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It’s as if I phoned Springsteen and told him just what he could do with himself and his book

I was shocked to find out how vehemently others could disagree with my opinion.

It’s the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction this week and I’m looking forward to finding out the winner. This time last year I was locked in a room with fellow Baileys judges, so I know how hard it is. The process was a revelation.

I was shocked to find out how vehemently others could disagree with my opinion of a book. We were a friendly and unfailingly polite group, but passionate in defence of the books we loved, and the greatest lesson I learned was that, in the end, it just comes down to a bunch of people in a room trying to agree.

You do your best to accommodate each other, and someone wins, and then the fun starts when other people get cross with you. I imagined the world of literary prizes to be refined and genteel but, believe me, things can get heated. At last year’s award ceremony one of our judges was snarled at by the agent of a writer who’d lost.

Later that year I also judged the Forward Poetry Prize, and our panel, chaired by the fantastic poet Malika Booker, was slagged off in Private Eye for being too right-on and giving prizes to women.

This year I’ve judged the Penderyn Music Book Prize. The announcement of our shortlist was covered in the Guardian under this headline: “Bruce Springsteen is snubbed in wide-ranging selection by judges including Tracey Thorn and Thurston Moore”. I laughed all day at the image this conjured up, of me phoning Springsteen to say, “You know what, Boss? F*** you and your book!”

The coverage is all about turning a prize into a battle, framing the conversation in terms of the books ignored rather than the ones chosen. This year’s Penderyn Music Book is Daniel Rachel’s Walls Come Tumbling Down, which I’ve written about here before, so, instead of ending on a sour note of complaint, I’ll return to what is the joy and the point of prizes, and shine a light on three that made our shortlist.

My personal favourite was This Is Grime by Hattie Collins and Olivia Rose, a respectful portrait of the scene. Told through verbatim accounts by all the main participants, it touches on the context of the music, and so deals with questions of race, religion and gender. Most of all, it’s contemporary where so many music books nowadays are historical, and a record of what may prove to be the last underground, subcultural music movement as we would recognise it. The story of a modern blues, lovingly put together by two women – what more could you want?

Also great is Brix Smith Start’s The Rise, the Fall, and the Rise. She has a wealth of anecdotes about Mark E Smith and the Fall which make her book enormously entertaining, so much of what makes good music writing being just this – having new stories to tell. Her viewpoint is that of the outsider: an American in England and a woman in the world of indie music. The scenes where Mark E Smith first introduces her to his beloved Manchester are priceless. At his flat, she is puzzled by the apparent absence of a fridge:

“Where do you keep your milk?” I asked.

“Out the window,” Mark said.

“What do you mean, ‘out the window’?”

Mark pushed open the sooty window at the back of the kitchen to reveal a cement ledge where perched precariously were a small bottle of milk, a pack of Danish back bacon, a carton of eggs and a loaf of Hovis white bread.

And finally, I’m Not With the Band by Sylvia Patterson. This is an idiosyncratic, iconoclastic take on the music business. Intercut with details of her own life, it is also a story of someone struggling to stay afloat in a chaotic world.

She is very good at chronicling the rise of celebrity culture and its increasing toxicity. I’ll leave you with this quotation, from when she’s trying to come to terms with the sensibleness of artists such as Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift: “The kids are still alright. They’re just absolutely nothing like the olden days kids. Which is exactly as it’s always been, forever. Whether we old bastards like it or not.” 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 08 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special

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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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