The Secret Millionaire

February 04, 2011

Businessman Jeff Pearce hid his illiteracy until middle age – but learning to read and write was the making of him

Jeff Pearce prefers being called an “adventurer” to an “entrepreneur”. He is the short, ginger-haired action hero of Liverpool retail who made a fortune selling £1 leather trousers to hard-up scousers in the 1980s, then lost his millions, and remade them — playing polo with the Royal Family, working as a stunt rider for Richard Gere and sailing the Atlantic in the meantime.

His name is not actually Jeff. Pearce’s mother changed it to hide the shameful secret with which he has lived most of his life — that he could neither read nor write. Pearce could never spell his real name, James. For years he would come home from school and sit with his mother writing “J-A-M”. Eventually she said, “You know what — it’s Jeff.”

“I felt like I was living my life under false pretences. Because really you shouldn’t be an entrepreneur, you shouldn’t be a millionaire if you can’t even write your own name. So I lived with that torture, I lived in the shadows of what I was,” Pearce says.

Now Pearce has produced a memoir, A Pocketful of Holes and Dreams to tell the story of his life — and he has, painstakingly, written every word.
Why was he so determined to write a book when he already had so many other achievements?

“When I was a child at school they called me a dunce and they basically tortured me. The teachers used to make me stand with my hands behind my back facing the wall for hours on end. What the teacher didn’t understand was that I could copy, I was a good at drawing — but then she’d say write those three words, and I couldn’t. And she’d go — Are you stupid?”

Pearce was a working-class boy in Fifties Liverpool when there was little understanding of dyslexia. His father was a taxi driver and a heavy drinker who fancied himself as a Clark Gable lookalike. He once abandoned his son on a day out to the seaside, and returned so drunk that they couldn’t find their way back to the station: “I hated him, I hated him.” At night Pearce lay in bed listening to his parents fighting. One day his father took the coin-operated TV his mother had scrimped and saved for and threw it through the window. Pearce watched as his mother knelt in the street to collect the broken shards of glass with tears streaming down her face: “It was the lowest point of their marriage.”

To get by Pearce went door to door with his mother asking for old clothes that they could sell in the market. He instinctively knew what people wanted and how to give it to them. He was seemingly able to make money from anything. He even turned a profit selling his father’s cigars for a “penny-a-puff”. He had the gift of the gab.

This did not endear him to everyone. “I didn’t like him at all,” says Pearce’s wife Gina recalling their first meeting, “I thought he was cocky.” She adds that she really didn’t like him for quite a long time.
“I didn’t like you either,” Pearce says, “you were like Mary Poppins.”
While other girls went dancing with him in their mini-skirts, Gina adjusted her polo neck sweater and turned her nose up at him. Of course, they fell in love and got married.

Pearce admits that the women in his life have made him what he is. He calls his book a “love story between a boy and his mother”, and the scene in which he describes his mother’s death from cancer is heartwrenching. He was working at a Butlin’s holiday camp when his father rang to tell him: “Mum was gone! My best friend in all the world, the one person who really understood me and had been there for me every day. What would life be like without her? It was almost too much to bear.”

At various points in his life Pearce says his mother has appeared to him, like a guiding angel, to reassure him. Before she died she told him that one day he would be successful, and famous. And indeed he is — although this may have been due to astute business decisions rather than heavenly intervention. Pearce’s decision to sell £1 leather pants in the New Year sales of 1983 was a publicity coup . By that time he was married to Gina and they’d opened their first shop. Pearce decided to invest £750 in a bulk load of leather trousers, and to increase trade in his Girls Talk boutique by selling them cheap. “It was a bit of a gamble, to be honest,” he says. But Liverpool loved it, and photos of shoppers sleeping in the street outside his boutique made the front page of the Liverpool Echo. On the first day of the sale they took £25,000.

Pearce went on to found the Tickled Pink brand, which ushered in the late-Eighties craze for neon and lycra cycling shorts, before losing his millions in the high street recession of the Nineties. On the cusp of turning 40 he found himself broke and selling clothes in Toxteth market out of the horsebox he’d kept his polo ponies in.

Superficially at least, Pearce seemed like a man whose life was driven by ambition, self-confidence and bravado. He persevered with learning to play Polo despite being turned away from his first sessions by a public school boy on a horse who told him to “Get off the f***ing ground, I hate it when people like you don’t know the rules !” (Pearce later founded the Jaguar House Polo Team). After his business went into liquidation he became a stunt rider at Pinewood Studios and worked on Braveheart before Gina called and said: “Get your arse back here. If you think I’m going to look after the business, the farm and the girls while you gallop around a field with a bunch of movie stars you’ve got another thing coming.”

But none of this meant anything, and Pearce was not confident — because he was still illiterate: “It wasn’t a wealth thing. What this is all about is making up for what that teacher did to me. I think I’ve made myself ill over it. I’ve had ulcer operations. My body’s suffered with the pressure that I’ve taken on board. I was trying to prove myself.”

Even his two daughters did not realise that their father couldn’t read.When his daughter asked him to read her a bedtime story he went downstairs and cried. At work he calculated stock numbers and figures in his head, while Gina wrote cheques and read contracts.

Then in 1992 Pearce decided to “come out of the closet”. He was awarded the Drapers Independent Retailer of the Year Award for founding Jeffs of Bold Street, a popular Liverpool department store that restored his business. “The article said I was a ‘paragon of independent retail’ and I thought — how can I be a paragon when I can’t read or write?” His mum had been his “writing hand” and then his wife.

Pearce told his friends and colleagues the truth. They were surprised but, apart from his primary school teacher, Pearce was his own harshest critic .
Teaching himself to read and write was arduous. He tried an evening class, and employed teachers and ghost writers to help. But Pearce felt no one could tell his story like he could, and he was outraged by efforts to “sex up” his story — adding false anecdotes about racy incidents at polo matches. He developed a laborious system of phonetic spelling with each word taking three times as long to write as it would for a person without dyslexia. When editors revised his text and inserted words he couldn’t read, he insisted they remove them: “This is my book. I don’t want a book that I can’t read.”

Learning to read and write has banished the sense that he was an incomplete person who was living a lie. Recently he was woken in the middle of the night by someone banging on his front door. It was his daughter who he’d been unable to read a bedtime story to all those years earlier. She’d come to tell him that she’d just read his book. “Dad I’m so proud of you,” she said — and burst into tears in his arms.

Pearce now wants to write another book to continue breaking the shame associated with learning disabilities and dyslexia. One in six people in the UK struggle with literacy, and Pearce does not want any child to experience the “torture” he says he went through.

Despite his achievements, he remains anxious that people will think less of his book because of his struggle to write it. Could I tell? he asks. Quite honestly, his book is so captivating and moving I never gave it a second thought.

Comments (1)

Posted by: Marie over 3 years ago

I’m very glad to read this wonderful book. My english is very poor, but I do understand clearly every word of it. Thanks a lot to Jeff Pearce and God bless him.

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