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The stooping figure of my mother, waist-deep in the grass and caught there like a piece of sheep's wool, was the last I saw of my country home as I left it to discover the world. She stood old and bent at the top of the bank, silently watching me go, one gnarled red hand raised in farewell and blessing, not questioning why I went. At the bend of the road I looked back again and saw the gold light die behind her; then I turned the corner, passed the village school, and closed that part of my life for ever.
It was a bright Sunday morning in early June, the right time to be leaving home. My three sisters and a brother had already gone before me; two other brothers had yet to make up their minds. They were still sleeping that morning, but my mother had got up early and cooked me a heavy breakfast, had stood wordlessly while I ate it, her hand on my chair, and had then helped me pack up my few belongings. There had been no fuss, no appeals, no attempts at advice or persuasion, only a long and searching look. Then, with my bags on my back, I'd gone out into the early sunshine and climbed through the long wet grass to the road.
It was 1934. I was nineteen years old, still soft at the edges but with a confident belief in good fortune. I carried a small rolled-up tent, a violin in a blanket, a change of clothes, a tin of treacle biscuits, and some cheese. I was excited, vainglorious, knowing I had far to go; but not, as yet, how far. As I left home that morning and walked away from the sleeping village, it never occurred to me that others had done this before me.
I was propelled, of course, by the traditional forces that had sent many generations along this road – by the small tight valley closing in around one, stifling the breath with its mossy mouth, the cottage walls narrowing like the arms of an iron maiden, the local girls whispering, 'Marry, and settle down.' Months of restless unease, leading to this inevitable moment, had been spent wandering about the hills, mournfully whistling, and watching the high open fields stepping away eastwards under gigantic clouds ...
And now I was on my journey, in a pair of thick boots and with a hazel stick in my hand. Naturally, I was going to London, which lay a hundred miles to the east; and it seemed equally obvious that I should go on foot. But first, as I'd never yet seen the sea, I thought I'd walk to the coast and find it. This would add another hundred miles to my journey, going by way of Southampton. But I had all the summer and all time to spend.
That first day alone – and now I was really alone at last – steadily declined in excitement and vigour. As I tramped through the dust towards the Wiltshire Downs a growing reluctance weighed me down. White elder-blossom and dog-roses hung in the hedges, blank as unwritten paper, and the hot empty road—there were few motor cars then -reflected Sunday's waste and indifference. High sulky summer sucked me towards it, and I offered no resistance at all. Through the solitary morning and afternoon I found myself longing for some opposition or rescue, for the sound of hurrying footsteps coming after me and family voices calling me back.
None came. I was free. I was affronted by freedom. The day's silence said, Go where you will. It's all yours. You asked for it. It's up to you now. You're on your own, and nobody's going to stop you. As I walked, I was taunted by echoes of home, by the tinkling sounds of the kitchen, shafts of sun from the windows falling across the familiar furniture, across the bedroom and the bed I had left.
When I judged it to be tea-time I sat on an old stone wall and opened my tin of treacle biscuits. As I ate them I could hear mother banging the kettle on the hob and my brothers rattling their tea-cups. The biscuits tasted sweetly of the honeyed squalor of home – still only a dozen miles away.
I might have turned back then if it hadn't been for my brothers, but I couldn't have borne the look on their faces. So I got off the wall and went on my way. The long evening shadows pointed to folded villages, homing cows, and after-church walkers. I tramped the edge of the road, watching my dusty feet, not stopping again for a couple of hours.
When darkness came, full of moths and beetles, I was too weary to put up the tent. So I lay myself down in the middle of a field and stared up at the brilliant stars. I was oppressed by the velvety emptiness of the world and the swathes of soft grass I lay on. Then the fumes of the night finally put me to sleep – my first night without a roof or bed.
I was woken soon after midnight by drizzling rain on my face, the sky black and the stars all gone. Two cows stood over me, windily sighing, and the wretchedness of that moment haunts me still. I crawled into a ditch and lay awake till dawn, soaking alone in that nameless field. But when the sun rose in the morning the feeling of desolation was over. Birds sang, and the grass steamed warmly. I got up and shook myself, ate a piece of cheese, and turned again to the south.
Now I came down through Wiltshire, burning my roots behind me and slowly getting my second wind; taking it easy, idling through towns and villages, and knowing what it was like not to have to go to work. Four years as a junior in that gaslit office in Stroud had kept me pretty closely tied. Now I was tasting the extravagant quality of being free on a weekday, say at eleven o'clock in the morning, able to scuff down a side-road and watch a man herding sheep, or a stalking cat in the grass, or to beg a screw of tea from a housewife and carry it into a wood and spend an hour boiling a can of spring water.
As for this pocket of England through which I found myself walking, it seemed to me immense. A motor car, of course, could have crossed it in a couple of hours, but it took me the best part of a week, treading it slowly, smelling its different soils, spending a whole morning working round a hill. I was lucky, I know, to have been setting out at that time, in a landscape not yet bulldozed for speed. Many of the country roads still followed their original tracks, drawn by packhorse or lumbering cartwheel, hugging the curve of a valley or yielding to a promontory like the wandering line of a stream. It was not, after all, so very long ago, but no one could make that journey today. Most of the old roads have gone, and the motor car, since then, has begun to cut the landscape to pieces, through which the hunched-up traveller races at gutter height, seeing less than a dog in a ditch.
But for me, at that time, everything I saw was new, and I could pass it slowly through the hours of the day. While still only a day's march from home, coming through Malmesbury and Chippenham, already I noticed different shades of speech. Then a day or so later I passed down the Wylye Valley and came out on to a vast and rolling plain – a sweep of old dry land covered with shaggy grass which looked as though it had just been cropped by mammoths. Still vague about places, I was unprepared for the delicate spire that rose suddenly out of the empty plain. As I walked, it went before me, gliding behind the curve of the hill and giving no hint of the city beneath it.
Just a spire in the grass; my first view of Salisbury, and the better for not being expected. When I entered the city I found it was market day, the square crowded with bone-thin sheep. Farmers stood round in groups talking sideways to each other and all looking in opposite directions. The pubs were bursting with dealers counting out crumpled money. Shepherds and dogs sat around on the pavements. Supreme above all towered the misty cathedral, still prince of the horizontal town, throwing its slow shifting shade across the market square and jingling handfuls of bells like coins.
After a week on the road I finally arrived at Southampton, where I'd been told I would see the sea. Instead, I saw a few rusty cranes and a compressed looking liner wedged tightly between some houses; also some sad allotments fringing a muddy river which they said was Southampton Water.
Southampton Town, on the other hand, came up to all expectations, proving to be salty and shifty in turns, like some ship-jumping sailor who'd turned his back on the sea in a desperate attempt to make good on land. The streets near the water appeared to be jammed with shops designed more for entertainment than profit, including tattooists, ear-piercers, bump-readers, fortune-tellers, whelk-bars, and pudding boilers. There were also shops selling kites and Chinese paper dragons, coloured sands and tropical birds; and lots of little step-down taverns panelled with rum-soaked timbers and reeking of pickled eggs and onions.
As I'd been sleeping in fields for a week, I thought it was time I tried a bed again, so I went to a doss-house down by the docks. The landlady, an old hag with a tooth like a tin-opener, said it would cost me a shilling a night, demanded the money in advance, treated me to a tumblerful of whisky, then showed me up to the attic.
Early next morning she brought me a cup of tea and some water in a wooden bucket. She looked at me vaguely and asked what ship I was from, and only grunted when I said I'd come from Stroud. Then she spotted my violin hanging on the end of the bed and gave it a twang with her long blue nails.
'Well, hey diddle diddle, I reckon,' she muttered, and skipped nimbly out of the room.
Presently I got up and dressed, stuck my violin under my jacket, and went out into the streets to try my luck. It was now or never. I must face it now, or pack up and go back home. I wandered about for an hour looking for a likely spot, feeling as though I were about to commit a crime. Then I stopped at last under a bridge near the station and decided to have a go.
I felt tense and shaky. It was the first time, after all. I drew the violin from my coat like a gun. It was here, in Southampton, with trains rattling overhead, that I was about to declare myself. One moment I was part of the hurrying crowds, the next I stood nakedly apart, my back to the wall, my hat on the pavement before me, the violin under my chin.
The first notes I played were loud and raw, like a hoarse declaration of protest, then they settled down and began to run more smoothly and to stay more or less in tune. To my surprise, I was neither arrested nor told to shut up. Indeed, nobody took any notice at all. Then an old man, without stopping, surreptitiously tossed a penny into my hat as though getting rid of some guilty evidence.
Other pennies followed, slowly but steadily, dropped by shadows who appeared not to see or hear me. It was as though the note of the fiddle touched some subconscious nerve that had to be answered – like a baby's cry. When I'd finished the first tune there was over a shilling in my hat: it seemed too easy, like a confidence trick. But I was elated now; I felt that wherever I went from here this was a trick I could always live by.
I worked the streets of Southampton for several days, gradually acquiring the truths of the trade. Obvious enough to old-timers, and simple, once learnt, I had to get them by trial and error. It was not a good thing, for instance, to let the hat fill up with money – the sight could discourage the patron; nor was it wise to empty it completely, which could also confuse him, giving him no hint as to where to drop his money. Placing a couple of pennies in the hat to start the thing going soon became an unvarying ritual; making sure, between tunes, to take off the cream, but always leaving two pennies behind.
Slow melodies were best, encouraging people to dawdle (Irish jigs sent them whizzing past); but it also seemed wise to play as well as one was able rather than to ape the dirge of the professional waif. To arouse pity or guilt was always good for a penny, but that was as far as it got you; while a tuneful appeal to the ear, played with sober zest, might often be rewarded with silver.
Old ladies were most generous, and so were women with children, shopgirls, typists, and barmaids. As for the men: heavy drinkers were always receptive, so were big chaps with muscles, bookies, and punters. But never a man with a bowler, briefcase, or dog; respectable types were the tightest of all. Except for retired army officers, who would bark, 'Why aren't you working, young man?' and then over-tip to hide their confusion.
Certain tunes, I discovered, always raised a response, while others touched off nothing at all. The most fruitful were invariably the tea-room classics and certain of the juicier national ballads. 'Loch Lomond', 'Wales! Wales!', and 'The Rose of Tralee' called up their supporters from any crowd – as did 'Largo', 'Ave Maria', Toselli's 'Serenade', and 'The Whistler and His Dog'. The least rewarding, as I said, was anything quick or flashy, such as 'The Devil's Trill' or 'Picking up Sticks', which seemed to throw the pedestrian right out of his stride and completely shatter his charitable rhythm.
All in all, my apprenticeship proved profitable and easy, and I soon lost my pavement nerves. It became a greedy pleasure to go out into the streets, to take up my stand by the station or market, and start sawing away at some moony melody and watch the pennies and halfpennies grow. Those first days in Southampton were a kind of obsession; I was out in the streets from morning till night, moving from pitch to pitch in a golddust fever, playing till the tips of my fingers burned.
When I judged Southampton to have taken about as much as it could, I decided to move on eastwards. Already I felt like a veteran, and on my way out of town I went into a booth to have my photograph taken. The picture was developed in a bucket in less than a minute, and has lasted over thirty years. I still have a copy before me of that summer ghost – a pale, oleaginous shade, posed daintily before a landscape of tattered canvas, his old clothes powdered with dust. He wears a sloppy slouch hat, heavy boots, baggy trousers, tent and fiddle slung over his shoulders, and from the long empty face gaze a pair of egg-shell eyes, unhatched, and unrecognizable now.
A few miles from Southampton I saw the real sea at last, head on, a sudden end to the land, a great sweep of curved nothing rolling out to the invisible horizon and revealing more distance than I'd ever seen before. It was green, and heaved gently like the skin of a frog, and carried drowsy little ships like flies. Compared with the land, it appeared to be a huge hypnotic blank, putting everything to sleep that touched it.
As I pushed along the shore I was soon absorbed by its atmosphere, new, mysterious, alien: the gritty edge on the wind, the taste of tar and salt, the smell of stale sea-shells, damp roads, and mackintoshes, and the sight of the quick summer storms sliding in front of the water like sheets of dirty glass.
The South Coast, even so, was not what I'd been led to expect – from reading Hardy and Jeffery Farnol – for already it had begun to develop that shabby shoreline suburbia which was part of the whimsical rot of the Thirties. Here were the seashanty-towns, sprawled like a rubbishy tidemark, the scattered litter of land and ocean – miles of tea-shacks and bungalows, apparently built out of wreckage, and called 'Spindrift' or 'Sprite O' The Waves'. Here and there, bearded men sat on broken verandas painting water-colours of boats and sunsets, while big women with dogs, all glistening with teeth, policed parcels of private sand. I liked the seedy disorder of this melancholy coast, unvisited as yet by prosperity, and looking as though everything about it had been thrown together by the winds, and might at any moment be blown away again.
I spent a week by the sea, slowly edging towards the east, sleeping on the shore and working the towns. I remember it as a blur of summer, indolent and vague, broken occasionally by some odd encounter. At Gosport I performed at a barrack-room concert in return for a ration of army beef. In front of Chichester Cathedral I played 'Bless this House', and was moved on at once by the police. At Bognor Regis I camped out on the sands where I met a fluid young girl of sixteen, who hugged me steadily throughout one long hot day with only a gymslip on her sea-wet body. At Littlehampton, I'd just collected about eighteen pence when I was moved on again by the police. 'Not here. Try Worthing,' the officer said. I did so, and was amply rewarded.
Excerpted from As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee. Copyright © 1969 Laurie Lee. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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