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other notes coverAn excerpt from “Notes from a small bookshop” by Michael Graeme

Available from all good bookshops no time soon:

I don’t know how much strangeness you’re wanting, or how much you can take. It’s a genre thing, I suppose. You come in expecting one thing, like this dusty old geezer sitting in a second hand bookshop pontificating on how things were so much better in the old days, then here he is showing you another thing entirely.

We’ve already had the spy story, the mystery police thing, the love story, a bit of crime thriller – I mean if Milord Milner isn’t a crook, then who is? We’ve even had a little bit of bonk-buster, though I admit I glossed over much of the animal fervour of that in favour of the romantic angle, out of respect for Magg’s privacy and it just seemed like the decent thing to do.

But this is something else entirely and you’re most likely going to find it really, really weird. It’s something you might think is even verging on the speculative, or a bit science fiction-ish, but it isn’t. Trust me, it’s already obsolete, technologically quaint.

Most of us don’t want strangeness do we? We want our days predictable, punctuated by three square meals. We want a thirty minute commute, and a nine to five, then a couple of hours after tea collapsed in front of a predictable Soap while we shovel crisps into our mouths and wash them down with cheap wine from the corner shop.

Then bed and dreams.

Dreams we can do. Dreams are okay, I mean for all their strangeness – and it’s mainly because we forget them so quickly. But that’s about the size of it, isn’t it? Any real strangeness in our waking lives and we’re covering our ears going: Nah,nah,nah,nah,…

But strangeness is everywhere. Every story ever written came out of someone’s head. Did you ever pause to think about that? Isn’t it weird? We make stuff up, make believe it’s real, and it’s okay – people still want to know what happens to these other people, people like me, who aren’t actually real.

But not all strangeness is made up.

I was reading the leftleaning news this afternoon and it was telling me of a town in America, all the jobs moved out and those nine to five people with their family SUVs and their cute little clapboard houses now living in tents along a bleak riverside on the outskirts of town and going hungry. No more wine and crisps for them. This is their new normal discarded, like waste, scrunched up and tossed into the bushes, their own Milord Milners caring little if they live or die. But these are not empty beer-cans. They are people, indeed more than people, they are, in the philosophical, and even in the existential sense, just different versions of you and me.

It will kill us, you know, this thing we have created. And only those of us capable of sustaining our Milord Milners will be allowed to survive, all be it barely. In this respect then, we will be farmed like cows. Some for milk, some for slaughter.

How the Milord Milners are made these days is open to speculation. They are no longer born to it like they were in olden times. I suspect rather they are merely psychopaths, that the system favours their emotionally insensitive natures, and the rest of us are just too passive or too stupid to prevent them gaining power. Shall we merely go on allowing it then? How can we? How can we not? I mean, if we are to survive.

But what is surviving? It’s a subject that needs redefining. And while we’re at it, what is living? I mean truly living.

You can forget the notion now that through diligence, the dream of middle class semi-detached suburbia, and 2.1 children is still attainable. And the working class too, you can forget the notion of meaningful work and ample playtime for afters. You already know this. You’re all in the same boat now, your bright young ones with degrees in this and that, rubbing shoulders with you bright young ones who don’t, and all of you chasing nothing-Mcjobs in the murky, shark infested pool of the precariat, all of you filling in here and there on poverty wages until you’re automated out of existence. You own no capital, you have no provision for old age. Do you think you can still run around a warehouse when youre eighty five with cataracts and a dodgy prostate?

So what am I saying here?

Beyond stating the problem, I don’t know. It depends what you want, what you value, or can re-evaluate in your life. Whether we go on pursuing the thrill of those dubious stimulations promised by Milord Milner’s ultimately empty mouse-clicks, or we set our devices aside, and do something else, something that does not involve staring at a screen and adding to the sedimentary layers of data for others to mine and profit by at our considerable expense and ultimate enslavement.

I have a feeling the answer lies in rediscovering that truer sense of the ordinariness of the world, the purer treasure of it, and yes, the sheer grace in all of that. Only there can we recapture our souls, and live as we should. And be happy.

I don’t know what I mean by any of this exactly, only that in common with the rest of us, I’m working on it,…

Do not go gently.

Be careful what you accept as normal.

No one is a waste of space.

https://www.wattpad.com/myworks/139757309-notes-from-a-small-bookshop

 

 

 

 

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AmsterdamNovel.jpgAlthough it took the 1998 booker prize, Ian McEwan’s ‘Amsterdam’ was far from being universally liked. Critical opinion was divided, and perhaps a little heavier on the negative, some pundits wondering how it was even nominated, let alone that it took the award. It was with some trepidation then I picked it up, all be it some twenty years after publication. But I enjoyed it, though I’m prepared to admit this says more about me than the book, or maybe some of the heat has died down in the mean time and the novel has grown into itself. It goes to show one should never be put off by bad reviews, no matter how erudite.

In a nutshell the story opens at the funeral of one Molly Lane, formerly a beautiful fashion photographer, grown old and stricken by a slow withering malady that ended in madness. Two of her former lovers join the gathering to pay their respects – the ageing Clive Linley, a composer, and Vernon Halliday editor of a struggling London Tabloid. Neither want to go the way of poor Molly, so resolve to see each other out, should the need arise, by way of euthanasia, which had recently (then) been legalised in Amsterdam.

Long time friends, they are united in their contempt for Molly’s husband, the rather dull and overly protective George Lane. They’re also aghast at her rumoured liaison with Julian Garmony, Conservative Foreign Secretary, an otherwise odious man touted as the next PM. When George discovers, among Molly’s effects, photographs she’s taken of Garmony dressed in women’s clothing, he offers them to Vernon for publication in his seedy rag, both men believing the resulting scandal will bring Garmony down. But Clive argues that no matter what any of them think about Garmony, publishing the pictures is morally indefensible, also a betrayal of Molly’s trust. This causes a rift between him and Vernon, and through a series of further misunderstandings, they wind up as bitter enemies.

Although Clive seems at first the more sensitive and likeable character, he’s actually quite a shallow and self centred aesthete. While out walking to clear his mind for composition, he witnesses a rape, but does nothing about it, and doesn’t report it either, seems actually to consider it of only passing importance and hardly relevant when compared with his artistic ambitions. He’s already mentioned the incident to Vernon, and given their later spat, Vernon seizes upon the admission as an opportunity for revenge, and dobs him in to the police.

Of the subject matter, perhaps euthanasia is the one we’d think of as being ripe for moral dissection here, and I admit I thought this was where McEwan was taking us, but he ends up using it as more of a plot device. The business of the closet transvestite politician is more unexpected – publication resulting not in the scandal Vernon (and perhaps we) are expecting, but rather the opposite, that instead it fleshes Garmony out, at least in the public eye, as the more sympathetic and wronged party – so if anyone gets the last laugh it’s him.

The actual denouement of the story was flagged quite early on, so I had a fair idea how things were going to end between Clive and Vernon – you can probably guess yourself. I’d hoped I was wrong because that seemed the least interesting outcome. I suppose, ever the optimist, I was holding out against their pettiness and stupidity and hoping for a reconciliation in Molly’s honour. There’s an element of farce too in the twists and turns, which many critics seem to have taken offence at, claiming the humour fell flat or wasn’t at all funny, and that was true in a way – transformed by the moral vacuity of the protagonists into something far more sinister, and lent instead an abrasive edge to the story that really got under my skin.

If you’re a fan of McEwan you’ve probably already read this one and have your own opinions on it. If not, don’t be put off by the poor reviews.

It’s a short read, and well worth it.

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Lavender and the Rose Cover

Another in the occasional series, looking at the themes expressed in my various works of fiction. 

Moving on, getting on, forgetting the past, embracing change, living in the present moment – and all that. It’s good stuff, stuff I tried to get at in the Road from Langholm Avenue. And to be sure, all these things are attainable, the material world navigated safely as needs be without falling over in despair at the pointlessness of existence. At least for a time.

But as we get older, something else happens, some call it an existential crisis, others simply the menopause. But as I see it, youth, inexperience, and just plain ignorance has us accepting without question the allure of an essentially material life, rendering us blind to the fallacy that it is entirely sufficient for our needs – the pursuit of money, lifestyle, the bigger house, the bigger car, the exotic travel destinations. It isn’t.

If we’re lucky we wake up and realise material things don’t satisfy us for very long, that we can live an extravagant lifestyle, a life all the adverts would have us aspire to, and still be as miserable as sin, still craving the next big thing. But you can’t go on for ever like that. Clearly something is missing. We need a bigger story if our lives are to mean anything.

Some find that bigger story ready made in the various world religions – usually a story about a supreme being and an afterlife to help make sense of the suffering we endure in this one. We can then explain our lives as a trial imposed upon us, the reward for which will be riches in the next life. Or we can explain it as a preparation for a higher level of existence, again in some non-material hereafter. And all that’s fine for the faithful, because religions do provide comfort in times of need, but what if you’re not faithful? What if all of that sounds ridiculous to you? What if the logical inconsistencies of such a set-up cause you to take out that barge pole and prod all religions and their scary religiosity safely out of sight. Life simply is what it is, and then you die. Right?

Well, maybe.

But what if you sit down one day in an existential funk, and something happens? Let’s say the doors to perception are flung wide open – just for a moment – and you’re given an utterly convincing glimpse of a universe that’s somehow greatly expanded compared with the narrow way you normally perceive it? How so? Hard to describe except lets say, for example, time drops out of the equation and you’re given the impression of an infinite continuum in which there is no difference between you and whatever you perceive, that your mind is independent of both the physical body and the physical world, that indeed your mind is a subset of a greater mind that is both you and not you at the same time.

How would you deal with that?

Well, you’d probably think you were ill, or just coming out of a semi swoon or a waking dream where we all know the most outrageous nonsense can be made to feel true. So we come back to our senses and carry on as normal. Except we find our perspective on life is subtly altered. We are drawn to ideas that might explain our experience. We explore it first through psychology, because it was a kind of mind-thing we experienced. So down the rabbit hole we go,…

And there sitting at the mad hatter’s table we discover Carl Jung, sipping tea and reading a book called the Yijing, which he lends to us, saying that if we are not pleased by it, we don’t need to use it, and we’d worry about that except he also tells us famous quantum physicists have used it too, though they don’t like to admit it. Then this Oriental connection takes us to ancient China and another book called the Tao Te Ching, then to religions that aren’t like other religions, to Daoism and Buddhism which are kind of hard to get your head around. But while everything you learn explains some small part of what you experienced, nothing explains the whole of it.

So you put some rules to it yourself, create a quasi-logical structure for this strange new universe you alone have apparently discovered. Before you know it, you’ve invented your own religion and it all falls apart again, victim to the inconsistencies you’ve imposed upon it yourself. It seems the moment you put words to things you limit their potential to within the bounds of your own perception, and what you perceive actually isn’t that much when compared with what’s really out there, or to be more precise in there, because it’s an inner experience that leads us to this taste of the infinite where there’s no such thing as or in or out anyway.

The Lavender and the Rose comes out of this shift in perception, but without structure it would make no sense to anyone else – just two hundred thousand words of mindless drivel that would bore anyone to tears, so we accept the vagueness and the mystery, and we weave a story around it instead, a love story, several love stories, blur the boundaries, throw in some visions, some Jungian psychology, basically a lot of muse-stuff and conquering of the ego, that sort of thing. Add in a bit of Victorian costume drama, play about with characters having more than one identity, play the story out at different points in history, play it out in alternative universes where even the present moments can pan out differently, and then try to make it all hang together as an interesting story – about what can happen when you start living magically, and with others who are similarly inclined. Then explore ways the mystery can be coaxed to your aid, and discover how, if you get it wrong it will shun you for a decade. Learn how to navigate its endless ambiguities, how to see the world as no one else sees it, and still get by without getting yourself sectioned.

Such is the irresistible allure of something other.

And as with all my stuff, if you are not pleased by it, at least it hasn’t cost you anything!

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man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885Publishing a novel? Well, it’s easy. Anyone can publish a novel these days. You write it, then you put it on the Internet. You do it yourself through a blog, serving it out of a Dropbox account, or use the likes of Smashwords, Wattpad, FreeEbooks, Amazon, and sundry others I’ve yet to make the acquaintance of, who serve it out for you. Your work gets published for free and people will read it. Guaranteed. Simple. Amazon and Smashwords even let you set a fee, so you can actually make money at it. The downside? Unless you go viral, don’t expect to make more than pocket-money, and your chances of going viral are about the same as coming up on the lottery. People come up on the lottery all the time, but the chances are it won’t be you, so don’t bank on it. Most likely you’ll make nothing at all.

I can feel your disappointment right there, because money’s the thing, isn’t it? What you really want to know is how to make serious money at it, or maybe even just enough to quit the day job and write full time. So, let’s go there. You write your novel and, if you don’t fancy online self-publishing, or it just doesn’t seem real to you, then send it to a traditional publisher or a literary agent. But this route is even more like a lottery. Someone always wins, but the chances are you won’t. In fact, the odds are so stacked against you doing it this way, it makes more sense not to bother, and only a fool would waste years filling out their ticket anyway.

There are exceptions, not to be cynical, but you need an edge. Your name needs to be widely known for some other reason, either by fair means or foul, because publishing’s about selling and names sell. Or you need an influential contact in the industry, someone who can sing your praises to a commissioning editor. Or you can enter your novel for a prestigious literary prize, but that’s an even bigger lottery. Either way, without your invite to the party, you’re not getting in, and that’s just the way it is. Always has been.

Persistence pays? Yes, I’ve heard that too, mostly from published literary types selling tips to writers who can’t get published, and maybe it’s true, worth a dabble perhaps, but don’t waste your life trying . Don’t spend decades hawking that novel, constantly raking back over old ground with rewrites, moving commas this way and that and coming up with yet one more killer submission, then beating yourself up when it’s rejected. Again. Don’t lie awake at night grinding your teeth, wondering what’s wrong with you, wondering why no one wants to publish your story. Chances are you’ll never know. So let it go, it’s done. Now write another.

What is a writer for? Do they create purely in order to give pleasure to others? Or do they do it for the money? Do they crave critical acclaim? Or is it more simply to satisfy a need in themselves? Why does anyone create anything that serves no practical purpose? I mean, come on, it’s just a story after all.

In my own writing I explore things, ideas that interest me. I enjoy painting and drawing too, but it’s the writing that gets me down to the nitty gritty, writing that is the true melting pot of thought, the alchemists alembic through which I attempt a kind of self-sublimation, a transformation from older, less skilful ways of thinking, and through which I try to make sense of a largely unintelligible world. The finished product, the novel, the story, the poem or whatever, is almost incidental, but until it’s finished the conundrum, the puzzle I’ve set myself isn’t complete. Completion is the last piece of the jigsaw, the moment of “Aha!” – or more often a wordless understanding that signifies a shift in consciousness, hopefully one in the right direction.

I know this isn’t what writing’s about for others. But most likely those others are a good deal younger than I am, and not as well acquainted with the realities of hawking the written word in exchange for a living. I’ve been writing for fifty years, never made a bean, haven’t even tried since ’98.  This is just the way it’s evolved for me, but don’t let that put you off. You do what you want. You may get lucky, or die trying.

How to get a novel published? Other than giving it away online, who knows? It’s always been a mystery to me, but in one sense persistence does indeed pay, in that it eventually yields a little known secret about getting yourself published, and I’ll share it with you now: when it comes to the art of writing, getting yourself published isn’t really the most important thing.

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solarIan McEwan isn’t always an easy read, often challenging in the depths he takes us, and at times brutal in his picking apart of human nature and all its attendant frailties. In Solar we meet surely one of his most monstrous creations, Professor Michael Beard, Nobel Laureate, author of the Beard-Einstein Conflation – something about light and really hard physics. He has a brilliant mind then, but he’s also a serial philanderer and insufferably vain, not an easy man to be around which is what I felt made this one of the more challenging of McEwan’s works, given the company he forces us to keep. Worse still, the third person perspective is kept entirely on Beard, so not allowing us even temporary respite in the intimate company of other characters.

Although at times darkly comic, I found Beard so loathsome, so pompous and amoral, I failed to find any of his scrapes funny, but for all of that I found the book to be a compelling read, which is quite a feat for an author to pull off. How do you get your readers to relate to an anti-hero like this? What is it that keeps us hooked, when surely we would much sooner part company? Is it anticipation of a spectacular comeuppance? Or do we long for a glimpse of a redeeming facet of character, or do we anticipate an incident that will cause Beard to finally see the light and achieve some sort of redemption?

The story charts his misanthropic ambitions in the field of synthetic photosynthesis, a process aimed at providing a limitless source of energy from sunlight. But his patents are based on research stolen from a junior colleague, and his motivation appears to be no more than self aggrandisement rather than the moral imperative of actually saving the planet. Indeed when challenged about the likely interest in his work in the face of opposition from the oil and gas lobby he quotes the approaching inevitable climate catastrophe with glee as a guarantor of his inevitable success, as if even God were on his side wrecking the planet to suit Beard’s ambitions.

Of course things don’t go smoothly and, over the years of his egotistical excesses we witness the slow disintegration of the corporeal man, his decline into ever greater depths of slovenliness and physical decrepitude. It was a challenge to understand what it was in Beard that his long line of lovers found so attractive, other than the hope they might be the one to finally rescue him from himself.

Beginning in the cold, cash-strapped breeze-block labs of British academia, in the year 2000 and ending in 2009, in the fierce heat of a privately funded New Mexico solar farm, Beard’s past misdeeds finally gain sufficient momentum to catch up with him. So, what will become of him? Will his obnoxious ego keep him one step ahead of calamity yet again? Will he find true love? Will his creaking frame give out on him before he gets to prove to the world, finally how appallingly and ruthlessly magnificent he is?

Loved it.

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100 year old manA quirky title for a quirky book.

Set in Sweden, the story opens with Allan Karlsson on the eve of his hundredth birthday. He’s recently moved into an old folks home, having blown his own place up with a stick of dynamite – it was an accident and a long story, which we get to eventually, but for now Allan can’t abide the thought of attending the party that’s being organised in his honour, so with moments to spare, he climbs out of the window and heads for the bus station.

He has no clear plan, but then such is the story of Allan’s long life – no clear plan, yet a series of outrageous events that has seen him at the pivotal moments of twentieth century history, often on the wrong side of it, and armed only with his native wits and a happy-go-lucky optimism to see him through. The story is at times darkly humorous, at times absurd, Allen’s engagingly quirky insights into the true workings of the world providing the punchlines along the way.

The story has been likened to Forest Gump and the fortunes of a naive simpleton similarly turning up at iconic moments of (American) history. But although Allan’s outlook on life is refreshingly uncomplicated, and completely accepting of whatever simply is, he’s definitely no simpleton and is at times ingenious in his understanding and outwitting of authority. Also, unlike Gump, his adventures take in the entire sweep of world history, gathering the globe together and presenting it to the reader as a complete basket case.

Following his escape and arrival at the bus station, Allan, by a mixture of outrageous chance and mild indignation, manages to relieve an incompetent motorcycle gangster of a suitcase containing a small fortune in cash, then makes off with it on a bus. He doesn’t know about the money yet and is rather hoping to find instead a decent pair of shoes to replace the carpet slippers he’s currently wearing. What follows is an incompetent chase given by both the bad guys and the supposed good guys, Allen managing always to keep one step ahead, though mostly without trying and leaving an unwitting trail of mayhem in his wake. Along the way he picks up an eclectic mix of friends, accomplices, and an elephant!

But this is just one side of the story. The other side is the story of Allen’s life-long adventures in the world where he has been instrumental in The Chinese Revolution, the Russian Revolution, helping to invent the atomic bomb (for both the Americans and the Russians), in the death of Stalin (a stroke brought on by exasperation), saving the life of Winston Churchill (unintended consequences) in the complete destruction of Vladivostok (a diversion that went better than expected), and in the Korean war. He has befriended presidents and dictators, escaped torture and execution and all without a passion for anything except an occasional drop of the hard-stuff.

Allen’s romp through history presents the world’s leaders as incompetents, poseurs, megalomaniacs and fools, in pretty much the same light as Allen’s contemporary encounters during his flight from more petty scoundrels, self important officials and violent motor-cycle gangsters – all of this I suspect only half in jest. The plot is utterly insane, but magically engaging, the story as a whole suggesting the world itself, its pivotal moments and its key players cannot be described in any other way than utterly absurd.

One of Allen’s few penetrating observation on power and politics, to his one time companion, Einstein’s lesser known look-alike half sibling, the eternally dim Herbert (don’t ask): “the nearer you get to the top, my friend, the better the food and drink!”

Endearingly mad. And very glad to have discovered it.

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the sea view cafe - smallMy latest, possibly my last novel, is finished and up on Wattpad now for free. It’ll shortly go up on Smashwords from whom I’ll blag the free ISBN, then put it up on Free Ebooks who seem to be doing a good job of shifting downloads at the moment. And there we are. Finished! About two and a half years – the Sea View Cafe years. The small blue car years, the Scarborough years.

It’s a cliche I know but as ever I’m genuinely grateful to anyone who’s read me or commented on my stuff. Even had it been conventionally published, the Sea View would have made relatively nothing, financially, yet already it’s rewarded me tenfold with those readers who’ve picked it up on Wattpad and commented as I’ve posted chapters piecemeal.

It’s a novel written against shifting times, a story swept up in another iteration of the myth of Britannia’s idiocy and decline and, by association the  decline of the west. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s been an all pervasive narrative for as long as I can remember, and probably for centuries. Yet more than any other, the Sea View Cafe is a story that found itself distorted almost daily in the writing by yet one more headline in  rejection of the progressive ideals of strength in the collective of nations and a fall into a petty nationalism, into racism and bigotry.

Yes, these have been the pre-Brexit years. Years when we have wrapped ourselves snug in the native flag, covering all but our faces which are by turns ugly, pompous and hate filled – ejecting spittle with every sentence uttered. Our collective soul stunted by the recurrence of all manner of shadow complexes.

Some of the most brilliant minds working in Britain are of non-white, non Christian, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-Anglo Saxon origin. We are a multi-cultural society, product of our history – not all of it good – but I’d dared to hope we were on the cusp of a rapprochement with our chequered past. Such diversity might have informed our spiritual nature, our secular philosophy – things to be celebrated, built upon, for there can be no surer path to greatness, than by the hybridisation of faith and ideas. And what did we do? We chose the path of the tabloid, of the angry old white crustacean.

Or was it more a case of two fingers to a plutocratic establishment that had done nothing to solve the problems of a lost decade, and looked willing to sacrifice a whole generation of non-privileged youth upon a bonfire of perpetual austerity?

The reasons are complex, but tending in the same direction and manifesting in abject poverty for millions.

And what of women? That much maligned species, scorned, dismissed, defiled by the repugnant male ego. This is strange to me, for I have only the experience of women in my own circle to go on, and they are of strong character, organising, nurturing, building, and gifting love.

So, in the Sea View, we meet strong female leads, not out of any gender political motives – I wouldn’t dare go there – but more simply because that is my experience of women. They are my my aunts, my sisters, my mothers, my grandmothers. Helena Aynslea, Hermione Watts, Carina and Nina and Anica. These are tough women, while remaining entirely feminine, and I hope I’ve done them justice. They carry the Sea View, as they have carried my entire life.

And so what if two of them take a fancy to the same guy, and each other? Let them both have him, and themselves  – all at the same time and be damned – because I hope this is more than a romance, more than a trite polyamory fantasy on my part.

Thus we move beyond the conventional narrative, explode the hell out of the world in order to find ourselves anew. We have to hard-wire it into the collective that it’s okay to be different. Gay, coloured, bisexual, Muslim, Christian, Jew. Female. Intellectual. Shy. Red-haired. In short, diverse. And what we have to code out is the idea we can in any way advance ourselves at the cost of others, that anything which increases ourselves at the cost of diminishing someone else is not only wrong, it is also, ultimately, self-destructive. The young seem to get this and it’s in them I dare to hope.

These are strange times. They haunt me, as they haunt the Sea View. Either they are the end of times, or they’re the rallying call to radicals and progressives everywhere to seriously challenge the archaic and archetypal evils that seem to have snuck in under the radar.

The answer? It’s with all of us.

Awaken.

Oh, I almost forgot, do read the Sea View Cafe if you can bear it! Unedited, unprofessional, and riddled with sneaky typos. It won’t change your life, but it might cheer you up in the mean time! I know I’ve had a lot of pleasure from writing it.

 

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