I don’t recall ever having had a good memory. At school, I did poorly at things that required learning by rote – in my day that meant, at least, history, geography and maths. By way of compensation, nature provided me with a quick grasp of fundamentals. This meant that, wherever there was a way to work it out from basic principles, I was home and dry.
Reading was my bête noir. I fitted perfectly into the group that, today, are labelled reluctant readers. I was quite willing and able to lose myself in any tale, even if imperfectly understood – my imagination just filled in the blanks for me.
The idea that these ah, ber, cer, der noises had any relationship to normal conversation, I found completely foreign. The notion that adults needed a book to tell you a story, I viewed with suspicion. There were so many things in life that seemed inexplicable and, as understanding things was one of my major preoccupations, I began to suspect that the whole business was a carefully and deliberately kept secret, probably related to other life experiences that had no apparent fundamental cause – like having to sit at the table until you had finished your meal, or having to go to bed at some randomly selected point in the day.
Then, one day, out of the blue, came my light-bulb moment. I saw that the ah, ber, cer nonsense was indeed a smoke screen designed to keep me in a compliant state of ignorance. I saw and understood in a flash – you could tell what a word meant by its shape. Of course, I didn’t instantly read, but I now understood, and because I understood I was prepared to give reading a chance.
As an eight year old, I automatically assumed that I was the only one who had ever acquired this knowledge. This was my secret and it gave me the sort of power that the most dictatorial tyrant can only dream of. I immediately set about using my new-found skill to attack the other bane of my life at the time – writing.
No doubt, if I was at school in our current enlightened age, I would be classed as dyslexic and short-sighted. My school reports mention that I was bright, but inattentive due to a short attention span. To my young mind the issue revolved around which side of the letter the stick fitted – there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to it. p wasn’t too bad, g had a little curl, but b and d? How on earth could you tell which was which? I rapidly applied my new skill – the answer had to be in the shape. Then it came to me, the word bed was shaped just like a bed. It had an upright at each end. It was easy to remember. I was in control!