Against the Act

J.L. Carr's A month in the country has long been one of my favourite books. Oddly though, I've never read anything else by Carr, even though I knew that I loved his gentle, sometimes acerbic humorous style; and was most impressed when I discovered some years ago that I was just three-degrees-of-separation away from him. Seeing a copy of his Harpole & Foxberrow, general publishers on the shelves of my local library meant that I finally got to read something else by Carr.

Actually this was a good time to read it as I'd had a rotten week. Major problems with my car meant that I had to catch the train in to work. Not usually a good situation it was made unexpectedly palatable by the train company being kind enough to suddenly start scheduling two trains an hour instead of two a day (yes, honestly!) from my local ever-so-rural station. More trains mean more passengers so the railway company had flung up a garden shed on the platform, painted it a snazzy gunmetal grey, added some pictures by local children, and a waiting room was born. On a morning of torrential rain, the blitz spirit was alive and well as eight passengers squeezed sardine-like into the "waiting-shed".

The 40 minute journey (standing room only) was also improved by Harpole & Foxberrow, which proved to be an unexpectedly good read for anyone who has ever worked in a Legal Deposit library.

Harpole & Foxberrow is about two characters, who, in an effort to re-order their lives, decide to take over a publishing company and sell books. What could be easier? And yes, that of course, is what most readers, and, I guess writers, would think. Isn't a little bookshop / publishers somewhere supposed to be most dedicated readers' dream job? The reality however proves to be very different as authors with diva tendencies, critics who can barely read, and lovelorn shopkeepers intersect via the business of Harpole & Foxberrow. And when the law invokes the dreadful power of the Legal Deposit Act, it looks as though this particular general publishers are going to struggle to stay in business.

What wasn't so good about this slim volume? Well, many of the characters have appeared elsewhere in works by Carr, including some in A month in the country. The main problem with this was that I felt that the book would have been so much better if I had read the other works by Carr. This is not altogether a problem as it has encouraged me to want to read more Carr, but not so good in that I felt this book was short-changed because I didn't have sufficient knowledge of the back story, which was several novels worth extensive.

Also, although very funny with some delicious dark humour, and occasionally satirical, the story did tend to wander off track sometimes. This didn't always matter, but  sometimes I was completely lost, and the jumping from one character's viewpoint to another could be confusing.

However as a comic read Harpole & Foxberrow takes a bit of beating. It's hilarious; and I alarmed fellow passengers by chortling loudly and at length many times throughout the journey. Carr is especially good at mocking the foibles of book-lovers and the literati; and of poking sly fun at those who just don't understand why books grab people and hold on to them.

As someone who has worked in a Legal Deposit library I chortled especially loudly at any passages involving the Act. The truth of the matter is that although the Legal Deposit libraries can claim works, whether or not they get them is another story. And, I would suspect that although most publishers don't interact with the Legal Deposit Agency the way Harpole & Foxberrow did, there is a certain element reflected in this novel, where if they think they can get away without depositing they do.

Let's be fair, I can understand their perspective. If you're a small publisher, giving away six of your potentially costly volumes for free to libraries that you think might have the money to buy them anyway, must seem galling. But the truth of the matter is that the libraries don't have that kind of money to take a utilitarian approach to buying up most everything that is published in the UK. And the real reason why it's so important to deposit is that your publication will be held in perpetuity, for generations in hundreds of years time to study. And that's what's really important. The closing lines of Harpole & Foxberrow are a reflection on books : "[Characters] flounder about and need footnotes to keep them from sidling off. Whereas books have body; books (if you are listening) always will say what they said last time. Or stay silent when you shut them up."

The thing is that books can be "shut up" so easily - fire, theft, neglect, vandalism, loss. And that's why I think the Legal Deposit Act is important. The LD libraries can't guarantee that none of the above will happen, but between them they can guarantee that for many years ahead there will be a copy of what is published in this country now, a palimpsest of publishing time; and a vital source for the future.


Aarti said…
Oh, I'm sorry you had a bad week :-( Car trouble is really the worst! Especially in the winter!

Glad this book helped ease some of that pain, though!
Book-hound said…
Thanks Aarti. You're right that the winter always makes it seem worse. Am waiting now to get the verdict from the garage. Gulp!

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