Best-known for his ‘virtually flawless’ A Month in the Country, James Lloyd Carr lived an eccentric life that encompassed, among many other things, cartography, cricket and coal 

Written by Michael Prodger

Publication date and time: Published

Many publishers preface their books with a short author biography – a few factual nuggets saying who he or she is, where they were born and what other books they have written. These brief gobbets of information are usually pulled together by a junior figure in the publishing house. However, the note that sits on the first page of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country shows a more playful hand: ‘J.L. Carr is a publisher of standard poets, idiosyncratic maps and unlikely dictionaries. He is also the author of children’s books and novels.’  

With these few, well-chosen words, Carr’s own, it is clear that he was no run-of-the-mill writer but a character every bit as interesting as his books – which is not always the case with authors. In fact, these details were positively wordy for Carr; for an American edition of one of his works he offered up just: ‘J.L. Carr lives in England’. 

Carr, who died 30 years ago this month, at the age of 81, is best known for A Month in the Country, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1980 and was later made into a film starring a fresh-faced Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh (in his first film role). It is often forgotten, however, that he was shortlisted a second time, in 1985, for The Battle of Pollocks Crossing. In the first instance he lost out to William Golding with Rites of Passage and in the second to Keri Hulme with The Bone People. Carr also wrote six other novels and eight children’s books. 

Two men, talking to one another in the woods.

James Joseph Lloyd Carr (1912-1994), better known as Jim, mined his own life for his books. He was, for example, born in Carlton Miniott in North Yorkshire, where his father was a stationmaster and Wesleyan lay preacher. Yorkshire is the setting for A Month in the Country, which also features a stationmaster who is a chapel preacher. Carr went on to become a teacher, a role that informed The Harpole Report (1972), and a teacher exchange posting in South Dakota was transmuted into The Battle of Pollocks Crossing; his RAF experiences in West Africa emerge in A Season in Sinji (1967); a cup run as a young footballer playing for the north Yorkshire village team South Milford White Rose was the basis for How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the F.A. Cup (1975); while his years as a one-man independent publisher emerge in What Hettie Did (1988) and Harpole & Foxberrow General Publishers (1992). Write what you know, the adage runs and Carr had a varied life and, coming late to fiction – he was 51 when he published his first novel – he was determined not to waste it. ‘One uses whatever happens to be lying around in memory and employs it to suit one’s ends,’ he once said. 

It was perhaps Carr’s non-conformist upbringing that became the most fixed of traits. He didn’t remain a chapel man but converted to Anglicanism because of his love of churches (a church is arguably the central character in A Month in the Country) but he never did learn to conform. 

At the age of 18, he had an interview at Goldsmith’s teacher training college and when he was asked why he wanted to become a teacher, instead of parroting the expected response, which he had practised innumerable times, he blurted out instead: ‘Because it leaves so much time for other pursuits’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was turned down and he never forgave the institution, refusing their request to give a talk there years later, stating ‘the college had had its chance of being addressed by him’. At another interview, he was asked if there was any insanity in the family (these were different times) and replied: ‘I have a sister’. 

As a teacher and headmaster of a primary school in Kettering in Northamptonshire, he stated his conviction that ‘Juvenile lawlessness is caused by lack of self-esteem and lack of self-esteem by lack of success and lack of success by an inability to read.’ Consequently, he pledged: ‘No child shall leave here at 11 a non-reader’. Apparently, only a single child under his tenure ever did. 

Portrait of author J.L. Carr

At another interview, he was asked if there was any insanity in the family (these were different times) and replied: I have a sister

During the war he joined the RAF but failed to get into the intelligence branch: his Wesleyan upbringing meant that he didn’t want to be responsible for actual killing, although his role as an aerial photographer showed he had courage to spare. Carr served in both Gambia and England and saw first-hand the unfathomable nature of large institutions when he was commanded to paint coal white to stop it being stolen.  

Carr’s intention was never to become a writer. It was not a financially viable profession he thought: ‘It worked out about 18 or 19 pence an hour. And you can’t live on that, even in 1964.’ Even if it had paid better, ‘I don’t think I could stick at it all day,’ he said. ‘I can’t think of anything worse than to have your breakfast and then have to go and sit down and start writing a novel. It would be like death itself.’ So he took a break from teaching and started a publishing company run from a spare bedroom. 

Quince Tree Press produced pamphlets on assorted quirky historical and sporting subjects: kings and queens, poets (the first on John Clare whose great-great-grandson, a milkman, lived on the same street as Carr in Kettering) and wood engravers and, not least, the magnificently-titled Welbourn’s Dictionary of Prelates, Parsons, Vergers, Wardens, Sidesmen and Preachers, Sunday-School Teachers, Hermits, Ecclesiastical Flower-Arrangers, Fifth Monarchy Men and False Prophets. Carr’s Dictionary of Extra-ordinary Cricketers neglected to include W.G. Grace but did include a horse called Horace of ‘exquisite sensibility’. The books were advertised as ‘perfect for cold bedrooms – only one hand and a wrist need suffer exposure’. 

Carr also produced hand-drawn county maps – a legacy perhaps of his wartime role – that were marketed by Quince Tree as ‘architectural /historical /literary /pictorial curiosit[ies] designed to stimulate conversation’. However, they carried a telling caveat: ‘Travellers are warned that the use of this map for navigation will be disastrous.’ As his writing career developed, he published his own novels, too, sometimes buying back the rights from other publishers because he lamented that having signed the manuscript over he had no further control over the quality of the paper, the cover design or anything else. Nevertheless, taking charge of his work had its own drawbacks: ‘It was a nuisance while they were there because I published them from my own house so they filled up the staircase and the hall, and even part of the lavatory.’ The great incentive to sell his books, he claimed, tongue possibly only partly in his cheek, was ‘to have the house free again’. 

Red book cover of Welbourn’s Dictionary of Prelates, Parsons, Vergers, Wardens, Sidesmen and Preachers, Sunday-School Teachers, Hermits, Ecclesiastical Flower-Arrangers, Fifth Monarchy Men and False Prophets.

Many of Carr’s interests can be found in A Month in the Country. It tells the story of Tom Birkin, a survivor of the First World War and a man who bears its scars. He is employed to uncover a Medieval wall painting in a remote Yorkshire church, a job that allows him to escape his failed marriage too. Working nearby is another veteran, Moon, who is looking for the buried body of a long-dead ancestor of the church’s benefactress. A stiff vicar resents Tom’s intrusion, his pretty wife does not – and nor do the locals who relish a stranger to shake up their centuries-old season-set ways. ‘There was so much time that marvellous summer’, Birkin recalls, but of course there wasn’t. 

As he uncovers the painted Last Judgement, other moods are also gradually revealed: nostalgia, acceptance, a love of the pastoral, friendships likely and unlikely, the satisfaction of a craftsman, the poignancy of a never-confessed love… As he works, Birkin gradually falls in love with the vicar’s wife, Alice Keach, but never confesses his feelings. He knows full well that ‘It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.’ But, nevertheless, he can’t bring himself to make that snatch: ‘If I’d stayed there would I always have been happy?’ he asks in hindsight. ‘No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvellous thing around each corner fades.’ 

It is a short novel, a little over 100 pages, and quietly affecting. It is pitch-perfect in its gentle revelation of emotions and shot through with wry comedy too. The countryside is depicted with the eye of a naturalist, the heat and lassitude are palpable, the war is only just in the background except for one moment when Birkin finds himself ‘by the dyke-side on the empty road between fields of corn blowing like water’, yelling in grief and rage at what happened to him and hundreds of thousands of others. There is no one to hear his outpouring but ‘Two horses grazing over a hedge looked up and whinnied’. As one reviewer noted, the book is ‘virtually flawless’. 

Just as the world of A Month in the Country reflects Carr’s own – the name of the village of Oxgodby where the story is set echoes Osgodby, the village where Carr went to school; the church that contains the wall painting is based on one in Northamptonshire: Carr was secretary to the Northamptonshire Historic Churches Trust – so it is tempting to see Birkin as a version of the author.  

Birkin is sensitive but emotionally pragmatic and compartmentalised, by the end of the story it is clear he is essentially unknowable. Carr too seemed happy to treat life on his own terms and was not just happy but keen to remain enigmatic. The year before he died, he burned the diaries that he had kept throughout his adult life and his biographer, Byron Rogers, reported that at his funeral a friend of 40 years standing attended and found that he recognised just two other people. 

Carr did, however, leave a brief assessment of his writing career: ‘James Lloyd Carr, a back-bedroom publisher of large maps and small books who, in old age, unexpectedly wrote six novels which, although highly thought of by a small band of supporters and by himself, were properly disregarded by the Literary World.’ Although entirely characteristic in its modesty, sly humour and matter-of-factness, it is not entirely true. Two Booker Prize shortlistings were hardly a sign of disregard and nor is the number of aficionados who still appreciate the singular books of this singular man. 

You can purchase J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country through The Quince Tree Press here.

Book cover of A Month in the Country