A pair of children’s Wellies and adult boots is what made Holly Platt-Higgins fall in love with literature despite her dyslexiabenjgibbs

Applying to study English Literature at university was perhaps a strange choice for someone who thought their name was only spelt with one ‘L’ and didn’t read a book cover to cover until the age of about 14, and even then, the book still included pictures. Ten per cent of the UK population are dyslexic, and I’m one of them. It is not the end of the world and I’m not about to pretend that I’ve had it harder than anyone else because of being dyslexic – we all have difficulties and still remain capable.

As a Cambridge English undergraduate, I admit, that I have no understanding of meter or syntax or even punctuation. The concept of a colon baffles me and I have tried to learn, pored endlessly over grammar books and copies of How Poetry Works, but my brain feels as though it short circuits. I momentarily think I’ve grasped the concept and then it eludes me all over again. There exists a whole section of my degree that I simply do not know how to engage with. 

“Applying to study English Literature at university was perhaps a strange choice for someone who thought their name was only spelt with one ‘L’ and didn’t read a book cover to cover until the age of about 14.”

Last term my supervisor condemned my sentence structure and use of run-ons. At one point I was asked if I ‘knew what an apostrophe did’, and I didn’t. I then found myself readily injecting full-stops into my essays hoping one might find its way into the right place so my supervisor didn’t think I was simply ignoring their comments. I think for most people, especially Cambridge students, there is a real shame, a real frustration in being unable to understand or do something that those around you can. I remember growing up and being so aggravated by what felt like my own stupidity, that I emptied my book-bag of spelling worksheets in the car-park before my mum arrived and wedged copies of the Biff and Chip reading books in between sofa cushions in the hope that no one would find them.

But sometime last year, I was reading A. A. Gill’s autobiography Pour Me – an incredible book, written by a man of immense grace and talent – and I came across something that no one had ever told me before about being dyslexic. I was told, for the first time, that no one else was more entitled to a relationship with language or literature than I was. It may not sound that substantial, but for me, it really was. Being dyslexic and simultaneously being passionate about writing feels like a contradiction in itself. I often felt as though I was excluded because I didn’t have a respectable, proper, understanding of it, as though my lack of grip meant I wasn’t allowed to hold it. And that’s why to be told that your hands are clean because your intention is pure was so important.

As soon as I told family and friends that I was applying to read English at university, I had a stream of concerned comments including ‘but you can’t read’, ‘but you couldn’t spell your own name until you were about 12’, and my sister’s personal favourite, ‘but you’re a leckie-loser’. I suppose I learnt to find the comedy in it – all of these things were true but they didn’t seem to matter. I love my subject, I was determined to study it in the most intense and rewarding environment available to me and, although I can’t spell ‘elixir’ or ‘ephemeral’ or ‘sanguine’, I know what these words mean, I know what they make me feel and on a personal level, and that’s enough. Dyslexia is something other people notice about me – they notice it takes me a long time to read a page and that I haven’t spelt word correctly or that I’ve used a comma in the wrong place – but I don’t. I do not know how not be dyslexic.

I knew I wanted to study English when I was 15 and read a proper book without pictures for the first time. It was Tony Parsons’s Man and Boy, and I only picked it up from a bookshelf in the hall because I couldn’t sleep and I liked the cover picture of a pair of children’s wellies next to a pair of adult shoes. I read this book quickly, I often came to words I couldn’t sound out, words I didn’t know the meanings of and sometimes got so lost that I would have to start again at the top of the page, but I wasn’t frustrated. I was enjoying the content so much that I didn’t mind the work and I think that’s the approach I’ve had to apply to my studying English. I accepted that I approach language in a different way to other people, but that that doesn’t make me any less worthy of a relationship with it. I think that’s when I stopped caring about being dyslexic