Poetry

Poetry

It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care to act,
it starts when you do it again after they said no,
it starts when you say we and know who you mean,
and each day you mean one more.

Marge Piercy

The Chalk Fairy
Thursday, 01 September 2016 13:51

The Chalk Fairy

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in Poetry

The Chalk Fairy

by Thomas McColl

Each night I traipse
the streets of London,
drawing chalk lines
round homeless people
sleeping rough.

I’ve found
that, even in the early hours
of Christmas Day,
there’s no shortage of bodies
to draw my outlines round:
London’s one big crime scene
every single day of the year.

This poem is from Poems for Jeremy Corbyn, published by Shoestring Press in mid-September.

Titanic
Thursday, 01 September 2016 11:30

Titanic

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in Poetry

Titanic

by Salena Godden

I used to love the film Titanic
The last 45 minutes or so
After the sex scene in the car
When the sea water starts to flow

The sinking ship
All slopping and swaying
The band how they
Bravely keep on playing

A man dressing up
As a girly waif
To hide in a boat
And get himself safe

The human catastrophe
The chaos, panic and drama
I used to love that film,
Titanic, all the melodrama

But now it just looks
Like the Channel 4 news
People grabbing for life jackets
No coats and no shoes

Now I'm just reminded
Of the plight of refugees
All those humans drowning
In the open seas

People hungry and cold
In overcrowded boats
Crying for help
With salt-burned throats

There's a Syrian Leo
And Kate the Kurd
I used to like Titanic
But now it looks absurd

And My love will go on
Is such a truly terrible song
I used to like Titanic
But no, never Celine Dion.

 

'Late leaves mean zero hours contracts': a review of Jim Aitken's 'Flutterings'
Wednesday, 31 August 2016 14:55

'Late leaves mean zero hours contracts': a review of Jim Aitken's 'Flutterings'

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in Poetry

David Betteridge reviews Jim Aitken's latest collection.

In the three dozen poems that make up Jim Aitken’s latest collection, Flutterings, we sense a mind fully engaged in the world. The poet’s senses, feelings and intelligence are all equally involved; and it is a large world that he inhabits, ranging from such minute particulars as the bark of a silver birch tree peeling like “paint-work starting to flake” to such over-arching ideas as “the world turned upside down”.

The viewpoint from which Jim Aitken makes his observations is, in the first instance, his native Edinburgh, but behind that, through his family’s connections, lies a hinterland extending from Ireland to the Scottish Highlands. Add to that a wide internationalist perspective gained partly by travel and partly by engagement in socialist politics.

Flutterings is organised around three themes, leaves (at the beginning of the collection), feathers (at the end), with “Unum - All One to Me” in between. So we encounter plenty of trees and plenty of birds, beautifully captured in words, in all their uniqueness. There are the “plane and palm, / their branches flapping like washing on a line”; and there are arrogant blackbirds with their “frogspawn eyes”, and gallus magpies, and cormorants doing tai-chi. Permeating all these observations and capturings, however, and expressed directly in the book’s central section of poems, is the poet’s understanding that “the One encompasses all – / one world, one race, one love for all”.

This human (and humane) understanding informs a lovely tribute-poem dedicated to one of Jim Aitken’s friends, the Palestinian poet Iyad Hayatleh, now settled in Scotland, and recently widowed here. Its closing lines give us a good taste of what the collection offers:

Sometimes tears can fill his eyes and not just
for his wife but for the lands that are within him...

Yet he is here with us and at home with us;
he is one of us, he is one of our ain folk
extending us with his experience -
an Arab in Scotland and a home in Scotland
transported way beyond the madness of borders.

Flutterings can best be described as a book of elegies, in the full, old-fashioned sense of the term “elegies”, that is to say poems of serious reflection, including laments for the dead. Jim Aitken’s serious reflection does not shy away from looking hard at politics (“adverse governance by the few”), nor from the upsets of everyday life, but it also delights in family and friends and simply being in the world. His serious reflection includes the comic, too, and the absurd, as in a poem about his grandson, Michael, called “Running and Chasing”:

As far as Michael is concerned
all birds are essentially ducks.
Not for him fluffy cats or dogs
or even farmyard animals.

For him any bird means a quack
and if he can he will chase them,
possibly hoping to enter
into flight if he does not catch one...

As for laments for the dead, in a sequence of six poems at the heart of the collection, the poet commemorates his mother, Mary Aitken, placing her with great precision in her time and place (as in the poem “Dunnet Head”), and honouring her influence, after “your stem broke and fell”.

The language of Flutterings is a flexible, extended, precise, and often conversational English. In a comment on one of Jim Aitken’s earlier collections, Neptune’s Staff and Other Formations (published by Scottish CND in 2007), Terry Eagleton commended its “delightful combination of lyrical delicacy and political toughness”. These characteristics are still very much in evidence here.

The English used is the English that Jim Aitken himself speaks, learned in a family where Irish and Highland and Leith vernaculars were the norm. “You talk in the first instance as your parents’ talk,” he explains. “That is your initial linguistic sound and register. Then, of course, there was the Englishing that went on in school...” He endured this process of having “street talk knocked out of you”, but can now happily report that, “I actually love English as a language, while I speak it with an East-coast Scottish accent.” In his own work as a teacher in an Edinburgh secondary school, he supported the use of Scots as well as English, and also Gaelic, and “left teaching with more Scottish literature being more widely used than when I was a student.”

The “political toughness” that Terry Eagleton remarked on makes its bone and muscle and sinew felt even in those poems in Flutterings that begin somewhere else. “Late Leaves” is a good example:

Late Leaves
by Jim Aitken

All the leaves were later this year
with the extended cold and the snow.
And when the first buds burst open
delight and relief became one.

Now in full flush they shine and sway
in sunlight as they always should.
Yet so many seem to take this
for granted as they always do.

In a world turned upside down
by the monstrous greed of the few
there is little of permanence
and much more precariousness.

Late leaves mean zero hours contracts,
a shuffling people on the move
from one bedroom just too many
imposed by those in their mansions.

Late leaves like the merging seasons
should be telling us something true,
to challenge the drift to darkness
where stunted trees produce no leaves.

By leaves we breathe, by leaves we live
and through our dumb disharmony
we threaten the leaves’ appearance
where all their wealth then turns to dust.

It may be worth pointing out that 'By leaves we live' is a core idea underpinning the life, work and thinking of the great biologist, sociologist, geographer, town-planner and educationalist Patrick Geddes (1854 - 1932). It is also a motto text that is built into the very fabric of the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh.

Political toughness was evident from the very start of Jim Aitken’s writing career, both in his collections of poetry and in the plays he wrote for such groups as Stop the War, Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Scottish CND, and the Scottish Federation of Socialist Teachers. These include Twelve Poems for Mikolaj (1993), From the Front Line of Terror (2002), Celta Arabica (with Ghazi Hussein, 2004), Jock Campbell’s Bairns (2008), and Leaving George (2015). He also contributed two historical poems to A Rose Loupt Oot (2011), commemorating the UCS Work-in of 1971-72.

It is sometimes asserted, against all the evidence, that poetry and politics do not mix, the assumption being that propagandist ranting is the inevitable result. The political writings of Milton and Blake and Burns and Wordsworth and Shelley and MacDiarmid and a thousand others contradict this assertion. Yeats made the useful distinction between poetry that is merely rhetorical, a quarrel with others, and poetry that rings true. Jim Aitken avoids lapsing into the former, and achieves the latter, by grounding his poems very firmly and consistently in the material world of particular places and trees and birds and, above all, people.

His voice is a quiet one, and a wise one, imbued with a Wordsworthian “music of humanity”. It is at the same time a voice of today. In Flutterings, the reader hears this voice very clearly. The book is attractively printed, with good photographic design work. Recommended!

Flutterings, by Jim Aitken, is published by Red Rose Press, Edinburgh, ISBN 978-0-9955281-0-9.

'A poem of objects that live by magic': the poetry of Anna Mendelssohn
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 31 August 2016 10:36

'A poem of objects that live by magic': the poetry of Anna Mendelssohn

in Poetry
Written by

Vicky Sparrow introduces the poetry of Anna Mendelssohn, imprisoned for her association with the Angry Brigade, and discusses how its 'attentive concern' rescues objects and people from the processes of capitalist commodification and impoverishment of meaning that are typical of capitalist culture.

The poetry of Anna Mendelssohn (1948-2009) is both empathic and uncompromising. Politically charged, explosive moments in her poetry are patterned within shifting images that register a profoundly sensitive lyric subjecthood; it is a poetry of struggle in which political work is never divorced from the minor confusions of everyday life. Writing, for Mendelssohn, forms part of the struggle against the closing down of what is expressible within the narrowness of capitalist culture. (William Rowe’s poetic thinking - in a poem republished for Culture Matters,  is similar here: poetry ‘names/what can | no longer be said’.) Similarly, in 1963, the Situationist International wrote of how capitalist power ‘presents only the falsified, official sense of words [...] it forces them to carry a pass [and] determines their place in the production process’. Mendelssohn’s poetry plays with these linguistic pass cards, seeking to resist such impoverishment of meaning.

Mendelssohn began publishing poetry after serving a five-year custodial sentence from 1971 for her association with the political activist group, the Angry Brigade. Although never straightforwardly autobiographical, such experience leaves its marks on Mendelssohn’s writing – which variously explores what it means to live beneath imbalanced systems of power, what resistance and justice entail and what role language performs. In 2000, Mendelssohn published her largest collection Implacable Art – from which ‘A man who snatches a ring’ and the accompanying ink drawing are taken. I’ll offer here some notes to be placed alongside the poem, but by no means seek a definitive reading.

A man who snatches a ring

by Anna Mendelssohn

A man who snatches a ring will always have snatched
the world of poetry & my solitaire silver
directions are not given in poetry one day caught
By crowded brains, apart from any who, concerning themselves
With satisfaction hold throbbing unconscious surfaces
To shore up their ever appealing inadequacies,
My attentive concern for stolen time
I cannot sever my body from its multiplicity of
Longing for words that lasting longer are being rendered null
No, I should not be here alone with political obsessives playing for broke.
Is the economy mysterious or isn’t it a matter of a lost card game?
Half of the family gain the other half lose. Half go to Oxford the other half
are shunned. Half own racehorses the other half play boogie woogie on
a clapped out old piano. Half take up the room the other half are filed out
by pathologists. Someone comes across the idea of loss. Wastes a few
minutes before latching onto both. Will one of them tell me why everyone is
talking about money? Tell me why you won’t let my father into your
camera museum? He knows more about silent films and the 1920’s than
you do. Yes, well it was always like that. Buying and selling property increases
property prices. I’m not suggesting that any of you are landlords–only–
we are very different & I read Gogol from that position. How many operators,
was it all one rush for the unbeatable biography resistant to auto, closed door,
abbreviation fever, throwing away no book, beating down bar lines, a clock set,
clock within a clock, a nest of clocks & set in the heart of the intricate mechanism
a heart. a clock in the shape of a heart. the exquisite birthday present: a
poem of objects that live by magic.

from Anna Mendelssohn, Implacable Art (Salt Publishing: Cambridge, 2000), p. 9.

In the first two lines of this poem, a man ‘snatches’ a ring; an event closely connected with the stealing of ‘the world of poetry’. Then ‘my solitaire silver’ appears: the stolen ‘silver’ ring with its ‘solitaire’ diamond could also be ‘solitaire’ the card game; its diamonds are concealed in the pack. Already in the opening two lines, Mendelssohn introduces multiple themes: value (represented by the ring) and its contestations; poetry’s worth (and how this could be snatched away); male violence alongside social regulation of relationships (the engagement ring); and gambling and chance (card games and diamonds).

The next line is a characteristically Mendelssohn-ian formulation, which speaks directly to a reader wondering how these connections fit: ‘directions are not given in poetry’. In Mendelssohn’s verse, encountering opacity and allusion that doesn’t calcify into statement, is part of what generates poetry’s resistance to the narrowly defined values of instrumental language. The refusal to give directions is also a form of non-compliance that serves to block out those who are sifting through Mendelssohn’s work for incriminating evidence. Mendelssohn writes of ‘My attentive concern for stolen time’ – ‘stolen time’ is alienated labour, and might also hint at time in prison. The two potential interpretations of ‘stolen time’ implicitly mouths the inter-dependence of capitalist hegemony and state incarceration, while only ‘attentive concern’ is able to perceive such connections – the kind of attention demanded by a poem that resists dictating directions.

A tone of resentment surfaces too: ‘I should not be here alone with political obsessives playing for broke’. The question of who pays when people play for broke remains implicit, as does the accusation that Mendelssohn’s incarceration was a legal scapegoating for collective action. At times, Mendelssohn’s work is a response to what happens when collective struggle is played out within the economy of the individual, and becomes a documentation of damage; tones of accusation, defensiveness and hostility colour her texts. Her writing is both at pains to reject the hypocrisies of bourgeois society and pained by the brutal realities of being shut out from its social norms. 

[P]laying for broke’ is also the scene of a poker game, and the next line playfully asks us: ‘Is the economy mysterious or isn’t it a matter of a lost card game?’. A ‘mysterious’ economy nods towards those secrets of the commodity and of capital’s irrationalities that Marx exposed, as card games and their stakes return. Mendelssohn next presents her own walk-through of modern economics, its prejudices and its inequalities: ‘Half go to Oxford the other half | are shunned. Half own racehorses the other half play boogie woogie on | a clapped out old piano’. That the economy is based on an aleatory card game suggests the inhumanness of random market fluctuation, and also the wealth of the few who gain it by the chance of birth. The repetition of ‘half’ also implies another chance of birth, that of gender, alluding to women’s particular economic exploitation – invoking again the diamond ring, as the guarantor of marriage’s unpaid domestic labour.

The poem then shifts from thinking through distribution of wealth to distribution of access: ‘Tell me why you won’t let my father into your | camera museum? […] Yes, well it was always like that’. Mendelssohn’s poems frequently speak out against the constraints of racism, sexism and classism; she was of Jewish origin and her father was active in the Labour movement in her hometown of Stockport. Here, the card of the ‘lost card game’ transforms into an identity card, dealt at random: some are pass cards granting access that come laden with riches; others signify debts and closed doors. Mendelssohn continues: ‘Buying and selling property increases | property prices’, and then, more teasingly, ‘I’m not suggesting that any of you are landlords–only– | we are very different & I read Gogol from that position’. If for landlords, the inscriptions on identity cards and credit cards signify something different to what they mean for tenants living on the breadline, then the same is true of Gogol. Reading, like writing, is fundamentally shaped by the material conditions of living.

The final passage contains a striking meditation on alienated labour as Mendelssohn describes a ‘closed door […] a clock set, | clock within a clock, a nest of clocks & set in the heart of the intricate mechanism | a heart. a clock in the shape of a heart.’ The heart fused with the clock mechanism uncannily describes the entrapment of human labour at the centre of all manufactured objects. The ‘closed door’ could possibly be a prison door too, behind which the heart languishes, beating out time. The ticking clock might be a wristwatch (with its jewels, perhaps diamonds, concealed within) inexpertly hooked up to sticks of explosive found in the remains of Angry Brigade bombs; explosives found also in Mendelssohn’s 1971 shared London home. The punishment for resistance to the clock-watching alienation of wage labour is the weaponisation of time through incarceration. Lived time becomes a trap, marked out by birthday cards, when the smooth running of time pivots on the jewels of value.

The objects in Mendelssohn’s poem (from the ‘solitaire silver’ to the ‘camera museum’ to the ‘nest of clocks’) are constantly contested in terms of value, access and meaning. No object is neutrally deployed in this semantic field, and all resist being enfolded into lines of argument; they are in a sense, stolen, over and over again, removed from their world of pass cards and snatched from their economic constraints, even from referentiality, and re-positioned in a poetry where their meanings can be re-imagined. The snatched ring that stole with it the world of poetry at the beginning, becomes the stolen scene of poetry, working outside the margins of economic imperative, yet nonetheless shaped by the conditions of writing and reading; shaped by poverty and being compelled to steal that from which you are barred access.

It’s not about winning the card game, revealing the diamond – Mendelssohn is suggesting – but about re-reading the inscriptions and reordering the cards; about perceiving the hands and face of the clock; and realising that the real stakes of the card game lie in trying to steal time back from ‘stolen time’. We’re not playing for broke but for wholeness. What is unreadable in the objects of capital and the language of law, might become legible through the kind of ‘attentive concern’ necessitated by this poetry, so that we can sense how objects and people once wrested from immiseration, are able to – as Mendelssohn concludes – ‘live by magic’.

 

Poem and ink drawing reproduced by kind permission of Salt Publishing and the Anna Mendelssohn Estate.

On The New Parliamentary Rump In The Absence of Mandatory Reselection
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Wednesday, 10 August 2016 18:20

On The New Parliamentary Rump In The Absence of Mandatory Reselection

in Poetry
Written by

On The New Parliamentary Rump
In The Absence of Mandatory Reselection
after John Milton

by Kevin Higgins

Because you have shrugged off all sentiment,
like a convention of businessmen, each in turn,
successfully losing his boxer shorts
at an after party that will, in due course,
be put in the accounts under ‘miscellaneous’;
he who is of sufficient wallet, and ugliness,
to purchase for himself exclusive access
to a slightly soiled Jerry Hall, now raises
you up in his pages, and on TV screens
that answer to him, as the sort of
Lancashire lass or professional Welsh accent
who’s happy to continue to rule on behalf
of those who must rule, even
if the other guy wins the vote,
with his sandals, his allotment,
his mindless allegiance
to those who haven’t had
beef cheek this century,
and won’t be having it
anytime soon, if you
and those on whose behalf
you hope to administer
get your way, as you will,
if insufficient use is made
of liberating axe and guillotine.

 

See http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/conscience/text.shtml for the Milton poem, called On the New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament.

Hands Off Rosa Luxemburg
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Sunday, 31 July 2016 19:56

Hands Off Rosa Luxemburg

in Poetry
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Hands Off Rosa Luxemburg

by Peter Raynard

Red Rosa was carved from timber
in a Poland that was not her own.
She was not ‘mistaken, mistaken, mistaken’,
dear Lenin. Your eagle of the working classes
hawked a different path never landing
on another’s arm. She was Spartacus,
who kept moving to hear her chains,
advancement through struggle, the true manifesto.

She could smell the stinking corpse of Germany
when people held their nose. Called the workers
to revolt as gravediggers of the state, to lay down
their tools and take arms not against a common
class in some Great War they didn’t own.

Rising up she took the butt of a rifle to her head
followed by a bullet; her hands and ankles wired,
severed like her struggle but not her history.
Her country was a flag she never raised, her blood
without borders flowed into the river she was flung.

Freedom is the freedom of the dissenter; it does not rest,
not in peace, but within the, ‘I was, I am, I will be!’

After the Big Vote
Wednesday, 20 July 2016 09:56

After the Big Vote

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in Poetry

After The Big Vote
Intellectual Begins To Decompose

by Kevin Higgins

You sit minding that cup
as if it contained, post-Brexit,
the last frothy coffee in all of Brighton.
You’ve the look of
a pretend Elvis Costello,
or the rejected fourth member
of Bananarama.

Your claim to notoriety
that one of the Sex Pistols
once failed to cross the road
to avoid you. Your opinions
what it said in all
yesterday’s editorials.

Your new secret hate
the ghastly Adidas tracksuits of Gateshead,
the sweatpants of Merthyr Tydfil,
for daring to go against your wishes.

Your sneer is a threatened Doberman
with the charming personality removed.
Scientists are currently trying
to bottle your lime-green bile
and make it available on the NHS
as a homeopathic remedy for psychotic
former Guardian columnists.

Your words are the gusts that come out
immediately before
a terrible bowel movement.

Even in the face of bitten
finger nails, the broken hinge
on the upstairs window, and my own
sack load of mistakes,

to be you would be
a fate worse than life.

Kevin Higgins is still under 'administrative suspension' from the Labour Party for writing satirical poems like this. He has also suffered the cruel and unusual punishment of being removed from the Labour International closed Facebook group.

A Regressive Centrist Speaks Electability
Wednesday, 13 July 2016 14:23

A Regressive Centrist Speaks Electability

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in Poetry

A Regressive Centrist Speaks Electability

by Kevin Higgins

“Imagine if a huge new influx of Labour members gave a mandate to a progressive, centrist leader who could win an election.”

- Caitlin Moran

Our plans for you
will be enthusiastically endorsed
by the popular musical group
Coldplay, and some comedian once considered
edgy. To make you like us even more

every August thirty first, we’ll re-enact
the crash that killed Diana, Princess of Wales.
Our leader’s reaction to camera
will be so perfect
it’ll bring a tear to your jerk.

We’ll employ a team of pale thin advisors
to ascertain what our opponents hate –
beggars, Latvians, adolescents… –
be against such things too
before the enemy get around to issuing
their bastard press release.

We will make sure
Police Special Branch shoot
no more Pakistanis
than absolutely necessary
in the circumstances
we hope, with your support,
to create.

 Kevin Higgins has just been suspended from the Labour Party, see http://mentioningthewar.blogspot.ie/2016/07/administrative-suspension-uk-labour.html

The White Queen claimed to belive six impossible things before breakfast
Friday, 08 July 2016 20:23

Stabberjocky

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in Poetry

Stabberjocky

by Steve Pottinger
(with apologies to Lewis Carroll)

‘Twas Brexit, and the slithy Gove
did frottercrutch in dwarfish glee;
he snicker-snacked the Camerove,
Machiavelliadastardly.

Beware the stabberjock, my son!
The empty eyes, the robo-glint!
who fellobrates the Murdocrone
the Ruperturtle übergimp!

He pallerised the BoJo cloon
they chummed upon their sunderbus
emblazoned it with fibberoons
and bambulluntruthoozled us.

The tousled toddler slaughterchopped,
his destiplans an Eton mess,
the slubbergubby gollumgove
a shadowhand of viciousness.

O gipperchund! And vomberblast!
The skitterchit of slick and sly
the snicker-snack of backstablades
the scrabblage to ruthlerise.

The bubberchut of charismissed
the turdletruck of banalbore
is patterfrondled on the head
a pawn upon a checkerboard.

Beware the stabberjock, my son!
The empty eyes, the robo-glint!
who fellobrates the Murdocrone
the Ruperturtle übergimp.

Exit
Wednesday, 06 July 2016 19:32

Exit

Written by
in Poetry

Exit

by Kevin Higgins

for Darrell Kavanagh in his hour of need

There will be no more thunderstorms
sent across the Channel by the French,
no acid rain floating in from Belgium.
Pizza Hut will offer a choice of
Yorkshire Pudding or Yorkshire Pudding.

You’ll spend the next twenty seven bank holidays
dismantling everything you ever bought from IKEA.
The electric shower your plumber,
Pavel, put in last week will be taken out
and you’ll be given the number of a bloke
who’s pure Billericay. Those used to caviar
will have jellied eels forced
down their magnificent throats.
Every fish and chip shop
on the Costa del Sol will in time
be relocated to Ramsgate or Carlisle.

All paving stones laid by the Irish
will be torn up to make work
for blokes who’ve been on the sick
since nineteen seventy six.
Those alleged to be involved in secretly
making spaghetti bolognaise
will be arrested and held
in a detention centre near Dover. Sausage dogs
will be put in rubber dinghies
and pointed in the general direction
of the Fatherland. Neatly sliced
French sticks topped with Pâté
will make way for fried bread
lathered with Marmite.

There’ll be no more of those new
names for coffee your gran
can’t pronounce. The entire royal family
will be shipped back to Bavaria, with the exception
of the Duke of Edinburgh who’ll be given
a one way ticket to Athens. Curry
will no longer by compulsory
after every twelfth pint of Stella,
which itself will only be available
by special permission of the Foreign Office.

We’ll give India back its tea, sit around increasingly
bellicose campfires in our rusting iron helmets,
our tankards overflowing with traditional Norse mead.

NOTE this poem was written ten days before the referendum. It looks forward to the miniscule England of which Nigel Farage’s damper dreams are made, except for the bit about sending Lizzie back to Deutschland and putting Philip on the next flight to Athens.

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