Speaking Volumes: The World Turned Upside Down

July 24, 1998

On Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down

Which single book has meant most to me, intellectually? The truest response, for anyone who retains pretensions to mental vivacity, is: whatever one has just finished reading (unless of course it is complete rubbish). That is especially the case if one is excited by a wide and promiscuous range of subjects in lots of different bits of the world. I am certainly in that category - too much so for my own good. You know how academic attitudes go on that front: I'm a polymath, you're eclectic, he's a dilettante. Today's answer, then, might be Peter Hart's The IRA and its Enemies, or Winston James on West Indian radicals, Ben Kiernan on Pol Pot, Carolyn Hamilton on Shaka ZuluI (Hold on a moment: I am a very pacific person, so why are most of those choices to do with bloody slaughter and mass brutality?) Over the longer term, maybe the most ambient intellectual influence for me has been the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas - but words such as "exhilarating", "cathartic" or "life-affirming" do not trip lightly off the lips in relation to Habermas's rather ponderous tomes, so he is ruled out for present purposes.

For the most important forces shaping my attitudes to history, I have to go back to school days. I had excellent history teachers at my Home Counties grammar in the 1970s: but my instinct was always, naturally, to disagree with them about everything, and to ignore any suggestions they made about what I should read. I was probably right, at least in terms of my emerging politics. The fact that the two who meant most to me left teaching soon thereafter - one to become a Conservative Party official, the other a Foreign Office Arabist - may offer a subtle hint that the history department was not exactly a hothouse of radicalism. For me, the inspirational book was a subversive counter-text to the still almost entirely top-down version of history we were taught - Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down. That remarkable study of England's radical underworlds in the mid-17th century seemed to offer a new way of viewing the past and a vision of lost, but perhaps recoverable, political possibilities. It also seemed like part of the spirit of the age when I first read it - the dying fall of the Callaghan government, the glory days of the Clash. Hill's Levellers, Diggers and Ranters seemed to speak directly to my own muddled idealism. Wandering around with my CND and Anti-Nazi League badges could feel (however absurdly, in retrospect) like marching in Gerrard Winstanley's footsteps. A little later E. P. Thompson's English Jacobins - and C. L. R. James's Haiitian ones - reinforced the same effect.

Twenty years on, I can recognise a mass of faults in Hill's work, and in that book in particular. His so-very-English political vision, of the 17th century and of the 20th, looks very parochial now that we have learned more fully to grasp the British-Irish, the Atlantic and the European dimensions of what Hill called the "English" Revolution. Some of the book's heroes impress me now rather as religious fanatics than as primitive socialists: more Ian Paisley's ancestors than Tony Benn's. And a great deal of Hill's interpretive and methodological architecture has since crumbled or been chipped away by subsequent research. Yet even now, when I find his lifework under often mean-spirited attack, a ghost of my adolescent passion for him springs up in defence. (It does not help my struggle to be objective, admittedly, that the most substantial book-length critique of Hill includes several unacknowledged quotations from my own work.) It has been inspirational too, in more recent years, to see so regularly the octogenarian Hill still hard at work, his desk in the Bodleian Library's Upper Reading Room piled high with books and manuscripts. Note, the Upper Reading Room: there are mornings when trudging up there seems to me, at well under half Hill's age, to involve far too many stairs. Christopher Hill's continuing dedication to history underlines why my first intellectual-cum-political love affair remains, in memory, far more than just a teenage crush.

Stephen Howe is lecturer in politics, Ruskin College, Oxford.

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