My friend Moz, who runs a murder-themed tour company in London, is back on the podcast to talk about some more creepy stories of crimes from London’s history and his new podcast. Vocabulary list and quiz available below.
Moz (aka Michael Buchanan-Dunne) has appeared on the podcast a number of times before, for example in the Brighton Fringe Festival episodes, the drunk episode, the episode recorded on Moz’s narrowboat and also the episode from last year called “Murder Mile Tours”.
If you haven’t heard those episodes, let me bring you up to speed as it might help you understand some of the things we talk about in this conversation.
I first met Moz and made friends with him about 8 years ago while doing stand-up comedy in London.
He used to work for the BBC, making comedy television programmes, but then a few years ago he decided to set up a tourism company and bought a narrowboat which he now lives on. Narrowboats are boats that can be used on the UK’s canal system. They’re long and narrow and they’re boats, hence the name “narrowboats”.
Moz now lives on his boat which he usually moors at different locations throughout London’s canal network (there are lots of canals running through London).
He also runs a successful tour company in London, called “Murder Mile Tours”.
His most popular tour is called the “Murder Mile Walk” which currently takes place in Soho in central London every week. The walk takes in various sites where murders have actually occurred. Some of those murders were the work of serial killers and they all have gruesome stories connected with them, stories which Moz has painstakingly researched by looking up lots of archived material including court records from courtrooms in London.
Last year I invited him onto the podcast to tell us some of those stories. That proved to be one of the most downloaded episodes of the podcast last year. Since then his tours have gone from strength to strength – not directly a result of being on this podcast of course, although that has helped because quite a lot of LEPsters have been on the murder mile walk with Moz, no, the tour seems to be going really well because it seems really fun, it’s original, the stories are fascinating, and the tour has had loads of 5 star reviews on Trip Advisor.
In fact just recently Murder Mile Tours received a TripAdvisor certificate of excellence, which is a really great achievement. TripAdvisor describe it as one of the 150 best things to do in London and Time Out Magazine described it as one of the top 3 themed tours in the city.
Now Moz has decided to start up his own podcast in which he will regularly share some of the stories he has discovered while doing his research. His podcast, called “The Murder Mile True Crime Podcast” will be available from 1 October (you’ll be able to find it on iTunes – or just check www.murdermiletours.com/podcast).
So, I’ve invited Moz to come back onto the podcast to talk about all of this.
Moz and I are friends, so this isn’t just an interview, it’s also a light-hearted informal conversation and a chance for the two of us to catch up on each other’s personal news and just have a bit of fun while we’re doing it, and you are invited to join us.
You should know that this episode contains some graphic content and explicit language
including some fairly detailed descriptions of violence and murder
and some other things that you might find disturbing or disgusting.
I feel I should let you know that in advance, just in case you’re squeamish and you don’t like that sort of thing – but to be honest the content of this episode is no worse than what you would see in the average episode of a TV show like CSI or Game of Thrones.
But still – there are some creepy and gruesome details in this episode, so – you have been warned.
By the way, if you’re interested in some of the items of vocabulary that you can hear in this conversation, you should check out the page for this episode on my website. You’ll see a list of words and phrases there which you learn in order to add real strength and depth to your English.
OK so here is part one of my conversation with Moz, the guy from Murder Mile Tours.
“Sacre bleu!” (French – used to express surprise or amazement)
“There’s lovely” (this is what Welsh people apparently say a lot – it means “that’s nice”)
“Zoot alors!” (an old-fashioned French phrase – it’s used to express surprise, shock etc)
More excuses for my lack of improvement in French. [absence of]
I’ve got to pull my socks up, pull my finger out and turn over a new leaf. [all these phrases are ways of saying “improve my attitude and approach”]
I don’t have long to get the French up to scratch. [improve it to an acceptable level]
Rutting [when animals, such as deer, have sex – but also when the male deer fight with each other during the mating season]
“During the ruttingseason the male boars have terrible mating battles”
It’s a scratchyhowl [a howl is the sound an animal makes – usually a dog or wolf at night, e.g. ‘to howl at the moon’. ‘Scratchy’ describes the rough sound of the howl]
Foxes, when they’re mating, make a high-pitched scream which sounds like someone being murdered
I’m not registered for council tax [tax you pay when you live in a house or flat]
I’ve got a P.O. Box [a post office box where you can have post delivered if you don’t have a fixed address]
I’m not condoning mass murder [promoting it, saying I agree with it]
The police had sectioned off the walkway [used plastic tape to prevent people from accessing that part of the walkway]
Someone may commit suicide and the body floats down (the canal) [commit suicide = kill yourself / float = not sink, but stay on the surface of the water]
Grisly details [unpleasant, involving death or violence]
People think that a canal is a good place to dispose of a body [to get rid of a dead person]
The canal has been used for dumping rubbish, but also corpses [dumping = throwing away, getting rid of, disposing / corpses = dead bodies]
They decided to take this guy’s card and start withdrawing money [taking money out of the bank]
The culprits were found guilty of ‘denial of a proper burial’ [culprits = people who committed a crime / ‘denial of a proper burial’ = a criminal charge which is given in a court – it means when someone didn’t bury a dead person properly, or perhaps didn’t dispose of the body in the legal way]
That was the main charge that they could definitely pin on them [a statement by prosecutors in court that someone committed a crime]
Eastenders is a soap opera that’s been on TV for years [a TV drama which is about ordinary people, shown on television on a regular basis]
“My auntie’s brother’s sister left me 10% of this pub in her will!” [a will = a document which explains who should receive someone’s property when they die]
He smoked skunk all the time [a strong and smelly form of marijuana]
He had an argument with her, killed her, chopped up the body [cut the body into pieces] and then wrapped up [put inside a sheet or some clothing] her limbs [arms and legs] and her torso [the body, but without the arms or legs], put them in a suitcase and dumped [threw away, disposed of] them in the canal
He bought loads of bin bags [bags for rubbish] and saws [tools for cutting something up]
Things got out of hand, they had an argument [things got out of control]
He dragged her down to the canal [pulled her along the ground]
The suitcase floated for about two miles [didn’t sink]
Poking out of the top of the suitcase was hair [you could see part of it coming out of the top of the suitcase]
I like having a good poke around [looking and investigating, perhaps by looking into something and moving things around] different streets and digging into [going deep into something] murders
Most murders are just men having fights, but occasionally you come across [find] a really good one
Don’t worry, we’re hung over! [feeling sick because they drank alcohol the night before]
I was a cannibal, [someone who eats human flesh] I’d eaten my girlfriend and her body was slowly working its way through my bowel (yuk!) [moving slowly through the lower part of the digestive system] yuk yuk!
It was one of the darkest jokes I’ve ever pulled off [managed to succeed bit it was difficult]
It didn’t get a laugh it just got a gasp [a shocked sound when people breathe in suddenly
😱] and for me that was enough
It certainly got the evening off to a different start [to get something off to a start = to make something start]
Often the murderers are like slapstick movie idiots [a form of comedy involving funny physical movements, like people falling over or hitting each other]
Can you remember the vocabulary in the list?
Were you listening carefully? Take the quiz to find out.
I was on the RealLife English Podcast and we talked about why I became an English teacher, doing James Bond impressions and also comedy & how to use humour in learning English. You can listen to it here. More details about Real Life English below. Enjoy!
Last week I was featured in an episode of the Real Life English podcast and I just wanted to share it with you here on my website.
RealLife English is an online community with a mission to inspire, empower, and connect the world through English, both online and in-person.
It’s run by three English teachers, Justin (USA), Ethan (USA) and Chad (Australia) and they do a podcast, write blog articles, create YouTube videos and also host an online community for social learning. A lot like LEP, they believe in teaching English to the world in a fun, personal and inspiring way.
Recently I spoke to Ethan on the Real Life English podcast (and also recorded an episode of LEP) and we talked about lots of things, including British & American comedy shows, and how to use humour (and alcohol) in learning English. Listen to it above, or on the Real Life English website. I’m sure they’d appreciate some comments from friendly LEPsters.
I’ll be speaking to Ethan in an episode of LEP soon. You can look forward to that in the next few weeks.
The final part of the holiday diary series. This one is about visiting the Navajo Nation, meeting some Navajo people, seeing more natural wonders at Monument Valley and The Grand Canyon, a couple of film recommendations our experience of the solar eclipse and a few more anecdotes about the rest of our road trip.
So here is the final episode in this series about the things I saw and did on my summer holiday this year. I’ve tried to make this more than just a description of a holiday. It’s also been a chance for me to talk about some topics that I hope are as interesting for you as they were for me when I found out about them.
In the last episode I talked to you about our road trip around the so-called Grand Staircase – a huge area of land where about 2 billion years’ worth of rock are exposed by tectonic activity and erosion, creating canyons and rock formations that are awe-inspiring but also revealing of the earth’s geological history.
In this episode I’d like to bring the series to a close by telling you a few more anecdotes and describing the rest of the trip.
Then, after this episode we’ll be back to normal podcasting with some upcoming episodes featuring conversations with guests.
So, after visiting Zion and Bryce Canyons in Utah in the last episode, we drove South East and across the state border into Arizona and also crossed into the area known as the Navajo Nation Reservation – an area of land that includes parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.
I already knew a few things about native Americans, or American Indians, or just the Navajo tribe, but I sort of hadn’t realised we would be entering their territory and staying there for a few days.
In fact, I didn’t even really know that the Navajo Nation existed.
I knew a bit about the Navajo. I knew that many Indians were moved from the areas they used to inhabit onto reservations in the 19th century.
I knew that many Indian tribes like the Navajo had been forced, in the late 1800s, by the US army to move onto reservations, which in many cases were basically just prisons on inhospitable land, just because the United States government didn’t really know what else to do with them and which, by today’s standards, would be considered a violation of basic human rights.
I also knew that the Navajo’s population had been decimated by these changes and that this was the same story with many Indian tribes across the country.
But I didn’t realise that the Navajo had been given a whole area of land – much bigger than their original reservation, that they could govern themselves, with their own elected president and other official posts.
It’s worth saying a few things about the Navajo Nation because I learned some stuff I didn’t know before.
They’re a sovereign nation with their own elected President.
The land which includes parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah is about 27,000 square KM – and on that land you can find various sites of great cultural and spiritual significance to the Navajo. There are over 300,000 people living there.
So, for a few days we were living on Navajo land and met quite a lot of Navajo people who work in the hotels, restaurants and as tour guides to some of the natural monuments.
These days the Navajo are modern people of course, and they don’t live exactly like their ancestors did but the brief bits of contact I had with some of them was interesting. It was really cool for me to chat with some people, particularly a tour guide we met at Antelope Canyon and just realise that although our ancestors were worlds apart (mine would have been English families raised as Anglican Christians in towns in the North of England, theirs lived on this land and hunted for deer and fish, lived in earthen houses called Hogans, fought with the US army) – so although our great grandparents lived utterly different lives, we shared some surprising things in common.
A Short history of the Navajo
They used to live in the Arizona area – living on and the land in simple wood and earth structures, hunting for animals, performing their rituals, living by their beliefs in the importance of living in harmony with the supernatural powers of nature, but as settlers from Europe began moving west and populating more and more land, they clashed with the Navajo, making life difficult for the settlers and prospectors moving through, so they were forced by the American government and the US army to move 300 miles to the east into New Mexico, and they had to walk there, in winter. Everyone. Hundreds of them died on the way and generally the population was nearly wiped out by the general upheaval – the consequences of the move, and the way their whole way of life became severely limited and impossible, by the way they were treated and their reduction in population is now often referred to as a genocide.
It wasn’t until much later, that the remaining Navajo were not only allowed to go back to their land, and claim it again, but they were allowed to govern themselves.
Essentially, during that period of western expansion, native people were considered less than human and were treated that way. Many Indians were killed or simply left to die.
They were just not included in the grand narrative of western expansion that built the USA of the modern age, despite being the original American people. Usually the American Indians are just represented as savage bad guys in western movies, although this has changed in the last few decades when their stories have been told more respectfully.
Also I learned that the Navajo played a really important part in World War 2. When the US was at war with Japan after Pearl Harbour, one of the most important things for the US navy was being able to communicate secretly. They created loads of codes, but the Japanese codebreakers were so clever and sophisticated that pretty much any code the Americans came up with got broken, and this was costing the US army a lot of lives. In the end, they employed bilingual Navajo people to create a code based on the Navajo language, and it was incredibly effective. The Japanese couldn’t break the code because of the nature of the Navajo language. Many words in Navajo can have multiple meanings but it depends how they are pronounced, using different tones. Some words can mean 4 totally different things depending on the tone used when saying them. I suppose in that way it’s like Mandarin Chinese or other tonal languages.
The Navajo people employed by the government to translate messages into code, based on their language, are known as the Navajo Code Talkers and they have been recognised as heroes and given numerous awards by the US government.
It’s a fascinating story of how this American Indian tribe suddenly became vital to American interests and greatly helped the country win the war.
We met a few native people while we were there and I wondered what life is like for them and how they feel they fit into life in the US.
They seem like nice people (but who knows) with a sense of humour. I mean, they could be vindictive and bitter, but they don’t seem to be. In fact the people we met seemed to be quite level-headed and humourous. I think the fact that they govern themselves helps to give them a sense of pride and independence.
Being in this part of the world, seeing the different landscapes and people, this made me think of some films – these are often my reference points because I’ve watched a lot of films over the years.
The Outlaw Josey Wales – Chief Dan George (not a Navajo but an interesting scene)
One particular film I thought of is The Outlaw Josey Wales – directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. It’s about a civil war fugitive who is running from the Union army. At the start of the film he’s a peaceful farmer, but soldiers come and burn his house down, and kill his wife and child. He’s so consumed by revenge that he becomes an outlaw – a sort of avenging ghost (the typical Clint Eastwood western character) and on his way he sort of picks up these odd group of companions and it becomes something of an unconventional family. It was filmed in some of the locations that we visited, and there’s an Indian character in the movie played by an Indian actor called Chief Dan George. The actor isn’t Navajo and neither is his character – his character is a Cherokee – but the Cherokee experienced similar displacement to the Navajo, and they were ordered to walk hundreds of miles away from their land into reservations where and it basically destroyed their whole way of life – a way of life that had developed over many many years and was in harmony with the land, the wildlife and the natural environment in general.
There’s one scene in the film when this character played by Chief Dan George mentions the trail of tears and how him and other members of his tribe actually went to Washington to meet with the Secretary of the Interior to negotiate. They were all proud and wore suits and hats like Abraham Lincoln – because they were naive, but they were simply told to “endeavour to persevere” which basically means “just try to survive”. They were basically told “nope, we’re not going to help you, we’re still moving you into reservations, you’ll just have to try to survive”. The Indian chiefs went away thinking they had achieved something because the language sounded so respectful and important and because they’d been impressed by the posh surroundings in Washington. It wasn’t until later that they thought about those words “Endeavour to persevere” and realised that nothing had changed and they were being left in appalling conditions with nothing other than “try to survive” from Washington – on reservations built on land that wouldn’t yield anything for them. Once they’d thought about it, they declared war on the Union.
I like this scene because Dan George delivers the story with dry humour. It’s funny but also a bit tragic. It’s also a chance to hear English spoken by an American Indian.
Context: Chief Dan George’s character emerges from his home because he thinks someone is approaching. In fact it’s Clint Eastwood’s character just moving through the area. Dan George (Lone Watie) emerges from the house, trying to get an edge (an advantage) on the intruder but Clint’s character manages to sneak up on him. Then he talks about how the white man has been sneaking up on him and his tribe for years. Then he talks about the frock coat he’s wearing – the same coat he wore when he went to Washington, and a top hat like Abraham Lincoln used to wear. Then he tells the story of meeting the Secretary of the Interior and being told to endeavour to persevere.
“Indians vow to ‘Endeavor to Persevere'”
It’s a great performance by Chief Dan George and shows dignity, sadness and humour.
It’s hard not to see the irony when you see Americans today on Twitter complaining about immigrants coming and stealing their land and not assimilating to the culture.
Saw horseshoe bend – a huge natural bend in a river.
Lower Antelope Canyon (more pics at the bottom of the page)
(Not looking directly at the sun, by the way)
Video (below) – an example of a Flash flood – the sort of thing that created Antelope Canyon with erosion (this is a scene from 127 Hours, not actually filmed at Antelope Canyon, but just an example of a flash flood)
The tour company is run by the Navajo.
Examples of their dry sense of humour.
We arrived for our 12.20 tour about 30 minutes early because we thought there would be crowds.
We noticed that quite a lot of the tourists were being quite rude with the staff – just being a bit impolite and demanding, which is a pity.
In fact I noticed that the couple in front of us, who weren’t very nice, were demanding to go on the 11.50 tour when theirs was at 12.20 because there wasn’t an air conditioned waiting room (everyone was waiting in the shade in a covered waiting area) but the girl behind the counter told them that there was no space on the 11.50 tour and they just had to wait.
Sure, there wasn’t an air conditioned room, but this particular bit of land is not supposed to have lots of buildings on it and after all this is the desert, what did you expect, etc etc.
It was our turn and we made an effort to be nice.
“Hello! We’ve got a canyon tour booked”
It’s already gone, sorry.
My wife: What??
The girl just had a straight face.
Then I realised she was joking.
No, I’m just joking, ha ha. You can join the 11.50 one if you want.
I have some time for that attitude. I’ve worked in bars, restaurants, shops, lots of customer service positions. You have to have a sense of humour because people can treat you so badly and they feel that they can be so rude to you.
Meeting Brian Yazzie our tour guide
We were joined by a group of about 10 tourists.
I think that people might be at their worst when in tourist groups. I don’t know why, but groups of tourists can act so rudely, pushing in front of each other, showing no respect to the guide, showing no deference to the incredibly significant monument which they are visiting and also doing stupid and dangerous things – like leaning over cliffs to take selfies or wandering off the path to take photos and stepping on a snake or being stung by a scorpion or something.
Brian dealt with all of this by using some seriously dry humour
Brian’s funny jokes
Can’t remember them? He told us 11 people had been bitten by snakes this week, that a woman fell off a ladder and you can still see the bloodstains if you look carefully, and he also said “travelling thousands of miles to walk through some cracks in the ground, kind of crazy right?”
He knew Penn & Teller and even Derren Brown.
Videos of Brian on YouTube
Some sleight of hand card magic inside Antelope Canyon
Brian tries some tricks on a few French tourists
The chimneys you see in the background of that video are the local power station which provides the whole area (and other states) with electricity. It’s part-owned by the Navajo.
As we were walking to the canyon he told us that his Grandmother used to say that you shouldn’t go down there, because it’s “the home of the winds”.
“So this is sacred ground?” I asked him.
“My grandma thought so”.
“Well, I’m sure everyone appreciates the beauty of it.” I said, but I couldn’t help feeling like we shouldn’t be walking there.
But Brian seemed ok with it.
Monument Valley in the film Fort Apache
Hotel is run by the Navajo.
It has views of the valley and the big rock formations.
It’s also a trading post and a place to eat.
It’s quite neatly built into a piece of high ground at the end of the canyon. It doesn’t stand out too much.
Each room has a view of the valley and there’s a big terrace with full views.
Incredible views. Describe the view.
Again, mad abstract shapes on a clear blue and rust coloured background.
Shadows stretching out across hundreds of metres of land. Amazing huge monoliths with faces in them and old names given by the Navajo.
Movie on the wall with view from our room. We sat, ate our packed dinner and watched the film.
It was called Fort Apache – directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne and Henry Fonda. It features scenes filmed in Monument Valley.
In fact, Monument Valley is famous for being in westerns.
It was amazing to watch the film and then literally turn your head and see the exact same environment just there in front of you.
Also, it was interesting to me that the Navajo chose to screen the film, because usually westerns present rather a bad image of Native Americans as the bad guys.
But this one was different. It was made just after WW2 and the general tone of it is about how foolish leadership and the so-called glory of war usually just leads good young men to die and how the American military misunderstood the complex culture of the native Americans and also underestimated their military strength.
The natives are presented as brave, civilised and great strategists.
All the native American parts (Apache indians) are played to great effect by local Navajo, and the end of the film sees them defeat a garrison of American soldiers.
So it’s pretty clear why the locals like the film. And it’s a really good one. John Ford was a masterful director.
That night, like most nights out in the desert we couldn’t sleep. Not because of jet-lag but I think because we’re quite blown away by all the stimulation. It’s quite hard to take it all in!
So, that night we both lay in our bed trying to sleep, but feeling wide awake, with this incredible and powerful landscape just outside the window.
In the morning we drove down into the valley to see the huge monoliths a bit closer. Again, there were lots of faces and forms seemed to be in the rocks as you look at them. You can imagine how the native Americans must have stared at these rocks and seen all sorts of visions in them.
They are truly inspiring places.
Out of the Navajo Nation and into the national parks again.
The Grand Canyon
We drive there just before sunset and get to see some incredible early sights of the canyon.
It is just the biggest thing I’ve ever seen.
(A small corner of) The Grand Canyon
From you to the horizon, a huge network of different canyons, jutting rocks, cracks diving deep into rivers down below.
Imagine seeing 300 canyons all at the same time, all part of one much larger one which bends around the corner. It’s like that.
Saw the sunset and driving home catch views of elk by the side of the road.
We couldn’t sleep (again).
I felt a million and one thoughts come to me while I was lying there wide awake.
Some thoughts were my fears and my worries. My whole life flashing before my eyes.
You know when you can’t sleep and your mind insists on playing back some memories…
But also thoughts of positivity and joy about the future.
It’s weird how sometimes when you can’t sleep your mind just takes off and you have to hold on for the ride. You know when you can’t sleep and your mind races around to different things, and you just can’t stop it? You really want to just sleep and switch off, but you can’t. Normally you have ordinary things to deal with that occupy, like remembering to iron your shirt in the morning and dealing with little work-related problems and things like that.
But being away from it all, your thoughts become untethered.
Basically, it’s called “taking stock” and this is what we often do on holiday isn’t it?
I reflected and tried to work things out somehow, while also just trying to get a good night’s sleep.
For example, I am trying to stop worrying about small things because they’re just small things…
I can get quite caught up on details and I can blow small concerns out of proportion. I can make mountains out of molehills, just like we all do, and that causes anxiety and so on. We all do it, right?
But we can’t afford to do that. We can’t put significance onto every little thing. It’s best to let some things slide and to focus on the big stuff. You’ve got to prioritise.
I was also thinking about the whole universe and remembering random episodes from my life, and thinking about starting a family and what it means, also thinking about this podcast and how I’m doing it.
Like, what is it that my audience really wants from me and from this podcast? How can I continue to provide the sort of content that will really benefit people while allowing me to pursue the things I want in life?
There were a lot of strands running through my head, man. But I think I worked a few things out.
From the Grand Canyon we drove down into the lower ground of the desert, back towards Las Vegas – where we would take our quick flight back to Los Angeles for the final part of the trip.
We spent a night an unremarkable in a town called Kingman, and the next day set off by car to Vegas.
This day was all about the eclipse.
The Solar Eclipse
I guess you all know what a solar eclipse is.
It’s when the moon passes in front of the sun and fully eclipses it – hiding it for a few moments before the sun reappears again.
Have you ever experienced one?
It’s seriously weird and amazing.
Firstly, seeing these celestial bodies crossing past each other is like a ballet of cosmic proportions.
This is another thing that makes you realise how small you really are in the grand scheme of things.
It’s also extraordinary that this happens.
Some ancient cultures thought they were extremely significant events.
It’s easy to see why. Everything goes dark like it’s night time. The birds stop singing. Animals behave strangely. The sun is like a black dot in the sky with a shining halo around it.
Then everything goes back to normal.
If you didn’t know it was coming, and you already worshipped the sun, you’d undoubtedly read massive significance into it.
It also looks amazing. You’re not supposed to look directly at it of course, because then you’re basically staring right at the sun which will blind you if you do it for long enough. The light will scorch your retinas.
You have to use special filtering glasses to see it, and on the news they were repeatedly telling everyone not to look at the sun because it could blind you.
Trump looked directly at it of course, as we know. I’m not sure why he did that.
Anyway, the eclipse was visible in certain spots along the breadth of the country. On the road to Vegas we didn’t get the full eclipse, just a partial one and we were in the middle of driving to the airport to catch a plane so we didn’t stop to check it out.
But in any case we wouldn’t have been able to see anything because there was cloud cover.
We did experience a murky half light at the time of the eclipse and everything went spooky.
On the journey there were large black clouds collecting in the distance and some lighter cloud cover over our heads. We started fairly early so the sun was quite low in the sky and with the clouds the light was quite dim.
But as the eclipse happened overhead everything went a murky, dark yellow colour, cars put their headlights on. There were freaky flash rainstorms with massive raindrops.
For about 10 minutes there was a strange end of the world type feeling as the darkening sky was lit up by flashes of lightning in the distance and we saw forked lightning striking rock formations up on our left at the top of a shallow canyon.
We came into Vegas and just went straight to the airport. No need to stop there again.
Arriving in LA had a much better car rental experience.
Within minutes we were in the garage choosing our car.
“Which one would you like? A Japanese one? An American? Hatchback or saloon?”
My wife said “The red one”.
That’s her criteria. Colour.
It turned out to be a Chevrolet Cruze and it was a great car. About the size of a Ford Focus and extremely smooth and responsive.
Maybe this is just how it felt after driving a Jeep for a week.
Compared to that this one felt like a sports car.
Topanga is an awesome place.
Along the coastal highway and up into the hills overlooking the coast.
In those hills are leafy little canyons with communities of people who’ve set up their homes on the hillsides. Topanga was a really cool scene to be part of in the early 1970s and lots of musicians hung out in that area writing their songs. This included people like Neil Young and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
I’m particularly a fan of Neil Young and I’d read his autobiography, so I knew a lot of the stories of the music he wrote and recorded here, and I always thought it sounded amazing. A peaceful retreat among oak trees with sunlight shining through the canopy with wood cabins and cafes serving pie and coffee.
It’s still a lot like that.
We stayed in an AirBnB which was basically a single room wooden cabin with a shower. THe place was extremely well put together. Very tasteful and it felt new. Everything was made of oak with a fantastic and huge stove for cooking. I cooked some food there and drank local beer from bottles. We enjoyed hanging around on the deck outside and lying on the sun lounger looking up at the sky through the leaves and branches of the trees.
We only had a couple of days in this peaceful part of LA so we didn’t do a lot, where you can get lunch and watch people surfing.
Generally it was a pleasure to stay in Topanga and we did not want to leave our cabin and come back to reality.
At night there were coyotes outside the cabin. They make a really strange noise – a kind of whooping, howling and whistling that sounds both ridiculous and scary.
One evening we came back at night and as we drove down the driveway to the cabin there were coyotes hanging around outside the door of the cabin.
These are wild dogs, a bit smaller than wolves.
My wife freaked out a bit so I had to go out of the car, open the door of the cabin and then get her in quickly.
I must admit it was a bit offputting when I heard the coyotes go crazy when they could smell me standing just a few metres away and I heard them all running around in the darkness just beyond my vision making a hell of a racket. I kept telling myself that they were more scared than me, but I didn’t fully convince myself.
I rushed my wife into the house and locked the door! Thankfully we both didn’t get eaten alive by wild dogs because, well, that would have been a pity.
That was a bit scary but we had a good laugh about it!
All in all, this holiday was amazing.
Throughout our trip people were polite, friendly, helpful and often interesting and funny.
We saw some really cool stuff, had a chance to enjoy each other’s company as a couple before the arrival of our child.
The trip also took me by surprise a bit. I didn’t expect to be so moved by the things we saw, particularly out in the desert, at those canyons and in the Navajo Nation.
It was a bit emotional too, watching my wife’s belly get bigger, reflecting on things, not sleeping.
It all felt very real at the time and it was a welcome bit of clarity even if it all happened too quickly.
Now I’m back in Paris amongst all my stuff and all the things that keep me tethered on earth and it’s hard to somehow recreate on a podcast how it really felt to be face to face with the hand of nature creating its mysterious art over billions of years.
I’m not sure it’s possible to, in words, recreate the experience of discovering such beauty, wonder and mystery all through the eyes of people who haven’t slept.
In any case, I hope I’ve managed to communicate to you some of how it felt and that you’ve picked up some more English in the process.
You might have been to the same places as me? What were your thoughts?
Thank you for listening to my Holiday Diary series.
In this episode I’m going to continue telling you stories of my recent holiday and there will be descriptions of impressive rocky landscapes, a sort of geology lesson and a brief history of planet earth. Expect plenty of solid descriptive chunks of vocabulary as this holiday diary continues.
In this episode I’m going to continue telling you stories of my recent holiday and there will be descriptions of impressive rocky landscapes, a sort of geology lesson and a brief history of planet earth. Expect plenty of solid descriptive chunks of vocabulary as this holiday diary continues. I think there will be just one more episode to come in this series, and then it will be back to the usual sorts of episodes I do, including a few conversations with some friends of mine as guests.
The first part of the trip was urban. Now it’s all about earth, wind and fire – not the band, but the elements, earth, wind, fire, rocks, stone, water, ice, wood and time.
We drove from Las Vegas on a road trip tour, a loop, in our Jeep, over about 9 or 10 days stopping at various places to stay a night or two and taking in some of the most impressive spectacles of natural beauty I’ve ever seen.
I don’t know about your country – I’m sure that you have some seriously big and impressive locations too. Places that are famous and that take your breath away when you see them. Places and things that I would love to see with my own eyes one day.
In the UK our countryside is absolutely beautiful, but it is generally on a fairly small scale compared to other places – we have rolling hills and stone bridges over babbling rivers – it all seems quite self-contained or cute or something – a bit like The Shire or Hobbiton in Lord of the Rings. Not all of it – we have impressive spots with mountains and lakes and stuff but it doesn’t quite smash your senses like the things we saw in Arizona and Utah.
Every day or two we would be greeted by ever more stunning views as we toured around the border between Utah and Arizona, from Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park to Lake Powell, Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon in the Navajo Nation Territories and finally the Grand Canyon before heading back to Los Angeles via Las Vegas.
America’s National Parks
Think what you like about the USA, I mean, there are plenty of things that aren’t appealing, like.. Pop Tarts – they’re disgusting aren’t they? Say what you like about the country, you can’t deny that it has some truly breathtaking spots of natural beauty.
Thankfully, most of these places were protected by the National Parks project, which was initially set up at the end of the 19th century and then was fully put into force in the early 20th century by the president at the time, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt.
The whole area that we were driving around and visiting basically features canyons and cliffs that form what is known as The Grand Staircase. Imagine a big staircase made out of rock, but it’s all spread out over hundreds of miles. In different locations you can see different layers of rock that are exposed because the rock layers have been uplifted, tilted, and eroded. It’s a series of colourful cliffs stretching between Bryce Canyon (in the north of that area) and the Grand Canyon (in the south, basically). Zion is sort of between the two.
The bottom layer of rock at Bryce Canyon is the top layer at Zion, and the bottom layer at Zion is the top layer at the Grand Canyon. So, in terms of the staircase, Bryce is at the top, then Zion in the middle of the staircase and the Grand Canyon at the bottom.
If you were a massive giant, you could start at the riverbed at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and go up the stair case (some of the stairs are huge plateaus of course and moving across them you can visit places like Lake Powell or Monument Valley, where there are eroded tables, platforms and columns that stick up all around you) and walk up the cliffs, the stairs, and pass through Zion and keep going until you get up to Bryce Canyon at the top. On your walk you would ascend through about 40 identified layers of rock, and about 2000 million years of history. The oldest sedimentary rock at the bottom of the staircase is 2 billion years old. The rock at the top is about 40-30 million years old.
So, driving around the area we were going up and then back down this staircase, travelling through hundreds and hundreds and million of years worth of time as well as hundreds of miles of distance.
This is one of the only places in the world where this much of the earth’s history is exposed to us, and because of that – because so much old rock is exposed in this area, it is one of the most studied geological areas in the world.
These 40 layers of rock are full of evidence that show us what happened in this area in the past, and that allow us to understand a lot about what happened in history – way before humans even existed. The story is told in the rock, including fossils of many dinosaurs.
As well as that, it’s just amazing to look at. The layers of rock have different colours. Some are rust coloured, some yellow, some pink, some white, some grey, some a deep blood red. The different colours are caused by different chemical reactions in the rock – things like the presence of iron which oxidises and changes colour – a bit like the way an old bicycle will go rusty as the metal reacts with the water.
So our entry point into this grand staircase was Zion National Park. We spent a day and a half there and did a fairly easy hike up the side of the canyon to a viewpoint. We were very careful and cautious of course, this time.
Then we drove in a northerly direction to BRYCE CANYON.
Bryce Canyon is the highest point in the grand staircase. We drove up towards an elevated point on one side of the canyon. The usual thing to do there is to drive to the end of this point and then drive back, stopping at certain viewing points on the way.
So at Rainbow point we stopped the car and walked to the edge, where there are barriers and information points and so on.
Imagine standing on the edge of some cliffs and in front of you there’s a huge canyon – a massive area where the ground goes down quite sharply and there are thousands of bits of rock that stick up on top of huge blocks of rock of different colours and they look a bit like huge statues and there are river beds in there at the bottom and trees growing up from the bottom, and big bits of rock that stretch out into the canyon, and way way over on the other side (almost on the horizon) is the other side of the canyon. So you’re standing on the edge of a plateau, it all goes down, and then the plateau continues again way over on the other side. You can see the layers of rock – all different colours.
Now, this is all caused by erosion and the rocks that stick up in the canyon are all really weird shapes. It’s really stunning and weird too. It’s like an alien landscape. I’ll give you some more details in a moment.
At rainbow point we saw a guide explaining all of it and how it fits into the grand staircase.
He was doing a great job of telling the massive story of the place and enthusiastically putting himself into it.
This helped us understand a lot of the geology of the whole area.
I’ve already told you some stuff about the grand staircase, and it’s pretty difficult to explain but I’d like to try and give you some more details of the story of how all of this happened. This is what I understood from the ranger – this guy employed by the park, wearing a green outfit and a wide brimmed hat.
So this is ancient history and geology.
By geology I mean the study of the Earth’s structure, surface, and origins.
So, we’ve had space, we’ve had belief systems, and now the history of the earth itself. I told you I had a lot of stuff to get off my chest in this series of podcasts!
I’m talking about the history of the earth.
A Short History of the Earth (according to the Big Bang Theory)
How about we start right at the start? The Big Bang theory – not the TV show, but the account of how the universe began, which is based on a lot of study and a lot of analysis of evidence and understandings of the way the universe works – the collaborative work of many people over many years, people analysing the evidence, creating hypotheses, testing them, coming up with theories that get adapted and improved and disproved and further changed. The big bang theory is the best we have at the moment.
So, at one point the universe was all compressed into a space about the size of a pin head. All matter that exists now in the universe, all of it was at one point contained in a tiny little spot, a singularity. An extremely high density and high temperature singularity.
Physicists are undecided whether this means the universe began from a singularity, or that current knowledge is insufficient to describe the universe at that time… Detailed measurements of the expansion rate of the universe place the Big Bang at around 13.8 billion years ago, which is thus considered the age of the universe. After the initial expansion, the universe cooled sufficiently to allow the formation of subatomic particles, and later simple atoms. Giant clouds of these primordial elements later coalesced through gravity in halos of dark matter, eventually forming the stars and galaxies visible today.(Wikipedia)
This is just what we know today. There’s still a lot we don’t know – like exactly what ‘dark matter’ is. But that’s the point of science – we don’t have to be able to explain it all at once, we’re working it out bit by bit.
So after all that matter came together through gravity and the stars were created (over an incredibly long period of time by the way, and it’s still going on now) earth also formed from matter that was basically left over from when the sun was created – we’re talking about cloud and dust particles containing all the elements that make up the building blocks of everything on earth.
This stuff coalesced into this ball due to the force of gravity. In the early days the earth was very hot and was basically molten lava, and was hit by lots of other lumps of rock that were still flying around the galaxy. A lot of this rock, left over from the sun’s creation still exists in space and is orbiting our sun too. Most of it is in the asteroid belt which is located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. There are also loads of asteroids which are not in this belt, just flying around our solar system on different orbits around the sun. We’re pretty sure that one or two of them hit the earth in the past and probably wiped out the dinosaurs – because if a huge asteroid hits the earth it creates an explosion which is like loads of nuclear bombs all going off at the same time, and that tends to make life on earth a little bit tricky, like for example when the sun gets blocked out by dust or when the atmosphere is filled with poisonous gas from the explosion.
One might hit us one day too, which would be pretty bad news as I’m sure you can imagine, but if we’re clever we’d be able to prevent it by sending Bruce Willis up there to blow it up before it hits us.
After earth cooled down, the molten rock on the surface cooled down to become the earth’s crust. THat’s a bit like if you leave some soup out for ages and the top becomes a thick layer and if you leave it out for ages (like you go away travelling for a few months and don’t do the washing up before you leave) eventually it’ll dry out and form a hard crust.
So the surface of the earth was this crust, made up of a number of different plates. It’s not all one single crust, because underneath it’s all still molten rock – you know, because as you go deeper underground eventually it get really hot and ooh magma! Lava is the stuff that spews out of the top of volcanoes. It’s amazing but it’s not very friendly.
So the earth’s crust is made up of a number of plates that sit on top of this magma. On top of these plates you have land with different features. Some of it is covered in grass, some of it is covered in water, some of it is just rock, etc etc.
Different types of rock
Igneous rock – this is the stuff that is formed when magma cools down. Sometimes it cools down when it’s in the ground and sometimes it cools down on the surface after being spewed out of volcanoes as lava.
Metamorphic rock – this is the stuff that is formed when magma cools under the ground but in certain conditions, like when there’s massive amounts of pressure or heat and the rock gets compressed and it changes quite drastically – for example it becomes crystal or the rock has layers of crystal in it. It’s often extremely hard rock and it can be shiny, or striped with layers of crystal in it. E.g. diamond is metamorphic rock because it has changed from pure carbon (or coal – a sedimentary rock) into diamond.
Sedimentary rock – this is the stuff that usually forms on or very near the surface. It’s made of particles of sand, shells, pebbles (little stones) and other fragments of material. Imagine you have a fish bowl with some fish in it and you go away travelling for 3 months and you forget about it. Eventually the water in that fish bowl will get dirty.
First there are the little stones at the bottom, then there might be dust from the room that lands in the water and of course there’s the fish poo and the green algae that might build up inside there and the water gets cloudy and dirty and eventually the fish will probably die (I know it’s a sad story) and over time all that stuff in the water will settle on the bottom of the tank – that’s sediment. Imagine that over millions of years. Now imagine it’s the ocean which is washing over the surface of rocks and eroding them, creating more sand, and also think of all the sediment – sand and little stones that get washed into the ocean from rivers. All that stuff is sediment and it finds its way to the bottom of the ocean and gets compressed.
Oceans or lakes don’t last forever and they sometimes dry out, exposing all the compressed sedimentary rock. That might get blown by winds into big sand dunes, which then eventually compress, or at least the sand that was once at the bottom of the ocean or lake dries out and over time it compresses more until it becomes rock.
This is not just useful for describing types of rock. The word ‘sediment’ is used in other situations too, like we get sediment at the bottom of a bottle of wine sometimes, or in fruit juices – any stuff that has settled at the bottom of liquid.
Also ‘metamorphic’ is in the same word family as ‘metamorphosis’ – the process of when something changes into something else.
the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly She had undergone an amazing metamorphosis from awkward schoolgirl to beautiful woman.
Igneous – not useful outside this subject. It’s just for rocks, except that it’s formed from the latin ‘ignus’ which means ‘fire’ and from ‘ignus’ you also get the English word ‘ignite’ and that’s a good word. It means ‘start to burn’ or ‘make something start to burn’.
E.g. “Gas ignites very easily”, or “the hot weather made it much more likely that the forest would ignite.”
It can also be used as a metaphor, especially with words like “controversy” or “debate”.
“Donald Trump’s words ignited controversy for the 2nd time this week…”
So that’s igneous rock, metamorphic rock and sedimentary.
I’ve got a (terrible) pun for you.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are on a geology field trip, walking near a lake. Watson spots something interesting and says “Holmes, what kind of rock is this?”
Holmes says “Sedimentary, my dear Watson”.
Rubbish isn’t it. Obviously, it’s because Holmes is famous for saying “Elementary my dear Watson”. It’s a pretty easy joke to adapt.
Holmes and Watson are wondering through a weird alien land where everything is made of chocolate. Watson says “what’s this massive tree with red and yellow sweets on it?”
“M&M tree, my dear Watson.”
I challenge you to come up with a pun for igneous and metamorphic rock…
How do you know what kind of rock is which?
If it’s got little bubbles in it? Igneous
Got some little crystals in it, or some little bits seem shiny? Igneous (e.g. granite – that hard grey rock which is used to build really good quality things – like a really solid good quality wall outside a bank, or an impressive modern monument in the centre of town)
Got some lines or bands in it (not musical bands, unless it’s Dinosaur Jnr, lol) It’s igneous
Has it got fossils in it? Dead animals that got compressed, preserved and petrified? Sedimentary
Sand or pebbles in it? It’s sedimentary
Breaks apart fairly easily? It’s sedimentary
Looks like it was formed in layers? It’s sedimentary
Glassy surface and sharp edges, like flint? ? It’s metamorphic
A big beautiful crystal? It’s metamorphic
Diamonds? It’s mine. It’s fine, just give it to me.
Continuing the story…
The atmosphere in earth is made from gasses that were released from the bubbling cauldron of magma under the surface and which were ejected into the air through volcanoes. All that gas created our atmosphere and we’re lucky in that this combination of gasses is just right for sustaining life.
So all the land and sea and all that stuff is on the surface of these tectonic plates. All the land masses on the top which are exposed above the water layer – these are the continents, countries, islands etc. Now, the tectonic plates under the ground move around all the time – very slowly from our perspective, but they do move over time.
Let’s say that at one point the countries we all live on were in different positions, because the tectonic plates that underpin everything on earth were in different places.
The land on top of those plates is made up of the outpourings of volcanoes and also layers of sedimentary rock which is the result of erosion of different kinds. Rock that is spewed out of volcanoes gets eroded over time and the sediments are carried into the ocean or lakes from glaciers at the top of mountains down through rivers and out into the sea.
The sediments then become sand at the bottom of oceans and lakes.
There was a big ocean over these parts of the USA many many millions of years ago. That ocean dried up in the sun and revealed the sediments at the bottom.
The part of the USA where Bryce Canyon is located now has occupied different points of latitude over the years. Basically, that area in Arizona used to be further south. At one point it was equatorial (on the equator), and as the tectonic plates shifted the continent moved and it went north and became sub-equatorial, which is that part just above or below the equator (above in this case) that tends to be super hot and dry – deserts like the Sahara are sub-equatorial.
As this ocean dried up and the sandy sediment was exposed to the sun in sub-equatorial conditions like that it became a huge desert covered with sand dunes being blown around by the wind.
Those dunes built up and up and over millions of years the pressure of their own weight solidified them into sandstone rock.
The heat of the sun baked it and traces of iron in the stone reacted with moisture causing this rust coloured rock you can see everywhere (like the way rust appears on an old bike).
So, imagine a huge plateau of sandstone rock, baked by the sun. A massive plateau that covers an area of hundreds of square kilometres.
I’m sorry I’m not sure of the time frame here but we’re talking about stuff that happened hundreds of millions of years ago and changes that occurred over that period, give or take a few hundred million years. I can’t even imagine that much time, but it’s a really really long time. Even longer than this episode of the podcast.
By the way, here I am talking to you about geology. I’m just an English teacher remember. There might be some of you out there who are actual geologists and I don’t want you to feel like I’m, what, teaching my grandmother to suck eggs (that’s an old expression which means – teaching something to someone who already knows it).
Anyway, I’m just trying to give some context. About 3.5 billion years of context. Ha!
This is stuff that I read about when I was there because it helped us to understand the significance of the place that we were visiting.
So, tectonic plates are moving under the surface all the time. Sometimes the plates push against each other or rub over each other, causing the land on the surface to rise.
That activity creates mountain ranges and sometimes volcanoes. The mountain ranges then eventually get glaciers forming on top as moisture collects there, it snows and the snow gets ever more compact and turns into lakes of ice – glaciers. Those glaciers slowly move down the mountain because of gravity and they scrape and crush all the rock from the mountains, carving out valleys as they go. As the glaciers get lower and they melt their rivers carry stones and rock sediments out to sea.
These are the sediments needed to make these big sandstone plateaus which are exposed when an ocean dries up. In this case these mountains are the rocky mountains to the north – that’s where all the sediment originally came from.
These tectonic plates move everything on the surface around over millions of years so that Bryce Canyon and the whole Grand Staircase has kind of shifted north from an equatorial zone, to a sub-equatorial zone to its present location.
Also volcanic activity underground can push the land up – not just forming mountains, but whole areas can be lifted up. You might end up with a whole plateau rising up over many years, turning it into high ground – not a sudden mountain, but a gradual swell over hundreds of miles, so that what was once the bed of the ocean becomes a huge plateau that’s at quite a high altitude.
That’s what happened at Bryce and the surrounding areas.
The whole thing that used to be this ocean floor and a lake basin, got pushed upwards to form this high plateau of sandstone. A lot of it is also limestone from deposits of things like shells or animal matter that was in the water. There are loads of fossils in this area and you can track the evolution of animals by comparing evidence from each stage in the staircase. It’s like a time ladder or something – it tells you the story of life.
So this sandstone with a limestone layer on top becomes a high plateau. Like I said before, remember, if you stand on the edge of Bryce Canyon (which is not actually a canyon because there’s no significant river at the bottom – unlike the Grand Canyon which has the Colorado river running through it) If you stand on the edge, like my wife and I did, you can see in the distance, on the horizon the other part of this plateau, but in the middle now there’s a huge series of canyons with massive bits of rock that stick up in ridges, and on the top of each ridge there are tall towers of rock in all sorts of weird shapes, and they have different lines of colour depending on what layer in the staircase they are from.
This whole place was formed from that plateau.
Here’s how that happened.
Basically, cracks formed in the top of the plateau as it rose. A bit like when cracks appear on the top of a cake as it rises.
Over millions of years these cracks were subject to erosion – the movement of things like water or ice and maybe wind.
At the top of the plateau moisture freezes in winter to become ice. The ice sits like a layer on top of everything. During the day it melts a bit and then flows into the cracks. At night it freezes again, and we know that water expands when it freezes (imagine leaving a bottle of beer or wine in the freezer – it cracks the glass because the liquid has expanded as it froze) so as the water trickles into existing cracks in the rock and then freezes again and expands it cracks the rock.
The water/ice works its way down, cracking the rock as it goes. Some of the rock is harder than other parts so not all of it gets cracked – not all of it disintegrates. So these creepy looking towers are left behind by the erosion of the ice and water.
It’s like the ice, the water and just the passage of time have worked on these towers of rock, sculpting them into different shapes that stand like statues above the open space of the canyon below them.
Below that the trickling water and wind smooth out these gullies and creek beds that go down and down into the canyon.
So you can walk down into these little riverbeds, down the sides of the canyon and walk around looking up at the towers of rock.
You commune with the rock formations.
To the native Americans who used to live here, these places were very sacred and special and they believed that spirits lived in the rocks. In fact they saw the faces of loads of different spirits and gods in the stones when they looked at them.
As you see all these abstract shapes your mind attempts to make sense of it and it’s easy to see faces, animals and even little stories in the formations. You know when you see big clouds in the sky and sometimes they look like things – like, “that one looks like a dog!” or “that one looks like a face” or “That one looks like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un kissing” or something, there are hundreds of faces in the rocks. It’s stunning to look at.
Actually, ‘seeing faces or shapes in rocks or clouds’ is a recognised phenomenon called
Pareidolia (/pærɪˈdoʊliə) is a psychological phenomenon in which the mind responds to a stimulus, usually an image or a sound, by perceiving a familiar pattern where none exists (e.g., in random data).
Common examples are perceived images of animals, faces, or objects in cloud formations, the Man in the Moon, the Moon rabbit, hidden messages within recorded music played in reverse or at higher- or lower-than-normal speeds, and hearing indistinct voices in random noise such as that produced by air conditioners or fans. (Wikipedia)
Basically, when your mind is presented with a stimulus – like a pattern or just random sounds, it tries to make sense of it and often will kind of read the stimulus as something familiar. This probably accounts for the way people can see ghosts in swirling mist, or they can see images of Jesus in toast or something. Either that or Jesus is trying to tell us something and putting his face in toast is the only way he can do it.
These towers in Bryce Canyon are called “Hoodoos” (sounds a bit like voodoo doesn’t it) and some of them have very human forms. They look a bit like old Roman statues, worn away be the rain. Or they look like architecture by Gaudi the guy who designed various buildings in Barcelona, like the Sagrada Familia cathedral.
In any case they look like spooky, ghostly statues standing in these huge auditoriums made from the erosion of rocks over millions of years.
It’s incredible and a lot more powerful than any of the art we saw in Los Angeles.
Genuinely breathtaking stuff.
After an afternoon of being wowed by the spectacle of Hoodoos and a big naturally occurring bridge in the rock we did a moderate hike into the canyon. This was late afternoon so the whole place got flooded with this incredible orangey pinkish rust coloured light. It was absolutely amazing.
A MOUNTAIN RANCH
Buffalo in the field (though we can’t see them), chickens running around.
Cows and horses.
Slept in a little wooden cabin.
Absolutely insane stars in the night sky. The milky way is incredible. No light pollution. It’s like someone has poured milk into black coffee.
This episode includes anecdotes and descriptions of our short visit to Las Vegas, including stories of more rental car issues, Las Vegas craziness, winning and losing $$$ and 11 English idioms that come from gambling.
⬇️ Episode script and notes (Idioms list below) ⬇️
It was just as a stopover between L.A. and other areas, and to have a one look in your life, see what all the fuss is about sort of experience.
Take the rental car back to the car rental company.
Remember them, from part 1 of this?
When we picked up the car in LA – just a Nissan hatchback by the way, nothing fancy, at the start of the trip we had to go and wait in a boiling hot car park in Inglewood or somewhere, where I stood waiting on my phone for ages waiting to get through to someone to tell them we had arrived, standing there on hold with my arm going numb and the sun beating down on both me and my pregnant wife, and after about 40 minutes a guy in a rental car came and picked us up, and told us “oh yes, the shuttle busses are in the garage – they broke down on Tuesday”.
We drop off the car, pay the money, ask about the difference in price between the bill and the receipt –
“Sorry Mani, isn’t here today.”
“Can you do it?”
“Sorry, I can’t. He’s the manager.”
(We got fobbed off by the girl behind the counter)
There’s supposed to be a shuttle (bus) service back to the airport.
But it’s obvious that this is a crappy little rental car company that is cutting corners and fobbing everyone off with this talk of the “shuttle” that is mysteriously always in the garage.
Again we’re told that the shuttle is in the garage so we squeeze into another rental car with a German couple this time.
My wife is in the front, and I’m squeezed in with the Germans.
The Germans are quite nice, but it’s pretty clear they didn’t have the best experience with their car and they’ve driven a really long distance, without cruise control (which is standard for rentals usually) and they’re saying to the driver,
“Do you not have cars with cruise control? Because it’s very uncomfortable to drive 4,000 miles without cruise control, you know?”
I’m thinking – 4,000 miles! Without cruise control. His leg must be knackered.
The driver goes “Cruise control? Yes, there is cruise control.”
“No, there is no cruise control in this car.”
“This was your rental?”
Turns out the “shuttle” is just the same car the Germans just rented.
“Yes, there is no cruise control in this car. It was very difficult for us. Do you not have cars with cruise control?”
The driver is not interested in taking questions. He says “Some of them do and some of them don’t.”
“I think it would be good if your cars have the cruise control”
“I’m just the driver man”
I note in my head that our car had cruise control, and I never used it, not once, but I don’t say anything. I don’t think it would have helped.
“Well, our car had cruise control, and guess what we never used it! Ha ha, it would have been useful if we’d swapped, right? I bet you would have appreciated that after the first 3,000 miles!!”
But I didn’t say that. I just ‘enjoyed’ the really awkward vibe in the car, and the knowledge that my wife was pretty much steaming, but keeping herself under control.
After the Germans got out my wife chose to cross-examine the driver.
“So, where are the shuttles?”
“Oh, they’re in the garage, we had some trouble with them.”
“Both of them?”
“Yes, it’s just a coincidence.”
“OK. When did they go in the garage?”
“Oh just on Friday.”
“Well last week you said they broke down on Tuesday.”
“I’m just the driver”
“I know you’re just the driver but…”
“You’re getting driven there, I’m driving you personally…”
“I know but we just don’t appreciate being lied to, that’s all…”
At this point he got really angry and started making it personal.
“OK, you’re getting personal with me now, and I don’t appreciate you making personal attacks against me, ok?”
As I was taking the bags out of the back, I was trying to say, “Look, it’s not personal we’re just commenting on the service. We were told one thing, we get another thing. It’s not you, right? it’s your management, right?”
He just went “Well I deliver you to the airport and you make it personal” and he just got in the car and drove off.
I couldn’t help feeling bad for the guy. I think he probably has no choice but to lie about the shuttle thing because the crappy management of this company keeps telling their customers there will be a shuttle. It’s written in their emails and stuff. I imagine he’s just trying to keep his job.
He couldn’t really say “Yes, well to be honest sir our company is lying to you. We don’t have any shuttles, it’s not worth it – you know? Because we don’t get enough customers to justify using a whole bus, and there’s obviously nowhere for us to park one anyway, so we just use these cars and I’m always dealing with these problems, but it’s because the management keep lying.”
He can’t admit that the company lies or is wrong. It’s unfair on him. I know, I’m making excuses for the guy, but what can he do?
The management should just say they have a personal car service, it would solve the problem.
That’s the solution. We don’t care about shuttles. Just say there’s a personal car service. The driver can introduce himself. “Hi, I’m Carlos, I’m your driver, where are you guys from?” Etc. That would solve the problem. Instead, Carlos (or whatever he’s called) is on the defensive and can’t start talking to the customers because he knows they’re not happy. Poor Carlos, and poor customers.
I wonder what’s really going on there – at this particular franchise of Wrong Cars™.
Anyway, after that we got on our plane for the short flight to Vegas. We could have driven but we planned this to make sure there was as little driving as possible, because when you’re pregnant it’s not good to sit in a vibrating car for hours on end, and anyway it sucks to be stuck in a car all the time.
We arrive in Vegas
It’s in the middle of the Mojave Desert for goodness sake.
We rent a car from another company this time – more established. Enterprise. Admittedly, it’s a bit more expensive but we don’t want to risk it because we’ll be driving in some fairly deserted spots and we want a car that will not break down and that has customer service that’s actually available by telephone.
So we get to the car rental area – a massive building in airportland. Dazzling service. We’re in the car in a matter of minutes and it looks brand new. We rented a small SUV. The main thing was that it was comfy and could deal with bits of rough terrain if needed. We get a Jeep Renegade. It’s pretty cool. Wife is happy and in comfort. OK.
Staying at New York New York Hotel.
Vegas is completely insane and, honestly, not a great place. In fact it’s the most tawdry, sleazy, tacky place ever.
Pick the most touristy part of any town and amplify it by 1000. It’s like that.
It’s boiling hot outside but inside it’s freezing, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to build this massive place with all these things like swimming pools, hotels and golf courses in the middle of the desert.
God knows how they get their water.
And it’s just a weird place cut off from reality in which you are constantly being seduced and distracted by flashing lights and big things and encouraged to gamble your money away. It’s like one huge sales pitch in the form of a city.
Inside the casinos there are no windows. They’re like huge circus tents on the inside, with big restaurant facades around the edge, tables for gambling – playing poker or roulette or the one where you throw the dice and there are loads of different numbers and letters and it’s a bewildering illusion of choice, big individual gambling machines, lamp posts (inside the hotel), fake little streets, massive Irish pubs (which is never really a bad thing in itself) but all this stuff and you look up to the sky and it’s the black ceiling of the hotel above you, quite high and in the background. It’s probably daylight outside, but you can’t see the desert sun. Inside the hotel’s gambling area there’s this black canopy of the ceiling above all this trashy fake stuff.
It’s so weird to come to the desert and then find yourself in this totally synthetic place all set against a black backdrop.
This is some people’s idea of a wonderful place – a vast plastic playground with so many attractions, but there’s something very unnatural and twisted about it.
People smoke indoors and this feels wrong now after 10 years since the smoking ban. No big deal, but still… I think the reason is that they prioritise the gambling, so even though it fills the air with harmful smoke, it means people stay at the tables and don’t go outside to smoke their cigarettes.
There are tourists wandering around, families and stuff but also you spot these grizzled gamblers losing fortunes.
You see some old people who have travelled for miles to spend their money because they don’t really know what else to do with it, so it all goes in these machines.
There are some really drunk people, sitting at the bar.
But also families with kids walking around.
Even some bars have gambling machines built into them, so you can lose money (or maybe win) while you’re taking a break from the bigger tables.
In one casino, where we went to the theatre – there was a girl in suspenders dancing erotically on a table, and kids were wandering around.
It was like a strip club in Disneyland. It was like a cross between Disneyland and a lap dancing club. Adult Disneyland, but with families wandering around in it.
Our hotel had a rollercoaster going around it.
Yep, a rollercoaster, with tracks that actually went around the outside of the hotel.
You can stand in the bedroom and every now and then you hear the rumble of the rollercoaster and the muffled screams of people outside the window. This is from inside your hotel room..
If you part the curtains and look out you can see part of the track twisting around past the window and eventually you’ll see the rollercoaster race past, people screaming.
Take a look into the distance and there are the mountains, some desert and then closer to you just weird, big shiny bright buildings and Trump tower. A massive tower with his name at the top in huge gold letters.
“We’ve got the greatest buildings folks, all the best casinos. You’re gonna have fun, and you’re gonna make so much money. We’re gonna Make America Great Again. Believe me folks.”
And the house always wins.
That’s the thing with these casinos.
You have to enjoy the process of it, because you’re basically paying money to experience the excitement of possibility of having more money, even if the probable outcome is that you’ll end up with less.
You’re paying for the excitement of losing, it’s exciting because there’s a possibility that you won’t lose, but the fact is you will probably lose.
So the chances are that you’re going to lose
but you might win
and that’s what makes it exciting
to throw your money away.
The house always wins.
Sometimes somebody wins.
But most people are losing.
And the house is always winning.
Fair enough though, people choose to gamble and they probably enjoy it. People seem to enjoy it – that’s their choice, but it doesn’t appeal to me very much, beyond just having a go to see what the fuss is all about.
But there are some good things about Vegas, ok!
It’s not all awful! It’s fun for a night or maybe two, depending on what you do.
It is a big spectacle – some of the hotels look amazing and massive, and also there are some spectacular shows that you can see – like dance shows such as Cirque du Soleil or Blue Man Group and magic shows like David Copperfield or Penn & Teller.
We chose to go there as a stopover but also to experience it and we did have a laugh!
You have to just go with it a bit and just go ‘ wow, look at that, that’s ridiculous!’
A lot of the time we were walking around, couldn’t believe our eyes, saying “this is insane” “Look at that! It’s a massive Egyptian pyramid!
Our hotel was basically a recreation of the New York skyline. Other hotels have things like an Eiffel Tower, an Egyptian Sphinx, massive fountains and light shows.
It was pretty weird to see the Eiffel Tower considering we see it every day in Paris.
Also, it’s a very convenient place – in the sense that it’s really easy to access the airport, it’s not all that big, things are open 24 hours a day.
People are helpful and friendly.
There was a wholefoods there. In fact there are a few Wholefoods supermarkets there – say no more!
Some of the stuff is good fun.
So, that’s that then isn’t it.
Penn & Teller
Gambling in the Casino
We played some one of the “one armed bandits” – the fruit machines. It’s like one dollar to pull the arm and watch some things spinning around. We put aside about 50 dollars for fun. My wife enjoys the one armed bandits and she’s actually very lucky. I’m a lot more sceptical about it.
But she thinks she’s blessed with luck or something.
(Actually she’s blessed with Luke, but anyway… I’m not sure “blessed” is the right word – “married to” is probably better)
In England, when we had first met each other, we took a trip to Brighton, on the south coast, and we went to the pier (a wooden walkway that stretches out over the sea, wooden legs supporting it – a pier) where there are lots of arcade machines and gambling machines and other attractions, and she was convinced she would win money on the machines and I was going “ but the house always wins” and she was saying “no I’m magic!”.
I was shaking my head thinking “there is no magic, only the force” and she put one pound in a slot machine and promptly won £20, and said “I told you I was magic”. We walked away £20 richer. We didn’t continue gambling. I think she’s smart enough to know that you quit while you’re ahead.
The same thing happened years later, we were in a little resort in the north of France where you find some casinos. She’s not a gambling addict or anything. She just likes playing the machines a few times when we’re on holiday sometimes.
We went to a casino and chose to spend no more than 50E. A 50E limit. Ooh, big bucks, right?
We were walking around trying to find a good machine. There were some slightly sad looking people just sitting there plugged into these persuasive light shows – it’s a sort of low level basic addiction (or high level for some people) – an addiction to the sales pitch, basically.
I was being very sceptical, and making various sceptical noises.
We ended up leaving with 80E, 30E up from when we went in.
We quit while we were ahead.
In Vegas we did some gambling on the machines. I was thinking, “Well, she is magic. Maybe we’ll win enough to get a half decent dinner.”
We lost all the money we took in. All of it.
It was a steady one directional flow of us putting money into the machines and getting nothing in return. Las Vegas just ate our 50 dollars like a crocodile eats a chicken. One gulp, all gone, didn’t even chew. It didn’t even touch the sides as it went down.
We won nothing.
Well, almost nothing. We always seemed to win a few credits just before our money ran out, which I’m sure is a little trick to encourage you to put more money in because you think the machine is going to ‘start paying out’ at some point.
Obviously, we didn’t know what we were doing. We had no clue and I’m sure those machines were the wrong ones to be playing, and some of the casinos are better than others, but anyway we weren’t really there for the gambling. We were more interested in playing it safe.
11 Gambling Idioms (that don’t just apply to gambling)
to be on a winning streak (when you’re winning)
to be on a losing streak (when you’re losing and nothing is going your way)
to break even (when you take the same amount of money that you spent – in gambling or in business. No profit, no loss.)
to quit while you’re ahead (stop when you’re winning)
the house always wins
to bet (to gamble) “I bet you £20 that Arsenal win the game” or (a challenge) “I bet you can’t throw this paper ball in the bin from there!” or (an expectation) “I bet all the tickets are sold out”
to show your hand (show the cards in your hand / reveal your position)
a poker face (a facial expression which reveals nothing – used while playing poker, or in any other situation where you keep a straight face)
don’t push your luck (take a big risk and try doing something that could end in failure – it’s a bit like saying “watch what you’re doing” or “be careful”)
to raise the stakes (the stakes = the money which you have to gamble in a round of poker. The expression is used to mean to increase the amount of money you can win or lose in a gambling game, but also to raise the general level of what you can win or lose – e.g. this line from a recent Daily Mail news article “Mr Trump raised the stakes in the escalating crisis over North Korea’s nuclear threats, suggesting drastic economic measures against China and criticising ally South Korea.” www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/pa/article-4847836/North-Korea-conducts-nuclear-test-making-hydrogen-bomb-claims.html
the chips are down (chips = the plastic coins you use while gambling. The expression means – when you’re feeling bad, or when the situation is bad) E.g. in cricket – “When the chips are down for England, Moeen is often the side’s most useful player.”
I once saw a great documentary by Louis Theroux about high stakes gamblers in Vegas. Some of them lose thousands of dollars, but they keep gambling because they think they’re going to eventually start winning it all back. I’ve put some videos from the documentary on the page for this episode. I love Louis Theroux’s documentaries. They’re fascinating.
The phrase that I take away from one of the videos: Louis and a high-stakes gambler are standing in the biggest hotel suite in the city, looking out of the window at the huge hotels and Louis says “Vegas – they didn’t build these casinos on winners you know” and the guy says “I think in the lifetime, everyone’s a loser. But the thrill of being able to win today, lose next month, win the year after. I think it’s the challenge. I think it’s the thrill. I think it’s the entertainment in this city.”
Louis Theroux Gambling Documentary – video clips
Louis hangs out with a high-stakes gambler in a very expensive hotel suite in Las Vegas
Here’s the same guy, after losing about $400,000 dollars in 3 days
Louis gambles with a couple of gambling “enthusiasts” (addicts?)
Louis plays the “one armed bandits” with Martha (these are the machines that took our $50 in just a few minutes) Martha says “I lost 4 million dollars in the casino in 7 years.”
Louis gets lucky playing Baccarat
“Because I resigned myself to failure that night, Lady Luck had decided to tantilise me by making me win.”
How gambling can be dangerous
It seems that this is how it goes:
You might begin by winning some money. Then you feel lucky so you bet bigger, but you lose it.
You then start digging yourself in deeper and deeper, expecting your luck to change but there is absolutely no certainty that it will.
Some people talk about ‘the law of averages’ – suggesting that in time any sequence will balance out. E.g. you might spend a certain amount of time losing, but ultimately this will be balanced out by the number of times you win.
But that’s assuming that gambling in a casino is random. Usually it is subtly weighed in favour of the casino so that the pattern is that the casino wins more often than you. Even if you win a lot, the casino can afford it because more people have lost overall.
Often these high stakes gamblers keep betting because they think they’ll eventually start winning. They often don’t and then leave utterly devastated by the loss.
The house always wins.
Then what might happen is that you’ve lost, you’re dejected. You resign yourself to failure but play another game because why not, and then you hit a winning streak.
What a powerful combination of defeat and then victory, all out of your control. You’re at the mercy of this external force, playing around with “luck”. (Not Luke)
And the house always wins.
We drove along the strip. It’s madness out there! Just all the flashing lights and the spectacle, it’s like Picadilly Circus on steroids and the steroids are also on steroids.
Unbelievably massive plate of pancakes for breakfast.
Then we got out of town.
I told you I would talk about nature and canyons, and big rocks! All that stuff I really loved seeing, but I got carried away – distracted by tales of gambling in Vegas.
Las Vegas – a place that seems diametrically opposed to somewhere like Bryce National Park or The Grand Canyon.
I’m glad we only spent an afternoon, one evening and a night there.
Natural beauty is so much more real.
Well, anything is more real than Las Vegas, I suppose.
Thanks for listening.
Join the mailing list.
Thanks to the Orion transcription team and Andromeda proofreading team.
Shout out to the comment section crew.
Shout out to the Long-Term LEPsters, you know who you are.
Shout out to the new listeners, I hope you stick with us.
Shout out to every single one of you all around the world, listening to this right now and united by the fact that you are all citizens of LEPland or Podland or whatever we are calling this community which crosses international boundaries.
Be excellent to each other and party on!
More thoughts and comments inspired by things that happened during my recent holiday. In this one I’m discussing stories about the Church of Scientology and the claims that it is a cult. Listen to find out what happened in this part of my trip. Check the episode page for the vocabulary.
This episode includes information and claims about Scientology which I saw and heard in various interviews and documentaries. It should be noted that the Church of Scientology disagrees with those claims. They state that critics of the church are seeking to make money or gain attention from their claims and their associations. I am presenting the information in this episode because I believe it makes an interesting episode of my podcast and is therefore an opportunity for my listeners to improve their English.
Here is a list of vocabulary that you can learn from this episode. (definitions are in brackets)
a modern kind of dogma (a belief system that is imposed on people, e.g. through rules or writings which tell you what to do, or not to do)
a self-help system (a set of practices that can help people deal with their problems)
theology (a set of religious beliefs)
to ascend the hierarchy of the church (to rise up through the different levels)
the principles that underpin the religion (support, are the foundations of)
these guys were checking us out (looking at us, observing us)
minding their own business (not paying attention to other people or things, just focusing on their own things)
it’s not subject to scrutiny because Scientology is officially recognised as a religion (careful observation)
hostile behaviour (showing strong disagreement, sometimes aggressively)
to be shunned by your family, or shunned by the church (rejected, ostracised, ignored)
he was suffering from mental illness at the time – he was having a bipolar episode (a period of mental illness symptomatic of bipolar disorder, e.g. a period of mania or psychosis)
conventional psychology, psychiatry or psychotherapeutic practices (psychology = the scientific study of the mind and its processes / psychiatry = medicine and medical care for mental illness / psychotherapy or psychotherapeutic practices = the use of psychological practices and not drugs in the treatment of mental illness)
psychosomatic illness (physical illness caused by the mind, not by the body)
a placebo (a ‘fake drug’, a substance with no effect which is used as part of the testing process for medicines)
the placebo effect (the fact that a person’s health might show improvement after taking a placebo because they believe it to be a genuine drug, a kind of psychosomatic effect)
Freud’s ideas about the ego, super-ego and the id (super-ego = the part of your mind which understands right and wrong and imposes society’s rules on yourself / the id = the primitive instincts which exist in your unconscious mind / the ego = the conscious mind, aware of itself, in balance or conflict between the motivations of the super-ego and id / all concepts developed by Sigmund Freud)
It’s a doctrine written by one man (a set of religious beliefs)
L Ron Hubbard – the founder (the person who set up or founded something)
they rejected it as pseudoscience (fake science)
Some people have called him a visionary (someone with an original and inspiring vision of something new), other people have called him an outright fraud (an open or obvious liar and deceiver)
spirits that were sent to earth by a celestial being (a person, creature or life-form from outer-space)
was he making it all up (creating it) on purpose and developing a sort of cult of personality (a small and strange group devoted to one individual) around himself as anarcissisticpowertrip? (narcissistic = self obsessed and in love with himself / power trip = an obsessive or extreme use or abuse of power)
someone with bipolar disorder (a mental illness, previously called ‘manic depression) suffering a manic episode
the guy was crawling the walls (going crazy). He was delusional (not in touch with reality), hallucinating (seeing things that aren’t there), in the grips of (being severely affected by) a full-on (intense) bipolar manic episode
a device for displaying and/or recording the electrodermalactivity (electrical activity on the skin) (EDA) of a human being
the Church of Scientology now publishes disclaimers in its books and publications declaring that the E-meter “by itself does nothing” and that it is used specifically for spiritual purposes (a statement that they are not responsible for something)
a small arm, like on a watch, that moves or twitches sometimes because of stimulus from the metal tubes (moves quickly or suddenly)
described by some critics as a typical example of a “Bait and switch fraud” (a type of deception in which someone thinks they’re buying one thing but it is replaced for something else)
a term used usually to describe fraud in a retail context (relating to shops)
The court ruling was upheld ( ruling = a decision by a court or judge / upheld = was not changed or overturned, was maintained)
an appeal in a court (a request for another court decision or judgement)
The fraud conviction (when someone is found guilty of a crime in court) criminal was upheld in the appeal court
Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath
“Going Clear: The Prison of Belief”
“Louis Theroux: My Scientology Movie”
Paul Haggis, Oscar winning Canadian film maker who used to be in the church but left. Also, the story of ‘Xenu’ (from Going Clear)
Longer videos – full conversations about scientology
Louis Theroux – full conversation on Joe Rogan’s podcast
Leah Rimini – full conversation on Joe Rogan’s podcast
Find out what happened two years ago when I first visited the Scientology Centre in Los Angeles
The holiday diary continues and in this chapter we visited Bel Air in L.A. and so here is an analysis of the lyrics to Will Smith’s rap from “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”, a famous TV show (and a very serious piece of work, haha) from the 90s which was set in Bel Air itself. Topics covered: TV pop culture, racial politics, slang English.
By the way, these are flapjacks, just in case you were wondering. Yum.
Flapjacks (these ones are made with honey, oats and peanut butter) Click the pic for the recipe.
Did you get The Fresh Prince of Bel Air on TV in your country?
I used to watch the TV show a lot when I was younger (in the 90s).
Yes, the Fresh Prince is American English but I consider it also to be global English and you should too. Also, I think everyone should know or at least be able to repeat one or two of the lines from this rap, right?
So let’s listen to it and analyse some of the lyrics.
It’s not even a great rap, that’s the thing! It’s just a laugh! It’s not exactly the Wu Tang Clan or anything… Anyway…
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air – language analysis & cultural commentary
Summary of the story
This rap basically sets up the scenario of the show. Did you work out the details of the story?
Will Smith is an ordinary guy from a rough part of Philadelphia. The area where he lives is too rough and dangerous, so his mum decides he has to move in with his aunt and uncle, who happen to live in Bel Air, in Los Angeles. The aunt and uncle are rich and successful. The uncle (Uncle Phil) is a top lawyer. This is obviously possible, but quite rare.
Is it just a funny TV show, or is it about race relations and racial politics in the USA?
I’m not sure I am fully qualified to talk about racial politics in the USA. The fact is, despite the American dream which says anyone can make it, it appears to be much harder for a black guy to become a millionaire than for a white guy to do it. I’m not saying why that is, I’m just saying it. In fact, I’m reporting it as something I’ve heard Chris Rock say, so fine – not my words, the words of Chris Rock.
“Don’t hate the player, hate the game”.
“You don’t get plaques for getting rid of plaque.” (two meanings of the word ‘plaque’ – listen to hear the explanations)
“The black man gotta fly to get something the white man can walk to.”
“I had to host the Oscars to get that house.”
Listen to the episode to hear my language analysis and some comparisons with British English.
I’ll tell you which bits of vocab are “standard” (i.e. not specific slang – the stuff everyone should know) and “slang” (i.e. the stuff that’s more specific to the informal English you might hear from Will Smith or the social group of the time)
Fresh Prince of Bel Air – Rap, Long version Now, this is a story all about how My life got flipped, turned upside down And I’d like to take a minute So just sit right there I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel Air
In west Philadelphia born and raised On theplayground was where I spent most of my days Chilling out, maxin‘ relaxin’ all cool And all shootin some b-ball outside of the school When a couple of guys who were up to no good Started making trouble in my neighborhood I got in one little fight and my mom got scared [UK – mum, USA – mom] She said ‘You’re movin’ with your auntie and uncle in Bel Air’
I begged and pleaded with her day after day But she packed my suit case and sent me on my way She gave me a kiss and then she gave me my ticket. I put my Walkman on and said, ‘I might as wellkick it‘.
First class, yo this is bad Drinking orange juice out of a champagne glass. Is this what the people of Bel-Air living like? Hmmmmm this might be alright.
But wait I hear they’re prissy, bourgeois, all that Is this the type of place that they just send this cool cat? I don’t think so I’ll see when I get there I hope they’re prepared for the prince of Bel-Air
Well, the plane landed and when I came out There was a dude who looked like a cop standing there with my name out I ain’t trying to get arrested yet I just got here I sprang with the quickness like lightning, disappeared
I whistled for a cab and when it came near The license plate said “FRESH” and it had dice in (on) the mirror If anything I could say that this cab was rare But I thought ‘Nah, forget it’ – ‘Yo, holmes to Bel Air’
I pulled up to the house about 7 or 8 And I yelled to the cabbie ‘Yo holmes, smell ya later‘ I looked at my kingdom I was finally there To sit on my throne as the Prince of Bel Air
In this episode I talk about visiting the fantastic Griffith Observatory and then ‘go off on one’ about Astronomy vs Astrology and ludicrous flat earth conspiracy theories. Includes various bits of vocabulary throughout the episode.
Just before we start I just realised that I forgot to mention some of your responses to the episode with my Dad about cricket which was uploaded in August.
Cricket episode (#473) comments
In general, the responses seem to be along these lines: I love listening to you talk to your Dad, it’s always nice to hear his voice and his descriptions of things, but this was the most difficult episode of the podcast ever! You broke my mind! You destroyed my brain!
Hi Luke, I do really love episodes with your Dad, but this particular one, completely destroyed me. ;) Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to listen to your Dad, as always, and I liked the cricket related phrases, so I’ll cut you some slack for making my brain hurt a bit. Cheers!
Holiday Diary part 3
Here we go with part 3 of this series which is based around some of the things I saw while I was away on holiday last month.
You should listen to parts 1 and 2 before hearing this, because that will put this episode in the right context. In a nutshell the context is that my wife is preggers, she’s got a bun in the oven. By the way, I just wanted to say that I chose to reveal this personal news because it would be impossible to keep it secret, right? For example if my uploading becomes a bit erratic when the baby arrives, you’ll understand why. Perhaps you can manage your expectations a bit if you remember that I’ve “got a lot on my plate“. Having a child will be wonderful but probably quite disruptive, but I certainly don’t plan on halting this project as a result. We went on hols to the USA for a “babymoon” (our chance to enjoy a fairly big holiday together while it’s just the two of us), we saw some really interesting things and it gave me inspiration to talk about some topics on the podcast.
What’s this episode all about?
In this one the plan is to talk about astronomy, astrology and flat earth conspiracy theories. I hope there will be enough time! Let’s see. If I run out of time, some of those things will no doubt turn up in the next episode.
I expect the main questions for this will be:
What is the Griffith Observatory and what did we see there? )And how do you pronounce Griffith Observatory?)
What is the difference between astronomy and astrology?
Is astrology a load of old nonsense, or is it all right?
What is the flat earth theory all about?
Why do people think the earth is flat?
Is the earth flat or is it round (I’m pretty sure it’s round or globe shaped)?
What words can you pick up from all of this to help expand your vocabulary, improve your listening and develop your English in general?
We will see as we go through the episode.
Vocabulary for you to learn (check the notes and script)
On the subject of the English you’re going to hear, I will try and define some language as it comes up, but also you should check the page for this episode. In the episode archive search for episode 476 (oh that’s this page- you’re already here). On that page you’ll see some notes and some transcriptions, and there you can see the words and phrases, see how they are spelled, copy/paste expressions to your word lists or flashcard apps and so on, or just enjoy listening to the episode.
Griffith Observatory and a hike in the park
There was lots of geology and astronomy on this holiday. The geology because of the National Parks and all the rock formations with their stories of history, and astronomy because we visited the Griffith Observatory (this place dedicated to observing the sun and the night sky). Also, in a hotel one evening while zapping between the many TV channels I came across a long interview with famous astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, which was absolutely fascinating and also quite mind blowing – as he usually is.
You can listen to that conversation with Neil Degrasse Tyson on the Nerdist podcast here.
And then near the end of the holiday there was the total solar eclipse over some parts of the USA and every single person was talking about it. We didn’t see the full eclipse, but experienced some of it. So, lots of big things like the moon, the stars, the earth, our place in the universe and also the value of proper critical thinking and science in general.
We had a nice hike (not too demanding but not too easy) through Griffith Park up to the observatory. Hiking…
Walking up through the park we had views of Griffith Park and the Hollywood hills and the Hollywood sign. You get views over LA including the high-rise buildings in the downtown area.
It’s cool to be doing some hiking in what feels like the countryside and then to turn around and see the skyline of the city.
Hiking to Griffith Observatory
Griffith Observatory and Griffith Park are named after the man who donated the land (about 12 km squared) and paid for the observatory and theatre.
His name was Griffith J. Griffith. What a name!
Imagine calling your son Griffith Griffith!
Interesting bloke. Here’s the first paragraph of Wikipedia’s page about him:
Anyway, (despite that horrible crime) it’s cool that this guy clearly believed in the importance of having a space dedicated to teaching ordinary people about how the earth fits into our galaxy, how it interacts with the sun and the moon, and all that stuff.
Astronomy is fascinating, I think.
Astronomy vs Astrology (the difference)
Astronomy – the scientific study of stars, planets and natural objects in space
Astrology – the study of movements of stars and planets and the belief that these movements can affect the lives of humans on earth. So that includes the predictions written into horoscopes, the system of star signs and how they are said to dictate our personalities and the things that will happen to us.
I don’t believe in astrology.
How could the movement of stars and planets affect whether your boss will give you a pay rise or if you’ll have an awkward encounter with a possible lover?
Who knows, maybe our lives are totally subject to astrological forces out there and everything that happens has already been written in advance, but I don’t think there’s much reliable evidence for it.
But that’s not the point for people who believe in horoscopes. I think for them it’s not about looking for the most reliable theory to understand the universe. It more about finding the one that makes you feel right about yourself.
We’re not the centre of the universe. We’re part of something much larger than we can possibly imagine. (I sound like Obiwan Kenobi)
Sure, Saturn is a huge thing out there in space and it does have forces of gravity, probably radiation that come from it, but my iPhone probably produces more radiation than Saturn, because it’s so much closer to me than Saturn. I get it, Saturn is big, but it’s also very very far away. The mass of the table in front of me exerts more influence on me than the mass of Saturn at this distance.
And, if horoscopes can predict the future, why aren’t they front page news?
Maybe they don’t want to seem arrogant.
Yeah we can predict the future, we know what’s going to happen to the money markets, to the environment, to each individual person, but we don’t like to make a big deal out of it.
Horoscopes are never on the front page, they’re always printed in the middle of the newspaper, next to the crossword and the sudoku. “Yes, we know the future of your children, but let’s just print it down here in the corner next to these puzzles.”
Anyway, at the Griffith Observatory, it was nice to get a dose of space stuff – some astronomy. It’s great to see that this building is devoted to educating people about astronomy and that loads of people were there, families with their kids (even if they were annoying “Mommy look this is awesome!” etc) it’s good to see that these kids are being educated about science.
They have cool interactive models and presentations about the earth’s orbit around the sun, with live telescope footage of the sun itself (through loads of filters of course), the moon’s orbit around the earth, the way the moon and the sun together affect the tides in the oceans. It was really cool.
And the earth is round, by the way.
Flat Earth (Conspiracy) Theory – Some people still believe the earth is flat
These days Flat Earth theories seem to be quite popular again, especially on the internet.
I didn’t meet anyone or at least speak to anyone in the USA who believed in flat earth theory, but I’ve seen a lot of talk of it online.
There are quite a lot of youtubers and even famous musicians and celebrities who spread the idea that the earth is flat and that there’s a global (although I guess they wouldn’t use the word “global”) conspiracy to convince us all that it’s in fact round, or a ‘globe’.
Most of these people are Americans of course, because as far as I can tell the USA is the world’s #1 place for conspiracy theories.
I’m quite interested in conspiracy theories and I’m willing to hear the arguments. Some of them are fairly convincing (e.g I’m a bit sceptical about the official story of the JFK assassination but I don’t pretend to know what really happened) and other theories are completely ridiculous.
I think the flat earth theory is in the latter category.
I think it’s ridiculous believing the earth is flat because it means you have to also reject:
Pretty much all the basic understandings that we have of the way the world works, including the laws of physics, which are tested time and time again, scientifically (which means subject to the most reliable forms of objective testing and scrutiny possible). You have to reject the big bang theory, and even the basic law of gravity.
And you have to believe that all the governments, shipping and airline companies, scientists in different communities around the globe and in fact all those underpaid science teachers – you have to believe they are all part of a huge organised conspiracy to maintain the idea that the earth is round, when in fact it is flat.
What would be the purpose of doing that?
And anyway, it’s impossible! We’re just not competent enough to do that.
As a species we’re not even able to keep a sex tape secret, so what chance do we have of maintaining a lie that big?
I think we have to look at why people choose to believe in this kind of thing anyway.
I think it goes together with a general sense of distrust in authority, a feeling of individual empowerment that you get from believing something like that and the simple human ability to get stuck in a certain worldview and then block out anything that contradicts it, even if it’s rational evidence that has been proven over and over again.
I think once a person has invested themselves in a certain belief system for whatever reason, it’s very hard to get them out of it.
For example, you might hear a conspiracy theorist say “I believe the earth is flat and nobody can convince me that it’s not”.
That’s all you need to know really. They’re not interested in being convinced with evidence.
They’re more interested in pursuing their belief and maintaining it. Why? I don’t know. I think it’s an aspect of human nature that is very powerful and you can see it in lots of other situations too – like for example the way people end up getting involved in religious cults or the way people do very bad things because they believe they’re carrying out some kind of divine plan.
Flat earthers are not as bad as people like that, I suppose, but what would happen if the President came out as a flat earther? Then what? Would flat earth theories start to enter schools? Would more and more people start to believe it? If the flat earthers eventually outnumbered the scientific community, the round earth community, would flat earth become the dominant idea? Hundreds of years of history could be wiped out by a belief system like that. It’s actually possible, that’s the thing.
Let’s listen to a couple of YouTubers talking about it.
If you disagree and you think the earth is flat (which is very trendy at the moment by the way) write your ideas in the comment section. Why do you think the earth is flat? What’s your evidence? How do you deal with things like the laws of gravity or the fact that shadows are at different lengths on the ground in different places at the same time of day?
Thanks for listening! Leave your comments below with any thoughts from this episode.
Did you notice any good bits of vocabulary? You could copy&paste them into the comment section.
Talking about some modern art which I saw while visiting several galleries in Los Angeles. Includes descriptions of different movements in modern art, details about some famous artists and their work, some thoughts about whether modern art is really amazing, or maybe just a load of pretentiousrubbish! (Spoiler alert: it depends)
Hi everyone, here’s part two of my holiday diary and in this one I’m going to continue describing things I saw and did on my recent holiday in the USA. The plan is not just to describe our trip but also to use it as a springboard to talk about some other subjects in a bit of depth, and in this episode that includes things like modern art (describing some different types of art from the modern period and giving my thoughts on some art work that we saw in a couple of galleries) astronomy and astrology, flat-earth conspiracy theories and probably some other things too, depending on how long this takes! It looks like this is going to be a series of episodes with what I hope will be an interesting variety of topics beyond just me talking about my holiday.
I’m recording this on the same day as I uploaded the last one. So I’m already seeing some messages coming in from people on Twitter and FB and stuff (in response to part 1), so thanks a lot for your kind messages saying congratulations for the fact that we’re going to have a baby.
Ok, let’s carry on!
Just to recap
We went to USA to have a blow-out before the arrival of our baby in December. A final trip just the two of us. Los Angeles via Montreal, then the canyons and Navajo Nation, then back to LA and home again.
Downtown Los Angeles
Tried to go to an art gallery called The Broad. This is a flashy-looking new art gallery. We went to see an interesting installation by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, but there was a huge queue outside – probably attracted by the installation, which is proving really popular. Apparently it’s called “Infinity Mirrored Room — The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away” which is…
“a mirror-lined chamber housing a dazzling and seemingly endless LED light display. This experiential artwork has extremely limited capacity, accommodating one visitor at a time for about a minute” The Broad website.
An installation =a work of art constructed within a space in a gallery.
We ended up in The Museum of Contemporary Art LA, just down the road from the broad.
Also went to LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) at one point during the trip.
Artists whose work we saw
We saw work by some celebrated artists from several important movements in modern art.
Pablo Picasso (Spanish, Cubism, surrealism – mainly in the first half of the 20th century and middle of the 20th century) Jackson Pollock (American, Abstract expressionism – late 1940s) Rothko (American of Russian Jewish descent, Abstract expressionism, 50s and 60s) Franz Kline (American, Abstract expressionism, 50s and 60s) Roy Lichtenstein (American, Pop art, abstract expressionism, 60s) Andy Warhol (American, Pop art, most well-known stuff is from the 60s)
And lots of others too.
Movements in Modern Art
Here’s a timeline of art movements in history from www.dummies.com
I’m describing art movements from the early part of the 19th century.
Contemporary art = art being made now Modern art = art from the modern era – late 19th Century and through the 20th century. Arguably we are now in the post-modern era Cubism (n) = an art movement in which artists went away from realistic representations of things and instead used geometric shapes, different kinds of perspective, lines, as if objects could be viewed from a number of different points of view all at the same time. Things exist in a kind of prism of perspective and the way you or the artist looks at something, changes its form. Surrealism (n) = an art movement in which objects or ideas are presented in a strange way, as if in some kind of dream or perhaps representations of the subconscious mind Abstract (adj) = this concept refers to things that aren’t real or tangible, but which exist in the world of the mind or outside reality as we usually see it (e.g. not just illustrating a bowl of fruit) Expressionism (n) = representing feelings or emotions rather than objects or things Abstract expressionism (n) = the name of the post WW2 art movement that combined the freedom of expression from expressionism and the use of abstract forms Pop art (n) = the name of another art movement, this one involved techniques, methods and styles from popular culture like product design, comic book style or photos of celebrities.
What do you think of contempary art, or modern art?
You might think:
“It’s just a bunch of colours or shapes!”
“Anyone could do that!”
“It’s just a load of pretentious nonsense!”
Very common reactions. I think like that too, quite often, especially if I think it’s not very good art.
What makes art good or bad?
You just know it when you see it. If it really doesn’t move you, please you or interest you, you might say it’s bad art, because ultimately it’s in the eye of the beholder – but not completely, because you also have to invest a bit of time and effort into it and also it helps to understand how the work fits into the overall history of art. You have to have some respect for it in order to start appreciating it as work, and ultimately then it can start to enrich your life in some way, but I think art is quite pretentious, which many people have a problem with.
What does pretentious mean Luke?
Something is pretentious (spell it) when it’s trying to seem important, clever or sophisticated, but it isn’t really.
E.g. talking about a work of art like it is the grandest, most important, most emotionally resonating work of genius in human history, and it’s just a blank piece of paper, or a picture of a willy or something.
I think it’s more than just a willy, it’s a statement about… blah blah blah…
So you might think modern art is rubbish.
Or maybe you’re a fan and you think “I love the way the artist plays with different forms and colours. It’s incredibly liberating and fascinating to experience it. I find it inspiring, moving and fascinating.”
It’s quite difficult to talk about art without sounding pretentious, to be honest.
I have mixed feelings about it. Only the really good stuff tends to move me. I mean, it’s rare that it works on me. But I do enjoy the experience of going around a good gallery, looking at work which has stood the test of time.
I also like talking about it. I like the way modern art or abstract art is so open. You feel like you’re interacting with it, but I always need to talk about it. It’s a chance to be totally open-minded and to try and put it into words.
But it’s not something I’m thinking about all the time.
I’m more moved by music (most kinds), acting, films, TV, books, photography (with real stuff in them – like people’s faces or moments in time captured) but when it’s right modern art can be great. Also it works as decoration, but it’s something you can also look closely at and let your mind wander. (wander like go for a walk, but also wonder meaning think about things, but “let your mind wander” is the right expression”.
Expressionism or abstract expressionism – what’s it all about?
This is just me having a stab at describing abstract art.
It seems to me that it’s about creating abstract spaces with no rules at all.
It’s a system with no external reference points (unlike films) it’s just a series of shapes or forms arranged in space which are designed to create certain emotions or feelings in you at a kind of elemental level, or gut level, or sensory level.
Sometimes thinking about it is what you’re not supposed to do, you just have to experience it. It can be something as simple as how it feels to experience these colours and shapes arranged in a certain way.
It could be the way the colours blend together, or certain forms stand out, or the basic gut reaction you have when looking at the canvas.
It’s supposed to be moving at a very natural level, just the interactions of forms in a physical space.
When you realise that it can be liberating and you feel like you’re entering into a conversation with the artist which is free from the constraints of language.
That’s the idea, but to be honest I often find myself getting absolutely nothing from it.
Art vs the art of nature (pretentious, moi?)
OK, so this is where I’m going to get really pretentious and talk about rocks like they’re works of art, but what are you going to do, sue me?
Some of these work of art were or are created in a way that seems to allow the hand of nature to guide the artist somehow, like Pollock who would often drip paint onto the canvas – he wouldn’t always touch the canvas with his brush, but would somehow involve an element of chance or nature in the way the paint splashed as it fell, combining his own judgement and an element of chaos in terms of how the paint ended up falling on the canvas.
The result is like looking inside the emotional space of the artist and you can feel his experience somehow in a way that you can’t put into words – at the moments of rage, passion, serenity or terror, or just the sense that he was experiencing a lack of control in his life or he was subject to emotions or experiences that he didn’t necessarily have a grip on, and yet experienced in the form of emotion. That sounds really pretentious, I know. But when you look at his work, you can choose to say “this is just bollocks” or you can decide that the guy clearly was very serious about what he was doing so there must be something in it. What was he looking for? Something to do with the balance of colours, the texture created by the many drops of paint and the overall sensory effect it creates.
It’s like entering a mood, and with Pollock that mood isn’t entirely happy.
I have the same feeling with Rothko. He managed to paint these pieces that look like just large blocks of colour, but as you stand in front of them and absorb them, the colours seem to blend slightly and become luminous or darker and you get this sense of depth or space and it fills you with a certain emotion. Often it’s a sadness, wistfulness or even a slight sense of stimulation. It defies description, it’s more of a gut feeling.
And by the way, looking at the real thing is far better than looking at a print or poster version in a frame on the wall of your house.
The real thing is a certain size, presented in certain conditions, proper lighting, you’re seeing the actual strokes of his brush or some sense of how he did it, you see the texture of the finished thing, which is important too.
Going back to Pollock – he would work on these big canvases on the floor and would start from scratch letting the painting develop as he added more and more layers but other artists took a different approach like Franz Klein who would plan his abstract work on a small-scale, just sketching it by hand, before recreating the sketch on massive canvases. What was a few scratched lines on a piece of paper becomes a huge striking piece of work. The effect is a bold mix of broad straight lines that combine in haphazard fashion. We kept thinking his paintings looked like close up images of plane crashes done in black and white, like the vague sense that it looked like a WW1 biplane had crashed. That’s not what they were of course, they were just lines, but the point is that the work has this dynamic urgency. They’re violent, bold and stark. Our brains just interpreted them as somehow like a plane crash.
Those are abstract expressionists.
There are lots of loads of other kinds of art, like pop art (Andy Warhol) which sort of consumed aspects of consumer culture with the idea that art could be mass-produced and that every day consumer objects could be works of art too if presented in that way, and I think we’re still experiencing the influence of that today with things like t-shirts with cool designs on them or the fact that we consume logos and brands as a form of art – on t-shirts, even on posters to decorate our homes. Pop art was also a comment on consumer culture – for example Andy Warhol’s famous work with lots of virtually identical screen prints of movie stars with different coloured backgrounds, or just a tin of Campbell’s tomato soup. It’s like examining everyday branded objects as works of art.
I don’t really understand it all, but it is fun to go to an art gallery, drink a load of coffee and then just stare at this stuff and see what it makes you think about and feel.
Anyone can do art, but to do it well is actually really difficult.
It’s not just a bunch of colours on a canvas, it is backed up by intention, technique and a general appreciation of the aesthetics of shape, colour and texture.
So, we saw some modern art, and it was pretty cool.
But honestly, the art we saw just could not be compared to the truly stunning works of nature that we saw later on in our trip in places like The Grand Canyon – objects and environments that had been formed by natural processes over millions of years.
It seems to me that from the point of view of the observer, the exact same forces are at work.
When you look at art or when you look at a mountain or a rock formation you get the instant emotional and intellectual reaction of seeing these incredible shapes, colours and textures, and you experience the wonder of imagining exactly how they were created and the story that they tell.
I must say I was blown away by the geology we saw on this trip, which I’ll describe in more detail later. It was so stunning that at times I was lost for words and it all resonated with us so much that it was quite hard to come to terms with it.
You might think – oh come on it’s just big rocks. And it is just big rocks of course, but I think we all find these things impressive and I’m just trying to capture that feeling in words.
So, I know this sounds pretentious or something, but literally every day we would arrive at a different location to be greeted by ever more impressive natural spectacles. After spending time in each place, doing some walking, getting quite hot in the sunshine, we would be quite exhausted at the end of each day and we’d have this stunned by stimulated feeling during dinner – trying to comprehend what we’d just seen. We also couldn’t sleep during the night. It was like our brains couldn’t rest until we’d somehow compartmentalized the things we’d seen.
The Grand Canyon is the biggest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s so big it makes you feel so insignificant, like a blink in the eye of history.
In some parts of these national parks you’re looking at geological formations that go back something like 500 million years.
And they’re so big that you feel completely dwarfed by them.
This was far more impressive than the modern art we saw, and it made the modern art just look like primitive cave paintings by humans trying to get a grip on the power of basic shapes and colours.
Basically, what I’m trying to say is that nature is the most powerful artist out there.
And I say nature, because the whole story of nature is in these rocks.
The whole thing has been created by different natural forces over hundreds of millions of years.
It makes total sense that water, over such a long period, could erode the rock into these unbelievable shapes. That ice would break up the rock, forming bizarre shapes, that what was once a crack in the ground could become a huge open canyon with a river at the bottom.
So, nature is what formed these things, simply through the presence of certain elements on earth and the actions of the laws of physics.
Pretty mind-blowing stuff. But the modern art was a good way to get into the mindset of appreciating the aesthetics of things.
Let me know your thoughts on modern art. Is it amazing, or is it rubbish? Leave your comments below.
…and thanks for listening.
Want to see some examples of the art I described in this episode? Click the links below.