Thoughts before reading The Casual Vacancy, and an unexpected revelation.

Has it really been five years? The other day, I was watching The Culture Show special on JK Rowling’s new book, and they casually mentioned that it took her five years to write. Five years! Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published in July 2007, so I suppose that yes, my chiildhood ended five years ago.

Now, before you roll your eyes at me for being melodramatic, let me quickly explain what Harry Potter means to me. (Stay with me, I won’t be long.) When I picked up my first Harry (God that sounds sinister), I was thirteen years old (dear Lord.) and laid low with the flu. I had watched All The Telly and I was too weak to walk anywhere, and among a mountain of crumpled-up hankies on the coffee table, there was The Prisoner of Azkaban. Everybody else was already reading it, which was precisely why I had refused to so far. But in my feverish state, my teenagery resistance was crumbling. It can’t hurt to have a peak.

Ten pages in, I was hooked. I had no idea what a Gryffindor was, or why they were being awarded points. Before I started reading it, I hadn’t even been aware that Harry Potter was about wizards – I had been under the impression that he was simply a boy detective. But I read on, and when I finished, I picked up the first one, and a lot of things that hadn’t made sense began to become clear. By the time I finished the Philosopher’s Stone, I was well enough to go back to school, but that didn’t deter me from reading The Chamber of Secrets under my desk. And when I finished that, I picked up The Prisoner of Azkaban again.

A year passed, in which I didn’t really read anything else. It being 1999, the first three were the only ones that had been released yet, but I rotated them until my parents had to get another set because my siblings and I were constantly fighting over who would get them next. (Those were the days when I could still resolve any argument by sitting on them. *nostalgic face*). In fact, they were reading them as much as we were. The wonderful thing was that as my onsetting puberty was leaving my hitherto healthy relationship with my parents in tatters, Harry was the one thing we had that we could still talk about over supper, that didn’t result in me threatening to run away, and them responding in spirit by introducing curfews or taking away pocket money. When the film came out, all of the clan went to see it on the first night, and I remember the drive back – no squabbling over who got to sit in the front and who was taking up to much space in the back, only unanimous agreement that Hermione was miscast, we had all expected Snape to be skinnier and they couldn’t have found a more perfect Professor McGonagall had they allowed JK Rowling to breed one.

But that’s not even what I meant. The real love story began in the summer holidays of 2000, when The Goblet of Fire was released and my father, in a desperate attempt to improve his daughter’s mediocre English grades, bought her a copy before the German version was released. I don’t think I had ever loved him more. The first chapter was a struggle – I remember being sat there for ages, almost straining a neck muscle from constantly looking back and forth between the book and my Cambridge Advanced. But then something clicked, and I read the whole thing (500 pages!) in less than a week. And then read it again. Etc. And then I bought the other three in English. At some point that following year, I went to boarding school in Bedford for a short while – the first time I ever went to England. Stuck in a grand old house with forty other girls from all over the world, but mostly Hong Kong and Russia, and the strictest house mistress in the world, I don’t know what happened, but I felt more at home than I ever had anywhere else, including at home. My awkwardness, which made me stick out like a sore thumb at home, suddenly made sense, because everyone else was just as weird. These days I have a lot of issues with private education, but I do think that separating hormonal teenagers from their despairing parents is a fundamentally healthy thing (and should be government-subsidised.) If Miss Darbon had been made mandatory for the whole of the UK, last year’s riots could have been prevented.

I’ve been what is commonly regarded an “anglophile” ever since. I went on to study English to degree level, spending what little money I had on trips to London and PG Tipps from the British Shop in Leipzig. When my ex and I broke up after a three year relationship, the only hopeful thought that made it through the fog of my devastation was that I was now free to move to London after graduation. By the time we got back together I had already organised to write my dissertation in the British Library, and we half-heartedly talked about “making it work”, but in hindsight I don’t think I ever intended to come back, not really.

Maybe I can’t blame Harry for all of this. Maybe I would have found my way here anyway. There is no coulda, woulda, shoula, and I really don’t want to find out that I could have been just as happy in Castrop-Rauxel, teaching fourteen-year-olds the difference between I will and I’m going to. My point is that this is what Harry Potter means to me. And if only a tenth of the series’ fans associate something of similar weight with it, how the FUCK will The Casual Vacancy live up to that?

So far I’m about 60 pages in, and I’m enjoying it. I wasn’t gripped until the scene between Krystal and the school counsellor, and to my eternal shame I have to admit that I wince every time she uses a four letter word. (With the words of Soldier Boy, it’s a bit like turning over a page to find Hagrid sodomising Hermione.) I’m determined to keep an open mind and try to separate between Harry’s Jo and the adult Jo, but it’s proving a hell of a lot more difficult than I expected.


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