1936. Spain erupts in civil war. The Republic’s coalition of socialists and liberals with a handful of communists calls for volunteers to combat a Nationalist uprising of the old rich, the Church and a brutal military led by General Franco with support from fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
The Left/Right divide is an echo of the times that resonates in Europe today.
ROBBIE GILLAN, 24, is a rule-breaker, passionate, quick-tempered, a jobless docker from Glasgow. Reluctantly joining a hunger march to London, his mate, Jimmy McGee, dies from a police truncheon in Whitehall.
ALICE SHERIDAN, 23, is an auxiliary nurse at the hospital where Robbie finds Jimmy in the morgue. After a dispute with the mortician, the police are called. Alice helps Robbie escape. He tells her if he had the money, he would volunteer for Spain. Struck by his passion, she gives him £5, a huge sum.
SIMON SHERIDAN is Alice’s twin brother, younger by three minutes, his sister’s opposite in looks and character. Alice has the blue-blood confidence of their father, General Sir Richard Sheridan, head of SIS, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service.
Simon abhors his father’s support of Franco. After a furious row, he sets off for Spain. While in Paris struggling to get the required papers, he is almost killed by a knife-wielding fascist in a back alley. Robbie appears miraculously to save his life and charms the French officials to get Simon signed on for the cause.
Together with other volunteers, hounded and shot at by police, they cross the Pyrenees and join the fledgling British Battalion of the International Brigade.
While Alice trains as a Red Cross nurse, her eyes are opened to the poverty and hardship in East London. She persuades her mother to donate funds to buy an ambulance and arrives in Spain days before the British go into action to defend a Nationalist assault across the River Jarama.
Robbie and Alice are attracted and repelled. He has joined the Communist Party, his new religion. He sees the Sheridans as class enemies. But through the long days of battle, he is moved seeing Alice’s selfless work. They become lovers.
Half the battalion’s 600 recruits die or are critically wounded at Jarama. When Simon is hit by a sniper, Robbie fearlessly saves his life. Shell-shocked, the battle over, the position held, he goes absent without leave.
While Simon recuperates, Robbie spends three months in the mountains with a goatherd. He returns to the battalion expecting to face a court martial and is sent instead by the shrewd CO Walter Lewin for officer training.
The International Brigade’s first offensive at Brunete is a disaster, forewarning the end of the Republic. In a reversal of fortunes, Robbie is injured and Simon is killed saving his life. In his dying breath he confesses to Robbie that he has always loved him.
Robbie is captured and taken to a Gestapo-run prison where his wounds are tended by silent nuns before he faces execution, the fate of all Brigade officers.
Alice fears that she has lost both Simon and Robbie. Returning to London, her fatigue and morning sickness warn of a different malady.
Lady Sheridan begs her husband to intercede. As a result, General Sheridan pays a visit to German Ambassador Count von Ribbentrop at the Viennese castle Schloss Fuschl. On meeting Hitler and the Nazi elite, Sheridan understands that in failing to support the elected Spanish government, Britain and France would soon be facing a confident Nazi Germany on the battlefield.
After being marched in front of the firing squad, Robbie is inexplicably reprieved and provided papers to return to England. He goes immediately to the Sheridan home in London to find Alice. Lady Sheridan isn’t surprised when Alice tells them she is pregnant.
The elected-Republican government with plans for land reform, female emancipation and a minimum wage is defeated by Franco’s Nationalists. The ideals live on in Robbie Gillan and Alice Sheridan.
Clifford Thurlow has lived all over the world and has worked as a gem stone dealer, a foreign correspondent for The Observer in Athens and as one of the team translating works from Tibetan into English for the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, where he wrote his first book, Stories from Beyond the Clouds, an anthology of Tibetan folk stories.
Thurlow is known as 'one of the best ghostwriters in the UK,' according to Penny Wark of The Times. His recent books are: Typhoon: The Inside Story of a Fighter Squadron at War, for Wing Commander Mike Sutton (Penguin, 2021); Operat...
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