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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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear