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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Goodbye, Sam Allardyce: a grim portrait of national service

In being brought down by a newspaper sting, the former England manager joins a hall of infamy. 

It took the best part of 17 years for Glenn Hoddle’s reputation to recover from losing the England job.

Between leaving his job as manager in February 1999 and re-surfacing as a television pundit on ITV during the 2014 World Cup, Hoddle was English football’s great pariah. Thanks to his belief in faith healer Eileen Drewery and a string of unconventional and unacceptable views on reincarnation, he found himself in exile following in a newspaper interview during qualification for England’s Euro 2000 campaign.

But just as Hoddle is now cautiously being welcomed back to the bosom of English football, current incumbent Sam Allardyce has felt the axe fall. After less than two months in charge of the national side and with only a single game under his belt, the former Bolton Wanderers manager was caught up in a sting operation by the Daily Telegraph — allegedly offering guidance on how to circumvent his employer’s rules on third-party player ownership.

The rewards for guiding an English team to major international success promise to be spectacular. As a result, the price for any failure — either moral or performance-related — is extreme.

Hoddle’s successor – the endearing Kevin Keegan – resigned tearfully in a toilet at Wembley after a tumultuous 18-month spell in charge. His replacement, the laconic Sven-Göran Eriksson, provided moments of on-field excitement paired with incredible incidents of personal indiscretion. His tangle with "fake sheikh" Mazher Mahmood in the run up to the 2006 World Cup – an incident with haunting parallels to Allardyce’s current predicament – led to a mutual separation that summer.

Steve McClaren was hapless, if also incredibly unfortunate, and was dispatched from the top job in little over a year. Fabio Capello – who inspired so much optimism throughout his first two years in charge – proved himself incapable of lifting the hex on English major tournament fortunes.

The Italian’s star was falling from the moment he put his name to the oddly timed Capello Index in 2010, although his sustained backing of then captain John Terry over a string of personal misdemeanours would prove to be the misjudgement that ultimately forced his exit. As Allardyce has found out, the FA has become increasingly hard on lapses in moral judgement.

English football is suffused with a strange mix of entitlement and crushing self-doubt. After a decade that has given us a Wimbledon champion, several Ashes triumphs, two Tour de France winners and eye-watering Olympic success, a breakthrough in this area has never felt further away.

In replacing Capello, Roy Hodgson — the man mocked by Allardyce during his hours supping pints with Telegraph reporters — had hoped to put a rubber stamp on a highly respectable coaching career with a spell managing his own country. But this summer’s farcical defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016 put his previous career in a much harsher light.    

Allardyce was a mix of the best and worst of each of his predecessors. He was as gaffe-prone as Steve McClaren, yet as committed to football science and innovation as Hodgson or Capello. He also carried the affability of Keegan and the bulldog spirit of Terry Venables — the last man to make great strides for England at a major tournament.  

And as a result, his fall is the most heartbreaking of the lot. The unfairly decried charlatan of modern football is the same man who built a deeply underrated dynasty at Bolton before keeping Blackburn, West Ham and Sunderland afloat in the most competitive league in Europe.

And it was this hard apprenticeship that convinced the FA to defy the trendy naysayers and appoint him.

“I think we make mistakes when we are down here and our spirit has to come back and learn,” Hoddle mused at the beginning of his ill-fated 1999 interview. As the FA and Allardyce consider their exit strategy from this latest sorry mess, it’s difficult to be sure what either party will have learned.

The FA, desperately short of options could theoretically turn again to a reborn Hoddle. Allardyce, on the other hand, faces his own long exile. 

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