A Season in Sinji, J. L. Carr’s second novel, was originally published in 1967, the same year that he resigned his position as Headmaster of Highfields Primary School, Kettering, in order to devote his time to writing, and to publishing. Though the book centres upon experiences of War-time, based upon Carr’s own experiences in West Africa, it is also a book about cricket, and has been hailed by many people as the finest cricket based novel ever published.
But don’t let that put off the cricket-haters among you. Cricket is indeed a running theme throughout the novel, and the fortunes of a cricket side are of great importance as the narrative gains momentum towards its tragic conclusion, but its importance in the book is rather as a metaphor, as A.C 2, 1293393 Flanders T, orders his thinking according to his experience of the game.
Though A Season in Sinji is set during the War, it’s also very much removed from it. The story begins in Blackfen in Lancashire, at a camp where RAF servicemen, groundcrew, technicians, support staff, are in a form of limbo whilst they await – some of them interminably – for postings. It’s a horrible place, staffed by horrible men, dull, stupid, sex-obsessed and starved, eking out time with nothing to do and nothing to think about.
The whole setting is grim as can be. Carr is particularly savage about ‘Lancasheer’ and the ‘Lancasheer’ accent (a bit of Yorkshire prejudice going on there) through both Flanders, the narrator of this story, and Wakerly, Flanders’ closest friend. The two men come from different backgrounds: Flanders, at 26, is from the North Riding, of farming stock, brought up by a Religious Grandfather and a caring mother (his father has not been part of the equation: his fate is not stated but the inference is that he abandoned his family, being unable to put up with his Father-in-Law) whilst Wakerly is from somewhere down south, two years younger, better educated, a step or two up the class scale.
The pair are trained/in training as photographers. They already know each other from camp on the south coast, at Budworth, where the binding event that spirals out through the events of the novel, takes place.
But before we learn of any of this, Carr opens the story with an event of seemingly complete irrelevance. This is a woman, beautiful and sexual, who comes into the tea room out of the rain, in bare, stockinged-feet, accompanied by a shorter, meek man. The tea and its surroundings are not to her taste, and she is vocal about this, sweeping out into the rain in disgust. Flanders and Wakerly observe this. They never see the woman again: she is almost a hallucination, a fetish-dream in a wet, dark, dull, depressed war situation. But she is later identified, in an imported newspaper clipping, as having been murdered by the shorter, meek man, her husband.
Leave that aside. From Blackfen, the story moves backwards in time to Budworth, and to Flanders and Wakerly teaming up together. Flanders talks of them understanding each other as people, and it is very clear that neither has, nor wants, anything in common with their fellow servicemen. Indeed, both are contemptuous of them, a contempt derived primarily from a class point of view. It is unpleasant to read, in much the same way that a lot of A Day in Summer is, before the narrative momentum takes hold.
But Budworth also contains Caroline Driffield, a beautiful eighteen year old working behind the bar at her Uncle’s pub, which becomes the regular haunt of Flanders and Wakerly. Both of them are in love with Caroline, though it takes the whole length of the book before Flanders admits this. At the time, he merely observes that Wakerly loves Caroline – to the point of obsession as we’ll see – and stands aside in favour of his friend, who he sees as more deserving of Caroline, socially.
Wakerly, however, lacks the courage to speak. And Flanders passes up his chance, with Caroline experiencing hot urges, partly because he feels himself inferior to Wakerly, but also because he is sexually naïve: inexperienced and self-determinedly inactive.
Enter Turton. Turton is the third pole of this story, the villain. Turton is a Leading Aircraftsman, a technically oriented photographer and an all round arsehole. Turton sees Caroline and moves in on her. Wakerly refuses to fight. Flanders has withdrawn from the combat. Turton takes Caroline to bed, wants to marry her. When her Uncle refuses consent, he forces the issues by making Caroline pregnant (though she miscarries).
Then comes Blackfen, and after that a posting, for both Flanders and Wakerly, both sent to Sinji, in West Africa.
Like A Day in Summer, this is a very dark book, presenting a picture of its setting as unrelievably miserable and despairing, and once more shot through with a distinct class contempt for the plain, the ordinary, the vulgar – i.e., the lower classes. Carr has very little time for ordinary people, limited and unintelligent, enslaved to carnal needs: Flanders’ withdrawal from the sphere of sex is ascribed as being primarily the fear of making a fool of himself in ignorance, but there is a fastidiousness to him, a revulsion from flesh that continually shows itself.
Nor do things improve once the boat reached RAF Sinji.
The boat is torpedoed in the mouth of the river upon which Sinji stands. Flanders survives, and later discovers that so too has Wakerly, but the majority of the intake are killed. This makes for a brief but effective interval, but the truth is that once this passes, the incident is of no moment. Life in Sinji is not affected in the least by it. It is dull, drab, uninteresting: as much of a prison as was Blackfen in Lancasheer, but within fewer facilities outside the camp.
Flanders and Wakerly are the only two photographers’ assistants n the camp and are set to work under Lance Corporal Glaphorn. Once again, he is socially and mentally inferior to both of them, but he is their direct superior and they work under his orders. Flanders is, however, not suited to the work: he lacks confidence and knowledge and is responsible for a major mistake that ruins a reconnaissance mission.
He’s also physically uncertain, which is the beginning of his persecution at the hands of the new Adjutant (the CO’s secretary and first administrator). This is Turton, completing the picture and setting up the course of the narrative.
Turton is worse than he was at Budmouth. He is self-centred, arrogant and in a position of power, exactly the kind of man from whom power of any kind should be withheld permanently. He is a bully, able to create trouble for everyone, without the chance of redress, and he knows Flanders and Wakerly and they become his particular targets, for the ‘crime’ of having been interested in his wife, Caroline.
For Wakerly, the pressure is too much. He has already abdicated his chance with Caroline, a long time ago, for which he has Flanders’ silent condemnation. Flanders sees life in terms of cricketing metaphors, which makes him better able to stand Turton: cricket is a game that requires patience, and Flanders is prepared to play the long game.
And he has organised a cricket team among the other ranks, a team that he captains and dominates as its opening and only substantial batsman. With the aid of two quality bowlers, in Slingsby (fast off-breaks) and Trader (left arm quick slanting the ball towards the slips) and the careful organisation of willing but lesser players, he forges a team that gradually takes on all the other sides at the base in Sinji, and beats them. His aim is to build a team that will face, and beat, the official Company team. It’s what keeps him sane in the face of the bleakness of life at Sinji.
Wakerly has no such outlet and, as Flanders has already alerted us, Wakerly does not survive. The pilot, FO Gawkrodger-Jones is an appalling flier, unable to land a flying boat without bouncing it several times across the surface of the water, which brings him the nickname of Desperate Dan. Wakerly flies with him once, inspecting the cameras on a training mission: this is the one where the plane finally crashes on landing.
The pilot survives. Wakerly is thrown from the plane into the jungle, and is killed instantly.
In a way, Wakerly’s death protects Flanders. The photographic section is reduced to only two operatives, so Turton’s persecution has to be scaled back. But his determination to wield his power in every possible direction, disrupting and destroying the various mechanisms by which other men cope with life at the station, takes other forms.
Glaphorn sings, quite decently, at the fortnightly shows. It’s his relief and release, the means by which he enjoys a moment in the sun, the only thing which brings him respect. Turton orders him into a duet, an old-fashioned song, arranged and staged to Turton’s ideas, even though Glaphorn, the expert, tries to avoid everything about it. It will be a disaster, the men will not accept it. Turton’s arrogance ensures it goes ahead as he plans, and it is every bit the disaster Glaphorn knows it would be, and worse. It destroys Glaphorn, taking his one little chance of self-respect from him.
The same thing happens with Flanders’ team. Turton has played for it once, by his own invitation, been disastrously poor. Now, with the team undefeated, the end of the season nears with the intended match against the Company.
At this point, Turton installs himself as Captain. Flanders is pushed to one side, all the plans he has laid to maximise his resources are thrown away, and Turton’s approach is a signal disaster. The Company bat first, amass a fearsome score. Flanders is demoted down the order. There is an early collapse, the match is heading for a walkover. Flanders comes in, determined to save the game.
He holds up his end, plays defensively, ekes time out.
Then Turton interferes again, shouting from the boundary to order Flanders to leave the field. Flanders refuses: as Captain, Turton could have declared the innings closed, and deliberately thrown the game, but he has no power to order a single batsman to end his innings.
Flanders’ rearguard action saves the game: it ends as a draw, albeit with a massive discrepancy of scores. This is a satisfactory outcome to everyone, except Turton: Flanders is summoned – whilst in service – to a meeting of the Sports Committee, where he is berated for being unsporting, his actions are distorted by Turton and he is barred from any further cricket activity for the rest of his tour of duty.
This is of little practical effect: Flanders had already disbanded the team due to the interference that ruined everything for everyone, and there is barely any time left before the rainy season is due for another game: by next season, he will be back in England.
But though Flanders is not personally responsible for it, the events contribute to Turton’s downfall. Too many people have been affected by him, too much has been concealed from the new CO: his ability to interfere, to force himself into others’ spheres of activity, is almost over.
There is one final flight. Flanders is the photograph expert, the pilot is once again Desperate Dan but this time Turton is on board. It’s just a reconnaissance flight, until reports come in of a U-boat. Dan diverts in pursuit, despite the risk of running out of fuel. The attack is a disaster: the plane is shot down. Flanders alone escapes into the dinghy: he saves a body floundering in the sea and it is Turton.
The U-boat commiserates but beyond throwing out some emergency rations, abandons the two men to the hope of rescue. Flanders is the sole hope of survival of the man he loathes and despises, but who he finds himself incapable of touching.
The novel drifts towards its conclusion over the next few days. Turton cannot speak: Flanders’ conversations, in which he is quite open about his feelings towards both Turton, and Caroline, are monologues.
But the book has a final twist, two in fact. Flanders intends to live, to seek out Caroline, who he confesses to loving, and make a life with her. But Turton has two documents on him, that change everything in the final pages.
One is a letter from Caroline to Turton, whose first name we learn at long last. Despite everything Flanders and Wakerly have thought and said about the bounder, Caroline’s letter is full of love and admiration, for a man neither would recognise. In Caroline’s eyes, Turton is far more than Flanders has ever allowed him to be: her love is real, whole-hearted and passionate.
The last is a telegram, one that Flanders had seen Turton receiving a fortnight before. The letter speaks of Caroline being unwell, having to go into Hospital. The telegram regrets to inform him of her death.
With this abrupt revelation, the book ends. We assume that Flanders was rescued, enabling him to write this account. But there is nothing more, and we are left suspended and breathless.
As I’ve already said, A Season in Sinji is a dark and unpleasant book, painting a picture of Britain and people that is almost entirely negative, and which exists at an angle to our general perception of the War years. Yet at the same time, this is quite plainly an authentic account. Whatever our personal experience, Carr is writing from his own experience, and we feel that at a visceral level.
It’s also interesting to note that Flanders’ initial decision to enlist in the RAF is influenced by his mother’s tenant at their home farm, an older RAF officer named Bellenger whilst the men at Sinji include an uninvolved Flying Officer named Ruskin. The first of these is clearly Edward Bellenger of A Day in Summer, and in light of that we must assume that FO Ruskin is the crippled Herbert Ruskin of the earlier book.
This is a technique Carr will employ throughout his career, linking characters from one book into other novels.
His next novel would also stem from personal experience, but would be much more oriented towards black humour.