A library in Edinburgh. (Photo: Boon Low/Flickr)
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Laurie Penny on reading, love and loss: The first time my father caught fire, I was nine years old

The first time my father caught fire, I was nine years old. I can’t have been much older, because it was around that time that Dad, still living with us, went through a period of making bacon in the mornings, padding about in his dressing gown, absent-mindedly charring bits of meat and offering them to whichever of his children happened to be awake. On one of these occasions, I was sitting with a book at the kitchen table when my distractable father let his dressing gown sleeve dangle in the gas flame.

Dad shouted and dropped to the floor. He rolled and flailed to put out the little tongues of blue fire lapping at the towelling and my mother rushed in to beat and flap at the flames. I had to be told all of this later. At the time, I didn’t notice a thing. I didn’t hear Mum screaming, or notice Dad being on fire. I was reading and therefore elsewhere.

Dad was entirely unhurt by the dressing gown fireball and mostly unhurt that I had failed to register his imminent, inadvertent self-immolation.

That my sisters and I loved to read more than anything else was a consistent source of frustrated pride to our parents, who got used to taking books out of our hands while we were supposed to be doing homework, or brushing our teeth, or crossing the road. As kids, we all preferred most books to most people, apart from each other.

At a pinch, comics or catalogues or even the back of a cereal packet would do, but books were best, preferably held open over one arm like other children used to clutch their teddy bears. If you kept it held like that, at just the right page, you could instantly be out of the room and back in the book. It broke the spines but that didn’t matter. Not when you could take a deep breath and dive under the surface of the pages and come up somewhere else, far away, climbing a mountain to get rid of a precious ring, or casting charms at wizard school.

Growing up, I developed the habit of always having a decent novel in my bag in the way that some nervous people keep smelling salts or a little bottle of pills handy. The habit was expensive enough that I became a writer partly to blag advance review copies. On reading the H G Wells short story “The Door in the Wall”, in which a crabbed, anxious politician finds and loses a green door to a secret garden, I knew exactly what he was talking about. Reading wasn’t just escapism. It was escape.

On 5 September this year, our dad died of a sudden heart attack and I entirely lost the ability to read.

It happened at some point between getting the 7am phone call and arriving at the hospital. I noticed that I couldn’t focus on the freesheet in my hands.

I could sound out letters to form a word, but then groped for its use. Sentences were harder and any sort of narrative was impossible. What sort of story could possibly make sense now?

I could read some things. I could read enough, for example, to sit beside the hospital bed, holding my father’s hand in one of mine while frantically googling the words of Yiddish mourning prayers with the other. Our dad, whose religious attitudes were slapdash and almost entirely culinary, would have appreciated the Shema being read off Wikipedia. That was a thing I could still do.

When individual phrases such as “next of kin” and “difficult decisions” started to lose all meaning, I could write them down and read them over to myself later until they made sense. When somebody put a pale beige leaflet with styles and prices of coffins in front of me, I could read words such as “varnish” and “wicker” and could point out what did and did not resemble a laundry basket trying to look solemn. But every book was suddenly, cruelly, closed.

When I most needed it, I couldn’t find that door in the wall that would let me step sideways out of life, even for a few hours. I found myself wandering through bookshops, looking for a way out of a present that was full of relatives to ring and rooms to be cleared. If there wasn’t a way out, maybe there would be a road map. I tottered through Waterstones, picking up books about loss and mourning by authors from Joan Didion to James Baldwin, then methodically put them all back again.

Writing, which I’d worked hard to make my means of living, became impossible. Mustering the strength to care and pay attention to politics was secondary to the immediate dilemma of making it to the end of a sentence without losing track and forgetting where I’d started. I found myself longing for the dull, menial jobs I used to do in shops and bars. Let me pack potatoes again, or mop up vomit – anything that didn’t involve having to have opinions right now.

The death of a parent is the first, worst thing that every child learns to fear. When it comes, the pain is different from how you imagined it would be - not better, not worse, just different. You find yourself wanting to explain to people who have not been through this particular thing that you’re perfectly all right, not because you are, but because they need to know that this is survivable. Look, here you are, something truly dreadful has happened and you are still walking about with all the important bits attached, drinking coffee and wearing trousers and waiting for the bus to Clapton as if nothing has changed, when, of course, everything has.

Slowly, the words started to come back. After a few weeks, fiction became comprehensible again. After a month, I began to put paragraphs together. I will never forget, in that time, how a few friends sat with me, talking about books and comics, or just making the silence safer.

Some day, I’ll write about our dad and what he meant to us and there might even be enough words to describe the absurdity of a world without him. Meanwhile, it is enough to know that there will be stories to read and tell in the future, even if they are stranger and sadder than before.

I had thought that books would never fail me, but when they did, it was other people who helped make the world legible again.

Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Triple Issue

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25 times people used Brexit to attack Muslims since the EU referendum

Some voters appear more interested in expelling Muslims than EU red tape.

In theory, voting for Brexit because you were worried about immigration has nothing to do with Islamophobia. It’s about migrant workers from Eastern Europe undercutting wages. Or worries about border controls. Or the housing crisis. 

The reports collected by an anti-Muslim attack monitor tell a different story. 

Every week, the researchers at Tell Mama receive roughly 40-50 reports of Islamophobic incidences.

But after the EU referendum, they recorded 30 such incidents in three days alone. And many were directly related to Brexit. 

Founder Fiyaz Mughal said there had been a cluster of hate crimes since the vote:

“The Brexit vote seems to have given courage to some with deeply prejudicial and bigoted views that they can air them and target them at predominantly Muslim women and visibly different settled communities.”

Politicians have appeared concerned. On Monday, as MPs grappled with the aftermath of the referendum, the Prime Minister David Cameron stated “loud and clear” that: “Just because we are leaving the European Union, it will not make us a less tolerant, less diverse nation.”

But condemning single racist incidents is easier than taking a political position that appeases the majority and protects the minority at the same time. 

As the incidents recorded make clear, the aggressors made direct links between their vote and the racial abuse they were now publicly shouting.

The way they told it, they had voted for Muslims to “leave”. 
 
Chair of Tell Mama and former Labour Justice and Communities Minister, Shahid Malik, said:

“With the backdrop of the Brexit vote and the spike in racist incidents that seems to be emerging, the government should be under no illusions, things could quickly become
extremely unpleasant for Britain’s minorities.

“So today more than ever, we need our government, our political parties and of course our media to act with the utmost responsibility and help steer us towards a post-Brexit Britain where xenophobia and hatred are utterly rejected.”

Here are the 25 events that were recorded between 24 and 27 June that directly related to Brexit. Please be aware that some of the language is offensive:

  1. A Welsh Muslim councillor was told to pack her bags and leave.
  2. A man in a petrol station shouted: "You're an Arabic c**t, you're a terrorist" at an Arab driver and stated he “voted them out”. 
  3. A Barnsley man was told to leave and that the aggressor’s parents had voted for people like him to be kicked out.
  4. A woman witnessed a man making victory signs at families at a school where a majority of students are Muslim.
  5. A man shouted, “you f**king Muslim, f**king EU out,” to a woman in Kingston, London. 
  6. An Indian man was called “p**i c**t in a suit” and told to “leave”.
  7. Men circled a Muslim woman in Birmingham and shouted: “Get out - we voted Leave.”
  8. A British Asian mother and her two children were told: "Today is the day we get rid of the likes of you!" by a man who then spat at her. 
  9. A man tweeted that his 13-year-old brother received chants of “bye, bye, you’re going home”.
  10. A van driver chanted “out, out, out”, at a Muslim woman in Broxley, Luton
  11. Muslims in Nottingham were abused in the street with chants of: “Leave Europe. Kick out the Muslims.”
  12. A Muslim woman at King’s Cross, London, had “BREXIT” yelled in her face.
  13. A man in London called a South Asian woman “foreigner” and commented about UKIP.
  14. A man shouted “p**i” and “leave now” at individuals in a London street.
  15. A taxi driver in the West Midlands told a woman his reason for voting Leave was to “get rid of people like you”.
  16. An Indian cyclist was verbally abused and told to “leave now”. 
  17. A man on a bike swore at a Muslim family and muttered something about voting.
  18. In Newport, a Muslim family who had not experienced any trouble before had their front door kicked in.
  19. A South Asian woman in Manchester was told to “speak clearly” and then told “Brexit”. 
  20. A Sikh doctor was told by a patient: “Shouldn’t you be on a plane back to Pakistan? We voted you out.”
  21. An abusive tweet read: “Thousands of raped little White girls by Muslims mean nothing to Z….#Brexit”.
  22. A group of men abused a South Asian man by calling him a “p**i c**t” and telling him to go home after Brexit.
  23. A man shouted at a taxi driver in Derby: "Brexit, you p**i.”
  24. Two men shouted at a Muslim woman walking towards a mosque “muzzies out” and “we voted for you being out.”
  25. A journalist was called a “p**i” in racial abuse apparently linked to Brexit.