About manyheadedhailwood

Mark Hailwood is a Lecturer in History, 1400-1700, at the University of Bristol

E.P. Thompson’s forgotten sci-fi novel: The Sykaos Papers

Mark Hailwood

Back in October I was writing a lecture on E.P. Thompson when I learnt, to my surprise, that he had written a sci-fi novel towards the end of his career. Published in 1988, The Sykaos Papers seems to have made very little impact, despite being generally well reviewed at the time as far as I can tell. The New York Times said it possessed ‘undeniable power’; the Observer opined it ‘will surely become a classic’. Well, it didn’t. When I asked around on Twitter there were only a few responses from people who had heard of it, let alone read it. ‘Should I bother with it, dear twitter?’ ‘It depends how into Thompson deep-cuts you are’… enough, I decided, to order a copy.

9780747503279-us-300Now I’ve read it. I had low expectations – presumably it had fallen off the radar because it was junk, right? – but I must say I think it is a belter. It is a bit mad, I’ll grant you, but endlessly inventive and stimulating, and at times downright hilarious and at others deeply affecting – neither of which I was expecting. And, I’d say it is much more fluent than his academic writing, which I have heard described recently by a historian who shall remain anonymous as ‘wittering’. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I take the point, and I was expecting a slog – it wasn’t one. Anyway, I’m no great book reviewer – of fiction at any rate – and you can make your own mind up on this stuff, but I would recommend it to readers of this blog. With Christmas coming up and all that…

Not sure? I’ll try to give you a bit more to go on. The book’s central character is Oi Paz. He has been sent to Earth (which his people call ‘Sykaos’), sometime in the 1990s, from the planet Oitar, which has endured ecological catastrophe, to assess whether this planet might make a suitable location for a new Oitarian colony. What ensues is an anthropological face-off between Oi Paz and the humans (and in particular Dr Helena Sage, an anthropologist, who is the other major character in the book) as each side tries to unpack and decipher the other’s society and culture, often with hilarious consequences (not that Oi Paz laughs: his culture has no laughter, so he calls it ‘the Incongruous Noise’).

In a sense, you could call it a work of anthropological fiction, as much as science fiction, and there are interesting attempts to construct the alien subjectivity of Oi Paz (it’s also interesting, given that gender is often seen as his blind-spot, to witness Thompson’s attempt to construct the subjectivity of a female academic, Dr Sage). But historians should not feel left out, for the book’s main nod to Thompson’s own craft is the fact that the novel is structured as though the story of Oi Paz’s expedition has been reconstructed later, by the Oitarians, from a series of surviving PRIMARY SOURCES! There are the notebooks and diaries of Oi Paz and Helena Sage, interspersed with news reports, official communications, memos, etc, which the account – partial and multi-vocal, of course, like all histories – has been pieced together from.

I did wonder if part of the reason for the book’s low impact is that many of its key themes seemed less urgent as the Cold War ended and the 1990s progressed, dating it quickly. But the threat of nuclear war, a reckless U.S. President, a dangerous Russia, a tension between nationalism and the need for humankind to unite to confront its most pressing threats, ecological catastrophe – sadly, none of these feel like outdated themes today.

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E.P. Thompson: an #AcademicWithCats?

But Thompson’s prescience doesn’t end there, for the book also prefigures the social media age’s valorisation of the cat as a vital antidote to doom and gloom. The Oitarians worship them: they have good vibes. I strongly suspect, in fact, that E.P. Thompson himself would have been an avid consumer of, and contributor to, #AcadecmicsWithCats. A sci-fi novel, by E.P. Thompson, with cats! Surely that’s mad enough to warrant a look…

And if you do read it, or have done, please come back and share your thoughts in the comments section below – I’d love to know what other people think of it, positive or negative.

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The Reformation of the People? The View from the Alebench

Mark Hailwood

It’s not every day the Protestant Reformation gets to celebrate its 500th birthday – well, only on one day, really. And it’s no surprise that yesterday’s anniversary of that fateful day when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door of Wittenberg – the first ever blog post, perhaps? – was accompanied by a slew of comment pieces and blog offerings. It would be remiss of us here at the monster, as a gaggle of early modern bloggers, not to post up a few thoughts of our own of course. But what angle to take that hasn’t already been covered in the #Reformation500 media frenzy?

Well, as readers will be well aware, we like to look at history from the bottom-up. For us, the most interesting question about the Reformation is the extent to which it changed the religious beliefs and practices of ordinary women and men – especially in England’s 9000 or so parishes. Sure, Luther shook up the religious and political establishment of early modern Europe, but how much impact did this have on the common people?

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Did the Protestant message get through to the people?

Continue reading

‘Clothes to go handsome in’: what did the seventeenth-century rural poor think about the clothes that they wore?

This guest post comes from Danae Tankard, a Senior Lecturer in Social and Cultural History at the University of Chichester. It follows on from Mark’s recent post on ‘Material Culture from Below’ and further demonstrates the potential of court depositions for examining the material culture of the lower orders in early modern England – here, their clothing. It provides an introduction to Danae’s broader body of work on the clothing of the rural poor in seventeenth-century England. You can follow Danae @morley1640.

Danae Tankard

Yet with that and such like words I made shift to buy me some clothes, and then I went to church on Sunday, which I never could do before for want of clothes to go handsome in.  My father being poor and in debt could not provide us with clothes fitting to go to church in (so we could not go to church) unless we would go in rags, which was not seemly.[1]

This passage is taken from the autobiographical writings of Edward Barlow, the son of an impoverished husbandman, born in Prestwich in Lancashire in 1642.  Written retrospectively when Barlow was a thirty-one year old seaman and had learned to read

Barlow leaving home

Barlow leaving home: in ‘rags’?

and write, it describes the period leading up to his first departure from home aged twelve or thirteen.  Since his father could not afford to indenture him as an apprentice, Barlow worked for his neighbours, harvesting and haymaking and carting coal from the local coal pits, for which he received ‘but small wages’ of about two or three pence a day.[2]  By making ‘shift’ he was able to buy himself some clothes to ‘go handsome in’ to replace the ‘rags’ that he had worn before.  The significance of these new clothes in Barlow’s account is that they allow him to attend church, something he could not do before ‘unless [he] would go in rags, which was not seemly’.  His description of his clothing as ‘rags’ may be an exaggeration but it enables Barlow to express his sense of shame at having nothing decent to wear to church.  However, Barlow does not want just any clothes: he wants clothes ‘to go handsome in’.  In other words, he wants to look good. Continue reading

Material Culture ‘from Below’

Mark Hailwood

I went to a conference, and all I got was this lousy blog post.

That’s right, this is one of those blog posts thought up whilst staring pensively out of a train window on a journey home from three days at a wonderfully stimulating and sociable conference – in this instance, on ‘Gender, Power and Materiality in Early Modern Europe’, at the University of Plymouth. Back in April. Of 2016. Still, better late than never.

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Gloves: they fit the conference theme

I signed up for said conference, despite my lack of familiarity with the field of early modern material culture studies, to try out a paper on the spatial division of labour in rural England, 1500-1700, based on material coming out of the Women’s Work Project. The paper went well enough, and over the course of the conference as a whole I learnt a huge amount about the material culture of the period, and about the sophisticated methodologies used by the reflective practitioners of material cultural history. It whet my appetite for the study of material culture. But it also left me hungry for more of a particular type of material culture history – one focused on the common people of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In what will come as no surprise to readers of this blog, I wanted more material culture ‘from below’.

The conference offered a rich diet of papers focused on the gentry and aristocracy of early modern Europe, but was light on the material things that populated the worlds of their social inferiors. Not for the first time as a social historian I found myself experiencing ‘modernist envy’, as my mind turned to examples of research into the material culture of the working class in the industrial age – Ruth Mather on working class homes in the period 1780-1830; Julie-Marie Strange’s focus on ‘father’s chair’ as a way into the domestic relationships of the Victorian working class; Carolyn Steedman’s wonderful essay on the meanings of a rag rug.[1] And how about the insights into working class material culture to be gleaned from Lark Rise to Candleford? Continue reading

Imagining the Past

Mark Hailwood

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‘Tis ale good and new

So, I recently had the chance to pop into a seventeenth-century alehouse for a quick beer – not a bad way to mark the publication of the paperback of my book on the subject, I’m sure you’ll agree. It was during a recent trip to the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Sussex with our Women’s Work Project team, which gave us the chance to recreate some early modern work activities, and in a spare half hour at the end of our visit I took the chance to visit the rescued seventeenth-century cottage that the museum thinks might have served as an alehouse in that period.

As I sat in front of the fireplace at the alebench with my quart in hand I tried to conjure up in my mind the other elements that would have filled out this scene four centuries ago. What sounds would have filled the place – what conversations and songs? What smells would have filled the air – the wood smoke, baking pies? Who might have been there? What would they have looked like, been wearing… smelt like? What bawdy or godly ballads might have been pasted up on the wall? How would the beer have tasted? What would the toilet facilities have been like? I tried to imaginatively immerse myself in a seventeenth-century alehouse scene.

The challenge of recapturing these sensory and experiential components of the past is something I have often blogged about, and this trip was obviously a stimulating one in bringing these issues to the forefront of my mind. But as I sat there in the alehouse mining my imagination I reflected that this process of imagining the past isn’t only triggered by being in an immersive environment like this one. It is something we all do all the time – just not as explicitly and self-consciously as we do when visiting a living history museum. Continue reading

Merry Christmas from the Monster!

slide_8Well folks, let us not pretend that 2016 has been a year of peace and unity, but that’s all the more reason to wish each and every one of our readers a restorative and merry midwinter holiday. We also want to say a huge thank you to everyone who supports the blog, whether that’s simply by taking the time to read it or by sharing our posts on social media or indeed in your classrooms. We were delighted to recently pass a couple of statistical landmarks – 100,000 visitors and 200,000 views of the blog since its inception – and we hope to have many, many more in the years to come.

If you’re not feeling in the festive spirit yet then perhaps a quick trawl through the many-headed monster’s archive of ‘Christmas Specials’ will help: you can read about the history of early modern Christmas dinners; find out how our old pal Ralph Thoresby spent his Christmases; delve into the political conflicts that engulfed seventeenth-century Christmas; discover the impact of the Reformation on Christmas carols; relive an epic Boxing Day pub crawl from 1647; and be warned of the perils of refusing to give seasonal charity in the age of witchcraft.

See you in 2017.

‘At Christmas we banquet, the rich with the poor’: Christmas Dinner in Tudor & Stuart England

Mark Hailwood

screen-shot-2012-12-18-at-8-19-47-pmChristmas dinner is undoubtedly one of the most popular Yuletide rituals in Britain today – but what is its history? If you like, as any good historian would, to have a bit of historical context up your sleeve to bore your relatives with over the Christmas period, then I offer up to you the following morsels about the ritual meal’s sixteenth and seventeenth century character…

A cycle of midwinter celebration was established in Britain in the early part of the Middle Ages, so by the sixteenth century the Twelve Days of Christmas – running from 25th December to 5th January – had already been the focus of festivities for centuries. The holidays kicked off with Christmas Day itself, and after attending an early morning church service the attention quickly turned to feasting. From Advent Sunday, the fourth before Christmas Day, people were encouraged by the Church to restrict their diet, with Christmas Eve kept as a strict fast day on which meat, cheese and eggs were all forbidden. Come Christmas Day then, appetites had been sharpened for the first unrestricted meal in weeks.

So, a big dinner was already central to Christmas Day ritual by the start of the sixteenth century, and by the first half of the seventeenth century we start to find evidence of certain foods having a close association with Christmas celebrations. The ‘minced pie’ – then a mixture of meat, fruit and spice baked in pastry case – appears in seventeenth century records. So too does ‘plum porridge’ – a beef broth with prunes, raisins and currants in it. For the main meat dish beef or brawn (meat from a pig or calf head), both stuck with rosemary, were the favoured options. Continue reading