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A journey into the hearts and minds of three poets #tsvetaeva #pasternak #rilke @nyrbclassics

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Letters: Summer 1926 by Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva and Rainer Maria Rilke
Edited by Yevgeny Pasternak, Yelena Pasternak and Konstantin M. Azadovsky
Translated by Margaret Wettlin, Walter Arndt and Jamey Gambrell

I have been on something of a roll with Russian poets recently, and in particular with my exploration of the work of Marina Tsvetaeva. Renowned for her verse, she also wrote prose, letters, diaries, a play – truly a multi-talented genius. Her “Moscow Diaries” made absorbing reading during #’WITmonth and I was impelled to send for a nice new NYRB Classics version of this collection – a grouping of letters between Tsvetaeva, Pasternak and Rilke over a short period of time in Summer 1926. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I had an old Oxford World Classics version from many moons ago, but splashed out on the new version because the old one is tatty. However, it was the right thing to do, as the NYRB edition is significantly expanded from the Oxford edition, with extra material and essays, as well as additional pictures. Nevertheless, these do suffer from not being in a plate section but simply on ordinary book paper and so I’ll most likely keep both!

All my “interests in history”, my absorption in actuality, in fact all to which I have been disposed lately, has been shattered to pieces by Rilke’s letter and Marina’s poem. It’s as if my shirt were split down the front by the expansion of my heart. I’m punchdrunk. Nothing but splinters all about me: there are kindred souls in this world – and how extraordinary they are! (BP)

In 1926 the three poets concerned were in different parts of the world. Pasternak was in Soviet Russia, struggling to work, dealing with his wife’s ill-health and no doubt failing to cope with the demand of Soviet Realism. Tsvetaeva was in exile in France with her husband and children, suffering from poverty and alienation from her fellow emigres. Rilke was in Switzerland and entering a final, fatal illness. Pasternak and Tsvetaeva had not met for years; Rilke was something of a poetic god as far as they were concerned, and he was rumoured to be already dead. However, chance (in the form of Pasternak’s painter father, Leonid) intervened. The latter had been friends with Rilke in the past, and hearing that he was alive and well wrote him a letter. He mentioned his poet son, whom Rilke had heard of and spoke of in his reply to his old friend. The effect of Boris was shattering, as he had had a brief encounter with the elder poet when he was a child; and to find that his hero knew of his work was stunning. At the same time, Boris had read Marina’s latest poem “Poem of the End” which had sparked an intense response, and he had written to her about her work and the effect it had had on him. Pasternak junior wrote to Rilke, thanking him for his response, mentioning Tsvetaeva (who also revered Rilke) and asking the older poet to send Marina some of his books. Thus the scene was set for an intense, complex and emotionally charged three-way correspondence which took place over that summer.

What survives of the correspondence and supporting materials has been pieced together in exemplary fashion by Yevgeny and Yelena Pasternak (son and granddaughter of Boris) along with Konstantin M. Azadovsky. The long introduction is in its own right a remarkable piece of work which puts the poets, their lives and work brilliantly into context; but in framing the highly charged letters of the poets they do an exemplary job.

Life is a railroad station; soon I will set out – for where? I will not say. (MT)

I long to devour the whole gigantic globe, which I have loved and wept over, and which surges all about me, travels, commits suicide, wages wars, floats in the clouds above me, breaks into nocturnal concerts of frog music in Moscow’s suburbs, and is given me as my setting to be cherished, envied and desired. (BP)

Needless to say, this was not always an easy correspondence, and there was plenty of scope for disappointment, misunderstandings and high (as well as low!) emotions. Pasternak seems to have been affected most by the correspondence and events; seizing on Tsvetaeva’s poetry and her letters, he seems to regard her as something between muse, soul mate and poetic inspiration and declares himself not only spurred on to write, but willing to run away to her. The language used by all three poets is the language of lovers (although they do not meet), and Boris in particular repeatedly professes his love for Marina. Somehow, all three poets click on a high, exalted level, and the epistolary encounters and declaration of love were of profound importance to all three poets. Rilke himself seems delighted to have discovered like minds – that constant search for a soul mate, for someone who understands, runs through the letters – and enters into the correspondence with an uncustomary frankness.

The revelation which you are for me and will forever remain suddenly arose before me as it had numberless times before. (BP)

However, things are not all plain sailing. There were delays in the receipt of letters, the difficulties of explaining one’s meanings, and the difficulties of dealing with the quotidian alongside the imagined and the emotional, all of which caused problems and misunderstandings. Pasternak, in particular, has emotions like a rollercoaster and regularly plummets from the heights of ecstasy to the depths of despair. When he declares himself willing to come to Tsvetaeva and for them to take off to visit Rilke, he seems prepared to abandon all in search of this dream, and the intense emotional and intellectual infatuation seemed to inform his life and work during that period. Poetry is all, and for Pasternak in particular, Marina personifies the poetic muse.

I loved you as in life I had only dreamed of loving, long, long ago, loving to eternity. You were beauty in the absolute. (BP)

By Max Voloshin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

That high level of intensity is never going to be sustainable in the real world; and as the summer wore on, Tsvetaeva in particular was beset with money worries, the fact that the émigré community regarded her with suspicion and the realities of daily life as a mother of two children. And then, of course, at the end of the year Rilke’s fatal illness came to its inevitable conclusion. Boris and Marina had never managed to make the journey to see him, and when they finally met many years later much water had flowed under the bridge and their lives had already gone through irreversible changes. Tsvetaeva would commit suicide in 1941; Pasternak died in 1960 of cancer. Their poetic legacy, however, lives on stronger than ever.

Across all the worlds, all the nations, along all the roads
Always the two doomed never to meet.
(Rilke)

“Letters: Summer 1926” is a rare and unprecedented glimpse into the minds of three poets at differing stages of their career; the insight it gives into their thoughts on poetry, their ways of working and their beliefs is priceless and it reveals an incredible intensity of feeling between Pasternak, Tsvetaeva and Rilke. The tragedy is that they never met, although part of me thinks that might be safer and that they might have found a real, human encounter to be a little less cerebral than their correspondence.

What we began with remains unalterable. We have been placed side by side – in what we do with our lives, in what we die with, in what we leave behind. That is our destiny, a decree of fate. It is beyond our will. (BP)

The letters and commentary are enhanced in this edition with two essays by Tsvetaeva on Rilke, translated by Jamey Gambrell (who also rendered the poet’s “Moscow Diaries”). They’re essential reading for anyone with an interest in Marina as they shed much light on her beliefs and also her émigré life.

Do you know what I want – when I want? Darkness, light, transfiguration. The most remote headland of another’s soul – and my own. Words that one will never hear or speak. The improbable. The miraculous. A miracle. (MT)

The position of Pasternak and Tsvetaeva in the world of letters is not in doubt nowadays; Rilke I think tends to be more known for his only novel “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge”; however examples of all three poets’ work appear throughout the book which gives real insight into their conversations about their art. “Letters…” is an absolutely fascinating, engrossing and moving read, and I came out of it wanting to read nothing but works by the three poets for the next month of so (alas, ain’t going to happen…) One book I *do* have which I would like to spend some time with, however, is Pasternak’s “Safe Conduct”; this is referenced repeatedly through “Letters…” and when I popped online to check it out, Amazon informed me I’d bought a copy back in 2013. Handy that…

A glimpse into the heart and soul of a poet as intense and detailed as this is rare; “Letters: Summer 1926” is essential reading for anyone who loves even one of the three poets, but I also think it would be fascinating for anyone who wants to see the agonies a poet goes through to create their art. Emotionally draining, but vital…

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….in which an unexpected volume of poetry speaks to me… @saltpublishing

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If you’re on social media, you might have noticed a recent flurry of mad book buying in support of the lovely indie publisher, Salt. I was happy to pitch in to their #justonebook initiative because I love indie publishers – they’re friendly, approachable, produce wonderful books, are happy to deal with bloggers and keep the mainstream publishers on their toes by always taking risks and publishing works that might not end up in print elsewhere.

When I whizzed onto their site, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to pick up, as there’s such a wonderful selection of works. I’m quite awash with fiction at the moment, so I had a browse through their poetry section to see if there was anything which caught my eye. For some reason, Tim Cockburn’s “Appearances in the Bentinck Hotel” (first published in 2011) appealed – I can’t remember now if it was the cover, or a quote, or what – but I like slim volumes of poetry and so this one was the one I went for.

Cockburn is a completely new poet to me, and I haven’t been able to find out much about him online; in fact, this may be the only volume he’s published, although his works have featured in a number of journals, such as “Five Dials”. If that’s actually the case, it’s a great shame because I really did connect very strongly with his writing.

My tenderness has trodden on a three-pin plug.

The book contains 18 poems which range over the usual subjects such as life, love and loss; Cockburn is realistic yet romantic, and his works often touch an unexpected nerve despite what appears a deceptive simplicity.

I wondered whether I had such an empathy with the words because Cockburn often seems to be channelling his inner Philip Larkin – and of course I do love the latter’s poetry very much. Although his voice ranges far and wide (and “Immediately on Waking”,  a father’s dream about his grown-up daughters, was a particular stand-out) he often returns to Larkin as a touchstone; the last work in the book, entitled “A Girl in Winter” (after Philip’s novel) is very poignant.

So my Salty purchase turned out to be an excellent choice. Cockburn’s verses are still lodged in my brain quite a while after reading, and this collection has earned its place on my-ever growing poetry shelf. If Cockburn hasn’t published another collection I’m sorry about that, though I’m going to have a bit of an online dig – and I think I might well be exploring the Salt poetry books as well…

(I *have* managed to find a short, shaky video of Cockburn reading some of his poetry on YouTube, but nothing else really. A great shame – I like his work here a lot!)

Shuffling the shelves – again….. #books #MountTBR

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I had a minor bookish crisis at the weekend when I took a look at the piles of books all over my workroom (which holds most of Mount TBR) and realised that I had really lost track of what was in there. A quick rummage revealed not only several titles I had actually read, but also a great number I’m not planning to read immediately. I realised it was time for a shuffle (and those of you on social media might have seen this picture appearing…)

The main problem (which is the problem with *all* of the books in my house) is the randomness – the different types and authors and genres were all muddled together and that annoyed me on Sunday… So I resolved to have a bit of a sort and try to bring some order to the piles. Which took a little time…

The first thing I wanted to get organised was the poetry books and unfortunately they’ve had to be double shelved. This is the back row:

(You can see the general state of disarray on the other shelves while I sort things out).

And this is the front row when I’d done more shuffling:

This is, of course, not all the poetry I own. For example, all my Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes books are upstairs in the spare room that houses much of my collection. But I wanted to gather all of these together so they’re handy for dipping into – reasonable, no?

The next thing to do was to try to group the remaining books loosely together (and my sorting of books is always a little eclectic). This involved Books All Over The Floor, which always makes me a bit nervous – here are some of them:

The Russians, of course, took up a huge space of their own – I think they might be trying to take over….

Finally, after much shuffling and stress, things began to look more organised (if a little precarious at points):

And the main shelves have come together nicely:

The bottom shelf is Russians (and believe me, this is only a fraction of the Russian books I own). The next up is the poetry books. The third shelf up is slightly heavier tomes (not physically, but in content) including Penguin Little Black Classics, Penguin Great Ideas and lots of things from Verso and the like. And the top shelf has my Penguin Modern box, a number of books vaguely related to art and the French revolution, as well as my Iconoclasm books.

It seems that the Iconoclasm books have been quietly reproducing when I wasn’t looking…. 😀

Any road up, this group of books is now a little more orderly. I sent some images to the Offspring while I was mid-shuffle, and Middle Child commented that I had a book problem. I did remind her that I’ve never denied that (and if she knew how many books have spread into her old room, she’d probably have a fit…)

But never mind – I feel a bit clearer-headed about what’s on the immediate TBR and things are notionally together, which was the point of the exercise. Success! :)))))

“Know one thing: you will be old tomorrow….” @poetrycandle @PushkinPress

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Ten Poems from Russia
Selected and Introduced by Boris Dralyuk
Published by Candlestick Press in association with Pushkin Press

You might have seen me expressing great excitement recently all over social media about the arrival of this slim but gorgeous collection of Russian verse. That’s going to be no surprise to any passer-by of the Ramblings; I love Russian literature in all its shapes and forms, and it’s a country with a long and deep tradition of verse. You only have to look at the number of books of Russian poetry on my shelves to realise just how many great poets the country’s produced, and my collection only scratches the surface…

Candlestick Press are known for producing beautiful little themed booklets which are designed to send instead of a card; indeed, I’m pretty sure I have one based on “Mothers” which was gifted to me one Mothers’ Day (by Middle Child, if my memory doesn’t fail me). Candlestick have been championed by Dove Grey Reader, and she’s right to do so – personally, I think that anything which gets people reading more poetry is a Good Thing! Pushkin Press, of course, need no introducing – they publish the most wonderful books in translation, and are responsible for bringing some brilliant works to us; including all the wonderful Gazdanovs rendered by Bryan Karetnyk, as well as Boris Dralyuk’s excellent Babel translations and his “1917” anthology (one of my favourite reads of last year).

Any road up, that’s enough rambling – what do you actually *get* here? Well, you get a beautifully produced, A5 booklet with a stunning cover design, on quality paper and with a matching bookmark (for you to write a message on if you so wish) plus envelope. And the contents are equally stunning; ten poems from the Russians, expertly chosen, in some cases translated, and introduced by Boris Dralyuk. The authors range from Pushkin (of course!) through Akhmatova Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Pasternak et al up to Julia Nemirovskaya, a living poet. And each poem is a little gem. What particularly pleased me was the fact that there were poets new to me, including Nemirovskaya and Georgy Ivanov; and I was also pleased to see Nikolay Gumilyov featured, as I’m keen to read more of his work. Half of the works are translated by Dralyuk, the rest by Robert Chandler and Peter France; and some appear here translated for the first time, which is fab!

Akhmatova by Zinaida Serebriakova

It’s hard (and perhaps unfair) to pick favourites in any collection of works, so I won’t. But I *will* say that the Akhmatova is as stunning as she always is, with her poem on the fate of Russian poets, always menaced by “the shaggy paw of voiceless terror” (what imagery!) And I’m finding that the more I read of Tsvetaeva, the more I’m appreciating her writing; the poem featured here, “To Alya”, addressed to her daughter, is particularly stunning. But I’m not going to quote any of the poems because I want you all to go out a buy a copy of this… 🙂

Editor and translator Boris Dralyuk

Boris Dralyuk has themed his collection to capture the range of the Russian soul; from myth through terror, taking in art, love and life, the selection really does cover all the bases. In his introduction, he uses a rather beautiful image to describe what he’s trying to do with this anthology, that of leading you into a corridor with multiple enticing doors leading off; each one of which opens into a room full of wonders, and more doors… I was already in that corridor, having opened some of those doors; but what this marvellous little collection has done is offered me new doors to open, new poets to explore and more wonderful Russian verse which is always balm to the soul. If, like me, you love Russian poetry you should still buy this booklet because it’s such an illuminating collection; but if you’ve never read the Russians, it’s the perfect place to enter the corridor and begin your journey of exploration – you won’t be disappointed!

Some booky and arty digressions! (or; drowning in books….)

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Those of you who follow me on Twitter might have picked up that I’ve been having a bit of a clear out recently – the pile of books on the landing, known locally as Death Row, has been severely pruned and there are now boxes in the hallway waiting for a local charity shop to collect. Unfortunately, the pruning process wasn’t as rigorous as I might have wished, as I ended up reprieving a fair number of books – but at least the landing is now passable without danger of falling over a pile of volumes…

Needless to say, however, this somehow spurred on a burst of buying (and I’ve managed to pick up a couple of things locally). So in the spirit of sharing gratuitous book pictures with those who love them, here are some lovelies! 🙂

They come from a variety of sources, new and used, and are all tempting me to pick them up straight away to read…

First up, a couple of finds in the local Samaritans Book Cave – and as I mentioned when I posted images of them on social media, I had only popped in to ask about donating…. But the Wharton is one I’ve never seen before and it sounds fascinating. I do of course have the Colette already, but it’s a very old, small Penguin with browning crumbly pages which I’m a bit scared to read again. And I *do* want to re-read the Cheri books, so of course want to start reading both of these at once.

These two are brand new, pay-day treats from an online source (ahem). I basically couldn’t resist Bergeners as I’ve heard such good things about it (and as I posted excitedly on Twitter, I now own a Seagull Books book!) The Patti Smith was essential, as I have just about everything else ever published by her (including old and rare poetry pamphlets from the 1970s). I just discovered she has an Instagram account you can follow – how exciting is that????

Finally in the new arrivals, a recent post by Liz reminded me that I had always wanted to own a book issued by the Left Book Club. A quick online search revealed that Orwells are prohibitively expensive; but I rather liked the look of this one about Rosa Luxemburg and so it was soon winging its way to me.

I could of course start reading any of these straight away (but which one?); though I am rather suffering from lots of books calling for my attention at once. There’s the lovely pile of British Library Crime Classics I featured a photo of recently, as well as other review books. Then there is this enticing pile featuring some books I’m keen on getting to soon:

I’ve already started the Chateaubriand and it’s excellent; long and full of beautiful prose. I want to read more RLS, and I’m very drawn to New Arabian Nights. Then there is poetry – perhaps I should have a couple of weeks of reading only verse???

Finally, here’s an author who’s been getting a lot of online love recently:

I was pretty sure that I’d read Jane Bowles, and I thought it was “Two Serious Ladies” that I’d read – but apparently not… The pretty Virago above is a fairly recently acquisition; the short story collection is a book I’ve had for decades (it has an old book-plate I used to use); and so I’ve obviously never read Bowles’ only novel. So tempting.

And there is, of course, this rather daunting volume – Dr. Richard Clay’s book on “Iconoclasm in revolutionary Paris”, which is currently sitting on my shelf glaring at me as if to say “Well, you went through all that angst to get me, so damn well read me!”

Here it is on the aforesaid shelf, and as you can see it has a new heavyweight companion…

The new arrival is another Big Book on iconoclasm which has just come out in paperback. It’s obvious I need to give up work and find some kind of employment that will pay me just to read…

So, I’m really not quite sure where to commit my reading energies at the moment: do I read review books or follow my whim? Or let myself by swayed by other people’s suggestions or go for a re-read? Or go for Difficult but Fascinating? Decisions, decisions…

The Arty Bit

This post is getting a bit long, but anyway. Ramblings readers will probably have picked up that I love a good art exhibition, but I pretty much always end up travelling to London for them as not much seems to happen locally. However, OH (that great enabler) noticed that the nearest Big Town had an art gallery and it was showing a collection of contemporary Chinese art, so I popped over during the recent half term break.

I confess that I know little about Chinese art (probably more about Japanese art, tbh) but this was fascinating. The works are remarkable varied, some drawing on traditional Chinese methods and others embracing more Western techniques. I took quick snaps of a few favourites (I’m never sure if you’re allowed to take photos in galleries, though phone cameras seem to be acceptable).

It really is an eye-opener of an exhibition, and even had free postcards!

What was disappointing, however, was how quiet the gallery was in the middle of a half term week. I do feel that perhaps they need to give themselves a higher profile; I wasn’t sure I even knew there was a gallery there, although I now find myself questioning that because of a very strange incident. I was on my up the stairs in the gallery to the upper mezzanine level, and halfway up there is a big list on the wall of supporters and past volunteers. I was a bit surprised to notice, therefore, that Middle Child’s name was featured…. Especially as when I quizzed her about it she claimed to have no idea why it’s up there!

She is, however, the arty one of the family, and I suspect may have been involved in something there when she was at college doing art. But obviously having a bad memory run in the family.

Well. I’m sorry – this is a really long post (but then I do like to live up to my name and ramble….) Now I just need to focus and decide what to read next…

Dipping into Poetry

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I’ve been realising lately, as you might have noticed, that I do have a bit of a problem with unread books… And digging about has made me realize just how many of them are poetry books. I have a problem with reading this too, in that I find that I set out to read a whole volume in one go and that just isn’t working for me. It may be because the self-imposed discipline of writing about everything I read here means that I think I have to read a book, write about it and then move onto the next one. But that isn’t conducive to reading poetry I’m finding and so I may have to take a more dipping-in kind of approach.

And this is just a few of the titles I have on my shelves which are tempting me at the moment… It’s far from all of the poetry books I own – in fact, if I hauled all of them out of their other categories (Russians, Plath, Hughes, women etc etc) I reckon they’d take up a decent sized bookcase. *Sigh*.

As it’s my books we’re talking about there are of course going to be Russians. This is just a few of them: my lovely huge Mayakovsky book; Akhmatova; an Everyman collection Youngest Child gave me; a fragile early collection OH gave me; a Penguin post-war Russian poetry collection I’ve had since my teens; and the rather splendid Penguin Book of Russian. And yes – all very dippable.

There are Americans too… All the classic names I should be reading – or at least dipping into. I picked up the Frost and Lowell myself, but oddly had never owned Whitman until OH cleverly gifted me a copy.

Some 20th century greats: my beloved Philip Larkin (and actually I could probably happily sit down and read that one cover to cover); an old fragile Eliot I’ve had since the 1980s; and two Ezra Pounds. I know Pound turned into a reprehensible fascist, but some of his early stuff is amazing.

Some bits and bobs, now. Trakl comes highly recommended; Anne Sexton is essential; and Adrian Mitchell is a favourite British poet. If you’ve never seen the footage of him reading “To Whom it May Concern” aka “Tell Me Lies About Vietnam” at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965, go and search it out – it’s stunning, powerful stuff.

And finally, Daniil Kharms. Is this poetry? I don’t know, but what I’ve read of it is fragmentary and beautiful and intriguing, so I’ll count it in.

So I’ll be reading poetry, and I might share the odd thought or poem, but I can’t see myself doing regular reviews of fully read poetry collections or anthologies. I think by taking away any restrictions on myself and allowing myself this freedom, I’ll actually get a lot more poetry read and enjoyed. Off to do some dipping! 🙂

A bit of an epiphany

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In my spare time (what spare time, you might ask) when I’m not reading or wasting precious moments watching YouTube, I have an extreme fondness for BBC documentaries – BBC4 usually, but sometimes those on BBC2 and even BBC1 as well. And I have to say that I’ve been rather well-served over recent months.

Particular standouts were (and are – some are still ongoing) Richard Clay’s Utopia 3-part series on BBC4; the Alan Yentob BBC1 “Imagine” programme on Margaret Atwood; Simon Reeve’s “Russia” series; Suzy Klein’s BBC4 three-partner on classical music under totalitarian regimes; a sweet little half hour on the same channel covering Philip Larkin‘s sideline as photographer; and a veritable slew of fascinating programmes on poetry that hit the BBC at the beginning of the month.

The epiphany I refer to came during a fascinating look at W.H. Auden‘s work and its continuing resonances in our fractured times. I confess I’ve read very little Auden, so this was a real eye-opener featuring some amazing verse, some lovely comments from other writers (Alan Bennett was a treasure) and powerful reminders of just how relevant and immediate poetry can be.  I found myself responding quite emotionally to some of the work and it sent me off digging in the stacks, because I was sure I had an Auden book somewhere – and fortunately I do!

I think it arrived recently, and I can’t remember what prompted me to order it, but I’m very glad I did. I can see I shall be dipping into this volume and I thought I would share one particular verse that spoke to me (for obvious reasons, most likely…) and it’s called “Epitaph on a Tyrant”:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

I’d recommend tracking down any of these which are still available on the BBC iPlayer, as they don’t stay there forever. Meanwhile, I’m off to check the TV listings pages; because I find if I’m too tired to read but still want intellectual stimulation, BBC documentaries are just the ticket! 🙂

(And memo to self – you need to read more poetry!!!)

 

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