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

Photo: Getty Images
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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.
For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.
IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.
Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.
Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.
Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.
The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.
His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.
He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.
I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.