I’m a bit of a fan of ‘alternative’ history. There’s nothing wrong with that. All historians need to speculate about ‘what might have happened if’ history had turned out differently, in order to understand why what actually happened did. For me it started with a novel I read ages ago set in a modern Britain (and world) where the Reformation hadn’t taken place; no, not Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration, though that was quite funny – Harold Wilson as a Cardinal, for example – but another, earlier one entirely. It had a steam-driven car on the front cover. (Catholic theology had banned the internal combustion engine.) Can anybody remember? It was more serious than the Amis. More recently I’ve been devouring all those books predicated on the Nazis winning the War – Robert Harris’s Fatherland, for example. And then of course there are similar fables written about an ‘alternative’ USA. I have to say that none of these fictions seems anywhere near as unlikely as what we have in both the UK and the USA just now. I sometimes think that we’re actually living in a speculative novelist’s ‘alternative history’. No-one would have believed in a Trump or a Johnson if a novelist had invented them. Reality should be more normal than this.
I mention it because for years now I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a ‘What If’ novel myself. It wouldn’t be at all serious, and therefore of any use to historians, but I thought it might be fun. It arises out of the research I used to do into the early London Metropolitan Police Special (or political) Branch; and out of one particular police report I discovered in the course of that. It was penned by an officer whose job it was keep a watch on Karl (or Charles) Marx, the famous London resident. The officer reported back that Marx was showing no sign of plotting against anyone or anything, so that he could be safely left alone.
Jolly good. It was reassuring to know that our boys in blue were guarding the interests of Britain so resolutely, so that the late Victorians had nothing to fear. Except that the date didn’t fit. When this report was written, Marx had been dead for three years. Which suggested three possibilities.
The first one was that the Special Branch was a bunch of idiots; which would be entirely consistent with its other activities at this time. (See my The Origins of the Vigilant State, 1987.) The second was that they were somewhat over-zealous, and fearful lest Karl might be resurrected, emerge from his grave in Highgate Cemetery, and resume his fearful career as scourge of the capitalist class. I imagined our portly policeman sitting in a deckchair by his grave, a bottle of Alsopp’s pale ale by his side, keeping an eye open for any sign of the topsoil being disturbed from beneath.
Or – thirdly – did the Special Branch know something we don’t? Maybe Marx faked his own death, adopted a clever disguise, and then, sick of all that writing and plotting, lived his final years in pursuit of another career? That’s the scenario on which my ‘alternative history novel’ would be based.
Then, I admit, it gets a bit silly. Here I was influenced by the career of one of Marx’s followers, the socialist Henry Hyndman, who founded the first genuine British ‘Marxist’ party, the Social Democratic Federation, or SDF; but who before that had been – of all things – a county cricketer. (He’s in Wisden: played in the 1860s for Cambridge University and Sussex, right-hand middle-order batsman, highest score 64, average 16.26.) Hyndman was converted to communism by reading Marx; but what if the conversion had also gone the other way? And then I looked at who else was playing county cricket at that time, and especially at their beards; which of course led me on to the most famous late-Victorian cricketer of them all, WG Grace, whose beard was as spectacular as Karl’s was. All Marx had to do was to trim his differently – longer, less at the sides – and it would amply disguise any other differences in their physiognomies. Then – after getting rid of WG’s body, and a bit of coaching from Hyndman – he could concentrate on making centuries for Gloucestershire, while maybe doing just a little dialectical materialism – to keep his hand in – when he wasn’t actually at the crease.
But sadly, it doesn’t work age-wise. Marx was thirty years older than Grace. In 1883, when he would have taken over from the genuine WG, he was 65. Cricketers played for longer then than they do now, but not into their 70s. Which is why I’ve abandoned my ‘alternative history’ project. That’s a shame, as I have the Police and Cricket history at my finger-tips. Perhaps I can find another plot to make use of these skills. WG Grace as Jack the Ripper, perhaps? He was a doctor, after all…
Well, it’s a change from genuine history. Facts can be so boring, Ask any postmodernist.