Original sketch by J K Rowling
I could lie. I could tell you that my favourite book is War and Peace or Ulysses, but I won't. I'll tell you the truth. And the truth is – I'm a Harry Potter kid.
I am a millennial who was born at precisely the right moment to enjoy the world of wizards and witches. I was seven or eight when The Philosopher's Stone was released, and I remember sitting on my bed, in my yellow room, with my sister, mispronouncing Hermione, dreaming of the owls arriving and debating what houses we would be sorted into (Gryffindor, obviously). I ran through the barrier at Platform 9 ¾ with Harry, and submerged myself in the magical world.
Then, of course, I grew up with Harry, because we had no choice but to wait for J K Rowling to write the next installment. I was seventeen when The Deathly Hallows was released, exactly the same age as Harry is when he engages in the Battle of Hogwarts. The books became woven into family life and so many of my childhood memories have their mark upon them.
My Mum would pre-order just one copy of each new book, and this had to be shared with not only my two (older) sisters but my Mum as well. Each of us was desperate to see what happened to Harry, desperate to see him triumph over He Who Must Not Be Named and desperate to ensure our favourite characters had not perished. We would then talk about them, dissect them and try to predict what was to come. We would go and see each film as soon as it was released and spend the drive home detailing all the things that had been left out.
It is not the family memories, however, that make Harry Potter my favourite book (or books), it is the sheer escapism they provide. I can open any one of the seven books, climb down the sentences as if they were a rope, and hide. They acted, and still do act, as a shield against reality. They gave me shelter when my dad and grandpa were seriously ill, they were a tonic for homesickness and have been a comfort during the chaos of the past year.
A copy of at least one of the books always sits on my bedside table and they are the books I turn to when my mind won't engage in the great pleasures of reading. They are also the only books I have ever read more than once (this confession will not stretch so far as to divulge how many times I have read them). Yet the foundations of my desire to use fiction, prose or poetry for escapism was laid many years before, by my Mum.
Before I knew who Harry, Ron and Hermione were, my Mum had shown many other worlds and she continued to show me them after my trips to Hogwarts. She took me to Mr McGregor's Garden, to Neverland, the 100 Acre Wood, secret gardens and The Shire. We have roamed many imaginary worlds together and I attribute my love of stories to her. She showed me how books could be a shelter. It was not until I was twenty-one that I realised I could create worlds of my own, and I could escape down a rope of words that I had created.
I was serving in the British Army and had reached a breaking point in terms of my mental health. I was in crisis and unable to verbalise what was going on in my head. I repeated the phrase "I'm fine" to my mental health nurse, with no idea of how to get past those two words.
My nurse, a wonderful Glaswegian named Anne, suggested I try to write things down – so I did. I wrote awful prose and worse poetry in a bid to unscramble my head. Yet I was still afraid: afraid of judgement, afraid of the shame I felt and afraid of what would happen if I let someone examine my inner thoughts; so I made an attempt to hide within the words. I employed (really bad) metaphors to explain how I felt, and used poetic language to encrypt my feelings. I verbalised my inner workings as a code to be broken.
To my horror and relief, Anne showed herself to be akin to Alan Turing. She encouraged me to keep writing and, since my military career was crumbling, suggested this could be a new path for me.
I ran with it. I took that small orb of hope and signed up to do my BA in English Language and Literature with The Open University and then went on to study Creative Writing at Lancaster University. My studies, particular those undertaken at Lancaster, opened doors to a whole host of new worlds. I discovered a love for the modernists and the way they delved into the mind; for contemporary writers, such as Eimear McBride, Sally Rooney and Sarah Baume, who seem so fearless in their work. But my greatest discovery was poetry.
I had always felt that poetry was a world out of reach. I thought its door would stay firmly shut for a common, Brummie kid who lacked the eloquence for its measured metre and rhythm. Luckily, I had the wonderful tutor Dr Sarah Corbett guiding me at Lancaster, and she held the door open for me. There, I discovered the wonders of Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and Liz Berry (amongst so many others). Poetry was a perfect place to hide as it offered a variety of shelters, all of varying sizes, all of varying clarity and all with varying degrees of personal labour required to build them.
Since those days sat with Anne, struggling through the swamp that filled my head, I have written. I have built worlds, destroyed worlds, and tried to dissect my brain. I find inspiration and influence everywhere. Sometimes, I will be on the school run and simply hear a line of poetry. I will dream about characters or see them wander, quite clearly, through my mind. My writing oftens leans towards mental health and motherhood, as this is what I am trying to pick apart and understand, but I also like my pen to roam across nature, the spiritual and the supernatural.
After my studies, my ambition to have a career as a writer grew. I would love to walk into a bookshop and see my poetry collection or novel on the shelves. I would love to hold that book in my hands and say that I'd done it. It is a dream that may or may not come true but, whatever happens, I will always have my love of reading and writing and a passion to construct worlds in which to hide in.
And if all else fails, I shall just run away to Hogwarts.
Claire Hughes is a Birmingham-born writer who now lives in Staffordshire. She recently achieved her MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University and was published in Oxford Brookes' anthology My teeth don't chew on shrapnel.