TEFL: A PICARESQUE AUTOBIOGRAPHY IN CHOPPED-UP PROSE

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PROLOGUE

On a sunny afternoon, in early Summer,

I present myself for an interview

At the EF Institute in Cambridge.

I have just completed a degree in Humanities.

I feel relaxed, at ease with myself and the world.

The last three years have been the most enjoyable

I have had in my life, so far. I have relished

The student life; loved living in Cambridge.

I would be happy to live in Cambridge

For the rest of my life, but I have been accepted

For a place on a postgraduate course at Chelsea College,

And am already looking forward to the excitement

Of moving to the metropolis.

I have two and a half months to wait,

Before the move to London.

What to do, over these summer months?

I have seen posters advertising part-time work

For TEFL tutors at the EF Institute.

I soon find out the acronym TEFL stands for

Teaching English as a Foreign Language.

It could be interesting, I think,

And more lucrative than doing nothing.

Why not give it a go?

I am greeted, at the entrance,

By an enthusiastic, energetic-looking woman.

As soon as I give my name, she says “Great!

The kids are ready for you. Just go

Down those stairs. They’re waiting.”

I stare at her, uncomprehendingly.

“There must be a misunderstanding.” I say.

“I’m only here for an interview.”

“Interview?” She seems puzzled, then amused.

“Oh, no! There’s no interview! No, you just start,

Straight away. They’re waiting for you.”

I can’t believe this is happening.

“But I’ve never done this before!” I protest.

“I haven’t a clue what I’m supposed to do!”

“You’ll be fine.” She assures me.

“Just chat to them. Get to know them.

Take them out for a walk if you like.

Cambridge is an interesting place.”

I am completely taken aback by this,

And on the verge of refusing to do it.

But then I start thinking. I don’t want

To destroy my chances before I’ve even started.

Maybe it won’t be so bad;

This woman must know what she’s doing…

Two hours later, I emerge, visibly shaken,

From the place I now think of as a Hell-Hole.

The experience has been more harrowing

Then I could ever have imagined. I am

probably suffering from Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder.

One thing has become clear to me.

One illuminated sign is blinding me with its light,

Sending its dazzling message into what remains

Of my crumbling, shattered brain cells.

Whatever happens in my life, from this point onwards,

I must never, ever again have any contact whatsoever

With this existential entity, this testing, tortuous trauma;

This malignant miasma known as “TEFL.”

About two and a half years ago, I started writing an account of my experiences teaching English as a Foreign Language, at a language school in central London, in my early thirties. I originally intended it to be a sort of prose-poem, but, as it progressed, I realized it was looking more like chopped-up prose.

It finished up as a sequence of fifteen episodes. Humour was quite a strong element, as some of the scenarios were semi-comic, or slightly absurd. I decided that the most honest description of the whole project would be “A Picaresque Memoir in Chopped-Up Prose”. I then decided it needed a prologue, explaining how I first encountered “TEFL”.

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To Measure Your Length

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Measurements

I measured my length, on the footpath.

My height was five foot, ten and a half.

Less than before, as the years went by.

I rolled on my back, contemplating the sky.

My width was a constant, frustrating surprise.

My depth eluded the measuring eyes.

The colours of my chest were purple and red,

Turning ominous black, as they transmuted.

In succeeding days, unbeknownst to me,

My stature would shrink, quite invisibly,

While my girth continued to steadily grow.

All these pressures, in a downward flow,

Took their effect on the limbs below.

Puzzlingly, my feet began,

Not to shrink, but to expand.

Never to fit size nine shoes again,

I struggled to cram them into size ten.

All this calibrated information

Induced involuntary cerebration.

Imparted no pleasure; caused mental pain.

I don’t wish to measure my length again.

This is an extended comic riff on the phrase “to measure your length”, meaning to fall flat on the ground. I had a nasty fall a couple of years ago, when I was crossing the road, just outside the bus station. My foot just clipped the kerb, and I fell flat on my face. It must have looked quite comical to a passer-by. I was walking across the same road, a few days ago, and I remembered the fall I had there. “Yes, I certainly measured my length there”, I mumbled to myself. I then started thinking about an idea for a poem in which I could use the incident, and the phrase, in a literal sense.

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Not a Sonnet

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Not a Sonnet

I am slightly suspicious of sonnets.

Or poems that look like sonnets,

Give a hint that they might be sonnets.

Whenever I see, in an anthology,

A slab of lines, fairly shapely, quite neat,

Like a brick is a composition-concrete,

I’ll read it, but often it turns out to be

Mundane thoughts, tricked-out in finery.

Cheap plonk, masquerading as a fine wine.

Delusions of grandeur, in fourteen lines.

“Ozymandias” should be remembered forever,

But this king is in the all-together.

“I’ve just done a sonnet! Ooh, look at me!”

Some poets are no better than they ought to be.

This poem expresses a genuine irritation I’ve felt when reading selections of poetry that often include poems that look like sonnets, and have the required number of lines, but turn out not to be “proper” sonnets, or what I think of as imitation sonnets.

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Vertigo

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Existentialist Vertigo

A young woman smiles into the camera.

She brandishes a series of placards,

The words on which extoll the virtues

Of the product she is advertising.

So far, so tame. So far, so lame.

Imitation of the famous Bob Dylan video

For Subterranean Homesick Blues.

Suddenly, the camera pulls back,

To show a dramatic vista.

The woman is teetering on top

Of a slender tower.

The Tower of Song.

As the camera retracts more and more,

The precipitous drop from the top of the tower

Becomes ever more vertiginous.

She is Eight Miles High!

And I am gripped, as I watch,

By a sudden, shuddering spasm;

Physical, visceral,

Mental, psychological.

My foothold slips.

I topple off the tower.

I howl with panic,

As I plummet through

The vertigo of possibility.

The Chimes of Freedom.

I was watching TV one evening when an advert came on with a girl showing a series of placards – just like the opening image of this poem. I found the following sequence in the advert, showing the girl on top of a slender tower, suddenly affected me with all the usual symptoms of vertigo. Over the next few days, I started to think about writing a poem about the advert, but I couldn’t think how to do it. What finally solved the problem for me was reading an article in the Philosophy Now journal about Jean-Paul Sartre’s idea of freedom as “the vertigo of possibility”. Sartre was convinced that every individual has absolute freedom to do whatever they want, and the knowledge of this dizzying possibility creates the feeling of vertigo. I suddenly realized I could incorporate this into the poem, and link the verses together with song titles that connect back to the original Bob Dylan video that inspired the advert.

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Life on “Our Yorkshire Farm”

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No Problem

Isolated, on a remote hill

In the Yorkshire dales,

The coldest January for a decade.

In lockdown, with a husband

Twenty years older than you,

Breaking in his new hip replacement.

And nine kids to home-school,

With one laptop between them.

The farm steeped in snow thigh-deep,

The ponies, the pigs, the dogs, the sheep,

Their bellies burgeoning with impending life.

The film crew leave, dismissed

By Covid protocols and lockdown.

You have to do the filming

By yourselves, with your mobiles.

Then twenty sheep disappear

In a blizzard. You search for three days

In the all-enveloping white wilderness,

Your husband heaving his hip replacement

Through the soggy, sinking snow,

Before you finally find them.

But it’s all “No Problem”, no problem at all.

Whenever in trouble, your dogs heed your call.

You live on the land, its contours, its hills.

Inured to its changes, enduring its chills.

When harsh events challenge, become overwhelming,

You just dip your bucket into the wellspring.

I watched the first episode of the new series of “Our Yorkshire Farm” on Channel 5 with my jaw hanging open in amazement. The episode was recorded in January this year, with the family in lockdown and the farm enveloped in thigh-deep snow, in the coldest January for a decade. There were so many trials and torments for the family to live through, and yet I never saw a disconsolate look on any of their faces. Any difficulty was faced with an attitude of “No problem!”, and all worked out well, in the end.

I was left wondering “How do these people do it?”, and wishing they could imbue me with an iota of the inexhaustible energy and positivity they displayed.

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Deluge

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Deluge

Yesterday we had unceasing, torrential rain;

A month of rainfall in a single day.

Now, I am walking back from town,

My feet on auto-boatman,

My head in the clouds,

When a sudden, splashing, icy-cold deluge

Covers me, from head to toe.

It almost stops my heart;

Nearly kills me. I jerk my head

Out of the clouds, launch fervent imprecations

Towards the tail of the fast-disappearing truck.

Radio on full-blast, no doubt;

The driver blithely unaware

Of his dramatic intervention into my life.

The puddle I have somehow ignored

Is, I can now see, in fact a vast, deep lake,

Extending half-way over the road,

Before the truck’s wheels ploughed through it.

Now, its contents are all over me,

Soaking through my clothes,

Penetrating deep into my shivering frame.

I somehow begin to move again;

Begin to place one foot in front of the other;

Each step a sodden, shuddering, squelching

Lesson in survival, in the New Normal.

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Promotion

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It’s been quite a while since I posted anything from my autobiographical sequence relating the incidents and experiences I had working as a tutor of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) at a language school in central London in the 1980’s, so I thought I’d better introduce the next section with a brief resume.

I had moved from Cambridge to London to do a post-graduate course at Chelsea College. I was aged twenty-nine, having started relatively late as a full-time student. After completing the course, I didn’t have a clue what I really wanted to do, and began a series of part-time jobs, before stumbling my way into teaching EFL. I luckily came across a language school situated just off Oxford Street that was looking for new tutors. I got on well with the Director of Studies, fortunately, and began to enjoy the one-to-one lessons that the school specialised in. At the time the narrative continues, I had been working there for a couple of years, and had established myself as one of the regular core of teaching staff.

TEFL(13): Promotion

The Managing Director gives me some unbelievable news:

It has been decided that I am to be offered

The job of Director of Studies.

I am stunned, overwhelmed, flattered,

By what I see as a reward, an accolade.

Of course I accept the offer.

My lack of job security, and my financial problems,

Are suddenly all resolved. I will be doing an office job,

An administrative post, with a monthly salary.

I will also have the intense satisfaction

Of creating and devising the weekly timetable,

Assigning tutors to students, deciding

Which tutors get to work each week,

And which don’t.

The times I have spent, my heart in my mouth,

Staring at, imbibing, almost inhaling

That weekly timetable on the noticeboard,

Knowing that it held my fate and my fortune

Within its precisely formulated confines.

Now, I have complete control over it.

It has become my plaything.

Here I am, in my mid-thirties,

The Director of Studies

of a prestigious language school

In the epicentre of the metropolis.

Clouds of glory form above my head,

Descend, and settle around

My smiling, self-satisfied features.

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Why Wear a Cap on TV?

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The Jay Blades Cap

It’s a sad thing to say, but more and more men

Appear on our TV screens, ten times out of ten,

Fine physical specimens, charismatic, natch,

But all with strange headgear atop a fading thatch.

It’s the Jay Blades Cap! The Jay Blades Hat!

Once on your head, it’s clamped there for good.

What do you think about that!

Male pattern baldness, with attendant loss of hair,

Strikes in the prime of life, anytime, anywhere.

For some sad souls, to reveal the head as bare,

Is something unthinkable; a vision from nightmare.

Baldness, for them, is such a handicap,

The only alternative is the Jay Blades Cap.

It’s the Jay Blades Cap! The Jay Blades Hat!

Once on your head, it’s clamped there for good.

What do you think about that!

So they begin to wear the Jay Blades Hat.

Only, in the course of time, to discover that

This attempt to hide (what they think is) an affliction,

Becomes, in the end, an unstoppable addiction.

It’s the Jay Blades Cap! The Jay Blades Hat!

Once on your head, it’s clamped there for good.

What do you think about that!

I’ve been getting increasingly irritated recently by seeing men on TV – in studios, on chat shows, or presenting programmes – wearing flat caps on their heads, for no apparent reason. I know it might seem strange to be so irritated by something as unimportant or inconsequential as a man wearing a cap, but all I can say is that it just really bugs me! I can only assume that the men in question are having “a bad hair day”, or they are trying to hide the fact that they are going prematurely bald, and don’t want to wear a toupee. To me, they just look so out of place, when they are indoors, in a group situation, and no-one else has a cap on. I feel as if some explanation or apology is called for, but they never say why they are wearing a cap. What irritates me even more is the fact that it seems to be happening more and more often, and must be a growing trend. I apologise to Jay Blades, for singling him out as the subject of the poem, but, in his role as presenter of The Repair Shop on BBC1, he is definitely one of the prime offenders.

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Dog Days

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Dog Days

“The dog days are over”

Sing Florence and the Machine,

But I tend to doubt this assertion.

The ancients knew, far better than us,

The powers of Helios and Sirius,

Turning us all into dogs,

Rutting in the gutter.

The first morning of the heatwave,

An ordinary-looking, middle-aged man

Is walking towards me.

“Nice weather, innit” he says.

I smile, and nod in agreement.

“Nice weather for shaggin, innit”

His features suddenly contort into a leer.

Just keep walking, I think.

“A good shaggin, yeh?

A bit of cock, yeh?”

I continue walking away,

And reach the corner of the street.

A guide dog, leading a blind woman,

Is padding towards me.

Its head swivels, as it sniffs

At my crotch.

Across the street, a mangy Alsatian,

Its skinny body quivering with lust,

Squats on its haunches,

And howls like a hyena.

“A good bit of cock, yeh?

You’d like that, yeh?”

The man’s parting words hang, ominously,

In the sweltering, pheromone-filled air.

I must admit I was slightly startled, when the “ordinary-looking, middle-aged man” accosted me in the street. But I ignored him, kept on walking, and, fortunately, nothing ensued. The incident did have an impact upon me, however. I ended up brooding on it for the rest of the day, and finally, with the aid of those ancient gods Helios and Sirius, producing this poem.

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Onion

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Onion

All cooking begins with an onion.

Heft it in your hand.

Unravel its five thousand layers.

Chop it broadly, brutally.

Chop it finely, delicately.

Either way, it gives itself, it opens itself to you.

Just as it opened the world of cooking to you,

Back in the day.

You could make Chile con Carne.

You could make Spaghetti Bolognaise.

It actually tasted of something.

It actually tasted good.

Watch it, in the pan, as it pales,

Becomes translucent, slowly browns.

Smell that uniquely appetising aroma.

You smell it, and suddenly

You are that naive twenty-year-old,

Back in that basement flat in Sheffield,

With Baz, Anne, Andy,

And the good-looking guy with the beard.

He’s in his mid-twenties,

Only two or three years older than you,

But already a man of the world.

He is slurring his words,

Swigging from the bottle of red wine,

Cooking the Chile con Carne

You had hardly even heard of before.

He is a graduate in English,

Now teaching “EFL” in Seville.

As he cooks, he spins stories,

His words weave a web of wonderment.

The onion unravels, the world opens itself to you.

You see yourself teaching English, in Seville,

Or some exotic kasbah in Marrakesh,

Your students transfixed by your every word,

Just as you are, by the good-looking guy with the beard.

“All cooking begins with an onion”, he says.

And so it does.

There was a folk-rock album by The Incredible String Band, released in 1967, entitled The 5,000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion. I still think it’s one of the most intriguing album titles I’ve ever come across. I had that at the back of my mind, whilst I was working on this poem, but essentially I was thinking back to the encounter with the EFL teacher I describe in the poem, which did have a formative effect upon me.

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