Harry Phibbs reviews The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling
The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling (Little, Brown. £20)
The moral certainty of a story with characters consisting of goodies and baddies works better in children's literature than in adult fiction. As far as JK Rowling is concerned the middle classes are the baddies. This has been clear since the first page of the first of her Harry Potter novels. Harry's uncle and aunt Mr and Mrs Dursley live at "Privet Drive" and read the Daily Mail. Their opposition to magic is typical of their mean spirited suburban bigotry. They make Harry sleep in a broom cupboard. Well, that's Daily Mail readers for you.
After she has finished sneering at the Dursleys and using them to conflate Conservative opinions with unpleasant behaviour, Miss Rowling decides to dispatch Harry off to boarding school. All very New Labour.
Now Miss Rowling is keeping up the class war with her adult novel A Casual Vacancy. The middle class characters are prejudiced. They are snobbish, homophobic and racist. The paradox of her crassly applying this negative stereotyping provides some unintentional humour.
The action revolves around a council by-election following the death of a Parish Councillor. JK Rowling tells her readers what Conservative councillors think via the fictitious Cllr Howard Mollison. For instance, that the problems of council estates are the fault of the tenants:
So Howard was forced to draw the conclusion that they were choosing, of their own free will, to live the way they lived, and that the estate's air of slightly threatening degradation was nothing more that a physical manifestation of ignorance and indolence.
This, of course, is not the general view of Conservative councillors. Most have spent rather more time knocking on doors in tower blocks talking to people and finding out what goes on, than she has with her net worth of half a billion pounds, and cocooned in her reclusive mutual admiration society with Lord Bragg.
However, I do not agree with the claim that this book is a "500 page long Socialist manifesto" masquerading as a novel. It's much too negative and depressing to be a manifesto of any kind. It is more an overview of Broken Britain. Nor is it just Conservatives and the middle classes who take a battering. All the characters are awful - apart from Cllr Barry Fairbrother who is dead by the third page.
Nor will Socialist readers find the passages about Winterdown Comprehensive reassuring. The default position of the National Union of Teachers and their left wing allies is that there are no bad schools and no bad teachers. At Winterdown, discipline has broken down. The teachers are weak and afraid of the pupils. The pupils know that swearing, bullying and disruption can be engaged in without facing any consequence.
Their registration teacher sat at her desk, marking people present as they came in. She never bothered to call the register formally; it was one of the many small ways in which she attempted to ingratiate herself with them, and the class despised her for it.
Social workers are similarly hopeless. Dithering and delaying, and ignoring problems such as drug taking.
Even the local vicar is pretty ghastly. He "did not sound as if he was thinking about the sense of the words issuing from his mouth but only about his own delivery, which was sing song and rhythmic." No wonder the "self conscious drone" could not maintain the attention of mourners at Cllr Fairbrother's funeral.
The gloom is unremitting. Domestic violence, drug abuse, casual sex, and personal resentments zing from every chapter. I suppose Miss Rowling should be given some credit for her efforts to give a Parish Council by-election a sense of excitement. A character posting a disobliging, anonymous comment on the Parish Council website "pressed the mouse like a trigger."
Understandably, to add pace to the plot she exaggerates the power of Parish Councils. At one stage it is suggested that if Pagford Parish Council changed its boundaries to exclude a council estate then Pagford residents would cease to be liable for the social security payments of residents on the estate.
Miss Rowling puts forward her views, thinly veiled through the words of a social worker called Kay Bawden. One is that nobody would be willing to adopt a child as old as four. Another is that drug clinics dishing out methadone is an effective cure - a claim which is proven to be untrue.
It is not badly written. While it is not great literature - the prose is effortless, Jeffery Archer with swear words. There are plenty of valid observations that are well phrased. Yes, the middle classes have recently decided to eat at "islands" in the middle of their kitchens. But why can't Miss Rowling sometime throw a bouquet? What makes this book so turgid is the refusal to let in any sunlight on a single page.
In fact, the only reference to actual sunshine I noticed was the following:
The Fields were not improved by sunshine, which merely showed up the dirt and the damage, the cracks in the concrete walls, the boarded windows and the litter.
Our country certainly has its troubles, not least such monuments of socialist architecture. But it is not a country I recognise as fairly portrayed in this book.
Not all teachers, social workers, nurses, and vicars do a bad job. Not all relationships are loveless shams. Not all dinner parties are point scoring ordeals. Not all council tenants are amoral slobs. Not all those seeking election to public office do so from base motives. Yet that is Rowling's miserable world.
Politically it is a tiresome book. So much ignorance and prejudice packed into what Miss Rowling has surely planned as a virtuous assault on those woeful qualities.
Some schools are like Winterdown Comprehensive. But now such schools are being taken over at a greatly increased rate and reborn as sponsored academies with new management and a new ethos. Before the General Election, JK Rowling gave £1 million to the Labour Party, seeking to sustain a Labour Government, and for such dire schools to be left languishing.
So there we have it. After the magic dust of the Harry Potter series, JK Rowling has hit back at her adoring readers with a tome soaked in acid rain.
Maybe it is better for the Labour Party to have Miss Rowling as its paymaster, rather than the trade unions, the taxpayer, or dodgy businessmen. However, if this novel is anything to go by, I don't think they should let her choose their policies. She spots some of the problems, but she is too overwhelmed by pessimism to offer solutions.
JK Rowling's contribution in prompting millions of children to read for pleasure is immense. She has been showered in the delight of Middle England, and has evidently found all the admiration wearing. This book is her revenge.