People of Inspiration: JK Rowling

I’ve long admired JK Rowling, and not simply because she’s one of the world’s most successful contemporary authors.

JK Rowling
JK Rowling

Although it’s true I love all the Harry Potter novels, and followed the stories as each was published, and saw every film as it was released, I have special reasons for finding JK Rowling a source of inspiration.

I feel that in her HP series she has gathered up many of the greatest treasures of world folklore and mythology into a new creation that stands as a reference point in itself.  Her imagined world has entered our consciousness. For instance, a few days ago I was in a boarding school looking at an ornate list of names on the wall and I immediately thought of Hogwarts’ Past Headmasters. Another recent example was my visit to Ham House, Richmond; whilst studying one of the many portraits, I half expected the lady in the portrait to shout, “Password!” at me.

And I have on a number of occasions found myself in conversation with someone, saying things like, “Oh, I wish I had Hermione’s Time-Turner” or “I could do with Hermione’s bottomless bag”, certain that the person I was speaking to would immediately know what I meant.

I’ve only recently read the book Very Good Lives which is JK Rowling’s speech to Harvard graduates in 2008.  And for the first time I discovered she had worked in Amnesty International during her early twenties. As she described her experiences in Amnesty International’s offices, I could see at once the influence this had had on the Harry Potter stories – Dolores Umbridge cruelly punishing Harry, Voldemort torturing then executing Charity Burbridge, Lucius Malfoy and his abusive relationship with Dobby (before he became a free elf, of course), and of course many other examples.

It also amused me to read of how JK Rowling had chosen to study Classics, against her parents’ wishes, as they thought it a subject that could never lead to a decent job that would never pay a mortgage let alone secure a pension.

I could also see very clearly why JK Rowling felt she had to write The Casual Vacancy. I identified with and recognised what she wrote about in its pages.

I find JK Rowling inspiring not only as a successful author, but also for her own personal qualities. In this world we often see the power that great wealth bestows concentrated in the hands of the wrong people. To my mind, we can be very thankful that JK Rowling is one of the people in whose hands that power is concentrated.

It is clear from her Harvard speech where her heart lies, despite all her wealth and success: Poverty is not an ennobling experience… I am not going to tell you failure is fun… but failure means a stripping away of the inessentials… I stopped pretending I was anything other than what I was and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me…. Failure gave me an inner security I never attained by passing exams… I discovered that I had a strong will and more discipline than I’d suspected.

I must admit that after reading her Harvard speech I do wonder how many of those young graduates she spoke to went away and subsequently empathised with the poorest in the world, and lobbied their government to change its polices? For that was what JK Rowling urged them to do.

Meanwhile, all we who admire  and love the Harry Potter stories, can be very glad that JK Rowling, in defiance of her parents’ wishes, ‘nipped off down the Classics corridor’ to study a useless subject that  nobody ever believed would win her a job.

Did You Struggle With The Large Number of Characters in JK Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy? Here’s a Useful Crib-Sheet!

BBC 1 will be starting the first of a three-part mini series of JK Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy on Sunday at 9pm. I’m delighted that the BBC have chosen to adapt it as a drama, and will be watching eagerly. I have a high opinion of the book: see my book review here.

I was fascinated to learn that the screenwriter Sarah Phelps has, with JK Rowling’s agreement, changed the ending; she says “it needs some kind of redemptive moment at the end”. This tuned in with my own observations in my review, where I wrote:

However, although I enormously admire what JKR has done in this story, I still feel it lacks a strong enough spiritual message or act of redemption at the end; and the potential for that is very strongly present as the narrative progresses….  It’s only JK Rowling’s decision not to take the opportunity for a stronger redemptive message which prevents me from giving her book the highest possible rating.”

If you’ve read the book and struggled with the number of characters, here’s my own personal cribsheet of every named character in the novel. I created this list as I read the novel. Some of those named are not developed as characters at all, but are simply referred to. I hope you find this list helpful; though of course when you watch the mini-series you probably won’t have a problem keeping up with the characters, because the actors will make a big difference.

SC Skillman’s CRIB SHEET OF ALL THE CHARACTERS IN

A CASUAL VACANCY

by JK Rowling

 

Barry Fairbrother, “bearded little man”, Parish Counsellor, Bank Manager, who dies of an aneurysm at the beginning of the novel

His wife Mary, and their children Declan, Fergus, and twins Niamh and Siobhan

Miles Mollison, solicitor, in partnership with Gavin Hughes

Samantha, Miles’s wife

Their daughters Lexie and Libby who go to St Anne’s Independent School in Yarvil

Howard, Miles’s father, owner of delicatessan, Chair of Parish Council, 1st Citizen of Pagford

Shirley, Howard’s wife, Miles’s mother; she is a hospital volunteer, had hated Barry Fairbrother, and administers the Council’s website

Patricia, their daughter, Miles’s sister

Gavin Hughes, squash partner of Barry’s, solicitor in partnership with Miles

Kay Bawden, social worker, Gavin’s lover

Gaia, Kay’s daughter

Una, Alex and Mattie, Kay’s social services colleagues

Colin and Tessa Wall, friends of Mary and Barry. Colin is a Deputy Headteacher and Tessa is Head of Guidance.

Stuart their son, known as “Fatso”, who is best friends with Andrew Price, and has a sexual relationship with Krystal Weedon

Ruth Price, a nurse

Simon Price, Ruth’s husband, abusive and boorish to his family, runs a printworks, is particularly aggressive to his elder son Andrew

Their son Andrew who has a bad attitude to his father Simon, and who fancies Kay’s daughter Gaia

Andrew’s younger brother Paul

Maureen, Howard’s business partner in the Delicatessan, age 62, widow of Howard’s previous business partner Ken

Shona, Miles and Gavin’s legal secretary

Dr Parminder Jawanda, local GP, Parish Counsellor, had loved Barry Fairbrother

Vikram, her handsome husband, cardiac surgeon

Their three children: Jaswant, Sukhvinder and Rajpal

Mrs Shawcross, headmistress

Aubrey Fawley who purchased Sweetlove House in the 1950’s and had four children

Young Aubrey, his son, Pagford’s rep on the Yarvil Council, a merchant banker in London

Julia, Young Aubrey’s wife

Alison Jenkins, news reporter

 

PEOPLE WHO LIVE IN or are associated with people who live in “THE FIELDS”

 

Terri Weedon, a drug addict and dysfunctional mother

Krystal, her daughter, problem pupil

Robbie, Krystal’s little brother (Terri’s son), in danger of being removed by social services

Anne-Marie, their sister, (Terri’s other daughter) no longer living with them

Obbo, drug-pusher, who sells drugs to Terri

Nikki, Jemma and Leane, Krystal’s schoolfriends

Nana Cath, Krystal’s great-grandmother, and Terri’s grandmother

Rhiannon, another of Nana Cath’s granddaughters (Terri’s cousin?)

John and Sue, Nana Cath’s son and daughter

Cheryl and Danielle, Terri’s sisters

Dane Tully, dysfunctional teen, his father and two brothers are frequently in prison

 

A Review of JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy

I’m a great  admirer of JK Rowling both as an author, and on a personal level. So when I knew she’d published her first adult novel, I was keen to read it.

When I began to read The Casual Vacancy several months ago, I found it a struggle to get through the unrelenting nastiness of the characters, without finding any one individual I could identify or empathize with. And at that time I chose to put it down.

The Casual Vacancy/JK Rowling
The Casual Vacancy/JK Rowling

Nevertheless, I was determined to come back to the novel later when I felt ready to tackle it. And I’m glad I did.  I very quickly began to recognize elements from the hometown of my childhood – local characters & social/political/economic issues.

When the author begins to fill in the backgrounds of the characters, giving them greater depth, I started to feel, at some level, empathy for Terri, and for Krystal, and for their terrible plight – and glimmers of humour also relieved the grimness of the characters’ behaviour.

JKR inspires both pity & anger with her waspish vignettes of mothers who betray their children with submissiveness, moral weakness & cowardice, & fathers/husbands who trample close relationships with arrogance, intolerance & cruelty, & teenagers full of hatred & resentment. She also penetrates right to the heart of class consciousness & snobbery, & those who live with an innate sense of ‘superiority’. These attitudes riddle our society, & our hearts & souls; they blight lives, destroy hope, & ensure injustice and inequality prevails. They lower people’s self-esteem and propagate lies that last a lifetime. All this JKR skilfully conveys in The Casual Vacancy.

I found many sharp portrayals: the conversation as a social worker visits a drug addict; the inner life of a bullied teenager as she self harms, her situation made worse by a harsh, unsympathetic mother; the fragile threads upon which a drug addict’s rehabilitation depends; the pressures at home which force teenagers into depraved company and behaviour. JKR accurately conveys the effect that going to a certain sort of school has on one’s sense of self-worth, and upon the choices one makes in one’s friendships and future life.

It’s clear to me that the characters in this novel are behaving ‘their’ way – in other words, the default setting of human nature. It would be pointless and disingenuous for any of us who live in contemporary English society to pretend that we cannot recognize something murky of ourselves somewhere in this novel: something that points up the ‘devices and desires’ of our own hearts.

However, although I enormously admire what JKR has done in this story, I still feel it lacks a strong enough spiritual message or act of redemption at the end; and the potential for that is very strongly present as the narrative progresses.

JKR may not have wished to commit herself to an explicit spiritual message in the novel. But I cannot help feeling there is clear potential for an authentic Christian witness in this story, pointing to a different attitude, a different way of life.

Jesus knew all about the default setting of human nature, and the untrustworthiness of the human heart.

In John’s Gospel we read these words : But Jesus didn’t entrust his life to them. He knew them inside & out, knew how untrustworthy they were. He didn’t need any help in seeing right through them.

For The Casual Vacancy is, to me, essentially a story of ourselves as we are, now, in our communities, in our society today, just as we always have been; unredeemed, doing things ‘our way’ and not God’s way, and reaping the consequences.  It’s only JK Rowling’s decision not to take the opportunity for a stronger redemptive message which prevents me from giving her book the highest possible rating.

A World of Wonders at Leavesden Studios

On a recent visit to the Harry Potter tour at the Warner Brothers Studios in Leavesden, I was moved.

The door to the Chamber of Secrets
The door to the Chamber of Secrets

Not simply by the moment when I and my two children first stepped into the Hogwarts Great Hall, or by the moment when I first came upon the model of Hogwarts Castle, or when I first saw that beautiful Hogwarts Bridge out in the middle of the “Back Lot”, or by when I tasted my first Butterbeer, but by the whole experience, and the reflections that arose from it.

Hogwarts Bridge
Hogwarts Bridge

All these wonderful objects and scenes and lovingly created details and the magnificent model castle… all because of one woman’s imagination.

To see the products of J.K. Rowlings’ imagination brought into richly-detailed reality was awesome.

I thought, All this is here because of people loving her stories in their millions.

“People in their millions”, of course equals “money”, in the film industry.

Dolores Umbridge's study
Dolores Umbridge’s study

But I was reminded of what J.K. Rowling said when asked in Trafalgar Square after the premier of the final “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” film, “What do you want to say?”

And she said, “Thank you – for making this happen.”

And as I left the Warner Brothers studios I thought too of her words, displayed in the exhibition: “Stories can only live if someone listens.”


* Photos taken by Abigail Robinson

A Portal to Another World – What Makes Any Place a Dream Home?

A couple of days ago the words ‘dream home’ sprang into my mind. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was a bit like J.K. Rowling on that train journey when she  was gazing out of the window day-dreaming and she thought ‘Boy wizard – doesn’t know he’s a wizard – gets invited to wizard school.’ Anyway, these words ‘dream home’ came into my mind as I was driving along in my car. And then I thought, Whoever first came up with the idea that any of us might, or indeed should, aspire to one day living in a ‘dream home’?  And what gives some of us the right and the privilege to live in a ‘dream home’, whereas thousands of others are constrained by money, location, convenience and so on, and end up in a home which is OK for them to live in but in no way constitutes a dream home and never will?

Of course there are those in this world for whom ‘home’ is an improvised shack in a slum or on a rubbish dump. But who says such people don’t also have ‘dream homes?’  Or is the very concept ‘dream home’ one that our consumer society has invented so they can attach dream lifestyles to it and then attempt to sell us the products that will somehow propel us into those dream lifestyles?

In my mystery romance novel “Mystical Circles” you will find a house that qualifies to be my own personal dream home. Ever since I was a young child, my dream home has involved flagstone floors, whitewashed walls, secret staircases within the thickness of a wall, exposed beams, inglenook fireplaces and diamond-paned windows. Perhaps I was first influenced by a lovely English country pub which somehow got associated in my mind with warmth, happiness, belonging…

So why on earth do I think that a fifteenth century English timbered cottage (beautifully restored and renovated of course) or farmhouse or indeed an Elizabethan hall-house qualify to be my dream home? Because they remind me of things from childhood, because such houses contain idiosyncratic corners and minstrels’ galleries and sloping ceilings and uneven walls, and probably because these things are the stuff of children’s stories, (or the sort I read anyway).  Houses that may provide entrances to other worlds… perhaps this in itself provides the definition of my dream home.

C.S.Lewis was first inspired for “The Lion,the Witch and the Wardrobe” by the house he and his brother explored when they were young children. An unused room with a mysterious wardrobe… This was a concept that turned out to be powerful and fertile, as did that of the boy wizard dreamed up on the train journey.  There is a rich tradition in children’s literature of houses that somehow become portals to another dimension – consider the world Lewis Carroll projects Alice into through the looking glass in her house, wait for the clock to strike thirteen and see what follows in “Tom’s Midnight Garden” by Philippa Pearce,  or step with Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline” into the  chilling parallel world of the Other Mother and the Other Father.

Having written this, I have now convinced myself that the only qualification dream homes need is portals to other worlds. What do you think? What is your idea of a dream home? Have you too been inspired and influenced by the stories you read as a child?