Laurie Lee in a safer abode © Getty Images
Laurie Lee in a safer abode © Getty Images

Laurie Lee, author of his famous autobiographical trilogy, was hit by an empty beer bottle on January 6, 1974. Abhishek Mukherjee recalls yet another incident by a rowdy Sydney Hill crowd.

Laurie Lee is usually remembered for his autobiographical trilogy, Cider with Rosie (on his childhood days), As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning (on his first visit to Spain), and A Moment of War (on his return to Spain). He penned down several other works, including poetry and radio plays and screenplays, but the trilogy remains his most iconic work.

Cider with Rosie was based on Lee’s days in the little Gloucestershire village of Slad, half an hour’s journey from Cheltenham. Initiated in 1872, Cheltenham Cricket Festival was the oldest in the world.

Perhaps Lee had watched cricket at the historic Cheltenham College Ground. After all, it was here that WG Grace had scored 318 not out, the second First-Class triple-hundred of all time. He must have heard stories of that innings, or of Arthur Mailey’s iconic 10 for 66 in 1921, the spell that inspired the name of the greatest cricket autobiography of all time.

Yes, Lee was interested in cricket. He was on a tour of Australia in the Antipodean summer of 1973-74 to see “Australia, his brother [Jack] and kangaroos.” Jack, a year older to Laurie, was a renowned movie director.

Laurie was at Jack’s house at Paddington (of Victor Trumper fame) when New Zealand were touring Australia in 1973-74. The series was significant: in their illustrious history, Australia had played a solitary Test against New Zealand till then, that too on New Zealand soil, back in 1945-46.

Australia would win the first and third Tests by an innings, on either side of a tremendous show from New Zealand in the second Test, at Sydney. New Zealand took a lead of 150 at Sydney despite Glenn Turner opting out due to a hand injury; they set Australia a target of 456 and reduced them to 30 for 2; but rain ruled out the last day’s play, as it had done on Day Three. Nevertheless, the Test marked the first of numerous great performances from Richard Hadlee (4 for 33 and 2 for 16).

Richard and Dayle (3 for 52) had already secured the lead on the second day. The infamous Sydney Hill was in a surly mood, more so due to copious consumption of alcohol. Their cricketers had failed them. There was a break in play, after which there would be ten minutes of New Zealand batting. No, it was unlikely that there would be further entertainment in the day’s play. So they decided to engage in a beer-bottle fight — though, mercifully, the bottles were empty.

Both Laurie and Jack were at the Hill that evening. Then, suddenly, a beer bottle flew out of nowhere and hit Laurie on the head. “All of a sudden, about a hundred blokes down the front, and about a hundred blokes up the back, opened up into a flaring bottle. We were caught in the crossfire,” he later recounted to The Sydney Morning Herald.

There was blood all over Laurie as he collapsed, attracting a group of anxious people. Some consolation came his way when a group of attractive Adelaide girls rushed to his aid: “I was lying back there, with my head cradled in the cupped, scented fingers of this lovely Adelaide dish, and wondering if it was all worth it.”

Then he broke loose, when he realised a male police officer was trying to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on him. He preferred the safety of the hospital, where he needed four stitches.

If watching a Test from the Sydney Hill was an experience worth retelling, being hit by the infamous crowd was simply on another level. It was a tale to be narrated to your grandchildren in years to come. Laurie was expectedly elated, as Jack confirmed later that evening: “It was an euphoric experience for him. He wanted to go on the Hill. I think he met a classic fate when he copped a beer bottle.”

Laurie promised a return to The Times, albeit not an unconditional one: “I enjoyed it, but if I go back again I will wear a tin hat.”

Brief scores:

New Zealand 312 (John Parker 108, Ken Wadsworth 54; Doug Walters 4 for 39) and 305 for 9 decl. (John Morrison 117, Brian Hastings 83; Gary Gilmour 3 for 70, Greg Chappell 3 for 54) drew with Australia 162 (Richard Hadlee 4 for 33, Dayle Hadlee 3 for 52) and 30 for 2.