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i love the smell of quidditch in the morning: laurie penny in trafalgar square

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This is ridiculous:

Harry Potter is also a business, and like any business, it is protected by large men in uniform. In Trafalgar Square, private security guards in lurid orange high-vis jackets step through the crowd, clashing with the glowering green decorations Warner has laid on for the event. The security guards stand firm at the gates to make sure no undesirables get in, shooing around clusters of quiet young people in pyjamas and sleeping bags, as if professional heavies have been dispatched to ensure everyone gets to bed on time.

Tell me Penny’s not actually tonally and thematically blurring together the student demonstrations and, um, a fucking Harry Potter premier? Children’s Revolution indeed. “In a chimeric clash of cultural signifiers, one young man with dreadlocks has accessorised a grubby green Che Guevara hoodie with a Gryffindor scarf.” Um, right. Watch, it gets worse:

Harry Potter, however, was always about far more than trade-marked tat. As a light rain begins to fall, young people who were strangers a few days ago huddle together under umbrellas and makeshift canopies, sharing midnight snacks and curling with torches around chunky copies of The Deathly Hallows, like the last, best sleepover of adolescence. “It’s just so friendly here,” say two Belgian teenagers in matching raincoats. “When we arrived in London, we didn’t know where we were supposed to go, but then we spotted some people in Gryffindor scarves, and we followed them, and now we’re friends. People are brought together by Harry Potter.” There is an atmosphere of innocence here that is utterly bewitching. “It’s like the best parts of fandom come to life,” says my friend, and we find ourselves staying far longer than we planned. Nobody wants to go to bed. Nobody wants the magic to end.

It’s a veritable Tahir Square of adolescent friendliness! Tonight “we are beautiful. Nothing can stop us”… from writing yet another “generational” article that sprays a damned kid movie premier with tear gas, just as she’s already coated the demonstrations with a thick coat of made-for-tv romantic drama. The adjectives and adverbs begin to flow like the blood of overly-kettled schoolchildren through the streets:

The next morning, Trafalgar Square is completely shut down, with screaming fans lining every sun-drenched road. The noise is incredible. Schoolgirls cluster as politely as possible to catch a glimpse of their favourite characters, chanting the names ecstatically when the stars appear on the enormous screens.

As if things aren’t exciting enough, before too long it starts to get all Riefenstahl on Laurie:

Many of the fans have drawn wobbly spectacles and lightning scars onto their faces as they shout in chorus, and I am reminded of Christopher Hitchens’ observation that the lightning-bolt on the forehead was also the symbol of Oswald Mosley’s fascists. Fanaticism, however twee, is always disturbing.

Eventually, she ties the knot and brings the one and the other together. Good thing she’s definitely not making the most viable student movement in generations look absolutely ridiculous:

Over the past six months, several groups of students and schoolchildren who attempted to camp out in Trafalgar Square for less Potter-specific reasons were all evicted by police. On the 26 March, I was here when 200 young protesters, mostly school pupils who had gathered for a picnic after the TUC demonstration, were kettled for hours in the freezing cold. Nathan Akehurst, 18, was also there. “A riot cop pointed his baton at me, and I don’t know why, but I grabbed whatever was in my hand – a water bottle, I think it was – and I shouted: ‘Expelliarmus!’. The policeman just laughed.”

I’ll bet he did. Christ, I’ve spoken about how refreshing it was that the occupations weren’t stacked with beanbag chairs and incense sticks, but I think I’d actually take a Bertolucci inspired Parisian-redux to this. It’s called, you know, journalistic condescension, even if it’s posing as yet another bizarre Laurie’s-liberal-lifestyle piece:

Harry Potter is not just a corporate racket, or a cheesy public-school fantasy in clunky prose. It’s also about decency, and fairness, and courage. That’s why young anti-cuts protesters carried placards declaring themselves members of ‘Dumbledore’s Army’. This particular fairy tale is coming to an end just as young people are learning that sometimes good does not automatically triumph. Sometimes the stupidest, meanest adults wind up in charge, and they can’t be defeated simply by going on a quest to destroy Horcruxes, or finding an unbeatable wand.

Ah, so the kids really are as stupid as they’ve been made out to be, as you can see by the turn to free indirect, sub-normal babytalk in the last line.

Goddamn internet. No getting away from UK hackery, even if it’s now for the moment on its backfoot. Whatever there is to say about the NYT, and there’s a lot to be said to be sure, at least serious papers in America wouldn’t touch this crap with a pole the length of the north Atlantic.

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July 13, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Posted in such as it is

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  1. Good post!

    I actually think it’s only a matter of time before Trafalgar Square is permanently given over to privatised spectacles such as this big Potter get-together… I couldn’t help thinking that it seemed a crafty coincidence on the last march that the square had become a Canada theme-park for Canada day, thus making it even more impossible for anyone to attempt an ‘occupation.’ I could imagine this becoming a regular thing at subsequent protests – Boris and the Met saying “quick, let’s screen Harry Potter movies back to back in the square, that’ll distract the young radicals and give us good reason to nick anyone who disrupts it…”

    On a different tangent, I’d say 50% of my creative writing students have had their imaginations permanently damaged by the combined powers of Disney and Potter. I have to wade through endless sub-Potter parodies (which, seeing as Potter was a postmodern mash-up anyway, shows us just how derivative our pop culture has become)… but now I see the Potter virus has even infected wannabe feminist-Marxists. LPs absurd piece reduces left-wing student politics to just another fantasy, a delusion as pronounced as the idea we can all become wizards. I wonder how long it will be before she sets aside her leftist stance, just as she set aside her Potter books, with a sigh and some sadness and starts advocating a more mature capitalist-realist position. She does like quoting Hitchens after all…


    July 13, 2011 at 2:49 pm

  2. Sure, blame it all on the Canadians then! But yes, Trafalgar Square is an interesting location, isn’t it? I’m going to write something for Frieze soon (v. soon, actually, have to get researching) about the “new” urban geographies of protest, and your point may make an appearance.

    But yeah, I know what you mean about the Potter books and the distorted imaginations of the current crop. Whatever happened to Kerouac etc for adolescents? Whatever the obvious problems with it, bet you’d rather read Beat inspired stuff from your students.

    I wonder how long it will be before she sets aside her leftist stance, just as she set aside her Potter books, with a sigh and some sadness and starts advocating a more mature capitalist-realist position. She does like quoting Hitchens after all…

    Yep. That’s what I’ve been saying for a bit. And this Indy piece looks like an index that some sort of tipping point has been or is being reached.


    July 13, 2011 at 3:29 pm

  3. WTF? Is it just me, or did public ‘punditry’ become officially deranged around 2003? There was no shortage of bullshit during the cold war, but Jesus – at least it was grounded in real conflicts. Not entertainment for eight year-olds with cardboard wands.

    First they came for the Harry Potter fanclub – and Laurie spoke out!


    July 13, 2011 at 3:31 pm

  4. There is something a wee bit wrong with UK punditry, yes. LP’s rise is an index of that.


    July 13, 2011 at 3:32 pm

  5. “Whatever happened to Kerouac etc for adolescents? Whatever the obvious problems with it, bet you’d rather read Beat inspired stuff from your students.”

    Exactly! When I was a teenager I avidly read Kerouac and the Beats. Also Dostoyevsky and the European existentialists. Sartre, Camus, de Beavoir. I’d read Rimbaud and Baudelaire in translation and then in French and dream of being in Paris when it was still cool. Even Henry Miller. These, I thought, were the real rebels and an antidote to all the Austen they made me read in school (I’m not dissing Austen, btw, it’s just not something 15yr old boys enjoy). These authors had sex, drugs, serious angst and (sometimes) viable political positions. Not to mention good prose. I really wish my students would quit the fairy tales and read something just a little bit more real!!


    July 13, 2011 at 3:41 pm

  6. On balance, and I know this might be a controversial position, I’d prefer reading Rowling to Keroauc. So the Beats might (still) be the top literary heroes for teenage boys – doesn’t mean On The Road, Dharma Bums, et al aren’t poorly written, misogynist piles of shite. At least Rowling has a smart, fiesty female lead character.

    Having worked in bookstores for the majority of years that the Potter books were being published, reading them was a bit inevitable. And in my experience, the Potter demographic was early primary school (5-8 years olds), and lower teens (11-14). Students handing in essays now clearly influenced by Potter are, more likely than not, drawing upon their earlier, foundational reading experiences. Also, the first three really were sold on word of mouth. The machine didn’t crank until Warner Bros got involved around the time of book four, from memory. That’s when, in the bookstores, we started having queues and publication embargoes and blah bah.

    Point taken that the Potter books are derivative. I’m not defending their pop-cultural hegemony. And LP’s painfully laboured prose does nothing but infantilise the student protests. But in and of their own right, the books are not your enemy. Their time will doubtless pass. And so will the Beats, who were never half so damn revolutionary as they liked to think they were.


    July 13, 2011 at 7:02 pm

  7. Also, Kalat, your distinction between “fairy tales” and “real” literature is not particularly helpful. The realm of fairy tales – Grimm Brothers, Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Anderson, Pushkin’s anthologies of Russian stories, etc etc – can be a rich and rewarding one. Yes, even for adults.


    July 13, 2011 at 7:06 pm

  8. Well, yeah – that’s probably a necessary corrective. Probably some nostalgia for the good old days of my own adolescence that weren’t really all that good. TBH – I’ve never read the Harry Potter books, and have only seen I think the first of the movies.

    And we’re agreed on the quality and problems of Kerouac.

    Having said that, I can empathise with Kalat’s position w/r/t the productions of his students. It must be a bit rough reading all those derivatives of Rowling. But yes, we were both being a bit reductive and unhelpful there…


    July 13, 2011 at 7:25 pm

  9. Hi Anwyn

    I would agree that Grimm Brothers, Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Anderson, Pushkin’s anthologies of Russian stories are literature and that fairy tales are important archetypal texts of great meaning and power. Alas, a lot of my students have only apprehended these stories through Disney or otherwise diluted populist interpretations. A great many want to write teen fiction in a Potterish or Twilight mode… but this is mainly because they have only read these texts and very little else… maybe absorbing a little Austen and Forster via various movie adaptions. If only some had read a little Kerouac!

    Re Kerouac, I have a love/hate relationship. I went seriously off him after I’d read all his books – especially after the spontaenous prose drivel of the later works. But having taught ‘On The Road’ for several years, I’ve come to appreciate and love that book for many reasons, particularly his account of their trip to Mexico…


    July 13, 2011 at 8:22 pm

  10. oh, and I should confess I’ve drawn on children’s literature in my own work, rewriting Peter Pan for my first novel, so I’m certainly not denigrating children’s lit or fantasy at all, nor attempts to write in those forms.


    July 13, 2011 at 8:36 pm

  11. Glad we cleared that up. And I should have added – Angela Carter. Also, like ads I sympathise with your plight re: having to mark loads of Twilight/Potter rip-offs. I know that part of my hostility to the Beats has been brought about because, as a poet, I’m just about ready to stick forks into my eyeballs every time I have to endure another puffed-up, post-adolescent young man reading his seventh-rate Ginsberg imitations in public. Lord spare me…


    July 13, 2011 at 9:47 pm

  12. So Sulzberger was playing golf with the head of the CIA but at least the prose was better. I understand what motivates a person to make this argument, but I think it’s a bit silly.


    July 14, 2011 at 2:01 am

    • Is it your sense that these British papers are somehow politically better than the American ones? I strongly disagree – they all basically suck politically, if each in their own way.


      July 14, 2011 at 1:55 pm

  13. – Did you notice that she used DC comics as her source for French Revolutionary history? Honestly – The Sandman “Thermidor”, more twee conservative chauvinist titilation, is taken as reliable historiography, and the cartoon villain Saint-Just is quoted as if he were the historical Jacobin, deployed by Penny in another typically adolescent exhibition of her angry grasp of the obvious sexism and elitism of the “grown up” (can’t say “adult”) corporate news media.

    – Harry Potter is not about fairness, it’s a “Bible of marketing”:

    Although many viewers may be tempted to dismiss Harry Potter as a passing marketing fad, yet another in a long line of pre-teen obsessions, it is precipitate to do so. Apart from the inspiration that many cutting edge management commentators are drawing from kiddie culture, Harry Potter is particularly pertinent to the contemporary marketing condition. The books, after all, are as much about marketing as the outcome of marketing. They deal with marketing matters, they are replete with marketing arttifacts, they contain analyses of marketplace phenomena, and they hold the solution to an ancient marketing mystery. The books are not merely a marketing masterpiece, they are a marketing master-class. Stephen Brown, in the Journal of Marketing

    HP novels hallow and teach the marketing of crap, and the brand executes. It’s a massive merchandising effort using proven successful fasho-colonialist sexist, racist themes and reactionary loops of anxiety prods and consolations. These are fables of the kampf of the born elect master race, which is all white, and a divinely ordained white male saviour, to purify the social order through annihilation of the alien. The social order requiring this exterminating protector is served to the vulnerable child audience and their infantilised elders of bad faith with “retrolutionary” nostalgia for an imagined enchanted idealised all-white merry olde England where this master race is served (and loved and admired) by a biologically inferior slave race. In this cherished wholesome and authentically Great British past/present, Advertising=Truth. Penny is now hawking this stuff, but the important thing here is it made her, with Aaron Sorkin. Thiese culture commodities produced the infantilised young woman who giggles on the radio with her supposed right wing adversary about bombing Libya, and is sure Britain is “great” and would have been as great if not “greater” had there never been an Empire. Harry Potter and the rest of the commodity cuture with which she was inundated in her impressionable years, and which was pitched to flatter her race, national and class solipsism, has given Penny the worldview which permits her to champion imperial slaughter as a civilising and salvation mission.

    HP could not be more reactionary, as to content. As to its concrete totality, a massive capitalist enterprise, a massive machine of exploitation and accumulation, Penny seems to consider this insignificant in comparison to how good consuming the sense-stimulating emotion-manipulation-massaging product makes her and her fellow fans in the rich core feel, how innocent, pure, righteous and full of wonder.

    The hypocrisy is staggering to people over a certain age, but the contradictory sermonising – scathing denouncements and vilification of other people’s depraved shopping and consumption as “complicity with capitalism” and passionate defences of big brands (led by big media – News Corp, Time Warner) one loves as wholesome radical revolutionary solidarity – seems to be entirely normal and acceptable to the younguns. The media as the message has accomplished that natuiralisation of the fragmentation of discourse, rationality, subjectivity.


    July 14, 2011 at 3:28 am

    • Is very hard not to see most or all of that in the HP franchise, yes. Seems to me some sort of New Labour Newish Middle Class aspirationalism, giving these things to British kids to read, what with all the jacket patches and the like. And yes, eliding that has something to do with what LP elides (as you mention) about the history of her own country.


      July 14, 2011 at 1:57 pm

  14. As a student (or, to be more accurate, a recent graduate, seemingly on the road to a Starbucks-centered existence, stuck either behind the counter or paying the coffee-tax to write in a chair), I am a wee bit uncomfortable with some of the assumptions laid-out above.

    In reference to references, and whatever-rate imitations of young writers’ sources — I can sympathize with some of the frustrations of reading Potter-inspired fanfic drivel. I TAed poetry workshops for undergrads and high-school students, and, yes, much of the work presented was derivative. But I think this is something young writers simply do. No? I can’t especially say the more advanced workshops I participated in were especially better; the boys imitated Dean Young, or James Galvin, or Ashbery or Berryman — the girls imitated Plath, Stein, Gluck, etc. (interesting that it broke down so much by gender, but so it seems to run in poetry). I tended toward imitating the oulippians and more contemporary figures (Clover, Reddy, Schiff, Sutherland), but, being honest, for the first few years, it was strictly elementary-school copy exercises, penning the cursive S on my grid paper. Influences have to be written out of the system, and I’m not so sure having any greater or lesser early masters really matters in that regard. What would you have students do, master writing Beat prose? Is that useful? More to me the notion of beat-influence-as-superior-to-Potter-influence implies some idea of contemporary lineage, which seems inaccurate today.

    As for the hegemony of Rowling, things get a bit more complex.

    * I think ads has it exactly right, labeling the Potter series specifically as middle-class aspirationalism. I’d go further and suggest it’s mostly a reflection of worldview, and the myths of a-a capitalist society. When students my age talk about HP, a topic that consistently comes up is which of the “houses” a person would be placed in, were they to suddenly enter the world of the novel. These houses are based, seemingly, on personality traits: either one is “brave”, or bookish, or nice, or cunning. They reflect class distinctions quite clearly: the white middle-class as the hard-working, courageous protagonists, the wealthy as backstabbing individualists, the poor as harmless plebeians with hearts of gold. They are romanticizations. But they are distinctions by choice: by sheer force of personality (or enough pleading with the Sorting Hat), an individual can choose which class to belong too. In other words, the Potter series most strongly perpetuates the myth of the meritocracy. A meritocracy in which the social order is the fault not of social organization itself, but personal failure or success; a meritocracy of stability. This is where I would most strongly agree that–apart from its obvious status as cultural distraction–the Potter series is anti-revolutionary. Oh and also the part where the homogeneous world of the enlightened academy bands together against a mutant Other from outside its borders. That too.

    * Where I would question more the dubiousness or counter-productiveness of such a large cultural movement as the HP series is that, structurally, it seems to resemble the kind of mass organization or organism that is necessary for social change. While I see your general point about its opiate effects re:student demonstrations, I’m less sure of the negative effects, at least stateside. I participated in workers’ rights demonstrations in my student days, but rarely did we approach even 50 people there at one time, much less thousands; among my generation, organizing for Potter is probably the largest single group of people in one place for one objective any one of us have experienced. Of course I’m writing from the US, where we don’t have something like the student protests of last year in the UK, so over here there’s no real/existing mass-movement to be co-opted. And of course there’s something to be said for the capitalist immune system, incorporating the strengths of the opposition, etc etc. So it may not be positive on the whole, I can see the potential truth of that. But there is something to be said for identifying with a crowd despite class difference, race difference, etc, that I think lends itself to revolutionary activity.


    July 17, 2011 at 5:11 am

  15. Gryffindor: “the white middle-class as the hard-working, courageous protagonists”
    Slytherin: “the wealthy as backstabbing individualists”
    Hufflepuff: “the poor as harmless plebeians with hearts of gold”
    Ravenclaw: ???

    Also: this.


    July 17, 2011 at 10:49 am

    • Yes Im being a bit 1:1 here, aren’t I? I’m never sure what to do with Ravenclaw in sweeping theories about the Potterverse; it’s tempting to label them some sort of intelligentsia, but it’s a more favorable view of academia than is usually seen in populist depictions…


      July 18, 2011 at 1:49 am

    • I think a lot of people give her too much ‘young and dopey’ credit. She’s now emerging with old-skool tabloid maneuvres. Particularly nauseating when she plays fragile babe-in-the-wood after getting called out for cheap character assassinations (and lies) in the national press.

      Strangely muted about News Corp, though. Career plans, perhaps?

      Oops – cheap, lazy snark. Don’t want join the misogynisthomophobictransphobictory ‘bullies’. I’ll save it for when she gets thrown in jail for a victimless crime. Until then, I’ll just let her lecture me on the ‘feminism’ that she invented a couple of years ago.

      Solidarity and all that…


      July 18, 2011 at 2:20 pm

      • Well, yeah she seems to be appearing on Sky News now, therefore…. Her reaction to the Hari thing was interesting as well. This odd charge that there was rampant homophobia appearing on twitter in reaction to the revelation of plagiarism when… well, there wasn’t any that I could find.

        This is about the third time she’s had to circle the wagons, promise to change this that and the other, make public apologies, all within the first few months of her journalistic career proper… What does that tell you?


        July 18, 2011 at 3:48 pm

      • It tells you to always take screenshots, for one…


        July 18, 2011 at 4:19 pm

      • Yeah, that’s absolutely right…


        July 18, 2011 at 4:21 pm

  16. Turns out the whole Harry Potter generation thing might have had something in it after all –

    Tigre en Papier

    July 17, 2011 at 10:13 pm

  17. Yeah I saw the Hari thing – she didn’t say much about his war fever, recanting his views when it was all too late, but keeping up appearances with some righteous Islamophobia. Any criticism I saw of Holy Hari was of his sanctimoniousness, his bias, his lying, his plagiarism and his hypocrisy. She was testing out her own defense strategies, I suppose. Maybe her next column will chide us for hating Rebekah Brooks. She was just trying to make a splash in the macho world of tabloid racketeering, after all.

    Penny’s dishing out more apologies than David Cameron lately. Maybe instead of saying sorry all the time, she should try not doing it in the first place.

    A fragile, inept, corrupt, unpopular government is crumbling before our very eyes. Yet somehow a fog of enabling bullshit still cushions them. With widespread mistrust of right-wing media, now a of it is now coming from the Left. The kind of Left who think the ‘war’ is between socialist Harry Potter and capitalist Beyonce. Revolution in your Amazon basket.


    July 18, 2011 at 4:32 pm

  18. Ha ha, great post(s) Kasper… I agree entirely!


    July 19, 2011 at 12:09 pm

  19. […] of Harry Potter to the Tottenham riots seem less farfetched, I recommend readers to first peruse this. As well, this is the longest essay I have yet published, at around 3000 words, so I humbly request […]

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