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Trouble at Tampling

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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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 gentle, sometimes savage, and which is one of the hardest things for foreigners like me to grasp – as when, for instance, one says to an Englishman, ‘Did you play cricket, yourself?’ and he replies, ‘A bit.’ When a South African says, ‘A bit’, he means, ‘A bit’. The Englishman, one discovers, got a Blue and several County caps. Carr’s first novel, A Day in Summer, was published in 1964, when he was 52. It was seen by nine publishers before it was accepted. The next was A Season in Sinji (1967), published by Alan Ross, a passionate cricketer, partly because it has a wonderful account of a drawn cricket match in West Africa. Alan Ross turned down the next novel, The Harpole Report, but did publish Carr’s fourth, How Steeple Sinderby Won the F.A. Cup, this time in the guise of the London Magazine Editions, in 1975. Then came A Month in the Country, published by the Harvester Press in 1980, and one of the reasons that press was later sold to a major American publishing house for £2 million, though J. L. Carr saw none of it. Then there was The Battle of Pollocks Crossing (1985). Fed up with other publishers and agents, Carr published his last two novels – What Hetty Did (1988) and Harpole & Foxberrow, General Publishers (1990) – himself at the Quince Tree Press. Some of his books won prizes or were filmed; A Month in the Country got near to winning the Booker Prize (and is much better than the novel which did win that year). But almost all of them were remaindered; he used to buy the remaindered copies himself, partly so he could republish by way of the Quince Tree Press (still very much in business, by the way, and as efficient as J. L. Carr used to be himself; the Press believes in answering letters on the day they are received). The Harpole Report was published by Secker & Warburg in 1972. Not many months afterwards, Carr bought the 924 remaindered copies and stored them in his garden shed. Then, on Desert Island Discs, Frank Muir nominated the book as the one he was going to take with him – and Carr was able to sell the remainders at the full trade price. The novel purports to be an independent report by a neighbouring headmaster on what has happened in a primary school called Tampling St Nicholas C of E (Aided) which has led to the resignation of the acting head, George Harpole. It is told in a series of extracts from journals, private correspondence, an official report on the school, children’s ‘free writing’ and the school log-book. ‘Thus, by and large, everyone speaks for himself ’ and the school is seen as ‘a most complex institution. Children and teachers, administrators and their minor officials, caretakers, cooks, medical officers, government inspectors, governors. And parents. All these grinding away, in and out of mesh. Is there any wonder then that sometimes. . . there is a terrifying jarring of gears or, worse still, that unforgettable thump of a big-end gone?’ The Harpole Report is also a love story, the only one of Carr’s novels in which the hero, George Harpole, gets the girl, Emma Foxberrow – both of whom appear again, as the General Publishers. There is a great deal of interleaving and overlapping in the novels: the heroine of one novel becomes the narrator of the second, an unsatisfactory teacher in one turns up as a Lothario in the other, the setting of the first novel becomes a destination in the next one. For all the variety of his work – and that’s one of the reasons Carr had such trouble with agents and publishers, who much prefer the repetition of a successful formula – he sees a coherent world. There is often, in the comedy, a savage edge – sometimes satiric, sometimes tragic (as in the final scene of The Battle of Pollocks Crossing): even when the comedy is at its most startlingly hilarious, one has a sense it could topple over. The reaction to folly isn’t a weary shrug of the shoulders, an eyebrow raised, but seething anger. When George Harpole deals with Widmerpool by thwacking him with a cricket bat, or George Gidner (in The Battle of Pollocks Crossing) with Bosey Swatt by bashing his head repeatedly on a desk, one senses a wonderful – and entirely improper – release from rage. The Harpole Report is so full of hilarious incident that it is difficult to select particular moments to give a flavour of that world. Anyone who has ever been through a school inspection would especially enjoy Chapter 23. Having once myself had a contretemps with a caretaker who said I wasn’t allowed into school on a Saturday morning to clear my desk, I get a special frisson from Harpole’s feud with Mr Theaker the caretaker, who is sure he needs an office and a desk for the ‘administration’ of his duties. Harpole thinks he needs to use his broom more often. Harpole is winning, but the inspection report includes this recommendation: ‘The premises are clean and reflect credit on the caretaker, Mr E. Theaker. We recommend he should be provided with a small room for his essential clerical work.’ My favourite moment is when George Harpole (under the gentle tutelage of Emma Foxberrow) is beginning to emerge as his proper self and has this exchange with one of his teachers: ‘I’ve never been spoken to like this before in all my thirty years’ experience,’ she wails. ‘You have not had thirty years’ experience, Mrs Grindle-Jones,’ he says witheringly. ‘You have had one year’s experience 30 times.’ If I had my way, I would make The Harpole Report a set text in any teacher-training course; and, if one ever has to give a congratulatory present to a head teacher, this might be the best choice; it would deflate that tendency to pomposity which is the besetting sin of all headmasters and headmistresses. As with many novelists, it is quite difficult to sort out the autobiographical from the fictional. I do think Carr must sometimes have been quite a difficult man. He got bees in his bonnet. He was often very funny about the bees he got – but they buzzed loudly. When he took on a cause, it became a Cause. If he decided a derelict church had to be rescued, he made himself a major pain to everyone concerned, until it was rescued. He was not always tactful. There is a recorded incident from his primary school when he was visited by a pregnant mother who already had eleven children; the headmaster offered ‘to have a word with the father’. In The Harpole Report, George Harpole lends the mother a book called New Techniques of Married Love. One of the reasons I love J. L. Carr is that I don’t think he would have been very good on Health and Safety. Some writers actually change our perception of the world – the world inside and the world outside. I came across J. L. Carr relatively recently, but my vision is now mediated through his vision. Having read his novels, I have begun to see the world through his eyes. My imagination is recreated by his imagination; yet, despite the hilarious comedy of The Harpole Report, his vision is neither easy nor comfortable: though A Month in the Country is set just after the Great War of 1914–18, it is terrifyingly topical. In the same way, The Harpole Report is, if anything, more accurate about schools as they exist now than it was thirty-five years ago.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 8 © C. J. Driver 2005


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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