The Book That Inspired Me

UNTIL I was 14 I thought of Spain as a hot, foreign place where the women gabbled, the men were unshaven and everyone consumed too much olive oil. Then I read this book for the first time.

It took me several more years actually to get to Spain, but in the intervening period - a couple of chilly holidays in Scotland later - an overwhelming desire had taken root in me to find myself on a dusty road beside orange and olive groves under an enormous white hot sun.

Laurie Lee's freedom was the key to my fantasy: to be 19, male, alone, self-supporting. Busking for a living, sleeping under stars, staring at Andalucian dancers in candle-lit barns. What greater freedom could there be? Freedom from school, freedom from the 1970s, freedom from rain, freedom from one's peers, freedom from the growing suspicion that yes, it really did matter where people went and what they said and did (I had always hoped that adulthood would mean the opposite).

Writing 30 years after the event, Laurie Lee managed to overlook trifling banalities such as the need to organise his life - or even to organise his trip. What about his career? Did he have a job to come back to? Did he indeed have a return ticket? Did he know about ferry crossings and the intricacies of time-tables? Did he check the rates of exchange? Was his mother worrying about him? Was anyone telexing him emergency sums of money? Or did he really wander open-mouthed across the plains of Old Castille, from village to village and town to town, without maps, without plans, without concepts or expectations? Probably not. But as a sheltered, small-town boy with an identity crisis I found the notion of stumbling into unknown walled cities at dusk quite appallingly seductive.

What was this great, hot exotic continent of a country that they called Spain? A country that took months to cross on foot? A country where 16- year-old girls with bosoms stomped their feet in fury and sang like women? A country where sunstroke, poverty, repression and even the tragedy of impending war were all hung about by a mysterious beauty? It seemed so unimaginably different from the country of petty rules, ugly suburbia, dreary skies and tormented human beings that I was accustomed to.

I finally got to Spain about the age of 20. It was mid-summer and the streets of Toledo were every bit as white and hot and empty as I had hoped that they would be. I perspired alone at the railway station bar and shouted pretentiously for glasses of brandy (or was it sherry?). Outside, the landscape of El Greco shimmered under the brutal Castillian sun. I clung to the walls of churches, sticking to the shade along with the lizards and the sleeping mangey dogs. Eyes peered out at me through closed shutters. The only thing that moved was a drunken soldier shuffling towards me asking for cigarettes.

As far as I could see then, and as far as I can see now, Laurie Lee had got Spain exactly right.

Jeremy Atiyah

Published by Penguin at pounds 5.99