyway, the author’s attitude to women is enough to keep me away from this “memoir”.

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    • Yes, I really prefer memoirs that are drawn directly from contemporaneous journals – we all fictionalise our memories to some degree. But here the fictionalisation seemed too deliberate, to give a false picture of his naivety and aloneness in the world. It felt to me that in reality he was probably a pampered little intellectual, with plenty of friends to help him on the way. But yes, it was the sexy eight-year-old that finished him for me – ugh!

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  12. Oh dear. I think I’ll stick with Patrick Leigh Fermor, at least he acknowledges his later writing up of his youthful travels is influenced by his experiences since. I don’t think I’d be able to get past Lee’s sexualizing of young girls.

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    • Yes, it was the pretence that the thoughts and connections he described were ones he’d made at the time that didn’t ring true to me. If he’d openly acknowledged that he was colouring them in with later knowledge it would have worked much better. But it was also the stuff that I outright didn’t believe, like strangers just happening to give him violins at the crucial moment and so on… hmm! And the sexy eight-year-old stuff was just too much – ugh! Fermor is on my wishlist!

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  13. I was tempted by the first paragraphs of your review as the idea of walking around the south of England then going almost where the winds blows you is so appealing, but those last paragraphs, where the writer sticks up for an incestuous father, then sexualises a child has completely put me off.

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    • Yes, in theory it sounded good to me too. But I must say that, although his descriptions of the Spanish landscape were great, he told us very little about his time in England and that section was pretty dull. And the stuff about the girl and the father was all too much for me – I began to think of him as a real creep by the end. Ugh!

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  14. The sexualization of young children is off-putting enough, let alone the feeling that he’s not telling the whole truth about his economic or social situation. I can see why you talked yourself out of a star! Sounds like one I can safely miss.

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    • Ha, yes, I find my rating quite often changes while I’m writing a review – I find things annoyed me more than I realised at the time! And typing out that quote about sexy little Patsy made me realise I hated it… and him! 😉

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  15. Interesting review. It’s sometime since I read both this one and Cider with Rosie but I do remember the distinct impression that they read much more like fiction than fact, although there’s always a degree of that in memoir. I’m sure I read somewhere that there’s was quite a lot of ill feeling amongst the villagers of Slad who felt they’d been misrepresented, too.

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    • Yes, we all fictionalise our past to some degree and the longer ago it is, probably even more so. But I felt here he was deliberately pretending to be someone he wasn’t. I didn’t know that about the villagers, but he certainly didn’t paint a rosy picture of many of the Spaniards he met. Any positive portrayals were of foreigners, I think.

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  16. Ugh his quotes about women, and what you describe as his attitudes towards women, especially those young girls makes me so uncomfortable, it’s hard to see past that, no matter what time period we are in. Your questions re: the truthfulness of this memoir are valid, and knowing it was written so far after these events makes me think you are right to point these discrepancies out!

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    • I hated the way he spoke about that young girl while I was reading, but when I typed out the quote to include in the review it really disgusted me. At the time he wrote it, he’d have been about fifty. Ugh! Not that I’m saying it would have been OK when he was younger, but really, by fifty, we should know that some thoughts are better left unexpressed!

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  17. Welcome back FF 🙂 I read Cider With Rosie as a teenager and although I don’t remember much about it, I do remember not liking how he wrote about women, and that affected the whole book for me, I couldn’t understand why it was so loved. I don’t think this is for me, and the final bit about Patsy has confirmed this view – yuck!

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    • Thanks, Madame B! I never got to Cider with Rosie – one of those books that I always *meant* to read. But after this one I no longer have any desire to read more of him, especially if the treatment of women in it bothered you the way this one did me. It often surprises me how people can overlook stuff like this – sometimes I wish I could, since it would make me less grumpy, but I can’t! 😀

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  18. […] What I do want to read is another persons view of being involved in the Spanish Civil War and for that I might turn to George Orwell and Homage to Catalonia.. As part of her brilliant Reading the Spanish Civil War challenge Fiction Fan has reviewed As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning here […]

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