Mother of all Muggles (Part 1)

 

An orderly queue waits in the drizzle outside a large bookshop in Newcastle, in the north-east of England. Boys and girls aged six to 16, some of them with red, lightning-bolt marks on their foreheads, are holding fat volumes of the same book. A couple of them have begun reading passages from it. Two photographers are on the alert. Orange balloons bob in the breeze. The atmosphere is that of a happy vigil.

All eyes are at the ready for the arrival of anything out of the ordinary - even a pair of bright purple socks, mine, are noted. A tall man in wizard's robes has taken up position in the front window. He seems quite calm and is reading a newspaper. Not an owl in sight. No ginger tabby either. No flying motor bikes. Muggle (non-wizard) citizens pass by, noting the banners: "Harry is Back". Meanwhile, a green steam engine puffs towards the city. All the way from London via York, The Hogwarts Express is approaching. Harry Potter may not be on it, but J. K. Rowling, his creator is - and her followers have waved and waited all the way from King's Cross Station.

Within two days of publication, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth book chronicling the adventures of the superhero trainee wizard, sold one and a half million copies. Even the youngest readers are undaunted by the size of the new book. Many have declared their intention of devoting the summer holiday to reading it. A small blue car looms into view. A cheer goes up, but a lone pragmatist silences everyone: "that's not a Ford Anglia, it's only a Volvo".

Having discreetly parked my Nimbus Two Thousand and One broomstick, and with my wizard's hat in place, it is time to take up position near the entrance to the small, dimly-lit magic grotto in which Rowling will perform her task, that of signing 500 books in less than an hour. The walls are covered in lavender drapes decorated with gold, stencilled stars. A purple goblet is on a table shrouded in a heavy cloth. The Hogwarts Express is late, slowed down by followers at railway platforms. The wait continues. Bookstore staff are tense. Journalists are viewed with the suspicion normally reserved for You-Know-Who, (Voldemort).

Rowling arrives, slight and businesslike, a bit tired, facing the world with the brisk smile of a survivor. There is no puff of smoke, no melodrama. Not a wand in sight. Dressed in a red jacket, black trousers and low heels she looks normal, as normal as any Muggle mum waiting in the queue. There is not even a trace of eccentricity. "She's earned more than the Spice Girls," mutters one journalist. "So there is a God after all," says his sidekick. Rowling removes the cloth from the table. Down on the floor goes the lamp with its field-of-stars shade. Down too goes the goblet. Rowling knows speed is of the essence at a book signing.

A pushy radio reporter thrusts her mike under the Potter author's nose: "So how about all this money then? J. K. - I mean, Joanne, did you think you would be writing for adults as well as children? What's it like to be so rich?" Rowling despatches a glance of humorous contempt that announces simultaneously, "Here we go again" and, "mind your own business". It is obvious she has correctly identified the radio woman as an individual having a lot in common with Harry's uncle and aunt.

No one would ever pick Rowling out as the creator of these books. She is not sufficiently weird or offbeat. She doesn't even have bright purple socks. The observation makes her roar with laughter. The massive sales and her success appear to have become bigger than the books. Many of the articles being written are more concerned with sales figures than plot lines. She is the story of the moment and so her life has been picked over by the British press. "I'm not a recluse," she says. "I am a single parent and I write. There's no time for anything else. I'm not complaining, I'm happy enough."

There is nothing cosy or condescending about Rowling, nor does she seem magical. Anyone expecting a benign witch would be not so much disappointed as surprised. Rowling is completely ordinary, as regular as the features of her face. No one could parody anything about her. There are no tics, no gestures, no catch phrases. As subversive as her books, she is also streetwise, likeable, devoid of pretence and uncommercial, although she is delighted with Stephen Fry's hilarious recordings of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Her wealth has not changed her because she hasn't forgotten what it was like to be poor, living in a small flat with a baby.

If there is a single clue to the success of the Potter books, aside from the hype breeding hype, it is that Rowling pays immense attention to detail. The four books to date, which are each supported by the structure of a school year topped at either end by Harry's miserable periods with the Dursleys, are sustained by the continuity and narrative cohesion created by cross-referencing throughout.

She has never forgotten a remark once made by one of her literary heroes, E. Nesbit, the author of The Story of the Treasure Seekers. "She said that by some lucky chance, she remembered exactly how she felt and thought as a child."

Rowling also retains vivid memories of those sensations. "I was always writing, inventing, imagining. I wrote my first book when I was six. It was about a rabbit with measles. I remember telling my mother to publish it."

Her accent is neutral, south of England, although at times there is a slight hint of the West Country, classless, at once very English and yet not particularly so - a bit like her books. "I'm the most English of people," she says. She was born in Bristol in 1965, "but we moved to Chepstow and I grew up in the Forest of Dean. It was the countryside". Her father, now retired, was an engineer with Rolls-Royce. We were . . ." she pauses and shrugs vaguely, "middle-class. But I went to a very ordinary school, a comprehensive. And although it [the school] was not very academic, I tried very hard to do very well and did".

While enough of the tomboy remains about her to suggest Harry might well be an alter ego, within a couple of minutes of hearing Rowling describe her younger self, it becomes clear that she is in fact Hermione, the hardworking Muggle determined to become a wizard. "She wants to please, to achieve. She's a swot, just like I was."

As we sit on a vintage steam train with the English and later the Scottish countryside passing the windows at a sedate pace, all the hype seems a bit crazy. What does she think? "It's not about me, it's about Harry Potter. I'm not a pop star or an actress, the children want Harry Potter, not me."

As a child, she lived in her imagination, a habit she has not lost. "I love talking, and having friends. I was always bossy, inventing things, a tomboy," adding she was "hopeless at sport. Always the last to be picked on a team". I expected her to say that. Only a person who hated sport could devise a game as daft as Quidditch. Another loud burst of laughter: "Quidditch is my revenge on sport. But all that team thing, the winning of points, is very important in a school situation. It's more than a sport, it's a game."