Butterfly kisses

As afternoon mellowed to evening, a skittish east wind began to play. And with it, the unmistakable smell of smoke made its now-nightly debut.

It seems some people get a kick from lighting fires on our tinder-dry moorlands and natural spaces.

Some in ignorance, perhaps, enjoying the freedom of wild camping, not appreciating how quickly a fire can spread in this dry weather (I’m being kind, I actually think it is the height of selfishness and stupidity).

But some – I find it hard to believe – do it deliberately. There have been arrests.

Emergency services are stretched and coming from far and wide. Dwindling supplies of reservoir water are being dumped by helicopters on widespread fires on peat that will burn – and burn – and burn.

That’s tens of miles away. But even here, in our beloved dunes and pines, a fire was started – and, thankfully, put out.

I just don’t get it.

But anyway. Back to my Sunday evening.

It was some hours since we had walked on our local dunes. I took with me my latest toy, a new old camera. New, in the sense that I bought it on Saturday, old as in second hand.

In fact, I think for once ‘pre-loved’ is a valid description. Although it’s electronic, with touch screen and megapixels, it came with an old leather carrying case, all the instruction booklets, the guarantee (long since redundant) and a lingering air of reluctant parting.

I was frowning over the manual when the prof went inside for the first of two pre-arranged  evening phone calls – this from a nephew who will be visiting him in Zambia this summer.

I gave up in exasperation and instead started examining the first crop of photos. And as I did so the battery ran out. Clearly I need a back-up.

It was then …

… but no, first, let me share our dune walk.

The soft, silky sand was hot underfoot, the going hard up the steep inclines. But early on we began to notice how varied the effects of the weather have been.

Beginning the walk, up the first hill, hot, soft, dry sand and the golf course fence bleached in the sun

While grasses were parched and bleached in most of the upper areas, there were also sides of dunes that were lush and green. Valleys with leafy trees and, as we discovered, cool remains of brimming pools in the dappled shade of the slacks.

A lush slope. the only telltale sign it’s a sand dune the paths rising up it

The slack I saw a couple of months ago now lessened but still a magnet for wildlife

We disturbed a large bird of prey, I saw only the shadow of its departing wings – the prof saw a yellow beak – and it flapped off to find better sanctuary. Or to hunt.

A chance feather left a clue to its identity.

Unfortunately the slack was also home to horse flies and we departed in a hurry.

The scent of honeysuckle wafted over us from time to time and pointilistic clumps of flowers spattered occasional bursts of colour amid the arid patches of sand.



We’re hoping these are tracks of a sand lizard – one of the protected species that ensure all this coast remains an SSSI – a Site of Special Scientific Interest

This fuzzball fell from the sky – sensible bird that dropped this one!

The neighbouring golf course looked dry. The golfers hot.

Sun trap for golfers

And though the views of the sea were glorious – if distant – an hour was enough. No beach walk beckoned, but rather our little plot, the pines, the birds, the butterflies and – phone calls.

And so it was, a cold beer in our local village and a selection of appetisers later, that I sat with my battery-devoid-phone, perusing the camera’s manual, when a little piece of wonder descended upon our outdoor table.

A small, pale brown butterfly settled on the booklet. My hand was sitting next to it, so rather than frighten the creature I left it there, in the hot sun that the butterfly – a rather moth-eaten (so to speak) Wall Brown – plainly craved. Their wings being organic solar panels, generating the heat that keeps their warmth-craving bodies happy.

And as I sat and watched, the butterfly moved. Adjourned to my hand.

I bent quite close and watched, but it seemed unperturbed.

And then.

It uncurled its little proboscis, into the gap between my ring finger – the one wearing a silver copy of Charlotte Bronte’s wedding ring – and my little finger.

I was a human reservoir! A secret reserve of salty water for my thirsty little companion.

The coiled and uncoiled strand of butterfly anatomy was so delicate, so tiny, so gentle, I felt nothing. Though I did feel the fleeting touch of the creature’s movements.

And as it finally flew, its wings brushing my hand, I was back on my mother’s knee. A child of four, or five, or six.

‘Give me a butterfly kiss,’ she would say, bending close, just as I bent over my butterfly.

And I would bat my lashes against her cheek.

I’ve always wondered if butterfly kisses were a ‘just our family’ thing.

But now, I know. They’re real.


If you are interested in the wider local wildfire situation, here’s a recent report from a Manchester newspaper.


Posted in Britain now & then, Lancashire & the golf coast, Nature notes, Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

The poet-tramp-novelist and the dragonfly

An old post of mine, brought to mind by the sad news of the death of Danny Kirwan of Fleetwood Mac, there’s a link to his magical song about the dragonfly in here.


No time to stand and stare. You know the quote, don’t you?

Or do you?

‘What is this life if, full of care/ we have not time to stand and stare?’

[A classic example of the importance of commas, btw, but that’s not what I’m writing about.]

It’s taken from a poem called ‘Leisure’, one of a series of ‘Songs of Joy’ by Welsh poet –and tramp and novelist – William Henry Davies. He died in 1940. The poem was published in 1911.

Among the vagaries of his life was an accident jumping freight trains in Canada that left him without a foot and needing a wooden leg. He came back across the waves at that point, living rough in London doss-houses, writing poetry, self-publishing at a time when it was far from easy.

Out of that experience he drew his book, ‘Autobiography of a Super-Tramp’ – which reminds me…

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The other side of beauty?

The grass could do with a trim. But there’s something stopping me taking out the push mower. I simply can’t do it.

It’s not because I’m tired after a long weekend spent in the company of friends I haven’t seen for years – though I am. It’s not because I can’t be bothered, though that does tend to happen. And it’s all the more likely when I know anthro-man willbe back soon and will see to it as a priority. He does like an orderly patch of grass.

Why then, this reluctance of one woman to go to mow our not-even-nearly a meadow?

It’s because of the jewels, the picture, the vignette nature has painted for me in one corner. I simply can’t disturb it.

The sun is fitful, but as I stand and stare, several paces away, it’s beaming full down on our little garden. Gorgeous colours glint where its rays fall. Jewel-bright flashes of emerald, sapphire, ruby. Well, not quite ruby. More a crimson mixed with scarlet which glistens, rather than glints.

The jewels are in motion. Rising and falling. But the red is still. Motionless. Resting on a lattice of ivory white bones.

Yes, bones.

There is a blackbird nest in the garden. Not very well sited, I fear. And here, in the corner, not far from that nest, are the raw red remains of a young one. Not a baby, not so small. A meatier size than that, a blackbird adolescent.

The feathers lie some distance away. Most of the flesh has been stripped, but the vibrant red remains offer plenty of sustenance for the flies.

I can’t go anywhere close, I know I would feel sick. Squeamish suburban westerner that I am.

But I still, reluctantly, see the beauty. I see it in a fleeting way, for a particle of time before my knowledge of the substrate kicks to the surface, the beginnings of admiration turning to disgust.

And I think of John Clare, a poet I find easy to read, and easy to admire.

Does knowledge of his troubled life and death in madness make his work more appealing to me? Or is it simply his vision of another world, a world more connected with all other living things?

Here is a poem I go back to now and then, fascinated by his innocent view of flies.

These tiny loiterers on the barley’s beard,

And happy units of a numerous herd

Of playfellows, the laughing summer brings,

Mocking the sunshine in their glittering wings,

How merrily they creep, and run, and fly!

No kin they bear to labour’s drudgery,

Smoothing the velvet of the pale hedge-rose;

And where they fly for dinner no one knows –

The dew-drops feed them not – they love the shine

Of noon, whose sun may bring them golden wine.

All day they’re playing in their Sunday dress –

Till night goes sleep, and they can do no less;

Then, to the heath-bell’s sunken hood they fly,

And like to princes in their slumber lie,

Secure from night, and dropping dews, and all,

In silken beds and roomy painted hall.

So merrily they spend their summer day,

Now in the cornfields, now the new-mown hay,

One almost fancies that such happy things,

With coloured hoods and richly burnished wings,

Are fairy folk, in splendid masquerade

Disguised, as if of mortal folk afraid,

Keeping their merry pranks a mystery still,

Lest glaring day should do their secrets ill.

Later in life, in Northampton Asylum, he wrote of ‘House or window flies’:

These little indoor dwellers, in cottages and halls, were always entertaining to me; after dancing at the window all day from sunrise to sunset they would sip of tea, drink of the beer, and eat of the sugar, and be welcome all summer long. They look like things of mind or fairies, and seem pleased or dull as the weather permits. In many clean cottages and genteel houses, they are allowed to creep, fly, or do as they like; and seldom ever do wrong. In fact they are the small and dwarfish portion of our own family, and so many fairy familiars that we know and treat as one of ourselves.

I wonder, would he have felt the same had he known the secret of the fly? Its hidden payload of life-threatening germs?

I also wonder, seeing jewels where Clare saw fairies, if jewels – the hard, cold ones we set in rings and regal treasures, crowns and tiaras – are equally ugly, or even cruel, beneath the glamour? Signifiers of conquest? ‘Mortals, mere mortals, look on us and beware.’

Blood diamonds, if they could speak, would surely answer yes. But perhaps the hard labour of the poor on which almost all jewel mining depends makes them all things of conflict, of pain, of darkness.

Beauty, feeding on pain.

I leave that thought with you.

Time to wash the dishes after breakfast. To bring some order back into the domestic chaos before the wanderer returns.

But I’m leaving the lawn, with the legacy left it by those beautiful birds, the magpies, to him.

The bowl hides a real well The garden is very small and we wanted nature to have a little more room so added this Corten steel bowl which the water boatmen love

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Student satisfaction – what does it take? And is it edible – sorry – ethical?

Student fees in England are high. And as someone who received a grant to study from a local authority – as almost all students did, back in the good ol’ days – I feel sorry for the youngsters who have to shoulder a debt into the world of work before they’ve even earned their first full-time, career-type-job pay cheque.


Today, yet again, stories of student dissatisfaction are in the news.

They don’t feel they’re getting value for money. Specifically, many of them, don’t rate the teaching and cite – irony of ironies (read on) – lack of contact hours.

And the more work they have to do, the happier they are, it seems.

Well, I thought those of you who studied before the advent of the internet might like to know – and marvel at – what resources today’s students have available to them at my husband’s university.

First, the online handbook, which is introduced to students at the beginning of the course. This details what the course they’ve chosen entails, its requirements, deadlines for assessment, essay questions, reading lists and timetables for classes, lectures, exams, dissertations, etc.

And everything on the reading lists, btw, should be accessible from the library at the click of a link.

Thus, it’s a doddle to find out, in an instant, what’s expected, when work is due and to access the resources needed to complete it.

Lectures are filmed – the lecturer wearing a mic to record the content.

I hate this idea. I’m sure it hampers a lecturer’s style, knowing throw-away, controversial remarks and dad (or mum) jokes are forever accessible online. Not to mention my own feeling that it’s dodgy in terms of copyright. Lecturing can require not just a lot of personal research (and constant updating) but plenty of original thought.

But never mind that now. Back to spoonfeeding.

So (to start this sentence as so many academics irritatingly do now) the lectures are available online if a student misses a class.

The PowerPoint slides are online.

The notes are online.

Thus, if the student fails to attend any lecture, the material is there to work from, no excuse.

So far, so good. And arguably, so valuable, yes?

Here are a couple of examples of what actually happens.

Student turns up to session, week before presentations are due. Previous week lecturer told students what’s expected – details of format, style and content – this is simply a reminder. OK?

So (again). Student arrives for class. Unusual in itself.

‘What’s the presentation about? What are we supposed to do?’ s/he asks. (I’m leaving personal pronouns vague on purpose.)

The subject was discussed in the previous week’s lecture. The actual lecture was online. The PowerPoint was online. The online handbook detailed what was required.

That same student is now applying for postgraduate courses.

With a lousy attendance record, you might think s/he would consider choosing a referee whose course s/he had attended diligently. And you might think s/he’d ask the lecturer first.

But no. A reference request arrives with no warning.

Now, cut this student some slack. S/he’s far from being the only one. And given all that’s available online, you might not be surprised attendance can be pretty poor.

So (getting used to this ‘so’ starting?) let’s move on, to assessment. Of lecturers and courses, not students.

Students are routinely asked to rate their lecturers and course material in end-of-course evaluations. It’s pretty much the norm in higher education and is used in deciding on the allocation of funds, curriculum development, performance rating of academics – and so on.

A brilliant first class student recently marked down my husband’s course because (wait for this) that student felt s/he had just done badly in a class test.

The students had access to a previous test online, had been given a detailed week by week review of topics to study – and this was all two weeks in advance (and filmed and available online).

The student actually received first class marks. But by the time s/he knew that, the damage was done.


So (I’m getting the hang of this), to return to the question of the title, what does it take for students to feel they have value for money, to rate their lecturers and courses highly?

I have the answer. It was reported in the i newspaper earlier this week.

Chocolate biscuits.

Dr Manuel Wenk, as reported in the i, is one of the authors of a study to be published in the journal Medical Education.  That study:

found that those groups who had received chocolate cookies evaluated their teachers as being significantly better than those who received nothing.

They also considered their teaching materials to be better and their scores for the overall quality of the course were significantly higher than those of the control group.

Dr  Wenk, according to the i:

warned that while the research may at first appear light-hearted, the fact that teacher evaluation could be so easily influenced revealed the “total inadequacy” of such important teaching surveys.

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

So (last one, promise), to return to the title once more, my advice to lecturers in England is: stock up on chocolate digestives, Choco Leibnitz, whatever.

In fact, why not invest in choux buns with fresh cream and chocolate icing? Or gateaux? You know there will be an escalation now the truth has been revealed, don’t you?

Whatever you do, feed ‘em – and watch your obese ratings swell your university’s rankings.

Birthday cake from April, made for the prof, in the form of an excavation square and stone tools. Just for illustrative purposes. No students were bribed as a result of ingestion of said cake 😉

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A couple of months in the ups and downs

An old English folk song inspired the title. And to cheer you into this largely pictorial post here it is, sung by Steeleye Span.

Those ups and downs are NOT the kind I’m referring to – I’ve never asked a young man to tie my garter and gone off with him to be naughty in an apple orchard. Well, not recently.

Moving on…

It’s been a while since I posted.

My typing fingers have been still. I’ve been loathe to engage with the news, what’s happening in the prof’s world, or friends. I’ve been – well let’s just say, I’ve not been in the mood.

The last two months I’ve felt as if I’m living by a large, dark lake dotted with glistening islands. The lakeshore being life in general, the glistening islands escapes and evasions.

Evasions don’t work. Nor do escapes. The lake and its shore are still there when I get back. But at least I can see them shining over the murk.

Now, though, it’s time to move on.

By way of catching up I’m posting a series of captioned pictures, taken on my glistening islands. Fast forwarding to the present.  And since some of you seem to like joining me on my rambles, I’d welcome your company.

My thanks to the weather gods who have smiled on us here in the rainy north west for the last few weeks. And my apologies to my blogging friends. I’ve not been commenting lately, I’m sorry. I hope to be back soon 🙂

Strands – and stranded


Way back in April I walked further along our local beach  than I’ve ever yet ventured – and it was glorious.

Lunching in the car, while male lifeguards wait for the female lifeguard to dress Yes that’s the only reason I took this picture showing half naked men


The view behind me after 20 minutes

A scattering of sea coal along the edge of the high tide

About 40 minutes from the car, utterly beautiful view to Formby around the point, but getting thirsty  so have to turn around



In May we went out early one morning, the prof and I and found a fisherman stranded, waiting for the tide.

The tide is out. Far out!

What’s going on? Is it shrimp fishing?

Oh dear no, he’s stranded. Was supposed to be 25 miles offshore now, fishing over one of the coast’s many wrecks

The tractor can’t get him out, they have to wait till the next high tide, still five hours away



Solitary, another day, I walked on our local estuarial marshes accompanied by a musical guard of honour from the skylarks. What a privilege.

Although this is green, it is a fisherman’s path and the tide does come right in sometimes. This is on the Ribble Estuary and way in the distance Blackpool is glistening across the other side

Five seconds-worth of larks ascending:


When all else fails, we have the longest iron pier in the country in the middle of town. It runs out across the main Southport beach, which often appears to stretch out to infinity. The beach is notorious for the sea being out of reach. But that and its hard-packed nature mean it has been important in the history of aviation and racehorse training.

The legendary racehorse Red Rum trained on the beach.

During World War II, Spitfires and Anson Bombers, repaired at nearby Hesketh Park aerodrome, took off from the beach. Dick Merrill made two transatlantic flights from the beach, in 1936 and 1937. Read the fascinating story of one of them here.

And I’ve written before about our spectacular annual air shows .

Sometimes essential for seeing the sea

Heading back to town and the marine lake

Elegance for dark days and nights

Dune world

My neighbours, Carole and John, introduced me to the dunes that wrap around us, amid the golf course which I wrote about here – and now I’m hooked. Carole recently told me I could start from the other direction, Ainsdale village – it’s wonderful!

We have precious few hills around here, so sand dunes are good training ground. The soft sand makes them doubly tough on flat-surface-walkers’ muscles

On one side of the path, nature resplendent…

… on the other, manicured golf world (I think it’s Hillside golf course which abuts Royal Birkdale)

But golf-world also allows this glorious bank of gorse and pine

Magical slacks (pools),  filigree branches, reflections and shadows amid spring’s burgeoning greenery

I was so thrilled to see these – having nearly stepped on them

Can you smell it? Ahhh!

The dandelion clock says it’s time to stop

Hills and witches

Pendle Hill has been a looming, brooding presence in my life for as long as I can remember.

The hill and its surrounding villages are associated with the infamous witch trials of 1612. A brief account of them, on Lancaster Castle’s website, can be found here.

For me, part of the superstition was that the hill was unclimbable. I suspect that was my parents trying to avoid having to do it. Now I have scaled the beast and crikey, it is a beast! I’m not a big walker, it took us four and a half hours to climb, recover, eat our sandwiches and get back down. Our knees and muscles made themselves known next day.

Picture from last June when we decided against the climb…

A good hiding place for a witch’s familiar?

It is spring, after all, so we must have lambs

Through several farms, thinking – it’s further than I thought… But definitely on the witches’ trail

Uphill becomes a little steeper now and a warning to heed

Nearly there, one of many catching-my-breath stops

A panorama:

This couple with the sheepdog found the best spot for lunch

The other side of the hill – a view from our lunch spot

Breaking my self-imposed rule by posting a picture of myself, but I was just SO proud I made it!

About a third of the way down the ‘easy’ route down the main slope. See those people up there, marked by the little arrow I drew? They scrambled straight down the hillside… bonkers

Meadows and woods

One of my ‘charms’ – the special places I  wrote about earlier this year, is Lunt Meadows, a Lancashire Wildlife Trust nature reserve.

I’ve learnt, in the last year, to accept that special places set aside by humans for ‘nature’ will sometimes be managed – aka brutalised – and then I need to give them a break. Lunt Meadows is one such. But now it’s recovering from savage cutting-back and drainage management. And it’s a wonderful place to be on a quiet day with the birds of the air calling – and the wind in my newly-short hair.

A big drainage ditch – rather lovely I think, especially as the swifts and swallows squeal up above

Drainage ditches are essential to this meadow environment where cows often graze

Path to who knows what – for elves and pixies, satyrs and dryads

The joy of small things that pass and change and keep the world turning

And so back to the car park and the material world…

Romans and rivers

Ribchester in Lancashire is well known by northern Roman history enthusiasts – and possibly by others too 😉 My father’s friend and erstwhile headmaster at St Mary’s College Blackburn, Father Philip Graystone, wrote books on Roman roads (they are still for sale in the museum there). As a child I clearly remember scratching my head on a rusty barbed wire fence as we went on yet another picnic with him, looking for Roman remains.

It’s a beautiful area. We were lucky, recently to stay on the edge of the village, on the banks of the River Ribble from which the village gets its name. The ‘chester’ bit being from the Roman for camp – castra.

The Roman name of the garrison and civilian settlement, which was subordinate to Chester and lasted from 70 AD to the fourth century, was Bremetennaceum.

Looking towards Pendle on the banks of the Ribble not far from our b&b

Doves seeking shade at Stydd Gardens, a lovely relaxed restaurant in old glasshouses near the village

The Roman bath house at dusk – not a great picture, sorry

Did a little princess leave this slipper after bathing?


Roman granary behind the church

Tombstone of an Asturian cavalryman

Lice, nit combs and something phallic 😉


Here’s the eerily lovely Ribchester Parade helmet – a replica – rotating in its display case. The real thing is in London of course 😦

River Ribble a short walk over the other side of our b&b

A perfect Sunday morning in England, sun shining church bells ringing:


And finally, for those who believe Lancashire is all mills and clogs. Clitheroe, on a sunny Sunday morning in May, clog dancers at t’owd mill

Tall ships sailing

I’ll leave the day I spent on a typesetting course for another time – if you’ve made it this far I’d be surprised!

To finish with, then, please enjoy last Monday’s glorious, sunny spectacle – the Tall Ships ‘a-leaving of Liverpool’ and setting off for Bordeaux. Lowry would have loved it. And yes, he painted the sea, the seaside and landscapes – not just matchstick men.

One of Anthony Gormley’s Iron Men kindly acting as a seagull perch

Wheely good fun

Bon voyage!

Posted in Art, jaunts & going out, Britain now & then, Lancashire & the golf coast, Liverpool | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

“O Word of Fear”

It’s been a very long time. Not since the mid-1990s in fact. And that was at a small, rural sewage treatment works in Wiltshire.

Rural sewage treatment works tend to be havens for wildlife – and also quiet, hard to find (no sat navs then) and occasionally it’s only possible to depart by reversing down winding, hedge-blinkered, narrow lanes.

In days of yore, figs and tomatoes often grew at rural works, thanks to processes of nature we can all imagine. And before the days when time was money, some of the men who worked the works grew fruit and vegetables with duly aged ‘manure.’

But what I experienced in Wiltshire that memorable day was not the sight of a rare flower (as there are at some sites), nor of a small, rare four-legged animal (ditto) but a sound. The sound of an elusive creature I could not see.

A cuckoo.

Yesterday, somewhat depressed, as seems to be my fate these last few weeks (don’t mention the kitchen) I took myself out to the local sand dunes, adjoining Royal Birkdale Golf Club.

We’re lucky here, the entire coastal fringe of Sefton is protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest – an SSSI.  For which we partly have our famous links golf courses  to thank, for keeping them unbuilt-upon.

The afternoon was moving on to evening, but still the spring sun poured warm libations onto my head as I strode past windswept trees and into the warm, grass covered mounds.

The fence is there because sometimes cattle or sheep are brought in to graze

The sand was soft and golden underfoot. Walking was hard work. But the world was beautiful.

A mile or so down the coast by the beach at Ainsdale this is how the dunes look

Bluebells danced their tethered dance, dappled through trees with leaves unfurling fresh and lush with sap.

Tawny tassels swung from birches. Pink-and-white blossom itched to break free.

Birds sang, dogs ran. People said ‘hi’ or ‘hello’ – or even, ‘good afternoon’.

Then I reached a place where no-one was. No dogs. No people. Just trilling birds, stands of gorse emitting waves of sharp, coconut-like scent. And me.

And then came a sound.

A word of fear, “unpleasing to a married ear.”

A cuckoo.

I thought it would be a fleeting call – that it would stop the instant I heard it, But no.

Cuck-oo, cuck-oo.

And I was back in the parquet-floored assembly hall of St Cuthbert’s Junior School, Bradford. Singing:

“When daisies pied and violets blue

And ladies smocks all silver white

And cuckoo buds of yellow hue

Do paint the meadows with delight,

The cuckoo then, on every tree,

Mocks married men;

For thus sings he,


Cuckoo, cuckoo: O word of fear

Unpleasing to a married ear.”

[Shakespeare, Love’s Labours Lost, Act V Scene ii]

And I was happy.

But even better, the invisible singer cuckooed on.

I lifted the little red picture machine clasped in my hand, pressed ‘record’ – and hoped for the best.

Which is why, today I can share my burst of joy with you all.

Relish the moment.

I still do.

Happy May day, one and all.



Posted in Lancashire & the golf coast, Nature notes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Over on my nerdy site…

I’ve published a post on my other site, the one where I express my nerd-like interest in things being made or done in Britain, about a printing company in Lancashire that has the last Intertype line-casting machine ever made. A machine which was in use with the Guardian newspaper till 1987. It’s not only a rare beast, but rarer still to find anyone who can operate it. Plus, it’s being used to typeset my Little Match Girl story. Which will then be letterpress printed.

Here’s the link if you’re interested:


That’s all!


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