“We’ll be in Abergavenny in a minute.”
For some reason, this line from Harry Potter regularly swims around my brain a decade since I’ve read any of the books. It’s from Harry’s rather hectic journey on the Knight Bus near the beginning of The Prisoner of Azkaban, and it pops into my head almost every time I’m on a train and they announce the stops over the tannoy.
It’s one random earworm among many from the books – including “The Daily Prophet’s going to have a field day!” and “with a slightly mournful air” and “half-moon spectacles” – which revisit me today. It’s never one of the main ones. Never a classic like, “Troll – in the dungeons – thought you ought to know” or “I solemnly swear I am up to no good”. Not “You’re a wizard, Harry” nor even, “We could all have been killed, or worse, expelled!”
No, it’s the relatively banal phrases – the observational asides and distinctive Britishness of the writing – that stick in my brain. And this is because I came to enjoy the books most by listening to them. Stephen Fry’s narrated tapes are central to my memory of Harry Potter. His plummy rumble and hammy vowels made even the most unassuming bits of description resonate. He also, crucially, taught me that Hermione was neither pronounced “Hermi-own” nor, as one classmate of mine assumed at the time, “Hermi-1”.
Although I raced through the first few Harry Potter books, I’ve always been quite a slow reader for someone who enjoys it so much (the same can be said about my eating) – so the Fry tapes transformed my evenings. And long car journeys. And those lonely hours of sleepovers when everyone’s settled down after the midnight feast (at 10.25pm) and you’re on your own, wide awake, with your Walkman and a Haribo high.
Like an evocative song, you begin to associate certain scenes of an audiobook with what you were doing at the time you listened.
I winced at the visceral description of Ron throwing up slugs when bouncing around the back of a 4×4 in Beirut on one of our annual summer family visits, sweat collecting beneath my foam earphones, thighs sticking to the leather bench. I listened to Norbert (soon to be Norberta) hatching over the sound of traffic and my parents’ snoring, when unable to sleep in the studio we crammed into on a holiday in France. I heard Cedric Diggory die when lying on my bedroom floor, updating my scrapbook of Duncan from Blue from Top of the Pops and Smash Hits magazine clippings.
The tapes – which came in thrillingly ever-larger plastic boxes as the books got longer – taught me a new way to read. (As well as a new way to listen to tapes, incidentally – before then, I only really used them to rip songs off Capital FM’s Top 40 and record my own DJ voice in between on a Fisher-Price cassette recorder. My lost demos.)
Rarely would a visit to Ealing Library go by without bouncing up the staircase, past the young adult fiction section, and straight to the cassettes. I listened to everything from Jacqueline Wilson’s Girls in Love series (volume lowered during the saucier moments in case of eavesdropping family members) to the Demon Headmaster. Of course, by listening to the latter, you risked being hypnotised.
Listening to books broadened my repertoire – both reading-wise and silly voice-wise – and helped me branch out to genres and authors I might not have had the confidence to dedicate long reading hours to slogging through. So even if I am always, in my head, inexplicably en route to Abergavenny, I have a lot to thank the Fry tapes for.