The Harpole Report by J.L. Carr

After darkness, light… I mused much, and drew much comfort really, from reading Barthes’ “Mourning Diary”; as I said, I wish I’d been aware of it before. However, I did feel the need for contrast after it, and I was also struggling to decide what to read next. When I was running my eyes over one of the many TBR piles (ahem) I noticed a slim book I picked up for a bargain 50p in a charity shop a while back; and it seemed like the perfect fit for what I wanted to read right now!

J.L. Carr probably needs no introduction here on the Ramblings; I’ve read, loved and reviewed both “A Month in the Country” and “How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup“, and I know many of my fellow bloggers rate his work too. Yet though the two books I just mentioned are Penguins and highly-regarded, his other works seem harder to find. “Harpole” was a Penguin once (my edition is an old one) but doesn’t seem to be now; and I wondered why? Interestingly, when I did a little digging, it seems that “Harpole…” was Carr’s third novel, originally published in 1972; and the Penguin edition came out in 1984, after the huge success of “A Month in the Country” in 1980. Anyway, onward and upward to the book itself!

“The Harpole Report” is the tale of the titular teacher, during the period when he undertakes the post of temporary head at St. Nicholas C of E Primary School. It’s told very clever through extracts from George Harpole’s journal, the official school log, letters to Harpole’s fiance Edith, letters by other members of the staff and a variety of other records. Stitching this together is an unnamed narrator who seems to have a sneaking sympathy for Harpole’s plight; because the education sector of the 1970s is not an easy place to negotiate!

The school is staffed by a handful of teachers, from Mr. Pintle, one of the old guard who refuses to change his methods to keep up with the times, through to Mr. Croser, a young, arrogant new teacher. Then there’s Mrs. Grindle-Jones, married to the head of a rival school, who’s stuck in middle-class respectability; and poor Miss Tollemache who struggles with what we would now call the SEN children. Newly arrived is the somewhat alarming Miss Foxberrow, a feminist Cambridge graduate with *many* progressive ideas. Add in an uncooperative caretaker, a rule-bound Local Authority and its functionaries, a problem family with a large number of children, and Harpole’s own rather diffident personality, and you have a recipe for disaster! The book is a wonderfully funny read, as we watch Harpole attempt to negotiate the rules, regulations and bureacracy, as well as dealing with angry parents, recalcitrant staff, a child prodigy called Titus and his own uncertainties. Harpole is a man just about to settle into middle aged complacency, and little does he realise how his tenure as a temporary head will change his life – more I shall not say!

The kind of old-school Primary that was around in the 1960s/70s and very much how I imagine the setting of the book! (Paul Shreeve / Bawdeswell Primary School via Wikimedia Commons)

“The Harpole Report” was another joyous book from Carr, and is drawn from hard-won experience; for the author spent nearly 40 years as a Primary School Teacher, including 15 years as a Head, so he certainly knows what he’s talking about! And I have to declare an interest here; although I went to school at roughly the time of the book and recognise the setting, I also now work in a school; so much of the “Report…” resonated very strongly with me! As with “Steeple Sinderby…” Carr takes some wonderful snipes at petty bureacracy – obviously something with which he had to wrestle continuously. There *is* much in the book that’s un-PC and not acceptable nowadays (smacking the pupils! the descriptions used for the SEN pupils and the troublesome family!) so this dates it slightly. Nevertheless, I felt a continual familiarity creeping in from my own school experiences and also from my current employment! And I did laugh at the naming of the difficult family as the Widmerpools; if you’ve read Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence, you’ll know that Widmerpool is one of the most individual characters in the books and I couldn’t help wondering if Carr’s choice of name was deliberate.

Based on my readings of his work so far, it does feel as if Carr was gradually building up to the depth of “A Month in the Country”; “Steeple Sinderby…” came out three years after “Harpole” in 1975, and I sensed darker, perhaps more philosophical elements in it than weren’t obvious from a surface reading of the book. Those elements are also there in “Harpole…”, although again not so obvious; but a lot of the fun in this book comes from recognising the stupidity of petty bureaucracy and the inability of the school system to deal with the individual approach. The book apparently has a cult status amongst teachers and I can understand why. In these days of a rigid (and yet constantly changing) National Curriculum, and a results-led system, it does seem that not much has changed…