Joseph Lloyd Carr (1912-1994), better known as Jim, disliked London, the establishment, publishers, the media and the business world. If he’d been offered a Fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature, he might well not have wanted to join. But it would have been very good for the RSL if he had.
Carr was a remarkable individual and a writer of laconic English humour, quiet precision, deep moral feeling, close knowledge of landscapes, buildings and history, and an interest in the heroism of obscure, unprivileged people. Between 1963 and 1992 he wrote eight short novels, which included one masterpiece. He was also a writer for children, an antiquarian specialising in English church architecture, and an idiosyncratic and discriminating small press publisher. He is loved by a small band of readers who have included Michael Holroyd, Auberon Waugh, Ronald Blythe, DJ Taylor, and Penelope Fitzgerald. She said of him: “Carr is by no means a lavish writer, but he has the magic touch to re-enter the imagined past”.
Every so often he comes back to life under “Rediscovered Classics”. But he deserved a wider audience and a longer afterlife. One of his odd characters, a 1920s failed South Dakotan banker in The Battle of Pollocks Crossing (1985), listens enviously to an old Sioux’s incantation, speaking of his belief in “life unending”. The aptly-named Mr Farewell says he can’t confidently believe in that. But “I do believe that there may be, that there is something in us that can be without us…and shall be after us”. It’s a typically modest hope for an afterlife – but it’s what J.L. Carr deserves from his books.
Carr grew up as a Yorkshire Methodist in the North Riding, near Thirsk – his father was a station-master and a Wesleyan lay-preacher – and Yorkshire is in many of the books. But he spent most of his adult years living with his wife Sally (they had one son) in an unremarkable home in Kettering, in Northamptonshire. He was a teacher, in England and for short periods in the American mid-West, and an officer in the RAF. He had a passion for football and cricket, made copious scrapbooks and wrote life-long diaries, which he burnt the year before he died. He was headmaster of the Kettering Grammar School (robustly satirised in his 1972 epistolary novel The Harpole Report, a cult book for school-teachers of his generation). He retired early, at fifty-five, in order to write and publish.
Under The Quince Tree Press imprint he published most of his own books, some of them bought back from their original publishers, and a desirably eclectic medley of “pocket books”. These included his Dictionaries, like his 1977 Dictionary of Extra-ordinary Cricketers; Inflammatory Evangelical Tracts; Wood Engravers (including Bewick and Joan Hassall); Little Poets; celebratory cards, and small books of English writers including Austen, Aubrey and Blake. He also published a series of Country Maps, which he said were designed for framing and to stimulate conversation.
His novels drew in part on his life, as a teenage footballer-player (How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup), in the RAF in West Africa (A Season in Sinji), as a teacher (The Harpole Report, The Battle of Pollocks Crossing), and as a publisher (Harper & Foxberrow, General Publishers). They imagine characters whom the world might dismiss as misfits and failures, revive lost histories and forgotten people, and warn that “it is the death of the spirit we must fear”. In all this, Carr resembles his friend and admirer Fitzgerald.
These themes find their perfect form in his great small novel, A Month in the Country (which won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1980, was short-listed for the Booker and was made into a film). Carr, an obstinate man, didn’t care that it was already Turgenev’s title – besides, the novella has a Turgenevian mood to it. Published soon before his wife’s death, it’s a story full of sadness and nostalgia, a retrospect on a long-ago past, told by a shell-shocked war-veteran, Tom Birkin. In the “marvellous summer” of 1920, he has come, a wrecked survivor, with no money and a failed marriage, to a remote Yorkshire village in the North Riding, in order to uncover a huge medieval Day of Judgement painting on the wall of the village church, the work of an unknown medieval artist who increasingly infiltrates his mind. Down below, another war-veteran with a secret history, Mr Moon, is excavating a 14th century grave outside the church. They are “two of a kind”. Birkin and Moon are both beneficiaries of the late old lady of the decaying manor-house, whose shrewd prophetic eye still seems to be lingering over their work, which has a surprising outcome. A peculiar, obstructive, stiff-necked vicar, his fragile, beautiful wife, and the friendly, level-headed Yorkshire villagers (source of Carr’s best kind of humane, low-key comedy), become Birkin’s whole world for the summer that fills the book.
It is a war-novel set in peace-time, full of the horror and unspeakable fear of war-memories, which can’t be spoken about. It’s full, too, of the satisfactions of specialist work, of the bitter-sweetness of unfulfilled, un-acted love, and of a particular English place and time. Carr said he drew the village and its setting from his childhood in the North Riding, the church from Northamptonshire, the churchyard from Norfolk and the vicarage from London: “All’s grist that comes to the mill”. Oxgodby, the name of the village, certainly echoes “Osgodby”, a village near where he went to school. And the novel brings us a vanished English country life in deep sunshine – haymaking, sleeping outdoors, Sunday School, rabbit pies, scythes, “ditches and roadside deep in grass, poppies, cuckoo pint, trees heavy with leaf, orchards bulging over hedge briars”. No book evokes so well as this the long vistas of that high ridge of North Yorkshire between Thirsk and Sutton Bank. “Day after day, mist rose from the meadow as the sky lightened and hedges, barns and woods took shape until, at last, the long curving back of the hills lifted away from the Plain. It was a sort of stage-magic – “Now you don’t see; indeed, there is nothing to see. Now look!” Day after day it was like that….” “As it lightened, a vast and magnificent landscape unfolded. I turned away; it was immensely satisfying.”
Above all it’s a story about a missed chance and an irrecoverable past. “If I’d stayed there”, the sad narrator asks himself, “would I always have been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvellous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never, we must snatch at happiness as it flies”.
Professor Dame Hermione Lee is a literary biographer whose work includes biographies of Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Penelope Fitzgerald and Tom Stoppard. She was President of Wolfson College Oxford from 2008 to 2017.
Joseph Lloyd Carr (1912-1994), known as J.L. Carr, was born into a working-class Wesleyan family in North Yorkshire. A teacher and headmaster by trade, Carr later ran the Quince Tree Press. His novels are often praised for their originality and humour.