I cried when I could finally read my daughter's letters at 51 says Jay Blades

LIKE millions of dads in the pandemic, TV star Jay Blades sat down to read his child a bedtime story over Zoom.

But the book was for toddlers, not a 15 year old like his daughter Zola.

That is because, until recently, the presenter of BBC’s hit Repair Shop could not read.

And in a moving BBC documentary to be shown next week, viewers will see Jay asking his fiancée Lisa Marie Zbozen to help him read a letter that arrived from Buckingham Palace.

The 51-year-old furniture restorer — who grew up in Hackney, East London, and left school with no qualifications — had been awarded an MBE by the Queen in last year’s Birthday Honours for services to crafts.

Jay also has dyslexia, which affects how the brain processes information, meaning for him words can appear to move around on a page.

But the condition went undiagnosed until he was 31.

‘I covered it up’

The TV favourite set himself the  task of learning to read last summer, using the same techniques  primary school children use, such as phonics.

The documentary, Jay Blades: Learning To Read At 51, charts his progress.

Gym teacher Lisa, 41, who supported Jay every step of the way, says: “I’m so proud of him. This has brought us closer together in our relationship.

“We have learned to help each other and find that middle ground between ‘work Jay’ and ‘home Jay’.

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“I tell you what the best thing is now he’s reading is that he’s different — it’s almost like it’s taken a weight off him.”

Just two months into his lessons, Jay received his first letter from Zola, who now lives in Turkey with his ex-wife, Jade.

The TV star recalls how he choked back tears as he read — word by word — her note, asking if his reading had improved.

In an exclusive interview with The Sun, Jay says: “Reading is something most people do every day and I didn’t know it would mean so much to me. It grabs you emotionally.

“It was the first letter Zola had ever sent me — she had never sent one before because she knew I couldn’t read it.

“Reading her letter gave me everything I’d ever wanted but didn’t think I would ever experience.”

He now hopes to one day be able to read his autobiography, Making It: How Love, Kindness And Community Helped Me Repair My Life, which was ghost written and published last year.

Jay is one of eight million adults in the UK who struggle to read, while ten per cent of the population are thought to have dyslexia. 

He says: “I’ve learned to cover it up and all my life I was nervous about being exposed.

"I take in loads of information at one time — listening, reading people’s faces, watching their mouths and then storing it in your brain.

It was the first letter Zola had ever sent me — she had never sent one before because she knew I couldn’t read it. Reading her letter gave me everything I’d ever wanted but didn’t think I would ever experience

“When I come back from filming I just zonk out because it’s like information overload.”

Jay was diagnosed with dyslexia when he was a mature student attending the Buckinghamshire New University to study criminology.

He had been accepted after his friend copied an application letter to top US university Harvard that he had found on the internet.

Jay graduated after using computer software that read out books and allowed him to dictate essays.

It is this technology that has continued to help him over the last two decades, though there have been times when he has still had to rely on the help of strangers.

He says: “Once I got a hospital letter that I knew was an important one and I took it into the street because I had no one at the house and I asked someone I didn't know, ‘Can you read this for me?’

“With my MBE, I could see it was an official letter but I didn’t know what it was stating, so I got Lisa to read it to me.

“I get a lot of fan mail and Lisa reads all of that as well, because if someone has taken the time to write, it is really important. I’d never just leave it. Never.”

Lisa says: “Being able to read would make his life a little easier in certain situations because I can’t always be there so it’s important for him to have that skill.”

Jay was brought up on a council estate by his single mum Barbara who came to the UK from Barbados as a teenager and fell pregnant at 18.

‘I used to fight a lot’

He says: “My mum was a kid bringing up a kid. She never read to me but she’s not to blame.

“She was a busy single parent working full-time as a typist. The man who contributed to my birth was nowhere to be seen.”

Jay was picked on by bullies because of the colour of his skin and was considered to be disruptive, with one teacher warning he would “never amount to anything”.

Now a household name, Jay says without regret: “The reality is he was probably speaking the truth. At that time I wasn’t really the best student. I wasn’t the best character either. I used to fight a lot.”

Now a household name,  Jay is enjoying life with Lisa, who he fell in love with during the pandemic 18 months ago.

Jay says: “We met in the modern way online, got chatting and then, the next thing you know, we both liked each other and we had a bit of a chinwag.

“When you are in a relationship  people tend to show their best side. Not many people would 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 is brave enough to bring that to my attention, let me support him’.

We met in the modern way online, got chatting and then next thing you know we both liked each other and we had a bit of a chinwag

“I’m quite private with my family so when she met everybody it was almost as if everybody knew her for years. It is weird. And then you say this woman is The One because she fitted in with everybody.”

Jay announced they had got engaged while on holiday in  Barbados on Christmas Eve. Fittingly, he proposed with a ring made by Repair Shop jeweller Richard Talman.

He has been learning to read with the help of a tutor from charity ReadEasy.

Jay had hoped to fit in two or three lessons a week but filming commitments have got in the way.

As well as the Repair Shop, he appeared on the Strictly Christmas special with pro dancer Luba Mushtuk, 32.

Jay reveals: “Doing Strictly was really hard. I take my hat off to those people that do it because it is it is unbelievably tough.

“At home I dance almost every day with Lisa.

"Music is a really big part of life. I don’t know if it is because I am dyslexic, it is my way of just touching base.

"After filming, I come home, I put the records on and we have a proper dance to Michael Jackson or Gregory Porter. That’s the way to reconnect.” 

Lisa was by Jay’s side when he was able to read to Zola for the first time. He picked his daughter’s favourite childhood book, Olivia, about an energetic piglet.

Jay says: “I have three kids. I was there when all of them were born but Zola is the one I lived with from a little baby.

"One of the things I wanted to do as soon as she was born was read stories to her. But I never did.

“When she was little and ready for bed I just used to pretend I was reading and make up stories to go with the pictures.

“At the age of 51, I finally did get to 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 I can do it as well. I want to give it a go’.”

  • Jay Blades: Learning To Read At 51 is on BBC at 9pm on January 26

Easy to get help

LIKE telly presenter Jay, nearly eight million adults in the UK have poor literacy skills, with 2.5million unable to read at all.

A quarter of all children in England leave primary school unable to read to the expected level.

Jay, who was diagnosed with dyslexia at 31, has been learning to read with the help of a coach from Read Easy, a charity that uses phonics – the sound of letters – to teach adults.

The Repair Shop star also places a piece of blue see-though plastic over the words in books to stop letters from “moving” on the page, a common symptom of dyslexia.

Jay says: “It doesn’t work for everyone but it does for me. Not being able to read properly affects almost every aspect of day-to-day life, from reading signs and important letters to voting or being able to understand basic health information.

“It also makes it more difficult to be able to support your own kids’ learning.”

In the BBC documentary, Jay meets gran Jacky Smith, who, in her sixties, has just started to learn to read.

Her main motivation is being able to read to her seven-year-old grand-daughter and help her sister, who is now partially sighted.

He also talks to Read Easy student Jeff George, 31, who says: ‘‘The most important thing for me is to be able to read stories to my son, who has just started school. That’s my goal.”

Read Easy founder Ginny Williams-Ellis says: “I would urge any adult who is unable to read properly to have the courage to come forward, like Jay, and ask for help.

“Nobody should feel embarrassed.”

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