Midsummer revelry at Stonehenge. Photo: Getty
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My nerves can’t cope with three random midsummer encounters in the space of 15 seconds

I’d long planned to go up to the Heath on Midsummer Night to frolic under the stars.

Midsummer’s Day was unusual. That’s good: a usual day, these days, involves lying in bed all day wondering when I’m going to tidy up the bedroom enough so I can let the cleaning lady have a go at it without me dying of shame or her resigning in disgust. When you don’t have a lady friend in situ you tend to let things slide a little bit, and your motto changes from “Excelsior!” to “What’s the sodding point?”, only with a more passionate qualifier than “sodding”.

I’d long planned to go up to the Heath on Midsummer Night to frolic under the stars. The last time I had a proper midsummer bacchanalia was when my fellow columnist Mr William Self arranged for a bonfire party on the beach near Sizewell, just round the corner from where he was living at the time. This was all very nice but I’d had to stay up half the night on the evening before, condensing The Tempest into a 15-minute playlet because he wanted us to perform it. (It took a lot longer than I thought it would, but I like to think I turned out a pretty good version.) This time all I was going to do was lie on my back or walk through the woods, with a friend, or rather more than one friend, as I did not want to be mistaken for the kind of person who goes up to Hampstead Heath in the middle of the night for one purpose only. (I am reminded of the wonderful letter in Viz which complained that gay men, going to the Heath for an encounter, could have their spirits uplifted in the knowledge that there was a small but distinct chance they would run into George Michael; whereas there is no public space on earth where a heterosexual man can go in the expectation, however small, that he’ll run into, say, Angelina Jolie.)

So I am to go with my old friend John Moore; a couple of his friends, both women, will be joining us later. En route to my rendezvous I drop in on my old friend C—, who presses upon me one of those cigarettes which, by a curious anomaly, are perfectly legal in Colorado but, thanks to the stupidity and ignorance of successive British governments since 1928, illegal here.

I have noticed on more than one occasion that it is only when one is enjoying the effects of such a cigarette that Providence decides to throw you rather more than your allotted share of odd occurrences. If paranoia is said to be a side effect, then that might be because you have something to be paranoid about. So when an enormous shaven-headed man accosted me on the northbound platform of the Northern Line at King’s Cross, I at first wondered whether my time had come, and the various people and organisations I owe money to had clubbed together and decided that assassination was the only way forward.

“Excuse me for bothering you,” he said politely, “but from the way you’re dressed” – it is a warm day, and I am wearing my summer plumage of white linen – “you look as though you might know what’s happened in the cricket.”

As it happened, I did, and was in the middle of an involved account of how exactly England had got to 318 for 6 against Sri Lanka, when someone else tapped me on the shoulder. Jesus Christ, I thought, this is it! Mr Shaven Head was just a diversion. But it turned out to be Noah, a friend of my daughter’s, who had recently befriended me on Facebook. He once broke a string on my guitar while he was playing it so I made him restring the whole thing; as it’s a 12-string semi-acoustic, this takes about three hours. Had he been stalking me so he could push me on to the tracks in revenge? No, he wanted to thank my daughter for having driven him and his film crew to Wales.

By the time I got to the pub I had more or less recovered from two random human encounters on the Tube in 15 seconds, but was still jittery. As I sipped my pint a young man in a football shirt asked if I would take a picture of him and his friends. As I held the camera up, he asked: “Er . . . are you Nicholas Lezard?”

My usual impulse when asked this is to say “no”, for reasons hinted at above, but instead I said “yes”, cautiously. It turned out that he was a fan of this column; and he even had a copy of this magazine, open at this page, which he took out of his bag for me to sign.

Which has more or less made my year, to be honest, but Philip, if you’re reading this: you nearly gave me a sodding heart attack.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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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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