Mavis's Shoe was the first new Scottish novel to come out simultaneously in Braille and print, so I'm very pleased that Rue End Street has followed suit. A couple of weeks ago, during National Braille Week, I visited the Scottish Braille Press in Edinburgh to celebrate National Braille Week and see round the press. While I was there I met Allan Balfour who is blind and who translated both books into Braille, and we read a section of Rue End Street together.
As you can see from the video Allan is moving both his hands and in two directions. This is because he reads ahead with one hand and makes sense with the other, or something like that. I realised that this is also what I do, in fact what we all do. We read by recognition and we read more than one word at once, and we read ahead to make sense of the word we are paying closest attention to, or something like that! It's hard to define. This is especially noticeable in people playing the piano. They are reading ahead while their fingers are playing the previous bar. It was quite amazing to see Allan doing with his hands what I do with my eyes. If I run my finger tips over the Braille 'cells' it's just texture on thick paper, completely random and with no individual dot easily discernible from the next. But Allan's fingers sense these 'cells' or small rectangular arrangements of raised dots, and they tell him something. They are not simply embossed letters like the twenty-six we read every day, but codes which tell the reader things like whether or not the word begins with a capital, and so on. I found the whole thing quite extraordinary, but actually if I think about what our brains do even when we have eyes, you realise how fantastic the human body is.
After reading together I was taken through to see the actual Braille press itself and meet some of the workers. Check out the giant roll of paper! For some reason such things give me great pleasure. So perfect and white and round and actually quite hard to lean on which is why I'm laughing. The paper goes into the machine and comes out the other side stamped with dots. The large format book in my left hand is the result, or is at least one volume of the seven it takes to make the whole of Rue End Street. Included are Braille descriptions of the cover and the various photos on the inside of the cover.
Then I was whisked off to the Royal Blind School to meet a group of pupils aged 12-17 who are all either blind or partially sighted. I read them a section from Mavis's Shoe and they followed in Braille or large print. I read quite fast and they all managed to keep up. Allan had already told me Braille is not something you can easily learn as an adult. Five year old learners pick it up far faster even than nine year olds. I was aware that all these young people had stories to tell. Fortunately at least one of them has already started writing and has not just one but two novel length projects already written.
They were an extremely engaged and engaging group of young people and were ready with questions from the moment I joined them until the very end. Deputy Head Teacher Sarah Hughes told me about a teenage boy in her last school who went with her to a show, I forget which kind. During the show the stage asked for a volunteer. The boy's hand shot up. His was the only hand, so he was chosen. Afterwards Sarah praised him for being so brave and told him he had been the only volunteer. He replied that he always said yes to any opportunity because he knew there were many which passed him by. It wasn't so much bravery as an excellent strategy for life, indeed for anyone's life.
I was then taken on a tour of the school which has recently been rehoused in a new purpose-specific building. Again, fascinating, and I got to see some individual Braille writing machines, which is what that blue machine is on the right here. I realised the main thing Braille has to offer a blind person is privacy. A Braille reader can do what sighted people do: sit in a room alone with a book and let the words wash over them without interuption. Reading is a direct experience between reader and writer. Reading in Braille is the closest experience to print reading a blind person can have. Without Braille, there has to be a third person either physically present or present in their voice in a recording. The consumption rate of the book is controlled by someone else's speed, not the reader's. The words are interpreted, however subtly, by the actor on the tape or the sighted person reading aloud, and not by the unsighted. This makes reading more passive and less involving, and therefore, to my mind, less pleasurable. And how do you immerse yourself in a book and have a good cry or laugh out loud without the privacy to experience that direct connection between you and the written word?
I loved every minute of this visit. Thank you everyone! And it left me with so many thoughts and ideas. But then, as Muriel Rukeyser once said, 'The universe is made of stories, not atoms.'
The photos and videos in this piece were the work of the Royal Blind School and the Scottish Braille Press.