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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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue