August 7, 2016
Hello! I’ve been moving house, and WOW has it been tedious. It did speed up when I just started throwing all our stuff away. Forget KonMari’s “Does it spark joy?” edict; my future bestselling tidying handbook will make you ask, “Can I be arsed to make a decision about this object ever again?” The upshot is, if you peruse the charity shops of Crystal Palace, you can recreate 50% of my old home.
But apparently, among all the packing tape and dirt and existential malaise, I did some work! There are a bunch of Allusionist episodes, including one with some Olympics-related etymologies, and a discussion of brand names and how we came up with ‘Allusionist’ for the show, and another about generational terms such as Millennial and Generation X. And a contemplation of small talk, which came out the day after the EU Referendum which, amongst its many other effects, obliterated small talk.
On 24th September at 4.30pm, the first live Allusionist will take place as part of the London Podcast Festival. A handful of tickets remain, get one HERE.
There’s a bit of a backlog of my appearances on other podcasts, too. Eg:
May 16, 2016
*Actually just one: me**
**And I’m 36, so aged out of being a girl half a lifetime ago.
OK, let’s try again:
LIVE!!!! HUMAN WOMAN!!!!! WHO IS ME!!!!!!!
I’m leaving the house to appear in three live shows this month:
1. One Track Minds, Thursday 19 May, 7.30pm at the beautiful Wilton’s Music Hall in east London. Each performer is talking about a piece of music that changed their life in some way; mine’s the song that begat The Allusionist. Click here for tickets.
2. Ex Libris Live, Saturday 21 May, 7pm at Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford. Four of us will be playing the extremely fun word game Ex Libris, which I have never won. WILL THIS BE MY TIME? The three others are writers, so… probably not. Click here for info and tickets.
3. Sunday Papers Live, Sunday 29 May, 1pm at Cecil Sharp House in north London. I’ll be hosting this afternoon of talks, music and comedy – in fact, my brother Andy will be there providing the latter. Apparently you can eat a roast dinner while you lounge around watching. Sounds good. Tickets!
April 7, 2016
Sound the fanfare, here are two pieces of Big Radiotopia News:
1. Radiotopia is putting on its first ever live show! And if it goes well, there’ll be more – so if you’ll be in or near Los Angeles (specifically the theatre at Ace Hotel) on 4th May, get yourself tickets at radiotopia.fm/ace.
2. It’s Podquest time! Do you have a terrific idea for a podcast, and are you’re willing to work your arse off to make it (I’m reluctant to admit it, but this job is a serious blow to my natural laziness)? Radiotopia may be able to give you the financial and technical – and emotional, good grief – support to make it happen. We’re looking for new voices, new ideas, new talent, and hopefully a new show that’ll become a permanent addition to the Radiotopifamily. Podcasts that already exist are eligible too; either way, your show/idea will 100% belong to you, whether it wins or not.
Opportunities are scarce to receive money to make podcasts; this is a great and rare opportunity! Submit pitches to Radiotopia’s Podquest by 17th April – but read the FAQ thoroughly before you do, and also perhaps these tips from the committee. I’ll save you some time: two-hour episodes of unedited discussions with your friends will not make it to the semi-final stage.
PS This person knows too much:
February 9, 2016
Valentine’s Day approaches! It’s never been a festival I celebrate (at least not for the romance aspect), but nonetheless, the love-related audio abounds:
Answer Me This has just gone on paternity leave for three months, but we leave you with the new AMT Love album, an hour of not-been-on-the-podcast material about dating, sex and forked urethras. It’s for sale on iTunes, Amazon and our own Answer Me This! Store, and you can read all about it at answermethispodcast.com/love and hear a trailer below.
I’ll be honest: it’s probably one of the most unromantic things you could possibly listen to.
Then! There’s a fun new Allusionist double bill about dating ads – the history of lonely hearts over the last 300 years, in WLTM part I; and in WLTM part II, how one woman conduced a grand linguistic experiment to game the online dating system and find her perfect match (I love this story!).
It reminded me of how my friend Clare met her husband James: he filtered the dating site’s results so it only showed him women who specified that they liked drinking and smoking. Only two women made it through the filters, and one was Clare. They’ve been married for nearly four years now.
December 24, 2015
After the runaway train mayhem of me trying to teach Jane Garvey how to sew on Woman’s Hour earlier this year, BBC Radio 4 saw fit to reunite the double act, so I went over to Jane’s house and we tried to make Christmas decorations out of dried fruit. Frankly I showed little aptitude for fruit sculpting, but I had Great Fun Trying. You can hear it here, if you want to throw together some fruity decorations in time for Christmas.
There’s one last episode of The Allusionist for 2015, in which I tackle some of the listeners’ requests for etymology and word advice: theallusionist.org/bonus2015
And I’ve just finished the biggest editing job of the year: the annual Best of Answer Me This compilation. Assembling the montage of drunk, plaintive and misbegotten voicemails is my favourite task every year. Here are a couple from years past:
December 19, 2015
If you’re a podcaster or a podcast enthusiast, may I recommend an exercise which has brought me (someone who is both those things) a ton of joy and interest this year?
Gather a few similarly podcast-focused friends and form a
It’s like a
fight club book club but for podcasts instead. When I’m listening to other people’s podcasts, if it’s a show I already like, I’m usually not all that critical – if anything I’m listening to shut up that part of my brain. So Podcast Club has has made me listen far more attentively, as well as to podcasts I would not have chosen myself.
Plus it means that one evening a month, I have to move away from the edit screen and go to the pub to shoot the shit with the PodClub: Eleanor McDowall who produces shows including the Radio 4 series Short Cuts; Sam Clements and Simon Renshaw from the Picturehouse Podcast; and my husband Martin, who makes a fistful of different podcasts including Song By Song.
Here’s how it goes: each month, we each choose an episode of a show that has not been discussed in Podcast Club previously. If you’re concerned about practicalities, we put the links into a shared spreadsheet on Google Drive. We listen to all of them in our own time, then gather to talk about each of them. Some months there’s a theme, eg shows that started this year, or for our Christmas fixture we each had to choose an episode of Desert Island Discs – it was very interesting to hear how the nature of interviewing and celebrity has changed over the 70+ years of the show. If Diana Mosley was interviewed now, I imagine she would be probed to admit more about her friendship with Adolf Hitler than just “He had lovely eyes.”
PS I got lucky in the PodClub Secret Santa: podcaster baubles!
December 15, 2015
This was an incredible surprise:
Being part of Radiotopia and making the Allusionist this year has been my best ever job anyway, but it was a real thrill for iTunes to pick it out thus. And Answer Me This as a classic! Classic like a car; classic like a 48-volume set of Sir Walter Scott’s novels…
I haven’t really sent Christmas cards for ten years or thereabouts, and accordingly, I now receive very few cards myself. The latest episode of the Allusionist will ensure that dwindles to nought. Though hearing Horrible Histories historian Greg Jenner describe Victorian Christmas cards (bacon! Killer wasps! Death!), I’m half inclined to get back in.
The episode is at theallusionist.org/christmas, and Greg also talks about why Father Christmas is called Santa Claus. Such a shame he narrowly missed being Captain Christmas…
PS This is your annual reminder to buy the Answer Me This! Christmas, if you crave an hour long special about different festive practices and problems. Helps drown out the sound of the traditional festive family argument.
PPS I know that people talking about sleep and dreams is pretty boring, but I tried to make it as interesting as I could in this interview with Van Winkle’s. Anyone know a cure for hypnopompic hallucinations? Please??
PPPS All the Radiotopians chose their favourite episodes they’ve made this year. Christmas party playlist!
November 24, 2015
An ex-boyfriend of mine used to say, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”; that’s right, my ex-boyfriend was Wittgenstein. And yes, the casual chitchat needed improvement.
But then, in the latest Allusionist, I realised he/Wittgenstein had a point.
My Radiotopisibling Nate DiMeo of The Memory Palace decided we should learn the minimalist designed language Toki Pona. I last studied a new language half a lifetime ago and my brain has calcified since, so I found this one difficult to grasp – and then, without verbal communication easily at my disposal, my whole persona crumbled. Pathetically quickly.
You can find the episode and links to the language at theallusionist.org/tokipona; if you decide to learn it yourself, let me know how you get on. Better than me, I expect.
PS Thanks SO MUCH to you if you donated to Radiotopia! 19,500+ people have ensured we can keep on doing our shows for at least another year.
November 13, 2015
*** UPDATE: Someone donated for the quilt! Thanks so much, whoever you are. I’m looking forward to making something lovely for you. But I still wholeheartedly recommend donating to Radiotopia, for the other cool prizes and so that we can make shows for you for a long time. ***
It’s the final stretch of the Radiotopia fundraiser month, and Radiotopifans have been doing an excellent job of making our shows continuing exist for a long time to come. Awash with gratitude, I’ve got a special prize to offer one high-rolling donor.
Take a look at the picture below of the 100% OK quilt, which I made a couple of years ago to commemorate my friend Racton’s trademark expression of whelm-ment.
I will handmake a unique quilt featuring the short epithet – or monogram or letter – of your choice for the ONE person who pledges $1234.
You want the quilt? Get over to Radiotopia.fm and pledge.
I see you trying to sneak off with the quilt. Nice try, chancer. Supporting Radiotopia is the only way you can get it.
November 13, 2015
Hey! Do you like food? I’m helping run a food-themed gig, Food Showoff, on 27th November at Kings College. Click here for all the details and tickets. Watching people talk interestingly and entertainingly about food is a gluten-free, zero-calorie banquet. I’ll be wheeling out my mid-20th century cookbook collection, so prepare for your appetite to be destroyed.
October 26, 2015
Here are the minutes from the past couple of weeks in my realm*:
1. I was recently on the lovely BBC Radio 3 show The Verb. The theme of the episode was ‘backwards’, so I was talking about false etymology and reverse linguistic engineering. There was also wrestling, and those backwards satanic messages in songs. AND they gave me four kinds of cake and free books. It was a great day. Here’s the show on the BBC’s site, but you can also search for it as a podcast.
2. I’m currently in the midst of a spate of weekly Allusionists, each in collaboration with another Radiotopian. Hrishikesh Hirway from the wonderful Song Exploder and charming veteran songwriter Tony Hazzard joined me to talk about vocables – the non-word words in songs like ‘la’ and ‘doo’ and ‘zig-a-zig ah’. You can hear the special Song Explusionist here. The week before that, Roman Mars popped up to talk about his beloved eponyms, so James Ward (founder of the Boring Conference and author of Adventures in Stationery) appeared to talk about the eponymous pens Bic and Biro. Hear here. Three more Radiotopial episodes are in the pipeline. The Podcast Broadcast interviewed me about all this Radiotopianism, which is happening because…
3. It’s Radiotopia fundraising time! A year after the record-breaking Kickstarter that made it possible for me to start The Allusionist, we now need listeners to step in and support the collective long term, with small monthly donations. (One-off donations are also extremely welcome. Even £1 is very useful.)
I don’t want to repeat what I’ve written about the fundraiser here and also last year, during the Kickstarter – those points still stand, but I will update to add that my excitement then at the prospect of becoming a full-time podcaster has only increased now that I am one. This has been the best year of my professional life, and The Allusionist is the most demanding and creatively fulfilling job I’ve ever had. I’d love to be able to carry on making it for as long as possible, so if you are able to chip in anything at radiotopia.fm or Paypal, I and the twelve other shows will be Very Grateful Indeed. And we’ll use your money very wisely. Promise. (Conceals order for platinum exoskeleton.)
Just one more thing: I’ll be doing a Reddit AMA this Thursday at 7pm UK time, 3pm ET, 12pm PT, middle of the night most other places. Please come along and ask me about Allusionist stuff, Answer Me This, or any old thing that’s on your mind. You know I live for it.
Here’s my AMA proof, as IF anyone would aim so low as to masquerade as me**:
* which is slumped in front of a screenful of edit software for 12-15 hours per day, LIVING THE DREAM yes yes
** Seriously. Have some self-respect. At least go for someone who’s on telly.
October 9, 2015
Podcasters, it is a long time since last we met*, but there is now a date for our next London meetup: 25th November. There are full details over at the Facebook event. Come along!
*Because I’ve spent nearly all of this year in my flat, working. Here are the latest Allusionists:
They said you can’t have werewolves AND Step Up 4 in one podcast about linguistics. I said: try me. theallusionist.org/dance
Why do we talk to babies like we – and they – are idiots? We can’t help it! For REASONS. We’re wired that way. theallusionist.org/baby-talk
For the next month, I’ll be releasing new Allusionists every week. Argh! I’m excited but daunted by the amount of work, as Answer Me This will also continue apace. Let’s see if I make it to November with ears and eyes intact.
PS Allusionist T-shirts have just landed.
October 6, 2015
First A, then P, now I – only 24 more to go before the entire cushion alphabet is complete! And at this rate, it’ll be done by the time I’m 70.
This one is now owned by my new baby friend Ilithyia. About 80% of my friends seem to be dropping babies this year, so I’m miles behind with the gifts – Ilithyia’s came first because her initial has no tricky curves or diagonals.
(BTW parents, tell me if I’m off the mark giving cushions as baby gifts: I figure they’re ok, as baby gifts go, because everyone seems to receive a million quilts and onesies and toys. The babies can puke on them without the stains being too obvious, and if the babies/the parents really hate them but don’t want to hurt my feelings, they can pretend the cushions were destroyed in a poster paint accident/house fire/misbegotten fondue-dunk.)
Here comes the science bit: the front is some 16 inches square, made of hand-sewn one-inch cotton patches; I machine-sewed the border and back. I was trying to restrain my usual motley palette to blue and green, but of course strayed a little.
A few details:
September 8, 2015
The Guardian interviewed me about the Allusionist and Answer Me This. Click here to read it. Being interviewed is always a bit weird and embarrassing because of all the stupid shit that pours out of my mouth, but this one is worth looking at for the photo alone. And if that’s not enough, I held forth at length on a recent episode of Podcast Junkies.
The latest Allusionists came about because I’m rubbish at parties. At MaxFunCon this June, I was being a bit introverty and pathetic about going into the big Saturday night shindig, then as I skulked outside I got into a big chat with a charming couple who turned out to be Hampton and Michael Catlin, the founders of the crowdsourced dictionary Wordset. Wordy people? I had to get them on the show. Wordset is a really interesting project, but they had something else they wanted to talk about: a particular strain of English developing in the corridors of power of the European Union.
Visit theallusionist.org/fix-ii for more about the episode, including a laugh-a-minute EU report about English misuse. Too late to count as a hot summer beach read?
And here’s the first part of the pair of Fix episodes:
August 28, 2015
One of my favourite podcast genres is the ‘people telling true stories about their lives’ genre. Is there a pithier term for it? Anyway, imagine my joy when I got to host a PTTSATL show! Truth be Told just went out on BBC Radio 4, and is available online here.
I bear scars from this show. Not emotional ones – the mic stand took a chunk out of my hand so I spent the second half of the recording bleeding into a little pile of papers on which audience members had written their heartfelt personal stories.
I managed not to spill any blood when I appeared on Passion Pods. More surprisingly, I also managed to hold the tears in, even though I was talking about my slippery mess of a career. Though the twelve rough years all seem worth it now I get to make The Allusionist! Here are the latest couple of episodes:
In Word Play, I found out the ingredients of fun word games from games inventor Leslie Scott of Oxford Games, who came up with Ex Libris, Flummoxed and JENGA. She’s an absolute delight. There’s more about the episode and links to hear it at theallusionist.org/word-play.
The latest episode is a jaunty trip through 18th century grammatical history, and the almighty battle of language preservation vs language evolution. Which side are you on? theallusionist.org/fix-i
July 31, 2015
One of the things that keeps me awake at night (aside from car alarms, waking hallucinations, and my neighbour laughing REALLY loudly) are thoughts like, “Where does THIS word come from?” I’ll try to look it up without waking my husband; and usually the etymology will turn out to be not particularly surprising or interesting. But if it is…that’s a sleepless night, and, if I’m lucky, an episode of the Allusionist.
That’s how it was with ‘step-‘. I thought it would be a fairly straightforward term – but, as I learnt in the new episode, it is neither straightforward etymologically nor emotionally. Aaron Mahnke from Lore Podcast brings the history.
You can hear the episode at theallusionist.org/step. AND I’d love it if you’d join me for a live chat about the episode on Tuesday 4th August, 8pm UK time, on Spoken – it’s a new platform for podcast listeners to gather and discuss shows, and this is the first time I’ll have done this kind of thing, so we’re all just seeing whether/how it works! Go to spoken.am to request an invitation, then prepare your typing-fingers for some chatting next Tuesday. But if you can’t make it, you can drop by to catch up later.
Another common process that results in an Allusionist instalment is me thinking, “Ooh, I’d love to find out more about someone’s job.” That’s how the previous episode came about: cognitive behavioural therapist Dr Jane Gregory describes how she goes about defusing words that are ruining patients’ lives. It’s a fascinating insight. Our brains really do a number on us. theallusionist.org/behave
Aaand finally: yesterday I was on The Spot on San Francisco public radio station KALW, talking about the Latin Lives! episode with charming Latin fan Ashleyanne Krigbaum. Hear here.
June 19, 2015
Most of this week passed in a jetlaggy fugue state: I just got back from California, where I got to hang out with all the delightful Radiotopians, AND attend MaxFunCon, which is a mountain-top holiday camp for podcast enthusiasts. In front of a very energetic audience, Dave Holmes, Paul F Tompkins, Janie Haddad Tompkins, Nadia Kamil and I recorded this ridiculously fun episode of International Waters. (Which, obviously, the UK should have won. But YOU try slagging off Sesame Street on the away team’s turf.)
Just after I got back, I was called in for The News Quiz to replace an ill panellist. Thanks to jetlag-brain, I can only remember a single word, and I’m scared to listen back to it, but if you want to, it is here and also on Radio 4’s Friday Night Comedy podcast feed.
I also made a tiny cameo on this week’s 99% Invisible about Sigmund Freud’s couch. See if you can spot it.
The big task this week was shunting out the latest Allusionist, which is all about emoji. I don’t use them myself, but having heard about their place in 5,500 years of linguistic history, I have new respect for them. Listen via theallusionist.org/emoji. Content warning: penis trees.
May 30, 2015
Finally, a job my mum can tell her friends about: I was on Radio 4’s News Quiz yesterday! With Jeremy Hardy, Rebecca Front, Francis Wheen and of course presided over by the almighty Sandi Toksvig. The episode is here, or available on the Friday Night Comedy podcast feed.
Here we are on stage at the Radio Theatre, looking studious while Sandi gives Jeremy Hardy an antihistamine.
May 22, 2015
In the new Allusionist episode, I teamed up with Dan Pashman from The Sporkful, one of my favourite podcasts, to consider the semantics of brunch. He also taught me a breakfast-architecture technique known as ‘the porklift’. Find out more about the episode at theallusionist.org/brunch, and you can hear more of my conversation with Dan on this recent Sporkful episode. My capacity for pedantry pales in comparison to Dan’s! Must. Try. Harder.
I was on this episode of a new Radio 4 comedy panel show, Best Behaviour, with Holly Walsh, Richard Herring and Lloyd Langford. It’s all about manners, which I wouldn’t say were my strong point, but my mum listened and approved, so PHEW.
I’m also on this recent episode of International Waters with Dave Holmes, Arnab Chanda, Paul Provenza and Brigid Ryan. We recorded very soon after the general election, so you may feel Arnab and I were slightly forlorn in our defence of the UK. On the subject of Maximum Fun – I’ll be attending my first MaxFunCon this year, so if you’re going to be there too, please come and say hello! And sign up for one of my group therapy sessions if you fancy airing any of your problems and questions.
Finally: listen out for me on the News Quiz on Radio 4 next Friday at 6.30pm!