A Book Ian Likes: A Day In Summer by J. L. Carr

Peplow is off to the little village of Great Minden for their annual Feast, a day of celebration that brings visitors from near and, well, nearer. He attracts interest for being a stranger in town. He also discovers that two of his colleagues from the Second World War live there, but that is of only peripheral interest to him: his son was killed in a road accident the previous year and he has tracked down the driver who got away with it…

This has been one of my favourite stories for around thirty years and I only got around to reading it a couple of months ago.

There is, of course, a backstory to this. About thirty years ago (1989 or 90, I can’t remember which) on a Saturday night, I was hoping to watch some Clive James. However, I was also going out with some friends, so I set the VCR to record the inestimable expat. When I woke up on Sunday morning, I made my hungover way into the lounge room and flicked on the TV, hoping to watch the show I’d missed.

And I did miss it: I’d mis-programmed the VCR and managed to completely avoid Clive and got a movie instead. “Oh well,” I thought, “I might as well watch this instead.” The recording had begun just a couple of minutes into the programme, so I missed the title sequence. No matter, the story had barely started and I didn’t think I’d missed much.

But, boy, did I enjoy what was left! What the first half of this movie comprised of were some slow, but steady, introductions of characters and themes and plot points. Then, once Peplow made it to the Feast, everything started to come together and build to a gripping conclusion.

I must have watched that movie about once a month for nearly two years. I loved it. I still didn’t know what the title was, but I did pay attention to the cast members because there was a chance that I might come across a reference to their other work somewhere (this was before the internet) and therefore find out what the damned thing was called. The only name in the cast I recognised was Caroline John (Peplow’s wife), who had played Liz Shaw in Doctor Who. A year or so afterwards I came across John Sessions (Croser, the lazy schoolteacher) in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V. Branagh’s autobiography, Beginning, mentioned Sessions a lot: they’d been mates since drama school. Everyone else in the cast was a mystery to me, which, as an acting nerd, is a bit embarrassing to admit.

But the title still eluded me: for a long time, I thought it might have been called “Wednesday At The Fair,” and that it was based on a short story by Thomas Hardy. It had that grimness that I associated with Hardy (for whom I was just beginning my admiration) and the chance to read something else by him was alluring (I realised that Hardy had written his story long before the film was set but films often changed their settings or times, so it didn’t bother me unduly). By the time I got around to realising that it wasn’t his story, I had read a heap more of Hardy, though, which was a definite win. But I still didn’t have a title.

Anyway, years passed by and I managed to lose the tape in a move. Or I taped something else over it without realising. Or threw it out. Not remembering exactly when I’d taped it and not having the title handy meant that it was difficult to find again. Looking for it was going to be tricky:  I didn’t want to be one of those people I’d occasionally been stuck behind at the counters of bookshops – “It’s about forty years old and it had a green cover. The author was English.” – so I put it down as a sad loss and moved on with my life.

However, by this time I had become connected to the Internet. And the Internet had fan sites. And databases. I looked occasionally for signs of this film but was unsuccessful. I thought I had located one of the actors – he looked similar – but a perusal of the information available about him on IMDB made me realise that I was mistaken.

Then, just a few years ago, I was looking at the filmography of a completely different actor (Tom Chadbon: I was looking him up for Blakes 7-related reasons) and discovered a film from 1989 called A Day In Summer.

“Oh my,” I thought.

From there it was easy to discover that it was based on a novel by J. L. Carr (who also wrote A Month In The Country, the novel for which he is most famous). So I began an occasional trawl of local bookshops. Where I discovered that the book was no longer in print. I went to some second-hand bookstores. No joy. Finally, I went back to the Internet (look, I like going to bookshops and going through lots of shelves: it’s really easy to find stuff online but it’s fun to physically look for something sometimes). It wasn’t quite out of print: a publishing company had been set up by Mr Carr’s estate for the express purpose of keeping his books in the public eye. However, with the cost of postage, the expense of getting a copy was quite ridiculous (the books themselves aren’t that much more expensive than a regular book, to be honest). I fell back on a decent second-hand edition from a site that wasn’t named after a big river.

When it arrived at my house, I stared at it for a long time, unable to believe that this particular mystery had finally been solved. Although, I must confess that the only thought in my head when I started reading it was, “Please don’t be shit.”

Fortunately, it wasn’t.

As a story, it is great. The plot is slight, but the characters are magnificently drawn. And my gleeful book nerd brain made an absolutely shocking realisation.

Great Minden is Milk Wood.

Under Milk Wood is one of my all-time favourite books/ plays. It tells the story of a day in the life of Llareggub, a small Welsh fishing village. It begins some time before dawn and ends a few hours after sunset and through the course of it we meet the inhabitants of the village and see them interact with one another, overseen by the oracular First and Second Voices.

Peplow arrives in Great Minden at dawn on an overnight train and leaves some hours after sunset. He moves through the town, set on his mission, and manages to meet many of the locals, all of whom have a story to tell, and who frequently seem willing to tell it to this taciturn outsider who speaks largely through interior monologue. As Ruskin, an officer who served with him observes, Peplow is the sort of person people feel able to confide in without thinking it will go further.

Speaking of Ruskin, he was crippled during the war and now lives in a single room overlooking many of the shops and homes in the village. He spies on them through his binoculars, the only pleasure left to him. He’s the Captain Cat analogue in this story. However, while the Captain was loved and admired by the people of Llareggub (largely because he is blind and they think him harmless), Ruskin is mistrusted by the villagers because he’s an outsider who they feel is spying on them.

I don’t want to say any more because I’ll be giving away spoilers but there are enough similarities between the two texts that I think my theory has legs. The major difference, and where I get most of my enjoyment, is in the stylistic differences between the two books. While Thomas’ paean to the simple life is full of joy and wonder at the pleasure that such an existence can bring – “Isn’t life a terrible thing, thank God” – Carr’s text is much more caustic and earthy, although with a lot of the same themes. His story has a plot, though, and it unfolds relentlessly, like a good thriller, combined with a rural soap opera, with a bit of kitchen sink thrown in for good measure.

The film adaptation is pretty good, too.

You can find out more about J. L. Carr at http://www.quincetreepress.co.uk/index.html

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