Sunday 17 December 2017

Stefanie Preissner: Harry Potter has aged and so have I

As she recalls her first grown-up trip to London - to buy a Harry Potter book - the writer reflects on how millennials have matured, and the life lessons they learnt from the boy wizard and Dumbledore

Life lessons: Stefanie Preissner. Photo: Kip Carroll
Life lessons: Stefanie Preissner. Photo: Kip Carroll

Stefanie Preissner

My very dear friend Deirdre and I went to London this time 11 years ago - right after our Leaving Cert exams. It was our first time going on holidays with a friend rather than our parents so, naturally, we did what all 18-year-olds do on their first unaccompanied trip abroad - we got our photograph taken and put on a mug in Hamley's toy shop.

We chose to travel to London that July because, as two huge Harry Potter fans, we thought it a fitting place to queue up for the first editions of The Half-Blood Prince - the sixth book of the series. We queued up for the book, flipped through it in excitement, scanning the chapters and letting the familiarity of the words and names whet our appetites. We then popped them into our backpacks and travelled on the Victoria line to King's Cross station, where we stood between platforms 9 and 10 to get our Kodak moment with our new books. Other classmates of ours were dancing on table-tops in Ibiza or Ayia Napa, but we were wild in our own way - we stayed up all night to finish the book the day we got it.

I remember distinctly a feeling of being incredibly grown-up on that trip. Walking around vast streets in a European capital with huge buildings looming overhead, using the Underground, tipping waiters in sterling and keeping my money split between my backpack and my jacket for fear of being pickpocketed - all the tell-tale signs of adulthood. Our final exams were done, school was only to be spoken of in the past tense, we were heading to university, using a different currency, and even having a glass of wine with our lunch because we were just that mature!

Spicy lyrics

I look at the photo on that mug now and I look like a baby. The big red cheeks of me are lit up - possibly because I was in the biggest toy shop in London. You can barely see my eyeballs through my squinty joy. I sort of resemble how cherub angels are drawn; dewy and full cheeks with messy hair. At the time, I was the oldest I had ever been. I'm aware that in the future I will look back at these articles and photos and think 'I was so young and naive', but today I feel very grown-up as I sit in the food hall of a Dublin shopping centre, eating apple slices and drinking sparkling water through a straw. I'm the oldest I have ever been. But I'm also the youngest I will ever be.

As I've aged, many of my memories have changed in light of my adult perspective. They're not seismic shifts, but they do change how I view my past. Let's look at the Spice Girls' song 2 Become 1. I recently re-listened to the lyrics of this song. I was eight or nine when it was released, and I knew every lyric. I used to sing it with my friends around the schoolyard. Can we take a second to look at some of the lyrics that seemed so innocent to me at the time? I'm actually shocked our fifth-class teacher didn't pull us up on it.

Come a little bit closer baby, get it on, get it on

'Cause tonight is the night when two become one

I need some love like I never needed love before

(Wanna make love to ya baby)

I had a little love, now I'm back for more

(Wanna make love to ya baby)

Set your spirit free, it's the only way to be

Excuse me?

I mean come on! I presume the only way they got it past the controllers (if there even are music controllers) is because they could argue that the lines "Get it on/ Get it on" are promoting safe sex by suggesting that these spicy women-girls won't condone unprotected sex. But Jesus Christ, I feel retrospectively violated. Once I re-heard the lyrics, my memories of putting on my friend's mother's leopard-print heels and dressing gown (I was Scary Spice) and performing for the rest of our friends and teachers at school are tinged with a hue of shame and a desire to protect my nine-year-old self.

I re-read Harry Potter in the last couple of weeks, spurred on by the fact that it's the 20th anniversary of the first book's release. I'm here to tell you that it's not just memories of London and Spice Girls lyrics that change with age - the entire subtext of Harry Potter has changed, too. As a teenager, the books were about magic and friendship, but now, in 2017, I cannot but read them as a pointed political commentary on the triumph of good over evil, the importance of resistance in the face of tyranny and the perpetual danger of authoritarianism. (Rereading that sentence makes me feel like I am back writing a Leaving Cert essay).

Some non-believer once said to me: "Oh I don't do the Harry Potter thing, I'm all about Twilight. It's much better". Excuse me? Harry Potter is about how important it is to keep fighting an epic battle for justice against a raging tyrant. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.

With global politics going the way it inexorably is, the feeling of instability, terror and unpredictability, I suddenly feel like Neville Longbottom. One of Rowling's most adorable characters, he is a chubby, sort of pathetic student with a pet toad for the first couple of books. Later, he shows himself to be a courageous hero and a striking addition to Dumbledore's Army. Maybe my Neville Golden Years are ahead of me, too. I am certain I would not be in the hero-trio of the Potter series. Faced with the scary realities of Ron, Harry and Hermione, I would certainly have 'apparated' to the closest chimney and used the Floo network to get out of Dodge. Like young Neville, I feel a sense of doom when I read the papers or watch the news. Or even when I'm just walking in town and there are a large group of people congregating. I am never too far from the feeling that something terrible could happen at any moment. I'm naturally anxious and need hardly any invitation to attend the Worst Case Scenario party, but since things like the London Bridge attacks and the Ariana Grande concert, I don't even like going to the cinema.

Killing curse

The good news is that I was reassured on re-reading the Harry Potter series. Reassured, and reminded that, just like in the wizarding world, there are good people in the real world who tolerate difference, and fight for ideals like kindness and respect. There are people, like Harry & co, who oppose violence. It's simple in Potter-Land to just kill off people who annoy you or disagree with you. You just point your wand and say "Avada Kedavra" and they die instantly. However, faced with many people who try to kill him, and in many situations where it would be possible to do so, Harry never uses the Killing Curse. In a way, it's just too simple. Voldemort tries to kill Harry and his friends, and somehow the 16-year-old finds the magnanimity to respond with: "You're the one who is weak. You will never know love or friendship. And I feel sorry for you."

After many of the recent terror attacks, there is a wave of strength that seems to come from the people of a city that says: "We will not be destroyed by this". Ariana Grande, barely an adult herself, came back to Manchester armed with the conviction of someone beyond her years, accompanied by a cohort of celebrities to show that city and the world that she will not be forced into fear.

Voldemort can be seen - through my adult lens - as a racist bigot who is systematically trying to facilitate and promote a genocide against "half-bloods" (people with only one wizard parent), Muggles (non-wizards), Mudbloods (Muggle-born wizards) and Squibs (wizard-born non-wizards). But the main players in the books see how important it is to fearlessly protect anyone who is vulnerable and a potential victim under this law. There is something akin to a caste society in the wizarding world. Below the rung of wizard there is a thing called a house-elf. It's basically a slave. Harry shows the depth of his good nature when he doesn't stop at just protecting vulnerable humans but goes further and protects house-elves Dobby and Kreacher from the dangers that threaten them. The protests that ignited immediately after Donald Trump's travel ban were borne out of that same impulse. 
I could write endless essays on the relevance of Harry Potter and his struggle against Voldemeort and how it is frightening to see it play out in similar ways in the real world. But I've made my point. Terrorism has created for some "a nice little climate of panic" with "a strategy of remaining unpredictable and in the shadows".

I realise that it takes longer to vanquish real evil than it does to read seven novels, but the escape into the world of fiction was eye-opening and gave me hope. That kind of youthful hope where you feel like maybe nothing is impossible and the world will be right again. The rosy-cheeked 18-year-old Stefanie on the Hamley's mug travelled around London with a tome of Harry Potter in her backpack. A backpack that wasn't looked at suspiciously on the underground train she travelled on, carefree. Things change. Sometimes for the worse.

I recently met my friend's baby for the first time. (My friend had a planned baby. Now if that isn't a sign that we are ageing, I don't know what is.) Her baby boy is basically an old man. He's only six months, but he looks and acts like an old man. He's kicked back in his high chair looking at the birds outside the window. No childlike wonder or awe, he just sits there as if he's seen it all before. I imagine he's thinking, "Ah yeah, there's the crows again".

I wonder if he'll regress when he's a teenager and have his childhood then. I sort of feel that's what I did. I was a very grown-up child and teenager. I hung around with adults a lot, being an only child. It wasn't until my 20s that I started to have that moment where

you realise the size and scale of the world and how insignificant you are in it. Sometimes I wish I'd never had that realisation. Reality is really a bitter pill. If there was a Peter Pan pill, I would take it.

I was always a little jealous and in awe of Harry's relationship with Dumbledore. He was a mentor, a father figure and an idol all wrapped up into one Michael Gambon-shaped hero. Dumbledore was Harry's grown-up. He made sure Harry was able to remain a kid for the longest time possible, even if it was incredibly brief.

I think my generation of young Irish people had to grow up pretty fast. One day it was all "Ooooh Voldemort killed all the Muggles in London" and the next it was "Some unknown force just orchestrated several explosions across London". Maybe we're having our adolescence now. Like a generation of Benjamin Buttons with the ability to design websites but who cry when we have to make our own doctor's appointments. All of our parents left us to fend for ourselves while they went off to re-mortgage their designer handbags to deal with their negative equity.

Deceitful lover

As I age, I feel more and more that my life is a test I haven't remembered to study for. I'm very grateful for my education. I still see myself as a student. I learn a new word every day. Today, it is perfidious.

1. deliberately faithless; treacherous; deceitful: a perfidious lover.

I love listening to people who have wide vocabularies. It's like my brain is at the gym when I hear people like Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, Terry Prone, or Stephen Fry speak. I love the idea that I learn from them, even though they're on a screen and I'm in my living room. I get the same feeling when I do the cryptic crossword with my nana every Sunday. Humans are designed to learn from one another. We learn to speak, walk and eat from our parents. We learn from our friends and either directly or indirectly through

books. Fiction is capable of opening our minds, and in doing so it makes change possible. Harry Potter (maybe subconsciously) influenced a generation of young people's social and political attitudes by virtue of the lessons taught in its plotline. When stories feature clear protagonists to whom audiences relate and whom they identify with, that is mechanism for changing public perception, and it's remarkably powerful.

I told Deirdre I was writing this article. She told me that some of the memories I have about that London trip are way off. She says we never took the Victoria line up to King's Cross with our books. She says we had beer with lunch and not wine. She questioned whether or not we tipped the wait staff. We recall different experiences entirely when we discuss that trip to London. But we both still have the mug. My memories may be perfidious (Yes! I got to use it) but the truth is not. When Dee and I sip coffee from the decade-old ceramics and see the post-Leaving Cert joy on our faces - there's no room for misinterpretation. That day in Hamley's, I had hope and joy, I had Harry Potter, I was the youngest I have ever been. And I still am.

Photograph by Kip Carroll

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