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“All committees are clay in the hands of determined men who fix agendas” #JLCarr

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How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup by J.L. Carr

…which is possibly the longest book title I’ve reviewed – and it’s the second book about football on the Ramblings! Or is it?

I read and loved and reviewed Carr’s best-known work, “A Month in the Country” back in 2013. It’s pretty much universally loved, from what I can gather, and is a perfect and evocative novella set in the English countryside in the summer. I wasn’t really aware of any other works by Carr until recently, when I spotted a copy of this one in the charity shop. Alas, I didn’t buy it, and then regretted it. Then I read a review on someone’s blog that made me very keen to read it (and I’m sorry but I can’t remember where…) Then I kept looking for a second hand copy and it never came up and so basically I cracked, and picked up a copy at my local Waterstones. I have no willpower…

“Steeple…” is billed very much as a comedy, and it *is* funny. Narrated by Joe Gidner, who’s been sent down from an ecclesiastical college for an unspecified misdemeanour, the story is set in the small community of Steeple Sinderby. The location is vague, but this is Middle England in the early 1970s and it’s a world which I found very recognisable. The title gives away exactly what the book is going to be about, and Joe (who’s secretary and general factotum for the Wanderers) has been instructed by Mr. Fangfoss, the Chairman, to write a straightforward history of what happened. That history is wonderfully entertaining, enlivened with extracts from the committee minutes, newspaper reports, and possibly suspect recollections. It’s fab!

An Englishman is partial to doom-talk and always has been, as is demonstrated by the nightmare stone carvings all over Barchester Cathedral, and misses it now that the Church doesn’t go in for Religion raw, red and bleeding anymore. Our countrymen appreciate confirmation that Hell yet prevails and that it is well on the cards that they are thither bound.

The idea of training a small local team up to win the biggest football trophy in the land is generated by Dr. Kossuth, a Hungarian refugee who heads the local school. A remarkably inventive man, he comes up with a series of scientific rules which, if applied, should make a team invincible. Enter Alex Slingsby, a teacher at the school who abandoned his footballing career to look after his invalid wife. Alex is in exactly the right frame of mind to take on this kind of challenge, and starts to build a local team. This in itself is hilarious, as they seek out the ideal goalkeeper from a local milkman, and use the tub-thumping sister of the local vicar to lure a former soccer star, languishing with an attack of melancholia, back to the fold. And once the team is built up and trained, the matches begin…

The road to cup fame, of course, is not without its bumps and potholes; and it will take all of the strength, training and willpower of Steeple Sinderby Wanderers to get to that final and win their cup. How they do and what happens afterwards is a real blast and has some wonderful laughs. So on the surface, this might seem like a very different book to “A Month in the Country”; but scratch the surface of the humour and you find there’s an awful lot going on underneath.

For a start, there’s the wonderful portrait of English country life; not the bucolic, pretty tourist type village you might see in adverts or on vapid TV programmes, but a much more realistic take on it.

People don’t know about rural England between the last Mystery Autumn Foliage Coach Trip and the Mystery Blossom Journey into Spring. Mud, fog, dripping trees, blackness, floods, mighty rushing winds under doors that don’t fit, damp hassocks, sticking organ keys, stone floors and that dreadful smell of decay.

There are feuds and infighting, poverty and stupidity; and underlying much of the narrative is a real sense of despair. There is pathos in Alex’s relationship with his wife; in Gidner’s loneliness; and in the lack of purpose in many of the characters’ lives. The modern world is encroaching on Steeple Sinderby, and that place just doesn’t like it much. The book is as much a study of the effect of mass publicity and a sudden spotlight on a quiet little place as anything else, and it’s quite fascinating to see how the locals react.

Carr is a remarkably clever writer, and it’s clear he’s on top form here. He plays with reality, adding in spurious quotes from Pevsner’s guidebooks, inventing histories which involve Steeple Sinderby, creating a locality and a topography for it; all of which obfuscation succeeds in hiding up where the place actually might be! He’s happy to send up football and its fans, local MPs and bigwigs, any of his characters and the general backwardness of the country. His melancholic outlook seeps through and the story ends up being surprisingly moving.

Part of the success of “Steeple…” is of course down to the characterisations. Carr peoples his story with some wonderfully alive characters with the most outlandish names, and yet I came to love them. There’s the wonderfully named Mr. Fangfoss, a local farmer who’s the club’s chairman and has things under control most of the time. He’s not a fan of the modern world, preferring to have out of work people forced to take jobs and certain people castrated (yes, really!); yet you can’t help but cheer him on, whether he’s standing up to a local Lord who wants to come in and make money out of the situation, or a jumped up TV interviewer who tries to get the better of him on live TV and fails. Fangfoss is an unusual character, with a very dodgy home set up, and yet he becomes lovable. Joe Gidner is someone you really want to get to make more of himself rather than just festering away in a village writing verses for greetings cards; there’s the lively Alice ‘Ginchy’ Trigger whose mangled prose is employed to write up the matches in the local paper, and is just too influenced by Thomas Hardy; and of course Alex Slingby, the driving force behind the team who’s so obviously crushed by his love for his wife and her plight. There are so many wonderful players in this book – basically, you need to read it and get to know them for yourself.

via Wikimedia Commons. Although Steeple Sinderby is set in the 1970s, it frankly feels more like the team should look like this…. 😀

“Steeple…” is brilliantly constructed; Carr’s narrative sucks you in and cleverly draws out the strangeness of the story in a way that keeps you hooked. Of course, the British love to see an underdog win (Leicester City, anyone?) and so the plot is an appealing one to start with. But there *is* so much more to this book, from comments on the national character, the national game, and basically life itself. “Steeple…” may *appear* to be a lighter, more superficial story than “A Month…”, but it really isn’t…

But the great and abiding Truth I learnt these weeks was how many people in this world have no Purpose in life, people who live second-hand, sitting all the hours God gives them free of drudgery, staring at either picture papers or TV, waiting like little kids for just another story or for Guidance.

I could say so much more about this book; about its quiet despair at the modern world and its longing for the past; about the sense it gives that life can often be pointless but sometimes magnificent; about the effect the media can have on a place, and the aftermath when the attention has moved on elsewhere; and about the underlying pathos of most human stories. Even such a simple paragraph as Carr/Gidner’s comment on an opposing side reveals much about the need to escape from our everyday lives:

Mostly, they were very respectable men, muffled against the winter day in home-knitted cardigans with large leather buttons; a phlegmatic, shuffling, stamping lot, grey men who had handed over 20p to cram close to grey men, huddling under a grey sky in a grey landscape on their grey way to the town cemetery. Here, lost in the throng, they had bought another identity for ninety minutes. They bellowed disbelief at incompetence, cried scornfully to the great heavens in godlike despair, clamoured angrily for revenge. For 20p they did all this and were not called to account.

(Is that a kind of Utopia? Yes, according to Richard Clay in part one of his documentary on the subject, where he suggests the ritual of Saturday football as a search for the fabled land! But I digress…)

I picked up “Steeple Sinderby…” because I rated Carr’s most famous work so highly, and despite the fact it was apparently about football it sounded – intriguing… It’s more than that, it’s a remarkable piece of art; funny, provocative, entertaining and with surprising depths, it completely absorbed me and left me quite moved at the end. If you want a book that amuses and gets you thinking, as well as giving a glimpse of a kind of small-town England that may well be gone, I recommend you get acquainted with Joe, Alex, Mr. Fangfoss, Ginchy Trigger, Giles the Vicar, his sister Biddy, Sid Swift, Monkey Tonks and all their fellows – you really won’t regret it! 😀

(As an aside, I can’t help wondering if the “Golden Gordon” episode of Michael Palin’s “Ripping Yarns” was just a teeny bit influenced by this book!)

Recent Reads: A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr

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And so I follow up a couple of short works with another short one – “A Month in the Country” by J.L. Carr, which clocks in at just 93 pages! I picked this up at the local Oxfam bookshop a while back, after hearing it highly recommended by Alex – and she wasn’t wrong!

My Penguin Decades edition with lovely rose cover

My Penguin Decades edition with lovely rose cover

“A Month in the Country” is probably J.L. Carr’s most famous work and it is set just after the First World War. Tom Birkin is a survivor – shell-shocked, with a twitchy face, but still alive. His marriage has collapsed and the book opens with his arriving in the northern town of Oxgodby by train in the pouring rain to work for a month restoring a church wall reputed to have hidden piece of religious art. Also working locally is another veteran, Moon, who is digging for a lost excommunicated ancestor of the same local dignitary who has left instructions in her Will for both of these searches to take place. After initial strangeness, Tom starts to fit in with the locals, working at his restoration, attending chapel meetings and falling in love. As the book goes on, the English summer and the countryside have a healing effect on him – but how will the archaeology end?

For a short book, this is amazingly packed and just proves that you don’t have to write an epic the length of “War and Peace” to tell a memorable tale and make a few points while you’re doing so! It’s an odd book, in a way. The writing begins prosaically enough, and some of the sections verge on the educational, when Birkin/Carr is telling  us about some ecclesiastical aspect. Yet as the book progresses, and Tom begins to settle and heal, the writing becomes more beautiful and evocative, conjuring up visions of long, hot days in the English countryside.

“Am I making too much of this? Perhaps. But there are times when man and earth are one, when the pulse of living beats strong, when life is brimming with promise and the future stretches confidently ahead like that road to the hills. Well, I was young…”

And the writing is remarkably clever too. Despite this being such a compressed book, it never feels short or as if anything is missing. We learn about Tom’s wife, her unfaithfulness, the War, Moon’s real nature, and many other things all in very short paragraphs and phrases, but this is so skilfully done that we feel we know the whole story. Instead of a blow-by-blow account, we get what you might call the bullet points, but so beautifully presented that it doesn’t feel like it. There is a delicacy in the storytelling, as if it is enough to just hint about things and we will know all we need to. This is particularly effective when Tom is thinking of the War – less is more, as they say.

The romance, such as it is, is subtly suggested and we discreetly consider the state of Alice Keach’s married life – as cold and strange and empty as the house she inhabits with her vicar husband. There is a sense of the long-gone past in the researches of Birkin and Moon, and also a real sense of the horror through which they’ve lived. And Birkin’s relationship with the unknown artist who created the lost work is intriguingly suggested, and has something to do with his healing process.

sittingcarr

They say comparisons are odious, but I could help but constantly thinking back to my re-read of “Hotel du Lac” and thinking how much more depth there was in this book of much the same length. “A Month in the Country” is an elegiac masterpiece, with characters who are masterfully sketched and jump off the page, a location and landscape which is fully alive, and a tale told which gives away much more than appears at first sight. This was a remarkable, moving and lovely book and I’m glad Alex’s review pointed me in its direction!

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