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1. The Grand Budapest Hotel and the mental capacity to make a will

Picture this. A legendary hotel concierge and serial womaniser seduces a rich, elderly widow who regularly stays in the hotel where he works. Just before her death, she has a new will prepared and leaves her vast fortune to him rather than her family.

For a regular member of the public, these events could send alarm bells ringing. “She can’t have known what she was doing!” or “What a low life for preying on the old and vulnerable!” These are some of the more printable common reactions. However, for cinema audiences watching last year’s box office smash, The Grand Budapest Hotel directed by Wes Anderson, they may have laughed, even cheered, when it was Tilda Swinton (as Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis) leaving her estate to Ralph Fiennes (as Monsieur Gustave H) rather than her miffed relatives. Thus the rich, old lady disinherits her bizarre clan in what recently became 2015’s most BAFTA-awarded film, and is still up for nine Academy Awards in next week’s Oscars ceremony.

Wills have always provided the public with endless fascination, and are often the subject of great books and dramas. From Bleak House and The Quincunx to Melvin and Howard and The Grand Budapest Hotel, wills are often seen as fantastic plot devices that create difficulties for the protagonists. For a large part of the twentieth century, wills and the lives of dissolute heirs have been regular topics for Sunday journalism. The controversy around the estate of American actress and model, Anna Nicole Smith, is one such case that has since been turned into an opera, and there is little sign that interest in wills and testaments will diminish in the entertainment world in the coming years.

“[The Vegetarian Society v Scott] is probably the only case around testamentary capacity where the testator’s liking for a cooked breakfast has been offered as evidence against the validity of his will.”

Aside from the drama depicted around wills in films, books, and stage shows, there is also the drama of wills in real life. There are two sides to every story with disputed wills and the bitter, protracted, and expensive arguments that are generated often tear families apart. While in The Grand Budapest Hotel the family attempted to solve the battle by setting out to kill Gustave H, this is not an option families usually turn to (although undoubtedly many families have thought about it!).

Usually, the disappointed family members will claim that either the ‘seducer’ forced the relative into making the will, or the elderly relative lacked the mental capacity to make a will; this is known as ‘testamentary capacity’. Both these issues are highly technical legal areas, which are resolved dispassionately by judges trying to escape the vehemence and passion of the protagonists. Regrettably, these arguments are becoming far more common as the population ages and the incidence of dementia increases.

Wes Anderson, director of The Grand Budapest Hotel. By Popperipopp. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Wes Anderson, director of The Grand Budapest Hotel. By Popperipopp. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The diagnosis of mental illness is now far more advanced and nuanced than it was when courts were grappling with such issues in the nineteenth century. While the leading authority on testamentary capacity still dates from a three-part test laid out in the 1870 Banks v Goodfellow case, it is still a common law decision, and modern judges can (and do) adapt it to meet advancing medical views.

This can be seen in one particular case, The Vegetarian Society v Scott, in which modern diagnosis provided assistance when a question arose in relation to a chronic schizophrenic with logical thought disorder. He left his estate to The Vegetarian Society as opposed to his sister or nephews, for whom he had a known dislike. There was evidence provided by the solicitor who wrote the will that the deceased was capable of logical thought for some goal-directed activities, since the latter was able to instruct the former on his wishes. It was curious however that the individual should have left his estate to The Vegetarian Society, as he was in fact a meat eater. However unusual his choice of heir, the deceased’s carnivorous tendencies were not viewed as relevant to the issues raised in the court case.

As the judge put it, “The sanity or otherwise of the bequest turns not on [the testator’s] for food such as sausages, a full English breakfast or a traditional roast turkey at Christmas; nor does it turn on the fact that he was schizophrenic with severe thought disorder. It really turns on the rationality or otherwise of his instructions for his wills set in the context of his family relations and other relations at various times.”

This is probably the only case around testamentary capacity where the testator’s liking for a cooked breakfast has been offered as evidence against the validity of his will.

For lawyers, The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis is potentially a great client. Wealth, prestige, and large fees for the will are then followed by even bigger fees in the litigation. If we are to follow the advice of the judge overseeing The Vegetarian Society v Scott, Gustave H would have inherited all of Madame Céline’s money if she was seen to be wholly rational when making her will.

Will disputes will always remain unappealing and traumatic to the family members involved. However, as The Grand Budapest Hotel has shown us, they still hold a strong appeal for cinema audiences and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Feature image: Reflexiones by Serge Saint. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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2. Sospiri’s Jenny Forsyth on voice and song

Throughout the month, we’ve been examining the myriad aspects of the human voice. But who better to discuss it than a singer herself? We asked Jenny Forsyth, member of the Sospiri choir in Oxford, what it takes to be part of a successful choir.

Which vocal part do you sing in the choir?

I sing soprano – usually first soprano if the parts split, but I’ll sing second if I need to.

For how long have you been singing?

I started singing in the training choir of the Farnham Youth Choir, in Surrey, when I was seven. Then I moved up through the junior choir when I was about 10 years old and then auditioned and moved up to the main performance choir at the age of 12 and stayed with them until I was 18. After this I studied for a Bachelors in Music, then did a Masters degree in Choral Studies (Conducting).

What first made you want to join a choir?

I had recently started having piano lessons and my dad, a musician himself, thought it would be good for my musical education to join a choir. We went to a concert given by the Farnham Youth Choir and after that I was hooked!

What is your favourite piece or song to perform?

That’s a really difficult question – there is so much great music around! I enjoy singing Renaissance music so I might choose Taverner’s Dum Transsiset. I also love Byrd’s Ne Irascaris Domine and Bogoroditse Devo from Rachmaninoff’s Vespers.

I also sing with an ensemble called the Lacock Scholars, and we sing a lot of plainsong chant, a lot of which is just so beautiful. Reading from historical notation – neumes – can give you so much musical information through such simple notation; it’s really exciting!

I’ve recently recorded an album of new commissions for the centenary of World War I with a choir from Oxford called Sospiri, directed by Chris Watson. The disk is called A Multitude of Voices and all the commissions are settings of war poems and texts. The composers were asked to look outside the poetical canon and consider texts by women, neglected poets and writers in languages other than English. I love all the music on the disk and it’s a thrilling feeling to be the first choir ever to sing a work. I really love Standing as I do before God by Cecilia McDowall and Three Songs of Remembrance by David Bednall. Two completely different works but both incredibly moving to perform.

However I think my all-time favourite has to be Las Amarillas by Stephen Hatfield – an arrangement of Mexican playground songs. It’s in Spanish and has some complicated cross rhythms, clapping, and other body percussion. It’s a hard piece to learn but when it comes together it just clicks into place and is one of the most rewarding pieces of music!

blog pics 2
Photo by Jenny Forsyth

How do you keep your voice in peak condition?

These are the five things I find really help me. (Though a busy schedule means the early nights are often a little elusive!)

  1. Keeping hydrated. It is vital to drink enough water to keep your whole system hydrated (ie., the internal hydration of the entire body that keeps the skin, eyes, and all other mucosal tissue healthy), and to make sure the vocal chords themselves are hydrated. When you drink water the water doesn’t actually touch the vocal chords so I find the best way to keep them hydrated is to steam, either over a bowl of hot water or with a purpose-built steam inhaler. The topical, or surface, hydration is the moisture level that keeps the epithelial surface of the vocal folds slippery enough to vibrate. Steaming is incredibly good for a tired voice!
  2. I’m not sure what the science behind this is but I find eating an apple just before I sing makes my voice feel more flexible and resonant.
  3. Hot drinks. A warm tea or coffee helps to relax my voice when it’s feeling a bit tired.
  4. Regular singing lessons. Having regular singing lessons with a teacher who is up to date on research into singing techniques is crucial to keeping your voice in peak condition. Often you won’t notice the development of bad habits, which could potentially be damaging to your voice, but your singing teacher will be able to correct you and keep you in check.
  5. Keeping physically fit and getting early nights. Singing is a really physical activity. When you’ve been working hard in a rehearsal or lesson you can end up feeling physically exhausted. Even though singers usually make singing look easy, there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes with lots of different sets of muscles working incredibly hard to support their sound. It’s essential to keep your body fit and well-rested to allow you to create the music you want to without damaging your voice.

Do you play any other musical instruments?

When I was younger I played the piano, flute and violin but I had to give up piano and flute as I didn’t have enough time to do enough practice to make my lessons worthwhile. I continued playing violin and took up viola in my gap year and then at university studied violin as my first study instrument for my first two years before swapping to voice in my final year.

Do you have a favourite place to perform?

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel all around the world with the Farnham Youth Choir, with tours around Europe and trips to both China and Australia. So, even before I decided to take my singing more seriously, I had had the chance to sing in some of the best venues in the world. It’s hard to choose a favourite as some venues lend themselves better to certain types of repertoire. Anywhere with a nice acoustic where you can hear both what you are singing and what others around you are singing is lovely. It can be very disconcerting to feel as though you’re singing completely by yourself when you know you’re in a choir of 20! I’m currently doing a lot of singing with the Lacock Scholars at Saint Cuthbert’s Church, Earl’s Court, so I think that’s my favourite at the moment. Having said that, I would absolutely love to sing at the building where I work as a music administrator – Westminster Cathedral! It’s got the most glorious acoustics and is absolutely stunning.

What is the most rewarding thing about being in a choir?

There are so many great things about singing in a choir. You get a sense of working as part of a team, which you rarely get to the same extent outside of choral singing. I think this is because your voice is so personal to you can find yourself feeling quite vulnerable. I sometimes think that to sing well you have to take that vulnerability and use it; to really put yourself ‘out there’ to give the music a sense of vitality. You have to really trust your fellow singers. You have to know that when you come in on a loud entry (or a quiet one, for that matter!) that you won’t be left high and dry singing on your own.

What’s the most challenging thing about singing in a choir?

I think this is similar to the things that are rewarding about being part of a choir. That sense of vulnerability can be unnerving and can sow seeds of doubt in your mind. “Do I sound ok? Is the audience enjoying the performance? Was that what the conductor wanted?” But you have to put some of these thoughts out of your mind and focus on the job in hand. If you’ve been rehearsing the repertoire for a long time you can sometimes find your mind wandering, and then you’re singing on autopilot. So it can be a challenge to keep trying to find new and interesting things in the music itself.

Also, personality differences between members of the choir or singers and conductors can cause friction. It’s important to strike the right balance so that everyone’s time is used effectively. The dynamic between a conductor and their choir is important in creating a finely tuned machine, and it is different with each conductor and each choir. Sometimes in a small ensemble a “Choirocracy” can work with the singers being able to give opinions but it can make rehearsals tedious and in a choral society of over a hundred singers it would be a nightmare.

Do you have any advice for someone thinking about joining a choir?

Do it! I think singing in a choir as I grew up really helped my confidence; I used to be very shy but the responsibility my youth choir gave me really brought me out of myself. You get a great feeling of achievement when singing in a choir. I don’t think that changes whether you’re an amateur singing for fun or in a church choir once a week or whether you’re a professional doing it to make a living. I’ve recently spent time working with an “Office Choir”. All of the members work in the same building for large banking corporation, and they meet up once a week for a rehearsal and perform a couple of concerts a year. It’s great because people who wouldn’t usually talk to each other are engaging over a common interest. So it doesn’t matter whether you’re a CEO, secretary, manager, or an intern; you’re all in the same boat when learning a new piece of music! They all say the same thing: they look forward to Wednesdays now because of their lunchtime rehearsals, and they find themselves feeling a lot more invigorated when they return to their desks afterwards.

Lastly, singing in a choir is a great way to make new friends. Some of my closest friends are people I met at choir aged 7!

Header image credit: St John’s College Chapel by Ed Webster, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

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3. Why must we pay attention to the law of pension trusts?

Little has been written on the subject of pension trusts, and the ways in which pension laws and trust laws interact. As academic subjects, many issues such as the purpose of a pension trust, employer duties, and the duties of directors of trustee companies, have long been under-represented. However, pension trust law is a technical area that requires more attention, and is also considered to be an exciting area of law that has been ignored in academia for too long. Author of The Law of Pension Trusts, David Pollard, explains why he decided to fill this gap and what issues he felt needed to be tackled in the law of pension trusts:

David goes on to explain why he finds pension trust law so interesting, and what the most significant pension cases were in the past 12 months. He also predicts how pension schemes might change and develop in the future:

Do you agree with David about how pension schemes might change in the future? Write your responses in the comments below.

Feature image credit: Minhas Economias, My Savings by Jeff Belmonte. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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4. jampire attack on oxford's story museum!

I spent a lot of time with these little dudes: Jampire, whom I really ought to name, but who is still 'Jampire', and the Iron Bear, who is probably made of bronze and is really named Paddington, but I just like calling him the Iron Bear. Anyway, I spend a lot of time at Paddington station. And today I was Oxford-bound!

It's quite fun travelling in full costume, it makes so many people's faces light up. Also, I tried travelling with my Bakewell Tart hat in a bag last time and the cherry came off the top, so it's safer just to carry it on my head, all the way to Oxford's Story Museum. Which is where my co-author David O'Connell and I did our Jampires show!

Huge thanks to everyone who came along and drew with us! I'm lucky, both of my current co-authors can draw, so we can do fun drawing double acts. We taught everyone how to draw a Jampire, but then went on to create other beasties. (Mine here is a Sushipire and Dave's drawing a Ricepuddingpire.)

Photo tweeted by @DragonDentist John McLay

Oh, I must include the lovely poster Dave drew for our event. He gave me such excellent pointy feet.

Here are a few more drawings from the day! If you came along and want to do more activities, you can find them on our jampires.com website. Here's @helen_geekmum:

Tweeted by @McgrattanRj Rebecca McGrattan

We even sang our brand-new Jampires song, and got everyone to join in the jammy chorus! (Thanks for your help putting that together earlier this week, Philip Reeve!) I was nervous about forgetting the lyrics, and writer Holly Smale offered to come on stage again and help me. (The last time she did it was for my Shark song at the Hay Festival.) She didn't actually turn up, but she was well represented upstairs in a Narnian wood, dressed as the White Witch. (The best of the costumes in the 26 Characters exhibition, I think.)

And our Jampires jam-maker came along!

Here's Emma Preston-Dunlop from The Butch Institute here with her assistant. (Emma has just spotted a Jampire lurking in her jam, oh no!)

I came home with a jar of her Cherry Bakewell with Amaretto syrup and Almonds jam and must confess that already a shameful amount of it has been eaten. Uh... by the Jampires, yeah.

Emma gave a great demonstration about how to make jam, using very basic kitchen equipment, and everyone got to have a good sniff of the bubbling raspberry mix.

Bramble tats, that Emma is DEDICATED to jam, a proper Jampire.

When I arrived, Dave was still leading his comics workshop for older kids, and I caught the tail end of him signing his Monster and Chips books.

A fabulous day, thanks so much for hosting, Tom Donegan and the Story Museum!

Photo tweeted by @DragonDentist John McLay

Bye bye, Oxford! See you next time!

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5. Battels and subfusc: the language of Oxford

Now that Noughth Week has come to an end and the university Full Term is upon us, I thought it might be an appropriate time to investigate the arcane world of Oxford jargon — the University of Oxford, that is. New students, or freshers, do not arrive in Oxford but come up; at the end of term they go down (irrespective of where they live). If they misbehave they may find themselves being sent down by the proctors (a variant of the legal procurator), or — for less heinous crimes — merely rusticated, a form of suspension which, etymologically at least, involves being sent to the countryside (Latin rusticus). The formal beginning of a degree is known as matriculation, a ceremony held in the Sheldonian Theatre, in which membership of the university is conferred by being having one’s name entered on the register, or matricula.

Tutors, fellows, and readers

Being a student of the university involves membership of one of the colleges or private halls; despite their names, St Edmund (Teddy) Hall and Lady Margaret Hall are actually colleges; Regent’s Park College is neither a college nor a park. Christ Church should be referred to simply as Christ Church, rather than Christ Church College, although it is also known as ‘the House’. Magdalen is pronounced ‘maudlin’ and should never be confused with another college of the same name at Cambridge University (affectionately known as ‘The Other Place’, originally a euphemism for hell), which is pronounced the same but spelled Magdalene.

Oxford students in subfusc at 2003 Matriculation in the Sheldonian Theatre. CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Each college has a head of house, referred to by a variety of terms: Principal, President, Dean, Master, Provost, Rector, or Warden. Teaching in college takes the form of tutorials (or tutes), overseen by Colleges tutors (from a Latin word for ‘protector’); the earliest tutors were responsible for a student’s general welfare — a post now known as moral tutor. Colleges are governed by a body of fellows (students at Christ Church), or dons, from Latin dominus ‘master’. The title reader, a medieval term for a teacher used to refer to a lecturer below the rank of professor, has recently been retired at Oxford in favour of the American title associate professor.

Mods and battels

At Oxford, students read rather than study a subject, a usage which goes back to the Middle Ages. Final examinations were originally known as Greats; this term is now used only of the degree of Literae Humaniores (‘more humane letters’) — Classics to everyone else. No longer in use is the equivalent term Smalls for the first year exams; these are now known as Moderations (or Mods) in the Humanities, or Preliminaries (or Prelims) in the Sciences. Sadly, the slang equivalents great go and little go have now fallen out of use. University examinations are sat in Schools, a forbidding edifice on the High Street (or ‘the High’) which gets its name from its original use for holding scholastic disputations. Students are required to wear formal academic dress to sit exams; this is known as subfusc, from Latin subfuscus ‘somewhat dark’.

College exams, rather less formal affairs, are known today as collections, from Latin collectiones, ‘gathering together’, so-called because they occurred at the end of term when fees were due for collection. Confusingly, the term collection is also used to refer to the end-of-term meeting where a progress report is read by a student’s tutor in the presence of the master of the college. As well as fees, students must pay their battels, a bill for food purchased from the College buttery — originally a wine store, from Latin butta ‘cask’, but now extended to include a range of student delicacies.

Lecturers dusting off their notes and preparing for the new term, for whom such usages are second-nature, may benefit from the salutary lesson of the wall-lecture –a term coined by their 17th-century forbears for a lecture delivered to an empty room. The term may be obsolete, but the prospect remains all too real.

A version of this blog post first appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Heading image: New College Oxford chapel by Olaf Davis. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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6. The Great War letters of an Oxford family

The First World War has survived as part of our national memory in a way no previous war has ever done. Below is an extract from Full of Hope and Fear: The Great War Letters of an Oxford Family, a collection of letters which lay untouched for almost ninety years. They allow a unique glimpse into the war as experienced by one family at the time, transporting us back to an era which is now slipping tantalizingly out of living memory. The Slaters – the family at the heart of these letters – lived in Oxford, and afford a first-hand account of the war on the Home Front, on the Western Front, and in British India. Violet and Gilbert’s eldest son Owen, a schoolboy in 1914, was fighting in France by war’s end.

Violet to Gilbert, [mid-October 1917]

I am sorry to only write a few miserable words. Yesterday I had a truly dreadful headache which lasted longer than usual but today I am much better . . . I heard from Katie Barnes that their Leonard has been very dangerously wounded they are terribly anxious. But are not allowed to go to him. Poor things it is ghastly and cruel, and then you read of the ‘Peace Offensive’ articles in the New Statesman by men who seem to have no heart or imagination. I cannot understand it . . . You yourself said in a letter to Owen last time that [the Germans] had been driven back across the Aisne ‘We hope with great loss.’ Think what it means in agony and pain to the poor soldiers and agony and pain to the poor Mothers or Wives. It is useless to pretend it could not be prevented! We have never tried any other way . . . No other way but cruel war is left untried. I suppose that there will be a time when a more advanced human being will be evolved and we have learnt not to behave in this spirit individually towards each other. If we kept knives & pistols & clubs perhaps we should still use them. Yesterday Pat & I went blackberrying and then I went alone to Yarnton . . . the only ripe ones were up high so I valiantly mounted the hedges regardless of scratching as if I were 12 & I got nice ones. Then I went to the Food Control counter & at last got 5 lbs. of sugar . . . It was quite a victory we have to contend with this sort of sport & victory consists in contending with obstacles.

Gilbert to Owen, [9 February 1918]

I have been so glad to get your two letters of Dec. 7th & 18th and to hear of your success in passing the chemistry; and also that you got the extension of time & to know where you are . . . I am looking forward to your letters which I hope will make me realise how you are living. Well, my dear boy, I am thinking of you continually, and hoping for your happiness and welfare. I have some hope that your course may be longer than the 4 months. I fear now there is small chance of peace before there has been bitter fighting on the west front, and little chance of peace before you are on active service. I wonder what your feelings are. I don’t think I ever funked death for its own sake, though I do on other accounts, the missing a finish of my work, and the possible pain, and, very much more than these, the results to my wife & bairns. I don’t know whether at your age I should have felt that I was losing much in the enjoyment of life, not as much as I hope you do. I fear you will have to go into peril of wounds, disease and death, yet perhaps the greater chance is that you will escape all three actually; and, I hope, when you have come through, you will feel that you are not sorry to have played your part.

Second Lieutenant Owen Slater ready for service in France

Second Lieutenant Owen Slater ready for service in France. Photo courtesy of Margaret Bonfiglioli. Do not reproduce without permission.

Owen to Mrs Grafflin, [3 November 1918]

This is just a very short note to thank you for the knitted helmet that Mother sent me from you some time ago. It is very comfortable & most useful as I wear it under my tin hat, a shrapnel helmet which is very large for me & it makes it a beautiful fit.

We are now out at rest & have been out of the line for several days & have been having quite a good time though we have not had any football matches & the whole company is feeling rather cut up because our O.C. [Officer Commanding] has died of wounds. He was an excellent [word indecipherable] father to his men & officers.

Margaret Bonfiglioli was born in Oxford, where she also read English. Tutoring literature at many levels led to her involvement in innovative access courses, all while raising five children. In 2008 she began to re-discover the hoard of family letters that form the basis of Full of Hope and Fear. Her father, Owen Slater, is one of the central correspondents. After eleven years tutoring history in the University of Oxford, James Munson began researching and writing full-time. In 1985 he edited Echoes of the Great War, the diary of the First World War kept by the Revd. Andrew Clark. He also wrote some 50 historical documentaries for the BBC.

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7. which storybook world would YOU want to visit?

Welcome to worlds of story and magic...

Photo by Cambridge Jones

...right in the heart of Oxford! I haven't been able to show off these pictures up to now, but they've just been released, so hurrah!

My Oliver and the Seawigs co-author Philip Reeve and I toured The Story Museum while the crew were in the midst of setting up their new exhibition, 26 Characters, and we wrote an article for Inis about it! I LOVE Inis (pronounced 'Ih-nish'), the super-stylish magazine published by Children's Books Ireland. Check out the lovely cover by Chris Haughton of this latest issue:

Photo tweeted by Kim Harte

You'll need to read the article for more of our impressions about the exhibition, but the gist of it was that 26 authors were asked to pick a character from their favourite childhood book. Then The Story Museum helped them dress up as the character for portraits by photographer Cambridge Jones, and created a whole room in the museum that makes you, the visitor, feel like you're stepping into the world of that book. It's very impressive! Here's Neil Gaiman as Badger from The Wind in the Willows:

Photo by Cambridge Jones

And Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman as the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz!

Photo by Cambridge Jones

Don't miss Geek Girl writer Holly Smale as The White Witch of Narnia...

Photo by Cambridge Jones (collaged from three photos by me)

And Francesca Simon as the Alice in Wonderland Queen of Hearts! (That's Story Museum co-director Kim Pickin, in the back, who led us on our tour.)

While we were exploring, we ran into Ted Dewan, who was busy assembling a complicated jumble of cogs and whirlygigs...

Photo by Cambridge Jones

And the exhibition's not all, The Story Museum houses remarkable treasures such as the Rochester Storyloom, operated here by Philip, when we returned with Ted and Philip Ardagh, late at night.

Be sure to check out the latest issue of Inis and preview past issues of the magazine here on the website. Of course, don't miss 26 Characters at the Story Museum, running from 5 April - 2 November this year.

Photo of Inis magazine tweeted by Kim Harte

Follow Inis on Twitter - @inismag - The Story Museum - @TheStoryMuseum - Cambridge Jones - @cambridgejones - and Philip Reeve - @philipreeve1.

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8. 26 Characters Exhibit at Oxford's Story Museum

Last week I traveled to London and Oxford with my husband on a combined business/sightseeing trip. In Oxford I was busy doing research for an upcoming book, but I squeezed in a visit to a brand new Story Museum exhibit that I'd read about at Monica Edinger's excellent blog Educating Alice. The exhibit's curators asked a number of authors and performers (the majority will be more familiar to the British than those of us who reside on the other side of the pond) to pick their favorite childhood literary character. The chosen ones were then invited to dress up as their character and be photographed by Cambridge Jones in their new duds. Each story character was given his/her designated space or room that features the photograph as well as other props. Many include sounds that heighten the experience (the wind howls in the Mary Poppins room, for instance) or recordings of the authors and performers reading a story or being interviewed about their characters. The exhibit takes up the whole of the museum and is set up like a treasure hunt. Visitors search out all 26 characters and check them off. A completed list earns the museumgoer a prize, redeemable at the museum shop across the way.

The day I visited I was the only adult sans child, and I felt a bit conspicuous as I stalked the building clicking away with my camera. While I can't list all there was to see, here are some of my favorites. As for choosing my own childhood literary character, I have to go with Peter Pan (also chosen by author Cressida Cowell). My absolute favorite exhibit space, though, was the one dedicated to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Holly Smale selected Jadis, the White Witch as her character. To enter, you open an unmarked wardrobe and push past a row of fur coats. Then you're inside a magical darklit room dominated by a huge sled and a life-size photo of Smale dressed as the White Witch. Goosebumps will follow, I promise.

The entrance to the exhibit opens with a tower of cards referencing Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

Another section features an assortment of costumes to dress up in.

And, once clad, a throne to sit on.

Neil Gaiman chose Badger from The Wind and the Willows as his favorite character.

Katherine Rundell picked Max from Where the Wild Things Are.

Here's Katrice Horsley sailing through the sky dressed as Mary Poppins.

Another childhood hero of mine--the Wicked Witch of the West, as portrayed by Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman.

The exhibit remains open until November so if you find yourself in the neighborhood, it is well worth a visit. And if a trip to Oxford isn't in the cards, why not dress up as your own childhood story hero? I'm getting out my green tights right now.

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9. The Oxford Comment Archive

What’s The Oxford Comment?

In Spring 2010, Michelle Rafferty and Lauren Appelwick (you can read their bios here) decided it was time Oxford University Press got a podcast, and by September, The Oxford Comment was born. Reporting at special events, live on the street, and from the “studio,” each episode features commentary from Oxford authors and friends of the Press.

How can I hear more of that super groovy background music?

Most of the music you hear is by The Ben Daniels Band. You can check them out here.

How can I get ya’ll on my iPod, or Zune, or whatever?

Pretty easy, just subscribe on iTunes.

The Oxford Comment podcastography

Episode 6: BEAUTY!

February 3, 2010
What IS beauty anyway?

- “The Icon” – Duane Roller discusses the ongoing influence of Cleopatra’s beauty (although we don’t really know what she looked like!)
- “The Beauty Bias” – Deborah Rhode discusses the pervasiveness of appearance discrimination.
- “The Fat-o-sphere” – Margitte Kristjansson and Jessica Jarchow talk body politics, “headless fatties,” s-heroes, and Glee!
- “The Safety Pin” – Fashionistas at FIT discuss whether or not clothing makes you beautiful.

Episode 4.5: RELIGION! (Part 2)

January 13, 2011
Part 2 of this series looks at the ongoing debate between science and religion.

- “Why are Unicorns Hollow?” – Steve Paulson, Executive Producer of NPR’s To the Best of Our Knowledge, shares clips of interviews with famed atheist Richard Dawkins and chimpanzee advocate Jane Goodall.

Episode 5: CAB CALLOWAY!

December 21, 2010
Happy Birthday to the jazz legend who would be turning 103 this December 25th.

- “Hi-De-Ho” – BBC Producer Alyn Shipton on the pioneering ways of Cab Calloway.
- “Trickeration” – Vince Giordano plays the bandleader at Babette’s nightclub on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Michelle pays a visit to the real nightclub where Giordano keeps the music of the Jazz Age alive.

Episode 4: RELIGION! (PART 1)<

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10. Why the President Got Sexified

By Michelle Rafferty

When did the commander-in-chief become a sex icon? That was the question I decided to pursue this Presidents’ Day. And of course the more people I spoke with, the more complex the question became. By the end of the investigation I learned some Americans continue to preserve a “pure” image of presidents past, while many find their sex lives highly relevant to our political history. Check out the slideshow below to see exactly what Oxford’s presidential experts had to say!

(To see a full image, click on the center of each slide.)

11. Dispatch from Tokyo

By Michelle Rafferty

Last week we received a message from Miki Matoba, Director of Global Academic Business at OUP Tokyo, confirming that her staff is safe and well. This was a relief to hear, and also a reminder that although many of us are tied to the people of Japan in some way, our perspective of the human impact is relatively small.  So I asked Miki if she wouldn’t mind sharing some of her experiences, and she kindly agreed. When she responded to my questions she wrote: “Hope my answers reflect a part of how we view the incidents as Japanese.”

1.) Where were you, and what were your thoughts as the earthquake hit?

I was in a meeting room with a visitor from OUP Oxford and my staff having a meeting when the earthquake started. You may find this weird but we all are very much living with earthquakes from a young age. So little shakes here and there are just a part of our lives. But not the one we had last Friday as that was the biggest one in some hundreds of years. What I normally think when earthquakes start is when shall I get up to secure the exit and go under the desk. Most of the time, you do not have to do either as it does not last long. But not this time. As the building started to shake for a while I opened the door of the meeting room thinking that this is a big one but should stop soon. But it did not. So we put ourselves under the table hoping for the shaking to cease. When it did not, I thought then that this is a serious one and something really severe will happen as a result.

Then we saw some white stuff coming down in the office (it was not fire – just some dust coming down from the ceiling) and someone shouted that we should leave NOW. So we did. I did not take anything. Just myself and those who were meeting with me, running down from 8th floor to the ground. Even when we were running down the stairs, it was still shaking. After a while, we went back to the office to get things as the decision was made very quickly to close the office for that day. Almost everything on my desk had either fallen over or was on the floor, and it was still shaking.

2.) Was anyone prepared?

Yes and no. As Japanese, we all are prepared for earthquakes but not for something of this size and the aftermath of it.

3.) How do you continue to manage your group at such a difficult time? Is it possible to work?

Try to communicate well. We email and also have set up an internal Twitter account that we tweet to, including who will go into the office and what they are doing as we are still mainly working from home. The situation is still very unsettling making it difficult to concentrate on work (power rationing, aftershocks and the nuclear power plant situation) but we try to process day-to-day things as usual.

4.) How would you describe the city right now (the business activity, the state of mind)?

Interesting question. I think Tokyo is normally one of the most vibrant cities in the world. Now the city is very quiet compared to normal. The weather has been clear and nice after Friday so it feels odd to be in this peaceful, quiet Tokyo under the sun after all that.

5.) I’ve heard radiation levels are higher than normal – is everyone staying inside?

We have lots of information going around including rumors. We live almost as normal – just listening to TV and radio all the time, watching the progress of the nuclear plant situation. I do not go out if that can be avoided.

6.) What do people outside of Japan need to know?


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12. Simon Winchester on Charles Dodgson

This past weekend saw Oxford’s annual Alice’s Day take place, featuring lots of Alice in Wonderland themed events and exhibitions. With that in mind, today we bring you two videos of Simon Winchester talking about Charles Dodgson (AKA Lewis Carroll) and both his love of photography and his relationship with Alice Liddell and her family. You can read an excerpt from his book, The Alice Behind Wonderland, here.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Simon Winchester is the author of the bestselling books The Surgeon of Crowthorne, The Meaning of Everything, The Map that Changed the World, Krakatoa, Atlantic, and The Man Who Loved China. In recognition of his accomplished body of work, he was awarded the OBE in 2006. He lives in Massachusettes and in the Western Isles of Scotland.

View more about this book on the

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13. Editing Shakespeare

By Stanley Wells In 1979 Oxford University Press appointed me as the founding head of a Shakespeare department. The Oxford Shakespeare, first published in 1891, had been rendered seriously out of date by advances in scholarship.

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14. This Week on the mediabistro.com Job Board: HarperCollins, Palgrave Macmillan, Oxford University Press

This week, HarperCollins is looking for a senior designer, as well as a marketing coordinator. Palgrave Macmillan is on the hunt for a new inside sales representative, and Oxford University Press is hiring an assistant online marketing manager. Get the details on these jobs and more below, and find additional just-posted publishing gigs on mediabistro.com.

For more job listings, go to the Mediabistro job board, and to post a job, visit our employer page. For real-time openings and employment news, follow @MBJobPost.

New Career Opportunities Daily: The best jobs in media.

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15. Vatican and Bodleian Libraries to Digitize Ancient Texts

The project will make some 1.5 million digitized pages freely available online from the two institutions' collections of Greek manuscripts, 15th-century incunabula, Hebrew manuscripts and early printed books.

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16. praeternatural curios and pirates at the pitt river museum

Last Thursday, I gave my new-model pirate hat an outing, to Oxford Bookfeast at the Pitt Rivers Museum and University Museum of Natural History. Now, I've always wanted to visit the Pitt Rivers, ever since I heard it's where Philip Pullman based the scenes from His Dark Materials where Lyra examines the trepanned skulls. And then I started seeing friends' photos popping up of shrunken heads and, well, you can't really not look, can you?

But it somehow didn't happen; I must've gone to Oxford twenty times last year, but I was always catching later trains to miss rush hour rail ticket prices, and by the time my Oxford meetings were finished, it was always just about museum closing time. But, at last! there I was. And it was a flying visit, but look at the beautiful architecture in the Natural History Museum! The delicate ceiling structure almost looks like it's made of dinosaur bones, I felt like I was inside the rib cage of a wonderful prehistoric beast. I didn't have much time. And fortunately the guard didn't mind me running up to him and asking, Please, sir, can you tell me where to find the shrunken heads?

And the guard did better than that; he instantly sussed what kind of visitor I was and gave me a whirlwind tour of the weirder aspects of the museum. Running me past the trepanned skulls, he showed me the shrunken heads (assuring me that the people had died of natural causes first, not been killed for their heads). Then he whipped open these cabinets to show me all sorts of voodoo dolls. I think he said that the white one in the bottom shelf was a health doll, designed to help people remotely with medical conditions, not hurt them. Like acupuncture by proxy.

More shrunken heads. One of my Bookfeast helpers looked slighty wary when I mentioned these; she said that the museum is a bit sensitive about them and wants to see them repatriated and buried. But she also mentioned that illustrator Ted Dewan says they'll only get rid of them if they take his head, too. Hurrah! I want to watch the showdown. But I do hope they keep the heads.

Another wonderful curio: a witch in a bottle. The guide said that they're not sure if there really is a witch in there, but they're not going to open it to find out. I really need to spend a week looking and drawing in this museum, not just fifteen minutes running around. If I ever get stuck for story ideas, I know just where to go. What a marvelous place.

And here's my pirate event! Bookfeast really packed in the kids, I think there were at least six schools represented. I read them You Can't Scare a Princess! (with lots of communal ARRR-ing) and showed them how I go about turning three sheets of paper with typed-out words on it into an illustrated book. Then we all together drew a picture of Captain Waffle, and then I set the kids off designing their own pirates, who are looking for their own unique versions of treasure. I do hope they go away and make stories about their pirates.

Photo by Liz Cross

Thanks so much to Blackw

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17. oxford, the rochester storyloom, and it all ends with a big bang

With two of my three publishers based in Oxford, I forget how many times I've been up and down the rail line the last few years. But on Saturday, it was extra fun because Stuart came along with me. I wore a new hat for the occasion.

Ever since my trip up to Caption comics festival, when Di Cameron texted me, Come quick to the Story Museum! Ted Dewan's demonstrating the Storyloom! and I missed seeing it, I've been itching to get back there. And a party celebrating the 20th birthday of the Oxford Children's Book Group was the perfect excuse. Here he is, the magnificent Ted Dewan.

I hope if he ever pops his clogs, he will have written into his will that I can have his bicycle. But he probably won't, because the Story Museum will have hooked him up to all sorts of cogs and springs and whirling things and he will live forever. Or maybe he'll stick around like that guy in the Roald Dahl story William and Mary, with his brain in a bucket and a single eyeball sticking out. ...Sorry, I digress. What I'm trying to say is that I will probably never get his bicycle.

Every time I visit the Story Museum, I find new and exciting things. The museum isn't open to the public yet - it's a work in progress and still raising funds (yes, do donate!) - but they host amazing events in the meantime. And on this occasion we were met in the entrance by these awesome murals by Anita Klein.

I've been a big fan of Anita's printmaking work ever since I saw it in the Greenwich Printmakers shop gallery, and I didn't know she had any connection to the children's book illustration world. But the murals work perfectly here.

The inside of the Story Museum is unfinished, much of it looking like a mopped-up and dusted version of how it looked when the museum team moved in to the former Post Office sorting office and telephone exchange. (You can read more about the building's history here.) But there's a real charm to its imperfection - as a visitor, I also feel a bit like an explorer - and it's already dotted around with strange little curios.

Ted Dewan, master Loomkeeper, took us on a tour to visit Rochester's Extraordinary Storyloom. The Story Museum's a big place, with lots of strange nooks and crannies, and the museum team discovered many remarkable things while they were moving into the building.

Ted revealed to us the story behind this feat of Victorian engineering, a heart-rending story of one inventor's unrequited love and a sinister tale of child exploitation.

You'll have to go the Story Museum yourself to find out the whole story, but I'll give you some peeks.

And isn't this a fine piece of gadgetry? In its day, it rendered a writer's work obsolete. Stories could be written BY MACHINE.

'Twas a fearsome thing for people in the profession. Look at the stops on the control panel. So many storytelling options!

Of course, writers fought back. Who wants to be replaced by whirring springs and coils? Oh, but look how beautiful they are; no wonder publishers were swayed. A machine that will never argue, never miss a deadline...

And here, deep inside, you can catch a glimpse of the Storyloom's inner core. Why a rose? It all goes back to Barnaby Rochester's love for Felicity Blight, the daughter of wealthy mill-owner Albert Blight. But Felicity had no love for her father's dark factory, or Barnaby's metal roses...

Rochester discovered that orphan children were the perfect grist for his mill. Once he'd put them in the seat of the Storyloom and drained their imaginations, they became much more orderly, upright members of society. So it was a win-win situation.

Ted the Loomkeeper maintains the Storyloom in perfect working condition. So we thought we'd try it out.

Here's picture book writer and illustrator Layn Marlow warming up the engine and loosening the keys. Layn was quite skeptical, since Ted made no claims to the Storyloom having a picture generating function. (But at least it wouldn't put illustrators out of work.)

Oxford-based illustrator and writer Mini Grey was a somewhat willing volunteer to be a source of imagination for the Storyloom. (I don't think she was listening when Ted was talking about the orphans.)

Gosh, it IS awfully fun operating complicated machinery like this.

While the machine was running, the visitors browsed some of the explanatory panels:

I got a bit carried away. The machine's Gyre widened slightly and it overheated, but the centre seemed to hold and nothing fell apart.

Unsurprisingly, it took a very long time to suck all the imagination and creativity out of Mini's brain...

...but wow, the stories that machine churned out! Those of us in the room made a pact that we would share the publishing proceeds and by this time next year, I'm sure I'll be able to buy A THOUSAND bicycles like Ted's. Mini didn't join us in making the pact, she was a bit wobbly by that point and couldn't quite envision how it might work.

Model citizen that she now is, Mini cast the deciding vote on whether the Storyloom is pure humbug or Victorian genius.

Oh, lookie, lookie! You can watch a lovely video with more about the Rochester Storyloom here. And you can visit the Story Museum's web page about it here.

Direct YouTube link

I'm aware that there was some cruelty involved in sucking Mini's brain empty, because the jar of humbugs sitting in front of her chair wasn't enough to keep her going throughout the entire procedure; she was quite hungry when she emerged. Fortunately the Oxford Children's Book Group provided her with a lovely cake to eat, and she generously shared it with us. Here's its leader, Moira Da Costa, who's stepping down from her post after a fine run. I can't imagine why, perhaps she's planning to take a more active role in feeding the Storyloom with Oxford's writers. Yes, that must be it, Oxford has such rich pickings. Look at that almost maniacal laugh. Gaze upon this woman and tremble.

Oh, a little plug for Mini Grey's top-quality books. You really ought to buy them, now that she won't be able to make any more. It's a good cause. Here's a small selection, you will spot them in the shops.

And if you want to support everything that is evil and exploitative, you can buy Ted Dewan's books. But I'd advise against it, I'm terribly concerned about that Bing Bunny chappie, I suspect he's going to take over the world. Or at least our televisions.

Here are some of my fellow co-conspirators: writer Marie-Louise Jensen, illustrator-writer Layn Marlow (whom you saw operating the Storyloom) and writer-illustrator Michelle Harrison.

Marie-Louise Jensen, Layn Marlow, Michelle Harrison

I'm always posting photos and telling you the people's names, but sometimes you won't recognise the person, just the book covers you see in the shops. So here you go. Next time you buy one of these books, be aware that their creator took part in the Reformation of Mini Grey. They might have been good, well-intentioned people when they arrived at the Story Museum, but I doubt it.

Marie-Louise smuggled in an early, uncorrected version of her new book, going incognito.

And then we left. Don't be fooled by these angels at the doorway; this Story Museum, with its working Rochester Storyloom, is engaged in some of the most nefarious practices imaginable.

But in the meantime, Stuart, Layn and I went out to source more material for the machine. Mini came, too, and we spent some time discussing her new career options, possibly as a government advisor on national reading schemes. And at the Lamb & Flag pub, we found some top-quality Storyloom fodder! Two of Oxford's most imaginative storytellers, Sally Nicholls and Neill Cameron.

After she has been of assistance to the Story Museum, we will remember Sally fondly for these amazing novels:

And Neill Cameron, for these remarkable comics, including Mo-Bot High, Pirates of Pangaea and his regular feature in The Phoenix weekly comic about how to make comics. After he teams up with the Story Museum, please help him find a Proper Job, thank you.

And then Stuart and I were called away by Ted Dewan to his lair at Oxford Castle. (See? I told you the Storyloom can make us rich!)

Oxford Castle used to be a prison, and the Story Museum and Oxford Literary Festival regularly put up visiting writers there. Who are, oddly, never seen again.

And there in the courtyard, we found a BIG BANG! Or more accurately, a bucket full of perfect, steaming bangers! Ted's friend Max Mason has been running a wildly successful restaurant called The Big Bang and has just relocated next to Ted's castle, since that's where all the action is now. Thanks so Ted, we got to go along to its launch party.

Yup, there's Bing Bunny, he's making his mark everywhere. Well, then Vern and Lettuce can hold their own next to Bing. (Fortunately Max provides vegetarian options, since Vern and Lettuce don't actually eat meat.)

Max and The Big Bang source all their food locally, from farmers within a twenty-mile radius. And the menu looks amazing (and affordable), I'm definitely eating there on my next Oxford visit.

It's great to know we can trust in Good Food and in well-sourced restaurants like Max's. Because Oxford's full of Story Museum curators and writers and we all know we can't trust them.

For all the world's most Evil Masterminds, here's that Story Museum donation link again. Go on, do something Truly Atrocious.

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18. C is for Coloratura

Jessica Barbour

Marilyn Horne, world-renowned opera singer and recitalist, celebrated her 84th birthday on Wednesday. To acknowledge her work, not only as one of the finest singers in the world but as a mentor for young artists, I give you one of my favorite performances of hers:

Click here to view the embedded video.

Sesame Street has always been a powerful advocate for utilizing music in teaching. “C is for Cookie,” a number that really drives its message home, maintains its cultural relevance today despite being first performed by Cookie Monster more than 40 years ago. Ms. Horne’s version appeared about 20 years after the original, and is an excellent re-imagining of a classic (with great attention to detail—note the cookies sewn into her Aida regalia and covering the pyramids).

Horne’s performance shows kids that even a musician of the highest caliber can 1) be silly and 2) also like cookies—that is, it portrays her as a person with something in common with a young, broad audience. This is something that members of the classical music community often have a difficult time accomplishing; Horne achieves it here in less than three minutes.

Fortunately, many professional classical musicians have embraced this strategy. Representatives of the opera world (which is not known for being particularly self-aware) have had a particularly strong presence on Sesame Street, with past episodes featuring Plácido Domingo (singing with his counterpart, Placido Flamingo), Samuel Ramey (extolling the virtues of the letter “L”), Denyce Graves (explaining operatic excess to Elmo), and Renée Fleming (counting to five, “Caro nome” style).

Sesame Street produced these segments not only to expose children to distinguished music-making, but to teach them about matters like counting, spelling, working together, and respecting one another. This final clip features Itzhak Perlman, one of the world’s great violin soloists, who was left permanently disabled after having polio as a child. To demonstrate ability and disability more gracefully than this would be, I think, impossible:

Click here to view the embedded video.

American children’s music, as described in the new article on Grove Music Online [subscription required], has typically been produced through a tug of war between entertainment and educational objectives. The songs on Sesame Street succeed in both, while also showing kids something about classical music itself: it’s not just for grownups. It’s a part of life that belongs to everyone. After all, who doesn’t appreciate that the moon sometimes looks like a “C”? (Though, of course, you can’t eat that, so…)

Jessica Barbour is the Associate Editor for Grove Music/Oxford Music Online. You can read her previous blog posts, “Foil thy Foes with Joy,” “Glissandos and Glissandon’ts,” and “Wedding Music” and learn more about children’s music, Marilyn Horne, Itzhak Perlman, and other performers mentioned above with a subscription to Grove Music Online.

Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.

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19. “Third Nation” along the US-Mexico border

By Michael Dear

Not long ago, I passed a roadside sign in New Mexico which read: “Es una frontera, no una barrera / It’s a border, not a barrier.” This got me thinking about the nature of the international boundary line separating the US from Mexico. The sign’s message seemed accurate, but what exactly did it mean?

On 2 February 1848, a ‘Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Settlement’ was signed at Guadalupe Hidalgo, thus terminating the Mexican-American War. The conflict was ostensibly about securing the boundary of the recently-annexed state of Texas, but it was clear from the outset that US President Polk’s ambition was territorial expansion. As consequences of the Treaty, Mexico gained peace and $15 million, but eventually lost one-half of its territory; the US achieved the largest land grab in its history through a war that many (including Ulysses S. Grant) regarded as dishonorable.

In recent years, I’ve traveled the entire length of the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border many times, on both sides. There are so many unexpected and inspiring places! Mutual interdependence has always been the hallmark of cross-border communities. Border people are staunchly independent and composed of many cultures with mixed loyalties. They get along perfectly well with people on the other side, but remain distrustful of far-distant national capitals. The border states are among the fastest-growing regions in both countries — places of economic dynamism, teeming contradiction, and vibrant political and cultural change.

A small fence separates densely populated Tijuana, Mexico, right, from the United States in the Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector.

Yet the border is also a place of enormous tension associated with undocumented migration and drug wars. Neither of these problems has its source in the borderlands, but border communities are where the burdens of enforcement are geographically concentrated. It’s because of our country’s obsession with security, immigration, and drugs that after 9/11 the US built massive fortifications between the two nations, and in so doing, threatened the well-being of cross-border communities.

I call the spaces between Mexico and the US a ‘third nation.’ It’s not a sovereign state, I realize, but it contains many of the elements that would otherwise warrant that title, such as a shared identity, common history, and joint traditions. Border dwellers on both sides readily assert that they have more in common with each other than with their host nations. People describe themselves as ‘transborder citizens.’ One man who crossed daily, living and working on both sides, told me: “I forget which side of the border I’m on.” The boundary line is a connective membrane, not a separation. It’s easy to reimagine these bi-national communities as a ‘third nation’ slotted snugly in the space between two countries. (The existing Tohono O’Odham Indian Nation already extends across the borderline in the states of Arizona and Sonora.)

But there is more to the third nation than a cognitive awareness. Both sides are also deeply connected through trade, family, leisure, shopping, culture, and legal connections. Border-dwellers’ lives are intimately connected by their everyday material lives, and buttressed by innumerable formal and informal institutional arrangements (NAFTA, for example, as well as water and environmental conservation agreements). Continuity and connectivity across the border line existed for centuries before the border was put in place, even back to the Spanish colonial era and prehistoric Mesoamerican times.

Do the new fortifications built by the US government since 9/11 pose a threat to the well-being of borderland communities? Certainly there’s been interruptions to cross-border lives: crossing times have increased; the number of US Border Patrol ‘boots on ground’ has doubled; and a new ‘gulag’ of detention centers has been instituted to apprehend, prosecute and deport all undocumented migrants. But trade has continued to increase, and cross-border lives are undiminished. US governments are opening up new and expanded border crossing facilities (known as ports of entry) at record levels.  Gas prices in Mexican border towns are tied to the cost of gasoline on the other side. The third nation is essential to the prosperity of both countries.

So yes, the roadside sign in New Mexico was correct. The line between Mexico and the US is a border in the geopolitical sense, but it is submerged by communities that do not regard it as a barrier to centuries-old cross-border intercourse. The international boundary line is only just over a century-and-a-half old. Historically, there was no barrier; and the border is not a barrier nowadays.

The walls between Mexico and the US will come down. Walls always do. The Berlin Wall was torn down virtually overnight, its fragments sold as souvenirs of a calamitous Cold War. The Great Wall of China was transformed into a global tourist attraction. Left untended, the US-Mexico Wall will collapse under the combined assault of avid recyclers, souvenir hunters, and local residents offended by its mere presence.

As the US prepares once again to consider immigration reform, let the focus this time be on immigration and integration. The framers of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo were charged with making the US-Mexico border, but on this anniversary of the Treaty’s signing, we may best honor the past by exploring a future when the border no longer exists. Learning from the lives of cross-border communities in the third nation would be an appropriate place to begin.

Michael Dear is a professor in the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Why Walls Won’t Work: Repairing the US-Mexico Divide (Oxford University Press).

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20. Comfort food

By Georgia Mierswa

This Valentine’s Day-themed tech post was supposed to be just that—a way to show that all that sexy metadata powering the Oxford Index’s sleek exterior has a sweet, romantic side, just like the rest of the population at this time of year. I’d bounce readers from a description of romantic comedies to Romeo and Juliet to the three-act opera Elegy for Young Lovers, and then change the Index’s featured homepage title to something on the art of love to complete the heart shaped, red-ribboned picture.

I didn’t do any of these things. I got distracted. As it turns out, searching the word “chocolate” (“It is not addictive like nicotine but some people, ‘chocoholics’, experience periodic cravings”) reveals a whole smorgasbord of suggested links to delectable food summaries and from my first glimpse at the makings of a meringue, I was gone—making mental notes for recipes, stomach rumbling, eyes-glazing over. Mmm glaze.

In the end, my “research” was actually quite fitting to the season. Because, really, when it comes to Valentine’s Day in the 21st century, only a handful of things are reliable and certain—and almost all of them are made with sugar.

Best Mouthwatering Dessert Descriptions

Best Quote About Doughnuts…or Anything

“When Krispy Kremes are hot, they are to other doughnuts what angels are to people.”
– Humor writer Roy Blount Jr, New York Times Magazine

Best Etymology Entry

  Snack was originally a verb, meaning ‘bite, snap’. It appears to have been borrowed, in the fourteenth century, from Middle Dutch snacken, which was probably onomatopoeic in origin, based on the sound of the snapping together of teeth… The modern verb snack, ‘eat a snack,’ mainly an American usage, is an early nineteenth-century creation.

Top 5 Favorite Random Food Facts

  1. Attempts to can beer before 1930 were unsuccessful because a beer can has to withstand pressures of over eighty pounds per square inch.
  2. Brownies are essentially the penicillin of the baking world.
  3.  Boston is the brains behind Marshmallow Fluff.
  4. There is such a thing as the “Queen of Puddings” …and it sounds amazing:
  5.   Pudding made from custard and breadcrumbs, flavoured with lemon rind and vanilla, topped with jam or sliced fruit and meringue.
  6. Cupcakes are known by some as “fairy cakes”.

Best Relevancy Jump

The overview page for “cake”….

  Plain cakes are made by rubbing the fat and sugar into the flour, with no egg; sponge cakes by whipping with or without fat; rich cakes contain dried fruit.

….leads to a surprising related link: “Greek sacrifice”

  Vegetable products, esp. savoury cakes, were occasionally ‘sacrificed’ (the same vocabulary is used as for animal sacrifice) in lieu of animals or, much more commonly, in addition to them. But animal sacrifice was the standard type.

The Entry I Wish I Hadn’t Found:

  Flaky crescent-shaped rolls traditionally served hot for breakfast, made from a yeast dough with a high butter content. A 50‐g croissant contains 10 g of fat of which 30% is saturated.

Best Food-Related Band Names

Best Overall Summary of What Food Is

  Food is a form of communication that expresses the most deeply felt human experiences: love, fear, joy, anger, serenity, turmoil, passion, rage, pleasure, sorrow, happiness, and sadness.

Georgia Mierswa is a marketing assistant at Oxford University Press and reports to the Global Marketing Director for online products. She began working at OUP in September 2011.

The Oxford Index is a free search and discovery tool from Oxford University Press. It is designed to help you begin your research journey by providing a single, convenient search portal for trusted scholarship from Oxford and our partners, and then point you to the most relevant related materials — from journal articles to scholarly monographs. One search brings together top quality content and unlocks connections in a way not previously possible. Take a virtual tour of the Index to learn more.

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Image credit: Croissants chauds sortis du four. Photo by Christophe Marcheux/Deelight, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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21. The bombing of Monte Cassino

On the 15th of February 1944, Allied planes bombed the abbey at Monte Cassino as part of an extended campaign against the Italians. St. Benedict of Nursia established his first monastery, the source of the Benedictine Order, here around 529. Over four months, the Battle of Monte Cassino would inflict some 200,000 causalities and rank as one of the most horrific battles of World War Two. This excerpt from Peter Caddick-Adams’s Monte Cassino: Ten Armies in Hell, recounts the bombing.

On the afternoon of 14 February, Allied artillery shells scattered leaflets containing a printed warning in Italian and English of the abbey’s impending destruction. These were produced by the same US Fifth Army propaganda unit that normally peddled surrender leaflets and devised psychological warfare messages. The monks negotiated a safe passage through the German lines for 16 February — too late, as it turned out. American Harold Bond, of the 36th Texan Division, remembered  the texture of the ‘honey-coloured Travertine stone’ of the abbey that fine Tuesday morning, and how ‘the Germans seemed to sense that something important was about to happen for they were strangely quiet’. Journalist Christopher Buckley wrote of ‘the cold blue on that late winter morning’ as formations of Flying Fortresses ‘flew in perfect formation with that arrogant dignity which distinguishes bomber aircraft as they set out upon a sortie’. John Buckeridge of 1/Royal Sussex, up on Snakeshead, recalled his surprise as the air filled with the drone of engines and waves of silver bombers, the sun glinting off their bellies, hove into view. His surprise turned to concern when he saw their bomb doors open — as far as his battalion was concerned the raid was not due for at least another day.

Brigadier Lovett of 7th Indian Brigade was furious at the lack of warning: ‘I was called on the blower and told that the bombers would be  over in fifteen minutes… even as I spoke the  roar  [of  aircraft] drowned my voice as the first shower of eggs [bombs]  came down.’ At the HQ of the 4/16th Punjabis, the adjutant wrote: ‘We went to the door of the command post and gazed up… There we saw the white trails of many high-level bombers. Our first thought was that they were the enemy. Then somebody said, “Flying Fortresses.” There followed the whistle, swish and blast as the first flights struck at the monastery.’ The first formation released their cargo over the abbey. ‘We could see them fall, looking at this distance like little black stones, and then the ground  all around  us shook with gigantic shocks as they exploded,’ wrote Harold  Bond. ‘Where the abbey had been there was only a huge cloud of smoke and dust which concealed the entire hilltop.’

The aircraft which committed the deed came from the massive resources of the US Fifteenth and Twelfth Air Forces (3,876 planes, including transports and those of the RAF in theatre), whose heavy and medium bombardment wings were based predominantly on two dozen temporary airstrips around Foggia in southern Italy (by comparison, a Luftwaffe return of aircraft numbers in Italy on 31 January revealed 474 fighters, bombers and reconnaissance aircraft in theatre, of which 224 were serviceable). Less than an hour’s flying time from Cassino, the Foggia airfields were primitive, mostly grass affairs, covered with Pierced Steel Planking runways, with all offices, accommodation and other facilities under canvas, or quickly constructed out of wood. In mid-winter the buildings and tents were wet and freezing, and often the runways were swamped with oceans of mud which inhibited  flying. Among the personnel stationed there was Joseph Heller, whose famous novel Catch-22 was based on the surreal no-win-situation chaos of Heller’s 488th Bombardment Squadron, 340th Bomb Group, Twelfth Air Force, with whom he flew sixty combat missions as a bombardier (bomb-aimer) in B-25 Mitchells.

After the first wave of  aircraft struck Cassino monastery, a Sikh company of 4/16th Punjabis fell back, understandably, and a German wireless message was heard to announce: ‘Indian troops  with turbans are retiring’. Bond and his friends were astonished when, ‘now and again, between the waves of bombers, a wind would blow the smoke away, and to our surprise we saw the gigantic walls of the abbey still stood’. Captain Rupert Clarke, Alexander’s ADC, was watching with his boss. ‘Alex and I were lying out on the ground about 3,000 yards from Cassino. As I watched the bombers, I saw bomb doors open and bombs began to fall well short of the target.’ Back at the 4/16th Punjabis, ‘almost before the ground ceased to shake the telephones were ringing. One of our companies was within 300 yards of the target and the others within 800 yards; all had received a plastering and were asking questions with some asperity.’ Later, when a formation of B-25 medium bombers passed over, Buckley noticed, ‘a  bright  flame, such  as a  giant  might have produced by striking titanic matches on the mountain-side, spurted swiftly upwards at half a dozen points. Then a pillar of smoke 500 feet high broke upwards into the blue. For nearly five minutes it hung around the building, thinning gradually upwards.’

Nila Kantan of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps was no longer driving trucks, as no vehicles could get up to the 4th Indian Division’s positions overlooking the abbey, so he found himself portering instead. ‘On our shoulders we carried all the things up the hill; the gradient was one in three, and we had to go almost on all fours. I was watching from our hill as all the bombers went in and unloaded their bombs; soon after, our guns blasted the hill, and ruined the monastery.’ For Harold Bond, the end was the strangest, ‘then nothing happened. The smoke and dust slowly drifted away, showing the crumbled masonry with fragments of walls still standing, and men in their foxholes talked with each other about the show they had just seen, but the battlefield remained relatively quiet.’

The abbey had been literally ruined, not obliterated as Freyberg had required, and was now one vast mountain of rubble with many walls still remaining up to a height of forty or more feet, resembling the ‘dead teeth’ General John K. Cannon of the USAAF wanted to remove; ironically those of the north-west corner (the future target of all ground assaults through the hills) remained intact. These the Germans, sheltering from the smaller bombs, immediately occupied and turned into excellent defensive positions, ready to slaughter the 4th Indian Division when they belatedly attacked. As Brigadier Kippenberger observed: ‘Whatever had been the position before, there was no doubt  that the enemy was now entitled to garrison the ruins, the breaches in the fifteen-foot-thick walls were nowhere complete, and we wondered whether we had gained anything.’

Peter Caddick-Adams is a Lecturer in Military and Security Studies at the United Kingdom’s Defence Academy, and author of Monte Cassino: Ten Armies in Hell and Monty and Rommel: Parallel Lives. He holds the rank of major in the British Territorial Army and has served with U.S. forces in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

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Image credits: (1) Source: U.S. Air Force; (2) Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2005-0004 / Wittke / CC-BY-SA; (3) Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J26131 / Enz / CC-BY-SA

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22. Adapting Henry V

By Gus Gallagher

In the Autumn of 2011 I found myself at something of a loose end in the beautiful city of Tbilisi, Georgia, working with the Marjanishvili Theatre there on a production of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Unsure of what my next project might be, my attention turned to an old love, Shakespeare’s Henry V. Having long been intrigued by both the story and the title character, I set about reading the text afresh. For perhaps the first time, I realised I no longer sought to play the lead role myself, but found myself still driven to have the story told in a fresh, vibrant, immediate fashion.

Prior to setting out for Georgia, I’d been involved with a five-man production of Doctor Faustus during which I had been struck by how well the classical verse seemed to lend itself to the more intimate company structure. In previous years I had also been a member of a small-cast version of Macbeth, which had likewise seemed to benefit from the experiment. These earlier experiences must have been in my mind when I started thinking about how I might stage Henry V.

Henry V

Morgan Philpott in Creation Theatre’s production of Henry V

At first, I was curious to see if it might be possible to tell the story using only five actors, and was interested to see that it was. However, as I took another swing at it, I began to distil the idea further. It became apparent to me that in most key scenes there were three distinct ‘voices’. These, I thought later, might more often than not be termed the petitioner, the advocate, and the judge. The petitioner often seemed to pose ‘The Question’ at the top of the scene (such as The Archbishop of Canterbury in I.2), whilst the advocate rallies either for or against his or her cause (such as Exeter in the same scene). Finally, each key scene seemed to have a singular figure who would judge the outcome and lead the way onwards (Henry).

Obviously, it was not possible to achieve a wholesale three-man cut of the text without considerable and audacious changes to the original — mostly in the form of character amalgamations, slight re-ordering or outright edits — but I believe the integrity of the piece as a whole, and crucially the story, remain intact.

Having gladly agreed to an application of performance rights from Creation Theatre in Oxford, I then stood back completely from the process of production. What I was intrigued to find was how well the three-man format seemed to bring out the comedy of the piece. The pace, also, seemed more in tune with what I believe was Shakespeare’s intent. Of course, both these factors are entirely to the credit of the director, cast and creative team, but I was pleased to see them both used so effectively in a production in which I played a modest role.

Gus Gallagher trained at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama. After ten years as an actor, playing such roles as Romeo, Coriolanus, Mercutio, Macduff, and Dr. Faustus, he turned his attention to writing. The Creation Theatre adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Henry V is Gus’s first produced work. He is currently working on a piece about the life and times of King William IV, as well as a play about The Jarrow March of 1936. Oxford World’s Classics are sponsoring the production, which is on at Oxford Castle Unlocked until September 14.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter, Facebook, or here on the OUPblog.

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Image credit: Morgan Philpott in Henry V. Image copyright Creation Theatre Company. Photography by Richard Budd. Do not reproduce without permission.

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23. The great Oxford World’s Classics debate

By Kirsty Doole

Last week the Oxford World’s Classics team were at Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford to witness the first Oxford World’s Classics debate. Over three days we invited seven academics who had each edited and written introductions and notes for books in the series to give a short, free talk in the shop. This then culminated in an evening event in Blackwell’s famous Norrington Room where we held a balloon debated, chaired by writer and academic Alexandra Harris.

For those unfamiliar with balloon debates, this is the premise: the seven books, represented by their editors, are in a hot air balloon, and the balloon is going down fast. In a bid to climb back up, we’re going to have to throw some books out of the balloon… but which ones? Each editor spoke for five minutes in passionate defence of their titles before the audience voted. The bottom three books were then “thrown overboard”. The remaining four speakers had another three minutes each to further convince the audience, before the final vote was taken.

The seven books in our metaphorical balloon were:

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell (represented by Dinah Birch)
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (represented by Helen Small)
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (represented by Roger Luckhurst)
A Memoir of Jane Austen by James Edward Austen-Leigh (represented by Kathryn Sutherland)
The Poetic Edda (represented by Carolyne Larrington)
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (represented by Fiona Stafford)
The Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (represented by Lesley Brown)

So who was saved? Find out in our slideshow of pictures from the event below:

Kirsty Doole is Publicity Manager for Oxford World’s Classics.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter, Facebook, or here on the OUPblog. Subscribe to only Oxford World’s Classics articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.

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Image credits: All photos by Kirsty Doole

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24. seawigs at oxford lit fest 2014

Yesterday Oxford Lit Fest saw a sea life invasion!

Check out this wonderful Iris the mermaid costumes! It was made by Helen (@helen_geekmum on Twitter) and even includes Colin the crab and Iris's pointy specs!

Writer Jo Cotterill made these two great Seawigs!

And she tweeted this drawing by her daughter. (You can follow Jo at @jocotterillbook.)

Jo also took this photo of my co-author Philip Reeve and I leading everyone in a rousing rendition of the Eep Song:

It was actually quite a star-studded audience! Here's one of my illustration heroes, Mini Grey, who came along with her son. Both made drawings!

We got to see lots of people's fab drawings while we signed copies of Oliver and the Seawigs:

Photo by Jo Cotterill

So many details in this girl's drawing! Click on the photo for a close-up:

More fabulous Seawiggery!

Even the MC for our event, The Sunday Times reviewer Nicolette Jones (@NicoletteJones on Twitter) got into the swing of drawing a Sea Monkey! Here she is at lunch, with Paul Blezard (who still had his tan from the Emirates lit fest).

Thanks so much to everyone who came along, and a special thanks to the people who dressed up!

And who put up with my singing voice, which is as clear and melodic as Iris's:

Back in the festival Green Room, Horrid Henry's Francesca Simon asked to try on my Seawig:

And the daughter of our Oxford University Press publicist Harriet Bayly turned out to be a big fan of our upcoming book, Cakes in Space and we spent some time drawing Pilbeam the robot. (This book is the Uncorrected Proof copy, not the final version.)

I got to meet NYC-based writer Polly Shulman and her husband. Polly's written a book called The Wells Bequest, which I can't wait to read.

Oxford's always great fun to visit. Here I am, chucking Lewis Carroll under the chin, and the view from my bedroom in a hall of residence in Christ Church college.

Hogwarts breakfast! The Great Hall is pretty cool.

Reeve and I also visited The Story Museum, to see what they're up to, getting ready for their 26 Characters exhibition. Reeve has an uncanny knack of looking like a perfect Doctor Who.

We met up with The Story Museum's Tom Donegan and Neill Cameron, Philip Ardagh, Nicolette Jones and Ted Dewan in the pub. We were raving about the amazing Storyloom that Ted's designed, and just as the last few us of were about to leave, he invited us back to The Story Museum and said he'd fire it up for us. It's just too awesome to contemplate. (You can read an earlier blog post I wrote about it here.) Here's Ardagh, hard at work on it:

And this photo of Reeve is just plain weird:

Big thanks to Oxford lit fest for hosting us, everyone who took part in our event, Nicolette for chairing, The Story Museum, Oxford University Press and everyone who made is such a fantastic weekend. If you missed us, keep an eye on my Events Page to see if we're coming somewhere near you!

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25. And the Place of the Year is…


Why Yemen, you ask?

It’s a place that seems to be on the brink of collapse, and even as we prepared to make this announcement, Yemen again emerged as a home base for terrorist plots. The stakes are high and the future is unclear for Oxford’s 2010 Place of the Year.

According to geographer Harm de Blij, author of The Power of Place and Why Geography Matters, “In the modern world of terrorist cells and jihadist movements, Yemen’s weakness spells opportunity.” Regional conflicts like the Houthi rebellion in the north and revival of the southern secessionist movement diminish the power of the government. Terrorist bases now reside in the remote countryside, posing a familiar dilemma for the United States: Is shoring up the country’s army and police worth the risk of increasing Al Qaeda protection and loyalty? At the same time Yemen stands to be the poorest country in the Arab world, nearly depleted of its leading export, oil, while facing a water shortage experts say is heighten by the country’s addiction to qat, a mildly narcotic leaf.

Once a promising experiment in Muslim-Arab democracy, Western opinion now recognizes Yemen to have all the features of a failed state. Obscured by the attention of the political geography, is what de Blij calls “a Yemen that might have been.”

To hear more from de Blij on Place of the Year be sure to check in tomorrow!

Yemen at a glance:

Population: 22,858,000
Capital(s): Sana’
Government: Multiparty Republic
Ethnic Groups: Predominantly Arab
Languages: Arabic
Religions: Islam
Currency: Yemeni rial= 100 fils
Cash crops: coffee and cotton
President: Ali Abdullah Saleh

And now for the runners-up…

Gulf Coast (of the United States)
the Eyjafjallajokull volcano
Seaside Heights, NJ
Rio de Janeiro
Wall Street
The Gulf of Aden (“Pirate Alley”)

OUP Employee Votes:

“I’d go with Mexico. A fascinating failing state in which our stake couldn’t be greater, and compelling for all the reasons the other places mentioned might be interesting (or in crisis) individually–you have natural disaster (or the ongoing potential thereof), man-made disaster, social unrest, crime (and how), political chaos and corruption, etc. Whatever you do, don’t pick Seaside Heights, N.J., though I’ve nothing whatever against the place.” -Tim Bent, Executive Editor, Trade History

“Haiti—so we don’t forget the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their families and homes and way of life.” -Jessica Ryan, Copyediting Lead

“Eyjafjallajokull. It’s perfect in that it had a world-wide impact, or close to it; it was hard to pronounce; and it was the proverbial flash-in-the-pan issue.” -Niko Pfund, VP and Publisher

“You totally made up that v

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