For those of you who haven't read my dyslexia blogs before, here is a little preamble and introduction, so you know who I am and what I do and why I write this stuff. For those of you who know the story, skip to the end of the paragraph for todays installment. Let me give you a bit of Background so you know who I am and what I do. I was born in 1962. I didn't start talking until I was 4 years old (at all, not a single word). My parents thought I was deaf. My reading age at eleven was 5. When I was fifteen I started a rock and roll band called the False Dots, the band is still going strong. When I was 16 I started a business called Mill Hill Music Complex (although then it was simply called the studio), a rehearsal studio, as we had nowhere to rehearse. The business has grown into a very successful enterprise, one of Londons biggest and most well respected independent studios. We now have 16 studios and a music shop and also have a photography/video studio and a dance studio. I also have done IT work, mostly on a freelance basis since 1983. In 2012 I also moved into film production, producing two highly acclaimed documentary films, both of which had screenings at the House of Commons. When I was 31, a friend suggested I had a dyslexia test. To my surprise I was told I was moderately dyslexic. This made me interested in the subject. To my amazement, what I have learned over the years is that my lack of educational aptitude, my feelings of anger and injustice and the core of my personality have been formed by the fact I cannot read words in a linear fashion. In 2013, I have set one of my objectives to use this blog to let dyslexics know they are not alone, to suggest that people who think they may be dyslexic to get an assessment and toget people who have dyslexic children or siblings to understand the issues that they face.
In parts one and two of this series I talked about my experiences up to the age of 14 (ish) and how dyslexia affected my life and my education. Up until now, it must have all seemed very negative and very difficult. This period will deal with the period from June 6th 1977 until the 13 December 1980. It may seem odd to have picked two such random dates, but there is a reason. I was 14 on June 6th 1977. This was the day I saw New York Punk legends The Ramones at the Roundhouse. The 13th December 1980 was the day I performed my first gig in public at the Harwood Hall in Mill Hill.
You may wonder what all this has to do with dyslexia? Well when I woke up on June 6th 1977, I wasn't particularly interested in music, I couldn't play a musical instrument, I was doing badly at school and I was very unhappy. As I now have a teenage son who has just turned 15, it gives me a degree of insight into my own mood and behaviour. At that age most teenagers are moody. Hormones kick in and we feel as if our world is being turned on its head. If you weren't particularly happy in the first place, it is a miserable time. I had no confidence. I had an interest in girls, but I felt that I was so completely useless that I was scared stiff of them (no pun intended). School was a nightmare. The headmaster of the school I was at hated my guts and missed no opportunity to try and ridicule and humiliate me. Many people must feel like that, but I actually had documentary proof of it. The reason for his animosity was due to the fact that he taught our class religious studies and I had the audacity to argue with him on matters religious. The odd thing was that at the time I was quite a firm believer in Roman Catholicism, but I could see that some of the doctrines were, shall we say, at odds with the realities of society in the 1970's. We clashed during a debate on the subject of birth control. When I quoted various figures at him from the WHO, he blew a fuse and I got a letter to my parents on the subject. From that day forth, I had no future at FCHS. Sadly at the time, I just saw him as a man of respect and assumed it was me who had the problem.
Anyway, June 6th was the day before Queen Elizabeths silver jubilee. I'd been vaguely aware of punk rock. I'd seen the infamous Bill Grundy interview with the Sex Pistols. I'd thought it was funny. My mum, who had six kids was disgusted. I'd not actually heard any of their music though. I didn't listen to music. I went around to see my sister, who was living in a flat around the corner. She had got tickets to see the Ramones, Talking Heads and the Saints at the Roundhouse. She asked me if I'd like to go. I'd never heard the Ramones, so she played me "Sheena is a Punk Rocker". It sounded OK, nothing special. My sister had a friend who I quite fancied (they were both 18) and was very pretty and I thought that it was a chance to see a bit of her. I didn't think I had a chance, but I just enjoyed being around her friend. She was one of the very few people who'd always been nice to me. So I thought "why not". We turned up at the Roundhouse and one of the good things was my sister would always get me a few beers, which was one thing I did enjoy (yes I know 14 year olds shouldn't drink). My mum had told my sister that if I "turned out bad" it would all be her fault. Anyway, The Saints were first on. They'd just flown over from Australia, they made a right old racket. As my Dad was an Aussie, I felt I should like them, but again it was nothing special. Next up were the Talking Heads. After The Saints, I found them a bit bemusing. I'd never heard of them, and beleive it or not I thought they were a Country and Western band. I was fascinated by the bassplayer Tina Weymouth. Their keynote song was "Psycho Killer" with a very distinctive bassline. I was intrigued by the way Tina's breasts moved in time with the bass. I was a 14 year old boy after all. At this point, I had the experience marked down as mildly enjoyable. Not as good as football, but a bit better than playing table tennis at the youth club. Then the Ramones came on. If you never saw the Ramones in their heyday, it is impossible to describe the experience. Even watching live videos doesn't convey the raw power and force of the band. In all my life, I've never had a more life changing experience. They walked on, shouted 1234 and played 30 minutes of mindblowing punk rock. All too soon, they'd done their final encore of Pinhead, with its coda of "Gabba Gabba Hey". In those 30 minutes, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. The thing about the Ramones was they were a) Ugly, b) Were not very technically gifted musicians and c) were a million times better live than any other band that has ever lived. They opened my eyes. The thing about the Ramones was that it wasn't what they did, it was they way they did it.
Over the following weeks, I started to buy punk rock albums. There used to be a record shop in Mill Hill Broadway. The first album I purchased was "Puremania" by The Vibrators. I knew nothing about Punk Rock, but I liked the cover. They became my favourite band. Other albums followed. The Damned, The Buzzcocks, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The Heartbreakers. Although I was only a kid, I started going to see as many gigs as I possibly could. I did a paper round, worked in the butchers and washed cars at my Dads car repair firm. All of this money was spent on albums and gigs. I bought the NME and read it from cover to cover. I listened to John Peel every night, as he was a great source of new bands to check out. All of a sudden, life was exciting and life had meaning.
At FCHS, music passed the vast majority of the pupils by. Most of my classmates were more interested in prog rock. Most hated punk and there were even a bunch of Teds, who I didn't get on with. In fact I only had three or four mates at school who liked punk. The most important of these was Pete Conway, who had been a mate since primary school. Pete was an incredibly bright guy. A natural poet and a great wit. He was, like me, a deeply troubled soul, for reasons I've nver fathomed. His Dad had high hopes for him, but the two had ceased to get on. Pete should have got O levels and A levels and gone to Oxford, but he decided to simply stop bothering. By mid 1978, we'd decided to form a band. The trouble was, neither of us had any instruments and we couldn't play. Our education at Finchley finished in 1978, Pete just stopped going and I got expelled a week before the O levels, following an altercation with the headmaster.
The circumstances of my expulsion have always rankled. The headmaster had tried to expel me in in November 1977 for writing obscene comments about a female member of staff on a school survey. I hadn't done this, another boy in another class had done it "for a laugh" and put my name on it. I knew who did it, but I refused to grass them up to the headmaster and refused to believe "my story". As I was waiting outside his office as he tried to contact my parents, John Shuttler, who was the physics teacher and is a great bloke walked past. He asked what was up. I explained. He told me to tell him the name of the boy who'd done it. I refused. He said "If you tell me, I'll sort it out and I'll make sure he doesn't get into trouble". So I told him. John Shuttler was one of the few teachers I trusted. He was also a great physics teacher. He was good to his word. He actually told me he couldn't believe that something was being blown out of all proportion. Given that the saidf questionaire said that one of the improvements was to "cut his wife's tits off" (she was also a teacher), I thought he was really decent. I am sure that being a sensible guy, he just saw it as a bunch of hormonal, emotionally stunted teenagers expressing their appreciation in a rather silly way. He actually persuaded the boy who wrote it to come forward and confess his guilt to the head. What happened next was quite surreal. We stood before the headmaster. Me having done nothing wrong and the boy who had done it, having confessed his guilt and apologising to Mr Shuttler for the comments about his missus. The headmaster then turned to me and said "You are lucky this fine young lad has chosen to speak up for you. If I'd had my way you'd have been out of the door". No apology, nothing. At that second, I lost all respect for the man and his school. I felt very angry. John Shuttler invited me into his office and we had a long chat. He explained that he thought I was intelligent and could go to university. He said I had a natural talent for physics.
How do you think I responded? You will be disappointed to know that I responded very badly. A couple of days later, I was caught writing obscene graffiti on the toilet walls about Mr Shuttlers wife. Have you ever done something and not had a clue why. I really liked the pair of them, but I was so angry about my treatment that I did it to get back at the school. And you may wonder what Mr Shuttler did next? What would you do? Well, as I said, he's a top banana. He took me to his office, with the head of year. They agreed that it would not be good to tell the headmaster. They asked why I'd done it. I said that I was just really angry about the school. He asked me if I'd considered how he felt when he saw rude things written about his wife on the toilet wall? The answer was, of course I hadn't. I was an immature kid who was lashing out wldley and in totally the wrong direction. I apologised profusely. They conferred and asked me how I intended to make amends. I said "Well I'm studying Painting and decorating, I could repaint the toilets in the Xmas holidays". John Shuttler said "Yes and you can buy the paint". We agreed, between the three of us, that we'd tell no one of why. It was agreed that the story would be that I needed to practice my painting technique. So, I spent the Xmas holiday of 1977 repainting the boys toilets at FCHS at my own expense.
When we returned, John Shuttler again called me into his office. I thought that it was going to be some sort of follow up. He said "thanks for painting the toilets, you did a good job". I apologised, he said "nothing happened, there is nothing to apologise for, we've erased that, haven't we". We then had a chat about music. I found out years later, that he used to build guitar amps under the name "Nolan". They were copies of Marshall valve amps. He then said "I am worried about you, you seem very angry about things". I didn't really understand what he meant, as I wasn't feeling angry when he said it. He then said "I want you to promise me something". As I respected him and felt I owed him big time, I said "Anything, yes of course". He said "Your problem is that when you get angry, you simply lash out. Will you promise me that in future when you are angry, you stop, think about what is making you angry and deal with that in a rational way". I was quite shocked. In his wisdom, he'd clearly analysed what my problem was and why I was behaving badly. He had given me a solution to some of my problems. From that day, I've always tried to abide by that promise. That is why I started writing this blog. It is quite simple really. This was really tested more or less immediately. I had been studying English Literature. We'd had mock O Levels before Xmas. I thought I'd done well in the mock. I had studied quite hard. My reading had significantly improved between the age of 12 and 15. I had actually started reading books. I enjoyed Richard III which was our set book and had read it cover to cover twice. As we were given our marks, I was eagerly expecting a B or a C (great marks for me). Miss Walsh, a bitter ex nun who I didn't get on with, announced my mark with a deadpan voice Roger Tichborne, zero. I couldn't believe it. That was impossible. It turned out that when I'd arrived for the exam, she'd given me the paper for the other group sitting the mock. They were doing the same book. I immediately stood up and started argueing. I was sent out of class. I felt completely stitched up. When the lesson finished, I started arguing again, so she insisted I went up to see the head of year. I stated that the school had given me the wrong paper, so they should mark my answers against the paper I'd been given. Walsh was adamant that this would not happen. The head of year, seemed to have some sympathy for me. He said "Ok, you can resit the exam". Miss Walsh will arrange with you. She said "You must sit it now". So with no preparation, and with all of that stress, I sat the exam again. I scored 37% and was slung out of English literature. I felt incandescent with rage, as I knew I would have passed the O Level.
But in the 1970's you could do nothing. I then recalled my promise to John Shuttler. Deal with the source of your anger. I wasn't going to have an O Level in English Literature. I could do nothing about Miss Walsh stitching me up. Or could I? I am illiterate. I couldn't even pass an exam in English Literature. It occurred to me that there was a way of getting revenge. Like Machiavelli, it would be served very cold. Until that point, I'd vaguely thought about putting a band together, but I realised that if I wrote songs and played in a band and was successful, it would be a big two fingers up at the school and Miss Walsh. Unfortunately, this decison had a poor effect on my academic career. In my mocks, I scored B's and C's in all subjects. As I spent every night playing music and writing songs, I neglected studies. I got four O levels. Building Studies - Decoration and Design, RE (I got a B, worked hard at it to stick two fingers up at the Headmaster), Physics (I owed that to John Shuttler) and English Language (bust my balls for that, to stick 2 fingers up at Miss Walsh, I doubt I'd have passed that without my hatred of her to drive me). I failed Maths, Chemistry and Biology. I was expelled three days before the end of my final term. I had an argument with the headmaster over lateness and so he used it as an excuse. My Dad made a huge fuss and I was allowed to sit the O Levels, on the understanding that I was not allowed to talk to anyone on the school premises apart from teachers.
At that time, I didn't know I was dyslexic. In all of my educational career, I never got an A for anything apart from maths. If I worked hard, I got a C and if I worked hard and had a flair for something, I'd get a B. For some reason, if I applied myself to Maths I found it rather easy. Sadly this backfired in my O level. I got 96% in the mock, so did no work after that, assuming I'd pass. I failed.
I was useless at languages, I was taking French, but no matter how hard I tried, it was simply gobbledygook. Strangely, I've found that I can pick up langauges quite easily if I am in a foreign country, but cannot learn them in a classroom. I ascribe this to dyslexia. I find that unless a word has a meaning, my brain rejects it. So I can remember that an apple in French is a Pomme, but as to tenses etc, they mean nothing. I have no idea how I managed to pass English Language. I just worked extremely hard at it. Another thing about being dyslexic is the time it takes to do exams. I've yet to do any exam, apart from Maths, where I have finished in time. It seems like I'd start and before I got to the end, the time was up. I find that I have to read questions three times to understand them and make sure that I haven't missed a key point.
The summer of 1978, was all about trying to get the band together. I had a job lined up with North Thames Gas Board, studying gas engineering. This would involve a five year course at Salford College and Manchester UMIST. I would get paid and get a professional qualification. Sadly, as I failed maths O level this fell through. I was devastated. I realised that whatever I wanted to do, I needed a Maths O level. I wasn't welcome back at FCHS, so what to do? My sister had been to Orange Hill Senior High School, so I thought I'd try my luck there.
My parents were amazed when I informed them that I intended to retake my O Levels and do A Levels. They'd always written me off as a thicko. The first part of this was to actually get into the school. I wasn't exactly an acedemic high flyer and Orange Hill had a good reputation. An interview with Mr Culley, the head was set up. He posed a question "Whys should I let you into my school, when you have poor results and a reputation as a troublemaker". I explained that I felt I'd been treated unfairly and must have bored him to death explaining why. I then said that in the summer I'd realised I needed to get O and A levels, so I would be committed to my studies. He announced that he'd "take a chance on me" but the first time I misbehaved, I'd be out of the door.
I found myself in a totally different environment. Wheras FCHS had been a boys school, Orange Hill was mixed. This was like being let out of prison. At Finchley, many of the teachers had seemed as they were simply going through the motions, teaching boys who didn't want to be there, at Orange Hill the teachers were largely friendly and engaging. I took five O levels, and passed them all easily. I found that if I followed a dsiciplined pattern of work, I could do what was needed.
The biggest difference though, was the attitude to music at the school. At FCHS, I'd had run ins with the Teds, who strangely morphed into Skinheads when SHAM69 hit the scene. The Skinheads were the school hardnuts and the punks were the freaks, it wasn't a good side of divide to sit on, if you wanted a peaceful life. At Orange Hill, everyone seemed interested in music and most liked punk and new wave. Even better we had several bands, most notably the Polecats. When I first met Boz Boorer and Phil Bloomberg, who were rockabillys, I thought it would be a troublesome relationship, based on my experiences from FCHS. I realised straight away they both loved punk as much as I did.
The presence of these bands inspired me. Throughought 1979, I started putting a band together. The pattern was the same. Find someone, have a few rehearsals, split up. Then the Poelcats did a demo at a local studio. I found out that it only cost £100. I thought "we can do that". So I announced to the band that we were going to do a demo. The core of the band was myself, Pete Conway and Hank Marvins son Paul. We were madly writing songs and rehearsing. I played guitar, Paul played drums and Pete played bass and vocals. We were rubbish, but it was great fun. We wrote our first classic, "Not All She Seems". It was the story of a Transvestite Prostitute, who is an object of desire for a rich businessman. Like most False Dots songs, it ended badly for all concerned!. Paul Marvin suggested that we needed another guitarist to play lead and Paul Hircombe joined. Paul was 14 at the time. Paul looked like a rock and roll star and was a brilliant musician. He was also someone who loved to live life on the edge. We started to rehearse for a demo, booked it up and just before it was due, Paul Marvin left the band. Alan Warner, guitarist of the Foundations, who owned the studio where we were doing the demo, said his mate Dav, could step in. Dav was from Shrewsbury and was a brilliant drummer. We recorded a three song demo and I think its fair to say everyone was surprised by what emerged. With Paul Hircombe on guitar and Dav on Drums, we actually sounded pretty good.
Then, as ever there was a big argument and Pete Conway quit the band. Paul Hircombe moved to bass and another schoolmate of mine from Orange Hill, Craig Withecombe joined. Craig is a brilliant guitarist. I was determined to do a gig and re record "Not All She Seems" with the new setup. Pete Conway had heard rumours that the band was getting quite good. As he'd co written all of the songs, he rejoined as vocalist. I booked a gig on the 13 December 1980 at the Harwood Hall in Mill Hill. I secured two other local bands who wanted to play and charged a quid to get in. I told the bands they could have £20 each. The place was packed and I made a huge profit. I was by now in the final year of my A Levels. I was doing Maths, Biology and Physics.
I applied for Universities as I felt I should, but in truth wasn't interested in going. I just wanted to play in a band. Craig was a far better musician, but realised the value of studying. I was having problems with Maths. For the first term of A levels, we had an excellent Maths teacher, Mr Rackyleffe, but he resigned and we then had some truly appalling teachers. Recalling Mr Shutlers advice, I decided to deal with the problem. I lead a delegation of Maths A Level students to see the headmaster and insisted they sack one particularly useless teacher. It was agreed that the head of maths would sit in on a lesson, to see if we had a case. This duly happened and the head of maths agreed with us. The bad teacher was sacked. But sadly for me, the years of academic underachievement, fuelled by my dyslexia meant I'd conditioned myself to accept failure. Wheras my peers got parents to arrange private tuition to catch up the two lost terms, I simpy floated along deluding myself that it would be alright. In truth, I was so obsessed with music that I wasn't really that bothered.
Up until the gig at the Harwood Hall, all of the songs were co-written by myself and Pete Conway. As I mentioned earlier, Pete was a natural poet and in my opinion a genius. We'd sit around and fine tune lyrics, so they were powerful and meaningful. The quality of our writing improved. Pete would take events and work them into songs. One girl we knew had a row with her mother and stabbed her mum in the arm with a kitchen knife. One of our early songs was a song called "Bone". Its first verse was originally written by me.
Preachers say I've gotta be good, give me a reason why I should
Having a laugh don't do no harm, so why do they always sound the alarm.
Pete changed to the following
Daddy says I've gotta be good, give me a reason why I should
Having a laugh don't do no harm, so stab your mother in the arm.
Now it clearly isn't a masterpiece, but you have to admit that the Pete Conway version is far more powerful. It is quite strange, because at the time we thought it was hilarious, but people didn't see the humour. When Hank Marvin, who is a committed Jehovas Witness saw some of our lyrics, he forbade Paul from playing with us, which was a major setback.
So our journey that started on June 6th has arrived at Harwood Hall. I'm playing guitar in a half decent band, I've co-written a bunch of songs which I'm pretty proud of. I'm pretty convinced that the Conway/Tichborne songwriting partnership will be the next Lennon/McCartney. We have a band with the worlds best looking and coolest bassplayer in Paul Hircombe. Craig is a brilliant guitarist and Dav is a fantastic drummer. I was convinced that Pete had what it took as a singer to make it. The gig would be the moment when we could step forward and show everyone that we were right and they were wrong. It was our opportunity to silence the doubters. We'd booked up to do another demo and we were on fire. I felt that with six months to go until my A levels, everything was in place. By the time summer hit, we'd be ready to roll.
We turned up at the gig, set up the gear and then started our soundcheck. But just one problem. Pete Conway wasn't there. He was my oldest mate and HE WASNT THERE!!!!! I assumed he was late. Craig was panicing. All his family had come down and it would be embarrasing. I assurred them Pete was on his way. But he wasn't. At around nine O'clock the harsh truth dawned. My best mate had let us all down. So I called the band together and we had a pow wow. Craig was really pissed off. This wasn't what he'd signed up to. I said "Look, it won't be perfect, but we know the songs, we can do it without him". So we divided the songs up. Craig sung half and I sung half of them. As we were playing them, the adrenaling kicked in. We actually started to enjoy ourself. The hall was packed and we got an encore. From the Roundhouse to the Harwood Hall for me had been a very long and very difficult journey. When I'd started it, I was terrified of my own shadow, but when we stepped off the stage at the Harwood Hall, I'd proven to myself that I could cope with anything life threw at me. I'd hidden behind Pete Conway for much of the time with the band, but his no show had forced me to man up. I am not a singer, but we'd got through. We agreed that we'd carry on, Craig would sing for the time being until we could find a proper singer.
All of our mates had said it had been a good night and asked when the next one would be. The local paper had turned up to review it. We got a picture and a write up. In truth my biggest problem had been the fact that my confidence had been destroyed at every turn. I think for many dyslexics, being told you are thick, useless and stupid can destroy you. Yet here I was playing to a packed audience in a rock and roll band. I have issues, I have problems, I am still angry, but on that day, I found myself and I knew that despite all of knocks, I can get up and I can do the things in my life I want. By not turning up, Pete let the band down, but he did me a massive favour. He gave me the opportunity to show that I didn't need to hide behind anyone else. It has been suggested that maybe I should do some motivational speaking to dyslexic teenagers. I am seriously considering it. What would I say? Find what you want and go for it. I would pass on the one lesson I learned at school that really mattered. If something is making you angry, don't lash out, deal with it. It can be hard, but you really can do it
By the way, The False Dots are still playing together. Sadly ater 28 years Paul Hircombe passed away three years ago. We are doing a gig on Sat 23rd May at the Midland Hotel by Hendon Rail station. The line up is the 1985 version of myself, Allen Ashely on vocals, Graham Ramsey on Drums, with Fil Ross stepping in on bass. Please come down and say Hi! It is free. Here's a little sample of the band, with Allen singing Feelings (on of my compositions, with a bit of tweaking from Allen)