Opinion

John Bird: Unlike Harry Potter, poverty isn't a fantasy

"The good thing about Harry and JK Rowling is that they are in the storytelling, fictional world. But with the BBC voice and the fantasy of pretending that anything changes in the world with all of these public dollops of sympathy, you are seriously misguiding the world"

I sit writing this in the cafe that is professed to have served and sheltered JK Rowling as she wrote the first Harry Potter book in Edinburgh’s Old Town. I’m surprised, for The Elephant House is opposite Moore’s Modern Methods, or where this printing company used to be. I worked there for six months in 1965, aged 19. I was a printer’s devil which involved me gathering print jobs, proofs and running hither and thither, and then writing it all down in a big ledger.

This was Victorian Edinburgh. The printworks below on the Cowgate, and a road that ran under George IV Bridge where the offices were. My (then) father-in-law would drop me off in his grey, cream and slight green Hillman Minx car in the Cowgate on his way to his bank on Easter Road. He felt obliged to do this, else there was a chance I might not make it into work that day.

Just over 30 years later, JK was composing stories that probably have echoed around the world, drawn more young people into reading than anyone else, and just opposite where I laboured. Each ledger entry had to be done in a dipping-in-ink pen and I often blodged it, producing tortuous penmanship. I was often called to the office above to be remonstrated with for my lack of craftsmanship.

Sympathy and all of that crude ‘supposed’ support does nothing other than delay a real objective: the dismantling of poverty. It is mawkish tokenism, nothing more

Just next to where Moore’s Modern Methods office had existed is the National Library of Scotland, and earlier I had gone to an exhibition there. It was on the novels of Muriel Spark who I have read over the years and loved. Her famous novel, Edinburgh-based, for she was a daughter of the place, is called The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I was always pleased to tell all who wished to listen that my wife of the time had attended the school it was based on, James Gillespie’s; not Dizzy Gillespie, the US jazz musician, but a snuff tycoon (and philanthropist) of that name.

Like all writers, one would like to gain the fame and spread the fortunes that go with Harry Potter’s success. But would you really like to have to put up with all of that wealth, responsibility, attention and fans, I ask you? What a dent in the world you could make with a few billion. On reflection, I could put up with all of that, so long as it did not turn me into a prick. Or a bigger prick than I am already.

But as I sit here, I can’t think of Harry Potter and his creator. All I can reflect on is the voice I heard on the radio a few days ago. I was driving and a BBC programme was in the middle of something I couldn’t grasp. But when I heard the BBC voice I knew, I damn well knew, what was going on! The voice was deeply loaded, like an undertaker’s, and dripping with concern. And the voice was talking to one of those poor people who were suffering hardship and almost homelessness.

And then after the person in trouble had spoken of their conditions, the voice then turned on the politician who had the temerity to exist in comfort and not help this unfortunate person.

It was the baloney of sympathy. And then on to the next topic. No questioning of the woman in trouble about her views about the world, and her world. Or her take on life. She was on the radio shopping list for poverty. That was it.

Poorer people are often seen as if they are another species. And yet the poorest among us each have a story to tell that is beyond their poverty. It diminishes us to see people in poverty lumped into this simple explanation of their lives

Harry Potter must be the fictive tale, or tales, of our time. The good thing about Harry and JK is that they are in the storytelling, fictional world. You could only get confused, imagining dragon’ry coming down the street if you were ill or on something. It is clearly defined fantasy. But with the BBC voice and the fantasy of pretending that anything changes in the world with all of these public dollops of sympathy, you are seriously misguiding the world. You are pretending that you are changing it.

Yet sympathy and all of that crude ‘supposed’ support does nothing other than delay a real objective: the dismantling of poverty. It is mawkish tokenism, nothing more. Sympathy won’t get people out of poverty or off the streets. If anything, we have to stop kidding ourselves that sympathy has some helpful presence in the world, other than to alert us to how much has to be done.

When will the BBC (and other media outlets) stop dropping these little vignettes of collapse where a person in distress is little more than a cipher for poverty? When are we going to talk to people as if they are rounded human beings, who need to be reminded of their roundedness?

Poorer people are often seen as if they are another species. And yet the poorest among us each have a story to tell that is beyond their poverty. It diminishes us to see people in poverty lumped into this simple explanation of their lives.

I sit writing in the Potterworld creator’s favourite cafe, and yet I can only think of that voice and its loaded fiction. Perhaps sympathy is like a big, solid gate that is fully barred and stops us from heading into the implementation of something bigger than (real and false) tears. Thoughtfulness, new thinking, not more of the same; including that hollow, soppy voice.

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