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Archive for June 2016

J.L. Carr and A Month In The Country

Novel-writing can be a cold-blooded business. One uses whatever happens to be lying around in memory and employs it to suit one’s ends … All’s grist that comes to the mill.’ – J.L. Carr, from the foreword to A Month in the Country

J.L. Carr’s short novel A Month in the Country, his fifth, was published in 1980. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Guardian Fiction Prize in the same year. If you have yet to read it, here are three good reasons why you should. First, J.L. Carr was a one-off and, in the words of the literary critic D.J. Taylor, ‘one of the most distinctive and idiosyncratic novelists of the post-war era.’ Secondly it is a very short book, fewer than 100 pages – it can be read in an afternoon and twice if necessary. Finally, and most critically, A Month in the Country is a masterpiece, a strange, lyrical meditation on passing time, the English landscape and art. No two of Carr’s novels are alike, an idiosyncrasy that on occasion cost him readers. But no other author could have written A Month in the Country; it too is an unforgettable one-off.

Joseph Lloyd Carr – he called himself James or Jim – was born in 1912 in the North Yorkshire village of Carlton Miniott. His father was a stationmaster and Wesleyan lay preacher, aspects of whom found their way into A Month in the Country in the character of Mr. Ellerbeck, as portrayed by Jim Cartwright in Pat O’Connor’s film adaptation. For many years he was a teacher, eventually becoming headmaster of a primary school in Kettering in Northamptonshire. He was 51 when his first novel, A Day in Summer, was published in 1963. In 1967, he retired from teaching to devote himself to writing and to set himself up as a small publisher. Carr’s business plans were as quirky as his fiction. He produced a series of tiny selections of famous historical poets, such as Keats, Chaucer and Donne, which retailed at sixpence for adults and fourpence for children. He also published exquisite and eccentric hand-drawn maps of English counties, many of which are still available directly from the Quince Tree Press (, and which have something in common with the work of the artist Grayson Perry. Eventually the Quince Tree Press would publish its founder’s novels too.

A Month in the Country was published by the Sussex academic press Harvester in 1980 to little fanfare. Like all great books it owes much of its subsequent popularity not to glowing reviews – there were few initially – but to word-of-mouth recommendation. Readers found something unique and haunting in Carr’s evocation of a long-gone summer in the fictional Yorkshire village of Oxgodby; as the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald noted, ‘Carr is by no means a lavish writer, but he has the magic touch to re-enter the imagined past.’ It quickly became the author’s most appreciated novel and remains so to this day, read widely by those who know little or nothing of Carr’s other books or his various careers and who continue to discover a profoundly affecting work of art. In the wake of its commercial and critical success, a film was perhaps inevitable.

In his outstanding biography of Carr, The Last Englishman, Byron Rogers recounts Carr conducting director O’Connor, scriptwriter Simon Gray and producer Kenith Trodd on a walking tour of the countryside locations which had inspired parts of the novel. ‘We went over to Newton in the Willows [near Kettering],’ Carr later wrote. ‘This is the little church all alone in the meadows … I kept the official and private vandals at bay when it became redundant. This is the novel’s backdrop, and it is charming and it is sad. One stands there and looks and wonders if anything at all is worthwhile…’ As Rogers notes, ‘this was written by man then at the peak of his literary success … This should have been a time for reflective self-congratulation, albeit tempered by the death of his wife Sally the year before. Instead, as he showed his guests the church in the meadows, Carr was close to despair. Something had happened to him in this place.

There is one further reason why any fan of the film of A Month in the Country might also consider reading the book. In the transition from page to screen, Simon Gray and Pat O’Connor effectively altered the focus of Carr’s novel. The film seems explicitly concerned with the lingering effects of the First World War on those who fought in it and on English society at large. This element, while present, is deliberately understated in the novel, part of the backdrop to events around the mural, the church and the village. In real life Carr had fought to preserve a church very like the fictional one in Oxgodby; and A Month in the Country was written while Sally Carr was in the terminal stage of a long illness. In that context, the following short paragraph from near the end of the novel, whilst still related to the trauma of the Great War, is imbued with a more personal significance, both to the narrator Birkin and to the enigmatic artist who drew him.

We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever – the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

Jim Carr wrote three further wonderful novels, none of them much like A Month in the Country or for that matter one another. He died in 1994 at the age of 81. In Byron Rogers’s beautiful phrase, the last day of his life was the only one in which he had not been fully conscious. Like the painter of the Oxgodby Jesus, Carr’s work now stands for him, as eloquent as it is sublime.

NOTE: This essay was commissioned by the BFI for the booklet accompanying the new DVD and Blu Ray edition of A Month in the Country, available now.

You can also hear me discussing J.L. Carr and A Month in the Country with Lissa Evans, John Mitchinson and Mathew Clayton on the first episode of our podcast Backlisted, available via Soundcloud, iTunes etc.