Written for an OUP internal newsletter
Around 1972 I was working at Anglo-Continental Educational Group, the first British school to market itself effectively in Latin America. The first Mexican student I ever met asked, when he arrived in the classroom, ‘May I assist in your conference?’ It sounded so pleasant, the attitude so good, that I never got round to correcting it . Teaching Mexicans (and subsequently people from all over Latin America) changed my teaching style. They seemed to respond to communicative teaching much more than the Europeans I had been used to. Everyone in ELT has affinities, loyalties, places or people they’re drawn to, for me Mexico has always held pride of place.
So, I’m on the twelve hour plus flight back to Mexico City, hunched over the tiny greasy TV screen. The films, Ransom, The Arrival, The Rock, get progressively worse, but as my critical defences lapse with sheer boredom they appear to get better. I arrive in a torrential downpour which has cleaned the air thoroughly, an effect that lasted through most of my stay. Enrique Retis is at the airport to meet me. I meet Fernando Ortega, the new Mexico City area manager, and we retreat to the Sheraton for a much needed unwind. Will the melatonin defeat jet lag as advertised? Yes … if you stay up long enough before you take it.
Watching the chef on the breakfast buffet frying eggs. In 1996 Enrique had carefully taught me the Spanish for ‘over easy.’ For the life of me I can’t recall it.
‘Sunnyside up or over easy, sir?’
So it doesn’t really matter. Hmm. The worst excuse of the English.
A free day. I usually loathe free days on trips. They’re not really free, they’re really just hanging around. I hate waiting to get started. Today’s different though. Enrique and Fernando have arranged to take me to the pyramids. This is my third visit to Mexico and I’ve never seen them. And the sun’s shining.
We got to the pyramids around eleven and engaged the services of an eighty nine-year old guide, who is introduced as Don Manuel. He was informative, dignified and fascinating, though he naturally declined to accompany us on the climb up the Pyramid of the Sun. The top was crowded with people raising their arms to the sun, and in spite of sun block, hat and scarf my nose and ears were burnt to a crisp. We were told that the daunting climb would be compensated for by the energy and vitality the sun would give us. Strangely this seems to be true.
An early start with a talk to about one hundred teachers at CECYT on teaching at elementary level. 75 minutes. They’re mainly Main Street users, and the talk and questions are directed at Main Street.
Judith Cunningham from AMELT and Sylvia Sauza, the field editor for Mexico joined us, and we set out for Cuernevaca. I’d always been told how beautiful the town was. The talk is at a hotel, in an octagonal room with large windows. The building is surrounded by lush vegetation and flowers. This is the first venue for my double talk on communication skills. The pattern of the week is to be an hour’s general talk on communication skills, followed by a coffee break. After the coffee break there’s a 75 to 90 minute talk with practical examples drawn from Handshake. At first I was worried, the audience seemed unresponsive for the first ten minutes and I started simplifying and slowing down. But they’d only needed time to warm up, and ten minutes into the talk they were fine.
I was pleased with the talk. It’s now getting familiar enough for me to improvise more (I’ve already spoken on Handshake in France, England, Hungary and Thailand). I’ve been doing these tours for nineteen years. I’ve never experienced such teacher enthusiasm before as for these communication skills talks. It appeals. People feel it’s a genuinely new approach, and that’s a rarity in ELT. Resolve not to have beer at lunchtime in future though. I could feel it rumbling away throughout the talks.
Back to Mexico City. Wake up at three a.m. wanting breakfast. Jet lag. The melatonin hasn’t done its job.
An early start. A taxi at seven o’clock to the airport to check in for the flight to Monterrey. These trips would be hell if you had a fear of flying. It’s the same hotel as last year, the Plaza Suites. A quick wander round the area to get some sun (exposure to natural daylight is the cure for jet lag). Faint hope. Monterrey is wreathed in smog.
Always be there early. The hotel has laid out formal rows behind tables (for everyone) and behind pillars as well for about 25% of them. Enrique instructs them carefully on how to rearrange things in horseshoes and we check all the sight lines. I test the CD player. It works perfectly.
There are two hundred and fifty plus teachers for the same two talks as Cuernevaca. I sign many battered copies of Streamline English Departures Teacher’s Book. It’s good to see they’re so well worn. Enrique has a meeting with the local office afterwards. I wander to the hotel restaurant but decide not to bother. A hot bath, a protein bar, a gram of vitamin C and I’m asleep by nine o’clock. I can’t believe my own wisdom. In 1978 I’d have been out trying to anethesize the natural adrenalin (natural after speaking to such numbers) with alcohol.
Alarm call at four thirty. I’m awake at three thirty anyway. Jet lag. I meet Enrique in reception at five to five. We check in at five thirty. Coffee and biscuits in the the only snack bar open at the airport. Thankfully a substantial breakfast courtesy of AeroMexico. We’re at the Holiday Inn in Guadalajara by nine. I spend two hours reading through the cultural information sections in Handshake Teacher’s Book. The cultural comparison sections are going down well with the audiences and it’s hard to remember them all. At eleven I meet Gustavo Calderon and Ulysses Silva. I met them in 1996 as well. Sylvia and Judith have flown down from Mexico for the talks.
We start off with a two hour session for teachers who’ve been piloting Main Street. It’s relaxed, round a conference table. T hey have student comments on Main Street which are heartwarmingly positive. As we finish at two, Judith suggests inviting them all for lunch. The lunch is very pleasant and we all exchange “How I ended up in ELT” stories.
I leave with Sylvia while the others are attacking coffee and dessert. I get to the Holiday Inn half an hour before the talk. Disaster. The multi-disc CD player provided by the hotel won’t play my specially-made CDRs. I rely on CD as it allows me to improvise. The technician insists it’s due to dirty CDs and proceeds to try to clean them on his clothes. More of this later. The day is saved by Gustavo producing a portable CD player. Let me tell you, multi-disc players are very fussy about what they will play. Portables have poorer sound but better error correction. After all, they’re designed to be jolted around.
The hotel lighting downlights the OHP screen. If we switch off all the front lights it’s gloomy. We ask to turn off the centre light. The hotel technician starts disconnecting wires and twisting them together by hand with impressive but violent displays of sparks. Enrique reminds me that we have to sleep in rooms maintained by the same electrician. Stay away from technicians. I remember being forbidden to touch the cassette player in Naples way back in 1978. Union job. The technician spoke not a word of English. I’ve seen numerous talks in hotels disrupted by technicians constantly fiddling with lights. N.B. OHP’s are designed to be used with lights on.
As I begin talking the lights start flashing on and off. As I don’t work with notes this is disconcerting. I look to the side and see the hotel technician fiddling with the wiring box. More sparks are flying. This is the middle day of a tour. This is the day when tempers fray. I find myself losing my cool altogether and ask for a volunteer to shoot the technician. I’m getting flustered and have no idea what I’m talking about. Sylvia goes over and expels the technician. The lights stabilise and a wave of relief comes over me. Two teachers get up and move the OHP screen forward of the downlights. From then I’m OK.
In the interval I meet four teachers who have travelled sixteen hours by bus to the talk. I’m flabbergasted. I make sure they get free copies of Handshake. They are very well-informed. As ever on Handshake tours, I meet so many teachers who have read the same non-ELT stuff on communication skills as we have. People know about these things. The second half is probably the best second half of the tour.
Judith and Sylvia very kindly postpone their return flight to Mexico City by two hours and buy me dinner. Definitely one for the hotel coffee shop.
Not an early flight. We’re going to the Crowne Plaza where the British Council ‘Best of British’ conference is taking place on Friday and Saturday. But before that lies the biggest talks of the tour, the OUP talks on communication skills in Mexico City at the Sheraton. As we draw up at the hotel, Jane Heidt, who has been responsible for the superb organization of the tour, is waiting to meet the taxi. Great hotel.
The afternoon. Down the street from the Crowne Plaza to the Sheraton. Seven hundred and ninety seats in the hall. By the time I start, people are standing around the walls and sitting on the floor. Somewhere between eight hundred and fifty and a thousand people.
We’re ready to check equipment ninety minutes before the start. Jane’s CD player, which tracked perfectly for me on Monday, won’t track my discs. It will track any other disc, and we play Glen Miller without difficulty. The Sheraton technicians produce proper cleaning fluid and restore my discs which are heavily scratched from their “cleaning” in Guadalajara. The hotel produces a separate CD player. It’ll now track my British English disc one, but can’t read my British disc two (70% British English, 30% American English), nor my International Version discs (70% American English, 30% British English). I think the cleaning fluid may need more time to evaporate. I can do the talk entirely from British disc one and resolve to do so. But I can’t demonstrate how the neutral dialogues and all the texts are available in both British and American versions. And I’ve lost at least two party pieces. But the first talk is good, I’m responding to audience size. Adrenalin.
The second half is weaker. I find it hard to maintain rapport via eye contact with the number. The room is stiflingly hot. I’d rather be up front than in the audience.I drink one and a half litres of mineral water during the second half, which makes the questions and autographs … well, painful.
The reception afterwards again reveals that people are reading about communication skills in their mother tongue. I do a section in the talk where I promise to speak for two minutes on a subject. The audience has to vote for the topic. They can choose between 1) Charles Dickens and Portsmouth 2) The development of the Austin-Morris Mini from 1959 or 3) Proximity: how close people stand in conversation. Dickens gets two or three votes. The Mini gets none (the mini-skirt might get more). Proximity gets a huge show of hands. One day it’ll fail and I’ll have to talk about Dickens. Better find something out just in case.
As you can see these tours are non-stop work …
The evening finishes at a restaurant with Enrique, Sylvia and Judith. A strolling orchestra entertains us. The next table has eight or nine Japanese businessmen. When the orchestra gets to their table, the Japanese stand up and sing Guantanamera and La Bamba word-perfectly to gasps of astonishment. They then move on to obscure Mexican folk songs. And they know all the words.
Communication skills …
Up early. The big day. The Best of British plenary. For me, it’s a great honour to be following Bill Bryson, who is the keynote speaker. This was an inspired choice by the British Council. Bill Bryson’s Made in America is the definitive study of American language. Every editor and every author should have it on their shelves! OUP should be putting in a bulk order. Bill Bryson is ‘an enthusiastic amateur’ who could wipe the floor with most (all?) of the professionals. He also mentioned the Oxford Dictionary of English and Oxford University Press with great reverence on several occasions. And he wasn’t even an OUP speaker. As he finished, I gave him a week-old copy of the Bournemouth Evening Echo. He worked there from 1978 to 1979 (See Notes From A Small Island).
There were six hundred and fifty for my plenary, which was a more academic approach to communication skills with more emphasis on background and influential non-ELT sources. OUP was basking in the glow of Bill Bryson’s praise (the definitive work on the English language), and I think I benefitted. It’s hard to judge your own performance. I’ll never know whether I’ve spoken better, but I’ve never felt better about a talk. At one point I was talking about compliments. The British tend to reject compliments:
A: Great tie!
B: This old thing? It’s from Marks and Spencers. I’ve never liked it.
The Americans accept:
A: Great tie!
B: Thank you.
Anyway, for the rest of the conference it seemed as if every Mexican teacher who passed me said, ‘Great tie!’ (I responded in American style).
Lunch with Enrique, Fernando, Barbara Bangle and Emma Dominguez (check), who are free-lance consultants for OUP. It’s good to see them both again. Barbara tells me an excellent but unrepeatable (here) joke. Resolve to tell it to everyone when I get back to England.
Eight o’clock. British Council reception at the Anglo-Mexican Institute. I spoke in this room in 1980. It’s good to speak to other authors. I have pleasant conversations with David Bolton, Philip Prowse, Paul Davies and Michael Carrier among others. It turns out that David spent his childhood a few hundred yards from my present home in Poole. We discuss the origin of the expression’Macjobs’ with Bill Bryson who had coined the phrase ‘MacDonaldization’ in his talk. (I assume OUP would prefer a ‘z’ to an ‘s’ as usual). There is an argument in favour of Ben Elton who uses ‘Macjobs’ on his shows. I think it’s originally from Generation X by Douglas Coupland. Bill Bryson informs us that USA Today was using it ten or twelve years ago. The next day I find myself coining the phrase ‘Walt Disneyization’ to describe the way in which all cultures seem to have adopted the Disney view of animal characteristics over their cultures’ traditional concepts of animal personality. e.g. in Chinese horoscopes the snake is seen as wise, but nowadays the Disney-Biblical view of the cunning but evil serpent prevails everywhere.
Decide that ‘The Best of British’ should be held up as ‘How to organize a conference.’ There are sensible gaps between talks, the concurrent sessions offer choice without falling prey to the “Twenty five concurrent sessions” disease. The plenaries are well placed. Everything runs spot on time, the equipment is all there. Speakers do a plenary on one day, workshops on the other day. Great. I tend to prefer OUP-sponsored conferences to the big occasions (where you dilute your audience, often get lousy time slots, and often seem to be providing an audience for the minor publishers’ book exhibitions). But this is a good one. One of the best.
Food? A restaurant called Paprika where a large woman of about sixty five cruised the tables singing superbly at high volume.
The last day. We spent over an hour setting up and checking the video and monitors for my video workshop. It’s the subject I’ve talked about most often over the last ten years, but it was time to incorporate sections from Grapevine Two, Grapevine Three and Only In America into one talk.
After lunch was a communication skills workshop. I was due to start at three and finish at four fifteen, in time for a quick shower and a dash for the airport. I also wanted to include different material so as not to duplicate my previous talk in Mexico City. At seven minutes to three I was talking happily to a teacher who was originally from Bournemouth. I sat back on the wooden stage and there was a ripping noise as two inches of my trousers ripped apart on a huge splinter. We put on a video, Strange Encounter from Only in America. I dashed up to the tenth floor, flung aside the already packed contents of my case to find another pair of trousers, changed and dashed back to arrive on the dot of three just as the video finished. However, I’d lost my thread and took a while to get myself calm and on track. We’d had a repeat of the CD problems, resolved this time by a technician producing his own personal ghetto blaster for us. Most helpful. Feel guilty about previous murderous thoughts about technicians.
As I finished, several of the audience asked for another video. I’d intended to play a short sequence from Only in America to demonstrate body language but had run out of time. I played the video, and they all (approximately one hundred and fifty of them) stayed five minutes over to watch it. Then, just as one hopes in non-commercial talks, one kind soul asked me to show them the book the ideas came from. I obliged and held it up, feeling smug but slightly guilty in the circumstances (we were not supposed to be doing a commercial talk). My mild pang of guilt was assuaged when I discovered (talking to other presenters on the flight home) that two other publishers had been giving out catalogues and flyers at their authors’ plenaries.
So. A week in Mexico. A dash round the airport to find presents for the kids. And a bottle of really high quality tequila. Two bottles of Mexican red wine. I crashed out on the plane home half way through The First Wives’ Club. Even Goldie Hawn couldn’t keep me awake.
Home. Several hours reporting back to Karen on the reception that Handshake had received. Reflect that it’s good to be out there basking in the glory, but that Karen, Barnaby Newbolt, Helen Forrest, Cristina Whitecross, Shireen Nathoo and Neil Wood should all have been there to see it as well