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Louis Alexander's family and life history, by Julia Alexander

The following was sent to us by Julia Alexander, the widow of L.G. Alexander, in October 2010. She wrote in her accompanying message, "This is a note about Louis’ family history, and his personal history, to go with the photos on the disk that I am about to post to you. I don’t know whether you’ll want to post this in your archive, but you have my permission to do so if you wish".


Louis George Alexander, born Elias George Ftyaras, 15 January 1932


The family originated on the Greek island of Kastellorizo (stress on the third syllable /o/), ancient name ‘Megisti’ (= ‘the biggest one’) which is a rock 5km x3km, just off Kas on the coast of Asia Minor. Ftyaras was a family nickname, adopted in c.1845 to distinguish between two cousins of similar age, both called Elias Alexandrou. The need for nicknames arose because an eldest son in Greece was usually named after his grandfather. To tell cousin one from the other, the islanders nicknamed one cousin Ftyaras and the other Kozani, thus Elias Ftyaras Alexandrou and Elias Kozani Alexandrou. Within a generation, the nicknames had displaced the older family name, so that Louis’ father was born as George Ftyaras. After going through a British education and his British National Service with a peculiar name that nobody could recognise, spell or pronounce, Louis resolved to spare his children that complication. He reclaimed the family name Alexander by deed-poll in 1966, so that his children went to school as Marianna and George Alexander, and his books were published under the name L. G. Alexander.

Louis’s father, George Ftyaras, was born on Kastellorizo on 23 February 1909. His father, Elias, was the nephew of Diamantaras, the poet and pioneering educationist of late 19th Century Greece (biography by Alexis Dimaras published in Greece c. 1995), and the first cousin of Constantinos Ftyaras Alexandrou who was Greece’s most notable teacher in the years 1930 to c. 1970, and tutor to the Greek Royal family. Thus the family had a heritage of educational and literary aspiration. Elias himself was a great reader, though he was a poor man. He had been tied in his early adult life by the need to earn dowries for his five sisters, so that they could be married into their own educated class. Marrying late himself therefore, he wanted his only son, George, to have the opportunities that he had missed. Elias and his wife Anastasia moved from Kastellorizo to Athens when George was nine, for the sake of his education. George did well at school, finishing his First MB at Athens University in 1929, before coming to London in 1930 to study Medicine.

Louis’ mother was born Mary Manolas, daughter of Kyriakos Manolas and Polyxeni Koutzoukos, both of whom had been born in Kastellorizo. Kyriakos had first emigrated to Perth, West Australia, in 1895. After establishing his business in Perth, he had gone back to the island to marry Polyxeni in 1899 and taken her back to Perth, where they had three children, George, Manuel and Constantine. By 1910, Kyriakos had become a wealthy man. He took the family back to the island for an extended visit, during which Mary was born in 1911. In the months of that visit, Kyriakos saw that Asia Minor would inevitably become part of Turkey, and that his family’s future was in Australia. A few weeks after Mary’s birth, therefore, he set off with the two older boys back to Perth to take charge of his business there. Polyxeni was to follow him when Mary was old enough to travel; but before they could do so, the island was seized by the French, on account of its strategically-important deep-water harbour, and Kyriakos’s fine house was taken over as the French Commandant’s military headquarters. As Polyxeni had bricked up her valuables (gold sovereigns and gold jewellery) behind the fireplace, she, Con and Mary were stuck, living in poverty in a shepherd’s hut, until she could retrieve her belongings. In 1916, a sympathetic French commandant allowed Polyxeni an unsupervised visit to the house to regain her possessions, and obtained passage on a troop-ship to Port Said for her and the two children. With her valuables sewn into her clothing, Polyxeni and her children embarked on the eleven-month sea journey to Perth via Singapore. Mary arrived in Perth when she was six, just in time to start school. Naturally clever and sociable, Mary loved school and adored the serene Australian society in which she found herself. Her father was as delighted with her as she was with him.

In 1930, Mary was sent by her parents to Athens to be married to George Ftyaras. Mary had a large dowry (3000 gold sovereigns), her own house in Australia and a British passport. Although poor, George was a gifted and intelligent medical student, and something of a poet. Their parents’ plan was for George to complete his medical studies in London and for the couple to make their lives in Australia, with George practising as a doctor.

Louis was born in London on 15th January 1932. For the first three years of his life, the family lived in a large flat in Bayswater, and spent time with other expatriate Greeks in London – George’s world. But Mary was Australian. She understood Greek, but her identity was completely Anglophone. She was lonely amongst these worldly men and anxious women. At school in Perth, she had embraced English poetry, rhymes and traditional stories. Cut off from her family and friends in Australia, Mary took her son to visit Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens or to sail his boat on the Round Pond. Back at their chilly flat, Mary recited English nursery rhymes, played word games with Louis, and told him stories that she half-believed herself. This period came to an end after Mary’s father died in 1935. The gold sovereigns of Mary’s dowry were diminishing fast in London. George still had to put in another two years before he would qualify as a chest-specialist. Meanwhile, it would be cheaper, and better for his training, if he lived in at the hospital. With Mary grieving for her father and war imminent, George decided that Mary and Louis should go to Australia ahead of him. Louis remembered being annoyed when his toys were packed up for the journey: he didn’t want to go, and ordered the porter in his block to unpack his pedal-car, in which he managed then to travel almost a mile on the pavements of Bayswater, before he was caught and brought back to the flat. His memories of the journey to Australia were hazy. Louis was four when he (and the pedal car) arrived in Perth with his mother.

Like his mother before him, Louis went to the local Primary School in Perth (Highgate) and was very happy there until he was ten. His mother was involved in war work for the Red Cross, and Louis seems to have been fairly unsupervised. In 1943, paper money printed for ‘The Japanese Government of Australia’ began to turn up in Perth. Believing that a Japanese invasion was only weeks away, the parents of Louis’ extended family sent all their children out to a camp in what was then ‘the bush’ - now part of Perth itself. Louis and his cousins and friends ran wild there for months, while the children of British Australian families carried on going to school. At the end of that period, Louis had missed so much school that he could not go to the local secondary school with the rest of his age-group, so his mother sent him to Aquinas College, run by the Christian Brothers.

Much has been said and written about the Christian Brothers in Australia in that period, so there’s no need to add to that here. Louis said that the description in James Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ (‘Any boys need beating, Father Arnold? Any lazy idle loafers need beating today?’) summed up his experience of Aquinas College. He remarked that most of his teachers knew very little more than the children they were supposed to be teaching. Rote-learning replaced intelligent comprehension. He knew that he wasn’t learning much, and was grieved about it, but he endured school for his mother’s sake.

Meanwhile in England, Louis’ father, George, had become Medical Superintendent of a chest hospital in Haslemere. He had been very happy in England from the day he first arrived. Certainly, by the time the war was over, he had no wish to begin his career again in Australia. Mary and Louis took passage on the first trading ship available from Perth to England, arriving after a nine-month voyage in the famously harsh winter of 1946.

Postwar England in January was a dismal place compared with the balmy climate and optimistic society of Perth. Louis said however, that the best thing about his return to the UK was Godalming Grammar School. He could hardly believe that he was going to a school where they didn’t beat you. The Headmaster, Mr Wingfield, was a Quaker, and a most remarkable teacher. He recognised Louis as a brilliant boy who had, in effect, lost four years of normal schooling, and took pains to help him catch up with the rest of his age-group. By the time Louis was in the sixth form, he was editing and writing for the school magazine, directing plays and composing piano settings for his favourite Shakespeare sonnets.

He went to London University, Queen Mary College, where he studied English. His Professor, Professor Isaacs, recognising that Louis was exceptional, arranged for him to spend a term at King’s College, Cambridge. After graduating, Louis signed on for his National Service, and was selected to teach at the Army’s Higher Education Centre at Hohner Lager in Germany. The men whom Louis taught were about to be demobbed after their war service. Louis and his colleagues had the task of getting these men through the qualifications they’d need to get a job or a university place once they were back in civilian life. Many of Louis’ students had just six weeks to cram English A-level from zero before taking the exam. This was how Louis discovered the power of syllabus. Louis designed syllabuses for his learners that were the answer to the problem. This was his true vocation. In that period, he also learned German and taught himself to touch type.

On leaving the army, he spent a few weeks back in Haslemere with his parents, before he landed a job teaching English in Athens at the Protypon Lykeion (now the Scholi Moraiti), then ‘the Eton’ of Greece. (He wanted to teach English, but not in England. He wanted to work where English was a Foreign language.) The school took children from age four through to age eighteen, preparing many of them for entrance to some of the best British, French and American Universities. Within two years, Louis had been made Head of English for the whole school. Here again, he needed to sort out the syllabus. Up to then, children would effectively begin again every time they moved from the Kindergarten to the Primary, from the Primary to the Middle School, from the Middle School to the Senior School. Louis decided that the syllabus should marry up across all levels, and that teachers in the Senior school should be aware of the work the lower school was doing. He thought that the English teaching materials available at the time were pretty awful, so he began to write his own. This is how his early works, Sixty Steps to Précis, and A First Book In Comprehension, Composition and Précis came to be written. These were the early try-outs of the ideas he would develop into a complete system in Look, Listen and Learn! and New Concept English. Most of LLL and much of Practice and Progress (Level 2 of NCE) had already been written before he left Athens in 1965.

In 1960, Dennis Walker, the Longman representative visiting Athens, heard about this remarkable young teacher. He wrote a report in which he recommended that the Chairman of Longman, John Chapple, should go to Athens and meet Louis. Pretending that it was a social visit, Chapple invited Louis to tea at the Grande Bretagne Hotel in the centre of Athens and interviewed him. After tea, Chapple asked Louis to look him up when he was next in England. Visiting England almost a year later, Louis was invited to lunch at Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair, where he found himself being interviewed by the entire Board of Longman. The lunch ended with the proposal that Longman would pay Louis an advance of £3,000 per annum for three years, on condition that he moved back to England to write full time for Longman. There were no photocopiers in those days. The author had the top typescript plus two carbon-copies. It would have been impossible for the author and editor to work together on the basis of sending pages through the post.

Louis had married Athina Voyatsis in Athens in 1959, and his daughter, Marianna, had been born in 1961. His son, George, had been born in 1963. Up till then, Louis had assumed that he would probably stay in Athens, but this astonishing offer changed all that. He returned to Athens to pack up his household and put his affairs there in order, before moving to Haslemere, where he remained till 1998.

The public story of Louis’ next years is largely his long list of publications and his worldwide fame as a lecturer on language teaching. His personal life until 1979 was difficult. His wife, Athina, suffered from bi-polar disorder and was often too ill to participate in the normal life of the family. None of Louis’ colleagues knew that he held down the school-run and, more often than not, the children’s meals, laundry and homework too, at the same time as delivering his impeccable manuscripts on schedule. Louis and the children were devastated when Athina died in March 1979.

I, then Julia Mendus, was working for Longman as a Teacher Trainer. I barely knew Louis, beyond being an occasional guest at some of the wonderful parties he gave for his Longman colleagues. In September 1979, I had a meeting with Louis for him to brief me about Mainline Beginners and the work he had done for the Council of Europe. We started to see each other regularly, and were married on August 9th 1980.

From 1980 till his death in June 2002, we were together all the time. I travelled with him on lecture tours and took an active interest in his work. Let’s be quite clear: Louis wrote his own books, with no interference from anybody, certainly not from me. Each time he embarked on a new project, it was because he was trying to provide ‘the answer to the problem’, and he never wrote the same book twice. Of course I assisted him. If he needed someone to do the exercises to show that they worked, I would write them out. I checked indexes and proof-read things he had written. I commented in detail on some of his work when he asked me to. I also wrote the Teacher’s Books for Plain English, and contributed many of the contrastive examples in Right Word, Wrong Word. We talked about language and his work in detail – indeed, we talked about everything! - but I was never ‘a co-author’. For holidays, we used to go mountaineering in Greece.

On the 2 January 1998, Louis was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with leukaemia. His was a peculiarly difficult case because it took eighteen months for the specialists to realise that his condition was a cross-over between leukaemia and lymphoma. Meanwhile, the standard treatments for leukaemia didn’t work. Although he was still very weak in April that year, he was determined to give the keynote lecture which he’d been invited to present at IATEFL in Manchester. This last lecture was his considered statement on his life-work: the design of syllabuses and methodologies for teaching English as a Foreign Language. This lecture was filmed, and the video was distributed by IATEFL.

Between the diagnosis and his death, Louis continued to work when he could, finishing off the last parts of New Concept English New (Chinese) Edition, and Direct English (originally published by Longman, and sold to Linguaphone in November 2004 because Longman did not wish at that time to pursue an involvement in direct teaching operations).

The photographs on this disk contain some images from Louis’ 70th birthday party in January 2002. It was at Il Convivio restaurant in Belgravia, and all Louis’ surviving companions in his life as an author were invited. Dennis Walker, himself very unwell, made the journey from Geneva to be there. It was a good party.

Louis died of pneumonia on 17th June 2002 in hospital in Chambery, Savoie, France. We had been en route to visit Dennis Walker, but never made it.

Mary had died in 1994. George Sr. survived until April 2005. George Jr. is married, and lives with his wife, Vikki, in Surrey. Marianna has married too, and lives with her husband, Christophoros Kostaras, in Epirus, Northern Greece.


Julia Alexander

Cockermouth, Cumbria

5 October 2010