It’s the summer of 1920 and WW1 veteran, Tom Birkin, finds refuge in the quiet village of Oxgodby where he is to spend the summer uncovering a huge medieval wall-painting. Immersed in the peace and beauty of the countryside and the unchanging rhythms of village life he experiences a sense of renewal. This is Penelope Fitzgerald’s introduction to one of the great English summer reads.
I first heard of J. L. Carr through a passage in Michael Holroyd’s Unreceived Opinions. Holroyd had had, from George Ellerbeck, a family butcher in Kettering, a letter telling him he had won the Ellerbeck Literary Award, consisting of a non-transferable meat token for one pound of best steak and a copy of Carr’s novel The Harpole Report (so this must have been in 1972 or 1973). The letter went on: ‘The prize is only awarded at infrequent intervals and you are only its third recipient. The circumstances are that Mr Carr, who makes a living by writing, is one of my customers and pays me in part with unsold works known, I understand, as Remainders.’ Never before or since have I heard of anyone who managed to settle up with a butcher, even in part, with Remainders. It is a rational and beneficial idea, but it took Jim Carr to carry it out.
James Lloyd Carr was born on 20 May 1912, of a Yorkshire Methodist family. His father used to preach in the Wesleyan ‘tin tabernacle’. Jim used occasionally to play truant, but did not and could not forget the old revivalist hymns – ‘Hold the fort’, ‘Count your many blessings’, ‘Pull for the shore, sailor’ and ‘We are out on the ocean, sailing’. He went to the village school at Carlton Miniott in the North Riding and to Castleford Grammar School. At Castleford his headmaster was the enthusiastic and progressive ‘Toddy’ Dawes, who, during a miners’ strike, took the local brass band across to France to perform in Paris, where it won a competition. ‘Other schools had ordinary headmasters,’ said Carr. ‘We had Toddy.’ In turn he himself became a teacher and a publisher of historical maps and delightful tiny booklets, The Little Poets, a little, that is, of each poet and illustrations of all sizes. These were left by the cash-outs of bookshops to attract last-minute purchasers, and, on occasion, he gave them away like sweets. I only wish I had a complete set now.
In 1968 he retired early to make a living with the pocket books and maps, and to write. He settled not in his native Yorkshire but in Northamptonshire, where he had been a head teacher. He described it as ‘onion fields, spud and beet fields, mile and mile after mile of hedgeless flatness, dykes and ditches’, and he loved it dearly. In 1979 he wrote his masterpiece, A Month in the Country, which was published in 1980, shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Guardian fiction prize. It was made into a film. ‘Fine gentlemen from London’, as Jim insisted on calling them, arrived at his house in Kettering, and pointed out that the title, of course, would not do, it had already been used by Turgenev. ‘Is that so?’ said Jim. ‘I don’t think I’ll change mine, though.’ He didn’t.
A Month in the Country is not quite like any of his other novels. It is 1920, and Tom Birkin is back from the trenches with a facial twitch which the doctors tell him may get better in time. He has been trained by one of the last remaining experts as a restorer of medieval murals, and he has been hired to uncover the whitewashed-over fourteenth- century painting on the wall of a Yorkshire village church. His fee will be twenty-five guineas, and he is told to make the best of what he can find. He arrives at Oxgodby station in pouring rain and darkness, but receives an offer to come inside and have a cup of tea from the stationmaster, Mr Ellerbeck. (The name, of course, and the kindness are from Kettering. Carr liked to introduce characters from one book to another, and from real life into books.) But Birkin refuses the offer. He has an appointment to meet the vicar at the church, and in any case he is quite unused to northerners. He feels himself in enemy country.
The rain stops, and the next day brings the cloudless, golden, incomparable summer of 1920. For Tom Birkin, ‘nerves shot to pieces, wife gone, dead broke’, it will be, almost against his will, a healing process. Like Solzhenitsyn in Matryona’s House, he has wanted to cut himself off and lose himself in the distant innermost heart of the country. ‘Only time would clean me up,’ he thinks. But he is brought back to himself first of all by the way things are made – even in the drenching rain he notices that the church masonry is ‘beautifully cut with only a hint of mortar’. Then there’s the way things work – notably the cast-iron Bankdam- Crowther stove in the church itself – ‘There seemed to be several knobs and toggles for which I could see no purpose: plainly, this damned big monster was going to provide me with several pleasurably instructive hours learning its foibles.’ Then there is the place. On his very first morning in the bell-tower, a vast and magnificent landscape unfolds.
Day after day, mist rose from the meadow as the sky lightened and hedges, barns and woods took shape until, at last, the long curving back of the hills lifted away from the Plain . . . Day after day it was like that and each morning I leaned on the yard gate dragging at my first fag and (I’d like to think) marvelling at this splendid backcloth. But it can’t have been so; I’m not the marvelling kind. Or was I then?
Next there is the long-dead, unknown wall-painter himself, ‘a nameless painter reaching from the dark to show me what he could do, saying to me as clear as any words, ‘‘If any part of me survives from time’s corruption, let it be this. For this was the sort of man I was.’’ ’ (At the very end of the book, Birkin refers to him as ‘the secret sharer’, a reminder that Carr had been given what he called his first stiff dose of Conrad at Castleford Grammar.) Lastly, among his unconscious healers are the natives of Oxgodby, who turn out to be anything but hostile. Carr always dwelt lovingly not only on turns of speech but on details of behaviour that separate one region of England from another. He used to describe, for example, a down-and-out travelling show in Yorkshire in which the compere had appealed for someone to ‘come forward’ from the audience. ‘But,’ said Jim, ‘they don’t ‘‘come forward’’ in the North Riding.’ Certainly they don’t need to in Oxgodby, where they are used to speaking out and staying put. Kathy Ellerbeck, yelling her mam’s invitation to Sunday dinner up Birkin’s ladder, is Carr’s heartfelt tribute to the Yorkshire school-leaver.
The epigraphs of his books were important to him. A Month in the Country has three. The first is from Johnson’s Dictionary, a Carr-like, and indeed Dr Johnson-like, throwaway. The third was added to the 1991 edition after the death of Carr’s wife Sally. The second is from the poems he loved best, Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (no. XXXII). I am here on earth only for a short time, Housman says.
You must trust me.
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart.
Being Housman, he is not likely to expect an answer, and Birkin doesn’t get one either. There are, it turns out, three strangers in Oxgodby besides Birkin himself. One of them, Moon, he meets on his first day in the bell-tower. We don’t exactly know what Moon does, although he appears to be a professional archaeologist, and had ‘an RFC pal’ to fly him over the site before he began on his commission, which is to make reasonable efforts over a given period to find a lost fourteenth-century grave. We do, however, find out from a chance revelation in a Ripon tea-shop, the secret of Moon’s war record and what was done to him.
Birkin is working at the top of his ladder, Moon has dug himself a hole to live in beneath his bell-tent. Birkin has been accepted from the beginning by the inhabitants of Oxgodby, helps with the ‘dafties’ at the Wesleyan Sunday school, goes on the glorious Sunday school outing, to which Moon is not invited. Moon talks posh. Birkin doesn’t, but he and Moon like each other. Are they to be thought of as opposites, or as two marked men, marked, that is, by the war and by their bitter experience of sex, and regarded by old Mossop, the sexton, as (like all southerners) fair cautions?
The other two outsiders (or at least they haven’t managed to feel accepted in Oxgodby) are the vicar and his wife, Arthur and Alice Keach. (He is also referred to as the Revd. J. G. Keach, but Carr was a reckless proof-reader. He had, he said, a ‘terrible and inexcusable vice of not reading a proof until after I have published it’.) The vicar is business-like – this seems at first to be his only good quality – disapproving, unyielding and chilly. He has ‘a cold, cooped-up look about him’, and although he must have got used to the twitch, he continues to talk to someone behind Birkin’s left shoulder. Cold church, warm chapel. Birkin listens through the floor of the belfry to the congregation ‘bleating away downstairs’ and contrasts it with the thick Yorkshire pudding at the Ellerbecks’ and the blacksmith’s splendid basso profundo. The vicar’s wife Alice, on the other hand, is like a Botticelli – the Primavera, not the Venus – a Primavera, that is, in a straw hat with a rose from the vicarage garden stuck in the ribbon. Birkin’s feelings for Alice are what might be expected, and there is a moment when he is very close to asking her Housman’s question: What have you in your heart. His attitude to the vicar is also predictable. He and Moon have decided that the marriage is an outrage. ‘Frankly, if Keach was as awful as he seemed, living with him didn’t bear thinking about.’
But Birkin runs out of money and finds himself obliged to call round at the vicarage to ask for his first instalment of pay. This leads to a passage characteristic of Jim Carr, who likes to beguile us with a story based on his own experience, or something near it, and then allow it to take off, just for a while, into a dazzling, improbable flight. ‘The house was in a clearing, but what once had been a drive-around for carriages was now blocked by a vast stricken cedar, its torn roots heaving up like a cliff-side and supporting a town-sized garden, its crevices already colonized by wild plants.’ After a heroic struggle with the bell-pull, Birkin has the door opened to him by Alice Keach herself. She begins a not quite sane story of life in the vicarage where the trees, it seems to her, are closing in on them until mercifully fended off at the last moment by the house walls. She has none of the self-assurance that she shows outside her home. The vicar, too, is different. He has evidently been playing his violin, which is lying by a rickety music-stand in one of the vast, chill rooms. Fig leaves, like giant hands, press against the window. The two of them seem huddled together for the comfort of each other’s company. And Birkin feels unexpectedly sorry for the Revd. Arthur Keach.
It seems that the only people in the book we are asked thoroughly to disapprove of, even to hate, are the military authorities who sentenced Moon, and the grand new proprietor of the Baines Piano and Organ Warehouse in Ripon who looks down on the Oxgodby deputation (Mr Ellerbeck, his daughter Kathy, Mr Dowthwaite the blacksmith, and Birkin) who have come to replace the Wesleyans’ harmonium with a pipe-organ. The proprietor thinks he can afford to despise them because they have come to buy second-hand, bringing the cash they have collected with them in a bag. But he is greatly mistaken.
‘It is the death of the spirit we must fear’ is Carr’s epigraph, this time for The Harpole Report. The death of the spirit is to lose confidence in one’s own independence and to do only what we are expected to do. At the same time, it is a mistake to expect anything specific from life. Life will not conform.
‘And it’s gone. It’s gone. All the excitement and pride of that first job. Oxgodby, Kathy Ellerbeck, Alice Keach, Moon, that season of calm weather – gone as though they’d never been.’ Early in the book the perspective of time is established. Birkin is looking back, with wonder, at the very last years of a lamplit, horse-drawn age. Of course, he and Moon have another set of memories to haunt them, from Passchendaele. But Birkin believes that the future is opening up. ‘Well, I was young then.’
Carr is by no means a lavish writer, but he has the magic touch to re-enter the imagined past. Birkin notices, as he walks back down the road, how he first smelled, then saw, the swathes of hay lying in the dusk. At the Sunday school outing, ‘Afterwards, most of the men took off their jackets, exposing their braces and the tapes of their long woollen underpants, and astonished their children by larking around like great lads.’ Those tapes! Who would have remembered them except Jim Carr?
From the first Birkin has seen that the wall-painting is a Doom, a Christ in Judgement with its saved and its sinners in a great spread of reds and blues. He finishes the restoration according to contract, just as the first breath of autumn comes to Oxgodby. But the moment when the year crosses into another season becomes indistinguishable from his passion, making itself clear as it does quite suddenly, for Alice Keach.
‘All this happened so long ago.’ The tone of A Month in the Country, however, isn’t one of straightforward remembering or (if there can be such a thing) of straightforward nostalgia, or even an acute sense of the loss of youth. More complex is his state of mind when he thinks of the people – perhaps only a few – who will visit Oxgodby church in its meadows and regret that they missed seeing the master painter himself – ‘as one might come to Malvern, bland Malvern, and think that Edward Elgar walked this way to give music lessons’. This is a nostalgia for something we have never had, ‘a precious tugging of the heart – knowing a precious moment gone and we not there’. But even this has to be distinguished from downright pain. ‘We can ask and ask, but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever.’ You can only wait, Carr says, for the pain to pass, but what is it that once seemed ours for ever? Or is this, like the Shropshire Lad’s, an unanswerable question?