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I am not dyslexic.

This came as something of a disappointment to my final year primary school teacher, who’d been rather counting on my being dyslexic to make up for my complete lack of ability to spell.  So, at her insistence, and with the 11+ fast coming upon me, off I was shoved to a dyslexia/spelling tutor to be analyzed and assessed and her conclusion – I could spell just fine.  When I could be bothered.  But my apostrophes were a disaster.  And still are, if anyone’s interested.  To all my copy editors out there… its/it’s?  I’m so sorry for all the novels you’ve had to waste your time on that one.

Dyslexia was the condition of choice to have in my final year at primary school, which, upon reflection, I’d find rather offensive if I was actually dyslexic.  Words have never really been a problem for me, and the thought of struggling with them in any way, shape or form, is horrifying.  In the last few months, a vague awareness has been growing on me on how much of a pain in the backside it must be to struggle with language, as I’ve spent a lot of time editing application letters and CVs for my freelance friends, wading through paragraphs that have ranged from sublime to incomprehensible, all striving to express in the most modest language possible, the innate brilliance of the applicant.  It is a tragic truth that I continue to write other people, much, much better than I write me.

But back to primary school…

My parents have always valued education, and somehow cunningly managed to convince me at a reasonably early age that I should value it too.  (Their attempts to convince me not to be a novelist were less successful.)  So when the 11+ came rushing upon us, they felt immense alarm to be told by my school teacher that I was not doing well at spelling at all.  In fact, my writing in general was considered to be, if not bad, then certainly unhelpful, as if asked to write an essay on ‘What I Did On My Holiday’ I’d tend to start off with a pirate attack and swell to an earth-shattering climax.  Signs of things to come, perhaps, but not really within the syllabus brief.  Every week we’d be given spelling tests, and every week I’d completely and utterly fail to revise for the test, except once, when my Dad offered me £1 if I could get over 15/20 and I actually bothered to work, got full marks, took the £1 and spent it thank you.  My laziness and lack of interest in spelling was really something that the school should cure, but if I was dyslexic, then suddenly that lobbed the ball back at my parents and a stirring cry of ‘external tuition!’ was raised.

Credit, then, to the external tutor in question that on day 1 of our meeting she immediately dismissed my problems with spelling as a case of the can’t-be-arsed rather than anything more serious, and back I was lobbed to school.  Since then, I’ve had an occasionally fraught relationship with the educational system.  On being set comprehension essays to do for the 11+ I quickly decided that being able to work out where my Dad had hidden the answer book was far more cunning than actually answering the questions themselves, but the interviewer at the school I eventually went to – Godolphin and Latymer – seemed quite surprised that I could recognize Macbeth off the cuff.  (I was sold Shakespeare at an early age with the promise of blood, death and sword fights, and wasn’t disappointed.)  Learning to touch type quickly introduced me to both the wonders of producing words at speed, and of spellcheck; it also made the first year of IT classes at my secondary school rather pointless, and so I was banished to the room next door to try and work out how to use Microsoft Excel, a skill I used to have an have now entirely forgotten.

Spellcheck has been a double-edged sword in my life.  On the one hand, words I have always struggled with – occasionally, personnel, haberdasher (to name the example, aptly pointed out, that has prompted this post!) – I hope I’m gradually coming to terms with as the squiggly red line of shame makes the error known.  On the other hand, I resent the gradual Americanization of my language – for example, I just wrote ‘Americanisation’ with an ‘s’ in the middle and even this damn version of spellcheck has slotted a ‘z’ in where I wanted none.  I also have running battles with auto-format functions.  My literary style, if we can call it that, is nothing if not head-long, and the devices I use to achieve this are continually being switched round to a more grammatical – and I’d argue, rubbish – form by Microsoft and all its evils.  The downside of a headlong style, of course being that now and then I’ll complete a sentence in the dingos full belief that it’s fine and elegantly structured, when in fact somehow the word ‘dingos’ made it in without my really noticing half-way through.

During my secondary school years, I had a range of teachers who covered the full spectrum from gleefully supportive – there are one or two in particular who I will always treasure for their comforting mutual feedback sounds – and then at the opposite end there was at least one who loudly informed me that I would never get anywhere in life by the writing of foolish stories.  Although, in fairness, he wasn’t in the English department, and I was late with my homework.

At A-Level I was slightly hedged into doing English Literature A-Level.  I mean, it was a choice between that or something horrific like Geography, but even as I was filling in the form, aware that I probably wanted to study History later, I remember some small part of my soul cringing inside.  Then when I gave up Drama after AS-Level in favour of English, that part that had cringed, died outright.  I loathed English Lit A-Level.  I had two brilliant teachers who did their best to save classics such as Othello from the maws of exam questions – ‘Discuss the animal and monster imagery in the language of Othello’ – and even managed to make such horrors as Thomas Hardy (shudder) vaguely bearable.  I couldn’t stand the over-analysis of text – gods, but restoration comedy doesn’t stand up to the endless scrutiny we put it through, sometimes a farting joke is simply a farting joke.  I ended up inventing a separate voice with which to write my English essays, as my own just wasn’t reverent enough.  Her name was Petunia, and not only did her writing voice get me A-grades instead of my usual C+, but I knew what kind of car she drove and how many dogs she had.  Essays written in her voice also tended to have better spelling than when I write in my own, and a rather less frivolous version of her persona was used at the LSE to see me through historiography essays and international relations.

The truth remains to this day that I am what I am – a lazy speller.  It’s not dyslexia and its not ignorance of the mistake, it’s pure character cock-up in grammatical form.  I am also a rather hypocritical speller, in that I get hugely distressed at other people’s bad writing and misuse of language, but will blithely dismiss my own, sometimes, if in a wanky mood, with the words ‘artistic license, darling, artistic license…’  Wrongly so, but I hope, at the very least, with an apologetic smile.