Paris Lees on Books as the Ultimate Form of Escape

Posted on 24th May 2021 by Mark Skinner

Several years in the writing, Paris Lees' audaciously constructed memoir of a youth spent in a dead-end East Midlands town is a literary triumph. In this piece, Paris explains how crucial books were to her as she was growing up - and how, despite the lure of Netflix and other distractions, they continue to be now.

Author Image © Danny Baldwin   

I would walk to school with a book in my hand: Sherlock Holmes, Charlotte’s Web, something from my mum’s collection of Fay Weldon and Ruth Rendell. I read Roald Dahl’s The Witches this way, in a day, a story my father still loves telling. He was always shouting for me to turn the lights out, as I’d stay up reading and emerge for breakfast bloodshot after nights spent in Narnia, Zelda and other imaginary lands. Bullied at school for ‘talking like a poof’, I was suspicious of anything that everyone else was obsessed with, so I’m perhaps the only Millennial who hasn’t read Harry Potter. But I read everything else I could get my hands on. And when there were no books around, it being the days before Wikipedia and social media, I would read the dictionary. A packet of cereal. Anything. 

I was desperate to escape. 

Reading was my only access to culture on a council estate in the noughties and, along with television, my only respite from reality. I was deeply unhappy, bullied mercilessly, and miserable at home. On the outside, I projected someone tough, funny, unbothered. But inside, I retreated further into my own head, obsessing over the past, the future, and worlds that other people had painted with words. Anywhere but the present. Anywhere but my hometown. 

Today it is possible to access stories from almost any time and place with a click. I became fascinated with French crime dramas during lockdown, having discovered The Chalet and Zone Blanche on Netflix by chance. There’s a certain, well, je ne sais quoi about drama produced in a foreign language that adds a deeper level of escapism, along with the stunning French countryside as a backdrop. I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent the pandemic bombing about the Ardennes and the Alps, trying not to get murdered. We’re lucky to have so many routes out in 2021, even when we can’t go anywhere. 

Why, then, do books endure as one of our favourite forms of escapism? Some of it may be nostalgia, and the fact that the older an artform, as a general rule, the more respect afforded to it. There’s also the issue of access – you can’t watch European thrillers without a subscription, a screen, and electricity. But there’s something wonderfully democratic about reading. A child like me can open a translation of the Iliad during detention at a rough state comprehensive and know things that are taught at the finest universities: the golden Apple of Discord, Achilles’ bravery, and weakness, and where the term ‘Trojan horse’ comes from. Books are a type of Trojan horse, delivering us into worlds in which we might otherwise have been denied our adventures. 

My passion for reading didn’t just provide the fantasy of escape: it offered a genuine way out. After years of trying anything – drink, drugs, putting myself in increasingly dangerous situations – I secured a place at university, the first person in my family to do so. To study literature, of course. I arrived there via a stint in borstal, a period of my life that would have proven entirely useless were it not for access to the prison library and the multitude of possibilities it contained. Oscar Wilde. Jane Austen. Irvine Welsh. 

During the writing of my own book, What It Feels Like for a Girl, which revisits my early years, I’ve come to realise that I’m an escapologist. From the age of thirteen, I would contort my body in order to sneak down the stairs of my father’s house. Every step creaked like a crypt door opening in an old horror movie, if you didn’t know where to place your feet. I was like a midnight ballerina, escaping into the night, climbing over walls, out of windows and up through the coal grate, desperate to get away. I would have done anything. I did do anything. 

I found myself in the hysterical realm, the incomprehensible maze. Or, rather, lost myself. And for the past seven years, I’ve been back there, lovingly recreating my difficult puberty, repackaging my trauma for public consumption. Writing about the place I so desparately wanted to escape has, ironically, been its own form of escape, and God knows I’ve needed it. I feel like a rabbit in the headlights emerging into 2021. My book was commissioned before Brexit, Trump, and even the Scottish referendum. Not to mention Coronavirus. I’ve woken up in world that’s burning, where everything feels like a constant argument. Less safe to be different. Less hopeful. I want to go back to Y2K.

Come with me. My book isn’t a story as much as an immersive experience. I’m inviting you to a certain time and place. Perhaps you were there? What It Feels Like for a Girl will be a slice of nostalgia pie for anyone who was young and party-prone in the early noughties – and doubly-so if you happen to have lived on a council estate in an unbelievably, indescribably, mind-bendingly boring town that folk say got shut down with the mines in the eighties. Or maybe you weren’t even born then. That’s the beauty of books, we can go anywhere, anytime – and be anyone. As Moloko sang in their 2001 classic The Time Is Now, “All the promise, A daydream yet to come, Time is upon us, Oh but the night is young”. Meet me at midnight?


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