Running out of time.

According to the Internet, the average person in the UK reads ten books a year. This figure is inflated by those of us that read a lot, so the figure is more like four or five books a year, with just under half of all UK adults not reading books at all.

I read a lot. More than watching TV, which I love, I read. At times reading has been a guilty pleasure, snuck into snatches of time when I could escape the kids. Reading saved me from a difficult childhood, escaping into faraway lands when my own world became too much to bear. Now reading is work. A writer can’t write without reading.

Now I can read all day, no distractions on my time other than the withering look of the dog who is not-so-patiently waiting for a walk.

I’ve always read to the end of a book. Even when it is rubbish. Even when, with every turn of the page, I wait for that moment when the book will take off and I will be transported, only to be disappointed at the end. I think it’s a bit of that puritanical work ethic, that a job started must always be finished even if the job in hand is doing nothing for me.

My gift to myself for my 50th Birthday (and I gave myself many gifts) was to stop forcing myself to finish books I didn’t like.

I also worked out that using the average life expectancy for women in the UK – 82 – times the average number of books I read in a year – 30ish –  I have just over a thousand books left to read.

Just over a thousand!!!! WTF

I read a couple of novels a month plus listen to at least one talking book and maybe something non-fiction. How the bloody hell do I work with a deadline of a thousand books left.

FOREVER.

I’ve nearly a thousand books in my house, well in my living room, then there’s more on the stairs, and the hall, and the bedroom.

And then there’s the library books. I never have less than ten on my ticket.  Ok, that’s not true, I always have way over twenty, but I was aware I was sounding a little crazy and have kinda lost my point.

Yes, my point was that for my 50th birthday I gave myself permission to stop reading a book if it didn’t have me entranced by page 50. Sometimes if it’s a slow burn I will give it 100, but I am counting the pages all the way.

How can I live with the grief of knowing all the great books I’m never going to read? All the classics that I should have read, how do I choose which one, knowing it kicks something else off my timeline? Should I read all of Dickens? I’ve tried. What about the great Russian writers? I’ve never read Dostoevsky, though I loved Tolstoy. What about great writers from history – I’ve never read Chaucer or Shakespeare?  Should I read the Illiad?

(As a side note I should add that I really only read novels written by women so that would pretty much exclude everyone listed above, but you get my point.)

And what about all the brilliant books I’ve already read that I might want to read again?

You might think this knowledge would concentrate my mind. You might think I should ask World of Books to close my account until I’ve read everything I already own, or that the library should be limiting my choices but let’s not go mad.

And what if my reading slows down with age? What if I stop being able to read? My own mortality doesn’t scare me but leaving books behind unread breaks me.

So, enough chit chat, I’m sure you have things to do?

Me?

I’m going to finish my book.

Dysgu Cymraeg – Learning Welsh

The word Dylexia surrounded by a jumble of words making it difficult to read

Bore da! Sut wyt ti?

I have been learning Welsh. I’d wanted to for years, I live in Wales, after all. With courses moved to Zoom over lockdown and the course being half price – I could never afford the original £90,  I am now dysgu Cymraeg.

Learning a new language is challenging for everyone I guess, but as a dyslexic learner, it is tough.

The words dancing on lines in English can be hard, especially when I’m tired or not well, but my brain recognises the shapes of the words, and I can get the gist. I read early as a child, memorising the shapes of words not their sounds.

Reading in English, I reckon I get it wrong a third of the time. Impossible to see that similar words are wrong, I struggle to check my work. If I read ‘the man has a red tractor on his head’ I know that is probably not the case and go back and carefully read again, willing the words to stay put, not sneak up to the line above then grab a word from the line below.

Sometimes its laugh out loud funny – the mix-up, especially with headlines – only now I can’t think of a funny example.

It’s less funny in Welsh. I haven’t memorised all the words. It’s impossible to recognise the dancing out of order as I don’t know the order in the first place.  I can’t sound it out as I don’t recognise the sounds. Reading takes me longer, and I struggle to retain what we have learned.

But learning Welsh, or trying to, has helped me understand my dyslexia in unexpected ways.

First comes the blind panic, something I no longer experience in my first language.  In Welsh, the words jumbling on the page causes a flush of anxiety that flares across my skin. Widening my eyes, from fear and concentration, I try to follow what the tutor is saying. 

Shame at my stupidity and embarrassment as I lose my place, a tight knot forms in my throat. My eyes swim with tears as I try to concentrate on the screen. This feeling , old as stone, sits like a pebble in my mouth. More panic when everyone is turning the page, moving on, laughing at the joke in the text while I am still stuck, letters swimming in nonsense.

I have no idea what we are meant to be learning.

My mind shuts down, no longer able to process the information, an internal dialogue of ‘try harder’ ‘stupid girl’ ‘pay attention’  ‘lazy’  runs on a loop until the tutor, noticing my silence asks me a question.

‘I don’t know,’ I mumble, forgetting how to say it in Welsh.

It is not the voice of a  50+woman.  A woman with degrees and post-grad qualifications coming out of her ears, an award-winning writer no less.

It is the voice of the funny little girl I was. The funny little girl, berated by teachers, exercise books thrown at her in disgust as the rest of the class sniggered in alarm. The funny little girl made to sit at the front so the teacher could slap at the desk with a ruler every time she caught her ‘being lazy.’ The funny little girl, who had wonderful ideas and dreams and stories but became silent and anxious when faced with the urgency of filling the blank page.

The shame, of my stupidity, of my indolence, of my inability to ‘just try harder,’ never left.

Except.

Now.

Learning Welsh.

Now I can see how hard that funny little girl must have had to work. It’s no wonder she left school with no qualifications. No wonder she thought she was thick, no wonder she still worries about spelling and commas and where the speech marks go.

I can see how hard it was for her. How hard it was to understand that it wasn’t her, well it was, but not in a bad way, not in the way she thought.

That poor funny little girl, always a bit weird, always on the outside, never quite following what was going on, always escaping into a book.

It’s ok now because I’m here. I’m no longer that funny little girl – I’m now this funny grown-up woman.

In my Welsh class, I take a deep breath and holding my funny girl’s hand in mine, we raise our hands together and simply say ‘ I don’t get it.’

The tutor smiles, apologises for rushing on.

Me and my funny girl let out that last held breath, our fingers moving slowly along the page and say loud and proud,

Maya dw i. Dw i’n hoffi dysgu Cymraeg, ond dw’n dal angen ymarfer.

(I’m Maya. I like learning Welsh, but I still need to practice. )

P.S I was at a training course for Dyslexia and they used a great exercise to show what dyslexia can feel like for some students. Give it a try if you like.

Grab a piece of paper and a pen and copy the following statement. You have three minutes. If your paper is lined, turn it landscape and write across the lines.

Oh, you must replace every letter A with ( . Every letter E with % and every letter Y with *. When you come to the letter N you must insert a word from the line above. You can only read these instructions once.

Good Luck

Not only is Maya funny, witty, and charming. Not only is she a mother of six children, yes six! Yes, I know that’s a lot. Yes it was busy, yes it was very noisy and yes I was insane. Not only is Maya an award-winning writer, but she is also dyslexic, dyscalculic and dysgraphic. This means, despite being a seriously kick-ass sock knitter, she cant read kitting patterns so she memorises stich-patterns instead.

HURRY – GO FASTER.

Enjoy!

World Book night.

World book night is here!

Whatcha reading?

There are loads of really fabulous books on the book list, from some fantastic authors.

But, as ever I am freestyling and so tonight, when I curl up under a throw with a cuppa and maybe something sweet to nibble on – I’ve said it once I will say it again, what is it about reading that requires biscuits?

Tonight I will be finishing Penelope Lively’s 1970s children’s classic A Stich in Time .

Quiet 11 year Old Maria, holidaying in Eastborne with her parents has always struggled to keep the real world and her imagined world seperate. But discovering an embroiderd Sampler in the Victorian villa where she is staying, she is drawn into the life of the children who once lived there. She hears things that arent there, swings swinging, dogs barking and the line between the worlds slips away.

It’s slow by modern standards, with lots of description and clever asides but I am loving it. A comforting read, deceptively tense, with beautiful writing – ooh and fossils. I loved it as a kid.

I’ve also just started Menna Van Praag’s The Sisters Grimm which is intriguing – magical realism set in Cambridge and Everwhere with four young women rediscovering their magical powers. What’s not to love?

The last on my list of possibilites for tonight is Kate Charlesworth Sensible Footweat: A girls guide. A graphic guide to lesbian and queer history 1950 -2020.

I’ve not read much but what I’ve read is fabulous. Clever, witty, moving. Part memoir, part LGBTQIA+ History. Laugh out loud funny, personal, political and beautifully illustrated.

Sensible footwear: A girls guide – A graphic guide to lesbianand queer history.
Kate Charlesworth

So tell me, what will you be reading tonight?

And what biscuits have you got?

A love song to the library

Photo by Element5 Digital on Pexels.com

I learnt to cook in the library. Not literally but the library has been there for all of the major developments in my life and by my late teens, a mum with no money it was natural to learn to cook, borrowing a new book each month. Turkish, French, Chinese, Italian. I slavishly ate what I read. I bought olive oil in tiny glass bottles in the chemist, used the EU mountain butter to make flaky pastry for tinned EU beef pie.

I’d always read, stealing away to the library as often as I could. The librarian in the posh side of town was not welcoming to an unaccompanied child with once-white socks pooling around skinny ankles, the elastic a long distant memory. Once assured of my trustworthiness to bring the books back she would occasionally smile, offering me something she thought I might like. Alan Garner, J.G Robinson, Nesbitt, Wyndham, Barry Hines, and the classics, Little women, Call of the wild, Wind in the willows. I adored Judy Blume, disapproved of by the librarian who thought it too American. 

An awkward child, books saved me from the unfathomable negotiations of other kids. In a book, I always felt safe.

I learnt to parent in the library, borrowing books when as a teen I discovered I was pregnant, trying to hide my shame by burying Miriam Stoppard amongst Terry Pratchett’s.

Later, books of baby names, terrible twos and how to talk to teens paved the way. I read to my babies, snuggled in with toddlers, entered Hogwarts with my tweens. With ten years between the oldest and the youngest, older teens laid sleepily on the ends of beds as they re-listened to picture books told to their siblings. ‘We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one.’

My kids all joined the library, my youngest at just 4 days old. Pushing her in, still shuffling slightly, her brothers ready to swap their books.

I planned my wedding at the library, borrowing books on alternative ceremonies and how to write your own vows. This was the 90s, we got married in a field and had a rave afterwards. In the library, I leant it was a criminal offence to tell people we were getting married as we didn’t have a licenced registrar. A sign was put up saying, ‘This is not a legal wedding.’ The library saved me from jail time.

I learnt about music too. Though the upstairs lending library, full of classical music and men in macs was a little intimidating, I’d push through to the CDs, at the back.  Before Spotify and streaming, here was the only real chance to hear new music.  CDS were £15 apiece and who could afford that?

The library was a gateway to a world I wasn’t aware existed. Books about things I would never know, never learn. But books about everything you’d need. I learnt to garden, grow veggies, discovered world politics, religions, history, feminism. All these different ways of looking at the world.  Everything you needed to get along as a still awkward, still skint, woman of the world.

I was talking to some woman about the library recently and straight-faced she said ‘Yeah, but libraries are a bit old fashioned, aren’t they? I mean you can get a book for a tenner from Amazon. And if you want to know something you can Google it.’

She couldn’t understand that a tenner was a lot when you didn’t have much. It’s a mountain of money to spend on a book when you were worried about what’s for tea and if you can put the heating on? And what if you didn’t like it? That’s what she couldn’t understand. What if, by some mad scheme you’d found a tenner to spend on a brand-new book and then you didn’t like it.

‘Just give it to the charity shop,’ she said missing the point.

The library gives you the space to try new things, new books, new stories, new hobbies, without worrying about the expense.

I learnt to sew and knit from the library, not all of us can learn from our grandma’s knee.

And that’s the point of the library. It doesn’t care who you are. It doesn’t care how much money you have or if you have a granny that sews. The library is there for everyone. The democratisation of culture and information and stories. It doesn’t matter if the book you borrowed was no good because you can take it back. It doesn’t matter if you take a punt on a writer, you’ve never heard of, discovering your new absolute favourite.

Libraries have been there with me in all the stages of my life.  From cradle to grave I will always love the library, will always mark that silent hush as you enter, even if in the kid’s section they are gleefully singing along ‘Going on a bear hunt.’

Libraries are an act of political resistance, a fist raised in the air that says all are welcome here. No conditions, no need to pay. Come on in, even if it is sometimes only to get warm. Use the computers, browse the shelves, borrow a DVD.

The world is always yours in the library.