A literary map of Yorkshire by Carr

My first Carr

A S H Smyth discovers a true English literary eccentric, born on this day in 1912

Artillery Row Books

I‘d never heard of JL Carr until last month, when Penguin sent out one of their weeklyish media updates, in this particular e-mail recommending ‘three must-read Penguin Classics… on our to-be-read pile during the fifth week of lockdown.’ 

The books were Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations (yes yes…); Selected Poetry by Alexander Pushkin (not now); and A Month in the Country by one JL Carr. This last, I was informed, had won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1980, been shortlisted for the Booker, and been made into a ‘memorable’ film starring Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh (both of whom I would happily watch, together or separately) – and yet it rang not one bell whatsoever. 

So I requested an e-copy (there’s no post where I am, currently), and looked Carr up.

Jim/James (actually Joseph) Carr was born on May 20th 1912, into a working-class Wesleyan family in North Yorkshire – the landscape, in more ways than one, of several of his works. He was a primary school teacher by profession, but only just: having failed to get into grammar school as a boy he then also failed to gain entry to Goldsmiths’ teacher-training college as an 18-year-old, perhaps in large part because when he was asked why he wanted to become a teacher he replied, “Because it leaves so much time for other pursuits.”  

He turned to teaching anyway, back in Yorkshire, and subsequently qualified. In 1938 he took a year ‘out’ on an exchange to the improbable locale of Huron, South Dakota, where he struggled desperately to pay his bills thanks to the (ho hum) exchange rate. He spent the next year travelling through the Middle East and round the Med until, finding himself in France in September 1939, he returned home to volunteer for the RAF. He served in Gambia and in England during the ensuing conflict, before returning to his career and in the early fifties being appointed the headmaster of a school in Kettering, Northamptonshire. 

In 1956 he took his wife and son back to Huron for a repeat sabbatical, where he produced his first book, The Old Timers, a social history of the earliest white settlers of Beadle County from the 1800s onwards, based on the archive of a local historical society and conversations with residents who had known those first pioneers. He said he wrote it because ‘the tremendous qualities of these pioneering men and women needed to be shown to our generation’ (NB!) and because ‘it gave me a reason to traipse around the prairie and to admire the great sweep of land and the sky.’ It may well be that life in the US still proved financially troublesome, as of the 82 copies of Old Timers he had printed he is recorded as having given away half to people who had lent his family furniture.

He didn’t publish his first novel until 1963, but it and the seven others which followed were all grounded in his personal experiences: ‘Before the Fiction there was the Life’, wrote his biographer Byron Rogers, some decades later.

His first two novels, A Season in Sinji and A Day in Summer, told the stories of, respectively, an RAF base in West Africa during the Second World War, and a returning air force veteran seeking vengeance for the death of his son. The Battle of Pollock’s Crossing was a more-profitable product of his year(s) in South Dakota, again Booker-shortlisted, and The Harpole Report is the story of a temporary primary school head, told in the form of the school’s log book. How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers won the FA Cup, a cod-official lower-leagues football club history, was inspired by Carr’s own single season for South Milford White Rose. His jacket copy read: ‘Is this story believable? Ah, it all depends upon whether you want to believe it.’ 

Carr’s last novel, Harpole and Foxberrow General Publishers (1992) narrates how the lead characters from The Harpole Report returned from working at a teacher-training institute in Sinji to set up a small provincial publishing imprint.

In the late sixties, Carr took a leave of absence from the education sector, and, to fund his nascent novel-writing habit, set up his own Quince Tree Press in his house in Kettering. The press made pocket pamphlets on everything from poets to kings to wood engravers, cheerfully advertised as being ‘perfect for cold bedrooms – only one hand and a wrist need suffer exposure.’ The first of these was on John Clare, whose great-great-grandson, a retired milkman, happened to live on the same road as Carr. 

About a hundred others followed, including: The Hearth and Home Reciter – Elizabeth Welbourn’s Celebrated Reciter for all Occasions; A Little Book of Bookplates; A Young Woman’s Old Testament (which bears out, in its own words, the OT’s opinion of the fairer sex); Welbourn’s Dictionary of Prelates, Parsons, Vergers, Wardens, Sidesmen and Preachers, Sunday-school teachers, Hermits, Ecclesiastical Flower-arrangers, Fifth Monarchy Men and False Prophets; Gidner’s Brief Lives of the Frontier, a Quince Tree companion to Viking Penguin’s publication of Pollock’s Crossing (lead character, George Gidner); a dictionary of eponymous places; an inventory and history of his own press; and the transcript of a murder trial from a Dakotan newspaper. 

When asked for his own mini-biog for the cover of the American edition, he wrote, concisely: ‘JL Carr lives in England.’

By 1987, Quince Tree had sold 500,000 of its pocket books, the best known perhaps being Carr’s Dictionary of Extra-ordinary English Cricketers, which my friend and sometime cricket captain Marcus Berkmann assures me is ‘one of the greatest books ever published on any subject.’ (It’s also liberally quoted, I now observe, in Berkmann’s Cricketing Miscellany, which has, since its publication last year, become – miserabile dictu – the perfect book for an English summer with no cricket in it.) 

The press also produced Carr’s own poster-sized, hand-drawn, county maps (pre-1974), to this day billed as ‘architectural /historical /literary /pictorial curiosit[ies] designed to stimulate conversation’. The Yorkshire one, for instance, features Laurence Sterne quite prominently, and a string of plaudits on his Tristram Shandy. ‘Travellers are warned that the use of this map for navigation will be disastrous.’ In general, Quince Tree’s pleasingly basic website notes with gentle charm, ‘there is a degree of unconventionality about all the productions.’

But Jim Carr clearly had the basic business smarts, complemented by a dose of irony and justice. At QTP he steadily bought back the rights to all his mainstream books, publishing his last two novels outright under his own colophon. When Secker and Warburg remaindered 900 copies of The Harpole Report, Carr snapped them up for 12p each, then sold them on to readers at £1.75 once Frank Muir mentioned it on Desert Island Discs. And in the Seventies, Goldsmiths’ College asked if he would come and give a talk. He said no, and later did an interview with Vogue instead.

My kind of guy! And yet I’d not read any of his books!

Then yesterday, I’m not sure why, I looked up Carr again, and spotted that today would have been his birthday. This seemed like just the sort of celestial throat-clearing I needed, so I dusted off my daughter’s Kindle, and to my great delight consumed the hundred-odd pages of A Month in the Country in one sitting – possibly the first time I’ve done that since I was myself a kid. 

By comparison with much of the foregoing, A Month in the Country struck me as surprisingly calm.

A young southerner, Tom Birkin, gets off the train in Oxgodby, in Yorkshire. He is plainly not at home there, and is also (it becomes clear in the first half-dozen pages) war-damaged, very broke, and recently abandoned by his faithless wife. He’s there because ‘only time would clean me up’. The First World War, per se, is barely mentioned.

He’s come to uncover and restore a lime-washed, ‘God-awe-full’ Judgement mural – approx. the C14th, he suspects – above the church’s chancel arch, in the teeth of opposition from the vicar (Birkin is no respecter of parsons) who believes the imagery will distract churchgoers from their obeisance.

But it’s the height of summer, the work is interesting, the countryside Edenic, the vicar’s wife quite easy on the eye. Birkin begins to sleep well. 

With a truly impressive economy, the steady discovering of the mural provides both the frame and pacing of the story, Birkin and the painting and its centuries-dead painter forming an increasingly close relationship as they nurse one another back to some ‘approximation’ of health. He purposefully strings it out, for his own benefit, achieving something even perhaps approaching happiness. And when the work is done, his older-self narrator looks back on it from 40 or 50 years hence, with undisguised nostalgia: ‘another world.’

In his Foreword, Carr writes, ‘One uses whatever happens to be lying around in memory and employs it to suit one’s ends.’ And sure enough while the church and its parochial goings on could be in any of a thousand English villages even now, the local countryside, the dialects, the North-East Railway were all from Carr’s upbringing, as were aerial photography, ‘decompression’, and squabbling with the priesthood over restoration projects parts of his adult experience. 

A Month in the Country, though, remains slightly unsettled and/or unsettling – as many nods to Conrad as to Thomas Hardy. Birkin himself is a mix of all things class and education (his wartime rank, I think, is never mentioned), and never quite on anybody’s ‘side’. Likewise, as both character and narrator, Birkin has a quiet, though not entirely unbarbed, humour, and while there are one or two overtly funny scenes (the Chapel and the Church testing two organs in the shop in Ripon, in particular), the switches from lightheartedness to dark- can be discomfiting. The novel could certainly not be accused of being ‘comic’. This, too, seems to have been true also of its author.

When asked for his own mini-biog for the cover of the American edition, he wrote, concisely: ‘JL Carr lives in England.’ And not for nothing did Byron Rogers call his biography The Last Englishman: ‘awkward, formidable, intensely decent… intensely serious man, who laughed apart’, ‘a man who loved churches and history and cricket, and who could quote poetry and the King James Bible by the yard, and believed in Magna Carta for God’s sake’. 

‘Mr Carr was discovered many times,’ says Rogers of Carr’s treatment and reception by the media. In recent years, Andy Miller and John Mitchinson made AMitC the subject of their very first Backlisted podcast, back in 2015; Nicholas Lezard has called the book ‘virtually flawless’; and the Revd Richard Coles (also Northants) has claimed it as a personal favourite. But for all that public ‘discovery’, Carr’s friends and acquaintances seem to have known him as an exceedingly compartmentalised man, much like Tom Birkin, confiding in no-one, and burning all his diaries before his death. 

He died in 1994, and – two Booker shortlists notwithstanding – his own assessment that his novels, ‘although highly thought of by a small band of literary supporters and by himself, were properly disregarded by the Literary World,’ alas, does seem to have been broadly true. But those books are (apart from Rogers’ highly-regarded Life) all we have left. 

Thankfully, Carr’s family still run the Quince Tree Press (fittingly while ‘we also continue our work as archaeologists, physiotherapists and journal editors’), dedicated to the perpetuation of his work both as a publisher and writer. I’m very tempted by the Sinji novel, which covers military intelligence, West Africa and cricket, and which Carr himself said was his ‘best one’. Marcus, though, tells me that Carr’s best book, ‘better even than A Month in the Country,’ is The Harpole Report. And Rogers agrees. Well, I suppose I’ve been a school teacher… Perhaps I’ll order both, just to be on the safe side.

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