14 February 2019

‘I am writing by the light of a piece of string which I have pushed through a fragment of bacon fat and arranged in an egg cup. I shall write by night, partly because I can no longer sleep through these ghastly, moonless chasms, and partly because by day I must search for food, and the days are short.'

So begins a manuscript recording the end of Western Civilization. There are only seven hundred people left living in London, feeding on pigeons that fall dead from Nelson’s Column and cooking them in the National Gallery over fires made from Dutch Old Masters. Edgar Hopkins, the literary descendant of Charles Pooter with whom he shares the qualities of bumptiousness, a wilful innocence and the unwitting inability to never take himself anything less than seriously - even in these final days, writing by his bacon fat, comparing himself to the Venerable Bede, hoping to produce something for posterity as highly valued to scholars of the future as the Rosetta Stone - is the man bearing witness.

At the outset he is a retired school teacher not much past forty years old, a bachelor living with a housekeeper on a small estate in Hampshire. His sole preoccupation is poultry breeding, at which he considers himself to be something of an expert, frequently and happily passing on to his two most ‘intimate’ self-selected friends, his opinions on the subject, often until well after midnight. Indeed, it was no surprise to this reader when it is recorded that these two friends, a Doctor Perceval and a Colonel John Harrison, both decide to up stick and move away.

Hopkins’ life changes forever when at a locked meeting of the British Lunar Society - to which he has been introduced by his retreating friend the Doctor - it is revealed that a gigantic force has disturbed the moon from its usual path and that it is on course to crash into the earth on the 3rd of May of the coming year.

Hopkins carries this secret with pride attempting to live his life as normal, but at the same time longing to exercise his self-importance over the village, imagining that when the news comes out he will be seen in a heroic light. ‘Got the wind up?’ The pub landlord asks him when he attempts a conversation in the saloon bar about building a village dugout - ostensibly, a government instruction for use as shelter from enemy bombs - in reality a preparation for the moon’s arrival. ‘I’ve got a tin hat I’ll give you’, an old man in the corner says - the only direct mention in the book to the pre-war threat outside its pages.

When, from his pulpit, the local Vicar eventually breaks the news of the coming cataclysm, he is met with the opinion that his predecessor, Vicar Hutchings used to say a similar thing every single Sunday, and that the present Vicar, aware of this, is trying to up his game with a bit of fancy talk about the moon. Hopkins records this as one of the most disappointing days of his life.

On the night of the 3rd of May Hopkins does not join the rest of the village in the shelter of the dugout, but instead spends the evening in his library reading Treasure Island. His house makes it through the night and on waking he looks out onto a flooded plain. Later the waters recede leaving behind a huge ship, The King Lear, beached in Hopkins’ meadow - an affront he seeks to rectify with a shouting, but redundant, telephone call to the shipping company.

The moon has landed in the Atlantic Ocean and flattened like an enormous pancake. It is said that you could walk from Penzance to New York, and Britain, a seafaring nation with an Empire, no longer has access to the sea.

A Permanent International Council sits in the Hague intent upon cooperation and a new government sits in Oxford - a fact that Hopkins, a Cambridge man, considers a slight - and for two years the world enters an Epoch of Recovery.

It does not last. The common bonding’s of the world post cataclysm fall apart when it is discovered that the moon is rich in minerals and oil and this in turn, gives rise to a different kind of politician. In Great Britain a truculent and bombastic Major Jagger takes charge. He had not been a Major before the cataclysm and nobody knew how he had come by the title since. Soon every nation in Europe is led by a political upstart greedy for wealth, their only claim to attention a loud voice and an endless cascade of words…

Jonathan Main is the co-owner of the independent Bookseller Crow bookshop in Crystal Palace, London.

  • The Hopkins Manuscript

    Penguin Modern Classics

  • The funny and moving story of the apocalypse - as seen from one small village in England

    Retired teacher Edgar Hopkins lives for the thrill of winning poultry prizes. But his narrow world is shattered when he learns that the moon is about to come crashing into the earth, with apocalyptic consequences. The manuscript he leaves behind will be a testament - to his growing humanity and to how one English village tried to survive the end of the world...

    Written in 1939 as the world was teetering on the brink of global war, R. C. Sherriff's tragicomic novel is a masterly work of science fiction, and a powerful warning from the past.

    'Spectacular, skilled and moving. It is supremely and alarmingly relevant' Fay Weldon

    'Intensely readable and touching' Sunday Telegraph

  • Buy the book

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