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On My Book Table… 8 – what next?

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May has been an odd sort of reading month for me. I’ve read fewer books than I might have expected, given the amount of extra time I’ve got through not going out, paying visits to London and the like. I must admit to feeling a little bit twitchy after about 10 weeks of lockdown, with the only places I go to being the post office and the occasional nip into the local Co-op for veg. Browsing the local charity shops was one of my great pleasures and I’ve no idea when I’ll do that again. But I’m trying not to be too ungrateful, as I can work from home and safety is the main thing. Nevertheless, books *have* still made their way into the house, and I have been having a little bit of a shuffle of the book table, trying to decide what to read next – never an easy task for me… 😀 Here’s what’s been attracting my attention recently!

Some beautiful Elizabeth Bowen titles…

I have been shouting a bit recently on social media about Elizabeth Bowen; and the random discovery that there were some enticing-looking editions from Edinburgh University Press, bringing together uncollected short stories, essays, broadcasts and the like, was just too much to resist. They arrived, together with two other, older collections, as well as a book of Bowen and Charles Ritchie’s love letters. As I’ve said, I really could go on a Bowen Binge right now.

Classics, chunky and slimmer…

I’m also a huge fan of classics (fairly obviously) and there are a lot vying for attention right now. Carlyle and Chateaubriand have been lurking for a while, with Huysmans and Barbellion more recent arrivals. However, Ruskin has been someone I’ve always intended to read (so I really *should* get round to it before I get any older). The little hardback about why Ruskin matters turned up somewhere in my online browsing, and so I picked up some selected writings of Ruskin himself while I was at it. A new copy of Woolf’s “The Waves” may have fallen into my basket at the same time – I quite fancy a re-read and my original copy (which is nearly 40 years old) is just too crumbly and fragile to be comfortable with.

Some slightly more sombre volumes

One thing I *have* been taking advantage of during these strange times is online bookish stuff; by which I mean mainly the festivals. The Charleston Festival moved online and there was a marvellous broadcast of an interview with Virago’s Lennie Goodings by Joan Bakewell – what a pair of inspirational women! However, one author has been very much in my sightline, from the Charleston Festival and also the Hay Online Festival, and that’s Philippe Sands. I’d previously read his short work on the city of Lvov/Lemberg and “East West Street” had been on my wishlist for ages; so stumbling across it just before lockdown in a charity shop was a treat. Sands is a notable human rights lawyer, and his most recent book “Ratline” deals with the life (and afterlife) of prominent Nazis. His talks for Charleston and Hay were sobering and fascinating, and had me gathering together a number of titles covering difficult WW2 and post-War topics. Arendt, West and Czapski are all authors who’ve considered the inhumanity of our race, and bearing in mind the fragile stage of many countries at the moment, any of these books could be timely reading. It’s ironic that I’ve never attended either festival in person, but this current crisis has given me the chance to…

Books about books and books about authors are always a good thing, and there are plenty lurking on the TBR. One of the Nabokovs I’ve had for a while, the other arrived recently; as did the Steiner. The Very Short Introduction to Russian Literature takes an intrguing angle, and might be well matched with Isaiah Berlin (and indeed Nabokov). This could be another wormhole…

Or, indeed, I could just go down a British Library Crime Classics wormhole!! This is quite a nice pile of their titles, though nowhere near as impressive as the one Simon from Stuck in a Book shared on Twitter! These are a mixture of review copies and ones procured by my dear friend J., who seems to come across them in charity shops more than I do. They’re such a wonderful comforting distraction to read – and there are two Lorac titles in there which are *very* tempting!

Random books…

Finally, a little random pile of various enticing titles! I have been dipping into Mollie Panter-Downes’ “London War Notes”, which has been distracting and surprisingly cathartic. Since I’m not likely to be at the beach any time soon, “A Fortnight in September” by R. C. Sherriff is also very appealing – I do love a Persephone. Bachelard is another book which have been lurking for a while, and since reading “Malicroix” I’m keener than ever to get to it. The two white cover Fitzcarraldos are the last two I have unread, and both appeal strongly. And last, but certainly not least, is a lovely collection of essays by Joseph Brodsky, into which I’ve also been dipping. They’re marvellous, but best read slowly with time to digest in between – such a good writer.

So – an *awful* lot of choices and I find myself very undecided about what to actually read next. Have you read any of these? Which would take *your* fancy?????

Persephone Pleasures: The Hopkins Manuscript by R.C. Sherriff

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It’s been a little while since I indulged in one of the Persephone Books volumes on Mount TBR, but I recently felt drawn to this one, and picked it up after finishing “Merry Hall” because I really didn’t quite know what to read yet – and I wanted to try to stop myself sending off for every Beverley Nichols book I could find!

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“The Hopkins Manuscript” is one of the few books published by Persephone which is written by a man, and Wikipedia says: Robert Cedric Sherriff (6 June 1896 – 13 November 1975) was an English writer best known for his play Journey’s End, which was based on his experiences as a captain in World War I. He wrote several plays, novels, and screenplays, and was nominated for an Academy award and two BAFTA awards.

His works seem quite varied (his other Persephone, “The Fortnight in September”, sounds much gentler than THM!) and the Persephone site describes the book thus: The author of Journey’s End, the iconic play about WWI, was also a novelist and in 1939 he imagined what might happen if the moon crashed into the earth: the events leading up to the cataclysm are seen through the eyes of a retired schoolmaster who lives in a small Hampshire village.

So, sounds intriguing, no? In fact, I think this book will end up being one of my reads of the year because I should state up front that I absolutely loved it! The story opens with a Foreword by the Imperial Research Press of Addis Ababa, describing what follows as the only surviving document by an ordinary man about what turns out to be the fall of Western civilization. Edgar Hopkins is a middle-aged former schoolmaster, who lives in the little village of Beadle in Hampshire. He is a somewhat reclusive, slightly private man, a bit pernickity and obsessed with raising and showing chickens at a variety of local shows – his prize hen being called Broodie! Hopkins has a side interest in amateur astronomy and becomes an associate member of the British Lunar Society. He enjoys his regular trips up to London to attend meetings, and it is this interest that lets him become privy to a devastating secret – it has been discovered that the moon is gradually travelling closer to the Earth and in the following May it will collide with our planet.

The news is initially kept secret to allow the governments of the world to make plans – under the guise of anticipating a future war, dugouts are built and local committees set up to make preparations. In the meantime, poor Hopkins tries to carry on as normal, all the time carrying his secret knowledge with him. As the moon becomes so large in the sky that the truth can no longer be hidden, the Beadle villagers are marshalled by Sapper Evans, a Welsh soldier assigned to co-ordinate the survival plans. Meanwhile, Hopkins has befriended Colonel Parker who lives nearby, and his nephew and niece Robin and Pat; the young people bring a breath of new life to the repressed schoolteacher and the characters all try to clutch at some happiness before the cataclysm. As the fateful day approaches, the characters (and the reader!) are on tenterhooks – what will happen?

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Of course, I’m being a little disingenuous here – because the book opens with Edgar in Notting Hill, living in wretched circumstances and trying to survive long enough to tell his tale, it is obvious that the Earth won’t be destroyed – some humans will survive, and our interest is in how, who and also what will happen in the post-cataclysm world.

Well, yes – humans do survive, and those remaining start to rebuild life in England. The world after the moon’s arrival is perhaps a little unexpected, and people pull together and make plans and start to regain a little normality. Alas, this does not last for a long time – we know it will not from the foreword – and the peril comes from within and without…

“The approaching moon had been so remotely beyond human control that it drew humanity together in a bond of ennobling courage. But what thrill was there in the menace that stalked us now? – the menace of human greed and suspicion? The thin, brittle crust of prosperity that we had built over the ruins of the cataclysm would never stand the weight of human strife. Under the strain of war it must collapse in unspeakable chaos and misery. I feared my fellow creatures far more than I ever feared the moon.”

This really is a remarkable book on a number of levels – the quality of its writing, clarity of its vision and the fact it isn’t better known – which is quite shocking and plaudits must go to Persephone for bringing it back into print. It would be too easy and simplistic to label THM as just a piece of Wellsian sci-fi, because it’s not – it’s much more than that; a deep, thought-provoking work about human beings and how they will behave in a given set of circumstances. It’s also a gripping story, full of characters you come to know, love and care about. The settings and events are vivid and memorable, and I found myself unable to put the book down. I hadn’t actually noticed I was reading a chunkster – the book is 400 pages long! – but the length and pace is necessary for the gradual unfolding of the story. We are given time to watch the relationships develop, the progress of the moon to become public knowledge, the different characters reacting in their own way. The book would not have the same impact if it was rushed – as it is, I became completely absorbed, living the last poignant days of earth alongside the characters.

And absorbed is the right word – I found myself reading long into the night to find out what happened next. Sherriff is remarkably perceptive in his understanding and portrayal of people – from Robin and Pat, young people with their lives still ahead of them, bravely confronting the tragedies they meet; the drunken landlord of the local pub going into decline when the news breaks; the simpler villagers who either don’t understand or don’t believe; and the unpleasant survivors who start to come to the fore once regeneration has begun. Edgar Hopkins himself is a wonderfully engaging character. All too human, with his frailties and vanities, his preoccupation with his chicken breeding and local status, we can identify with him completely and empathise with his horror at the approaching catastrophe. He epitomizes the human spirit, finding the resolve to survive despite not being a natural hero; and we cheer him on in his small triumphs and share in his joys at finding moments of peace and companionship, even though we might laugh at his foibles.

“I thought of this wonderful year that was drawing to its close: this year of striding progress – the peace and gathering prosperity of Europe. All the bitterness and hostility, all the suspicions and racial hatreds that had threatened and darkened the closing years of the old world had gone forever. The nations of Europe had arisen from the ruins of the cataclysm, cleansed of greed, drawn into harmony by a common disaster; determined to build a new world in friendship and mutual respect. The cataclysm had almost destroyed us, but from the ashes had arisen the United States of Europe.”

Sci fi falls into a number of categories and this is the type I like – what might be more accurately titled visionary fiction – fantastic events happening in a familiar, believable landscape; Margaret Atwood and J.G. Ballard’s fiction often falls into this genre. What is excellent about this kind of writing is the freedom it gives the author to make a point. The word “allegory” becomes inevitable because of the context of THM. Written in the late 1930s and published in 1939, it is hard not to see the impending cataclysm of the moon as representing the storm clouds of war which were gathering over Britain. And the resourcefulness of the Beadle villagers and their indomitable survival and attempts at recovery eerily foreshadows the spirit of the Blitz and post-war reconstruction. The book focuses at points on the state of the British Empire and its redundancy is clear – Hopkins rejoices in the new egalitarian state that develops among humans, where class divides disappear and all mix happily together, working alongside one another for the common good. The afterword of the book discusses whether what Sherriff wrote would be possible, but to be honest I thought that whether the science is accurate or not is in some ways an irrelevancy; it is the human side of things the book is about. However, Hopkins/Sherriff is quite vocal about humanity’s greed and the lack of care we take of our planet in a way that anticipates ecological concerns.

This is a deep, rich, rewarding and eminently readable book which I can’t recommended enough – I have a serious book hangover now!

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