Obituary: J. L. Carr
J. L. CARR was one of the most distinctive and idiosyncratic novelists of the post-war era. His success was unusual and hard won, for he came late to writing - his first novel appeared in his fifties - never possessed a regular publisher, and combined authorship with the running of his own small publishing firm.
James (Joseph) Lloyd Carr was born in 1912 in Carlton Miniott, North Yorkshire, where his father was a stationmaster and Wesleyan lay preacher. Traces of this upbringing survive in the 'chapel' scenes of his best-known novel, A Month in the Country (1980). Having served a peripatetic schoolmaster's apprenticeship in places as far apart as Hampshire and Birmingham, he settled in the Northamptonshire town of Kettering. Here, with breaks for a pre-war round-the- world tour, wartime service as an RAF intelligence officer, and a year spent teaching in South Dakota in the 1950s, he remained for the rest of his life.
But Carr's story really begins in the 1960s when, tired of schoolteaching and encouraged by his attendance at a Workers' Educational Association class on 'Modern Writers of Significance', he determined to write a novel. A Day in Summer, a Greene-ish tale of revenge, set in the Midlands town of 'Great Minden', was published in 1963. Inspired by this modest success, Carr gave up his job and set up as a small publisher. He and his wife Sally, a former Red Cross nurse, possessed a house and a capital of pounds 1,600 and imagined that they could survive for two years on these resources while establishing the business.
The Carrs began by publishing hand-drawn historical maps of the English counties, and tiny booklet selections of celebrated poets. An early edition of John Clare retailed at sixpence for adults and fourpence for children. Carr recalled that after a mention in the Guardian 'Letters came tied in bundles. I lost a penny on each book thanks to the enormous number of children with thoroughly mature handwriting.' The list was later expanded to take in original productions such as Carr's Dictionary of Extraordinary English Cricketers, and A Dictionary of English Queens, Kings' Wives, Paramours, Celebrated Handfast Spouses and Royal Changelings. Professionals informed him that he would have sold many more copies by substituting 'concubines' for 'handfast spouses' but, as he observed, 'I cherish my father's memory.'
Six months before the two-year cut-off point, the Carrs were down to pounds 400, but eventually the business moved into profit. Meanwhile, Carr's career as a novelist followed an equally erratic progress. His second novel A Season in Sinji, set on an RAF outstation in West Africa and drawing on his wartime experiences, appeared in 1967. Five years later came The Harpole Report. These novels brought Carr a cult following, but they did not make him any money. It was not until the publication of A Month in the Country in 1980 that his reputation was assured. This short and profoundly affecting tale of two Great War survivors thrown together by chance in a remote Yorkshire village reached the Booker shortlist, won the Guardian Fiction Prize, and was in 1987 made into a film starring Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh.
The utterly original flavour of Carr's novels is difficult to convey, as they are all written in different styles and examine different subjects. The Harpole Report is a wildly funny expose of the teaching profession, written in the form of letters; How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup (1975) a tragi-comedy mimicking the tone of an official history. Underlying them is a profound sense of loss, the vulnerability of human emotion to passing time. 'We can ask and ask but we can't have again what once seemed ours forever - the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, a loved face,' says a character in A Month in the Country. 'They'd gone, and you could only wait for the pain to pass.'
Carr was modest about his achievements. 'Really, all I've tried to do is tell a few people a story in the most appropriate way,' he once told me. Though he believed that his works would survive, he did not covet fame, and he could also be very obstinate. Thus, after his sixth novel The Battle of Pollocks Crossing made the 1985 Booker shortlist, he could - had he cared - have made a great deal of money. Instead he abandoned London publishers as a lost cause. His last novels, What Hetty Did (1988) and Harpole & Foxberrow, General Publishers (1992), a splendid booktrade romp, appeared under the imprint of his own Quince Tree Press; by the time of his death he had already brought out a further two of his early books.
Sally Carr died in 1981; the couple had one son. In the last decade of his life Jim Carr maintained a busy existence, keeping up the publishing firm and acting as secretary to the Northamptonshire Historic Churches Trust - one of his abiding enthusiasms. He was a quiet and unassuming man, though with faint dandyish tendencies, and remarkable for the range of his friendships. Many of his visitors in the weeks before his death were younger writers - some of them as much as 50 years younger - who had come to know him through newspaper interviews and kept up with him by letter: Carr was an inveterate correspondent. He was - a rarer combination than it sounds - both a marvellous writer and a marvellous man, and it can truthfully be said that there will never be anyone like him again.
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