The Harpole Report by J. L. Carr

Earlier this year, I read Carr’s excellent ‘football’ novella, How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup (1975), in which a team of plucky underdogs overcome the mighty Glasgow Rangers to scoop the much-prized trophy. It’s a book that shares something with the author’s 1972 novella, The Harpole Report, which takes another British institution – in this instance, a Church of England Primary School – as its focus for a most amusing satire. It really is a terrifically funny book, a throwback to the golden age of British comedy in the 1970s.

In essence, the book constructs a picture of a term at St Nicholas C of E, during which George Harpole – who has taught there for some time – is appointed as the school’s Temporary Headmaster. (It turns out that the previous Head, Mr Chadband, has been granted a leave of absence, supposedly for the pursuit of professional studies. However, from one or two hints revealed during the book, the exact nature of these ‘studies’ appears to be somewhat dubious.)

The story unfolds through a combination of sources, including excerpts from Harpole’s journal; entries in the official school log-book; memos between Harpole and Mr Tusker, the Assistant Education Officer at the Local Authority; letters from Harpole to his fiancée, Edith Wardle; and various other documents. Interspersed with these vignettes are observations from an unnamed individual who has been commissioned to compile an independent report on Harpole’s tenure as Acting Head. It’s a very engaging technique, one that enables a surprisingly vivid picture to be pieced together from a variety of different perspectives, especially with the benefit of reading between the lines.  

As one might imagine, there are many trials and tribulations to be faced when running a school. During term-time, the well-intentioned Harpole must deal with a plethora of problems from disgruntled parents to sensitive members of staff and pupils, all set within an environment hampered by petty bureaucracy and constrained resources.

Some of the novella’s most amusing scenes are conveyed through the administrative memos from Harpole to Tusker and vice versa. In this passage, Tusker is responding to a complaint by Mr Theaker, the school caretaker, who has taken umbrage at being asked to hoist the Union Jack flag on a daily basis. The resultant memo from Tusker to Harpole is typical of this official’s communications, characterised by their antagonistic, narrow-minded style.

TUSKER TO HARPOLE

I was called upon to-day by the industrial disputes officer of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, complaining that you have instructed your caretaker, Mr E. E. Theaker, to hoist a flag each morning.

I would point out that the Local Educational Committee has laid down the principal duties of its caretakers are to maintain (a) Heat (b) Cleanliness (c) Security, and that Other Duties should only be undertaken when and if time permits. In view of this, no doubt you would like to re-consider the ill-considered position you have taken up, and I shall expect to hear what course of action in this vexatious matter you propose to take.

I note that you have not yet informed me why you require a second flag. (p. 7)

Theaker – a man who is something of a law unto himself – proves to be the cause of another incident when one of the teachers, Mr Pintle, discovers that his precious teaching aids for History lessons have disappeared from the school’s storeroom…

[HARPOLE’S] JOURNAL

…Just as I was going home, Pintle, almost incoherent, rage intermingled with grief, burst accusingly in. This being the season of the year when he does the Normans, he had been to the Surplus Apparatus and Staff Illustration Store to put back his Viking longship (made of 3,500 matchsticks) and to take out his cardboard Norman Keep. Apparently the Store was empty and the Keep (which he had made in his first year out of college) had gone. I hurried back with him and the little room was certainly empty of educational apparatus and now housed brushes, mops, cleaning paraphernalia, a child’s desk and an old armchair.

As I gazed unbelievingly at this, Theaker came round the corner. He was taken aback but rallied, declaring defiantly before I had time to speak, ‘Well, it was only full of junk.’ (p. 36)

This journal entry captures something of the book’s character, a humorous, idiosyncratic style that runs through much of Carr’s work.

By conveying Harpole’s approach and leadership of the school, Carr is able to touch on various social issues of the day, weaving them into the narrative in a wonderfully satirical way. The damaging impact of corporal punishment; the negative effects of streaming; and the unfairness of social discrimination, especially against girls, all feature at one point or another in the book.

Poverty, malnutrition and lack of support at home are also topics that Harpole must turn his mind to, especially when the Widmerpools (surely a nod to the odious Kenneth Widmerpool from A Dance to the Music of Time) move into the catchment area. The junior Widemerpools are a notoriously unruly bunch, with reading ages well below the expected levels. A programme of intensive reading produces some excellent results, if only this encouraging run of progress could be maintained…

In addition to these knotty sociopolitical issues, there are more light-hearted activities for Harpole to contend with, including Sports Day, school outings, and an amorous governor to name but a few.

Alongside Harpole himself – who emerges as a principled, well-intentioned man, battling against an archaic, bureaucratic system – the pen-portraits of the other teachers are beautifully sketched. There is young Miss Foxberrow, an energetic Cambridge graduate with progressive ideas; Mr Croser, a rather smug young teacher with strong moral standards; Mrs Grindle-Jones, a traditionalist rapidly approaching retirement; and Miss Tollemarche, whose note-taking on the attendance register is hopelessly inaccurate. Each one presents a particular challenge for Harpole in their own individual way.

Also of note are the letters from Miss Foxberrow to her sister, Felicity, commenting on Harpole and the various developments at the school. These too are wonderfully humorous, revealing something of Miss Foxberrow as a character and her growing admiration for the Temporary Head. Finally, on the personal front, there are the notes from Harpole to his fiancée, Edith, in which he relates the potential theft of a missing spanner and the subsequent lack of interest in the case from the police – another source of amusement in this sharply satirical tale.

In summary, this is a marvellously funny book that perfectly captures the preoccupations and absurdities of state-funded education in the early 1970s. A period piece imbued with nostalgia.

My copy of The Harpole Report was published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

36 thoughts on “The Harpole Report by J. L. Carr

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s very, very funny. The sort of book that could only have been written by someone with first-hand experience of schools. i think you’ll enjoy this one…

      Reply
  1. heavenali

    Someone else reviewed this, was it Karen? Anyway it sounds delightful and I am reminded yet again that I must read J. L Carr. I have A Month in the Country somewhere on my tbr. The Widmerpool references alone make this a must!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s right. Karen wrote about it a few months ago, and she too noted the significance of ‘Widermpool’ in the context of Powell. That said, these Widermpools are somewhat different to Kenneth as they lack the latter’s pomposity. Carr’s children are rather wild and uneducated; untamed as opposed to deliberately malicious!

      Reply
  2. Tredynas Days

    I also thought I’d read a post on this recently – I see from the comments it was Karen. As a former teacher (briefly in schools initially) I thought this rings very true. I’ve come across a few ‘untamed’ youngsters in my time!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s very cleverly constructed with scenarios starting from the perspective of one character and ending with that of another, almost akin to a baton being passed in a relay race. I’m pretty sure it will resonate with many teachers, both old and new!

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui, and I also adored the book. You really capture the flavour of it beautifully – it’s so funny and brilliantly portrays life at the time. And with Carr I always sense hidden depths. You’re right about the Widmerpools too – totally unPowell-like! :D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I’d been meaning to pick it up for a while, but your review definitely spurred me on! Yes, definitely with you on the hidden depths in Carr’s work. As with Sinderby, there are some interesting sociopolitical themes bubbling away under the surface humour, a thoughtfulness about the limitations of educational policy which gives the novella a degree of depth.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, you have such treats in store! His masterpiece is A Month in the Country, a novella imbued with a strong sense of nostalgia for an idyllic world. A really beautiful book about love, loss and yearning. It’s probably one of my all-time favourites…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, he’s so much more than a one-book wonder! I hope you get a chance to read A Month in the Country very soon. Funnily enough, it’s a good one for late summer/early autumn, just as the last of the sunshine fades away…

      Reply
  4. Julé Cunningham

    Love J.L. Carr and this book. Poor George Harpole! You’ve reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading it long ago and that it would be an excellent reread when something that tickles the funny bone is needed.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely! I think I read it at just the right time, in the midst of a challenging week when a cheerer-upper was in order. It feels like the kind of book you could dip into as a re-read every now and again, particularly given the ‘vignette’ structure and style…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’re probably the ideal reader for this as the setting and themes will be very familiar to you. Who knows, it might even inspire you to write a satire of your own – updated to the 21st century, of course!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ve always had a soft spot for this decade, largely because it represents the period of my childhood that I can actually remember! It’s easy to forget how grim certain aspects of life were back then, especially when our views of that era are tinged with nostalgia. Anyway, this is another very funny book. I seem to be on a run of humour at the mo!

      Reply
  5. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  6. Max Cairnduff

    Has Carr written a bad book I wonder? It’s curious how the book he’s deservedly famous for is so serious, while mainly he appears to be a great comedy writer. Is this OOP now? The cover looks quite old school.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it? I’m beginning to get the sense that A Month in the Country might be something of an outlier in his oeuvre. As you say, he certainly had a talent for satire….

      The Penguin edition of Harpole is no longer in print, but the book is still available from Carr’s own publishing house, Quince Tree Press (now managed by the family). There’s a link here for further reference: http://www.quincetreepress.co.uk/page4.html

      Reply
  7. buriedinprint

    It sounds simply delightful. And how fortunate that you’ve got so many little gems like this, just waiting around to be read. :)

    Reply

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.