Archive for October, 2019

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The Warrendale Knotts

It’s looking like the last really warm day of the year, late September, with an added Friday feeling. We’ve left the M6 at the Tickled Trout, dropped the top in a lay-by on the A59 and now we’re motoring towards the Dales. The route is quiet for once, and fast – few heavies – and we’re able to enjoy the rush of air without the added taste of diesel. We’re making for the pretty little village of Langcliffe, a terrific spot for a walk in limestone country, a six mile round of scars and caves and waterfalls.

We park under the shade of a tree by the church, then boot up and commence the steep pull beyond the gate, up a lush meadow still slick with dew. Then it’s a green way across pasture and fell-side, towards Settle, then steep again on the more assertive pull towards the Warrendale Knotts. Things are looking good with clear skies and a warm sun just clearing the crags now, lifting the dew. We can see for ever beyond the valley of the Ribble, just a faint haze out on the horizon and there’s a crisp stillness to it all, trees paused in motion as if looking at each other in anticipation of autumn’s turn and saying: is this it yet?

The Warrendale Knotts occupy an area of craggy access land, just off the main walking routes. The initial approach is intimidating, a wall of seemingly impregnable limestone buttresses. But as we get to grips the cracks reveal themselves, and the way wends more obligingly towards the top and a Trig point, nestling in the ruins of a wind-shelter. Meanwhile a neat little cairn marks the summit, just a little higher on a limestone pavement fifty yards to the north. It’s a very fine spot indeed, somewhere to settle for lunch and soak up the glorious day.


Trig point, Warrendale Knotts

We have the Knotts to ourselves, the long line of them beautiful, even at noon when the light tends to be flat and uninteresting. But this late-season sun is low enough to pick out the craggy details and paint the land with a heavenly luminosity. We have the green and copper of the pastures below rising to lap at the toes of gnarled and deeply fissured crags. The crags are like old silver, burnished here and there to reflect the light. Perhaps I go too far with the prose. I can’t help it; days like these have you in poetic raptures, scrambling for similes and metaphors, and send your spirit soaring like a twittering lark.

Yes, such days are among the most treasured, though I’m aware I present something of a cliche myself, this late middle-ager puttering about the Dales in an old open topped car, still scoring routes up all the hills. The word menopausal comes to mind, but I refute the charge your honour. I’m not looking to rediscover a youth that passed too quickly. For one thing the body is sufficient reminder of my years, and the legs hesitant with caution where I once stepped with impunity, all speak of a certain chastening though experience. No, this is more a continuing appraisal of the journey ahead, and a determination not to look back, for looking back is what truly stiffens a man up, makes him old before his time.


Warrendale Knotts, view towards the Attermire Scars

The car was made in Hiroshima in 2002, then shipped half way across the world to England, spent its own youth with someone else and is living now in semi-retirement exploring the Yorkshire Dales with me. She’s done over ninety thousand, twenty of them mine and still drives well. Sure, perhaps we’re both old enough to know better, but we don’t care. I’ve a feeling she’ll be considered a classic in years to come, and worth hanging on to. But it’s looking likely now a future climate levy will tax her off the road, as she’s a little heavy on the carbon.

You find me in a reflective mood today. The world down there is in free-fall, almost as if things have been engineered that way, but all of that dissolves to nothing when the fells are warm, the weather is kind, and we gain the transcendent perspective of a time-worn cairn. I’ve recently come to a decision about retirement. I’ll be going early, in a little over a year’s time. There’ll be a significant hit on the pension, but I’ll manage. I’ve been working since September 1977 and it’s enough; 2020 will be my last year. Time now to settle back into being what, through modesty and lack of material success, I’ve always hesitated to call myself: a writer.

It’s not without some hesitation, the thought of retiring into such uncertain times, of quitting the cushion of well paid work when well paid work for ordinary folk is a thing of the past. The writing’s never made a bean and never will, but one clearly cannot go on for ever with the long commutes and the working days so greedy of one’s private time. And of course, while the world of work screams blue murder at itself, the fells dream on and I’m for dreaming more often in their company, at least while I’ve still the legs to carry me,…

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Warrendale Knotts – summit cairn, view to Penyghent

So,.. from the Warrendale Knotts we pick our way northwards, then east a little until the path firms up and leads us down to the more well-worn route by the Attermire Scars.  In the far distance Penyghent crouches, Sphinx-like, basking in the sun, its paws resting on a network of dry-stone walls that thread all the knotty pastures into one. We try a photograph or two. The camera captures Penyghent nicely, the light too, but as with all cameras, it never truly sees the land the way you feel it.

The Attermire Scars are famous for their caves. The largest, the Victoria Cave, is a huge, dank and foul-breathed orifice, oozing slime-water and it swallows up the sun as we approach. We manage a few yards inside before barriers of rusting iron prevent a more intimate exploration, not that I’m tempted anyway and find all caves uninviting.

But speaking of intimate, lying among the greased rocks on the cave floor I discover a pair of – well, shall we say – ladies foundation wear? It’s quite a dainty pair too, and somewhat incongruous in a lush wine-red, set against the cold and the wet and the grey. I hesitate to imagine what the lady was doing to lose them, for this is hardly an inviting place for romantic assignations, though each to their own I suppose and I’m not so old I’ve forgotten the youthful urgency that demands we take advantage of whatever opportunity arises. Sadly, it’s less so as we age of course, when lace and daintiness is gradually exchanged for something altogether plainer, less alluring of course, but far more practical.

Anyway,… we potter on, clear the cave, emerge once more into the blessed sun and a sweeter air. Then I lose my footing on a dollop of sheep poo. It’s been laid with fiendish cunning upon a patch of dew, lurking in the shadow of the stile through which I’m passing. It’s an impressively slippery combination; one second I’m admiring the view – while admittedly still recalling past encounters with the allure of ladies foundation-wear – and the next I’m on my arse. Fortunately for my dignity, there were only sheep for witnesses. Most pretend not to notice, though I’m sure one of them is laughing, chalking up another downed pedestrian.

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Upper Whinskill, Langcliffe

The day is Indian-Summer-hot now, the sweat dripping from the peak of my cap, which I hang from the sack to dry out. We have a bit of road-walking, though it’s the sort of narrow, unfenced fell-road on which one rarely sees a car. Then a long green lane brings us to the hamlet of Upper Whinskill. Here we take the track to the splendid, Catrigg Force where Stainforth beck drops through a nick in high crags, before making its thunderous escape down to the Ribble.

As I take up position here for the obligatory photograph, I’m conscious I’ve been off my feet once already, so I dither a bit on the rocks. It’s my boots, I’m thinking – I mean this creeping lack of sure-footedness. They don’t make boots like they used to do, slithering and sliding about as if the soles are oozing something oily. I wonder if I can improve them by applying a thin layer of roof-repair mastic. That’ll make them sticky for sure, though how durable I don’t know. Worth a try, I suppose.

catrigg foss waterfallAnyway, I grab the shot and we close the loop of the walk, making the final mile by Stainforth Scar, sparkling in the sun now, and then we’re down among lush meadows and green lanes and butterflies, back to Langcliffe. The car is waiting in the shade of a tree, sunlight dappled across the paint. I open the top to let the heat out, clean myself up with the remains of my water-bottle, change my shirt, contemplate the time.

It’s a tranquil spot, a place to linger; we’ll only be hitting tea-time traffic at Preston if we paste it back right away and that will surely spoil the day. Besides, look, there’s a book sale on at the church, and I could never resist a rummage among musty books. So, here’s what we’ll do. We’ll loiter a bit, then have a bite to eat in Settle, find a nice pub, travel back this evening. It’ll be a gorgeous drive as the light turns to amber and with the whole of a deepening sky peeled back above us.

Sound good to you?


Stainforth Scar and the green lane from Langliffe

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rembrandt scholar

The online world remains the easiest outlet for creative expression, at least one that comes with an audience. I’d say it was my “preferred” option but that would be to suggest I have any other choice which, in common with many of my kind – at least those of us who have wised up – I don’t. However, I do actually “prefer” it because there’s a world of difference between writing and publishing and while writing online grants us the freedom to explore stories in a direction of our own choosing, publishing does not. Publishing just wants more of the same. Publishing wants what sells.

This is not to say I don’t still toy now and then with at least the idea of flirting with the printed press again, but the essentials there haven’t changed in forty years which means if long-form fiction’s your thing, you need an insider’s contacts to avoid the slush pile and to deliver your musings with an auspicious whack, directly to a commissioning editor’s desk. Without that advantage, you’re going nowhere my friend.

There’s self-publishing online for money of course, but for all its blather, writers should be wary of its over-hyped promise because this won’t make you rich and famous either. Kurt Vonnegut nailed it when he said the arts were no way to make a living, only to grow some soul. What does that mean? It means we have to buckle down and a get ourselves a proper job first. Anything will do, so long as it leaves us time and energy at the end of the day to write. The trouble is, being an amateur hack, we’re likely to be as unknown in our sixties as we were in our twenties. Is that a failure of ourselves as writers? Well, it depends how much you grow your soul in the mean time, and none of us are best placed to be the judge of that anyway.

I suspect it’s a journey we must all make as individuals, so nothing I say here is going to make sense to anyone just starting out, and they’ll still likely believe against the odds they can change the world with their story, if only the world would wise up and recognise their genius. But trust me, it wont.

It’s a funny old business, growing soul. I mean, if writing or any other form of art were truly integral to that process, one might think thrashing out the most perfect story or poem, then unceremoniously deleting it wouldn’t matter, that if anyone read it or not would be irrelevant, that growing one’s soul is a purely private matter, no audience required. Except to me it does seem important, this exchange from one mind to another, writer to reader, that unless we writers complete that particular end of the bargain, the muse or the genii or the daemons who gave us this stuff in the first place won’t be happy until they’ve goaded us into finding an audience for it. Or this may just be a sign of residual vanity in me, that forty years of writing has left my soul the same button-mushroom size it was when I was ten.

In the bad old days this primeval urge to find an audience would deliver us into the hands of the vanity press. You could tell them apart by the fact they accepted your manuscript in glowing terms, while the other lot simply returned it unread. Yes, the vanity press would butter you up no end, appeal to your – well – vanity, then print your novel and deliver you a crate of the things, leaving the rest to you, which is to say high and dry and probably skint. Beware, vanity is a terrible thing and can lead you into all kinds of trouble.

They’re still around, those shysters, moved mostly online now, offering also their worthless authoring services like reading and editing, all of which still leave the writer out of pocket and no nearer publication than when they started. So don’t be tempted, or at least if you are don’t be surprised when you get shafted.

I look to the online world then as a means of pacifying that particular whim of the muse who seems curiously untroubled by giving the work away. And it has to be said there’s something quietly subversive about it that I enjoy. Yes, you can charge for it on Amazon and Smashwords, but then the downloads shrivel to nothing, because everyone online is after free-stuff and the value of a work is, after all, in its scarcity, and regardless of the fact you spent a year writing it, your novel can be copied and pirated in a nanosecond, rendering it essentially worthless – at least in money terms – anyway.

The downside is that while the Internet has the advantage of a potentially global reach, for readers actually hitting upon one’s work it’s a bit like sitting on a needle in a haystack – an entirely chance and unlikely event. So, building even a humble readership can be rather a slow business. Why bother then?

Well, perhaps the truth is if we were wealthy enough we might spin our musings from the psychiatrist’s couch, whittle down to the nub of things that way, but instead we write for the mysterious “other”. The “other” understands us perfectly; they just never write back to say so, and that’s fine because if they did, we’d know it wasn’t them anyway.

Is that growing some soul? I don’t know, but I’m still writing, always looking for the next story, the next tumble down the wormholes of my dizzy head.

And that has to count for something.

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Photo by Victor Freitas on Pexels.com

William H Bates (1860-1931) was an Ophthalmologist with an unconventional view on the workings of the eye. He was also unique among his colleagues in advocating a method of vision-training he claimed would cure problems with sight that are normally corrected by spectacles. However, Wikipediea, as ever a bastion of orthodoxy, dismisses the method in its opening paragraph as “ineffective”, as do many others who take the established scientific view.

A more positive advocate was the writer and visionary Aldous Huxley. Huxley was born with very poor sight and wrote about his experience of the Bates method in his book, “The Art of Seeing” (1942). In it he explained that while his vision remained far from normal throughout his life, Bates’ training helped him to progress from being functionally blind, to being able to manage reasonably well and for a time the Bates Method was all the rage.

So, is it any good or not?

Well, in 1950, Huxley got up to read an address at a Hollywood banquet. The lighting was poor, and he struggled to read his script. In front of many witnesses, he had to resort to a magnifying glass to make out the words. Critics of the Bates method leaped upon this as evidence he’d memorised his script, the implication being he couldn’t really see it and had only been pretending to read it, therefore all Bates method teachers were charlatans, and that Huxley had misrepresented claims of his improved vision. Orthodox ophthalmologists breathed a sigh of relief and went back to business as usual, selling spectacles.

Curiously though there are still plenty of Bates teachers around, and they are not short of positive testimonials. It’s possible that in some cases, having spent a fortune on such a method you’re more likely to praise it for even small gains because you look like less of an idiot that way. But surely not everyone falls into this category, and I wonder if there’s not more to it, that, as with all things, the story is more complex than the shrill headlines and the naysayers allow. Huxley’s case is particularly interesting. As a public intellectual, he had a lot at stake, and it seems unlikely to me he would risk his reputation on such a blatant, elaborate and pointless deception.

So what about my own experience? Well, when my own eyesight began to drift off into myopia in my early teens, I took to practicing the Bates method with enthusiasm. This involved various exercises, all of which, by the way, can be nowadays be found for free online. They include switching focus from near to far distance (tromboning), sitting with your palms over your eyes (palming) and letting the sunlight play upon your closed lids (sunning). I hasten to add none of this had any effect on my vision whatsoever. Indeed my eyesight continued to deteriorate until my middle twenties when, somewhat ironically, I merely accepted the need for spectacles, and things stabilised. So, not much of a testimonial then, except,…

I’ve not troubled myself with the Bates method again until recently. I’m in late middle age now, and for the past few years, although I’m 20-20 with my specs on, I felt that at night, I was becoming less able to discern details in dark shadow. I could no longer see the fainter stars, and had become particularly sensitive to oncoming car headlights, which made night-driving stressful. I don’t know why I picked up on Bates again but, out of interest, I began a regime of alternately sunning, and then palming my eyes – just twenty minutes a day.  The effect on my night vision was immediate and very noticeable, vastly improving what I’d call the dynamic range, and therefore my perception of detail in low light, the night sky once more replete with countless stars, and those pesky ultra-bright headlight beams no longer as much of a nuance.

As for my actual vision, my prescription is unchanged, so the spectacles remain indispensable, but at my age I lack the necessary vanity to wish them gone anyway. On the upside though the eyes are generally healthy and, thanks to Bates and his much maligned method, I no longer worry about commuting in the dark over the coming winter months. Okay, so perhaps the Bates method’s not all it’s cracked up to be, but neither should we dismiss it entirely, because a lot of people have positive things to say about it.

And I’m one of them.

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It’s one of the great philosophical puzzles of all time: given a square of a certain area, how do you construct from it a circle of equal area using only compass and line? The truth is you can’t. This was proven by Ferdinand von Lindeman in 1882, but it hasn’t stopped people from trying, even to the present day, the reason being it’s more than a geometrical puzzle.

Philosophically, we think of the earth and all things in it as the square, or the plane of existence, while the circle represents the whole, the unity, or heaven. And while geometry can measure out most things, the one thing it cannot do is provide a construction that derives heaven from the profane dimensions of the earth. The nub of the problem lies in the strangeness of Pi.

At first glance Pi is a beguilingly simple number, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Divide the circumference by the diameter and you get 3.14159,… etc. The problem is “etc” is currently up to thirteen trillion places, and counting. The more we chase it, the further away it gets from us.

We assume from the evidence so far that Pi is an infinite and non repeating series, a transcendental number. It cannot be derived exactly by ratio, or by formula which means you can’t get to a circle equal in area to a given square, either by line and compass, or by supercomputer.

Or can you? Is there no intersection of line that gives us the radius of that circle? Can we not project it from the walls of the square? Might it not lie in inscribed circles? Can we get at it by projecting points of tangency? How about introducing other squares formed in harmonic series from the root square? Can we get projections from them?

Well,… no. Not exactly.

There are some very good approximations which the old philosophers must have had high hopes for when working within the accuracies permitted by actual line and compass. It’s only when we use computer aided design we get to zoom in and these constructions reveal their flaws. Then we stare through the gaps, not into the infinite void of Heaven, but at our own imperfections.

In my current work in progress, a guy drives himself nuts trying to square the circle. He represents the worst of our egoic tendencies, and he just can’t let it go even though it reduces him from a respected intellectual to the level of a suicidal crank. But he’s since had his revenge on me by having me fall under the spell of the conundrum myself. Yes, I know it’s impossible, but there’s still something beguiling about those approximations, at least to someone who grew up on Euclid and worked for a time on a drawing board with compass and line. I still have those compasses, forty years old now, and rendered obsolete some time around 1985 but there’s a definite beauty to them, also a creative potential, so I like to keep them clean out of respect, even though I rarely actually use them.

I stumbled across the approximation shown above, not with compasses, but with LibreCAD. I’m sure other would-be philosophers have found it too – I mean it’s hardly subtle. Indeed it’s a very simple and elegant construction that gives an answer accurate to within 0.13% of area. That sounds pretty good, but if you play the sums backwards, it yields an equivalent for Pi that’s only correct to the first two decimal places, so we’re a long way from attaining philosophical, spiritual or even just plain old mathematical transcendence.

What all this has to say about the human condition is that, at our worst, we can be self destructively pedantic in our quest for perfection, while at our pragmatic best we recognise a good approximation serves equally well.

This one’s a bit better – 3 decimal places:


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group of friends hanging out
Photo by Helena Lopes on Pexels.com

Okay, so that title’s a bit tongue in cheek. I’ve no idea how to market a blog, other than by writing one, updating it a couple of times a week and poking around among other blogs and reading and following the ones I like. That’s blogging, and there’s no quick fix. I’ve been at it ten years and it is what it is. I tell myself I’m a misanthropic old curmudgeon who doesn’t give a damn if anyone reads me or not, but that wouldn’t be true. I do like to know if people are reading me.

WordPress says I have 564 followers at the moment, which sounds a lot, but we must bear in mind only about twenty percent of those are really following and reading – the rest are just dumb barnacles stuck to the bottom of my boat, trying to sell me stuff, or people who have no interest in my writing and write “lifestyle” stuff and just want me to follow them back. This has to do with the Pareto principle, also known as the law of the vital few. But that still means I’ve got the ear of a hundred or so, and that sounds pretty good to someone who started writing in the days of typewriters and double lined manuscripts and lots and lots of rejection slips.

You can apply Pareto to all sorts of things, such as for instance how, in any organisation, twenty percent of the people do eighty percent of the work and how twenty percent of the people in the world hold eighty percent of the wealth, and so on. Now that’s all well and good, but when you see your blog hits have been declining over the past five years, you start to wonder if you’re missing a trick in not applying all the whizz-bang tools of the trade at your disposal, so to speak,… namely that odd bird: Twitter.

I’ve had a Twitter account for ages, but never really got the hang of it. Twittering seems to me like uttering a mumbled phrase or two in a room filled with a braying crowd, all of them slightly off their heads. It’s very unlikely anyone’s going to hear you. You’re just going to get drowned out by the noise, unless of course you single someone out and call them a dick-head, as many do of course, and cause a fight, but at the cost of the inevitable loss of your virtue.

Anyway,… by way of experiment I decided to give it another go and I’ve been tweeting all week, five to ten times a day in fact, just shooting out links to the blog and my books on Smashwords and Wattpad. And now, come Friday the results are in, and guess what?

1) Twittering like a canary all week attracts zero genuine visitors.

2) Twittering about your writing all the time takes a lot of effort and stops you from writing.

3) Twittering out links to your blog as a means of self marketing means you get a lot junk-blogs coming back at you trying to sell their marketing services, as no doubt will that marketing tag I’ve attached to this blog.

So, in conclusion, I remind myself, if you like blogging, which I do, then blog. Write your blog however the hell you want, and follow the blogs of others whose writing you like, because there’s a lot of good stuff out there, original, meaningful, soulful,… well, twenty percent of the time anyway, and that’s about the top and bottom of it. If the stats tell you your blog’s in decline or never gained any traction in the first place, live with it, or give it up. If you can’t give up, then don’t.

If you’re reading this, you count as one of my vital few, and you’re very welcome, so pull up a chair.

Fancy a cup of tea?

How’s life been treating you?

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I would like nothing more than for BREXIT to go away, but I’ve seen enough and heard enough now to understand such a thing is unlikely and that even holding such a view is hopelessly naïve. Whatever happens, “no deal”, “bad deal”, “revoke and remain”, Britain is mortally wounded, shamed on the world’s stage by the demonic rhetoric of a spittle flecked nationalism and its attendant bonkers racism. We have the former party of law and order viewing “law and order” as something to be evaded, the law dismissed as “mistaken”. Then the admittedly oftentimes turgid checks and balances of parliamentary debate – a practice that is surely exemplary at avoiding us going off half cocked into anything – are also subverted, silenced,… prorogued for being inconvenient.

There have been plenty of authoritarian regimes around the world now, all of them studied in sufficient detail for the patterns of their emergence to be understood and recognised, and it’s becoming clear, day by day we’re living in such a period now, both in the UK and the USA. This has happened before, in Europe, in the 1930’s, the same fertile ground of poverty, lack of opportunity for the poor and a rise in populist dictators playing the national card. They were only expunged from the collective psyche after the horror of a long war, a period that left mothers without their husbands and sons, and the whole world traumatised, picking its way through the rubble, wondering what the hell it had done.

The origins of today’s problems lie in the corruption of late-stage capitalism and the stop gap measures of extreme austerity whereby every last penny is shaken from the poor in order to keep the rich in the manner to which they have become accustomed. The last decade has been one that’s stripped the flesh from the bones of the country, left corpses in the streets – not victims to violence, but to starvation and cold. It has stripped the nation (all except London) of its well paying jobs, whole industries in which a people can find vocation and meaning, and replaced them with,… nothing,… and the whole thing blamed, as it is always blamed, by populists and nationalists, on immigration.

A proud, pragmatic and a decent people, the British have been forced to beg, to use food-banks and to accept poverty pay, working insane hours for psychopathic arseholes. The resentment stoked by such humiliation came to the fore in the BREXIT referendum when the Conservative Party, blind to the privations it had caused, made the error of handing the country a devastating means of self-expression, while simultaneously lecturing them on the perils of leaving the European Union. Although I didn’t see it at the time, the result, I suppose, was inevitable.

I could not see how leaving the European Union would improve anything for the poor and the dispossessed, that indeed it could only make matters worse, but I was probably only thinking of myself, my own job, my own savings. For those on the streets, those who had lost homes and livelihoods, those who will freeze and starve to death this coming winter, things really cannot be any worse.

Yes, Brexit is almost too complicated to comprehend, yes, the politicians were handed an impossible task and GDP will undoubtedly suffer, but these are not things the dispossessed care much about; it’s not their problem, solutions don’t matter, the economy doesn’t matter – indeed it does not exist when you’re working seventy hours a week and still cannot afford to own your own home.

What we’re seeing is the revenge of a people upon its ruling class. The torment we all feel while glued to our devices for the next arcane twist in the BREXIT saga, is no more than we deserve, and certainly as nothing compared with what people have been suffering since 2008, and nothing we will lose in the future can compare with what many have lost already.

This resentment had gone deep into the nation’s psyche, a potentially violent neurosis with all the attendant archetypes that are finding a voice in the nightmare that is BREXIT. Nowadays anyone who disagrees with the view of their neighbour is branded a traitor and a saboteur, as if nationhood can only have one face. Wearing the wrong badge in the wrong company will get you spat at in the street.

How do we heal this? I don’t know, but I’m coming to believe it’s no longer useful to be thinking about BREXIT at all. At this stage, and in the hands of such an administration, there seems to be only one likely outcome. But however that turns out, no matter what twists and turns await us in the coming weeks, it’s what comes afterwards we most need to worry about, and heaven help who’s in charge by then for they will need the judgement of Solomon to keep things together and to put the demons back into the dark places where they belong.

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