Paella tastes best when it's 30 years old. Laurie taught me that
No matter how squalid, uncomfortable, hot and boring travel can be, years later it will look like pure poetry
Sunday 18 May 1997
I'm talking about Laurie Lee, whose account of a walk across Spain in the 1930s, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, already had the power to stir me in my teenage days, when I wouldn't have dared to catch a train from Oxford to Birmingham by myself.
Lee at the age of 19 was the original hippy budget traveller, turning brown and living off scraps, busking his way pointlessly across a continent without maps or money. Not for him the bourgeois concerns of cleanliness, purpose or material betterment. All he seemed to care about was encountering beauty wherever he looked.
All right, so this very small book took him 10 whole years to write, but what of that? Every single line is poetry.
He wrote it 30 years after he made the journey, from the perspective of middle-age, and it provides a rose-tinted view of youth. But this is the whole point of the book. The main thing I learnt from reading it was that no matter how squalid, uncomfortable, hot and boring travel can actually be, 30 years later it will look like pure poetry.
After all, what would it really have been like to walk across Spain in the 1930s as a 19-year-old? Would everything have looked as beautiful as Lee describes it? Walking on dusty tracks under a white hot sun, toying with sunburnt girls in haystacks, playing the fiddle in the dark streets of Valladolid and eating olives in Cordoba - was it all really so marvellous?
I can't help thinking that the day-to-day experience of walking through Spain would also have involved bouts of diarrhoea, prickly heat, blistered feet, boredom, financial anxiety, frustration at being unable to communicate - not to mention a degree of teenage angst about all those girls in their haystacks.
Did he even know where he was going? According to Lee, he would wake up of a morning on a dewy slope overlooking Andalucia and innocently set off walking to the next town. Any suggestion of a pre-planned itinerary or schedule would discreetly disappear in the romantic dust of Castilla La Mancha.
As for the modern world - society, telecommunications, newspapers - it was simply overlooked for large stretches of the book. Apart from occasional references to motorcars and trains, the Spain that Lee describes was an entirely isolated place, where the locals knew nothing of him nor he of them.
Was there then an element of the brochure-writer about Lee? Could we imagine him inviting readers to delight in the pleasure of an "unspoilt land" and the "land that time forgot", before editing the electricity pylons out of his holiday snaps? Was he basically trying to hoodwink us as to the purity of his experiences all those years ago?
Compare his book, for example, to George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, based on another Englishman's experience of Spain from the same era, a prosaic but ultimately tedious account of worldly types plotting war in the streets of Barcelona and the trenches of Aragon.
No, there is nothing fraudulent in Laurie Lee - just a hell of a lot of nostalgia. And this brings me back to the lesson he taught me, about the true benefits of travel only coming years after the event.
After all, who actually enjoys spending months away from home? Who wants to be dirty, hungry and the wrong temperature everyday for an entire year? Who wants to be lonely and incognito in an unknown world?
Ten years ago I spent a few days following in the footsteps of Laurie Lee myself, walking through olive groves and pine-covered hillsides from the plains of La Mancha into the mountains of Andalucia. I can now report that everything is exactly as he suggested.
I developed huge blisters on the first day, which never healed over. I spent most of my time worrying about how to avoid motorways full of traffic, how to phone home, how to get the result of the football matches I was missing.
But the longer ago it seems, the more beautiful it all becomes.
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