Monday, 26 June 2017

Mandatory Harry Potter Post

Twenty years since we first heard the words 'butterbeer', 'Slytherin', 'Quidditch' and 'Sorting Hat'. How time flies. As do young witches.

At the risk of annoying those who believe people should read only age-appropriate books, I picked up Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone towards the end of 1997, at the age of 22. I was between degrees, working the night-shift at a British Gas data entry centre (there are many horror stories), I was ill one week and I'd read every book in the house. My youngest sister (I'm the oldest of six) tossed me a brightly-coloured book and explained that she'd only bothered with a couple of chapters because she hated reading – since then I've tried to disguise her every Christmas and birthday present as a book just to wind her up. By the way, I should thank her: that first impression, first edition paperback is worth a healthy sum now.

As a reading experience, bearing in mind I was delirious with 'flu, I enjoyed it. Having read all my sisters' Blyton boarding school novels, all of Alan Garner (still the best), the Narnia series, The Dark is Rising (never, ever watch the film), The Wolves of Willoughby ChaseThe Worst Witch, The Secret Garden, The Box of Delights, Jennings and pretty much every children's book written, it was all very familiar, but well done. Certainly the writing was occasionally clunky, and the structure fairly plodding, but I thought it was a superior bricolage with some additional interesting things. Yes, they're liberal-bourgeois wish-fulfilment, but I'm bourgeois and liberal, and rather feel that there's not enough of it about. So despite subsequently doing a Welsh literature MA and PhD, I kept an eye on children's literature, and carried on reading the Potter novels. Come 2000 I got my first teaching gig on a module about families in literature: I did what I think may have been the world's first academic lecture on Harry Potter: one of the things I did was pass round a big pile of the books I thought had most influenced The Philosopher's Stone.

The two things I thought Rowling did increasingly well as the series appeared were comedy, and the shifting, uncertain nature of teenage friendships: how they're made and how they're lost. I thought, and still think, that she does loss and depression – particularly Ron Weasley's secret inadequacies – very well. I also liked her increasing taste for satire: the Ministry of Magic moves from being a classic British shambling bureaucracy to an oppressive surveillance culture modelled on the post-Iraq War/9/11 security state, Dolores Umbridge, the sadist in frills, is a comic but also chilling masterpiece, while Rita Skeeter is a pitch-perfect parody of the Daily Mail's columnists (a comic version of Sophie Stones from Jackie Kay's Trumpet).

Halfway between Miss Mapp and Theresa May

Other arguments made against the Potter novels are fairly predictable: derivative, clunky, middle-class, fantasy, Satanic (yes, oft-banned in US states and various other places), over-extended (I'd agree: the more books anyone sells, the longer they get because nobody wants to take a blue pencil to The Money) and lacking in social realism. All true to some extent, but they're also well-pitched for their audience, they address subjects such as death with a sensitive touch, they promote a degree of liberalism that's often lacking – just have a look at C. S. Lewis – and there are far worse-written books out there. They got boys and girls reading over the course of years, and they made literature central to popular culture for a good few years. I have a sneaky feeling that the primary-colours moral lessons contained in the series, alongside Terry Pratchett's later works, may be responsible for young peoples' increasing interest in egalitarian socialism.

I don't know that I'll ever read them again unless I find myself teaching them – I have no children to read to, but I am mystified by the strength of feeling Rowling and her works arouse. It's almost as if their popularity has meant that they and she have achieved the status of straw men or public property. In reality, they're page-turners written by someone who isn't and shouldn't be expected to be perfect, right all the time, a Delphic oracle or the Devil Incarnate. The novels and their author are interesting, thoughtful, flawed, warm products of their contexts and cultural environment. They make some people happy and they annoy other people. They answered a need for a particular type of fiction at just the right time. That's all.

Finally, if you're a Potterphobe reading this, THE BOOKS AREN'T FOR YOU. They're for children. How easily this is forgotten in the rush to praise or condemn. Twenty years has passed: we can all relax and assess the actual texts at leisure.

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