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

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses