Sue Burge reviews ‘Bottle’ by Ramona Herdman

 

 

 

This beautifully judged pamphlet explores the complexities of a personal relationship with British drinking culture and those who inhabit it.  The subject of alcohol for poets is not a new one, and the influence of alcohol on poets has been well-documented, but this slim volume does something refreshingly original with its subject matter.  Herdman introduces us to a cast of diverse characters to explore the ups and downs of alcohol, including the idea that its attraction might run in families.  Her carefully chosen words are non-judgemental.  Empathy, affection and humour bubble under the surface of every poem.

There are so many standout poems it’s tricky to select just a few.  There’s much to enjoy in Yes which contains both sly humour and sexiness, a trademark of Herdman’s poetry.  An off-licence employee is described as ‘not beautiful’, but a tempter all the same with his cheap bottle of pink fizz, ‘so yes, I will run away with you/at least as far/as the bins round the back/with the rest of the bottle.’

She’s not herself is a delicate portrait of an intriguing woman, ‘take her hand and see stars/gather round her head like midges’ exhorts Herdman.  It is lines like this which show Herdman at her most insightful, skilfully drawing us into a more complete understanding of a world full of spontaneity and the crippling highs and lows of dependency.

At the heart of the work are poems which evoke the narrator’s relationship with her alcohol-dependent father, now deceased.  In Drinking Partner, a poignant meditation on loss and absence, a glass of Bells is left out ‘like kids,/I hope, still do for Father Christmas. It makes/the morning smell of you.  This image is so apposite, it still brings a lump to the throat even after many re-readings.  In My Father’s Cough, age brings increased empathy as a bout of bronchitis makes the narrator want to ‘cough my heart up.  I want to get to the bit where I find him/on the garden bench,/tea steaming in weak sun,/the first fag of the day settling his chest.’

 A particularly striking poem is Mes Braves.  Who hasn’t cringed at the sight of groups of young girls heading off clubbing in skimpy clothes on freezing nights?  Herdman turns these thoughts on their head with a praise poem, ‘It’s freezing wet and for you it’s June./You make a mirrorball out of the rain.’

Herdman’s language is clear, striking and effective.  Each word is carefully chosen for maximum impact.  Images are used sparingly, thus packing a stronger punch.  Each line-break is carefully considered to draw the reader through an expertly controlled flow of language.  The varied poetic forms and attention to pacing are a masterclass in how a pamphlet should be put together.  I urge you to read this, to learn more about temptation, love, chance and familial affection and, above all, to join this cast of finely drawn drinkers, albeit temporarily, perhaps even soberly, in their colourful and wholly engaging world.

 

 

Order your copy of Bottle (Happenstance) by Ramona Herdman here: www.happenstancepress.com

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Alan Price Reviews ‘In the Scullery with John Keats’ by Louise Warren

 

 

I’m fortunate to live in Camden and be very close to Keats house in Hampstead. This September I was on holiday in Rome and visited the house where Keats died and also the English cemetery where he’s buried. An image of the young, poor, battered by illness Keats resonates for me in those locations, whilst on Hampstead Heath I conjure up the Cockney poet out for a lively walk.

When I read Louise Warren’s In the Scullery with John Keats I encountered four poems where Keats, flitting round like a mischievous ghost, is re-located to a contemporary North London and Devon. In the book’s title poem, Keats comes into deep focus with the objects in his house. A dead rabbit in the kitchen swings on its hook. Keats startles you by daring the poet to touch it. It swings as “the camera missed a trick”. Then, in the next poem, he’s in the garden and after that the bedroom. At each dislocation, Warren makes you feel the increasing force of his presence. An erotic rolling over in a field of wheat into a Devon sea occurs. Warren’s imagination takes flight and she will “roll beneath him like a pin.” In the last Keats poem, In the Underground with John Keats a train pulls in at Chalk farm tube station. At this “he leant against the mast of a ship / he watched the moon rise up in a slop basin / it was all tales to him and poems.”

What’s so terrific about these Keats poems are their cheekiness, strangeness and subversive antics. It’s as if we where watching an old Ken Russell TV arts drama about a Romantic poet. All that’s missing is a wild music soundtrack. However Louise Warren’s often long rhythmic lines supply their own musical pulse.

“I smelt the heat of his arms the soft dip below his throat”

Even longer musical lines are conveyed in other poems. It’s brilliantly on show in the very moving, Sedgemoor Ward. This poem about a dying man (her father?) observing the hospital ward and the view of the countryside from his window ends on a note of hope.

“We gather our things
Outside the water and light make their strange perpetual motion.”

The elongation of that final line beautifully expresses the continuous flow of life still continuing in the face of an approaching death. It comes back full circle to the water and light mentioned in the poem’s first line. Nature may remain cyclic and indifferent. But not the poet. She has to record our very human act of carrying on.

The Language of Flowers is an eloquent example of how Warren can stretch out a fine lyrical line, only to follow it with words that collar it back to a sensual apprehension of a botanist’s study, when he enters with grass soaking through his boots.

It, a slight weak rain swelling the air to a woollen thickness.
Unlike the air in his study which is proper, as paper is, and the vapour
Of thin soup. An uncoaxed fire. A fear of sweating.”

This causes the poem to abruptly stop. Fear. Sweating. Anxiety is manifest. Then the poem re-commences with an amazing sensual assault.

“Wild Honeysuckle arouses his nostrils, and sharp unmade twigs
Dig into his skin, lift the hair from his scalp, disrobe him.”

Warren’s poems are elegantly paced and tightly worded constructions. Her subject matter is eclectic. A dead poets visitations, the sky at night, the dance of a curtain, country common names, John Tenniel’s drawing of the white rabbit for Lewis Carrols’s Alice, balconies at night and gall wasp samples. These are poems that are equally disconcerting and engaging, tender and prickly; both influenced by fairy tales and nursery rhymes that can morph into menace and sudden darkness. Or humour and tenderness that root out an uncertain light in the dark. Louis Warren has a highly original take on her invented worlds. She’s a demanding poet. That’s a big positive in my book. You have to make the imaginative leap and succumb to her style. Yet the effort proves richly rewarding.

Like her previous book, A Child’s Last Picture Book of the Zoo, the Keats titled pamphlet shows Warren’s continuing strong development. She’s a remarkable writer, not for everyone, but definitely for my taste. A memorably haunting voice in the current poetry scene producing highly individualistic work, that’s very good indeed.

 

 

 
Order your copy of  In the Scullery with John Keats (Cinnamon Press)  by Louise Warren here: www.cinnamonpress.com

 

 

 

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Editor Deborah Alma on the #MeToo Anthology, for International Women’s Day

 

 

#UsTogether

I remember back  in October, listening to some of those many conversations that started up in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations and was surprised to hear male news reporters being genuinely shocked when they asked women politicians, actors and media colleagues if they’d ever experienced anything similar, and being told ‘Of course’ and ‘Yes, many times’ and ‘Every woman’.

It prompted me to ask my women friends to add their name on my Facebook page if they hadn’t experienced any form of sexual harassment in their lives and I was surprised to find that of the 200 women that started to share some of their stories , 2 or 3 were able to say that it had never happened to them. My surprise was not that there were so few, but that there were any at all. I wasn’t even aware of the #MeToo thing happening over on Twitter at that point, but as it turned out, very many women were sharing their stories.

I’m a poet, have edited a couple of poetry anthologies, and many of the women on that thread were fellow poets and I knew that some of them had written about domestic and sexual abuse and it occurred to me to collect some of these stories as a poetry anthology.

It has been quite an extraordinary book from start to finish. I asked for submissions through FB and Twitter and received over 600 poems; some of the poems now in the book I already knew and actively sought out …Sarah Doyle’s #MeToo for example I knew from its appearance in The Morning Star and its being shared tens of thousands of times on Twitter, as well as US poet Emily Sernaker’s poem Now When I Think About Women from Poet’s Respond which was also a social media phenomena.

With almost every submission came a covering letter that was often harrowing to read; stories of rape and domestic abuse, a 17 year old girl already a victim of rape and writing about it, betrayals of trust, and declarations of extreme bravery in the sharing of the work. Many of the e-mails required long back and forth conversations as you might imagine, a hand-holding exercise and tenderness both in the saying yes, but also in the I’m so sorry but for reasons of space, or the book as a whole I can’t accept your poem… I felt the responsibility terribly.  I wanted to put the big arms of the book around each and every poet. This was so so difficult to do. I am so delighted that each poet who was long-listed for the book has been given the opportunity to publish their work courtesy of Vik Bennett of Wild Women Press and they can be found here.

Another remarkable thing has been the extraordinary generosity of other women. My good friend and publisher Nadia Kingsley (while we were swimming) offered to upload it to her publishing software and to give me an ISBN, but in the end she has been there at every step of the way, working so hard getting it right and proudly owning the book as part of her Fair Acre Press. A young artist Jessamy Hawke wanted to donate artwork for the project and her ink drawings head each of the 7 sections. My friend Sandra Salter did all of the artwork for the striking cover which she drew when she was angry!

And the final remarkable thing has been, again through a Facebook group made up from the artists and most of the 80 poets in the book, how everyone there feels so strongly about the book being theirs. It feels to me as though we are a string of paper dolls, stretched out and holding hands as we bravely put our names to our several parts of the whole.

And it is brave. We are often having conversations to support each other as we worry about reading these words in public, worry about our families discovering that there has been rape in our past, worrying what our exes might do or say, or our students, our children…
It has been the most enormous privilege to be part of bringing this book into existence. I hope that it will be received with the tenderness it deserves.

#MeToo- rallying against sexual harrassment- a women’s poetry anthology is available from all good bookshops and online

 

 

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Richard Hawtree reviews ‘Gerry Sweeney’s Mammy’ by Dónall Dempsey

 

 

Image result for Gerry Sweeney"s Mammyby Dónall Dempsey

This is a book of great clarity. Its poems draw strength from the twin securities of family and place before striking out boldly to engage with themes of death and loss. Dónall Dempsey’s new collection deftly shows readers how: ‘[t]he flag of self unfurls / snaps into the lost moment.’ (‘Walking from the Rising Sun to Kildare Town’). This is especially apparent in poems like ‘Follow the Leader’ where the writer’s daughter prompts this unfurling, teaching him not simply to recognise but: ‘to be / the world that she / can see / (half invention / half discovery) …’ Many of Dempsey’s poems take up this ontological challenge, asking us to consider how our being in the world is shaped by complex interaction with close relatives and friends. In short, Gerry Sweeney’s Mammy celebrates our fundamental interconnectedness, the strength of that human chain outlasting the home place or family tree. ‘Journey of a Smile’ finds just such continuity behind each smile in an old photo album:

It pays no attention
to gender

or place or place
in history.

Different people
lay claim to it.

Each generation
borrows it
[…]

This perspective ensures that the elegant poems of personal recollection, found throughout the book, work cumulatively to produce a thoroughly inclusive experience for readers.
But above all else, this is a book that revels in the mysterious power of words, in the conviction that: ‘language is lava // the mind is molten / always flowing’ (‘Hithering and Tithering Waters Of..’). And so a pyroclastic flow from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake occasionally disrupts these texts, enriching their poetic soil with a thunderword ending in ‘[…] TOOHOOHOORDENENTHURNUK!’ (‘How Not To Swear When One Is Swearing’). Indeed, thunder itself is an important unifying device in this collection, a marker of self-discovery that is frequently linked to the poet’s acknowledgment of the human. Early in the collection we read:

Oh what a thing it was
being human.

I, in due course
was an about-to-be

thunderstorm
clumping about the evening
[…]
(‘O Words are Poor Receipts for What Time Hath Stole Away’)

Later, the poem ‘In the Mythology of Foxes’ offers the same semantic pairing in counterpointing an uncle’s shooting of a fox: ‘the fearful thunder // of his gun / had ended everything’ with his nephew’s shocked response: ‘trying to comfort her / with his human tears.’ Many of the poems in Gerry Sweeney’s Mammy seek to recover this humanitas at the heart of things. It is present in the frequent intertextual allusions to Donne, Herbert, Hopkins, and Chaucer. In ‘Till Human Voices Wake Us’ even snow takes part in the search:

the human
tears in its eyes
the snow smiles

snow now
both
inside/outside
[…]

This is a book of great humanity; in ‘Hithering and Tithering Waters Of..’ the poet reads Joyce to his daughter as a bedtime story. Her response will be shared by many readers of this fine volume:

Beside the tickling waters of.
Beside the chuckling waters of.
Beside the laughing waters of.

She loves the music of it all.

 

Richard Hawtree‘s poems have appeared in British and Irish literary magazines including: The Stinging Fly, Banshee, SOUTH, and The Penny Dreadful. He has taught medieval literature at University College Cork and Creative Writing at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, Surrey.

 

Order your copy of Gerry Sweeney’s Mammy by Dónall Dempsey here:    http://www.dempseyandwindle.co.uk/books-by-donall-dempsey.html

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Konstandinos Mahoney reviews ‘Sunshine at the end of the world’ by Chris Hardy

 

 

Sunshine at the end of the world, Chris Hardy’s fine fourth collection, has time hanging over the forty nine assembled poems like the sword of Damocles; but rather than casting a shadow, Hardy’s awareness of the impermanence and fragility of things permeates his work and gives it meaning – through acknowledging the finite, he illuminates the pathos of transience; at the end of Hardy’s world is the liberating light of the Greek islands, not the opaque gloom of Hades.

‘Pulse,’ the first poem in the collection begins at the beginning with a newborn baby, /all there is for you is your/immortal, unopened second/.  From there the poems move backwards and forwards through time and memory, Europe and Asia, human and animal, mining the depth and excavating the span of a life well lived and observed. ‘Deadelus’ looks afresh at the myth through the three classic partitions of time; It is good/ to live in the moment, but what if the moment/ is no good?//Then you must live/in the dark/cluttered labyrinth/of your past,/or the empty balcony/high on a mountain/that you call the future/…. /after all that is what Icarus did -/dive off/into his future./ In, ‘The dustmen laugh at last year’s diary,’  the paradox of non-linear time, reminiscent of Eliot’s Four Quartets, is simply but profoundly explored, /Birds sing before dawn/I was dead before I was born.

There is no superfluous ornamentation in these poems, couplets, tercets, short, clipped lines, Doric not Corinthian, rarely spilling over to a second page. Imagery is fresh, original, arresting, never there just for show, always an integral part of what the poem is saying; the title poem, for example, describes a graveyard where the dead are buried, standing up, /cold, mud-clamped sentries/knee deep in the water table/. The second verse describes a burial at sea, with white flowers sprinkled on the surface looking from below like stars – a fearless and beautiful imagining of one’s own final ritual of departure. In ‘On schedule,’ Hardy uses a deserted airport at night as a metaphor of the heavenly gates, a portal to the other side, Saint Peter as checker of souls replaced by a custom’s officer who waves him on to the other side – a memorable and haunting poem for frequent flyers.

The poems, even the very short ones, are often structured around a narrative, a memory, an event, and it is Hardy’s skill that these poems, though brief and sparse, pack a powerful emotional punch; in, ‘Going for a walk.’, a poem of only sixty words, the pain and guilt of not hastening to a mother’s death bed is conveyed with maximum impact.

Hardy is expert at ending a poem, an elusive skill, for example in ‘Auspices’ and ‘Thread’, and the moving, ‘Catch it up,’ where the poet concludes by telling a child that if he ever catches a little bird in his hands, /the frightened heart/beating beneath your fingers/will make you/let it go, an ending as moving as it is beautiful and true, encapsulating the tender humanity that runs through this poignant collection.

Hardy, a philhellene, brings the crystal light and myth of Greece to many of the poems.  Among the Greek poems is ‘Borderline,’ a vivid evocation of a hillside nunnery; as Edward Lear painted striking watercolour scenes of Ottoman Greece, so Hardy conjures Greece in verse, an atmospheric description of an Orthodox nunnery in its mountain setting above the sea. The poem centres on a minor incident – a tourist being hushed by a nun protective of her sisters’ need for silence; but just as the poem seems to be over, the poet glances down at, /the narrow sea far below/where refugees drown, trying to reach the shore/ – a scene reminiscent of Breughel’s, ‘The Fall of Icarus,’ and Auden’s  ekphrastic poem, a tragedy, a drowning happening at a distance without anyone noticing; in Hardy’s poem, imagined survivors vanish into the ‘dark green, scented forest.’

Hardy’s tender and affecting collection feels like an elegy, a beautiful and accepting celebration of what was, what is and what is to be – a poet writing at the peak of his powers, ‘Sunshine at the end of the world,’ is a highly readable collection of humanity, compassion and wisdom.

 

Sunshine at the end of the world by Chris Hardy is published by Indigo Dreams.  Order your copy here: http://www.indigodreams.co.uk/chris-hardy/4593968553

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Neil Young reviews ‘The Nagasaki Elder’ by Antony Owen

 

 

Antony Owen’s fifth collection, The Nagasaki Elder (V Press), is one of those compelling slim volumes that reminds you what poetry can do when it confronts the big themes of our times – or any times. Those themes don’t get any bigger than war, and its obscene effects on civilians sacrificed on the altar of geopolitical manoeuvres. What marks out Owen’s work as exceptional is the illuminating perspectives he brings to a subject that is already so well travelled, and with such agonising acuity, by poets stretching from Sassoon to Tony Harrison, and – more contemporaneously – Martin Malone.

It is rare now to find a poet so publicly committed to exploring this territory, and those who attempt it often do so in so didactic a manner that the poetry can easily be dismissed; but Owen is too agile a poet for such pitfalls. Each poem urges the reader on to the next, and in doing so he reanimates the micro-worlds of Nagasaki & Hiroshima, in its daily routines, its landscapes and natural environments, so vividly, that the eradication of such a vast and complex realm and its people – within minutes – strains believability.

From the outset, Owen displays a knack for lyrical twist that will be repeated throughout the collection. “On a playground where children vanished into black magic” he opens in ‘The queen of new Hiroshima’, and we are alerted to a world in which the real, the hyper-real and the otherworldly are inseparable. As a scene-setter, this poem could hardly be bettered, going straight for the political jugular as “we see empires/are realms of pot-bellied maggots in human thrones/stacked thirty foot high”. Elsewhere, it is his ability to ‘tell it slant’ – as Emily Dickinson exhorted poets – and hit the reader with an image from an unexpected angle that is most affecting. In ‘The last fare collector of Hiroshima’ “They found her fingers in a jelly of yen/her skin one with the standard issue fare-bag”.

Such graphic descriptions could risk wearying the reader, if overused, but Owen is quick with surprises. Variation of tone, form and movement of theme come together in a mosaic. He can grasp the fantastic – or fantastical – and tender in a breath: “Remember, my sister/we are made of beautiful atoms/ up there in the doll-eyed darkness”. And he has an unerring eye for reminding us that the past – especially this past – is contemporary, or, as Louis MacNeice put it “the future is the bride of what has been”. Owen moves seamlessly from harrowing, but often beautiful, evocations of Nagasaki and its people to the Luftwaffe bombing of home city of Coventry, and in doing so parallels the atrocities unleashed on civilian populations. In ‘Koventrieren’, he summons a word introduced to the German language to mean ‘to completely destroy a city from the air’, and honours his subject with memorably heart-rending lines: “If only you had laid him three yards to the left/you would both be arm in arm down High Street now”.

This sequence of poems is more than elegy, though. ‘A park near Chernobyl’, ‘Collateral damage’ and ‘Before the new bombs fall’ bring us up to date with the toxic extremities created very often, not by remote regimes, but elected western governments. We need only remind ourselves that not a few months ago our current Prime Minister Theresa May was cheered for boasting that yes, she would push the nuclear button, while her rival, Jeremy Corbyn, was decried for insisting the opposite.

When such a perverse, dehumanised version of public discourse becomes not only tolerable but the norm, we need all the dissenting, eloquent voices for humanity that we can get. Owen is at the forefront – a poet who, admirably, balks at the personalised meanderings of poets with little to say beyond their own orbits. Rather, he has immersed himself in the tough mental and emotional toil of getting to know Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and its people. He writes universally, but with an insider’s eye. In doing so, he has written a collection that is both timely and timeless.

 

 

 

 

The Nagasaki Elder by Antony Owen (V Press, £9.99)is available here: vpresspoetry

Neil Young  is co-founder of The Poets’ Republic magazine. His publications include the chapbooks: Lagan Voices, The Parting Glass – fourteen sonnets, and Jimmy Cagney’s Long-Lost Kid Half-Brother.

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Claire Booker reviews ‘Mahler’s Hut & Other Accommodations’ by Alan Price

Image result for ‘Mahler’s Hut & Other Accommodations’ by Alan Price

 

 
Which of us hasn’t yearned for an artist’s hut – that womb like space in which to delve for truths? Gustav Mahler’s little chalet in the Vienna Woods peeps out from between fir trees on the cover of Alan Price’s newest pamphlet. Mahler himself emerges from this sequence of poems as a wounded creator, an épateur of the Viennese bourgeoisie, a man of clay (and hemorrhoids), a traveller into the land of the dead.
“You foolishly entered the summer hut/ to write music you imagined was pure./ Such discipline working the long musical line.”
Price understands how, for the creative artist, life is a struggle between vision and execution. His finely worked poems attempt to fathom the creative impulse. In ‘By the Forest’s Eye’, he depicts the uneasy symbiosis of nature and art through the medium of the great god Pan, who observes Mahler at work on his 3rd Symphony:
“I’ve listened to your tones. Now hear what nature/ tells me. Bird, animal, insect, flower, tree march/ to my soul, ascend the ladder. You were created/ in the last hatch of my brain. You’ve seen the origin of the chain. If you climb up I’ll count the parts./ Sometimes a limb, petal, wing is broken. All flaws/ hurt my generative eye.”
There is a touching poem about infant mortality (Mahler lost five brothers) containing the exquisite lines: “The pips of those lost hearts/ planted in music of tempting fruit./ God’s bells chiming for the falling apples./ The voice of the orchard angel praising/ your orchestration.”
Each of the Mahler sequence of poems relates to an individual symphony. In ‘Felling of the Tree’, Price brings life and musical composition into powerful resonance. Mahler’s triple loss of his young daughter, his position at the Opera House and his health found their way into his Symphony no 6: 
“A propulsion of every right note to the right disaster./ A ‘love of fate’ imagining five hammer blows./ An ear for structure and sanity reducing them to three. . . ./ Falling like an axe with a Mahler cry.”
Price makes connections seemingly effortlessly: “The black sky pours down/ its hoard of grotesquery” on the lake “as Mahler insanely rows.”  “Goethe keeps shouting/ the eternal feminine.” “The darkness falling when abandoned/ The giddy way you waltz to the ditch.” He is like an artist applying layer after layer of brush work to build up tone and texture. He is not averse to sly wit either. In ‘Requiem for an Atheist’, the profligate Berlioz demands twenty cymbals for his orchestra:
“Far too expensive for a requiem,/cried The Ministry for the Interior./ At its premiere only six were used,/ the minister counted them.”
The second, shorter section, of Mahler’s Hut, is an eclectic mix of stand-alone poems. The three most affecting are prose poems. In ‘The Work’, a female librarian’s life has been fragile: “The nose-bleeds, the ridiculed red hair, mutterings of shame/ about her size, the school attacks and her hard-won pride.”   The Cure’ cleverly fits form to content in a thumb-nail sketch of a stutterer. Most powerful of all, ‘The Dignity’ visits the territory of social class and aspiration, where the poet remembers a friend who has died of asbestosis:
“You are gone/ my beautiful maker of doors. Sometimes I can see you walking/ with that shoulder bag, your eyes alive to unconditional honour.”
Price’s poetry is erudite, but he wears his research lightly. His technical skills, which are impressive, only augment the humanity at the core of his search for truth. Price’s deft juxtaposition of the demotic and the mythic, the musical and the prosaic makes for a thrilling read. Mahler’s Hut will appeal to anyone who finds interesting questions more satisfying than easy answers.
 
 
Claire Booker’s debut poetry pamphlet Later there will be Postcards is published by Green Bottle Press (www.greenbottlepress.com/our-books). Her poems have appeared in Ambit, Magma, Poetry News, The Rialto and the Spectator among others. More information at www.bookerplays.co.uk
You can order your copy of  Mahler’s Hut & Other Accommodations by Alan Price ( Original Plus) – price £3.60 here: http://thesamsmith.webs.com/originalpluschapbooks.htm#971222028

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