In the Critics this Week

Philip Pullman on the Anglican tradition, misunderstanding what it means to be secular and commentar

The "Critic at large" in this week's New Statesman, Philip Pullman, explains what it means to be a "Church of England atheist". Asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the magazine's guest editor this week, to define his relationship to religion, Pullman redefines himself according to what David Eagleman calls a "possibilian", writing that "just because I haven't seen or heard from him, it doesn't mean that God doesn't exist." But despite his lack of belief in a higher authority, Pullman writes that it is his cultural experience of being brought up in the Church of England tradition that helps to define his sense of self. "I am English and I was brought up to go to church every Sunday, to say my prayers, to behave in certain ways in church... We can't abandon these early memories, by which I mean both that it's impossible and that it would be wrong."

Film Critic Ryan Gilbey praises director François Ozon's sense of comedy and subtle thoughtfulness in his latest film, Potiche, where an unglamorous Catherine Deneuve shines as an overlooked housewife. "With its 1970s factory-floor settind and battle-of-the-sexes themse, the picture may resemble for UK viewers a visually sumptuous version of Carry On at Your Convenience". "Ozon has made an authentic romp with an underlying prickliness," he writes, "[this film] is candyfloss laced with barbed wire."

The Books Interview this week is with Cees Nooteboom. The Dutch author talks to Duncan Robinson about the cathartic nature of writing and discusses how his work has evolved since he wrote his first novel at the age of 22. Terry Eagleton offers his thoughts on what it means to be secular as he reviews a new collection of essays, The Joy of Secularism, edited by George Levine and published by Princeton University Press. "Most recent defences of secularism, not least those produced by "Ditchens" (Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens), have been irate, polemical affairs, powered by a crude species off-the-peg, reach-me-down Enlightenment," he writes, "This present collection of essays, by contrast is a much less fiercely contested affair...Indeed, the blandness of some of the book's contributors could benefit form a judicious dose of Hitchens-like waspishness."

Elsewhere, the NS's television critic, Rachel Cooke, is captivated by Case Histories, a new detective drama set in Edinburgh and based on Kate Atkinson's crime novels. Will Self comments on the mass irrationality that is perpetuating the senseless conflict in Afghanistan, and radio critic Antonia Quirke sharpens her claws to take a dig at Radio 1Xtra's Tim Westwood. "I suppose we're talking about a natural process here, this movement from "Oh God, that man's such a twat" to "proud to be a twat" to "loveable twat" to "national treasure"...It's a very British idea", she writes "But Westwood? Somebody stop the wheel."

Further reviews and comment: the New Statesman's culture editor Jonathan Derbyshire reviews Graham Swift's latest novel, Wish You Were Here, Helen Lewis-Hasteley talks to Alan Moore about his epic novel, Jerusalem, and Maurice Glasman explain why politicians shouldn't take David Brooks so seriously as he review his newest book, The Social Animal: a Story of How Success Happens, which offers a "readable presentation of research findings from the fields of behavioural and cognitive psychology, as well as neuroscience, and also guide to how to become a better person."

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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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