Saturday, July 16, 2011

Harry Potter and The Chamber of Chavs

My eldest daughter has started reading Harry Potter and she loves the books. The Potter novels have opened an exciting, cool, imaginative world for her and for this I am grateful to JK Rowling. I am not that familiar with the Potterverse because as Richard Harris explained when asked why he hadn't read any Harry Potter novels in preparation for his role as Dumbledore "it just ain't my kind of reading". But that's ok - these are books for kids and kids love them. As my daughter has read me bits and pieces out of the novels I have become more aware of the characters and the plot and I can see that there are strong female role models which is a very good thing and I haven't come across any racist or bigoted stereotypes, also good.
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However there is one thing that worries me about JK Rowling's world and that boils down to class. It seems to me that whenever a muggle villain appears in the Harry Potter universe they are always fat, vulgar, blingy and common. In other words they're a chav. As I understand it the Potter novels are about a bunch of special children who go off to boarding school to learn arcane things that the poor unfortunate muggle children couldnt dream of. JK Rowling went to private school as did a very small, privileged 5% of the UK population. Prince Charles has endorsed the Harry Potter books and its no wonder. He took a steam train north to a drafty, rather dangerous boarding school in Scotland when he was a lad and he would have sent William and Harry there too but for Diana's insistence that they remain closer to home. It's interesting that in the clips I've seen of the Potter films all the children at Hogwarts speak in nice accents. Are there poor kids there? Do you have to board? What if you can't go because you have to help out in your parents' shop or look after your siblings because your mother goes to work?  I don't know...
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As an aside, I find it completely baffling that boarding schools still exist in the real world in 2011. Why have kids in the first place if all you want to do is send them away for their entire childhood? There's something very perverse, creepy and Dickensian about this whole idea and I can't help thinking that parents who send their children away are morally suspect. 
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But back to the chavs - Ms Rowling - who's as thin as a rake - seems to have a particular hatred for anyone who has let themselves go. She devotes quite a bit of  time describing the rolls of fat in Harry's uncle's neck and we are clearly meant to despise this vulgar chocolate biscuit eating oaf. We also are meant to hate anyone (like Harry's aunt) who's overly concerned with money - this, of course, is also a ghastly, vulgar pretension of the lower orders. And Harry's poor aunt makes things worse by her desperate and unintentionally funny attempts at social climbing. It seems to me that the worst thing you can be in the Potterverse is a chubby, state educated, commoner who has no interest in magic but who wants to earn a few quid and try to get ahead. I think Malfoy is supposed to be a spoiled rich kid looking down on Potter and his ilk, but Malfoy's only a strawman sort of villain and his problem seems to be is that he isn't an aristocrat - old money - but a jumped up nouveau riche type. What Rowling is telling us in these books is that 1) we should trust the true aristocracy and that 2) the lower classes shouldn't put on airs or attempt to rise above their station - if they're not special enough to get accepted to Hogwarts they should know their place and doff their caps to the privately educated elite who have been running England for the last two centuries and will almost certainly be running it two centuries from now. As anyone who has studied the Great Reform Act of 1832 will tell you the English rulling classes are past masters at maintaining their position through faux liberalism while not so secretely promoting a deeply conservative agenda. 
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Maybe I'm wrong about this. I certainly don't know the material well enough to justify my argument with more examples so perhaps you, gentle reader, could provide some counterfactuals to set me straight...If I'm wrong I'll do the decent thing and admit it.