The World Turned Upside Down And Back Again

In which a book of history is the start of a thread back to the present

A while ago now, I bought a book, and predicted that it would quickly go on the Books I Haven’t Read list. Well, seven months later or so, I’m pleased to say it’s finished, and moreover, it sparked off a desire to read and know more. The book in question – if you didn’t follow the link – is The World Turned Upside Down, by Christopher Hill.

Hill is popularly known as something of a “Marxist” historian. It’s hard to judge, on the strength of one book, whether or not that’s true. Certainly, it’s not a book of armies and battles; or of great men and events, at least not the men whose names are still widely remembered. It is, instead, a book which examines the effects of those events on ordinary people. The events of the 1640s, whether you call them the “Civil Wars”, the “English Revolution”, or the “Wars of the Three Kingdoms”, gave ordinary people the opportunity to participate in political debate for the first time, and for a brief period, made it possible for radical politics to firstly define itself and secondly enter the mainstream.* Before the reassertion, first by Cromwell, later by Monck and Charles II, of military-monarchical power, various groups of Puritans, Levellers, Diggers, Quakers and Ranters were given the chance to express themselves and posit alternative forms of religious and/or social organisation and growth. It’s hard for an ordinary unlearned like me to distinguish between them all, and understand the fine differences of policy between people such as Gerrard Winstanley, John Warr, George Fox, James Nayler and Abiezer Coppe. And what great names they have! How many people do you know, nowadays, with a name like “Abiezer Coppe”?

The 1640s and 50s are not, as I said, a period I know much about. I know there was a complex series of wars through the British Isles, that Charles II hid in a tree, and that Oliver Cromwell died, but still managed to get himself hanged afterwards – not to mention, his head stuck on a pole, of course. But really, that’s about it. I have a little idea about a few other things: the men of Hull meeting at the White Harte pub and barring the king’s entry, for example; or James Nayler, the leader of the Quakers, comparing himself to Christ by entering Bristol on a donkey; but I know they are all just isolated scenes from a complex series of physical and mental wars. And, to be honest, reading The World Turned Upside Down hasn’t tidied up my knowledge of the period, because, as I said, it’s not that sort of book. It has on the other hand given me an eye into what ordinary people were doing and thinking, and what they felt able to say once the dead hand of government censorship was lifted from the presses.

It made me think of a book I’d like to write, and made me wonder how to start going about writing it. Regular readers might remember that last month we popped down to London for the London Zine Symposium; and were slightly disappointed by a talk on zine libraries and archiving. I particularly remember, during that talk, an audience member asking when zines originated; and the panel all giving wrong and misleading answers. One said they started with punk; another said they started in the 60s. In actual fact, the word “fanzine” comes from the science fiction scene of the 30s and 40s; but the idea of the amateur press goes back a lot longer than that.

That panel included people who thought that zines are intrinsically political; or, rather, that a self-published “zine” which doesn’t embrace radical politics isn’t actually a zine at all.** The people who hold that opinion also tended, I noticed, to be the ones who didn’t think zines existed before punk zines appeared. They would, I assume, be completely unaware that the radical self-publishing scene first established itself in the 1640s, when England first gained press freedom. The political pamphlets published then by the people Hill wrote about are, in essence, the direct ancestor of the punk zines of the 1970s or the Riot Grrrl zines of the 1990s.

So, then, this is the book I’d like to write. A history of radical self-publishing, starting in the 1640s, going through the French Revolution, Chartism, and ending up with punk, Riot Grrrl and anticapitalist zines. The only problem is, I don’t know anywhere near enough about any of those topics to actually write it. I can see there the common thread, but I don’t have enough in my head to put flesh on the bones. The World Turned Upside Down, though, has shown me that there’s something there, that if only I had the time to investigate the existing material available discussing 17th-century pamphleteers, I could come up with something interesting.

* Much as the French Revolution, or rahter, the events preceding it, did 150 years later; which is probably why the term “English Revolution” was retrospectively applied in the last century. At least I’ve managed to relegate Robespierre, Mirabeau and co. to a footnote this time.

** like this person who read my thoughts on the topic and disagreed.

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