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very important; critical; decisive; vital
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Keep in touch with us and learn new English words and idioms through our newsletter. Every month Alan Townend will send you a short essay on a particular topic such as advertising or money. The texts contain a lot of expressions and idioms related to the theme in question. With our newsletter you can both learn and smile as Alan writes his texts in a unique and humorous style. Explore the English language in a very amusing but informative manner and see just what fun learning can be. If you are concerned about the privacy of your email address, you can browse through the back issues of our newsletter before you sign up for it. Still got questions? Contact us on our forum. See you soon.
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Newsletter November 10 - 2010FREE email English course
Dear Friend,

In the nineteenth century it was a very risky (dangerous) business to cross the Atlantic from England to North America.  You could be sure that you would be thrown this way and that by the waves, suffer terribly from sea sickness, not really enjoy eating any food and remain in a constant (continuing) state of anxiety as you were never sure that you would eventually reach land the other side. After all even in the beginning of the 20th century sailing in a ship that was nicknamed (described as) ‘unsinkable’ one and a half thousand passengers drowned in the Atlantic when the Titanic sank in 1912 after having been hit by an iceberg. Charles Dickens, the distinguished (important) Victorian novelist, decided he would undertake (make) the journey with his wife and in his book, American Notes, he graphically describes what happened.  When he first entered the cabin (or the state room as it was called) of the ship, The Britannia steam packet, he found the space so restricted (limited) that he thought this was some kind of a joke on the part of the captain and was convinced (sure) that he would be shown into another larger cabin. But the Captain wasn’t joking and that was home for Dickens for the next 15 days.

The ship was bound for (travelling to) Halifax. Towards the end of this frightening fortnight the ship suddenly struck a sand bank in thick fog and stopped moving, Most of the 80 passengers were quite certain they were going to drown. Members of crew were sent off in a small boat to investigate (find out what was wrong). As they returned carrying a small tree, everyone relaxed (became calm) realising that they were near land. As the tide changed, Britannia refloated and slowly sailed into Halifax harbour.  In those days security wasn’t a problem. Passengers got off the boat, booked into a hotel and after breakfast went through the necessary port formalities.

Last month I took a similar trip across the Atlantic but this time in a luxury liner bound for New York in the company of over 2,000 passengers and some 800 crew. Our state room would certainly have suited (been right for) Charles Dickens as it was spacious (had a lot of room) and had a balcony. The six day voyage was smooth, calm and relaxing and on only one day could the sea be described as rough. I noticed on that day at various places on the ten decks were displayed some paper containers, charmingly described as ‘motion disturbance bags.’ As dawn (first light) broke on our last day of the crossing, I could just about see through the fog the figure we all know of Lady Liberty. I half imagined that she was smiling but as always she was merely (only) trying to put on a brave face (make the best of it) because it was pouring with rain. The photos I took of our first meeting do not do her justice.

It is very strange after living on a ship for 6 days to set foot on (walk on) firm ground. You are almost suspicious about (can’t work out) why nothing moves. Your whole body seems not to walk straight and as you stagger around (move from one side to the other), you give the impression of someone who’s had too much to drink. Unlike Charles Dickens we were obliged to go through the strict security checks but the whole atmosphere was lightened by the sound of Frank Sinatra belting his heart out (singing very loudly) as we approached the customs building. After the checks had been made, we struck up a conversation with the driver of a yellow taxi cab who was complaining that no one wanted to use his services but whose strong Irish accent made us feel at home. On travels abroad I am used to making a journey across water of some 23 miles across the Channel and then finding myself facing a foreign language. How strange that after travelling some 3,000 nautical miles (I believe that’s 3500 ordinary miles) I find people who speak the same language as me! Well, almost.

On our first excursion by coach (bus) called Highlights of New York our guide was clearly a woman who would have preferred to have been on the stage telling jokes but she told us the facts as our driver skilfully wove his way through the traffic ensuring (making sure) that we knew what was the longest, the biggest, the most expensive, the tallest, the widest in the world of all that we saw. I have to confess we felt a little smug (pleased with ourselves) as we caught sight of fellow passengers who’d opted for (chosen) the open top tour bus as they struggled (tried very hard) to keep themselves dry from the heavy rain. They were certainly the wettest, I felt like telling the guide this.

On day two we were able to be more familiar with the green Lady of Liberty and snapped (photographed) her from all angles particularly one from behind when she wasn’t looking! In the museum on Ellis Island we saw photographs of those pioneers (first visitors) who had travelled from the ends of the earth to reach America to become new citizens.

Then back to the ship as we continued up the eastern seaboard stopping to visit Newport, Boston, Portland and St John. On arrival in Canada I was beginning to feel less conscious of what had been done by the British in the past and was particularly moved when one old lady in a wheel chair smiling at us tourists asked: Now tell me folks, are you all from the Mother Country? Our final destination was to have been St John’s in Newfoundland but the Captain mindful (taking care ) of his passengers and his ship regretted we would simply be sailing by as although we might be able to enter the port, we might be marooned (unable to sail away) for a long time before we could get out.

Of course travelling by sea to North America rather than by air, you do spend a lot of time stuck on the ship as there’s really nowhere on the way where you can stop. The cruise company do their best to provide something for the passengers to do. You can simply eat and eat because breakfast is followed by snacks, followed by lunch, followed by snacks, followed by tea, followed by snacks, followed by dinner, followed by snacks. To feed the body other ways there’s dancing, running round the ship, playing quoits, table tennis and other sports. To feed the mind there are lectures, quizzes, painting classes, bridge classes and for entertainment there is always a show in the theatre every night. A reminder of Charles Dickens was provided by his great great grandson, Gerald Dickens who entertained us with readings from and stories about his famous ancestor,
And when in costume he bore a striking resemblance to (looked very like) Charles Dickens.

And so finally on day 23 we were back to where we started in the port of Southampton nervously looking for our luggage wishing we’d been clever enough as some passengers had done, to put special markings on their cases to make them easier to find.

I shall carry away an impression of friendly people sharing their lives with us and giving us a warm welcome. The one thing I have to say is how disappointed I was that not one person actually said to us: Have a nice day! In the end you understand that real life is so much better than some of the imported images you receive from film and television.

Dear Friend,
Now that you have, as it were, ‘crossed the Atlantic’ with me, I wonder if you have any comments to make on my newsletter. Possibly you have some questions on my use of idiom or grammar. I have tried wherever possible to explain words that may not be known to you but there are always uses of words and expressions that may cause trouble. Whatever you want to say, whatever you want to ask, remember to post your remarks on the forum here:

I look forward to hearing from you.

Alan Townend

Are you a snob?It all adds up
With best wishesThere''s always a possibility
BOGOFLove is all you need
Idiomatically speakingA word in your ear: Hand
A word in your ear: NerveDo you mean that?
A word in your ear: ConsiderWhodunit
My languageA word in your ear: Care
A word in your ear: ThoughtAbout time
Perfect timeCrossing the Atlantic?
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