The Casual VacancyThe Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling hit me hard. I love a book that makes me furious, tearful and determined to change.

(For those unaware of the book/adaptation, in the simplest terms: councillor Barry Fairbrother dies, leaving the fate of the community and the future of Sweetlove House uncertain.  Barry was a good guy who tried to help young people and provide a safety net for those in need.)

The TV adaptation made me nervous. I feared it might lose something of the original’s bite. I sent out a social media plea to my friends – can we talk about this? The result gave me a jolt. Not the idle chit.chat of folk sharing views on a TV programme.

  • Impassioned voices empathising with young people and their alientation.
  • Comments expressing the value of a safe space and connection to the arts.
  • Lengthy emails stressing how ‘Barry Fairbrothers’ had changed their lives.

Many of those opinions belonged to people I met fifteen years ago, at Theatre Royal Plymouth (TRP). From 1996-2000, I was a director, workshop leader, experimenter and all-round bossy cow, formally known as Education Officer. TRP gave us space, technology, experts and permission, so we grabbed it and ran. Kids came from everywhere: Sunshine (9) got dropped off in a Range Rover. Jason (17) brought his baby daughter in a pushchair. I still can’t believe what we achieved back then. I’m still more amazed at what that mismatched, varied, talented, rowdy and creative bunch of young people have become.

So I asked a few of them to expand on one of the central themes of The Casual Vacancy: that connection to a place where you can feel safe to express yourself. The amount of material I got back was immense and of such quality, I’m going to run this over two Sundays.

Here’s Louise and James on what the arts did for them.

Louise Callaghan

Louise Callaghan-329-2

Louise Callaghan – actor

I’m from a small town – exceptionally beautiful and picture-postcard – but not teeming with activities for young people. I was lucky enough to attend a new theatre group that opened up in our town. There was no solid structure to the Saturday afternoons but I remember long hours of free improvisation where we were encouraged to do/be whoever we wanted to be-there was no wrong or right, good or bad. Looking back on this time really tugs at my heart strings, I didn’t know it then but the freedom, bravery and sense of play that I was so easily able to access due to the encouragement of our group leader, is what as an adult I am forever trying to strive towards. As an actor I am always aiming to unearth the elusive fearless child in me.

From this small theatre group where I thrived and grew in confidence, I moved up to The Young Company at TRP. It was here that I found my family- my tribe.

All my odd sayings and quirks that were ridiculed at school became part of our language, we were all different, we were all quirky and we had found our people. I was suddenly thrust into a world where creativity and eccentricity was celebrated. I decided this was where I wanted to be.

My career has been an unpredictable rollercoaster ride. The nature of a career in the arts requires a bucketload of tenacity. That tenacity is like a root planted by the people who championed me from an early age. My experience in youth theatres as a child is truly a part of what has shaped me to this day. It was a time of encouragement, positivity, support, friendship, creativity and play.

Whether I had or hadn’t become an actor is irrelevant. We are all, each of us creating. Every moment we are creating our future, present and past, the choices we make are shaping and forming our lives. As adults, each choice is more often than not based on our experience; risk-assessment comes into play. As young people we are acquiring this new experience, if we are encouraged from this early age to expand our creative minds, not to be limited, Are we better equipped then to make the biggest and most exciting choices for our lives in whatever context that may be? If we load our palette with openness and ambition can we not all paint the brightest and most interesting canvas for our lives? It starts with our first brush strokes- our teachers and Heroes who allow us to ‘fail’ and to grow.

Louise has worked for the RSC, Shakespeare’s Globe, West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Royal and Derngate. For television she has appeared in Booze cruise I&II (alongside Martin Clunes), Poirot, The Commander III (with Amanda Burton), The Bill and Doctors. She will be taking a leading role in an upcoming feature film directed by award-winning Sarah Warren and she works regularly at The Met Film School based at Ealing Studios working with emerging filmmakers.

 

James Mackenzie-Blackman

Over the last 15 years of practice (25 if you count my own time as a young person in the arts) three main areas define my outlook:

Finding Your Peers

The arts bring people together in a way that is unique from all other forms of self-expression.

Whether you are a young actor being asked to ‘go there’ emotionally whilst creating a role; a contemporary dancer being asked to share complex emotions on stage or a visual artist putting yourself on a canvas the result is a unique partnership between artist and audience. It’s vulnerable and confusing and brilliant and sometimes scary.

When I was 13 and I discovered my youth theatre at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth I found people like me for the first time and this made me feel safe and comfortable in my own skin. Youth theatre also introduced me to peers from other socio-economic backgrounds (in-a-Devon-sort-of-way). My new friends lived in huge houses on Dartmoor and their Dad went to London through the week; or they lived in a council flat in Plympton and their Dad didn’t work. It didn’t matter – because we all loved the theatre and we saw what bought us together, not what stood us apart. I know now, with the perspective of time, that this made me the adult I am today.

Pedagogy

The pedagogy of the artists who work with young people in the arts – their teaching methods and relationships are critical to their success. Why? BECAUSE IT’S NOT LIKE SCHOOL! In our sector we underestimate the impact of role models in a young person’s formative years. I have seen the arts achieve amazing eye-popping things with young people who have been written off by the formal education sector. Different people learn in different ways; they respond to different teaching methods and relationships with adults. More needs to be done to recognise this and nurture it.

Cultural Value & Its Impact on the Creative Case for Participation

I think and reflect on this more and more. It sounds like jargon but I’ll try and explain what I mean. Cultural participation has to be learnt, encouraged and nurtured. Yes a £30 theatre ticket is a barrier to access but only if you don’t place value on that £30 and if you don’t understand the impact the experience will have. I got involved in the arts at 13 because I had parents who placed value on the potential experience; they placed value in the arts because my Mum’s parents did. It takes time.

The work that needs to happen to encourage participation and access needs to be holistic and involve a whole family. I feel this more and more – and especially after our 2014 tour of Lord of the Flies that engaged 8,000 young people across the UK and bought dance-theatre into the homes of many families who were completely new to the arts.

There’s a wonderful moment at 01:15 in this very short trailer for the project that sums-up, for me, what I’m trying to communicate throughout this article: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNazBK6rwrg

In short there is still much to do because, just like art itself – the possibilities are endless.

 

 

I’ve read a LOT of books this summer, many of which I discovered through friends.

Liza Perrat, my Triskele Books colleague, suggested The Company of Liars, a superbly crafted tale set in 1348 England. Moving over the water, Darren Guest was impressed by Patrick deWitt’s tale of 1850s America in The Sisters Brothers. So was I. Triskelite Sheila Bugler, who reads at an incredible rate, said I’d love A Parachute in a Lime Tree. Sheila can spot good writing a mile off. My wonderful local English Bookshop recommended AD Miller’s Snowdrops for our first bookclub read. It provoked a range of reactions and interpretations, and very much appealed to me. And because she is a friend, I’d been very much looking forward to Jo Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. I wasn’t disappointed.

It occured to me that these five books each have a unique take on the concept of personal morality; the pursuit of individual desires versus social responsibility. From 1348 to 1850, into the late 1930s, up to the beginning of this millennium and right now; each author has something important to say about how people interact, about judgement, about how our choices define us.

Here are my reviews of each, which have appeared on Amazon, Goodreads, Triskele Book Club, Words with JAM etc. And if you’ve read any of these books, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

A Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

In this extraordinary novel, Karen Maitland delivers a dazzling reinterpretation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales–an ingenious alchemy of history, mystery, and powerful human drama.
The year is 1348. The Black Plague grips the country. In a world ruled by faith and fear, nine desperate strangers, brought together by chance, attempt to outrun the certain death that is running inexorably toward them.
Each member of this motley company has a story to tell. From Camelot, the relic-seller who will become the group’s leader, to Cygnus, the one-armed storyteller . . . from the strange, silent child called Narigorm to a painter and his pregnant wife, each has a secret. None is what they seem. And one among them conceals the darkest secret of all – propelling these liars to a destiny they never saw coming.
Magical, heart-quickening, and raw, Company of Liars is a work of vaulting imagination from a powerful new voice in historical fiction.

 

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

1850s. Eli and Charlie Sisters are hired guns on their way out west to kill a man called Herman Kermit Warm. The story is narrated by Eli, whose quirky deadpan style belies a surprising sensitivity. The two men are practical and efficient when it comes to violence, but Eli has a sentimental streak, which starts to affect the way he feels about his work.

The ambience of a lawless frontier where life is precarious is beautifully brought to life. DeWitt doesn’t shy from stark depictions of violence, but the book is shot through with a dry humour and human sympathy. Particular moments, such as Eli’s introduction to dental hygiene, are laugh-aloud funny and some of his philosophical ponderings are truly touching.

But what I loved most about this is the powerful voice that makes us view the world through Eli’s distinctive standpoint. Through his personality, we observe kindnesses and cruelties, power and greed, and reflections of the two brothers in other characters’ eyes. Unusual and unforgettable.

 

A Parachute in the Lime Tree by Annemarie Neary

A lyrical, charming and unpredictable story of what happens at the edges of war. The ripple-effect of what happened in late 1930s Germany reaches as far as Amsterdam and Dunkerin.

German neighbours Oskar and Elsa might have been lovers, but she is Jewish. They are separated in the build-up to war.

Oskar cannot forget her and learns that after a stint in the Netherlands, Elsa was removed to Ireland. He decides to desert from the German army and find his love. One night after a bombing raid, he leaps from his aircraft, with no idea where he will land. He ends up in a lime tree.

Said lime tree is in Kitty’s garden. She’s desperate for excitement and a German soldier landing in the garden is just the thing to relieve the boredom. But as Kitty falls for the German, his focus is unwavering. He’s looking for Elsa.

Elsa’s story is touching and complex, a musical prodigy whose life is torn asunder by politics and prejudice. While her youthful love searches for her, she finds solace in Charlie. The course of love does not run smooth, but Neary avoids cliché and delivers a bittersweet tale against a backdrop of horrors.

 

Snowdrops by AD Miller

The eponymous snowdrop refers to a body buried under the winter snow which only comes to light in the thaw. The image is relevant both literally and metaphorically to AD Miller’s Moscow tale of corruption and moral erosion.

The book is ostensibly a letter from Nick to his fiancée, cleaning the slate by confessing his past. During the early 2000s, he’s working as a lawyer in Moscow, where he meets Masha and Katya, and so begins his decay.

It’s difficult to talk about the book without giving too much away, but it’s a book to make you think. The author uses the setting of wintry Moscow, and the period just before the credit crunch, to great reflective effect. Nick’s moral choices are underpinned by a sense of ‘Right here, right now, this is just how it works’. But one day, the snow will melt …

 

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

It took me a while to get into the world of this book, but once I had, I didn’t want to leave. The characters and the village of Pagford come brilliantly to life, and not always in a good way. I felt positively murderous towards Si-Pie, wanted to slap Fats and would happily rip part of Obbo’s anatomy off. At the same time, I willed Krystal to find some kind of haven, kept my fingers crossed for Andrew and Gaia, and experienced the frustration which leads Parminder to her outburst.

The plot is expertly woven, and the reader is drawn into the petty battles, the daily cruelties, and the crushing hopelessness with omniscient knowledge. Rowling’s skill is such that she makes us root for characters such as Samantha when we are in her head, but judge her with the same sneering superiority as Shirley et al when we perceive her from an external perspective. It’s a clever feat of characterisation.

And the book works superbly as a highly unattractive depiction of the selfishness and absolution of responsibility engendered by the Big Society. The NIMBY mindset and judgemental blinkers are shown up as brutally self-serving and inhumane by one masterful set-piece towards the end.

This is a surprisingly powerful piece of storytelling which forces us, by stealth, to care.