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After ten days alone, only The xx at Brixton Academy can make me feel normal again

Very quickly, it becomes clear that loneliness doesn’t suit me.

I’ve been on my own for the past ten days. I mean, there’s a 15-year-old in the house with me, and a 19-year-old, too, but teenagers live in their bedrooms, emerging only occasionally to announce that they’ve gone vegetarian, or want a Pink Floyd poster, so they’re not much in the way of company. And it doesn’t take long before I start to feel that I’ve become a slightly different person, that I’ve changed or reverted to type. I get a glimpse of the person I’d be if I were alone all the time.

I rattle around the house and I don’t sit in my normal corner seat of the sofa watching telly: I sit at the kitchen table instead and watch it on my laptop, and at night I creep back into the rumpled sheets of the unmade bed, refilling the impression I made last night. And like Joni said, “The bed’s too big/The frying pan’s too wide”.

Ben usually keeps up a constant soundtrack in the house, which is fine by me, a perk of living with a DJ, but now I’m in charge. I listen to Roxy Music, and Solange, and Elastica, and Liza Minnelli, and then I start on Rickie Lee Jones, and remember being a teenager listening to Pirates, always with a cigarette in my mouth, and when that’s done I watch the eight-hour O J Simpson documentary, and Mean Streets, and then Catastrophe, and then I sit up late reading The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson.

Twenty years ago I wrote a song called “Single” in which I asked myself: “And how am I without you?/Am I more myself or less myself?/I feel younger, louder/Like I don’t always connect . . .” I wonder the same things now. There’s a strangeness about being on your own, the sense that you are an odder person than you realised. Being in company, or with a partner much of the time, involves constant tiny adjustments and compromises, moments when you subtly shift in order to fit in with someone else. Your edges get smoothed off. You mirror each other and become more alike, which makes you feel normal. But when there’s no one to notice what you’re doing, or eating, or drinking or watching, and you can make all your own choices, you wonder whether your choices are weird.

In her book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone Olivia Laing writes about how loneliness makes people hypervigilant about social threat, always on the lookout for rudeness and rejection, which inevitably leads to lonely people becoming more isolated and suspicious. “What this means is that the lonelier a person gets, the less adept they become at navigating social currents. Loneliness grows around them, like mould or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact . . .”

That isn’t going to happen to me in ten days, I realise, but on the other hand I can sense very quickly the creeping isolation that comes upon you. You can feel not just odd, but invisible. As I sang in “Single”, “. . . if no one calls and I don’t speak all day,/Do I disappear?”

I don’t want to disappear and I don’t want loneliness to grow around me like fur, so after a few days I kick against it, and decide that the antidote is going out. I go walking with one friend, and have coffee with another, and dinner with three more, and then go to see The xx at Brixton Academy. It proves to be the perfect evening. Their songs revolve endlessly around the difficulties inherent in bonding with other people, trusting and believing, loving and being loved.

Everything about them hints at isolation: unshowy on stage, they look a little lost in the lights and mirrors, Romy’s guitar lines inhabit an empty, echoey space, and images of loneliness recur – “I can’t hold on/To an empty space”, “I go to those places where we used to go/They seem so quiet now/I’m here, all alone”.

They capture something specific about human awkwardness, especially during that youthful phase when you’re all elbows and feelings, but their music luxuriates in the experience, and out of it all they create a kind of desolate euphoria, so that by the end of the gig the balcony is shaking and we’re all dancing and singing, hands in the air, united and comforted, all of us alone together.

Next week: Kate Mossman

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 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution

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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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