Isaac Gordon (b. 1927): Reading and Writing

“When I go to work and I sit down
  and see everyone reading paper
  and I cannot read it,
  I feel small.” (28).

Isaac Gordon begins his memoir talking about how he did not learn to read or write in school, as he left when he was eight years old. He believes that he could not physically learn anything and that he was behind the other children at school. In Isaac’s own words he says, “I must have been about eight. I didn’t know how to write my own name.” as the conclusion of his first chapter ‘school’ (3). This sets up the tone of Isaac’s struggle through his memoir related to reading and writing. In the majority of his chapters, Isaac informs the reader of his struggles from his inability to read and write, which has been developed in my previous posts about Isaac’s education and schooling.

Image to show the close relationship between reading and writing.

In Isaac’s later years, especially when he moves to England, he notices that his Father was correct when he said that he would, “need that read and write” (2). When Isaac is trying to find work, he notices that he needs to read contracts and forms and sign them in order to work, with his lack of early education he is unable to do those tasks, having to get others to read them for him at a cost. Isaac says that “It was when I came to England I realise my dad was right about reading. Well, in England it is important. Everything you need to do in England you need reading” (28). He is correct in saying this and it was expected by the employers that their employees would be able to read and write, showing the lack of accommodating attitude that the English community had to Jamaican immigrants at the time that Isaac was living there.

Isaac does not include any other texts in his memoir, and does not shy away from representing his life through his lack of education. Isaac uses his unique language of Jamaican creole throughout his memoir, which shows his lack of wider reading. This is because, as suggested in an essay by David Vincent, he would have “borrowed clichés and literary phrases to give expression to their deeper feelings.” (1980, 228). Isaac’s memoir did not lend writing or phrases from other people’s works of literature. Instead, Isaac used his own unique language that he had picked up from birth and developed when he moved to England. It has been said that Jamaican creole cannot be and never will be standardised, as it is not common for this unique language to be written down. “Creole’s use in Jamaica is not fixed and this has been captured in early research on the language of school children.” (Bryan, 2004, 643). In this essay by Beverly Bryan, she helps you understand the nature of creole, especially Jamaican, and it helps in understanding some of the more challenging parts of Isaac’s language. The essay also contextualises where the language came from and how it came about; it is an interesting read if Isaac’s writing has inspired you to learn more about Jamaican Creole.

Image of Ken Edward’s poem title page for ‘Drumming’, where some of Isaac’s story is used.h

However, through closer research into Isaac’s writing, I was informed by the Hackney reading group, through the lesson plans that they have created based on Isaac’s memoir, that there was a poem that included one of his stories told in ‘Going Where the Work is’. This poem is by Ken Edwards and it is called ‘Drumming’, I have not been able to locate a copy of this poem. However, Adams uses Isaac’s chapter ‘The Accident’ where he tells the reader how he “lose one joint off one [finger] and half off the other. (25). The fact that Isaac’s work has been used in other peoples writing shows the lasting impact that his work has had on the nature of reading and writing, especially when teaching bilingual people.

To conclude the discussion of reading and writing in Isaac’s memoir, he ends on a good note, thinking positive about his new endeavours into the world of education. I have previously mentioned this in my posts about education and schooling but did not go into the discussion fully. Isaac names one of his chapters ‘reading and writing’, close to the end of his memoir and in this chapter, he outlines the struggles that he has faced not being able to read and write whilst being in England. Isaac Is happy in telling this chapter of his life as learning to read and write was one of his biggest accomplishments. He says that “Now since I start to learn to read, when I see a letter I can make out some of the words.” (29). This being used to conclude Isaac’s narrative makes the reader happy as he takes us on a journey that really shows the negative and positive aspects of his life. This sense of accomplishment that he felt at this point of his text shows the battles in which he has faced in order to get to this point of happiness.

An extract taken from the beginning of the ‘Reading and writing’ chapter in Isaac’s memoir.h

Works Cited:

Gordon, Isaac. Going Where the Work is. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, vol. 2.327.

Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247

Bryan, Beverly. Jamaican Creole: In the process of becoming, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 27:4 (2004): 641-659. Web, accessed on 24/04/2019

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