Quidditch only exists in the world of Harry Potter, right? Wrong. Alexi Duggins spends the day at a national tournament, trying to decipher beaters from bludgers and cheering on London’s own team of muggles. Photos by David Tett.
In a sunny corner of a Reading sports field, 18 group-hugging Londoners cling together tensely. In five minutes they’re going to be representing their city in a nationwide battle of broomsticks and Harry Potter-based ball skills. But first there are questions to be answered. ‘Have we all remembered the no-swearing rule?’ ‘Fuck you!’ ‘Does anyone know what the soup of the day is?’ ‘The tears of our enemies!’ ‘Who are we?’‘London!’ ‘WHO are we?’ ‘LOOONNNNNNDOOOOOONNNNNN!!!!!!!!’
As the mixed-sex starting-seven of London team the Unspeakables take their end of the pitch, there’s just one question left: whose idea was it to play quidditch without magic? Answer: students. The first team was founded in 2005 at Middlebury College in Vermont, by a Potter-loving fresher with Sunday afternoons to fill, and there are now over 1,000 real-life muggles quidditch teams spread across 13 nations. There’s a world cup, an international governing body and scores of blogs with names like ‘The Muddy Broomstick’ and ‘Help! Quidditch Has Taken Over My Life’.
In the States, matches are even beginning to be televised. You have to wonder how exciting it could possibly be. Or, in fact, who’d give up their free time to play it. Instead of whizzing about on magic broomsticks, the players clasp short lengths of wood between their thighs. Rather than missile-like bludger balls circling the skies, there are three slightly deflated dodgeballs to chuck at the opposition. And the golden snitch – the elusive, fluttery ball which needs to be caught to end the match – is less a precious globe that zips through the air on wings of wizardry, and more a tennis ball in a sock.
‘Snitch is loose!’ yells the referee, as the Unspeakables begin their first match of the Whiteknights Cup against Norwich. To make the snitch harder to catch, it’s dangling from the bum of a ‘snitch runner’, whose job it is to protect it(and ignore the fact they look like they’re showing off a case of haemorrhoids). The players kneel and turn their eyes to the floor so they can’t see where the snitch runner chooses to hide. He hares off in the direction of the car park, but not before skipping across the field, wrapping a pink feather boa around the referee’s neck and gaily showering each team in glitter.
‘Yeah, the snitch runner’s about entertainment as well,’ says Polly, the Unspeakables’ chatty, diminutive head of recruitment. ‘We’ve had them climbing up on roofs or riding around on bicycles before.’ Despite this effervescent show, quidditch for muggles turns out to be a cross between rugby and dodgeball, shot through with the kind of bone-crunching physical play that suggests Voldemort might be the tackling consultant. A whistle blows, balls fly, and after 20 minutes, the game’s over. The score? 120-60 to the Unspeakables.
It’s a brilliant and slightly unexpected victory. Norwich might not be the UK’s premier quafflegrabbers (that’s Oxford). But whilst teams like Keele and Bangor are renowned for their astonishing physical play, London’s claim to fame… well, that’s slightly different. ‘Our reputation’s probably more that of a drinking team,’ says Ryan, an effusively friendly chaser (ie goalscorer). ‘We’re known as being quite sociable.’
The Unspeakables are also different in being the only UK team to accept non-students into their ranks. They’re a motley assortment of graduates, Harry Potter fans and sporty types who fancy trying something new. ‘I met one of the team in a pub and laughed for about an hour when she told me she played quidditch,’ says Chris, the team’s keeper. ‘Then I realised I needed the exercise and gave it a go.’ But wasn’t it odd having to adjust to all the Harry Potter stuff? ‘It’s actually pretty mixed,’ chips in Polly. ‘If you asked everyone here if they were Harry Potter fans, some people would say yes. But then the same would be true if you asked a rugby team that question.’
Twenty minutes later, the Unspeakables are back on the pitch. And, well, something seems to have gone wrong. Substitutes fly in and out of play. Tactical advice is barked from the sidelines. The team hare up and down the pitch so fast it’s like an episode of ‘The Benny Hill Show’. In the confusion they lose two matches in a row, meaning they have to win against Chester in order to make it into the semi-finals: no mean feat.‘Chester just did very well at the Northern Cup,’ says Ben, the team’s match coordinator and quidditch trivia expert. ‘We know they’re going to be a force to contend with.’ Worse still, two of the Unspeakables are hobbling off for first aid. Not that they’re on their own. During games, a St John’s Ambulance team dash about applying icepacks to messed-up spines and checking dazed players who’ve taken broomsticks to the face for signs of concussion.
‘A lot of people are surprised at how violent quidditch is,’ says Polly. ‘Just look at Ben.’ Why? ‘He’s the most injury-prone.’ ‘That’s me,’ pipes up Ben. ‘I once strained a penis muscle on a broom.’ Fortunately, this isn’t a team that’s about to be scuppered by weak willy ligaments. ‘GETTTT INNNN THEEERRRRE!!!!!’ bellows the Unspeakables’ head coach as play begins against Chester. The Londoners hurl themselves into the game. The opposition winds up being so thoroughly badgered, it’s a wonder they don’t sign a petition calling for a bovine TB cull. Chris the keeper is so vigorous in his bodychecking he could oust Dr Christian Jessen from ‘Embarassing Bodies’. This, you sense, could be the turning point in London’s fortunes. But then there’s a roar from the Chester end of the pitch. A crushing roar. A roar that says, ‘I have slain my mortal foe in battle! And my mortal foe is an old sock!’ Chester have grabbed the snitch and won the game in the process. Now the Unspeakables are left to scrap it out at the bottom of the rankings. The highest they can come is fifth place. The lowest, eighth. Out of eight teams. It’s actually kind of heartbreaking. Quidditch for muggles initially sounded like a sidesplitting jaunt through Harry Potter-based LOLs, but it’s no more daft than most sports (one word:lacrosse). Plus, the Unspeakables are so down to earth that after a day in their company you find yourself really rooting for them. But now, they stand there dejected and knackered – drooping with sadness.
In an atmosphere already heavy with defeat, it’s time for the final match. The fixture that decides everything. And the Unspeakables look spent. You could assemble a team of 200 spectators to shout ‘Broom broom broom, let me hear you say way-oh!’ and it wouldn’t be enough. It’s over. Nothing, you suspect, can lift them now. Until they huddle up, that is. ‘We’re here to kick ass and chew bubblegum! And you know what?’‘What?’‘We’re all out of gum!Who are we?’‘London!’‘WHO are we?’ ‘LONDON!’ ‘WHOOOO ARE WEEEEEE?‘LONNDDDDDOOONNNNN!’ That seems to do the trick. They storm to an 80-0 victory and steal fifth place. These Londoners might have 99 problems, but a snitch ain’t one.
The Unspeakables practise every Saturday at noon on Hampstead Heath. For more info, see facebook.com/groups/theunspeakables.