Gerry’s News Digest 191: Untidy desks, Aberfan and The Body on the Moor Pt 3 (4th November, 2016)

Hi, this is Gerry, and this is my News Digest for Friday November 4th, 2016. On today’s show I have some interesting information from a new book about tidiness. And then we’ve been remembering the Aberfan disaster. Finally there’s Part 3 of “The Body on the Moor” mystery. After the last show I got messages from Käthi and Sister Raphaela. Thank you. I’m always happy to get your comments or questions and I’ll give you the details of how to write to me at the end.


20161104 E GerrysdeskDo you have a desk or work table at home or at work? What does it look like? I’ve put a picture of my desk on the website. I have a beautiful desk with a beautiful view of the sea and the mountains, but what’s on my desk isn’t very beautiful. It looks a mess [1] – and it usually looks that way. When I worked in Zurich my desk there looked more or less the same as my home desk today, as my colleagues could tell you. I always wondered at those colleagues of mine who used to leave their desks every evening completely clear. I never understood how they did it. In some modern offices you have to work with a system called hot desking where you don’t have your own desk. You just come in and sit at a desk that happens to be free [2]. I can’t imagine how somebody like me would cope with that. My untidiness [3] sometimes makes me feel rather inadequate, but I also think that you can waste a lot of time sorting and organising and tidying [4] when you could actually be getting on with real work. And I was pleased to read something the other day that sort of justified the messy way that I work. It was an extract from a new book by Tim Harford [5], the economist and journalist. I liked what I read, but there is something called confirmation bias [6]. We all pay special attention to news and reports that reflect what we already think. Anyway one story that Tim Harford tells is that of Benjamin Franklin, Founding Father of the United States, a scientist, an inventor, a geographer, America’s first Postmaster General, their ambassador to France and so on. But all through this life of endless achievement, he tried and failed to be tidy [7]. He felt he would be even more successful if he could bring more order into his affairs [8]. In his journal, Franklin wrote that one of his aims should be: “let all [my] things have their places”. He was looking, in other words, for a perfect filing system [9]. But would it have helped him?

Tim Harford argues that filing systems often don’t work because it’s impossible to categorise everything so that everything belongs in just one obvious category. So instead of trying to sort emails, for example, you might as well just keep them in date order. Delete [10] as much as possible as it comes in, and then regularly delete stuff that you’ve never needed to look at again. Similarly with paper, you can just pile up [11] your documents: at the top of the pile you have the latest document to arrive or the one you last consulted. And with time the documents at the bottom of the heap [12] can be thrown away. The principle is called LRU – Least Recently Used. It’s how computers work, apparently.

Tim Harford goes on to report on research into “pilers” and “filers” in offices. Pilers are the messy ones who have piles [13] of paper on their desks; filers are people who prefer to have a system for tidying things away. It seems, however, that, contrary to what you might expect, higher-performing employees tend to be the pilers rather than the filers. Yeah! Let’s hear it for mess [14]! The problems with filing systems include premature [15] filing (tidying things away too quickly so you forget where you put them; or ending up with files [16] of stuff you never need again). And another problem is too many files (so, again, you forget what’s in them, and you’ve got related stuff in two different places). But if you are a filer, don’t despair! With certain types of material it’s very important and very helpful to have it systematically filed: financial records, for example. But these tend to be documents that are clearly identifiable, and predictable. It’s the mass of papers and notes from meetings and emails and so on that are usually not worth filing because they’re not worth keeping for too long.


October 21st marked the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan [17] disaster. The village of Aberfan lies in one of the South Wales valleys where the great South Wales coalfield [18] was situated. These valleys are narrow with steep sides, and the waste material from the mines used to be piled up on the sides of the valleys to form what are called spoil tips [19]. In this case a section of one of these tips became unstable. There was a build-up of water within it, and at 9:15 in the morning of October 21st, 1966 a big section of this tip broke away. It formed an enormous avalanche of water, coal and rock which slid down the steep slope into the village. It engulfed [20] a number of houses and part of the village school. The school contained primary and secondary sections. It was the primary school that was hit. 116 children aged between 7 and 10 years old were lost – about half the children of that age in the village. Along with them, 28 adults lost their lives including five teachers. The disaster happened so quickly, but the timing [21] couldn’t have been worse. If the landslide had occurred half an hour earlier, the children wouldn’t have been at school. And that day was the last day before the half-term holiday. A few hours later and the school would have been empty again.

Although it’s now 50 years since the disaster, the memory of that terrible day is still vivid [22]. There is still anger about how the investigation into the accident was badly handled, and how the nationalised coal industry tried to escape its responsibility. And the grief [23] of the families that lost children, and the trauma of the children who survived have never gone away. They say that the village is divided to this day between those families who lost children, and those who didn’t.


And now it’s time to continue with our story “The Body on the Moor”. Who was the man whose body was found lying on Saddleworth Moor? He was carrying no identification and he didn’t match the description of any missing person reported to the police. So the police started to trace [24] his route to the mountain. The last person he spoke to seems to have been the barman in the local village pub. The mystery man came into the pub on that winter afternoon and asked directions to the path up onto the moor. We don’t know how he got to the village, but in the man’s pockets the police found £130 pounds in cash and some railway tickets. He had a return ticket from London to Manchester. The police found CCTV [25] footage [26] in Manchester of him getting off a train from London around midday. He went to the information office at Manchester station, but nobody remembers speaking to him. He then bought a sandwich and a drink. He left the station for a bit, then came back, and then disappeared. In London the police found pictures of him buying a tube ticket [27] with cash at Ealing Broadway in West London. He then took the tube to Euston station in Central London where he bought his return ticket to Manchester, with cash again. Why a return ticket? The police decided to concentrate their search in West London around Ealing, but they could find nobody to identify him among the doctors, dentists, social services and so on in that area. So perhaps he wasn’t from there. Perhaps he came from somewhere else. From London’s Heathrow Airport perhaps? Perhaps he walked to Ealing Broadway from another tube station: South Ealing. There’s an underground service there to London’s Heathrow Airport. Unfortunately, the CCTV at South Ealing wasn’t working that day, so the mystery of who he was and where he came from remains. But how did he actually die? What killed him? I’ll tell you next time!


If you want to send me any questions or comments about the show you can write to me via the website: Or use Twitter: my Twitter address is @Gerrypod. Remember that you can listen to me via the PodClub app, and that you can access the vocabulary learning programme also via the app. I’ll be back on December 2nd. Till then, thanks for listening, and take care!

[1] it looks a mess: it looks very untidy
[2] to happen to be (free): to be (free) by chance
[3] untidiness: lack of order (in things)
[4] to tidy: to put things in their correct places (e.g. toys in the toy box, books on the book shelf, dirty clothes in the laundry basket, etc.)
[5] “Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives” by Tim Harford
[6] bias: an attitude that makes you treat somebody or something in a way that is unfair or different from the way you treat other similar people or things (A judge, a referee or the BBC should not have this, but some newspapers have this in the way that they report politics!)
[7] tidy: neat, ordered, well arranged
[8] affairs: here: things relating to your personal life or your financial situation
[9] filing system: a system for storing documents in an organised way
[10] to delete: to remove (for example to remove a word from a text, or a document from your computer)
[11] to pile up: to put one thing on top another, and so on
[12] heap: a large (untidy) pile of things
[13] pile: a collection of things, for example books, with one on top of another
[14] Let’s hear it for mess!: Let’s applaud mess! Let’s clap our hands and shout in favour of mess!
[15] premature: too early, too soon
[16] file: a big folder or box with papers or documents in it (NB In computing this actually called a folder!)
[17] NB The name of this village is pronounced “Abervan”. This is because the letter “f” in Welsh is pronounced like a “v” in English, while “ff” in Welsh is pronounced like “f” in English!
[18] coalfield: an area where coal can be found
[19] spoil tip: a big pile, often as big as a hill, of waste material from the mine
[20] to engulf: to swallow, to cover completely and destroy
[21] timing: when something happens or is planned to happen
[22] vivid: very clear
[23] grief: the emotion that you feel after the death of somebody you love
[24] to trace: to discover
[25] CCTV (closed circuit television): film from security cameras
[26] footage: film pictures
[27] tube ticket: a ticket for the (London) underground (railway)


Irina 23-11-2016 20:15
Hi Gerry,
Thanks for all your podcasts. I've been listening to them since my sister told me about it when I finally had internet access in 2010. I became an English teacher about two years ago and have been using Gerry's Diary as a regular listening exercise for homework ever since. All my students like it. So, thank you very much.
Kind regards
P.S. My desk doesn't look any better to say the least.
Sr. Raphaela 14-11-2016 16:49
Hi Gerry
Thanks for your interesting podcasts. I agree about wasting time in order to tidy up everything every evening! Unfortunately, I have to do it almost every evening because I share my classroom desk with other teachers – and, as you know, teachers have to live up to the students’ expectations!
I’m really looking forward to your next news.
Best regards Sr. Raphaela
Käthi 07-11-2016 13:44
Hi Gerry!
On my today's to-do-list is (among other things): Clean up the desk! It looks more or less the same as yours.
So, welcome in the "mess-club"! It's comforting to know that I'm not the only member.
Best regards!