Red Sky at Sunrise by Laurie Lee

Portrait of Laurie Lee as a young man by Anthony Devas

Having recently had to take some time off work following an operation, I have re-visited this collection in one volume, which has long been a particular favourite. The three books span the first twenty three years of Laurie Lee’s life. Many will have read Cider with Rosie as part of English O Level or GCSE – a deeply evocative recollection of childhood in the “honeyed poverty” of Slad in Gloucestershire, at a time when the traditional village way of life that had been yoked to the horse for hundreds of years began to change irrevocably with the advent of the motor car and the mechanisation of farming.

The second part of the trilogy, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, starts with the author leaving the family home at the age of 19 in the summer of 1934 to walk to the south coast of England and on to London. Having worked on a building site for almost a year, Lee decided to travel to Spain, taking a boat to Vigo before walking through some of the great Spanish cities including Valladolid, Madrid, Cordoba, and Seville before ending his journey on the south coast at Altofaro, East of Malaga. He travelled simply – a small tent, a blanket, one change of clothes and a violin, which he played to earn money as he travelled. The way in which the author conveys places and people throughout the book is simply breathtaking, painting not just pictures but bringing alive the sounds and smells of these different situations and environments. As he wrote many years later in the preface to Red Sky at Sunrise, “Never had I felt so fat with time, so free to go where I would”, and this keen sense of the rawness, beauty and immediacy of life permeates the book. It’s clear that Lee was deeply touched by what he encountered on his travels.

The third part of the trilogy, A Moment of War, portrays Lee’s experience of the Spanish Civil War. Having returned to his home village in the summer of 1937, Lee was dismayed to read of the outbreak of the War, and like many young idealists, decided that he had to return to the country and fight for the Republicans. So in December of the same year, he crossed the Pyrenees near Perpignan and volunteered. This is the shortest of the three books and captures the sheer chaos and suffering of the Civil War. Lee was initially not believed to be a volunteer and came close to being shot as a spy. There is an actual “moment of war” for him, which completely changed his life and left him unable to continue fighting. It is clear that for the author at least, there was a very deep acknowledgement in his conscience about the necessity of not taking human life. The conflict between the reality of war and this inner knowledge was too much for him.

What makes these three books so special? Lee was not a “distinguished person” in the ordinary sense of the word, and unlike so many contemporary autobiographies, he was not “cashing in” on his fame in another field. He wrote from a deeply human sense of connection with other people, and was fortunate enough to be a witness during a period of enormous economic and social upheavals. His gift was the ability to record his own perceptions and feelings at the time in a clear, poetic but unexaggerated way. I remember seeing Laurie Lee at the Chelsea Arts Club a year or so before he died in 1997. He had an aura of a wise man – of someone who had really experienced life, and I wish I’d had the courage to speak with him, and thank him for these three books.

In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Laurie Lee’s birth this year, Tobias Menzies is reading an abridged version of As I Walked Out One Midsummer’s Morning on BBC Radio 4 at 9.45 a.m. each morning this week.

Geoff Butts