Saturday, November 07, 2015

All along the watchtower by Michael Hyde

This week I read Mike Hyde's "All Along the Watchtower: Memoir of a sixties revolutionary". I know Michael and bought his book at the launch a few years ago but delayed reading it. I suppose I thought I'd lived it, at least in part, and so didn't have to read it.

Those times were marked by dramatic events: the Ronald Ryan hanging, widespread rejection of religion, the Vietnam war, conscription by a ridiculous process of birthday marbles being drawn from a box, China's Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Tsetung, feminism, drugs, sex and rock n roll.

In part of the book Michael comes across as an angry, justice seeking, sex obsessed political activist, almost a cardboard cut out. Nothing wrong with that at all, but I'm looking for a deeper insight into the human condition. The dark side. So what I liked even more was that he interleaves this with a graphic description of the fear (panic attacks) of what might happen to him, his conflicting friendships including one with a friend who went to fight in Vietnam, the tension between his activism and his family (his father was a preacher but ended up supporting Michael) as well as the dysfunctional communist party that some of us joined. I was impressed that he included the dark, difficult and conflicted personal side as well as the excitement and optimism of the hard fought struggle which eventually changed public opinion from apathy to fierce opposition to this disgusting, unjust war. This is a warts and all account which captures the spirit of the times of a section of the radical youth.

The political stance in the book is about supporting the "enemy", ie. raising money for the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF) and the case for why that was the right thing to do. We used to chant at demos, "One side right, one side wrong. Victory to the Viet Cong". A lot of things flowed from that, too numerous to mention but he covers them all in the book.

I can personally identify with this book. Thank you, Michael. For many years I wanted the 60s to repeat themselves. One day they will but in a different form.

The title is from a Dylan song but apparently the Jimi Hendrix version is more popular.

Critical review by Ken Mansell


Barry York said...

As you know Bill, I was part of that period of activism too and, like Mike, came to identify as a Maoist. I did not come from a communist family background, though my dad was very left-wing and was influenced by communists and socialists in the Royal Air Force, which he had joined in 1940 in Malta. I think Mike's book captures the spirit of the mid-1960s to early 1970s very well - a spirit based on rebellion - and is the best available book on the left-wing political activist dimension back then. The critical comments by Ken Mansell are a bit over the top, though I think Mike Hyde needed a brief paragraph or a couple of lines at the beginning, an Author's Note perhaps, to explain that the book is a "literary memoir" and how that differs from a work of history. In personal correspondence, he didn't seem keen on the idea.

Bill Kerr said...

hi Barry,

Thanks for the comment ... I only noticed it then, it didn't come into my email as normal, so the publication of your comment was delayed

I just reread and did an edit of the original book review. It's hard to write well. I wasn't happy with the way I had juxtaposed Michael's simple side with his more complex, occasional dark side. The raw animal spirits, the joy and the fear of facing up to the shock of discovering that our government is our enemy are two sides of a complex coin, which Michael does describe well.

I'm now two thirds of the way through Doris Lessing's The Four Gated City (1969), the aftermath of WW2, the McCarthy era / persecutions (flight and suicide), the related but independent growing disillusion with the USSR, searching for work that means something, sexual liberation, mental health issues, child rearing, the struggle to find a meaningful way in the world. For page after page she makes amazing insights into the human condition. This is part 5 of a 5 part memoir (Children of Violence) from Doris. Part 3 delves into the war years where the heroine, Martha Quest, joins the communist party and marries a communist at the height of Stalin's popularity (1943-45), since the USSR was doing all the heavy lifting in fighting the Nazis as the Allies delayed the second front.