“Condoms and a shoehorn”
So replied the gangly 15-year-old Kazakhstani I was taking around London when I asked what he was looking to buy on his first shopping trip to England. The mind boggled.
In the end I think he had to make do with neither, but what was I even doing with a gaggle of Kazaks, Poles, Finns and Ukraines? And why haven’t you seen Kemp gracing the pages of SPIN magazine for such a long time. Well you may well ask…
You see, Kemp isn’t JUST a journalist you know- many would say he isn’t EVEN a journalist, but never mind all that- I also go round the world trying to teach reluctant souls to speak a bit of English. Really.
You’ll find students from Tokyo to Riyadh all now conversing in a slightly gloomy English vernacular and using terms like “cow corner” and “tickle down long leg”.
If I can’t quite get them to share my enthusiasm for Norman Gifford or not view me with absolute bafflement when I eulogise about Martyn ‘Frog’ Moxon, it’s not for want of trying…
Cricket and the present perfect simple. My kind of thing.
If only I knew the present perfect simple…
But how did I get into this funny business in the first place?
Well, the furthest I’d ever been sent in my cricket reporting career was a rainy day in Wakefield, so being paid to go round the world, see the sights, drink in the culture, get turned down by women of all races and hues – with a few hours a day of teaching thrown in – seemed a pretty attractive proposition to me.
So it was with all this in mind, and with a raging thirst for adventure and wanderlust coursing through my veins, that I set off for my very first teaching assignment…two miles down the road in Twickenham.
Well, I wanted to start slowly. I feel dicky on a day-trip to Margate, Lord KNOWS what I’d be like in Morocco or Mongolia.
I joined a summer school where students from all over the world would come over here to brush up on their English.
I thought my fellow teachers – all seasoned old pros – would be a cultured bunch. Well travelled and interested in cultivating the education of our friends overseas. Palins, Attenboroughs, you know the type. How wrong I was. What I found instead was a rag-bag bunch of drunks and sociopaths.
I fitted in straight away.
Boozers, losers and cruisers. That’s what TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) teachers call themselves. Every teacher fits into one of these categories, so they say. Personally I felt I had a foot in all three camps.
There are fellas of a certain age radiating that unmistakeable aroma of booze and failure.
You feel if they retraced their steps they could probably pinpoint the exact wrong path they took in life that led them here, teaching the third conditional to unresponsive Taiwanese in the morning and playing ping pong with bored Spaniards in the afternoon, while all the time thinking about that pub round the corner.
Then there are jittery women with curiously strong faith in crystals and dream catchers and that kind of thing.
And then you get the ‘cruisers’. Perky types straight out of university (or “uni” as they have it) hell bent on seeing every country in the world, or at least a grim hostel in every country in the world, and keen to tell you all about the “amazing” beaches in Thailand, the “awesome” food they had in Bogotá. They all wear the regulation uniform of positive attitude, flip flops and a goatee. Especially the women.
My grave reservations about ‘abroad’ are scoffed at by this lot. Pooh-poohed. I tell them I wouldn’t mind seeing China, if I could come back the same day. They look at me like I’m mad. I tell them that no matter how impressive the sunset is up a mountain in Kenya there’ll still be a family from Halifax chatting behind them to spoil it. They’ll still have to deal with pinching shoes or piles. Or the nagging idea that this isn’t quite right, there might have been an even better spot, an even better time, if only they’d carried on a bit further.
I tell them: everything’s not simply better because you’re in Venice you know.
They smile and nod. And edge out the room.
At my summer school I saw them all. Especially the boozers.
If a TEFL summer school is like a holiday camp, Hi-di-Hi say, with Kemp playing the Su Pollard role, then the majority of the other men could easily pass for the sozzled, misanthropic Punch and Judy man.
The first teacher I met was an angry, sunburnt man, who sat outside the teacher’s quarters with an ever-increasing hill of cans growing next to him. He had been teaching in Saudi Arabia and was trying to fully compensate for his year in an alcoholically dry country on his very first day back.
He had lots of tales to tell as he sat there- I’m not sure I ever saw him in a classroom the whole summer actually- all of them ending “…and then some bastard tried to shoot me..”
Though there was one story which ended “…and then I found out some bastard had rented out my arse!” but I missed the meat of that particular tale. Luckily.
There was another fella, late 50s, unmistakeable aroma, had the uncanny look of Penfold, Dangermouse’s cartoon friend, who in his window of the residential halls we were staying in, would build a pyramid of the Special Brew cans he’d drunk that day.
The shy, home-sick Japanese girls who had to walk past it everyday on the way to classes didn’t seem overly impressed.
One night, when it was my turn to sleep in the student’s residential hall- to make sure no one got ill, or was upset, or any of the randy Brazilians got into the Swedish girls dormitory (an impossible task. It would always be the quietest, most unassuming girl that, on being assured there was no one in her room, you would tug on her wardrobe door and watch 6 or 7 burly adolescents fall out).
The fire alarm went off in the middle of the night, as it often seemed to, and we all had to race to pull on our clothes and run outside to wait out on the grass at the front.
Bleary eyed, I saw I was next to Penfold. He must have been on duty in the other corridor.
I was impressed at how quickly he’d got dressed. He was in his smart shirt, tie, nice little beige anorak…
Sadly, no trousers though.
So there he was, old Penfold, stood amongst the stunned students, rubbing their sleepy eyes, hands behind his back, rocking back on his heels, starring up at the building, bollock-naked from the waist down.
So, yes, the other teacher’s could be a little…rum.
Surprisingly, however, I got on rather well in the classroom.
I was teaching 12 year olds, 13 year olds and they all seemed to love me. Same level of comedy, I suppose. And they knew they could all run rings round me. I’m slightly less effectual as a disciplinarian than Sergeant Wilson with a head cold, but we had a good time.
There was one moment at the beginning though when I wondered if I really was cut out for this teaching lark when, on remonstrating with one particularly obstreperous student, I decided to pick up the waste paper basket and empty it all over his head (even banging on the bottom of the sturdy metal bin with great ringing clangs to make sure that every last banana skin had plopped out onto his head). Perhaps that wasn’t the best thing to do, I thought to myself, but then at least no one outside of the classroom would ever know…
I turned to find a sea of camera phones hoisted in the air by the rest of the class, recording every move of their teacher’s spectacular breakdown.
But I learnt quickly.
Soon I was getting on famously with kids and adults of all ages.
I even fooled myself into actually believing they were learning something.
The other teachers were quite another matter though.
My first contract to teach abroad was in Vienna. Perfect, I thought. Beautiful architecture, history, culture. All wasted on me, of course, but I was very happy to find you could get tins of tomato soup in the supermarkets.
I arrived at the airport to meet my fellow teachers who I’d be teaching with for the next few weeks and was slightly perturbed to find one chap looking EXACTLY like the fella from Sparks, or, more pertinently, Adolf Hitler, lecturing the rest of the crowd at the Easyjet to Austria check-in desk about how the Third Reich had it right. He even had diagrams.
It was going to be a long few weeks, I thought to myself
Despite your best efforts though, it can sometimes all go wrong.
There was a terrible time in some school somewhere: the kids hated us, fires were started in the classroom and we put on some sort of end of week play that went spectacularly badly. The native teacher stood in the doorway of the drama hall, arms folded, thunderous looks aimed my way.
Well, at least we’re in it together, I thought to myself and looked for the support of my fellow teacher. I was just in time to see him pouring his large frame through a window, suitcase in his hand, a taxi he’d booked to the airport waiting for him on the street below.
I’ve taught adults and kids all over the world and with the kids I often have to do a show, using all the English they’ve learnt, at the end of the term. I love it. The Kemp creative juices bubbling over, wearing jodhpurs and a riding crop, with a little eye glass hung round my neck, barking out instructions like some bad tempered maverick director from the 50s as the sheepish kids try out a wooden performance of Snow White and the six dwarves (because some kid has gone off sick).
Some of the other shows I’ve seen though: oh boy…
There was one teacher who was completely deaf and could only recognise what was being said in her classes by lip reading the person stood fully in front of her. When showtime came round she sat at the front of the audience looking around her with pride as her first student came to the edge of the stage.
“Today we’re are going to act out a scene from an English restaurant..”
The teacher continued to beam with pride, nudging the parents next to her, pointing out that this was her class.
“And on the menu today is…”
She continued to lean forward enthusiastically, scrutinising the lips of her student, twinkling with glory, when, from all angles of the stage came other voices:
“Cat shit!” “Horse shit!” “Pig shit!”
A silence filled the air as our teacher carried on nodding with unblemished satisfaction, pointing out the foul mouthed students to the dumbfounded audience and pointing to herself again in recognition.
Kemp’s head was in his hands. As it so often was.
There was the teacher in Istanbul who, having boasted that Turkish water was perfectly safe to drink, threw up down his shirt in front of a class of traumatised 7 year olds. And carried on with his lesson about the sun wearing his hat or whatever it was, as if nothing had happened.
And another who had even published guides on teaching (“Allow the student to enter your space”- they never entered MY space, I’ll tell you THAT; “Teach from the heart. Love your job”; “Learning is like a tree..” etc etc) who I walked in on during one of her classes. She was lying, prostrate on her desk. “I can’t teach this lot” she said looking up, bedraggled, motioning at the placid faced Koreans sat smiling dumbly in their rows “they’re f*cking idiots! Not one WORD of English!”
Incredibly and almost unbelievably, Kemp it seems has found a career in life where he’s actually NOT the biggest liability. A job where his incompetence and general buffoonery is nothing compared to those around him.
So, I’m afraid, fans of SPIN magazine may well have to cope without me for another summer as I continue to spread a little Kemp around the world.
Though, with it being the Ashes of course, don’t be surprised this summer if you find yourself passing a group of Peruvians in your town and they all seem to be talking with great clarity about how the Australian top order still seem a bit suspect to that late reversing ball or whether Harmy should be given one last go…