'Some gigantic force had disturbed the moon from the path that it had pursued from the dawn of time; it had slowed up the moon's progress through space and forced it upon a journey towards the earth...it was ascertained that the moon was returning to the earth at the steadily increasing speed of eight miles in every twenty-four hours...'
And so back down to earth with an enormous fictional bump after all the Anna Karenina love (and thank you so much for the encouragement, I am fair steaming along) and The Hopkins Manuscript by R.C.Sherriff, written in 1938 and published in 1939, which opens with the discovery of a manuscript in the ruins of Notting Hill, the hope being that it might shed some light on 'the final, tragic days of London.' The discovery has been made by the Royal Society of Abyssinia some 800 years after the Cataclysm that has destroyed Western Civilisation, and I was instantly reminded of that very clever twist at the end of The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, which I won't divulge, but if you have read the book you might instantly make a similar connection.
With 250,000 miles still to travel the moon's impact on earth is estimated to be approximately seven months away, May 3rd...and humanity must prepare for its destruction.
This sounds jolly doesn't it...
I was so tempted to say May the Force/ May the Fourth be with you that I did, to myself, just for effect and because who can know what R.C.Sherriff has planned for the day after the Big Collision. And that was not to be facetious or flippant because really the prospect was so terrifying, and made so believable that I found it hard to shake off that sense of impending doom for the duration of reading this gripping book, I'd be walking around town and suddenly be overcome by a sense of foreboding and have to remind myself that, whilst there was an awful lot going in the world about which to feel downhearted, at least it wasn't this (deo volente, hopefully etc). And it was the time of the Winter Solstice too...both sun and moon were looking huge in the sky which definitely compounded the impact of the book.
Narrated by Edgar Hopkins, the author of the discovered report, the disaster slowly unfolds from first reports of impending disaster by the British Lunar Society and it quickly becomes apparent that our Edgar is disparaging of others, self-important, falsely modest and a generally irritating and unlikeable character. Thinking about our recent discussions about autobiography, here is a fictional example with Edgar unwittingly revealing his own misguided and misplaced sense of self by his attitudes and his reactions, his words making him an extremely difficult character to warm to, if not impossible. Honestly you'd think all this would be enough to make me put the book down and go and pick up something nice like Greenery Street, wouldn't you but I was riveted start to finish.
Firstly, it is a brilliant study of people under duress. Having been kept secret from the population for some time, once the news is out so the 'screens of deception' begin apace...
People pretending it won't really happen...
Others accepting their fate...
The harbingers of doom reveling in the glory of being right..
And those who think they can beat it.
Community spirit comes to the fore, even for Edgar Hopkins who, perhaps for the first time in his life, finds himself part of something sociable and fulfilling as the end of the world draws nigh. It was the building of the underground bunkers and shelters that confirmed my thinking that perhaps R.C.Sherriff was forewarning of the arrival of World War Two and the cataclysm that might ensue.
I always remember my dad saying how terrified everyone was in the build-up to World War Two. Whilst current thinking debunks the myth of the panic that followed Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds my dad always insisted that it had scared people enough to focus attention and fear on the possible consequences of another war which seemed imminent. That fear was palpable, the anxieties of the unknown very real and laden with dread. Perhaps R.C.Sherriff was issuing his own kind of warning because he knows of what he speaks, his life in the trenches a testimony to that.
There is a telling moment in The Hopkins Manuscript when Edgar, having survived the cataclysm, faces danger once more..
'By super-human endeavour I had rebuilt my life. It was too much to ask of any man that he should face a second ruin and rebuild his life.'
Rebuilding his own life after trench warfare cannot have been easy for a sensitive, gentle, mild-mannered and slightly obsessive soul such as Bob Sherriff. He hated change and uncertainty and if ever a portrait affirms a personality then surely this one does, taken at the age of twenty-one in 1917. He would survive three years of active service including both Vimy Ridge and Ypres, and the after-effects must have been profound along with the anxieties about ever facing such horrors again. The Hopkins Manuscript could still arguably be read as a metaphor for any action that might have serious consequences for the planet and oddly seems as relevant and prescient today as it must have done in 1939 when it was first published. That aside I'm now a little edgy whenever we have a perigee super moon and even Full Moon at Kaikoura hanging on the wall is making me a bit nervous...thanks Bob.
But I'm guessing too that in today's world most authors of hardback books would be very pleased with an initial print run of 15,000 copies; the book was very well-received and must have had an impact in the run up to the outbreak of war.
I have read virtually no science fiction but I do understood Michael Moorcock's suggestion in the introduction to the Persephone edition...
'We write such books not because we are convinced that they describe the future, but because we hope they do not...'
For anyone interested in reading more about R.C.Sherriff, the Surrey archive have done a magnificent job of cataloguing all his papers in recent years making the website a wonderful repository of information and pictures.
If you have read The Hopkins Manuscript please do share your thoughts, and if you are a sci-fi enthusiast I would love to know more...
What is the attraction...
Is there an accessible way in...where might a non-enthusiast start..
And is the moon looking a bit bigger these days...just asking for a friend.