Category Archives: History

509. What’s it all about? (Philosophy and Language Learning)

This episode is all about philosophy and how this applies to language learning. Listen to me describing 8 different ‘schools’ of philosophical thought. Are hedonists good language learners? How do rationalists and empiricists disagree about how we learn languages? Is language learning an innate ability or just something that can only happen as a result of things we do after we’re born?  And, how does philosophy answer life’s big questions such as, “What’s life all about?” “What are we doing here?” and “What shall we have for dinner?” Transcript Available.


Transcript – 95% complete


What’s it all about then eh? This is a question that people have been attempting to answer for bloody ages. Nobody seems to be able to agree or decide for certain what the purpose of our existence is, or even what the true nature of reality is, but over the years the things people have said and written in response to this question have influenced our lives in loads of ways, without us even realising it.

Considering the question of “What’s it all about?” is basically the foundation of philosophy and in this episode I’m going to talk about philosophy and define a few of the main types of philosophy that exist.

I’ll also attempt to apply those different types of philosophy to the understanding of language learning if I can. And if I can’t, I’ll just make a jam sandwich or something.

So, with this episode you can learn English relating to lots of things, including abstract ideas, ethics, science, debate, reason, logic, experience and academic thought in general, and also we can consider the process of language learning from a couple of different points of view.

A while ago I found a questionnaire online which was called “Which school of philosophy do you belong to?”

I thought, “that makes a change from the usual stupid quizzes, like ‘Which Star Wars character are you?’ ‘Which type of biscuit are you?’, ‘Which type of fluff are you? The fluff in the corner of the room, the fluff in the tumble dryer, the fluff in your belly button, the fluff that collects in your jacket pocket or the fluff which collects under the strings of a guitar that never gets played?’ (I was the fluff in your jacket pocket by the way).

This one was about philosophy – “Which school of philosophical thought do you belong to?”

And I thought “ooh, I haven’t done an episode about philosophy on the podcast. That might be an interesting, yet fun way to explore a fairly intellectual topic.

I thought it would be an interesting way for Paul, Amber and me to have an intelligent and highbrow discussion (instead of just talking about poo or Russian jokes or having accordions for legs – although they are, of course, perfectly valid topics of conversation).

I haven’t talked directly about philosophy on the podcast before. So I thought it could be an interesting subject for the podpals to discuss.

And we got together a couple of months ago actually, and recorded ourselves going through the quiz in order to find out what school of philosophy each of us belongs to, based on the ways we live our lives and think about the world.

However, the conversation that we recorded ended up being quite heavy. We got a bit bogged down in just trying to understand, interpret and discuss what each question really meant. Not only did we have to try and make sense of the different types of philosophy, we also just had to try and understand the fairly complex questions in the quiz.

It made me think “ooh, this might just be a bit difficult to listen to – a complicated conversation and a complicated topic – it could be a bit of a challenge for the LEPsters.”

I will play you the conversation and you can hear our discussion, and you can also do the quiz with us while you listen, if you like.

But that’s going to be in the next episode because I thought it would be a good idea for me to talk to you about philosophy first, and to define some terms, before you hear our conversation. That should make it a bit easier for you to follow what Paul, Amber and I are going on about, while also making it possible for you to perhaps learn some things about philosophy and also the language we use when talking about philosophy and while tackling the big questions, like “What’s it all about?” and “What shall we have for dinner?” (well, maybe not that one – although it is rather a big question as I’m sure you’ll agree).

Now, I know you might not be philosophers. I have all sorts of people listening to this, from many different backgrounds. Some of you might be academic types, others not. Some of you are the types of people who like complex and abstract discussions, others might be the types of people who would rather listen to us talk about more tangible things, like Amber’s son doing a poo under a table, or something like that.

In any case, I like to present a fairly wide range of topics on this podcast and I think that’s important for your English.

So, let’s talk about 8 different schools of philosophical thought, and then you can listen to Amber, Paul and me taking that quiz, and hopefully it will make a bit more sense to you!

And by the way, if you would rather hear that story of Amber’s son doing a poo under a table in a restaurant (which is a real story) just listen to episode 380 again. You can find it in the archive.

380. Catching Up with Amber and Paul #3

What is philosophy?

Philosophy is all about how we understand the world and how we make sense of everything around us.

It’s not just “why are we here?” or just “what’s it all about?” it helps us to create the assumptions behind how we understand pretty much everything.

Really, it’s about attempting to answer questions that relate to every aspect of our lives.

Wikipedia: It is the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, the mind, and language.[5][6] The term was probably coined by Pythagoras (c. 570–495 BCE). Philosophical methods include questioning, critical discussion, rational argument, and systematic presentation.[7][8] Classic philosophical questions include: Is it possible to know anything and to prove it?[9][10][11] What is most real? Philosophers also pose more practical and concrete questions such as: Is there a best way to live? Is it better to be just or unjust (if one can get away with it)?[12] Do humans have free will?[13]

So, philosophy is the study of how we understand everything, and the answers to these questions form assumptions about so many things including :

  • Education (What should children do at school and why are schools important in the first place? How should we organise our universities?)
  • Health (How do we understand our bodies – how do we know what will make us strong or weak, healthy or sick?)
  • Politics (What is the best way to run the country?)
  • Science (What is the nature of reality? How do we measure that? Can science solve the problems we face? What is the scientific method and can it help us to discover the truth about the world?)
  • Debate and communication (What is the most effective way to argue your point in a discussion? What are the most effective ways to present information to people?)
  • Religion (Who or what is God and does he exist? How does this relate to the choices we make in life? Do we even have choices?)
  • Language (What is language? How does it work? What does it tell us about us as people? How do we learn it? Should it be controlled? What constitutes “good” and “bad” language?)
  • Ethics (How do we decide what is the right or wrong thing to do in any situation)


An example of an ethical question is “if your neighbours are having a loud party late at night, is it ok for you to call the police to stop the party?”

Imagine – your neighbours are having a loud party and it’s keeping you awake. What should you do?

Here are some of the reasons for stopping it: it’s annoying for you personally, it’s annoying for everyone in the area, it’s somehow damaging behaviour for them – i.e. because they need sleep and shouldn’t drink, it’s breaking a rule imposed by the government. Or reasons for not stopping the party: everyone has the right to have a party sometimes, it would be rude to interrupt their celebration, the police might be unreasonably aggressive with them and someone might end up being arrested or even physically harmed, or

“if they don’t stop playing that music now I will go round there and murder everyone in the building, especially if they play THAT song again”.

These are the sorts of questions that philosophers might spend a lot of time thinking about, especially if their neighbours were having a noisy party next door. The philosopher might spend ages pondering the question of exactly what to do, even if most people would just bang on the wall and tell the neighbours to “shut up! For god’s sake shut up or I’ll call the police” assuming of course that god exists and that the police have got nothing better to do, other than sit around smoking cigarettes.)

Still on that example of the ethics of “having a loud party in a highly populated area”, one of the big responses might be “it’s unfair for these people to have this party, because it is simply unethical for a small group of people to be happy at the expense of the happiness of the majority of people living in the surrounding area.” which would be a very reasonable thing to say under the circumstances. I imagine most people would just think “Those bastards! Those bastards! Those bloody bastards!!!” (which is not an established philosophical position, I think)

The ethical principle I described there (not the “you bastards position” but the “happiness for the majority of people is the deciding factor” position, is: What benefits the majority of people is the right thing to do. English philosopher Jeremy Bentham might come to mind, when considering this idea, if you know who Jeremy Bentham is. If you don’t know who he is, and have never heard his name before, I’d be very surprised if he comes to your mind, to be honest. You might just be thinking “How can I get my neighbours to turn down the music?” and suddenly – JEREMY BENTHAM! – that would be weird.

Anyway, Bentham said “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number [of people] that is the measure of right and wrong”. This is the foundation of utilitarianism – a system which influenced lots of people and, for example, contributed to the construction of the welfare state – that’s the system in the UK that provides healthcare for everyone, but which is probably paid for mainly by the people with incomes – the people who earn money from their work, and the higher the income the more you pay – as tax. As long as most people are made happy, this is the right way to run a society. People who work should pay tax and a lot of that tax should go towards a healthcare system that is available for everyone, even those people who don’t work and even if it means that some people who earn more money are also paying more.

This is an example of how a philosophical idea – in this case “utilitarianism” has an impact on the political policy of a nation, and how that can affect everything else.

You can see here that philosophy is at the centre of all the big questions that we face in society – both personal and communal. E.g. Should guns be legal? Should I buy a gun? Should drugs be legalised? Am I a bad person if I take drugs? Should we download films from torrenting sites, or buy them from the established distributors? Is it wrong if I watch a pirated film on the internet without paying for it? Does it matter which film it is? What if the film is a big-budget blockbuster like Transformers? What if I wouldn’t have actually paid for it anyway? Should I feel guilty if I listen to episodes of Luke’s English Podcast and yet I never send him a donation for his hard work? (by the way the answers to all those questions, in order, are “It depends, it depends, it depends, it depends, it depends, it depends, it depends, it depends, it depends, YES)

All these questions are philosophical at their very heart – in most cases here we’re talking about ethics, which is just one branch of philosophy.

Different “Schools of Thought”

There are lots of philosophical schools of thought. Not all of them are completely different. Some are quite similar. They came out of different contexts: different people, different periods of time and different places.

Let me go through some of them. Which one do you agree with? It’s quite possible that you agree with more than just one of these things, because I think most of us probably take a bit from here, a bit from there, and have a complex and diverse way of making decisions and understanding the world. In fact I’m quite sure that the general culture in the world is now a combination of all these different schools of philosophical thought, as well as all sorts of other influences, such as traditional customs and beliefs. But there was a time when many the thinking processes that we consider now to be just part of normal common sense didn’t even exist. A lot of the general assumptions that we have about questions of ethics, politics and even language were not always there. Basically, I mean – people used to be really really stupid – like mind numbingly stupid, and slowly but surely, over decades, centuries and millenia, a complex dialogue about the big questions has been going on, involving people from different countries. Various conclusions have been made and a certain amount of progress has been achieved in general thinking… even though some people in the world still enjoy the music of Rick Astley.

The different schools of thought that have appeared over the years are like different realisations – like different rooms in this big palace of thinking that we now all have access too.

So if you feel like it’s hard to make a distinction between some of these schools of thought, that’s ok – some of them are quite similar and in fact over the years they have combined to an extent, so that today it can be hard to distinguish between them. They’re not mutually exclusive.

Also, there are other positions or ways of looking at the world that might emphasise politics, economics or psychology which aren’t included here. E.g. if you believe that the defining force in your life is your place in the class system or wealth system in society, or how your life is dictated by those in power or by the decisions of your bosses, or the police – you might turn out to be a Marxist, or something like that. Or if you think that your experiences as a child are the most influential factors in how your life has meaning, you might be a Freudian, or simply if you believe that our lives are entirely dictated by some sort of intelligent creator who has designed everything including all existence and everything that happens, has happened or will happen – then you might be a religious person like a Christian or a Muslim or something.

Or perhaps if you believe that your life is given meaning by how you interact with audio content uploaded onto an internet based RSS feed, which you then consume through headphones attached to your ears, you might be a LEPsterian.

But again, it’s most likely that your worldview is some sort of combination of all these different schools of thought and of course a lot of the time we don’t really know which school of thought we belong to, because it’s not football. You don’t need to pick a team or anything. And it’s much more complicated than football, and perhaps less fun than football. Certainly in the UK hardly anyone goes around saying “well, I’m an epicurean so I disagree with what you said” or “Hey, shall we get pizza this evening?” “Well, I’d quite like to have noodles so speaking as a platonist I think we should have a debate about it and then choose our dinner based on the outcome of that argument, perhaps you would like to start by outlining your predicates for why you believe pizza is the best option…” Nobody does that, right? But anyway, here we go – different schools of philosophy, in alphabetical order, not chronological. As you’re listening to this you can just think about these questions:

a) Do I understand what the hell this position is all about?
b) Do I agree with this? Is this a good way to look at the world and make decisions?


The basic ideas of empiricism were probably first established by Persian and Arabic philosophers in the 11th and 12th centuries, and then developed into the more established positions by British and Irish philosophers from the 17th century into the 20th century.

Knowledge can only come from what you see and experience with your own eyes. “I’ll believe it when I see it” or “It’s only true if we can actually observe it.” Observation tells us what is true.

This is often contrasted with rationalism which basically says that you can use logic and reasoning to work something out without observing it – e.g. that there are rules of logic that are always true and that these define what will happen.

Empiricism basically says – I don’t trust any other information than the information I’ve seen and I can only know something after I’ve actually seen it, observed it, measured it. So, knowledge is something that comes after our experience.

Rationalism on the other hand says that there are certain universal laws of logic which will ultimately give you the truth about something. So, knowledge exists before us and it’s a matter of uncovering it.

Empiricism is all about ‘what comes after’ and rationalism is about ‘what comes before’.

The ‘what comes after’ means that the knowledge you have of something comes after you’ve observed it.

The ‘what comes before’ means that the principles of logic that exist before an event – universal laws of logic that everyone is born with the ability to use. These laws of logic are then applied to something in order to help us understand it.

So, for ‘flat earth’ an empiricist would say “Let’s look at the earth. Let’s measure it. If it looks round, we’ll know it’s round”. This is limited because sometimes our senses can be wrong. We might not be able to see things, and our senses might even distort what we’re seeing. E.g. for flat earth we can’t see the curvature of the earth from our current position, even if we’re in a plane, even though the curvature is there, because of our relatively close proximity to the earth. You’d need to travel to the edge of the atmosphere to see the curvature, and not many people can do that. So, a problem with being an empiricist is that you put too much faith in your senses, which can be misleading and can’t cover all aspects of knowledge – e.g. stuff that we can’t actually see – like gravity. I think there’s also an argument that the act of observing something has an effect on it. So, observation is not 100% perfect.

I think that the best approach would probably combine both systems, that to prove that the earth is round you’d observe the earth, measure it but also apply different mathematical laws or physical laws to it.

How does it relate to language?

We can align the rationalism side of things with the idea of ‘language nativism’. Rationalists say that we are all born with the ability to use logic and reason, that it is innate to us – perhaps part of our genes. Language nativists argue that we are born with an innate ability to learn languages. That language learning is in our genes. That all of us learn languages in the same way (regardless of the language) and that it is instinctual.

Language empiricists on the other hand believe that language is something that only happens after we are born – that it is something that we learn, rather than something that is kind of built into us genetically.


This is an ancient school of thought created by a Epicurius from Athens in ancient Greece – around 300 years before the birth of Jesus Christ (307 BC).

This was when people were just trying to work out how to live properly – coming up with approaches to the best way to live your life. These days we are inundated by different methods and approaches to how to live your life. Think of all the lifestyle magazines and articles about dieting and making the right life choices and career moves. Once upon a time, people hadn’t really worked that out, and the philosophers in Ancient Greece really paved the way for this sort of thing. It seems they spent an awful lot of time sitting around trying to work out what human beings should really be doing with their lives beyond just surviving like all the other species on earth.

Epicurius believed that pleasure and pain are the only things that have intrinsic value to beings, and that the goal of life was to maximise pleasure and minimise pain for both yourself and others.

He taught that people thus needed four virtues: prudence (caution – being careful), justice, friendliness and fortitude (courage and the ability to withstand pain and difficulty). Epicurus emphasised that the pleasure from an action must be weighed against the negative side effects, a concept that could be called the ‘pleasure calculation’. For example, you could save up £1000, buy twenty kilograms of chocolate, and eat it all at the same time. In this case though, you need to weigh the pleasure of eating chocolate against the inevitable stomach ache and the weight you’ll gain from eating a third of your body weight in chocolate. Epicurus had a second part of the pleasure calculation that he said to consider: is it worth the momentary benefit of £1000 of chocolate or buying a new bike a bit later for £1100?

The greater pleasure, even if it causes a slight negative effect at the moment, is the greater good. Epicurus also taught that sensual pleasures weren’t all that there was to the world. Epicurus noted that appreciation of art and friendship also count as pleasure. Moreover, Epicurus taught that the enjoyment of life also required old Greek ideals of self-control, temperance, and serenity. Desires need to be curbed, and serenity will help us to endure the pain we may face.[2] Epicurus also preached altruism over self-interest. Said he that friendship “dances around the world, calling all people to a life of happiness.” He taught that the best life for the individual is one that is lived with other people for their benefit in addition to the individual’s own benefit. (RationalWiki)

No idea what he says about language to be honest!

Perhaps that when choosing to learn another language we should measure the benefits of learning that language against the pain we might experience as a result.

I’m pretty sure we can all agree that while learning English can be painful, frustrating, confusing and embarrassing, the benefit of learning this language clearly outweighs those negative things. So, on balance Epicurius would probably say – “Go ahead and learn English! And make friends with people while you’re doing it!”




Would a hedonist make a good language learner?

I imagine a hedonist might be a bit lazy, especially if learning a language from scratch doesn’t involve much bodily pleasure.

But perhaps hedonists might learn language if it meant gaining access to more forms of gratification. E.g. they might learn language in order to seduce people, get access to alcohol, drugs, or other forms of bodily pleasure! I expect a hedonist’s vocabulary would be rather limited to dirty words, useful phrases for drug deals and pillow talk.



I’m certain that humanists put a high value on language as a means of connecting with other people in the world. Humanists might have a democratic and prescriptive approach to language too.


It’s pretty confusing, but to boil it down let’s say: Plato basically invented the first university – a place called The Academy which was positioned outside the city limits of Greece. This was where he delivered lectures to his students and engaged in debates. This was the foundation of certain academic principles and methods. Those academic “for and against” essays that you might have to write at university, or for an IELTS Writing part 2 – that all started with Plato and his academy.

He believed highly in the value of debate, argument and discourse as a way of reaching certain eternal “higher truths” – these are truths which are eternal. He thought that ‘ideas’ were more important than ‘matter’ (physical stuff) and that the persuit of knowledge or the process of learning is a question of uncovering universal truths that already exist in our immortal souls.


From a language point of view, Plato believed that ultimate knowledge already exists inside us and it’s just a matter of uncovering it.

Noam Chomsky has applied this idea to his understanding of linguistics – how languages work, specifically in the idea that there is a Universal Grammar that we are all born with.

Basically, the idea is something like this – how do native English speakers know exactly how to use grammatical forms like present perfect tense correctly, without having formally studied it or been taught it?

E.g. my brother James knows when a sentence is right or wrong – e.g when present perfect is being used correctly or not, although he’s never been taught English grammar. How did he learn it? The idea is that James, like all of us, was born with an innate understanding of grammar.


1. Plato’s Problem
The writings of Plato stretch all the way back to the beginnings of Western philosophical thought, but Plato was already posing problems critical to modern linguistic discourse.
In the nature versus nurture debate, Plato tended to side with nature, believing that knowledge was innate.
This was his answer to what has become known as Plato’s Problem, or as Bertrand Russell summarizes it: “How comes it that human beings, whose contacts with the world are brief and personal and limited, are nevertheless able to know as much as they do know?” Being born with this knowledge from the get-go would naturally solve this little quandary and consequently he viewed language as innate.

Personally, I just can’t agree with this. What about people who are rubbish at grammar because they’ve had no exposure to it?

(Note: I’ve changed my mind! I think we must be born with the innate ability to learn grammar – but the whole subject is difficult to fully understand)


Skepticism (or Scepticism in the UK spelling)
At its simplest, Skepticism holds that one should refrain from making truth claims, and avoid the postulation of final truths. This is not necessarily quite the same as claiming that truth is impossible (which would itself be a truth claim), but is often also used to cover the position that there is no such thing as certainty in human knowledge (sometimes referred to as Academic Skepticism).

Language Learning & Scepticism

For language learning, you could say that a sceptic would avoid jumping to conclusions about the language being learned. E.g. when you think you’ve learned a rule about the language, avoid saying “this is always true”. E.g. The idea that quantifiers like “some / any” are always used in a certain way. You might learn from an intermediate book that “some” is used in affirmative sentences and “any” is used in questions or negative – but watch out, that so-called rule is often broken. So, a language learning sceptic might avoid thinking “this is always true” or “this is never correct”.


Stoicism was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC, but was famously practiced by the likes of Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. The philosophy asserts that virtue (such as wisdom) is happiness and judgment should be based on behavior, rather than words. That we don’t control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses.

Stoicism has just a few central teachings. It sets out to remind us of how unpredictable the world can be. How brief our moment of life is. How to be steadfast, and strong, and in control of yourself. And finally, that the source of our dissatisfaction lies in our impulsive dependency on our reflexive senses rather than logic.

Stoicism doesn’t concern itself with complicated theories about the world, but with helping us overcome destructive emotions and act on what can be acted upon. It’s built for action, not endless debate.

I found this article on Benny Lewis’s website “Fluent in 3 Months” and it’s doing exactly what I’m doing (or trying to do) in this episode – applying certain principles of philosophy to language learning.

This one is written by Jeremy Ginsburg, who describes himself as a writer, entrepreperformer and language learner and you’ll find it on

How to Apply Stoic Philosophy to Language Learning

So there you go folks. 8 different schools of philosophical thought.

Empiricism, Epicureanism, Existentialism, Hedonism, Humanism, Platonism, Scepticism, Stoicism.

There are many more types of philosophy than that of course, but that was just a series of 8, based on this online survey that Amber, Paul and I took recently.

If you’re feeling a bit confused

Don’t worry, I totally understand. Honestly, I’m a bit confused too. That’s normal. This stuff isn’t supposed to be easy, that’s why people have been thinking about it and going on about it for thousands of years.

Really, philosophy is all about wisdom and trying to understand things better, make the right decisions and choose the correct way of life.

I wonder what school of philosophy you associate with most?

Also, if you’d like to listen to Amber, Paul and me finding out which school of philosophy we belong to – just wait until the next episode to hear our discussion.

Thanks for listening!


508. Six True Crime Stories from Victorian England, Told by My Dad

Learn English by listening to Rick Thompson telling some true stories of petty crimes committed in an English town in 1851.

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Introduction Transcript

Hello everybody, and welcome to this brand new instalment of Luke’s English Podcast – a podcast for learners of English.

In this episode my dad is going to tell you some true crime stories from England’s history. There are six stories in total and they all involve curious crimes and their punishments which can tell you quite a lot about what life was like in England in the mid 19th century.

We have established the value of listening to stories on this podcast before, right? Listening to stories can be a great way to improve your English, especially when they’re told in an interesting, clear and spontaneous way and of course I’m always happy to get contributions from my dad on this podcast – so I’m feeling good about this episode. I think it should be a good one.

These days my dad is semi-retired but he keeps himself busy doing various things, including some volunteer work for an organisation based in the town where my parents live – Warwick, in the midlands, in England.

The organisation is called Unlocking Warwick and it is a volunteer group based in a restored building in the centre of town.

This building used to be a court-house – a place where, in the past, people who had been accused of committing crimes were sent to be tried and possibly sentenced to various punishments, and back in the Victorian times those punishments could be quite harsh. The building operated as a court room from the early 16th century all the way through to the 1970s when it eventually closed. Then, a few years ago the building was fully restored to its former glory and is now a cultural centre for the town of Warwick. The volunteer group that my parents belong to, Unlocking Warwick, does various events and activities in this building as a way of helping people to explore the history of the town, which is also the site of one of the UK’s best medieval castles. Warwick is a place that’s worth visiting if you’re into English history and it’s only about 30 minutes away from Stratford Upon Avon – the birthplace of William Shakespeare.

Last year you heard me talk to my Mum about the Unlocking Warwick project and she mentioned the regency ballroom in the building, where they organise events like dances with historical themes, and since the building used to be the location of a court room, the group also presents dramatic reconstructions of real court cases that happened there.

These are like plays based on real records of the court proceedings which are stored in local archives, and my dad is the one who writes these dramas. He reads the details of old cases from the archives, picks the ones that sound interesting and then turns them into plays which are performed for the public by volunteer actors. They even get members of the audience to shout things out and generally play along, a bit like they would have done during the real trials back in the 19th century.

So, because he’s written these plays, Dad has a few stories at his disposal and I thought it might be fun, interesting and good practice for your English to hear him describe these stories in an episode of the podcast, so that’s what you’re going to get; six true stories of crimes that actually happened in Warwick, told to you by my dad – and almost all of it is told using past tenses – so straight away, there’s some grammar and pronunciation for you to look out for. I’m not going to go into all the details of those narrative past tenses here, but if you’d like to listen to episodes in which I explain those tenses, give examples and help you to pronounce them then you can check out episodes…

Other episodes dealing with Narrative Verb Tenses in more detail

29. Mystery Story / Narrative Tenses 

372. The Importance of Anecdotes in English / Narrative Tenses / Four Anecdotes

176. Grammar: Verb Tense Review 

They’re all (also) in the episode archive on the website. 

But right now, let’s jump into this conversation that I had with my dad just the other day when my parents were visiting us. So, without any further ado – let’s get started.

The Six Stories

I’d like to summarise those six stories again now, just to make sure you got the main details and to help reinforce some of the language that you heard in the conversation.

You can find the notes I’m reading from here, written on the page for this episode on the website.

  1. The Case of the Notorious Window Smasher
    A woman who would go up and down the high street in Warwick and also in Birmingham, smashing shop windows (cutting up her arms in the process) and stealing goods, including a roll of top quality French material – and she was sentenced to time in the house of correction where she probably had to do hard labour all day, including walking in the treadmill – a kind of human-powered machine for grinding corn or wheat. Imagine being a sort of hamster in a wheel all day long – like going to the gym, but doing it for 10 hours or more and I’m sure the conditions were very dusty and awful. The Victorians, being sort of puritanical and protestant had a strong work ethic, and believed that hard work was the right remedy for people’s problems. You can see how this went together with a certain industriousness that marked that period of British history.
  2. What Happened to the Extremely Drunk Man?
    He was brought into the court by a policeman simply for being very very drunk, and was sentenced to 6 hours in the stocks.
  3. The Story of the Poor Lunatic Woman
    Her husband took her to the authorities claiming she was hysterical and completely impossible to live with, and she was promptly taken to the local lunatic asylum where she probably spent the rest of her life – but was she really mad, or did her husband just want to get rid of her?
  4. The Woman Who Ran Away from the Workhouse
    There were different places you could end up if you were found guilty of a crime, or simply didn’t have the means to look after yourself. The worst would be Australia, which was probably a very tough place to try and survive back in those days and the long boat journey would probably kill you anyway. Then there was prison, and I’m sure 19th century prisons would have been full of disease and all kinds of hideous misery. You heard about the hulks – these broken old ships that were moored on the river Thames in London, which worked as prisons. I expect the ones on the land weren’t much better. Then there were the houses of correction – essentially prisons where you did hard labour all day long. Then there were workhouses – not exactly prisons, but places that would house people who had no money. They’d give them accommodation and food in return for work. Honestly, I think places like this still exist in many parts of the world and it’s really sad and terrible, especially when we realise that some of the products that we consume might have been made in places like these – we call them sweatshops these days – places where people work long hours in awful conditions. The woman in this story ran away from her workhouse because, as she claimed, they weren’t feeding her. I expect that could be true. I think the food given to people in workhouses was often just very weak and watery soup (called gruel) which probably contained next to no nutritional value, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some people were denied food as punishment in a workhouse. There was so much cruelty in those days. This woman ran away, and was caught – but she hadn’t really committed a crime, had she? A workhouse wasn’t a compulsory place to stay. It’s not a jail. She ran away of her own free will. But they caught her and charged her with theft of the clothes she was wearing. I expect the clothes were provided for her by the workhouse – so that’s how they got her. It makes me wonder if there wasn’t some sort of personal revenge or some kind of personal vendetta against this woman, or some kind of conspiracy against her. Her sentence? 3 months hard labour in the house of correction. I’m sure some people profited from all this free labour.
  5. Why did Joseph Smith Break a Lamp in the Market Square?
    Just to get arrested and put in the house of correction – because he had no money and no food. So he did it just to get fed and housed, even if it meant having to do menial work. It sounds like he was pretty desperate. There was no such thing as welfare or social security in those days. That didn’t arrive for nearly another 100 years, after WW2.
  6. What Happened to the Shoemaker’s Rabbit?
    It was stolen – and footprints were found in the garden of the house where the theft happened. Emmanuel Cox was charged with the theft – and accused of stealing the rabbit and cooking it in a pot.  The police officer that arrested Cox seems to have been tipped off by someone. The constable mentioned “Information received” – so did someone tip him off about Emmanuel Cox? Was someone trying to set Cox up, or did they have genuine information about Cox? In any case, when Cox’s place was searched they found a rabbit skin hanging up in the kitchen, which the shoemaker identified. It looked like an open and shut case. The evidence was a dead giveaway! But during the trial a woman in the audience defended Cox (she turned out to be someone he lived with – so probably not a great witness) and it was claimed that there was a witness who could testify to Cox’s innocence – but he couldn’t be found. In the end Cox was acquitted – the magistrate let him go without a charge, because he said the evidence was not sufficient. I wonder what the punishment would have been, for stealing and eating a pet rabbit? I’ll hazard a wild guess at 3 months in a correctional house, because it seems that doing pretty much anything would land you in the correctional house for 3 months, if you were a petty criminal and you lived in Warwick.

Well there you have it, the case of the shoemaker’s rabbit and 5 other stories.

I hope you enjoyed it, that you learned some English or at least you had some nice and nourishing listening practice – yum yum yum.

You can find notes and some transcriptions on the page for this episode on the website, where you can see some of the words and phrases used in this episode.

Don’t forget to download the LEP app for your smartphone. It’s free – that’s where you’ll find the entire episode archive on your phone and there are various app-only episodes and other bonuses for you to check out.

Join the mailing list on the website to get an email whenever I upload new content. That email will contain a link that’ll take you straight to the page for that content – usually a new episode and sometimes some website-only content, like when I’m interviewed on someone else’s podcast or if I want to write to you about something in particular that I think might interest you.

Sometimes episodes arrive on the website a day earlier than everywhere else, so being an email subscriber might be the fastest way to find out about new episodes when they’re released.

So, be an email subscriber, be an app-user and if you enjoy my episodes and find them useful and if the spirit moves you – please recommend this podcast to at least one person who you think might like it, leave LEP a review on iTunes or the Google Play store, and you could consider sending a donation to the podcast to help with running costs and perhaps as a sincere way to say thanks for my work.

In any case, I’d just like to say thanks for listening and I’ll speak to you again soon!



Observations on the Paris Metro… from Inside the Metro (Listen to my appearance on Oliver Gee’s podcast “The Earful Tower”)

Hello website LEPsters! Here is some more listening you can do while waiting for the next episode of LEP.

I was recently invited onto The Earful Tower Podcast by Oliver Gee (remember him from episode 495?) We recorded an episode all about the Paris Metro while riding the Paris Metro. You can listen to it here.

You’ll hear us talking about our experiences of using the Metro, some of the things we find fascinating, funny, weird, cool and even disgusting about it. You can hear various background noises and experience what it’s really like to travel through Paris on line 2 with Oli and me.

Keep listening to the end to hear a cool story from Paris’s history, read by Oliver’s regular storytelling guest Corey Frye.

Click the link below to see photos from our trip and to check out other episodes of The Earful Tower podcast with Oliver Gee.

Click link below for photos from our trip and more info:

Oliver Gee is a journalist from Australia now living in Paris. His podcast is all about Paris and episodes include interesting stories, bits of history, chats about language and comments about the cultural differences. It’s all in English and you should check out his episode archive – you’ll find several appearances by Amber Minogue, one episode with Paul Taylor and two with me (including this one). Enjoy!

p.s. You might be wondering whether our baby daughter has been born yet. Well – not yet! We are still waiting. She’s currently one day overdue, but everything’s fine. She could still arrive at any time. We’re waiting with bated breath.

More episodes of LEP coming before too long.

Don’t forget to download the LEP App and enjoy listening to some full-length episodes only available in the app, plus more bonus content.



499. Prince Harry & Meghan Markle / Royal Family Quiz (with Amber)

Talking to Amber about the UK’s Royal Family, including our thoughts on the upcoming wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, some royal gossip & rumours, and also a Royal Family Quiz with questions about the monarchy today and in history. So, expect to hear our thoughts and some facts about this very traitional British institution. Notes available.

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Introduction Transcript

Here’s an episode about the Royal family.

You probably know that recently we had the news that Prince Harry is going to marry his gorgeous girlfriend Meghan Markle. I don’t know if that made the news where you are.

There’s going to be another royal wedding next year. This is actually quite a big deal for the UK.

You might be wondering what British people think about all of this. What do we think about Harry and Meghan and what do we think of the Royal family in general?

Well, I can’t ask every single Brit what they think, but I can give you my opinions and the opinions of Amber, who I am talking to in this episode..

Also this gives us an opportunity to chat generally about the Royal Family on the podcast again, and that’s usually a subject which attracts quite a lot of interest from abroad.

Also, in this episode Amber and I have prepared some quiz questions about the royal family.

I wonder if you know the answers.

So first you’ll get a discussion of Harry and Meghan, and then a royal family quiz.

Let’s see how much you know about the royals and hopefully this episode can help you you learn a few things about the British monarchy that you didn’t know before, including some scandals, some rumours, some big moments in history and other interesting facts about this most traditional of British institutions.

—- Conversation Notes and My Quiz Questions —

Amber mentions “Christmas-abilia” – this is not a word! She just made it up. She meant ‘bits and bobs relating to Christmas, like decorations and things in her flat.

It sounds like “memorabilia” which means: ​objects that are collected because they are connected with a person or event that is thought to be very interesting. (Cambridge Dictionary)

e.g. Beatles memorabilia, or memorabilia from the royal wedding. Stuff like this:


Prince Harry is marrying Meghan Markle next May.

  • Who is Meghan Markle?
    An actress from the TV show “Suits”
    Background – Rachel Meghan Markle[5][6] is of Dutch, English, and Irish descent through her father. Don’t know about her Mum but apparently she was African-American. She was born on August 4, 1981, in Los Angeles.[7] Describing her parents, she has said, “My dad is Caucasian and my mom is African-American … I have come to embrace [this and] say who I am, to share where I’m from, to voice my pride in being a strong, confident, mixed-race woman.” [8] (Wikipedia)
    Catholic (sounds like Wallace Simpson – the woman Edward VIII chose to marry)
  • What do we think of her?

Royal Family Quiz – Luke’s Questions

How much does it cost the UK taxpayer per year (on average) to maintain the royal family?

About 66p in 2016. That’s the part that comes from the treasury.

The family also gets money from other places. (see article)

Where do the royals get their money from?

2 or 3 main sources.

Sovereign Grant – about 15% of the profits made by the Crown Estate. That’s money made from all the properties owned by the Queen. I’m not sure how the money comes in – it’s probably rent, ground rent, entry fees for visitors etc. All that money goes to the government, who give back 15% of it two years later.

The Privy Purse – profits from all the land and assets that have been owned by the royal family for generations. Residential, commercial and agricultural properties. It’s about 184 km2. Between 2015-2016 that was about £17.8m. That pays for expenses incurred by other members of the family.

Private savings and personal fortune. The Queen herself owns properties which she inherited from her father, including Balmoral castle in Scotland. She also has a large art collection apparently. This is all worth about £340m.

Who was Edward VIII and what did he do?

How many monarchs can you name from the Queen back?

Who has to die for Harry to take the throne? (Can you tell me the line of succession?)
The Queen, Prince Charles, George, Charlotte – they all have to go before Harry can become king.

Queen – Charles – William – George – Charlotte – Harry – Harry’s Kids (none) – Andrew – Andrew’s kids (Beatrice and Eugenie) – Edward – Edward’s kids – Anne – Anne’s kids – no idea.

Queen Elizabeth II (born 1926)
(1) Charles, Prince of Wales (b. 1948) B D W
(2) Prince William, Duke of Cambridge (b. 1982) B D W
(3) Prince George of Cambridge (b. 2013) B D W
(4) Princess Charlotte of Cambridge (b. 2015) B D W
(5) Prince Henry of Wales (Prince Harry) (b. 1984) B D W
(6) Prince Andrew, Duke of York (b. 1960) B D W
(7) Princess Beatrice of York (b. 1988) B D W
(8) Princess Eugenie of York (b. 1990) B D W
(9) Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex (b. 1964) B D W

Which living royals (in the nuclear family) are divorced? Did they have affairs?
(Diana, Sarah Ferguson – both had affairs which were leaked in the press)

Which royal was once given a toe-job?
Fergie’s Toe-Sucking Scandal

What gives the monarch his/her power?
It’s a covenant with god! Haven’t you seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail?

What would happen if the Queen murdered someone?
Nothing, apparently. She can’t be prosecuted. Amber disagrees.

True or false?

  • The Queen has her own poet. True – poet laureate is officially the poet to the monarch and is paid in sherry. TRUE
  • The Queen can fly and regularly pilots her own helicopters and light aircraft. Her favourite is a Harrier Jump Jet which she sometimes flies over Dartmoor where she enjoys blowing up deer. FALSE
  • By law, all pubs in the UK must display a picture of the Queen behind the bar. FALSE
  • The Queen and Winston Churchill once had an affair. FALSE
  • The Queen doesn’t really like Scottish people. FALSE
  • The Queen smokes cigarettes. FALSE
  • The Queen smokes pot. DUNNO – probably FALSE. Queen Vic used it.
  • The Queen owns all dolphins which swim in British waters. TRUE
  • The Queen owns all the Swans on the River Thames. TRUE
  • The Queen writes ‘the laws of the land’. FALSE – she gives them ‘royal assent’.
  • The Queen is in charge of the government, including the PM. FALSE – not really in charge of them, but she officially invites them to form a government on her behalf.
  • The Queen’s powers include visa free travel, veto (refusal of royal assent) and invisibility. TRUE (except the invisibility – we think)

Will Megan be a princess when she marries Harry?

Which member of the royal family talks to trees and believes in homeopathy?

Outro Transcript

What you just heard there was The Queen’s speech from 2015. That was actually the Queen’s voice. Have you heard her speak before?

She speaks in a heightened RP, or as some might say “very posh English”.

I don’t know if you can recognise it, but to me it’s unmistakable. For you it might just sound like clear speech (which it is – she does speak very clearly), but for me there are certain features of her voice that are a dead giveaway that this person is really posh, and honestly this kind of “posh” accent isn’t how most people speak. For example, my Dad and I speak clearly but we don’t have this posh accent.

Every now and then I’ll hear someone speaking with this kind of accent and it’s a sign that they come from an upper-class background. There’s a lot more to say about this subject and I intend to explore it further in later episodes.

Anyway, thank you for listening to this episode. I look forward to reading your responses in the comment section.

Have a great day, morning, afternoon, evening or night and if you are celebrating Christmas this year I hope you’re starting to get into the Christmas spirit.

By the way, our baby hasn’t arrived yet, but it could be any day now. I don’t know how that will affect the podcast, but if there are no new episodes for a week or two, that’s why. I think I should be able to record something for you, so I don’t think there will be a big delay, but anyway – if you don’t hear from me from a bit, it’s probably because I’m changing nappies, dealing with visiting family members, and generally in a sleep deprived condition.

Alright then, thanks for listening and speak to you soon I hope.

For now, bye bye bye!

Harry & James Hewitt 

They look pretty similar, don’t they? 

497. Film Club: Withnail & I (with James and Will)

Talking about a classic British film which not many learners of English know about. Listen for explanations of the film, its appeal, descriptions of the characters and events, the type of people who like the film and a few bits of dialogue too. Notes available.


Introduction Transcript

Today on the podcast I am going to be talking about a cult classic of British cinema – a film called Withnail & I.

This is a slightly ambitious episode because in my experience this film is usually very difficult for learners of English to fully appreciate. Even the title of the film somehow fails to register with many people when I tell them.

“Can you recommend British films?” one of my students might say.
And I say “Yes, definitely. You should watch Withnail & I”
And the person’s face creases into an expression of “what was that you just said?”
“Withnail and I” I repeat.
But still, this clearly just seems like a noise to this person.
He doesn’t know what to write. He doesn’t know how many words that is. He doesn’t know how to spell “Withnail and I”. He’s lost for a moment.
So I write it on the board “Withnail and I”.
Still, this doesn’t help much. The person doesn’t even recognise the word “Withnail”. It’s difficult to spell, it’s difficult to pronounce, it doesn’t seem to mean anything.

Then I think – “There’s no way this guy is going to enjoy this film, he can’t even get past the title.”

But something inside me says – “Luke, Luke… I am your father…” No, it says “Luke, you need to make these people watch this film. It is your duty as a British person teaching people your language and culture. These people need to see this film. They need to know what a Camberwell Carrot is, they need to know about cake and fine wine, they need to know why all hairdressers are under the employment of the government. It is your duty Luke, to teach these people about the wonderful world of Withnail and I – even if they don’t want it!”

So now I feel duty bound to tell you all about this cult British film. By the way, the title of the film “Withnail and I” – these are just the two characters in the film. Withnail and another guy whose name we don’t know. He’s simply “I”.

If you’re interested in British films, if you like slightly dark comedies with good acting, interesting characters, an excellent script and some top level swearing – this is a film for you.

You might never have heard of it, I realise, and that’s partly why I’m doing this episode. I like to recommend things that you might not know.

Withnail and I is a cult film which means it’s very very popular with a certain group of people. It’s not a mass-appeal sort of film. It might not be the film you think of when you consider typical “British films” – you might think of something like Love Actually or a Jane Austen adaptation, but Withnail & I is a film that you will definitely know if you a proper lover of British films. It is a cult classic and those who love it – really love it with a passion as if they’ve lived the film themselves in their own lives.

But not everybody gets it. Certainly, in the UK it is very highly regarded by people who have a special love for films, but it’s not a film like Four Weddings or James Bond which seem to appeal to everybody. Plenty of Brits don’t get it. Also learners of English hardly ever know about it (because in my experience most learners of English understand British cinema as things like Hugh Grant, Harry Potter and even Mr Bean). It can be a difficult film to understand if you’re not a native speaker from the UK. It’s not well known in the USA even.

But as I said, it’s a cult success in the UK.

Cult has two meanings. A cult can be a sort of small religious group devoted to a particular person, but when cult is used as an adjective with something like “film” then it means that this film is extremely popular with certain people.

  • What kinds of people like this film?
  • Why do people love this film so much?
  • What is the appeal?
  • What can this film tell us about British culture?
  • Why should you as a learner of English take any interest in this film at all?
  • How can you learn some real British English from this?

Let’s find out in this episode of Luke’s Film Club on Luke’s English Podcast all about Withnail & I.

I’m a huge Withnail & I fan but in this episode I’m also joined by several other Withnail fans who are very keen to talk to you about one of their favourite films.

Those two fans are my brother James and his mate Will.

I just sincerely hope that we can somehow explain this film and its appeal, and make this interesting for you to listen to (that’ll be hard considering it’s three blokes with similar voices talking about an obscure film that you’ve probably never seen).


Links & Videos

The Wall of Withnail – superfan Heidi’s collection of objects seen in the background of Withnail & I.

Withnail and Us – a great documentary about the making of the film, by the people who made the film.

Bruce Robinson interview

Bruce Robinson & Richard E Grant at the London BFI

The Hamlet Monologue (Act 2, Scene 2, Page 13)

“I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither.”

In plain English:

“Recently, though I don’t know why, I’ve lost all sense of fun —the whole world feels sterile and empty. This beautiful canopy we call the sky—this majestic roof decorated with golden sunlight—why, it’s nothing more to me than disease-filled air. What a perfect invention a human is, how noble in his capacity to reason, how unlimited in thinking, how admirable in his shape and movement, how angelic in action, how godlike in understanding! There’s nothing more beautiful. We surpass all other animals. And yet to me, what are we but dust? Men don’t interest me. No—women neither.”


What you just heard there is the final scene of the film in which Withnail repeats lines from Hamlet by Shakespeare and it’s quite a tragic ending, but you’ll have to watch the film to find out what happens.

So that was an ambitious episode! I honestly think this one is as ambitious as the one about the rules of cricket. All the way through that conversation alarm bells were ringing in my head.

Sometimes I get alarm bells when I’m teaching. From experience I know what my learners of English will and won’t understand. For example, if there’s a listening that we’re doing and it contains a few phrasal verbs or connected speech or a specific accent, the alarm bells ring in my head and sure enough none of my students have understood it.

So for this episode alarm bells are ringing like mad. First of all the film is like kryptonite to students of English (which is a pity because there’s a lot to enjoy), but also because you were listening to three guys talking with fairly similar voices in a comfortable way – meaning, not graded for learners of English to make it easier, and also we’re talking about a film that you’ve probably never seen. Also the little clips in particular were, I’m sure, rather difficult to follow.

So a big well done if you made it this far. I promise you that this film is an absolute gem and if you give it a chance it will actually improve your life.

I have talked about this film on the podcast before and in fact I do remember getting a message from a listener who said that she had watched the film on my recommendation with her boyfriend and that now they enjoy repeating lines from the script when they are about the house.

So if they can get into it then you can too, although of course this film is not for everyone, that’s why it’s a cult film.

I’ve just remembered, I promised to play the Withnail & I swear-a-thon. That’s like a marathon isn’t it, but with swearing.

Withnail and I is celebrated for its swearing and there is a lot of colourful rude language in the film. For the 20th anniversary DVD box set someone edited together all the swearwords from the film in order. This is the Withnail and I swear-a-thon. Now, as you would expect the next minute or so is going to be absolutely filled with swearing so brace yourselves. YOu’re going to hear all sorts of rude words like bastard, shit, fuck and also cunt. Here we go.

I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to this episode of Luke’s Film Club on Luke’s English Podcast.

Check out the page for the episode for some notes, transcriptions and also a bunch of video documentaries, clips and interviews that are definitely worth watching if you’d like to know more.

Have a great morning, evening, breakfast, lunch, dinner, sleep, commute or run!

495. Australian Stereotypes and Cliches (with Oliver Gee) ~didgeridoo sounds~

Discussing stereotypes and clichés about Australia with podcaster Oliver Gee who comes from a land down under. Learn about Australian English, Aussie accent, Aussie slang and exactly what you should say whenever you meet a true blue Aussie, mate! Vocabulary list available. Hooroo.


Introduction Transcript

Today on the podcast I’m talking to Oliver Gee who comes from Australia.

Oliver lives in Paris these days and is a journalist and podcaster – he does a podcast about Paris for World Radio Paris, which is a sort of radio network in English, based in Paris.

Oliver’s podcast is called The Earful Tower – and it’s available from all good podcasting apps and online at 

Click here to listen to Oli’s podcast The Earful Tower

If you are a subscriber to my email list then you’ll know that earlier this year Oliver invited me onto The Earful Tower to talk about French people learning English. You can find conversation on the Earful Tower in the episode archive.

This time I thought I’d invite Oliver on to LEP in order to talk about all things Australian.

Australia is of course a country where English is the first language and Australian English is a thing. It’s definitely a thing. I mean, it’s a major type of English in its own right. Everyone always talks about American English and British English as the two types, but of course there are plenty of other types of English – with their own accents, particular words and so on. Australian English, New Zealand English, Irish English, South African English, Canadian English and more…

But let’s turn our attention in this episode to Australia.

Australian English is it’s own thing basically. Originally it was a form of British English, but like American English it has evolved into its own form of the language, with a distinctive accent and vocabulary that reflects the things you might see, experience or feel if you were living in this place which is very far removed from life in the UK. Australian English is also undoubtedly influenced by American English as well to a certain extent.

Now, let’s consider the land down under before listening to this conversation. I want you to think about Australia.

What do you know about Australia?
Have you ever met an Australian? Or been to Australia itself?
Can you recognise or understand Australian accents?
What does an Aussie accent sound like?
What should you say to an Australian when you meet them, in order to impress them?
What are the stereotypes of Australia? Are they true?
And what are Vegemite, Tim Tams and Thongs anyway?

You can now look for answers to those questions as we now talk to Oliver Gee from Australia… (didgeridoo sounds)

Australian Words, Phrases and Reference Points

  • G’day
  • Mate
  • How ya going?
  • Arvo
  • Bail – to cancel plans
  • Barbie – Barbecue
  • Brekky – Breakfast
  • Brolly – Umbrella
  • Choccy Biccy – Chocolate Biscuit
  • Chrissie – Christmas
  • Ciggy – a Cigarette
  • Dunny – Toilet
  • Good On Ya – Good work
  • Heaps – loads, lots, many
  • Maccas – McDonalds
  • No Worries – it’s Ok
  • Servo Service Station
  • Sickie – a sick day off work
  • Stoked – Happy, Pleased
  • Straya – Australia
  • Thongs – Flip Flops. Do not be alarmed if your new found Australian friend asks you to wear thongs to the beach. They are most likely expressing their concern of the hot sand on your delicate feet.

Other references (some clichés)

  • Crocodiles
  • Spiders
  • Snakes
  • Ugg boots
  • Didgeridoos
  • Boomerangs
  • Flip flops (thongs)
  • Relaxed people
  • Beer drinking
  • Vegemite
  • Selfies
  • Baz Lurhman making a film
  • AC/DC
  • Sydney Opera house
  • Heath Ledger
  • Kylie
  • Koala bears
  • The outback
  • Steve Irwin
  • Hugh Jackman and Chris Hemsworth
  • WI FI
  • Black box recorders
  • Polymer banknotes
  • Wine
  • BBQs
  • Cricket
  • Tim tams
  • Aborigines
  • The spork
  • Coffee


So that was Oli Gee from Australia mate.

I hope you enjoyed listening to our conversation.

Remember you can listen to Oli’s episodes of The Earful Tower on iTunes or any other good podcasting service. Find the earful tower episode with me talking about French people learning English by dipping into the episode archive on and search for Earful Tower.

That brings us to the end of this episode.

Thank you for listening .

Check the page for this episode on the website and you’ll find transcriptions of the intro and outtro and some notes for my conversation with Oli including some of the Australian slang and other specific words.

Join the mailing list.

Episode 500 is coming up and I’m thinking of things to do for it.

Please send me your voice messages for episode 500 –

One idea I had was to collect audio messages from you the audience – short ones, and then put them all up in episode 500. So if you have any messages for me, please send them to

What I’d like you to say is:

  • Your name
  • Where you’re from
  • Something else, like:
    • If you’d like to say something to the audience
    • If you’d like to say something to me
    • If you’d like to ask me a question
    • How you first discovered the podcast
    • How you learn English with the podcast
    • Anything else you’d like to say

Make it no more than 30 seconds. I know that’s short but it’s going to be a montage of all the recordings and it’ll be really cool if they’re all pretty short.

So about 30 seconds and don’t forget to say your name and where you’re from. It’s not a competition this time but more of a celebration. I can’t believe I’ve done 500 episodes and they’re all about an hour each or more.

Anyway, it’s been a lot of fun and I’m very happy to have reached 500 episodes. Why don’t you celebrate with me and send a voice message to

Thanks for listening!



488. A Rambling Conversation with Mum (Part 1) + Vocabulary

A conversation with my (lovely) mum in which we generally witter on about a number of different things including some British history, ways of describing rain, different expressions for talking (like rambling and wittering), my mum’s accent, what she thinks of this podcast and some of her podcast recommendations. Vocabulary is explained after the conversation and there is a vocabulary list available below.

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Introduction Transcript

Today on the podcast, you’re going to listen to a conversation with my Mum and I’m going to explain some of the vocabulary that comes up naturally in that conversation.

Here are some of the topics that we talked about:

  • a bit of British history from the Regency period (that’s the Jane Austen period of British History) including descriptions of ballroom dances and men in tight trousers
  • some descriptions of how we talk about rain in British English
  • a few expressions related to ways of talking such as the words ‘rambling’ ‘wittering’ and ‘bickering’
  • what my mum thinks of my podcast
  • some of mum’s podcast recommendations – her favourite podcasts that she listens to and how she likes to listen to them
  • and various other things that you can discover as you listen to the conversation in full

At the end I will be going through some of the vocabulary that you are going to hear, which should help you to learn some really nice, natural English phrases, the kind of English that my mum speaks.

Vocabulary List

I’ve highlighted some words and phrases in bold and there are definitions and comments [in brackets].

  • I typed up the minutes of a meeting of a volunteer group I belong to.
    [typed up = converted handwritten notes into a document on a computer]
    [minutes of a meeting = the notes describing what happened in the meeting, usually written, typed up and then kept as a record of what happened]
  • It’s a very tedious job but someone has to do it.
    [tedious = boring]
  • Did you volunteer to do that or did someone delegate that responsibility to you?
    [to delegate something to someone = to give someone a responsibility]
  • *Mum bangs the microphone and apologises* Mum: Oh, sorry I think I just banged the microphone and made a noise. Luke: Flagging it up like that may have just made it worse than it would have been.
    [to flag something up = to bring it to everybody’s attention]
  • The fact that you brushed against the microphone slightly.
    [to brush against something = to touch something a little bit as you move past it, make contact with something as you move past it, probably by accident] [brush up on something also means to improve your skill, e.g. to brush up on your English – but that’s the idiomatic version of the phrase]
  • The building had a complete renovation which was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
    [a renovation = the appearance was changed in order to make the building look new again. The building had a renovation. It was renovated.]
    [it was funded by = it was paid for by the Heritage Lottery Fund. A fund = a collection of money which is collected for a particular purpose. Verb – to fund something = to provide the money for something]
  • One of the conditions was that the town council would stage community events.
    [verb – to stage an event = to organise and present an event. Noun – a stage – a platform where performances happen, e.g. in a theatre]
  • It dates back to the 18th century some time.
    [dates back to = it comes from that time, it originates from that time. E.g. this building dates back to the late 1700s]
  • It was used as a petty sessions court.
    [petty sessions = court sessions or court procedures which are for petty crimes]
  • Petty crimes
    [less serious crimes, also called “summary offences” in legal English. The serious ones are called “indictable offences”]
  • Just fairly petty, trivial offences, like drunkenness etc.
    [trivial = another word for ‘not very important or serious’]
  • We have a lovely Regency ballroom.
    [a ballroom = a fancy looking room where formal dances are staged.
    Regency = a period of British history including the very end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century]
  • Going to the ball was a very good way of meeting people.
    [a ball = a dance]
  • The dances were danced en-masse, like a folk dance.
    [en-masse = in a group, together. It’s a French phrase that we use in English]
    [a folk dance = folk here refers to the traditions and culture of ordinary people, not upper class people or nobility. When I think of ‘folk’ I think of the countryside, farming communities, acoustic instruments, simple clothing and group dances that involve old traditions]
  • Men would be wearing these kinds of frilly shirts and tight trousers, and neckties.
    [ frilly = a design of a shirt that has fabric with lots of folds in it – see the pic]
  • Regency style clothing (from the BBC TV series Pride and Prejuduce) The men wore frilly shirts with neckties. The women wore dresses that were fitted 'under the bust'.

    Regency style clothing (from the BBC TV series Pride and Prejuduce) The men wore frilly shirts with neckties. The women wore dresses that were fitted ‘under the bust’.

    Heaving bosoms (!)
    [ a bosom = a woman’s breasts or ‘bust’. Heaving = full and pushed up]

  • The dresses were fitted under the bust.
    [ the bust = the breasts. “bust” is a singular noun used to describe the whole area of the breasts. It’s a woman’s chest, basically]
  • What with the men’s legs and the ladies’ busts, it was quite interesting! [What with (all the) + noun . This is a way to say “because of” but you put the noun at the beginning of the sentence. E.g. It was difficult to hear him because of all the noise. What with all the noise, it was difficult to hear him. It was quite interesting because of the men’s legs and the ladies’ busts. What with the men’s legs and the ladies’ busts, it was quite interesting!]
  • In common parlance we talk about the Regency era.
    [common parlance = the things that people usually say]
  • If it starts pissing down (with rain)
    [raining heavily – a slightly rude but very common expression]
  • It’s raining cats and dogs
    [raining heavily – an idiom that we don’t really use much any more]
  • It’s bucketing (it) down
    [raining heavily – a common, informal expression]
  • It’s “shuttering” down
    [what my Gran used to say, but nobody else said it I think!]
  • Episode 135 – “Raining Animals” – an episode I did about the subject of heavy rain and whether animals ever do rain down from the sky
  • To ramble / To ramble on
    [to talk for a fairly long time in quite an unfocused way. It’s sometimes annoying because someone doesn’t get to the point. Note – not rumble.]
    [to ramble on  means to continue rambling] to ramble on + about + something
  • To witter / To witter on
    [it’s similar to ‘ramble’. To ‘witter’ means to talk without really saying anything important. It can be used in a negative way, as in “Stop wittering on!”]
    [to witter on = to continue wittering] to witter on + about + something
  • “A ramble chat” as Adam Buxton would say.
    [Adam Buxton calls his conversations ‘ramble chats’ on his podcast]
  • What on earth do people want to hear me wittering on for?
    [what… for? = why. e.g. Why did you do that? What did you do that for?]
  • Why (on earth) do people want to hear me wittering on?
    [Do you enjoy listening to my Mum wittering on? Let us know in the comment section]
  • The kind of English that Jacob Reese Mogg would speak.
    [A Conservative politician who is very posh and upper class, and speaks with an obvious heightened RP accent. My mum doesn’t like him]
  • Don’t go there! Don’t even go there!
    [Don’t start talking about that!]
  • Luke: I think you speak RP. Gill: Yep, I’d go along with that.
    [I’d go along with that = I agree]
  • Some of them are a bit rambly and go on a bit but most of them are excellent.
    [rambly = the adjective for the verb ‘ramble’]
    [to go on a bit = to talk for a bit too long]
  • Backlisted podcast – They do a podcast every fortnight, talking about backlisted books, which are books that are mainly out of print or aren’t popular in bookshops.
    [a fortnight = two weeks – just UK English]
    [backlisted books = books which are out of print – I don’t need to explain that, do I? Still, nice language]
  • They’re so knowledgeable and yet they’re not academic, they’re not stuffy.
    [knowledgeable = knows a lot about things, has a lot of knowledge. Can you say it? He knows a lot. He has lots of knowledge of the subject. He’s very knowledgeable about it.]
    [stuffy = formal and old-fashioned, a negative and disapproving word]
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon – it’s written from the point of view of an autistic child.
    [autistic = suffering from autism. Autism = a developmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction, difficulties in communicating, problems with seeing and hearingrepetitive behavior, etc.]
  • We just peruse the different shelves and tables.
    [to peruse = to browse, read, investigate in a relaxed and casual manner]
  • James is Whatsapping us while we’re on the podcast. How dare he?
    [Whatsapp = a messaging app on your phone. To ‘whatsapp’ someone = to send someone a message on Whatsapp.]
    [How dare he? – usually How dare you? – It’s used when you’re shocked or unhappy with someone’s behaviour]
  • James tweeted to Mark Kermode (Mark had tweeted that he was listening to a couple of soundtrack albums for films by William Friedkin, and James replied saying he’d “snapped up” the soundtrack to a Friedkin film called Sorcerer. Mark is a big fan of Friedkin, especially Sorcerer, and he liked the tweet.)
    [snapped up = took quickly, like a crocodile would take something]Screen Shot 2017-10-16 at 18.39.04
  • The Frank Skinner Podcast (Absolute Radio)
  • (Frank Skinner) He’s very witty, very articulate, very quick witted.
    [witty = funny, able to make quick jokes. Quick witted = with a fast brain for making jokes or quick comments]
  • He’s from our neck of the woods. He’s from West Bromwich. It’s in The Black Country. It’s part of the midlands.
    [our neck of the woods = the area where we live]
    [The Black Country is a region of the West Midlands in England, west of Birmingham, and commonly refers to all or part of the four Metropolitan Boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton. It’s called the Black Country because in the mid 19th century there were many iron working foundries and forges that produced a lot of black smoke and because of the coal mines that produced the black rock and dust from under the ground.
  • People say people from Birmingham sound untrustworthy.
    [untrustworthy = can’t be trusted]
  • Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s Film Review (aka The Wittertainment Podcast) @Wittertainment
  • (Mark and Simon) They seem to be on the same wavelength, but they play this game of being irritated with each other all the time.
    [On the same wavelength = they think in the same way]
    [to be irritated with someone = to be annoyed by someone]
  • They just witter away with each other.
    [to witter away = to witter on]
  • They bicker with each other. Bickering, getting at each other, a bit like an old married couple.
    [to bicker with someone = to argue but not very seriously]
    [to get at someone = to criticise someone again and again]
  • As far as I can gather, most of my listeners listen when they’re on public transport.
    [gather = to understand. Gather can also mean ‘collect’, e.g. to gather firewood. Here it means ‘gather information’ or just ‘understand’]

There’s no language quiz this time. The reason for that is that it takes absolutely ages to create them and I wonder how many of you are actually using them! Let me know if you have used the language quizzes that I’ve done for recent episodes of the podcast. If there is enough demand for language quizzes, I can try and bring them back.

Give me your feedback – I need to know what you think.

Podcast and Book Recommendations from Mum

Also mentioned:

There will be more talk of reading books, listening to podcasts and watching films in part 2 of this episode.

482. The Murder Mile True Crime Podcast (with Moz) More Creepy Stories of Murders in London

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.

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Notes and Introduction Transcript

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”.

337. MURDER MILE WALKS: Stories of London’s Most Infamous & Shocking Murders [Some Explicit Content + Swearing]

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

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.

murder mile tours

Vocabulary List

  • “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]
  • A deer [an animal with big antlers – click here find out more on Wikipedia]
  • Wild boar [a sort of wild pig – more info]
  • “During the rutting season the male boars have terrible mating battles”
  • It’s a scratchy howl [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.


Murder Mile Tours Website

Murder Mile True Crime Podcast

You can also follow Moz on Twitter @mmiletours

Part 2 (with more rambling tangents) coming soon…

481. Holiday Diary (Final Part) “Endeavour to Persevere”

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.



Please consider making a donation to help people in the affected areas

Organizations like UNICEF Mexico are looking for monetary donations.

There’s a big need for clothes, water, and food. Giving to places like the Red Cross Mexico , Oxfam Mexico , and Save the Children Mexico  is a way to get resources flowing.

Notes and Transcript for this Episode

Some rambling about how much it rains in Paris…


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”
Which tour?
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

Monument Valley in the film Fort Apache

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.

Grand Canyon

(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 Canyon

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.


Neil Young – Tell Me Why (Lyrics)


480. Holiday Diary (Part 7) BIG ROCKS!

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.

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Some talk of putting shelves up… doing DIY…

Transcript and Notes

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

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.

(Oxford dictionary)

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.

Terrible Jokes

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 (/pærɪˈdliə) 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 rabbithidden 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.[1] (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.


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.

At this point we enter the Navajo Nation.

To be continued!