Swapping magic for politics
I remember aged 11 feeling I had discovered something so important with the first Harry Potter book that I steadfastly read the first two books to my younger sister. I went on religiously rereading the series and queuing up for new releases well after I was much too old for this to be acceptable behaviour. So when I heard that JK Rowling was writing an adult book and what’s more one about a local parish by-election, as a councillor mildly obsessed with local politics, you can imagine my excitement. This only grew when the Daily Mail described the book as ‘more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature crammed down your throat’ – my kind of book.
‘A Casual Vacancy’ tells the story of a parish council by-election and the deep divisions this ultimately brings to light in Pagford, a fictional small town in the West Country. JK Rowling treats the inhabitants of Pagford to a remorseless exposé, brutally stripping away the delusions and pretensions they cloak themselves in and revealing their inner prejudices, jealousies, pomposity and, at times, downright vindictiveness. And in doing so she hold up a mirror to Britain and asks the reader what cracks still sit under the surface of our modern life.
It’s a book written not just to tell a story but also to make a difference; it is angry and passionate, containing a blistering attack on politics, social exclusion and the vestiges of the British class system. I can’t say that this book always displays the Britain I know growing up in London and representing a diverse ward in Camden. But I also don’t believe we can ignore the challenge this book offers.
Rowling reserves her greatest wrath for the ‘extravagantly obese’ Howard Mollison, ‘Chair of the Parish council and First Citizen of Pagford’. He embodies the hypocrisy of the village in his smug righteousness, his obsequiousness to the local landowner and his determined leadership of a campaign to see the Fields, a council estate, taken out of Pagford’s jurisdiction. In contrast to the Fields, Pagford ‘shone with a kind of moral radiance in Howard’s mind, as though the collective soul of the community was made manifest in its cobbled street, its picturesque houses’.
In turn JK Rowling saves her greatest compassion for 16-year-old Fields resident Krystal Weedon daughter of a heroin addict mother and absent father, who in her short life has seen neglect, abuse and poverty. She shouts, steals and fights through the book but she has a strain of compassion, goodness and determined bravery that is lacking in all the picturesque Pagford houses.
‘A Casual Vacancy’ portrays politics at its worst. The contenders for the vacant seat range from the unpleasant to the genuinely corrupt. Together they provide a bleak choice. But some idealism for the reader at least can be found in the idea of Barry Fairbrother, the recently deceased parish councillor who we glimpse in the memories of those left behind. He grew up on the Fields estate, did well and then dedicated his life to helping others do the same, never giving up on Krystal Weedon.
While anyone involved in politics and indeed any human endeavour will recognise some of the less palatable characters in this book, it’s my view that there are more Barry Fairbrothers in local politics than in JK Rowling’s Pagford. But of course not yet enough.
‘A Casual Vacancy’ is inadvertently one of the strongest critiques I’ve read of the ‘big society’. It is in a village rather like Pagford that I’m sure the idea was born. And you can hear the echo of it in the pride Shirley, Howard’s wife, takes in volunteering at the local hospital. But the benevolent arm of the community does not extend to the trials of the Fields estate. At the end of the day it is only the state through Kay the local social worker that takes an active interest in the village’s most vulnerable families and complex problems. The limits of the ‘big society’ are the prejudices of the local community. In Pagford unfortunately this is class and race. The Weedons’ racism may be the loudest and most overt, screamed at the doctor’s surgery as they defend their meagre resources against what they perceive to be others out to take them. But it exists also in Shirley’s silent anger at one of the characters daring to wear a sari to church. The book reminds us that, while we all want to empower communities, we cannot forget the crucial role of the state in taking care of those that communities choose to exclude.
This book, however, for me was ultimately about class. It exposes the snobbery that too often exists even in modern Britain, the desire to make those who are disadvantaged someone else’s problem and to take comfort in stereotypes of the workless, feckless, undeserving poor, epitomised by Howard Mollison’s damning conclusion, ‘the Fielders chose by their own free will to live the way they lived and the estate’s air of slightly threatening degradation was nothing more than a manifestation of ignorance and indolence’.
The truth is, like in any other community, most people in the Fields work or want to work, bring up their children as best they can and look after their family and friends. These are the Nikkis and Leannes who let Krystal in when her home life gets too bad. But where there are families with complex needs like Krystal’s they will get nowhere through scorn.
The book ultimately lays out a challenge to the reader. Who is responsible for Krystal Weedon? Is she the responsibility of her mother who in turn has suffered terrible abuse and neglect? Her community? The state? Or should she be taking responsibility for her own actions? I think all are true. But those, like the characters in the book who are so quick to loudly condemn her, would do well to remember their own responsibility.
The question in all mixed societies should be what we can do, not out of charity, but because we all gain from a diverse community, and we all fail when some kids fall through the cracks. There are plenty more Krystal Weedons about and this book is demanding we all pay attention. So I hope that this book inspires more people to take up JK Rowling’s challenge and join the Barry Fairbrothers of this world in local politics, trying to make a difference and taking us a step closer to Ed Miliband’s One Nation Britain.
Georgia Gould is a councillor in the London borough of Camden
class, local government