The Letters of Seamus Heaney 
edited by Christopher Reid.
Faber, 820 pp., £40, October 2023, 978 0 571 34108 5
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Towards​ the end of 1997, Seamus Heaney wrote to his friend Derek Mahon from Magdalen College, Oxford. ‘Amigo, Here briefly, at the fall of the leaf,’ he began, archly but affably. ‘The deer-park misty, the choir angelic, the heart aswim.’ Mahon had just published The Yellow Book, a collection of long-lined, sophisticated poems steeped in Baudelaire and the fin de siècle. Praising its ‘opulence of means and melodies, the pleure dans le coeur, the combination of buoyancy in the verse and ballast in the feeling’, Heaney concludes: ‘I see Milosz calls poetry a dividend from ourselves: high yields, mon vieux.’ Christopher Reid, the editor of this weighty selection of Heaney’s correspondence, adds disconcertingly: ‘Below the signature, in Mahon’s hand, on the actual letter in the Emory archive: “Pompous ass”.’

Was it unguarded of Heaney to take such pleasure in the haunts he had made his own during his years as Oxford professor of poetry? Did the allusion to Verlaine strike Mahon as parodic rather than complimentary? ‘Buoyancy in the verse and ballast in the feeling’ tells us more about Heaney’s poetic aims than about Mahon’s experiments – so was he piqued by Heaney’s habit of characterising what he admired in others in self-descriptive terms? Or did ‘dividend from ourselves’ and ‘high yields’ trigger resentment at Heaney’s financial security, now that his Nobel Prize ‘doubloons’, as he called them, had been invested? Mahon’s jibe looks worse because the Letters show Heaney writing supportively to and about him, recommending him, for example, to his American publishers as ‘the best in my own generation’. But it also throws into relief something Heaney had to guard against: the begrudgery that went along with him being Famous Seamus.

He once said that everyone in Ireland is famous, or at least familiar, and that, even when he was a schoolboy, being recognised led to banter and taunts. But his early success as a poet, catapulted almost overnight from the Kilkenny Magazine to the Faber list, and then invited to speak for Northern Irish Catholics after the outbreak of the Troubles, gave him a visibility at odds with the solitude and simplicity he craved. One reason he moved with his young family from Belfast to Glanmore in County Wicklow in 1972 was to protect himself from what the final poem in North (1975) calls ‘Exposure’. In this fraught lyric, Heaney is in the woods of Wicklow, ‘feeling/Every wind that blows’; but physical exposure bothers him less than media exposure in Belfast, where journalists pumped him for his views on the conflict. Though safe now in the Republic, he is still distracted by the friends who tell him what to think and ‘what is said behind-backs’. He hears in the patter of rain ‘low conducive voices’ that ‘mutter about let-downs and erosions’.

The touchiness of other people disturbed Heaney and drove him to fits of remorse. ‘I hope a letter is not too melodramatic,’ he writes to Michael and Edna Longley, after a perceived early failure to be an advocate for poetry in the North: ‘It is not so much in the hope of redressing any hurt as to allay my own embarrassment and guilt. As usual your attitude has been gracious and gentle in the face of yet another let-down.’ He can be tactfully evasive in the Letters, even two-faced. At other times he lets generosity spiral into ‘babble’ that is designed to praise and encourage but also seems calculated to keep his networks sweet and pre-empt hostility. Those addressed by such letters must have been delighted to receive them (apart from Mahon), and if they look less meaningful individually now that they are collected in a book, seeming distancing as well as connective, as though keeping others (in Heaney’s phrase) ‘familiarly at bay’, you still respect him for taking the trouble.

The same psychology can be seen in his worries about exposure, which are evident long after North. As his fame grew, and ‘the N-word’ (Nobel) added lustre, he attracted intrusive commentary. There were ‘feminist uppercuts’ and ‘Marxist flesh wounds’ from the academics. The mid-life letters are genial but often let slip how wary and frazzled he felt. Worn-out, jet-lagged, tied to itineraries, he lost touch with the elemental basics of Glanmore (‘stone, slate … cold water, open hearths’) and felt reduced to ‘the “mask” of S.H.’, a ‘mascot’. The public celebration of his seventieth birthday, he told one of his most trusted correspondents, the historian Eamon Duffy, left him ‘feeling that I had agreed to be plundered. I don’t know if you were aware of the extent of the exposure,’ he went on, ‘but it left me oddly unconfident. Not oddly, come to think of it. Understandably and self-reproachfully.’ The exposure that went with success made him retreat to the persona he had used when publishing his earliest poems: Incertus.

How far back this mindset went we may never know, because, if Reid is correct, Heaney’s childhood letters have been lost. It is already visible in the opening letter of this selection, written to his schoolfriend Seamus Deane in December 1964, when they were in their mid-twenties. ‘Christmas had better be a time of goodwill if you are not to stop reading just about here,’ he begins, turning to the trope of belatedness that he uses more often than any poet since Milton: ‘My neglect of your last letter and your first son amounts to an insult … Perhaps it is not too late to make amends.’ Deane had launched into an academic career and started a family. ‘You have certainly taken life by the scruff of the neck,’ Heaney wrote admiringly. ‘All three of you have my accumulated good wishes – and envy.’ Heaney was able to neutralise any envy by announcing in this letter his engagement to Marie Devlin and by advising Deane (being ahead in this particular race) on where to publish his poems.

A more carefree mode became possible when he got away from the North. Funded by an award, he took his wife and their sons to the South of France and Spain. Though his letters aren’t in the Byron league when it comes to exotic travel, they show a keen eye for the picturesque. To the Longleys, he wrote: ‘Swallows shit from the rafters all around me; our landlord sprays the vines out at the back.’ A teaching post at Berkeley also had a liberating effect, and ‘something about the air here has me writing letters more promptly,’ he remarked in 1970. ‘The walk straight down into the campus takes about eight minutes through one of the most fantastic scenes you can imagine. Hippies, dropouts, freak-outs, addicts, Black Panthers, Hare Krishna American kids with shaved heads, begging bowls and clothes made out of old lace curtains, it seems to me.’

In his well-judged introduction, Reid writes that ‘if my selection of letters has a principal theme, it is Heaney’s obligation to duty.’ He does not say whether dutifulness was the leading theme of the innumerable letters he read (there were others he was not allowed to see) or whether he selected for publication those that best exemplified Heaney’s diligence. His volume gives us nearly eight hundred pages of best behaviour, though a few glimpses of mischief do get through. Of a class he taught at Berkeley, Heaney writes to Michael Longley: ‘stupid, illiterate, long-haired, hippie, Blake-ridden, Ginsberg-gullible, assholes (assholes or cunts, I hear you cry). Seriously though, it is an exhausting assignment with a lot of anxious and eager kids all wanting to hear they’re the greatest thing since, say, Charles Olson.’ This might be Larkin to Kingsley Amis, and it’s a nice sting in the tail that we can be sure Heaney and Longley thought Olson no great thing.

Even less expected is a postcard to David Hammond, a singer and TV director and one of Heaney’s closest friends, sent during a stay in California in 1976. The card apparently shows a muscular man h0lding a club and wearing a leopard-skin loincloth; the message on the reverse, readable by any of Hammond’s colleagues at the BBC in Belfast, takes us back to an age when boys would be boys:

The minute I saw him I thought of you. My life at the massage parlour changed the minute you walked in the door. It has become a byword with us, your first words, remember? ‘How far would ye go for fifty bob?’ We’ve had times. I miss your guitar: I hope I didn’t damage it irrevocably.


Until we get the official biography, which is being written by Fintan O’Toole, we have little chance of making sense of Heaney’s occasional naughtiness. But the letters give us an inside view of a career that most of us assumed soared effortlessly. The grounded Wicklow poetry of Field Work (1979) and the visionary, strangely unpeopled landscapes of Seeing Things (1991) came out of bruising rounds of academic labour and the hurly-burly of home life. Even the cottage in Glanmore became a problem as Heaney’s family grew and grew up. To one of his touchiest correspondents, the poet John Montague, he confessed in 1976: ‘I’m in a furious mess over the housing question. This place is a hellhole because of lack of space … The launderette in Wicklow has closed down, so Marie washes for four of us and herself in the bath.’ The life of the mind he declared ‘locked, until her bridegroom brings her to a house’.

In a rare oversight, Reid misses the quotation here from Yeats’s ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’: ‘And may her bridegroom bring her to a house/Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious.’ The democratic, modest Heaney was inoculated against the Ascendancy pretensions of Yeats, but the claustrophobia of Glanmore made him hanker for order and something like a Big House. ‘I get into blind furies because of the impossibility of silence and study here,’ he told Brian Friel. ‘The summer is my only time just now, and it’s utterly shot to bits. They’re up round me here at this minute.’ They moved to a bigger house in Dublin, which remained the family base, but that brought money worries. As he wrote to Deane in 1977, Heaney lived in the hope of breaking away from hack-work, but ‘the fucking money-fears are so cruel … I am at the moment in medias of res like that, over £2000 overdrawn and the water rising.’ All this will change perceptions of what Heaney had to deal with during his most creative years.

Taking up posts at Harvard from 1981 should have made life easier, but ‘when I’m here, I gradually become an instrument,’ he wrote to the artist Barrie Cooke. ‘I harden. I dry.’ The silver lining for the reader is that Heaney’s thoughtful letters to friends became a way of resisting paralysis. ‘I need the voices of my best secret life and life-support,’ he went on to Cooke. ‘I need to hear fellow-anxieties and intuitions.’ America could have changed his sensibility, but, despite contact and correspondence with the likes of Robert Lowell, he remained a visitor, too busy to look beyond the clichés. Writing to David Hammond from Salt Lake City airport in 1987, he notes the snowcapped Rockies and the big open sky of the West but says that this ‘domain of magnificent romance’ has become ‘the humdrum of a slightly impatient, stressed, schedule-haunted, fat-bellied man’. After listing the many letters and references he has to write, the job applications he must read, the backlog of reviews, lectures and Festschrift tributes, he adds: ‘It creates an enormous rage in me at times, a feeling I’ve allowed myself to be pushed to the edge of my own life. (We’re boarding.)’

Heaney was haunted by Larkin’s lines about young mothers in ‘Afternoons’: ‘Something is pushing them/To the side of their own lives.’ His own situation is worse because he has ‘allowed himself’ to be pushed, not just to the ‘side’ but to the ‘edge’, as though hanging on by his fingernails. In 2001 he told his Polish publisher that being ‘so bloody well put upon’ by others had left him feeling ‘panicked’ and ‘pushed to the side of my first self’. Reid says it was ‘obedience to a self-imposed ethic’ that made him so knackeringly dutiful, but to judge from the examinations of conscience he put himself through, his sense of obligation went down through his early formation (school prefect, anxious first-born child) to some inner need. It was in any case difficult to refuse duties that were hard-earned opportunities. He enjoyed, for example, ‘the cathedra and the succession’ when he became professor of poetry at Oxford in 1989, though it brought him a rush of publicity. In a letter written late that year, he worries not about exposure but, in a telling escalation, becoming ‘overexposed’.

Heaney​ did not, as some other poets do, sort out the stuff of poetry in the fabric of his letters. Nor did he, like Lowell in The Dolphin, damagingly recycle in verse, letters that had been sent to him. If he has an exemplar, it would be Keats. An early letter to Deane mentions (in brackets) that ‘(I fancy myself as a bit of a Keats with all these parentheses in my letters)’, and he does have a Keatsian tendency to qualify, zigzag and empathise. Yet Keats’s most amazing letters launch general principles into the world (‘negative capability’, ‘the chameleon poet’) and Heaney’s letters are not written at that pitch. What he gives us, for the most part, is a vivid picture of the distractions that made it hard for him to write poetry. But future scholars will be glad to see how he planned to situate himself culturally. They will be struck, though not surprised, by the attention that he paid to word choice, punctuation and layout. And they will also, more distinctively, be struck by his bother with titles: Wintering Out was due to be called ‘Blood on a Bush’, Field Work was to be ‘Umber’, The Spirit Level was nearly ‘The Flaggy Shore’, District and Circle almost ‘Planting the Alder’.

He most clearly resembles Keats in embedding poems in his letters, as in this cosmic mini-haiku from 1987: ‘Astronomical/mysteries contemplated/pissing during frost.’ Like Keats, he fused genres and wrote verse epistles. There are feisty examples addressed to the poets James Simmons (with whom relations became strained) and Michael Foley. His best-known exercise in this mode is ‘An Open Letter’, which was published as a Field Day pamphlet in 1983. Mildly protesting about the appearance of the word ‘British’ in the title of an anthology that included his work, the poem does Heaney the credit of being awkward about appearing ungrateful to the London literary scene, but its conclusion is never in doubt: he is Irish (who knew?), not British. There is more vim and traction in later missives to the Scottish poets Robert Crawford and Rab Wilson, written in the six-line, tightly rhymed stanzas known as standard Habbie. ‘Surprising by their fine excesses,’ he says of Burns, in another echo of Keats’s letters, ‘Like bottled stuff that effervesces,/The lines fly past like fast expresses.’ The strength of this epistle lies in Heaney’s ambivalence about Burns, which gives it the characteristic bracing by qualification that ‘An Open Letter’ lacks. For all Burns’s flair, there’s a ‘tone/Of knowing who and what’s your own’ which Heaney finds limiting and which he associates with the Ulster Scots. It is all most deftly done. The Letters put the wit and waggery that are kept out of Heaney’s poetry at the forefront of our attention.

Does the craft of these verse epistles distinguish them from the prose letters, or should they make us notice the artistry of the many pages scribbled in airports? In a review of Elizabeth Bishop’s letters, Heaney’s Field Day colleague Tom Paulin argued that ‘a poetics does operate when we read a letter,’ but that ‘the gifted correspondent has to appear negligent of effect.’ What successful letters show is ‘a rejection of rhetoric in the interests of brief, in-the-moment, authentic certainties’. Setting aside ‘authentic certainties’, which is for the birds, what this leads to is suggestive when it comes to Heaney: ‘The merest suspicion that the writer is aiming beyond the addressee at posterity freezes a letter’s immediacy and destroys its spirit.’ This is not a test any poet could easily pass after the 19th-century boom in the publication of writers’ letters. Almost from the outset (as in the comment to Deane about Keats) the reader can sense Heaney’s alertness to his place in the history of letter-writing and his wariness of the exposure that personal correspondence would ultimately bring. ‘Christ,’ he writes to Mahon, in 1992, ‘now that Larkin’s letters are out and Longley’s are in archives, I’m beginning to panic about putting down a line!’

The publication of such letters, whether actually or in prospect, changed the way Heaney wrote his own as well as changing our experience of reading them. His references to Larkin, for example, look the more sympathetic given that in the volume of letters he mentions to Mahon, he is oafishly put down as ‘the Gombeen Man’, with ‘no lilt, no ear, no tune’, ‘litty and “historical”’. Heaney could be reluctantly severe, as when he echoes Friel’s reservations about the lyrical mother-worship of John McGahern’s Memoir: ‘I feel – what shits we have to be – he’s got too good at what he does.’ But, at least in this selection, he never achieves, or wants to achieve, the suave malice of McGahern’s terse remark in a letter neither of them lived to see in print: ‘I’m glad Seamus got the Nobel. Nobody will enjoy it more.’ Meanwhile, it is hard to miss that Heaney pulls out the stops and writes with an eye to posterity whenever the occasion demands it, which debilitates spontaneity. His letter to Reid, for example, on his edition of Ted Hughes’s letters, echoes the address to readers at the start of Shakespeare’s First Folio, cites Keats and Frost, and orchestrates a chorus of acclaim.

His friendship with Hughes was close and important. The compatibility of their poetics helped (Jung, Eliade, Shakespeare), but it was reinforced by Heaney’s awareness that his sensitivity to exposure made him better able to understand the contumely and self-blame that harried Hughes after Sylvia Plath’s suicide. ‘The fate that you have lived out and lived in for thirty years has only gradually dawned upon me,’ he wrote in 1994. ‘Something to do with the – mild enough – experience of enmity and false image-making that inevitably has gathered up around me.’ Hughes had been supportive when Heaney’s high-stress life gave rise to medical problems, starting with heart fibrillation in 1991. There is a passage in Reid’s edition of Hughes’s letters in which Hughes tells Heaney a tale about the Buddha:

He had a note printed: ‘Shamash, the Lord Buddha, hereby cancels all appointments.’ Everybody carried on perfectly happily without him. Their festival programmes instantly found another name, the event organisers simply wrote to the next person on their list, the administrators quickly found a replacement … The Antagonist, the great King of Delusion, curled up into a writhing homunculus the size of an ant, & fell raging through a crack in a dried-out cow-clap.

Heaney did not listen for long. Fast-forward to 1996 and we find him complaining that ‘the thing is out of control … I’m a function of timetables, not an agent of my own being. And it’s going to be like this for weeks and months still.’ The almost inevitable result was writer’s block and depression. On leave in the summer of 1997, he couldn’t get into the swing of composition. Even switching to the lapsed, eventually formidable translation of Beowulf did not fix the problem. ‘I went down to Wicklow,’ he told the poet Tom Sleigh, ‘and gazed and gazed. When I went to open the word-hoard, the key just wouldn’t turn. I was like a sullen old truck up to the hubs in mud slick, spinning, spinning, spinning. (To Glanmore then I came …).’ This doubly alludes to a breakdown, both mechanical and mental, in the half-quotation from The Waste Land. When Heaney wrote with such deliberate generosity to Mahon from Oxford, he was trying to get over this episode.

Quite often after 1997 Heaney turned down public appearances, though so many invitations came his way that refusing them itself became a chore. In 2006 he had the stroke that propelled him into a dress rehearsal for old age and anticipated what was by today’s standards an early death, at 74 in 2013. Initially, the stroke gave him an exit from the ‘pressure, pressure, pressure’ he had been feeling. He also had a pacemaker fitted. ‘So, now I tick silently,’ he wrote. ‘Feel no different. Feel safer, I suppose. Walk again on an equal footing with myself.’ This is a complex reflection, partly because of his recurrent discomfort in the Letters at being divided from himself by the output of ‘Seamus Heaney’ as well as by the masquerade of public events, and partly because it makes a jesting peace with the demands of time which he took seriously right to the end.

‘As usual,’ he wrote to Michael Longley, scanning his lot before and after 1981, ‘I am feeling that most of my life is busy and useless, that the time is being frittered yet somehow the frittering is inevitable.’ When the obligations were full-on, duty left no time even to write the letters that kept non-institutional writing going and reminded Heaney that he could be himself. He could never keep up, and letters eventually evicted him. Writing to the publisher Harry Chambers in 2000, he explained why the missive was being sent from Glanmore rather than Dublin: ‘Our own house has turned into a kind of office … I had to build on an extra room to make a workspace where letters would be answered and stored.’ So many of them made demands of him that bitterness was unavoidable. ‘Every time a letter comes in,’ he wrote a few years later, ‘it’s somebody looking for something … At least that’s how it is on Strand Road.’

The poet Angela Leighton has observed that letters ‘are creatures of time: the time they take to be written, delivered, opened, read, pondered, replied to, or perhaps just left unnervingly lying there’. Thanks to the fax machine, with which Heaney had a love-hate relationship, letters could be sent off promptly, but pending ones were a challenge not just because he was busy, but because the connectedness letter-writing offered was in tension with the risk of estrangement (‘Pompous ass’). ‘Obviously, I should have written long ago,’ he admitted to McGahern in a letter that announced the publication of North, which he knew McGahern did not entirely admire. ‘You know what a procrastinating fucker I can be about letters,’ he wrote to Roger Garfitt in 1984. That time was of the essence is indicated, however, by a quirk picked up by Reid: Heaney’s habit of dating letters to the previous year. Of one Reid dates to 8 February 1979, he notes: ‘Rather late in the year for SH to be heading his letters “1978”.’ Time was flying, and with letters so often tardy (‘Too late, too late shall be the cry!’ is one of his typical apologies), pre-dating them was a defence. The surprise must be that, given the ‘madness’ of his ‘schedule’ and his wary inhibitions, Heaney wrote so many. He did so because he had a ‘sense of worthlessness and hauntedness’ if he let correspondents down, but also because writing letters could rewind time and hold it up. ‘It provides a stopper in the time-sink,’ he explained in 2008, ‘a feeling of at-least-that-much-got-done.’

After his stroke, with old age beckoning, Heaney returned to Yeats. ‘I’ve put a ban on all public smiling man jobs,’ he told Sven Birkerts, with a glancing reference to ‘Among School Children’, in which Yeats depicts himself as ‘a sixty-year-old smiling public man’ on duty as a senator doing a school inspection in Waterford. In an excellent recent book, Seamus Heaney and Society (2020), Rosie Lavan noted that Heaney called himself ‘a smiling public man’ in unpublished lines as early as 1969, when he was just thirty. At that point, the phrase spoke of detachment and exposure to the trials of the public sphere. Later, he was drawn to the phrase’s age-appropriateness and enjoyed giving it a twirl. As a candidate for the professorship of poetry he called himself a ‘fifty-year-old, smiling, self-doubting man’, while in the letter to Duffy about his seventieth birthday he regrets losing ‘the last bit of unpublic smiling man’. Playfully to invoke Yeats on the subject of age made sense because Yeats was describing himself as ‘a tattered coat upon a stick’ when barely into his sixties. In the wake of his stroke, Heaney quipped that ‘having been issued with the stick, all I need now is the tattered coat.’ He entertained himself with the rumour that the ageing Yeats had been fitted with monkey glands to overcome impotence: ‘Wobbly, I am, with this “absurdity”, as the Gland Old Man called old age.’

Yeats gave Heaney more than postures and jokes about age. In a valuable letter written just after his stroke, he declared: ‘It’s not that I have been waiting for to be old, more that from early on I was (in Yeats’s phrase) “beginning the preparation for my death”.’ This resonant echo doesn’t introduce a recapitulation of Yeats’s eccentric claims about dying and the afterlife in A Vision, though those are on the horizon, but of the Catholic worldview that gave meaning to the phases of life. ‘You’d hardly got out of the cot,’ Heaney says of the beliefs instilled in his infancy, ‘yet already you were envisaging the deathbed. Along the way then you would learn about the sacrament of extreme unction, learn to talk knowledgeably about holy viaticum and the final anointing of the organs of sense with chrism.’ He lovingly bows in this letter to what the Ireland of his time was losing, the notion that we have our being ‘within the great echoing acoustic of a universe of light and dark, death and everlasting life, divine praises and prayers for the dead’. It was almost inevitable, given his upbringing, that ‘getting older’ would involve ‘fitting in with those archetypal patterns’. What is more striking, as he points out, is that for decades he had been ‘writing poems where I meet ghosts/shades’ in Virgilian/Christian versions of the afterlife. In ‘District and Circle’, ‘I more or less ghostify myself.’

In the late letters, Heaney loses some of his ebullience. Reid tells us that he fell into a ‘heavy depression’. In the homely phrase, he wasn’t himself; frailty was bringing him closer to a spectral condition. He was still busy enough to be ‘overloaded with obligations and events’, as he wrote to Michael Longley in 2010, but, in Reid’s words, ‘a new, more nervous and guarded face at times seems presented to the world.’ Perhaps it’s more a case of ‘the “mask” of S.H.’ dropping, as retreat into himself made it less necessary and the presented self more vulnerable. In a generous note to a teenage poet who had written to him out of the blue and complained of a lack of like-minded company, he says: ‘Even if you were surrounded by congenial literati you would still have to repair to the solitary place in yourself in order to do your own work.’ He no longer plays at ageing, but accepts it. He is less jokey and more realistic when quoting Yeats to the poet Matthew Sweeney: ‘Himself was right, an agèd man is but a paltry thing.’ He is acutely conscious, too, as Paulin said the letter-writer shouldn’t be, of posterity – of dead poets (Eliot, Dunbar, Yeats again) and future readers – and that makes his letters more not less affecting. Kafka called writing letters ‘an intercourse with ghosts, and not only with the ghost of the recipient but also one’s own ghost which develops between the lines of the letter one is writing’. Towards the end of his life, this was the way Heaney wrote.

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Vol. 46 No. 9 · 9 May 2024

John Kerrigan regrets the loss of Seamus Heaney’s childhood letters (LRB, 25 April). So far, little has been written about his family’s traumas, including the deaths of his four-year-old brother Christopher and of his father’s baby sister, referred to in Station Island: ‘her name which they hardly ever spoke but was a white bird trapped inside me beating scared wings’. Heaney was thirteen when Christopher died, and the loss haunted him ‘like an absence stationed in the swamp-fed air’. Also in Station Island, Heaney has James Joyce, whose own parents lost their first child, tell him: ‘Let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes./Let go, let fly, forget.’

Mary Adams
London BR3

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