Delighted to find this at the back of a shelf when looking for something else, whatever that was instantly forgotten. Long ago had convinced myself I’d loaned it out and (understandably) never got it back. J.L.Carr‘s The Harpole report (1972) is one of those books, one of those timeless you-must-read (especially if you’re a teacher) comic novels of English life that stay laugh-aloud funny no matter how much actual circumstances have changed. Set in a primary school in a small town, circa 1970, it is presented in the form of a report, from the introduction of which I now quote:
And remember this. A school is a most complex institution. Children and teachers, administrators and their minor officials, caretakers, cooks, medical officers, government inspectors, governors. And parents. All these grinding away, in and out of mesh. Is there any wonder then that sometimes – as in the case of Harpole – there is a terrifying jarring of gears, or, worse still, that unforgettable coffin-thump of a big-end gone.
I realise that there is at least one generation of drivers out there for whom that last experience is something of a mystery, but you still laugh, right?
Harpole takes on a temporary headship and inherits a mixed bag of staff, all with agendas of their own. What happens to him is recorded in a wonderful chronological collage – delivered with a delightful lightness of touch – of excerpts from the school’s Official Log-book, Harpole’s private journal, a selection of all manner of internal and external communications and memos illuminating his battle with local bureaucrats and politicians alike, supplemented by examples of the children’s work, along with further excerpts from letters from Harpole to his fiancée, and those of Emma Foxberrow – a determined and idealistic progressive young teacher – to her sister. Events unfold entertainingly.
As a footnote, some nice intertextualities. The Harpole Report is set in Melchestershire (who did Roy of the Rovers play for?) and the problem kids from the lower-class family are called the Widmerpools (you know, that bastard who climbs the greasy pole in Anthony Powell’s A dance to the music of time). There are probably more.
No disrespect at all to Martin Edwards, but I can’t help feeling that Mastermind has rather lost its way these days when something like Martin’s Harry Devlin novels are one of the specialist subjects allowed to be offered up by one of the contestants this week. Especially when the first question has to spend time briefly explaining to viewers who Harry Devlin is. (“I even forget whodunnit in some of those books!” the man himself said on his FaceBook page.)
Yesterday’s papers (1994) is the fourth in this particular sequence of novels, all sporting titles borrowed from the annals of rock music. He’s a Liverpool solicitor who gets easily bored with the day job and who is fully equipped with that attractive crime fiction pre-requisite, of resenting “the failure of the world to match his more romantic notions of what was right and what was wrong.”
This time it’s a miscarriage of justice – the murder of a young girl, daughter of a rising left-wing academic – dating back 30 years to the heady days of the ’60s Liverpool beat group boom and Harold Wilson’s ‘White heat of technology’. There’s an interesting set of characters dead and alive (some both in the course of the book). Faded glories, wasted lives, grudges held and secrets maintained, the broad consequences of a crime; with twists and violent turns, the truth finally teased out:
He had so desperately wanted to know who had strangled her, and why, and now that he had his answers, his principal emotion was sadness rather than satisfaction. With murder, he reminded himself, there were no slick solutions, just the desolate reality of human behaviour as weak as it was wicked.
Nicely put. There are plenty of neat touches too. Harry’s receptionist doing her best to keep his eyes on the jobs that bring the money in (“… she was a mistress of all the receptionist’s black arts and knew instinctively when he was within reach“), a scene at a record fair (“… and two men in their forties were recalling the merits of Northern Soul with the nostalgic exaggeration of old buffers harping on about the Dunkirk Spirit“), nods to the Golden Age of crime writing (“a time of innocence and charm“), on which subject Martin Edwards is an acknowledged expert. I’ve read and would recommend all his Lake District Mysteries; another Liverpool novel, Waterloo sunset, is featured here at Lillabullero in The Kinks in literature section, and I am inclined now to catch up with the rest of Harry too.
Further musical adventures
Plenty going on. At the Scribal Sunday session there had been a cello and guitar duo singing the blues quite effectively (lovely instrument, the cello) and lo and behold, there was another one at the Vaultage Re-wired the following Thursday. Or it might have been the same duo (never caught the names) with added blues harp thing around the guitarists’ neck. Again worked well. This Vaultage was a belter – great job, Bard Pat and Lois – relaxed and full of good music, the evening finishing magnificently by The Scrumpy Bastards, a highly accomplished fiddle and guitar duo, who had fun, as did we, and were a joy to watch.
Come Saturday afternoon and – hey – forget the goals going in on the Red Button: music is being made in the cosy new Beechey Room in York House. Solo and ensemble. Long may they continue in this vein.
Tuesday and the March Scribal Gathering at The Crown, singer-songwriter Rob Bray a last-minute replacement as featured performer. Sparkling guitar, great wit. Demystified open tuning: a decent noise possible “If you can open a crisp packet …” Finished movingly with a serious song. Stephen Hobbs played a blinder with his account (financial and narrative) of his lousy week: car serviced at great expense, shit gig at The Stables with an audience of 8 (and one of those 8 cried out for ‘More!’), buying Dylan’s Shadows in the night album; cut to the first time he heard Nick Drake and was not impressed and how 20 years later he saw the light; how he expects similar to happen to him with the Dylan 20 years hence, on his hospice deathbed. Earlier Monty Lynch got an unexpected cheer introducing his song about the gods of the Zambesi River – Zimbabweans in the house!
Another Saturday night and back to York House for StonyFolks:2 and another grand evening’s music-making. I was going to say ‘All the usual suspects’, but thought the better of it (not all of ’em, anyway). Broadest of definitions of folk (Louis Armstrong: “I aint never heard a horse sing a song.”) and none the worse for that. Taken aback, on the 50th birthday of its release (give or take a day), by a confident and committed cover of Donovan’s Catch the wind from a young girl whose name I didn’t catch. Those ’60s obviously just a passing fad, as the old folks used to say. Think I’ll be OK joining in with Cotton Mill Girls in the future.
And so to the Aortas session in the George on Sunday. Dan had his new toy, a – if I understand this right – touch screen wireless tablet digital mixer that meant he could play with the sound by touching the pretty graphs, and also do it standing at the back of the room. It all sounded fine, better than ever. There was cake (happy birthday Naomi, who ended with a new miserable song) and for the third time of gigging in the space of this single blog, Mark Owen‘s relentless (in the best possible sense of the word) Getting away with something, his toe-tapping take on the phone-tapping scandal. It can stand it.