On 26 June, a full quarter-century will have passed since the publication of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – a tale of wizardry, coming of age and good versus evil, launching a seven-book series that has sold more than 500 million copies.
The eight-film franchise that followed has taken $7.7 billion at the box office, while the first two Fantastic Beasts prequel movies have already clocked up close to $1.5 billion.
“All was well”: how apt the final words of the seventh and final Potter book must have seemed to those responsible for managing the Hogwarts empire – until, that is, its creator and presiding spirit decided to take a quite remarkable stand.
Tomorrow, the third instalment of the prequel series – Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore – opens across the land, starring Eddie Redmayne as magizoologist Newt Scamander, Jude Law as Dumbledore and Mads Mikkelsen as the wicked Grindelwald.
With his sinuous menace, Mikkelsen is an improvement upon Johnny Depp, who played the part in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018) but resigned at the studio’s request after he lost his libel case against The Sun over accusations of wife-beating.
Set in the 1930s, the third movie – directed once more by David Yates – retains a sense of fun (enjoy Redmayne chiding his companions for not “dancing properly” as he tries to keep an army of deadly lobster-like manticores at bay). But there is a darker theme in Grindelwald’s devious plan to go to war to annihilate the world’s Muggle (non-magical) population. Since Dumbeldore is prevented by a blood-oath from taking action against his former lover, it falls to Newt and his amiable gang to confront the magical forces of proto-fascism.
Just another popcorn outing for a billion-dollar franchise, on the face of it. Yet this is the first Rowling-inspired movie since the author intervened dramatically in the fraught debate on gender, trans rights and the reality of biological sex.
On December 19, 2019, after Maya Forstater, a consultant at the Center for Global Development Europe, lost her job over gender-critical posts on social media, Rowling tweeted: “Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?”
In a single post, Rowling’s public profile was more or less transformed. As the benign overseer of Potter-world she had been a unifying figure, a national treasure almost universally beloved. Yes, she was definitely of the Left – but never divisively so. Though well-known for her charitable work and personal munificence, she had never been perceived as a writer-activist or political artist: a Bob Dylan, a Joan Baez, a Toni Morrison.
Yet with her support for Forstater, followed by an even more controversial online essay about her personal experience of abuse and fears for women and girls in June 2020, Rowling provoked a backlash of extraordinary scope, scale and poison. She was – and is – vilified as “transphobic”, bigoted and a traitor to the values of inclusivity that her own work was thought to embody.
Leave aside for a moment the tedious argument over whether or not “cancel culture” exists. In February, the New York Times ran an ad campaign featuring a reader “Imagining Harry Potter Without Its Creator”. Last month, the avant-garde film-maker and enemy of censorship, John Waters, said that he would make an exception for the author: “I have a thing about who I would cancel: JK Rowling, Give her some Preparation H for that transphobia. What’s the matter with her?” To this day, Rowling’s social media feeds are routinely filled with rape and murder threats.
All this from trans activists and self-styled “allies” who have the audacity to use the hashtag #BeKind. And all for suggesting that, in the debate on gender, the hard-won rights of natal women and the reality of biological sex should not be swept aside quite so brazenly by those persuaded that they are on the “right side of history”.
It is sometimes argued that such attacks are scarcely relevant in the light of Rowling’s “privilege” and wealth (as if threats of murder and sexual violence are perfectly acceptable if the woman in question is a billionaire). But this proposition deserves to be turned on its head. What is truly outrageous is that so many other writers, academics and public sector workers who do not have Rowling’s means or status have been driven from their jobs or denied the right to speak by campaigners who will accept nothing less than total capitulation to their ideology.
In Rowling’s bold refusal to be bullied we see a thoroughly modern crossing of the streams of culture, politics and 21st century notions of social justice. We also see another contemporary phenomenon – which is the extraordinary political reach of today’s celebrities. Whether it is Jack Monroe advising the Office for National Statistics on how to measure the cost of living; or Marcus Rashford forcing change upon the government’s provision of free school meals; or Martin Lewis being hailed as “the real shadow chancellor”: cultural prominence translates into political clout as never before. It is no longer possible to disentangle the world of entertainment and art from the world of power, policy and political controversy.
Safe to say that Rowling could never have envisaged such a role as she scribbled the first drafts of her Potter stories in the cafés of Edinburgh, desperately trying to make ends meet and put food on the table for her daughter. The notion that she might one day have a book published was in itself amazing enough.
The idea that, thanks to a global social media network that did not yet exist, she would one day become a pariah to some, but a heroine to many others for her views on gender would have seemed nothing short of fantastical. How ironic, too, that the great writer of magical fiction should have ended up on the front line of reality, defending science and facts against their antagonists.
Nevertheless – to coin a phrase – she persisted; and continues to do so. Tomorrow, the 11th film inspired by those stories opens in thousands of cinemas all over the world. All power to her elbow.
Here are this week’s recommendations.
Gentleman Jack, season two (BBC One, 10 April)
Based on the diaries of Anne Lister (1791-1840), the first season of Gentleman Jack breathed fresh life into the often prim genre of historical drama with its sheer brio, confidence and wit. For the second season, we return to Yorkshire in 1834, to find the androgynous Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) planning her future with Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle), who is in York following their private marriage ceremony. And she is all business, plotting the estate management, rewriting of wills and practical arrangements that will underpin their life together at Shibden Hall. Still hoping to sabotage it all is Walker’s permanently shocked aunt (also called Ann), played by Stephanie Cole as a northern Lady Bracknell (“The Alps?!”). Meanwhile, here comes Anne Lister’s former lover, Isabella “Tib” Norcliffe, wonderfully played by Joanna Scanlan, unimpressed by Ann Walker (“Isn’t she a bit insipid for you?”) and minded to unsettle the newlyweds. Through it all swaggers the magnificent Jones, whose determination to live life on her own terms is matched by moments of perfectly rendered fragility and doubt. An absolute treat.
Who Killed the KLF? (video on demand)
The primary question – one constantly posed by Chris Atkins’ fine documentary – is: what, exactly, was the KLF? In their joint endeavours between 1987 and 1994 (when they burnt a million pounds on the island of Jura), Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty presented their audience with something that hovered between a shock art project, prolonged media prank, and dance mega-band. Appearing in many guises – the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, the Timelords and K Foundation – the duo were creative magpies; Drummond had managed bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, while Cauty had worked with Stock, Aitken and Waterman. In sampling classic pop tracks on an industrial scale, they turned sonic larceny into huge dance anthems such as ‘What Time is Love?’ and ‘3am Eternal’ – and recruited Tammy Wynette to sing on ‘Justified & Ancient’. In 1992, they fired blanks from an automatic weapon over the head of the audience at the BRITs. But the money-burning was a stunt too far – their explanations sounded (and were) lame – and what had started as joyous anarchy suddenly looked like monstrous self-indulgence. Atkins’ film arrives at no firm conclusions about what Drummond and Cauty were really seeking to do – though it hints more than once at a self-destructive darkness that was the opposite of creative relish – but it is by far the best account to date of the band’s adventures and makes for compelling viewing.
Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story (Netflix)
Asked what set him apart from those who had not achieved media stardom, Jimmy Savile replied: “Ultimate freedom.” As a Roman Catholic, he also lived in mortal dread of Judgment Day and the wrath of God. Rowan Deacon’s two-part documentary shows how the twisted psyche of this predatory paedophile oscillated between glee at the impunity he enjoyed for decades and a state of terror that he would be held to account in this life or the next. The most ridiculous claim about the Savile saga is that there is nothing left to be said. On the contrary: there is so much left to ask about the way in which a preposterously dressed DJ – abusing fool’s licence and the English weakness for eccentrics – inveigled his way into the heart of the Establishment and its institutions. It is disturbing to hear the letters sent by Prince Charles to Savile, imploring him to help with the royal family’s public relations. More disturbing still to hear how the testimonies of those he abused were ignored or dismissed as insufficient evidence. As Andrew Neil, who interviewed Savile, says in the second episode, the media failed to land the story – but the nation failed too, in its collective, subconscious decision not to look too hard at what Savile was doing with the extraordinary power he accrued.
Companion Piece – Ali Smith (Penguin)
In recent literary fiction, there have been few achievements to match Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, which began with Autumn in 2016 and concluded with Summer four years later. Companion Piece, as its title suggests, may be enjoyed as a coda to these four novels – although it is not necessary to have read them to relish Smith’s trademark wit, wordplay, mischievous plotlines and intertwining of the fiercely contemporary with the universal. This time, the narrator is Sandy, an artist who moves into her father’s flat and looks after his dog when he falls ill. She is called by Martina – a woman whom she knew at college but for whom she feels no fondness – to be told a curious story about an early modern lock and key that have already caused the latter all manner of trouble. Add into the mix Martina’s twins, who more or less invade Sandy’s life, and a strange secondary narrative about a female blacksmith from many centuries ago, and the reader is quickly in a mixed-up, time-leaping world that will be familiar to Smith’s fans and a fresh delight to those who are new to her work. The story is set during lockdown, but never feels constrained by its setting. “I didn’t care what season it was. I didn’t even care what day of the week. Everything was mulch of a mulchness to me right then”: grouchy, puckish, magnificent.
The Empress and the English Doctor: How Catherine the Great defied a deadly virus – Lucy Ward (Oneworld)
So meticulously researched, well-paced and finely written is this tale of medical drama and royal daring that one quickly forgets that it is Lucy Ward’s first book. Her story is a remarkable one, full of contemporary resonance, but fascinating in its own right: in 1768, a Hertfordshire inoculator, Thomas Dimsdale, arrived at Catherine II’s Winter Palace in St Petersburg to help the Empress Regnant with a challenge that, if mishandled, would have geopolitical consequences. As smallpox – the “speckled monster” – continued its deadly march, Catherine was horrified that her sickly son and heir, Paul, might catch the disease and perish; and had calculated that the best course of action was to seek his inoculation. This decision was not free of risk, since the procedure involved the patient being given a tiny dose of the virus drawn from the pus of the infected; and hoping that the consequence was immunity rather than the full-blown spread of the disease. Consider Catherine’s second major decision – to be the donor of the pus herself – and you can see why she and Dimsdale bonded in this moment of extreme medical, dynastic and national peril. I will not spoil the gripping detail and twists of the story – suffice it to say that Catherine’s courageous strategy led, in time, to the mass inoculation of the Russian people. This is a real page-turner, and a debut that makes the reader look forward very much to the author’s next project.
In Praise of Good Bookstores – Jeff Deutsch (Princeton University Press)
It is hard to improve upon Jeff Deutsch’s definition of the bricks-and-mortar bookstore as “a necessary part of the habitat of a lively intelligence in touch with the world”; and, as director of Chicago’s legendary Seminary Co-op Bookstores, he should know. In the age of Amazon, physical book shops still provide a space for “explicit and tacit public conversation” and for “meaningful encounter.” One thinks immediately of Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company at the heart of the Parisian Left Bank that provided Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein and many others with a literary home from home; and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights store in San Francisco, so important to the emergence of the Beat Movement. What future for this precious civic institution? On this, as on much else, Deutsch is acute: “Our model must recognize that the product is not the book itself, but the experience of the bookstore – its browsage, and the thoughts, conversations, and discoveries the collection evokes.” (At Tortoise, we also believe that the “B-Corp” model of the ethical corporation has much to offer: which is why, every time you make a purchase at the Tortoise Book Store, independent bookshops get a 10 per cent commission.)
Wet Leg – Wet Leg (8 April)
“I went to school and I got the big D”: if there has ever been a sillier or funnier way of describing the business of getting a degree I have yet to hear it. Wet Leg’s debut single ‘Chaise Longue’ promised great things and their eponymous album does not disappoint. Quite the opposite, in fact: a decade since they met at Isle of Wight College, Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers have truly captured lightning in these twelve tracks. In songs like ‘I Don’t Want to Go Out’ and ‘Angelica’ (‘Angelica, she brought her ray-gun to the party / Angelica obliterated everybody’), they recall the energy of The Slits combined with the lyrical magic of early Squeeze or classic Pulp. For a band that began life on a Ferris wheel, they have come a long way, and the sarky confidence that fills this album suggests they are only getting started. Think Thelma and Louise in a blender with the B-52s. No, The Go-Go’s scripted by Rosie Holt. No…oh, just listen to it. An instant classic. (For UK tour dates this month, check out the band’s website).
Unlimited Love – Red Hot Chili Peppers
Almost forty years since their formation, the Red Hot Chili Peppers refuse to lope off into the sunset. And why should they? Still committed to their unmistakable cocktail of post-punk guitar music, insomniac funk and Californian chaos, they have a style, a sound and a soul that remain irresistible. Reunited with producer Rick Rubin for the first time in nine years and with guitar genius, John Frusciante, for the first time in 15, the Chili Peppers deliver a 12th studio album that strikes exactly the right note in its authenticity, ethos and musical excellence (never forget, they really can play). Laid-back funk is interwoven with Frusciante’s distinctive guitar work and Anthony Kiedis has lost none of his charm as the front-man who stormed into the 20th Century cultural record books in 1991 with ‘Give It Away’. From its opener ‘Black Summer’ via classic rock tracks like ‘These Are the Ways’ via joyous eccentricities like ‘The Great Apes’, the album showcases the Chili Peppers’ unique ability to combine tight guitar music with the laid-back sound of a jazz jam session. The 17 tracks on Unlimited Love were whittled down from about 50: it takes a lot of work to make terrific music sound this easy.
Music for Ukraine EP – Daniel Hope and Alexey Botvinov
The virtuoso Ukrainian pianist Alexey Botvinov was able to get out of Odesa with part of his family just in time and has since teamed up with his British violinist friend, Daniel Hope (director of San Francisco’s New Century Chamber Orchestra) to mobilise their formidable creative networks to help Ukraine. This EP – world-class recordings of compositions by Valentin Silvestrov, Jan Freidlin and Myroslav Skoryk – would be stunning in any circumstances; against the backdrop of a horrendous war it is also heartbreakingly poignant. All involved donated their services for free, and the proceeds from the digital release will go to the charity Aktion Deutschland Hilft which is working tirelessly and courageously in Ukraine.
…and finally: RIP Jordan, AKA Pamela Rooke. The punk legend and fashion icon died aged 66 of a rare cancer on Sunday. Best known for her dramatic appearances alongside the Sex Pistols, she worked in Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s boutique, Sex, on the King’s Road, and was a muse to the director Derek Jarman who cast her in Jubilee (1978). She is played by Maisie Williams in Danny Boyle’s forthcoming series Pistol (Disney+, 31 May). Her 2019 memoir, Defying Gravity, is highly recommended – truly, one of a kind.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner
Photographs courtesy of Warner Bros, Netflix, BBC and Chris Moorhouse/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images and Wire Image