Bath Literature Festival: With an atmosphere like the lull before a rock concert, JK Rowling arrives in town


The queue outside the Forum, a handsome art deco cinema on Bath’s south side, stretches like a dragon’s tail, past the showbiz posters, past a sign in the window of a ChrIstian bookshop that reads “Does God Speak?”, on and on around the corner and into Dorchester Street. Eighty per cent of the queue waiting to see JK Rowling are 18-25, with a preponderance of women.

These are the diehard Rowlingites, who discovered the first Harry Potter book when they 10 or 11, and followed the saga all the way through the next 6 volumes. Could they really rustle up much excitement about her first novel for grown-ups, The Casual Vacancy, a gritty, not to say grimy and grubby, tale of a local election in a small town in Dorset?

Don’t be ridiculous. Say Hi to Margaux Herrera, 20, a student in Miami, Florida, who flew into Bath yesterday to be here. “I’ve been to four of these Vacancy events,” she said, “and they always mean I’m travelling from another country.”  Her friend Rebecca Hunt, 24, an unemployed teacher from Leicestershire, who tweets under the name @jkrowlingrocks, agrees. They’ll go anywhere to meet JK in person, and bask in the presence of the author who invented Hogwarts and taught them it was okay to believe in magic.

In the Forum’s green room, Ms Rowling’s minders and the publicity entourage from Little Brown, her publishers, are comparing notes about which problematic fans have turned up. “Mmmm…yeah, that Erica… she was at the gig in Scotland. Lots of tears… May have to watch her…” The atmosphere is like the lull before a rock concert, studiedly calm. A luminary from the Literature Festival steps up to Ms Rowling and, as if presenting a debutante at court, introduces her pretty daughter by saying: “She’s a huge Potter fan.” Ms Rowling has heard this assertion several million times before. “Ah,” she says, giving the girl a smile, “You’re one of my people.”

Rowling’s people number in scores of millions. Tonight there will be 1500 of them inside the Forum. Security is tight. A printed document advises all backstage personnel exactly when the black Mercedes Viano will purr into Bath, when the minders will take their places at the Forum entrance (to fend off any presumptuous Dementors,) and precisely when Jo’s doctor husband Neil will be ushered to his seat.

Instructions are issued about the book signing – how all book buyers will be told there’ll be no special dedications, no posed photos at the table, no other book than The Casual Vacancy will be signed – and one copy only, the book to be held open at the title page. Oh and every signature must be overlaid by a hologram to prove it’s authentic, so the brand isn’t diluted by fakes. 

“At the moment, authentic signatures on secondhand Rowling books are going for £100 a time,” says Nic Bottomley, proprietor of Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, “because she’s hasn’t done a lot of publicity for the new book. But after 1500 fans go home tonight with one signed book each, the price is bound to drop a bit.” 

That’s what happens when brands get devalued. But the Rowling brand shows no sign of flagging just yet.

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