The gift of literacy

When she was ten days old, Karleen was placed in the care of her grandparents, leaving her mother free to come to England, get properly settled, then call for her daughter to join her. But when she began to talk, her great-grandmother took her and brought her home to the country parish of Westmoreland, where most people lived off the land and electricity hadn’t yet arrived. Granny Mimi (her real name Mary) was the local midwife, retired but keeping her door always open to welcome visitors. The needy would never leave unfed. Karleen was her little helper, in return for which she received her first education. When Granny Mimi developed “dark eyes”—cataracts—she found it increasingly difficult to read her Bible, but Karleen was ready to learn reading at age four and offer her young eyes whenever needed. So she was brought up strictly in the old style; which meant Christian and British, for Jamaica was still a colony in those days. And when her mother called for her to come over to England, Mary Elizabeth Grant said she had need of the little girl a while yet. With one thing and another, Karleen never made it here till we married in May ’05. By staying in her birthplace she was able to get a traditional British education, of the kind which had gone out of fashion here. Circumstances denied her the chance of a degree course but she worked on campus at UWI Mona and ran her own business, typesetting from manuscripts. In this way she met and worked for many distinguished authors and academics, including Louise Bennett, folklorist & champion of Jamaican patois, raising it to a level seen fit for literature. Her son writes poems & reviews for the Jamaica Observer, which in 1998 launched its ‘Arts Section’,the first, and still the only, bona fide literary supplement in a Caribbean newspaper devoted to publishing indigenous poetry and fiction. It was Karleen’s destiny to be a focus for the higher forms of literature, and now my Muse in human form..

Her mother and mine seem to have had this in common, that they carried parenthood lightly, while hopping continents to further their own agendas. Fathers?—unknown to us! My mother brought me aged four from Australia. My grandparents met us at Tilbury and saw what a wild ragamuffin their daughter had produced. Granny got me to behave in a semi-civilised manner, taught me nursery-rhymes at the piano and read from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. She soon saw I was ready to read for myself, like Karleen at the same age, and produced a battered copy of Reading Without Tears*. After a few sessions sitting beside her, I devoured it on my own, easily getting the hang of its simple-but-effective phonetics, chanting its rhythmic sound-repetitions. The fun of it was to sight-learn the syllables and come out with words I largely recognized. I didn’t care about the meanings. It has no stories. Meaning was incidental to the phonetic selection of words, though as you see from my selection, the author’s Victorian notions of improving literature, and how children might be introduced to Christian concepts, obtrude at times. By the end of two weeks, I reached the last page, and thought I could tackle any text, which wasn’t far off being true. One word stuck in my memory across the years, spoiling the final triumph: the word parlour, because I couldn’t make sense of it. I asked Granny (or Grandpa what a “parlower” was. She didn’t know so I had to show her and she said it’s called “parlor” another name for where we are now, the sitting-room. I’ve always thought that the book was at fault for not teaching that syllable. Only now, rediscovering the book online in facsimile, do I see a line above each letter that isn’t to be pronounced. See yellow highlight on the bottom page. The book was correct after all.

So anyway, my mother, though not the nurturing type, saw to it that I got a good education, as did K’s mother for her. Before I went to my first school, I read everything I could lay my hands on, including torn-up squares from the Radio Times that Granny provided as toilet paper. It was pretty highbrow, thanks to Lord Reith. And now in commemoration, I use a 1946 facsimile as découpage on my black-topped desk, to provide traction for an optical mouse. Let highest literacy prevail! For in reading we gain personal knowledge of the past, with its wisdom and folly, bypassing hearsay; and thus build a bulwark of wisdom against any barbarian present and future. Not that everyone need be summoned to this vocation, nor needs to be. It is but a leaven in the entire recipe & my duty to add it while I can.

The world as a whole has nothing to fear from illiteracy, though in today’s frenetic world it may—alas!—be a handicap to those for whom simple living, close to the soil, is not an option. Illiteracy carries its own blessings—for example to be spared most of the lies and clichés that corrode honest dealings and even private thought. If you can’t read or write, have no access to telephone or TV, your only deceiver will be the one who looks you in the eye, or fails to. Eye-to-eye is almost heart-to-heart, Humanity is more likely shared this way.

My grand-daughter, being entirely “home-educated”—by a like-minded group, not just her own parents—was given a free choice, and began wanting to read at the age of 9. I was very concerned at the time. It nearly caused a rift, and her other grand-parents weren’t happy either. Now she’s 18, able to express her own true self in singing, dancing, drama, drawing and painting as well as the written word. She just got back from a trip to Cuba, which made her realise how much she has and how much luxury she takes for granted.

Still, if I acquire further grandchildren, or a great-grandchild, I’ll have a birthday present ready for its fourth birthday: a printed and bound copy of Reading Without Tears. Then we’ll see if I’m right, that it’s still the best way to learn reading for a keen child. Never mind that it’s irredeemably dated, riddled with an absurd dumbed-down Christian doctrine. The child will not grow up to be a snowflake.

Most of us swim in a sea of today’s ephemera, ideological clutter, anonymous persuasion, group-think and viral memes—worthless clichés depriving us of the space to think or speak truly. This is what I call semi-literacy. Better to be innocent than live on predigested half-truths. Those who are much-read have perspectives on the past, need not be trapped in the crossfire of unprincipled propaganda wars that grab the headlines and social media. The older I get, the further back I can see, not only through my own life but the books I have read, the influences of mentors and theirs before them, stretching back a century or so. The language we inherit goes back much further, to Chaucer and beyond. Everything has its antecedents, as do we. Ancestor-worship wasn’t such a bad thing.

Most of all, though, I feel a responsibility to the present, not to add my ignorant comments to the second-hand, the already-too-much-commented, but to the immediacy of personal experience; that which arises from the day, every fresh moment within it, encounters between “I” and all the rest. It comes down to I and Thou, as in Martin Buber’s famous book, which I’ve ordered whilst putting together this post. Time to read it again.

On Saturday afternoon, when the sun was sinking in the sky, I walked to the supermarket with a wheeled shopping bag, leaving one hand free for the voice recorder, and tried to express the personal feeling of being alive in that moment. Mystics speak of the ineffable, that which is too great for words. And yet they do find words, if only in poetic imagery. I like to think that all human experience is effable: if not in words, then in song, dance, drama, art, music or lovemaking. An evolved literacy leads me to try and choose words, but it ain’t easy. I said I was planted in the landscape like a tree, solid, embraced on all sides, rooted where I was meant to be—though I was walking rapidly under the streetlamps, empty bag trailing.

And when I came out of the supermarket, night had already fallen. A fierce rain-shower was starting as I looked out across the car park reflecting every lamp in its puddles. What with the umbrella, shopping bag and gloves against the cold, it was hard to record any spoken words, but I stopped for a minute, to say “my whole life is validated. ‘He leadeth me beside still waters. I shall not want.’” It was a stumbling attempt, best I could manage. At home later I look up Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd”: a poem bearing perfect witness to that feeling in the rain. I chance upon Psalm 1, where it says:

And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water,
That bringeth forth his fruit in his season;
His leaf also shall not wither;
And whatever he doeth shall prosper.

Amen. Impatient to read Buber, I look him up online. He also talks of a tree, communing with it as a “thou” rather than “it”.

Blessed is the gift of literacy, and illiteracy as the next best thing.

* Available free as a .pdf from Google Books

click to enlarge title page



6 thoughts on “The gift of literacy

  1. “…and now my Muse in human form.”

    Barf! Nah, I’m kidding. Very sweet sentiment.

    Is “parlour” the normal spelling for “parlor” over there, or is it just an alternate, with either spelling used depending on preference? I’ve noticed that British English seems to have a lot of extra U’s sprinkled throughout its words, like a flavorless garnish that’s just there for looks.

    Like you, I also took up reading very naturally when I was little. Before I had entered Kindergarten, I could already breeze through my brother’s third grade reading book. I remember my mother teaching me with a handful of homemade flash cards. I don’t think there was any religious propaganda in any of my early books, though.


  2. “Reading Without Tears” is an odd title, by the way. Reminds me of the old slogans and advertisements for Johnson’s Baby Shampoo.

    Loved the bit at the end with the shopping trip. Keep trying to make the ineffable effable. The effort alone is worthwhile.


  3. The answer is “yes”, Bryan.

    In 1806, Noah Webster published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. It included an essay on the oddities of modern orthography and his proposals for reform. Many of the spellings he used, such as color and center, would become hallmarks of American English. In 1807, Webster began compiling an expanded dictionary. It was published in 1828 as An American Dictionary of the English Language. Although it drew some protest, the reformed spellings were gradually adopted throughout the United States.

    “Flavorless garnish” is good! At first, the English didn’t have firm rules about spelling, but then the more learned pedants, philologists perhaps, decided there was a right and a wrong way and that spelling should reflect etymology. Parlour would have come from Norman French, but let the OED parade its research:

    Etymology: < Anglo-Norman parlur, parlour and Old French parleor, parleur, parleour, Old French, Middle French, French parloir room in a convent or monastery for receiving visitors (1155; subsequently also of a prison, school, etc.), room for conversation, discussion, debate, room in a house where one receives guests (c1160) < parler parle v. + -oir (see -ory suffix1). Compare post-classical Latin parlatorium parlour, especially in a monastery or convent (11th cent.; from 12th cent. in British sources; in British sources also parlara , parlarium , parleyria , parlora , parloria , parlorium , parlura (from 1301)

    So there.


  4. ‘Nuff copy and paste. I’m especially glad that you liked the end bit, Bryan. That is why I keep writing, really. To see what can be said; and know what’s going on inside; and who I am; and what all this is.


  5. Hello again, Vincent. It’s been quite a while since I looked at your Wayfarer’s Notes and now I find you have an elegant new web page. I shall make a new bookmark to make my own way here easier next time.
    I too learned to read young, jealous as I was that my parents sat reading during those long evenings before television conspired to distract everyone.
    All the best


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