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Archive for October, 2012

The Casual Vacancy

The review below is of The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. I reviewed it on Goodreads on 11th October.

I’m not sure whether the format was designed to make me think of a Jilly Cooper novel, with all these characters introduced, and a mix of upper-class twits, well-meaning social workers, and rough-but-golden-hearted working class heroes, but that was the echo that haunted me throughout.

The concept of a pervasive Parish Council in an English town is quite foreign to me, having grown up in a Scottish city, and although unfamiliarity of location isn’t usually a barrier to enjoyment of a novel, I didn’t feel like I connected much to Pagford.

The Casual Vacancy is a commentary on social values which isn’t original, but still has a place. The self-satisfied Pagfordians – particularly the Mollisons (who are implicitly raging Tories) – are almost comedy villains, while the Weedons are caricatures of every right-winger’s bête-noir. Such extremes aren’t unknown, but felt a little contrived for the sake of the story. Yet they each have a purpose in this tale, which bowled along nicely and started to wiggle its way into my brain. The denouement surprised me and actually changed how I felt about the whole story; the absence of any neatly tied loose ends felt authentic and encouraged me to examine my prejudices towards the characters.

Overall it was well-written, and some techniques – such as the extended sections in parenthesis which extended our understanding of a character’s thoughts or background – were unusual enough to give a fresh feel to the novel. Recommended to others – but you should have no expectations as you pick up the book. Harry Potter it is NOT – but it is no poorer for that.

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This post is written to reflect some of the themes of Parenting Across Scotland, a charity partnership supporting parents. Their conference takes place on October 3rd. Follow #PAS12 on Twitter.

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On Sunday, as normal, my family was at our church. We have two services on a Sunday morning: one at 10 o’clock which is a quiet, contemplative service and includes communion, and a second service at 11.30, which tends to be busier, louder, and more family-focused. As a family, we try to attend both services, for several reasons – they serve different purposes, touch us in different ways, are beneficial to us in different areas of our faith. Not to mention that I have responsibilities in youth work during the second service, and so am rarely in the main church service during that period.

We love our church – it is a source of real encouragement to us in our faith, we have close friends there, and the church family is flawed but loves Jesus and puts him first, which I believe is the best any of us can be as Christians. The incident which prompted this blog post happened here at our church, which means everything and nothing – it could have happened anywhere.

My daughter, who is just short of four months old, was quite fussy on Sunday morning. She needed to sleep, and wasn’t for dropping off, so I took her out of the main hall and paced with her in the vestibule at the back of the church. She cried on and off – girning cries, not hysterical screams. In between her cries she settled into me and I was able to catch some of the thoughts, prayers, bible passages that made up that service. It wasn’t perfect but I felt I was at least taking a small part in the proceedings.

In the time inbetween the services, while my daughter dropped off to sleep in the sling, I was approached by an older gentleman who asked if he could speak to me “without me taking offence”. As I had been told upfront how I should be reacting to the chat, my back was already up, but basically he was ‘letting me know’ that being out in the vestibule didn’t muffle my baby’s cries at all, and that perhaps I could consider using the lounge during the service. I thanked him through gritted teeth for his advice and let him move on.

It seems like such a small thing, and yet in the days since it happened I keep coming back to it and dwelling on his words, and what they mean, both for me as a parent and for society as a whole. As I say, the fact that it happened at church is almost irrelevant; it could have been a coffee shop or a post office queue. Nor do I bear malice now to the gentleman himself who spoke to me – it was something he felt he had to say, and at least he spoke to me personally rather than grumbling behind my back.

How DO we as a society integrate children and parents into our day to day activities? The gentleman had a point; he was perhaps distracted by my daughter’s cries and found it took him away from his contemplations. If he spoke to me, then it is a certainty that there are others who felt the same but did not want to approach me. This is a time that is important to them, for their own reasons. Why should my desire to be part of the service, as one person – parent or not – trump the needs or comfort of umpteen others?

And yet. And yet. It would of course be easier for us as a family not to attend that service. Getting us all out with necessary accoutrements by 9.30am every Sunday morning is no mean feat. We go because it is important to us, to show our children that it is important to us. That we attend church not out of a sense of duty but of joy, to spend time glorifying our God and meeting with our church family. My son at 3 attends the creche where he plays for an hour, but my daughter is far too little for me to leave her yet, even if she would take milk from anyone but me. We tell our children that they are loved and accepted, not only by our Saviour, but by the others who attend our church.

Children cry. They fuss, they run, they smear chocolate on things. They are not always easy people to like – unless they are our own in which case we love them always, like them most of the time, and want to throw them out of a window only occasionally. Like it or not, they are the future. A church, in common with any organisation, will not grow and fulfil its purpose unless there is new life to continue it.

Should I not take my daughter back to that service until she is old enough to stay in creche and/or keep quiet when appropriate? This would of course also mean my taking no part in that service, as it is open and participatory, and the audio feed sent to the lounge does not pick up anything said from within the congregation. It would also mean that I am not able to take part in communion until some unspecified point in the future.

As a society we still prefer children to occupy their proper place. Absolutely they need boundaries, guidance and rules. They also need love and acceptance. To a certain extent there are two issues here – how we deal with children and how we deal with parents, but the two are of course inextricably linked. I understand how irritating and noisy children can be – believe me – but we can’t continue to expect them to be anything other than children.

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