Listen to English - learn English! : podcasts

Listen to English - learn English! : podcasts


Two short (5 minutes or less) podcasts every week in clearly spoken English will help you to improve your listening skills and learn new words and expressions. Many podcasts are linked to grammar and vocabulary notes or to quizes or exercises.


Dogs must be carried on the escalator.  

A special steam train at Farringdon station, to celebrate 150 years of the London Underground. Photo by diamond geezer/flickr.

Here in Britain, we have been celebrating a birthday. Not the birthday of a person, however, but the birthday of a railway. One hundred and fifty years ago, in January 1863, the first underground railway in the world carried its first passengers. It ran for 6 kilometres from Paddington in London to a place close to the City, which is the name we call London’s main business district.

The new railway was controversial and unpopular with many people. The men building the railway dug up the streets and knocked down houses and other buildings. They dug a deep trench and put the railway track at the bottom. Then they covered over the new railway and remade the surface of the street. Not surprisingly, the construction work caused chaos in London for many months.

Steam engines pulled the first underground trains. Although the tunnels had vents in the roof to let the smoke escape, they were still full of soot and steam. The railway company bravely said that the atmosphere was invigorating and particularly good for people with asthma. I think that it must have been very unpleasant. Nonetheless, from the very first day the railway was popular with people who needed to travel to their work in London. About 26,000 people used the railway every day in its first six months of operation.

More underground railway lines opened in the following years. The railway companies found new ways to build and operate them. Instead of digging huge trenches in the streets, they bored holes deep under the city. People called these deep underground lines “tubes” because the tunnels had a circular shape like tubes. Nowadays, we say “the Tube” to mean all of the London underground system. It was of course impossible to use steam engines on the deep Tube lines; they had electric trains instead. By the beginning of the 20th century, electricity had replaced steam on all the underground lines.

To celebrate the 150th birthday of the London Underground, one of the old steam engines came out of its retirement home in a museum to pull a special Underground train. The Post Office issued some new stamps to mark the anniversary. And Prince Charles, who is old but not quite as old as the London Underground, joined the celebrations by taking a trip on an Underground train earlier this week. This was apparently the first time in 27 years that he had travelled on the Tube. Our royal family live very different lives from ordinary people!

To finish this podcast, here is some Underground vocabulary for you to learn.

When you go into an Underground station, you will see signs that say things like “Bakerloo Line southbound”. “Southbound” means “traveling south” – and “northbound” means traveling north, and I am sure you can work out what “eastbound” and “westbound” mean.

After you have followed the signs an

Mid-life Crisis  

Will your mid-life crisis look like this?……….

Do you know what I mean when I say that someone is “middle-aged”? If you are “middle-aged” you are probably 40 years old or older. You have stopped being interested in pop music. You don’t go to night clubs any more. You have sold the motor-bike which you drove all around Europe a few years ago. You no longer share a flat with six of your student friends.

Instead, you are married, with children. You have bought a house in the suburbs. You lie awake at night worrying about the mortgage. You own a boring but practical car – a Ford Focus perhaps. The car is full of the children’s things. They have left sticky sweets on the seats and empty crisp packets on the floor. You now play golf instead of going to football matches. Worst of all, your hair is going grey, and you have started to put on weight. (To put on weight” is a polite way of saying that you are getting fat!) Welcome to middle age!

Now, please don’t confuse “middle age” with the expression “the Middle Ages”. “The Middle Ages” means the period of European history from roughly the 11th century to the 15th century. In those times most people died before they were 40, so they never became middle-aged. Or perhaps they became middle-aged earlier than people do today.

…or like this?

Some people, particularly men, reach middle age and become unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives. The years seem to go by more and more quickly. Life has become boring. Yes, you have a well-paid job, but it does not feel like an exciting or worthwhile job. You have too many responsibilities. You want to be young and free again.

If you feel like that when you are middle-aged, we say that you are suffering from a “mid-life crisis”.

So, our imaginary man with a mid-life crisis sells his Ford Focus and buys a sports car. He uses hair-dye to hide his grey hairs. He starts to wear the sort of clothes that teenagers wear, and he goes to clubs and dances Gangnam Style (If you don’t know what Gangnam Style is, you really are middle-aged!) He leaves his wife and children and moves in with his secretary. After a few weeks, his secretary is fed up with him. She chucks him out, and he moves back with his wife and children.

Or perhaps our mid-life crisis man deals with his mid-life crisis in a more constructive way. He finds a new job which pays less but which is more useful to society and which gives him more free time. He loses weight by jogging and going to the gym. He decides that grey hair is a good thing, because it make him look mature and interesting. He says to himself that “middle age” is all in the mind. If you have a young mind, you are still a young man.

Recently, scientists have discovered that it is not just people who suffer from a mid-life crisis. Apes such as chimpanzees and orang-utans are among our closest biological relatives, and they too tend to feel depressed and dissatisfied in their middle years. The scientists sent a questionnaire to people who look after chimpanzees and orang-utans in zoos. The questionnaires asked about how happy the apes seemed at different stages of their lives. Altogether, the scientists collected information on about 500 apes. They found that, very like humans, apes are happiest when they are young and when they are old, and less happy in their middle years.

So now you know that, if you see a chimpanzee driving a sports car, or dancing Gangnam Style, he is probably just having a mid

The King under the Car Park  

King Richard III of England. Are the remains found under a car park in Leicester his?

In the city of Leicester, in central England, a group of archaeologists has been busy. They have been digging up a car park. Last week they announced that they had found a human skeleton. Of course, archaeologists often dig up human remains. Human bones can tell us interesting things about the past – what people ate, how tall they were, what diseases they suffered from, and how they died. The car park skeleton, however, is much more interesting. It is the skeleton of a man. He suffered from a deformed spine. He had a severe head injury, and part of an arrow was found in his back. The bones may be those of King Richard III of England.

Richard was born in 1452 and became king in 1483, after the death of his older brother Edward IV. The 15th century was a very troubled time in English history. There was almost constant civil war between powerful families who wanted to control the country. A few months after Edward’s death, his two sons – aged 12 and 9 – disappeared. Many people are convinced that Richard ordered their deaths so that neither of them could ever challenge his position as king.

Richard was king for only two years. In 1485, Henry Tudor led a rebellion against him. Richard’s army was defeated at the battle of Bosworth, and Richard himself was killed. (He was in fact the last English king to die in a battle. After him, English kings got other people to do the fighting and the dying for them!) His body was displayed in public for several days. Then it was taken and buried at Greyfriars Church in Leicester, which is quite close to the site of the battle. The victorious Henry Tudor became King Henry VII, and he and his children and grandchildren ruled England for the next 120 years.

Grefriars Church disappeared in about 1540, when the king seized all the monasteries in England and expelled the monks. Over the years, people forgot where Greyfriars Church had been. For a time there was a garden on the site; and later buildings; and then a car park in the busy centre of Leicester. No-one knew what had happened to the body of Richard III. Indeed, until recently, many historians believed that it had been dug up and thrown into a river at about the time that the monks left Greyfriars Church.

The archaeologists dug a number of trenches across the car park. They found the remains of the walls and the floor of Greyfriars Church. Then inside the church, they found the skeleton. They were very interested that the skeleton had a deformed spine, because we know that Richard had one shoulder higher than the other. They have carefully taken the skeleton from the ground, and have taken some samples of DNA from it. The next step is to compare this DNA with DNA from people who are descended from Richard III’s sister. (Richard himself had no children). These tests will take three months. So maybe early next year we will find out for certain whether we have found the body of a King of England under a car park.

There has been a lot of interest in this news because, even today, Richard III is a controversial figure. The traditional view is that he was an evil monster, who murdered his own young nephews. Shakespeare wrote a famous play about Richard III, which portrayed Richard in this way. Other people however say that Richard was a good king. He made it easier for ordinary people to get justice in the courts. He ordered

School dinners  

This is one of the school meals which Martha Payne photographed for her blog. She had carrot soup, pasta with meat and vegetables and more carrot, and yoghurt.

Today we visit Scotland, to find out what a Scottish schoolgirl thinks of her school meals. And because the European Cup Football matches have reached an interesting stage, and poor old England have been knocked out by Italy, this might be a good time to learn a new football expression.

Martha Payne is 9 years old. She lives in a small community in Scotland called Lochgilphead. Like many British schoolchildren, Martha has a meal at school in the middle of the day. In English, we often call these meals “school dinners”. Everyone remembers the school dinners at their school – perhaps they loved their school dinners, or they hated them, or they remember funny things about them. At my school, way back in the 1950s, we sometimes got bilberry tart and custard for dessert. I remember that the bilberries made our tongues blue. We used to go around sticking our blue tongues out at each other.

Martha is interested in the food at her school. She is interested in how good it tastes, and how healthy it is, and whether it contains any hairs! A few months ago, she started to write a blog about her school dinners. She took her camera into school, to photograph her school dinner, and then she posted the picture in her blog and told us what she thought about the food. Most days, she thought the food was OK, and on some days she thought it was really good.

Children in other schools, and in other countries, started to read Martha’s blog. Some of them left comments to say what they thought about Martha’s school dinners. And some sent Martha pictures of their own school dinners, and Martha published these on her blog. Then Martha started to use her blog to raise money for a charity called Mary’s Meals, which provides school meals for children in poor communities in developing countries.

And at this point, the bureaucrats who run the education system in the part of Scotland where Martha lives became aware of her blog. And they did not like it. They did not want publicity about the food in their schools. Perhaps they were afraid that people would start to criticise their school dinners and say that they were unhealthy. They decided that Martha’s blog had to stop.

Martha’s headteacher told Martha the bad news, and Martha was sad and wrote a final blog post to say goodbye to her many readers.

At this point, we will make a little diversion to talk about football. In football, you try to kick the ball into the other team’s goal. It is a big mistake to kick the ball into your own goal. Of course, sometimes, by accident, footballers do put the ball into their own goal. When this happens, we call it an “own goal”. We can use this expression outside football as well. Imagine that you do something, and it goes spectacularly wrong. It has completely the opposite effect of what you intended. You hoped that it would make things better, but actually it makes things a lot worse. We call that an “own goal”.

Well, the bureaucrats who decided that Martha had to stop her blog did not want people talking about the school dinners in their schools. But you can imagine what actually happened. The newspapers, the radio and the television all carried stories about Martha’s blog. People wrote about it in Facebook, and sent tweets about it in Twitter. This was not at all what the bureaucrats wanted. Banning Martha’s blog was an “own goal”. A day later, after everyone had told them what idiots they were, they decided that – after all, and now they had thought about it a bit more – Martha could continue writing her blog about her school dinners, and taking pictures

Dull and Boring  

Dull, twinned with Boring

Do you know the English word “dull”? “Dull” is the opposite of “bright”. Often it means “uninteresting”. We can talk about dull weather, which means cloudy weather, probably some rain and certainly no sunshine. We can talk about a dull book or a dull lesson. And we can say that someone is dull – a dull person is probably not very intelligent, and has nothing interesting or lively or amusing to say. We have a saying in English that “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. Do you know someone who works all the time and never relaxes and never goes out to enjoy themselves?

And I am sure that you all know the word “boring”. It means unexciting and uninteresting. It is a favourite word of English teenagers. If their parents suggest something to them, like “Shall we all go to the cinema tonight?”, the teenager will probably reply “boring”, because when you are 15 years old, any activity involving your parents is boring.

There is a village in Scotland called Dull. It is very small, with only a single row of houses. There is a church, but it has not been used for several years. There is a school too, but it is closed. In the past, Dull was quite interesting. It was an early Christian settlement, and there was an abbey where the church now stands. But nothing interesting seems to have happened in Dull for several hundred years, and today Dull seems to be a very dull place indeed.

Elizabeth Leighton lives in Dull. However, she is obviously not a dull person, because recently she went for a cycling holiday in America. And while she was there she discovered a town called Boring. Boring is in Oregon, in the north-west of the United States. The north west of the United States is a bit like Scotland – lots of rain, and snow in the winter. Boring has about 12,000 inhabitants, which means that it is quite a bit bigger than Dull. But is it any more interesting? It has a timber mill, and a place where they train guide dogs for blind people. But the railway line closed years ago, and I guess that many of the inhabitants of Boring commute to work every day to the city of Portland, which is not far away.

Elizabeth Leighton had the great idea that Dull and Boring should become ‘twin communities’. There could be a sign outside Dull saying “Dull, twinned with Boring” and a sign outside Boring saying “Boring, twinned with Dull”. And people passing by would smile and think that, even if Boring is boring, and Dull is dull, people in the two communities at least have a sense of humour. The local authorities in Dull and Boring are now considering Elizabeth’s idea.

Now I don’t want to spoil a good story for you, but I have to point out that Dull is not called Dull because it is a dull place. The name Dull comes from the Scottish Gaelic language, and probably means “meadow”. And Boring is named after an old soldier from the American Civil War who was called William H Boring. After the war, he settled in Oregon, and lived there until he died in 1932. Because William Boring lived nearby, and was one of the leading citizens of the place, it was natural for the railway company, and later the US Post Office, to call the settlement “Boring” in his honour.


A poster advertising Titanic.

The 14th of April 2012 was the centenary – the 100th anniversary – of the sinking of the passenger ship Titanic in the north Atlantic. This podcast is about Titanic. I hope it will help you to learn some new words and expressions about ships and the sea, and that you will learn about “unsinkable” words. (Don’t know what “unsinkable” words are? Then listen carefully to the rest of the podcast!)

Titanic has appeared in one of these podcasts before. Just over a year ago, we visited Belfast in Northern Ireland and the shipyard where Titanic was built. When she was launched, Titanic was the biggest ship in the world, and one of the most comfortable and luxurious. One hundred years ago last week, she set sail from Southampton on the south coast of England on her maiden voyage to New York.

On board, there were over 1300 passengers. About 300 of these were First Class passengers, who enjoyed facilities such as restaurants, cafes, a library, a gym, a swimming pool and a telegraph office which could send radio messages back to families and business colleagues on shore. The First Class passengers included some of the wealthiest and most influential people in the world. Most of the passengers, however, travelled Second or Third Class, in much more humble conditions. Then there were 885 crew members, including 300 men to look after Titanic‘s huge steam engines and feed them with coal. There were also large numbers of cooks, waiters, cleaners and other people to look after the passengers. There was a cat too, with her kittens.

Titanic called first at Cherbourg in France and then at Cobh in Ireland before setting out across the Atlantic. Then, shortly before midnight on 14 April 1912, when she was 600km south of Newfoundland in Canada, she struck an iceberg. Slowly the ship filled with water. The crew launched the ship’s lifeboats, but there were not sufficient places in them for everyone. Over 1500 of the passengers and crew died in the freezing waters of the Atlantic; only 710 were saved.

The sinking of Titanic shocked and horrified people in both Britain and America. They were shocked that there were not enough lifeboats. They were shocked that so many people had died, and that the families of many of them were left in poverty. Nowhere was the shock greater than in Southampton, where many of the crew had lived. It is said that every street in the city had at least one family who had lost someone in the disaster. Above all, people in Europe and the United States 100 years ago believed in technology and progress. They thought that modern technology and engineering could do almost anything. They were shocked to learn that nature could so easily destroy the biggest and most advanced ship in the world.

The story of Titanic still fascinates people today. The wreck of Titanic was rediscovered on the bed of the Atlantic in 1985, and many items such as crockery and bits of luggage were brought to the surface and exhibited for people to see. There have been countless books and films about Titanic‘s first and last voyage, and theories about what really happened and who was to blame for the sinking. In Britain in the last few weeks, we have had several special television and radio programmes to

England's Newest Tourist Attraction  

A traffic jam on the M25 motorway.

Are you planning a visit to England? Are you thinking to yourself, “What shall we do in England? Are there any really special places that we must go to when we are there?” You are? Good, then this podcast is for you.

When you are in England, you could visit the Tower of London. But everyone visits the Tower of London. Or you could spend a day in Stratford-on-Avon, where Shakespeare was born. But everyone goes to Stratford. No, England’s newest tourist attraction is the M25 Motorway, which is the motorway that runs in a circle around London. It is 188 kilometers long; it is Britain’s busiest motorway, and one of the busiest roads in Europe. A bus company in Brighton now offers coach trips round the M25, and business is brisk. It seems that lots of people like nothing more than sitting in a coach on a motorway. So let us pay £15 for our ticket, and board the coach which will take us on this amazing adventure.

We head north from Brighton to the motorway, and then drive down the slip road. There are of course two possible ways that we can travel around the M25. We can turn left and travel clockwise, or we can turn right and travel anticlockwise. Today the driver decides to take us anticlockwise. As well as the driver, there is a guide on the coach who tells us about the interesting things we can see – things like “junctions” and “road signs”. The motorway today is busy, but not yet congested. We are a little bit disappointed by this. We hoped that we would find a traffic jam, because the M25 is famous for its traffic jams. Indeed, some people call the M25 the “largest car park in Britain”. Never mind, there is still a long way to go, and maybe we will find a traffic jam later.

Now the coach is taking us around the south-east edge of London. Soon we will come to the River Thames. Because we are travelling anticlockwise, we go under the river in a tunnel. Traffic going the other way crosses the river on a bridge. We have to pay a toll to use the river crossing. In the rush hour, there can be long delays at the toll booths, but today we only have to wait about 10 minutes.

On the other side of the river, something very exciting happens. There are some roadworks, where men are repairing the surface of the motorway. Along the side of the motorway there is a long line of red and white traffic cones. People on the coach use their cameras or their mobile phones to take pictures of the cones. On roads in Britain, we have many more cones than cars; and the manufacture of traffic cones is an important national industry. The traffic comes to a standstill, and we wait. There is a sign that tells us that we must not go faster than 40 miles per hour, but it is pointless because we cannot move at all. We look at the traffic going the other way. It is moving freely while we are stuck in a traffic jam. Slowly we move forward, and reach the place where the road is being repaired. There is a big machine for resurfacing the road, and several lorries, but strangely no-one seems to be doing any work. Our guide explains that this is normal.

Now we have passed the roadworks and come to a service station. The coach pulls in, and we all get out to go to the toilets and to queue for cold coffee and rubber sandwiches in the cafe. After our break, we travel down the busy western section of the motorway. Here the traffic is

Going to the Dogs  

Elizabeth, the Lhasa Apso dog which won the Best in Show award at Crufts 2012. Photograph copyright onEdition, used here with permission.

We have an expression in English “going to the dogs”. If something is “going to the dogs”, it means that everything seems to be getting worse and worse. There is a special sort of English person – perhaps you have met one – who will tell you that England is going to the dogs. He means that he doesn’t like the sort of clothes that young people wear, that he doesn’t like computers, that he doesn’t understand what an iPhone app does, that there are too many foreigners, that the Australians have just beaten England at cricket and that beer doesn’t taste like proper beer any more. It wasn’t like this when he was young. The country is going to the dogs!

We are going to the dogs today. We are going to visit Crufts, which is the largest dog show in the world. Every year, about 28,000 dogs and their owners come to a big exhibition centre near Birmingham for a four day celebration of dogs and everything connected with dogs. They (the dogs, that is) compete in lots of tests and competitions, to see which is the best dog in each breed, and which is the best dog in the whole show. The best dog in the show wins a prize of £100, which does not sound much to people like you and me, but perhaps it is a lot of money if you are a dog. Also at Crufts there are races for dogs, obedience competitions for dogs and something called “heelwork to music”, which essentially means people dancing with their dogs.

Dogs that go to Crufts are special dogs. They are all pedigree dogs, which means that each dog comes from a pure breed and that there is a proper record of its ancestors. Some are working dogs, which have been bred for hunting or for working on farms. Others are just pretty dogs. There are big dogs and little dogs, noisy dogs and quiet dogs, dogs from Britain and dogs from other countries too.

Why is this dog show called Crufts? It is named after a Mr Cruft, who worked for a company that made dog biscuits. In 1886, he organised a dog show in London. Six hundred dogs took part. Since then, the dog show which he started has grown and grown. In 1991, it became so big that it had to move out of London to a huge exhibition centre in the middle of England.

A few years ago there was a lot of controversy about Crufts. Some people claimed that many of the dogs at Crufts were deformed and unhealthy. They said that dog breeders wanted dogs with exaggerated characteristics – very narrow heads, for examples, or short noses or long back legs. As a result many pedigree dogs were unable to breathe properly, or to stand properly or see properly. Many had severe heart, brain or lung illnesses. There was an outcry when a TV programme about pedigree dog breeding was shown on TV in 2008. The BBC decided that it would no longer send its cameras to make programmes about Crufts.

The organisation for dog breeders in Britain is called the Kennel Club. (A “kennel” is a little hut or building where dogs are kept). In the past few years, the Kennel Club has tried to improve the health of pedigree dogs. They have changed many of the rules and standards. Today, vets examine dogs at Crufts to make sure that they are healthy animals, and disqualify them if they ar

Lord Lucan cannot cope  

Lord Lucan. Have you seen this man? He cannot cope with life abroad.

Today I am going to tell you about Lord Lucan. But first we need to talk about the verb “to cope”.

Helen has three children. They are all less than five years old, which means that none of them is yet at school. Her husband often has to travel for his job, so he cannot help to look after the children. Helen’s mother lives in the next road, and Helen often has to go to visit her, and cook food for her, and clean her house. So, as you can see, Helen has some big difficulties in her life. She is under a lot of pressure. But Helen never lets her three children and her elderly mother get her down. She is always cheerful and smiling.

Often her friends ask her “How do you cope? How do you cope with three small children, a husband who is away, and an elderly mother?” “To cope” means to deal successfully with some big difficulties and pressures. We use the word “with” with “cope” – Helen copes with three small children and an elderly mother.

Here are some more examples. One of Kevin’s colleagues at work, Jack, is ill. So Kevin has to cope with 20 or 30 telephone calls every day which Jack would normally deal with. “I can’t cope”, Kevin says. “The telephone is always ringing and I don’t understand what they are talking about. I have no time to do my own work.” His boss however understands his problem. “You are coping fine,” he says. “It is only for a short time until Jack is back at work. I will ask someone else to do some of your work to help you to cope.”

Another example. Rosie has just gone to university. It is all very strange and new to her. She finds the work difficult, and she does not like some of her fellow students. She misses her parents and her home. She has a lot to cope with. Some students find that they cannot cope with life at university, and they leave and return home. What will Rosie do? Will she be able to cope or not?

So, now we have to meet Lord Lucan and find what he has to do with the verb “to cope”.

Lord Lucan is (or was) an English aristocrat. There is a picture of him on the website. He has a moustache, and slicked-back hair, and looks like the villain in an old Hollywood movie. He was a rich man who won and lost large amounts of money at horse races and in card games.

In November 1974, Lord Lucan’s name, and the photo of him as a movie villain, was all over the front pages of the newspapers. His nanny – that is, the woman whom he employed to look after his children – had been found murdered. The police suspected that Lord Lucan himself was the murderer. Indeed, they thought that Lucan had meant to kill his wife, Lady Lucan, but killed the wrong woman by mistake. It is possible that Lord Lucan could have explained everything perfectly; however he was nowhere to be found. He had disappeared completely. No-one knew for certain what had happened to him. Some people said that he had killed himself, but his body was never found. Others said that he had fled abroad, and was living under a false identity in Europe or in Africa.

Ever since then, at times when there was not a lot of other news to report, the newspapers have carried stories about people who said that they had seen Lord Lucan, typically in a hotel or bar somewhere. Generally, “Lord Lucan” turned out to be a plumber from Arizona, or a computer programmer from Düsseldorf. Recently, the story has been in the papers again. A woman who used to be a secretary for one of Lucan’s friends said that she had booked air tickets for Lucan’s children to visit Africa, so that Lord Lucan could see them. And someone else, a retired criminal, says that he met Lord Lucan in New Zealand.

Bur Lady Lucan says that all these stories are rubbish. She is convinced that her husband killed himself by jumping off a boat into the sea. According to her, it is ridiculous to think that he is living in hiding abroad. “He knows no foreign languages and he only likes English food. He could not cope with living abroad!” she says.

So, there you are. Lord Lucan is (or was) a true Englishman. He could not cope with a language that was not English. He could not cope with food that was not roast beef or fish and chips. He could not cope with life abroad! Poor man.

Singing in the rain  

This young lady is singing in the rain, and dancing in the rain, and splashing in the puddles in the rain. Photo by James White/flickr.

If you are as old as I am, you probably remember a Hollywood film called Singing in the Rain. That was Gene Kelly singing a song from that film. In the film he was indeed ‘singing in the rain’, and ‘dancing in the rain’ as well, and fooling around with an umbrella in the rain. Of course, you probably noticed that he says ‘singin’ in the rain’ instead of ‘singing in the rain’. That is the way that many Americans, and quite a lot of English people too, pronounce words that end in “-ing”.

And this podcast is about words which end in “-ing”. Your English teacher may have a special name, like “gerund”, for these words. But I am just going to call them “-ing” words. You can make an “-ing” word by adding the letters ING to the end of any English verb – any verb at all, no exceptions. OK, sometimes you have to change the spelling a bit, because as you know we English love to make spelling difficult. But the sound is the same – “ing” (or “in’” if you are Gene Kelly). Go on – make a few “-ing” words now, while I am talking – yes, “talking”, that’s an “-ing” word, so are running, jumping, standing, sleeping, reading, eating…..and so on.

So now we have some “-ing” words, what can we do with them? The exciting answer to this question is that we can do almost anything with an “-ing” word. We can use it as an adjective, for example. If we see a child who is asleep, we can call her “a sleeping child”. If we see a baby who is crying, we can call it a “crying baby”. If we see a car that is going too fast, we can call it a “speeding car”. And if you want to swim, you go to a “swimming pool”.

We can also use our “-ing” word as a noun. We can say, for example, “I like reading”, or “I think that spelling is very difficult”. “Reading” is a noun; it is the name of the thing that I do when I read a book or a newspaper. But “-ing” words are not ordinary nouns. They never forget that they were once verbs. What do I mean by that? Well, think about these sentences. “I like reading” and “I read books”. We can combine these sentences like this – “I like reading books”. So, can you see that “reading” is a bit like a verb? Just like the verb “read”, you can put the word “books” after it, to say what you like reading. We can also say “I like reading books slowly”; we can add the word “slowly” to explain how we read.

The third way we can use our “-ing” words is to make continuous verbs. Continuous verbs are very special to English. I do not know of another language which has them, but please put a comment on the website if you think that I am wrong. We use continuous verbs when we want to explain that something is happening right now! If I say “I swim”, what does that mean? It means I can swim, perhaps I go to the swimming pool every day. But if I say “I am swimming” it means that I swim now, as I am talking to you. Think about a child in a swimming pool, learning to swim. He shouts to his mother, who is standing at the side of the pool, “Look Mum. I’m swimming. I haven’t got my feet on the bottom. I am really swimming!” And when Gene Kelly sings that he is singing in the rain, he does not mean that he sometimes sings when it rains, he means that he is singing now, and that the rain is falling now and he is getting wet now, but he doesn’t care, because he is in love or something. We use continuous verbs a lot in English, especially in spoken English. It is a good idea to practice using continuous verbs, and learning when we use them, and when we don’t!

There is a quiz on the Listen to English website where you can have fun with “-ing” words. Read through the podcast and find all the “-ing” words that I have used. See how many different ways you can find of using “-ing” words. Keep listening to these podcasts, and keep learning English.

English for Beginners :: Renée Maufroid's website.Quiz :: Have fun with "-ing" words.Kev
Scott of the Antarctic  

A famous photograph of Scott, writing in his journal, at the expedition base camp.

Do you know what “centenary” means? It means the 100-year anniversary of something. This week is the centenary of the arrival at the South Pole of the first British explorers , led by Captain Robert Scott.

The English word “Arctic” means the area of the world around the North Pole. The Arctic is not land, but sea – frozen sea. However, the South Pole is in the centre of an icy continent, Antarctica, and 100 years ago Antarctica was still largely unknown. There had been expeditions to explore some of the coastal areas, and some of these expeditions had ventured inland. But the centre of the continent, and the South Pole itself, was unexplored. No-one had ever been there.

Robert Scott was born in 1868. He joined the Royal Navy at the age of 13. Over the years, he rose in rank, and became an expert in naval torpedoes. In 1899, he heard that the Royal Geographical Society in London planned to send an expedition to Antarctica. Although he had no previous experience of Antarctica, he was enthusiastic about the challenges of the expedition, and he volunteered to lead it.

The expedition left for Antarctica in July 1901, and spent two years in the frozen continent. It did some very useful scientific work, and a group led by Scott travelled far into the interior of Antarctica, to a point only 750 kilometres from the South Pole itself. But the extreme cold forced the party to turn back, and they returned to their base a month later ill and exhausted. The expedition had come to Antarctica with very little experience of cold climates. The explorers had to learn how best to travel over the ice and snow. They had brought dogs with them to pull their sledges, but they did not understand how to use the dogs effectively. Scott concluded that, although dog sledges could be useful, the only way that men could reach the South Pole was on foot, pulling sledges containing food and tents behind them.

The British government then decided that Scott’s expedition in Antarctica was costing them too much money, so two ships were sent out in 1903 to bring the explorers back to Britain. Scott returned home a popular hero. He was promoted to the rank of captain, and was invited to visit the King. He quickly decided to make a second expedition to Antarctica, and that this time he would reach the Pole. It took a long time, however, to find the money for the expedition, and a suitable ship, and to recruit the right people to go with him.

Scott’s second Antarctic expedition set out in 1910. Things did not go well. On the way to Antarctica, Scott received news that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was also on his way to the South Pole. Scott’s ship, the Terra Nova, became stuck in the ice for 3 weeks before it could reach land. He had brought ponies and motorised sledges with him to transport men and supplies, and a few dogs. One of the motorised sledges fell into the sea, as did several of the ponies. The ponies proved to be not very useful. Some of them died, and others had to be shot. Scott was now convinced that he was right – the only way to travel to the South Pole was to walk.

In November 1911, the journey south began. Over two months later, on 17 January 1912, Scott and four others at last reached the South Pole. They found a tent, and a Norwegian flag. Amundsen had beaten them. He had reached the Pole 5 weeks earlier. Scott’s party were heartbroken as they turned to go back to their base, 1300 kilometres away. The weather got worse and worse, and their supplies of food ran low. Cold and hunger

The New Pandas  

One of the new pandas at Edinburgh Zoo, enjoying a snack of bamboo shoots.

This is a new Listen to English podcast, the first for a very long time. No, I am not dead, as some of you seem to think. Nor am I ill, nor have I run away to the Caribbean with a beautiful film star. I have simply been busy. (However, if you know any beautiful film stars who would like to run away with me, perhaps you could let me know).

This podcast is about pandas. I am sure you know what a panda looks like, even if you have never seen one. There is a picture on the website. You will see that a panda is a type of bear, with a white coat and big black patches round its eyes, that make it look like a teenage girl with too much eye make-up. Perhaps you think that pandas are sweet and cuddly. However, people who know about them say that they are in fact smelly and do not like being cuddled at all.

Pandas live in mountain areas of China, and their main food is bamboo shoots. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of pressure on their habitat in recent years, and the number of pandas living in the wild has fallen to about 3,000. In addition there are about 250 pandas in captivity, mainly in zoos in China. For many years, pandas were used by the government of China for diplomatic advantage. If the government of China liked you, they might give you a panda to live in one of your zoos. And if they really liked you, they might give you two pandas.

In 1958, London Zoo acquired a panda called Chi Chi. Chi Chi was about a year old at the time, and in his short life he had lived in China, and in zoos in Moscow, East Berlin and Frankfurt. An American Zoo wanted him, but the American government decided that Chi Chi was a communist, so they refused to let him enter the country. So Chi Chi came to London, and for the next 14 years he was the star attraction at London Zoo. Naturally, the Zoo wanted to find him a lady panda, hoping that the two pandas would breed. They borrowed a female panda called An An from a zoo in Moscow. However, Chi Chi and An An never really hit it off, and there were no panda cubs. The trouble is that a female panda is fertile for only about two days in a year. So if Mrs Panda has a headache on the important two days, or Mr Panda is asleep, or out playing football with his friends, there will be no baby pandas. Chi Chi died in 1972, and we were all very sad. If you go to the Natural History Museum in London, you can still see Chi Chi, stuffed, in one of the exhibition rooms. He looks as if he wished he had stayed in China.

But now we have new pandas. The government of Scotland has been very nice indeed to the government of China, and two lovely pandas – a male and a female – arrived in Edinburgh Zoo late last year. They live in a newly-built panda house, which cost about as much as a house for humans. For the moment, the two pandas are still settling in. They are living separately, but the zoo hopes to put them together in a few months time and, who knows, this time next year there may be a baby panda. Lots of people seem happy to pay and stand in a queue in the cold of winter to see the new pandas. This is good, because keeping pandas is expensive. The new pandas are not a free gift from

The Scariest Day of the Year.  

Some very scary Halloween pumpkins. Photo by Pedro J Ferreira/flickr

Today is 31 October, and it is the scariest day of the year. Do you know the verb “to scare”? If you scare someone, you frighten them, you make them afraid. So, “scary” means “frightening” and today is a special, scary sort of day, as I shall explain.

Today is Halloween. “Halloween” means “the evening of (that is, the day before) All Hallows Day”, and “All Hallows Day” is an old Christian festival which takes place on 1 November, when special prayers are said for people who have recently died. But Halloween is not a Christian festival. Its origin lies in pre-Christian Ireland. It was a festival to mark the end of the summer and the start of the cold days of winter. It was a time when the world of the spirits and the fairies and the ghosts touched our world, and special magical things might happen. And magical things are frightening. So Halloween is a special scary day!

Kevin and Joanne have invited all their friends to a Halloween party. They have put orange and black decorations in their sitting room. They have bought some pumpkins and scraped the flesh and the seeds out of them. They have cut scary faces on the pumpkins and put candles inside. The pumpkins now look like the picture which you can see on the website, or on your iPod screens. I am sure that you think that they are very frightening!

Of course, their friends will come to the party in fancy dress. That means that they will all dress like evil witches, or like ghosts, or like spiders or other scary things. They will paint their faces, or wear masks, to make themselves look even more scary. To add to the scary atmosphere, Kevin has borrowed a DVD of an old film called Dracula. The film was made in 1931, and is about Count Dracula, who is a scary man who drinks human blood at breakfast time instead of coffee. Some of the guests at the party will come dressed as Count Dracula, with long teeth so that they can bite the necks of other guests and drink their blood. Joanne has made a special drink, made out of red wine and blackcurrant juice, so that the guests at the party can look as if they are drinking human blood even if they aren’t!

Everyone will have great fun at the party. They will laugh at each other’s fancy dress. They will turn the lights out and pretend to be ghosts. They will watch the Dracula film and pretend to be scared. The men will do what they always do at parties – they will drink beer and talk about football. And the women will do what they always do at parties – they will sit in the kitchen and discuss each other’s husbands and boy-friends. (I find that bit really scary!) They will even find time to play some games, like ducking for apples. This is a traditional game at this time of year. You get a large tub of water and float some apples on the top. Each guest has to kneel in front of the tub of water, with a blindfold so that they cannot see, and with their hands behind their backs, and try to get one of the apples out of the water with their teeth. Everyone will get very wet, and their special scary makeup will run.

Unfortunately, Kevin and Joanne have not invited me to their party. I shall have to stay at home and try to be scared by myself. During the evening, the doorbell will ring. I will open the door and see a group of rather small witches and ghosts standing outside. I will of course be very scared, until I see that they are actually some of the children who live nearby. They are “trick-or-treating” (or “guising” as people say in Scotland). They go from house to house asking for “treats” such as sweets or biscuits. If you don’t give them any, they will do evil magic to hurt you. And if you do give them some sweets or biscuits, the witches and ghosts will shout “Thanks, mister” and run off to ring the doorbell next door.

Now you know all about the cr

Greyfriars Bobby  

Tourists from all over the world come to be photographed beside the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, outside Greyfriars Church in Edinburgh.

In the podcast today, we will talk about “fact” and “fiction”. A “fact” is something which is true; something which I, or someone else, can prove to be true. For instance, it is a fact that the earth is round.

And “fiction” is the opposite of fact. It means something which is invented, something which is made up something which comes from the imagination. In a bookshop, you will find a section called “fiction”. This is where you can buy novels, books of short stories and so on. Another section of the bookshop will be called “non-fiction”. This is where you can buy biographies, and books about cooking or gardening, books to help you play golf better, and books about learning English.

Now lets go to Edinbugh, the capital city of Scotland. Edinburgh is an old and beautiful city, full of fascinating places to visit. One of these is a church called Greyfriars Kirk. “Kirk” is a Scottish word for “church”. The church is built on land which was once a Franciscan monastery. The Franciscan monks wore grey clothing, hence the name “Greyfriars”. Greyfriars Kirk played an important part in the history of Scotland in the 17th century, and was a centre for Protestant opposition to the king. However, the reason that thousands of people visit Greyfriars Kirk every year has nothing to do with 17th century history. No, the visitors come to see a little statue of a dog, called Greyfriars Bobby.

Bobby belonged to a man called John Gray (or “auld Jock” as he was commonly known.) Auld Jock was a night watchman, and Bobby went with him everywhere. Then, in 1858 Auld Jock died of tuberculosis. He was buried in the churchyard of Greyfriars Kirk. For the next 14 years, Bobby sat beside his master’s grave waiting for him to return, until at last in 1872 Bobby himself died. Soon after that, a wealthy lady paid for a statue to commemorate the dog, and tourists have come to visit the place ever since. There have been books and a film about Greyfriars Bobby, and in Edinburgh you can buy all sorts of Greyfriars Bobby souvenirs. Bobby is indeed one of the most famous dogs in the world.

What do you think about this story? Perhaps you find the story of Greyfriars Bobby very moving. Perhaps there are tears running down your cheeks as you think of the poor little dog waiting for his master who never returned. Or perhaps you are thinking, “What a stupid dog! Why didn’t he go away and chase cats or chew bones or do other things that make a dog happy?”

Or perhaps you are wondering, “Is the story of Greyfriars Bobby true? Is it fact or fiction?” Unfortunately for the tourist industry of Edinburgh, there are reasons to think that it may be fiction. Jan Bondeson of Cardiff University has recently published a book about Greyfriars Bobby. Jan thinks that Bobby was a stray dog and that the man who looked after the graveyard invented the story about Bobby sitting beside his master’s grave. People in 19th century Britain were often rather sentimental, and a stories like Greyfriars Bobby appealed to them. The man who looked after the churchyard used to tell the story to visitors, and the visitors would put their hands in their pockets and pull out a few coins to give to him. The owner of a nearby restaurant and other local businessmen helped to spread the story, in order to encourage more visitors

Swimming in the River Thames  

The River Thames at Lechlade. The swans are waiting to attack David Walliams as he swims past.

Listen to English has had a long summer break, but now I am back with a few more podcasts to help you improve your English listening skills.

I want to remind you of two words – “along” and “across”. I have a friend who lives in a house on the other side of the road where I live. If I want to visit her, I walk across the road – from my side of the road to her side of the road. On my road, there is a postbox. It is about 300 metres from my house. If I want to post a letter, I walk along the road to the postbox – I walk from one end of the road, where I live, to the other end, where the postbox is.

So, “across” means from one side to the other; “along” means from one end to the other. Note that “across” and “along” are prepositions – you need to put a noun after them. You need to say “across the road”, or “along the railway line” or “across the field”, not just “along” or “across”.

Now lets meet David Walliams. He is a comedian on TV. He appears in a show called Little Britain, which is one of those TV shows which you either love or you hate. It has a very English sense of humour. In the show, David Walliams and his co-star Matt Lucas often dress up in women’s clothes and say “We’re ladies!” You don’t find that very funny, do you? Like I said, the humour is very English.

David Walliams has recently been swimming in the River Thames, and we have been watching him do it on television. If you have visited London, you will have seen the Thames. It is not a big river, like the Rhine or the Nile, because Britain is an island, which means that our rivers are short and small. What is remarkable about swimming in the Thames? It isn’t far from one side to the other. You could probably swim across the Thames in a few minutes.

But wait, I did not say that David Walliams swam across the river Thames. No, he swam along the river Thames. He started in the little town of Lechlade, near the source of the river, and swam from there to Westminster Bridge in London. The total distance was 140 miles, or 225 kilometers. It was a “sponsored swim” to raise money for a charity which helps poor and disadvantaged people in many parts of the world.

His swim involved some interesting adventures. The water was cold. On the second day, he became ill with diarrhoea and almost had to give up. He was attacked by a swan, who clearly did not like this strange creature invading his home. An enthusiastic dog decided to join David in his swim, and David had to rescue it. Near London, the Thames becomes a tidal river – in other words, water flows up the river from the sea twice a day and then flows back again. At some times of the day there are strong currents which make swimming dangerous. But perhaps the worst thing to happen was a heavy rain storm. When there is heavy rain in London, the sewers are unable to handle all the water, and the water company has to pump raw sewage straight into the river. And David found that he was swimming in – well, you can imagine what he was swimming in.

However, 8 days later, David arrived in London to a hero’s welcome. He had raised over £1 million for his charity. This is not his first long-distance swim – he has already swum the Channel (the sea between England and France). But, of course he swam across the Channel, not along it. David says that he has done enough swimming for the moment. I think he deserves a rest.

Guardian report and video ::
I Go Without my Breakfast  

This is Evan. He has a croissant and a cup of coffee for breakfast.

Today’s podcast is about breakfast. Probably most people think of “breakfast” as the meal you eat at the beginning of the day, when you first wake up. However, it is more complicated than that.

First, let’s look at what the word “breakfast” really means. As you probably know, the word “fast” has several, completely different meanings in English. One of the meanings of “fast” is a period when you do not have any food to eat. So, for example, Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan – they do not eat anything between sunrise and sunset. A “breakfast” is, literally, a meal which you eat at the end of a period of fasting. When you eat breakfast, you break – or end – your fast.

When I get up in the morning, I have not had anything to eat since about 7 o’clock the night before. Now that is not a very long fast – perhaps 12 hours, but not more. However, the meal which we eat first thing in the morning breaks our overnight fast, so we call it “breakfast”.

What do you eat for breakfast? I have a bowl of muesli with milk, two pieces of toast with marmalade, and two cups of coffee. Some people go for a run first thing in the morning, and then have a breakfast of fruit and orange juice. They are slim and fit and healthy and they make me feel guilty so I do not like them. Other people have no breakfast at all – they do not eat until the middle of the day. Nutritionists tell us that it is not a good idea to go without breakfast, because your concentration is poor if you have not had anything to eat. Other people eat huge breakfasts, with fried eggs and bacon, sausages, mushrooms and fried bread. In hotels and restaurants, a big cooked breakfast is called an “English breakfast”. Actually, very few English people eat a cooked breakfast every day. We do not have time. We are in a hurry to catch the bus or the train and get to work.

I am very interested in breakfast today, because I have not had any! The doctor has the silly idea that I may have too much cholesterol in my blood. So, later today, I have to go to have a blood test. The nurse will stick an enormous needle into my arm, and take out several litres of blood, and send the blood away to a laboratory to be tested. The laboratory will of course send back a report to say that my blood cholesterol is absolutely wonderful, and that they have never seen such magnificent blood before. But – and this is the terrible bit – the blood test is what the doctor calls a “fasting blood test”. That means that I must not eat anything for at least 12 hours before the test. So, no breakfast. Now, it would be sensible to have a fasting blood test early in the morning, so that I do not have to wait a long time to have something to eat. However, the nurse who takes the blood tests only works in the afternoon, so I cannot eat anything until about 3 o’clock. You have no idea how terrible this is. It is the middle of the morning, and I am hungry, really hungry. I cannot stop thinking about breakfast. Surely a very little bowl of muesli and one slice of toast with no marmalade would be OK. Surely a very small breakfast would not ruin the blood test. However, the nurse who does the blood tests is big and fierce, and so I stay hungry.

And now the telephone rings. It is the receptionist at the doctor’s surgery. She is very sorry, but the fierce nurse who does the blood tests is unwell and cannot come to work today. Please can she re-arrange the blood test for another day. How do I feel? What is my reaction to this news? First, of course, I am relieved. I can eat my breakfast! I do not have to fast until the middle of the afternoon. But I am also

Good manners, bad manners  

This young lady has good manners. She will have no problems with her future mother-in-law.

We have a saying in English “Manners maketh man”. “Maketh” is an old form of “makes” or “make”. So the expression means that, if you want to be a real man, you have to have good manners.

“Manners” means the way that you behave to other people, particularly in public. If you have good manners you are polite and courteous. You remember to say “please” and “thank you”. You make people feel welcome and at ease. And if you have bad manners you are rude and discourteous. You say unpleasant things to people. You make them feel unwelcome and upset.

If someone has good manners, we can say that they are “well mannered”; and if they have bad manners, we can say that they are “bad mannered” or “ill mannered”.

Now let’s meet Heidi Withers. She is 28 years old and works as a personal assistant in a company in London. She is engaged to be married to her boy-friend, Freddie Bourne. Freddie runs a business that sells bicycles and parts for bicycles on the internet. Recently, Heidi and Freddie went to visit Freddie’s father and step-mother, who live in Devon in the south-west of England. Most people are nervous about their first meeting with their future father-in-law and mother-in-law. Most people would be polite and well mannered. They would try to create a good impression. Maybe Heidi tried to do these things. However, it did not work. Freddie’s step mother, Carolyn Bourne, thought that Heidi was rude and bad mannered.

After the end of the visit, Carolyn thought that it was important to tell Heidi about her bad manners. She said to herself, “If I don’t tell her, she will never know.” So she sent Heidi an e-mail. “?It is high time someone explained to you about good manners,” she started, “because it is obvious that you don’t have any”.

She went on to talk about some of the terrible things that Heidi did:

Heidi stayed in bed too long.

Heidi complained about the food.

At meals, Heidi started eating before other people.

Heidi made jokes about Freddie’s family.

Heidi did not send Carolyn a card to thank her for her hospitality.

Carolyn also had things to say about Heidi’s plans for her wedding. Heidi and Freddie plan to get married in a castle. Carolyn does not think that this is a good idea. ? She wrote, “No one gets married in a castle unless they own it. It is brash, celebrity style behaviour.” Carolyn thinks that, because Heidi’s parents do not have a lot of money, it would be better for Heidi and Freddie to have a smaller, less expensive wedding.

What would you do if your future mother-in-law sent you an e-mail like this? Perhaps you would burst into tears. Perhaps you would send a reply to say how sorry you were about your behaviour and how very much you wanted to have a good relationship with your husband’s family. Heidi did not do this. Instead, she sent copies of the e-mail to her friends. And her friends sent the e-mail to their friends. And a few days later, the story was on lots of websites and in the newspapers, and we were all talking about it. Heidi’s father told the newspapers that Carolyn was haughty and arrogant. (Actually, he said some rather ruder things than that, but it would not be polite to repeat them on a respectable website like Listen to English). Freddie’s mother, and Heidi’s friends, and all sorts of

Spotting Tigers  

nutmeg66/flickr spotted these spotted ladybirds. She calls the photo “Spot the difference!” (ie “Look and try to see the difference!”)

In today’s podcast, we are going to talk about spots and spotting!

If you look up the word “spot” in a dictionary, you will see that it has two meanings – two completely different meanings. First, a “spot” can be a mark, normally a small mark, roughly circular in shape. Look at the picture at the top of the webpage or on your iPod screen. It is a picture of some insects which in English we call ladybirds. There are three ladybirds, and they all have spots on them. But they are different colours, and they each have a different number of spots, which makes the photo so unusual and interesting.

Here are some more spots. A leopard has spots, and a handkerchief can have spots. In detective thrillers on the television, a spot of blood is sometimes the clue which helps the detective to catch the killer. And we can use “spot” to mean a place – a “beauty spot” is a beautiful place, perhaps with trees and a stream and a view towards the mountains; and thousands of people then come to visit the “beauty spot” and ruin it!

But “spot” can be a verb as well. To spot something means to see something, normally to see something which is difficult to see, something which most people would not see. For example, the person who took the photograph of the ladybirds “spotted” the ladybirds – most people would not have seen the twig with three different sorts of ladybird, but she did. If you like playing with words, you could say that she spotted the spotted ladybirds. (A play on words is called a “pun” in English, and because there are so many words in English that sound the same or nearly the same, puns are an important part of English humour. It is one of the reasons why foreigners find us so puzzling!)

When I was about 12 – many years ago – I used to take a notebook and a pencil and stand on the platform of a railway station in the middle of Manchester to watch the trains. I carefully wrote down the number of every railway engine that came past, with information about when I had seen it, and which engine shed it came from. I was a train spotter. By the time I was 14, I stopped being a train spotter. I had spotted girls, and they were much more interesting than trains. You can still see train spotters on the platforms of stations today. They are generally men in anoraks and trainers who still live at home with their mothers.

If you don’t want to be a train spotter, you can be a bird spotter instead. You can go out into the country with a pair of binoculars, and a packet of sandwiches for lunch, to try to spot some really interesting or unusual birds. Or you can be an insect spotter. The woman who took the photo of the ladybirds is an insect spotter – there are some wonderful photographs of insects in her flickr photo stream. Or you can be a plane spotter, and take photographs of planes taking off and landing at airports. If you plane spot near military airfields, however, the police will start to be very interested in you, so be careful!

Here are some more things you can spot. You are standing in a crowded street. You are waiting for your friend. You look anxiously at all the people who are hurrying past to see if you can see him. Then you spot your friend in a crowd of people on the other side of the road. Or maybe you are in an exam. One of the exam questions is really hard. You sit and chew the end of your pencil. Then suddenly you spot the answer, and happily you write it down. Most of your friends fail to spot the answer, but you get full marks in the exam.

I spotted this story in the newspaper recently. A man in Hampshire in the south of England spotted a tiger. It was lying down in the grass so that you could hardly see it. No, it was not a spotted tiger – tigers have stripes, not spots. It is quite unusual to see a tiger in Hampshire because, well, there are no tigers in England. So the man did what


A page from the Domesday Book

In March, I recorded a podcast about the census in this country – that is, the counting of everyone who lives here. Today’s podcast is also about a census – the very first census to take place England.

In the year 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, and became King of England. It was one of the most important events in English history. It completely changed the way of government in England, and it had a big effect on the English language.

After a number of years as king, William became dissatisfied. He felt that he did not know enough about his new kingdom. Like all kings and governments, he was hungry for information. He did not know exactly how much land his nobles owned – indeed, he did not really know how much land he himself owned. More important, he could not work out how much tax his subjects should pay, or how many men could be made to become soldiers in time of war.

In 1085, he decided to find the answers to these questions. He sent trusted officials to every part of the country, to ask who owned which land, and how much they owned; how many ploughs they had to cultivate the land, and how many animals such as cows and sheep there were; how many serfs (unfree men) they had, and how many slaves; and how many corn mills and fisheries there were.

Compare this list of questions with the questions in the 2011 census, which I talked about in my earlier podcast. They are in many ways very similar questions. In 1086, King William wanted to know how many sheep I had. In 2011, the government wants to know how many bedrooms I have in my house and whether it has central heating.

King William’s census was completed the following year. It covered most, but not all of England. A scribe then carefully copied the details of the census for each place in England onto parchment made out of sheep skin, and made them into a book (well, two books actually). For hundreds of years, the books were important legal documents. If there was a dispute about land ownership, for example, or about how much tax should be paid, the court would look at what the census said. It was impossible to argue with the book. For that reason, it became known as the Domesday Book. “Domesday” means the Judgement Day, when in traditional Christian thinking we shall all be judged on the lives we have led, and there will be no arguing with the court on Judgement Day!

The Domesday Book is one of the most remarkable documents in Europe. Nowhere else has such a detailed early record of land ownership. The Domesday Book is in the National Archives in Kew, near London, but it is now too fragile to display. However, all of the information in it is available online, and you can buy copies of any of the pages which you are particularly interested in. (However, unless you know Latin you will be unable to understand it!)

Let us now jump forward about 900 years, to the mid-1980s. The BBC was at that time very interested in the development of computing and in what we nowadays call “multi-media” technology. (“Multi-media” technology means, roughly, using computers to store and manipulate pictures, videos, text, music etc). The BBC, for example, made and sold their own computer, and for many families in Britain, the very first computer they had in their homes was a BBC computer.

The BBC decided to

The Grauniad  

The Guardian newspaper today.

In today’s podcast, we are going to talk about a birthday, and learn the English words for some of the things which you may find in a newspaper.

First, the birthday. 190 years ago, on 5 May 1821, people in Manchester were able to buy the first edition of a new newspaper, the Manchester Guardian. It was a weekly newspaper, though it became a daily a few years later. It had 4 pages, and it cost 7 old pence (see the podcast on Old Money, New Money which explains what “old pence” were.) Seven pence was very expensive, but the high price was because there was a tax on newspapers. In fact, the government took 4 pence in tax for every copy sold.

Coincidentally, 5 May 1821 was also the day when the French Emperor Napoleon died, in exile on the British island of St Helena in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. But the new Manchester Guardian did not report this important event, because the news that Napoleon had died took several weeks to reach Europe. Instead, the front page of the new newspaper carried a notice asking for information about a lost dog.

In fact, until 50 or 60 years ago, it was normal for serious newspapers to have advertisements and notices on their front page, and news stories inside. It was only in 1952 that the Manchester Guardian started to print news stories on the front page. The editor of the paper did not like the change, but the paper’s owners thought that the newspaper needed to be more up-to-date.

As well as news, most newspapers contain editorials – that is, articles where the editor of the paper or his staff tell us what they think about important issues and events. The Manchester Guardian generally supported liberal and progressive policies in its editorials. This was in contrast to most of the other serious newspapers in Britain, which supported moderate or right-wing policies.

The Manchester Guardian became famous for typographical errors – or “typos” as we sometimes call them. Sometimes, there were sentences where the letters were so mixed up that it was impossible to understand them. People made fun of the typos by calling the paper the “Grauniad” (which is “Guardian” with the letters mixed up). Unfortunately, modern technology means that there are many fewer typographical errors today than there used to be, but you can relive the good old days in the quiz attached to this podcast, where there are some typographical errors for you to decipher.

In 1959, the paper dropped “Manchester” from its title and became simply “The Guardian”. And in 1976, it moved its headquarters from Manchester to London. The paper believed that it could not be a proper national newspaper unless it was in London. Nowadays, unfortunately, London dominates the political and cultural life of England, and it seems that few important things happen anywhere else. (Scotland however is different. Scotland has a life of its own!).

I read the Guardian every day. My parents used to read it too, in the days when it was still the Manchester Guardian. I read the news stories, both the national news and the international news. There is also a section of financial news, and of course there are the sports pages. There are advertisements for jobs, and a section called “Lonely Hearts” with little advertisements from people who are looking for partners. (I see that there is a lady who is looking for a charming and mature man in his 40s. I would reply, but I think my wife might object).

Then there is an important section called “Comment and Debate” which contains articles about politics, and a page of letters from readers. There are obituaries, which means articles about the lives of people who have died recently. And of course there are reviews – of new books, films, plays and music. Some people go straight to the crossword . There are in fact two crosswords in the Guardian, an easy one and a cryptic crossword. In a cryptic crossword, the clues are indirect and often play with the different meanings which English words can have. If I can solve two or three of the clues in the cryptic crossword, I think I am doing well.


Video player is in betaClose