Six Degrees of Separation: from What are You Going Through? to …

We begin this month with What are you Going Through? (2020) by Sigrid Nunez and with thanks as usual to Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest who does all the organising for this monthly feature.  The background can be found here

Reading the blurb is enough to confirm that this is not a book for me right now.  Not even the cat on the cover will tempt me. But for this month’s chain I’m going to take one of the themes from the book and run with it.  So, a chain exploring friendship. Which seems fitting since Nunez also wrote The Friend. I am much more likely to read that one!

Perhaps in my eagerness to leave Nunez’s book behind, I jumped instantly onto my first link.  Nothing clever here, it’s an obvious choice for the theme of friendship:  My Brilliant Friend (2011) by the enigmatic Elena Ferrante.  For anyone who doesn’t know (is there anyone?) My Brilliant Friend recounts the friendship of Elena and Lila, growing up in poverty in 1950s Naples.  I haven’t read this book.  Heaven knows why; it really should – and does – appeal, but … time, I suppose.  Too many books, too little time.  And my understanding is that when I finish the first in the quartet I will be compelled to rush immediately onto the next.  So it’s not just making time for one book but potentially four.  * sigh *  Hopefully, one day I’ll begin.

There’s a lot of speculation over whether My Brilliant Friend is autobiographical but the female friendship in the next link is definitely between two real women, scandalous in their time. Vita & Virginia (2018) by Sarah Gristwood is by all accounts a very beautiful book, filled with illustrations. It charts the lives of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, through their mutual love affair, their various other affairs, their houses, gardens, writing and other passions and their enduring friendship.  This is also one I haven’t read but I’ll be reading it as soon as our marvellous library system delivers it to my local branch which should be later this week.

I’m well into the theme of friendship now and acknowledging to myself that not all friendships are pure and unsullied.  I tried to ignore this next one, given that the book has had plenty of exposure on the blogosphere lately, but really, how can I not add Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848) to a chain exploring friendship?  For Becky Sharp, friendship is a tool, a rung on the ladder of advancement and she exploits the friendship of poor little Amelia Sedley without mercy. 

I still can’t bring myself to defend Becky but her name does provide a link into the next book.  I feel certain that I’ve read Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (1996), written by Rebecca Wells but in reminding myself of the storyline, I’m left wondering.  If I have read it, it has left no trace. Regardless, it’s in as the fourth link, the story of a mother-daughter relationship with a heavy side order of 1950s female friendship.  From the blurb: a poignant, funny, outrageous, and wise novel about a lifetime friendship between four Southern women. I’ll take that form of friendship over the Becky Sharp variety any time.

I feel that a dose of male bonding is needed next.  If I think of ‘book’ and ‘male friendship’, I immediately see Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.  There is of course, much more than male friendship explored in Waugh’s classic and eventually the friendship is strained beyond repair.  But in the end I have gone with L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953), a classic that I loved.  An example surely, of a purer, more innocent friendship than that between Sebastian and Charles in Brideshead. But was it?  Was Leo not using his fledgling friendship with Marcus and the invitation to spend time with his much grander family as a means of bolstering his own status?  And indirectly, it led to tragedy. Perhaps all friendships have an underlying self-serving purpose?  Maybe Becky Sharp was simply more honest in her blatant use of Amelia as a stepping-stone to loftier things.

Is that really what friendship is all about?  Of course not.  I’m sure none of us here would exploit a friendship for our own ends.  Likewise, Jane Austen’s Emma, (1815) would never use her friends to improve her own social standing.  Instead, she ‘helps’ them to improve their own positions and ‘protects’ them from making choices which will not serve them in bettering themselves.  But in so doing, she also keeps them within her permitted circle of socially acceptable friends.  Can that have been part of her thinking all the time? I fear it may have been. I was not a fan of Emma when I read the book. This may be another nail in her coffin for me.

I’d prefer to end this chain with an example of the perfect literary friendship.  I’m sure there are many out there.  But sadly, the next book which came to mind illustrates the opposite.  (It also, as I realised when I came to add the book covers, forms a seventh link. Oops. Maybe no one will notice.)

Like What are You Going Through?, Cat’s Eye (1988) by Margaret Atwood incorporates many themes, but friendship leapt off the page for me at the time that I read it, and toxic friendship at that.  Looking back as an adult, now a recognised artist, Elaine remembers her childhood friendship with Cordelia in which Cordelia bullied and taunted her until Elaine found the strength to turn away.  I recognised much of what Atwood wrote from my own childhood and I didn’t enjoy having a mirror held to those experiences. 

Cat’s Eye just might be responsible for my antipathy to Margaret Atwood’s work.  Certainly, it was the first of hers that I read and it didn’t get us off to a good start. 

I’ve surprised myself here by creating a chain marked by cynicism when I set out to do the opposite.  Friendship, I thought, was a “nice” idea to theme the chain on, a warm and fluffy chain was happily anticipated.  But such is the nature of Six Degrees, who knows where each chain will lead? 

Nonetheless, I do want to end on a positive note.  I consider myself deeply fortunate to have such treasured friends and with true friends in mind, I’ll add some literary thoughts on friendship, two from altogether more innocent classics and a third to remind myself that Austen’s perceptions are still relevant today.

“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think.  It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”

L M Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

“We’ll be Friends Forever, won’t we, Pooh?’ asked Piglet.
‘Even longer,’ Pooh answered.”

― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

…there was not a creature in the world to whom she spoke with such unreserve … not any one, to whom she related with such conviction of being listened to and understood, of being always interesting and always intelligible

Jane Austen, Emma (referring to Emma’s friend, Mrs Watson)

Next month we begin with Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. This is one I’ve been intending to read for a while. Maybe I can squeeze it in before the end of the month. And in the meantime, if anyone has any suggestions for books which present a realistic but truly positive expression of friendship, I’d be happy to hear them!

53 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation: from What are You Going Through? to …”

  1. This is a wonderful thread, Sandra. Although I am only familiar with Emma and Brideshead Revisited, I love your thoughts on all those I have not read.

    As to Ethan Frome, you may know Edith Wharton is a favorite writer of mine, so I hope you will find time to read it. If it helps, it is a novella…so shorter than your average novel!

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    1. I thought of you and Ethan Frome, Laurie. Just as well that it’s a novella because I know that it’s terribly depressing! I read Summer in the summer (!) and Ethan feels like a fitting wintry partner so we’ll see. I am allegedly giving depressing books a wide berth but I often seem to stray back to them. With Summer, I was rewarded by the quality of Wharton’s writing and how she made me think hard about the choices Charity made. I’ll think on whether the time is right for Ethan. Meanwhile, glad you enjoyed the thread 😊

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  2. I love your chain, Sandra. I’ve been thinking about the theme of friendship in literature for a long time now. I’m beginning to think that it’s just as important to learn what friendship is not (toxic relationships) as it is to try to figure out what friendship is. I usually try to avoid defining by negatives (what something is not rather than what it is), but in this case I think both sides are equally important. Or, perhaps more definitively, it may be easier to define a huge, amorphous concept like friendship by looking at some negative examples.

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    1. Yes, I take your point, Mary. We tend to use overuse the word ‘friend’, I think. I’m sure I do. I dislike saying ‘colleague’ or ‘co-worker’ for example (when I was working) because it feels ‘unfriendly’ but really, proper friends are rare things and are best not lumped under that huge amorphous umbrella with the world and his wife 😊

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  3. Such a different, thoughtful chain. I don’t get on with Atwood either. One hardly dares to admit that, I’ve found. But surprisingly, I didn’t get on with Ferrante either. On much safer ground with Emma, Vanity Fair, The Go-between and Brideshead! Which leaves me with the Rebecca Wells (I did 7 books in my chain recently too. Is counting up to six so very hard?). Like you, I think I’ve read it. What was it about? What did I think of it? No idea. I love the positive ending of your Six Degrees this month. I’ll trot away and have a think about books which might fit your ‘friendship’ bill.

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    1. Ha ha, I’m so pleased that you too can’t recall the Ya-Yas! That doesn’t sound quite right but I’m sure you know what I mean. Some books just melt away, leaving no mark. A bit like ice cream or candy floss. Which doesn’t mean they weren’t enjoyable at the time but it still surprises me when I really have no memory of the storyline at all. Do come back with any suggestions that might fit my ‘friendship’ request. It’s telling that none immediately leap to mind. As for our mutual struggle with Atwood, we’ll keep that quietly between us, maybe 🤫

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  4. Well, friendship can be a complicated thing. Although I’ve never quite understood those rivalries between friends: I have some wonderful friends and it would never occur to me to be anything other than delighted when things are going well for them.

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    1. Can’t it just! And yet a true friendship, it seems to me, is a pure and simple thing, not complicated at all. Also, a very rare thing. I think each of us recognises a true friend when we find them.

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    1. Yes, thank you, Andrea. I almost included it but opted for V & V instead. I suppose I’m thinking of fictional friendships but didn’t make that clear. Thank you too, for mentioning Charlotte’s Webb. I’ve actually never read it, yet it comes up regularly on my radar and in digging about for this post, it popped up a lot under the friendship theme. Definitely time that I read it! 🕷

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  5. Great idea to focus on friendship in your chain. I did immediately think of Emma, when you started to talk about using friendships for your own purpose. To some extent we all do that I suppose. If a friendship doesn’t add something to our lives, why maintain that friendship? But of course we also contribute something, so hopefully most friendships are balanced in that way.

    I wasn’t too keen on Emma either, but I have been told countless times (by people who studied literature) that Emma is one of Austen’s best novels, with most nuance and a variety of themes covered…

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    1. I disliked Emma, the character, and Emma, the book, when I read it. I’ve since learned more about the skill Austen used in writing it and I think I would get much more from it in a second reading. I might even find some sympathy for Emma herself! One day I’ll re-read it. One day 😉

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      1. I tried to reread earlier this year, but gave up. Still didn’t enjoy it… Please don’t tell anyone, but *whispers* I actually think, I enjoyed the film Clueless more, when I watched it as a youngster.

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          1. How I love the honesty of your readers Sandra. How it is not considered heretical to find Austen and Atwood ( among many others), less than enjoyable, or pleasurable, to read. Thank you .xxx

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  6. All right. Confession time. “Emma” is one of my favorite novels. Austen’s psychological insight into her characters never fails to amaze me. Except for her governess and Mr. Knightley, Emma is isolated, alone. Emma’s father is over controlling and he has a stranglehold on her. In response Emma tries to control others, and in the course of the novel, she comes to understand how wrong she is. There. End of lecture. 😉

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    1. Ah, thank you, Laurie 😊 When I really dislike a book which is generally held in esteem by most people, I’m always interested in what I missed. I don’t recall her father as over-controlling, more as very needy and lacking insight into what Emma might need. I will read Emma again without question – Austen is a perennial if slow re-reading cycle for me. And I hope that when Emma’s turn comes round again I’ll be seeing her through a different lens.

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      1. As I heard recently, there is no definitive take on any work of art. Wish I could remember where. Drat the aging memory! Anyway, I enjoy hearing other points of view. Illuminating. Had a similar discussion with another blogging friend about “The Great Gatsby,” a nearly perfect novel as far as I am concerned. She hated it. And so it goes. 😉

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  7. You’re right about the Ferrante novels drawing you in but it’s also OK not to read them immediately one after the other. I have at times saved them up because I know I will enjoy being in that world again – and the surprises she springs. Will also be pondering friendships in literature now! I recently read The Group by Mary McCarthy … Recommended by a friend. They don’t all really like each other but there is a kind of loyalty. I think that’s important too even if friends don’t always agree.

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    1. Thank you for that tip about the Ferrante novels, Maria. It puts me in mind of the Cazalet novels by Elizabeth Jane Howard, which I also like to save up because once in their world I’m loathe to leave again. (Those books celebrate family primarily, for me, but could also be thought of in the friendship bracket. We can be friends with family members.) Thanks too for the recommendation. I agree wholeheartedly about loyalty and friendship. My oldest friend and I are in that space at the moment. There are things I don’t agree with in her life choices right now but after forty years of friendship my loyalty to her is undimmed.

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      1. It’s good you can remain loyal when not in agreement. These are testing times! Thanks for reminding me about the Cazalet novels – I think I have I only listened to versions on the radio – also immersive in its way. Maybe I will get round to reading!

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  8. Once again you have delighted with this favourite theme. This time, if we include Brideshead Revisited (which makes your total 8 🙂 ), I have read three – the others being Vanity Fair and The Go-Between

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  9. What a beautiful chain! I don’t think anyone else picked up on the friendship bit of our starting book besides you, and that took you to much lighter books than some of the ones I’ve seen. Well done, you!

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  10. Sandra what absolutely lovely links – I think we’ll be bringing VF into every conversation now! The quotes you end with are perfect, Anne always gets it right doesn’t she? I haven’t read Ferrante either but the one I really want to get on with is The Go-Between and you’ve given a good question to come up with a valuable friendship – Eleanor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility came immediately to mind but I’ll need to put some thought in!

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    1. I think you would love The Go-Between, Jane. I’d certainly enjoy your thoughts on it. Eleanor & Marianne are a good choice and lead into the notion of friendship & family which I was musing about in an earlier comment where I mentioned the Cazalets. (Sprawling family, many friendships among the various cousins etc.) I love Sense & Sensibility, although the film is so entrenched in my mind that I struggle to get past it now and back into the book 😊

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      1. I was thinking about this today and what about Anne and Diana, that’s a true friendship. I read a book recently called At Swim Two Boys (John Boyne I think) that’s a beautiful friendship. . .

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        1. Yes, Anne and Diana epitomise friendship, Jane, thank you. And thank you so much for the recommendation. At Swim, Two Boys was written by Irish writer Jamie O’Neill and it sounds marvellous! Did you enjoy it? It’s shot to the top of my wish list!

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          1. oh yes Jamie O’Neill – I absolutely loved it and there is some film of him reading and chatting about it on you tube, which made me love him too!

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  11. This all made me smile, because I think that, if we lived nearby, you and I would be friends, despite our occasional differences of literary opinion. I love almost everything Margaret Atwood has written, including Cat’s Eye. The exceptions being Alias Grace and books two and three in the Maddaddam trilogy. I don’t know about The Testaments because I don’t want to read it and I feel disappointed that she wrote it, somehow. The Handmaid’s Tale is a perfect encapsulation of a horrific alternate reality for me, it doesn’t need a sequel.

    I read My Brilliant Friend. On putting it down I vowed never to read another of her books, I found it so self-indulgent. I might have been in a contrary mood, but my lasting feeling about it is a wrinkled nose.

    I adore Emma. Laurie captures its essence well in her comment above. The thing I love most about Emma is Knightley’s faith in her, despite her overbearing and meddlesome ways. He sees into the heart of who she is and helps her to uncover it for herself. It’s beautifully redemptive.

    I read Brideshead Revisited as a teenager, caught up in the Waugh fever inspired by the television serialisation. I think I ought to read it as an adult, because I’m sure there’s a lot that passed me by in it!

    I always think that I’ve read The Go-Between when I’ve only seen the TV adaptation. I feel the same about The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, but I think I’ve seen the film version at some point.

    I’ll be reading Vanity Fair at some point soon. I’m curious about Vita & Virginia, but maybe not enough to actively seek it out.

    A very well worked out chain, Sandra, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha, yes, I feel the same way, Jan! The conversations we might have over a coffee! There is a type of friendship where those involved meet at a point of mutual respect, each accepting and informing the perpsective of the other. We’d be that sort of friends! 😃 I’ve very much appreciated hearing the various alternative views of Emma. I’m almost looking forward to meeting her again before too long. Your review of Vanity Fair when you get to it will be eagerly awaited. I’ll prepare to be disabused of my present stance – or at least knocked a little bit sideways 😉

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  12. Interesting that you mentioned cats at the beginning of your chain and then ended up at a book with the word in it’s title. As you know, mySix Degrees of Separation led me to The Inimitable Jeeves through a few other books with cats on their cover. Thanks for visiting.

    I have seen Elena Ferante’s books a few times and was tempted to get one of them, I will definitely have to set that straight the next time I visit a bookshop (which shouldn’t be too long, LOL). Other than that, I have read Vanity Fair, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and Emma. And I love Margaret Atwood, so I have to put that book on my wishlist, as well.

    Maybe you have seen the film to the Ya-Yas and therefore remember the story? It’s really not bad, especially if you like Sandra Bullock.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Marianne, thanks for visiting me too! Would you believe that I hadn’t noticed the cat connection at the end of my chain! That has made me smile! Yes, I think I must have seen the film of the Ya-Yas. Now you’ve told me that Sandra Bullock stars it’s even more likely. I had a phase of watching all her films a while back.

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  13. What a lovely chain Sandra. true friendships are one of the mainstays of life- to be cherished and appreciated.

    I thank my lucky stars that I have a handful of wonderfully close friends. and more besides.

    I came across this recently :
    “.. partly, I know it’s gentleness,
    And understanding in one word
    Or in brief letters. It’s preserved
    By trust and respect and awe,
    These are the words I’m feeling for.
    Two people , yes, two lasting friends
    The giving comes, the taking ends………………….”

    Of your chain, Vita and Virginia ( of course), Hartley too, on my list of past enjoyable reads. Ferrante is my next Book Group choice, so I’m prepared to be hooked.
    Of more modern authors, I can’t recall anything specific with regard to friendship, but Patrick Gale comes to mind. Lots of his writing includes friendship issues, in all forms. especially his short stories.
    Hope the Autumn is as beautiful in Cornwall as it is here. xxx

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    1. Beautiful sentiments, Pat, thank you for this 😊 (Of course I had to look it up!) Do let me know how Ferrante goes in the book club, although I think you have read it anyway? Perhaps I’m wrong. And Patrick Gale…. I simply must read more of him especially given he’s ‘local’. Autumn here seems particularly beautiful this year and especially today. The grey, damp, still weather allows the colours to truly shine 🍁 xx

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  14. Hello Sandra,

    As usual I am late in commenting, but I do want to say that I enjoyed this chain very much.

    For a start, I totally agree with you about the Sigrid Nunez. I knew as soon as I read the synopsis that it wasn’t for me. I sometimes feel that reading ‘happy’ books is seen as a bit trite, but it shouldn’t be. I think there is enough to worry about or be made msierable by in the world without adding to it in the books I read!

    I am certainly one person who had no idea about the Elena Ferrante book. I’ve seen some of hers in charity shops, but somehow they’ve never really appealed.

    I’m afraid I am also one person, though, who likes Becky Sharpe – I feel she does what she can to get by, and I admire her spirit. I liked the fairly recent TV adaptation a lot – I hope they will repeat it as it had the misfortune to be programmed against Bodyguard. I’ve read the book (ages ago) and I felt the quirkiness of this adaptation went well with Thackeray’s own slightly unusual style. And of course I have to admit that Johnny Flynn as Dobbin did add to my enjoyment!

    The Go Between was a set book at school for us, one of the very few that I not only read but also liked. (Seeing the film probably added to this – we thought Julie Christie incredibly daring, and indeed we thought ourselves quite daring too, as I think it was AA rated and we were not really quite old enough to see it…) I always felt that it was Leo who was being used, so it’s interesting that you point out that he was also using Marcus. By the same token, I suppose, Charles is using Sebastian in Brideshead – he sees the Marchmain family as exotic and exciting compared to his own dreary home life.

    I thought a bit about friendships in literature. One book I came up with was Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman. CeeCee’s mother has become mentally unstable and then dies suddenly, leaving CeeCee alone in the world (her father has already left them). She goes to live with her aunt in the Deep South – Savannah – where she meets Tootie’s friends, and eventually makes her own friend, Dixie McAllister. The book isn’t sentimental and it doesn’t shy away from the darker side of the South (this is the 1960s) but it’s a wonderful story and ultimately very uplifting.

    Another one is The Future Homemakers of America by Laurie Graham, set mainly on a US military camp in the remote Fens during the Cold War. It’s about a group of women who are all stuck there owing to their husband’s jobs. They also become friends with a local woman, Kath Pharaoh, and the book follows them over the next 40 years. I loved it.

    More recently – and you’ve probably read this – Anne Youngson’s Meet Me At The Museum is about the friendship that develops between an English farmer’s wife and a Danish museum curator. I heard it on Sounds, with Tamsin Grieg and the late Paul Ritter. I enjoyed it so much, and now I have a copy of the book on my TBR.

    Goodness, I’ve waxed on here – sorry! I do find your posts so engaging, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Rosemary, I don’t think it matters when we respond to posts. Comments are always welcome! Neither does it matter about the length, I shall wax on in my turn!

      I hear you on reading ‘happy’ books. For me it depends on what’s happening in life, what books I’ve just finished, health & stamina…. Isn’t it wonderful that we have such a wide range of books to choose from!
      I think I’m in the minority in disliking Becky. As for the tv adaptation, I caught a little and now you’ve pointed out that it clashed with The Bodyguard, I know why. Clearly it didn’t grab me enough though, that I recorded it. (Unlike The Bodyguard!) You’re right with Leo, who was used by the lovers as their means of communication. But there wasn’t friendship involved. Leo & Marcus were friends so that element seemed more applicable in this instance. I love that book!

      Thank you so much for the recommendations. I’d not heard of Cee Cee or The Homemakers and and they both sound right up my street, perfect for this point in life. I have not read Meet Me at the Museum though I knew of it and had read a lot about it and its author. One I’d intended to read but it got away from me so thank you – it’s back at the top of the list again! (I will also check to see if it’s still available on Sounds.)

      Thanks again, Rosemary. I see you’ve posted your own six degrees and I’ll be over to enjoy it very soon 😊

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