21 July 2007

Well met at midnight...

Tonight I did something that, a couple of weeks ago, I would not have imagined myself doing: I sat outside Waterston's bookshop to collect a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows[1] just after midnight.

So. There goes what was left (if anything) of my street cred. It's not fashionable to think well of Harry Potter - or, at least, to speak well of him. There's a lot of reflexive cultural snobbery about him. But, against my usual cynical instincts, I have a nearly blanket approval.

The books have drawn huge numbers of children worldwide into a reading habit; that, in itself, is enough to deserve enthusiastic applause. They deal with important issues: right and wrong, moral conscience, use and abuse of power, racism, social justice, crime and punishment, the sanctity of life, state versus individual, bureaucracy and law versus personal obligation. Hogwarts magic, with its emphasis on method and the understanding of fundamental principles, is a clear metaphor for science. Even author J K Rowling seems to be a rare model example of how to responsibly and sensibly manage the transit to sudden wealth and fame.

Ray Girvan rightly points out the unlikelihood that, after the appalling psychological abuse meted out to him over his first eleven years, Harry could emerge "so normal". I have to acknowledge the truth of that ... I am myself often appalled at the way characters in films and other fiction see their friends killed, tortured, mutilated, etc, and then just a few minutes later marry the love interest and live happily ever after. How do we account for the sudden return to normality (and social status quo ante) at the end of The Admirable Chrichton?[2] However ... fiction always demands suspension of disbelief as the price for what it offers. Having accepted this sort of psychological implausibility so often before, I find it easy enough to do so this time and then push on into what follows. (Though I do recommend reading Ray's own suggested ending for the series, which is reminiscent of his wonderful short story Lord of the Files[3].)

I might never have read the Harry Potter books if my life hadn't included responsibilities to children in my extended family; but they do, and I did. So it came to be that, the day after watching the newly released film of The Order of the Phoenix, I found myself ordering a copy of Deathly Hallows. As she handed me my receipt and collection card, the young woman in Waterstones said "and we will be open at one minute past midnight for the first collections". I laughed, and said "I don't think I'll be here at midnight".

To turn out at midnight and queue for something which I can buy at my leisure over the counter the following day isn't my idea of fun or rationality. But then I started thinking. This is the last Potter book ... the end of the phenomenon. What happens when hundreds of young Potter fans roll out to get the earliest possible start on their latest fix? There will be no more opportunities to find out. And perhaps those children of the extended family would also like to know what it was like? Previous generations camped on a pavement for days to see the Beatles, or slept in churned mud to see Janis Joplin. Perhaps the release of Deathly Hallows would be a similar marker for youngsters of 2007; who am I to say?

And so, just before midnight, we (two adults and four children) joined the queue.

I'm glad we did. It was fun.

When we got home we had a reading out loud of the first two chapters, by candlelight; the kids went on reading this morning, though it will probably be a few day before I get around to it myself.

But the best bit of all for me, perhaps the part of me who is an educator, was nothing to do with us at all. The best bit, for me, was seeing the very first two customers out of the shop sit down on the floor of the mall and start reading immediately.

That, the imperative desire to read, is a wonderful thing to witness.

[1] Rowling, J K. Harry Potter and the deathly hallows. London, 2007, Bloomsbury. 9780747591054

[2] Barrie, J M, The admirable Crichton. In The Plays of J. M. Barrie. 1914, Hodder and Stoughton.

[3] Ray Girvan. Lord of the Files. In Barrett, D V, Digital dreams, 1990, New English Library. 0450531503 (pbk).

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