Death and the Dursleys

I’m rereading and rewatching the Harry Potter series of books and films, in German, and now that the first book has finally turned up (6 weeks late and reordered after a protracted argument with Brightnerd) I can do that in sequence.

Life isn’t too short to learn German. I’m the proof that anyone can learn another language, provided they learn in a way that suits them. I was crap at Spanish at school, so I thought, and so the teacher thought, but when I stopped bamboozling myself with boring verb tables and unconnected vocabulary lists, I learned that I’ve got a good ear. My Spanish got so good I was interpreting simultaneously for politicians and international NGO speakers at the conferences of the European & Mediterranean Social Forum.

I’ve known and loved that series ever since I read the first book to me wee nephew (who now towers above me). That familiarity and emotional connection makes it easier for me to understand it in other languages. We find meaning in things because our brains recognise patterns. It’s an evolutionary shortcut and it often helps. Not always. (I’ll come back to that.)

From the first words of book one, “HP and the Philosopher’s Stone” (the US “Sorcerer’s Stone” version presumes that kids can’t look up alchemical terms), the Dursleys are presented as archetypical White English suburban middle-class: snobbish, anxious, boring and living in the “Home Counties”. Mr D literally bores for a living (he runs a company that makes drills) and Mrs D spends her time fretting about their home and garden filled with status anxiety. Dudley D, even as a baby, is a brat.

The Dursleys hate anything they can’t control. Their pet hate, and secret terror, is magic. The first unforgivable social faux pas committed by Mrs D’s sister (Harry’s mum) is to have been associated with something so unfettered and unpredictable. The second is to have died.

This last needs some explanation. Surely everyone dies! How on earth could a whole demographic be against it? How illogical! Not really. There are 9 distinct sub-classes in the White English social system but let’s just focus on the three major groups: upper, middle & lower.

Firstly, why am I mentioning ethnicity? Because the dismissal of death is a peculiarly White middle-class mindset (or mental illness) as other ethnicities have not bleached it out of the fabric of their culture so scrupulously.

As for class, the upper echelons are obsessed with death. Because death means death duties and inheritance of estates and titles. At the other end of the ladder there is a pragmatic (and often religious) acceptance that everything, including life, is limited.

Not so for the middle-class for whom everything is about control. Lacking the grand narratives of those they are sandwiched between, there is simply no tidy place for human death (apart from that of the disabled, the very old, the other classes, and foreigners) and animal death is either ignored or arranged as discreetly as possible.

The White English middle class may attend church and nod along brightly to rationalist sermonising but basically it’s a social club (with just a smidgeon of welfare) and it’s not considered good form to either believe in that kind of thing or act as if one does.

In that class, death hasn’t really been in fashion since the First World War. Caught between the let’s-rub-along-together-for-tomorrow-we-die of the plebeian squaddies and the aloof incompetence of the patrician officers, the Second World War only made things worse. Apart from in prison camps. That class make very good collaborators as they easily make the self-advantageous switch from the mercantile to the mercenary – and they do love order.

AIDS was a huge crisis in middle England because death of the young became so public. And so shameful. The aristocracy has never cared who gets off with who, as long as the line of inheritance is secure, and the working class (despite stereotypes) has a culture of merciful martyrdom whereby social sinners earn their forgiveness by suffering.

The (luncheon) meat in the sandwich has neither attitude. Not ostentatiously thriving and boosting the social capital of ones progeny is a capital sin in that class. Succumbing to a disease that targets those who ignore Government Health Warnings that appear with regularity on BBC 1 is especially reprehensible. The only salvation was for affected families and affected celebrities to throw themselves into charity work. This then became a channel, if not of peace (to misquote Maggie Thatcher misquoting St Francis of Assisi), then at least of relief of the anxiety over navigating the twin perils of contagion of such social sloppiness and not being seen to be taking action.

For a while, once it was clear that White, English middle class heterosexuals would probably not be at risk from what was still considered the property (and the problem) of those gays, it was quite fashionable to champion one, or even two. Provided they could be relied on to show due gratitude for the magnanimous gesture of anyone in that class giving a damn about anyone else.

Fast forward to last year when, after several attempts, the greater portion of the population of the globe was panicked into imagining that various loosely related flu symptoms, an ever-changing (but always racist) origin story and completely arbitrary domestic surveillance, restriction of movement, speech and association, all made one coherent whole, it became apparent that, this time, death was not going to be restricted to Them. Death was coming for Us.

Because the first thing that JK Rowling tells us about the Dursleys is that they consider themselves normal. In fact, the Dursleys and their ilk consider themselves normative. There is simply no consideration that they could be “the other”. And as premature death (with above-noted exceptions) is only supposed to happen to others, when it happens to the White English middle-class, their very identity is under threat.

This is the reason why that class is so onboard with the government restrictions and surveillance. They’re angry. This should not be happening. To them. The class that glories in bureaucracy (the one above works through privilege and the one below through people) keeps to the rules simply because they’re there. Conformity and obedience mark them off from those above and below who break rules for very different reasons (transcending regulations loftily and slipping under them). Determinedly positivist, though most wouldn’t know how to explain that, they have no other ethical code.

At the moment, before the transhumanist (eugenicist) agenda behind this farce becomes abundantly clear, we’re in Book/ Film 5. The wilfully ignorant mismanaging old Fudges and the sadistic controlling social engineer in fluffy pink Umbridges are in charge. With the quick quotes quill of the mainstream and social media (now identical) feeding constant drivel to the masses. Plausible deniability are the watchwords: if the forces of fascism (if you think that’s hyperbole, you haven’t been paying attention) don’t succeed, they were only following orders; if they do, they’re well-placed for promotion.

By Film 6 (perhaps also in the book but I haven’t reread that far) Fudge has resigned and Umbridge stands beside the new Minister for Magic, openly supporting the new regime.

We haven’t got that far yet. But if the White English middle class, and their American, Canadian and Australian diaspora, don’t stop assuaging their status anxiety by this angry conformist denial of death, that’s exactly where we’re going to end up.

As the Tale of the Three Brothers illustrates graphically, death comes to all: Us as well as Them.

Death with scythe lithograph

Thanks to Piotr Siedlecki who has released his image Death With Scythe into the Public Domain.