Nicholas Mackey

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I write. I take photos. Go figure.

The Magic of 33

I think back to when I was aged 9 – about 1964 in Dublin, Ireland. It would have been late June that year and we were all thrilled as it was going to be our first summer holiday as a family together. Despite being an under-salaried academic at a well-known institution, my father (as I learned years later) had somehow managed to find the money to pay for a fortnight’s break by the sea in the Fingal region of north County Dublin. He had rented a ramshackle bungalow tucked in behind the sand dunes on the South Strand of Rush beach and there we spent a memorable vacation by the sea.

But although my parents’ frugality had ensured we could enjoy such a rare treat as a holiday and all was going well in terms of preparation and packing our cases for the trip, we had a problem. We did not possess a car and a taxi was out of the question as it would have been far too expensive. There was however public transportation in the form of one bus to take us from where we lived in the Fitzwilliam area on the south side of Dublin to the city centre and then another second bus - a number 33 - to go from there to Rush but it would have been quite an ordeal carrying our heavy cases, buckets and spades plus other belongings for our summer vacation by means of 2 buses on this planned expedition of ours. There was a train service but the route served was not a convenient one.

At the last moment, the French wife of an old university friend of my father’s generously offered to drive us to Rush in her car – I remember it well, a large Fiat saloon.

On the day in question, we set off from home in great excitement and in no time we were navigating the city centre via Grafton Street and preparing to cross the Liffey. But disaster struck. As we neared O’Connell Bridge, the car began to sputter alarmingly and then conked out on the Bridge itself. We were holding up traffic and in a panic trying to work out what to do next. The car could not be restarted and an irate queue of motorists was building up behind us. A quickly-convened war conference in the marooned Fiat decided that the only course of action for the Mackey family was to take the 33 bus which at this stage was not far off from where we were broken-down on O’Connell Bridge to the bus terminus on Eden Quay – a mere 300 yards away. But there was another wee problem: our baggage. In the end we had no choice. My parents, sister and myself had to haul all our belongings from the boot of the stricken vehicle and somehow we managed to cart it all along the quays by the River Liffey and then onto the next bus for Rush. In those days, a double decker bus in Dublin was run by CIE/Corus Iompar Eireann/Irish Transport Company between the city quays and Skerries, a seaside town located just a few miles north of Rush. Fortunately, there was ample storage space at the base of the stairwell of the double-decker to take all our cases and other possessions - this was where the conductor normally stood 'at rest' while travelling on the moving bus. And don't forget, double decker buses were 'open' in those days in the sense that there was no (automatic) door to permit the entrance and exit of passengers as in modern means of transportation.

Whether planned or not, we were now on a bus scheduled to take us very close to our destination, the seaside village of Rush. Rush, with its vast North and South Strands where the sandy beach stretched for ever and ever to the distant sea. And then wasn't there the Smuggler's Cave, the ruined church built by shipwrecked French sailors in the 13th century with a haunted graveyard, those weird rocks near the seashore with their eye-catching zigzag lines brought about by some ancient geological forces that bent the earth, those stark Martello Towers still standing guard against the invading force of Napoleon, the windmills, the endless areas under cultivation where tomatoes seemed to be the most popular of produce grown, the ruined Knight's Templar headquarters of Baldungan Castle, the majestic island of Lambay lying just a few miles offshore, the Roman settlement on the Drumanagh headland, the old copper mine near the fishing village of Loughshinny and the cultivated estate and private residence of renown called the Kenure Demesne. 

But what I have always remembered from that time nearly 50 years ago is that a bus, the number 33 was our life-saver on that June afternoon as it transported us to take us on holiday filled with happiness for our family and into a magical universe of adventure and discovery that my brain continues to feast upon even as I approach my dotage. 

Recent Comments
Former Member
I had already read and responded to your comment on my piece before I saw this. I will have to say it brings back memories. Althou... Read More
Saturday, 14 February 2015 02:03
Nicholas Mackey
Charlie, Not only are your posts a feast for the imagination but your comments are thought-provoking mini essays in themselves an... Read More
Monday, 16 February 2015 21:19
Virginia M Macasaet
I was born in 1964. It's always nice to look back and remember the moments that impacted our lives with happiness. The mind neve... Read More
Saturday, 14 February 2015 08:12
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Stream of Consciousness - Music

Let me take the first thought that comes to mind and then let me run with it – the discovery of the pleasure of music.

Many years ago when I was about seven or eight, my father bought us a record player. Our first. Its arrival in our family home in Dublin, Ireland was a major event and there was much celebration in the household. An act of wilful defiance in the face of the family’s impoverished state at the time – as if my parents felt that a batsqueak of pleasure must be had despite the inevitable deficit in the housekeeping money for weeks to come. This musical device was a primitive, battery-driven red and cream-coloured affair but for my sister and I it became a magical toy, a thing of delight that shone brightly in our young lives and our other toys paled into insignificance remaining unplayed with during this period. At the same time as the purchase of this simple record player, my father obtained three black vinyl LPs (Long Playing [records]): Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik; Chopin’s Preludes and Schubert’s Unvollendete (Unfinished) + Rosamunde. It was the start of an exciting adventure in the appreciation of music which continues up to the present.

There was no TV in the house in those far off days (it was the 1960s) but we did possess an old-fashioned radio with valves that was large and sat majestically in the sitting room. From memory, it seemed to be only switched on for news, plays and other programmes where the sonorous spoken word was the expected output of this broadcasting apparatus. Up till then, it was as if the airwaves were devoted to serious matters where music and the pleasure of experiencing it had not existed in my life. 

I recall as if it were yesterday when my father came home from work one winter’s evening and then unpacked the mysterious and as yet unused record player. We stared at this strange, new colourful piece of machinery now in our family’s midst and after carefully reading the instructions in Dutch (as it was a Phillips from Holland) put the first record on. It was the Schubert. Fortunately, as my father was proficient in German he could make a fist of the Dutch guidelines and I remember him carefully placing the stylus on the edge of the revolving LP so as to engage the start of the first glorious grooves that held the golden secret where music would spring forth. At first we were puzzled as we heard the sound of a swishing scratchiness as the needle at the end of the arm holding the stylus engaged the LP as it whizzed around the turntable at the required speed of 33⅓ rpm (revolutions per minute). My sister, mother and I looked at each other in a kind of bewildered excitement not knowing what to expect but elated nonetheless. But no music - yet.

Then, the opening bars of the Unvollendete played. At that precise moment, my soul was captured and I was taken to a new universe of imagination as I delighted in the sound of orchestral music played to my very young ear with such delicacy and enchantment. Never mind the scratches and imperfections on this vinyl record because there was something special about this music that penetrated and slowly embedded itself in my psyche. Even then as a kid I felt that this was a major discovery: the revelation that glorious sound in the form of music could delight so much and so deeply. It was also fun. The family pursuit of artistry in this form of a new, musical contraption had overcome for a while that deadener to a pleasant existence: lack of money. 

It was the same with the Mozart and Chopin records. For the following weeks, my sister and I played those three LPs incessantly as we could not get enough of the magical sound from this simple red and cream record player - a piece of kit solely devoted to the output of music and song as we later acquired an EP (Extended Play [record]) that was slightly smaller in size than an LP and had to be played at the faster speed of 45 rpm. That new addition to our nascent record collection was 'Golden Hits of the 1920s' and 'The Glenn Miller Sound' so that to this day I can recognise the distinctive tune of the 'Black Bottom' dance and 'In The Mood'. 

For me, this childish batsqueak of pleasure fifty years ago was the onset of a marvellous and enriching lifelong adventure with music. 

Based on an article published in Red Room, May 2013.

 

 

 

 

 

Recent Comments
Former Member
Everything reminds me of something and this reminds me of a lot of things. Apparently poverty in Philadelphia was different from ... Read More
Saturday, 13 December 2014 04:05
Nicholas Mackey
Wow, Charles what an incredible 'comment' to make and I agree entirely that music can be such a dam buster to memory that verges o... Read More
Saturday, 13 December 2014 11:51
Rosy Cole
I think my first encounter with a record player even precedes yours, Nicholas It was a second-hand, heavy black box with a crank ... Read More
Sunday, 14 December 2014 11:35
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A Doubtful Guest

 

It was some big event in Trinity College Dublin (TCD) in the late 1950s in connection with the appearance of a number of literary titles including, ‘The Doubtful Guest’ by Edmund Gorey; a story about a character with a surreal bird-like appearance sporting a wavy university-style scarf who is a guest at some aristocratic household in which he finds himself in weird surroundings. My father, as a member of the College academic staff, was involved in some publishing beano and came home from work one day and presented me with a miniature penguin (in the form of a teddy bear not the live creature I hasten to add) as a gift along with a stand-up poster with a fiddly base showing yet another penguin; I guess it had something to with a well-known publishing house using this distinctive black motif but being about 3 or 4 years of age at the time I was much taken with these gifts all with a common birdy theme to them. So, in a way apart from various early reading books for children, ‘The Doubtful Guest’ for me was a really grown up offering then. I was thrilled when my father gave me this book though I have to confess that I loved the oversized hardback volume more for the illustrations inside as the storyline was a tad too advanced for my tender brain.

All those years ago in distant childhood, I recall numerous visits to TCD with my father who had himself been an undergraduate there in the early 1940s and after a brief, ill-fated spell in teaching at a Cambridge prep school worked in Trinity for his entire career becoming Research Librarian of the University. For further details, please see https://www.tcd.ie/trinitylongroomhub/events/forthcoming/biography.php

I recall the atmospheric Long Room, aka the Old Library which dated from the early 1700s where as a kid I found the appeal of playing hide and seek among the great tomes of learning more attractive than the act of reading. My father was horrified as I would squeal with delight when I raced up and down the rickety spiral staircases within the Long Room. At that very young age, I always associated this venerable inner space with having great fun: a case of the law of unintended consequences coming into effect as this was not what my father had intended on these visits to TCD as I was misbehaving.

On entering the Long Room, I recall my father struggling with one of the antique keys with its intricate but oversize shape as he had to jiggle it in the ancient lock of the outer door before it finally yielded. He would push open a tall outer door slowly and then hasten through a darkened atrium towards an inner door where he had to wrestle with another antiquated key to get inside.

By now we had entered the inner sanctum of the Long Room and stood at the entrance to this – my childish sense of wonder and deep internal perspective took over at this point – as I saw all this as a vast enclosed space given over to a store of so many old books. As if by instinct, I felt that momentary reverence was required.

My father would stroll the full length of this enormous inner chamber reaching the other end of the Long Room to open up the set of doors at the eastern entrance. I could tell that my father relished this quiet period in the silent semi-darkness of the Long Room while he got on with his early morning ritual. The hushed gloomy grandeur of this enormous space devoted to the intellect was tinged with an air of smugness as the Old Library - a restrained masterpiece in granite by the Irish architect, Thomas Burgh - was slightly larger than its equivalent at Trinity College in Cambridge designed by Christopher Wren. In subsequent conversations with my father about this, I could detect an emotion from him he rarely exhibited that of an air of triumph akin to putting one over on an academic rival; TCD had in its own way trumped at least one of its two Oxbridge sister colleges.

The reality of daybreak little by little impinged upon the Long Room disturbing the peaceful slumber of this place and a very weak sunshine mixed with dust and early morning noises gradually became more evident. It seemed as if even light entered the Long Room only with permission of a morning evoking a slightly eerie atmosphere where this majestic collection of tomes placed on high shelving that reached to the vaulted wooden ceiling. All this was presided over by a number of white marble busts of lifelike dimensions of various luminaries from the world of the arts, sciences and philosophy, including Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle peering down from solid, six-foot high wooden pedestals that flanked both sides of the internal central corridor of almost the entire 213-foot sweep of the Long Room. I presumed that if ever colours had to be ascribed to learning then it would be in terms of browns, greys and blacks with a smidgen of yellow.

As I watched him, my father would then go over to the glass display cases in the centre of the Long Room containing the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells, dating from the 7th and 9th centuries. My father opened them and, having donned a special pair of gloves for the purpose, then turned the vellum pages of these lavishly-illustrated ancient bibles & carefully placed weighted sashes over the turned page so that both books remained open at new places to be viewed. Meanwhile several yards away, Brian Boru’s Harp remained undisturbed behind its dilapidated display case and required no such attention but to me it appeared forlorn as several of the strings were torn asunder.

In later years, my father told me that he always thought it a quirk of Irishness that TCD as a bastion of Queen Elizabeth I’s pioneering 16th-century vessel of English Protestantism set within a Catholic Irish sea was to some extent represented by symbols more in keeping with ancient Celtic traditions. Strange thing this conceited assimilation of another’s cultural symbolism considered at other times to be inferior or anathema to that of the conquering, colonial power and then passing it off as representative of one’s own. A sort of intellectual sleight of hand that my father felt was inherently dishonest and arrogant at the same time. He wondered why no one else seemed to notice these social incongruities or even cared.

With my father’s early morning ministrations completed, the Long Room housing TCD’s Old Library was now open for the academic business of the day.

 

They say that you are brought up within and then go on to survive the battleground of childhood presided over by one's parents and in my case it was over the thorny subject of learning as my mother possessed her own firm views about book reading also. On more than one occasion she expressed the opinion that the self-assured, alma mater atmosphere of TCD in the late 1950s/early 1960s smacked of elite Anglo Protestantism and she yearned for a more egalitarian Irish approach to the subject. So when not being carted off to TCD as a youngster with my father, my mother would avail of the opportunity and take me on expeditions to the public library in Pearse Street in a less salubrious part of Dublin but it was an eye-opener for me. You see up to then – perhaps by this time I was eight or nine years old – reading was very much for me an edifying process in which I became absorbed in as a means of learning, to better myself as it were. It was all very serious. The idea that reading was done as a means of enjoyment would have been foreign to me even at this tender age, even shocking. Until my dear mother took a hand that is. On those dreary and often damp winter evenings before we even had TV in the house, she and I would find ourselves in the brightly-lit slightly stuffy atmosphere of the enormous public library in Pearse Street. All of a sudden, I discovered the world of novels, picture books and best of all, books geared for a particular age group of children. The passage of time has sadly erased many names of these books geared for childhood from my withering brain but I do recall in spades that it was incredible fun. And it was this childish breakthrough combining these two very different approaches to learning inherited from my parents that led to a lifelong passion for reading and discovery. Then when I was about 10 years old, I was privileged to be introduced to yet another form of literature as my mother along with my Scottish grandmother gave me my first comics: the ‘Beano’, ‘Dandy’, ‘Eagle’ and others became staple weekly fare when I could afford just one of them that complemented the rather po-faced publication, ‘Look and Learn’ I was also very fortunate to receive – all this added greatly to the idea that reading could be so exciting and entertaining.

Through my parents and subsequently on independent forays outside the home, I came to know about the many different bookshops in Dublin at the time as I visited them regularly even from a tender age: The Eblana Bookshop on Grafton Street, Hodges Figgis initially on Dawson Street then relocating to St. Stephen’s Green, the Brown Jacket Bookshop jutting out on to Lower Baggot Street and wedged between a Polish restaurant and a large showroom selling agricultural equipment, Fred Hanna’s also on Dawson Street, even Easons on O’Connell Street where I was often scolded by the staff for ‘memorising’ the publications on sale and the beloved Parsons on Baggot Street Bridge where Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh and other characters from the Irish world of literature frequented. It is sad to note that just about all these emporia to books are no more having succumbed to age, infirmity, and the inevitable and relentless march of progress that must destroy as it recreates.

But as a youngster these bookshops in Dublin were my alternative playgrounds as it were as I would make a beeline for them on many occasions – luckily where we lived in Fitzwilliam Place was only a short walk away from the city centre to these glorious refuges of discovery, learning, excitement and so much more where I would browse and read for ages. I felt so supremely happy being in these places. I was also free from any adult supervision – an added thrill. It cost me nothing as pocket money was always in short supply - so long as I didn't buy an actual book - but there was a magical universe at my fingertips. I only had to reach out and touch it and it would come to me.

All this I have come to realise is something I have so much to be grateful for: I only wish my parents were still around to know how much I owe them.

©Nicholas Mackey October 2013

 

(This article first appeared in Red Room October 2013)

Copyright

© ©Nicholas Mackey October 2013

Recent Comments
Former Member
I suppose this is the article I read some time ago that had me somewhat stunned then. I had only known the library described in th... Read More
Tuesday, 09 September 2014 18:08
Nicholas Mackey
What a fascinating comment and thank you very much for the kind words. I never cease to be amazed that experiences from so far bac... Read More
Wednesday, 10 September 2014 00:36
Former Member
Happy to oblige, Nicholas. I think you've decided me on my next post. Ten moths ago I began a novel, based on memories of the eve... Read More
Thursday, 11 September 2014 06:11
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When Dublin Trembled

First published in The Spectator17 May 2011 
 

On 17 May 1974 — 37 years ago today — I was a 19-year-old student at Trinity College Dublin, celebrating the end of term in the Pavilion Bar near the sports fields. The summer exams were still to come, but we were carefree; the main subject of conversation was whether we could organise a disco party later on. Then, a little after 5.30 p.m., everything changed. First, all about
us seemed to shiver, as if there were an earth tremor. Then, just as it occurred to me that Dublin did not generally suffer tectonic stress, there was a deafening bang that seemed to go on for an age.

Somebody shouted: ‘It’s a fucking bomb!’

What I did next may seem strange, but I was an avid photographer, used to recording the world around me, and I took my camera almost everywhere in a little canvas bag. It was with me that day. I grabbed it and dashed out, heading straight for South Leinster Street, the source of the ear-splitting noise very close by. Personal safety was not a concern at this point.

I passed through an open side gate and found myself instinctively snatching picture after picture of a street full of human suffering and destruction: people running to and fro past large glassless gaps in shops and offices. Chaos everywhere and I remember trying hard to stop my hands shaking so I could take photographs without any blur . Then, I became aware of a strange billowing sound interspersed with crackling noises. I took a few more steps before I saw where it was coming from: a red sports car, ablaze and giving off pungent smoke and waves of piercing heat. My eyes watered and I found it hard to breathe. The street was covered in bits of everything all over the place. Around me were people with fear etched on their faces. Some were badly hurt and clothing torn away; one teenage boy’s forehead was caked in blood.

Suddenly, from my right, two men in shirt-sleeves advanced with confident strides on a burning corpse, with a large white sheet or towel held in front of them. They quickly doused the flames. With the fire out, the men stood back and stared at the lifeless victim they had just rendered assistance to. One of the men had his knees slightly bent and made a hurried sign of the cross — and, as he did so, I saw his lips move as if in prayer, but I could not make out a single word of what was being said. I wondered momentarily if my hearing had been affected.

I took several paces forward and observed a tell-tale gap between two pulverised vehicles,  a space where the bomb-laden car had been moments before. I think I might have taken a photo or two at this stage but I can't be sure as an unfamiliar maelstrom of adrenalin, extreme fear and horror was churning inside me and now ruling my every movement. For the first time in my life, my eyes fell on the remains of a person murdered violently and with such inhuman cruelty. I could see this dead body scorched black by being so close to what I surmised to be the epicentre of the explosion. There was no blood visible and I could just make out that the victim was female on account of her badly-singed shoes with heels beside her lifeless feet on the pavement. I felt compelled to look away as I felt my insides lurch sickeningly.

Eventually, after what seemed a long time, the emergency services arrived. On South Leinster Street, two women had been killed instantly and many injured. Elsewhere in Dublin and Monaghan, some 33 other people were killed and almost 300 wounded: this day saw the largest number of casualties in any single day of "The Troubles" as this terrible period in Ireland's recent history came to be known.

I still wonder about this awful experience now even after 37 years and I have an inkling of what it must be like for those who have experienced far worse in terms of terrorist outrages or horrendous scenes of war. You can see one of my photographs at the top of this post, and a selection of others below:

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

P.S.    In the early 1970s as a young Dubliner, one was aware of but largely unaffected by ‘The Troubles’ experienced in full measure by its sister capital, Belfast in Northern Ireland, a little over 100 miles away. Yes, there had been politically-motivated incidents in Dublin previously resulting in a number of deaths but living in the South one had been largely shielded from the worst of the social and terrorist violence of the North.

The shocking events of 17 May 1974, however, changed all that. It was a terrifying experience for our family as by a strange coincidence, my (late) father who was Research Librarian in the University was attending a lecture on the TCD campus very close by in the Moyne Institute (of Medicine).

You will recall from my above article that after the sound of the explosion I had grabbed my camera and headed towards a side gate in the perimeter wall of Trinity that was open. As I ran towards it I was shocked to see my father standing there motionless with a grim expression on his face. As chaos reigned just yards away on South Leinster Street, I recall us having a surreal  conversation as he told me that several of those attending the lecture he had been present at near to where the bomb had detonated had been blown out of their seats injuring a number plus some others had been badly cut by flying glass. Fortunately, my father was unhurt. People passed between us at this narrow gateway hurrying to and fro as we both surveyed this scene of destruction. I remember my father saying: “It’s like Belfast now. The North has come south”. He then warned me that there might be another unexploded device waiting to go off nearby but with the bravado of youth I ignored his plea of commonsense. The next thing I remember was being on the street, camera in hand, surrounded by the carnage caused by a bomb (hidden in the boot of a car) that had exploded without warning a short distance away. It was blown to smithereens. Later, we learnt that this obliterated vehicle had been hijacked in the North earlier the same day. As I write these words, I find myself reliving these awful events in surreal shades of grainy grey and black where the sounds, the smells and the fear are palpable all over again.

But I’ll come back to the premise that triggered this addition to my ‘blog’: why did I write this? How long do you have? But the shorter response would be that growing up as I did in Dublin in the 1970s, one’s life was punctuated by the regular news bulletins of events in Northern Ireland as there was a near daily toll of brutality, shootings, arrests and, of course, bombings brought about to my young mind at the time by political intransigence borne of centuries of tribalism and well-nursed hatreds of the past. It seemed as if this vortex of violence in the North, the dreaded ‘Troubles’ would never end and now Dublin was being sucked into this destructive whirlwind.

Fast forward to April 1998 and the Good Friday Agreement. This was a landmark moment in Northern Irish Affairs which enabled the two opposing blocs of the North to live more peaceably together. And over the ensuing 13 years, the political landscape of Northern Ireland has evolved to what it is today thanks to what was done by so many ready to work hard to overturn the bloody construct of the recent past that had taken on a semblance of brutish normality. Life in the North has been transformed for the better where the dark days of the 1970s were being consigned to history.

This actually has been a painful odyssey of healing over many years. Painful in two ways. First, on a personal level, I have revisited some very upsetting memories of nearly 40 years ago in attempting to discuss this subject and issues arising in a constructive, reflective and open manner. Also, I am sure there are many others who have experienced far worse during ‘The Troubles’. And secondly, it has been a very painful journey at another level in that it has been a long-standing saga of woe over centuries literally when Anglo-Irish relations has been the subject of conversation. The Queen’s successful sojourn in Ireland in 2011 has ‘moved mountains’ in enabling this process of healing between our two nations to come to a successful and happy ending. From what I can gather, Ireland has been ‘wowed’ by her visit. It has also been a very emotional experience for many Irish people as my sister (resident just outside Dublin) avers and it has meant a great deal to Ireland.

If I may hazard an opinion here, it is the finely-focused and personal perception of the intertwined history of our two islands – rather than an objective interpretation of how events have unfolded – as this is what often prompts our reactions to these thorny issues, myself included. It’s almost as if I were admitting that there are different ‘histories’ at play here, such as, ‘personal history’ and then ‘academic history’ at one remove. But I digress.

Nevertheless, there is a pivotal point that enables us as human beings to draw on this valuable reservoir of knowledge that we carry about in our heads all the time throughout our lives and then to utilise it in a positive and uplifting manner to triumph over the hatreds and the poisons of the past within the context of Anglo-Irish relations and to propel us with zest into a future that is collaborative and harmonious. Long live our two islands, Hibernia and Britannia.

 

 

 

 

Recent Comments
Virginia M Macasaet
Nice to see you here Nicholas. I saw the title of the blog and immediately knew it was you!
Saturday, 23 August 2014 14:23
Nicholas Mackey
Hey Rina, nice to hear from you and thank you for commenting.
Saturday, 23 August 2014 19:21
Rosy Cole
What creates immense tension in experience, as in writing, is the balance between subjectivity and objectivity, the point at which... Read More
Monday, 25 August 2014 12:58
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