Douglas Rogers is a Zimbabwe-born author and journalist based in Brooklyn. His memoir The Last Resort, about his parents' outrageous struggle to hold on to their game farm and backpacker lodge in Zimbabwe, is published by Short Books in the UK this March and is a Radio 4 Book of the Week. The New York Times wrote of it: 'This vibrant, tragic and surprisingly funny book is the best account yet of ordinary life - for blacks and whites - under Mugabe's dictatorship.' Here Douglas discusses Laurie Lee's As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.
Douglas Rogers on As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee
I read Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie in high school in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, but perhaps because I'd never been to England, much less rural Gloucestershire, the book never made much impression on me.
So I wasn't much encouraged when, 20 years later, struggling to get a start on my memoir about my parents trying to survive on a farm in Zimbabwe, a friend suggested I read another Lee memoir, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.
The book is about the epic journey the 19-year-old Lee made, on foot, from his home in Gloucestershire to London and down the length of Spain, carrying with him only a rolled-up tent and a violin in a blanket. It is 1933, and hovering over the text, but barely mentioned until near the end is the threat of the looming Civil War.
Lee wrote the book 30 years after he made the journey, and he either took very good notes or had a photographic memory, for his description and recall of landscape, faces, characters and conversations is incredible. I can open the book to any page and find gold. Here he is, walking from Zamoro to Toro:
The road ran through the wheat straight as a meridian, like a knife-cut through a russet apple, and I followed it east towards the morning sun, which was already huge and bloated.
Or these beautifully sad lines about a family-run whorehouse three Spanish boys take him to near La Mancha:
A half-dressed young girl sat at the foot of the stairs polishing her toenails with a hairbrush. Two others were sprawled at the table poring over the pages of a comic. The patio wore an air of low-lit ennui.
The brothel scene had particular resonance for me, since my book, The Last Resort, is about how my parents have so far held on to their game farm and backpacker lodge in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe by operating it as an informal brothel.
Some books you can't put down, but it was easy to put this down because after reading a few pages I found myself wanting to get to my desk and start writing. Every second line is a metaphor or simile, yet the work never seems forced or clever. I shamelessly stole several lines, including, I think, 'low-lit ennui', and I may even have borrowed the voice, that of a 19 year-old kid, open to the wonder of the world, and yet never childish or preachy.
One of my favourite parts is the chapter on Toledo, where, after busking in the Plaza de Zocodover, he's invited to join the table of a striking-looking foreign couple – the man with a 'scorched face and eyes of a burnt out eagle'. It turns out to be the South African poet Roy Campbell and his wife Mary Garman, who (although this is not spelled out in the text) had escaped a sexual scandal in London (Mary's lesbian affair with the poet Vita Sackville-West) and Campbell's contempt for the liberal Bloomsbury set, to live as hill-top ascetics. The chapter is actually a loving portrait of Campbell, who comes across as a macho version of Hemingway, made all the more touching by the fact that Lee's left-wing politics could not have been further from the poet's fierce Catholic nationalism. Campbell supported Franco in the Civil War.
There's a point in the book where the tone turns ominous. Lee has reached Seville.
It was on the bridge, watching the river at midnight, that I got the first hint of coming trouble. A young sailor approached me with a "Hallo, Johnny," and asked for a cigarette... "I don't know who you are," he said, "but if you want to see blood, stick around – you're going to see plenty."
You know what's coming, and from here the book takes on the urgency of a novel, the sentences become darts, and before you know it he's getting bombed in Castillo at the start of the Civil War.
How much of it is exactly true doesn't matter to me, because the writing is so gorgeous, and the sense of freedom, romance and adventure make me feel alive. Reading it again now I want to pack a bag, walk to Spain, hunker down in a tavern in Andalusia.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]