The year is 1934 and the 19 year old Laurie Lee is about to leave his Gloucestershire home, to walk to London. His mother feeds him his last breakfast, standing just behind him with a hand on his shoulder. Few words are spoken, but it is an emotionally charged goodbye. As he walks up the hill out of the village he glances back and waves, before walking away from the only place he has ever known. First though, he wants to see the sea, so heads towards Southampton through the English countryside just as summer is beginning. He scratched a living out by busking with his violin, before heading east along the coast and then North to London where he was to reunite with daughter of an American anarchist, Cleo. He gets a job as a labourer on a building site which enables him to stay in London and rent a room. As the building work reaches completion, he starts to consider where to go next, Europe beckons and he chooses Spain purely because he knows a single phrase in the language. A ticket is bought and the next stage of his journey begins.
Around a year after he left the village of Slad, he sets foot on Spanish soil for the first time and he sets off to explore the country. Wandering from place to place, he joins some German musicians in Vigo before moving onto Toledo where he stays with a poet from South Africa called Roy Campbell. Following a loose plan of walking around the coast of Spain takes him to Andalusia, Málaga and a brief sojourn into the British territory of Gibraltar. He finds work in a hotel over the winter and in the evenings joins the locals in a bar talking with them about the current political turmoil. Early in 1936 the Socialists win the election and the simmering tensions boil over into acts of revolt and then into open warfare. A British destroyer arrives to collect British subjects from coastal towns and villages and Lee says goodbye to Spain.
I felt it was for this I had come: to wake at dawn on a hillside and look out on a world for which I had no words, to start at the beginning, speechless and without plan, in a place that still had no memories for me.
Lee is a happy, go lucky, young man who is prepared to venture into a world that is utterly strange to everything that he has ever known. His naivety means that he sees everything with a fresh pair of eyes and by travelling light, it means that he can move on whenever it suits. Lee writes with an innocence and eloquence that brings alive the pre-civil war Spain. For me though the book had echoes of the great travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor another young man who forged his way all across Europe in the 1930’s too. Was well worth reading.