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Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death (Grantchester)
Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death (Grantchester)
by James Runcie
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.99

4.0 out of 5 stars SURESHOT CANON, 6 Sep 2012
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James Runcie's "Sidney Chambers And The Shadow Of Death" is an enjoyable debut in a decidedly "cozy" series featuring a young Church of England priest who discovers that he has a talent for detection.

The writing is urbane and erudite and the atmosphere of nineteen fifties England is well captured. The longish book really comprises a string of six separate mysteries, though with some themes and characters developed throughout. The plots are not much more than workmanlike but the overall effect is successful.

Runcie, as the son of the former Archbishop of Canterbury as well as having his own distinguished career in the arts, is well positioned to portray Sidney's world. The canon is firm in his faith but cannot help finding crime solving more interesting than his vocation. As a clergyman he is both accorded respect and in some way discounted as a real man - seated far from the salt at dinner, invariably offered sherry rather than whisky, considered a special friend but not a marriage candidate by the glamorous Amanda - and so must continually assert himself, albeit in his quiet way. As a representative of the official church, he is tolerant and patient but nonetheless insistent.

In this first book in a planned series, Runcie avoids mining two potentially rich seams that would fit naturally with his subject: the academic world of Cambridge (Sidney is affiliated with Corpus) or the Trollopian politics of the Church. Perhaps future installments will take us there. In any event, I look forward to the next "Sidney Chambers."


Ancient Light
Ancient Light
by John Banville
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars AND HERE'S TO YOU, MRS GRAY, 29 Aug 2012
This review is from: Ancient Light (Hardcover)
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"Ancient Light" contains all the sparkle and mastery one expects from John Banville, though occasionally it borders on showing off rather than artistic consummation.

"Ancient Light" completes a loose trilogy- following on "Eclipse" (2000) and "Shroud" (2002) featuring aging actor Alex Cleave. Cleave, like many of Banville's heroes lives most of his life in his memories. Here the centrepiece is the torrid affair he had at the age of 15 with the 33 year old and somewhat eponymous Mrs. Gray, his best friend's mother. This of course is every teenage boy's fantasy come true as well as constituting a serious sex crime on the part of the adult. Banville captures the passions of flickering adolescence with insight and wit without descending into farce. He makes much of the unreliability of memory - for example he has vivid recall of autumn hues at one scene even though his rational reconstruction tells him that it actually took place in spring. The writing is, as expected, superb though in the author's florid tradition: I especially enjoyed his comparison of a priest in the confessional to a horse shifting about in its horsebox. There are also echoes of Yeats, Eliot and Joyce and, I are sure, others in his prose.

In addition to his recollections of that fifty year-old affair (why did we not hear about such a formative experience in "Eclipse?"), Cleave broods on the suicide of his daughter, Cass that was covered in "Shroud." In the "present," in between his reminiscences, he is somewhat surprisingly (he has been unemployed since he corpsed spectacularly on stage in "Eclipse") hired to play the lead role in a film - "The Invention of the Past," ha, ha - portraying the life of deconstructionist critic Axel Vander, a somewhat sinister type of Paul de Man. He falls into a complicated relationship with his troubled co-star, Dawn Davenport who becomes a sort of surrogate for his lost daughter just as Mrs. Gray was a sort of Oedipal mother when the generations were reversed. Cleave and Davenport make their way to Italy, close to the scene of Cass' suicide. Readers of "Shroud" know, but Cleave doesn't, that Vander was involved in Cass' death, so the story has its complications. This whole strand, however, is weaker than the "Mrs. Gray" sections of the novel.

Overall the link between the two plots comes across as tenuous. Some of Banville's post modern tricks also seem too clever by a quarter: he himself appears as the script writer for the film; much is made of the imagery of mirrors; there is a reference to the real Paul de Man and to a movie called "The Wrath of Noon" starring Henry Cooper, and so on.

I read "Ancient Light" in close juxtaposition to "Vengeance," Banville's fifth "Quirke" mystery written under the pen name of Benjamin Black. I preferred the Black book. It is as if Banville responds well to the constraints of genre writing, just as many poets achieve their best work within the discipline of a tight metric form.

It has recently been announced that Banville will write a new novel in Chandler's Philip Marlowe series. It will be interesting to see the result. This confirms that he is seeking new territory, but in terms of style and sensibility of place, it is hard to imagine two more different authors.


The Dream of the Celt
The Dream of the Celt
by Mario Vargas Llosa
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.53

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars CRUISING TO MARTYRDOM, 23 Aug 2012
This review is from: The Dream of the Celt (Hardcover)
Mario Vargas Llosa's "The Dream of the Celt" is an elegiac and moving fictionalization of the career and death of the troubled Irish Martyr and British traitor Roger Casement.

Casement was born in 1864 in Co Antrim into a Protestant Irish family. He spent most of his career as a loyal and honored - knighted in 1911 - servant of the Crown. He rose to the rank of consul and achieved international fame for his exposés of the atrocities perpetrated in King Leopold's Congo and the Putumaya region in Peru. He was on visiting terms with foreign secretaries and his prominent friends included Yeats, Conrad, Conan Doyle, the sculptor, Herbert Ward, the campaigning journalist E.D. Morel and the historian Alice Stopford Green among many others.

Beneath his official mask, Casement was an ardent Irish nationalist .The seeds of this may have been sown by his parents, both of whom died while he was young: his mother had him secretly baptized as a Roman Catholic while on a visit to Wales; his father, in a down and out phase, flirted with violent nationalism. Eventually, Casement went to Germany - then at war with Great Britain - in an attempt to form an Irish Brigade along the lines that he had witnessed in the Boer War and to persuade the Kaiser to synchronize an invasion of England with an Irish revolt. He failed in both of these objectives but did secure an arms shipment timed to help the Easter Rising of 1916 (which he himself unsuccessfully opposed for logistical reasons). The British intercepted the guns and Casement. He was tried in London, convicted of treason in a surprisingly technical trial and sentenced to hang.

Casement's supporters were optimistic that the British cabinet would commute his sentence. This became impossible, however, when the government leaked excerpts from what became known as his "Black Diaries." These documented a secret life (and financial reckoning) of homosexual cruising, usually involving sex for money, often with "natives" and frequently with minors. This was 21 years after Wilde's downfall and almost two full decades before the Earl of Beauchamp, an acquaintance of Casement, fled in disgrace to the USA, prompting the king to mutter: "I thought that men like that shot themselves." Casement was duly executed and his full acceptance into the pantheon of Irish martyrs was delayed for several decades. For many years there were claims and counterclaims that the diaries were forged. They are now generally judged to be authentic. Vargas LLosa offers the view in his epilogue that they were written by Casement, but that the content is a mixture of fact and fantasy.

Vargas Llosa's "The Dream of the Celt" - the title is taken from Casement's own for a collection of not very good poems based on Irish mythology; Casement himself was hardly a Celt - is a superb and largely historically accurate recreation. From his toolbox of styles, he selects a straightforward narrative approach. The "now" is anchored in Casement's last days in Pentonville Prison with long flashbacks filling in the balance of his life. There are, it must be said, quite a few passages so crammed with facts that they resemble entries in Wikipedia rather than the output of a Nobel laureate, but for the most part the writing is evocative and well translated by Edith Grossman. The passages set in Africa and Peru are the strongest, thick in atmosphere and humanitarian warmth. The Germany and Ireland phases are less well covered - the former is rather superficial and the latter may miss the full conflict of loyalties of a nationalist leaning, non Scots Presbyterian, Protestant Ulsterman of the time.

In presenting Casement - whom he refers to throughout as "Roger," though with a respectful rather than patronizing tone - Vargas LLosa maintains a reverent distance. We observe Casement intimately from above rather than from the inside. Casement himself, in the novel, speaks of his "permanent contradiction." Vargas LLosa does not attempt to explain the complexities and contradictions but builds up his portrait layer by layer. He hints at times that there might be some explanation in Roger's yearning for his lost mother, but for the most part leaves it to the reader to judge.

Casement is portrayed as a man of great physical and moral courage and humanitarian instinct. Even in prison, he is able to show compassion for the sheriff (the correct title for the chief gaoler at Pentonville, though how Casement's lawyer acquired the French title of Maître, I have no idea - it's in the original Spanish as well) who treats him with contempt.

The subject of the Black Diaries is introduced slowly. Casement's visitors gently mention the rumors; he is non-committal, saying only that he has not seen them. Gradually, the flashbacks expand to include his lecherous observations and his actual cruising, "paseo" in the Spanish. Casement recalls these instances but without the shame that might have made other men welcome the gallows. Instead, it is almost as if it were another self at work, part of a complex of compartmentalization that could also allow loyal service to Britain and passionate hatred of the English to co-exist. Casement's execution, when it comes, seems less a punishment or a release, than a natural output of his complex character.

Casement is a perfect subject for Vargas Llosa who is drawn to flawed heroes, and Vargas LLosa is a perfect chronicler for Casement. His book shows that it is possible to be a secular saint (Yeats' "mystic martyr") without being a perfect human being, and that it is possible to respect someone without approving of all or even much of what they have done.

PS: for readers who would like more on Casement, I recommend Jeffrey Dudgeon's "The Black Diaries," published in 2002. This contains a wealth of biographical and contextual research and is written with a wry sense of humor.


Subliminal: The New Unconscious and What it Teaches Us
Subliminal: The New Unconscious and What it Teaches Us
by Leonard Mlodinow
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.98

10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars MY UNCONSCIOUS MADE ME DO IT, 14 Aug 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
"Subliminal" is easily readable but it follows on the heels of at least two better books ("Thinking Fast And Slow" by Daniel Kahneman, and "Who's In Charge" by Michael Gazzaniga) that cover much the same ground.

"Subliminal" treats of the "new science of the unconscious." Mlodinow lays out the now accepted view of the human brain as being made up of a "collection of many modules that work in parallel, with complex interactions, most of which operate outside of our consciousness." Our conscious mind is therefore only one of several systems at work and our sense that it is "in charge" is simply an illusion. Most of our decisions, judgments and actions happen before our conscious mind has processed the relevant information. While the conscious mind can override our unconscious modules under some circumstances, its principal role is more that of a narrator than a controller.

Mlodinow makes much of the new technologies, especially fMRI, that enable study of the brain. Nonetheless, most of his data is drawn eclectically from the vast canon of psychology experiments of the type that involves student volunteers performing trivial tasks in artificial conditions. Many of these examples, I had come across before.

Mlodinow allocates much of his book to demonstrating how the workings of our unconscious brain modules drive (often to a biased outcome) everyday decisions that we tend to attribute to our conscious minds. Here, he tends to stray into much traveled territory. The role of our unconscious in making product selections and the consequent "hidden persuader" power of marketing is hardly new news having been pioneered by Ernst Dichter in the 1940's. He warns of how unconscious biases sway job interviews - I attended a company seminar warning about that in the nineties. He cites the Nixon-Kennedy Television debate as proof that we are unconsciously influenced by visual and aural perceptions, something which most of us would put in the category of Basil Fawlty's "the bleeding obvious," (and of course, scientific rigor would also require the elimination of other possible explanations such as different demographics among TV and radio audiences). The unreliability of eye witness accounts has been well documented before, and so on....

Subliminal is by no means a dreadful book, but general readers interested in understanding our minds would do better to begin with Kahneman or Gazzaniga. The first is more magisterial and comprehensive and the second more thought provoking.


A Hologram for the King
A Hologram for the King
by Dave Eggers
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.60

22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars LOST IN TRANSITION, 12 Aug 2012
Dave Eggers' "A Hologram for the King" is both an entertaining satire of the at times surreal expatriate experience in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and a deeper meditation on the hollowing out of the American industrial economy.

In fiction, business executives are generally stereotyped as either sinister or feckless. "Hologram's" Alan Clay is of the familiar second type. He is 54, divorced, broke, and having been made serially redundant from well-known companies (notably Schwinn the late bicycle manufacturer) he is striving to eke out an existence as an under-employed consultant. Somehow, on the basis of a tenuous connection to a member of the KSA royal family and his client's ignorance, he lands what is potentially a game changing contract to lead the sales pitch of Reliant (the world's largest IT concern) to the King Abdullah Economic City ("KAEC as in cake") that is being built near Jeddah.

Alan's experience in KSA will be familiar to most western travelers to the Kingdom. He turns up for confirmed meetings only to find that his counterparty is out of the country. He passes a military checkpoint where a close to comatose soldier dangles his feet in an inflatable pool to keep cool; he encounters three dozen south Asian workers dense-packed in a semi finished luxury apartment while one floor above, a Saudi salesman occupies a similar apartment equipped to the highest standard of luxury; he discovers illicit rot-gut liquor; he gets invited to a drunken party at a Nordic embassy, and so on.

Eggers is not especially concerned to ridicule Saudi Arabia, though its absurdities make for easy satire. His main "message" is the passing of America's industrial age. Alan reflects on this constantly throughout his trip, often in the form of unsent letters to his daughter, whose tuition he is about to fail to pay. Great companies have disappeared, the capitalists having sold to China the intellectual property rope to hang themselves. When Alan develops his own wistful business plan to make high end bikes:" Some of the bank people were so young they'd never seen a business proposal suggesting manufacturing things in the state of Massachusetts." When young people, such as the three techies accompanying him on his pitch, have jobs they are to do things in cyberspace while everything in the real world, even the bridges they drive over, is made in Asia. In this new world, there is no real place for people like Alan who used to be the mainstay of the American dream.

Eggers' lightness of touch in his confident, crystal clear prose is balanced by his insertion of haunting scenes and images: Alan's self-lancing of a sinister growth on his neck with a steak knife, flashbacks to the suicide of his close friend in a Walden-like pond, memories of a shuttle launch, a strange hunting incident, a loss of sexual appetite at a moment of opportunity. Eggers' message sticks: Alan may belong to the feckless stereotype, but for a growing number of middle class Americans that is the only role that is left.


Vengeance (Quirke Mysteries)
Vengeance (Quirke Mysteries)
by Benjamin Black
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.99

5.0 out of 5 stars DIG TWO GRAVES, 31 July 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
"Vengeance" is the fifth in the excellent Quirke series by Benjamin Black, the second brand of John Banville.

Black's series is set in a highly atmospheric re-creation of the upper tier of 1950s Dublin, "an archaic world of mysteries and strange laws, strange rituals and taboos." Dr Quirke is the city pathologist. Like Banville's own protagonists he is an intelligent, rather louche man who is not comfortable in his skin and who constantly dwells on his many past mistakes, missed opportunities and flawed relationships. He battles the Drink, which in this episode he embraces without losing control. He has a penchant to go beyond his official remit to investigate the crimes that brought him his customers. He is encouraged to do so by the canny Inspector Hackett who recognizes that his more socially polished friend has access that he lacks.

"Vengeance" revolves around two violent deaths at sea, one each from the Delahaye and Clancy families. These two clans are in business together, though the Protestant (rather than dissenter, odd for Northern commercial stock) Delahayes appear to hold the upper hand over the Catholic Clancys, one more twist in the society of those times. Quirke encounters members of three generations of both houses, begins to unravel their secrets, and becomes closer than he ought with one of the widows. His daughter also gets involved, and various characters from previous books in the series re-appear.

"Vengeance" proceeds at a ruminative pace with not much torque in the plot. This is more than compensated by the sparkle of the writing, the insights into human nature and the marvelous creation of mood that make for an altogether satisfactory work.

I read "Vengeance" in close sequence to "Ancient Light." Banville's latest under his premium brand. There are indeed two different literary voices. "Black" is more direct and explains more to his readers, though without writing down. He employs more dialogue, fewer literary allusions and no postmodern literary tricks. The writing in both is superb, as is the characterization. In the end, I slightly preferred the Black version - the straight forward, third person treatment of the central character is more satisfying than Banville's tendency to write through slightly over the top literary personae, such as Alex Cleave, in his "serious" work.

Banville/Black's two voices are mutually reinforcing and should broaden one another's readerships - as should the prospective television series featuring Gabriel Byrne as Dr Quirke.


Destructive Interference
Destructive Interference
by Martin Skogsbeck
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES, 19 May 2012
"Destructive Interference" is a strong debut from Swedish writer Martin Skogsbeck. It combines elements of Proustian memoire, Scandinavian noir, and science fiction (or frontier science fact) into a gripping and memorable narrative that explores serious questions about the nature of love and of memory.

Skogsbeck tells his story in three parts. The first is set in Paris and comprises the memoire of Redan Palleago from his childhood to the point where he is recruited to Boston, Massachusetts to engage in leading edge research on the brain. The second section shifts to Sweden and into third person narration. Here we meet, Gustav, a young surgeon and amateur musician who becomes infatuated with Julia, an ambitious management consultant who does not quite reciprocate his love - or does she? Developments in their relationship lead to Gustav also moving to Boston. In the third section, Redan and Gustav meet - as was their destiny - and become involved in unauthorized neuroscientific experiments in which they themselves are the guinea pigs. Here, I was reminded of the movie, "Flatliners," though in "DI" the focus is on memories rather than the afterlife. Unintended consequences inevitably ensue.

Skogsbeck has done his homework. In addition to the science, which he handles with a light touch and which goes only slightly beyond what is being done today in such places as Southampton University, he provides the reader with rich tutorials on such subjects as Japanese Tea Ceremonies, tour skating, Swedish Medevac protocols, and Beethoven's First Piano Sonata. There are also playful literary allusions embedded in the text.

The ending of Destructive Interference is left open-ended - a perfect set-up for a sequel.


The Red House
The Red House
by Mark Haddon
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.59

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars COUNTRY HOUSE MISERY, 17 May 2012
This review is from: The Red House (Hardcover)
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Mark Haddon's "The Red House" is not fully successful but nor is it a failure. The writing is disjointed and its subject matter mundane, but it contains much fine prose and keen insight into human psychology.

The "Red House" recounts a week in the life of two families spent in a rented house near Hay-on-Wye. Richard, a hospital consultant, invites his semi-estranged and troubled sister, Angela, to join him, his new wife, Louise, and Louise's sixteen-year-old vamp of a daughter, Melissa, on a peace and reconciliation holiday. Angela is accompanied by her feckless husband, Dominick, their two teenagers, born-again Daisy and can-do Alex, and their very normal eight year-old, Benjy. All of the characters except Alex and Benjy face crises in their lives. These play out against the backdrop of the to-be-expected Welsh holiday activities.

Haddon tales his tale from the rotating perspectives of his eight characters. Individually, each of these is spot on but collectively the shifts in voice and viewpoint are often confusing, especially in the early part of the book, and make for a jarring whole. The characters are well developed and the writing is always intelligent and often witty. Yet, the individual crises are predictable and the interactions among them never quite lift off or reach catharsis.

Net, net, I enjoyed the book and will definitely buy Haddon's next one, but nonetheless felt slightly unsatisfied. I had a sense of an author whose brilliant debut was soaked in inspiration trying to match it through perspiration but not quite succeeding.


The New Few: Or a Very British Oligarchy
The New Few: Or a Very British Oligarchy
by Ferdinand Mount
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.19

38 of 45 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars IMPORTANT BUT SHALLOW, 12 May 2012
Ferdinand Mount's "The New Few" is destined to be an important book, contributing to the national debate despite its superficial analyses and anemic prescriptions.

"Few" is an important book because its headline topics of income inequality and the alienation of the masses have visceral appeal in today's disgruntled society and because its author is not a bleeding heart liberal but a well credentialed Tory whose book will receive prominent reviews in the national press. Mount's fluent and confident prose doesn't hurt either.

In terms of diagnosis, Mount's almost impassioned analysis is thin soup compared to the FT `s Washington correspondent, Ed Luce's, recent "Time to Start Thinking" which addresses more of the same issues in US society and is all the more alarming for its comprehensiveness.

Mount's book provides food for thought and almost a call to action but its diagnosis focuses on two only loosely (one might say, sloppily) related themes: growing income inequality in Britain and the relentless centralization of power and disengagement of constituents in our political society.Mount mentions global competition but fails to reflect on its consequences for the prosperity of skilled blue collar and many white collar workers. He spends little time examining other root causes such as how decades of misguided social, educational and industrial policy have hollowed out society and left the country almost devoid of both skills and values.

Given the incompleteness of "The New Few's" diagnosis, it is not surprising that its prescriptions for a cure are unconvincing. Shareholder restraint on compensation (Mount cites JP Morgan -the man not the bank's - rule of thumb that a CEO should earn no more than 20 times the average worker. I doubt if the robber baron came any closer to living by this rule than Mao did to his own benchmark of 4:1), stricter regulation of banks, and devolution of political power are all on the Coalition's agenda; no one expects them to make any difference. Mount diagnoses brain cancer and prescribes vinegar and brown paper.

Mount may add fuel to the call for a mansion tax (even though shareholder activism rather than taxation is his preferred solution), but all of his `oligarchs,' many of them foreigners who contribute enormously to tax revenue and consumer spending but do not place any demands on the National Health, state education or social services, could be rounded up and expelled (or worse) and Britain's reality TV generation would still not be able to compete in the world market against the education-hungry, hard working, savings junkies of Asia and their mercantile , long-game playing governments. The book may become important but it is also dangerous in that it feeds populist angst without addressing real solutions.

PS
The book is almost worth reading alone for the term "Croupier's take" (which Mount quotes from Warren Buffet) referring to the £7.3 billion raked off the economy each year by financial middlemen who provide dubious or negative real value.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 22, 2013 1:49 AM GMT


Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength
Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength
by Roy F. Baumeister
Edition: Hardcover

14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars MY GRANNY TOLD ME THAT, 14 April 2012
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I felt let down by this book. It was marketed as a scientifically rigorous examination of an important part of our make-up. Instead, it comes across as firmly in the pop science/self help genre, complete with chirpy style and second hand anecdotes (Eliot Spitzer, H.M. Stanley, Oprah). Many people enjoy and even benefit from such books; but it does well to know what one is buying into.

Baumeister and Tierney argue that will power - the definition is vague but we know it when we see it, or perhaps more relevantly, when we fail to exercise it - is like a muscle. It depletes through over use and it may be strengthened through exercise. Within any depletion cycle, it is zero sum: if one uses it up being too effective at work, then one is more likely to be nasty to one's spouse or to take that second scoop of ice-cream after dinner.

There is a catalogue of things that enhance will-power: being Asian American (some evidence for genetics but mainly cultural), being part of a religious organization, being tidy and having good posture, being monitored, committing oneself publicly to a goal, keeping up one's blood sugar level etc. There is also a list of things that erode will power: sparing the rod (or its PC equivalent), alcohol, being hungry, PMS, being stressed or tired etc. In fact, just the things that Grandma told us about.

The authors draw on scientific evidence to back up Granny. There is relatively little discussion of genes and just a bit more on data drawn from brain scans. Most comes from the type of experiment in which a group of student volunteers is sealed in a room with a bowl of M & Ms, shown a depressing Continental movie and asked to stick their hands in ice-water or squeeze a handgrip. Not much chance of cloning a sheep or finding the Higgs Boson here. I often think that there is more to be learned about human psychology in reading the 37 plays of Shakespeare than in the entire library of the Psych faculty.

Towards the end of the book, the authors provide some suggestions as to how to improve one's exercise of willpower- pretty thin soup compared to the shelves of self-help books to be found in airport bookstores.

I was annoyed at myself for finishing the book rather than spending the time more fruitfully, but somehow I just couldn't get around to abandoning it.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 16, 2012 6:23 PM BST


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