I was recently a guest on the Dave Pickering‘s podcast, Getting Better Acquainted. Dave and I discussed many things including story telling, dyslexia, tough times at school, depression and writing. Have a listen to the GBA Podcast.
Take a stroll through central London and it’s hard not to be struck by the layers of history that straddle the banks of the Thames. From Christopher Wren’s masterpiece at St.Paul’s Cathedral to the neo-futurist monolith of Renzo Piano’s The Shard, history and modernity sit side by side along a river that’s breathed life into the city for thousands of years.
Twenty-first century Londoners bustle through the iconic beheamoth of a city as a constant stream of tourists and visitors criss-cross the river on bridges old and new.
Taken with a Canon AE-1 with 35mm film.
I might as well fess up straight away. I never really liked David Bowie’s music. Maybe I didn’t hear the right stuff at the right time. Or perhaps I was put off by those dodgy duets in the 80’s. Unlike most of my favourite music, no one I love or respect ever told me what to listen to. But whatever the reason, what I have heard has just never really done it for me.
Regardless of that, I’ve always respected him as an artist.
Monday’s news that he’d passed away was shocking. Like many, I kind of assumed that he’d always be there. He had a youthfulness about him that transcended age. A strong spirit that glowed from within him. Even I could see that.
I couldn’t help but notice on social media how many people, how many close friends and family seemed affected by this particular passing. Almost everyone had something to say.
Maybe that’s why, when I sat on the overground train heading through London that evening, I did something I never do and picked up a folded copy of a free newspaper. There was a picture of Bowie on the front and an obituary inside. It occurred to me that I knew little to nothing of the man. So I showed him some respect and I read.
It wasn’t long before a chord struck in me. I read about his youth, his childhood and school days. Of how he failed his 11 Plus exams. And how he left school with just one O-Level in art. And there it was. Here was a man who could take a knockdown at a young age and keep rising. My mother failed her 11 Plus. It effected her for years. She left school not long after, not to return until she had to in her forties. I myself left school with no qualifications. I had to go to art college, it was my only choice to remain in education. I couldn’t draw. But I could hardly write either. Having to go to art college when I couldn’t draw because I was semi-literate is an irony that has rarely escaped me. I look back and laugh, but it was a struggle.
Reading about Bowie made me think of how important art is. The challenge I had at art college was a technical one. But I learned a lot. I don’t think I realised it at the time but that struggle taught me so much. It taught me to observe. To take in detail. But it also taught me to express myself and not be afraid of the consequences. It opened my eyes up to the world of art, to artists I’d love, to Kandinsky, Matisse, Mondrian and Van Gogh. Some of whom struggled for one reason or another, mentally, emotionally or politically. Yet they found a life in creativity. They found a life in art.
So I sat on the train and I read of David Bowie’s failings in early life. His knockbacks. And then I read on to what he achieved in spite of that. It conjured a feeling of inspiration and respect that I rarely feel when it comes to celebrities. To superstars. To artists in the modern world. He took that knock and just kept on rising. He showed what self belief, despite the best attempts at the system to knock it out of you, can achieve. What self expression and nonconformity can bring to life. To what belief in yourself, your individuality and your uniqueness can do if you harness your mind in the right medium. He showed a character and a spirit that could be stopped by nothing and went on to become an icon for individuality. A hero.
For that he will always have my respect.
He first stayed at Treyarnon Bay in 1993, the August of his fifteenth birthday. He’d been before, on day trips while camping further inland, but never stayed so close. Just a short walk to the narrow sandy beach and the grass covered headland. It was the right time to escape from the city which had never felt so ugly. Grant Jackson was killed in Endcliffe Park just a few months before. A young life taken by a boy with a knife.
The ocean was cleansing in its vastness. He’d sit on the grassy headland and stare, the perfect line of the horizon dulling his senses and tranquillizing his thoughts. He’d watch the waves rush in at high tide, sucking the water from the rocky inlets like a vacuum, before crashing into the rocks and firing white water cascading into the air with a whoosh and wetting his face with sea spray. He’d body-board when the surf was right, spending hours at a time in the ocean.
His skin tasted of salt.
At night he and the other teenagers would head into the dunes to make fires and drink foul cider. On his birthday he drank a half bottle of whiskey and woke up on the beach, wet, sandy and paralytic.
He came back for his twenty-sixth, the first time in five years. A break from the depressing monotony of a low wage job.
He’d sit and stare at the ocean again, watching the sun disappear between dragon’s teeth rocks as the sky turned to lava. Night lit up so bright next to the ocean, stars, constellations, satellites moving across the sky with purpose. August Perseids burned in colourful incandescence as they crashed into the atmosphere, the Milky Way a cloudy band of uncountable stars above. Everything is moving, he thought, everything is changing.
The friendships forged there had more meaning than those found elsewhere. They could last a lifetime. That year he made connections that changed everything. A different way of living showed itself. Conversations and meetings that would shape him. People he’d love, who’d love him.
He’d swim in the ocean on calmer days.
His skin tasted of salt.
This summer I’ll be back, the tenth in a row and the seventh full season, June or July right through to September. Not just a holiday any more but a home, a way of life. I’ll work for myself in the village, outside in the sun or wind or rain.
With old friends I’ll sit around camp-fires. Those I’ve shared everything with. Lived, travelled and loved with.
The ocean will be there as always, tranquillity in one hand, ferocity in the other. It’ll be my playground. I’ll float and dive and explore the hidden world beneath its surface. I’ll feed myself from its pantry of muscles, mackerel and pollock. It will anchor me in my thoughts as I sit and stare, content with my journey through the adventure of life. It’ll hold me in awe with its power and its vastness.
My skin will taste of salt.
The Cordillera Huayhuash, a 30km long mountain range in Peru’s high Andean region of Ancash. The rugged landscape and it’s wild and unpredictable weather conditions is crowned by the high snow covered peaks of Yerupaja, Siula Grande, Jirishanca Yerupaja Chico and Rasac, all of which reach skywards at altitudes of over 6,000m, making it the second highest mountain range in the tropics.
Each year trekkers come in groups, or alone to complete the unforgiving 160km circuit of the range, where altitudes rarely dip below 4,000m. The tough but rewarding trek follows trails and small segments of old Inca road over high pass after high pass, through an Andean wilderness where condors soar high along the ridges and peaks in search of carrion, and wild horses graze in small herds.
Unlike the its much larger sibling to the north, the Cordillera Blanca, the Huayhuash range is not a national park. Small farming communities live among the many grass covered valleys, tending to livestock put out to pasture during the drier seasons and providing occasional supplies and refreshments to the trekkers and climbers that pass through the land.
When I visited Marrakech in November last year I expected a sun drenched North African city with a bustling and vibrant atmosphere.
I was wrong about the first part. It rained. Heavily. In fact Morocco experienced its heaviest spell of rain in over fifty years. Apart from one dry day which I spent in the Atlas Mountains, it rained the whole week. During the downpours the famous square of Jemaa El Fna cleared of people as the snake charmers, wrestlers, teeth pullers and other tourist traps ran for cover while orange juice vendors looked on in disbelief.
The rain, at times seeming relentless, gave way occasionally to drench the city and the surrounding Berber villages in the high Atlas Mountains with the warmth of the African sun. It was in these moments that I took a 1970’s Canon camera and a few rolls of film out to wander through the labyrinth of the Medina, among the thousands of souks.
The people of Marrakech tried to carry on about their businesses, hawking goods or ferrying stock among the narrow streets. But the city seemed quiet, subdued even, as the dark alleyways filled with puddles and shop owners huddled together in doorways, awaiting the next downpour of rain. In the old koranic school of the Merdersa Ben Youssef, the shallow pool of the beautiful tiled courtyard splattered with raindrops.
Up in the Berber village of Ait Amer, below the snow capped peaks of the Atlas Mountains, villagers enjoyed cups of sweet mint tea in the warmth of the returning sun.
Dyslexia is a gift, or so I keep hearing. It’s to be unlocked and embraced. I can’t really argue with that. Although I think addressed would be a more appropriate term. You see I’m someone who has been diagnosed as mildly dyslexic as both child and adult. And I find the whole gift thing a bit hard to swallow.
I’ve always felt embarrassed to say I’m dyslexic. Not incase people think I’m thick but because I feel like I’m making an excuse. As if I’m not dyslexic enough because I don’t really fit into the most obvious category. I’m a voracious reader and have been since my teens. It’s tiring and I can sometimes I drift off, read page after page without taking in a word but that often depends on the writing. If I’m reading black text on pure white the noise can be a bit overwhelming and sometimes it looks like a 3D image. But it’s never really been too much of a problem. It’s everything else that’s the real nightmare.
I was about eight years old when I was first diagnosed. I was falling far behind at school, suffering from frequent and debilitating migraines and depression. A child psychologist came to the school to see me and diagnosed me as mildly dyslexic. A term I still don’t completely understand. He sent letters to my parents who sent them to the school head, Mr Hall, who denied receiving them. So they sent them again. He denied all knowledge once more. Around this time my parents split up. I moved into a new house with my Mum and little brother. Mum and Dad had a lot going on with five kids and a divorce, so I guess my problems just got a little lost in the move. I stayed at the same school where I continued to receive no support. I told my form teacher, an old battle-axe called Mrs Orm who was on the verge of retirement. “You’re not dyslexic,” she said, “you’re stupid.” It was the mid 80’s and these teachers were old. I didn’t tell my parents about that, I wasn’t the sort of kid to go home and talk about what was going on at school, whether it was good or bad. I just shrugged my shoulders and bottled it all up. I never brought dyslexia up with another teacher again.
When I got to secondary school I could read okay but quite slowly. I struggled to keep up in English and standing up to read in class was humiliating. Although my biggest problems were writing and spelling. I’m left-handed as well so the way I’d learned to write with my wrist arched round above the page would become quite painful after a short while. Field trips were the worst, I dreaded them. The clipboards we had to write on were impossible for me to use. If someone had shown me what a difference turning the page and writing upwards makes it would have helped a lot. That’s what I do now by the way.
My handwriting was, and often still is a source of embarrassment. My hand just doesn’t seem to do what my brain is trying to tell it to do sometimes. There’s no rhythm or fluidity, it’ll change direction mid-word, then I’ll begin to get frustrated, especially under pressure and start randomly placing capital letters in the middle of a word or writing things backwards. It caused me to avoid any job, study or activity that involved writing for years. That doesn’t happen so much now. I look at my notes from a recent writing trip to Morocco and they look like a scratchy, barely eligible mess. Some letters are really big where as others are tiny and they often point in different directions. Like I’ve invented some sort of bizarre shorthand only I can barely understand.
I once wrote an essay on Gandhi in school. I don’t remember what I wrote, It probably wasn’t very good. But I’ll never forget just how much getting the words down hurt. Mr Pace, the history teacher, said it was “a load of shit” when he had me alone in his office. I’m sure he had a point, expressing it constructively and with a touch of empathy might have helped.
I wrote another essay for English on Romeo & Juliette. The teacher, Miss Vivian, returned it graded E. It was only after Mum had contacted the school to ask why it scored so low despite having a private English teacher help me with it that she reluctantly re-graded it (actually read it that is) with a C. That was the best grade I ever got for piece of written work at that school. It was pretty clear my teachers didn’t expect great things from me.
Giving up was easy. I’d pick and choose the lessons to go to and probably only attended around 50% of my last 6 months. My absence was rarely reported. I couldn’t concentrate in class and had little clue of what was going on half the time so I’d only get myself into trouble when I did turn up. I sat my exams and failed every one. The grade that really stung was the D I got for expressive arts. It still bothers me that the A’s and B’s I got for my drama performances were wasted because I didn’t do the accompanying written work the curriculum required.
I started to write in my late twenties, while backpacking in Asia. I’d spend nights alone lying on a bed in some creaky hut or cheap hotel room, awkwardly scribbling in a journal. I was overwhelmed by my experiences on the road and felt a desire to record everything. I’d write till my wrist hurt like hell, then break before writing again until sleep took over. It led me to go more out-of-the-way, pick the trickier routes and venture off the beaten track on my own. I had some wild, wonderful and scary adventures. I also gained some self-esteem and learned to really believe in myself. I’d write long descriptive emails home and always get the same responses, thanking me for the vivid descriptions and encouraging me to write more.
The more I wrote the more I got out of it. Using a computer I could get more done and not be in pain. I could use a spell check to sort out my mistakes. It’s hard not notice your errors when there’s squiggly red lines all over your work. I learned more on my own at a computer than I did in years of being shouted at by teachers.
I took some writing classes and started a blog. I only did it for writing practice and motivation. Short 500 word max travel stories. The 3rd story I wrote won a competition in the Daily Telegraph. When I got the phone call telling me I’d won and asking where I wanted my prize money sent to I thought I was being duped by an elaborate identity theft scam. The idea of my writing being good enough to publish, let alone be worth some cash seemed more far-fetched to me than that of someone hacking my emails, then ringing me up to try to steal my information. Then I wrote one that won a national blogging competition for a major holiday company. I got sent to Thailand, Morocco and the Caribbean to write for their blog. 5 star VIP treatment, all expenses paid. These days I’m getting work commissioned, and I’m published regularly. It’s completely mental. Now all I want to be is a writer. The irony is quite staggering.
And then there’s dyslexia. I once wrote a piece for a writing workshop about my time at school. One or two of the older students seemed to take offence to it. “How dare you come here and suggest you’ve got learning difficulties,” was the attitude. “You’ll have to do better than that, you have to explain exactly what’s wrong with you and what makes you different.” I can’t even answer that question. If I could invite them into my head for a day or two I’d be happy to let them see for themselves. I was shocked and frustrated. Why should I have to justify myself to someone else’s ignorance? It was just the same old attitudes I had to deal with at school.
I cringe every time I see a spelling mistake or grammatical error in my work. Maybe I beat myself up too much over it. It’s usually just a misplaced apostrophe, the sort of thing that slips under the spell check radar. Then I see people I thought were intelligent posting smug memes on social media, grammar nazi bullshit like – “Grammar, the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit.” Really? That sort of thing may help someone who went to university and writes crisp packet copy for a living feel good about themselves, but for a dyslexic person with something to say, then they’re just going to feel like shit. So fuck off.
About 18 months ago I stumbled upon a few articles about dyslexic writers. Before long I’d discovered a whole world of them. I even met with a PhD student who was writing a thesis on dyslexic writing as a movement. The realisation of not being alone was extremely emotional. It suddenly felt like I didn’t have to feel angry and embarrassed anymore.
I learned that people with dyslexia have visual minds. We think in pictures not words. It made me think of the way I’d tricked my brain into remembering certain things I was struggling with in school. Like the Which? magazine logo on a classmate’s pen. Once I’d logged that image I never misspelt that word again. I still see the bright bubbly font of the logo in my mind’s eye every time it crops up. The big D of the Debenhams department store sign in town was how I remembered which way round that letter went.
When I start writing I find I’m describing images in my mind. As if putting them down on the page is like scattering Polaroids across a table. I then play around with them, arranging them in a way that looks right. It’s incredibly therapeutic. Like I’m de-fragging my brain. I used to get depressed a lot and often suffer with insomnia. Since I started writing seriously that stuff comes much less frequently.
Writing CV’s and job applications boggles my mind still. I can work at a CV for hours and achieve nothing but headaches and nausea. I’m lucky to have a friend who enjoys them. She writes me templates and all I have to do is fill in the gaps with the mashup of art college qualifications I scraped together in the many years after school, and my weird job history.
For years I’ve been working the seasons. Jobs I’ve found through word of mouth. Hard graft and no social life. Months on the road to pay for months on the road. I spent 8 years of my life without being in the same place for more than 3 months. But that can’t go on forever. Yet when I re-engage with society, live in a city and try to find a job, I find myself struggling again. In London, this career minded city, when I’m scouring the job pages or pestering agencies, I’ve a tendency to start feeling lost again, adrift in a mild vortex. Like I’m a tiny piece of a giant jigsaw puzzle. But I’m in the wrong box and I don’t quite fit.
Writing isn’t enough to live on, the fact I get paid for any of it feels like a minor miracle. So I temp. It saves the horror of job applications and no assignment carries the weight of forever. I’ve been in six different jobs since the turn of the year. I seem to have become a receptionist. I don’t quite know how that happened. Must be my welcoming smile and pleasant phone manner. When they sit me front of house I get visitors coming in and saying, “Hello, I’m So-and-So here to see Such-and-Such.” If I don’t write So-and-So’s name immediately then I’ll forget it. Instantly. But by the time I’ve written it down I’ve forgotten who Such-and-Such was. God forbid So-and-So spells his name out to me because by the time I’ve written the 2nd letter he’s already onto the 5th and I’m screwed. It’s like they go in my ear then fall through some trapdoor in my head. Like when we did dictation at school and I was lost within seconds. Or the times table cassettes we listened to in middle school maths. I’d put it down to being stupid, but I know that I’m not. I’m just wired differently.
I’ve often wondered what it would be like if I’d not been like this. Or if I’d have got the help from school that I needed. Or if I’d tried a bit harder and not given up so easily. Would I be more successful and have more money? More job prospects? Maybe. But then I wouldn’t have had the life I’ve had instead. All those adventures I write about. And the people I’ve loved and been inspired by along the way. In one way or another it all stemmed from that shaky start. And I guess if I didn’t have dyslexia then I wouldn’t be me. And I like being me.
As for the gift of dyslexia, well I don’t buy it. Everyone I know is gifted in one way or another. Some of us are just a bit harder to unwrap.