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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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David Davis interview: The next Conservative leader will be someone nobody expects

The man David Cameron beat on why we should bet on a surprise candidate and what the PM needs to do after the referendum. 

“I’m tired,” says David Davis when I greet him. The former Conservative leadership candidate is running on three hours’ sleep after a Question Time appearance the night before. He is cheered, however, by the coverage of his exchange with Ed Miliband. “Which country would it be be like?” the former Labour leader asked of a post-EU UK. “The country we’re going to be like is Great Britain,” the pro-Brexit Davis retorted

The 67-year-old Haltemprice and Howden MP is at Hull University to debate constituency neighbour Alan Johnson, the head of the Labour In campaign. “As far as you can tell, it’s near to a dead heat,” Davis said of the referendum. “I think the run of events will favour Brexit but if I had to bet your salary, I wouldn’t bet mine, I’d place it on a very narrow victory for Brexit.”

Most economists differ only on how much harm a Leave vote would do. Does Davis believe withdrawal is justified even if it reduces growth? “Well, I think that’s a hypothetical question based on something that’s not going to happen ... One of the arguments for Brexit is that it will actually improve our longer-run economic position. In the short-run, I think Stuart Rose, the head of Remain, had a point when he said there would be very small challenges. In a few years probably nothing.

“The most immediate thing would likely be wage increases at the bottom end, which is very important. The people in my view who suffer from the immigration issue are those at the bottom of society, the working poor, which is why I bridle when people ‘oh, it’s a racist issue’. It’s not, it’s about people’s lives.”

More than a decade has passed since David Cameron defeated Davis by 68-32 in the 2005 Conservative leadership contest. The referendum has pitted the two men against each other once more. I asked Davis whether he agreed with the prime minister’s former strategist, Steve Hilton, that Cameron would be a Brexiter were he not in No.10.

“I think it might be true, I think it might be. When you are in that position you’re surrounded by lot of people: there’s the political establishment, the Whitehall establishment, the business establishment, most of who, in economic parlance, have a ‘sunk cost’ in the current set-up. If changes they stand to lose things rather than gain things, or that’s how they see it.

“Take big business. Big business typically gets markets on the continent, maybe distribution networks, supply networks. They’re going to think they’re all at risk and they’re not going to see the big opportunities that exist in terms of new markets in Brazil, new markets in China and so on, they’re naturally very small-C Conservative. Whitehall the same but for different reasons. If you’re a fast-track civil servant probably part of your career will be through the Commission or maybe the end of your career. Certainly in the Foreign Office. When I ran the European Union department in the Foreign Office, everybody wanted a job on the continent somewhere. They were all slanted that way. If all your advice comes from people like that, that’s what happens.”

Davis told me that he did not believe a vote to Leave would force Cameron’s resignation. “If it’s Brexit and he is sensible and appoints somebody who is clearly not in his little group but who is well-equipped to run the Brexit negotiations and has basically got a free hand, there’s an argument to say stability at home is an important part of making it work.”

He added: “I think in some senses the narrow Remain is more difficult for him than the narrow Brexit. You may get resentment. It’s hard to make a call about people’s emotional judgements under those circumstances.”

As a former leadership frontrunner, Davis avoids easy predictions about the coming contest. Indeed, he believes the victor will be a candidate few expect. “If it’s in a couple of years that’s quite a long time. The half life of people’s memories in this business ... The truth of the matter is, we almost certainly don’t know who the next Tory leader is. The old story I tell is nobody saw Thatcher coming a year in advance, nobody saw Major coming a year in advance, nobody saw Hague coming a year in advance, nobody saw Cameron coming a year in advance.

“Why should we know two years in advance who it’s going to be? The odds are that it’ll be a Brexiter but it’s not impossible the other way.”

Does Davis, like many of his colleagues, believe that Boris Johnson is having a bad war? “The polls say no, the polls say his standing has gone up. That being said, he’s had few scrapes but then Boris always has scrapes. One of the natures of Boris is that he’s a little bit teflon.”

He added: “One thing about Boris is that he attracts the cameras and he attracts the crowds ... What he says when the crowd gets there almost doesn’t matter.”

Of Johnson’s comparison of the EU to Hitler, he said: “Well, if you read it it’s not quite as stern as the headline. It’s always a hazardous thing to do in politics. I think the point he was trying to make is that there’s a long-running set of serial attempts to try and unify Europe not always by what you might term civilised methods. It would be perfectly possible for a German audience to turn that argument on its head and say isn’t it better whether we do it this way.”

Davis rejected the view that George Osborne’s leadership hopes were over (“it’s never all over”) but added: “Under modern turbulent conditions, with pressure for austerity and so on, the simple truth is being a chancellor is quite a chancy business ... The kindest thing for Dave to do to George would be to move him on and give him a bit of time away from the dangerous front.”

He suggested that it was wrong to assume the leadership contest would be viewed through the prism of the EU. “In two years’ time this may all be wholly irrelevant - and probably will be. We’ll be on to some other big subject. It’’ll be terrorism or foreign wars or a world financial crash, which I think is on the cards.”

One of those spoken of as a dark horse candidate is Dominic Raab, the pro-Brexit justice minister and Davis’s former chief of staff. “You know what, if I want to kill somebody’s chances the thing I would do is talk them up right now, so forgive me if I pass on that question,” Davis diplomatically replied. “The reason people come out at the last minute in these battles is that if you come out early you acquire enemies and rivals. Talking someone up today is not a friendly thing to do.” But Davis went on to note: “They’re a few out there: you’ve got Priti [Patel], you’ve got Andrea [Leadsom]”.

Since resigning as shadow home secretary in 2008 in order to fight a by-election over the issue of 42-day detention, Davis has earned renown as one of parliament’s most redoubtable defenders of civil liberties. He was also, as he proudly reminded me, one of just two Tory MPs to originally vote against tax credit cuts (a record of rebellion that also includes tuition fees, capital gains tax, child benefit cuts, House of Lords reform, boundary changes and Syria).

Davis warned that that any attempt to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights would be defeated by himself and “a dozen” other Conservatives (a group known as the “Runnymede Tories” after the meadow where Magna Carta was sealed).

“They’ve promised to consult on it [a British Bill of Rights], rather than bring it back. The reason they did that is because it’s incredibly difficult. They’ve got a conundrum: if they make it non-compliant with the ECHR, it won’t last and some of us will vote against it.

“If they make it compliant with the ECHR it is in essence a rebranding exercise, it’s not really a change. I’d go along with that ... But the idea of a significant change is very difficult to pull off. Dominic Raab, who is working on this, is a very clever man. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I think even his brain will be tested by finding the eye of the needle to go through.”

Davis is hopeful of winning a case before the European Court of Justice challenging the legality of the bulk retention of communications data. “It’s a court case, court cases have a random element to them. But I think we’ve got a very strong case. It was quite funny theatre when the ECJ met in Luxembourg, an individual vs. 15 governments, very symbolic. But I didn’t think any of the governments made good arguments. I’m lucky I had a very good QC. Our argument was pretty simple: if you have bulk data collected universally you’ve absolutely got to have an incredibly independent and tough authority confirming this. I would be surprised if the ECJ doesn’t find in my favour and that will have big implications for the IP [Investigatory Powers] bill.”

Davis launched the legal challenge in collaboration with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson. He has also campaigned alongside Jeremy Corbyn, last year travelling to Washington D.C. with him to campaign successfully for the release of Shaker Aamer, the final Briton to be held in Guantanamo Bay.

“I like Jeremy,” Davis told me, “but the long and the short of it is that not having been on the frontbench at all shows. I’m not even sure that Jeremy wanted to win the thing. He’s never been at the Despatch Box. He’s up against a PM who’s pretty good at it and who’s been there for quite a long time. He’s playing out of his division at the moment. Now, he may get better. But he’s also got an incredibly schismatic party behind him, nearly all of his own MPs didn’t vote for him. We had a situation a bit like that with Iain Duncan Smith. Because we’re a party given to regicide he didn’t survive it. Because the Labour Party’s not so given to regicide and because he’d be re-elected under the system he can survive it.”

At the close of our conversation, I returned to the subject of the EU, asking Davis what Cameron needed to do to pacify his opponents in the event of a narrow Remain vote.

“He probably needs to open the government up a bit, bring in more people. He can’t take a vengeful attitude, it’s got to be a heal and mend process and that may involve bringing in some of the Brexiters into the system and perhaps recognising that, if it’s a very narrow outcome, half of the population are worried about our status. If I was his policy adviser I’d say it’s time to go back and have another go at reform.”

Davis believes that the UK should demand a “permanent opt-out” from EU laws “both because occasionally we’ll use it but also because it will make the [European] Commission more sensitive to the interests of individual member states. That’s the fundamental constitutional issue that I would go for.”

He ended with some rare praise for the man who denied him the crown.

“The thing about David Cameron, one of the great virtues of his premiership, is that he faces up to problems and deals with them. Sometimes he gets teased for doing too many U-turns - but that does at least indicate that he’s listening.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.