Looking through the papers last weekend, my eye was caught by the heading of an article in The Sunday Times’ Culture magazine: ‘TV presenter Jay Blades says: “I’ve written my memoir; now I’m going to read it.”’
I couldn’t help feeling a flicker of annoyance on behalf of Blades’ ghostwriter and at this latest iteration of our ‘celeb culture’. It’s now ok to publicly disclose that someone else wrote your memoir – and that’s fair enough, in my eyes, especially as a ghostwriter myself – but to go beyond this and readily admit that you didn’t have the courtesy or curiosity to read the end result of your writer’s hard work, is surely a step too far.
However as I was about to turn the page, I quickly read the headline again, and realised that what Blades had actually said was this: ‘I’ve written my memoir; now I’m learning to read it’.
It turns out that the star presenter of the BBC’s The Repair Shop is severely dyslexic, and was only formally diagnosed as such at the age of 31, when he was told he had the reading age of an 11-year-old. It’s a fact he had tried to keep hidden until that point – from teachers, employers, friends and even family – none of whom he felt able to tell that when trying to decipher a passage of text, the words on the page ‘jump around’, making it very difficult for him to put an order on them. Last year he bravely ‘went public’ about these struggles, and at the age of 51, agreed to take part in a BBC documentary series following his progress over six months as he learned – or re-learned – how to read.
He made fast progress initially, but a return after lockdown to a very busy work schedule slowed down the learning process. Hence his admission in the article that he hasn’t yet been able to read his own book since its recent publication. (He is however at pains to point out that he listened to an audio transcript of the final draft of the text a number of times and with great attention.)
Apologies to any die-hard Repair Shop fans, but I have to admit that the long-running reality show fronted by Blades is a little too saccharine for my tastes. In principle, it’s a nice concept for a TV series: a team of talented craftspeople undertake the restoration of the treasured objects of various members of the public, with a ‘big reveal’ at the end of the process, when we get to see the results of the team’s work.
To my mind, however, it follows the format of every reality show today a little too closely, in that the efforts of the team are only deemed truly worthwhile if we get actual tears at the moment each owner is reunited with their revamped or reconfigured object. The success of the whole venture is measured in direct proportion to the intensity of any joyous sobbing caught on camera; any less dramatic expressions of pleasure and gratitude just won’t cut it.
Whatever you think of the programme, however, there’s no denying that the presenter’s own story is an inspirational one which will greatly help others with dyslexia by example and by raising public awareness. As well as managing to make his way in life despite leaving school with no ‘O’ levels due to his dyslexia, Blades has faced many other challenges. He grew up in straitened circumstances in Hackney, East London with his half-brother and mother, a single parent who got pregnant with him at 18; his father, a man who fathered 25 children with different women, was absent for the duration of his childhood. When, unbelievably, Blades later enrolled at Buckinghamshire New University to study criminology, he managed to complete his reading by listening to audio transcripts, and his assignments by dictating them and having a friend type them up. As recently as 2015, after the collapse of the charity he set up with his wife and the break-up of his marriage, he found himself homeless and suicidal at the age of 45, and was saved only by his refusal to give up completely, together with the kindness of a friend’s parents, who took him in until he was able to get back on his feet again.
In interviews and onscreen Jay Blades comes across as an articulate and charismatic person with a passion for life and resilience in spades, and I’ve no doubt that his ghostwriter’s job in translating his story into the written word was an enjoyable and rewarding one, and that Blades was a great partner in the venture. While some people might baulk at the idea that someone who has such difficulties with literacy should be able to publish a memoir supposedly written in their own voice, I think it’s a heartening example of the value of ghostwriting, in bringing into the public domain important, uplifting real-life stories which otherwise wouldn’t see the light of day. When it comes to such lives and such stories, writing a memoir doesn’t have to be the preserve of the literati elite, the very privileged or the otherwise highly educated. In fact, where memoir is principally a vehicle for discovery of the lives of others and the adversities they have overcome, these are the stories many readers will find to be the most interesting of all.