Dot branches out [edited]

Dot writes: consider this tweet:

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Thanks to my evening class, I now know what this question means. Sort of. I am so proud of myself.*

I’m doing a ten-week adult education course on recording, mixing and producing music. The class consists of ten blokes and me. Several of the blokes are elderly ex-showband musicians, which is a little intimidating; a couple are computer types; some more are amateurs of various standards; and then there’s an awkward chap who jiggles his leg all the time and seems rather shy. He’s probably the youngest person there but has one of those unfortunate bald spots like a tonsure that’s slipped backwards. The teacher is a sound engineer and composer called JJ Vernon, and he has a website that contains an online version of the course (it’s not exactly what we are doing but very handy for revision or catching up).

I saw the class advertised in a leaflet we got through the door and thought it sounded like fun. The rationale is that I love to listen intelligently and I will have a much better idea of what is going on in the records I buy thanks to this. Indeed, I’ve revisited some of Nick Zammuto’s blog posts and already they are becoming more comprehensible. The secret reason is that I want to sing into a microphone and pretend to be a pop star. Well, maybe not a pop star, because I have utterly the wrong sort of voice, but I could try to imitate Jacqui McShee from Pentangle. Actually I think my turn at the mic is likely to be with recorders, because JJ seems to like the idea of using me and my recorders to demonstrate overdubbing.

So far we have talked about the mechanisms of the ear, the properties of sound, how to plug everything in (this is complicated and to be honest I don’t think I got it), what mixing desks do, several incidental topics along the way (my goodness you need a lot of microphones to record a drum kit), and how to start recording into ProTools. This week some of the guys brought in instruments and we did some recording; JJ handled all the mics, but I was one of the people who had a turn at setting up a recording session, adjusting the gain,** and starting and stopping recording. I have a very strong sense of venturing into Boy Territory, certainly into techie stuff I have never been confident about or even really dared to try. Generally speaking I flinch from leads and plugs and hardware. But now I find myself wondering if I can afford to buy a basic interface and a microphone or two. It’s a silly idea, because I’m never going to be a musician, but the fact is I am enjoying this class a lot. And, well, there are eleven of us, and half the meetings – two hours each Tuesday evening – are already gone, and that doesn’t leave very much time for any individual member of the group to play with the gear…

*What I think it means [N.B. I’ve edited this, because I changed my mind after I first wrote the post]: in ProTools you have a virtual mixing desk, in which each channel of audio has its own fader to adjust the volume of that channel (which would carry the input from one microphone, or one device such as a drum machine). You can then route all of the channels to a master fader, which will allow you to adjust the volume of all of them at once. You can also put in inserts, for example to add reverb or delay or to send the sound out to a monitor so the musicians can hear themselves. Normally these are post-fader i.e. the reverb or delay is added or the sound goes out to the monitor after the volume has been adjusted. But David Wrench wants an insert that will operate on all the channels that go to that master fader, but without being affected when he brings the master fader up or down. I think.

** Gain: the signal strength coming in varies quite a lot. Before you record, you need to start by twiddling a knob to make sure it’s in a range the mixing desk can happily handle.

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Hugh and Frank go to gaol

Dot writes: on Saturday I decided to ditch my Society of Recorder Players meeting in favour of spending some time with my family. So obviously we had to undertake some kind of stressful cultural outing to justify this. I was inclined to go to the Irish Museum of Modern Art while Ken wanted to go to Kilmainham Gaol. In the event we did both, as they’re pretty much next door to each other and we had to book a tour to visit the gaol, meaning we had to go there first and then fill in a couple of hours. And even though the walk down the long path to the gallery was enlivened by Hugh lamenting how this was the worst day of his life and nobody understands him, the afternoon actually went very well.

We hadn’t been to IMMA before so we just visited the two main galleries on the first floor. One had a mix of materials but I particularly liked the kinetic art, of which I think the item below is an example. I didn’t have the wit to photograph the description and get a record of what it was called.

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The other gallery had an exhibition called ‘Primal Architecture’. This was a slightly difficult exhibition to visit with children as there were several displays that involved objects on the floor, which were obviously inviting to small hands; but generally it was very enjoyable exploring the galleries with the boys, who were intrigued by all the different pictures, objects and installations.

Then we went to the cafe. This was a very necessary pause before going back over to the Gaol.

The Gaol is a cold and intimidating place. Pictures in guidebooks don’t convey how oppressively bare and dingy and cramped much of it feels, or how ricketty the boards are in the open walkways. The tour was excellent, covering a mix of social and political history, and giving plenty of attention to the 1916 Rising without letting it overwhelm all the other material. The guide joked with the boys and made us feel they were welcome on a tour clearly aimed at adults, but I removed Frank rather before the end as he was more than slightly restive. Hugh, however, stayed the distance and was solemnly attentive to all the dreadful tales of the past. Afterwards he said he had preferred the gaol to the art gallery. So did Ken, though I liked the art best myself.

Frank’s favourite part was the cafe…

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Noticing

Dot writes: In her wonderful book Findings Kathleen Jamie has a chapter about her husband’s serious illness. She’s a stern Scottish secularist and even in his extremity, she doesn’t pray. But she notices.

Could I explain to Phil that – though there was a time, maybe 24 hours, when I genuinely believed his life to be in danger – I had not prayed? But I had noticed, more than noticed, the cobwebs, and the shoaling light and the way the doctor listened, and the flecked tweed of her skirt, and the speckled bird and the sickle-cell man’s slim feet. Isn’t that a kind of prayer? The care and maintenance of the web of our noticing, the paying heed?

Findings, (London: Sort Of Books, 2005), p. 109

I was thinking about this passage (secularism and all) during the sermon on Sunday, when the rector was talking about Creation and asking us if we knew what the current phase of the moon was? Did we know what kind of trees grew in our street? Could we visualise their leaves or their bark? Because it was this kind of noticing that was needed, if we were to care for the world and not just use it. It was a pretty fierce environmentalist sermon. I felt a little ashamed because I don’t know the names of the trees or the current phase of the moon; I’ve been hurrying along with my collar up and my head down, from door to station and station to door, to indoors. Though I conceive of myself as someone who loves to be out under the sky.

I’m not good at the names of things sometimes – names of trees, anyway. My head refuses to hold them, though it’s fine with strong verbs. I do look, though. I could picture the leaves. I was wondering about how much we use language as the tool of our noticing. For me this is indeed important, and I want to focus on things by talking about them – talking about literature, which I do pretty well, and talking about music, which I do a lot less well but as well as I can manage. (I’m best at noticing human things.) Talking, however, is sometimes a way of interposing a layer of yourself and your interpretation between yourself and the thing, so that your lovely verbal image subtly takes over as the object of your pleasure. I don’t think that’s what Kathleen Jamie does – or rather, her precise noticing becomes a way for others to notice too. But the ideal, the noticing that’s like prayer, is to stay receptive, not to impose. To find the right word and no more, and if there is no word, to hear and feel and look. I’m not sure I’d call it prayer, though. I think I’d call it love.

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Dot’s top albums of 2014, part two (inevitable Gotye part)

I will now explain why, in 2014, I became so very excited about Gotye. I’ll be as concise as I can but perhaps you should make yourself a cup of tea before you start reading. I’ll take the three albums in reverse date order, because that’s the order in which I bought them (I’m excluding Mixed Blood which doesn’t really count). I honestly don’t know which of the three is my favourite.

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Making Mirrors (2011)

This is a very accessible album, and yet at the same time there’s much to hear in it, details that emerge with repeated listening. It’s musically varied but has a strong emotional arc: self-doubting and anxious songs at the start, a block of more positive material in the middle, and some very personal and honest stuff about love and death at the end. It’s extremely grown-up: the relationship songs aren’t about young love, they’re about long-term relationships, how they go wrong, how they work out, how people hurt or support each other. “Eyes Wide Open” is a song about impending environmental catastrophe – which, put like that, doesn’t sound like a terribly good idea for a song, but it’s an excellent song and I identify with it a lot. And there are several songs about the difficulties of the creative process. But all of this seriousness is set over tremendously inventive and engaging musical textures, and there are moments of pure fun too, such as the pleasingly odd and nerdy “State of the Art”, a song written about and largely on a home organ Wally’s parents bought for him.

Many of the sounds I find so delightful in this record are hard to comment on precisely because they’re unusual and I don’t know what they are. Sometimes the Making Making Mirrors documentary helps me out – so, for example, I know that the sparkling ostinato I love in “Save Me” is the sound of an autoharp, painstakingly sampled note-by-note and played back through a keyboard. But in “In Your Light” – actually my least favourite track – there’s a sound I like very much but I don’t know how to pinpoint it apart from to say it’s an instrumental phrase that partially anticipates the melody of the verse, starts about eight bars in, is presumably a synth sample, and sounds dryly reverberant and like a hybrid between a xylophone, a miniaturised French horn, and a robot.

A particular pleasure is the singing and use of vocal layering. Wally is an unfussy singer, and it’s after listening for a bit that you realise what skilful use he makes of the instrument that he has, a light tenor voice with a warm soft tone that hardens at high volume. There’s some really effective word-painting across the join between full voice and falsetto: for example, in “Eyes Wide Open”, where he sings “or give up / when you can’t even picture your future”, hitting “up” falsetto (breaking a little here) but then returning to the same note full voice on “can’t” (anger or protest). Several songs (for example, “Easy Way Out”) make use of an alternation between vocal tracks so that he seems to be talking to himself. However, for me the most striking use of multiplied layers of his own voice is the swell of wordless backing vocals in “Save Me” that so fills in and warms the texture under the words “And you’re patient, love / And you help me help myself”. It’s full of breath and closeness and it’s very romantic, but not in a cloying way because there’s nothing facile about it; such self-examination and such meticulous work have brought the album to this point. This may be my favourite song of the album. Then again, there’s quite a lot of choice.

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Like Drawing Blood (2006)

This is definitely the oddest Gotye album, and the most adventurously varied – or all-over-the-place, if you’re less enthused than I am. The opening sets the tone: it’s a strange little assemblage of instrumental scribbles, snatches of strings and percussion, mixed very quiet so you turn it up to work out what’s happening and then wham! the first song starts MUCH LOUDER. And the song (“The Only Way”) is engagingly upbeat with a slightly eastern-sounding melody, only if you listen to the words you realise Wally is apparently singing in the persona of the angel of death. Or maybe a persuasive murderer. Which is a somewhat unusual stance, for a nice lad from Melbourne, you will agree.

This is an album of wittiness and disconcerting twists. A couple of songs have sharply contrasting sections set into them – the quiet sections in “The Only Way”, the curious brief pause in “Coming Back” where one hears the sound of chalk on a blackboard and a male voice saying in French “La composition”. There’s a very musical species of humour being played out in such gestures. This humour is also evident in “Seven Hours With a Backseat Driver”, a purely instrumental track that starts with jangly piano chords and a honky car horn before painstakingly working out an idea that is jaunty and awkward at the same time. Of all the tracks, “Thanks For Your Time” is the most straightforwardly funny. Again, there’s a mathematical quality in how it systematically explores a musical idea, building up the layers, but there’s also the jokey content of the song – it’s about the frustrations of dealing with customer services – which seems to comment in a self-ironising way on the slightly obsessive musical process going on. And the way Wally sings “Your call is valuable, so very valuable” is touchingly plaintive. “Thanks For Your Time” is one of my favourites.

Emotionally, this is the driest Gotye album. Where it is emotional, it’s sometimes hard to read. The fourth track, “Coming Back”, particularly intrigues me – it’s a tango of dash and flourish, but with a high, vulnerable vocal that speaks of desperation (“I’m clutching at straws, I’m climbing up the walls”). Its theatrical and somewhat artificial air (“La composition” – just an exercise?) has an undercurrent of hysteria. The three most direct songs punctuate the album as tracks 3, 6 and 10. “Hearts A Mess” is passionate and insightful and maybe a little creepy: I can’t help wondering about the character he is speaking as, who wants to “pick apart the pieces of your heart” and “peer inside”, who’s “desperate to connect”. The song works well live in stripped-back versions but there are some very clever complicating touches in the album arrangement, such as the strange little bouncy riff on three notes that sounds like bleeps from a lonely space-station. The motown tribute “Learnalilgivinanlovin” is straightforwardly joyous. And “Nightdrive” is beautifully understated – a portrait of friendly companionship, but with a painful twist because the friendship seems to be over – and I love the way the music at the end is so much more emphatic than the words.

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Boardface (2003)

Boardface is quite young and hormonal, but still (already) very good. Wally was less confident as a singer at this point, and/or more inclined to create scenes and characters rather than explore some strand of himself, so a number of the tracks are sung by female vocalists. The style is mostly down-tempo and moody and often reminiscent of 1990s trip-hop; there are lots of scratchy brass parts and strings samples that sound like bits of film soundtracks (in fact there’s one sample I’m pretty sure I recognise – the opening of the From Russia With Love title song, which he uses at the start of “Baby”). The songs deal with a more tempestuous and mixed-up emotional territory than he moves in later: unattainable girls, painful longings, that sort of stuff. But some of them are absolute crackers.

“Loath to Refuse” is a particular favourite: dark spaces in the music, a vocalist with a little-girl voice acting capricious and damaged. “If you don’t want me now / Then you can’t have me later…”, but in the second verse she wants to be alone: “Patience is a virtue my love / The question is, do you have enough?” “The Only Thing I Know” fits much better on this album than on LDB (it appears on the international release of LDB, replacing “A Distinctive Sound”): here its full-bodied Depeche Mode-style doominess feels like a logical escalation of what’s around it, whereas on LDB I find it a little heavy-handed. In “Out of My Mind” I love the contrast between the main line of a vocal melody (the same singer as in “Loath to Refuse”, Michaela Alexander) set over a slow reggae rhythm and the quite rapid horn break that periodically intersects it. “Out of My Mind” also contains the engaging lines “So many signs float by / Only you are signified” – the romantic potential of structuralist semantics! And then there’s “Here in this Place”, which has to be one of my favourite Gotye songs, though I know at least one other fan who absolutely hates it. It is joyously cheesy. There is an extremely enthusiastic saxophone and Wally singing with self-conscious sultriness in a range uncomfortably low for him, mistily contemplating sex (“this prison of pleasures from which we want no escape” – gosh). At the end there’s a harmonic shift upwards, the saxophone detumesces, he starts to sound more like himself, and there’s a quite literal cold shower – it finishes with the sound of rain. All very funny – and yet actually rather lovely too.

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Wholesome family activity

Dot writes: on Sunday we took the boys to Howth and did the cliff walk. It’s the first time we’ve done it with them, as the path is unfenced and in places runs next to a scary drop to the rocks and sea. But we decided they were now sensible enough not to fling themselves merrily off it.

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Hugh went for comfort and mud-proofing – tracksuit bottoms and wellies – but Frank had his red skinny jeans and funky new Skechers shoes.
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It’s hard to tell from the photo, but there were crackly panes of ice in this puddle.
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Refreshments at the end. The walk took us more than an hour and a half, which is quite a long time for five-year-old legs. Hugh is helping Frank with his crisps.

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Dot’s top albums of 2014, part one (not Gotye)

People like making end-of-year lists of their favourite music. Here’s mine, characteristically a month late. It’s not a list of my favourite releases of 2014 but my favourites of the albums I listened to in 2014, excluding Gotye, who would otherwise be rather dominant. He can have his own post shortly. (Admittedly he is on two of these albums anyway, and another is by one of his closest friends, and another is released in Australia on his record label…but, well, I’ve been using him as a starting point for exploration.)

I’m not certain of the order of preference. Here is today’s order.

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1. Zammuto, Anchor (2014)

I had a slow start with this one but it repays repeated listening. Musically it is exceptionally interesting and varied, for instance in its use of unusual time-signatures (triple time, 5/4, polyrhythms) and odd ways of making sound (e.g. rhythm tracks created by scratching vinyl records; a NASA recording from one of the Voyagers passing Jupiter). My pleasure in the record was enhanced by reading the series of blogposts Nick Zammuto wrote explaining technical aspects like this, as well as giving the lyrics and discussing the inspiration of each track: read, for example, his account of “Io”, the song that uses that NASA recording. But it’s not just a feast for geeks: these are beautiful songs that approach serious themes – marriage, death, consumerism – in subtle and affecting ways.

2. John Butler Trio, Sunrise over Sea (2004)

This is quite a long album. I found it useful when I was training for the mini-marathon. But it’s good right the way through, from the irresistible rootsy twang of the opening track to the closing notes. Environmental themes, funky acoustic guitar and bass. I should get round to buying the album John Butler released in 2014, which is rather more rocky, but while JB writes good tunes it’s the sound and the style that really get me with this particular record.

3. The Basics, Stand Out/Fit In (2007)

If I were making a list of my favourite songs in 2014, The Basics would be all over it, including plenty of material from their 2009 release Keep Your Friends Close and their various EPs, but this is definitely my favourite of their albums. It has a terrific energy and enthusiasm about it that binds together an eclectic bunch of songs. It’s like three incredibly talented five-year-olds going mad with a dressing-up box, but with the odd moment of genuine grown-up sexiness (“Better”). I love it.

4. Tim Shiel, Duet (2013)

This is a game soundtrack, but I’ve never played the game: I just like the music, a series of variations on a theme that succeeds in being strongly unified without being samey. It’s instrumental electronica, unfussy and clean. I find it brings a kind of clarity with it and have formed a bad habit of listening to it when I feel slightly frazzled or ill, as it makes me feel better – a bad habit because I may end up associating it with feeling frazzled or ill. Not so far, though.

5. Tash Parker, Waking Up (2010)

I’ve reviewed this album before. Can I just say: I still really, really like it. The songs are delicate, unassertive, but wrapped in gorgeous arrangements, like wren’s eggs laid in exquisite nests. (Aren’t I poetic.) It’s an incredibly pretty album without being frilly or saccharine. The emotional arc is interesting too – I didn’t talk about this before because I took a thematic approach and discussed the tracks out of order – it starts with songs about beginning a relationship, moves on to settling down, visits her parents’ divorce, and concludes with a song for her sister: “My heart is made of rose-coloured glass / Some may say, it will break / But if my heart belongs to her / Then it’s safe.” Hmm. But oh, the textures.

6. Austra, Feel It Break  (2011)

Part of the current wave of synthpop, Austra is largely the work of a Greek-Canadian woman named Katie Stelmanis. She combines a fairly restricted palette of sounds with effective song-writing and her piercing, memorable voice.

7. Missy Higgins, The Ol’ Razzle-Dazzle (2012)

Not all of Missy’s oeuvre appeals to me, partly because I’m not that big a fan of piano accompaniments, but I like this album very much: she worked with a Nashville producer and it has something of a New Country flavour, giving a pleasing twang to the arrangements of these strong, intelligent songs. The lead single from the album, “Unashamed Desire”, is a particular favourite. That’s a relationship song, obviously, but the major theme of the album is her reawakening as a musician after a period away from performance.

8. HAIM, Days are Gone (2013)

Glossy, tuneful Americana. HAIM draw many comparisons to Fleetwood Mac: they’re definitely Tango in the Night rather than anything earlier, but without the drug problems, relationship fallouts (the band consists of three sisters) or Stevie Nicks’s voice going ropey. According to Tim Shiel, this album is perfectly sequenced. Listen to this album to find out what perfect sequencing sounds like.

9. Foals, Holy Fire (2013)

It was the uplifting rhythms and melodic sense that caught me in Holy Fire, plus its boldness – it starts grandly with a “Prelude” and goes from there. It’s guitar-led rock over rhythm lines that often sound almost disco, mid- or fast-paced with lots of rapid guitar ostinato and some great funky solos. Plus I think I can hear a banjo in the fifth track. Yay.

10. Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011)

I’m a very verbal person, and even though I usually can’t assimilate (or sometimes even hear) the lyrics of songs on the first few listens, my favourite albums are normally ones where I’m drawn in by the words as well as the music. This doesn’t work for Bon Iver because the words are just strange. Apparently Justin Vernon, the singer-songwriter whose project this is, starts with nonsense sounds and then finds words that approximate to them. But I can enjoy their unfocused flow in conjunction with these lovely textures and melodies. The way the third track, Holocene, builds from its gentle but unresolved repeated guitar figure is particularly beautiful. Just the odd phrase crystallises the sense of loss, yearning and possibility in the track: “But at once I knew I was not magnificent… but I can see for miles, miles, miles.”

11. Sylvan Esso, Sylvan Esso (2014)

Sylvan Esso are an interesting illustration of what clever people can do with a minimal set-up: one impressive singer and one producer, using loops, simple keyboard lines and beats to build from not much into quirky, effective songs. I especially like “Hey Mami”, which starts with repeatedly looping the voice so the singer is singing several lines in harmony with herself, and then brings in an unexpectedly heavy bass line underneath.

12. London Grammar, While You Wait (2013)

More electronica, though with guitar too, and a wonderful vocalist (Hannah Reid) with a full, ever-so-faintly husky voice. She gets compared to Florence Welch but her tone is softer with less of an edge and she sings more in the throat. I like the reverb and distances in the recording and the sweet and moody vibes.

And here are some oldies that I also got into:

Peter Gabriel, So (1986)

1986 was a great year, wasn’t it? Other things that came out that year include the first Crowded House album, The Queen Is Dead by The Smiths, Graceland, and a remix album of Boney M’s Christmas songs. (Actually I’m not sure I want to mention that last one as Ken might want to get it.) No wonder it has taken me a while to catch up with everything, especially as, in 1986, I turned nine, and wasn’t very interested in pop music.

Depeche Mode, Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993)

For ages I associated Depeche Mode only with Personal Jesus, which was a stalwart of York Goth nights at the end of the 1990s. However, it turns out, now I’ve explored further, that I do like them a lot. What was I listening to in 1993? Mostly Annie Lennox, REM, The Manic Street Preachers and Last of the Independents by The Pretenders, I think. Those were all definitely worth my time.

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A post with adult themes

WARNING: those of a sensitive disposition may not wish to read this. It contains references to rude stuff. Also, I shudder to think what kind of spam comments this will attract, but here goes.

Dot writes: this afternoon Ken asked me what we are going to do when our sons start watching porn on the internet. Obviously we both hope this is not going to happen soon, as they are five and seven, but it’s always good to discuss these things in a calm, theoretical way well in advance, and not just when we realise they’re getting really careful about deleting their browsing history.

We both agreed that we aren’t going to be able to prevent it. Micro-managing is almost certainly not possible. I gather you can block sites on your own computers (I suppose I should find out how to do that), but you can’t know what they might or might not have access to at friends’ houses.

We wondered if perhaps the best approach might be to bite the bullet, be embarrassing parents, and talk to them about it. “Sons,” we will say, sitting at the kitchen table hand in hand, “just remember that normal sex is not like porn sex. Normal people do not look like porn people. Also, it is important to consider the woman’s pleasure.” We will then glance lovingly at each other, and they will be so traumatised they won’t have sex until they’re thirty-five.

But there are some obvious disadvantages to this approach, such as getting a couple of teenage boys out of their bedrooms at the same time for long enough to sit down with their parents, so we decided a better strategy would be to leave enlightened sex manuals somewhere discreet but accessible. They would be sure to read them, if the gap on the shelf wouldn’t be too obvious, and with luck the sage advice and pencil drawings of rather hairy people would give them a better attitude.

I guess my own parents’ approach was rather similar to this. Exposure to internet porn was not something parents worried about in the nineties, but, still, I do remember finding a couple of helpful books on their shelves. Such as this one, How to Do Sex Properly by Bruce Aiken, Bridgid Herridge and Charles Rowe.

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It illustrated sexual positions with teddy bears. I remember, for example, The Australian (“Bruce and Sheila show you how”), which showed two koalas, not remarkably close together, one of them standing on its head. I shall be very disappointed if I ever discover this is not, in fact, how Australians have sex. After all, I am a great believer in the superiority of book-learning to the rubbish you read on the internet.

 

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