Following the decades of local government reorganisation, including the separation of Nottingham from Nottinghamshire, the notion of a “county” seems quaint, a barely remembered division of the country used only by cricket teams. Engel knows this of course, not least because he is a cricket writer and is used to dividing the country in this way. In Engel’s England he visits all thirty-nine counties and the capital to report on what he finds.
This is a large book, but it is in the best tradition of gazetteers, being quirky, garrulous and happy to miss bits out if the author can’t be bothered. In Sussex, for example, he writes “I skipped Worthing, having known it all too well”. Engel is also opinionated and is probably banned now from visiting Surrey, a county where “Money and property are the Surrey obsessions”. Nothing is in proportion, it depends on what catches Engel’s eye. Thus, a Martian reading about Yorkshire, a rather large place, would come away with the notion that rhubarb growing is one of the County’s main industries. Rutland, a much smaller place, is given due care and attention as Britain’s smallest county, with detailed notes given of what must be the most boring local authority meeting ever, a meeting witnessed by one local blogger and one Matthew Engel.
I found the Nottinghamshire entry to be disappointing, save for its chapter heading “The Silence of the Trams” with too much attention given to the predictable. LeftLion would do a better job. But other counties fare better. And throughout there are memorable cameos, the most memorable of which is that at Beachy Head in Sussex, Britain’s most popular suicide site, there is a sign next to the Mr Whippy van for the Samaritans.
Books like this often end up in the loo, on that bookshelf so many people have for the quirky. It is a good addition.
I first bought this book for 30p in the early 1970s, in my imagination wanting to be like the bloke on the right, rather than the trampish bloke on the left. (Given that the book was written about the years starting 1934, the modern design perhaps uses poetic licence.) Yes, As I Walked Out… was one of those books young people used to read about going on the road, in Lee’s case by foot, armed only with a bedroll, and a violin to earn his crust by busking. He first walks from his village outside of Stroud to London, taking the long road, where he works on a building site for a year before heading to Spain, where he spends a further year. There he wanders from village to village, town to town seeking out the poor quarters only ragged people know (thanks, Paul Simon), which in Spain in the 1930s was most of the country. Somehow he gets by on lumps of rock-hard goat’s cheese, the occasional fig and too much rough wine, served by even rougher people happy for him to share their poor homes or taverns for the equivalent of pennies. The occasional woman takes him into her bed, while other locals give other assistance. The book is lyrical, but not romantic – how could it be when faced with the squalid lives lived by landless peasants, day labourers and fishermen. The shakedown mattresses he is given are alive with bedbugs, washing is cold water troughs in the open and there is an undercurrent of despair and violence.
As the book moves towards its end Lee begins to see that the peasants and poor people of Andalucia think there might be another way to live. The church in the village where he is staying is burnt out… The author is tasked with taking a message about grenades. The Civil War starts, and the book ends suddenly with Lee rescued by a ship picking up stranded Britons.
Rereading this book after a few decades I am perhaps aware that Lee might have embellished his story (there was an argument about the accuracy of his later Civil War memoir), but it is still a good read, and good background reading on the day-to-day lives of the people of Spain in the 1930s.