Learning To Read On The Day You're Born

          I remember my mother being horrified by a woman she met at a bus-stop, who complained that her ten year old son’s school was always ‘belly-aching’ about his low reading age.
          “What’s the matter with ‘em?” the woman asked. “He’s got until he’s sixteen to learn to read.”
          The woman shared what it seems is a common view – that reading is something learned during school hours, beginning at the age of five.
          I shared this view until recently. I believed I started learning to read when I began school
          I picked up reading as rapidly as it’s possible to do so. I don’t remember having any difficulty with it. Even such traps as ‘ough’ being pronounced ‘off’, ‘ow’ and ‘uff’ in different words didn’t hold me up for long, so eager was I to be able to read stories for myself.
          I was a very bright kid, eh? Ten out of ten, a gold star and a tick for me!
          Well, I was a bright kid, but I now think that my ease in learning to read had little to do with my being bright, nor did I start learning when I began school.
Michael Halliday
          In fact, most credit is due to my mother, and her surprising grasp of Functional Grammar (despite never having heard of it.)
          I’ve been hearing a lot about Functional Grammar lately, mostly from my cousin, Alan Hess, who teaches English in German speaking Switzerland. (You can see Alan's blog about FG here.)
          Functional Grammar is based on the ideas of Michael Halliday, and aims to teach foreign languages – and that foreign language of shapes called ‘reading’ – in the same way we all learned our first language. That is, by constant repetition and encouragement, by constant gentle correction, and the example of our peers and elders.
          We are, above all, social beings. We all want to fit in, to some extent, even the loners among us. Among ‘the lads’ a young man will swear, fart and swagger, to fit in. But that same young man, at his grandmother’s funeral, is very unlikely to behave in the same way. Instead, he will be demure and polite – to fit in.
          Language and reading, like getting rat-arsed and attending funerals, are social activities.
          Reading is a social activity too. I did not start learning to read at school, aged five. I started learning to read as soon as I could sit up, when my mother put a drawing pad in front of me, wrapped my fingers around a crayon, and showed me how to draw a cat.
          She also let me play with books (though she considered them almost sacred objects.) She let me use them as building blocks and tunnels for toy cars. So I learned that books were every day play-things.
          She bought me books and read aloud to me every day, following the words with her finger as I watched. Together we studied the pictures and talked about them.
          I learned that reading and being read to were pleasurable activities. And also, that enjoying books and reading was a way to please my mother.
          Both my parents loved books. Our house was crammed with reading, with bookcases to the ceiling in all rooms, and books piled on the stairs, on window-sills, under beds. My father read aloud to me too – he used to read out extracts from Jerome K Jerome. If I asked him one of my endless questions, he would often answer it by taking down a book.
          So I learned that reading was an adult thing I could aspire to: and that the answers to most questions could be found in books.
So is it any wonder that, at five, when I began school, I was powerfully motivated to learn to read? And that I approached reading lessons with the most positive of attitudes. Reading, after all, was not strange or difficult – it was something that my parents did every day, with great enjoyment. Gimme that John and Janet book! I’m going to crush reading!
          I was fitting in with my social group - my family. There are few more powerful spurs to learning a particular behaviour.
          My parents followed my reading progress with great interest, and encouraged, applauded and boasted about it. I was rewarded with stories, which I loved, and with more books. Is it any wonder I rapidly improved?
          In fact, my whole upbringing was designed to produce a child who wanted to read, and found it easy to learn. The hours spent drawing with my mother had practiced me in observing and memorising shapes. The hours of listening to stories had familiarised me with the shapes and sounds of many words, with narrative conventions and common phrases – which enabled me to guess at whole phrases from their context. Because I had been read to so much, I started school with a larger vocabulary than most five year olds. My parents' approval gave me a strong incentive.
          And, at a certain point, reading becomes its own reward – The Little Mermaid, (Far out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the prettiest of cornflowers and as clear as crystal…) The Jungle Books, Black Beauty…
          By contrast, I always struggled with maths – and so did my mother. Her attitude was, ‘I was always hopeless at maths. You’ve got that from me.’ I gave up on maths, much as she did. Now, in the light of Functional Grammar, I think this is more than a coincidence. Maths didn't offer me the same incentive scheme!
          Now remember that boy who had until he was sixteen to learn to read? I wonder what the attitude to books and reading was in his home?
          It’s very likely that there were no books in his house, and that he was never read to, or told stories. So when he began school, he was already handicapped compared to children from homes like mine. He had no familiarity with paper and pencils, no familiarity with the shapes of letters, or with phrases such as, ‘Once upon a time there was…’
          For him books were objects kept at school, and given out during lessons. Reading books was something that his family didn’t do. It was a difficult, and therefore wearisome, chore that he was made to do at school – a humiliating task that he stumbled through while the teacher criticised and bored classmates yawned. He would have struggled to see the point of it.
           And in rejecting reading and finding it 'boring' and 'stupid,' he was fitting in with his social group, his own family who, judging by his mother's bus-stop conversation, placed no importance on reading.
         Yet, when he was slow to master reading at school, he was labelled 'less able' and 'less academic' (and quite likely, in the privacy of the staff-room, a 'thicko'.) In fact, he was probably just as able, intellectually, to learn reading as I was, had he only recieved the same incentive, encouragement and reward from his social group.
           You learn to read when you go to school? – No. You start learning to read on the day you’re born.


In Conversation With Jenny Alexander...

          Sue Price: Jenny, when we’ve talked before, it seemed that we were approaching the same place from opposite directions.

Your experiences made you sensitive to dreams and your unconscious life, and in exploring that, you moved towards writing... Whereas I started in a sceptical place, denying any such nonsense as 'the subconscious' or 'meaningful dreams' but, in writing more, was forced to acknowledge both the power of the subconscious and the truth often found in dreams.
          Would you agree with that? - and could you tell us more about how you began your dream-work and writing?

       Jenny Alexander: Yes, I would absolutely agree, Sue - it was an interesting conversation!

          All through my childhood I wanted to be a poet or an artist - writing and painting were my passions.
          But I finally yielded to pressure to apply for university rather than art school, and gave up my artistic ambitions. After a while at uni, learning to dissect a text with brutal efficiency, I gave up on writing too.
          Sue Price: That is so sad! It must have been torture!
          Jenny Alexander: At that point, I had a series of nightmares about killing myself. I would put my finger in a light socket and flick the switch, or turn on the gas fire in my student room and not light the gas.
           These dreams felt totally real and terrifying. One night, in my dream, I climbed out onto the ledge outside my room, and sat looking down at the cold concrete four floors below, gearing myself up to jump.
The Royal Holloway College
           I woke to find that I really was there. I had opened the sash window and climbed out in my sleep. Shaking violently, I somehow managed to clamber back in.
     (That's a picture of the Royal Holloway, right, where Jen had this terrifying dream.)
           Later that morning, I told my doctor, 'I think my dreams are trying to kill me.'
           I felt that I had no choice but to engage with my dreams, and over the next two decades, I became thoroughly familiar with my dream-world, so that when I was ready to think about becoming an author again, there was no anxiety or self doubt, because I knew I had inside myself this abundant, continuous flow of stories and images, and I knew how to capture them. 
           Could you say a bit about how your writing became an opening into the dreamworld, as I call the unconscious mind, for you?
          Sue Price: Your dreams were trying to kill you!
           That strikes a chord with me, because there was a time in my life, when I was denying that ‘other’ in my head, when I think my subconscious very deliberately worked against me, although it wasn’t as murderous as yours!
           For instance, I would say something quite innocent to someone – something like, ‘How are you?’ -  and hear myself saying it in a way that made it insulting. I had absolutely no conscious intention of insulting anyone, and would be as astonished as the person I’d just offended. But what could I say? I’d just bitten their heads off for no good reason!
           It was impossible to explain that it wasn’t me who’d said it! They’d have thought I was mad. Occasionally, I thought I was mad.
           I was at logger-heads with what I now call ‘my daemon’ because I was refusing to acknowledge that it existed. It fought me all the way. I’d be writing something and would decide to make some change to the plot. The ‘daemon’ would object, but I didn’t recognise its voice and took it for a mere passing thought, which I’d ignore because I had my plan. I was certain there was only one voice in my head: the ‘I’ voice, which I would now call ‘the editor’.
           The daemon took revenge by withdrawing. The piece of writing I was working on would fall over dead. I had to learn that with writing – or, I think, any art – the daemon does the real work! The Editor may make some great improvements, once the real work is finished, but shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with the daemon.
           A vengeful, spurned daemon is a dangerous thing, I think – especially yours! Mine not only stymied my efforts at writing, it played those tricks to embarrass me. It was ingenious at finding ways to make such remarks as, “Yes, please,” or “I’ve heard of that,” nasty and cutting.
           I had to learn that talk of ‘muses’ and ‘daemons’ was not the arty-farty nonsense I thought it, but a way of talking about something that we don’t quite understand, and don’t have an everyday vocabulary for. I began to deal with writing-problems by saying to the daemon, ‘Solve this for me.’ And it did! The more I trusted it, the faster and more inventively it solved the problems.
           I started to give way to it. If it insisted that a particular character should – or shouldn’t – die, I no longer argued, but humbly worked with it to make it so. I discovered that the more I trusted the daemon, the friendlier it became. It stopped playing those tricks on me!
           So I paid more attention and ‘heard’ it more clearly. I saw how a piece of writing I’d ‘made up as I went along’ had sub-texts planted in it, and other subtleties that ‘I’ hadn’t planned – so who had? And then I read Kipling’s description of his ‘daemon’ and knew what he was talking about right away.
           It seems that your ‘daemon’ was so furious at your moving away from your art – or so despairing – that it wanted to kill you. That’s frightening.
           Do you think it was drawing and writing again that made your peace with it?
          Jenny Alexander: Well, that was not what I expected, Sue! All my struggles with the daemon were fought within the inner world of dreams, in a quite elemental way, long before I came back to writing at the age of forty. So I hadn't imagined what it would feel like to have to learn to stop fighting and 'humbly work with it' through the process of becoming a writer.
           I knew that must happen, and I've watched other writers struggle to let go of the ego position and begin to trust in the ‘somewhere else’ where the real movement and growth of the story happens outside conscious control, in its own time and at its own pace. But I hadn't imagined it, and your description conjures it very vividly, and also the taming of the 'I' in the outer world by these dark forces pushing through and disrupting things.
           I met my dark forces in dreams. That's where I learnt the language of symbols and stories, and developed a relationship with them which turned out to be the perfect grounding for a confident and happy experience of writing, and that is certainly how I would describe my career so far. 
           Thinking about your story, I'm wondering whether this awareness and conscious working with the daemon, which started in the outer world and continued into your writing, is continuing to carry you towards new ideas and ways of being?
          Sue Price.  I am always amazed by how many ways there are to write! I had no idea I was letting go of the ego position. It felt – and still feels, often – as if I’m listening to another voice, or being handed an image and ordered to write about it, or almost physically nudged towards an idea. Or pushed away from one! Very much like the voice which all but spoke to me as I woke and said, ‘Make a Green Man mask out of papier-mache.’ I’m obediently making it and I still don’t know why! I’m enjoying it, so I carry on.
           But is it carrying me towards new ideas and ways of being? I don’t think so!
          For all this talk of daemons and ‘voices’, I continue to be as spiritual as a brick. I am essentially, I think, pragmatic. If something works, use it. I wanted to write, so I used whatever seemed to work, but without, if I’m honest, ever thinking very deeply about it. Unlike you!
           I am fascinated by your struggles and fights in the’ inner world of dreams.’ This sounds so much like what I read about shaman’s spirit travels and I imagined for my Ghost World books. It’s quite startling to hear someone talking matter of factly about fighting battles in dreams.
           I think we’re out of space for now – but I would love to hear more about this inner world and the battles you fought, if you wouldn’t mind talking about them. Perhaps we could continue this conversation another time?
           Jenny Alexander: Absolutely! And in the meantime, how about being 'in conversation with' that Green Man? It would be interesting to know why he's come and what he wants...
          Susan Price: There's a thought! I'm not sure I'd get an answer - or if I'd want to hear it if I did!

          Jenny Alexander is a highly respected author for children, as well as an expert dream-wrangler! Her website can be found here. 

          Her excellent blog, about dreams and creativity, can be found here.
          I apologise for the failure of the blog last week. This Blott would have been nearly topical then! But I post it, because I like it.
          It demonstrates the dangers of excitable and uncontrolled daemons/muses! 

The Next Big Thing

Susan Price

          I don't know who first had the idea for this, but it's become a bit of craze among on-line writers.
         First, you answer the ten questions below about your work-in-progress.
        Then you link to the blogs of other writers, about their work in progress.
          So, here goes -   

Q1. What is the working title of your book?
          I usually call it ‘Sterkarm 3’ because it will be the third Sterkarm book. But its official working title, at the moment, is ‘A Sterkarm Embrace.’ It’s also been called, ‘A Sterkarm Cure’ and ‘A Sterkarm Potion’. The title’s in progress too.

Sterkarm Handshake and Sterkarm Kiss
Q2 where did the idea come from for the book?
          The second book in the Sterkarm series, ‘A Sterkarm Kiss’, ended in a cliff-hanger. This one takes the story on from there.

Q3 What genre does your book fall under?
          The time machine makes it science-fiction or fantasy, but the realistic scenes set in the 16thCentury Border Lands make it historical. The love between 21stCentury Andrea and 16th Century Per make it a romance. All the fighting makes it an adventure.
          Is there a Science-fictionish Historical Romantic Adventure genre?

Q4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
          That’s a poser.  I don’t think the film industry have it in them to cast my heroine, Andrea, because anyone in the film world would say, ‘She’s fat, so she can’t be a lead.’
          Andrea is a big, bonny lass, with child-bearing hips. It would kill the film industry to cast her properly. I doubt they’d even try – they’d go on auto-pilot and cast some tiny, bony waif. (I give my reasons for making Andrea big and bonny in this interview.) In character, she’s quite shy and gentle, but has a very strong sense of right and wrong, and is quite brave and determined in acting on it. I don’t know that she always gets it right.
          I’m equally clueless about who to cast as Per, the hero. He’s a tall, fair, blue-eyed Border Scot – his nickname is ‘The May’ or ‘The Girl’, so he is pretty, but there is nothing girly about his character. He has been raised since childhood to ride, fight and lead. He’s also been raised in the belief that it’s his family, the Sterkarms, against the world, and he recognises no authority except that of his family elders - and not always them. He thinks for himself. He has a lot of charm, but underneath the good looks and charm, I have to say, he is a dangerous thug. Don’t get on his wrong side.
Any suggestions for casting these two?

Q5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
          Love, war, poison and deer-hounds.

Q6 Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
          At the moment I’m hoping that my agent will find it a publisher for the new book, and for the two older books. But I’m not ruling out the possibility of publishing it – and republishing the first two – myself.

Q7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
          Three years. I started working on it in 2009, about the time I was appointed Royal Literary Fellow at De Montfort University. Throughout my three years at DMU, I worked on ‘Sterkarm 3’. It’s still not finished. I daresay that even if my agent can find a publisher, there will be rewrites.

Q8. What other books would you compare the story to within your genre?
          I almost stopped writing the first book, The Sterkarm Handshake, when my brother lent me a story called, I think, ‘Mozart in Mirrorshades’ by, I think, William Gibson. It described – brilliantly - a time-travelling future society pulling out of the 18thCentury in much the same way as the Americans pulled out of Vietnam. Marie Antoinette, who’s become the mistress of an executive, and Mozart, whose music has been influenced by the music he’s heard from the future, are desperate to be taken to the future too. For a while, after reading this story, I thought there was little point in writing my book. But I recovered.

Q9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
          I was fascinated by the history of the Border Reivers – and I’d loved the ballads since my teens. I’ve loved folk-lore and legends for even longer. I wanted to write about the reivers, but didn’t want to write a straightforward historical novel. I thought about bringing time-travel into it, so I could have characters from the 21stand 16th centuries interacting. I liked that idea – but thelight-bulb above my head didn’t really light up until I thought that the 16thcentury characters would think the 21st century people were Elves from the Hollow Hills because of their ‘magical’ technology.

Q10 What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
          It features an unexpected use for plastic carrier bags!

          And here are the writers I'm linking to:-


          I've got to be brief this week, as I'm the middle of various work deadlines, and also, am not feeling too well. Like a lot of other people, I've a bit of a cold, a bit of sore throat, bit of headache... And it's Davy's birthday meal-out this weekend, too, so I'm saving myself for that.
          First, I'd like to share this short film with you. I've copied it from YouTube, where it was posted by the BBC Wildlife Trust, but it was filmed and sent to the BBC by a friend of mine. I'm not saying where it was filmed, for fear that government sharp-shooters get to hear of it, but it was somewhere in the deep, dark depths of the West Midlands concrete wilderness.

So there's hope that even if the government stupidly persist in killing one of our oldest native species, despite very little evidence that doing so will stop the spread of TB in cattle, badgers will simply join foxes in our backgardens. This one already co-exists with a family of foxes and several cats.

          And then there's this lad:- 

 Not the best photo, I admit. He now has a frost nibbled maple leaf in his crown - an English maple, Joan, sorry - and oak leaves sprouting from the corners of his mouth in best Green Man style. A bird of a species unknown to science has built a nest against his right cheek. There will be eggs in it, but at the moment the glue's still drying and I don't want to add extra weight.
          I spend as much time looking at him and thinking as I do adding anything. I'm thinking: apple-blossom above the nest, and an apple against his left cheek, opposite the nest. Too obvious? Maybe. But then, the seasons are pretty obvious. Not much point trying to be original about them.
          As soon as I get my hands on some paint - couldn't find any in my local poundstore, Madwippet - I'll add some colour, just to make it easier to tell what I'm doing.