This month, rather than our giving you a review of this short and wonderful book, a friend of TOAST – Sally Muir – has written a reminiscence of her time spent working with the author. Her memories will on their own convey an idea of the sort of book such a man would write but, in case that’s not enough – A Month in the Country is a gem of a book: a story told by a narrator in old age looking back to a time of a quiet and tempered post-war redemption set deep in rural England in 1920. The book is simply written, sympathetically percipient of nuance of character and the foibles of humanity, quietly and cumulatively profound. An ideal summer’s book for December reading. And, if you buy the Penguin Modern Classics paperback, you will get an introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald, one of the very greatest of 20th century novelists, into the bargain.
A Month in Kettering
I wouldn’t presume to try to add to either Michael Holroyd or Penelope Fitzgerald’s introductions to A Month in the Country. It’s a small, perfect masterpiece, which they describe much better than I could. But I can add a personal account of the JL Carr that I knew.
I went to work for JL Carr - or Mr Carr as I always called him - when I was 20, in the 70s. Having retired from teaching he ran a very small publishing business from his back bedroom in Kettering. He produced hand-drawn, highly idiosyncratic maps of the counties of England and small collections of out of copyright poets which were 16 pages long and sold for 20p. He later expanded this series into works such as Carr’s Dictionary of Cricketers, Eponymists and Extraordinary Animals. I wanted to work in publishing and had decided that apprenticeship was the way to learn all about it. Being a small business he said he could only afford pay me for one month, during the pre-Christmas rush, so I moved to Kettering and lodged with the Doctor and his wife and went to work for Mr Carr.
I felt it only polite to read the three novels he’d published by then: A Day in Summer, A Season in Sinji and The Harpole Report. His years of teaching were much in evidence, and when I’d finished reading them, he insisted on giving me detailed comprehension tests. He also teased me gently - but relentlessly - about my soft southern ways.
He took the job of introducing me to the business of publishing very seriously. The back bedroom/office was very orderly, and each department was stored in shoeboxes, Kettering being a shoe town. In the mornings, we opened and fulfilled the orders, and sent out proofs of maps to prospective buyers. After lunch I staggered to the post office with a sackful of tubes and packages. In the afternoons, his wife Sally and I hand-painted faces and bits of gold on the maps while he wrote in one of his three sheds, the other two being filled with remaindered copies of his novels (he had offered to pay me in remaindered books, which he estimated at 850 a week).
We had a ritual every Friday lunchtime - he, Sally and I would listen to Desert Island Discs in the forlorn hope that the guest would choose one of his novels. They never did. I told my father this story, and when he was invited on to Desert Island Discs, he chose as his book The Harpole Report, JL Carr’s comic masterpiece of school life. The author and my father subsequently became friends for life.
JL Carr’s great success with A Month in the Country came after I’d left, but I was very touched that he and Sally came to see me on my market stall in Covent Garden on their way to the Booker Prize ceremony. He was delighted, and not particularly surprised by its success. As Sally used to say: “He’s not backward in coming forward.” He didn’t think it was his best book, he thought A Season in Sinji was. I’m not sure he was right about that.
My month in Kettering - followed by another month the following year - formed the foundation of a very firm friendship. For the rest of his life - until he died in 1994 - we wrote to each other. I’ve got a shoebox full of his wonderful letters, full of advice on how to run a business, details of how the books and maps were going, very detailed updates on how his novels were selling, photographs of his latest sculptures and Kettering gossip. I went to see him the day before he died, pregnant with my son whose middle name is James after him. He looked tiny, but undiminished, still managing to tease me from his deathbed. As DJ Taylor said in his obituary: “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.” I was very lucky to know him.
Sally Muir worked briefly in publishing; has been a successful knitwear designer – beginning with a stall in Covent Garden; and is now an artist.
Image by Laura Oosterbeek