When returning up north for a few days a couple of weeks ago, we were keen to fit in a visit to Cogito Books in Hexham. Now that we are no longer local, we had called ahead to reserve a railway poster book for Northernvicar, and I wanted to find a book for Daughter’s goddaughter. I knew that they had an excellent selection of children’s books as well as sets of small publishers’ collections. We were not disappointed! I had all the Slightly Foxed books and Quarterlys as well as having a complete collection of Persephones, so I was pleased to find another small publisher represented. The Quince Tree Press exists to publish the work of J.L.Carr, of A Month in the Country fame, as well as little volumes of poetry. I bought three books by J.L.Carr, including The Harpole Report, as I experienced many sorts of schools during my time as a supply teacher in three or four counties.
Do not be put off by the rather dull cover!
This is a quirky little book by the author of the successful “A Month in the Country”. Whereas that book is memorable for its wistful look at times past, this book is a sometimes harsh and often funny journal plus other writings about a couple of terms in the life of a challenging school in the 1950s. George Harpole is an acting Head teacher, and therefore particularly vulnerable to the slings and arrows of an uncooperative education department, strange and assorted teachers, and children whose needs are varied.
The book is in the style of the official school log book, a journal, letters to Harpole’s girlfriend, and occasional pieces from selected pupils. The styles vary accordingly, with the official line varying to the more informal to letters and comments from varied officials, including the absent actual head teacher. I found much of it very funny and bits of it painfully true as teachers meet the same difficulties of resources, awkward families and tough lessons as in more modern schools. There is Titus, the unnaturally brilliant child from a family which has banned books, who proves that the text books are wrong. Miss Foxberrow, a graduate who tries to introduce new teaching methods and a revolutionary sports day, provides a diversion in many ways, while George Harpole tries to balance the needs of the children with the various wreath obsessed and frankly strange teachers who inhabit the staff room. He does battle for blackboards and his children unfairly discriminated against for grammar school places. We also get a picture of his private life and a problem spanner. There is a physical battle with a parent which is significant for his life as well being a satisfactory episode for the reader.
Altogether this is a good read, especially for those of us who have worked in schools. It is not real life, but the sense of immense frustration is recognisable, especially as the different documents and writing styles keep one reading, fascinated to find out what enormity is going to occur next in this account of school life. J.L.Carr’s own publishing firm, Quince Tree Press, seems to be a small gem on the evidence of this and the sequel which I am looking forward to reading. The Harpole Report reminds me of “The Diary of a Nobody” in its self – conscious revelation of the best of intentions meeting challenge and disaster, and I can recommend it as a short, satisfying read.