A dew-drop on the grid-iron plain: Laurie Lee in Madrid

posted in: Uncategorised | 0

“On its mile-high plateaux, their city was considered to be the top rung of a ladder reaching just this side of paradise.”

These words, penned by British author Laurie Lee, capture his first impressions of Spain’s capital on a scorching summer day in 1935. 

Published in his 1969 memoir As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, Lee’s vivid descriptions still resonate through Madrid’s streets today. 

Born Laurence Edward Alan Lee (1914-1997), this young poet would go on to write travel books, radio plays, and short stories, along with some journalistic work. But it’s his autobiographical trilogy that really put him on the literary map. While most know him for Cider with Rosie, a lyrical ode to his Gloucestershire childhood, it’s the second book in the series that interests me. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning chronicles Lee’s brief but eventful stint in Madrid. 

The year is 1935, and 21-year-old Lee, after a year of toiling on London building sites, decides he’s had enough. “I would be penniless and free, and could just pack up and walk away,” he writes. Armed with only a smattering of Spanish (he could ask for a glass of water) and a violin for busking, Lee buys a one-way ticket to Vigo, a port in Galicia. What follows is a year-long trek through western and central Spain, from July 1935 to July 1936. Lee’s journey is peppered with encounters both comic and tragic, set against the backdrop of a nation teetering on the edge of civil war.

The midpoint of Lee’s Spanish odyssey was Madrid, so I’ve taken a few of Lee’s quotes and paired them with my own photos from recent midsummers in the capital. The result gives us a glimpse into a city that’s thoroughly modern yet still echoes with traditions and an atmosphere that might well have felt familiar to Lee, even 90 years later. 

A crystal platform 

Lee frequently describes Madrid’s clear blue skies, especially appreciated in the cooler mornings after hellish nights of suffocating heat in cheap, bug-infested hostels…

“Then the sky was an infinity of bubble blue, pure as a diamond seen through water, restoring to life the sleepless sufferers who emerged with faces shining like plates.”

“Raised close to the sky, the city sparkled, as though the first to receive its light.”

“Indeed Madrid, the highest capital in Europe* , was a crystal platform at this early hour.”

Exquisite taverns 

Lee spent most of his nights in bars, spending his busking money on wine, savouring the fantastic seafood on offer while listening to the animated conversations of the working-class locals.

“For Madrid at that time, if not today, was a city of a thousand exquisite taverns – water-cooled, barrel-lined, and cavernously spacious, cheap and affectionately run, in whose traditional shade the men, at least, spent a half of their waking time.”

“Nobody drank without eating – it would have been thought uncivilized (and may have been one of the reasons why no one was drunk). But then this sea-food, after all, was some of the best in the world, land-locked Madrid’s particular miracle, freshly gathered that morning from the far-away shores…”

But I think my most lasting impression was still the unhurried dignity and noblesse with which the Spaniard** handled his drink. He never gulped, panicked, pleaded with the barman, or let himself be shouted into the street.”

The heart of the city

Lee mentions specific locations he visited during his stay in Madrid, many of which are still visible today.

 “The Gran Via itself had a lion’s roar, although inflated, like a circus animal’s – wide, self-conscious, and somewhat seedy and lined with buildings like broken teeth.”

“I went first to the Post Office to collect my letters, which I found filed under ‘E’ for ‘Esquire’ – one from a newspaper with a third prize for a poem, and one from my mother hoping my feet were dry.”

“I felt that Madrid was a city where I might make some money, so I went to the Town Hall to get the usual permission. The man examined my violin hummed, a few bars of Il Travatore, and said I should go to the Commisserat of Police…”

“I ended that night, my last in Madrid, with a visit to the Bar Chicote – not the prophylactic night-spot it later became for tourists, but a place of unassumingly local indulgence. More like a private room than a public tavern, it has an atmosphere of exhausted eroticism, and the girls sat quietly in the shadows…”

This is where I leave you…

Lee’s Spanish adventure didn’t end in Madrid. He pressed on to Almuñecar, a coastal town in Andalusia, where he found himself when the Spanish Civil War erupted in July 1936. Luckily for Lee, HMS Blanche came to the rescue. This British warship was patrolling the area, enforcing Anglo-French non-intervention policies and scooping up similarly stranded civilians. (HMS Blanche herself had a tragic fate, becoming the first British destroyer sunk by enemy action in World War II when she hit a mine in November 1939).

But Lee’s love affair with Spain was far from over. Back in England, he longed to join the Republican fight, so crossed the Pyrenees to join the International Brigades from 1937-38. These later adventures form the heart of A Moment of War, the final installment of Lee’s autobiographical trilogy, published in 1991. In it, he returns to a Madrid transformed by conflict – but that’s a tale for another day…

To find out more about Madrid’s literary traditions, check out the new book from The Making of Madrid writer Felicity Hughes. Her ‘A Guide to Madrid’s Literary District’ is available online and at The Secret Kingdoms, Madrid’s friendly local English language bookshop.

* Actually Andorra de la Vela, the capital of the small co-principality of Andorra is the highest capital in Europe at 1023 metres compared to Madrid’s 650(ish).

** The drinker pictured is from Nuneaton. It was an unusually quiet night in the bar Antonio Sanchez!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.