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J.K.Rowling: The Casual Vacancy


At one point in Annie Hall Woody Allen’s character muses that life is essentially divided into the horrible and the miserable. On the evidence of The Casual Vacancy J.K.Rowling would seem to agree, though possibly with the caveat that a lot of us are often both. This is a novel that’s hyper-caustic in its anger and disgust at the hypocrisies and insularity of small-town attitudes, but it also reads like a veritable encyclopedia of woe, with even the more sympathetic characters given enough flaws and weaknesses to make you want to withdraw from human relationships altogether and go and live in a yurt on a mountainside somewhere. Redemptive it most surely isn’t.

It is however a testament to Rowling’s skills as a storyteller and a close observer of the awkwardnesses of social interactions that the book turns out to be as grimly compelling as other famously winceworthy entertainments, such as Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen or Alan Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings. The setting is the well-to-do market town of Pagford and the plot is kicked off by the sudden death by aneurysm of a popular and progressive local councillor, whose support for a down-at-heel estate notorious for being a den of vice and immorality has long been a thorn in the side of the more conservative elements of the town’s citizenry. The book doesn’t really unfold in the way you might expect, as an account of an election campaign to fill this “casual vacancy” – instead  it uses the unhappy event as a catalyst to expose a number of underlying tensions and rivalries and to give a few of the less privileged inhabitants of the town opportunities to puncture the ambitions and pretensions of those who assume they have an automatic right to authority. The story is impressively multi-stranded and holds together convincingly and unpredictably, although one or two of the plot contrivances seem slightly unlikely and the ending is a bit close to straight melodrama.

Where the novel really impresses, and at times shocks, is in its vivid depictions of cruelty, callousness and depravity. We get school bullying, parental abuse, joyless teenage sex, self-harm and heroin dependence just for starters, all described unflinchingly, though without gratuitous relish. Later on things get even worse. Rowling gets inside the heads of her characters and we can usually see what’s motivating them to visit misery on their families or acquaintances at the same time as being appalled by it. She’s got a knack for distilling the techniques people use for dodging serious engagement with each other (I particularly like “it was wonderful  how you could obscure an emotional issue by appearing to seek precision”) and some of the abrasive encounters are presented in such a raw and acute manner that you feel that they must be drawn from her personal experience.

Whether Rowling has any solution to, or strategy for, the dreadful and unnecessary woundings that people inflict on each other and themselves she provides copious examples of here is, on the other hand, not that clear. This book feels more like a rant or a roar than a manifesto. Whatever it is, it’s effective. I wasn’t expecting much more than a well-plotted social satire from The Casual Vacancy, but it’s clearly a book coming straight from the heart.

Guest Blog! Nicola reviews Palma Violets at Cambridge Junction, March 20 2013


As covered in other reviews describing their tour to date, this band is shambolic.  On reflection I think it’s a studied and practised shambles, giving their set its air of spontaneity, of keeping it fresh for the audience. Not that these lads are trying to deceive.  They are a celebration of noise, youth and verve. And, they are a party. Judging by the keyboard player’s mighty fine collection of wrist bands, they must have had a great festival season last year and can’t wait to pick up where they left off this year.

The PV came on stage to The Damned’s New Rose.  A whole generation of music fans think of The Smiths every time they hear Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture, so these little details are important.  Furthermore, it set the tone for their set and gave us their mission statement.  They had been very ably supported by Baby Strange, a Scottish Sham 69  (and nowt wrong with that.  Even if derivative, they played a strong and well-received set.  It was shouty but the band maintained the fine line of not letting it become noise. You know that those who weren’t there in the day will take to it like ducks to water.)

Back to the party…

Given the age of the band and that they look like they have just got back from several days at Glasto having had their tent and all their clothes stolen, and don’t know what a comb is for (they’re boys, for goodness sake!), it’s not surprising their bombastic delivery is based on the discovery that amps really do go up to 11 (in their heads their do!) and Sir has wandered off from the music room so they scratch away at their guitars and beat the hell out of their drum kit for all their worth.

The lyrics of the first two PV songs were indiscernible (in the spirit of the gig me working them out by a process of elimination would be, well, taking them, myself and this review too seriously).  Thereafter, they ripped through the up and coming generation’s seminal CD of tunes.  It won’t take a genius to work out that it was not a long set.

When the band and the audience’s reaction merge and feed off one another it becomes an event.  Okay, in this instance a mini-event – it was hardly Pulp at Glastonbury.  The audience went wild (one’s heart goes out to Johnny Marr and his fans last week who were denied this Cambridge audience and wanted some reaction – anything!  Instead of the quiet, considered appreciation of Cantabrigians).  The unified response quickly turned into pushing and shoving and on occasion spilled over into bad reactions to unsolicited jabs and trodden feet, as it had done with the support band, prompting an appeal from the band.  Whilst it looked like the majority of the audience were sixth-formers, there were some youngsters with cautious parents and those that had been there in the day with in-between generations hardly represented.  (We spoke to a ‘seen better days’ father and his daughter in the queue for the cloakroom after the gig.  It turned out the daughter was the nominated driver!)

The lads, their play list, the audience’s reaction all smack of zeitgeist.  Are they just capturing a mood and a ‘you had to be there’ moment?  Was the gig evidence of the up and coming generation’s reaction to ceaseless bad news and lack of prospects – who wants to live with their parents forevermore because they can’t afford to buy and rents are extortionate? Hence, the two bands’ material harking back to punk’s glory days and the audience being ready for it – needing it!

Having abandoned the guide to delivering a good set, it calls to mind the Blade Runner (mis) quote: ‘a light that burns twice as bright burns half as long’.  Certainly, the PV boys are having a blast but will it translate into more?  The lead singer has got a driven-in voice that smooths out any rough edges and won’t let them down as they progress musically.  And, the band are right behind him.

The party peaked with an encore of 14.  The PV mate’s had already been invited on stage to join in with some shouting in a mic duties at the end of the set.  This time he was joined by the support band. As the houselights came on and the Junction staff started to sweep up, the band’s mate swept through the crowd shouting, gathering people like the pied piper of Hamelin, insisting the party wasn’t over determined to take it elsewhere.

In a nutshell: the gig was a party and, the best bit, everyone was invited.


Hitchcock: a fat lot of abuse

ImageThe unqualified single word title of Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock might lead you to expect a comprehensive cradle-to-grave account of its subject, but like Spielberg’s recent Lincoln its focus is in fact a great deal tighter, concentrating solely on a critical point late in the celebrated director’s life, in this case the problems and tensions involved in the making of Psycho in 1960. With Spielberg’s film this approach seemed fair enough, as the short time frame there encompassed some of the most pivotal events in the history of the United States, but with Hitchcock it’s a lot harder to work out the point of the film, other than that Anthony Hopkins looks pretty good in a black suit and latex-enhanced jowls.

Psycho was certainly an important film for its director, and a ground-breaking one for cinema in general, but while it’s true he had an unusual amount of trouble in getting it made and released due to the studios’ disdain for what they considered its low and tasteless subject matter he didn’t really have that much trouble: he was wealthy enough to be able to fund it himself, he had a dedicated and talented crew on hand who knew what they were doing, and his reputation following a string of hits was such that he was always going to be able to attract bankable stars. In order therefore to provide enough points of drama and conflict for his film Gervasi resorts to drastically inflating some of the sore points we know about the big man’s marriage, obsessions and working methods and then for added value inserting some overwrought dream sequences in which Hitch talks out his problems with none other than Ed Gein, the Wisconsin murderer whose bloody activities were the inspiration for the novel Psycho was based on. These latter bits don’t half jar, both with the light and unchallenging shooting style of the bulk of the film (it feels like a TV movie) and with every account we have of Hitchcock’s unflappable personality. The sequences showing his mounting jealousy at his faithful wife’s friendship with a handsome and charming screenwriter are slightly more watchable, largely due to Helen Mirren’s skill in not laying the melodrama on too thick, but they’re still not particularly believable – it’s only really in the scenes dealing directly with the planning, shooting, editing and selling of Psycho itself that this film really starts getting interesting, and even there there are regrettable lapses into corniness.

Hitchcock isn’t a disaster, but it does seem to fall between stools a bit, being neither funny enough to be a comedy, insightful enough to be a convincing psychological portrait, nor detailed enough to be a valuable summary of the making of an iconic film. There are some good performances and some surprisingly impressive impersonations from the cast (Scarlett Johannson is very good as Janet Leigh, while James D’Arcy is a dead ringer for Tony Perkins, both in appearance and mannerisms), and it whips along at a brisk pace. You do however end up feeling that while there ought to be room in the world for a bio-pic of a figure as charismatic, influential and talented as Hitchcock, Gervasi’s film is just a fat-suit looking for a story. Pity.