Like millions of dads during the pandemic, TV star Jay Blades sat down to read his kids a bedtime story over Zoom.
But the book is for toddlers, not a 15-year-old like his daughter Zola.
That’s because, until recently, the BBC’s Famous Repair Shop presenter couldn’t read.
And in an emotional BBC documentary to be screened next week, viewers will see Jay asking fiancee Lisa Marie Zbozen to help him read an incoming letter from Buckingham Palace.
The 51 year old furniture restorer – who grew up in Hackney, East London and dropped out of school without a degree – was awarded an MBE by the Queen in last year’s Birthday Honors for craft services.
Jay also has dyslexia, which affects how the brain processes information, which means words can move across a page.
But the condition was not diagnosed until he was 31 years old.
‘I covered it up’
The TV lover set himself the task of learning to read last summer, using the same techniques that elementary school children use, such as phonics.
The documentary, Jay Blades: Learning to Read at 51, signifies his progress.
Gym teacher Lisa, 41, who has supported Jay every step of the way, said: “I’m so proud of him. This has brought us closer together in our relationship.
“We learned to help each other and found the middle ground between ‘Jay at work’ and ‘Jay at home’.
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“I tell you the best thing he’s reading right now is that he’s different – it’s been almost weightless for him.”
Just two months after his lessons, Jay received his first letter from Zola, who now lives in Turkey with ex-wife, Jade.
The TV star recounted how he choked up tears as he read – word for word – her notes, asking if his reading had improved.
In an exclusive interview with The Sun, Jay said: “Reading is something most people do every day, and I didn’t know it meant so much to me. It grabs you emotionally.
“It was the first letter Zola sent me – she had never sent it before because she knew I couldn’t read it.
“Reading her letter gave me everything I ever wanted but never thought I would experience.”
He now hopes to one day read his autobiography, Making It: How Love, Kindness And Community Helped Me Fix My Life, written and published last year.
Jay is one of eight million UK adults who struggle to read, while ten per cent of the population is said to be dyslexic.
“I’ve learned to cover it up and all my life I’ve been worried about being exposed,” he said.
“I take in loads of information at once – listen, read people’s faces, observe their mouths and then store it in your brain.
It was the first letter Zola sent me – she had never sent it before because she knew I couldn’t read it. Reading her letter gave me everything I ever wanted but didn’t think I would experience
“When I came back from filming, I was just nervous because it was like information overload.”
Jay was diagnosed with dyslexia when he was an adult student attending Buckinghamshire New University to study criminology.
He was accepted after his friend copied an application letter to the top US university Harvard that he had found on the internet.
Jay graduated after using computer software that read books and allowed him to read essays.
It is this technology that has continued to help him over the past two decades, although there have been times when he has had to ask for help from strangers.
He said: “Once I received a hospital letter that I knew was important and I took it out on the street because I had no one at home and I asked someone I didn’t know, ‘Can you read to me? ‘
“With me MBE, I could see it was an official letter but I didn’t know what it said, so I asked Lisa to read it to me.
“I get a lot of fan mail and Lisa reads all of that too, because if someone has taken the time to write it really matters. I will never leave it. Never.”
Lisa says: “Being able to read makes his life a little bit easier in certain situations because I’m not always there so it’s important for him to have that skill. ”
Jay was raised on a council estate by single mother Barbara, who came to the UK from Barbados as a teenager and became pregnant at 18.
‘I used to fight a lot’
He said: “My mother was a person who raised a child. She never read to me but she is not to blame.
“She is a busy single parent working full time as a typist. The person who contributed to my birth is now gone.”
Jay was picked by bullies because of his skin color and was seen as disruptive, with one teacher warning that he would “never take anything for granted”.
Now a household name, Jay says with no regrets: “In fact, he probably told the truth. I wasn’t really the best student at the time. I’m not the best character either. I used to fight a lot.”
Now, Jay is enjoying life with Lisa, whom he fell in love with during the pandemic 18 months ago.
Jay said: “We met in a modern way online, chatted and then the next thing you know, we both liked each other and we had a little bit of animosity.
“When in a relationship, people tend to show their best sides. Not many people show their vulnerability.
“But by saying I have a problem with reading shows your vulnerability. It got us to a position where she thought, ‘OK if he’s brave enough to bring that to my attention, let me support him’.
We meet in the modern way online, chat and next thing you know we both like each other and we have a bit of an opinion
“I’m pretty private with my family so when she meets people, it seems like everyone has known her for years. It’s downright freaky. And then you say this woman is The One because she suits everyone. “
Jay announced they were engaged while vacationing in Barbados on Christmas Eve. Fittingly, he proposed with a ring made by Goldsmith Richard Talman at the Repair Shop.
He learned to read with the help of a tutor from the ReadEasy charity.
Jay had hoped to be able to take two or three lessons a week but his commitment to filming got in the way.
As well as the Repair Shop, he appears on Christmas is especially strict with professional dancer Luba Mushtuk, 32 years old.
Jay revealed, “Doing it Seriously is really hard. I take my hat off to those who do it because it’s unbelievable.
“At home, I dance with Lisa almost every day.
“Music is a really important part of life. I don’t know if it’s because I’m dyslexic, that’s how I hit the base.
“After filming, I go home, I put the records, and we have a proper dance with Michael Jackson or Gregory Porter. That’s the way to reconnect.”
Lisa was with Jay when he was able to read to Zola for the first time. He picked up his daughter’s favorite childhood book, Olivia, about an energetic piglet.
Jay said: “I have three children. I was there when they were all born but Zola is the one I’ve lived with since a baby.
“One of the things I wanted to do as soon as she was born was read her stories. But I never did.
“When she was little and getting ready for bed, I used to pretend I was reading and make up stories to go with the pictures.
“At 51, I can finally read to my daughter.
“I hope I can inspire people like me who struggle with reading to say, ‘You know what, if he can do it, so can I. I want to try ‘. “
- Jay Blades: Learn to Read at 51 is airing on BBC at 9pm on January 26
Easy to get help
Like telephone presenter Jay, nearly eight million adults in the UK have poor literacy skills, with 2.5 million being completely illiterate.
A quarter of all children in the UK leave primary school unable to read to the level expected.
Jay, who was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 31, learned to read with the help of a coach from Easy reading, a charity that uses phonics – the sounds of letters – to teach adults.
The Repair Shop star also placed a blue visible plastic over words in the book to prevent letters from “moving” across the page, a common symptom of dyslexia.
“It doesn’t work for everyone, but it worked for me,” Jay said. Not being able to read properly affects almost every aspect of everyday life, from reading important signs and letters to voting or being able to understand basic health information.
“It also makes it harder to support your child’s learning.”
In the BBC documentary, Jay meets Jacky Smith, who, at the age of sixty, has just started learning to read.
Her main motivation is to be able to read to her seven-year-old daughter and to help her sister, who is now partially blind.
He also spoke to Read Easy student Jeff George, 31, who said: ”The most important thing for me is being able to read stories to my son, who has just started school. That is my goal.”
Read Easy founder Ginny Williams-Ellis said: “I would urge any adult who cannot read properly to have the courage to come forward, like Jay, and ask for help.
“No one should feel ashamed.”
https://www.thesun.ie/tv/8227919/jay-blades-reading-daughter-cried/ I cried when I could finally read my daughter’s letters at 51, says Jay Blades