Has Harry Potter cast his final spell on British culture?

The moment has come to bust out of this intellectual and aesthetic Azkaban that we have all helped to erect around us.


In one of his famous ‘dialogues,’ On the Tranquillity of the Mind, the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger outlined three responses to the everyday follies of fellow human beings: whereas Heraclitus bewailed them, Democritus did better to simply laugh at them. Best of all, however, Seneca advises that we follow his example, and simply bear the peccadillos of those around us with temperance and equanimity.

To pursue the ‘Senecan Option’ when confronted with (in the grand scheme of things) minor irritations has always been my intention when writing for Viewpoint.

However, it pains me to confirm that this personal rule of thumb, along with my two others of avoiding snobbery and ranting, is about to be broken.

Because – and take heed especially if you are an exhaustingly enthusiastic study-abroad student who has just arrived in St Andrews – it’s time that we all grew up a little and desisted from contributing to the assiduous onslaught of Harry Potter references when discussing our university.

In fact, I would like to go further than that: it’s time that we took some responsibility for ourselves and started to undo the tyranny that J. K. Rowling is inflicting on our imagination and collective cultural compass with her fictional wizard and his fictional friends.

I cannot count the number of times that I have had to hear how the architecture of Sallies’ Quad evokes images of Hogwarts, or how wearing an undergraduate gown makes it feel like we’re all at Hogwarts, or how stepping into the King James library is just like stepping into Hogwarts. Hogwarts, Hogwarts, Hogwarts, there’s no bloody end to how everything is Hogwarts. And this is completely disregarding the fact that much of Sallies Quad and the King James Library are not even remotely Gothic in their architecture so do not vaguely resemble that completely non-existent educational facility.

Just so we’re absolutely clear, no one is going to be going to their Defence Against The Dark Arts module (presumably DA1003 or something) anywhere. We all just do stuff like History and IR here. In St Andrews. Not Hogwarts.

And woe betide anywhere that actually appears in the film adaptations! My local cathedral at home was used extensively in The Chamber of Secrets, and there is now no end of tourists gawping spellbound in the cloister hoping that maybe they too will happen upon a lynched cat swinging from the walls, all the time ignoring the first ever example of fan vaulting roofing in England spreading out over them.

Whether or not you care about late medieval church architecture is beside the point.

What is important is that the cultural capital this nation with its rich heritage is accumulating in one account, leaving our sense of common landmarks and points of reference poorer as a result. People flock to pose with half a luggage trolley unconvincingly stuck to the wall of a train station.

Yet just across the road stands forlorn and forgotten her sister terminal that so awed John Betjeman with its Victorian majesty that it engendered a fierce campaign to save it from demolition in the 1960s.

Visit Glenfinnan and I can guarantee you will not see the Hogwarts Express lugging lucky wizardettes off to school, but you will see a triumph of wily nineteenth-century engineering and the site where Bonnie Prince Charlie first convened his doomed Jacobite Rebellion of ’45.

However, all anyone seems to be able to think of is that sodding “boy who lived.” No other country has been so deleteriously subsumed into a nationwide theme park dedicated to what is generally agreed to be a series of books of substandard literary craftspersonship.

Cultural monopoly has a high propensity to lead to a monopoly on our imagination and expression, and this is fast becoming the case with Harry Potter.

I promise that I am not against a good story, nor do I want to erase Harry Potter from the face of the Earth.

That said, it has all gone too far, and we threatening to carpet over the colourful, inspiring and exciting mosaic of these islands’ diverse and vibrant heritage with a bland linoleum of little round spectacles and lightning-bolt-shaped scars.

The moment has come to bust out of this intellectual and aesthetic Azkaban that we have all helped to erect around us.


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