The Long Read

Potter Gold

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The Harry Potter phenomenon is less a story of creative excellence than of financial profit — or, in Will Self’s case, loss. As the Potter industry gears up for yet another climax, with the release of the final film adaptation next month, Esquire’s editor-at-large breaks the boy wizard’s powerful spell.

When, oh when, did it all begin? When — creepingly, insistently and above all adverbially — did I become aware of this… this thing, this phenomenon? I hesitate to use the words “Harry Potter series of books”, because when it all began there was only one of them; and I am equally hesitant about using the name “JK Rowling” because I can’t say I’ve ever been that aware of her as a person, only as some sort of icon of niceness (of which more anon).

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No, in the beginning was a single book, a conventional enough paper-bound proof copy which was sent to me in 1997 by my publishers, Bloomsbury. It was called — in case you’ve been nodding out in a bathysphere in the Mariana Trench for the past 14 years — Harry Potter and the  Philosopher’s Stone. I looked at it — I expect — then I shelved it with the other kids’ books in the kids’ room, where it belonged — and where it stayed for a few months or years before being resolutely culled.

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Does the knowledge that that proof copy, if in reasonable nick, would currently fetch me in the region of £10,000 grate? Umm, yeah, actually it does — I mean, it may be a little infra dig for one writer to envy the sales of another, but to regret the sales he might’ve made of her advance proofs is too, too pathetic not to be fulsomely acknowledged. I mean, I expect the next two or three Potter books were also sent to me — first editions all — and if I’d hung on to them as well I might, gulp, be able to live for quite a while off the proceeds.

I’m going to be discussing money a great deal in what follows, because inasmuch as the Potter phenomenon is a phenomenon at all it’s a monetary rather than a creative one — the books themselves are ultimately too slight, and too derivative, to have much purchase on the culture. I don’t mean by this to suggest that they won’t last — all sorts of guff lasts — but it doesn’t by that longevity alone have any great impact on the way people think, dream, love or act.

Try this thought experiment out: is it possible to imagine a different series of books appearing between the late-Nineties and mid-2000s that would have garnered the same massive sales, spawned the same movie spin-offs and drummed up similar controversies? “Absolutely,” has to be the answer: since there was nothing intrinsically original, or particularly zeitgeisty, about the books in and of themselves — but the great wads of cash they generated cannot be so easily magicked away. This is the real Potter gold.

But back to the timeline: as I say, I think the first two or three books came through Schloss Self without making much impact. However, by the time we went on holiday in the summer of 2000, my eldest assured me that he had listened to a talking book of Philosopher’s Stone, and that’s why this sojourn — in the Canaries, if anyone gives a shit — is forever wedded in my mind with the experience of listening to my wife reading the second book of the series — Chamber of Secrets — aloud to the children as we tooled around in a hire car, lay beside the pool, etc, etc. Even then the book itself didn’t make much impression on me, save for my wife’s rather endearing foible of mispronouncing the name of the female protagonist “Her-me-o-nee” instead of “Her-mi-o-nee”. How we all laughed.

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I realise I must’ve been aware by then of the extraordinary mercantile buzz surrounding the Potter books: the third, The Prisoner of Azkaban, had been published the year before, and in the intervening 12 months sold a third of a million copies; The Goblet of Fire appeared in July of 2000 and racked up the same sales in the first 24 hours after publication.

Sharing the same publisher, I could not but be aware of the enormous brouhaha dancing attendance on these events: the extra staff taken on, the special trains arranged to convey the author on whistle-stop publicity tours, the general atmosphere of pre-Potter tension that built up before the arrival of another chunk of this magoozlum, followed by the blissful relief of having offloaded it onto the teeny masses.

I think it must also have been with publication of Goblet that I became alive to what, in retrospect, was the really defining feature of the series overall: throughout the decades, and even centuries, there have been plenty of other children’s books that have had a devoted adult following — Black Beauty, His Grooms and Companions: The Autobiography of a Horse (1877) has clocked up 50m sales to date, and not all of them, I wager, were to little pony-lovers. But the Potter books were the first kids’ books to be read as enthusiastically by adults at the time of their publication. I remember the day after Goblet came out walking along the South Bank in London, and seeing scores of grown men and women disporting themselves on the grass beside County Hall, and reading the book shamelessly — in, as it were, flagrante.

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Martin Amis, on being asked recently whether or not he’d ever consider writing a children’s book, replied: “I might, but only if I was brain-damaged,” and so sparked the inevitable furore of protest from those who thought this insulting to children’s authors, or insulting to people with brain damage, and — especially stridently — from those who found it offensive to both.

Actually, while I see what Amis is driving at — to write for a readership that is of necessity, more restricted requires a willed restriction of a writer’s capacities — I’m not sure I entirely agree with him. It seems to me that there’s a paradoxical skill involved in thinking your way into others’ ignorance, and many authors of serious adult books have created quite brilliant children’s fiction. However, for an adult reader to get their jollies from sopping up kiddie fic’ does seem like a perverse act of brain-damaging.

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Seeing those readers lolling on the grass, all of them equipped with a full set of secondary sexual characteristics — pubic hair, breasts, beards and so forth — while enraptured by the activities of prepubescents, it occurred to me that this was grisly fruition of a social and cultural trend that had been ripening through the previous two or three decades.

The term “kidult” could have been coined to describe this phenomenon — and indeed, in Jonathon Green’s monumental Dictionary of Slang, the first cited adjectival use of “kidult” is with reference to the Harry Potter books— but surely what’s more germane is that “kidult” was originated by marketing wonks to target a demographic who just wouldn’t act their age. These 18 to 30-somethings (and even older) wouldn’t just swan around in shorts, sporting Hello Kitty shoulder bags, they would, it seemed, buy plenty of other stuff intended for juveniles.

Which was just as well, because in a society with a declining birth rate the market for kiddy-things is bound to be in decline as well: with the rise of the kidult it became possible to flog children’s books to adults, and then they could read them to their own inner-child. But — I hear you cavil — aren’t you being snobbish, elitist and censorious to boot? Don’t we live in a free society? It isn’t harming anyone for me to read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire now is it? I could be surfing the net for porn, or indulging in vicarious slaughter courtesy of Call of Duty — instead I’m doing something really rather wholesome.

Hmm, I’m not so sure. Actually, the rise of the kidult occurred exactly at the time when political disengagement in the affluent West started to become acute, and da yoof began to ramp up their credit card debt in lieu of pursuing sound money. I’m not saying the Harry Potter books caused the krappy kidult culture, but they sure as shit exemplified it. Moreover, while not wishing for a second to suggest there’s a sexual subtext to the series, there does seem to me to be something a tad pervy about all those big ’uns reading about little ’uns, especially when you consider that it was also during this time that neoteny (having the appearance of a youthful member of a species) became a widely adopted form of feminine sexual allure.

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I said all those adults reading Goblet in 2000 had pubic hair — but by the time The Order of the Phoenix came out three years later, a lot of the female kidults had shaved theirs off, almost as if it were an homage to their youthful heroine, Hermione Granger. Presumably Daniel Radcliffe, the poor bastard whose entire adolescence was irretrievably warped by playing Potter in the movie adaptations, took a stage role — in Peter Shaffer’s Equus — that demanded full-frontal nudity, purely in order to prove that he did actually have a bush, as well as a whomping willow.

As for me, between 2000 and 2005 when Half-Blood Prince appeared and — like some weird Hindu deity — morphed into 9m doorstop-sized tomes in 24 short hours, the Harry Potter thing had really started to get to me. True, I can’t claim to have read a great deal of the books — perhaps as little as a tenth overall — but it’s enough, oh yes. Night after night I would find myself with this or that child tucked in the crook of my arm, while I groaned on about Harry and Ron and Hermione and Hagrid and Dumble-fucking-dore.

In 2007, after the whole series was done with, Rowling revealed to an audience at Carnegie Hall that the headmaster of Hogwarts was in fact gay — but if only she’d had the balls to make him overtly so; if only Albus had hung out at the Vauxhall Tavern in a tight white T-shirt, or taken the occasional recreational hit of amyl, the whole dreary saga would’ve gone with something more of a swing. By the way, the audience at Carnegie Hall were — get this — students: in other words adults.

But back to bedtime: I would try and inject these ciphers with some plausibility, I would strain to suffuse Rowling’s cardboard prose with some suppleness, I would put on silly voices — but all to no avail, because I could seldom manage to read more than three or four pages before falling deeply and soundly asleep. Skilled (ie meretricious) children’s writers often structure their chapters purposely so as to make them a short bedtime installment, but the problem with reading the Potter books aloud is that they’re soporific for the wrong party.

Luckily — as so often is the case — Stephen Fry stepped into the breach. I’m not sure exactly when the Stephen Fry audiobook versions of the Potters began appearing — and actually I don’t want to find out; I prefer the impression I have of his chocolatey tones having always been glooping through my inner ear, carrying on their caramel sheen the occasional plum.

Fry reads the Potter books brilliantly — in this respect: his modulations are so subtle, so negligible that every single character sounds exactly the same — just like Stephen Fry. This is genius, because the gallery of stock types that trip through the pages are, after a while, barely differentiable. None of this put off my whelps — they lapped up Fry’s Potter delight for day after month after year. In the last decade I must’ve heard Fry soliloquising more than I’ve heard any other human voice.

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Indeed, home wouldn’t be home without it — especially since the Fry shtick has now passed down the generations. About four years ago my wife and I noticed that both our younger children spoke with curiously plummy and refined accents — strange, given that I seesaw between Mockney and RP, while their mother is Scots. Then we realised the brilliant truth: the boys, through constant listening to Harry Potter audiobooks, both spoke like Stephen Fry! No need for the expensive public school education, let alone three years at Cambridge — just make Fry your Professor Higgins (as well as Profs Snape, McGonagall, Slughorn, etc) and everything in the garden won’t be luvverly, but lovely.

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I have nothing personal, I stress, against Stephen Fry — any more than I do against JK Rowling. In fact, when I’ve knocked into Fry over the years he’s been a sweetly baffled and congenial enough fellow; that he’s come to represent — in poisonous Julie Burchill’s wickedly apposite coinage — “a stupid person’s idea of what an intelligent person is like”, is surely no fault of his own, any more than it’s Jo Rowling’s fault that she’s a nice person’s idea of what the nicest person in the world might be like.

Still, hearing the two of them discuss — with great seriousness — the deep significance of his declamation of her works on a Radio 4 special had to be a radio low-point. I suppose a more committed muckraker than I might have gone looking for cracks in the Rowling persona of mummyish loveliness — but even if I was interested in doing this, a billion shitters buys a lot of privacy. Besides, I too worship at the altar of her unimpeachable character, for one simple reason — another Radio 4 programme: her edition of Desert Island Discs.

Again, for those doing a 15-stretch on the ocean bed — or locked up in a personal Azkaban tortured by Dementors — let me explain that the radio programme Desert Island Discs, in which someone in the public eye is asked to name the eight pieces of music they would take with them into sandy exile, is an absolutely infallible guide to human nature. Rowling’s DID was broadcast back in 2000, when the rather more penetrating Sue Lawley was still the interviewer — and I caught it unawares, tooling along in my jam jar.

It wasn’t until half-way through the programme that I realised that the rather sexily husky-voiced woman, who had near-impeccable musical taste — the Beatles’ “Come Together”: check; The Smiths’ “Big Mouth Strikes Again”: check; Beethoven’s “Appassionata”: check again — was none other than my arch-nemesis, creator of the odious floppy-fringed boy wizard. By then it was too late! And, rather like Winston Smith at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four, I was discovering that I too loved Big Sister.

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I said a billion shitters buys a lot of privacy — but the truth is you don’t even have to lay out any money when you’re that rich: privacy just trickles down from you along with the wonga. That being noted, I knew better than to go asking people who had benefited from the Potter gold to diss its mother lode.

But even people I spoke to who had every reason to feel disaffected and aggrieved still had nothing but nice things to say about Rowling: “fiercely loyal”, “genuinely warm” and “an absolute honey” were some of the things they said. Rowling has given significant wads of cash away — although she hasn’t yet committed to a Bill and Melinda Gates-style divestment — and she maintains a left-leaning stance on such issues as single-parent families and child poverty.

Good luck to her, I say. After all, she can’t exactly be blamed for having dreamed up a saga, when living on benefits as a single mum in Edinburgh, that then went on to wallpaper the entire fucking world. I mean, Rowling has always said she knew how the last book would end when she was working on the first — but there’s a difference between literary precognition and seeing the actual future.

There are even those who would say that, whatever the merits of the Potter books in and of themselves, they have genuinely assisted otherwise disaffected yoof — in particular boys — to embrace literacy. On this I have my doubts, but perhaps someone out there in Esquire-land will set me right. In my experience, plenty of boys read the Potter books with fierce attention, then cast them aside and get back to wasting zombies on their Xboxes.

The Potter books, with their wooden characters, emphasis on the crude forward-ratchetting mechanics of plot, and Manichean division of the world into Right and Wrong are
no kind of preparation at all for the subtleties that adult reading demands.

If only the adorable Ms Rowling had fully committed herself to never penning another Potter book (apart from her long-planned encyclopedia of the wizarding world) I suppose I could rest easy. Arthur Conan Doyle notoriously killed off Sherlock Holmes at the height of his fame, only to bring him back again once the price was right — but in order to match that kind of funding in Rowling’s case the IMF would have to be called in. Besides, although she has involved herself in the movies to the extent of executive producing — with consequent emolument — and even licensed all sorts of tacky merchandise and a theme park, I can’t believe that anyone as ineffably lefty-lovely as Rowling is motivated any more by mere pelf.

No, I fear she might write another one simply because she’s a believer: she actually likes her alternative world, which has all the beauty and solidity of an off-the-shelf MFI kitchen. I’ll spare you the sob story, but I haven’t had a holiday for a couple of years now. The last time we did manage to get away we loaded the whelps into the people-carrier and drove them to Italy. In order to minimise friction on the road we drugged them with The Deathly Hallows.

It could’ve been 40 hours of Fry’s lubricious recounting — it could have been 400, because after a while I lost count and it all merged into a ghastly sonic smear of tedium. Yes, yes, these are books intended for children — I know that. But there are so many children’s books that I don’t mind reading again and again, whereas this one was a torment to listen to once, even with all of Europe to divert me. At times I would find myself doing 110 clicks on the  autostrada, while banging my head repeatedly on the boss of the steering wheel simply in order to keep myself awake.

Just one of the imaginative tropes that Potter-world depends on is a kind of facile magic-making, whereby the most complex supernatural effects can be conjured up simply by uttering a single word, usually with the suffix “mus”, as in “Expelliarmus!” I wish I had studied at Hogwarts, oh yes I do.

I wish I had studied at Hogwarts under the all-wise and all-loving Albus Dumbledore. I wish he had taken me in hand and taught me a single magnificent spell, so that I could wave my wand (yes, yes, bought in Diagon Alley, fashioned from stripped pine with a single pubic hair running down its core), and cry: “HarryPotterBooksNeverBeenWrittenAtAllYetLeaving
JoRowlingAsWellAsTheRestOfUsPerfectlyHappymus!” That would be real magic, wouldn’t you agree?

Words by Will Self