Harry Potter and the planespotters.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics
  • Hogwash

The death of Richard Harris last month robbed the Harry Potter films of its most famous sorcerer, Professor Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts College. Since his demise, there has been much speculation as to who will replace him. Names in the hat include Lord Attenborough, Peter O’Toole, Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee.

Everyone knows Lee would be perfect for the job. He has the stature and presence wholly suited to the role. So why won’t he get it? Because he has starred as a wise magician in both a Star Wars and a Lord of the Rings movie. It would be embarrassing to have him in Harry Potter too; it would be a tacit admission that all three of these film sagas are essentially the same story, and the same story for children. They are simple tales evoking a universe which is divided clearly into bad and good, black and white; whose heroes are children (Harry Potter), thinly disguised as children (the Hobbits from the Lord of the Rings), or both children and adults (Star Wars).

This assessment may annoy aficionados of these films, famous for being aggressively protective about their much-loved stories. Cross their paths and you will pay dearly for your insolence. You too will feel the wrath of Darth Vader/Saruman/Lord Voldemort. Yet I will add some caveats. JRR Tolkien was a genius storyteller. His prose is rich yet uncluttered, his universe superbly crafted and his characters flawed (in a good sense). Similarly, Lucas was a wonderful filmmaker in his heyday; not least because he secretly made a movie about the two world wars – with dogfights, trench warfare on Hoth, stormtroopers, baddies with jackboots who only obeyed orders – in which the proverbial ‘Nazis’ actually had British accents. Not even Mel Gibson has managed such a feat (though it is only a matter of time).

So what of Harry Potter? JK Rowling has not really given us anything new, aside from placing her protagonists in an Enid Blyton-esque world of public schools and jolly-hockey-sticks. One cannot blame her. Joanna Rowling is a writer who has to make money, and she had a children’s audience in mind.

But by some monstrous process, millions of adults have become compulsive fans of the Harry Potter books and films. They will tell you what a fantastic, original, story it is, as if they’ve never read a book before in their life. You will see them on the tube, proudly cradling Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (the extra long one), as if it’s bloody Ulysses.

Like the craze for School Disco and Friends Reunited, this trend betrays an infantalisation of today’s adult generation. It is time we resisted this dark force that stalks the galaxy/the Shire/Hogwarts – before we succumb finally to its malignant allure. Redemption is at hand.

  • Trainspotters

The debacle over the planespotters charged by the Greek authorities for spying reminds us that Britain is a nation of nerds. It is tempting to conclude that the plainspotters’ fate is the result of a terrible cultural misunderstanding: Greeks just cannot fathom why grown men should go traipsing the world collecting numbers from the sides of aircraft.

The Greeks should have taken counsel from our nearer neighbours. The French regard a semi-autistic obsession with collecting and collating facts and numbers as a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon trait. They could have told the Greeks that we are a nation of planespotters, trainspotters and pub-quiz bores. It is a peculiarly male thing, too. You never see women at Crewe station with their notepads and camcorders, for instance. Trains will always be a male obsession.

It is therefore no surprise that women account for only three percent of the 1200 applicants to join the body which will oversee Network Rail, the replacement for Railtrack. Even advertisements placed in women’s publications did not help. Network Rail’s record on ‘equal opportunities’ is not impressive, according to The Times (London). It has no women among its 12 directors and 27 industry representatives.

It is only a matter of time before contemporary Britain’s most voracious nerds, the ‘equal opportunities’ lobby, will kick up a fuss about this. We must have quotas in all public bodies, they demand: this much percentage women, that much ethnic minority, of a specific gender orientation, the disabled, etc. There these miserable, meritophobic creatures sit in their sad little offices, minutely going over league tables and percentages, throwing tantrums if the figures are ‘disappointing’ considering that ‘this is the twenty-first century and we all thought we had all moved on from this’.

  • A load of rubbish

It is annoying that our pavements seem to have developed a form of urban measles, thanks to the chewing gum people have been discarding on them for years. Some possible solutions announced by Alun Michael at the Urban Summit in Birmingham last week include banning the sale of gum from shops around schools, and making manufacturers such as Wrigley’s pay extra taxation to fund a national chewing gum clean-up fund.

Nobody believes for a minute that the former proposal will stop children acquiring chewing gum – and the latter seems a little harsh on gum manufacturers. It’s like people blaming McDonald’s for all the litter. They are not responsible for other people’s behaviour, so why punish them? This smacks of another mindless government ‘crackdown’.

Some say the growth in litter is all Thatcher’s fault, because she promoted aggressive individualism and shunned the idea that there was such a thing as society. On the other hand, perhaps we have so much litter because, like the babies we are, we think the state should always clear up after us. Would not it be better to stop tidying up after people and get them not to drop rubbish in the first place?

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics


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