Alternatives

With no more proper historical work on hand or even on the horizon for me just now – apart from proof-reading my latest and almost certainly my last book, which is only a re-hash of old essays after all – my mind is turning back to an idea that I’ve been toying with for some years now of writing a work of historical fiction, based on the real history I’ve studied, but with bits of it made up. Not a novel set in historical times, I think, because I’d be no good at characterisation, or at plotting, which is why I turned to history rather than fiction in the first place (‘the problem with you, Bernard’, as my old English master once told me, in words that have resonated with me down the years, ‘is that you have no imagination’); but – I’m now thinking – a work of ‘alternative’ or ‘What If…?’ history.

You know the sort of thing: what if the Reformation hadn’t happened? Or Hitler had won the last War? Or Lindbergh had won the 1940 American Presidential election? Or the Neanderthals had beaten back the Cro-Magnons? (There are novels based on all these scenarios.) It’s a fairly popular little literary sub-genre; sometimes scoffed at by serious historians, but not by me. In order to understand and explain what happened in history, you need to consider alternatives. Otherwise you can be left with the sorts of answer one of my Fundamentalist Christian students gave to every exam question I put to him involving causation (this was in the late ’60s): ‘God willed it.’ (I think we persuaded him to change courses.) Or, alternatively, some other notion of ‘inevitability’. It’s only by considering fictional alternatives that we can truly understand how things have come about.

I’ve considered a number of these possible ‘alternative histories’. One that I aired on this blog several years ago cast Thatcher as a communist agent, plotting to return capitalism to the road predicted by Marx, in order to create the conditions for a genuine socialist revolution. Another was focussed on the life of Marx himself, suggesting that he didn’t really die in 1883 (I have British secret service evidence for that!), but instead went on to play cricket for Gloucestershire. (I’ll explain that some other time.) A third has the European 1848 revolutions succeeding in Britain and installing a socialist (or ‘Chartist’) government there. Then what follows….? 

That last narrative is in fact is the one I’m inclining to just now, presented not in novelistic form (because of my lack of imagination), but as the kind of history book that might have been written if it had really happened. I’ve got masses of archival material which can be twisted to this end, an understanding of many of the characters who would have been involved, and experience, of course, in writing history textbooks. Once I get those proofs read, and if I can sustain my enthusiasm and summon up the energy – at a rather low ebb just now, I’m afraid – I’ll get down to it. Wish me luck.

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4 Responses to Alternatives

  1. Phil says:

    The 1848 revolutions are one of the great what-ifs. I wonder if 1919 could have gone differently – what if the Freikorps turn on the Ebert government and the Spartakists (among others) come to their rescue? (Anything involving Rosa Luxemburg surviving would be interesting.)

    After Pim Fortuyn was assassinated, I started wondering if that could have happened here – if we could all have been blind-sided by a “modern”, “liberal” racist Right… (The hypothesis was subsequently rendered moot, when politicians across most of the political spectrum managed to get blind-sided by a plain old reactionary racist Right.) If I’d ever written it up I would have pegged David Owen for the role, or an alternative-world David Owen at least – I remember Benn causing a bit of a stir by saying he thought the SDP was a far-Right party, and I still think there was a germ of truth in that.

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  2. andrewrosthorn2074 says:

    Oh Bernard! What about a cafe gas blast, or a cholera outbreak, in Vienna in January 1913, that might have killed Hitler, Trotsky, Tito, Freud and Stalin in one fell swoop?
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21859771

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great idea Andrew – thanks for the reference. I’ll have to see how my alternative history has developed by 1913! – All best, Bernard.

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      • andrewrosthorn2074 says:

        Later in 1913, according to a story in the Liverpool Daily Post, later picked up by Beryl Bainbridge, Hitler appeared in Liverpool, dodging the K&K draft and staying with his half borther Alois Hitler in a flat in Upper Stanhope Street with Alois’s Irish-born wife Brigid Hitler and their one-year old son William Patrick Hitler. When I showed that cutting to some journos in a bar in Belfast in 1970, a Belfast Telegraph man commented that it in that city it would certainly be tough to be born with a name like Hitler, but to be called William AND Patrick would be triple curse on the young lad. Wiliam Patrick Hitler eventually served with the US Navy in the Second World War.

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