MY EARLY YEARS
I was born in Liverpool in 1952. It seems strange looking back but Liverpool was still a bombsite as it was only 7 years after the end of the war. We lived 300 yards from the docks and through a child’s eyes everything seemed to be in black and white. I was the second oldest of 5 children. My mother had her children before she was 21 and we lived in 2 rooms in a privately rented house.
My father was pretty useless and he preferred the company of his mates in the pub and I remember him spending time in prison but my mother told us that he was working in Butlins holiday camp during the periods of his absence.
He was a man that presented as being a good man to the outside world and he would buy anybody a pint and spend hours gambling and living the life of a single man. He had no interest in his children and he chose to spend everything he earned as a plumber on anybody except his family. He had a nickname for all of his children and mine was Gobshite.
Life was pretty tough with no luxuries but it was preferable to when my father was home because of the violence and toxic atmosphere that was around due to his drunken behaviour. On one occasion my father smashed every window in the house during one of his violent episodes and on another occasion he threw an iron fireguard at my mother necessitating her to have stitches in her eye. We were well known to the NSPPC and we were dependent on the Catholic Church for food and clothes.
When I was only 5 years old I had already been identified as a child with problems and I know I started in the infant class late because I was still wetting myself.
An early recollection of school was at the age of 8 or 9 being teased because I was so scruffy and probably smelly due to having no bathroom or parental guidance when it came to personal hygiene.
When I was about 10 there was a school medical for children of that age. I remember sitting in the class being very frightened because I knew that I would have to strip down to my underwear – which I did not have. I told the teacher that I was unwell hoping that she would leave me alone and not send me into the gymnasium with the other children. Eventually my name was called and I started sobbing but the teacher told me I was acting like a cry-baby, and that I had to go. I can’t say exactly what happened next but I know the police took me home because I ran away from the school rather than go into the medical.
When I was 10 I could not read but I knew all the countries in the world that played football by recognising the badges and colour of the shirts the players wore.
On one occasion at school the teacher set up a quiz based on capital cities. The teacher would name a country and ask what the capital was.
I could not write anything down so shouted out the answers. After about 6 or 7 that I got right she called me up to the front of the class and said that I had to shut up and that she did not know how I was doing it but in her opinion I was cheating.
I tried to tell her that I knew the answers because I knew that all the country’s football teams played in the capital city. My older brother by 2 years was a big football fan and he collected football stickers, which is how I knew so much about world football. I remember being incredibly embarrassed and upset that my little bit of glory was being taken away from me and I did not have the emotional maturity to cope.
Looking back as I have done over the years I think that experience led me to becoming disruptive and developing a sarcastic attitude to the teachers and I spent most of my time in class sitting at the back making a nuisance of myself.
When I was 11 I had to sit the 11 plus which was an absolute farce. It was well known that I could not read but I was told to go into the exam room and just put my name on the paper and leave the room if I wanted to. I was reminded not to make any noise when I left because I mustn’t disturb the other children. After I had left the exam room I was told to go to the playing fields and play football until the exams were over.
It was around this time that a letter was sent to my mother that said that I was ESN and that when I went to secondary school I would be in a remedial class. I remember being shocked to the core when I was told that ESN was an abbreviation for Educationally Sub Normal. This really reinforced what I was beginning to suspect that I was different but did not know why.
At the age of 11 both my older brother and I had an early morning milk round from 5am until 7am after which we both went on to do a paper round until 8.30am. This coupled with the home environment was a perfect storm for producing an emotionally wrecked child whose concentration was practically zero and who lived in a world of fear and anxiety.
I can honestly say I can’t remember ever sitting with a teacher and going through ABC or the cat sat on the mat. I guess I must have but all I remember is living in fear that I would get something wrong again. I must have had school reports but I can’t remember ever seeing one or my parents going to parent’s evenings.
The only joy that I can remember as a child was playing football and when I was about 10 I first heard of Bill Shankly, which ignited my love of Liverpool Football Club that has stayed with me throughout my life. At the age of 65 I have seen Liverpool live over 1,000 times and have watched them play in 20 countries.
It was around this time that I started collecting football programmes and because of this I learned some words. I knew that my favourite player was Peter Thompson. For a long time I pronounced his name THompson as I did not know that the H was silent. I found it all so confusing and did not understand about how you put sounds together. I just could not understand the building blocks of how you read and I remember being full of anxiety whenever the class had to be tested on spellings.
SECONDARY SCHOOL EXPERIENCE
My experience of secondary school is difficult to put into words without getting angry and upset. I was an 11 year old whose life at home was pretty sad and I would have hoped that school might have been a respite from that. I can’t imagine what the report from my primary school would have said about me but the bottom line is that I went to secondary school unable to read or write other than to recognise the words Liverpool Football Club.
I was placed in a class call 1P which was supposed to identify you as a boy that would be going on after school days to work in an occupation using your hands i.e. PRACTICAL.
This was great in theory but the missing link was that to do any work in the woodwork department or metal workshop you needed to be able to do some basics maths and English. I was amongst a whole new group of peers who did not know me and teachers who did not have the will or experience to help a child that was so misplaced to be in this environment so once again I just became a nuisance and was seen as a risk to the other boys as I just messed about in these classes.
I did not have the life experience to ask for help, and life in the classroom was a torturous time. I was just crying out for somebody to help me and pick up on my strengths.
If I could get up and work for 3 hours before school and knew every player that had played for Liverpool since the forties why couldn’t somebody find time to treat me as an individual and help me. I wasn’t lazy and my love for Liverpool proved that I could be motivated.
The only time that I can remember getting attention was in an act of rebellion. I painted a red and white hat and scarf on the statue of a Saint that was in the school grounds. This incident was the talk of the school and I remember getting thrashed by the head teacher.
I did enjoy PE and was a pretty good footballer. The problem again was that I did not have football boots and the time spent in the changing rooms was very stressful, as I did not have the proper sports clothes.
I got on very well in history because I enjoyed hearing the stories but I dreaded having to write anything down on paper. I would cut out pictures and fill the exercise books with these but this was not acceptable to the teachers so as a result I just turned off and wasted everybody’s time.
Despite my failure to engage in the lessons I did go to school every day. I was not a child that did not go to school, which in some ways is more disappointing because I was there and could have been taught.
In short I don’t think I was any better equipped to face the adult world leaving secondary school than I had been 4 years before when leaving primary school.
MY EXPERIENCE OF READING AND WRITING AT SECONDARY SCHOOL
Whatever I wrote would have been illegible and I clearly remember being given back work that was a mass of red ink and whole sentences crossed out. This was very demoralising and embarrassing. In short, if I could get away with not writing then I was fine. I would engage in topics in lessons such as history and geography but once the pens came out I would retreat into myself.
MY WORK LIFE
At the age of 14 I left school 6 months early. I got a job as a cinema projectionist and life became a lot easier. The job was practical and there was very little need to be able to read or write.
On one occasion I nearly lost my job was when we were showing the children’s film Thunderbirds in the afternoon and the James Bond film Thunderball in the evening.
One Saturday evening halfway through the James Bond film I put on the wrong reel of film leaving the audience in shock because James Bond turned into Lady Penelope just as he was about to encounter with his latest conquest.
There were occasions that I put the wrong reels of film into the transit cases but by and large I got through life on my wits and I developed coping strategies to get by.
Going to work I would listen at the bus stop to people saying what bus was arriving or I would ask were the bus was going. I got to know the bus routes by the bus numbers without really understating how number sequences worked.
At the age of 15 I began listening to Bob Dylan and along with going to Anfield and standing in the boy’s pen life was good. Shankly was the father figure I had never had and the Kop became my family.
At 17 I got a job in Tescos working in the warehouse and again I made sure that any expectation that I would need to read was minimal. I became an expert in getting others to fill in my timesheet and I turned down better jobs because I knew I could not cope with anything written.
At 18 I moved to London and slept rough for a couple of years. I eventually got a job again as a cinema projectionist where once again I had strategies to enable me to manage without reading or writing anything down. On one occasion when I was sleeping rough the police arrested me as they thought I had stolen some food, which in fact had been given to me. I was asked by the custody sergeant to write down a statement of where I got the food and of course I could not. I remember getting angry with him and shouting because I did not want him to know that I could not read or write. I was threatened with another charge if I did not calm down.
THE TURNING POINT
I completed a 2-year community and youth work course at Goldsmiths College in which I had a dispensation to use a Dictaphone to record my lectures and also present my essays. I also had to hand write them but the grammar and the presentation looked like somebody had dropped a bottle of ink on the paper. The College knew that I could not read or write but they treated me with great respect and supported me throughout the 2 years.
Goldsmiths had great experience of working with mature students and they gave me a platform to air my views and express myself in a way that I had never had. I remember the thrill of being in a class and believing that I should be there and knowing that I wasn’t a Gobshite.
Fast forward 8 years and I am married to a wonderful woman who was a head teacher in a North London school. I was working in a children’s home as a residential social worker. I could still not read but apart from always having to make sure that I was on a shift with somebody that would do the case notes I was getting along as well as I could have expected.
Saying that there was always a tension just below the surface and simple things like signing a cheque, following a cookery recipe, reading to my daughter or writing a note to the milkman was impossible for me which was very stressful and embarrassing.
My wife was unwell and we both knew that her eyesight was deteriorating and that the day would soon come when she could no longer drive. It was this fact that galvanised me into making a decision to try and learn to read because I would need to be able to read road signs and be safe in the driver’s seat.
In about 1985 I attended adult literacy lessons at Catford Boys School. This was once a week for 2 hours but there was plenty of homework that had to be done.
The class was made up of about 10 older people 30+ and I did this for 2 years. A very strange sensation happened once when I wrote a very short piece of work. The teacher referred to me as having an unusual writing style. I was in shock to think that I even had a writing style.
One morning I arrived at work and sat in the overnight handover. The notes were read out recording what had happened the night before. I felt a surge of pride when I realised the notes were mine and that I had built up the courage to write them down; nobody laughed; nobody corrected the grammar or checked the spelling. The notes were nowhere perfect but they were mine.
As my reading began to get better I started reading my football programmes and after having some of them for years it was lovely to see them in a different light. I started buying a newspaper and I remember feeling grown up (I was about 32) because I could converse with my workmates on issues in the newspaper.
My reading now consists of football biographies as well as music biographies. I am reading a book at the moment of a young Muslim man who was radicalised and who has recorded how this happened and the message he sends is very powerful and stark.
At the age of 50 I went back to university to qualify as a social worker having spent 25 years working with people but not having a social work degree.
None of this would have been possible without Catford Boys adult literacy class and none of it would have been necessary if years before I had been valued and helped by the education system.
My message to young people would be seek out good people because they are there. Value yourselves and others. Try and see the best in others and be the best you can.
Life can be shit but it can also throw up opportunities but you have to be responsive and remember that no one is better than you but they might have made better use of their opportunities.
A good attitude can get you a long way, which is how I managed to make a living and make a life while not being able to read or write.
Further to our meeting today here is the outstanding information we spoke about. In 2001 an educational psychologist regarding my struggle with English assessed me in Chelsea. The sessions were over 2 days and consisted of visual, auditory, and balance tests.
I was given a diagnosis of having dyslexia and was told that it was no surprise that I found it impossible to read at all well and could not cope with handwriting. My diagnosis came as a relief to me and explained to a certain degree why I had never been able to engage in mainstream education. With this information I was able to get help in my workplace to have a computer that met my needs and this made it possible for me to able carry out my duties.
After a couple of years I went on to qualify as a social worker and was able to produce work of a higher enough quality to pass all the modules and graduate.
I still to this day cannot hand write anything and I still experience high levels of anxiety if I am asked to write anything down.
There are the books that I have enjoyed in recent years.
Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee Dee Harris
A Million Little Pieces James Frey
Chronicles Bob Dylan
No Blacks no Dogs no Irish John Lydon
Shankly Steve Kelly
Stoned Alone Bill Wyman
Animal Farm Orwell
The Road to Wigan Pier Orwell
Catcher in the Rye Salinger