Dyslexia Rules KO

I was born and raised on my parent’s farm in Burton Park near Petworth, Sussex. The newly built red-brick farmhouse stood proudly at the end of a short gravel drive. My earliest memory was when I experienced snow for the first time. I had tied picket fence-posts to my shoes and stood on the snow on the level gravel drive, wondering why I was not shooting off at great speed like they did in the film I saw with my father about skiing.

My father, Edward, was a farmer, my mother a picture restorer – or conservator, as the Americans called her craft. I am proud to say, my mother was highly regarded for her skills in restoring works of art. I was not proud however when my mother was asked, by a TV reporter in the National Portrait Gallery, her opinion of the Queen Mother’s new portrait, she said “My dear, my son could have done a better job, and he’s only nine”!

We moved from Petworth to a farm near Arundel on the seaward side of the Sussex downs. At the age of nine I was sent to a prep school called Windlesham House. It was a boarding school, a beautiful huge Queen Anne house nestling in the Sussex Downs near Findon. I don’t think my parents were snobs, but this was how children – then – of the middle classes were educated; prep-school, public school, then university and a profession – doctor, lawyer etc. My mother and father had no reference as to what a boy should be attaining at the age of nine. When I arrived at Windlesham House I could barely read, let alone write. I was to get special lessons to ‘catch up’. I was treated differently from all the other nine-year-olds and, consequently, mercilessly bullied by the older pupils. 

I caught measles and was very ill. So much so, that it was decided that I should go home and give measles to my other three brothers. I never went back to Windlesham House, and it was decided that I would have private tuition for the rest of that year – 1964.  

My teacher, Mr Rose, was like a mole. He was dark, squinted through metal-rimmed half-moon spectacles, crew-cut hair, sported a little wiry moustache, and a stubbly black beard that my mother thoroughly disapproved of. After a week of lessons with Mr Rose, he came to our house.

“Christ, what did you do to him, Hugo?” my brother Silas asked with a smirk. We were both hovering around the closed drawing room door, hoping to hear what was going on.

“Nothing!” I said, too loudly as my mother heard me through the door.

“Hugo, darling, come in here.” I took a breath and went in. Mr Rose was sat primly in the armchair, my father stood at the fireplace looking worried, and my mother, sitting on the sofa, had an expression of tragedy, her arm outstretched towards me. ‘Who died?!’ I thought. “Sit next to me, darling,” she said dramatically, “Mr Rose has something to tell you.” I sat, my mother stroked my shoulder.

“Hugo,” Mr Rose said nervously, his eyes shifting from my father to mother, before his myopic eyes landed on me, “I have just informed your parents that I believe you have something called ‘word blindness’.”

“That means,” Dad stepped in, “you have difficulty with reading and writing.”

“Will I need glasses?” I asked, quite excited, “Or a monocle? I rather like a monocle.” One of my father’s friends wore a monocle and I was very much taken by it.

“It’s not that kind of blindness, Hugo. Glasses will not help. Mr Rose thinks you will have to be taught a different way.”

I thought for a while. I hated being educated, it was so tedious. I wanted to be out on the farm or watching television. Reading was a boring chore, and writing was even worse, as to spelling … forget it. No spell check in those days. 

Lessons with Mr Rose after that afternoon were interminable. Worse, when Silas was on holiday (Ben was still quite small then, and not much entertainment) I carried on with lessons all through the summer. Luckily, Mr Rose went on holiday, and we all went to Climping Beach for a week after the harvest was in.

  Dyslexia – another name for ‘word blindness’- affected me for the rest of my education. I had an above average IQ, apparently. I found this out when I was sifting through some documents about my education after my mother died in 2005. A letter from some kind of specialist said that my IQ was well above average for a boy of my age. At the bottom of the letter, in unnecessarily large block letters was written, ‘on no account tell Hugo this.’ So, my parents didn’t! 

When I confronted my eighty-year-old father about this he said, “You would only be intolerable if we had told you.” 

“But I was in ‘A’ Stream at St Christopher’s School.” I pointed out, “that must have meant I was pretty intelligent!” I protested.

“Ah.” Dad had an embarrassed smile, “They were very clever at St Christopher’s, they had three streams, ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’. ‘C’, I am afraid to say, was the top stream.”

St Christopher’s School in Letchworth was a progressive school. It was co-educational and the start of my interest in girls! It was also a vegetarian school, run by Quakers when I was there. I loved St Chris, the food – though veggie – was delicious, and the staff were all fantastic. We called our teachers by their first name, and there was no uniform except a school tie. It was a boarding school and us boys (slightly sexist, I know) could live in garden huts in the schoolhouse grounds – all through the year! 

My love of fiction and storytelling started with an English teacher called Peter Scupham. He was a short bespectacled man who had a hunch-back. (There is a nod to him in my book, ‘Girl on a Golden Pillow’). Peter, as we all called him, would sit on the large grey classroom heater cover, his feet up, his hunched back up against the wall and a book on his knees. He read huge tomes such as the entire saga of ‘Lord of the Rings’, ‘The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe’ as well as shorter stories like, ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘The Snow Goose’, bringing the stories to life with different voices.  

Every now and then, he would ask one of us to read a chapter of a book and discuss about what the chapter was about. I knew I had difficulty in reading out loud after our local vicar unwisely asked me to read a lesson when I was about ten years old. I was a chorister at our church choir, and Mr Satterford – the vicar – said I should read one of the Christmas chapters from the bible. It was a disaster! I practised, over and over again, and it was apparent that it was going to be impossible to do. But Mr Satterford insisted. I read the words, tried to notice the punctuation, but the delivery was monotonous, expressionless and I had no idea what the passage was about. Silas, also a choirboy, was rolling about with stifled laughter, as were the other choristers, just in my eyeline, which did not help things. When I finished, I stormed off the podium and sat next to my brother and punched him, surreptitiously, in the choir stalls. I hissed in his ear, reminding him, with glee, he will be reading the next lesson. My brother had a terrible stammer, and any kind of stress would prevent even the simplest word from being uttered. However, because he was reading the words, he was fine and did not stammer throughout the reading. This infuriated me even more.  

Peter Scupham asked all his students with other word-blind pupils to read out loud, it was very tedious, but I found it useful and easier to understand what the passage was about. However, some books are very difficult to understand. The Bible, for example (if set in old text) or Shakespeare are – to me – incomprehensible. To this day, I cannot read Shakespeare or Chaucer, even to myself. I am currently trying to read ‘The Ghost Road’ by Pat Barker – a Booker Prize book. I am finding it terribly difficult. It’s very clever, and an interesting read, but I only understand about thirty percent of what is going on! Anything remotely clever is impossible to comprehend, and if I have to read something over more than twice – and still not understand it – I give up. If it is an official form, I hand it over to Pippa, my wife.

Peter Scupham was a marvellous man and taught me a lot about reading, what to read, and how not to be lazy about reading. I am a naturally lazy person, especially when it comes to reading. Official documents, instructions in putting things together, travel guides, and especially Terms and Conditions are never read. 

I am a lazy reader! Dyslexia is my excuse, but it should not be. 

If I can avoid reading something that looks or seems boring, I will. I give up easily. I don’t think I am alone in this. Even some ‘able’ readers are lazy readers. Scupham said that if I read a chapter of a book – at least – a night, every night, I would improve the speed of my reading. For an eleven/twelve-year-old boy, this was a challenge. Music, television, play and – later – partying got in the way, but I do, to this day, read at least a chapter a night, every night.

I can’t remember really worrying about my word-blindness at St Christopher’s. There were other fellow word-blind pupils, famously, my first dorm-mate Adrian or A.A. Gill who became a successful journalist and food critic. 

I have been fortunate to be always a little bigger than my peers, taller and due to my enjoyment of food, heavier. I was not, as such, fat – in those days. So, I was seldom bullied for my dyslexia. My progressive parents sent me to schools that had ‘programs’ for ‘word blindness’ and St Christopher’s had many fellow dyslexics suffering the same problems as I.

Millfield School, in Somerset, was one of the first schools in the country to have a purpose-built remedial department for dyslexia. However, I was miserable there. I had no idea what was going on most of the time. There were no inspirational teachers, and I found lessons difficult. I discovered I had a very bad memory, especially for things that did not interest me. So exams were a disaster. I was taken away from Millfield and landed up in a new Comprehensive school in Bognor to do my CSE exams. It was a day school and very large. I seemed to get on better there as there was not so much pressure. I came out with one music ‘O’ level, and a maths and English CSE (very low grades).

I then went to catering college and got a good degree in ‘Craft Catering’. Though not taxing, I found theory work a lot harder than practical work. And – for some reason – I was quite good at French lessons – a requirement to work in a kitchen in those days was to learn ‘kitchen French’.

Dyslexia is burden for perhaps as many as 15 to 20% of the population who have some of the symptoms of dyslexia* in the country to various degrees. Remedial departments in schools really only started in the 1980s and 90s. Up to then word blindness and dyslexia was treated as some kind of fad. Only some middle-class children were fortunate to have parents who treated the condition seriously. 

The famous dyslexics of my generation – Richard Branson, Susan Hampshire (president of the Dyslexia Institute from 1995 to 1998), AA Gill, Steven Spielberg, Guy Richie, Cher (!), and Robin Williams to name a few, all had to struggle to get where they were or are now. It was more difficult for people like Richard Branson to get worthwhile work with his poor qualifications, so he went on his own leaving school at sixteen and is now a knighted billionaire. He had an entrepreneurial mother and was brought up in a well-off family, which may have helped. 

Still, today, there is very little regard for dyslexia sufferers. Thoughtless things like subtitles on television and films are flashed up so only normal mortals can read – foreign films are impossible. God help me if my hearing goes, and I need subtitles on the TV! Some of us dyslexics cannot read sentences, posters, or signs etc. in capital letters. For the last two weeks, I kept driving past a sign saying ‘EXITONBEND’ with very small or no spaces. I could not work out what it said. It was only when a lorry shot out in front of me, out of the hidden exit on the bend of the road, did I realise what it was trying to convey. Hypho-      nated words at the end of a sentence is a challenge, as are words in italics in some fonts and scripts withnowordspaces. And don’t get me started with any writings that are just in lower-case, with no capital letters!

Dyslexia is a physical disability, an infirmity that cannot be cured. But, I am told, today can mostly be treated with good childhood teaching. Dyslexia can be hereditary – our daughter is dyslexic, our son isn’t. However, dyslexics are usually artistic, are good at lateral thinking, are mostly musical – as I am – and are always jolly nice people! But I would say that, wouldn’t I? 

*Source: International Dyslexia Association https://dyslexiaida.org 

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