Magazine article The Spectator

A Not Very Franco Account

Magazine article The Spectator

A Not Very Franco Account

Article excerpt

SIXTY years ago this month, the British battalion of the XVth International Brigade fought in the battle of Teruel. It was the critical battle of the Spanish Civil War; when it ended in February 1938 and, soon after, when the Nationalists broke through to the Mediterranean, Franco's victory over the Republic was assured. The approach of the anniversary seemed a good time to reread the third volume of Laurie Lee's autobiographical trilogy, A Moment of War, in which he recounts the few days he spent fighting in the snow outside the walled city of Teruel in eastern Spain. But first I turned to the secretary of the International Brigade Association, Bill Alexander, who had commanded the British battalion during the battle. I had only to mention the name of Laurie Lee to be told, `He wasn't at Teruel; he never got beyond Barcelona. That book is mostly pure fantasy.'

It was something of a shock to learn this, and from the man probably best qualified to know the truth. He said nothing publicly while Lee was alive (he died last May), but for the sake of history thinks it is time to set the record straight. Clearly some consideration of the evidence is required.

In As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, Lee describes the year he spent travelling in Spain just before the outbreak of civil war. In July 1936 he was given passage home from the south coast near Malaga on board a Royal Navy destroyer, and the book ends with an epilogue, in which he returns to Spain, walking over the Pyrenees in December 1937.

This is where A Moment of War begins, but that book was not published until 1991, 22 years after the previous volume. Did it take him that long to decide to tell such a whopper, or perhaps for his imagination to fertilise?

There is no dispute about Lee's return to Spain, or that he was held prisoner for two weeks (he had arrived carrying a violin and without any papers). But his later movements are definitely open to question. According to his account, Lee was taken to Figueras in northern Catalonia, and later sent to Albacete and Tarazona de la Mancha, south-west of Valencia. This was standard practice for Britons joining the International Brigade: Figueras was the reception centre for those who had crossed the Pyrenees, the military base camp was at Albacete, and the battalion training centre at Tarazona. (The trade union leader Jack Jones was one of those who arrived by the same route during that winter and spent some weeks at Albacete.) The problem with Laurie Lee's story is that he never joined the International Brigade. In Catalonia, Lee met up with Bill Rust, who was there as Daily Worker correspondent while also representing the British Communist party and who undertook to help Lee to join the British battalion. But, as Rust related it to Alexander, Lee failed his medical examination; he was found to have epilepsy and after a while was sent back to England without ever going to a war zone.

Closer scrutiny of A Moment of War reveals that the dates don't make any sense. By his own account Lee was imprisoned for two weeks, then was at Figueras for 10 days, having taken two days to cross the Pyrenees `in December 1937'. Even if he reached Spain at the beginning of the month, he would not have left Figueras until after Christmas. Yet we read that he spent Christmas in Tarazona, having travelled to Albacete (two days' journey) and spent an indeterminate period there, including another spell in jail.

According to Alexander, there were several factual errors in the first published edition which no longer appear in the paperback. …

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