Yet the truth about Laurie Lee - as with so many iffy military yarns - may lie in the no-man's-land between hard fact and outright invention. Lee called his disputed 1991 memoir A Moment of War: as it happens, a poem he wrote in October 1937 carries the same title. It summons up the terror of combat in imagery that anticipates the book that followed 54 years later: "It is night like a red rag/ drawn across the eyes... the blood is stuttering with fear... the face is braced for wounds/ The odour and the kiss of final pain." Already, in the midst of war, memory, imagination and poetic fancy are getting confused. Moreover, Lee's detractor was an International Brigade commander, and the Brigade never had much time for stray freelances who failed to toe its Moscow-led line.
George Orwell (who took an irrefutable bullet through the throat while leading his POUM platoon) knew all about that. His incredibly close shave - a few millimetres either way, and no Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty- Four - prolonged into greatness a career that would otherwise have ended as a period curio. The author of Keep the Aspidistra Flying and The Road to Wigan Pier (died Aragon, 1936) would rate a paragraph or two at best. Less lucky British writers who fought and fell on the same front might have flourished as Orwell and Lee did: the novelist Ralph Fox, the poets John Cornford and Julian Bell, the critic Christopher Caudwell. Had they lived, all were gifted enough to dump naive Stalinism and mature into major voices.
By and large, a scoffing posterity has dismissed them as quixotic dupes. But easy hindsight has its deficits. At least Lee believed that principled outsiders ought to make a stand, even if his dreams outran his actual deeds. The next time a civil quagmire on the fringe of Europe spawned a wave of genocidal aggression, the continent's intelligentsia sat firmly on its ironic, post-modern posterior as 250,000 corpses piled up on prime- time TV. Spain's tragedy gave us great first-hand documents such as Homage to Catalonia; Bosnia's, so far, has generated nothing better than the safe, voyeuristic schmaltz of Welcome to Sarajevo.