Bill Carr – a love and reverence for literature

In my sorting out of old files and paper in my chaotic personal archive, I have been unearthing essays I wrote a long time ago. It has occurred to me that some of these may be worth reproducing in another time for one reason or another. In the case of the following essay about Bill Carr, UG lecturer and Theatre Guild actor, the man I wrote about was a lover of literature, whose deep knowledge of the poetry of Martin Carter and Derek Walcott, in particular, I greatly admired. He is one of those people whose memory should be preserved.


   “Two weeks before Bill Carr died I had got a book of essays on the poetry of Derek Walcott to give to him. Between visits abroad, I never got around to giving the book to him. I feel sad he never got to see these essays and I am sorry I will miss his commentary, disdainful and delighted by turns, on what the essayists might have dared to say about his much-loved poet. I am even more sorry that I will miss his exulting joy in Walcott’s words themselves. How he would have loved the lines from Omeros quoted in John Figueroa’s good essay on that great poem:-

                                                                                “but the right journey

                                                is motionless; as the sea moves round an island

                                                that appears to be moving, love moves round the heart

                                                with encircling salt, and the slowly travelling hand

                                                knows it returns to the port from which it must start.


                                                Therefore, this is what this island has meant to you

                                                why my bust spoke, why the sea-swift was sent to you:

                                                to circle yourself and your island with this art.”


And these other lines in which, as an adopted West Indian, Bill would have recognized the slow coalescence and growth of the unique culture he had grown over long years to love:

                                                “Why waste lines on Achille, a shade on the sea floor?

                                                Because strong as self-healing coral, a quiet culture

                                                is branching from the white ribs of each ancestor,


                                                deeper than it seems on the surface; slowly but sure,

                                                it will change us with the fluent sculpture of Time.”


He himself was writing a book on Walcott, whose poetry he loved measurelessly. Over the years I saw some of the completed chapters. He never finished the book – he grumbled to me once that Walcott was writing so much great poetry so fast that lesser men could not hope to keep up with critical comment on his output – but I hope the completed part will be preserved and published sometime.

Bill Carr was a Yorkshire man – he could not be weaned away from his admiration for the dull but dogged opening batsman Boycott – but the main part of his life was spent lecturing in English, first at Mona and then at Turkeyen. At his best, Bill Carr was an incisive, brilliant lecturer and a piercingly lucid literary critic. A few years ago, when he was up between bouts of illness that laid him low, I went to hear him give a lecture on the poetry of Martin Carter. I thought he might be too weak and unwell to be much more than ordinary. But without a note and holding only the poems in his hands like a prized possession, he gave the perfect lecture – pithy, loving, original, witty, and assured – and his reading of the poetry was loving also, faultless and informed with deep understanding. For an hour and more, his originality, intelligence, and obvious love of his subject held us almost tranced at the cusp of our attention. I went away thinking to myself that the performance multiplied would have made him one of the very great teachers. It is sad now to think how much more he might have achieved if he had allowed himself to be at his best more of the time. I think he might have measured himself among the great literary critics of the region, men like Ken Ramchand and Gordon Rohlehr.

He was an astonishingly brave man. A few years ago, when his strength had ebbed and his body become frail and worn, he said he would do the demanding part of the Englishman Harry Trewe in Walcott’s play “Pantomime,” a play with just two actors. No one could have believed that he would succeed in the attempt. It seemed a sort of mad over-estimate of his remaining strength. But he carried off the performance for the entire run of the play with gallantry and the theatrical flair which once had made him memorable in King Lear, Hamlet, and Walcott’s Franklin in the old Theatre Guild days. It must have been pure courage that saw him through – borne up, also, no doubt, by his abiding reverence for Walcott’s undying work. In his last years, he was in and out of hospital, very weak often, very sick sometimes, but never once that I saw in a dull, ill humour and certainly never complaining about life which held for him always to the end the zest and promise that makes every passing hour matter. Some of that tenacity in holding on to the richness of life must have flowed from his wife, Marjorie, but the strength was in him too, perhaps as deep down as his faith as a Catholic, which he did not speak much about (at least to me) but which was rock-steady through all the bad, enfeebling days.

Bill had his hates as well as his loves. He harboured a special loathing for the pretensions of political power. Those who lorded it over others, he felt, almost invariably had no good reason or right to do so and the worst of them were the most likely to act the over-mighty autocrat. In the heyday of party paramountcy, the manifestations of which he utterly despised, he would quote to good effect one of Karl Marx’s better remarks:

                                                “But the more these conscious illusions

                                                of the ruling classes are shown to be

                                                false and the less they satisfy common-sense,

                                                the more dogmatically they are

                                                asserted and the more deceitful,

                                                moralizing and spiritual becomes the

                                                language of established society.”

Above all, when all is said and done, Bill Carr loved, respected, and relished good writing – he revelled in what was best in literature. His knowledge of all the classics of Western literature was unsurpassed. I learned so much about literature from him I cannot begin to list the insights he carelessly bestowed on me in the course of conversations. I thought I knew Walcott’s work well until Bill Carr spoke to me about the complexity and beauty of his art. He introduced me to the inner workings of many great writers. I thank him for that out of a full heart. His favourite almost over all as an essayist was Matthew Arnold, whom he thought much underestimated. Over the years he pointed out to me more times than I can remember parts of Arnold’s writing peculiarly appropriate to the happenings of our day. He seemed to know Arnold’s work by heart. He liked to quote Arnold’s words about literary criticism: “I am bound by my own definition of criticism: a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is thought and known in the world.” He thought anyone interested in well-written, commonsensical, clear and clarifying prose should read Arnold’s essay “Culture and Anarchy.” The best writing, Bill Carr said to me not long ago, is always more up-to-date than today.

When Bill died, I looked up my Newman – the great Cardinal John Henry Newman, convert-scholar of the Catholic Church. Bill loved the cardinal – Newman was not only a man of the most unflinching Catholic faith but also an absolute master of language. I found some words from a sermon Newman once gave – simple words but I write them down now with feeling for Bill Carr who taught me so much about what is worth our love and reverence in literature.


                                                “May He support us all the day long,

                                                till the shades lengthen, and the

                                                evening comes, and the busy world

                                                is hushed, and the fever of life

                                                is over, and our work is done! Then

                                                in His mercy may He give us a safe

                                                lodging, and a holy rest, and peace

                                                at the last.” 

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