How was it for you? A look back at the Noughties – Part 1

My stand-out memories of the early Noughties …

2000 – My first trip to China

Images of China - a performance by a dance troupe consisting of women soldiers. Really. This is the Chinese equivalent of ENSA!
As the Noughties dawned, I was in the middle of a stream of author visits, which had reached a peak about two years before and was showing no sign of slowing down. In 2000, I flew on more than 50 planes and visited every continent except Australia (if Egypt suffices as a visit to Africa). I was enjoying every minute of it.

However, I shudder to think how many air miles I did in those days and have vowed never to do that much flying in a single year again. In 2009, I was on 14 planes. That’s the sort of target I’m aiming at in future.

I’m aware that tales of ELT conference-hopping get a mixed response from people who don’t get the same opportunities, or only get them if they pay for their own air tickets. I also know that conference hoppers do go on a bit about the travelling they do.

But the fact is – if I’m not travelling, I’m sitting in front of a computer, so it’s fairly predictable that the main stand-out moments in an average year are likely to involve travel.

In 2000, I went to Siberia for the first time. After an extraordinary encounter with the fine folk who teach English in Novosibirsk, I then travelled to St Petersburg via Moscow by plane and train on the same day. The trip somehow managed to last nearly 24 hours, during which I didn’t sleep a wink.

I also made the first of 12 visits to Romania, where I managed to secure a huge chunk of the high school market for my book Prospects. And I re-visited some of the places I most enjoy giving talks, including Brazil, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovenia.

But the stand-out experience of 2000 was visiting China for the first time. I’ve already blogged about the English Teaching Theatre’s first shows in Shanghai – stories of fantastic audiences and a hotel garden full of brides having their photos taken. Have a look in the November 2009 archive if you want to read more about that.

I have a very strong memory of getting on the plane home in Hong Kong, thinking it had probably been a never-to-be-repeated experience. In fact, I went back to China another eleven times in the next five years.

In other news… the US elected George Bush as president, a decision that probably set the tone for most of what happened in the ensuing eight years…

2001 – The World Trade Center

Everyone remembers where they were when they heard about the tragic events of September 11th at the World Trade Center (or more likely where they were when they saw the first images).

For what it’s worth, in September 2001, I was on my third author visit to Romania.  For the first time in my life, I was enjoying the experience of being a best-selling coursebook author. Only in Romania, I hasten to add, but hey – enjoy it wherever you can.

My book Prospects was the only title that was government approved for Years 9 thru 12, other more famous titles only having secured approval for one, two or three years. The result was that we had 60% of the state school market for two years.

This fact has very little to do with the value of the books themselves, although I thought the series was quite good. It relates entirely to a 10-minute presentation I gave in 2000 to the assembled regional English inspectors at a British Council event in the Black Sea resort of Constanta.

The inspectors were a formidable group of women (and one man) who had an enormous influence on which books teachers chose to use. They were led by a fearsomely intelligent and slightly scary woman called Anda Maxim, who apparently ate coursebook authors for breakfast.

They had sat through 10-minute presentations by several other publishers and authors before I got up. I could see that half of them were about to nod off, so I hit the ground running with a quick-fire Q & A session. Anda Maxim gave the correct answer to my first question.

“Brilliant!” I said, giving her a beaming grin. She smiled uncomfortably. But it was definitely a smile…

Anda Maxim smiling was such an unusual event, it used to make front page news in teaching journals. I was so pleased about it that I couldn’t resist going into a sequence that I use in workshops to demonstrate the value of praising students.

Let’s face it, if someone says “Brilliant!” to you, you normally feel good, right?

“How do you feel now?” I asked her.

“What?” she asked, suspiciously.

“I just said ‘Brilliant!’ How do you feel now?”

“I don’t understand the question.”

In for a penny….

“Imagine you were a student in my class,”I ploughed on. “And I said ‘Brilliant!’ to you. How would you feel?”

Before Anda could reply, the one man in the group – the regional inspector for Cluj-Napoca – said something.

“We’re school inspectors,” he said. “We don’t feel anything.”

A laugh from the whole group. Possibly the most important laugh I’ve ever heard in one of my presentations. Prospects was a hit from that day forward.

Having a best-seller is a great experience – I recommend it to everyone! Thereafter, I floated around that country on a tide of good will and teacher adulation. OK, OK, I’ll stop going on about it now.

On 10th September 2001, it looked as if the golden bubble of a particularly wonderful author tour was about to burst. I arrived in Iasi, Romanian Moldova, and made my way to the Grand Hotel, only to find that there was no trace of my booking.

The Grand Hotel in Iasi

My Macmillan minder was about to lead me away to find another hotel, when she decided to talk to the receptionist again. Some hushed words were spoken, a few furtive banknotes changed hands, and suddenly rooms became available.

Five minutes later, I found myself in a ridiculously large suite of rooms with a balcony half the length of a soccer pitch overlooking the central square of the city. The suite had been designed and furnished for Nicolae Ceauşescu. It was where he and the fearsome Elena stayed if they ever visited Iasi.

It was at the same time opulent, ghastly and shabby, a sort of metaphor for the Ceauşescus’ own lifestyle.

I watched the scenes from New York on a television the size of a small car. Two days later, I flew out of Bucharest Otopeni Airport. On previous departures from Otopeni, there had never been even the most peremptory search of belongings. This time, it seemed the entire Romanian army were involved in the departure procedure.  We all had to empty every single item out of our hand luggage into a plastic bowl and soldiers sifted through the lot.

I went back to Romania about four months later. Otopeni was back to normal. There wasn’t even a hint of a security search.

I’d like to mention one more special memory – or rather series of memories – of Romania. For four years in the mid-Noughties, I attended the Teenplay Theatre Festival in Arad, three days of theatre performances in English by high school students. The second year I attended, they made me a judge, and the third and fourth years, I was president of the jury.

Groups of teenagers from all over Romania performed 40-minute pieces, some that they had written and devised themselves. Some were ordinary, but many were hypnotically brilliant. One of many terrific memories was a spell-binding version of Edward Albee’s Zoo Story, which I would have paid money to see in London’s West End.

At the time, the organiser was Mihaela Voineagu, who was the English inspector for Arad (and had been in the group of inspectors I spoke to in Constanta in 2000). She moved to the US and one of her colleagues, who I think was called Camilla Aramescu, continued the good work.

I can’t find any information online about Teenplay Arad, so I’d love to hear from someone in Romania to know if it’s still taking place. I hope so, because it’s marvellous.

High school students performing at the Teenplay Festival

2002 – New Orleans

In November 2002, I flew to Houston Texas to meet up with Mrs W, who had been training on a CELTA course at North Harris Community College. At the end of the course, we rented a car and drove to New Orleans to meet Colin Davies and his wife Mary Ellen Lane.

Colin, who was once director of an IH school in Cairo, was by this time living in Washington DC, where he still works for a charity organisation and moonlights as a radio DJ. Because he has a posh-ish English accent, he’s known as The Professor, and his programme is called The Professor Rocks.

During the amazing four days we spent in New Orleans, and entirely thanks to Colin, I met the man who engineered the first recordings of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis (who by this time was running a 5 and dime store), and also met blues legend Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry.

With Clarence 'Frogman' Henry

…I also watched Dede dance in the street to a zydeco band…

 …and took the best nature photo I’ve ever taken. A heron taking off in the Louisiana swamps.

We also saw blind blues singer Snooks Eaglin live on stage – in a bowling alley. The venue was called Rock and Bowl. Really.

Snooks Eaglin at Rock and Bowl

You can hear Colin’s program here:

2003 – The Iraq march

On 15th February 2003, the Wilsons were on the streets marching against the proposed attack on Iraq. We weren’t alone of course. Anyone with a shred of conscience was on the streets – possibly two million people in London alone, and goodness knows how many others in 800 other cities around the world.

I’d like to give special mention to the people who took to the streets of Rome. The protest there involved around 3 million people, and is listed in the 2004 Guinness Book of Records as the largest anti-war rally in history.  

And a fat lot of good it did.

The first bombs dropped on the Iraqi Presidential Palace on 19th March. Best not forget those who were responsible for this absurd and unjustified war and the tragic and unnecessary deaths of servicemen and women and civilians that ensued. One of them may try to become President of Europe or something.

Time to stop for a while…


12 thoughts on “How was it for you? A look back at the Noughties – Part 1

  1. Hi Ken!
    Another fantastic post-I just loved it!
    How many trips you have made and how many experiences you have from them! I haven´t had the opportunity to travel much so far, so I enjoy listening to other people´s travels, I just love it!
    The picture of the heron is just beautiful.I´ll show it to my dad – he´ll love it as he loves animals!
    And the picture of the dancers in China, and the expression on the face of the student in Romania, and Dede dancing in New Orleans….wow!!!
    Thank you so much – can´t wait to read Part 2!

    1. Those are the best memories, Darren.

      In fact, my second Noughties blog will be dominated by birthdays and weddings 🙂

  2. Oh, I lived those years with speed of light. Lots of travelling at the beginning – England-Teresina-Poland, then I went for sth exotic and decided to settle in the ‘wildest’ part of Brazil. Got married, my daughter was born, I co-wrote a book (The Language of Hotels in English) got divorced, met my super hiper wonderful namorido (namorado+marido= boyfriend +husband), changed my job from teaching into teaching again, and then started coordinating Cultura Inglesa. I went for the first time to ACINE and fell in love with it. Lost some friends, got some new ones. I lived.

  3. I enjoyed this account, Ken, so keep ’em coming. The picture at the start blew me away a little, in trying to reconcile such a beautiful image with the fact the participants are military personnel.


    ~ Jason

    1. Thanks, Jason.

      The ENSA performance was put on for us at the conference site built by our Chinese publishers on the outskirts of Beijing. I sat right in the middle of the auditoriium, and the dancers were all looking straight at me. I too found it hard to think of them as soldiers! 😛

  4. Hi Ken,
    It was nice to read about my Teenplay. The last edition was in 2005, a year after I left Romania. Camelia organized the last edition in 2005.

    I miss the festival a lot. I wish I could do a teenplay here in DC!!! Any ideas?

    1. Hi Mihaela! so glad you dropped by…

      I would have thought you could organise anything anywhere. Maybe try something in Spanish? Or Mandarin Chinese? 🙂

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