In this episode I read out a short story written by Roald Dahl and then comment on the style, language and plot. Enjoy some storytelling and learn some English in the process. Video version available.
Transcript & Notes
Hello listeners, how are you today?
In this episode I’m going to read a short story to you, which I hope will be an entertaining and pleasant way to learn English with my podcast. I’ll also give some comments on the story afterwards and I will highlight a few bits of vocabulary at the end, but the main thing is that I’d just like to let you listen to a good-quality and entertaining short story in English.
I am currently videoing myself while recording this episode and the video will be available on my YouTube channel and on my website, and I’m sharing my screen in the video so you can read my notes and the text for this story with me, if you like – sort of like an on-screen transcript. The notes and stuff will also be available on the page for this episode on my website. Check the show notes for the link for that.
The story I’m going to read today is called The Umbrella Man by Roald Dahl.
I think it was originally published in 1980 in his book “More Tales of the Unexpected”.
Do you know Roald Dahl? I have read a Roald Dahl story on this podcast before – that was The Hitchhiker in episode 545. It was a popular one, so let’s do it again.
Roald Dahl is one of the UK’s favourite authors, and of course he’s popular around the world too. You might already be aware of him and his work. He was born in 1916 and died in 1990 and most of his writing was done in the 70s and 80s. His most famous stories were written for children (Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, James & The Giant Peach, the BFG, Matilda and plenty of others) and my childhood was full of Roald Dahl stories (maybe yours too), but he also wrote a lot of short stories for adults or young adults, particularly earlier in his career. This is one of those stories.
Get some of Roald Dahl’s books!
I’d like to suggest that you purchase some of his work – his books.
I’ve got two books of his short stories for adults. The books are called “Roald Dahl: The Complete Short Stories Vol.1 & 2” and I highly recommend them. They are available from all the usual bookshops. “Roald Dahl: The Complete Short Stories Vol.1 & 2” The Umbrella Man appears in “The Complete Short Stories Vol.2”
Notes on Language & Style
The story was published over 30 years ago now, and was probably written earlier than that. I’m not sure when the story is set, but it feels a bit old fashioned. For the most part the English is the sort of modern, neutral English that you would come across today and so almost all of it is appropriate for you to learn and use, but some of the dialogue is a bit dated. I’ll point out some of that old fashioned language later.
By today’s standards the characters sound quite posh and upper-class (and I’ll try to reflect this in the way I read it out).
I’ll give more comments at the end.
I’m going to start in just a moment.
How to use this episode
1. Just listen, follow what I’m saying, enjoy the story and don’t feel pressured to do anything else.
2. If you want to take it further and push your learning more, then you could get a copy of the story, and use it as a learning resource.
If you want the text of the story you could buy “The Complete Short Stories Vol.2” and read it there.
Alternatively, I found a PDF copy of the book which has been posted by someone online, so you could click the link to the PDF and read that (link in the show notes and on the episode page)
You could read it while you listen to me so you can connect the written word to the spoken word, or you could read it again later and take more time over it.
For pronunciation, you could shadow the story with me – read aloud at the same time as you listen, perhaps with the text in front of you.
You could record yourself reading the story, and then listen back and compare it to my recording, perhaps focusing on different aspects of pronunciation.
For vocabulary, you could find any words or phrases that you don’t know and check them using an online dictionary like www.collinsdictionary.com (Oxford, Cambridge, Longman and Macmillan dictionaries are also available and I often use them as a teacher too)
Or, as I said, just relax and listen to the story without worrying about doing anything else.
Let’s get started! I will summarise this at the end in plain English so you can be sure you understood the main events.
Luke reads the story
I hope you enjoyed that!
A summary of the story
Here’s a summary from www.roaldfahlfans.com It neatly summarises the story in plain English in a couple of paragraphs. This should help you to make sure you got the main plot. As I said if you have specific bits of vocabulary that you’d like to check, you can do that on your own using one of those dictionaries. We might go through a few little details in a minute. First let me read out this summary.
I like this because it’s enjoyable to listen to the way the man persuades even this very suspicious woman to give him some money. I don’t think tricking people for money is good or anything like that, but I do find it interesting when people have fairly complex but effective techniques for fooling people.
It’s also interesting how the woman’s attitudes about class and social status make her quite susceptible to this man’s trick, and I’m sure she wouldn’t be the only one. She judges people by their appearances and seems a bit snobbish, and he uses that to his advantage. He gives the impression of being a gentleman, and this is what allows him to take advantage of the woman.
We all have natural prejudices, which can affect the way we judge people. It seems this old man uses people’s prejudices as part of his trick.
Here are some comments about the way the characters are described and the English used.
One of the strengths of this story is the way the characters are given depth. The story is told in a relatively simple manner with short sentences and not a lot of extraneous detail but the small details that are given make the characters 3-dimensional.
This is done by showing us little contradictions in the things they say or do or at least hinting at some little conflicts that they seem to have inside them, some positive and negative traits, particularly the mother.
The mother is strict, but she’s willing to give her daughter a banana split after her dental appointment. I guess she is kind and loving and wants to treat her daughter to something nice after the frightening ordeal of going to the dentist, but is it a good idea to treat your child to such a sugary dessert after the dentist has filled a hole in her tooth? I guess we all have to balance being strict, giving treats and managing the dental health of our children. But it’s interesting that we wonder slightly about what kind of mother she is. Maybe I’m reading too much into it here, but what did you think? What do you think is going on between the mother and the daughter? Does she seem to be a good mother? I suppose that’s a subjective thing. But I’d be interested to know what you think.
She’s a bit stuck up and snobbish. She looks down her nose at the man when she believes he is begging for money, but then she can’t hide her admiration for him when she believes he is perhaps a titled-gentleman, maybe someone who comes from the upper-classes in society.
Her attitudes about people and their status are clearly revealed by her reactions to the man at different moments. This is a good example of the principle of “show, don’t tell” which I think is a good method for telling stories. “Show, don’t tell” basically means that it’s always better to show the reader how to feel rather than telling them how to feel.
Roald Dahl could have told us directly that the mother was a bit snobbish, by saying something like “My mother was always a bit snobbish and looked down on people lower than her and yet admired the upper classes highly” but it’s more effective for him to show us her attitudes by describing her reactions to the man at different moments in the story. This allows us to work out for ourselves that the mother is a bit of a snob, or maybe she’s just trying hard to get the best life for her and her family.
She dreams of living a more wealthy and privileged life, having a car and a chauffeur. This shows us something about her position in society and that she’s probably middle class or upper-middle class and dreams of having more comfort and convenience in her life, like upper-class people have.
She’s very untrustworthy and suspicious. Are these negative traits or is it wise to be cautious of others? But she’s also willing to be quite adventurous, chasing after the old man when she realises that he’s up to something.
All of these little conflicting things, so efficiently described, help to flesh out her character and make her a lot more human and relatable. We kind of see how the daughter might feel – being a bit wary of her mother’s strictness but enjoying spending time with her, having just been treated to a nice banana split and sharing the afternoon together, also her disappointment with the way her mother treats the old man at first, learning about how to deal with strangers in the street and then the excitement of chasing after him.
Roald Dahl always does this – somehow allows you to experience the excitement of being with certain other people.
Then there’s the little old man who just loves a drink of whiskey but apparently doesn’t have any money of his own, and yet he has cleverly come up with a genius little plan to get money from people in the street. I suppose he won in the end, and the mother was shown up to be a bit of a snob or something. (Maybe I’m being a bit mean to the mother – is she a snob, or is she just wary of certain types of person?)
I wonder if this little event affected the way the daughter saw the mother, if it brought them closer, or if the mother was embarrassed. In the end it seems that the mother and daughter just shared a funny little experience together. Ultimately it is quite adorable the way the two of them interact and I get quite a warm feeling from them.
I like the neatness of the story, the cleverness of the man’s plan, the mischievous elements and the moment when the old man drinks his whiskey – it seems like he really enjoys it.
What about you? What do you think of the story? Leave your comments in the comment section.
Posh / Old-Fashioned Sounding Vocabulary
- Again, if there are specific words or phrases that you’d like to check, I’ll let you do that yourself using the book or the PDF and a good dictionary, but I mentioned before about how some things sounded quite old fashioned and posh, and I’d like to point those things out.
Things that sound posh or formal, or at least old-fashioned. (posh people often sound a bit old fashioned for some reason) I wouldn’t really use these phrases in my normal everyday life.
Obviously you can speak how you like. I’m just pointing out things which I think sound a bit old-fashioned or posh.
- “I assure you!” → “Honestly!”
- “Old people like me become terribly forgetful” → “really”
- “I beg you to believe me, madam” → “Believe me, please!”
- “Isn’t it the silliest thing to do?” → “Isn’t it such a stupid thing to do?”
- “I summon a taxi to get me home” → “I get a taxi” or “I call a taxi to get me home”
- “Oh mummy” (a lot of posh kids call their Mum, “mummy” – I think most British kids call their mother “Mum”)
- “Don’t be so beastly to him!” → “Don’t be so horrible to him!”
- “It’s of no importance so long as I get home” → “It’s not important…”
- “I wanted to satisfy myself that he wasn’t a trickster” → “I wanted to be sure…”
- “Goodness Mummy, what a hurry he’s in” → “Oh my god!” “Wow”
- “Good heavens, it’s a pub!”
- “By golly, he’s got a nerve!”
- “That’s a jolly expensive drink” → “That’s a really expensive drink”
- “Super” → “Amazing, brilliant”
Fancy another Roald Dahl story?
I have read a Roald Dahl story before on the podcast. Some of you might remember. I read The Hitchhiker in episode 545. You can check it out in the archive if you’d like to listen to it. There’s also a link to that on the page for this episode on my website. teacherluke.co.uk/2018/09/07/545-the-hitchhiker-by-roald-dahl-short-story/
Finally, let’s listen to the author himself introducing the story at the start of an episode of Tales of the Unexpected, the TV show. Check this out.
I believe that Roald Dahl witnessed a real umbrella man on the streets of New York, but I wonder if he really did try the trick himself, and whether you are tempted to try it too, but I’m not sure the whole world needs more tricksters, does it?