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mde

Apologies to anyone who hates roundup type posts – you may want to look away for a few days. The end of December has crept up on me as it always does, and as well as being a little behind on reviews – I have three round up/best of posts coming up.

I’m not going to review the whole of the #readingMuriel2018 year – if you would like to see how previous phases went go to the bottom of the post. For me it has been a wonderful reading year – I had never intended to try and read all Muriel Spark’s novels (twenty-two I believe), though I have still read more than I expected. Last year I read and enjoyed two novels by Muriel Spark, and they gave me the idea to read more. I have read fourteen books by Muriel Spark this year (and one was the Complete short stories) and one book about her (finished late last night) – eleven of these were used for my A Century of Books.

November and December – phase 6 was to read the later novels of Muriel Spark – those two published in the early 2000s; Aiding and Abetting and The Finishing School, her autobiography Curriculum Vitae, Martin Stannard’s biography of her or Appointment in Arezzo – a friendship with Muriel Spark by Alan Taylor. I had The Finishing School and Aiding and Abetting at the ready – but haven’t managed to get to them. I will definitely be reading some of those books I didn’t manage this year in 2019.

So in the end, I read Curriculum Vitae and Appointment in Arezzo and between the two of them I got a more complete picture of Muriel Spark than Curriculum Vitae alone gave me.

I think there were fewer people joining in this final phase – which I was expecting – apologies if I have missed anyone. Please let me know if I have.

My friend Sian read Curriculum Vitae – and enjoyed it, saying it was interesting to get her side of things having heard a lot of negative things about Muriel Spark in relation to her son. She especially enjoyed the bit when Muriel Spark dealt with that anti-Semitic nun. Marcia from BuriedinPrint also been reading Curriculum Vitae, though I don’t believe she has reviewed it yet. I know she enjoyed the Scottish bits. Mary read Spark’s autobiography saying it “shines light on her novels’ contexts and characters, but I found it bitchy and boastful.”

Monica from Monica’s Bookish Life read and reviewed Aiding and Abetting – a novel based around the disappearance of Lord Lucan, she found it to be another page turner from Muriel Spark with an ironic twist at the end. Mike from LT rated Aiding and Abetting just three stars. I know Chrystyna had both Aiding and Abetting and The Finishing School on her Christmas reading pile, but I believe is planning on finishing them in January – it looks like I may be joining her.

I spotted Melissa from Twitter reading The Finishing School – though I can’t be sure she was deliberately joining in #ReadingMuriel2018 or not. Melissa seemed a little underwhelmed with it. It seems Mike was too, saying “while it contains some satirical humour, is very poorly wrapped up in its conclusion.”

So that’s it – a year of Spark, and I for one have thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you to everyone who has joined in during the year. If you missed any of the previous phases – you can read about them below.

Phase 1 here
Phase 2 here
Phase 3 here
Phase 4 here
Phase 5 here

I will continue to read Muriel Spark, and in fact I have two more Polygon editions winging their way to me. It seems I have begun collecting a few of them – I do have three in other editions too. Those Polygon volumes do look pretty shelved together, perhaps I will get them all in time. So, you can expect to see more Spark reviews on this blog in 2019 (if I don’t get too distracted by other things).

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The name Michael Holroyd is very familiar to me, and yet I don’t really know why it should be. Checking the list of his published works (mainly biographies) I see I have read nothing else by him. Yet, when I asked for recommendations for a book published in 1999 for my A Century of Books, his name jumped out at me as one I recognised. So, Basil Street Blues was the book I picked for 1999, buying an old paperback second hand edition, knowing that I generally rather enjoy family memoirs.

Holroyd writes superbly, in Basil Street Blues we are treated to a parade of fascinating character studies, honestly and faithfully reproduced by a consummate biographer. These people, now long dead, and mostly forgotten I am sure, outside the Holroyd family – breathe again.

In the 1970s Michael Holroyd asked his parents to each write an account of their lives, their marriage, his childhood etc before they died. By this time his parents had been divorced and living separately for many years, but they had each come from different worlds – and their son wanted their stories. Holroyd used those accounts as the basis of this book – although he found there were some big inconsistences in their accounts, and so he had to become a bit of a detective into his own life.

Michael Holroyd’s father was Basil de Courcy Fraser Holroyd, descended from the 1st Earl of Sheffield, Michael’s grandfather had sold Lalique glass out of the Breves Galleries in Basil Street. His mother; Ulla, however, was originally from Sweden, where she had lived closely with her mother; Kaja– her parents having separated she barely knew her father.

“My grandmother (Kaja) is a snob. Snobbishness is her form of authority. It cows other people, and this suits her. That is why she looks so young in the photographs and my mother so ill-at-ease. My grandmother believes in appearances and living up to her beliefs, she appears splendidly superior.”

Unfortunately, the marriage was not a success, and when the couple separated during the war. Michael’s father took him to live with is family in their home Norhurst in Maidenhead – the family had relocated there during the war from the original family home of Brocket. It was not a harmonious household – though Michael was loved – he grew up under a barrage of spite and recrimination between the other occupants of the house.

“Norhurst was to be my intermittent home for twenty years. Everyone was very kind to me, but the atmosphere had become saturated with unhappiness. It was a ritualised unhappiness, repeated in the same formula of words through the awful succession of meals, housework, and more meals that was our routine, every day, all year. I can hear their voices still.”

Living in the house were, his grandparents, his father occasionally when home, his aunt Yolande and old Nan, who had been employed when his grandmother Adeline first became a mother. It seems the women of the house never stopped scrapping, snarling and spitting – and so boarding school first Scaitcliffe and later Eton, and visits to his mother must have been welcome distractions at times. Though despite chapters relating to Holroyd’s school days and later the beginnings of his writing career, this is a book which mainly concerns those we have never heard of – the members of his family.

The stories of his grandparents and his parents – I found truly fascinating – yet they are not happy stories. His grandfather remaining unhappily married to a woman of volatile temper – later had a long affair with a woman called Agnes in London. His own parents separating and re-marrying – more than once – happiness seemed to be mostly an elusive thing. By the time he came to ask his parents to write about their lives, they were both in ill health, Michael was now having to support his father financially. I am left with a sad image of these two people – for whom life was often difficult.

“My parents, who had long been divorced, and gone through a couple of subsequent marriages, each of them, as well as various additional liaisons, were by the late 1970s living alone in fragile health and meagre circumstances. They appeared bewildered by the rubble into which everything was collapsing. After all, it had started so promisingly.”

No doubt Holroyd trusted that his readers would find his family as interesting as he did. He doesn’t spend much time talking about himself and he is quite humble about his own writing. His own achievements come in for very little mention – though he does reveal that after having written an autobiographical novel ‘A Dog’s Life” his father threatened to sue if he published it in Britain. Despite his obvious fascination and understanding for his own family, this isn’t a very warm or happy book – Holroyd grew up surrounded by failing and unhappy marriages, conflict and changing fortunes. His account of these however is moving and surprisingly engrossing.

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Popping up to say I hope all of you who were celebrating yesterday had a lovely day, filled with all you could wish for, be that books, chocolate or peace and quiet. I am enjoying time with family, so less time on my own for a few days, but I am not complaining. I feel fortunate in the people around me, and spending time with family is not a luxury everyone has. We have been playing board games and going for short walks, eating some delicious food, generally not cooked by me. There is reading time too, when I need it.

Well Santa, the book fairy and assorted friends and relatives have provided me with riches indeed this year. I have three separate wishlists, one for family, one for friends and another for the LT Virago group secret Santa. There have been duplicates in the past – but not this year.

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The bounty began last Thursday when the group of friends I originally met through bookcrossing, gathered for our Christmas meal and Secret Santa swap.
Among other goodies in my bookcrossing secret Santa parcel I got:

Milkman by Anna Burns – which my book group has chosen for January and, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Practically everyone has read Eleanor Oliphant, including my mum and sister who loved it, I am fairly assured I will too.

Another secret Santa exchange takes place between members of the LT Virago group. Having known each other years and taken part in the same gift exchanges numerous times, Liz and I have never drawn each other, until this year. So, under my tree this year, was a Christmas parcel from Liz herself and a LT Secret Santa parcel from Liz with her Santa hat on. Of course, she chose perfectly.

The Little Ottleys by Ada Leverson,  which I am very excited to get. I read Love’s Shadow (book one) – well without checking I assume it was last year – and realised the rest of the trilogy would be impossible to get unless I found a green virago of the three.
I’m not Complaining by Ruth Adam, the story of a schoolteacher in a working-class area of Nottinghamshire in the 1930s.
The Birds and other Stories by Daphne du Maurier – I have been meaning to read more Daphne du Maurier for a long time, I missed all the less well-known novels she wrote, and have only read one of her volumes of short stories. That other volume of stories Don’t Look Now – was fantastic, so I am looking forward to these.

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Then Liz (as herself so to speak) got me two beautiful Persephone books:
The Call by Edith Ayrton Zangwill
Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson.

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My unread Persephone books have been neglected while I worked my way through my A Century of Books (less than 100 pages left). I feel a little Persephone reading frenzy coming on.

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Other books other friends, Meg and Gill, my sister and my mother are as follows:

Mary Anne by Daphne du Maurier
Spill simmer falter wither by Sara Baume
Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban
The Winterlings by Cristina Sánchez-Andrade
The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard
Gordon by Edith Templeton
Courage calls for Courage Everywhere by Jeanette Winterson.

Phew! Well, I know what fabulous books I have already tbr – and now these too! Absolute riches! Somehow, I really need to read faster.

So how was your Christmas for books? Did you get anything you are particularly excited about?

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One of the best things about doing A Century of Books this year has been the discoveries I have made on my own bookshelves. I read The Dud Avocado years ago – and have a lovely new edition to reread, but The Old Man and Me – found in a charity shop, has been languishing unread on my bookcase for ages.

Set in the London of the almost swinging early sixties, The Old Man and Me, introduces us to newly arrived American girl Honey Flood – only we learn early this isn’t her real name. (My edition tells us exactly who Honey Flood is in the blurb, which I think is a bit of a spoiler.) She is a fabulous narrator – a bit of bad girl with attitude, wickedly cynical and quite ready to do whatever she has to, to get what she sees as rightfully hers.

“Besides, I hated him but I loved him too. Yes. I know all about that sort of thing. Christ, I should, I’d heard nothing else my last two years in New York. ‘They have this terrific love-hate thing going,’ everybody said about everybody else. ‘You watch, it’s going to destroy them-.’ But never about me. When I took to someone I took to them, and when I took against them ditto. Mostly I felt indifference.”

Here, in a city of bohemians, drug users, hipsters, jazz clubs and smoky bars, Honey meets C.D McKee, a legendary Englishman of enormous proportions and wealth. C.D is a thoroughly English, Englishman, irritated to distraction by the smallest Americanism.

Honey has arrived in London with one objective – to meet C.D McKee – merely meeting him won’t be enough, she must get him to fall for her. C.D is in his fifties – Honey’s school days are not so very far behind her. She is a young woman on a mission, and she needs to reinvent herself to put her plan into action. Honey (as I shall continue to call her) is an angry young woman – playing the part of her former college roommate. Pretending to have far more money than she does, it is a relief when she is befriended by Dody – whose husband has run off to India, and who is looking for someone to share her comfortable home. One of Honey’s greatest deceptions is hiding her utter loathing of everything English.

“It was a Sunday, I think, and everything was closed. It was a hideous ride with warehouses and smokestacks on one side of the river and Bovril and Milk advertisements on the other but by then I wasn’t particularly in the mood to get upset about the looks of a river. It had rained almost steadily since I arrived and I thought London the ugliest city on earth. Marble Arch and Piccadilly Circus. Ugh. The dirty-green grass patch called Leicester Square surrounded by Movie Palaces, restaurant windows full of chickens revolving on their spits and the new Automobile Association Building — hardly Art Nouveau. Oxford Street. Ugh, ugh.”

C.D McKee is instantly intrigued by Honey, she plays her part perfectly – showing neither too much nor too little interest in the great man. Bit by bit Honey reels him in – or is it C.D reeling her in? – we can’t ever be completely sure for Honey is a marvellously unreliable narrator. C.D McKee invites Honey for drinks, takes her for lunch and to test drive a rolls, in his company Honey attends an antiques fair – and starts to learn fast. The two begin spending more and more time together – and Honey starts to think her plan is coming together. She has even started contemplating murder.

“After a few false starts I found my way back to my room and looked for my suitcase to begin unpacking. Gone. Wrong room? Nope, it was undeniably blue. What had happened was that invisibly fairy hands had pressed, folded, and hung up every stitch of my clothing, polished my shoes, laid out my toilet articles on the washstand and my make-up on the dressing-table, drawn my bath, made off with my suitcase and disappeared without a trace. I looked out of the window at the afternoon splendour, located the Abbey ruins pink in the sun’s reflection and lay down on the fourposter bed. A neat little fire had been lit in the fireplace. The peace, the quiet, the perfection—it was all rather exhausting.”

At a large country house weekend party, Honey must endure all those things she dislikes most about the British. Her irritation is perhaps heightened when she discovers that nothing is as stereotypically uncomfortable as she had expected. She is furious to find herself being warned off C.D, in the rose garden, by the lady of the house – an old friend of C. D’s.

Young Honey sees C.D McKee as an old man, (I refuse to call him old when he is a mere seven years older than myself) he is very fat and rather ugly – but surprisingly very, very sexy – and soon, despite herself Honey is enjoying herself. The seducer has become the seduced – but to say any more would be to spoil the story for future readers.

Wickedly funny, The Old Man and Me is a gorgeous recreation of early sixties London. Elaine Dundy beautifully contrasts the traditional Englishman and the spikey, young modern American. C.D McKee is a larger than life character- who may not be so easy to fool. Despite everything, Honey is not without sympathy, and I am sure that this is testament to Dundy’s skill. It would have been so easy to make Honey vampish or cruel – and yet she is neither.

The Old Man and Me – was an easy five star read for me – and one of my December highlights. I will definitely have to move my reread of The Dud Avocado up my tbr now.

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A shorter review today.

You may remember that when I was writing my review recently of The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge, I discovered I had made a terrible mistake in my A Century of Books. 1993 turned out to be my troublesome year – though after an initial panic I discovered I had had another 1993 title after all. Well this little volume ended up being my quick replacement 1993 read.

A Virago Keepsake is a book that someone on Twitter sent me (and I am ashamed to say I can’t remember who it was), it is a rather lovely little blast from the past. A volume that was obviously once given away free (with a newspaper or a magazine I assume) it was produced to celebrate Virago’s twentieth anniversary. With an introduction by Harriet Spicer it is not at all clear who compiled or edited this collection.

Twenty pieces by or about Virago writers – many of them reminiscences of the beginnings of Virago, and the start of careers.

Probably because of the date of this little volume, and the time these pieces were written – many of these pieces discuss the women’s movement of the 1970s – a key time for many of the women writing in this volume.

“That was in the mid-seventies, when Virago occupied a single room in a crumbling building on one of the grubbier streets in Soho. You walked up several flights of none-too-clean stairs to get to it, past an establishment which was – I think – a hairdresser’s, but which sticks in my mind as a massage parlour. Certainly there were a lot of men in raincoats hanging around. I prepared ripostes, in case of sudden stairway unbuttonings – ‘Listen pal, where I come from we put toothpicks through those and serve them on soda crackers’ – but I never had to use them. Maybe my own raincoat was daunting; or maybe the wind of Virago’s name had already gone round it.”
(Margaret Atwood – Dump Bins and Shelf Strips

It was a time when so many strong women’s voices began to be heard. I couldn’t help but reflect on the movements we have seen gather momentum more recently across social media platforms – it seems that while the slogans on the placards change – the fight goes on – but it began I think, with many of these women, and others like them – whose names are less well known.

“…in the last twenty years scores of those lost women writers of the past have come back from obscurity to be rediscovered in their green Virago dresses by a new generation.”
(Elaine Showalter – writing a literature of their own)

Virago did so much for women’s writing, bringing back those voices that had fallen silent as fashions changed – and at the same time gave us new ones.

The first few pieces in this volume – were a treat, Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, Nina Bawden, A S Byatt on Willa Cather, got this volume off to a blisteringly good start. To be honest other pieces were rather less memorable. Though I also thoroughly enjoyed reading Kathleen Dayus’s reminiscence on how she came to be published by Virago. Grace Nichols expresses herself best through verse – and the extracts she inserts here are wonderful. Deborah Tannen; not a writer I knew before, discusses what she calls The Real Hilary Factor, the Hilary in question, Hilary Clinton, and her (at the time) much discussed impact on the American Presidential election. I would love to know Tannen’s thoughts now – two years after Hilary Clinton ran for president herself.

A collection of some really interesting essays, and very much of its time I think – which in itself is fascinating. Rather glad that I had to read this – it might have languished even longer had I not ferreted it out.

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I love Diana Athill’s writing and have now read several of her memoirs and a volume of short stories. However, the book that seems to be mentioned again and again by fans of her work is Stet – An Editor’s Life. I can now see why, it is a book full of bookish gossip, lifting the lid on almost fifty years of publishing.

Diana Athill was born into the kind of family, where young women would have grown up not necessarily expecting to have to work for a living. They primarily escaped this dire fate of course by marrying, but, by the time of Athill’s parents’ generation the family finances had changed a lot – and it had been impressed on Diana by her father, that she would need to make her own living. During the Second World War Diana worked for the BBC – and it was around this time that Diana met André Deutsch who was to become such a key figure in Athill’s life.

André Deutsch was a young Hungarian about to dip his toe into the world of publishing. Not long after meeting Deutsch at a party in the flat she shared with a friend, Diana was to leave her job at the BBC to join André Deutsch in the publishing firm of Allan Wingate, and later as a director when he started a new company under his own name.

Athill obviously had a lot of respect for Deutsch, the two were good friends, but she was well aware of his faults – and seems to have been one of the people best able to handle him. André Deutsch was clearly a very difficult man to work with, he definitely had his own little ways. He was given to terrible rages and was irritated by employees who he felt weren’t up to scratch, yet Diana continues to work well with Deutsch through business ups and downs across four decades. Athill is also wonderfully self-effacing about her own abilities, playing down rather the important role she played in bringing so many books to life. Her love of literature is obvious – and she shares many anecdotes of the vast amount of editing work she did.

“We must always remember that we are only midwives—if we want praise for progeny we must give birth to our own.”

She was rigorous in her approach to work, she clearly took her work seriously, yet she had a sensible approach – to what we would now call work life balance.

“Generally office and home were far apart, and home was much more important than office. I was not ashamed of valuing my private life more highly than my work; that, to my mind, is what everyone ought to do.”

In the second part of the book Athill talks about her relationship with six of the writers she worked with during her long career: Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore, Alfred Chester, Jean Rhys, V.S.Naipul and Molly Keane. I’m afraid I didn’t know anything about Richler and Chester, and Brian Moore I have heard of but not (yet) read I recently bought The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne which Athill references quite a lot in that chapter.

However, V.S Naipul, Jean Rhys and Molly Keane I have read quite a bit – and so I found these accounts particularly fascinating. I don’t think I was particularly surprised that V.S Naipul was – well quite frankly – pretty horrible – (his poor wife!). About Naipul, Athill says:

“I saw him as a man raised in, and frightened by, a somewhat disorderly, inefficient and self-deceiving society, who therefore longed for order, clarity and competence.”

Nor was I surprised to hear how fragile Jean Rhys was – though the extent of that fragility is completely at odds with the precise genius of her writing. What a fascinating woman, though a sad one – and hopelessly impractical.

“No one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels can suppose that she was good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was.”

Athill is very honest about these people – and there does seem to have been a culture of accommodating their every whim – valued writers (certainly of this kind of stature) were rather pandered to it seems.

I wonder if that was just how things were under Andre Deutsch? or whether it was common to other houses? My assumption is that things have changed hugely since those days. It makes for compelling reading.

It is incredible that a woman born in 1917 – who worked for the BBC during the war, is actually still with us, she will be 101 on Friday.

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So many people have professed their love for The Towers of Trebizond that I couldn’t help but choose it over several other 1956 books, despite having already read three other Rose Macaulay novels this year. Known by many people simply for its fabulous opening line:

“Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, climbing down from that animal on her return from high Mass.”

Well, if that isn’t enough to make you smile and to wish to carry on reading, I don’t what is. Macaulay is frequently wry as she sets about observing people in their various, sometimes ludicrous pursuits.

“Everyone had had the idea of starting for home early, so as to miss the crawl, but, since everyone had had the idea, no one missed the crawl.”

The novel follows the progress of a group of characters as they embark upon a journey from Istanbul to Trebizond. They are, Laurie – our narrator, her Aunt Dot (Dorothea Ffoulkes Corbett) and Dorothea’s friend, high Anglican priest Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg. Oh, and then there’s the camel. They are befriended by a Turkish woman doctor; Dr Halide, an ardent feminist with an interest in Anglicanism. Aunt Dot is set on converting and liberating the Turkish women she meets with Christianity and introduce them to the bathing hat.

This novel is a mix of things, part novel, part autobiographical travelogue and an exploration of religion. While Father Chantry-Pigg carries sacred relics around with him, Laurie muses on the complications of her love life. Along the way the trio meet British travel writers and witness the progress of Billy Graham on tour with the BBC. Macaulay does employ some typical British colonial stereotypes – though these things are put into the mouths of her characters and are fairly mild. Her characters are upper class English idiots – harmless enough and of a type – and I think she was poking gentle fun at them. Macaulay is a good observer of the Englishman/woman abroad – and here she is superb at portraying the noise and clamour of a Turkish harbour.

“The boats were filled mostly with steerage passengers who lived in Trebizond or were visiting relations there, and the women carried great bundles and sacks full of things, but the men carried suit-cases with sharp, square corners, which helped them very much in the struggle to get on and stay on the boats, for this was very violent and intense. More than one woman got shoved overboard into the sea during the struggle, and had to be dragged out by husbands and acquaintances, but one sank too deep and had to be left, for the boat-hooks could not reach her; all we saw were the apples out of her basket bobbing on the waves. I thought that women would not stand much chance in a shipwreck, and in the struggle for the boats many might fall in the sea and be forgotten, but the children would be saved all right, for Turks love their children, even the girls.”

Suddenly, Aunt Dot and Father Chantry-Pigg disappear over the border into Russia – a task so impossible during these cold war days, that it is assumed they must have had help of a fairly sinister nature, and are declared spies, by almost everyone. A little anxious, though not unduly concerned Laurie is left alone in charge of the camel – on which she continues to travel.

mdeShe meets up briefly with her lover, enters into a wrangle over a manuscript with one of the British travel writers; David who has a habit of popping up every now and then, but at least can be relied on to buy dinner. She experiences a hallucinatory draught that she is given in exchange for food, sells camel rides along the road, encounters difficulty getting into Israel and then later meets her estranged mother in Jerusalem. It’s all wonderfully bonkers.

After all that travelling, eventually Laurie heads back to England, with an ape that she has picked up (as you do). Here, as settles back into normal English life, she is forever wrestling her Christian faith with her adulterous relationship with a married man. The camel and the ape suitably ensconced at the zoo but Laurie wonders whether or not she will ever see Aunt Dot and her priest ever again.

Overall, a really good read – my favourite Macaulay is still The World my Wilderness, but I loved the sense of place in this, the bizarre quirkiness of Macaulay’s story and her characters – make for a memorable novel. There is also a fabulously unexpected bit of drama at the end of the novel – which I won’t spoil for you – I do enjoy being taken by surprise.