A Moment of War

This is the third part of Laurie Lee’s autobiography that started with Cider With Rosie, looking back at his childhood in the Slad Valley. At the end of the first volume in 1934, he leaves his home on a bright Sunday morning in early June. He’s 19, ‘still soft at the edges, but with a confident belief in good fortune’ and jumps straight in to the second volume, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, (which I read but I’m afraid never got around to reviewing). With a tent, a change of clothes and his violin he ends up in Spain in 1935 and wonders through the country, a hapless young troubadour until he returns to England on board a Naval destroyer in 1936, just as the civil war is spreading.

At home, ‘deep in the grip of a characteristic mid-thirties withdrawal, snoozing under old newspapers and knotted handkerchiefs’ , he begins to feel shameful at having left Spain so readily and decides to return as soon as possible. He begins his journey on foot and steps straight in to volume three.

It’s December 1937 when Laurie Lee crosses the snowy Pyrenees and is immediately arrested as a Nationalist spy, twice he finds himself awaiting execution and another time he’s whisked away with his violin to Madrid to play for a propaganda radio station. It almost seems as if trouble follows him around.

But most often, and where his writing is at its best I think is when he describes the sense of limbo, the ‘uneasy bonhomie’ that surrounds them. A fractured bunch of amateurs playing cards and chess, smoking, scribbling pamphlets and looking into the distance. The day to day chaos and boredom of waiting for something to happen. At last, one morning there’s ‘an outbreak of discipline’ and he describes:

‘We were an uneven lot; large and small, mostly young, hollow-cheeked, ragged, pale, the sons of depressed and uneasy Europe. But confused as we were as we marched about, there seemed to be a growing urgency in our eyes. We were fumbling to find some order of courage; and there was that moment when we almost came together in line and step, and as we swept past the Commandant once again, our clenched fists raised, we felt that bursting of the chest and tightening of the throat which made heroes and warriors of us all.’

Fighting eventually happens in the occupation of Teruel and his descriptions of shellfire and explosions are vivid and intense, ending with his realisation that he had killed a man and remembered his ‘shocked, angry eyes’.

But written 54 years after the event, it’s now thought that Lee can’t have been at Teruel, Jan Morris in the introduction says:

‘For myself I doubt the literal truth of it all – perhaps those shocked angry eyes were hallucinatory, or epileptical? – but I accept its more profound reality as another sort of truth: in itself part of the cloudy, generally squalid but sometimes inspiring conflict of human emotions that is war’s murky tragedy.’

And this was my problem with it really, that in spite of some beautiful writing and exciting descriptions there is a sort of unreal quality about his experiences, maybe the ‘limbo’ that he refers too. And I never really understood why he was there. Yes, he wanted to help the country he had got to know on his previous trip but he didn’t seem to have any great sense of commitment to the Republican cause, either emotional or idealogical. Which is why I wasn’t surprised when he was asked to leave. ‘After all, you’re not much use to us here. You could write about us, make speeches, paint posters – or something . . . ‘ I don’t know if he did.

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

13 thoughts on “A Moment of War

  1. Very interesting review (loved the quotes) of a subject & writer about which I know little. Laurie Lee is one of “those names” that I recognize; he’s long been on my list to learn more about him but TBH there’s never been a sense of urgency about it. As for the Spanish civil war, again, historically very interesting but always a little overshadowed for me by other projects. So I learn, little by little, blog post by blog post!
    I was fascinated by the idea that Lee was asked to leave! His contributions must really have been minimal . . .

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    1. He does come across as a bit of a hindrance, but I like the honesty he shows in including it!
      I read Cider with Rosie for the classics challenge because it’s so well known but I do have a question mark over him, I couldn’t say I was a ‘fan’ although his descriptions and metaphors are like dipping your spoon into a bowl of thick luscious cream!

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      1. Odd but wonderful, isn’t it, how we like certain writers in a limited way, or for very defined reasons, but don’t quite emotionally buy into their work? There’s much to be say for “thick luscious cream” but — perhaps not poured over the cheerios on an everyday basis!

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  2. So interesting! I read Cider with Rosie at school and thought I loved it, but have never got on with it on re-reads. I’m not sure I really gel with any of his work. However, I definitely recommend Homage to Catalonia, as I find Orwell never lets me down!

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    1. No, I don’t think I really gel with him either. There was too much that annoyed me (largely his descriptions of women) and that got in the way of my just being able to enjoy his writing.

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    1. Thank you! It’s because I started this blog to take part in the Classics Challenge, so all about books and now I think I would like to include other stuff, but can’t think of anything! Every now and then I do a random miscellany post but they’re very few and far between! I love Easter, thank you and Happy Easter to you!!

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  3. Thanks for the link and kind words! 😀 You felt about this much as I felt about As I Walked Out. I wasn’t convinced it was true or truthful and that is a problem in a supposed memoir. And I think I commented that I felt he had been remarkably unperceptive about the causes of the war, indeed not really understanding aspects of things he mentioned, like the reasons for the growing anti-clericalism. I also hated the way he talked about girls and women! The Orwell is vastly superior in my opinion – there I felt he was entirely truthful, and open and honest about his bias, and Orwell is certainly perceptive! Do read it!

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    1. I didn’t mention his descriptions of women in this post because it could have taken over, you would read this with your eyes on a constant roll! I re read the epilogue in As I Walked Out because it links so beautifully with this but still I didn’t get any sense of purpose or urgency which i found annoying of him. It’ll be interesting to read the Orwell and compare!

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  4. My only relatively recent experience of Lee’s work was A Village Christmas, which I liked a lot. It has that sense of nostalgia we often associate with him as a writer, without being sentimental. I’m not sure I would pick this one up given your reservations about it, but it was interesting to read your reflections.

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    1. Thank you Jacqui, I haven’t read A Village Christmas, I do like his unsentimental way of looking back and I was surprised at his honesty in talking about village life in Cider With Rosie, but I think here I wanted more passion about the cause he was joining. And I got fed up with his descriptions of young women.

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