As a child I suffered, but learned to turn dyslexia to my advantage, to see the world more creatively. We are the architects, we are the designers
I’m of the generation where teachers didn’t know what dyslexia was. The big problem with the education system then was that there was no compassion, no understanding and no humanity. I don’t look back and feel angry with the teachers. The ones who wanted to have an individual approach weren’t allowed to. The idea of being kind and thoughtful and listening to problems just wasn’t done: the past is a different kind of country.
At school my ideas always contradicted the teachers’. I remember one teacher saying that human beings sleep for one-third of their life and I put my hand up and said, “If there’s a God isn’t that a design fault? If you’ve built something, you want efficiency. If I was God I would have designed sleep so we could stay awake. Then good people could do one-third more good in the world.”
The teacher said, “Shut up, stupid boy. Bad people would do one-third more bad.” I thought I’d put in a good idea. I was just being creative. She also had a point, but the thing was, she called me stupid for even thinking about it.
I remember a teacher talking about Africa and the “local savages” and I would say, “Who are you to talk about savages?” She would say, “How dare you challenge me?” – and that would get me into trouble.
Once, when I was finding it difficult to engage with writing and had asked for some help, a teacher said, “It’s all right. We can’t all be intelligent, but you’ll end up being a good sportsperson, so why don’t you go outside and play some football?” I thought, “Oh great”, but now I realise he was stereotyping me.
I had poems in my head even then, and when I was 10 or 11 my sister wrote some of them down for me. When I was 13 I could read very basically but it would be such hard work that I would give up. I thought that so long as you could read how much the banknote was worth, you knew enough or you could ask a mate.
I got thrown out of a lot of schools, the last one at 13. I was expelled partly because of arguing with teachers on an intellectual level and partly for being a rude boy and fighting. I didn’t stab anybody, but I did take revenge on a teacher once. I stole his car and drove it into his front garden. I remember him telling us the Nazis weren’t that bad. He could say that in the classroom. When I was in borstal I used to do this thing of looking at people I didn’t want to be like. I saw a guy who spent all his time sitting stooped over and I thought, “I don’t want to be like that,” so I learned to sit with a straight back. Being observant helped me make the right choices.
A high percentage of the prison population are dyslexic, and a high percentage of the architect population. If you look at the statistics, I should be in prison: a black man brought up on the wrong side of town whose family fell apart, in trouble with the police when I was a kid, unable to read and write, with no qualifications and, on top of that, dyslexic. But I think staying out of prison is about conquering your fears and finding your path in life.
When I go into prisons to talk to people I see men and women who, in intelligence and other qualities, are the same as me. But opportunities opened for me and they missed theirs, didn’t notice them or didn’t take them.
I never thought I was stupid. I didn’t have that struggle. If I have someone in front of me who doesn’t have a problem reading and writing telling me that black people are savages I just think, “I’m not stupid – you’re the one who’s stupid.” I just had self-belief.
For my first book I told my poems to my girlfriend, who wrote them down for me. It really took off, especially within the black community. I wrote “wid luv” for “with love”. People didn’t think they were dyslexic poems, they just thought I wrote phonetically.
At 21 I went to an adult education class in London to learn to read and write. The teacher told me, “You are dyslexic,” and I was like, “Do I need an operation?” She explained to me what it meant and I suddenly thought, “Ah, I get it. I thought I was going crazy.”
I wrote more poetry, novels for teenagers, plays, other books and recorded music. I take poetry to people who do not read poetry. Still now, when I’m writing the word “knot”, I have to stop and think, “How do I write that?” I have to draw something to let me know what the word is to come back to it later. If I can’t spell “question” I just put a question mark and come back to it later.
When I look at a book, the first thing I see is the size of it, and I know that’s what it’s like for a lot of young people who find reading tough. When Brunel University offered me the job of professor of poetry and creative writing, I knew my students would be officially more educated than me. I tell them, “You can do this course and get the right grade because you have a good memory – but if you don’t have passion, creativity, individuality, there’s no point.”In my life now, I find that people accommodate my dyslexia. I can perform my poetry because it doesn’t have to be word perfect, but I never read one of my novels in public. When I go to literary festivals I always get an actor to read it out for me. Otherwise all my energy goes into reading the book and the mood is lost.
If someone can’t understand dyslexia it’s their problem. In the same way, if someone oppresses me because of my race I don’t sit down and think, “How can I become white?” It’s not my problem, it’s theirs and they are the ones who have to come to terms with it.
If you’re dyslexic and you feel there’s something holding you back, just remember: it’s not you. In many ways being dyslexic is a natural way to be.
What’s unnatural is the way we read and write. If you look at a pictorial language like Chinese, you can see the word for a woman because the character looks like a woman. The word for a house looks like a house. It is a strange step to go from that to a squiggle that represents a sound.
So don’t be heavy on yourself. And if you are a parent of someone with dyslexia don’t think of it as a defect. Dyslexia is not a measure of intelligence: you may have a genius on your hands. Having dyslexia can make you creative. If you want to construct a sentence and can’t find the word you are searching for, you have to think of a way to write round it. This requires being creative and so your “creativity muscle” gets bigger.
Kids come up to me and say, “I’m dyslexic too,” and I say to them, “Use it to your advantage, see the world differently. Us dyslexic people, we’ve got it going on – we are the architects. We are the designers.” It’s like these kids are proud to be like me and if that helps them, that is great. I didn’t have that as a child. I say to them, “Bloody non-dyslexics … who do they think they are?”