Rough Draft 1/30/2015

Some random thoughts and observations for you this day, more or less as they occurred to me.

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Reading the reactions to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, you would think there’d be an agreement that, no matter what you think of the cartoons, they should not be punished by bloodshed. That so many Westerners would excuse Muslims slaughtering unarmed civilians over pen and ink because they can’t help it smacks of condescension.

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Just scored a new record on the Wii Fit’s snowball fight. Eighty-one hits in 60 seconds. Compared to the eventual heat death of the Earth, it’s not even a nanoparticle in an atom of a grain of sand, but it’s a lifetime achievement award to me right now.

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If you find yourself buying books like this, you might be a Sherlockian.

From <a href=

How to Be a Victorian“>MX Publishing” width=”500″ height=”375″ class=”size-full wp-image-8797″ /> From MX Publishing

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Dipped into “How to Be a Victorian” by Ruth Goodman. In lieu of regular baths, they wore linen or cotton underclothes next to the skin and rubbed down their bodies regularly with soft cloths. Great details, but even more impressive was that the author tried it out herself and found it worked. Another book for the must-buy list.

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Ironic that so many people who campaigned for free speech on campuses are equally adamant it denying it to others.

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Stuffed three novels in my head at the same time: a group’s attempt to take down the U.S., set in the near future (“The Cause”); Laurie R. King’s new Sherlock novel (“Dreaming Spies”); and loosely connected stories set on the new frontier of a slowly terraforming planet (“The Empress of Mars”). Wildly different in setting, attitude, and writing style. No wonder I don’t know where I am.

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Oh, wait, I do. Snowbound in Hershey. I’m not saying I’m hibernating, but if I see my shadow on Feb. 2, spring will come in six weeks.

Today’s Panel Without Context

comic panel without context

“It puts its lotion on its skin or it gets the hose again!” (Rex Morgan)

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John Cleese Delivers Comedy Lessons in Memoir

Monty Python has been a part of my life since the early 1970s, when WTVI in Charlotte broadcast the episodes. I can still remember the first episode I saw, which featured the Spanish Inquisition, which moved from Graham Chapman as a working man telling Carol Cleveland that there’s “trouble at the mill” with “one of the cross-beams gone out a-skew on the treadle.” Her repeated questions about that point irritates Chapman so much that he declares he “didn’t expect the bloody Spanish inquisition.”

The Spanish Inquisition: Michael Palin (center), Terry Gilliam (right) and Terry Jones as "Biggles, the Littlest Inquisitor."

The Spanish Inquisition: Michael Palin (center), Terry Gilliam (right) and Terry Jones as “Biggles, the Littlest Inquisitor.”

And in bursts Michael Palin in full Spanish Catholic gear, followed by his mates, including Terry Gilliam pulling a face so spastic that it looked like the result of your mother’s threat that your face will freeze if you keep doing that. Then Michael shouts “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is fear. Fear and surprise.” He realizes he got the count wrong and starts again: “Our TWO chief weapons are fear and surprise. And ruthless efficiency . . .”

And so on and so forth. (Note to assistant: Don’t link to the YouTube clip or we’ll never get the bastards back. Ring me in Canne. Chow! Bill)

monty python john cleeseSo in reviewing John Cleese’s memoir So, Anyway…, I won’t bother saying I enjoyed it immensely (which I did) or that I’m looking forward to volume two, which will cover the Python years (did that too) and that his “A Fish Called Wanda,” was one of the best farce-comedies I’ve ever seen (you can stop now), or that his book “Families and How to Survive Them” (written with shrink Robin Skynner) helped me understand and cope with my family’s dynamics (shutup shutup SHUTUP!).

So . . . let’s talk about comedy. Cleese seemed to me to be the intellectual of the bunch, the one who really really thought about things. This is confirmed in “So, Anyway,” because every once in awhile, he’ll stop the narrative and go down the side alley into Funny: What is it, What isn’t it, and Where did my pants go? Since I am clearly not funny, I decided to pull, nearly at random, five lessons Cleese learned about comedy and discuss them.

1. Tastes vary, sometimes radically

At Cambridge, Cleese joined the Footlights, a small amateur comedy troupe that put on a couple shows a year as well as regular “Smokers” where people got up on the small stage and tried to be funny. In this atmosphere of creative collaboration, sketches would be written, tested, taken apart, reworked, and at the end of the year a show would be held. At the end of the year, they performed the show at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival, and it was so successful it was moved to London’s West End theatre for a short run.

During that creative process, Cleese discovered that nobody knew what really worked. “When members of the cast talked about the show, for example, we all felt that about twenty per cent was comparatively weak, but there was constant disagreement about which twenty per cent that was.”

2. Be inspired by great comics

When he was a young’un, Cleese discovered the “Goon Show,” a radio show consisting of three comics (Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Harry Secombe) performing a skit using silly voices and strange sound effects to tell insanely logical, twisted stories that were also incredibly funny and subversive towards the Establishment.

“Years later, I became bewildered by the reception of Monty Python by some of our looniest fans, I suddenly realized they were experiencing exactly the combination of emotions that had rendered me such a devotee of the Goons, and so I was able to forgive them.”

3. Anger is useful, but it has its limits

Think of Oliver Hardy’s slow burn after Stan Laurel does something particularly stupid. Or Ricky Ricardo after one of Lucy’s foul-ups. Anger can be funny, but only to a point:

“I find anger, like Basil Fawlty’s, hilarious — provided it is ineffectual, as real anger might be too disturbing. I’m terrified of violence, yet I shout with laughter at great slapstick comedy that threatens people’s physical safety (think of Harold Lloyd or Chaplin, or of Eddie Murphy crossing the freeway in Steve Martin’s “Bowfinger”). My sense of humour has been described as cruel (mainly by BBC executives), yet I am almost obsessively appalled by torture. And I howl at absurdity and nonsense when my deepest psychic fear is a sense of meaningless. Am I trying to diminish a fear by laughing at it, and thereby belittling it, reducing its threat?”

4. Even the greats fail

Watching a Marx Brothers festival, Cleese realized “just how much dross there was among all the brilliance: even the greatest comics, I concluded, frequently fail.”

5. In fact, a lot of comedy is shite

“There exist vast hordes who can write bad comedy, and they do so in immense quantities, entirely uninhibited by any awareness of just how atrocious it is. . . . So if I may give a word of advice to any young writer who, despite the odds, wants to take a shot at being funny, it is this:


“Steal an idea that you know is good, and try to reproduce it in a setting that you know and understand. It will become sufficiently different from the original because you are writing it, and by basing it on something good, you will be learning some of the rules of good writing as you go along. Great artists may merely be “influenced by” other artists, but comics ‘steal’ and then conceal their loot.”

Cleese demonstrates the principle of stealing by confessing to ripping off Professor Stanley Unwin, a comedian who turns plausible speech into gibberish.

“The first time I heard him I became so hysterical with mirth that I frightened my parents. . . . I watched Unwin obsessively and slowly figured out how he did it — which was to take certain syllables from very ordinary words and mix them up with syllables from other equally common words, so that the sounds were totally familiar English ones, but the overall effect quite meaningless.

“His version of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears,’ for example, began: ‘Once apollytito and Goldiloppers set out in the deep dark of the forry. She was carry a basket with buttere-flabe and cheesy flavour.’

“So, anyway . . . once I had worked out how Stanley Unwin produced his strangely convincing gobbledegook, it was easy to scribble out another example for the Footlights audition.” . . . The Stanley Unwin rip-off has become a standard part of my cabaret routine, last performed on my one-man show’s UK tour in 2011, fifty years after its first appearance at the Footlights clubroom.”

That’s just a few of the lessons learned from “So, Anyway.” In between, Cleese covers his life from his parents’ time to the formation of Monty Python. He talks about his influences, his friends, his stunted upbringing at the hands of a trying mother, his shyness, his backing into comedy (he was trained in law and was about to join a firm until by sheer happenstance he was invited to take the Footlights show to Edinburgh). He worked hard, tried different things, thought about what it all meant and went back out to try again. I won’t say that if you’re a Monty Python fan you’ve already got the book. I won’t say that comedy fans should get this book (and if it leads you to the Goon Show, you’ve got a treat in store).

I will say that I hope he’ll call out Eric Idle and Terry Jones as the short-sheeting bastards they are, in the hopes they’ll come out with memoirs of their own.

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Why I Repair, Sew and Mend (part 2)

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Last week, we looked at how learning to sew, once a skill taught to girls in the school system, has nearly vanished thanks to an increase in the supply of cheap clothes from overseas manufacturers.

But with cheapness comes a price. There’s a saying that when it comes to anything, you can have it by picking two out of these three choices: fast, cheap and good. You can have it cheap and good, but you can’t have it fast. Or, you can have it fast and cheap, but not good. Or Fast and good, but not cheap.

So how can you ensure that your family wears good, well-made clothing? You can have clothing custom-made by a seamstress or tailor. You may have to look pretty hard to find this service but these people exist. Then pay them what they ask. If you can’t stomach the prices, reflect on the fact that the local seamstress or tailor wants to earn more than the 29 cents an hour that sewing machine operators get paid in Third-World sweatshops. That the local seamstress doesn’t get to pay the lowest possible wholesale price for fabric bought in 100,000-yard increments. That the local tailor has rent, Social Security, and utilities to pay. Third-World sweatshops and Chinese prison labor is the reason why new clothes in the United States cost so little relative to the amount of workmanship, fabric, notions, and time invested in them.

How do you solve this problem of cost? You learn to do it yourself. You start with a needle, thread, thimble, and sewing scissors. Then you teach yourself to make the most basic of repairs: sewing buttons back on and closing up split seams. Thanks to the miracle of Project Runway, sewing has become popular again, and so you can now find basic how to mend and repair books with loads of pictures that aren’t sixty years old or older.

home sewing
A current book is “Mend It Better: Creative Patching, Darning, and Stitching” by Kristin M. Roach. A really excellent older book is “”The Mender’s Manual” by Estelle Foote. The difference between the two books is that Ms. Foote assumes you already know how to sew. Ms. Roach assumes you’ve never had a needle in your hand and so gives you plenty of photographs to demonstrate how to thread and hold one.

cooking-for-absolute-beginners-cover-home-sewingThe progression in sewing books is the same as that of cookbooks. Most older cookbooks — unless aimed at total newbies such as “Cooking for Absolute Beginners” by Muriel Fitzsimmons and Cortland Fitzsimmons (Dover Publications) — assume you already know what to do. More modern cookbooks have to assume you have never boiled water and proceed accordingly. As your how-to-sew books get older and older, the basic information and directions become more and more sparse with many fewer illustrations. Older books can be more useful as they assume you need to save money and so give instructions for things you wouldn’t get today such as replacing a lining in a jacket. Older books also assume that you have an older relative around whom you can ask. If you do have a mother, grandmother, or aunt who still mends, repairs, and sews you have a stunningly valuable resource. So ask for help! I’ve learned a lot from books but being shown by someone who knows what she’s doing is far better than trying to interpret cryptic instructions and tiny line drawings.

Why Sew At All?

home sewing

Cooking is drudgery. Why else would Hamburger Helper be invented?

What happened is that sewing, like basic home cooking, has become a lost art; a skill that in two generations went from the vast majority of women (because let’s face it, most men didn’t cook or sew) knowing at least how to repair a hem and put meals on the table three times a day to most women barely recognizing a needle and thimble and relying on the miracle of pre-fab convenience food cookery. Sewing, like cooking, is time-consuming work and both can turn into drudgery really quick.

If you can’t find the Zen of being bent over a sewing machine for hours on end or making a meal in an hour that gets eaten in five minutes and then repeating the process three times a day for the rest of your life, you start resenting the work. Why wouldn’t you? Especially if you can maintain some 60-hour-a-week career and use some of that money to pay poorer women of color to do the same work. And, you simply can’t maintain that sixty-hour-a-week career (this is about how many hours a week my sister the programmer works, at a minimum, every single week; during sick days and vacations she is expected to check her email faithfully and make up every single missed hour of work when she gets back) and spend three hours a day cooking and cleaning up from said work and doing all the sewing of garments, household linens, plus repair work and mending. This doesn’t cover any of the other daily work to run a house well nor does it include hours spent on exercise and other body maintenance, commuting, community service, church work, housekeeping, personal time with children, spouse, and friends, and food growing and preservation. That 24-hours-a-day pesky time-management problem reappears with a vengeance.

So, as soon as there was a little more money, a job took up your time, and clothing and household cloth items became super cheap (when all the American textile jobs went overseas to sweatshops), sewing fell off of the radar. Your time matters. It matters a lot. So again, why sew at all?

1. Repair work is easy. It is crazy and wasteful to discard a blouse because a button is missing or a seam has opened up. These are both incredibly easy fixes and take far less time and money than shopping for a replacement blouse. If of course, you have a needle, thread, thimble, scissors, and a jar of buttons and you know how to use them.

At this point, let me say that every household that plans on doing repair work to clothing should have a button jar. Take a clean, clear peanut butter jar and start saving all those buttons you find loose in the washer, you picked up off the floor, and that come attached as replacements to the clothes you bought. When you have to buy a packet of buttons to replace the one missing shirt button, put the extras into the jar. Since I sew a lot, I have collected a lot of buttons.


My buttons are sorted by type (shank or hole) and by color. For basic repairs, you won’t need nearly this many. What makes button replacement hard is that you can almost never find an exact match of even a plain ½-inch white shirt button. Even the most basic buttons comes in dozens of variations; fancy types are impossible to match. So I save every single button I come across, I joyfully accept the unwanted buttons from other people, and if I come across a jarful of buttons at a thrift shop or yard sale, I buy it and add it to the stash. This way, I can come pretty close to a match or I can replace all the buttons on the garment, ensuring they match.

To complete your basic repair kit, you need a few spools of thread: white, black, cream, and three shades of gray (light, medium, dark). The gray thread will allow you to get reasonably close to the color tone of the item you are redoing the seam on. Since this stitching is hidden, you don’t need an exact color match. If the thread is going to show, you may want to make the trip to the fabric store and buy an exact match. I use Coats and Clark thread and Gütermanns; both are widely available and work very nicely. Avoid the super-cheap no-name thread you sometimes see in dime stores. This thread is so poorly made it is not suitable for anything but hand basting as it may break apart when the garment is washed.

A book of hand needles in various sizes, a thimble that fits your middle finger on your dominant hand, a pair of sewing scissors, and perhaps a small box of straight pins and safety pins will round out your repair kit. All of these items are widely available; even grocery stores carry some of this stuff tucked away in the aisle with the household cleansers and mops.

The thimble is the hardest item to get as you have to try them on. Yes, thimbles come in sizes. You want one that fits snugly over your middle finger on your dominant hand but not so snugly that it pinches. It has to fit well so it doesn’t come off as you sew. The thimble lets you push the needle through the fabric without puncturing your flesh. It is absolutely worth the trouble to learn how to hand sew with a thimble if you are going to do any repair work at all. It increases your speed and saves your skin.

Get a decent pair of sewing scissors and mark them as such. Do not EVER let anyone cut paper with your sewing scissors. Paper cutting ruins the blade for fabric and you will then have to cut out the heart and liver of the person who ruined your good scissors as they are now useless for anything else. Damaged scissors have to be resharpened; fabric stores sometimes offer this service. You can sometimes find someone who sharpens scissors at farmer’s markets too; I got all my scissors redone at the Hershey Farmer’s Market and what a joy they were to use afterwards.

Then you get the basic mending book such as “Hand Mending Made Easy” by Nan L. Ides and you are ready to start fixing simple stuff. Once you learn to resew on buttons and close opened seams, you move on to repairing hems. When you have learned to repair a hem, you can start changing a hem. I do some sewing for money and a simple job I do a lot of is shortening the hems on pants. Depending on the type of pants, I do it by hand or by machine. Any sewing job that can be done by machine can be done by hand and hems are an easy place to learn. It usually but not always just takes longer. And, there are some jobs that even if you can do them by machine should still be done by hand. It works better, it looks better or it just takes less time. Yes, hand sewing can, sometimes, be faster than machine sewing. It can make just as strong a seam.

Learning basic mending is empowering. You no longer have to discard a garment because of an easily repaired seam. As you get better at it, you learn to do harder, more complex jobs. This saves you time and money; the time spent shopping for replacements and the money spent on buying new garments. Doing your own basic repairs will also free up the money for paying a tailor or seamstress for the much harder ones: relining or taking in a suit jacket or replacing a complex coat zipper.

Next week, we’ll take a look at more complex clothing repairs.

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Penman’s Politics (Punch parody)

This Conan Doyle parody, an excerpt from “The Early Punch Parodies of Sherlock Holmes,” refers to one of the two times Arthur Conan Doyle ran for Parliament.

Penman’s Politics

The outbreak of the Boer War in October 1899 marked a new direction in ACD’s life. He tried to enlist, but being 40 and over-weight, he was rejected. He accepted an offer to oversee a hospital unit being formed in England and spent the first half of 1900 in South Africa helping to run it. Returning home determined to do more to support the war effort, he ran for Parliament with the Liberal Unionists, a faction that opposed the ruling Conservatives but supported the war. Rejecting an offer of a safe seat, he ran in his native Central Edinburgh, known for its radical politics. Voters turned out in droves to see him, many of them noisy hecklers who called him “Sherlock Holmes!” Although disappointed in losing by 569 votes out of the less than 5,500 cast, he was grateful to be out of politics. Campaigning, he said, was like “a mud bath — helpful but messy.”

“Penmen’s Politics” pretended to print the stump speeches of two literary politicians: ACD and Anthony Hope (1863-1933), the author of “The Prisoner of Zenda.” At the time, Hope was considering running for Parliament, but decided not to. Naturally, Punch chose to cast ACD’s speech as if he was the embodiment of Holmes.

The daily papers announce that Messrs. Conan Doyle and “Anthony Hope” will contest constituencies at the approaching election. They have failed, however, to report the speeches from which the following extracts are taken:

conan doyle parody

Campaign poster for Conan Doyle.

. . . You will not fail to return me as your Member. (Cheers: and a voice, “Oh!”) The gentleman sitting third from the end in the fourteenth row says “Oh!” (“Shame!”‘) Shall I tell you why? Because he has been bribed by his sister-in-law to support my rival! (Sensation.) Yes, I saw him this afternoon smoking a new imitation-meerschaum pipe. Now, no man ever bought an imitation-meerschaum. Clearly, therefore, it was a present, and a present from a lady. That lady was not his wife, who disapproves of smoking. His only other feminine relative is his sister-in-law. And his sister-in-law is the wife of a member of my Opponent’s committee! (Uproar.) Yes, gentlemen, the case is complete. Bribed by a beggarly gift — from a glimpse I had of the pipe I learnt that it had been in stock for a long time, and had been reduced from 3s. 7d., its original price, to 2s. 5½ d. — bribed, I say, by this beggarly gift, the gentleman has the effrontery to come here and raise his voice against my candidature! (Cheers, and cries of “Throw him out!”) And now to say a few words of my opponent. I chanced to see him enter his committee room today. For perhaps fifteen seconds he stood in the full glare of my inductive glance. What did those fifteen seconds reveal? That he makes a false income-tax return, does not pay his tailor’s bill, eats bacon without mustard, collects postage stamps, only writes to his aged mother on the second Monday in each month, is an anti-vivisectionist, and is suffering from overindulgence in baked potatoes! (Sensation.) Yes, that was what I learnt in fifteen seconds. But soon I hope to study him for a full minute, and then, gentlemen, you shall know the result! (Laughter and cheers.) But in the light of what the most simple inductive process has demonstrated already, is such a man, I ask you confidently, worthy to represent a free, glorious, and enlightened constituency? (Prolonged cheers.)

223B-Punch-Cover-conan doyle parody“The Early Punch Parodies of Sherlock Holmes” has now been added to Google Play.

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Why I Sew, Repair, and Mend

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I learned how to sew decades ago, partly from my mother and partly in the home economics classes that every girl used to take in junior high and sometimes, high school. According to my children, those classes seem to be called Family Consumer Sciences. Everybody, boys and girls alike, takes this class. Shop class seems to have gone by the wayside, at least here in our school district in the Sweetest Place on Earth. I suppose the reasoning is that you don’t need to know anymore how to operate tools to fix your house and repair your car but you still need to eat and run a household. Most of the graduates from Hershey High School will be able to pay for carpenters and mechanics, but they won’t be able to pay for full-time, live-in cooks and housekeepers, thus keeping the Family Consumer Science program alive for at least a few more years.

sew at home

Every girl used to take in junior high and sometimes, high school.

We had real working stoves in fully equipped kitchens (there were knives!) for the cooking portion of home-ec. The sewing room came fully equipped with real sewing machines, one for each girl. There must have been fabric cutting tables with sharp scissors (the horror!) and pattern cabinets but I don’t remember that part.

What I do remember is making a few garments. A dress with a back zipper, a blouse with multiple buttonholes, collar and cuffs, a skirt with another zipper and a set-in waistband. That sort of thing. I even wore the clothes sometimes. The sewing portion of Family Consumer Science that my children took consisted of choosing to make either a small square pillow or a drawstring bag. The pillow concealed its unfinished seams inside itself. The drawstring bag shows every defect of its design and construction. If you want to learn to sew more than that, even something as basic as a button, you have to go elsewhere. You certainly aren’t going to learn how to pick out a pattern and cloth, select, lay out and cut out the fabric, and then sew it all together, fitting as you go, and inserting zippers or making buttonholes.

I got a little sewing at home as well. My mother made most of our everyday dresses, back when girls in small towns still wore dresses to school every day. She made curtains and bedspreads, and repaired everything to make it last longer and save money. When you don’t have money, you spend time.

Clothes were more expensive then, relative to income, and every store there was from dime stores like Woolworth to department stores like Sears carried fabric for home sewers. Even the Sears catalog sold notions to go along with its fabric selection. Now, it’s damn difficult to find a place that sells fabric besides an actual fabric store. Those are becoming few and far between, as they get replaced by craft stores and sometimes, quilt shops. Quilt shops sell fabric which you can use for clothing but it tends to be expensive. They don’t sell any specialty fabric like flannel-back satin, fleece, interfacing, or home-dec. They don’t sell patterns or garment notions. You can buy thread, though.

Clothing is so cheap now. We take it for granted that you can walk into any store and find heaps of clothing, priced well below the amount of fabric, notions, and workmanship that goes into it. The garment cost has nothing to do with the fabric or the amount of work involved. A shirt that has two front pieces, back, yoke, two set-in sleeves, a placket with ten buttonholes and ten buttons, plus collar and cuffs (with more buttonholes and buttons) can cost less than a T-shirt which consists of four pieces of fabric sewn together (a sized tube with no side seams, two sleeves, and collar). T-shirts these days may not even have hems! The sleeve and bottom edges are raw and unfinished for that in-your-face, edgy look. An edgy look that won’t hold up in the wearing or the wash.

Price No Indication of Quality

I saw, just the other day in Boscov’s, this fact of construction vs. cost clearly demonstrated. A pair of Isotoner gloves, each consisting of front, back, thumb piece, and three fourchettes each (this is the part of the glove that is the inner piece between each finger that connects the front and the back of the glove), plus decorative trim panels, lining and an inner lining of Thinsulate cost less than half the price of a shawl made of polar fleece that consisted of a rectangle bound in bias tape and with a narrow strip cut out to allow it to go around the neck better. How can this be? The shawl’s construction made it a basic home-ec project! It was made of about one yard of cheap fleece with a few yards of cheap bias tape! Well-sewn gloves are one of the fiddliest, most detail-oriented projects imaginable where there is no margin for error and the seams have to be 1/8 of an inch (or less) and yet still hold tightly.

Whenever I look at the clothing in the stores, I am constantly amazed at how little is being charged for basic garments. Yes, I know many of them aren’t that well sewn (1/4-inch seam margins!) and made of the cheapest fabric. But I know exactly how long it takes to make a basic shirt, and I know that unless I am given the fabric, the pattern, and the notions, I will rarely spend less than ten to fifteen dollars for supplies. And then I will spend hours of my time. The result: a shirt, that if made of basic plain cotton won’t look much different than the Walmart special. I will make it a lot better, it will wear better, and it will fit better, but is that worth the cost of my money and time?

If you want cheaper clothes, you go to the consignment stores, thrift shops and yard sales that cover the country. Or, you pull your clothes from open trash cans, Dumpsters, and piled up on the sidewalk with a “FREE” sign on them. I’ve done all of those things. Don’t let the fact the clothing is dirty or wet stop you. Clothing can always be washed and free garments are well worth playing laundry roulette.

The second-hand clothing market is so enormous that there is no reason to ever buy new clothes again, other than socks, undergarments, and sleepwear. Those items tend to not show up at all, or they are worn almost to rags. Otherwise, some time spent shopping will produce whatever you want: scarves and neckties by the bushel basket, handbags, coats, ball gowns, Fair Isle sweaters, wedding dresses, tuxedos, jeans, jeans, jeans, khakis, velvet, satin, suits, and leather jackets. Whatever you want.

If the regular Goodwill isn’t cheap enough for you, look for their bargain stores. They are more widely scattered but in them, if you are willing to paw through the bins, you pull out your Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger garments and pay for them by the pound. Bargain bin stores also carry bedding, table cloths and draperies of every description. This can become an important source of raw material for projects, so keep an open eye and an open mind when you rummage through a bin.

Hand-Me-Down Networks

Lowest in cost is playing pass-along and hand-me-down. We have been part of several hand-me-down networks, both back in South Carolina and here in Hershey. Older son was once given a huge bag of fancy summer shorts that I would swear had never been worn by the older relative. There were so many pairs of shorts that I split them with a friend and both our boys ended up with twelve new pairs each just for the asking. Of course, when we are finished with a garment, I make sure it’s clean and in good repair and it goes on to live again in someone else’s closet. Any age person can participate in a pass-along loop from babies on up to adults. Never say no to any garment; just pass it along if it doesn’t suit you.

So with this wealth of clothing available to us, why should you do any sewing at all? Because if you really want something that is unique, something that is well made, something that fits well, you have to do it yourself. If your body type is anything other than a standard size and height, or you are not built like a clothes hanger, and you want attractive, well-made, properly fitted garments, you have to go with custom-made. If you have unusual needs, such as maternity wear that doesn’t look like what a five-year-old would wear (peter pan collars and cutsy designs); if you are breastfeeding full time and on demand; if you have a handicap that prevents you from using zippers or buttons; if you need costuming for your steampunk lifestyle; then custom is the way to go.

Next week, we’ll go into the options for getting the look you want.

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You and Your Arsenal

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This one will be short as I can’t recommend any specific type of firearm for anyone. I don’t know enough about the topic to generalize and everyone has different needs. Guns aren’t like Financial Independence. Everyone should work towards Financial Independence no matter what their situation, and it is always done the same way: cut your expenses, pay off your debts, increase your cash flow, distinguish clearly between needs and wants, and say no to a lot of what the culture wants to sell you.

I think that guns are tools like any other, and they can certainly be misused. The difference between an axe and a rifle is you can kill more game animals or people faster with your Winchester and you don’t have to get nearly as close to them to do so. The same is true with your machete, your baseball bat, your cast-iron skillet, and your chef’s knife. Every one of those items, useful as they are, can and has been used to kill people. Cars can be used for this purpose too, although it isn’t their intended function.

So if you decide you want to arm yourself, what should you do? You should go into it, knowing in advance, that gun safety is paramount. Plenty of people have been shot by guns they were sure were unloaded. Good gun safety assumes that the gun is always loaded unless proven otherwise. Every person in your household should be taught gun safety. Take refresher courses regularly. It is easy to get complacent and forget what you learned.

Part of good gun safety is storing them correctly. Don’t skip this part. Make sure your family understands what proper storage is. I don’t think it is a good idea to store your prized Hello Kitty AK-47 in a glass case over the couch where burglars can see it through your living room window.


A good gun safety course should address this issue. Ask plenty of questions and follow through on the answers! It doesn’t necessarily help you to learn that you need a locking closed cabinet to put your shotguns in, if you are going to leave them lying around because you haven’t the time or the money to get one.

Using a gun, any kind, means learning how to use it properly. TV and movies are not the way to learn. They teach you that guns never misfire (unless it’s important to the plot), that it’s more effective to fire your pistol holding it sideways (it isn’t), and they never, ever, run out of bullets (they do).

So the first step is to take a gun safety course. This way, you can find out if gun ownership is right for you, learn what may be the right gun for you, and all before you spend any more money or time. The NRA offers gun safety programs of all kinds. Or, ask at the local police station, gun shop or the sporting goods store.

Once you have learned the basics, you still have to practice. Taking the classes and going to the range a few times will not make you an expert. It may make you overconfident instead, leading to mistakes. Just as with driving a car or knitting socks, if you don’t practice a skill regularly, you forget what to do. Using a handgun or a long gun is no different. If you really want to hit your target accurately, every time, you will have to put in the hours on the shooting range. If you want to hit your target, accurately, while in the dark during a home invasion, you really have to practice. Stress and fear do not improve your aim or your skills.

How much time, weekly, should you spend on the shooting range? How proficient do you want to be? Like with everything else, you have to put in the time to train your mind and body. As with driving a car, knitting socks, or playing the piano, you have to teach your muscles what to do, so doing the action becomes more automatic.

This is why professionals practice, practice, and practice some more. And they still make plenty of mistakes. Don’t assume you will do better, with a few hours of training under your belt.

Don’t get caught up in the idea that having a Glock will make you safer, healthier, or more resilient. Having these tools can help you, but you still have to do all the other stuff. That is, having an arsenal (with plenty of ammo!) does not mean you can skip learning how to cook, paying off your debt, learning to food garden, getting active in your community or insulating your house. You still have to do all of those things if you want to make your family more resilient.

Your gun collection is one more tool in your tool box of skills. It doesn’t replace several months of stored food or water. If you have the idea that you will purchase a gun collection so you can take stored food and water from your more careful neighbors, stop right there. This is not just theft. It is the sort of behavior that in a crisis will get you killed. Then your family will be at even greater risk of bad things happening to them and your arsenal may end up with the person you tried to rob.

A common saying in the prepper/survival communities is beans, bullets, and Band-Aids. You will notice that food is listed first. Before you start your gun collection, start your food storage program and your vegetable garden. Learn to cook what you grow and store and learn to preserve what you grow for future needs. Your food needs always come first.

If purchasing guns and ammo will put you into debt (or keep you from paying off debts), then you need to revisit your budget prior to spending any more money. You need the emergency savings cash cushion more than you need another rifle. Guns, like everything else, have associated costs. That is, without plenty of the correct ammunition on hand they are awkward clubs. You also need a gun storage locker and cleaning equipment. Depending on where you live, you may need extra insurance or annual licenses. Don’t forget to include them in your budget.

You have to have your spouse onboard. If your partner objects to having firearms in the house, you need to listen. Some of the objections may be based on fear and ignorance. Is having a gun worth straining your marriage? This is the time for gun safety courses, taken before you lay out any money. Take them with your spouse. Knowledge can go a long way towards relieving fears. The other common objection to starting a gun collection is cost. Again, if you have debts, no emergency cash fund and no food storage, then the gun collection needs to take a back seat to these needs. Take care of those issues and objections to buying a rifle (another expensive, dust-catching toy, in my opinion!) may go away.

So should you buy a gun? It could certainly be the right choice for your household. But do your homework first, and get your family onboard and trained prior to your purchase. Then get started, knowing that guns have a learning curve like everything else and they require regular practice, safe handling, and maintenance to be the useful tool you want them to be.

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The Day P.G. Wodehouse Interviewed Conan Doyle (Punch parody)

Another excerpt from “The Early Punch Parodies of Sherlock Holmes,” only this one has nothing to do with Sherlock, or parodies, or even Punch magazine. But it has everything to do with P.G. Wodehouse and his friend and fellow cricket player, Arthur Conan Doyle.

wodehouse conan doyle

A young Plum Wodehouse, about 1903, thinking of the next thing to write.

In the book’s appendix, I printed this interview from Victoria Cross magazine that Plum conducted, and added this explanation:

Wodehouse left his clerking job at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in September 1902 determined to support himself as a writer. This led to an explosion of short stories, verses and articles, including this interview with Conan Doyle, which was published in V.C. [Victoria Cross] Magazine on July 2, 1903. The article was discovered by Richard Lancelyn Green during his research for his bibliography of Conan Doyle.

I decided to include this to highlight the connection between the two men. Wodehouse was a fan of Sherlock Holmes. He quoted the Canon repeatedly in his stories, and even had a hand in creating the immortal catchphrase “Elementary, my dear Watson,” which I explained in another essay found in the book. Conan Doyle befriended the young Wodehouse and played cricket beside him on a team of authors created by James M. Barrie.

At this time, Wodehouse was already a writing machine, turning out essays, stories, news articles, songs; literally anything anyone was willing to pay for. After a couple years of steady production, he found that stories and songs paid best. He would soon take his talents to America, where he would have a hand in a number of musicals, and eventually, a certain leather-headed hero and his talented butler.

Grit: A Talk With Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

P. G. Wodehouse

One of the reasons why Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books make such delightful reading is the vividness and truth of the outdoor episodes in thereof. And the reason of the vividness is that he has had personal experience of the thing of which he writes. Like Mr. Squeers’ boys, he “goes out and does it.” And there can be no doubt that, however much such a feeling may be censured by the superior person, the public likes a man to resemble his books. It is grateful when a writer who can describe a fight like those in “Rodney Stone” and “The Croxley Master” is able to use the gloves in fact as well as fiction, and when the author of a story like “The King of the Foxes” or “The Crime of the Brigadier” is not a merely theoretical huntsman.

Immensely powerful in build, and the keenest of sportsmen, he is the very embodiment of the Man in the Field. There is strength behind everything he does. Whether he is riding straight on the hunting-field, or going in in a bad light to stop a rot, or bowling to break up a long stand at cricket, he does it with the air of a man who gets there. The last time I saw him play was down at Chatham for the Authors against the Royal Engineers. He went on to bowl fourth change, when the score was 220 for four wickets, and the wicket playing like a billiard-table. In his third over he had clean bowled the man who had been doing what he liked with the bowling for two hours, and in another seventy minutes the side was out for 290, and he had taken five wickets for forty-four. He was captain that day. A captain who is capable of bowling like that, and yet does not try his hand till fourth change, is no ordinary man.

One of the few things Sir Arthur has not done in the course of his life is to come down from a balloon in a parachute. And he means to try that some day.

Pluck and Parachutes

“I think the man who first tried coming down in a parachute was the pluckiest man on earth,” he said, “though aeronauts have told me that it is really perfectly safe. I should like to try it, just for the sake of the one great experience. But it must be nervous work stepping over the side of the car for the first time. You must start at least a mile and a half from the earth, and for the first thousand feet I believe you fall like a stone. But I suppose a parachutist gets used to it. Courage is rather a hard thing to judge for that reason. If one sees a man at his own special work for the first time, one is generally impressed by his coolness, especially as, being new to it, one is frightened oneself. The first time I went up in a balloon I was terribly frightened. It was pleasant enough at first, with all the spectators cheering, and so on. But when we had been rising some minutes, and were a mile from the ground, and I looked over the side:— I was never in such a miserable fright in my life. To see people running about, looking the size of dogs, and to feel that there was only a sort of strawberry-basket between me and that! It was a long time before I would let go of the ropes. But after I had been up a little while I became quite used to it, and I suppose that is what happens to everyone. Spencer, the aeronaut, who was with me, struck me as being very brave and cool. I heard one story about him which seemed to me to support this impression. It was while he was in India, in the days before balloons were so common as they are now. Spencer was going to give an exhibition at Calcutta, and thousands of natives had come to see him go up, some of them from a considerable distance. On the day when the ascent was to take place it happened that a tremendous hurricane was blowing. The authorities were in great trouble about it. Word had gone forth that the ascent was to take place on that particular day, and the natives had come in to see him go up. If the ascent was postponed, the faith of the native in the word of an Englishman would be considerably diminished. Spencer saw the point, and up he went, and away he was carried at a hundred miles an hour, and finally came down again in some tiger-haunted spot on the Hoogli, where the people lived up trees to prevent the tigers getting at them. Spencer sat on what was left of his balloon and looked around him, spent the night on the wreck with the tigers, and in the end got help, and came safely back to Calcutta after a journey of a week or more. Yes, he got an ovation when he arrived. That sort of thing is quite different from courage on the field. A soldier is really such a minute atom in such a mighty host that I don’t see how he can be afraid. I have certainly never seen one afraid myself. You see them laughing and cracking jokes all the time that they are under fire. In my experience a man always plays the game as a matter of course. It comes in his day’s work. Cases of cowardice are so rare that one would notice them directly. I must have seen some brave men in the hospitals, but no case in particular stands out in my mind. You expect a doctor to treat a fever-case without thinking of the risk, and the patients are almost without exception equally plucky.”

Some Experiences

“Are any of those stories you told in ‘The Surgeon Talks’ in ‘Round the Red Lamp’ true ones?” I asked.

“Some of them. And they are nearly all founded on fact. They are the sort of thing that might happen.”

“When you were in the whaler in the Arctic, did you see anything particularly brave done?”

“I saw a man climb from one boat to another across the body of a living whale. Perhaps it is hardly what you could call brave, but it was certainly cool, and it is a good instance of how lightly a certain class of men treat danger. This man hauled himself on to the whale’s body by means of a fin, walked across it — a distance of a dozen feet — and jumped into the boat on the further side. Another instance of this curious indifference to danger occurred on a steamer on which I was doctor. I was roused up in the middle of the night by one of the mates, and told to go round to all the passengers and tell them that the ship was on fire. I broke it as gently as I could to the women, but I didn’t mince matters with the men. I told them straight out what had happened. One of the last men to be informed was a Swiss. I went to his bunk and woke him. ‘The ship’s on fire,’ I said; ‘get up.’ ‘I vos often on board ships that vos on fire,’ he said in an uninterested voice, and he turned over and went to sleep again. He seemed more bored than anything else by the news.

“People talk a great deal of nonsense,” said Sir Arthur after a pause, “about the degeneration of the race. The race is all right. I will give you an instance. In the hospital in South Africa there were eighteen assistants, who all came, curiously enough, not only from the same town in Lancashire, but from the same mill. You couldn’t have found eighteen men who looked more degenerate at first sight. They were stunted and ruddled, and didn’t look as if they were good for anything. But they worked splendidly. Fourteen of the eighteen were down with enteric at the same time. You might have expected the others to be frightened. Not a bit of it. They went on doing their work as stolidly as if no such thing as enteric had ever been heard of. All that men like that want is good leading. Then they are as good as anybody.”

Apropos of the soundness of the race, I cannot, I think, conclude this article more fully than by quoting a passage touching on the subject. It comes from “The Surgeon Talks.” It was written some years ago, but apparently Sir Arthur still holds the same views.

“Some people say” (it runs) “that the more one has to do with human nature, and the closer one is brought in contact with it, the less one thinks of it. I don’t believe that those who know most would uphold that view. My own experience is dead against it. I was brought up in the miserable-mortal-clay school of theology, and yet here I am, after thirty years of intimate acquaintance with humanity, filled with respect for it. The evil lies commonly upon the surface. The deeper strata are good.”

The words might be used as a motto for “V.C.” It is exactly these sentiments that we are doing our best to promulgate.

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My Day With Mysteries at the Museum

Now it can be told; nine months later than I wished and about a week later than I should have.

I committed television.

mysteries at the museum between the covers

The Scene of the Crime: Between the Covers Rare Books in Gloucester, N.J.

Early last year, an email appeared in my inbox from a producer from the Travel Channel’s “Mysteries at the Museum” show. They were looking for an Agatha Christie expert to narrate a segment about her 11-day disappearance back in 1926.

They found me instead.

At first, I was reluctant to cop to being an expert. While I’ve researched her life as part of annotating her first two novels, there were people far more qualified to talk about Christie. There are her two biographers Janet Morgan and Laura Thompson. There’s John Curran, who edited and annotated two volumes of her working notebooks. There’s even Jared Cade, who wrote an excellent book about her disappearance, a book that angered Christie’s relatives.

But, they explained, they needed an American expert. “Mysteries at the Museum” is shot in the U.S. They use artifacts from U.S. museums to tell the stories. An American authority they needed.

So on Easter Sunday, I drove to Between the Covers Rare Books in Gloucester, New Jersey, and played an Agatha Christie expert on TV.

I don’t know what was more fun: sitting down to talk about Christie, or meeting bookstore owner Tom Congalton and seeing his precious treasures, such as the Beatles’ “Butcher” album cover, or the first edition “Great Gatsby.”

Mysteries at the Museum Between the Covers Rare Books

With Tom Congalin, owner of Between the Covers Rare Books, holding my non-existent pipe.

Or maybe it was holding his first edition of “Unfinished Portrait,” the novel Christie wrote as Mary Westmacott that described the collapse of her marriage. (It’s still for sale for a modest $700; I’m sure Tom would be happy to talk about it.)

And on Dec. 26, the show’s finale episode led off with “Dial M for Missing,” a 4-minute video clip can be found at the Travel Channel website.

So for most of the year, bound by a contract not to tell, I had to keep quiet about my first appearance on national television. Of course, I screwed it up when, after being told I could talk about it, I didn’t; but that’s on me.

So how am I? Pretty damn good if I say so myself.

Really? Pinky swear?

Truth be told: I haven’t seen it. I haven’t been able to work up the nerve.

I’m sure it’s fine. The “Mysteries” crew were pros at their job, and they handled my commentary as if they dealt with people who had never been on TV before all their lives (which it must seem like sometimes).

Also, they played the odds. My session before the camera took two hours. From the time Agatha published her latest book (“The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”) to the revelation that, despite all that Archie Christie did to her marriage and spirit, she still loved him, and had kept his love letters by her side until her death.

From two hours of film, they needed only about 25 bits of narration and images for a segment that lasted about eight minutes. They shot a lot of material.

Fortunately, I was used to speaking up. I acted in stage plays, gave book readings, and delivered a talk on Christie the previous month at the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop (and I’ll be returning there March 29th to talk about Sherlock Holmes). Even when I speak gibberish, it’s enunciated gibberish.

So I’m sure it’s fine. I just need to have a drink or three first.

As for seeing the episode, I can only suggest checking out the website. I’ll embed their YouTube link to the show below, but I’m not sure how long this will be active. Mine is the first episode.

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RIP: Sherlockian Robert Adey

From Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine, I learned that mystery scholar Robert Adey has died.

Robert Adey

Robert Adey

As part of the 223B Casebook project, I bought a copy of his collection of Sherlockian pastiches “As It Might Have Been” from Calabash Press. He found 38 stories that were published from 1894 to 1958, from obscure sources such as “Amateur Wireless,” “Carry On: The Armstrong Munition Workers’ Christmas Magazine,” “Lika Joko” (a competitor to Punch) and “The Gazette of the Third London General Hospital.” Some of these will appear in the Casebook series, thanks to his ferreting skills worthy of Holmes himself. Even though I’ll never meet him, he will be missed.

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Sherlock Holmes parody: “His Final Arrow” (223B Casebook)

This excerpt from “The Early Punch Parodies of Sherlock Holmes” uses R.C. Lehmann’s Picklock Holes to poke fun at “His Last Bow.”

His Final Arrow

R.C. Lehmann

picklock holes punch sherlock holmes parodyMy name is Potson, as all the world now knows. I am only a poor doctor and suffer from the consequences of a wound received in a border skirmish in Afghanistan many years ago. It is not for any merits of my own that my name has become celebrated, but because I have enjoyed the friendship and the society of the most illustrious and most detective man known to this or any other age. That man, as every reader will have guessed, was Picklock Holes. It was his custom, when engaged on one of those marvellous feats of investigation which made Continents shudder and Scotland Yard grow green with envy, to take me with him, not so much to help him — I never aspired to that — as to be the recipient of his confidences and the foil for his humour. “Potson,” he would say to me, “you are not clever; in fact, not to put too fine a point on it, you’re a fool; but if I want any one to tell me how many beans make five you will do for the job as well as any other man. Of course you ask silly questions, but they don’t worry me now and therefore I can endure you.”

“My dear Holes,” I used to murmur, “I love your quaint harshness and could not do without it. Lead on and wherever you go I’ll follow.”

I am now about to relate the last and perhaps the most striking example of my wonderful friend’s genius. Everyone will remember the sensation that was caused a year or two ago by the discovery that there was a shortage in the accounts of the Food-Controller of one lump of sugar and three standardized bread-crumbs. All kinds of guesses were hazarded to explain the deficiency and to discover the culprit who was responsible for it, but none was successful. It was thought at one time that German spies, whom this country, by the way, has never sufficiently hated, were responsible for the loss; but this supposition proved to be untenable. At last the War Cabinet decided to call in the assistance of Holes, and he, as usual, summoned me to his side. Without a moment’s delay I repaired to the Baker Street room on which Holes had conferred the dignity of his presence. I found him deep in calculations. Without looking up or even responding to my greeting he continued to cover sheets of paper with mysterious formulæ until at last he noticed that I was there.

“Potson,” he said, “we learn from the arithmetic books that nine times twelve is a hundred and eight.”

“Are a hundred and eight,” I ventured to object.

“Brainless chatterer,” he hissed, “is this a time for grammatical subtleties? Can you tell what this is?” and he handed me a fragment of something green.

“It belongs,” I said, looking at it carefully, “to the vegetable kingdom.”

He gave me one of his piercing looks. “Any fool,” he said, “could have told me that. Do you not see that it is a strawberry leaf, and do you not remember that, according to my Detective’s Manual, a strawberry leaf is always a clue of the first importance? Let us proceed. We will eliminate the strawberry and the cream, because there is no cream to be had, and the strawberry has already been eaten, and we then find ourselves brought up against a ducal coronet.”

“Holes,” I said, “you are a perfect marvel.”

He waved me aside and continued: “Proceeding twice, according to the well-known theory of ‘Next Things,’ we find that the next thing to a ducal coronet is a Duke, and the next thing to a Duke is a Marquis. This leaf was found in the back-garden. Therefore it was found outside. Now fetch Who’s Who, and look at this entry, ‘Outside, family name of the Marquis of Bobstay.’ Ah, Henry Brabazon Beltravers, Marquis of Bobstay, I think we have got you fixed at last, and shall bring your career of crime to a close.” In a moment we had flung ourselves into a taxi, and in about ten minutes we had arrived at the palatial mansion of the Marquis of Bobstay. We found his Lordship at home and were ushered into his library. He is a stout man and evidently well fed. Holes grappled with him at once, and after a short struggle produced from the Marquis’s breast-pocket a glistening lump of sugar. The bread-crumbs were discovered in the ticket-pocket of his Lordship’s overcoat. On the following morning the miserable man paid the penalty of his wickedness.

“Holes,” I said, as we came away, “what made you think of this?”

“I never think,” said Holes; “I always know.”


[BACK]From Ruth 1:16, in which Ruth expresses her loyalty to Naomi: “And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”

[BACK]As an island nation that needed to import its food, Britain was vulnerable to Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare during World War I. To help control fears of food hoarding and price gouging, a Food Controller was appointed in 1917 charged with fixing prices, regulating the distribution of food and encouraging homeowners to reduce waste.

[BACK]With the onset of World War I, a coalition government was formed between the Conservative and Liberal parties.

[BACK]In the English peerage, duke is the highest rank, followed by marquess, earl, viscount and baron/baroness.

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