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22 April 2020

In lockdown, children are more powerless than ever. But they have a secret weapon: imagination

I wake up to a cry of “Wingardium Leviosa!” The boys are starting the day as they mean to go on, with a wizarding duel. 

By Alice O'keeffe

Our house has sprouted turrets and spiral staircases. Magical portraits have appeared on the walls. The sitting room has turned into a great dining hall with a starry ceiling, and our bedrooms into dormitories. The patio is now an enchanted forest; mandrakes grow in our tiny plastic greenhouse.

I wake up to a cry of “Wingardium Leviosa!” The boys are starting the day as they mean to go on, with a wizarding duel. For days on end, they have been living and breathing Harry Potter. Larry, who is ten, pretended to grow out of his Potter obsession a year or so ago, and started talking about football and computer games like all his friends. But now school is a distant memory, and any need to be cool has evaporated along with his social life. The world of magic has opened up and beckoned him back in.

His younger brother Moe hasn’t got the attention span for JK Rowling’s books, which he (like me) finds a bit dull and long-winded. But he loves casting spells and has the typical younger-brother’s eagerness to be co-opted into whatever Larry wants to do.

“Eat slugs!” he responds with some relish, and I hear Larry fall, writhing and gurgling, to the floor.

There is something special about this magic-play. It is definitely not just a game; it is a completely enveloping experience that has to develop over a long period of uninterrupted time. They’ve played like this before, in the summer holidays, when we have spent days on end at home. But over four weeks of lockdown it has acquired a particular intensity; they are living and breathing magic from morning to night.

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I observe them enviously from the sidelines. Some dull adult sensibility – or perhaps just the need to tidy the kitchen, again – stops me joining in. But it brings up vivid memories of the worlds I used to create as a child, when I would crawl to the back of wardrobes and find wintery lands where animals spoke and I could be queen. I remember the excitement of it, the intoxicating feeling that with just one spell I could bring on spring, or conjure up a pot of gold, or kill someone…

What I realise now, as an adult, is that this kind of play is about power. In ordinary life, children have no power at all. They are subject to the whims of parents and teachers: told when to get up, what to eat, what to wear, how to spend their time. At school they are institutionalised into following a timetable, fitting in to some smarty-pants government minister’s idea of what they should do and be. At the moment, thanks to lockdown, they are more powerless than ever, ordered out of parks and isolated from their friends. Their needs are largely invisible to those running the show.

Fortunately, kids have a secret weapon that most adults have forgotten all about: imagination. They may be stuck at home, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, but like miniature alchemists they turn that leaden material into gold. They transform themselves into wizards and witches, kings and queens; they can go anywhere and do anything. The question becomes: how will they use their awesome power? Will they be on the side of the death-eaters, sowing misery and carnage? Or will they, in the spirit of Potter, lead us ignorant Muggles into the light?

For Larry and Moe, the answer is far from settled.

“Avada Kedavra!” cries Larry, unleashing the killing curse. Moe howls with rage.

“You can’t use that one, Larry! It’s too evil!”

“It’s OK,” Larry reassures him. “You can use it against me now. OK, I’m ready – go on.”

As my sons battle one another to the death, I close my eyes and slip into an early-morning dream. I am on top of a high mountain, looking out over a snowy landscape. The country before me is frozen; its inhabitants are hiding in their burrows. But I raise my wand, confident that with one spell I can lift the curse… 

This article appears in the 22 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The coronavirus timebomb