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How to talk about Harry Potter if you’ve never read Harry Potter

27 Harry Potter terms defined (by someone who has also never read Harry Potter).

It’s standard, when magazines such as this celebrate a particular cultural artefact, to include something by someone who doesn’t get it. This time, said traditional role, which is somewhere between a Sin Eater and a Judas Goat, falls to me. But don’t worry, I’m not going to try and tell you I think you’re all wrong. I have no desire to spoil anyone’s fun. As a lifelong Doctor Who fan I am never in a position to mock anyone else’s malfunctions. It’s nice that people enjoy things, and Harry Potter is clearly good and its popularity deserved. It’s just something I’ve missed out on.

By the time the first Harry Potter book was massive I was already in my twenties, and halfway through an undergraduate degree that required the reading of two novels a week to stand still, which made any question of recreational reading moot. By the time I was even vaguely in a position to consider reading things that weren’t on a prescribed list, there seemed to be loads of them, of exponentially increasing girths. It was the release of, I think, the fourth one, which my then-flatmate placed next to a Penguin Classics of Clarissa to demonstrate just how gargantuan a tome it was, that made me realise I was never going to catch up.

I went to see the first film because I have a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for popcorn films, despite not particularly liking popcorn itself. I can remember little about it except that it was alarmingly static-looking for a blockbuster. I didn’t see the second. I did see the third, because it was directed by Alfonso Cuarón, and of that I can remember not very much, except that it was rather good, and roughly what I’d expected the first one to be like, with the camera doing more interesting things in its trailer than in the whole of the first picture.

There, nearly 15 years ago, is where any attempt I made to have a relationship with Harry Potter ended.

Except it didn’t. Because it couldn’t. Because it’s everywhere.

I frequently attend a local pub quiz where, due to the quizmaster’s own proclivities, there’s almost always a question on Harry Potter. At which point I tend to go to the bar and subcontract any attempt to answer to my teammates. Occasionally, though, I know the answer anyway. Because the vocabulary of Harry Potter has seeped into everyday life. Just as people can know more or less exactly who Kirk and Spock are without having seen a second of Star Trek, I’ve wound up having a vague notion of what some of the argot of Harry Potter means, purely through a sort of cultural osmosis.

So, for those even less well-versed in the series than I am, here’s a brief primer. My attempts to define something from Harry Potter based on the words given to me by my friends. For your convenience, my passes are not included.

Albus Dumbledore: “The Headmaster. He’s the Merlin figure. Well, the Obi-Wan figure. They’re all Merlin figures, I suppose. He’s Richard Harris, then he died, so he regenerated into Michael Gambon.”

Argus Filch: “Oh, that’s David Bradley’s character. I read that in Doctor Who Magazine. This is going to be easy.”

Chamber of Secrets: “Sounds like the sort of shop they had in Soho before the Berwick Street market redevelopment.”

Deathly Hallows: “That’s the band Ed Miliband interviewed on the radio last week, surely?”

Dementor: “Sounds like a fairground ride. A Victorian one. Steam powered.”

Draco Malfoy: “I’m pretty sure he’s in Game of Thrones.”

Hagrid: “Oh, that’s Robbie Coltrane. Except for in deleted scenes, when it’s Jonn Elledge.”

Hippogriff: “That’s not from Harry Potter, it’s from Virgil’s Eclogues.”

Hermione Grainger*: “She’s the female lead. Some people were really cross she was played by the brilliant Noma Dumezweni in the stage play of one of them.  And by ‘people’ I mean ‘racists’.”

Hogwarts: “That’s the school. Tourists have it on sweatshirts.”

Horcrux: “These are sources of power. Probably evil. But I’ve a vague idea they need to be collected. So something on the spectrum between a Pokemon and a Death Star. I’m now imagining a Death Star sized Pokeball. That’s quite cool.”

Hufflepuff: “Is this a slang term for someone mediocre? I could happily be a Hufflepuff. It sound cheerful.”

Luna Lovegood: “Someone who really likes the moon?”

Mudblood: “I know this one. It’s a racist insult.”

Muggle: “So’s this.”

Order of the Phoenix: “You ordered the phoenix? You eat the phoenix!” (I’m sorry. Not very though.)

Neville Longbottom: “It that a name? It sounds like something a Minion would say. Oh, hang on. Neville and Luna? Is that why there are cats on twitter called Neville and Luna? They’re nice cats.”

Newt Scamander: “Isn’t that Eddie Redmayne’s Matt Smith impression? I’ve seen the trailer for that one.”

Patronus: “This is like a deliberately non-culturally appropriative spirit animal concept, right? You know that lazy dachshund in the insurance adverts on the tube? My wife says that’s my Patronus.”

Philosopher’s Stone: “The first one. Also a real thing. Well, a real made-up thing. A thing made up before Harry Potter. Like the Hippogriff. And it’s a Satyajit Ray film. Which is better than the first Harry Potter film. I went there.”

Prisoner of Azkaban: “That’s the third film. The Prisoner is David Thewlis. Or possibly Gary Oldman. At a stretch, it could be Tim Roth. Who I often confuse with Gary Oldman. Because they played Rosencrantz and Guildenstern together.”

Quidditch: “Flying hockey. Space Polo. Posh kids on wood in the air, basically.”

Ron Weasley: “That’s his best mate. Harry’s best mate. One of my mates has a quote ‘dirty little crush’ on him.”

Slytherin: “There’s a running joke that George Osborne was in this. So it’s an organisation. Is it like the Young Conservatives?”

The Sorting Hat:  “I’m guessing it’s a sort of hat?”

Snape: “I think this is Alan Rickman. And he’s a good guy who turns out to be a bad guy, or possibly vice versa. Or both. Alan Rickman was good at the acting.”

Voldemort: “This is a thing you are not allowed to say to Ralph Fiennes when you work with him on other things. So I’m told. Apparently that’s funny. If you know anything about Harry Potter.”  

*Editor’s note: spelling author’s own.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Martha Kearney. CREDIT: GETTY
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Why Radio 4’s Martha Kearney is the best presenter on the BBC

In Kearney, the BBC has (for once) identified the right star.

“But when you have a regime that’s apparently prepared to use chemical weapons on his own people, doesn’t that add an urgency to it? Isn’t that the need of the avoidance of extreme humanitarian distress?” Martha Kearney speaks to Shami Chakrabati about the bombing in Syria during a Monday morning of interviews while co-presenting her fourth edition of the Today programme (her first was 7 April.)

The way she delivered the word “apparently” encapsulated why she is the best general-purpose presenter the BBC has bar none. She put a faint breath of parenthesis around it, in a way that didn’t sound vetted by lawyers, but perfectly natural. While very characteristic (she is ever the sun rather than the wind, but can burst with an almost-annoyed “hang on!” when interrupting), this was someone instinctively a long way from being aware of their own brand. How freakish a breed the political interviewer generally is. Freakish because of their proximity to a delusion of mattering – a delusion that they “set the agenda”. One could always kind of forgive Jeremy Paxman because he’s just a peculiar, sui generis kind of guy. But Kearney has never been a stymied celebrity or comedian (see Nick Robinson or Eddie Mair) or a wannabe intellectual (see James Naughtie’s more recent interviews with authors. The crenellated frown in his voice, as though this were Gore Vidal talking to Abraham Lincoln.)

Even with the perfectly okay Laura Kuenssberg, you occasionally sense someone who hopes that Meryl Streep might play her in the biopic. Whereas Martha is simply exactly what she wants to be: a presenter of general affairs on radio and TV. In response, Chakrabati was more forthcoming, less thrusting and careerist. More got said. That old Today style of interview is dead. Super-confrontational, internally high-fiving, frankly impolite. It contributed nothing to British society. It made politicians more defensive and bland, entrenched in positions and sowing discord (and equally freakish). They became like footballers, poised to say less and less. The ego of the media has been a key player in the diminishment of British public discourse. But in Kearney the BBC has (for once) identified the right star. 

Today
BBC Radio 4

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge