Trouble at Tampling

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J. L. Carr was a primary school head in Kettering, Northamptonshire, who took early retirement from teaching so he could become a full-time writer, and who supported himself, his wife and his son in the meantime by setting up and running from his home a publishing house, the Quince Tree Press, which produced a series of ‘little books’, mainly selections of the great English poets, and county maps that Carr drew and illustrated himself.

Probably the most famous of the ‘little books’ – designed to fit into an envelope and light enough for an ordinary postage stamp – is Carr’s Dictionary of Extraordinary Cricketers. Carr wrote eight novels, one of which is, I am as certain as it is ever possible to be, a masterpiece. One cannot credit him with the amplitude which T. S. Eliot identified as one of the characteristics of greatness in a writer, because even that masterpiece – A Month in the Country – is very short, almost a novella, but it contains more of the fullness of life than most very long novels.

I suppose I should, these days, apologize for using phrases like ‘the fullness of life’; but, though I disagreed with many of his individual statements, I am, deep down, of that generation whose critical judgements were shaped by Dr Leavis. I still believe some books are better than others. I do still think the novel at its proper best is not just a game of words and forms, but has a profound moral purpose. I also think there are more important judgements of a writer’s value to civilization than the figures provided by the sales department of a publishing house.

J. L. Carr himself said, ‘I really don’t write for fun or money. Alas, there is a Message!’ And there is, in every book; it’s a message with a capital ‘M’ – and capitals in Carr’s work, particularly when they appear in reported speech, are there to signal that special tone of voice the English use, which usually conceals irony, sometimes gent

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About the contributor

C. J. Driver’s fifth novel, Shades of Darkness, was published by Jonathan Ball in South Africa in 2004. His selected poems, 1960–2004, were published under the title So Far in 2005. He was Master of Wellington from 1989 to 2000.

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