| J.K.Rowling with her new novel Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at the Waterstones book store in Edinburgh Scotland, early on Saturday. (Reuters)
London, June 21: Last night was the shortest night of the year but the hours up to midnight, when the latest Harry Potter book went on sale all over Britain, were some of the longest for his millions of fans.
Three years had been an agonisingly long time to wait for the fifth instalment of the adventures of the schoolboy wizard.
There had been leaks that someone important was going to be killed off in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix but no one knew just who.
Among the most excited of Harry’s fans were the finalists in The Wizard Quest — organised by Ottakar’s bookshops in conjunction with The Daily Telegraph — who gathered last night at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, which has been used as a backdrop for some of the Hogwarts scenes in the films.
There, equipped with broomsticks and fed on Mudblood waffles, 30 children, aged eight to 14, competed to become one of the top five wizards in the country.
The prizes at stake included signed bookplates, thousands of pounds of book tokens and a ticket to the Royal Albert Hall on Thursday, when Harry’s creator, J.K. Rowling, meets her adoring public.
In spite of high winds that blew off wizard hats, the contestants gathered on the pitch where the Quidditch matches were filmed. “Say goodbye to your muggle parents,” said the presiding wizard. “Now the fun begins.” Having waited impatiently for three years, the children could hardly contain their excitement as midnight drew closer.
These pagan festivities to mark the solstice were not just confined to Britain. From New Zealand to Japan, Germany to Brazil, similar scenes were being played out. Thousands of bookshops stayed open at odd times to greet the biggest book launch in history, with the initial printing of the book estimated at 14 million copies worldwide. Postmen were preparing to deliver the million copies which had been ordered over the internet.
Carrying the books, which weigh two pounds each, let alone getting them through letterboxes, called for magic powers.
At Waterstones in Piccadilly, central London, a party was held for celebrity fans and competition winners. Dame Judi Dench, who was accompanied by her six-year-old grandson, Sam, said: “I have never seen such a fuss surrounding a book before, except maybe for Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” Sting, the singer, who attended the launch with his wife, Trudie Styler, said: “I have not even read the third book yet. My daughter is the real fan. I think the Harry Potter books are a really good way to get children away from television and video games and into reading.”
Other celebrities who attended the event included the actress and comedienne Meera Syal, the actress Imogen Stubbs and her husband, the theatre impresario Trevor Nunn.
Across London, at King’s Cross, W H Smith had created a virtual Platform 9.75 where children can try to push a trolley loaded with suitcases through a pillar, just like Hogwarts pupils.
Every one of Ottakar’s 117 branches is staging special Potter events this weekend. The Harry Potter books are already a publishing phenomenon. The fourth instalment, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, became the fastest selling book in history on the first weekend of its publication.
Little was known about the new book before publication, except that Rowling wept when she killed off one of the main characters. At 768 pages — more than 255,000 words — it is more than a third longer than Goblet. Bloomsbury tantalisingly published the opening paragraph in January: “The hottest day of the summer so far was drawing to a close and a drowsy silence lay over the large, square houses of Privet Drive.” By now, thousands of children and a fair few adults will know the ending.
Author J.K. Rowling, who created the planet’s most famous wizard, was thrilled the plot had not leaked out.
“I don’t think anything crucial has got out so I am happy,” she said after visiting an Edinburgh bookshop at midnight, the witching hour when book five was released.