One morning in the early Seventies, the distinguished biographer Michael Holroyd was startled to receive in the post a copy of a novel, accompanied by a token for a pound of best steak from George Ellerbeck, butcher of Kettering. These, the accompanying letter explained, represented the Ellerbeck Literary Award:
'The Prize is awarded at infrequent intervals, and you are only its third recipient. The circumstances are that Mr Carr, who makes a living by writing, is one of my customers and pays me in part with unsold works, known I understand as Remainders. These I give to better customers in lieu of my customary picture calendars. Mrs Ellerbeck, who goes to the WEA and is not averse to a bit of literature, suggested some years ago that I award one of these copies as an encouragement to another member of the literary world, this to be known as the Ellerbeck Prize. We decide who it is to be from the most graphic and telling picture of the outside world outside Kettering that we read the month after Mr Carr delivers his books and we settle with him. Sometimes it is a complete book, and sometimes it is only a few lines. In your case it is only a few lines.
I came upon them in some newspaper that Mr Timpson saves for us for outer wrappings. It describes you wrestling in the dark beside a wheelbarrow of sodden volumes and cleverly inserting your signature in a book a dissatisfied customer was attempting to return to you. As a tradesman this has happened to me, and I can appreciate your courage and skill.
I have removed the dust-jacket for two reasons. As I store these with my carcasses they have a slight taint, and also I am told that without the jacket it will be harder to sell.'
Yes, it was J.L. Carr, the Card of Kettering, up to his tricks. Needless to say, there was no such butcher in Kettering. The 'Prize' was one of Carr's devices for getting rid of the remaindered copies of his novel The Harpole Report that he had bought from his publisher (he always bought his remainders, and at the first opportunity bought back all his rights). Other copies had been delivered by hand as Christmas cards - cheaper, the author calculated, than buying cards - but there were still hundreds of remainders in Carr's garden shed. Until, that is, the humorist Frank Muir (who, like Carr, had served in the RAF Photographic Unit during the war) appeared on Desert Island Discs and chose The Harpole Report as the book he would take with him to the mythical island. Carr's flagging literary career was suddenly revived - and his shed emptied, as the canny author sold off all his Harpoles at full trade price.
But that's enough J.L. Carr. I've now finished Byron Rogers' The Last Englishman, and it did not disappoint - a quite extraordinary biography, and a real page-turner. And now I've bought his biography of R.S. Thomas, which promises to be at least as much fun...