Tuesday, 20 March 2007

The Last Englishman

Literary heroes generally come in two varieties, I've found. There's those whose writing you love, and who probably influence your own writing hugely, however much you try to avoid it or at least temper it, and then there's the other kind. The type whose whole life is in some way inspiring.
For me, JL Carr fits into both categories. I came across his novels some time in the late 80s, I think, when I found a copy of The Battle Of Pollock's Crossing in the local library. It's not his best, but it's still a memorable and odd book, so I sought out the rest. At first I could only find A Day In Summer, his first, which is both very dark and, by his standards, not that great. It didn't put me off, though, and I eventually read all eight of them. They all have something to recommend them, especially A Season In Sinji, The Harpole Report, and his masterpiece, A Month In The Country.
Occasionally, especially in the later books, you get the impression that the author is simply using his characters to make speeches on his behalf (even in the best books, there's a strong undertone of wish-fulfilment), but the writing is always a treat - wry and witty and wholly distinctive.
Intriguingly, Byron Rogers' excellent biography, The Last Englishman, showed that the more outlandish events and characters in the novels were generally taken straight from life. Carr had a long career as a teacher and headmaster, during which he developed highly individual (but successful) teaching strategies in which the traditional and the progressive co-existed happily. And that career was punctuated by a year teaching in a Great Depression-hit town on the South Dakota prairie, and wartime service in flying boats in West Africa, meaning that behind a seemingly quiet and unremarkable exterior was a wealth of material just waiting to be mined.
There is, I think, a trace of that opposition between the traditional and the progressive in his writing. For all that his books seem pretty straightforward 20th Century English novels, they occasionally take big risks. The Harpole Report, for example, is told entirely in the form of journal and logbook entries, letters and other official documents. Pretty odd, when you really look at it, although as you read it you just enjoy the rather Pooter-esque humour. And then there's the way that characters wander from one novel to another, without dates and ages ever quite tallying up. Possibly it was just a way of disguising the real-life models, but it all goes to help create a world of his own, slightly and subtly out of sync with our own.
And the novels are not the whole story, if you'll excuse the pun. Carr was also a one-man publishing industry, producing and selling mini-anthologies of classic poets, idiosyncratic pocket books on subjects as diverse as royal consorts and forgotten cricketers, and lavish pictorial maps of English counties. He retired early from teaching to allow himself time to write, and made a meagre living from sales of such products through Quince Tree Press. There was the campaigning, too, to save neglected churches, and to bring to public attention long-forgotten historical figures such as the intriguing Captain Pouch, Carr sharing my own fascination with 17th Century radicals (and earlier rebels, of which more very soon).
I've been re-reading the novels lately (it doesn't take long, because Carr evidently believed Polonius's assertion that brevity is the soul of wit, making every word count to the extent that none of his books are real doorstops). For the next few weeks, I'll post little mini-reviews of each one, and maybe you'll be inspired to discover a writer who, while not really underrated (he generally got glowing reviews), is inexplicably overlooked.

No comments: