The Novelist For Whom Small Was Beautiful

J.L. Carr’s masterpiece A Month in the Country only runs to 85 pages. If only more writers realised that length isn’t everything

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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.”

The blurb on the back of Carr’s little books — 16 pages long, five inches high and light enough to go in an envelope with no extra postage — explains: “In cold bedrooms only one hand to the wrist need suffer exposure. A distinguished novelist recommends them for reading in the bath. An ambassador, albeit an American, claims they can be palmed from the cuff during tedious speeches and profitless sermons.” Perhaps Carr had Tom Birkin in mind, lying flat on the boards in his bell tower, listening to the Reverend Keach read his Sunday morning lesson.

The blurb is Carr at his best: impish and adopting a high tone (“a distinguished novelist recommends . . .”) to say something silly and snook-cocking. He prefaces his Carr’s Dictionary of Cricketers with a puff from a Diana Walker of Colchester High School who complains: “Cricket is the most boring game in existence and is as dreadful for players as spectators. Nothing happens but monotonous bangs and remarks. After two or three days when everyone has forgotten the beginning, it ends in a draw.”

Carr was drawn to the grand finale which turns into a bathetic letdown. The hero gets within kissing distance of the girl — and loses his nerve. He gees himself up to propose marriage — and she has just last week got engaged to someone else. A village football team, against all the odds, against the natural order of fate, probability and the football pools, carries off the FA Cup — and then, after the winnings have been shared out, the goalkeeper goes back to his milk round, the captain leaves for a croft in the Hebrides, and the club secretary mourns the end of their glorious season and the feeling of elation that’ll never come back.

For fans of Carr, and there are a good few of us, buying the little books as stocking fillers from the Quince Tree Press, now run by Carr’s son Bob, and nosing out Harpole Reports in second-hand bookshops, a new edition of Steeple Sinderby is a sign that our man, our miniaturist is not forgotten. A Month in the Country, helped along by having been made into a film with Colin Firth as Tom Birkin, Kenneth Branagh as the archaeologist digging in the churchyard, and Natasha Richardson as the very lovely wife of the very stiff and undeserving Reverend Keach, has been a Penguin Classic since 2000. But the other books — Sinji, Harpole, Hetty, Steeple Sinderby — have faded from notice.

How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup
is a fairy tale. It is wish fulfilment for every boy who has ever played on a sodden field on a Saturday afternoon and dreamed the cheers of Mum and Dad on the side of the pitch into the roar of Wembley Stadium.

I am not much of a football pundit, but I am assured by those who are that Steeple Sinderby’s triumph in the FA Cup is not possible. But the momentum of the book — a whole season compressed into 122 pages — is such that you are carried away with it, as the Steeple Sinderby supporters are carried in a crush through the turnstiles.

The matches — against Culverly Railway Sheds United, North Baddesley Congregational Chapel, Hackthorn Young Conservatives, Barchester City (the first of the Big Boys), Tetford United, Tampling (top of the Fenland League for the last three seasons), Hartlepool and Aston Villa — have an almost magical unreality. They are more like Harry Potter’s Quidditch matches than football. Each match sees Steeple Sinderby, in all-gold shirts, shorts and stockings (though the gold is really more of a buttercup yellow), score goal after improbable goal.

Time and again the enemy underestimates our plucky boys from the Fens with their knitted scarfs and diets — baked beans, toast and cocoa — that defy sports science. They may be “turnip-heads”, “swede-bashers” and “clod-hoppers”, but they don’t half score a lot of goals.

By the time they get to the Cup Final against, improbably, Glasgow Rangers, even the most un-loutish of readers will find themselves bellowing “Come on you Buttercups!” from the stands.  It would make the most wonderful triumph-of-the-underdog film, if you could find an actor up to the part of club chairman Fangfoss. 

Carr was ever on the side of the underdog. He made a hero of Tom Birkin, the painter-soldier who returns from the trenches with a neurasthenic twitch and a stammer to find his wife has gone off with another chap. In his sixties, he adopted a luckless, crumbling church, St Faith at Newton in the Willows, abandoned by the diocese, and fought to protect it from pew-looters and font-smashers.

He took special notice of the children who came to the village school, where he was headmaster in the 1950s, with no shoes on their feet. He wrote in the logbooks of Highfields Primary School, Kettering: “Am determined that, from now on, no child shall leave here at 11 a non-reader.” He claimed that in his 15 years at the school he only failed with one boy. He was able to point him out in class photographs and say: “He’s the one who resisted the charms of reading!”

Carr, champion of the underdog, was an oddity. “You might describe him as a character,” says author and critic D.J. Taylor, who has written the introduction to Steeple Sinderby, “but he was more subtle that that. He wasn’t larger than life. He was extraordinarily enigmatic.”

Here was a man wedded to small town, provincial England — born in the village of Carlton Miniott, near Thirsk in the North Riding in 1912, educated at Castleford Secondary School and Dudley Teacher Training College, happily installed for his last four decades in suburban Kettering — who also spent a year teaching in the tumbleweed wastes of South Dakota, attached himself to an archaeological dig at Ur, and flew reconnaissance missions with the RAF in Sierra Leone during the Second World War.

He wanted to write and be read — and retired from teaching in 1967, aged 55, to do so — but was loath to promote his work. Having enjoyed quiet obscurity as a schoolmaster, he wasn’t about to start literary bandwaggoning in his fifties.

“He pleased himself, which is why he had a chequered publishing career,” says Taylor. Carr refused to be amenable to editors and marketing departments and each novel was put out by a different publisher. From What Hetty Did onwards, he published the books himself through the Quince Tree Press, stacking up copies in the Kettering back bedroom and garage ready for posting.

Taylor recalls visiting Carr and their meeting being interrupted by the telephone. It was W.H. Smith wanting to place a book order. Carr, far from making himself agreeable to the sales rep, talked as if it were all a bit of an imposition. Still, he later announced proudly to Taylor on the back of a postcard: “41 orders today”. This, says Taylor, from a man who had already been shortlisted twice for the Booker Prize.

But Carr wasn’t much interested in glittering prizes. One could win the FA Cup but the milk would still need delivering the next morning.

The first Booker nomination did nothing to turn his head. In a letter to the Bookseller, he described the prize as “a gap through which disregarded unworthies can creep through into brief consoling fame”. After the 1980 Booker Prize ceremony in London, when William Golding won for Rites of Passage (Carr, teetotal son of a Methodist lay preacher, was in the loos when a drunk Golding came in and fell flat on his face), Carr crept contentedly back to his Kettering garage to parcel up more books. He died in 1994, aged 81.

Carr’s two Booker nominations are pertinent this year when there has been some discussion of whether Graham Swift’s 136-page novella Mothering Sunday should be eligible for the prize list. It would certainly be against the trend. Of the six shortlisted books last year, five were more than 400 pages. The bookies’ favourite, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, was 640 pages and the winner Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings was 704 pages. Brief they certainly weren’t.

Wading through so many hundreds of pages — bleak and violent pages at that — does make one cheer for Carr and his little books, light enough to be read with just one hand above the duvet or palmed surreptitiously in dull lectures. So I say hurrah for the Steeple Sinderby Buttercups, hurrah for their author and thrice hurrah for short but perfectly-formed books.