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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Merciful Hour

My Twitter lovelies (well, the ones that aren’t sex bots or trying to get me to invest in recession-proof business schemes, anyway) may have noticed that I’ve gone a bit loopy lately. Less of the hilariously astute social commentary and witty cynicism (work with me here please), and more of the OH MY GOD OH MY GOD LOOK WHO REPLIED TO MY TWEET fangirling over a certain Dublin-based author. (By the way, yes, we did indeed have a little back and forth on the Twitters. Proof here.) Anyway, whether you care or not, chances are that if you know me, you will have heard that “Queen of Chick Lit” Marian Keyes has a new book out – The Mystery of Mercy Close. Michael Joseph (Penguin), 508 pages, £18.99 (but lovely Waterstones, bless them, are currently doing a £10 off deal. Just as an FYI. Now go. Buy it. Hurry, because if you don’t live in London, your nearest bookshop will close soon. I’m afraid you can’t borrow mine because the waiting list is very, oh very long. But I digress.

Why should you read this book? Well, duh, because it’s good. Because it’s so good. Becauses it’s one of those books that you just want to carry around with you all day (and that’s where it gets tricky, I had to go to work carrying my cotton Notting Hill Shopping Bag and looking ten times the hippie I usually do, because it wouldn’t fit in my handbag), and when you finish the last sentence you feel as if you’ve just lost a good friend. Because it contains a terrificly written, incredibly moving romantic scene that you might just miss because it’s so elegantly low key (hint: picnic). Because once again, Keyes manages to break the chains of being classified as a writer of “women’s fiction” (said with derisive snarl, of course) and address uncomfortable issues such as mental health with her trademark lighthearted wit, but never in a condescending or judgmental way. But then again that’s just your usual, run-of-the-mill Marian magic, and we didn’t expect anything less from her, whose every novel has been hailed as “her best yet”.

I have read and re-read all of her novels several times, and of all her characters I have always loved the Walsh sisters the most. I see bits of myself in Claire, Margaret, Rachel and Anna, and I have a sister who is exactly like Helen (as described by her sisters. Wouldn’t put it past her to end up in the funny house either). I was a bit apprehensive as to how Marian would dissolve the dilemma of having to write about a character as scary and unpredictable as Helen, because much as I loved Anybody Out There (and it might just be my favourite of the stack), I always felt she’d overdone it a bit with giving Anna a complete character transplant. But much to my relief, with the fifth one she didn’t – Helen Walsh is every bit as stroppy, mouthy, direct, unpredictable and self-reliant as she ever was. Her dark secret is not very secret at all – it’s right out there in the open, from the very first page. The mystery seems to be what happened to trigger it, but when we do find out, it’s suddenly no longer important. “People get sick and sometimes they get better and sometimes they don’t. And sometimes you wonder whether outside interference makes any difference at all; whether an illness is like a storm; whether it simply has to run it’s course and, at the end, either you will be alive or you will be dead.”

And now you may tune out, because what follows might just be my English degree getting the better of me – but the way I read it, the second heroine of the story in Mercy Close is Ireland. While Helen tries to tackle her demons, Éire is fighting her battle against the crippling recession. The chapter about Helen’s flat being repossessed was gut-wrenchingly sad, but the casual mentions of debilitating unemployment, poverty, loss and hopelessness are worse. I remember walking through Dublin last February, and the posters asking young people to APPLY FOR VISA HERE nearly broke my heart. I’ve never suffered from depression in the clinical sense, but I imagine it would be tough even for the most resilient of optimists to retain their good spirits in a climate like that. I am inclined to believe that Helen Walsh is indeed “the perfect heroine for our times”, as one of the cover blurbs proudly claims, because she is trying to hold on as everything around her is disintegrating.

More than two years ago, Marian published this letter to her fans, explaining that a “major depressive episode” had left her unable to cope with everyday life, let alone write. She recently said she has come to realise that a large part of her former self is gone, and now it is about accepting the “new” Marian, and in a way, you can tell with Mystery Close. Marian’s trademark zeitgeisty observational humour is as astute as it ever was, but the rip-roaring hilarities are no more. There are no more cheerily indulgent drunken girly nights about town, and the romance plot takes a determined backseat. Chick lit, it isn’t.

If you love Marian, go buy this book. If you don’t love her yet, go buy this book and become enlightened. There is no third option.

UPDATE: As of this morning, I have received this on the Twitters:

Why I Don’t Really Think It Means All That Much

Blogging! Only two posts in and already have I begun to neglect the Damsel. And I had such good intentions! I keep thinking about things that might make a good blog post, but then I don’t want to blog for the sake of blogging, and here we are, madness and sweaty palms. I briefly contemplated writing about Missouri Congressman Todd Akin’s fuckwittery of epic proportions, but then surely everything has already been said and I couldn’t possibly hope to add anything clever (mostly because after a while I get incoherent with rage). Another idea that briefly crossed my mind was to write about an ad for a “Posh Dating” website that recently popped up on my Facebook – Zuckerberg and friends seem to have found out about me dating above my station. But then I kind of forgot what I found so funny about it and there was no way I could milk an entire post from Hamish and Co. on PoshFlirt.co.uk, so on I moved. And now this new London obsession with Nolympics – yes yes, fun while it lasted, certainly a blast, now let’s get back to normal please – again, everything has already been wrung out of it.

But! When I got into the office this morning and switched on my computer, there it was – the perfect blog story. The Hunger Games trilogy has officially passed Harry Potter in terms of sales figures on Amazon.com. And because I haven’t really aged past 16, I felt mildly offended on behalf of all eight billion Harry Potter fans on the planet and tried to come up with reasons Why That Doesn’t Actually Mean All That Much. (See, the title does make sense.) And I don’t even dislike The Hunger Games – in fact, I hugely enjoyed the novels and devoured all three in about a fortnight, have given my sister a box set for Christmas, got Soldier Boy and several friends into it and went to see the film almost immediately upon release. But after that I put them back on the shelf, and kind of stopped thinking about them. And Harry Potter – well, it’s twenty-three past midnight, well past my bedtime, and I am writing a not-terribly-well-thought-out blog post about why Suzanne Collins making a shitload of wonga from e-book sales doesn’t mean that we love her more than JK Rowling. So without further ado, here’s the list.

First: It’s Amazon. (And what’s more, Amazon US.) And while we may all feel that they are the only booksellers in the world that really matter anymore, there is one huge disadvantage with a bookstore that stocks its goods in huge warehouses on industrial estates miles from anywhere that matters – they are shit at organising midnight releases. So while I’m sure they have made huge profit from the large group of people who were unfussed enough that they could stand waiting for a couple of days, weeks, months before joining the boy wizard on his next adventure, they missed out on the gazillions of devoted fans who happily queued in the cold for their copy, wearing Gryffindor robes. And I’m also sure that not every family is as mental as mine, who had to buy four individual copies of the Deathly Hallows on the first day because we just couldn’t agree who would get to read it first. (Then there was the story of when we were all bundled in the car, me driving, trying to get home as quickly as possible so I could start reading, and then my sister started teasing me by reading out half sentences and I turned around to hit her but (very nearly) hit a cyclist instead. Hilarity ensued.)

Second: Digital Revolution. Kindle figures are counted within the overall sales figures of course, and Harry Potter wasn’t available in e-book format until March this year. And when it came out, sales in the UK alone topped one million pound within three days. Despite the fact that the world and its grandmother already owned a copy – again, I’m not making assumptions about the sanity of other people just because my family, in addition to the four English Deathly Hallows copies, has two copies of each book in German – one for reading, one for display – at least one of each, if not more, in English, plus a couple of odd ones in French and Russian.

Third: Three words – Young Adult fiction. Can you see parents reading their children bedtime stories about Katniss’ perennial homonal woes and Mutts tearing holes into Cato? I can’t either. I can, however, see all 3.4 members of the average white middle-class household holed up in their respective corner of the little semi-d’ in Surrey with their noses in a copy of Mockingjay each. And I can also remember reading to children who will probably never in their life cross the threshold of their local Waterstones branch (or whatever the equivalent German book chain is these days), but who were nonetheless breathlessly following Harry’s first trip to Diagon Alley.

Fourth: None of the broadsheets have picked up the Amazon press release yet. Which leads me to the assumption that they have decided to take the news with a pound of salt as I have.

Draco dormiens numquam titillandus.

I Haven’t Read 50 Shades, But I’ve Still Got An Opinion

I am a frightful snob when it comes to books. Many of you will know or at least suspect this, after all I didn’t just happen to be in the area when they handed out my Micky Mouse degree, so in a way I think I get to be. I do cleverly disguise this feature (which isn’t too popular with a great number of people) by proclaiming Harry Potter as one of my all time favourites, which I am not ashamed to read and bawl at in public, even though a lot of people frown at this. I freely admit that I’m cheating here, because unlike Eragon, Gossip Girl and, oh well, Twilight, I deem Rowling’s work Truly Great Literature. It’s not hard to endorse things you like.

That said, and because you can’t shake a very rigid squirrel these days without knocking over a stack of E.L. James Twilight-fanfiction-turned-ebook-turned-publishing-sensation-turned-annoying-public-debate 50 Shades trilogy, I have decided I want to use this platform to proclaim that No, thank you, I won’t be reading it. Neither in public nor in my sitting room nor, God forbid, in my bedroom. And the reason behind this is not any feminist outrage at the mind-boggling incapacity of the “heroine” Anastasia, or that I’m a prude. The reason behind this is that I think it’s a fantastically dull plot, with fantastically uninteresting characters, and fantastically uninventive language. And these are all things that I disapprove of when I’m assembling my bed- and bogside library.

My feminist outrage is directed at the outraged feminists who are writing outraged feminist blog posts and newspaper articles and talking in an outraged way on radio programmes about the 50 Shades phenomenon, and how women like it because they can’t handle Having It All, and whether all successful women secretly wish for an emotionally stunted bachelor to take a leather-studded paddle to their backside. Here’s my outraged question to all of them: What The Actual Fuck.

Here’s what: 50 Shades is porn. Badly written, smutty, softie porn, in which people are tied up in uncomfortable positions, and penetrated at uncomfortable angles, and a lot of the positions are a) humanely impossible and b) blatantly ridiculous. And women like it, because here’s the shocking secret: Women Like Porn. Women like reading about The Sex. We also like seeing The Sex on screen, and thinking about The Sex while we’re pretending to review an excel sheet, and having The Sex whilst we should be filing our tax returns. But the pity is, there is very little sex out there that is directed at or focuses on women (other than in the conventional YouPorn way of course), so we have to make do with what is out there. And whether you’re reading about Ana’s exploding castles in the sky in paperback form or NC-17 fanfiction about Buffy And Angel Without The Pesky Curse on your iPhone, well, that’s really no one’s business, other than your own and maybe the 20 of your closest friends who you discuss masturbation fantasies with. It’s awful enough that the killjoy patriarchy has tried to meddle with and limit women’s sexuality for hundreds of years by telling us what’s appropriate and what’s not. Please, you well-meaning feminists out there, don’t you start with us as well.

So I guess, and I’m not saying this lightly believe you me, we should thank E.L. James, for being a middle-aged mediocre writer fantasising about sparkly RPatz. Your readers owe you a lot, and if other, better writers follow in your foot steps, then so will I. Forgive me if I stick with Buffy and Angel for the moment though.