Archive for the 'Reviews and Recommendations' Category

A foreigner to uniforms

NS August 27th, 2010

I went to public (state) school my entire life, in the American Midwest. I never had to wear a uniform.

Wait, I take that back. I did attend a Catholic school for one year and did, indeed, wear a uniform. But it was one year and I was only 6 so I don’t remember doing any of the shopping for it.

Anyway, my point is that I’m new to all of this uniform buying business. While everyone else knows where to go and what and when to buy, I’ve been tottering around the high street squinting at people I think I recognise from the parents’ welcome picnic in July, trying to sneak a peek at their shopping bags to see what kind of uniform loot they’ve got.

I went into the place that sells all of the ‘official’ gear and got a price list. I think I cried a little when I read that it would be around £30 just for two cardigans. Two cardigans for a 4-year-old who will likely ruin them, lose them or grow out of them before the ink has even dried on the name tags.

So this is why I’ve gotten a few raised eyebrows when I’ve mentioned to other parents that I haven’t started shopping yet! And, of course, the long bank holiday weekend (when it would make most sense to finish getting everything) is just before pay day and we are brokety broke broke.

Thankfully, my lovely new childminder, whose children attend the same school that Noble Girl begins at next month, mentioned that the large Sainsbury’s near us had some pretty good uniform deals so I drove over there and, lo and behold, managed to get about 2/3 of what I needed for less than £20. I would’ve been able to get all of it if they’d had Noble Girl’s size in a couple of other items.

I’ll be using the ever-thrifty website VoucherCodes.co.uk to get the rest when Sainsbury’s stocks are replenished. Gym shoes and polo shirts for £2?! Yes please! Marks and Sparks have also got some good deals on so have a look there too if you’re still looking for bargains for  your own child(ren).

VoucherCodes.co.uk did a recent survey and found out that the average spend per child on the entire school uniform kit is a whopping £131.41, even though their research shows that you can get everything for as little as £39.68. I’m definitely aiming to be in the latter camp!

I have no qualms whatsoever about sending my child to primary school in supermarket-branded clothes. She’s 4, ferchrissakes! I know it’s only a matter of a few years before she will want more name-brand and ‘cool’ things to help her fit in and/or stand out amongst her peers. But for now? I’m all about doing this as painlessly and inexpensively as possible.

And I will not get all misty-eyed when she puts it all on for the first time and I drop her off at the school gates. I will not, I will not, I will….oh, who am I kidding?

*This is a sponsored post

Tools for successful breastfeeding

NS August 5th, 2010

In honour of World Breastfeeding Week, I’d like to share which tools I think are the most important for successful breastfeeding. Between my two children I have breastfed for 38 months (and counting!) and know how difficult and tiresome it can be. I also know how wonderful, convenient and rewarding it is. But a gal needs a lot — I mean a LOT — of support to get started. And that is number one on my list.

1. Moral and practical support – from your partner, friends, family, health care providers and the community at large. When the going gets tough and sleep deprivation + pain + massive learning curve + screaming baby hits you upside the head at 3am for the fifth consecutive night and formula sounds like a mighty fine option, lean on your support system.

My husband’s unfailing support when I was learning to breastfeed my first child made all the difference. Instead of running out to buy formula when I screamed, “This isn’t working!” he held me while I cried, walked our daughter around in the sling so I could rest and regroup and then did everything possible to make the next feed better, more comfortable and less stressful.

2. Access to helpful resources — My biggest regret about my first pregnancy is that I didn’t read much on breastfeeding, or source any professional support networks beforehand. When I ran into problems a few days after my daughter’s birth, I scrambled desperately to find someone, anyone, able to help me. None of the people I was closest to could help me, having either not breastfed, not having had children yet or having done it so long ago that they couldn’t really remember what it was like or how to explain it.

An online friend sent me some Kellymom links and others suggested the NCT or La Leche League. I scoured countless articles, watched videos and looked at diagrams and pictures, trying to figure out what we were doing wrong. I visited my GP and Health Visitor, neither of whom seemed to have a clue. Finally, an NCT breastfeeding counsellor came to my house and gave some advice and practical assistance, which helped a lot. Mostly though, it gave me a massive confidence boost to read about and meet all these other women who were going through or had gone through the same things.

In the end, I believe that finding those sources of information and support helped me to carry on and have a happy and fulfilling breastfeeding relationship with both my children.

3. A bit of determination and grit — Finally, my infamous stubborn streak paid off! I was determined to make it work and even though it took nearly 3 months for it to be a pleasant experience, I persevered and learned a lot about myself and my capabilities in the process. I also learned not to leave such a monumental life-learning process to chance and that forming a support network ahead of time is so important.

4. Small comforts make a big difference — Even though they may seem trivial things, a big squeezy bottle of water (glasses just spill and you need two hands to get a screw top off), a nice snack, reading or viewing material to cure boredom and a cosy environment can make all the difference between relaxed, comfortable breastfeeding and tense, stressful breastfeeding. My number one tool for making breastfeeding easy and comfortable was my Boppy pillow.

The Boppy pillow is a U-shaped nursing cushion that sits on your lap and supports your arms and the baby’s body, ensuring optimum positioning and ergonomic support. There’s nothing worse than the dreaded Breastfeeding Backache, which often results when you are hunched over a baby that is too low, or with your arms feeling like dead-weights from being pinned underneath your 10-lb. bundle of joy for an hour at a time.

I don’t remember who recommended I get one but it was one of the best purchases I made during my pregnancy. The £200 gliding nursing chair? It ended up in the rubbish bin when we moved as the arms were too narrow and the back didn’t give enough upright support. Instead, I used the Boppy every time I sat down for a feed, anywhere in the house. After awhile, I was able to use it to breastfeed entirely hands-free, allowing the early readers of Noble Savage to carry on reading my scintillating posts. Another handy use was when Noble Girl was learning to sit up, it created a safe little ‘nest’ around her, a soft place to fall. And dribble. Luckily, it has a removable, washable cover to sort that out.

The fact that it’s been through two children and still has pride of place on our sofa today speaks to its longevity and usefulness. It’s a great cushion for a small child (or adult!) to curl up with. It also makes a fantastic pregnancy pillow (for placing under your bump when trying to get comfy) and back support when reading in bed. My Boppy pillow has even been on holiday with us, to Greece and America! Perfect for sleepy children slumped over on hard aeroplane armrests and for long delays on airport floors.

That’s why when the people at Boppy asked me to help spread the word about their product, I was more than happy to make an exception to my normal cynical, dubious attitude towards marketing and PR on my blog. When I’ve actually used a product and found it truly useful — no, loved it — I’m more than happy to give an endorsement.

To help promote the pillow, and breastfeeding in general, they’ve come up with this fun little game called Mom’s Revenge. It allows you to delegate tasks not relating to the hard work of breastfeeding and baby care to your virtual partner or mother-in-law while you relax and look serene.

Happy breastfeeding!

Summer helladays, err, holidays

NS July 19th, 2010

It is upon us. That time of year when parents across the land look at the calendar and see nothing but late July and all of August yawning across the pages like a giant abyss, the depths of which no man (nor mother) can scientifically measure, for its impact is mental and emotional.

Yes, the summer helladays, err, holidays are here. And it won’t be over until 6th September for me. I’m cream crackered just thinking about it.

In a way, it will be nice. No school run twice a day and the stress that creates. We can do whatever we want in the morning. We can sit in our pyjamas all day. We can eat cereal for dinner and no one will be the wiser (except my husband when my children inevitably tattle on me for not giving them a proper meal). But what else can I do to keep them entertained, and cheaply? I’m not really one for Chessington World of Disappointments Adventures, or Lego Land or any place, really, where I have to be dragged round endless, stinking animal pens and through vast arrays of plastic tat.

So behold: Noble Savage’s ten ideas for keeping your sproglets happy on the cheap.

  • Take them to a garden centre. Wide aisles, air-conditioning, outdoor furniture to break test out and lovely plants and flowers to destroy look at. Stay for an hour and a half and leave having spent a couple quid on a packet of seeds and a drink from the vending machine. Then when you get home, give the children  a spade and a gardening fork and command them to dig up the weeds in the flower bed to ‘prepare the soil’ for the seeds they’re flinging around in the grass and each other’s hair. Open a beer and stare into space while they get covered in muck. This leads me to cheap activity number two…
  • Baths. Lots and lots of baths. Kids get dirty in the summer. The sand, the dirt, the Cornish ice cream dripping down their grimy faces and onto their hands…baths are the easy fix-all for the mess. Chuck ‘em in the bath once, twice, even three times a day. Not only does it waste 45 minutes each time but your acquaintances and friends will think your children are exceptionally clean, if not well-mannered.
  • Set up an obstacle course in your garden or living room and change it around every few goes so they don’t get bored. Flip through a magazine or Twitter away while they run themselves ragged crawling through tunnels, running around a designated object several times and jumping as far as they can, as many times as they can.
  • Go to the library. It’s free, it’s educational and if you walk there, it’s environmentally friendly. If that’s not reason enough to feel smug and self-satisfied, I don’t know what is. Though the smug feeling usually wears off at around the 5 minute mark, when the kids begin tearing around, screeching and throwing books aside, while you run behind them growling through clenched teeth about being quiet and sitting still and ends with you screaming at the errant child who keeps running for the automatic doors that lead directly into the car park. Just keep the ‘free’ bit in mind and it will all be worth it. Sort of
  • Buy a pack of dried spaghetti for 49 pence. Divide pack evenly amongst your rug rats and show them how to snap them so the pieces go flying. When they get bored of that, sweep the bits up, chuck them in a pan and cook them. Put them outside or in the bathtub and let them ‘swim’ in the pasta or make funny hairdos. When they are bored of that, tell them the spaghetti are sad little worms that miss their mummy and daddy and ask them to help collect the ‘worms’ into a bucket for transport back to their familial home. When they leave the room, dump the contents into the bin. Rinse bucket and pour a glass of wine. Speaking of wine…
  • If all else fails and it’s a choice between screaming obscenities at the children or having a cocktail or two, always choose the latter wherever and whenever possible. The trauma of watching you dance to ABBA at 4 o’clock in the afternoon will not compare to the trauma that would befall them if you told them to get stuffed in a variety of four letter words and gestures
  • Stockpile playdate favours. Grit your teeth and have some other people’s little wildebeests over for a few hours at a time. Then, when you are breaking point, text and enquire as to when they “want to get the kids together again” which is code for “Ahem! It is your bloody turn to have my devil spawn cherub over to your place so suck it up and invite her round.” We don’t actually say that though because this is Britain. You must be all subtle and passive-aggressive about it. Naturally
  • Dump all your clothes (including high heels, hats, hand bags and costume jewellery) onto the bed and let the children dress you. Then let them dress themselves up. Turn a blind eye when they put the cat in a choke hold and force a doll’s hat onto her head. Then, when your partner gets home, let them dress him up, too. Encourage liberal use of the sparkly hand bags and hair clips for him. Smirk while he gets his toe nails painted with a fake good-natured smile plastered on his face. Go downstairs and pour yourself a drink to congratulate yourself on your ingenuity
  • Go to the best, busiest and most exasperating playground or park you know, the one that makes you tired just speaking its name. Just before you get out of the car or turn the corner, put a fake brace on your foot or sling over your arm. Hobble in with one hand feebly pushing the pram. Struggle with everything. Bring tears to your eyes but do not let them spill just yet. Let your lower lip tremble momentarily but then stand up straighter and throw your shoulders back before crumpling forward again. When someone asks if you need help or if you’re okay, tell them you’re fine. Ten seconds later let one single tear slide down your cheek and choke back a sob as you hobble on your ‘bad’ leg or clutch your ‘sore’ arm to help Susie on the swings or get Johnny down off the fence. When the offers of help come pouring in, whisper “You’d do that for ME?” and look at them as if they are Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Mary Poppins rolled into one. Sit down and have a rest while your new helpers run after your children for you
  • Bribe them into good behaviour with the promise of an outing to their favourite restaurant. Look for sweet discounts and two-for-one deals on VoucherCodes.co.uk* (Pizza Express perhaps?), a service I have used many times before. Buy some cheap ice cream or biscuits to have for pudding when you get back so you don’t have to splash out on that, too. If your partner is working late and unable to assist you with bedtime, bribe them further by insisting they can have an extra helping of pudding after they’ve gone to sleep. If they are under the age of 5, they may be stupid innocent enough to believe this

*VoucherCodes.co.uk sponsored this post. Though I don’t usually accept these, I did this time because I had used the site before and think it’s a good resource for people looking for a bargain. Saving money for parents is always a bonus!

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Book review: The Equality Illusion

NS March 4th, 2010

This is the first in a run of book reviews I hope to do in the coming months, seeing as I have a backlog of relatively new feminist non-fiction to read. First up is ‘The Equality Illusion’ by Kat Banyard, former campaigns officer for the Fawcett Society, an organisation that campaigns for social and economic justice for women in the UK.

Before I get to the review, I’d just like to make a somewhat-tangential aside about Ms. Banyard’s place of employment. While I know that there are sectors within which unpaid internships are the norm and that non-profits are one of the biggest culprits, I was pretty disheartened when I emailed the Fawcett Society a few months back to eagerly ask how I might assist them with some volunteering of some description. I didn’t mind if it was stuffing envelopes or whatever, I just wanted to get involved with an organisation I’ve always admired and would love to work for some day, when my return to paid employment outside the home is imminent. In reply to my query about volunteering on an occasional basis, I was sent details of an unpaid internship (what other kind is there?) instead. The kicker was that the job would’ve been perfect for me and I would have happily applied right then and there…if it actually paid any money. Travel expenses and £4/day for lunch isn’t going to pay the bills or the childcare though, that’s for sure. When I wrote back to say as much and again asked if there were any more occasional tasks or weekend events I could help with, I was told they “don’t really do that sort of thing.”

Now, the only reason I bring this up is because I think this is a good example of an organisation trying to do good work but putting restrictions on who can actually work for it. I mean, who else but the wealthy or those just out of university and living with their parents, sans any immediate financial responsibilities, could afford to work for three days a week for 3-6 months, completely unpaid? The assumption that those interested in feminist activism can do unpaid internships (especially by an organisation that campaigns for fair wages and equal pay for women!), just comes across as astoundingly arrogant and clueless to the realities most of us face. And the only reason I’m pointing this out is because some of my criticisms of this book are based around this general appearance of excluding some topics in favour of others that may be more sensationalist or controversial but less relevant to the majority of women’s everyday lives in the UK, ones that are affecting their livelihoods and personal lives in deeply-ingrained, meaningful ways. So with that grumble out of the way (and with it having no direct bearing on Banyard because she is not the sum of her employer’s policies, obviously), on to the review.

First off, I will say that my overall impression of the book as a tool to get the general public thinking about ways in which gender inequalities still exist is a fairly good one. If you ever heard someone say “We’ve/you’ve got equality now, what are you complaining about?” or use a term like “post-feminist world,” (has a more laughable phrase ever been uttered, aside from ‘post-racial’?) you could do worse to hand them ‘The Equality Illusion.’ For those unversed in gender issues, this is a good starting place. However, as Jess at The F-Word already pointed out in her review, Banyard is kind of preaching to the ‘yes, we all know this’ choir as far as how already-established feminists are likely to react to it.

The first chapter, on body image, does a pretty good job at dissecting the main issues —  media representations of women,  objectification, gender conformity, beauty standards and the beauty industry and how all of it is damaging to girls and women. The young women she interviews for this portion of the book indeed have heartbreaking tales of shattered self-esteem and distorted views of their bodies, but I couldn’t help but notice that she didn’t include much in the way of how we can combat these images in our daily lives, not just by taking on the huge structures perpetuating and capitalising on it, which is a huge task that no one is really sure how to undertake.

One of the most important ways we can help girls (and boys, for that matter) build healthy self-esteems and realistic body expectations is through involved parenting and leading by example. The messages sent by a constantly-dieting mother who is always (only half-jokingly) calling herself a pig can be far more harmful and seep into a child’s subconscious than a parade of billboards with conventionally attractive, airbrushed models on them. Talking to your children about the messages they receive and the images they see can be a very effective tool in keeping their expectations healthy, yet Banyard does little, if anything, to mention empowered parenting as a potentially massive part of the ‘solution,’ as it were.

I have similar complaints about the chapter on education. Overall it’s very good in presenting facts and providing a context in which we can see the gaping inequalities still present in today’s schools, but where are the interviews with parents? What do they think of gendered behaviour, gendered education, the arguments for and against biological and socially-conditioned differences in the way boys and girls think and perform? What are their thoughts and concerns on how gendered education is effecting their kids and if they are counteracting that at home in any way? Speaking to the teachers and to the children themselves is all very well and good, but leaving parents out of the education equation just because they don’t actually attend school with their kids is trying to complete a 24-piece jigsaw puzzle with only 18 of the pieces.

I have similar complaints of the reproductive rights chapter, which deals, unsurprisingly, with teenage/young pregnancy and abortion but not much else. There is no mention of feminist issues relating to pregnancy or birth rights, or of the changing role and consequences of reproduction throughout a woman’s life. Again, the focus seems to be on young(ish) women and those who have chosen not to have children, at least for the time being.

From my corner of the feminist parenting blogosphere, there hasn’t been much hope that this book would be any different from most of the others in really dissecting some of the issues important to mothers, so I was pleasantly surprised to find the ‘Sexism in the City’ chapter to be dedicated almost solely to the injustices and inequalities that women face with regards to work and childcare and the division of domestic labour. The case study she uses to open the chapter is about one woman”s struggle to care for her children and earn enough money to support them. Banyard asks some good questions and raises relevant topics, such as:

Why do so many women have to work below their skill level because those are the only jobs that fit around their caring responsibilities? Why are cleaning and other forms of traditional ‘women’s work’ (like carers and caterers) paid so little — and in particular less than traditional ‘men’s work’ (like plumbers and decorators) that require equivalent levels of skill and effort? Because gender discrimination in the workplace is illegal and women make up nearly half the workforce it is easy to assume that all is now fair and equal. But the near equivalent numbers of women and men in the workplace is where any ‘equality’ ends: 30,000 women are sacked each year in the UK simply for being pregnant, women make up only 12 per cent of FTSE 100 company directors and women are paid on average 22.6 per cent less per hour than men.

She also writes:

When discussing women in the workplace a standard media refrain is to ask whether women can ‘have it all’, i.e. a family and a career. But women have always had to combine work and caring. For many, particularly those from working-class backgrounds, that question is redundant; if they don’t work their family doesn’t eat. The real question is why is it only women who have to choose between a family and maximising their career potential? And, in fact, why should anyone have to choose between these two things at all?

Banyard goes on to talk about discrimination against mothers at work, the belief that women’s careers are curtailed by their ‘choices’, not because the system is set up to favour those without caring responsibilities, and the concept of a ‘sticky floor’ that exists well below the ‘glass ceiling.’ She interviews a charity that supports working parents and talks to working mothers themselves, making a real effort to understand and explain the disparities they face. There were things she didn’t touch on, of course — issues relating specifically to mothering are about more than just combining work and family — but for a feminist book by (from what I gather is) a relatively young, childless woman, I thought it was pretty well done.

Finally, the chapters on violence against women and the sex industry were informative, compelling and passionate. It seems pretty obvious that these issues are the most important to Banyard, and many young feminists, and she/they are doing a great job of speaking out against them. However (didn’t you know that was coming?), I will say that while I am 100% supportive of feminist aims to help women exit prostitution and to combat the pervasive and often-unpleasant sex industry, I can’t help but feel that the intense focus on it can be a bit off-putting to the general public. As Rachel Cooke pointed out in her review in the Guardian:

Mostly, she is preoccupied with finding ways to help women exit prostitution, and while I’m all for that, too, there are 30 million women in Britain, of whom not even a quarter of 1% sell sex for a living. What about the rest of us?

That’s not to say that prostitutes or sex industry workers don’t deserve our help and attention, because they unreservedly do. But if a book about gender inequality is trying to reach out to large swathes of people in one country, many of whom probably don’t identify as feminist in the first place, it needs to be relatable to their lives. Focusing on the sex industry, or female genital mutilation or forced marriages in other parts of the world (for example) can be, rightly or wrongly, seen as directing focus away from the issues that women right here in the UK face, all around them, every day. Portrayals of Western feminists as young, childless, middle-class, white girls who want to save ‘those poor women’ (sex industry workers, African women, child brides, etc..) from themselves may be off base entirely, but the fact is that this is the image they (we) have been saddled with by some. If a book’s aim is to foster greater understanding and enthusiasm for gender issues within a Western framework and amongst the women who inhabit it, I have to wonder if narrowing the focus a little bit and not necessarily worrying about casting the net wide in an effort to be ideologically diverse would actually catch more fish, as it were.

Again, I don’t want to insinuate that international problems or ones affecting a small, specific minority are not our problems or that we should be discouraging others from thinking about and acting upon them, but if Banyard truly wants to inspire ‘grassroots feminism’ (to which she devotes most of her last chapter), she would do well to remain focused on issues a bit closer to home and our hearts and remember that most of us — especially those living with children, or with disabilities, or financial hardships — can’t easily attend meetings and marches, or get online to check out all the latest blogs and conferences, or partake in unpaid internships.

Overall, this is a good ‘primer’ book but its approach is too broad and there’s not enough fire in the belly. We need less theoretical pontificating and more solid ideas for action. Because until we start organising the latter, the former is all we will ever do.

Cross-posted at Fertile Feminism

Hush little baby, don’t you cry

NS February 21st, 2010

…mama’s gonna sing you a lullaby.

Or is she?

A recent survey found that although 40% of parents thought lullabies were great tools for teaching children words and music, only 12% knew the words. More and more, parents are singing pop and rock songs to their children, or TV theme tunes. And there’s nothing wrong with that, of course. When I sing The Noble Baby to sleep, I’m known to throw in some Carol King (‘Child of Mine’), Joni Mitchell (‘The Circle Game’ and ‘River’), Aerosmith (‘Dream On’) and even some Rolling Stones (‘Wild Horses’), among others.

But I have to say, I am a huge fan of traditional lullabies. I think they’re not only beautiful and comforting but an important part of our oral storytelling history. My mother sang or played them for me and my sisters all throughout our childhoods, as did her mother before her. I know the words to at least a dozen still popular in the US and have learned many more while here in England. I have been singing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ to my daughter every night since she was a baby and as soon as I turn out the light and begin, she automatically settles down onto her pillow and nods sleepily while I half-whisper the words. My 17-month-old son, always on my hip at bedtime, imitates her and rests his head on my shoulder. He’s learning quickly that lullaby time means sleep time.

What I didn’t know, however, is that there are three more verses to ‘Twinkle Twinkle’! And did you know that Little Bo Peep has five? Already we have lost big parts of these songs and what little remains is fading fast, which makes me quite sad. That’s why when I heard about this fantastic campaign to Save The Lullaby, I was immediately interested. And when I discovered that Sophie Barker (who has sung for Zero 7, one of my favourite bands and whose song ‘In The Waiting Line’ I listened to constantly when pregnant with TNC) was behind the campaign and has released a new CD with producer KK (who has worked with Brian Eno and Bjork), I went from interested to excited.

I listened to a couple clips from their new CD, entitled ‘Lullaby’, and was mesmerized, as were my children. TNC curled up in my lap and sat in silence for a good ten minutes, which is unheard of. The CD* has been in my player all morning, on repeat, and I’ve not grown tired of it at all. It also comes with a beautifully illustrated hardcover booklet with lyrics to all the songs so you can sing along.

You can also see Sophie and KK on BBC News talking about the project and playing another piece live.

“The album, ‘Lullaby’, makes a stand for our forgotten bedtime tunes,” says Sophie, “ it reminds parents of the magic and soothing quality of our traditional lullabies – we’ve even included a sing-a-long lyric book for those who are more likely to know the Friends theme tune than Frere Jacques.”

The full song list includes:

1. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

2. Somewhere Over The Rainbow

3. Ride a Cock Horse

4. Lavender’s Blue

5. Frere Jacques

6. There was a Crooked Man

7. Sing a Song of Sixpence

8. Little Bo Peep

9. Baa Baa Black Sheep

10. Little Miss Muffet

11. Brahms Lullaby

12. Oranges And Lemons

13. Hush Little Baby

14. Rock a Bye Baby

15. Dream a Little Dream

16. The Owl and the Pussycat

17. Row Your Boat

18. Silent Night

If any of you are interested and depending on the response shown here, there may be an opportunity for me to interview Sophie (squeeee!) so if you have any questions you’d like me to ask her about the CD, put them in comments or you can email them to me at noblesavage @ noblesavage(dot)me(dot)uk.

‘Lullaby’ can be bought from Sophie’s site or the usual suspects like Amazon and Play.

*Full disclosure — it was sent to me by the album’s PR company, though I fell in love with it immediately so would have bought it regardless!

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