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For only the third time in my life I whimper: “No more, no more”

I have only, to my recall, met two people who can outpace me, drink for drink, and they happen to be Hunter S Thompson and Christopher Hitchens.

It is the day after my birthday. Around various parts of my body, there are murmurs and alarums, as if assorted parts of a large structure were collapsing; like the explosions that tear through a Bond villain’s complex, only more subdued and with a soundtrack of whimpering.

I had thought that hangovers could no longer surprise me; indeed, that they were – given that most of the time I can get up when I please – no longer much of a problem. Sleep is a marvellous cure.

This was before I met K——. Readers with good memories may remember that about a year ago I became host to a becoming young dog named Trude, who regards the Hovel as an olfactory goldmine and, in effect, her second home. “I like it here,” she said with every pant, scampering up and down the steps for the sheer joy of it. K—— is her owner. I met her a month or so before the Dog Column was published. We’d met for lunch on the grounds that she preferred to meet people in real life before she became “friends” with them on a certain social medium.

When she waved at me from the other side of the pub I noted, with some dismay, that she was rather better-looking than her profile picture, which at the time served only to highlight my own age and ugliness. I braced myself for an awkward lunch, laced with pity on one side and shame on the other, to be finished as soon as was consonant with decency and politeness, if I was lucky.

We finally parted company after 48 hours, and that largely because we had separate prearranged appointments. We had, apparently, one or two points in common. Naturally I hoped Something Would Come Of It, and for a while it looked as though something might have been on the cards, but it was not to be. Still, we would meet up from time to time and I would spend the next day staggering from my bed to the kettle at four in the afternoon, holding my hand over my eyes and saying, “Jesus.” One time the offspring came round and found me in, as it were, a distressed state, and I had to say: “Children, I’ve met my match.”

I have only, to my recall, met two people who can outpace me, drink for drink, and they happen to be Hunter S Thompson and Christopher Hitchens. “Who drank all my goddam whisky?” roared the former at about four in the morning at Owl Farm. It was more or less a rhetorical question, because I was the only other person in the room, and also rather nervous, hence my putting the stuff away.

As for Christopher Hitchens, he only excused himself from my kitchen in Shepherd’s Bush at about seven in the morning, as he had to go to the BBC studios to review the Sunday papers on Breakfast With Frost. (Naturally, he looked fresh as a daisy.)

Anyway, I like to think that I am fairly hardened to alcoholic refreshment, and, indeed, some people forget this, suffering when they match me. But with K—— it is I who puts his hand over his glass in the small hours, saying, “No more, sweet heavens, no more.” (My mother calls K—— “Whisky Voice”, not because she slurs her words, but because her voice bears the traces of the many thousands of cigarettes she consumes in the course of an evening.) How does K—— maintain her youthful looks and flawless complexion? Does she bathe in milk, or the blood of virgins? I wouldn’t put it past her.

So the day before my birthday, as I am digesting the official confirmation of the bad news that I have been hinting at for the past week or two, I am officially in a funk and cowering under the bedclothes when I get a call from K——. I do not answer. I get another one. Also, I do not answer. I am in no mood to see anyone, I say in a text, not even you, not even Trude. I just want to be alone and read a book. And I want to see no one on my birthday. Pereat mundus, I think to myself. Let the world perish.

But K—— is a force of nature, as you might have gathered, and as far as she is concerned, the more I say “Don’t come”, the more she decides she must. I give in. What else can I do? She knows where I live. And about half an hour later she is here with pizzas, wine and a dog, who hasn’t been to visit for a while and whose tail is wagging so fast that it is actually a blur.

So, 45 hours later, I type this, shaking slightly and feeling a bit jaundiced, alone again but rather less miserable. It’s nice to know who one’s friends are. 

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 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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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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