Boyd Tonkin: Tales of the City

'Now we just need one of Harry Potter's spells to stop Dan Brown's long-threatened new book'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Harry Potter and I have had our ups and downs. There was the occasion when Bloomsbury Publishing invited editors to collect review copies from its Soho Square offices at midnight. In the inevitable scrum I was pushed around by security staff who seemed to have taken lessons from the Death Eaters (who pick a fight in the all-night cafe on Tottenham Court Road on page 138 of Deathly Hallows). Then came the overblown launch at Edinburgh Castle for Half-Blood Prince, with the publishers asking the media to pay a tribute of one child each to swell the cast of extras for their elaborate publicity charade. This time Bloomsbury's legal warning, which promised retribution against anyone who leaked details of the plot prior to midnight Friday, set a new benchmark for heavy-handed pomposity. Needless to say, someone in New York bought an early copy from a bookseller and it part-leaked anyway.

Then, standing in a queue on Saturday morning behind a mother and child equally immersed in copies of the same bulky hardback, I began to count Harry's blessings. Around 12 million readers worldwide are devouring – or have swiftly devoured – a book that kicks off with a hauntingly mysterious passage from Aeschylus's Oresteian trilogy (first staged 458BC) that leads into a tragically grown-up world where good and evil, virtue and vice, life and death, co-exist on a level far beyond George W Bush's ken.

It proceeds to skewer – via the return of hatchet-job harridan Rita Skeeter – the simpering, malicious innuendo that passes for profile-writing in newspapers associated with the defence of "Middle England". Then, over a thunderous 600-page showdown, it time and again takes pains to cheer on mongrel heroes against the racist ideologues who hanker after "a peaceful pure-blood society". The cowed servant-class of Hogwarts regains its dignity when Dobby – "a Free Elf" – chooses to rescue Harry from Voldemort. This might be the bit that made JK Rowling "absolutely howl" (as she told Jonathan Ross) while writing in a hotel room alone. All in all, if we had to endure a decade of ridiculous hype that made fans from Canada to Belgium converge on a West End bookstore to wait all night and day through Biblical deluges, far better Potter than any rival blockbuster. Now we need a spell to prevent Dan Brown from completing his long-threatened The Solomon Key.

Even if the wobbly bicycle of Boris Johnson grows into an electoral juggernaut, it will be one tough call to run Ken Livingstone off the streets of London. Below the horizon of front-page spats and stunts, the incumbent mayor carries on delivering a masterclass in city-hall politics. The art is to be high-minded and hard-headed all at once. Take the "India Now" events that began last week (with a floating Taj Mahal along the Thames) to celebrate the 60th anniversary of independence. Indian investment in the capital's economy now runs at record levels, and in November, the mayor plans to open offices in Delhi and Mumbai to attract more. Then there's the small matter of the 450,000-odd Londoners of Indian descent...

Civilians can forget the calculations and just enjoy the show. The really spectacular highlights – dance and theatre in Trafalgar Square, an Indian festival in Regent Street – are still to come, but smaller pleasures can be sampled now. At the always-rewarding Museum of London, in its corner of the Barbican, a compact collection of pictures and objects sums up the Indian history of London over the past couple of centuries. In the aftermath of the Southall by-election, it was good to be reminded of the political diversity of London's first three Indian-born MPs: Dadabhai Naoroji, elected as a Liberal for Finsbury Central in 1892; Sir Mancherjee Bhownaggree, as a Tory for Bethnal Green North East in 1895; and the far-left Shapurji Saklatvala, MP for Battersea North in 1922 and again in 1924. Three white working-class constituencies; three clashing sets of principles; three Asian elected members: and all before Margaret Thatcher was born. In the last case, the text fails to point out that Saklatvala was elected first on a Labour-Communist ticket, then simply as a Communist. Why so coy?

However, my favourite political item has to be the 1913 magazine photo of a well-known suffragette princess. The caption reads: "Princess Sophia Duleep Singh selling 'The Suffragette' outside Hampton Court Palace, where she has a suite of apartments." Beside the regally elegant vendor stands her billboard. It announces "Revolution!". After a fashion, Your Highness.

"Juggernaut" is just one of the scores of everyday words that migrated into English from Indian languages during colonial times. As the legendary Anglo-Indian lexicon known as "Hobson-Jobson" explains, Lord Jagannath is "a name of Krishna worshipped... at the famous shrine of Puri in Orissa". Every year in July the chariots still roll, and even now the risk remains that devotees in the huge crowd will be crushed by them. Puri, on the Bay of Bengal, is a fascinating hybrid of a town: one of the four holiest pilgrimage (and cremation) sites in India, but also a Victorian-era seaside resort with stalls strung out along a merry prom. At night fairy lights bedeck the sweet-and-sari merchants while, not far away, fires from the funeral pyres shoot into the sky. It's like finding Valhalla at Brighton. Next Sunday a touch of Puri will come to Trafalgar Square with a London version of the Jagannath procession. Will the destiny of Ken be to sit atop the chariot, or fall under its wheels?