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Etymology of vagabondage

27 Feb
Leatherman

The Leatherman (ca. 1839–1889) was a vagabond famous for his handmade leather suit of clothes, who traveled a circuit between the Connecticut River and the Hudson River, roughly from 1856 to 1889.

Taken to task by a reader over the complicated etymology of vagabondage, I realise the need for another post on the subject.

In an earlier post I referred to the cirujas of Buenos Aires, otherwise known as cartoneros, those nocturnal seekers-out of trash bins, whose primary task is to find materials for recycling (plastic, cardboard, paper etc). Cartoneros are a sub-category of ciruja, a professional scavenger of all types of object for which a use or purpose can be made. That is why I likened the ciruja to a kind of street alchemist, seeking out base metal to transmute into gold. But I can see, as I was chided, that there is nothing especially poetic about this.

Whereas with the linyeras, there is. The definition of linyera given in my dictionary of  lunfardo (Buenos Aires slang) is: “Persona vagbunda, abandonada y ociosa (idle), que vive de variados recursos (living off a variety of resources).” The word originally comes from the Piedmontese linger, which meant “a posse of tramps”. These fit the more romanticized notion of the classical vagabond, moving around the country (or the globe) without direction or purpose, usually associated in North America with the hobo, whose preferred means of travel was jumping trains, an occupation which was until not so long ago manageable in Europe also, but which has now become as obsolete as hitchhiking.

One still sees a posse of tramps drinking from bottles or flagons in any French town or city. These, of course, are clochards. A clochard or clocharde is a person “without fixed domicile, living from public charity and handouts.” The term clochard allegedly means ‘one who limps’ from the Late Latin cloppus (lame), but I have also heard that the term comes from the ringing of a bell (cloche) which in earlier times – when most cities in France were fortified – signalled that it was time for the indigent and poor, who could not afford lodging in town, to leave the city and go sleep in a field or a barn. To my mind, a clochard is somewhat different from a vagabond. A clochard might not venture from a known neighbourhood, while for a vagabond, the world is his lobster (sic).

According to French Wikipedia “Des vagabonds célèbres ont existé, par exemple GandhiNietzscheLanza Del Vasto, et d’innombrables philosophes-vagabonds.”

To be continued. Any contributions welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flying Pigs

12 Jan

Dame Carcas

Pursuing the porcine theme, I recall a couple of weeks spent slumming it in the city of Carcassonne, and being much amused by the legend of Dame Carcas, which goes something like this: In 760, Pepin the Short (love those medieval sobriquets), King of the Franks, re-conquered most of southern France from the Saracen invader. But Carcassonne held out. There was a long siege. The enterprising Dame Carcas, widow of the Lord of the castle, devised a strategy to save the city. She fed the last remaining pig with the last remaining sack of grain and had the unfortunate beast tossed from the ramparts, to indicate to the besieging army that food was plentiful within the city walls. According to the Carcassone city council’s tourist office pamphlet: “the astonished assailants concluded that the inhabitants still had enough food in stock to stave off famine and weren’t about to surrender any time soon. And so they gave up and quickly lifted the siege. Dame Carcas rang all the bells of the city all day long to celebrate the victory. Legend has it that Dame “Carcas sonne” (Dame “Carcas rings”) is where the name of the city came from.”

The only other incident I know relating to an airborne pig takes place in Graham Greene’s short story ‘A shocking accident’, in which an English schoolboy, Jerome, is summonsed to the study of his housemaster, Mr Wordsworth, to be told that his father has had a terrible accident. Assuming, wrongly, that his father has been shot – Jerome worships his father and has fantasised a life for him in the British Secret Services – he is disappointed to discover that he met with a rather more exotic end:

‘Did they shoot him through the heart?’

‘I beg your pardon. What did you say, Jerome?’

‘Did they shoot him through the heart?’

‘Nobody shot him, Jerome. A pig fell on him.’ An inexplicable convulsion took place in the nerves of Mr Wordsworth’s face; it really looked for a moment as though he were going to laugh. He closed his eyes, composed his features and said rapidly as though it were necessary to expel the story as rapidly as possible. ‘Your father was walking along a street in Naples when a pig fell on him. A shocking accident. Apparently in the poorer quarters of Naples they keep pigs on their balconies. This one was on the fifth floor. It had grown too fat. The balcony broke. The pig fell on your father.’

Mr Wordsworth left his desk rapidly and went to the window, turning his back on Jerome. He shook a little with emotion.

Jerome said, ‘What happened to the pig?’

I am sure there must be third airborne pig, somewhere in history or legend or literature, but cannot bring it to mind. If anyone knows what it is, please do post.

 

 

 

 

Unsolved murder mystery

28 Dec

One of the benefits of being a late starter (or re-starter) in the field of literary studies, is that I sometimes dip into standard works and pick up on items that made little sense to me on first reading. Take, for example, Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, which must have first come to my attention as an undergraduate student of anthropology, many years ago. I took it to bed with me the other evening and flicked through, landing on ‘Dominici, or the Triumph of Literature’, an item that leads to one of those chain reaction searches through Google until I land up with Jean Giono, who is a favourite of mine, and who wrote on the Dominici affair at the time it hit the news in 1952.

 

Sir Jack Drummond, wife Ann and daughter Elizabeth

 

The brief version of what happened:

On August 5, 1952, a family of English campers – Sir Jack Drummond, his wife, Lady Ann, and their ten-year-old daughter, Elizabeth – were found murdered at the side of Route 96 near Lurs, in the Alpes-Haute Provence department. A few yards from the scene of the crime stood a farmhouse that belonged to a formidable old character, Gaston Dominici, aged 75. The man had his own peculiar grandeur, a mixture of illiteracy, severity, and violence. The case attracted much attention and risked pushing France (which was undergoing a bloodletting in Indochina) back through the years to the traumatic divisions of the Dreyfus affair.

Sir Jack, a well-known nutritionist, who classified vitamins in the way they are recognized today, and helped devise UK rationing in World War Two had been in the British Intelligence Service during the war.

In the attack both Drummond and his wife suffered multiple gunshot wounds. Their daughter Elizabeth’s head had been crushed by the butt of the rifle that had been used to shoot her parents. Two of Dominici’s sons accused their father of the triple murder; the accused in turn suspected one of the sons and a grandson. On November 17, 1954, a few days after the start of the rebellion in Algeria, the trial of Gaston Dominici began; it ended ten days later when he was sentenced to death. The Court of Assizes in Digne was crowded with European journalists, including Jean Giono. Paul Morand, Roland Barthes, and Orson Welles were all present or wrote about it. Many people had the immediate impression that everything was a fix-up. When the truth seemed close to emerging during the trial, the chief judge was quick to interrupt or divert attention.

Gaston Dominici, a farmer and shepherd born in 1877, had lived all his life, apart from his military service in the Chasseurs des Alpes, more among animals than among men. He was practically illiterate and did not understand the elegant French of the chief judge and the state attorney. He hesitated at their questions, confused the meanings of words, and these facts were falsely taken for symptoms of guilt. His lawyer seemed unable to organize a logical line of defense, but after the sentence even the minister of justice had doubts and ordered a useless supplementary investigation. It was necessary to safeguard against risks, however, and therefore the death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. In 1960 General de Gaulle granted his release, but not a pardon. Protesting his innocence to the end, Dominici died on April 4, 1965, in a hospice in Digne, after his farm had fallen prey to creditors. His modest grave is not far from the place of rest of the three Drummonds.

Gaston Dominici in court

Speculation has since mounted about the real cause for the murders, and the possible explanations include (a) that since Drummond was an SOE operative during World War Two, the murder was a settling of scores from the period of the Nazi occupation; (b) that Drummond and his family was the victim of a Soviet KGB hit-squad; (c) that as a senior government adviser and research scientist, Drummond was either engaged in, or else was the victim of industrial espionage, and (d) the family was murdered in a random assault by a German-based criminal gang en route to rob a jewellery store in Marseilles. This last theory seems to me the most compelling for a number of reasons, and a full account appears here.

A BBC East Midlands documentary came to its own conclusions, but makes no mention of the German gang. If, as seemed likely at the time, Drummond did fall victim to a KGB hit-squad, and the French government then in power knew this, Dominici appears precisely in the light in which he presented himself: as the sacrificial lamb on the altar of the state. Paris could not, in the middle of the Cold War and at the height of the Indochina crisis, admit that the Soviets could have assailed some foreign citizens in the very heart of France. But this seems a far less likely explanation than the one involving the criminal gang on their way to a job, who happen upon the family and think there might be additional spoils for the taking. Against the background of all this speculation stood a primitive shepherd who, as Jean Giono noted, seemed to have stepped out of one of Virgil’s bucolic odes.

Whatever the eventual resolution, if there is one, for now – and possibly forever – the Dominici case remains unresolved.

 

 

 

 

 

Montaigne and the acceptance of uncertainty

28 Sep
Portrait of Michel de Montaigne

Image via Wikipedia

The essay, we are being told, is back. An editorial in The Guardian on 5 May celebrates the alleged event and announces a new specialist publisher, Notting Hill Editions, which has released a range of cloth-covered hardbacks, ranging from Samuel Rogers to Georges Perec. However, many of us never suspected that the essay had gone away. This discursive genre, in which the author is given space to explore a more or less impressionistic or apparently random cascade of ideas rather than provide a detached and critical analysis of a particular topic, has a considerable history, but can be traced – unlike any other literary genre – to a single individual, a minor French aristocrat of the sixteenth century named Michel de Montaigne (1533-92).

Sure, there had been comparable examples of introspective or speculative prose writing before him, notably by the Italian scholar and poet Petrarch (1307-74) and, at a stretch, Machiavelli (1469-1527), but Montaigne was the first modern essayist in two very particular ways. He was the first to apply the word ‘essai’ from the French verb ‘essayer’, and from which the English assay – meaning an ‘attempt’ – was a simple step; and his unique contribution to world literature was that he made himself the subject of his own work: he was the first to bring the spotlight onto himself as the topic of his writing, or, as Aldous Huxley put it in the preface to his own collected essays, to deliver ‘fragments of reflective autobiography’ and to ‘look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description’. Nearly five hundred years on, we find that the genre that Montaigne began, of self-reflexive prose in which the thoughts and actions of an individual constitute the subject matter and determine the direction of the writing, marks out a lineage that leads directly to the contemporary infatuation with autobiographical writing; the glut of misery memoirs, ‘sick lit’, confessional and celebrity memoirs with which the publishing industry is obsessed, not to mention the contemporary trends of blogging, social networking and twittering. By no means should Montaigne be blamed for these terrible things, but we might consider that in some important ways he started it all.

Montaigne has thus become extremely interesting to publishers, and the two books I have before me reflect the wide appeal that this Renaissance gentleman has to a twenty-first century readership. Both books have long and unwieldy titles. But Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: a life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer is very good indeed, while Saul Frampton’s When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me: Montaigne and being in touch with life, although not without virtues, is filled with unfortunate and confusing turns of phrase, as well as numerous errors of editing and proofreading, and falls far behind Bakewell in both content and prose style.

Montaigne has had a long and interesting relationship with posterity. While his works brought him instant fame in sixteenth-century France, and were translated into English shortly after the author’s death, he fell foul of the Catholic church on account of his libertarian attitudes and relaxed morality, upsetting major French philosophers of the seventeenth century such as Pascal and Descartes. His work was placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books in 1676, remaining banned for nearly two hundred years. Although the French libertins adopted him and he was praised by Voltaire (and plagiarised by Rousseau), it was not until Nietzsche that Montaigne found a true descendant, one who called him ‘this freest and mightiest of souls’ and who would write: ‘That such a man wrote has truly augmented the joy of living on this earth.’ Montaigne lived, says Bakewell, as Nietzsche would have liked to live, questioning everything and yet managing to live his own life in a way that held no regrets – ‘If I had to live over again, I would live as I have lived’ is a favourite and enviable quotation. Everything, says Bakewell, that ‘most repelled Pascal about Montaigne – his bottomless doubt, his ‘sceptical ease’, his poise, his readiness to accept imperfection’ were precisely those things that appealed to Nietzsche and which impress Montaigne’s fans today. At the man’s centre lay a pervasive scepticism, allied to a warm and humane engagement with the day-to-day; a hatred of cruelty; a profound but unsentimental love of nature and of animals, and an irrepressible curiosity about other societies and their customs. Montaigne is also known as an epicurean and a stoic in the mould of Marcus Aurelius (to which, as both authors point out, he adhered less stringently as the years went by).

His brand of philosophy – preferring to offer details wrapped in anecdote rather than expounding abstractedly – has a distinctly un-French edge to it that has always been popular in Britain, and his fan base ranges from Thomas Browne to Virginia Woolf, who admired him above all for his insistence on perpetually observing his immediate environment, his emotions and his interactions with the world.

The influence that Montaigne may or may not have had on Shakespeare has generated a considerable amount of speculative scholarship, based largely on a speech of Gonzalo’s in Act Two of The Tempest, which repeats, almost verbatim, an extract from Montaigne’s essay ‘On Cannibals’. Shakespeare almost certainly knew John Florio, Montaigne’s English translator, and Montaigne’s influence has not only been discerned on the soliloquies of Hamlet – which would suggest that Shakespeare had sight of Florio’s translation before publication – but with greater assurance in the general tendency of Shakespeare’s later work towards a reflexive mode centred on the ever-questioning interlocutor. The uncertain or bewildered protagonist, suffering (or flaunting) a surfeit of experiential anxiety, was an entirely new phenomenon in literature, and according to Bakewell locates Montaigne and Shakespeare as ‘the first truly modern writers, capturing that distinctive modern sense of being unsure where you belong, who you are, and what you are expected to do.’

A further similarity between Montaigne and Shakespeare is what the critic Jonathan Dollimore has called ‘a form of self-consciousness which implies simultaneous awareness of experience and the experiencing self’ as well as in the kind of relativism, according to Richard Wilson, which arises in both writers ‘from their sensation of the contingency of beliefs’. This is encapsulated, in both men’s work, in their interiority. In Montaigne, it takes a pronounced, monological turn at times:

I turn my gaze inward. I fix it there and keep it busy. Everyone looks in front of him; as for me, I look inside of me; I have no business but with myself; I continually observe myself. I take stock of myself, I taste myself… I roll about in myself.

And yet this is not solipsism – the state in which only the self exists or can be know – but something closer to Hamlet’s self-observation in the famous soliloquies. The image of Montaigne ‘rolling about in himself’ is nicely a propos, especially given his fondness for dogs (and indeed his love of animals of all kinds). Montaigne famously refers to his cat in one of his essays (and in the title of Frampton’s book), but his weakness in giving in to his dog’s playfulness earned him Pascal’s disdain:

I am not afraid to admit that my nature is so tender, so childish, that I cannot well refuse my dog the play he offers me or asks of me outside the proper time.

Montaigne also displays an unusually compassionate rapport with others – an identification with otherness that extends not only to the Protestant ‘enemy’ within sixteenth-century France (for which he was rebuked and mistrusted by fellow-Catholics during the long period of civil conflict through which he lived) but also to other human tribes. He was struck by the beliefs of the Brazilian Indians whom he encountered at the king’s court in Rouen, who ‘spoke of men as halves of one another, wondering at the sight of rich Frenchmen gorging themselves while their ‘other halves’ starved on their doorstep.’ Furthermore, beyond his interest in cats and dogs, there is an almost pagan feel for, or identification with the natural world and animal life, something which provides Bakewell with one of her most interesting asides. While discussing Montaigne’s influence on Virginia Woolf, and both writers’ insistence on ‘paying attention’ in a way that eschews habitual modes of perception and categorisation, she cites Woolf’s diary of 1919:

I remember lying on the side of a hollow, waiting for L[eonard] to come & mushroom, & seeing a red hare loping up the side & thinking suddenly ‘This is Earth Life.’ I seemed to see how earthy it all was, & I myself an evolved kind of hare; as if a moon-visitor saw me.

Bakewell observes that this ‘eerie, almost hallucinatory moment’ enabled Woolf to see herself as part of a continuum, as essentially nature-bound – this is Earth Life – in a way that would not be remotely possible to an observer whose eyes were ‘dulled by habit’. The overcoming of habitual responses lies at the heart of Montaigne’s challenge. ‘Habit’ according to Samuel Beckett, ‘is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit’: and it is precisely what Montaigne seeks to uncover and dismantle in his essays. He does this in various ways, but one of his favourites is to run through apparently marvellous and diverse customs from distant cultures in order to convince his readers that what they take for granted is only a matter of what they are accustomed to. As he himself put it: ‘Everyone calls barbarity what he is not accustomed to.’ His essay ‘Of Custom’ discusses, by turn, the question of whether or not one should blow one’s nose into one’s hand or into a piece of linen; how in a certain country no one apart from his wife and children may speak to the king except through a special tube; how in another land ‘virgins openly show their pudenda’ while ‘married women carefully cover and conceal them’; how in other (unspecified) locations the inhabitants ‘not only wear rings on the nose, lips, cheeks and toes, but also have very heavy gold rods thrust through their breasts and buttocks’; how in some nations ‘they cook the body of the deceased and then crush it until a sort of pulp is formed, which they mix with wine, and drink it’; where it is a desirable end to be eaten by dogs; where ‘each man makes a god of what he likes’; where flesh is eaten raw; where they live on human flesh; where people greet each other by putting their finger to the ground and then raising it to heaven; where the women piss standing up and the men squatting; where children are nursed until their twelfth year; where they kill lice with their teeth like monkeys; where they grow hair on one side of their body and shave the other. By blasting his reader with these numerous examples of apparent strangeness, Montaigne makes them question the practices which they habitually regard as unquestionable and normal in a new light. Indeed, he raises many of the issues that cultural anthropology began to tackle four centuries later, and he can safely be regarded as an early relativist. When he had the opportunity to speak with some American Indians from Brazil, the Tupinambá tribe, of which a delegation was brought before the court at Rouen, he was not simply concerned with ‘observing’ them, as though they were rare specimens of primordial life: he was much more interested in recording their amazement at their French hosts. ‘Watching them watch the French’ says Bakewell, ‘was an awakening, like Virginia Woolf’s on the hillside’.

Bakewell’s interpolation of the life story with aperçus of the kind with Woolf, and elsewhere with Nietzsche, adds considerably to the weave and texture of her account. I finished her book feeling as though I had thoroughly shared in a deeper understanding of Montaigne’s work. Hers is a rare achievement. It is a shame then that I cannot similarly compliment Frampton’s book. An example of their distinct approach to subject matter might be illustrative.

All commentators are agreed that Montaigne’s awakening as a writer came about through his friendship with a colleague and fellow counsellor in the Bordeaux parliament, Etienne de La Boétie. The two men were inseparable friends for four years, and then La Boétie died. Montaigne’s grief was intense and long-lasting, and he would write of their friendship: ‘If pressed to say why I loved him, I feel that it cannot be expressed, except by saying: because it was him; because it was me.’ The line is a unique and moving testimony to friendship. But while Bakewell is content to regard La Boétie as Montaigne’s ‘literary guardian angel’, looking over his shoulder during the composition of the essays, Frampton tediously – and without any evidence – insists on the possibility of a sexual relationship between the men. Not that it matters, of course: but really, why should we care? Why can’t we simply accept that this is at least a possibility, rather than having to indulge this prurient and weary conjecture that amounts to little more than anachronistic gossip-mongering?

But this, alas, is only one of Frampton’s failings: on page 29 we learn that the town of Agen is to the south-west of Bordeaux (placing it firmly in the Bay of Biscay), but on the next page it has moved (correctly) to the south-east of Bordeaux; on page 33 a painting is being described in which ‘One of [the men] is dressed as a Roman solder (sic), the other wearing the gown of a dying man.’ What, one wonders, is ‘the gown of a dying man?’ Must one know that one is dying before wearing such a garment? Or does the wearing of such a gown somehow condemn one? And there is more: discussing how plague ravaged the countryside in the 1580s, we are suddenly and randomly informed about an alleged event that took place at the opposite end of France: ‘At Ales near Lille in 1580, a young man called Jehan le Porcq died of a contagious illness, spending his final days in a shed at the bottom of his father’s garden.’ And on page 83 we learn that ‘a fog descended over northern Europe… It covered the Rhine… scaled the high walls of Oxford and surrounded Aristotle.’ There is far too much of this kind of nonsense. Moreover, the text is littered with failures of meaning, failure of tense agreement, errors of punctuation, and missing words. Frampton must take a large chunk of the blame, but surely Faber and Faber employ editors and proofreaders?

We should therefore be doubly grateful that Bakewell’s book provides an articulate and sympathetic introduction to the man and his work; but for anyone seriously wishing to make the acquaintance of a writer renowned for his self questioning rebuke ‘What do I know?’ – pre-empting postmodernity’s chronic self-doubt, but with a leavening of subtle humour, even at times hilarity – the Essays are a delight in store.

 

 

This post first appeared as a review article in the latest issue of New Welsh Review, a magazine full of good and interesting things. In fact why not subscribe here.

 

 

 

 

An Aleph in my hand

14 Aug

'Aleph Sanctuary' by Mati Klarwein

Drove up to the Gers, in France, to visit the brother. It is a four-hour drive in our old Citroën, which starts rattling if required to exceed about 75 mph. It is hot, and the car has no air conditioning, so we leave early. The autoroute up to Toulouse is very dull, but once you get on the B roads west of the city the countryside is fine and lovely, with rolling hills and great fields of sunflower and of maize unravelling to the horizon.

A corn field in Liechtenstein. Keywords: Field...

Image via Wikipedia

Now maize, or corn, has a special place in Blanco’s heart. For two summers, in 84 and 85, I worked in the maize fields of the Gers on the annual castrage, or castration The picture on the right, incidentally, is of a maize field in Lichtenstein, not the Gers, but one maize field looks pretty much like any other). The odd practice of castration, which was explained to me countless times but which I never fully understood, involves ripping the male part from its socket high on the plant’s stem, and casting it away, which ensures that the next year’s crop will not be contaminated with bâtards, or bastards. Little bastards, or salauds, I used to call them. Back in the day, the work would be done by teams of migrant workers or else down-and-outs like myself eager for a few days work in the fields in convivial company and with good pay. Often the work would come with board and lodging. The Gers is also a wine (and Armagnac) producing region, so there was always plenty to drink. I have very fond memories of those two summers castrating maize, even though the work could be very dull, walking down those interminable rows, ripping out all those male genitals and tossing them away. Of all the most meaningless jobs I have done, the castration is pretty high up on the list. Because of the utter tedium it inspired, I once had a fantasy of discovering an aleph while working on the maize. Of feeling my toes come into contact with something cold and hard and round, stooping to pick it up, and finding I held an aleph in my hand.

Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. An aleph, for those of you who have not read Borges, is a small and miraculous construct that contains within it the entire content of the universe (and all possible universes). Put another way, an Aleph is a point in space that contains all other points. Within it can be seen everything in the universe from every angle simultaneously, apparently without distortion, overlapping or confusion. It is, as you might imagine, incredibly heavy to hold in one’s hand. As you might also imagine, finding an aleph is a pretty rare thing, certainly not an everyday affair. Finding one in a field of maize, then, would have constituted a considerable improvement to the outcome of a day’s work. But it never happened. Maybe, one day, I will have to put it in a book instead. I have however, written a piece about working on the maize, which I reproduce below, with apologies to those who were listening when I said I was not going to use the blog simply to flaunt my own literary creations – Did I say that? Am I imagining it? – but since I am in the Gers this fine Sunday morning, and since Riscle is a real town in this département, I thought I should include it.

 

Riscle

The maize fields are vast and sad in the wind. The tops of the plants bend unwillingly. I know what happens here. It has always remained a secret until now. But for the sake of friendship I will tell you. In July, the castrators will come. They will rip out the genitals of the male plants, so that the females cannot be impregnated and raise bastards. At least, that is what the locals tell the workers. The real story of the maize is more violent still. Groups of young men and women meet after dark, drink absinthe, and fuck beneath the summer moon. In the morning, tired and spent, they retire to the Café D’Artagnan for coffee with milk and croissants. They are recruited by farmers, who drive them to the maize fields. There they begin the tedious task of le castrage. The young men begin to feel uncomfortable with this de-seeding of the male plants. Their discomfort translates into physical symptoms: aching sides, persistent headaches and vomiting. Later they will complain of spontaneous ejaculation, green sperm, and will participate in outbreaks of frenzied violence towards other males. In early spring the babies are born: little maize-people, with an obsolete immune system inherited from Aztec forebears. The babies all die before July, when the castration begins again.

 

From Sad Giraffe Café (Arc, 2010)

 

 


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