Category Archives: Carr J. L.

My books of the year, 2020 – part 1, novellas and non-fiction

2020 has been a tumultuous year for obvious reasons. I’ve read somewhere in the region of 100 books – most of them in the first half of the year while on furlough during the national lockdown. A stressful time for many of us, I’m sure; but it did give me the chance to read some excellent books, many of which feature in my highlights of the year.

This time, I’m spreading my books of the year across a couple of posts – novellas and non-fiction in this first piece, with my favourite novels to follow next week. With the exception of some of the memoirs, most of these books were first published several years ago – a factor that reflects the types of books I tend to enjoy reading. So, if you’re looking for the best *new* books published in 2020, this is not the place to come – there are many other literary blogs which cover that territory very thoroughly…

So, without further ado, here are my favourite novellas and non-fiction books from a year of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to others. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Novellas

The Dig by Cynan Jones

A haunting, deeply moving book about death, grief, brutality and compassion, beautifully expressed in spare, poetic prose. The narrative focuses on Daniel, a recently widowed sheep farmer struggling to cope with the lambing season deep in rural Wales. In writing The Dig, Jones has crafted an enduring story of loss, isolation and savagery in a harsh, unforgiving world – and yet, there is great tenderness here too, a sense of beauty in the language, particularly in Daniel’s memories of times past.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

The gloriously off-kilter world of Muriel Spark continues to be a source of fascination for me. I loved this novella; it’s wonderfully dark and twisted, characteristically Sparkian in its unconventional view. Dougal Douglas is a particularly sinister character, a mercurial individual who brings chaos into the lives of those he encounters. There is a touch of the dark arts about this novella with its slyly manipulative protagonist. If you liked Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, chances are you’ll enjoy this too.

Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

A haunting yet captivating novella of great tenderness and beauty – a story encompassing themes of detachment, fleeting connections and the pressure to conform to society’s expectations. The narrator – a young woman who remains unnamed throughout – is something of a misfit in her community, her French-Korean origins marking her out as a source of speculation amongst the locals. Into her life comes Kerrand, a French graphic artist from Normandy whose speciality is creating comics. Almost immediately, there is a certain frisson to the interactions between the two, a connection that waxes and wanes as the days slip by. The book’s enigmatic ending only adds to its sense of mystery.

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 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 earlier 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. 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 Head. This is a very amusing book that perfectly captures the preoccupations and absurdities of state-funded education in the early 1970s. A marvellous period piece imbued with nostalgia.

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

This haunting, dreamlike story of a neglectful single mother and her eight-year-old son will almost certainly get under your skin. Right from the start of the book, there is a something of a disconnect between parent and child, a sense of separateness or isolation that sets them apart from one another. The narrative unfolds over a bitterly cold night, during which these two individuals embark on separate yet strangely connected journeys, searching for their own sense of fulfilment in an uncertain world. The ambiguous nature of the ending only adds to the unnerving feel of the novel as a whole. One for book groups and individual readers alike. 

Non-Fiction

Motherwell: A Girlhood by Deborah Orr

Ostensibly a memoir exploring Orr’s childhood – in particular the fractured relationship between the author and her mother Win, a formidable woman who held the reins of power within the family’s household. Moreover, this powerful book also gives readers a searing insight into a key period of Scotland’s social history, successfully conveying the devastating impact of the steel industry’s decimation – especially on Motherwell (where Orr grew up) and the surrounding community. This is a humane, beautifully-written book of how our early experiences and the communities we live in can shape us, possibly prompting us to strive for something better in the years that follow.

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

A fascinating collection of mini-biographies, focusing on five female inhabitants of Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square, including Dorothy L. Sayers, Eileen Power and Virginia Woolf. What I love about this book is the way the author uses this particular location as a prism through which to view the lives of these pioneering women, painting a rich tapestry of life within London’s cultural milieu from the end of WW1 to the beginning of WW2. In short, an erudite, evocative and beautifully constructed book, highly recommended for anyone interested in London’s social/cultural scene in the 1920s and ‘30s.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

This is a terrific read – a compassionate, multifaceted discourse on what it means to feel lonely and exposed in a fast-moving city, a place that feels alive and alienating all at once. At the time of writing this book, Laing was living in New York, recently separated from her former partner, an experience that had left her feeling somewhat adrift and alone. During the months that followed, Laing found herself drawn to the work of several visual and creative artists that had captured something of the inner loneliness of NYC, a sense of urban isolation or alienation. Through a combination of investigation, cultural commentary and memoir, she explores the nature of loneliness, how it manifests itself both in the creative arts and in our lives. A fascinating book, beautifully written and constructed – a contemporary classic in the making.

Broken Greek by Pete Paphides

Ostensibly a childhood memoir, Broken Greek offers a moving account of Paphides’s upbringing in the suburbs of Birmingham in the 1970s and early ‘80s – ‘a story of chip shops and pop songs,’ as the subtitle accurately declares. In writing Broken Greek, Paphides has given us a tender, affectionate, humorous memoir, one that brilliantly conveys the power of music – not only for the emotions it stirs within us but as a means of deepening our understanding of life and humanity, too. I read this during lockdown, and it lifted my mood considerably.

How to Cook a Wolf by M. F. K. Fisher

Another excellent lockdown read, but for very different reasons to those for Broken Greek. Initially published in 1942 and subsequently updated in the 1950s, How to Cook a Wolf is a terrifically witty discourse on how to eat as well (or as decently) as possible on limited resources. In her characteristically engaging style, Fisher encourages us to savour the pleasures of simple dishes: the delights of a carefully cooked omelette; the heartiness of a well-flavoured soup; and the comforting taste of a baked apple with cinnamon milk at the end of a good meal. The writing is spirited and full of intelligence, a style that seems to reflect Fisher’s personality as well as her approach to cooking. A rediscovered gem to dip into for pleasure.

The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey

Harvey’s book is something of a companion piece to Insomnia, Marina Benjamin’s luminous meditation on the hinterland between longed-for sleep and unwelcome wakefulness. The Shapeless Unease brilliantly evokes the fragmentary nature of this interminable condition, perfectly capturing the freewheeling association between seemingly disparate thoughts as the mind flits from one topic to another. Along the way, Harvey touches on a range of other subjects with her characteristic blend of insight and intelligence – topics ranging from loss, grief, childhood, writing, swimming and the distortion of our national values into the divisions wielded by Brexit. One to keep by the bedside for the long white nights when sleep fails to come.

House of Glass by Hadley Freeman

I loved this thoroughly absorbing memoir by the journalist Hadley Freeman, a book that combines the personal and the political in an emotionally involving way. Ostensibly, House of Glass tells the story of Freeman’s Jewish grandmother, Sala, and her family, a narrative that spans the whole of the 20th century. It’s a book that asks searching questions about a whole host of issues including familial identity, integration, personal outlook, xenophobia and social mobility – topics that remain all too relevant in Europe and the wider world today, where instances of racism and nationalism are still very much in evidence.

So, that’s it for my novellas and non-fiction books of the year. My one regret is that I never found the time to write about Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling, a book I adored. Join me again next week when I’ll be sharing my favourite novels from a year of reading.

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.

How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup by J. L. Carr

The British writer and publisher J. L. Carr is undoubtedly best known for his masterpiece, A Month in the Country (1980), a book I truly adore. Nevertheless, this author is much more than a one-book wonder as his excellent 1975 novella, How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup, clearly demonstrates.

I loved this tale of the plucky underdogs – titular non-leaguers Steeple Sinderby Wanderers – overcoming all the odds to beat the mighty Glasgow Rangers, scooping the much-prized FA Cup in the process. Although very different in style to Carr’s most famous work, How Steeple Sinderby… shares something of that novella’s tone, an air of wistfulness and longing for halcyon times past.

In short, the book charts the progress of a village football team who, through a combination of talent, discipline and determination, achieve their dream of going all the way to cup final and snatching victory in the game’s closing minutes.

And then the truly magnificent Slingsby, who had withstood this assault like a rock, gathered the ball and, on the turn, squeezed a fierce low kick from the scrum. And one wondered… one wondered if this had been plotted months ago when this village side was still lost in the obscurity of the midland plains. It had been All or Nothing. Nothing if McGarrity had scored, Nothing if Wilmslow hadn’t risen from the earth… If, if, if… (p.111)

Crucial to the team are its key players: centre forward Sid Smith, a once-promising striker now lured out of retirement; Monkey Tonks, the local milkman whose strength and agility make him an ideal candidate for goalkeeper; and last but not least, Alan Slingsby, whose earlier career at Aston Villa was cut short due to his wife’s need for round-the-clock care.

The story is narrated by a local man, Joe Gidner, who is tasked with documenting the official history of the Wanderers’ triumph. As such, the novella comprises Gidner’s reflections on the season, intercut with extracts from newspaper reports on crucial matches, along with the occasional summary of committee meetings at the Club. Several of the press reports are penned by Alice (Ginchy) Trigger, a staff reporter from the East Barset Weekly Messenger. Ginchy – whose remit covers funerals, inquests, weddings and all sport – is one of a cast of idiosyncratic characters who give Carr’s novella its wonderful sense of place, rooted as it is in a somewhat eccentric rural community, quintessentially English in tone. At one point, Ginchy is asked to provide a running audio commentary on one of the games, for broadcast to an orchard full of restless Hartlepool fans who were unable to gain entry to the ground. It’s gloriously eccentric, full of partisan enthusiasm for the plucky home side.  

They’re all around Monkey Tonks and he’s trying to push them away as he can’t see. And everybody’s running into one another and the ball’s knocked two of theirs down. HE’S RUNNING! BILLY SLEDMER’s RUNNING! There’s nobody in front of him but their goalie and he’s coming out crouching. HE’S SCORED! We’ve got THREE. THEY CAN’T WIN US NOW! (pp. 69–70)

Mr Fangfoss, the formidable Club Chairman, is also worthy of a mention here, a confident, outspoken man who sees off all-comers – the meddling Club President included – with the most marvellous of put-downs.   

The Club’s tactical guru, the Hungarian Dr Kossuth, is another highly memorable character. Here he is with his beautiful, breathtaking wife, arriving at the ground for a pre-tournament match.

On this particularly fine April day she was wearing her expensive leopard skin coat with a little fur hat perched on her heaped-up hair and long leather boots. And the Doctor was wearing a long black Central European overcoat with the astrakhan collar which marked him as having seen better days. Naturally, I refused to take their 5p admission. (pp. 11–12)

En route to the final, the Wanderers must face all manner of opposition, from the confident Barchester City – the first of the Big Boys in the qualifying rounds – to the much-fancied team from Manchester, complete with a coterie of fans who run riot through the village.

There is a wonderful comic tone running through this novella, from the descriptions of the Wanderers’ preparations to the observations on their various opponents. I love this passage on Barchester, a town much despised by its neighbours for the smugness of its residents. 

Barchester has a cathedral and, until they built the Discount Hyper-Market, this was its biggest attraction. On fine Saturdays the City draws about 250 paying spectators, augmented by between 20 and 30 Pensioners who are driven out for air from the Cathedral Almshouses by the Warden Canon. But, in cold, wet weather, they get no more than 70 or 80 – including the full tally of Pensioners – all huddled in their ‘grandstand’, which is very interesting architecturally because it tones in with the Cathedral and is the only football building mentioned in the Professor Pevsner’s ‘Buildings of England’. (p. 43)

The spirit of village league football is also beautifully conveyed – an endeavour where belief and enthusiasm are all important, irrespective of the ramshackle nature of the set-up.

What strikes me about this marvellous novella is some of the aspects it shares with A Month in the Country despite the apparent difference in focus. As in Country, the fleeting nature of happiness is a key theme here, a sense that what has passed can never be recaptured, however much we wish it could be. Probably the best we can do is to cherish the memories, keeping them alive in our hearts and minds.

The book also has some interesting things to say about the nature of life in a rural community, almost as if there is something broader going on here alongside the touching tale of wish fulfilment.

People don’t know about rural England between the last Mystery Autumn Foliage Coach Trip and the Mystery Blossom Journey into Spring. Mud, fog, dripping trees, blackness, floods, mighty rushing winds under doors that don’t fit, damp hassocks, sticking organ keys, stone floors and that dreadful smell of decay. (p. 11)

For a novella first published in 1975, it also feels somewhat ahead of its time in terms of insights into the modern game – perhaps most notably, the importance of sports psychology and European-style methods of football management. Moreover, Carr is also aware of the negative impact of commercialisation within the game, particularly when the Club comes under pressure to convert to a limited company with sponsorship deals being touted as incentives.

So, in summary, How Steeple Sinderby… is very highly recommended indeed, even if you have absolutely no interest in football. Trust me, the writing is more than good enough to transcend any concerns on that front.

How Steeple Sinderby… is published by Penguin; personal copy.

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr (1980)

What can I say about this classic novella that hasn’t been said before? Probably not a lot, other than it to reiterate just how wonderful it is. A masterpiece in miniature – I loved it.

Set in small Yorkshire village in the heady summer of 1920, Carr’s novella is narrated by Tom Birkin, a young man still dealing with the effects of shell-shock following the traumas of the First World War. A Southerner by nature, Birkin has come to Oxgodby to restore a Medieval wall painting in the local church – much to the annoyance of the vicar, Reverend Keach, who resents the restorer’s presence in his domain. In reality, there is another purpose to Birkin’s visit: to find an escape or haven of sorts, an immersive distraction from the emotional scars of the past.

Naturally, the project brings Birkin into contact with other residents in the village, many of whom are intrigued by his work. There is Moon, an archaeologist and fellow veteran of the war, a point that gives him some understanding of Birkin’s mental condition; Alice Keach, the vicar’s beautiful young wife who seems somewhat out of place beside her husband at the vicarage; and the Ellerbecks, a kindly local family who befriend Birkin, providing him with homemade food to supplement his meagre supplies.

I don’t want to reveal much more about what happens in the novel, other than to give a flavour of some of the keynotes. There’s a touch of romance in the air, an element of mystery in the story behind the painting, and a gradual renewal of sorts for Birkin – a sense of restoration, both creatively and emotionally.

Standing up there on the platform before a great work of art, feeling kinship with its creator, cozily knowing that I was a sort of impresario conjuring and teasing back his work after four hundred years of darkness. But that wasn’t all of it. There was this weather, this landscape, thick woods, roadsides deep in grass and wild flowers. And to south and north of the Vale, low hills, frontiers of a mysterious country. (p.83)

Above all, this is a beautifully written novel imbued with a strong sense of longing, a nostalgia for an idyllic world. (Birkin is narrating his story from a point of distance, looking back nearly 60 years to the summer in question.) It also perfectly captures the ephemeral nature of time – the idea that our lives can turn on the tiniest of moments, the most fleeting of chances to be grasped before they are lost forever.

People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvelous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies. (p.104)

A sublime, deeply affecting book about love, loss and the restorative power of art – one I would wholeheartedly recommend if you haven’t read it already. (For more detailed insights, do take a look at these excellent posts by Max and Caroline. The wonderful Backlisted team also covered the book on one of their podcasts, which you can find here.)

My copy of A Month in the Country is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.