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Night Mail

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The English poet Wystan Hugh Auden was born 100 years ago this week. He wrote over 400 poems, and he was always known by his initials – W H Auden.
When he was young, he was a radical, both in his politics and his poetry. But – like many of us – he became more conservative as he grew older. A lot of people did not like Auden or his poetry. In particular, they criticised him because he left Britain to live in America during the Second World War. But some of Auden’s poems have remained very popular. One of them is called Night Mail. There is a link from the podcast website to a site which has the full text of the poem. I am going to read you only a few bits. There is a grammar and vocabulary note for the podcast. It is on the website, and – as an experiment – I have also posted it as a pdf file which you should be able to download direct from iTunes. (You will however need Adobe Acrobat Reader on your computer).
How did the poem come to be written? In the 1930s, the Post Office decided to make a short film about the mail trains which carried letters and parcels overnight between England and Scotland. The composer Benjamin Britten wrote music for the film and the Post Office asked W H Auden to write a poem as part of the commentary. The Night Mail was one of the famous “travelling post offices”. The men and women who worked on the train sorted the letters and parcels as the train travelled through the night. The Night Mail was of course pulled by an express steam locomotive. It was a magnificent sight as it thundered northwards. Auden’s poem began:

This is the Night Mail crossing the border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,

Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner, the girl next door.

Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb,
The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time.

Auden tells us about the letters which the train was carrying:

Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from girl and boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or to visit relations,
And applications for situations,
And timid lovers’ declarations,
And gossip, gossip from all the nations..

Of course, letters were much more important to people in the 1930’s than they are today. Today we keep in touch with friends and relatives by telephone or e-mail. Most of the letters I receive are what we call junk mail – catalogues for things I don’t want to buy, special offers on car insurance and mobile telephones.
At the end of the poem, Auden tells us about the people all over Scotland who are still asleep and dreaming.

But they shall wake soon and hope for letters,
And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart.
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?
Artwork from poster for the film Night Mail


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Night Mail - grammar and vocabulary note

Here are some notes to help you understand the poem.

Postal order -postal orders are way of sending money, like cheques. You go to a post office and buy a postal order for, say £10. You fill in the details of the person you want to send money to. Then you post the postal order to that person, who can pay it into their bank, or get cash from a post office. Postal orders used to be a very common way of transferring money. Nowdays we use credit cards, PayPal etc.

Beattock – Beattock summit is the highest point on the railway line between London and Glasgow. From the south there is a long climb (a gradient) from the border to Beattock. (Railway fans will find photos of trains at Beattock here). Note the way that Auden calls the train “she” – just like the ship in the recent podcast about the shipwreck.

Invitations to inspect new stock – these are letters from salesmen to their customers inviting them to come and see their new goods.

Applications for situations – applications for jobs.

Gossip – talk, often trivial talk, about what other people have been doing or saying.

A quickening of the heart – the heart beats slightly faster (quicker)

Who can bear to feel himself forgotten? – who can tolerate the feeling of being forgotten by other people?

The full text of Night Mail is here (though there are a couple of mistakes – see if you can find them!)


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Offas Dyke

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Today’s podcast is about the word “run”. You know what “run” means. If you are late, you have to run to catch the train. In a football game, the players run after the ball. But we can use “run” in lots of other ways as well. As we shall see.
Last week, I visited Ludlow, which is a town about one and a half hours’ drive from Birmingham. It is an old market town. There is a castle, and lots of “black and white” half-timbered buildings. A friend of mine runs a hotel in Ludlow, and that is where we stayed. From Ludlow, we drove along a road which runs beside a river to another town – even smaller – called Knighton. Knighton is in Wales, not England. You know that you are in Wales because all the road signs are in the Welsh language as well as in English.
The border between England and Wales has been peaceful now for hundreds of years. But it was not always like that. In the eighth century, King Offa ruled a kingdom called Mercia in central England. He had trouble with the Welsh. He built a great wall of earth and a ditch along the western border of Mercia to help to defend his kingdom. (He didn’t build it himself, of course – he sent thousands of his men to do it for him!) His wall is called Offa’s Dyke, and you can see the remains of it today. In fact there is a footpath which runs all the way along Offa’s Dyke. It starts in Prestatyn in north Wales and runs to Chepstow in the south. It crosses wild hills and beautiful valleys and is perhaps the finest long-distance footpath in Britain. Knighton is about half way along the footpath, and the local tourist authority runs an information centre there, where you can learn more about Offa’s Dyke.
Look at some of the ways we can use the word “run”.
My friend runs a hotel.
The tourist authority runs an information centre.
The road runs beside the river.
The Offa’s Dyke footpath runs from Prestatyn to Chepstow.
My local bus route runs from Druids Heath in south Birmingham to the city centre.
The buses run from 5am to midnight.
At weekends they run every hour throughout the night as well.
The play runs at the theatre from 7 to 27 March.
Last week, my car broke down. But now it is running fine.
Sometimes, I leave my computer running all night.
On Saturdays, the train runs 10 minutes earlier than on other days.
So you will have to run to catch it.
Panoramic photo taken near Offa’s Dyke by John Wesley Barker/flickr


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Getting on

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Today’s podcast is about the expression “getting on”. What does it mean? Well, if I ask someone “How are you getting on?” I mean “How much progress have you made?”. It is easiest to explain with some examples.

Example number one. I ask my children, “How are you getting on with your homework?” I mean – how much homework have you done, have you started your homework, have finished your homework yet? And my children might reply – “I’m nearly finished”; or, “I’m getting on OK”; or, “go away and stop nagging me”.

Example number two. I might ask you, “How are you getting on with your English?”. I mean – how much progress have you made in English; have you learned about the continuous tenses yet; can you read an English newspaper; can you understand a TV programme in English? And you might tell me that you are learning about passive verbs; or that you are reading a novel in English. Or you might tell me to go away and mind my own business.

Example three. I am decorating the living room. My wife asks me, “How are you getting on?” I might tell her that I have painted the ceiling; or that I have started cutting the wallpaper. Or I might give her a paint brush and ask her to help.

Example four is a bit different from the others. You have a new colleague at work. His name is John. I ask you, “How are you getting on with John?” I mean – how is your relationship with John. Is he a difficult person to work with, or an easy person. And you might tell me, “I get on well with John. He is a really nice person.” Or, “I have to be careful what I say to him. He is difficult to get on with”.

OK? Everything clear? Then let’s see how Kevin and Joanne are getting on.

You remember that Joanne had joined a gym. She said she would go every day and become super-fit. Well, she doesn’t go to the gym every day. She has too many other things to do. She goes about twice a week. But she is getting on well; she has lost weight and she is feeling fitter. At first she did not get on with the fitness trainer at the gym. Joanne though she was bossy and had no sense of humour. But now she gets on with the trainer much better.

And how about Kevin? How is he getting on? Kevin decided not to join the gym. But he has started to play squash with his friend Scott. Squash is a game that you play in a big room with concrete walls. You hit a small rubber ball very hard with a racquet. You try to make it difficult for your opponent to hit the ball back. The first time Kevin was completely exhausted in 5 minutes. But now he has improved; he is getting on much better. Last week, he beat Scott for the first time ever.
Kevin is an easy-going guy. He gets on with everyone. Everyone? Well, everyone except Joanne’s Mum. He doesn’t like Joanne’s Mum and Joanne’s Mum does not like him. Joanne has to keep them apart. They do not get on together.

Photo of game of squash by Qstreet/flickr


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The Least Visited Place in England

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In the county of Norfolk, in Eastern England, during the Middle Ages, people used to cut peat from the ground. They dried the peat in the sun, and used it as a fuel for fires. Over time, the places where people had cut the peat filled with water, to form shallow lakes. Today these lakes are called the Norfolk Broads. They are home to many species of water plants and birds. There are old windmills along the banks of the rivers. The sedge which grows in the water is cut and used to make traditional thatched roofs for houses. And, of course, the area is very popular with visitors. Thousands of people go to the Norfolk Broads each year, and enjoy boating on the Broads and the slow-moving rivers.

But there is one part of the Norfolk Broads which has hardly any visitors. Indeed, it is estimated that maybe only 50 people have been there in the last 100 years. That is about the same number of people who climb Mount Everest each year. It is smaller than the number of people who have been in space.

The place is called Sutton Fen. It is not big, only about 170 hectares. Like the other Broads, it is a stretch of shallow water, filled in many places with reeds, sedge and other water plants. The land around is marshy and impossible to cross on foot. There are rare plants, insects, birds and animals. The only sounds are sounds like these. That booming noise is the song of the bittern, a water bird which is now very rare in England. Bitterns still live in Sutton Fen.

For many years Sutton Fen has been privately owned. But now it has been bought by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which is one of Britain’s largest conservation charities. They will be responsible for managing Sutton Fen, to keep it a special place. They will cut some of the sedge to keep the waterways clear. But apart from that they will try to keep Sutton Fen in its present condition. Probably more than 50 people will go to Sutton Fen in the next 100 years, but it it will still be one of the least visited places in England.

Photo of heron in the Norfolk Broads by Aerk/flickr. Recording of bittern by Roger Boughton/Wildlife Sound Recording Society


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