‘The Casual Vacancy,’ J.K.’Harry Potter’ Rowling
On one of my regular post-work strolls along the South Bank of the Thames a few weeks ago, I stopped into the aptly named Southbank Centre to browse their brochure of upcoming events. And there it was: J.K.Rowling discusses her new novel, ‘The Casual Vacancy.’
Followed by those magic words:
“There will be a signing after the event.”
A quick inquiry about ticket availability led to mild amusement from a worker who informed me that the tickets had sold out as soon as they went on sale months before, so there was nothing for it but to grab two books and set up camp at the centre at 11:00am on the morning of 27th September, awaiting any possible returned tickets.
Such is my luck, I had only returned from grabbing a sandwich for lunch at 12:30 when I was asked if I would like to buy a ticket that had just been returned: £15, front row seat.
Some questions in life are easier to answer than others.
When I eventually found the right venue that evening, I found myself about ten metres from a pair of comfortable chairs, and about three from a lectern in a gorgeous auditorium full to the brim of almost a thousand Rowling fans, (surprisingly few of them in Harry Potter costumes). After a chat with my neighbours, I learned that the guy to my right had bought two tickets as a member of the South Bank Centre, and since none of his friends had been available, he had called to return one of them…at around 12:30 that afternoon.
Lucky me. I thanked him fairly profusely for his lack of available, literate friends.
For the record, I read and enjoyed all of the Harry Potter series, (although some I enjoyed more than others, mainly the earlier ones: as formulaic as they could be they were fun, and reminded me of similar series I used to read as a nipper. The final book, however, I found fairly dull: way too much wandering around woods being miserable). I may not have found the writing thrilling, but the characters were engaging, the themes interesting and they were…well, fun. High hopes for Rowling‘s first non-Potter book I didn’t have, however, until she came out, (looking very foxy, incidentally, as I realised I didn’t really know what she looked like until this evening), and in discussion with an interviewer made it sound, at the very least, intriguing.
She gave two readings from ‘The Casual Vacancy,’ the second so profanity-laced, (well, repeated ‘fucks’), that several warnings were made to the audience that young kids may like to be escorted from the premises before she began. This second reading was the highlight, not for the f-bomb but because the dialogue was read with a thick, West-country accent, (a country-bumpkin drawl for those who don’t know it), which Rowling later admitted she had to write the dialogue in as it was the only accent she could do.
‘The Casual Vacancy‘ doesn’t promise thrills and spills, being the story of an enforced local council election, but the reading and Q&A session did leave me curious, with hints of dark and unpleasant characters, small town politics and prejudices, and teenagers as different from the Potter protagonists as it is possible to be, (‘fuck’s instead of ‘bloody hell’s, truancy and violence instead of spells and homework).
The highlights of the interview were insights into the writing of the Potter series, and some extremely funny and frank admissions. We learned among other things that if she could go back and change anything, (prose aside, possibly an admission of stylistic faults!); it would be not giving Harry the Marauder’s Map, (the creation of magical objects being so much fun until they become too useful to the characters), and that none of the actors in the movie influenced her writing in the later books, with one exception: the Irish actress chosen to play Luna Lovegood, (Evanna Lynch), was so convincing that, Rowling said, she could hear her voice when she was writing her part in the later books.
The Q&A session with the audience was an emotional affair: first a Spanish fan’s ‘question’ was whether he could come and give J.K a present he had made her, which (after an understandable ‘is this a psychopath killer?’ pause), she agreed to accept, even throwing in a hug and a kiss for the young man. Later old acquaintances were reignited when she took a question from a fan who had been the first person to ask about Dumbledore’s love life, (on UK kids’ show ‘Blue Peter’, before he had been officially ‘outed’ as gay).
When the talk was over, people streamed for the exit, and with good reason: every single person was waiting to get a signed copy of the hardback book most of us had bought on the way in, meaning that everybody got stuck in an unmoving crowd at the side doors. There were no announcements, no stewards, no lines, just a mass of people not moving for around 20 minutes. I got bored of waiting, and decided to find the little boy’s room before queueing up for the hours it was surely going to take to get my book signed. Ducking back through the auditorium, I was pointed to a side door…and came out just behind J.K and her entourage, emerging from backstage to tackle the scrum. For once lost for words, I let her get away without saying anything, (what was I going to say? Hi?!?), and she went outside to begin a monster signing session.
I decided to wait out the crowds, sitting down with the book I was reading in the meantime, (Martin Amis‘s collection of journalism, ‘Visiting Mrs.Nabakov,‘ in case you were wondering), and somehow after just an hour or so of waiting, the crowd had thinned. This probably had a lot to do with the fact that there were some serious rules being laid down by her security staff: one book each, only the new novel, no memorabilia or Harry merchandise, no talking, no photos, no breathing too heavily near J.K, etc. etc. Annoying as it was, it all made sense: if she only spent 30 seconds with each fan in the queue, it would have taken her four and a half hours to get through everyone.
After a few photos snapped from a distance, I found myself in the queue and approaching at pace, and found myself surprisingly flustered for a signing queue veteran. We were instructed by a conveyor-belt of security that it was now time to put cameras away, now time to get the book open at the correct page for signing, now time to put that Harry Potter book away she’s not signing it, now time to present our tickets as proof we’d been at the event, now time to really put that Prisoner of Azkaban away she won’t be signing it, and then I was there, and she was there, and I was telling her how much I had enjoyed the Harry Potter books but how it was nothing compared to how much my students in Japan had enjoyed them, and thanking her for writing them. She looked up, seemingly touched, and thanked me for thanking her, before I strolled off with my newly-inked hardback.
I hung around for fifteen minutes or so, intrigued by the mix of people coming away from the signing table, mainly female, mostly people who were probably late teens when the Potter series began, and several from overseas. One pair of teenage French girls had the entire experience filmed for them by the lady accompanying them, up to and including them bursting into a Biblical flood of tears as soon as they had left the line. They were far from the only ones to find themselves so overcome and drenched in salt-water. (Not me, I hasten to add).
After a while, I realised that the queue had practically gone, so I decided to do a lap and try to get my Prisoner of Azkaban signed. I would be the last autograph of the evening, and J.K. and I had seemed to have such a connection, after all.
No such luck: a quick request, an even quicker rejection from her team around her, they even refused to let her personalise the dedication to me in the second copy of ‘…Vacancy’ I picked up instead, as it would be unfair on everyone else. I thought I had been clever, avoiding the staff with stickers waiting at the end of the signing table my first time around, presuming it was something they stuck on your ticket to stop you going and getting two copies as I had done. I sure beat the system!
It was only on getting home and seeing, (out of interest), how much people were asking for signed copies on eBay that I realised those stickers were holograms of proof that these books really had been autographed by J.K. herself.
Oh well, luckily I don’t plan on selling either of them any time soon, (one of them ever, the other…well, who knows if there will be tough times ahead!).
So, that is the story of how I got to tickets to, listened to, was enchanted by, briefly met (twice) and obtained signed copies (twice) of the book by the publishing phenomenon better known as J.K.Rowling.
I’ll get back to you if I ever get around to actually reading the novel.