Why I Taught English as a Foreign Language

TEFL: Why I do it

There is a well-known saying:

“Those who can, do;

those who can’t, teach.”

To which, I attach my addendum:

“Those who can teach,

teach proper, authentic subjects.

Those who can’t,

teach their own language.”

And a further personal,

pessimistic postscript:

“Those who can teach

their own language properly,

teach groups of students.

Those who can’t,

teach individuals, one-to-one.”


So, here I sit, in my eyrie.

My tiny room, at the top of the building;

barely big enough for one-to-one tuition.

I am not even rated highly enough

to be a paid employee.

I am a self-employed tutor,

working for Language Studies International.

I am paid by the hour, and my hours vary,

from week to week, from day to day.

I have no job security.

I have no expectations.

I have no realisation that this job

is the best job I will ever have.

I drifted into teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) at a language school in the centre of London, because I couldn’t think of anything else I could do.  I had moved from Cambridge to London because I got a grant to do a postgraduate course at Chelsea College.  So there I was, thirty-one years old, with a degree in Humanities and a postgraduate diploma in Modern Cultural and Social Studies.  In other words, I wasn’t qualified to do anything, in particular.  I managed to somehow survive a four-week full-time RSA(Prep.)Certificate in TEFL, and got taken on, as a “Freelance Tutor”, at Language Studies International, just off Oxford Street, five minutes away from Selfridge’s Department Store.  I ended up staying there for nine of the most interesting years of my life.


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What Thoth Knew

What Thoth Knew

“We are stardust, we are golden. . . “(Joni Mitchell: “Woodstock”)

One hundred billion stars

In the Milky Way

Shining fiercely, burning away.


This is where we came from

What we are

Dust from one hundred billion stars.


One hundred billion cells

Inside our brains

Glowing, connecting, again and again.


This is where

Our unique essence dwells

In one hundred billion vibrating cells


Each and every one

As the mystics know

A microcosm: “As above, so below.”

This poem was inspired by reading an article about our braincells and the universe, and thinking back to my teenage years, when I was fascinated by mysticism, and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.  These days, I’m more interested in popular science than in mysticism, but sometimes the two areas seem to converge!

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Alter Ego (2)

Alter Ego (2)

When was he born? Difficult question;

so many possible fleeting incarnations.

But that first session in the school gym

has to be a prime contender.


I am one of a huddled mass

of eleven-year-old boys,

trembling with fear and anxiety,

confronted by an ogre called Captain Wall.


This strutting, straight-backed, self-regarding,

militaristic martinet, clad in a svelte grey tracksuit,

strides, imperiously, in front of us;

barks out his commands, lays down the law

on how we are to behave, to dress,

to perform in his presence.


“White top, white shorts, white plimsolls,

white socks – OR NO SOCKS!”


And the ground shudders and splinters,

as the wall begins to form.

It rises, miraculously, self-erected,

brick by brick, it rises, at the beating heart

of our group, splitting us asunder.


On one side – my side – the boys

from families that care,

and have money to spare. The boys

with mothers who love them,

and have time to look after them.

These boys will parade in front of Captain Wall,

week in, week out, in immaculate

white P.E. outfits, complete

with white socks.


On the other side of the wall, the boys

from families that are torn,

by discords and dissension.

The families that struggle to survive,

to provide for their children.


These boys will turn up for P.E.,

week in, week out,

in grubby, wrinkled, ill-fitting

tops and shorts; will thrust bare feet

into dirty plimsolls, in front of

an appalled Captain Wall.


The wall rises, divides us;

creates two worlds: my world

of the well-fed, the healthy,

the mollycoddled. And the other world

of the needy, the ill-nourished,

the unkempt, the uncared-for.


My other self emerges,

and, without pause

for thought, or hesitation,

steps, boldly, to the other side.

This poem should really be read in conjunction with the original Alter Ego poem I posted in this blog a couple of weeks ago.  If you read it on its own, without having read the first poem, you probably won’t be able to make much sense out of it.  Whenever I think back to those PE sessions I experienced as an eleven-year-old, I vividly recall the fear I felt.  I suppose PE at schools these days is nothing like as terrifying!

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Alter Ego

Down to You

“It’s down to you, constant stranger.

You’re a brute, you’re an angel.

You can crawl, you can fly, too.

It’s down to you; it all comes down to you.”

(Joni Mitchell.)


Our inner selves are constant strangers;

meeting, conflicting; moving away.

With me, for instance, it happens every day.


He wasn’t lucky enough

to pass the Eleven Plus.

He left school at sixteen,

with no qualifications,

and a grudge against the world.

He resembles me, physically;

has the same shaven head,

but he has more tattoos and piercings.

He wants to flaunt his tattoos,

in skimpy clothing, all year long,

regardless of the weather.

He speaks in a stream of solecisms

and four-letter words.


I awake in the early hours,

surrounded by silence,

enveloped in darkness.

He announces himself.

He steps upon the stage

of my semi-conscious mind,

and dominates my thoughts,

my feelings, my dreams,

for the remaining hours of night-time.


When I get up in the morning,

he is in control.

Weary from lack of sleep,

disturbed by his bizarre visions,

using uncouth, vulgar vocabulary,

I live as this rough yob,

for the first hour or two, every morning.


I am troubled, but exhilarated;

this is the real me!

Troubled, but exhilarated;

I am going to be free!

It is exciting, to gain fluency

in this primitive foreign language.


A struggle then ensues.

A struggle, in which

the other self slowly succumbs.


He slowly succumbs,

to cultural values, to rationality;

to the sobering effects

of strong, black coffee;

to civilization, to classical music,

to blessed Radio Three.


He slowly succumbs,

gradually becomes

the acceptable, daytime “me”.

I was listening to a jazz programme on BBC Radio 3, when the featured artist played an excerpt from the Joni Mitchell song “Down to You”, saying it was a song that had really influenced him.  I am a big Joni Mitchell fan (her “Blue” album is my favourite album of all time!), but I hadn’t heard this particular track for ages, and was surprised it had such an influence on a jazz instrumentalist.  A few days later, I was listening to Bob Mortimer on “Desert Island Discs”, and was even more surprised when he chose “Down to You” as the one piece of music he would take to his desert island!  Anyway, the only reason I am mentioning it now is because listening to the lines “Constant stranger, you’re a brute, you’re an angel. . . ” suddenly gave me the idea for writing the above poem.  I’d been struggling for a while, trying to write a poem about “my other self”, and it was a great relief when – thanks to the Joni Mitchell song – I finally managed to do it.  

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Death by Tortoise

Aeschylus, or Death by Tortoise

Men like me, with no hair on my head,

grow inured to the jibes and the cruel things said.

We console ourselves that such comments don’t kill us;

it can’t be worse than what happened to Aeschylus.


Aeschylus was the master tragedian,

but his death was more befitting a comedian.

Lack of hair was the reason he soon was dead:

the similarity of his hairless head

to a rock, deceiving the great bird in the sky

into dropping the tortoise, causing Aeschylus to die.

Had he been vain enough to wear a toupee,

the eagle would have simply flown away.


Reflect upon the playwright’s sorry fate;

be sure to cover up your balding pate.

I was reading an article recently, in The London Review of Books, about classical Greek Drama, in which the story (possibly apocryphal) of the unusual death of Aeschylus – the great tragic dramatist – was recounted.  In case you’re not familiar with it, the story goes as follows: Aeschylus was, apparently, completely bald on the top of his head.  While he was out walking, one day, an eagle flew by overhead.  The eagle had a tortoise held in its claws, and was intending to drop the poor creature onto a rock, in order to kill and eat it.  Spotting Aeschylus below, the eagle was deceived into confusing Aeschylus’s bald head for a rock.  It dropped the tortoise, directly onto his bald head, killing him immediately.

I had come across this story before, but I suddenly started to think it might make a suitable subject for a short, humorous poem.  I actually find writing “light verse” usually more challenging than writing serious poems, and this one was no exception – the name “Aeschylus” itself not being the easiest word to fit into a rhyme-scheme!   

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Red Lights

Red Lights

Red lights on my router,

where there should be green.

Red lights on my router;

I dread what this could mean.


In the midst of life’s journey, my eye on the summit;

lies an uncharted abyss, into which I plummet.

My existence dissolves, dwindles down to this.

The only sounds emitted: humming and hiss.


Mere moments ago, communication was infinite;

now my world has shrunk, within limits so tight.

No emails, no websites, no radio, no TV.

Nothing can be done; what will become of me?


My life now in crisis, situation drastic;

little red lights, shiny black plastic.

This is life’s essence, this cannot be right;

shiny black plastic, little red lights.


Red lights on my router,

where there should be green.

Red lights on my router;

I dread what this could mean.

As is probably the case with most people these days, my internet provider also provides me with my TV channels, including I-Player, and my telephone landline.  I am currently problem-free, with all these services, but I have had problems – as we all do – from time to time.  A few weeks ago, I suddenly experienced a complete loss of internet connection, for no apparent reason, which lasted for a couple of hours.  I began to realise, towards the end of the two hours, just how serious this problem could be, if it wasn’t soon resolved.  It also began to sink in just how vital our internet connection has become; our self-worth, our well-being, our whole identity now depends upon it.  The sense of liberation and renewal I had, as soon as the red lights on my router changed to green, led me to write the poem above.


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They work together, in pairs.

They walk together, in pairs.

Well-spoken, well-dressed, they reek of middle-class;

but, in a street like this, such people will not pass.


This street of drug-dealers;

this street of working poor.

This street of outcast mattresses,

and splintered frames on doors.


They want to save souls, to spread Jehovah’s word;

but in a street like this, it is unlikely to be heard.

In this street of rotting refuse, rank with dog turds,

the word of Jehovah is unlikely to be heard.


They have high aspirations,

leather satchels, shiny shoes.

But they sink, in this street,

in the rivers of booze.


The souls of people here

are unwilling to be stirred

by these witnesses of Jehovah,

spreading the word.


In this street of shattered dreams,

harsh debts are incurred.

No-one speaks of salvation;

such visions are blurred,

and the needs of brute existence

cannot be deferred.


These middle-class missionaries, in immaculate attire;

their expressions solemn, their minds afire.

Inspired by their mission, they will not be deterred;

but the souls of people here are unwilling to be stirred

by these witnesses of Jehovah, spreading the word.

I have always been intrigued, yet repelled, by Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Whenever I see them, moving slowly, methodically, inexorably down my street, my first response is irritation at the nuisance factor of these people, knocking on your door when you have no inclination to speak to them.  I instinctively decide to avoid answering the door, at all costs.  But my next response is one of fascination, and I always end up cautiously observing their movements from my bedroom window, until they have disappeared from view.  I suppose I am reluctantly impressed by their dogged determination to carry out their task; but I must admit to breathing a sigh of relief as soon as they disappear.  I also admit to using “poetic licence” to exaggerate the description of the street in the poem.  The real street involved – my street – is not quite as sordid as it is depicted here!


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“Placebo” emanates poetry.

The syllables slide, insidiously;

sing, with the lilt and lull of the sea.


Take the pills in rhythm, one, two, three;

I know they will be good for me.

I close my eyes, sink into the deep.


The depths of the mind; territory

resistant to man’s ingenuity.

Hints of latent ability,

transcending mere physicality.


“Placebo” emanates poetry,

and, still, after years of history,

“placebo” emanates mystery.

Towards the end of last year, there were at least a couple of TV documentaries about “the placebo effect” that often seems to happen with pills, and medicines in general.  I find this subject very interesting, as it seems to hint at possible latent powers in the conscious or unconscious mind that we still know little about.  I’ve always been fascinated by the amazing powers of the human mind.  In 1961, I somehow managed to pass the Eleven-Plus exam, which meant I was to spend the next seven or eight years at a grammar school, instead of a “secondary modern” school.  Unfortunately, my initial success at passing the eleven-plus was not followed by continued success with the annual exams at the grammar school.  I remember getting really depressed at my lack of success with the exams, and, in desperation, I started reading books with titles like “The Exam Secret”, “How to Study Effectively”, “How to Revise”, and so on.  I found myself getting really interested in the psychological aspects, and went on to read more about mind training, memory training, and self-hypnosis – none of which helped me in passing more exams, but it did give me a life-long interest in powers of the mind, and how the brain is supposed to work.

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Tiny Spider

Tiny Spider

As I lay in the bath,

a fleeting movement

caught my attention.

A tiny spider, abseiling down

the sheer cliff face

of the bathroom tiles,

so nimbly, seemingly unaware

of the dangerous waters below.


It paused, in its heedless descent.

Then, in sudden panic,

began climbing, lost its footing,

fell, spun another line,

clambered up again,

fell again. . .


I decided to help it; to save it.

It ran onto my paperback book,

then disappeared.


I turned the book over,

expecting, hoping, to see the spider

running underneath; but no sign.


With a sudden sense of dread,

I looked into the water,

and saw a motionless black speck:

the drowned corpse.


My act, carried out

with the best of intentions,

had only ushered the spider

into another dimension.

Following on from the Tiny Black Fly of my last posting, followers of this blog must be thinking I’ve got a particular fascination with small insects, but this poem was inspired by an incidental event, that happened only a few days ago.  It’s simply an exercise in observation, and reporting on exactly what happened, although the rhyme in the last verse refers to the universal truth that well-meaning acts often trigger unfortunate consequences.

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Black Fly

Black Fly

I am currently haunted, by a tiny black fly.

I am waiting, in vain, for it to die.

You’d think it so easy, to expunge

its tenuous life, in a single lunge;

but it seems to sense my malign intention,

and vanishes, into another dimension.

From whence it emerges, to persecute me,

as I slump, half-asleep, half-watching TV.


It comes and goes; its movements so fast.

It often appears on the edge of the glass

I’m drinking from, full of wine, or beer.

I pick the glass up, and it disappears

into a world of dark energy, anti-matter,

where black holes suck up the spray and spatter

of dying planets. A tenebrous world;

the complete obverse of our

brightly-shining universe.

A world of negative truths, or lies;

presided over by the Lord of the Flies.

Because I have a phobia about insects – particularly wasps and bees – I keep all my windows closed, at all times.  Nonetheless, I still get the odd little intruder, penetrating my defences, from time to time.  The most recent one is the tiny black fly of the above poem.  The poem started off describing what had been happening, as a lot of my poems do.  It was only when I got the idea of it disappearing into another dimension – which had to be one of appropriate blackness, of course – that I felt the poem starting to “take off”, and the Lord of the Flies seemed to be a fitting ending.

Just a reminder, in case anyone missed it in my last post: a first collection of my poems, entitled The Bunuel Martini and Other Poems, has recently been published, and is now available as a paperback or e-book from https://www.amazon.co.uk and https://www.lulu.com

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