Thursday, 26 February 2015

The Casual Vacancy

"Ah," said Howard, "Well, now. That's the question, isn't it? We've got ourselves a casual vacancy, Mo, and it could make all the difference."
"We've got a...?" asked Maureen, frightened that she might have missed something crucial.
"Casual vacancy," repeated Howard. "What you call it when a council seat becomes vacant through a death. Proper term," he said pedagogically.  
(JK Rowling, The Casual Vacancy)

I read JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy a couple of years ago and my overwhelming impression was - well, that it was a nasty piece of work. It's one of the most unnecessarily depressing novels I have ever read and seems to have been written with an overwhelming sense of bitterness. The only character with any redeeming features dies in the opening chapter, and after that you are left with a bunch of the most mean-minded, snobbish, outright cruel, impoverished or messed up individuals you could ever not hope (not) to meet. It makes you worry about JK Rowling's state of mind that she could create such a barren portrayal of British life. I am not saying that all these characters don't exist in some form or other throughout our country. But life really isn't ALL bad - there are also decent folk out there, doing their best given their circumstances, and it might have been nice to meet a few more of them without making them suffer an aneurysm immediately afterwards. It was almost as if JK Rowling felt she had to write about the pathetic life of a miserable crack whore as penance for the bright do-gooding intelligence of Hermione Granger.

It was also perhaps an attempt by JK to show that her life hasn't always been that of a multi-millionaire; she was once "poor". But we knew this already; it's well documented, however little she likes interviews. And then we have also been to the Elephant Cafe on George VI Bridge in Edinburgh, where JK apparently wrote much of the first draft of Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone. She may well have been a single parent living on benefits, but the cafe where she was "forced to write" to save money on heating bills is far from the seedy, godforsaken greasy spoon the image conjures up. The Elephant Cafe has deep red walls, serves delicious mains, cakes, tray bakes and herbal teas, and has a hot chocolate cocktail menu and a spectacular view of Edinburgh Castle from its back room. So (since she has never resorted to use of Class A drugs) I don't believe that JK has ever stooped to the sad life of Krystal Weedon and her family. If she had, she might not have given Krystal such a puerile name.

Edinburgh Castle

After two episodes, I am finding the television version is equally depressing (and know that there is worse still to come), but it has highlighted the touches of (rather black) humour in the book and these make it a tad more bearable. Some characters or character traits and some unpleasant incidents have been left out to condense the rather wordy novel into three one-hour episodes. But the GP's husband is now a plastic rather than a heart surgeon, presumably to make him less likeable too.

The storyline concerns the election of a replacement councillor in the town of Pagford after the death of one of its members, Barry Fairbrother, creates a "casual vacancy". The three rival candidates are (1) the rather wet and malleable son of the larger-than-life council leader, (2) a neurotic asthmatic school teacher, and (3) the abusive half-brother of the man who died. They all have secrets and motives, none of them are happily married, and they all have what they see as problem children, who are really just teenagers being teenagers. (They just don't play Quidditch or save the world from people who cannot be named.) It's a battle between the town delicatessen and the community centre's methadone clinic. It's about posh folk trying to open a hotel and luxury spa in the medieval manor that houses the community centre and therewith keep the town's undesirable council estate, The Fields, further "afield". (The hotel appears to be a further diversion from the novel, where Howard's aim is simply to move the Parish boundary.) An unknown blogger claiming to be the ghost of Barry Fairbrother exposes all the candidates' darker sides in turn, wreaking havoc and leading to serious consequences.

The Chair of the Parish Council and First Citizen of Pagford, Howard Mollison, is played by Michael Gambon. Gambon of course played Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films after the death of Richard Harris. Despite his respectable position, Howard has none of the gravitas of Dumbledore (though none of the pure evil of Voldemort either), and runs a delicatessen in the market square. He is building up a foodie empire throughout Pagford by opening a new cafe and wine merchant's. He loves his food and ignores any health warnings attached to it, despite already having cardiac issues. He is wealthy and not ashamed to flaunt his financial success or use it against others.

Now, I once thought I would quite like to run a delicatessen, or more specifically a cheese, wine and chocolate shop, otherwise known as Maison de Migraines. I think this has more to do with me wanting to sit and consume cheese, wine and chocolate all day long rather than having a serious desire to run my own business, manage my own ordering and accounts, stay solvent and be on my feet from dawn to dusk serving impatient customers. Customers who don't know their Stilton from their Stinking Bishop or their Malbec from their Merlot. Rather like the customers my brother used to serve in a bookshop who would come in and say "I'm looking for a book. I don't know who it's by or what it's called, but it's green." You can see why the owner of our local deli in York has a reputation for grumpiness.

But I do love my cheese. One of our wedding cakes was made of cheese, and the other of pure unadulterated chocolate. I would rather have good food than possessions. That's just how I am.

Cheese wedding cake
Unadulterated chocolate (with figs)
Pagford appears to have moved from the novel's West Country setting into the sleepy but more scenic Cotswolds. The Cotswolds are a part of the world I have been to, but need to explore more. It is the first place my parents went on holiday without us, leaving me and my brother aged 8 and 5 with my aunt and uncle for the weekend. This abandonment took some forgiving. Even if we were taken for a lovely afternoon at Whipsnade Zoo, from where my uncle drove us home at 120mph before letting us drink his brandy after dinner. Wa-hey! (For some reason it was many years before our parents went away without us again.) But I have since made a couple of day trips to the Cotswolds, when my boyfriend-now-husband was living in Swindon. But lacking our own transport, we could only get as far as local bus services or visitors dropping by with a car could take us. I have dreamy memories of hazy, sunny afternoons in Bourton-on-the-Water and Lechlade-on-Thames. Rivers meandering through the picturesque sandstone villages, gardens laden with wisteria, pubs serving sticky toffee pudding and a sense of a timelessness and a world long gone by from anywhere else.

A model Cotswolds village in a model Cotswolds village
(with thanks to Jane Goodwin)

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