In Defence of Chavs
The bestselling children’s author JK Rowling, creator of Harry Potter, has returned with Casual Vacancy, a book she says she “had to write”. It is a story about Pagford, a fictitious venal and hypocritical but picture book-perfect English town, in a boundary war with a neighbouring, larger and poorer town called Yarvil, a place remarkable in its verisimilitude to a town in south-west England called Yeovil, a ‘crap town’, a hellhole that often makes it to lists of the worst places to live in Britain. But it may well be any blighted British town where the majority is poor, unemployment is high and where hopelessness and boredom erupt with regularity in drunken orgies of violence and rowdiness on Friday and Saturday nights. (N.B: In 2006, Yeovil became the first British town to institute biometric fingerprint scanning in nightclubs).
This book is an examination of British identity through stereotypes that treats adult and child characters with equal importance and authorial care. Rowling has created motley all-British characters whose mistakes and meannesses are avenged, redeemed or punished to the right extent and at the right moment in a superbly well-thought-out plot.
But why was this a book Rowling had to write?
Her working class background and deep sympathy for children has led to a funny and macabre examination of terrible and serious things, and also a lot of small-town pettiness in provincial Britain. It is possibly a book for both adults and children—the way literature used to be—but not very young children, given that it features heroin addiction, brutal domestic violence, swearing, teenage self harm, suicide and child rape.
And like Harry Potter, it starts with death: the death of Barry Fairbrother, an event which the author has symbolically tied up with the erosion of decency in Britain and the misery that the downsizing of the British welfare system has wrought on the poor post-recession.
Yarvillians resemble the British social underclass, pejoratively referred to as ‘chavs’—a word Rowling never uses in the book, but is widely used in contemporary popular media. It is a stereotype that describes dishonest, foul-mouthed poor people who dress cheaply in sports gear and are, therefore, a visible and painful reminder of what Britain no longer is—a place of religious and moral principles, gentlemanly conduct and intellectual ability.
At the other end of the social spectrum in Casual Vacancy is the group that may generically and universally be referred to as ‘snobs’, and among them are fools, hypocrites, and mean gossips aplenty. Pagfordians do not want needy Yarvillians in their ancient and superior town. This moral hazard of ‘needy Yarvillians’ spilling into Pagford is what the plot pivots on.
It is Pagford and places like it that Rowling aims her literary poniard at. And she does this with humour—possibly the greatest achievement in Casual Vacancy. There is Gavin, Fairbrother’s best friend, who has taken a shine to his widow; a fat deli owner Howard Mollison, who considers himself the First Citizen of Pagford and is comically redolent of Toad of Toad Hall; dull Miles and his sexually frustrated wife who watches her daughters’ boy band DVDs on the sly; and many other embarrassing curtain twitchers and local gossips.
But there are tender and heartbreaking portrayals also of Krystal Weedon, her mother and little brother: possibly the most important characters in the book. Krystal is difficult to like at first: a feral child from the estates who attends a school in Pagford, where she socialises, to the parents’ horror, with children who are luckier and rarely use swear words. Everyone, in this horribly claustrophobic town, knows Krystal’s junkie mother, Terri, who sells sex to buy drugs; and there is the Weedon’s conscientious social worker, Kay Bawden, who has followed Gavin to Pagford for love (which goes wrong), with her teenage daughter, Gaia, uprooted from London, the love interest of two disaffected adolescent boys from Pagford, Fats and Andrew, who are best friends.
The book is quite unexpectedly and deeply political. Rowling, whose wealth now far outstrips the Queen’s, was born poor, and remained poor until her Harry Potter books became so freakishly successful. She entered university to do a vocational course—which is often the best working class kids do if they pursue higher education at all—but fled to Classics because all she ever really wanted to do was write stories. Pushed against the wall and bringing up a daughter as a single mother, Rowling experienced being poor as poor can be in modern Britain without being homeless. And it is experiences from her own back story that she uses to draw as material for the book.
“Cuts, innit?” says Terri’s dealer who has just discovered the local de-addiction clinic may soon be shut down.
The dead Fairbrother is the inspirational focus of the book. A man who made his way up from the same council estate that Pagford is insisting it wants to cut adrift. We learn what was great about Fairbrother was how he got underdogs to believe in themselves, and the book reveals that no one could make the machinery of this little corner of England work like he could.
She possibly had to write this book to hold up a mirror to a society that, in the wake of Conservative rule, has become ever more self-confident about hating the poor—something she so expertly portrays in the book. And this is because one suspects Rowling is a humanist, and religion (without dogma) is at the heart of this novel. The church, St Michael, is a secular place of community, an agent of harmony.
Rowling is witty and adept at irony and that alone makes this book worth reading. She uses laughter to attack the absurdities and pomposities of the establishment and through this excellent, funny and long book, Rowling has done her duty as a humanist—she attacks as well as unites.