One of the glummer aspects of advancing years is seeing all your more whimsical jokes become literally true. So it has now been announced that Hillary Rodham Clinton will be writing a "thriller". Plot spoiler: It was Putin. With the Macedonian Content Farmers. In a $100,000 Facebook ad.
Well, no. It will surely be a little more thrilling than that. Mrs Clinton will be collaborating with Louise Penny, who writes (to me not entirely persuasive) police procedurals set in Quebec's Eastern Townships, a short tootle north of me, if you can get across the shuttered border. If I'd known Hillary was in the market for a Canadian co-author, I'd have volunteered my own services just to ease the tedium of lockdown. But no doubt she was looking for bigger fish. (Ms Penny and I have mutual friends, but only in that everyone-in-Canada-knows-everyone-else sense.)
As I said, in a certain sense I foresaw this grim and dispiriting mid-life career shift. The piece below is one for which we get a ton of requests, even though it's two decades old and I had hopes we might be able to retire it round about 9.57pm on election night in November 2016, when personal-appearance rates for the impressive roster of Clinton Foundation public speakers were dramatically slashed and publishers' advances on her biennial autobiographies seemed likely to follow.
But not so. This column was written in June 2003 and is anthologized in my book The [Un]documented Mark Steyn. The starting point was that season's alleged Hillary memoir, Living History, which was published within a few days of J K Rowling's latest Harry Potter blockbuster. For some reason, my column managed to get these two quite distinct authors confused. The passage toward the end, about seeing the future of the series as more dependent on the much brainier Hillary reads somewhat poignantly these days:
Splinching while you're apparating
Well, the big day is here! Around the world this morning, bookstores opened their doors and millions of customers who'd spent the night waiting patiently in long lines eagerly stampeded to the counter and said, "Here's the copy of Living History I bought last week. I'd like my money back, please."
Sadly, the publisher's returns policy, conveniently footnoted on page 523 of the book, makes that impossible. But already industry observers are hailing the brilliant marketing strategy of ensuring that no details of the fictional bestseller were allowed to leak out until the cheques for advance orders had cleared. It's that kind of sophisticated media campaign that has helped make its multimillionaire creator, J K Rodham, the world's most widely unread author.
It's hard to imagine now, but just a few years ago Rodham was financially dependent on the government, living in dreary public housing in an obscure part of Little Rock, and separated from her husband for a few hours while he was over at his brother's testing the new hot tub with a couple of cocktail waitresses. It was then that the soon to be world-famous author came up with her incredible plot: the story of an adolescent with magical powers who saves the world from the dark forces.
The result was Billy Clinter and the Philosophers Stoned, in which young Billy attends a party at Oxford and discovers his amazing ability to smoke but not inhale. With that first fantastic adventure of the shy misunderstood boy blessed - and burdened - with the awesome power to feel your pain with just one touch, young Billy Clinter became the world's most popular schoolboy.
Then came Billy Clinter and the Gusset of Fire, in which the vast right-wing conspiracy led by the sinister Lord Newt and Doleful Bob plant a hogtail disguised as a house elf in his hotel room in Little Hangleton. The elf tricks Billy into revealing his pocket sneakoscope and she glimpses its remarkable distinguishing characteristics, the strange lightning bolt along the side that signals the tremendous potency of his Slytherin Beaubaton. After this narrow escape, the young wizard gets into yet more scrapes in Billy Clinter and the Prisoner of Azkansas, in which Rodham tells the story of how young Billy and his much brainier friend, Hillary Granger, finally escape the hideous swamp of Azkansas after being trapped there for far longer than Hillary had expected to be.
But in the fourth volume events take a grim turn, as the careless schoolboy becomes aware that Professor Starr has in his laboratory a magic dress that could destroy all his and Hillary's plans. In Billy Clinter and the Chamber of Semen, Billy realises that he splinched while he was apparating, which had never happened before. This is all the fault of Moaning Monica, the intern who haunts the anteroom at Housewhites and has the rare power of Parcelmouth, the ability to look into the eye of the Basilisk, the world's smallest snake, without being petrified. Is she a Niffler or a Death Eater? Billy cannot be sure. He looks to Housewhites' giant shambling groundskeeper Reno to protect him, but she's busy raining down fire on strange cults. As the book ends, their old friend Albus Bumblegore fails to become Headmaster of Housewhites after insufficient chads are found in his sorting hat.
With each new adventure, critics have predicted that the eternal schoolboy has run his course. But he keeps coming back. None the less, there were strange rumours this time that J K Rodham was preparing to kill off the most popular character. It's been known for a while that she sees the series' future depending more on the much brainier though somewhat unlikeable Hillary Granger and the four female ghosts who write all her words.
According to the pre-publicity, the latest book - Living History: The Heavily Discounted Bulk Order of the Phoenix - would see Hillary rise from the ashes yet again, step out of Billy's shadow and prepare to take Housewhites back from the evil usurper Lord W Bush (as fans know, the W stands for Woldemort, but by tradition the name is never said). But instead it's mostly hundreds of pages about who Hillary sat next to at the many school dinners she's attended, with a brief passage about when Billy told her about Moaning Monica. According to the book, after spending the summer golfing with Uncle Vernon Jordan, he admits to Hillary that, although he did play quidditch, he never put his bludger in the golden snitch. Hillary thinks this is a lot of hufflepuff and, although he doesn't die, Billy finds himself under an impediment curse which means that for the rest of the book he hardly gets to take his wand out at all and Uncle Vernon starts calling him Nearly Headless Bill.
But has the series lost touch with its original fans? Many of those young readers from a decade ago are now in their mid-50s and may have difficulty still believing in fantastical tales about boys who don't inhale and girls who can't remember where they placed their billing records.
"Oh, you say that every time," chuckles J K Rodham. "Believe me, they'll still be swallowing this stuff 20 years from now."
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