And come to dust

The Belgian radical surrealist journal Les lèvres nues once featured a slogan which I found simultaneously funny, heartbreaking and intensely inspiring:

SAVE LIEBKNECHT

For someone with my kind of politics, “Remember Liebknecht” would be a great slogan, one to bring a tear to the eye and a clench to the fist; “Avenge Liebknecht”, even. But “Save Liebknecht” is something else – it evokes all those feelings but takes them somewhere else. As if to say, we’re not just going to bring about an irreversible transformation of capitalist relations of production and the everyday life they produce, we’re going to transform the past! The choice of Liebknecht rather than the more obvious Luxemburg is interesting, too – as if to say, we’re going to do a proper job; we’re not just going for the top-rank heroes here. History? The revolution spits in its eye. By the time we get finished, the wind will be blowing into Paradise!

Those crazy surrealist Belgians. But, visiting the British Library the other day, looking at a proof copy of “the Ballad of Reading Gaol”, I found myself feeling something very similar. The thought process went something like, “Oscar Wilde do two years hard labour? Stuff that. No way. We’ll have to do something about that…” And I realised it wasn’t the first time I’d felt the urge – the determination, almost – to change the past; I felt it when I discovered the work of Primo Moroni and realised he’d died the year before (aged 62). For some reason the English folk music scene seems to be particularly rich in might-have-beens, or rather really-shouldn’t-have-beens. OK, Mike Waterson and Johnny Collins both made it to 70 (although that doesn’t seem old these days) but Tony Rose was only 61 when he died, and Tony Capstick didn’t even see 60 – and he’d ditched the folk music twenty years before that. Get Cappo Cleaned Up will be high on the agenda of the post-revolutionary temporal rectification unit (musical branch). Not to mention non-fatal disasters such as Shirley Collins’s dysphonia or Nic Jones’s bloody brick lorry. And then there’s Bellamy:

Peter Bellamy dead by his own hand, in 1991, aged 47? No. Absolutely no way. We’ll definitely have to do something about that.

Earlier today something reminded me of this old post, in which I revealed (or rather discovered) that in some ways I’m more oriented towards the past than the future. The future, obviously, is where things are going to have to get fixed, but at a gut level I feel there are hopeful – vital – possibilities buried in the past, which we need to preserve and can revive. Which is part of why I identified with Moroni – an activist but also a historian and archivist – and why my book’s partly a work of history.

It’s also, perhaps, why the things I spontaneously feel determined to put right are things that never will be. Or not, at least, until the revolutionary conquest of time both past and future. SAVE BELLAMY!

6 Comments

  1. Nich Hills
    Posted 6 September 2011 at 13:34 | Permalink | Reply

    SAVE BELLAMY

    The great crusade to save the past? I love it!
    http://groups.google.com/group/soc.history.what-if/msg/96443c142cd1c60a?hl=en

  2. Chris Williams
    Posted 7 September 2011 at 23:14 | Permalink | Reply

    I once wrote a whole bew set of lyrics to SLF’s ‘Alternative Ulster’ under the title ‘Alternative History’. Only in my head, though, and I have now forgotten most of them. ‘Be an anti-determinist force’ was the second line of the chorus, though.

    Nich – nice one.

    • Nich Hills
      Posted 9 September 2011 at 04:55 | Permalink | Reply

      Here you go, Chris,

      ‘Alternative History’ by Rigid Small Digits:

      [to the tune of SLF's 'Alternative Ulster']

      Nothing for us in real life
      The past’s so dead it’s a pity
      Of course there’s the ISOT thread
      But the plot’s unbelievably shitty

      They saw it’s impossiblist
      But that’s a lie you know
      They say it’s a parlour game
      But that’s not true you know
      They say you can never
      Break free, break free
      What we neeeeeeeed

      Is an alternative history
      Be an anti-determinist force
      An alternative history
      Make your choice of befores
      An alternative history
      Alter your casual plans

      Etc.

      Taken from
      http://groups.google.com/group/soc.history.what-if/msg/f3eea36596947509

  3. engels
    Posted 21 September 2011 at 01:22 | Permalink | Reply

    I believe Hegel says somewhere that all great personages appear in history, as it were, twice. I would assume they were planning to save Liebknecht the next time around.

  4. Ed
    Posted 27 September 2011 at 12:50 | Permalink | Reply

    Save Comrade H: http://libcom.org/library/wilhelmshaven-revolt-ikarus

    • Phil
      Posted 27 September 2011 at 15:52 | Permalink | Reply

      Damn right! Thanks for that.

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