Remembering Reds (and Proust!)

A few nights ago the film ‘Reds’ (1981) starring Warren Beatty was on television. It is based on the life of the legendary playboy who became a legendary revolutionary, the US communist, John Reed. It was he who wrote that astonishing book about the 1917 Russian Revolution, ‘Ten Days That Shook The World’.

But the film also depicts the tensions in the love affair between Reed and the writer Louise Bryant, illustrating the conflict between an activist’s commitment to ‘the cause’, on the one hand, and ‘the personal’ (one’s partner/family), on the other. Reed – like many before and after him – chose the revolution over his soul mate.

In 1990, one night as I was writing a letter in prison, a song that I thought familiar came on the radio. At the end of  ‘Reds’, Reed has died in Moscow from typhus, and Bryant, bereaved and lost to the world, hums a lullaby that takes her back to earlier, bittersweet times when she and Reed lived the bohemian life together. Listening to the lyrics on my radio I quickly copied them into my letter:

I’ll be your sweetheart
If you will be mine.
All your life
I’ll be your Valentine.

And that’s how they appeared when I published my letters as a book, ‘Then The Walls Came Down’. However, I later learnt that ‘I’ll be your sweetheart’ wasn’t the song in the film! What was, was a child’s melody from the same period, ‘I don’t want to play in your yard’, having, in the film, a subtext about a wronged lover:

I don’t want to play in your yard,
I don’t like you anymore.
You’ll be sorry when you see me,
Sliding down my cellar door.
You can’t holler down my rain barrel.
You can’t climb my apple tree.
I don’t want to play in your yard,
If you won’t be good to me.

Our memories certainly play many tricks on us and I had misread mine – possibly because in my recollecting I desired to make a connection.

Thinking back, I am trying to identify when memories for me became a recurrence in regular everyday life and sometimes a refuge from it. Of course, we experience involuntary reminders of things all the time, and reflexively we recognise danger, friends and foes; we recall our likes and dislikes (we take everyday as normal).

As kids we would in late August and on the verge of returning to school look back upon the best days of the summer. But those reflections were of a different type, almost of a material type (ice-cream, swings, sunshine), or non-intimate, in comparison to the type of memory I mean to describe: one, which is unexpectedly triggered by an old piece of music, or something somebody says, and you experience a sudden rush of feeling about the past (you actually relive it for an instant) and then it just as quickly retreats. You cannot even re-imagine it or claw it back – it simply vanishes but you know that you have had it and feel the glow.

These type of experiences become available only when we have lived a bit and have a history, the finest and most traumatic moments of which have been crystallised through emotions. They certainly only became available to me from my teens onwards and make me think that they started with the adolescent quest for love. No advice, no course, no guidance, film or book could teach one how to swim through the rawness of the currents that faced and pounded us in our adolescence!

But having survived, having along the way hurt and been hurt, wronged and been wronged, been intimate and estranged, experienced triumphs and defeats, having gone through the comradeship of life with companions many now scattered, we each of us are a rich story onto the world, contained in the private book of memory.

The masterpiece on this subject has to be ‘A la recherché du temps perdu’ by Marcel Proust, which for years was translated as ‘Remembrance of Things Past’, though in recent translations is called ‘In Search of Lost Time’. Published in seven parts it is a delightful book but not an easy read: Proust wanders all over the place as fresh memories surface or as he analyses the old.

Proust spent fourteen years lying in a narrow bed under a pile of thinly woven woollen blankets, composing his work. He once wrote: “Happiness is good for the body but it is grief which develops the strength of the mind” – which certainly appeals to the melancholic.

In his book he is one day eating a little madeleine when he is suddenly invaded by an exquisite pleasure. It is the revival of a childhood memory, sitting with his aunt in their country home on a Sunday morning. And so he goes back in time and in incredible detail examines the thoughts and motivations of his wide variety of acquaintances. He writes:

“…when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

When Proust wrote those words about taste and smell there was no radio; and film and gramophones were in their infancy. For me, some episodes of my life are fixed in photographs, but thousands more – which I am still encountering – lie embedded chiefly in music that can momentarily unlock fragments of times past so that they become time regained.

And so, forever more, two songs will remind me of John Reed. One will revive the atmosphere on the winter night that I wrote about ‘Reds’ with a wrong attribution in a love letter. And the other song will remind me of what Louise Bryant lost because John Reed was a man passionately committed to revolution. A man indicted for treason, who fled the USA for the USSR; a close friend of Lenin; a man who in 1920 at the age of thirty-three was buried with Bolshevik heroes beside the Kremlin wall.