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Doug's Book Blog
|The 'Atlantic Wall' stands a few metres from the Sheriffmuir Road|
Not so much a blog post as an article. I recently stumbled upon a largely forgotten part of Scotland's WWII history in the hills above Bridge of Allan and Dunblane. It became doubly poignant when I discovered that my maternal grandfather would have trained here almost a century ago with the 4th KOSB before they set off on their fateful mission to Gallipoli in 1915.
“Go, go, go!”
Screamed on by their officers and NCOs and covered by machine gun fire from amphibious tanks, assault engineers of the Third Division leapt from their landing craft into the shallows and sprinted up the beach. The three hundred metres that separated them from the objective was lashed by bullets and shrapnel as the German defenders raked the charging soldiers with fire from MG-42 machine guns and rifles and showered the assaulting troops with grenades. Mortar bombs and heavy shells from artillery batteries far inland crashed down among them.
By the time they reached the first obstacle their lungs were bursting with the effort of carrying their heavy packs of explosives across the deep sand. As bullets chipped the concrete around them, they desperately packed their pre-prepared charges into every recess and chink they could find, before squirming back to the minimum safe distance. A few hundred metres away a specially-modified Churchill tank lumbered up the beach and placed a massive metal frame against the obstacle before retiring, unreeling a command wire behind it.
|Inside one of the five bunkers|
Simultaneous flashes of white light and an enormous, ear-splitting crash. Huge jagged chunks of concrete spattered down among the attackers, but it was done. Hitler’s Atlantic Wall had been breached. The road to Berlin was open.
But this wasn’t the summer of 1944, it was the autumn of 1943, the landing craft were flimsy wooden replicas, the sand they’d crossed was foot-deep heather and the rugged landscape wasn’t the Normandy coast of France, but a windswept Perthshire hillside. Only the Atlantic Wall was real and so sturdily constructed that it remains to this day, a forgotten, battle-scarred monument to the men who trained here to blast their way through the real thing and were destined never to return from the war in Europe.
The wall stands three metres high, three wide and more than eighty long - a solid barrier of steel-reinforced concrete - but its massive bulk is almost lost in the bleak vastness of Sheriffmuir, near Stirling, two miles north of the battlefield where Jacobite and Hanoverian forces fought out a bloody score draw in November 1715. A formidable anti-tank ditch makes it difficult to approach even to this day and the moorland is cut with shallow gullies, the remains of trenches created to replicate the obstacles the attackers would face when they burst from their landing craft on to Sword beach between Ouistreham and Saint-Aubin-Sur-Mer on the left flank of the Normandy invasion. The trench network is backed by five substantial concrete bunkers, one of them a mass of shattered concrete and twisted metal, and the wall itself is pockmarked by shell hits and cratered by explosive charges. At the western end a huge explosion has created a three metre breach and scattered jagged pieces of concrete across the heather.
|A breach probably cause by one of Hobart's 'Funnies'|
To its front is the rough ground the attackers would have had to cross, pockmarked by shell holes and scattered with trenches and fox holes and beyond the Sheriffmuir road shallow depressions in the heather reveal the positions of the ‘landing craft’. The five bunkers are strategically placed to create an interlocking field of fire that would have hammered at the men as they made their approach to the target.
Seventy years after the event, it is eery to walk over the Scottish hillside where men trained for the greatest amphibious operation the world had ever seen. The attackers would have been the soldiers of the Third Infantry Division, based in Scotland and training to assault Sword Beach. They included the veterans of famous Scottish regiments like the 1st Battalion Kings Own Scottish Borderers, men from Galashiels, Hawick, Melrose, Jedburgh, Kelso and Selkirk, who had been evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk four years earlier and were determined to avenge that slight. The division’s shock troops were the hard-fighting Commandos of First Special Service Brigade, led by the charismatic aristocrat Lord Lovat, whose primary task was to secure the Orne bridges. Lovat had already decided that his personal piper Bill Millin, who would pipe them ashore on D-Day.
Nothing was left to chance by the planners who worked on Operation Overlord, the invasion of German-occupied France, and this section of the Atlantic Wall replicated on bleak Scottish moorland would have been the culmination of a sophisticated intelligence operation carried out in conditions of the utmost secrecy.
Murray Cook, archaeologist for Stirling Council, explained: “You have to remember that everyone who would have worked on this, trained on it or even had knowledge of it would have had to sign the Official Secrets Act. It was a vital part of the intelligence war against the Nazis and could be crucial to the success of D-Day. In a way it was a bit like Bletchley Park, where they broke the German Enigma codes. If the Nazis had been aware of what was happening at Sheriffmuir it could have given them a hint about the location of the invasion.”
Hitler’s Atlantic Wall had its genesis in his decision in 1940 to abandon Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain, and turn his eyes east to Soviet Russia, but the scale and ambition of the defences multiplied after the entry into the war of the United States in December 1941. The work was carried out by the Todt Organisation and by the time of the invasion more than 17,000 bunkers and bombproof shelters had been constructed for the defenders using the latest ferro-concrete technology, plus hundreds of heavy artillery batteries. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was appointed to oversee the work in 1943 and Wehrmacht engineers laid millions of mines and sited what became known as Rommel’s Asparagus, steel obstacles tipped with explosives to destroy tanks and landing craft. Hundreds of thousands of slave labourers, prisoners of war and petty criminals from all over Europe laboured on the project, working under engineers from Germany and the Occupied territories, but the Nazis also used local contractors.
|A Tobruk shelter machine gun post|
Throughout 1942 and 1943 pressure grew from the Soviet Union for a landing in northern France. Once the decision was made that it should be in Normandy, detailed planning could begin to put 39 Allied divisions, more than one million men, on the beaches during the summer of 1944. Nothing could be left to chance and training began immediately on methods of breaching the Atlantic Wall. Just how effective would the Allied explosives be? How much would be needed? How could they be delivered?
The answer was to secretly replicate sections of the Wall and allow the assault battalions to attack them under realistic battle conditions.
In late 1943 or early 1944, work began at Sheriffmuir, probably by 294 Field Company of the Royal Engineers, who constructed a similar mock-up near Muthil, in Perthshire. The site at Sheriffmuir was ideal, part of the Whitestone Firing Range, remote and isolated, but at the centre of Third Division units billeted across Stirlingshire, Perthshire and Fife.
“Sheriffmuir has been a military zone since medieval times,” Mr Cook explained. “The clue is in the name, which identifies it as a place where the local Sheriff would have mustered his troops in the event of an emergency or for regular weapons training. There are trenches dating back to World War One, when the troops who went to Gallipoli in 1915 trained in the Stirling area.”
Now the training could begin in earnest.
#1b1718; margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px;">Captain M. A. Philip, Brigade Signals Ofﬁcer for 185 Brigade of the Third Division, remembered later: “We began some Combined Operations exercises, pretty primitive at ﬁrst, known as ‘dryshod-exercises’. A road or some other suitable landmark represented the coastline, and if you were on one side of it you were technically aﬂoat and on the other side on land again. Men and vehicles were fed across the ‘coastline’ at speciﬁed intervals to represent landing craft discharging their contents.”
#1b1718; margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px;">Full battalions of soldiers would have trained to disembark from their landing craft and cover the three hundred metres of beach to their objective, clearing out trench lines and under live fire from the bunkers. But the key role would have been played by the assault engineers whose explosives would be used to blast a hole in the wall and allow the follow up troops to work their way inland, to take the city of Caen, Third Division’s ultimate objective. The marks of their attempts, many of them futile, are still obvious, but the training was hugely important.
|The effects of high explosive on a concrete bunker|
He revealed that the whole area is littered with the detritus of war; bullet casings, shell fragments and pieces of hand grenade. But he thinks that the most obvious damage to the wall was done by machine rather than man.
“We believe the large breach in the wall was probably created by one of what were called Hobart’s Funnies, special tanks designed for specific tasks.” Hobart’s Funnies was the nickname for tanks modified by Major General Percy Hobart, and included Scorpion flail tanks to clear mines, Crocodile flame-thrower tanks, tanks with bridges for crossing obstacles, and bulldozer tanks. The tank most likely to have been used against the Sheriffmuir Wall was the fantastically named Double Onion, a Churchill tank fitted with a metal frame that held two massive explosive charges designed to go off simultaneously. The tanks drove up to an obstacle, laid the frame against it, then withdrew to detonate the bombs at a safe distance.
After the “dryshod” exercises came “wetshod”, beginning in Galloway, where work was also going on to build the strategically vital Mulberry Harbours, then the Third Division Battle School at Moffat, and culminating in full scale landings from the sea. An entire section of coastline around Nairn and Forres on the Moray Firth was evacuated and the residents rehoused while the men who would assault Normandy took part in live firing exercises as close to the real thing as their commanders could devise. A similar operation by US forces destined for Utah Beach - Exercise Tiger - cost the lives of almost eight hundred men when the assault ships were attacked by E-boats off Slapton Sands. The Scottish exercise was less costly. Nine Duplex-Drive amphibious tanks - another of Hobart’s Funnies - sank in the heavy swell and one man was lost. The sunken tank is now a designated war grave in the waters off Burghead Bay at Findhorn.
When the “wetshod” exercises were complete, the men of the Third Infantry Division were as ready as they would ever be. In the months to come they would be transported down to their embarkation ports on the south coast and on the afternoon of 5th June they sailed for Normandy.
That evening, General Sir Alan Brooke, Churchill’s Chief of Staff, wrote: “I am very uneasy about the whole operation. At best it will fall so very, very far short of expectation … At the worst it may well be the most ghastly disaster of the whole war. I wish to God it were safely over.”
By the afternoon of the following day - D-Day, 6th June - Hitler’s Atlantic Wall had been breached, at enormous human cost, and the road to Berlin truly was open.
“There’s no specific monument in Britain that celebrates Britain’s contribution to Operation Overlord,” Murray Cook said. “But the Sheriffmuir Atlantic Wall stands as a poignant and very evocative memorial to all the men who trained there and who took part in the D-Day landings and perhaps never returned.”
3 days ago
|Russ, Ben and Tony at Housesteads Fort|
At some point this afternoon four intrepid authors will reach the end of a six-day, 83 mile march along Hadrian's Wall, a massive achievement in its own right, but add in the fact that three of them did it wearing authentic Roman uniforms and carrying swords, shields and spears, braved blisters, back ache and helmet head, and it is truly monumental. Oh yes, and they've raised over £12,000 for charity.
I was fortunate to be able to join Ben Kane (Spartacus and Hannibal), Russ Whitfield (Gladiatrix), Tony Riches (the Empire series) and the incredibly informative Mike Bishop, author, publisher, archaeologist and font of all knowledge on the Wall, for the fourth day of their trek and it left me in awe of their stamina, courage and comradeship. By day four, they were collectively in pain from head to foot, but in true legionary style just got the head down and put one foot in front of the other.
They'd learned a few things along the way: that an eight pound helmet will rattle your brains if it's not properly padded: that hob-nailed sandals are like ice skates on rock: that a shield has a hundred ways of hurting you on the march: and if a 'friend' offers you the use of his fifteen pound chain mail armour you should tell him to stick it where the sun don't shine.
|Mike Bishop leads the way over one of the many ups and downs|
Day Four took in the thirteen mile plus stretch from Once Brewed to Chollerton, and begins with a hundred foot vertical climb up a rock stairway (see hobnails above, and think about the effect of a huge shield on a windy day). But it is also the finest, and most scenic stretch of the Wall, with the monument snaking its way over hill and valley and clinging to the very edge of breathtaking crags. I even had a deja vu moment at Sycamore Gap, when I realised I'd seen the tree a dozen times in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves! I wasn't the only guest, Colin and Lynette, from Cardiff, were with us for the whole stretch, and we were joined by William and his mates from Australia for part of it. Along the way we met a host of characters, including a platoon of Gurkha soldiers, who were astonished to meet three men with large spears, and generous beyond compare when they discovered that they were walking for Combat Stress and Medecin Sans Frontier
It's hard going, though, with some tough climbs. By the time we stopped for lunch in a sheep pen (to get out of the biting wind) decorated with the remains of one of the previous owners, I would have sworn Russ was going to finish the day requiring the services of one of the two charities, perhaps even an ambulance. Yet by mid-afternoon his brightly coloured shield had disappeared into the distance and I have an enduring image of the Duracell Bunny. The next time I saw him was when he stopped to rest at Chesters fort, half a mile from the finishing point at Chollerton.
We'd based ourselves at Corbridge (I can highly recommend 2 The Crofts B&B for a warm welcome, comfortable rooms and a hearty breakfast) and the town's excellent Forum Books, run by the innovative Helen Stanton, had organised a talk and signing for the evening. Over forty people gathered above the local Italian restaurant to listen to us (yes, I did feel a bit of a fraud) talk about books, writing and the challenge of walking the wall. Highlights were the spontaneous (probably) 'I am Spartacus' moment (for Spartacus, substitute Ben Kane), Mike's revelation that the nails on Roman sandals were ergonomically placed (a la Nike) to make the most comfortable walking, and Tony's announcement that it's not a good idea to rub (non-standard) vaseline on your nether parts on a tourist bus route.
It was a great night and a big success. A privilege to be there and meet so many generous people and a greater one to be allowed to take part in a small way in the adventure that was the Romani Walk.
2 weeks, 6 days ago
I took a walk from Bridge of Allan up to the Stirling monument, which looks out towards the Highlands from a ridge on the Doune Road and commemorates Sir David Stirling, founder of the SAS and a very British hero. The land it stands on is part of the Keir estate his family once owned, but later sold to a Saudi Arabian sheikh.
The walk wasn't a familiar route, but took me round the estate walls on the Carse of Lecropt and then up through broken farm and woodland to the Doune-Bridge of Allan road. I saw a couple of healthy looking deer, a few buzzards and a beautiful red kite. There were also, despite the freezing weather and intermittent snow flocks of Yellowhammers and Chaffinches in the hedgerows.
The monument is an impressive bronze that stands nine foot tall on top of a stone plinth and the subject wears an army duffel coat and has binoculars hanging on his chest, but Stirling's true memorial is the unit he founded in 1941. L Detachment Special Air Service bore little resemblance to the elite SAS squadrons we know today. Stirling was the kind of Walter Raleigh swashbuckler who was probably born a hundred years after his time. He'd been commissioned into the Scots Guards, but wangled himself a transfer to 8 Commando because he wanted to see some action. Operations in North Africa convinced him that the Commandos were too large and cumbersome for the kind of raiding that was required. He managed to convince General Claude Auchinleck that a 'special force' could do the job better and was given permission to recruit six officers and sixty men.
Initial operations were unsuccessful, even disastrous. On the first raid, Operation Crusader, he lost 42 of his 61 men after the air drop went wrong scattering men all over the desert. Only the strength of will of its charismatic commander saved the SAS. From now on they would go in by land. Stirling often led the hit and run operations personally, planting bombs on enemy warplanes and raiding supply convoys. His luck ran out in January 1943 when he was captured by the Germans and eventually ended up in Colditz Castle. In the 15 months since he had founded the SAS his men had destroyed two hundred and fifty enemy aircraft, blown up dozens of supply dumps and wrecked railways. Field Marshal Montgomery described him as 'mad, quite mad' but acknowledged his worth as a soldier.
After the war, Stirling's reputation was undermined by becoming involved in mercenary groups and shadowy organisations aimed at undermining the trade union movement. An inveterate gambler who once lost £150,000 in one night, his biggest gamble was probably his plan to stage a coup as Britain drifted what he believed was too far to the left in 1975. Fortunately for his country and his memory he was less successful as a coup leader than he was at organising raids against the Nazi supply lines and the attempt fizzled out.
1 month, 4 weeks ago
One of the most frequent questions I'm asked is how I manage to jump about between being Douglas Jackson and James Douglas, my alter ego who writes mystery thrillers like The Doomsday Testament, The Isis Covenant, and now, The Excalibur Codex.
The answer is that I don't - at least not normally - I take three or four months to write a historical novel at the start of the year, take a rest, then morph into a thriller writer for the next four. Ah, I hear you ask, so what do you do in the other four months, you lazy/lucky so and so? Well, I do what I'm doing at the moment, which is juggling between not two books, but five.
|Out August 15|
|Out August 29|
I've just started writing Enemy of Rome, the fifth in the Valerius Verrens series, which takes place in the second part of the Year of the Four Emperors. The fourth in that series, Sword of Rome, ending with the First Battle of Bedriacum, is now at the copy-edit fact-checking stage (at least I haven't heard if there's a problem with the editor's main rewrite). The Excalibur Codex is with Simon, my editor, and he'll be getting back to me in the next couple of weeks with suggestions on how to improve it. In all, the edit, copy-edit and proofreading of each book probably takes at least another month each, and means jumping in and out of the work in progress like a Jack-in-the-Box.
The long-running saga of my crime books continues. Stan, the agent, has the latest version of War Games, which is now the opener, and I was hoping it would be out there by now, but that appears to have been wishful thinking.
And I'm still dipping into The Emperor's Elephant of an evening, which I hope to persuade my publishers to put out as an e-book, but I now realise isn't quite up to the standard of my current work. I don't have time to do a full rewrite so am I justified in publishing the book to finish off the Rufus story, even though it might look like a step backwards? Answers on a postcard ...
Oh, I've put together the synopses for a new series of four books by James Douglas, for when the possibly too likeable, but very capable, Jamie Saintclair has run his course (which may be some time yet).
In the meantime here's a precis and a sneak preview of the cover of The Excalibur Codex. The copy-line/subtitle will change, and there might be a tweak in the design to put it at the bottom of the cover, but you get the picture.
THE EXCALIBUR CODEX
For countless generations the sword had been kept hidden away ready for a time of need, but not hidden well enough because on a warm July night in 1937 it vanished to be swallowed up in the storm clouds of war that would soon engulf the world.
In the spring of 1941 twelve SS generals gather in an East Prussian castle to re-enact an ancient rite and call on the spirits of Europe’s mightiest warriors to aid them in the coming battle in the East. At the heart of the ritual is a pentagram formed by five swords. One of them is Excalibur, the mythical weapon pulled from a stone by King Arthur.
2010 - ‘My time is close, but I cannot pass without revealing what I saw and, perhaps, making amends for what I have done …’ Art recovery expert Jamie Saintclair laughs when he reads the codex to a German war veteran’s will and the strange ritual it describes. But arms collector Adam Steele, is convinced enough to enter into a binding agreement that if Jamie can find the sword, Steele will pay a small fortune for it.
The hunt for Excalibur takes Jamie from Germany to eastern Poland, a deadly encounter in Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair and the discovery that the castle has been destroyed down to the last stone. The only clue to the sword’s fate is the strange tale of a partisan unit murdered by its own commander.
With a team of international assassins on his trail and the distinction between friend and enemy a blur, Jamie finally makes it back to a Britain under siege, where the last piece of the puzzle falls into place and he discovers that the line between obsession and madness is gossamer thin.
2 months, 2 weeks ago
Could a neglected field outside Bridge of Allan be be the site of one of Scotland's lost wonders?
The answer is that we'll probably never know for certain, but bear with me.
First a confession. My only experience as an archaeologist is that I've never missed an episode of Time Team, even the really boring ones where they dig in city back gardens and find 18th century rubbish. Not only that but I write historical novels and thrillers, which means I make things up about old stuff for a living. Still, I hope you'll find my theory is worth considering.
|The ancient hill fort that lies close to the site|
#333333; font-weight: bold; line-height: 24px;">That's backed up by the archaeological record. Directly across the valley on Bridge of Allan golf course is a neolithic burial mound called, romantically, the Faerie Knowe of Pendreich,and there have been many other neolithic finds on the shelf of land that is now Upper Bridge of Allan (see prime real estate). Standing stones of great antiquity can still be seen at Stirling University, across the Forth valley at Randolphfield in Stirling, and at Sheriffmuir. Perhaps more importantly for my theory, the top part of one which once stood in our field has been resited nearby at the entrance to a path along the river. A host of bronze axes and the three wonderful gold torcs, Scotland's richest hoard, found only a few miles away at Blairdrummond bear testament to the relative prosperity of the people who raised these stones.
|This standing stone, buried top down, once stood in the field|
|What I think is the remains of an ancient burial mound:|
you can see three of the 14 boulders that encircle it
|Two of the largest stones in the field. The one at the back|
is about the same size and shape as a big bath tub
Follow the path from the standing stone along the bottom edge of the field, where the ground drops away to the river. It'll eventually bring you round to the corner of the field diagonally opposite the fort and directly below the burial. Look to your left and you'll see a pile of stones, the kind a farmer makes when he clears a field. Look beyond into the bushes at the gate and there's a pile of much larger stones and they're blue-green in colour. Glance to your right and there's another pile. This time really massive ones, weighing half a a ton apiece, and they're blue-green, too. The stones in those piles must have been placed there by someone, but they're most likely to have been cleared from the field at some point in the past. I've counted over forty of the big stones in those piles, which with those still in the field makes eighty-plus stones altogether. All, seemingly originally dragged up from river below, at huge cost in time and labour to the community, but for what purpose?
|There are around twenty large boulders in this pile|
|A stone circle at Castlerigg, Cumbria - the Bridge of Allan field|
may have held three times as many stones
3 months, 1 week ago
I was going to do my first blog of 2013 on some form of writing subject, but after reading this I've decided to have a short rant on a subject close to my heart: wind farms.
I think they're intrusive, expensive, unproven and, in Scotland at least, their unstoppable spread is driven by one man's mania to reach an arbitrary, self-imposed and unreachable target. The 'facts' and figures given out by the renewables lobby and the Scottish government are mostly questionable and always exaggerated. When I checked out an application for a ten turbine wind farm in the Borders against a similar sized project in the United States, I found that the number of full-time permanent jobs that the Scottish site was going to create was allegedly ten times higher, which is ridiculous.
The rules have been bent out of shape to suit the developers, and when local authorities try to stand up against them, the applications they turn down are bulldozed through by the government. The opinions of the local people who will have to live with them are disregarded to an extent that is close to dictatorial. Communities which do welcome wind farms, and I admit there are a few, often do so because they're offered 'community grants' or some other form of cash incentive by the developers. In the real world these are known as bribes. The only people who really benefit are greedy landowners.
No-one knows how many turbines will be allowed before someone says 'enough', but between Stirling and the border at Carlisle there are currently a dozen wind farms visible from the road, some of them enormous, with plans for several more. Developers often start by siting only a few turbines, arguing that they won't intrude on the landscape, but as soon as the infrastructure for a turbine is in place the reasons for refusing further towers no longer exist. The landscape is already blighted, the pylons linking to the national grid are a reality, 'it's only fair to let us capitalise on our investment'.
A constant supply of clean, renewable energy is a laudable aim. I'm all for offshore windfarms, as long as I don't have to subsidise them. I like the idea of tidal and wave power. I just think what's happening now is so obviously wrong that we need a moratorium on further applications. The industrialisation of the landscape I love is too high a price to pay for something that's little more than a ruinous high stakes gamble.
4 months, 1 week ago
It's time for the annual Jackson Enterprises end of term report. 2012 was a great year for me in a lot of ways. I published two novels and wrote two others. Avenger of Rome has probably had the best reviews of any of my books so far and I don't think there's any doubt that it's the best historical novel I've written. The Isis Covenant (James Douglas) also received a lot of praise and was undoubtedly a step on from The Doomsday Testament. If that wasn't enough I signed a contract to write another five books for Transworld, for which huge thanks to my former editor Simon Thorogood, whose faith in my ability changed my life.
On the events front, I was given a fantastic welcome at History in the Court and the Historical Novel Society conference in London and appeared on panels, with, among others, the wonderful Bernard Cornwell. I've done readings and panels all over Scotland and met some wonderful people.
The only downside was the cancellation of the Festival of History at Kelmarsh because of the flooding, but hopefully we can make up for that this year.
Going back twelve months, 2012 looked challenging, but I was confident things would work out. 2013 is going to be challenging for slightly different reasons. I have two books to edit - Sword of Rome and The Excalibur Codex, which will be out in the summer - two books to write from scratch, beginning in January, and I'm working on a rewrite of another at the moment which will hopefully be published next year. Oh, and I plan to put The Emperor's Elephant - the final part of the Rufus trilogy - out on e-book. It's also time to think about trying to get my characters on the big screen. I think Hero of Rome is probably the most filmable of my books. A story of doomed love, loyalty, courage, comradeship and sacrifice set against the background of a bloody insurrection. Great characters. Battles on an epic scale, but in a compact, almost claustrophobic setting, and the final heroic last stand. Rome's Alamo. If you have any contacts in Hollywood ...
A Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous New Year to all my readers!
5 months ago