The Mao of Harry Potter

This weekend was nice in that it didn’t exist. It crept up on me as I suspected that it was the weekend of the 23rd, so I was fairly pleased when I discovered that a weekend of the 16th even existed. It was a free weekend, one that I hadn’t planned or budgeted for.

It’s an odd feeling, gaining a free weekend like that. Though I had just as many things to do as I usually do on a weekend, the fact that this weekend was unplanned for meant that those things didn’t matter, because my plans for them hadn’t included this weekend. My schedule had just been ripped open in the middle and a whole weekend inserted, as if some higher power had just looked down and thought “You know, that guy’s just working too hard. Let’s give him a spare couple of days.” and then made some sort of, I don’t know, mystical gesture.

It became a weekend of guilty pleasures; time was spent lazing around in parks and gardens, good food was eaten at a fine French restaurant (chicken liver parfait with an onion marmalade, chicken in a goats cheese and green peppercorn sauce followed by crème caramel, food-fans). I even won £10 on the National Lottery, which I used to pay for £30 of books. I know that technically £10 doesn’t pay for £30 of books, but that was ok, because as this weekend didn’t really exist, it meant that any money spent didn’t count.

One of those books was the latest Harry Potter book. I had planned not to buy it this time around, and instead just get it out of the library or even — shock — not read it at all, but if there’s one thing I’m sure of it’s that when I decide not to buy something, I will inevitably buy it the second the opportunity presents itself. In my defence, I did hold out for several hours before succumbing.

Armed with my new book and a complicated packed lunch involving cheeses and nuts, I headed for the Oxford University Parks to bunk down in a shady spot and get to business on the book. As I was wandering, I slowly began to realise that I wasn’t the only person who had had this idea.

I wasn’t alone.

They got you too?

The park was busy, but it was a weekend and beautifully hot and sunny so I wasn’t surprised. But there weren’t any people playing with footballs and frisbees, everyone was sitting. This was a little unusual. I started noticing that a lot of them were reading, and it was then it sunk in. Everyone was reading the new Harry Potter book. I’m not exaggerating; it wasn’t just a lot of people. It was every single person.

Now, I’m not easily spooked, but this felt a little bit weird. Everyone reading it was an adult, and everyone had picked the edition with the children’s cover. Nobody actually seemed to be enjoying reading it, though, everyone was just ploughing through it with a grim determination and a steely look in their eyes. As I passed with book in hand, people glanced up, gave a slow nod as they saw I had the book and thus was one of them, and returned to their own pages. As I said — it was a little bit weird.

There were families, with one copy of the book per person. There were couples sunning themselves but again, each with their own copy, turning pages in near-unison — you could almost detect a drop in temperature as a hundred people all turned a page at once and inadvertantly fanned the rest of the park. I started feeling like some sort of interloper, as if I’d infiltrated some sort of sect by just wearing their uniform and wiping the smile from my face. Perhaps if I didn’t start reading soon, someone would suspect — someone would point at me and start screaming an alien scream, alerting everyone to my presence.

I started wondering if the ownership of the latest Harry Potter novel had actually become a legal requirement, in lieu of a compulsory biometric ID card, and I’d just missed the memo. I sat down and began to read, to see whether the entire thing was actually just a front for a Mao-style Little Red Book, and it would be page after page of quotes like:

“How should we judge whether a youth is a revolutionary? How can we tell? There can only be one criterion, namely, whether or not he is willing to integrate himself with the broad masses of workers and peasants and does so in practice. If he is willing to do so and actually does so, he is a revolutionary; otherwise he is a nonrevolutionary or a counter-revolutionary.”

But no, it wasn’t. Unless it was all between the lines and I haven’t picked up on it yet, or unless there’s a secret transmitter constantly repeating the word ‘OBEY’ at subsonic levels. There may be.

They got me a long time ago.

So I sat beneath a tree and read for a while, trying not to think of the surrounding populace, but I couldn’t do it. Not just because it felt weird, sitting amidst the Oxford intelligentsia with all of us reading the same book, but because as people passed — also holding the book — they would look at me reading, and not look away until I had looked up, made eye-contact, and given the slow, emotionless nod. Despite the hot weather, I was feeling slightly chilled, and couldn’t shake the sensation that I was in a John Wyndham novel.

I wonder if this isn’t all part of some larger plan, that the initial purchasing of the Harry Potter books is simply known to J.K.Rowling as ‘Phase One’, and I wonder what will happen after the seventh and final book is published. Will it just contain just one trigger word that will turn us all into mindless zombies to do her bidding? Or has that — raise eyebrow, cue dramatic music, reverse dolly zoom — HAPPENED ALREADY? Eh?