January 02, 2014

Jamie Oliver: How Being A Special-needs Student Changed My Life



You don't need to be a university graduate to make a positive contribution to humanity: perhaps the opposite is true?

Neither Bill Gates nor Albert Einstein were university graduates.

I admit I am a Jamie Oliver fan.I had been meaning to write something about him for quite some time and this piece below was the catalyst.

I didn't know Jamie suffered from Dyslexia. 

As an ex-school teacher I had come across pupils who had it. I know their years at school were very difficult, yet some had success in other school activities  like sport, for example.

Many years ago, before Dyslexia was officially recognised these pupils were simply called 'dunces' or worse. 

When I was teaching we knew about it but we didn't know how to deal with it.

It is true many famous, and not-so-famous people have it: actors, singers, and others.
Just look here and here.  And on You Tube also

Truly amazing, but I digress.

It is impressive to see what Jamie has achieved. I love to watch him de-construct some seemingly complex meals and make them look so simple to replicate.

I should say I am a very competent cook but have picked up a few very useful tips and become more adventurous with different ingredients!

His enthusiasm and energy are contagious.

His passion seems to be the key to his success and also that of his friend, Jimmy Doherty, both pictured above.

THE air is almost wet with Northernness - a lowering Lancashire sky, a rutted field with a long line of women stout of heart and body, immune to weather and fashion. There's even a brass band. And yet someone has found the soft underbelly of even these people. 

They heard a rumour and came in their hundreds, bearing votive offerings for his blessing - crumbling baked goods in Tupperware containers. He will later lay upon these people his meaty sausage hands. First, I have to get inside the security cordon, and that's when I am singled out.

"Oi, darling," shouts Jamie Oliver. "Get some food down ya. We don't want you back on that train saying ya hungry."

I had been hovering by the TV crew's lunch buffet, wondering if it was impolite to stuff your face while interviewing Oliver or rude not to. We'd not even met, and already I'm following a laddish-yet-friendly, patronising-yet-well-meaning command; hard to dislike and harder to ignore. Why, I think as I dollop potato salad, does Oliver mean so much to us? 

The second biggest-selling British author since records began, bested only by J.K. Rowling; his latest book Save With Jamie surprised no one by being the best-selling cookbook of Christmas, making him the yuletide bestseller for the fourth year running; one of his books was the UK's fastest-selling nonfiction work ever. This all on top of his various restaurant, campaigning and TV tentacles that make him one of our best-known international exports.

We are on location for Jamie and Jimmy's Friday Night Feast, his follow-up to his Food Fight Club series with his friend of 37 years, Jimmy Doherty. I'm glad that he's with Doherty (they met aged one), because he shared with Oliver one of his most formative experiences: his years in the "special needs" room at school. The more you hear about it the more you see it as a driving force in his appeal. Of course, Doherty's presence - sitting next to Oliver, wolfing down food in between excitable riffs that turn to obscene guffaws - also means you quickly start to feel a degree of empathy with their teachers. Why were you two selected for the special-needs stream at your comprehensive?

Oliver: "Because we were the thickest shites who didn't do any work. Basically, the minute I left school, Jimmy got all clever and went to university." He pauses. "But while we were at school, I struggled. Imagine a boys' school. Thirty boys in the middle of English, bang bang bang on the door, 'Can we have Jimmy and Jamie for special needs?' Just us two out of our class."

Doherty: "A lot of our time was spent writing the word knob," and he mimes passing me a note as if right back in the classroom. "When the special needs teacher called for me and Jamie, all the rest of our friends would sing ' Special Needs, Special Needs'."

Oliver: "Yeah, they used to harmonise as well," and here Oliver croons a falsetto, "'Special needs, ooooh yeah'".

What did they do in there?

Oliver: "Mrs Murphy tried to teach us how to spell conclusion. With four cards, con-clu-sion. God no, three cards. You can see now why I was there."

Mrs Murphy, their remedial reading teacher in their teenage years, was quoted in Oliver's biography as saying "To be honest I never thought he would go far", a boy so severely dyslexic he has now only in his late thirties read his first book and who tells me that of the two core subjects of the British system, reading and maths, "I couldn't think of two things that frighten me more."

But, I say, it must be unique to have two boys from the same learning difficulties unit present a show such as this, Oliver with an estimated fortune of pounds 150 million, Doherty a PhD in entomology and a TV presenter in his own right. Watching, earlier, Doherty and Oliver drive across the fields in the trademark car of their TV series - an orange Capri - is seeing an impossible boyhood fantasy come true. I tell them that they're poster boys for all those written off as "thick shites".

Oliver: "Jimmy's passion was for animals and mine was food."

Doherty: "If you get that spark that engages your interest, you're away. That's how you teach."

Oliver: "A few years ago we lived in Los Angeles for three months. My kids started at this hippy school. The first thing they asked our daughter was, 'What do you love?' and Poppy's like, 'Writing songs.' So they taught her through songwriting. I liked that. I think traditional education has got a lot to answer for. Fifty-odd per cent don't leave with five GCSEs, A-C. Not 8 or 10 per cent. In my mind we're half crap at education."

They grew up in the village of Clavering like identical twins, says Oliver: same schools, girlfriends, Kouros aftershave, "haring round to each other on our BMX". They also shared the same feeling of exclusion. By 14, Oliver was already working full-time hours in his parents' pub kitchen, Doherty was using the money he earned washing up alongside him to buy exotic animals.

"Jimmy wanted to work in a zoo," Oliver says. "I'll never forget Jimmy's mum, the offence and confusion in her eyes, as she tried to pull fishfingers out of her new freezer and instead got bags and bags of dead chicks and embryos. I just thought: 'God, it's really hard living with Jim, I'm knackered just being his friend.' I feel sorry for the whole crew. When they put us together in the Capri, they start to look quite frightened."

But, I say, I see male buddies, dads of growing children, I see a sports car, and I can't not think: midlife crisis. "Grab her," Oliver says. "I'll gag her, send her back."

Doherty says: "How old do you think we are? When that happens, I'll dress as a cowboy on horseback, chaps on, nothing else. Now that's midlife."

Your family don't mind? "They hate it," Doherty says.

"When I put shots on Instagram, of me and Jimmy in the Capri," Oliver says, "my wife goes, 'Ah, have you been "working"?' For me, you try to be a good boss, a good husband and a good father; sadly friends get kicked to the back, rightfully so, that's where they deserve to be. But without sounding too camp about it, quite a lot of the documentaries I've done, I've really wanted to be with someone else. Like say, in Huntingdon, West Virginia, they hated me for at least a month, then there's a period of transition. I could have done with saying, 'Jimmy, you have half this grief.'"

I think it is a bit like Malcolm Gladwell's new book David and Goliath, which argues that the high rate of dyslexia among entrepreneurs is no accident, that they were forced from an early age to tackle problems on their own using unorthodox methods. What Oliver does best is throwing himself into a pit of people who hate him most, but most need his help: one of our favourite spectator bloodsports is watching him being eaten alive by dinner ladies. I'm musing on this when I catch Oliver scolding Doherty for his people skills.

"Dude, can I grab a cup of tea? Thanks!" says Doherty to a passing TV crew lackey.

"Dude? You must learn his name one day. It's Dan, isn't it?" Oliver says.

"If you don't know someone's name you call them Big Bollocks," retaliates Doherty.

"I don't! I call them by their name," Oliver says. I ask him if that extends to his use of "darling" for women, and he gets quite serious. "I work with women, most of my family are women. The girls in my life are very much in control of Mr Oliver, at home and at work. They all batter me on a daily basis. That's fine, I allow them to."

Doherty: "I went to your office the other day and it was like 90 per cent women."

Oliver: "I just don't trust men as much. All of our businesses are about things that need to be looked at with a longer view - it seems to be women are better at that. I've never tried to shape it in that particular way. If anything it looks like I'm an old pervert; that's really not intentional."

Is it a relief now to do this show about food that's fun? Oliver said a while back that he was resting his campaigning on school food, although he has maintained a team of staff dedicated to school food for the past eight years. "Now's the time to let people do their jobs and come back if required. The public are incredible with me but if you keep whining at them, everyone gets fatigued. No one likes a whiner."

Is Oliver warming to Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, who drew his rage by allowing academies to ignore nutrition standards inspired by Oliver?

"I always thought he was very charismatic, it's just I don't like him touching our standards. The parents asked us to put them there and there was no logical reason for them to go away: it was a base level that protected our kids. They've essentially been put back in slightly different wording. In some respects I'm happy that we're back where we were two years ago, but also upset we've missed two years."

At this point, Doherty and Oliver start riffing on a bewildering array of topics, from how the Government must "put a tax on sugar " (Oliver) to how the price of food, now too low, will soon rise due to the booming Chinese middle classes (Doherty).

When Oliver flits on to food miles, saying, "When you send over 100 tonnes of beans from Kenya, you're not just shifting beans you're shifting water from somewhere that needs water," Doherty looks at him with a cocked eyebrow. "That is interesting, I've not heard the argument put like that before."

The plates are cleared and the producer pulls us away to give the crowd what they want. Oliver is swarmed, yet never seems flustered: for the men, a well-placed shoulder clasp and matey oven chat; for the old ladies, intense, huggy flirting.

He listens and likes energetically and catholically; he knows how it is. I've seen a lot of celebrities work a crowd. The only other person who could make individuals feel as worthy is Bill Clinton. The chef's latest book is Save With Jamie; the theme of his career could be Saved By Jamie.

In farewell, Oliver draws me aside and says in a lowered voice, half-apologetic, half-triumphant: "We've sidetracked you completely."

Thanks be to Mrs Murphy, for not doing her job too well.

With thanks to The Australian