A Day in Summer, J. L. Carr’s first novel, was originally published in 1964. He was 52 years old, and approaching the end of a fifteen year term as Headmaster of Highfields Primary School, Kettering, in Northamptonshire. A Yorkshireman by birth, Carr had taught for most of his life, excluding his war experience in the RAF, in West Africa and in England.
Many of Carr’s novels, as we’ll see, derive in one part or other from areas of his personal experience, but other than geographically, there seems to be no direct influence upon A Day in Summer, which was filmed in 1989, with a screenplay adapted by the late Alan Plater.
It was begun as part of written work for the Workers Education Association, a national charity that provides access to adult education and lifelong learning, especially those who have missed out on education, as had Carr in his younger days. He later described the book as his most technically ambitious, as indeed it is, and thus a “foolhardy” idea for a debut, but despite several initial rejections, the novel was duly published and, a quarter century later, is still an excellent and very well-worked book.
A Day in Summer, as its title suggests, takes place over the course of a single summer days, beginning with the arrival of the early train in Great Minden, a fictional country town (impliedly in Northamptonshire) and ending shortly after the departure of the night train back to the City (impliedly London, though this is of no relevance). Carr divides the novel into four increasingly short sections, Morning, Afternoon, Evening and Night.
The day is Feast Day in Great Minden, the annual Fair, the one day of the year when this ordinary, unexceptional, rather dull town comes to a semblance of life. Great Minden dates itself around Feast Days.
The book is held together by Peplow, the outsider. Peplow, a middle-aged man, a bank clerk, a very self-contained, undemonstrative man, comes to Great Minden for the first time in his life to do something completely out of character. He is going to kill a man.
It’s a long way into the book before we learn the name of Peplow’s intended victim, but we know who he is and why Peplow is here from the beginning. A year ago, Peplow’s ten year old son, Tom, was knocked down and killed by the driver of a lorry, a showman with a travelling Fair. The driver – drunk, callous, conniving – lies in Court and is acquitted. Peplow is bent on revenge, after which he will kill himself.
But Feast Day in Great Minden is to be a day of moment for many others in the Town, a day that brings things to unexpected, unwanted, disturbing conclusions.
Carr leads us into this by having the first person Peplow meets on arrival in Great Minden – a town built around its Square, be Ruskin, Herbert Ruskin that is, a former comrade in the RAF. Ruskin lives in Great Minden, in first floor lodgings, alone. He is a mass of fat, with a high-pitched voice where once he was dashing, handsome and brave. Until the crash that killed his navigator and ripped off his legs.
Ruskin is not the only old comrade in Great Minden. There is Bellenger, Edward Bellenger, the Old Man, the Commander. Bellenger lives with his two adult daughters from his marriage, both unmarried, selfish, harridans, and his late-blooming ten year old son Nick, product of a war-time liaison with a much younger, unmarried woman, who left him shortly after Nick’s birth.
Bellenger is dying, alone in his room with his fading thoughts, prophesied not to last the day, nor indeed does he. Peplow visits him, a courtesy visit, though Bellenger is only briefly aware of his presence.
As the day progresses, the novel begins to spread itself out. It’s a mosaic, moving from person to person, back and forth, as we begin to see the undercurrents, the loves, the hatreds, the disappointments, the antagonisms that lie under the all-too-brittle surface of life in this sunny backwater.
The rector is ineffectual,unpopular, unwelcome and prickly in his Christian meekness. His wife Georgie is carrying on a blatant affair with the probationary teacher, Sidney Croser, who also has buxom hairdresser Effie as a bedmate (except that we learn she hasn’t yet allowed him…). Croser shares the same lodgings as Ruskin, teaches, dully, ineffectually, under the headmistresship of Miss Prosser, a cold, sour maiden aged 52, who loathes and disparages him, whilst nursing her own secret of a chance she lost ten years ago. Her elder sister hates and disparages her as only those close enough to know where to aim can do.
Mrs Loatley, an eccentric Baptist, had her husband go missing ten years ago. There are rumours, but the truth, and her punishment are stranger than anyone can anticipate.
The Thickness’s are a working class family, slovenly and poor. He’s workshy and self-pitying, she’s put up with too much and callously plans to abandon him and their children, the eldest of whom is in Croser’s class and gets picked on by him, for one of the Doyle brothers, drunken, brutish, feckless liars, showmen who travel with the Fair.
Throughout the day, these stories shift and elide. Carr reveals details slowly, carefully, keeping back some secrets for us to puzzle over. The past dictates but is never wholly explicable: some connections are for us only to select, including that last and most final of connections that is the catalyst for the book’s final spasm of violence: anticipated from the outset but, when it comes, binds together victim and an unexpected killer.
The book is, as I say, a mosaic of half a dozen stories, none by themselves of any great significance other than to the human beings caught up in them. Peplow’s is the only story to have dramatic, even melodramatic aspects. Everything else’s is human, the minutiae of living, the effects of people rubbing along/up against each other.
I can’t quite decide whether it’s a masterstroke or a flaw that, where the town stories intertwine, Peplow’s tale is entirely separate from theirs, not even a catalyst. Only in relation to his two former RAF comrades – bound together by a shared secret from the war years – does Peplow have an effect on what happens on this day: the other stories would have played out unchanged had he chosen never to come to Great Minden. It is the day, rather than Peplow’s mission, that binds everything together.
On the whole, I like it. The stories are sufficiently closely interwoven, in space as well as time, that there is an enhanced naturalness to things: to make Peplow responsible, even as a stone thrown into water, would introduce a sense of contrivance that the book does well without. In many ways, due to the deliberate smallness of its aims, it would be alien to introduce a tighter dramatic structure.
I am, however, less enamoured of the book’s hazy time-frame. There’s an immediate assumption that the novel is set in the book’s time: 1964 or not that long before: England before the Beatles, before Youth and Rebellion. It lacks any sense of modernity.
But that would make the War twenty years past. And though such a time-frame subliminally suits Peplow, who was in any event prematurely middle-aged, or so it would seem, and rubs off on Ruskin, the cripple, removing himself from everybody, voyeur without the ability to live his own life, it clearly can’t apply to Bellenger and his son, Nick. You can’t have a ten year old son conceived in wartime and have it be the 1960s.
Yet that would make Bellenger pretty much a sixty year old pilot on active duty, and whilst he’s acknowledged to be older than he should be in the war, that’s clearly a step too far.
As for the general atmosphere, at this remove my sense of time gives me no clues, but then, given what Great Minden is, in its timeless sterility, I would attribute Carr’s decision not to specify in any way the year this is taking place to be deliberate, creating a haziness about things that speaks of continuity, eternity, whether this is wanted or not.
Certainly, this is a very negative book, a very bleak one to read. It’s a book consumed by Thoreau’s line about living lives of quiet desperation. Great Minden may seem, externally, to be an idyllic place, but its inhabitants do not think so. Everyone is unhappy, dissatisfied with their lot, deprived of the things they imagine would have made their lives better. For many of them, that better life is an illusion, or rather a delusion: what they are and what they will clearly remain ensures that for them.
It’s a portrait of British life that rings only too true, as being drab, lacking and full of pain, little, low-level,constant pain, without relief or release. The world did change: change was close to coming when Carr wrote this novel, though as we’ll see it was change of which he disapproved. But for now, A Day of Summer is a brilliant social portrait, a window back into a world to which many would have us return, a window that shows things as not being the ideal of which they preach.
In the end, though he escapes without exacting the destructive revenge on which he had fixated, though two wrongs have been brought together in what we hope will prove to be a right, Peplow is not the book’s hero, whether he be at its centre or not. He’s just one of us, alive and in pain. Unlike us, his pain may be relieved. Very much later, in another book, Carr will show us him in later life, and we shall see to what end this possibility came.
As debut novels go, A Day in Summer may be foolhardy, but it was, in its low key way, exceptional.