The Guardian’s correspondent was “required to sign more legal documents than [when] buying a house” before reading The Casual Vacancy; as for the author interview: “Its prospect begins to assume the mystique of an audience with Her Majesty – except, of course, that Rowling is famously much, much richer.” She is in fact worth about £620m, according to Sky News. Then the book came out. In its first week, it sold 124,000 copies in the UK and three times that in the USA. To put that in perspective, the initial print run for a novel is rarely more than 3,000-5,000 copies.
Those 500,000-odd buyers were confronted with a picture of modern England that many English people could have done without. The Casual Vacancy is a portrait of Pagford, a small town in the West of England, said to be based on the one in which Ms Rowling grew up, although she has never confirmed this. It begins with a death (as does the other book discussed in this piece; but more of that later). In this case, it’s the death of a likeable local councillor who has opposed attempts to shut down the town’s methadone clinic and to rid the town of responsibility of the local sink estate – “project”, in American parlance – called the Fields. The election that follows for the dead man’s council seat is the frame upon which Rowling has hung her portrait of the town’s people.
They fall into three basic categories: smug, ineffectual, and disgusting.
The smug include the “first citizen” of Pagford, Council chairman Howard, a shop and cafe owner, 65 years old, of mighty girth and opinions; and his wife Shirley. Like others in the town, they hanker after the company of the local posh family, although the latter are clearly bored by them, and indeed sold the land for the sink estate Howard wants to be rid of so much. The smug also include Howard’s son Miles, a solicitor (lawyer), who stands for the dead man’s council seat, and his wife Samantha, who has huge breasts and fantasizes about sex with a singer from her daughter’s favourite boy-band. And there’s Parminder, the doctor, who holds liberal views but makes no effort to communicate with her unattractive daughter and is unaware that the latter is quietly mutilating herself with a razor-blade in the night.
The ineffectual include Kay, a social worker who is deluding herself about her relationship with Miles’s weedy younger partner; Colin, a deputy headmaster who lacks social skills and is mentally ill; and Ruth, a nurse who tries to be bright and jolly in a home dominated by a violent inadequate of a husband. The disgusting, besides her husband, include Colin’s vile teenage son, who despises his parents and uses his wit and popularity to inflict cruelties on others; Simon, Ruth’s husband, who stands for the council hoping to get kickbacks; and Terri, a middle-aged junkie and occasional whore who lives on the sink estate but whose daughter Krystal could maybe be something better. Rowling uses Krystal as a dramatic cipher in a battle between good and evil.
Rowling serves up many characters – in fact, too many too quickly, so that the first half of the book is confusing. Yet she has taken trouble to try to get inside their heads and to show us who they really are. Thus Howard dreams of the Pagford of his youth, where the poor grew runner beans and potatoes, and hates the Fields with its boarded-up windows, graffiti and satellite dishes. Miles and Samantha must entertain Kay and her reluctant partner to dinner and try to impress, though they have little in common with either; the evening that follows is pure agony, Abigail’s Party writ large. Parminder does not communicate with her daughter but half-knows it, and keeps meaning to try. Kay’s reluctant partner does know that, somewhere along the line, he should have ended the relationship. Colin’s horrible teenage son is determined to be “authentic” and does not know that he is pretentious. Neither does he really know that he is vicious; in class, he mutters savage insults at Parminder’s miserable daughter, wanting to impress the friend next to him. He is unaware that his friend finds the girl’s pain discomfiting.
Not every character works so well. Colin’s mental illness does not convince; it is so dramatic that one does not see how he functions at all. The crooked, violent Simon is just too without redeeming features; besides, he does not have the brains to have got away with it for so long. As for Terri, the tragic junkie:
The door swung open to reveal a woman who appeared simultaneously childlike and ancient, dressed in a dirty pale-blue T-shirt and a pair of men’s pajama bottoms. ...Her hair, which was home-dyed, coarse and very red, looked like a wig on top of a skull ...The house smelled of stale food, of sweat, of unshifted filth.
Terri is a type that exists, to be sure; but seems too obvious to be here. She might have seemed more real, and sympathetic, had she been one of those who do manage their addiction better.
The book ends with a tragedy that a number of the characters might have prevented, either earlier in the book, or – in several cases – in the hour or so before it happened. Several people get their comeuppance, for this or other reasons. In fact, the book is, for all its satirical modernity, a very old-fashioned morality play that, with a slight change of characters and messages, could have come from someone on the right as much as the left.
That’s a point that clearly went over the head of the Daily Mail’s reviewer, who called it “500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature”. The council chairman, Howard, is “middle class, so, of course, he is a racist, pompous twit”. Ms Rowling is, says the reviewer, “on a mission to portray the poor underclasses as plucky but blighted, and the British middle classes as a lumpen mass of the mad and the bad.” The Mail had an agenda; it usually has. Actually, Rowling could just as easily have been slammed for failing to include normal balanced working-class characters rather than the awful Terri. But the charge is not totally unfounded. Even the progressive Independent said: “The snobbishness and hypocrisy of the Pagford residents is held up for mild satire throughout, while the deprivation of the Fields is played with a straight bat, and that unevenness of tone rankles.”
Other reviews were far more generous (Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Scotsman and The Economist all gave the book a warm welcome). Yet there was food for thought in one of the hostile reviews, by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times:
Instead of an appreciation for the courage, perseverance, loyalty and sense of duty that people are capable of, we are left with a dismaying sense of human weakness, selfishness and gossipy stupidity. ...[and] a numbing understanding of the difficulty of turning a dozen or so people’s tales into a story with genuine emotional resonance.
The New York Times isn’t a paper that would have any particular axe to grind against Rowling, or on behalf of the British right; moreover Kakutani had reviewed at least one Harry Potter book very favourably. Other major papers that gave Rowling a good kicking included he Toronto Globe and Mail (“a mishmash of cardboard characters... stereotypical conflicts between the disadvantaged and their smug, upwardly mobile neighbours.”)
None of this is entirely fair. So Rowling has some prejudices; well, she is scarcely alone in that. She could have shut up and enjoyed her considerable wealth. Or she could have trotted out any old trash, knowing that, with her name on it, it would at least sell a few copies. She could, like many British novelists of the last half-century, have written genteel novels about middle-class marital difficulties. Or books about food for people who already spend too much time cooking; or she could have restored a farmhouse in some fashionably unfashionable part of France or Spain and then written an amusing book patronising the local peasants. Instead, she is, as one says nowadays, “engaged”; she has painted a vivid, well-written warts-and-all portrait of modern Britain. To be sure, she has majored on the warts; but, well, there are a few, aren’t there? Some of the characters, it’s true, don’t come off – but others do, and the book is a genuine page-turner. The Casual Vacancy is a flawed but courageous attempt to write about the way we English are in 2013.
If it does not quite work, is it because the characters are cynically drawn to order, as some of these reviews implied? Or Is it, as Kakutani implied, because the novel’s view of humans is so cruel? If so, is that Rowling’s fault – or could it be because the modern Brit is not much to write about?
Actually the answer to this might be messier than the reviewers would have you believe.
After finishing The Casual Vacancy, I wanted to return to a book that I had read before, and have long loved. Whereas The Casual Vacancy is a caustic view of England in 2013, J. B. Priestley’s Bright Day is a thoughtful portrait of 1913, recalled 30 years later by a man in middle age. Although now rediscovered and republished, the book, like many of Priestley’s, was forgotten for years; and I should not have known of it had I not found an ancient copy some 20 years ago in a secondhand bookshop in the Middle East, and bought it purely because I had little to read.
The book opens in an expensive but bleak cliff-top hotel in Cornwall. It is the spring of 1946 and a successful but jaded middle-aged screenwriter, Gregory Dawson, has been sent there by a producer to finish an urgent script. Dawson is English, but spent many years in Hollywood, then returned at the start of the Second World War. At the hotel, he works; there is not much else to do; the weather is mixed, the (rationed) food mean and dull, the other guests old, wealthy and sclerotic. However, one older couple catch his eye. Discreet enquiry tells him they are a wealthy and titled couple, Lord and Lady Harndean; the husband, a businessman, received a lordship for services rendered to the prewar Chamberlain government. Dawson is sure they have met, yet he cannot place them. Then a day or two later the band in the lounge play a Schubert trio that jogs his memory, and he remembers who they are.
Dawson is back in in 1912. His father, who is in the Indian Civil Service, and his mother both die suddenly of a fever in India just as he, an only child of 17 or so at school in England, is preparing to take his entrance examination for Cambridge. Too shocked to sit the exam, he finishes the school year and is then taken in by an aunt and uncle in Bruddersford (a thinly disguised Bradford); and instead of attending Oxford or Cambridge, as befits the son of an ICS officer, he finds himself working for – in effect, apprenticed to – a wool merchant in a Northern city.
This does not trouble him, for the sudden loss of his parents has rendered everything meaningless.In any case, he already knows that he wants to write. He reads widely, especially poetry; and in Bruddersford he discovers some of the magic of being young as well as its oppression.
At the time when verse becomes magical to us, there is also another sorcery, created by glimpses, brief and tantalizing, of people we do not know... Later in life we merely see interesting strangers ...the mystery, the magic, the sense and promise of unexplored bright worlds, no longer haunts us.
On the tram he often notices a group, probably a family, with lively intriguing young people, that fascinates him. And then he starts work, and finds that Alington, the local head of the wool merchant for which he is working, is the father of that family. Bit by bit he comes to meet them all, including the three attractive daughters; and there is an air of adolescent magic discovery. In the winter and spring of 1912-1913 the young Dawson accompanies this magical family to the pantomime, to classical concerts, and finally out to the high moors beyond the city limits, where long days are spent in bright sunshine.
It is after one such day on the high, bright Pennine moors that the Alington family, with Dawson, return to Bruddersford on a May evening in 1913, and decide to have some music. Three of them are playing the Schubert trio when a youngish couple enter unannounced: “And then there were two strangers standing in the doorway, among the splinters of the Schubert.”
They are the Nixeys. Malcolm Nixey has been sent by the London office, ostensibly to learn the business, but actually to force Alington out. His wife, meanwhile, will stray, and in so doing will wreck the life of one of Alington’s daughters. Together they will destroy the family, and, indirectly, they will cause a terrible death. Just over a year later Dawson will leave for the Western Front, leaving the Alingtons among the splinters of their lives.
Dawson never returns to Bruddersford. But when on a cold spring day in 1946 he hears the Schubert and sees Lord and Lady Harndean at the same time, he knows that they were, before ennobling, the Nixeys. Over the next few days he tries to recall, for the first time in years, his life in the last two years before the first war, and in so doing, tries to make sense of the life he has led since. The story switches between 1946 and 1912-1914 as memory leads Dawson to change his life, absorbing hard but decent lessons from a past that he had thought he had understood.
The Casual Vacancy, set in 2013, is well-paced, well-constructed and has flashes of real insight. Yet it is oddly unsatisfying. Bright Day, set in 1913, is one of the best novels in the English language. What separates them?
To some extent, it is the partisan approach noted by the Mail, but also a little by the Independent. In 1940 George Orwell, in his essay Inside the Whale, praised Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer precisely because it was completely amoral and therefore flowed completely from experience. Books with an agenda, Orwell contended, did not communicate with the reader; those that did, were by authors who were overwhelmed by experience, for we could better identify with their feelings. To support his argument he compared the literature of the First World War with that of the Spanish war just ended:
The immediately striking thing about the Spanish war books, at any rate those written in English, is their shocking dullness and badness. ...[They are] by cocksure partisans telling you what to think, whereas the books about the Great War were written by common soldiers or junior officers who did not even pretend to understand what the whole thing was about. Books like All Quiet on the Western Front, Le Feu, A Farewell to Arms... were written not by propagandists but by victims. They are saying in effect, “What the hell is all this about? God knows. All we can do is to endure.”
Rowling has an agenda; the characters must fit the role she has determined for them and now and then (though, to be sure, not always), they can feel like puppets, the strings pulled in pursuit of an argument. Priestley, by contrast, in this book (although not in some others), simply expresses the force of the past and the challenge of the future as he feels them. Orwell, in Inside the Whale, actually goes so far as to use the word “marionette” of the everyday literature to which he feels Miller is superior. This is part of the problem with The Casual Vacancy.
But Rowling faces a challenge. I suggested earlier that the fault could also lie with us – that we are, in effect, now a sorry lot to write about. How did we get this way?
In Bright Day,Dawson’s friend Jock has a very strange sister, who communicates with the dead and perceives other worlds – not unusual 100 years ago, although spiritualism really peaked a few later, after the losses of the First World War. One night Dawson dines with them; her otherworldliness irritates and unsettles him; but she remarks, in her vague way, that: “It’s all... quite different ... from what you imagine ... Like the dead and the living ... some people you think are alive are really dead ... and others you think are dead are really alive. ...”
Encoountering the Nixeys, now the Harndeans, 32 years later, Dawson is struck that they had “always lacked something essential and vital”; in essence, they are in some way not quite alive. They had succeeded, he says, in “everything they had attempted, [but] it was only in Flatland, among triumphs cut out of the thinnest cardboard.” This is driven home, in different ways, at several points in the book. A night out with Nixey in prewar Bradford (well, all right, Bruddersford) is notable for the lack of enjoyment, or otherwise, that Nixey derives from it. In his bleak cliff-top hotel in the wake of another war, Dawson reflects that there are now far more “rootless, parasitic and acquisitive people about”; and that “what had once been a tiny fifth column was now a settled and familiar army of occupation.”
Is that it? Did the Nixeys take over, leaving poor Ms Rowling with no-one real to write about? Priestley might have understood that argument. As Dawson, he bitterly describes a night at the music hall in 1919, “chorus girls swarming over gangways into the auditorium, and half-tight fat profiteers in the stalls waving rattles. ...This ...greedy rabble didn’t seem worth the life of one stammering lance-corporal. We’d thrown away the best, only to keep and to fatten the worst.” That is, in part, what happened to us; and people like my parents' generation, born in 1920 and 1922, would have found it credible enough, for there persisted into my own lifetime a feeling that the best young men had gone to Flanders and that what was left was not quite the same. In 1914 the best were full of passionate intensity, and were butchered for their pains; the rest remained to infest Pagford a century or so later, and there is not much that Rowling can do for them.
But there is something else here, and again Priestley has seen it; Nixey has no trade. Quite late in the book, when it is clear that he will destroy Alington, the hard, kind Yorkshireman to whom Dawson has been apprenticed resigns in disgust. As he prepares to go, he tells Dawson:
If a chap learns a trade he won’t do so much ‘arm. ...A chap who learns a trade ...comes to ‘ave respect for the stuff he ‘andles and wants to do the best for his customers. But these smart chaps who know nowt... only thing they’ve a respect for is money.
Is that us too? As I come to the end of my own working life, I find myself surrounded by people with vaguely-defined professions, management consultants and the like – people who do not make anything, but are often unleashed upon those who do in the name of efficiency or lean production. The people of Pagford, too, seem short of skills. True, two are solicitors, and one is a doctor – and one works for a printer, though we are not told in what capacity. One is a nurse. For the rest, nobody really makes anything; there are no welders, no master builders, no draughtsmen or dressmakers, no pride. Who are they? Who are we? One is reminded of a Khalil Gibran poem, the title of which, Pity the Nation, was borrowed by Robert Fisk for his magisterial account of the Lebanese civil war:
Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave,
eats a bread it does not harvest,
and drinks a wine that flows not from its own wine-press.
This, then, is part of Rowling’s challenge; we are less to write about than we were in Priestley’s time. Yet even this does not explain why Bright Day is such a good book.
Bright Day is a novel of remembrance and the richer for it. It must be partly autobiographical; Priestley, who was from Bradford, went to work for a wool merchant at 16, and left aged 20 to fight in the First World War – an experience that marked him, as it did the fictional Dawson. Priestley too never moved back to Bradford (though, unlike Dawson, he never cut his links with the city). Although more a novelist and playwright than a screenwriter, he did have contacts in Hollywood and visited the US a number of times in the 1930s, spending many months there. However, he spent the Second World War in Britain, and was very active in the media and in public life. He was more or less the same age as his Gregory Dawson and the book was published in the year it was set, 1946.
Priestley wrote several books about parts of his life, but never wrote a proper autobiography. The closest he got was Margin Released (1962), a series of three autobiographical sketches, each of 100 pages or so. The first concerns his time as a very young man at the wool merchant’s in the years just before the First World War, and there is a clear sense of a time when the world was new. Bright Day itself drips with the remembrance of things past; seen from the bleakness of 1946, Christmas 1912 is “a vast Flemish still-life of turkeys, geese, hams, puddings, candied fruit, dark purple bottles, figs, dates, chocolates, holly... It was Cockaigne and ...there has been nothing like it since and perhaps there never will be anything like it again.” A concert in the city’s main hall, Dawson’s first and thrilling night out with the glamorous Alingtons, is lit by gaslight, so the hall is steeped in a golden October-like light. A bright spring day on the moorlands begins “in an almost empty little train, chuff-chuffing towards the Dales through the vacant and golden Sunday morning. (There don’t seem to be any trains like that any more... All transport now seems to be fuss, crowds, rain and anger.)”
This is the key to Bright Day: remembrance. It is not mere nostalgia; there is no weird yearning for a country that never existed. In 1914 Britain and Europe were heaving with social unrest. It was a tense world with rotten underpinnings, brought wonderfully to life by the late Barbara Tuchman, herself born in 1912, in The Proud Tower; and recently by Michael Portillo in the radio series 1913: The Year Before. There was no Cockaigne. Priestley was not so daft as not to realise this. He was on the Left, and was a fierce social critic, most notably in his 1934 travelogue English Journey. At about the same time, in a satirical novel about the Press, Wonder Hero, he hinted he had no great love of Empire either. His work was rarely divorced from reality, and his politics were such that he was fingered as a fellow-traveller in Orwell’s notorious 1949 list for the Attlee Government’s Information Research Department. In any case, Bright Day is not a paean to some prelapsarian Edwardian heaven stolen from us by the Great War. Rather, it is a very personal journey back through that time of one’s life when everything glittered with the unexplained and undiscovered.
Priestley died in 1984, when Rowling was at university. By that time he was not as widely read as he had been. He was not a perfect writer; as a technician, he was inferior to many of his contemporaries, including Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, or Graham Greene. Priestley could be pompous and wordy. He could certainly write for the gallery and could, if he wished, serve up more ham than a wholesale butcher.
But Bright Day is out of the ordinary. I wanted to write about it because I thought it told us how we got, God help us, to Pagford. But the real gift of this book is that it is deeply personal, a far-off place of bellowing Yorkshiremen and enormous lamb chops and cricket and bright sunlit moorlands, tinged by the magic of youth and remembered by a tired man in a pinched bleak world. It is not really Rowling’s fault, yet somehow we see Pagford in 2013 in a snapshot from Google Earth; Flatland, seen from above. Bradford in 1913 is remembered in relief, at length, from a seat on a high fell as the bright day turns into late afternoon and then to dusk, the shadows climbing slowly towards us across the fields and the bracken and the dry-stone walls.
J. K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy is published by Little, Brown and is now available in paperback and for e-reader (Kindle and Nook). J. B. Priestley's Bright Day has been republished in a new edition by Great Northern Books in the UK, and is also available for Kindle.
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Mike Robbins’s latest book, Three Seasons: Three Stories of England in the Eighties, is available as an e-book or paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Scribd and other online retailers, and can also be ordered from your local bookshop. Requests for review copies should be sent to thirdrailbooks (at) gmail.com, or to the author.