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March 10th, 2009

I thought on first reading it that this was one of the less successful of the Harry Potter books, and my prejudices were confirmed re-reading it now. It's rather marking time between the scene-setting of volume 1 and the big reveals of volume 3. It's also marred by the poor world-building of the politics of wizardry - the nature of the power relationships between the Minister for Magic, Lucius Malfoy, Dumbledore and the Weasleys' father is never made very clear or credible. It seems extraordinary that no action beyond sidelining Dumbledore is taken after the outbreak of petrifactions, and even more extraordinary that the fraudulent Gilderoy Lockhart is allowed to remain in his job for a week, never mind three terms. Do the parents of Hogwarts pupils not care about their children being turned to stone, or set exam questions on their teachers' autobiographies?

(One other niggle: given that Harry is so rich, why doesn't he upgrade the Gryffindor Quidditch team's broomsticks and get Ron a new wand?)

There are two saving graces to the book, though. The first is the diary - an artifact that seduces poor Ginny to do evil, that maintains Voldemort's secret original identity. It's a very creepy betrayal of intimacy. (Of course, if your diary is a Livejournal, it talks back to you in many voices...)

The other is the key moral message of the book that bigotry is wrong. It's not only the nastiness of cheap insults like "Mudblood" and "Squib" and the consciousness of wizardly privilege; there's also the moment when Harry inadvertently exposes himself as a Parseltongue, and his reputation plummets. It's character-building for him, and hopefully thought-provoking for those readers who may not previously have had to think much about prejudice and privilege.

Anyway, Azkaban next, which is my favourite of the series.

< Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone | Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets | Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban | Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire | Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix | Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince | Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows | The Tales of Beedle the Bard >

This is a collection of sixty or so speeches made by Graham Watson MEP since he became leader of the Liberal group of members of the European Parliament. I know the author, and inevitably - especially given that it's a book of speeches - I hear his gentle Rothesay accent in my head as I read the words. (Although he is a Scot, he actually represents South-Western England. And Gibraltar.)

Speeches are odd: on the one hand, they can be pretty ephemeral, on the other hand, they can be tremendously difficult to prepare. I did one in Berlin myself yesterday, addressing diplomats and academics from Brazil, Mexico, Egypt, South Africa, India, China and Indonesia. The topic was one that I have thought about quite often, and talked about occasionally, but had never had to marshall my thoughts on before, let alone present them before an audience of complete strangers. I had a sleepless night on Saturday, dreaming that I would miss my plane, and a sleepless night on Sunday, dreaming that the speech would go badly. In the end I think it went OK - it was in the German foreign ministry, where you can easily work up the last-minute adrenalin by leaping in and out of the paternosters. I'll probably write it up here eventually - I took the precaution of recording myself on my MP3 player. (And it was tighter than I had anticipated to catch my plane this morning as I caught up on lost sleep from the two previous nights. I was in no danger of missing the flight, but did miss breakfast.)

Graham Watson's speeches are all much shorter - the longest of these can't be more than a quarter of an hour, the shortest are parliamentary interventions where MEPs are speaking against the clock. Some are very specific - Russia, Gibraltar, Cyprus, the poor management of his own election campaign in 1999. Others are broader. I don't think anyone could read the collection and come away from it with the feeling that they didn't know what Graham Watson stands for; he's pretty clear on his concept of liberalism, and he has obviously managed to make it appealing to large numbers of MEPs (and, hopefully, their voters); the size of the Liberal group has doubled under his leadership, without his dialling down his own rhetoric in any way, and continues to pull in recruits.

Graham has announced that while he is running for re-election to the European Parliament, he will stand down as leader of the Liberal group after seven years and will instead pitch for the position of President (ie Speaker) of the parliament as a whole. It's a bit of a long shot, but I would like to see him get it.

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