The Harpole Report, J.L.Carr’s third novel, was published in 1972. It was his first as a full-time writer, after spending fifteen years as a popular if/because of eccentric Headmaster, and it’s hardly surprising that the subject of the book should be Education. It’s also pleasing to advise that, after two very dark, bitter, unhappy books, The Harpole Report is a comic work, both openly and blackly.
This latter point came up in some of the reviews I read of A Day in Summer and A Season in Sinji, that these were novels incorporating very black humour. From my own reading of the two, such humour as they may have contained, outside of the (very) occasional grim joke they may have related to each other, was so shrouded in darkness that it was invisible to me. From the outset, however, Carr’s ironic, absurdist intentions are plain, and the book is immeasurably more enjoyable to read for it.
The Harpole of the title is George Harpole, teacher and acting-Headmaster of Tampling St Nicholas (C.E.) Aided Primary School, and the Report is upon him and upon his experiences and actions as acting-Head for one term. The Report is notionally compiled by an older, more experienced Headmaster (who can that be?) and it’s composed of Official School Logs, correspondence with the Local Education Authority, Councillors, parents, some personal letters made available by not merely Harpole but his most junior and forthright teacher, Emma Foxberrow, compositions by certain of the children and even Harpole’s personal journal.
The book therefore proceeds, in chronological order, via a mosaic series of short sections, in multiple viewpoints. Sometimes, a section will cover a couple of pages, but for the overwhelming majority of the book, Carr keeps thing pithy and concise, emphasising at each turn the smallness of the battlefield on which all such conflicts are carried out, and avoiding any diffusement of each moment.
It’s a slightly odd method of relating the story, since we never directly experience the events but rather observe them at one remove. Carr uses this approach to great effect: we are experiencing a précis of things, a miniature in which Carr can then present the central point – frequently mildly absurd – without clogging up the works with too much detail.
Carr uses his mixture of official documents and journals, upon which he comments in persona as compiler of the Report, to quickly delineate the central cast. As well as George Harpole, the school has six staff, being five teachers, each with one class in which they teach their pupils everything, plus a caretaker that we will quickly learn is truculent, heavily-unionised and completely unprepared to step outside the (undefined) boundaries of his role.
There’s no actual plot, not as such. Carr’s aim is at a portrait of the Education System, seen through the eyes of a small but basically competent school, led by a young, friendly, anxiously thoughtful man trying to reconcile the opposing aims of ambition-serving conformity and the creative introduction of improvements. Harpole, who has been a teacher at Tampling St Nicholas for twelve years before his temporary promotion, has been elevated from among equals, to the apathy of all except Mrs Grindle-Jones (whose husband is Head Teacher of the nearby Grammar School), finds his every attempt to instigate change opposed by the Education Committee, the teachers, the parents and Theaker the caretaker. An early attempt to appeal to a higher level only results in apathy, and the further opposition of Tusker, Secretary to the Committee and Harpole’s immediate supervisor in the chain of command.
Everybody knows what a school is, which is what it always has been, irrespective of the passage of time and the development of society. By seeking to improve things, Harpole becomes an enemy.
Carr fills the book with small incidents and oppositions, many of which seem improbable, and yet come from his own experiences. It’s like Homicide: Life on the Street, continually setting up situations that are stupid and unbelievable, yet which come straight out of a true life book. The funniest example is the letter from a parent furious that his daughter has been taught that the steeple in Chesterfield is twisted. I mean, it is: it’s not just a fact, it’s something that Chesterfield uses to market itself.
But two years previously, whilst passing through Chesterfield, this parent told his daughter that the Chesterfield steeple is not twisted, but straight: it’s merely a scientific illusion. He’s hopping mad that he’s been contradicted, that the school has dared to undermine his parental authority, and he is insisting that the school recants and teaches his daughter (and by extension all the other pupils) that the steeple is straight.
The other members of staff form a formidable barrier to Harpole’s efforts to upgrade Tampling St Nicholas. Three of them, Mrs Grindle-Jones, Mr Pintle and Grace Tollemache, are veterans, set in their way, dedicated to doing what they have always done and unwilling to consider any variation. In contrast, Sydney Croser is too inexperienced to know what he is really doing, and barely keeps his class under control as it is, whilst the final member of staff, the newly-qualified Emma Foxberrow – bright, self-willed, charismatic, progressive – is more inclined to dismiss Harpole as a tool of the establishment, too institutionalised to be effective, because he proceeds by small steps and shifts, instead of by revolution.
Harpole has a fiancée to whom he writes regularly, confessing his difficulties and his fears, which initially blocks any suggestion of gravitation towards Emma, even after she starts to admire the progress he is making. Fiancée Edith only writes back once: to break off the engagement because she is marrying someone else, in fact has to marry someone else. This leads to a macho reaction from Harpole when faced with a thuggish parent who is a wife-beater, which impresses Emma.
After this, she even agrees to accompany Harpole on a visit to his parents’ farm in Yorkshire where, despite their not being boy- and girlfriend, the use of first names between them gives the senior Harpoles the impression. The two certainly start to move towards each other, although there is nothing overt until the very end.
This comes with the Education Committee meeting to determine Harpole’s fate, or at least his career. Has the term been sufficient of a success, in Committee terms, to warrant Harpole progressing towards a permanent Headmastership?
Unfortunately, the week before the meeting, Harpole has to repel the amorous intentions of Councillor Mrs Blossom (complete with blonde wig). As a result, he is attacked on all sides by everyone at the meeting, slandered, decried, you name it. The viciousness of the assault is both excessive and expected, and every incident of the term as we’ve seen throughout the Report is thrown at him without reference to Harpole’s successful defusement of everything.
Which is when Carr springs his biggest surprise, the eucatastrophe of support, endless support, in glowing terms, from everyone: all the teachers, most of the parents. It’s Harpole’s vindication, everything he could wish for, his career and future secured, and on the back of it, the Committee is rolled back enough to offer him the permanent Headship at Tampling St Nicholas.
But Harpole has had enough. He has seen that future, divined what it will make of him, and he rejects it and his career, walking away from the School in the moment of his triumph.
It’s a beautiful surprise and the best possible ending.
As for George Harpole’s future, Carr produces a short coda to illustrate where it is to lead him. He and Emma are sticking together, joining a society that teaches Missionaries to teach abroad. Typically of the straightforward, unromantic Emma, they are not engaged, not going to marry, nor even in love. They are a partnership that will satisfy certain physical urges as and when.
And Harpole and Foxberrow are posted to Sinji in West Africa, to a former RAF station gradually disappearing into the jungle. They teach, and Harpole organises cricket matches, in which they are assisted by a minor character from A Season in Sinji, and his multiple concubines.
The Harpole Report is funny and educational. It’s been hailed as one of the finest exposes of British education, and everything that happens, no matter how outlandish it may appear at first exposure, is palpably based in truth and real experience. I’m glad I never went into teaching.