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Outsidebooks #5 - Revolutionaries

Joe Ambrose, no stranger to revolutionaries - gives your historical heroes the once over

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by Joe Ambrose, Literary Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: April, 2006
This whole flurry of Che-relayed activity precedes the release of Steven Soderberg's biopic, Che, starring Benicio del Toro.
by Joe Ambrose, Literary Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: April, 2006
This whole flurry of Che-relayed activity precedes the release of Steven Soderberg's biopic, Che, starring Benicio del Toro.

People know Che Guevara as the pretty face on a Rage Against the Machine t-shirt and recollect a cute actor playing him in that stupid, hyped-up movie, The Motorcycle Diaries.  Like many revolutionaries the real Che was, no doubt, as vain as they come so - to some extent - he only has himself to blame for his posthumous image as a vague symbol of something somehow rebellious or confrontational. Just as well, then, that he wrote, and wrote well, a number of books which preserve forever his amazing influence and extraordinary spirit.

Viva Che!: The Strange Death and Life of Che Guevara  by Andrew Sinclair (Sutton) celebrates the myth of Che without losing sight of the serious man behind the t-shirts and the posters. Crammed full of stunning intimate photographs and revolutionary posters (above), it also contains reminiscences on Che by the likes of Graham Greene, Susan Sontag, Italo Calvino, and Robert Lowell. Calvino wrote, "In my mind, the discussions with Che have gone on all these years, and the more time has passed, the more he has been right."

Sinclair, an old Cuba hand, claims that Che's death led to the 1968 student and worker's revolts in France, England, and the USA. His book is a miscellany jam-packed full of memorabilia, emotion, and polemic. It is one of the best books to read if you want to get behind the enigma that Che is in danger of becoming.

For those who want to dig deeper into the subject, Ocean Books have just brought out new editions of Che's own books, The Bolivian Diary and Reminiscences of The Cuban Revolutionary War, plus a Cuban Revolutionary Reader and Fidel Castro's Che; A Memoir.

This whole flurry of Che-relayed activity precedes the release of Steven Soderberg's biopic, Che, starring Benicio del Toro. Soderberg, no doubt, will deliver a better product than The Motorcycle Diaries.


Charles Townsend's Easter 1916 (Penguin) came out in paperback just in time to cash in on the Dublin commemorations of the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising, the series of revolutionary events which sowed the seeds of Irish independence, the IRA, and much else. Over the Easter weekend, 2006, the streets of central Dublin were full of kids, families, punks, and radicals, all brought together in recollection of the strange body of men who took on the British Empire.  The leaders of that revolt were an attractive collection of writers, intellectuals, radicals, and dreamers. The ironic thing is that their wild impractical dream - their frantic dash for freedom - came true. Up to a point.

Townsend is one of the best modern historians to consider the fraught relationship between Ireland and England, and he brings his skills to bear on this story. There are vivid pen portraits of the various revolutionary leaders. What sort of men were they? What did they hope to achieve? How were they regarded? He raises and answers these questions in a sympathetic but level headed way. He was the first proper historian to gain full access to the Irish Military History Bureau's Witness Statements, the testimonies of the men and women who were involved in the Rising and in the subsequent War of Independence.


London's  Foreign Press Association was the place to be when Saqi Books launched Abdel Bari Atwan's The Secret History of al-Qa'ida. Atwan is an eminent (and eminently readable) commentator on Arab affairs who brings a much needed light touch to his analysis of the ideas and techniques of Osama and his boys.

I went to the Association's Piccadilly HQ in the company of 19th Century Irish art expert Michael Murphy. The upstairs rooms were full of well groomed and coiffed Arabs and a sprinkling of slightly more patchouli-oiled fellow travelers. Nobody looked as impressive as Atwan, decked out in the sort of well cut suit favored by men who get to appear on the BBC a lot, and who are effectively a part of that shady organization's repertory company.

Like the BBC and the School of Oriental and African Studies (affectionately known as SOAS by marijuana uses the world over), the Foreign Press Association if nicely linked into British Intelligence so there were, inevitable, a sprinkling of pert young ladies and gentlemen with Oxbridge accents mixing through the crowd, busy trying to give the impression that they were really down with the oppressed and the great unwashed.

After Mr. Murphy has cast a critical eye over the assembled crowd, and done full justice to the reportedly excellent Lebanese wine on offer, we went into an adjacent room where a lively and agreeable Q&A between Atwan and his guests ensued. As far as I was concerned, the main point of interest was the fact that Atwan had actually met bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1996.  

Afterwards it was back to the Lebanese wine, the Lebanese food (Saqi are dependably generous hosts), and eyeing the rather attractive looking spooks in the crowd. Veteran radical politician Tony Benn, one of many liberal left figures to have endorsed Atwan's racy but reliable book, put in an appearance. He seemed happy to pose for photographs with an assortment of prosperous looking Arabs who, no doubt, work for shady organizations other than the BBC and SOAS. Since Mr. Murphy was still doing full justice to the Lebanese wine, we were amongst the last to leave along with Mr. Atwan and his smart looking family.

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Joe Ambrose
Literary Editor

Joe Ambrose has written 14 books, including Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. Joe is currently working on his next book, Look at Us Now - The Life and Death of Muammar Ghadaffi, which is an expanded version of a story first published in the anthology CUT UP! Visit Joe's website for all the latest info: JoeAmbrose.co.uk.


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