Pottering into August

One of my birthday present highlights this year was a pair of Harry Potter, Marauder’s Map pyjamas. Because nothing says ‘responsible vicar type person’ like PJ’s with fictional characters on…

Marauders Map PJsBio-ethics mug + Harry Potter PJs = emotionally stable 30 something. Honest.

My birthday weekend coincided with the biggest Potter event to have hit the Muggle world since the final film instalment appeared five years ago. The Cursed Child play premiered and its script was released – both on the date upon which, in 1991, Harry Potter first discovered he was a wizard. [Yes, I just googled the year.]

In fact, the whole week was something of a Harry Potter fest…

On the Wednesday, a few days after the play’s premiere, with a couple of hours free in Soho, I took myself off to the House of MinaLima – a shop and exhibition of the work done by the films’ graphic design team. Nestling behind the Palace Theatre (the play’s home) on Greek Street, the shop is a treasure trove of Potter detail. Some of it’s familiar from the films (like the Daily Prophet front pages and the Ministry’s Proclamations) – but the level of detail in objects you probably hadn’t even noticed is phenomenal!

Hogwarts lettersHogwarts Text Books

Hogwarts letters to a certain Mr H. Potter & a selection of textbooks.

Thursday of that week had one priority alone: the purchasing of tickets for the aforementioned (and not at all high profile) Harry Potter play. For next year. In fact, for possibly 18 months’ time – depending on availability. The queue opened at 10am and I logged my place. At 11am *just* 10,000 people were ahead of me. Soon after noon, it was my turn.

Myy turn to click through EVERY SINGLE SATURDAY, any date within school holidays (in honour of my teacher sister) and even, when I got desperate, a few Sundays (believing I could always make a quick getaway for a 1pm start). I spent over an hour trying to get tickets, but failed. Informed that no tickets were available (presumably together) for the date I’d chosen. Every. Single. Time. Utterly depressing. (Especially as some friends later acquired tickets – on a Saturday – at gone 5pm. Perhaps I lacked stamina in my ticket buying!)

Cursed queue

I thought that would be the end of Potter for that week. I didn’t even buy the play as solace for my lack of tickets. [I have issues with play reading. And overly high expectations.] But I didn’t count for Friday…

One of my meetings that Friday was with a guy from Harvard Divinity School who’s involved in some fascinating research on non-religious communities and what the church can learn from them. [Potentially the subject of a whole other post. Honestly, it’s exciting stuff!] It was a fun conversation, and towards the end he threw in the factoid that he’d recently begun co-hosting a podcast based on Harry Potter. My ears pricked up, especially when I heard the title: ‘Harry Potter and the Sacred Text’.

I’ve now listened to the first few episodes (the most recent is only number 13) and I’m impressed. In fact, I just about managed to jump on the podcast’s bandwagon before it jumped into the iTunes podcast charts! Even the Guardian’s discovered it.


Here’s the thing. What the podcast is *not* suggesting is that it IS a sacred text. This is not when all the uber-conservative Christians who claimed Harry Potter was occultish are proved right! What Casper ter Kuile & Vanessa Zoltan *are* exploring is what happens when we analyse, reflect upon and go deeply into Rowling’s work. It’s taking some of the principles of sacred text reading and applying them to a series that millions of people have read (more than once) and whose content in terms of number of words easily outstrips that of other sacred texts. [HP has, in total, 1,084,170 words compared to the KJV’s 783,137.]

As all readers of the series/viewers of the films will know, the central themes of Harry Potter are ones that are also found in sacred texts: death; good versus evil; violence; the power of love; resurrection… Comparisons between the series and the Chronicles of Narnia (a deliberately Christian allegory) are not uncommon. The way in which Rowling grapples with these big questions is largely to thank for the series’ popularity – they’re not dumbed down for the sake of being a “children’s book”.

Back to the podcast. It’s not too long (25 minutes). Each episode focuses on a chapter of the book – beginning at chapter 1 of Philosopher’s Stone. [Though sadly, being American, it uses the unfortunate – and wrong – US title!] Casper & Vanessa are engaging and competitive – I’m a fan of the weekly challenge to summarise the chapter in under 30 seconds. [Seriously, could you do it??]

It’ll make you think a lot more deeply about some of the themes and characters in the books – even in the comparatively (to the later books) cheery first volume. Like The West Wing Weekly, it might inspire you to return to the books and read along with the podcast. And, as far as I’m concerned, it provides a welcome alternative to my current journey through the back catalogue of You Must Remember This. [Which is a wonderful podcast, but if I listen to too many in a row, I forget which decade I’m living in!]

And, for now, the podcast helps alleviate a little of the pain I still feel when I think about those flipping Cursed Child tickets!

Maternal concern

On Saturday evening, a text from my mother began: “I worry about you…”

Was she concerned for my health?
Was she suffering sleepless nights at the thought of me gallivanting through London dark streets? [I learnt years ago that she doesn’t appreciate tales of bar fights I’ve witnessed or night bus journeys at 3am.]
Did she think I might be on the verge of a nervous breakdown thanks to the pressures of work?

Nope. She was simply expressing slight dismay at the news that I’d spent the previous hour amusing myself by listening to two weeks’ worth of the Desert Island Discs podcast. For some reason, she didn’t think that was a suitable activity for 8.30pm on a Saturday night. Actually, I’d agree with her. I should have been on my sofa watching X Factor, but instead was on a slow train from Aylesbury to London after a wonderful day out marred by that most British of frustrations – weekend engineering work and replacement bus services.

The only way I managed to keep my sanity (and my temper) on the journey home – which was delayed even further by some idiot tourists not buying tickets and the replacement bus driver waiting for them, thus meaning we missed our train connection – was by listening to a stock of podcasts. And to be honest, I don’t know why my taste in these things should dismay my mother, as it’s largely derived from the upbringing she gave me!

Lately I’ve gone on a subscription spree, in the hope that I will never again be stuck on a broken down train with nothing to calm me. Many of them are Radio 4 related, thanks to its omnipresence in the family home while growing up. Favourites include…

The aforementioned Desert Island Discs. Admittedly, the music is cut down to a brief snippet thanks to copyright laws, but the interviews make it a worthwhile listen despite that. Plus, it’s either because I’m old and boring or because Radio 4’s dumbed itself down considerably, but I’ve actually heard of (and quite like) all the episodes in recent weeks (Tom Jones was particularly soothing on Saturday).

Excess Baggage – another Radio 4 gem. If you adore stories about the minutiae of British life, with a slight travelling edge to it, this would be right up your street. A recent favourite was an episode based on the results of a contest in which listeners could suggest their favourite bus routes and saw Sandi Toksvig travelling from Swindon to Devizes. Honestly, it’s truly fascinating stuff!

At this point I feel I should also point out that both The Archers and Women’s Hour are available in podcast form, but I haven’t actually stooped so low as to subscribe to them. Having been subjected to enforced silence for 15 minutes every evening at 7pm throughout my life (and whenever I return to the parentals) it would probably take extreme homesickness while living in the antipodes before I became an Archers fan!

Elsewhere on the BBC is a gem hidden on a radio station I never listen to unless there is an emergency tennis situation (i.e. it’s Wimbledon fortnight and I have no TV or internet) – 5 Live. Every Friday afternoon film critic Dr Mark Kermode joins Simon Mayo for several hours of ‘Wittertainment’. The result is a podcast that’s usually around 90 minutes long, but utterly captivating.

You don’t even have to be that interested in films to find it entertaining – they could (and do) rant about anything that passes the radar and, to my joy, are particularly into grammatical pedantry. I was introduced to it via a particularly scathing review of Eat, Pray, Love which you can hear for yourself in September 24th’s edition. The fact that I’ve listened to approximately 270 minutes of Mayo & Kermode in the last three days should be a pretty good indicator of its excellence.

Finally, just in case you’ve missed past podcast recommendations, other weekly essentials are Friday Night Comedy from Radio 4 and the Best of Chris Moyles. (Don’t judge me on the latter, the breakfast show amuses me every morning on my walk to the tube and he often talks about disused stations…)

I realise these are entirely BBC produced podcasts. I believe other entertaining podcasts are available, its just that with the amount the license-fee costs, I may as well try and get my money’s worth!

Satirical Friday Fun

After last week’s rant about my disillusionment with British politics and the current election campaign, I’ve had the distinct impression that I’m actually trying to bury my head in the sand and not succeeding very well at it. Also, it simply makes me look a little ignorant and/or pig-headed to respond to “did you watch the Leaders’ Debate” with “no, I’m currently disillusioned with politics, so I’m ignoring it”.

The problem is that I am interested. That’s how I get into discussions about tactics in particular constituencies with friends at church. It’s why I got supremely frustrated with myself that I couldn’t contribute eloquently to a long and intelligent political discussion over beers a couple of days ago. [You’re searching for the ‘fun’ element of this post aren’t you? Don’t worry, I’m getting there…] I would have watched at least some of the second debate last night had it not been on Sky and had I not been busy with a focus group.

So, as is often my strategy to deal with such conundrums – I have a plan…

What I do enjoy is good satirical political comedy. Have I Got News for You is always a good distraction and fairly informative, but it’s only on once a week. This is where Radio 4 have stepped into the fray, renaming The Now Show (a stalwart of the Friday night comedy line-up) the Vote Now Show and broadcasting on Monday, Wednesday and Friday in the run-up to the election.

Because I’m a bit useless and only remember to sync my iPod once a week (if that), I only had one of last week’s shows and hadn’t fully realised how frequent they were going to be. Last night I re-synced and this morning chuckled away to one on the tube. My strategy is thus to keep tabs on the election campaign largely via comedy. I may have to do a teeny bit of background reading just so I can still understand what the comedy’s about, but otherwise it should be enough information – surely?

The Friday Night Comedy from Radio 4 podcast has always been a good listen, but it does need to come with a health warning. It’s often hilarious in the most surprising ways, meaning that if you listen to it in public you may not be able to control your reactions. Snorting on buses, laughing out loud on the treadmill, grinning inanely on the tube…you generally end up acting in a way that makes the general public give you a wide berth.