J.L. Carr: Ever on the side of the underdog (© BOB CARR)
Tom Birkin, an art student before the war, a shell-shocked restorer of paintings after it, has spent his years on the Western Front underground and half-underwater in the trenches of Ypres and Passchendaele. It is right then, indeed it is a deliverance, that his first major commission should be for a wall painting — a Last Judgment, long covered by rough whitewash — high up above the chancel of Oxgodby Church in the North Riding.
By day, Tom, hero of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, is raised up above the flagstones on scaffolding for his work on the painting. At night, he sleeps in the bell tower.
Even with the scaffolding Tom has to stand on his toes as he works, or to fetch a ladder to reach the apse where Christ sits in Majesty beneath the slapped-on whitewash. This vast wall painting, a panorama of the saved and the damned, is a curious central image for the author to have chosen for his novel. James Lloyd Carr, schoolmaster, author and cottage-publisher, was not a painter of vast, cinematic canvases. His books are done with the care and fine sable bushes of the miniaturist.
A Month in the Country (Penguin, £7.99), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1980, is a slender 85 pages. How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup (1975), republished last month in a new edition by Penguin Modern Classics (£7.99), is 122 pages. His first novel, A Day in Summer, published in 1964, was, at 219 pages, a relative doorstopper. His second, A Season in Sinji (1967), was 192 pages. Then came The Harpole Report (1972) at 163 pages, Steeple Sinderby, and A Month in the Country, the shortest and most enduringly successful of his books. The Battle of Pollocks Crossing (1985), also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was 175 pages. What Hetty Did (1988) ran to 182 pages and Harpole & Foxberrow, General Publishers (1992) was a return to short form at 157 pages.
When he wasn’t writing books he was publishing them, small ones, under his own Quince Tree Press imprint. He specialised in little pamphlets: quiddities of trivia, potted biographies of English kings and their consorts, poems and aphorisms from Tennyson, Keats and Carroll, miniature maps of English counties, and gossipy bits of nonsense about famous cricketers and cricketing hangers-on. In Carr’s Dictionary of extraordinary English Cricketers we learn of “Black Bess of the Mint, c. 1744, frequently engaged to enliven dull games by running foot races without drawers against Little Bit o’Blue, a Stepney person.”
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