The Hopkins Manuscript by R C Sheriff

Chicken Licken was right in this dystopia!

Last weekend was Persephone Reading Weekend hosted by Claire and Verity. I did start my Persephone reading at the weekend, but didn’t finish until yesterday. But what a book I chose – one of the few by male authors, and a dystopian bit of science fiction to boot – yet it fits the Persephone list perfectly.

Sheriff was an accomplished playwright, celebrated for his 1928 play Journey’s Endwhich detailed life in the trenches during WWI. Journey’s End built on his own experiences – he was wounded at Passchendaele.   I’d never heard of him before reading this book, although I had vaguely heard of Journey’s End. Reading his wiki biography, I found he was also a prolific writer of screenplays including Goodbye Mr Chips (1933) and The Dambusters.  Alongside his theatre and film careers, he found time to write some novels too; The Hopkins Manuscript was his third, published in 1939 and I loved it.

The story concerns the manuscript of Edgar Hopkins, written some years after the cataclysm that occurred back in May 1946 when the moon fell into the Earth. It is the only surviving account of daily life in the months leading up to, and after the disaster. Edgar is a retired schoolmaster (but still only in his late forties), who lives on the Sussex downs.  He amuses himself by breeding prize-winning chickens, clipping his yew hedges and going up to London to meetings of the Lunar Society every month.

The moon has been looking different lately, and at the September 1945 meeting of the society, the chairman has some top secret information to impart to the privileged and esteemed members – the moon is falling towards the earth and they mustn’t tell anyone.   Hopkins, who is a rather self-important fellow, is shocked and pleased in equal measure.  He feels it his duty to carry on life as normal, but ere long it becomes obvious even to the man in the street, that the moon is getting nearer and the Government lifts the embargo on the press.

Surprisingly not everyone starts running around like Chicken Licken screaming the end of the world is nigh.  The memories of WWI are still there, and everyone joins in with preparations for the impact in building dug-outs etc.  Hopkins though is rather put out that the event affects the local poultry show in which his prize hen Broodie is entered.

When I entered the hall I found it barely a quarter full, and Pomfret Wilkins, the Secretary, greeted me with an exuberance that seemed, in the circumstances, a little overdone. He told me that a number of entries had been cancelled at the last moment, and that several had simply not turned up, without a word one way or the other, just as if the Show had slipped their memory as something of absolutely no importance whatever.

It was all terribly depressing, and I was furiously angry that Broodie should achieve her fiftieth victory under such unworthy conditions. Some of the exhibitors put on a kind of swaggering bravado as if they were heroes to have come at all, and the judges carried out their responsible duties with an impatience and a carelessness that was a lasting disgrace.

There were scarcely a dozen people left in the Hall when the prizes were distributed, and the Chairman’s mind was so hopelessly off his duty that he completely forgot that it was customary to invite an exhibitor to say a few words when one of his hens achieved a specially notable distinction.
He apologised when I reminded him, but there were only eight people left when I began my speech. Although

I spoke for less than fifteen minutes, three of these people actually left in the middle of it, and the others turned out to be the five men who were waiting to take the platform away when I had finished. In the circumstances it is not surprising that my carefully prepared joke, about Broodie receiving big offers to star in a film, completely misfired. It was received in silence, and I was very glad, as I have already said, to start back to my own village of Beadle again.

Edgar is similarly condescending to the vicar, and the pub landlord.  But the impending doom does finally begin to humanise him and he begins to prepare, to make himself useful, and befriends the family who live on the opposite side of the valley to him – the Major’s teenaged children Pat and Robin seem to take to him, and after the disaster will give him a purpose in life as they finish growing up.   We start out disliking this pompous little man who cares only for his chickens, but by the end of the book we’re glad to have known him.

The book starts out in an almost jocular vein after the intro as Edgar goes about his business, but as the disaster draws ever nearer,  the tone changes.  There are some great scenes of stiff upper lips and trench-style camaraderie, but none is more evocative than the last village cricket match on the night of the impact.  After the moon crashes, life becomes much more serious – as at first the survivors have to learn to survive.  Then, as society begins to pick itself up again, politics rears its ugly head over the fate of the moon, and we begin our descent into the abyss – for there’s always some kind of abyss in a dystopian novel.

Obviously influenced by HG Wells, Sheriff has used his own wartime experiences to great effect in this study of the human condition in adversity.  Like many others which follow, e.g. John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, which I reviewed here, everything will revert to chaos; entropy rules and the results are rarely in mankind’s favour.   However I don’t mean to depress you, for I really loved this book.  (10/10)

An interesting introduction by Michael Moorcock, and an afterword about the science by Big Bang theorist Professor George Gamow provide useful bookends to the main event, and the lovely endpapers feature a blazing sun.

I will be very interested to read Sheriff’s other Persephone title, The Fortnight in September – in which not a lot happens on holiday by the seaside. It couldn’t sound more different, but having read this book, and seen several of the films Sheriff scripted, I’m sure it’ll be immensely enjoyable too.

Source: Own copy

To buy from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
The Hopkins ManuscriptThe Fortnight in September by R C Sheriff
The Death of Grass (Penguin Modern Classics) by John Christopher.
Dam Busters, The – Special Edition *Digitally Remastered* [DVD] [1954]

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