JK Rowling keeps Harry Potter fans guessing over next venture

The mystery surrounding Rowling's next move is almost as exciting as the thing itself

JK Rowling has a new... something. We don't know exactly what it is, just yet -- we'll find out at 11am tomorrow -- but it's already started getting fans of the Harry Potter author stirred up.

The one thing we know for sure is that Pottermore isn't a new book -- that's the only steer that's been given by Rowling's people. Speculation is rife as to what it might be -- the long-awaited Potter universe encyclopedia, for example, possibly a roleplaying game played across social media, or some other treat sure to delight millions of fans.

That it isn't a new book is something that catches the mainstream out a bit. If not a book, or a film, then what is it? Those kind of things are easy to write about and understand, or present to readers you don't think are as clever as you are... but a socially networked roleplaying experience? That's something that's not quite so tangible, so easy to describe, so straightforward to boil down into its component parts. Which is probably for the best: after the Potter books, it makes sense for Rowling to bring her talents to something innovative rather than something expected.

Pottermore's holding page doesn't reveal much, with two owls staring out at the viewer and Rowling's signature promising something "coming soon"... and that's about it. The 25 other owls sitting in branches at Rowling's YouTube page, which appears when you click on the holding page, aren't giving the game away either.

With such little information to go on, every single detail is being analysed and re-analysed. Are the numbers, 0.09 of 1.13, of any significance, for example? One poster at the Potter forum Chamber of Secrets attempts to decode the numbers on the page, saying: "Date is 4th February, which is when Septimius Severus died. Plus, the timer says 0:09/1:13 -- and 9/1, or January 9th, is Severus Snape's birthday. Also, in some areas, 9/1 means 1 September, the first day of school at Hogwarts. The year of 2013 could indicate the beginning of the next generation at school."

It could mean that. It could mean nothing, of course, but the delay from the June 15 announcement that there would be an announcement has left a neat little void for the excitement and speculation to fill -- exactly the kind of thing that has set forums and online communities buzzing about what it could be, and where Rowling is going to take her millions of fans next.

The uncertainty is tantalising. One Potter expert who has seen behind the curtain of Pottermore says "it is breathtaking in scope, detail and sheer beauty". And that's at the heart of this social media success: it's a genuine mystery. Just as the charm of the Potter book releases came from the details of the plot being kept strictly secret, so this latest venture, whatever it is, has the virtue of being an unknown quantity.

The announcement will be huge -- that much is guaranteed by who it is coming from and what it is about -- but it has already gathered significant momentum, without needing a big push from the mainstream. I find this all rather refreshing when compared to the business of how information is usually handed out -- most of the time, when a press conference takes place, everyone attending has already read the press release, filed a piece in advance and is entirely aware of what's going to happen; often, the details are leaked so it can turn up in newspapers' first editions.

This time, though, we really don't know. And that's keeping the magic alive.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide