Fact, fiction and relevance
After 35 years as a full-time ELT writer, I’ve turned to fiction: novels and short stories for a native-speaker audience. They were written over two decades as light relief from the linguistic constraints of the day job. Two of them got through the early stages with fiction publishers, then stalled at the inevitable change of staff. I put them aside.
I’ve published two trilogies, one set in the 1960s, mainly with music connections, and a further trilogy sub-titled English As A Funny Language. I have used a pseudonym, Dart Travis, not because I wanted to hide my identity, but because my name is so associated with textbooks, videos and graded readers … all ELT. I wouldn’t want some unsuspecting person to think they were buying a textbook, then find themselves in the kind of industrial language common in staffrooms in the 70s and 80s, let alone the behaviour of teachers.
The EFL series are picaresque novels set in the 70s and 80s. Most of the reader comments have been from people who’ve never TEFL-ed, so I hope the stories stand up as a good light read regardless of ELT background knowledge. However there should be some special interest for the ELT teacher, I’ll try and bring out the ELT relevance here.
Foreign Affairs is set in 1972, a year after I started teaching myself, and in a large South Coast language school. At that point, the British EFL world was centred on large schools, with three of the biggest five being Swiss-owned. It’s the point where the first wave of modern textbooks (First Things First, Kernel Lessons) had just emerged, though in Foreign Affairs they’re still stuck with older materials. A major query that came back to me was about the nearly all-male staff at World English Centre, the fictional school. That’s how it was in 1971 when I started (though a year later it had already changed, but I cheated the year). As every university language department has a majority of women, and I have often spoken to audiences ranging from 90% to 100% female, this lack of balance is odd … strange, but true. In the first book, ignoring the story, there are a lot of incidental classroom scenes, and most are “How not to teach English.” In that era, training was done on the job. Most teachers will recognize bad days when they’ve fallen into some of the traps themselves. I particularly enjoyed writing the Head of Research and Development, so proud of his linguistics degree, confronted with a class of Libyan beginners. Then there’s the uninspired teacher ploughing doggedly through the very dull textbook. In the intermediate multi-national class, it was fun to place a series of pitfalls for the teacher in the discussion lesson, by the end of which he’s managed to offend every student in the class. Or the “Business English” class where the class find staples and paper clips a poor topic. Also, it is true. Some 20-something male teachers regarded language laboratory classes as a chatting up opportunity. It is also a snapshot of the era when ELT was expanding rapidly. The students represent reality then … a lot of Swiss, other Europeans, Brazilians, Iranians … and large groups of Libyans.
Home Affairs jumps ten years, and deliberately so, to 1982. Though we have some of the same characters, the ELT world is totally different. It’s no longer a male preserve for starters, but also the big schools find themselves surrounded by small independents, all desperately trying to make a living. This one centres on English Teaching Co-Op, just around the corner from World English Centre. It takes a point where the major schools had had a serious blow from the Iranian revolution and resulting unpaid fees. There had been mass redundancies among teachers, and the story is just as Argentina invades the Falklands, throwing up Latin American cancellations. The central student characters are Argentinian and Iranian. There are fewer classroom sequences, but the teachers, even those with long experience, are finding it necessary to take the RSA Cert. TEFL (as it was then), so we have enforced lesson observation, and evening classes. The main story is about rapacious property developers with their eye on World English Centre’s expansive premises. We also have a textbook author as a major character and the beginning of the “One Size Fits All” dominance of a single textbook, Intercourse (Intermediate Course). That’s not what the teachers call it. It reflects the reality of the early eighties, in a much less glossy world for most of the teachers.
Greek Affairs might be my (enforced) retirement from ELT authorship book. It moves some of the characters to Greece in 1985, and centres around two major ELT conferences with an author tour in-between. For the ELT teacher, you might get insights into ELT publishing, ELT authors and the mechanics of those major conferences. One surprised reaction from a reader was that on balance my sympathies seem to lie with ELT publishers’ reps rather than the authors. Maybe I know too much about the authors’ side. There are no classroom scenes, but what you do get is examples of conference presentation to larger groups as well as some asides on methodology.
I’m considering turning the trilogy into a quartet, with a Japanese Affairs on the horizon. While some characters continue, some only appear in one volume, and a fourth gives me the chance of answering some But what happened to him / her? questions.
The books can be bought in paperback from amazon’s CreateSpace, and from BEBC Mail Order.
LINK TO BEBC MAIL ORDER – HERE
eBook versions are available for Kindle, iBooks and Kobo.