Quarry’s Climax, by Max Allan Collins

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This is the fourteenth entry, published in 2017, in the series about the man who calls himself Quarry, an ex-Vietnam sniper now working as a hitman.  Set in 1975, Quarry works for a middleman, ‘the Broker’, who arranges the contracts.  After polishing off a job in Las Vegas which involves scaring rather than murdering, the Broker brings him an unusual one.  His task is to protect Max Climer, the proprietor of a Memphis-based strip club and pornographic magazine, Climax (a near-anagram of Max Climer), from being assassinated.  On top of that he is to take out the assassins, and also the person who ordered the hit.  This is because the Broker is part of a group which had initially been using the magazine to launder dirty money, but it had become spectacularly profitable in its own right, and the death of Climer would be awkward for the investors.  The Broker had been offered the contract but had declined.  Unfortunately there will be others willing to accept it.

Quarry goes undercover at the club as a security consultant and begins ferreting around to see who might have a motive for seeing Climber dead.  This is not the usual assignment, which generally involves staking out a target with his gay spotter, Boyd, shooting them, and getting out of Dodge.  Now he has to work as a detective, and he takes to it with ease, racking up a number of sexual experiences on the way.  Things get a little complicated when he uncovers a kidnap plot which is unrelated to the assassination.  The main issue, apart from uncovering the contract’s instigator, is stepping outside the way he and Boyd do things to work out how others in the same profession might proceed with a hit in order to forestall it.

It’s entertaining, though the villain is fairly obvious at an early stage.  As well as alluding to the magazine at the centre of the plot, the title may indicate that this is the final novel in the sequence, providing a climax.  Or perhaps it merely refers to the fact that during the course of the action Quarry has a few climaxes.  As this is 1975 there is misogyny and boundary-pushing, however the period detail is good, such as the fashions, music, cars, the ‘huge’ 26” TV; and especially its contradictions: braless women’s libbers with ‘perky’ breasts any lech is happy to ogle, left-wing censors opposing self-serving pornographers citing free speech as a defence, a magazine distributor whose traders’ association can oppose the presence of a strip club in the neighbourhood while he is happy to carry mucky publications, and the unlikely alliance of anti-porn crusading feminists and right-wing evangelical Christian groups.

Quarry’s Climax is a briskly enjoyable page-turner but I was puzzled by the premise.  The Broker wants Climer protected because the Broker and his associates are making money out of Climer’s publishing empire and fear the consequences of his death.  But it transpires that Climer’s cousin and soon-to-be-ex wife want him dead because he is brilliant but erratic, and they want to take over the business and realise its full potential.  Why then would the Broker’s associates be bothered guarding Climer when they could make more money with him dead – as happens after the various parties meet untimely ends, and the cousin’s daughter takes over and transforms the business.  The Broker could have let them get on with it, had a positive outcome for his investments, and saved the load of cash he spent hiring Quarry and Brody.  The pointlessness of the gig is highlighted by Climer’s murder at the hands of an evangelical Christian, rather wasting the efforts Quarry had gone to in order to look after him.

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Zoo, by Britta Jaschinski

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German-born Britta Jaschinski makes it clear what she thinks of zoos without any need for words.  They are gloomy depressing places containing bored animals in Spartan conditions.  These 75 black-and-white photographs, published in 1996, are grainy and overexposed, as if snapped surreptitiously by an undercover reporter penetrating to the heart of this exploitation darkness to bring back news of man’s inhumanity to his fellow creatures.  Zoos are not pleasant places, and we are encouraged to see how alienated the inmates are from their wild counterparts as they serve our pleasure on a day out.

Information provided is perfunctory, captions stating place – a selection of zoos in western Europe and the United States – and year taken, plus thumbnails at the back noting species.  A postscript describes Jaschinski’s unease visiting zoos as a child and anthropomorphically sensing ‘hopelessness’ staring back at her from the inhabitants of those unnatural habitats.  Zoos for her are more about human needs than those of the animals, and she regards them in completely negative terms, the enclosures ‘dark and fetid’; no concessions to breeding programmes or educational functions.

A sea lion opens the set, a waterfall behind its head, as if the animal is symbolically tasting freedom.  No bars are present so we might interpret it as an image of liberation, but we quickly realise as we turn the pages that the notion of freedom was illusory.  The predominant materials depicted are concrete and steel, confining creatures who should be roaming untrammelled.  Apparent self-determination is always undercut: a dolphin in the air could be leaping from the ocean, except trees are visible at the bottom of the frame.

We don’t always get a good look at the animal, because the emphasis is on the location rather than what is imprisoned within it.  Sometimes the living being is very small in the image, a mere detail in the distance; or we only see a body part: a hand, fin or leg for example.  Occasionally we don’t see the animal at all, only evidence it is there: a shadow on a wall, footprints in the sand, bubbles in the water; or synecdochally a series of spikes stand in for the entire establishment.  At the extreme there is simply blackness punctuated by white lines, telling us only that whatever is there is in a place devoid of everything which gives life meaning (until we read the caption at the back and find that what seemed meaningful is actually just vaguely outlined steps).

The human mammal features occasionally, for example a man staring at a Malayan tapir’s backside, or one walking outside, free to come and go, while a llama stares at the photographer through the bars of its cage.  At London Zoo’s beautiful Lubetkin-designed penguin enclosure is a family staring through Perspex below a sign informing visitors that feeding time is 2.30, reminding us the animals are there as a spectacle.  People themselves become exhibits, in one instance photographed foggily beyond a reptile’s head through a viewing window, the description a dismissive ‘unidentified’.

Unfortunately the depiction can verge on the dishonest – a giraffe at London Zoo is shown in a tiny pen, but this is only its indoor enclosure, and if the casual reader fails to notice the big door leading to the outdoor area he or she may believe this is all the space it has at its disposal.  Another photograph of a camel taken in London shows it in a small space, and one has to look hard to spot the gap where the animal can freely pass to the outside.  Photographing them in the open would undermine the theme of strict confinement; when we do get to see an elephant with the Mappin Terraces in the distance they have all the appeal of Dracula’s castle in a Hammer film.

That is not to say everything is fine.  An orangutan facing a perforated metal panel does not look happy, though it is entirely possible the animal is observing something on the other side; there is no context to help us understand what is going on.  Keeping a polar bear in a concrete enclosure within a city zoo is wrong under any circumstances, but such cases have now vanished from western zoos (those shown date from Germany in 1993 and New York in 1995, but London Zoo stopped keeping polar bears at Regent’s park in the mid-1980s).  Similarly, the presence of beluga, orca and big cats in restricted spaces is impossible to defend under any circumstances.

It is evident that some of the larger animals are in barren enclosures lacking stimulation even if they do have enough space, assuming we can trust what we see.  For all we know there may be an entire play centre just out of shot, but Jaschinski has done nothing to persuade us she gives us the whole picture; having said which she has anticipated the point by showing an orangutan ‘playground’ as she drily refers to it, in Dublin, a pathetic structure far removed in every sense from the sensory-rich rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra.

The zoos Jaschinski visited are some of the better-kept (particularly London and San Diego).  Goodness knows how the worst ones in say China or Russia would have appeared through her lens.  This is definitely not Wildlife Photographer of the Year material; in fact it’s all a bit relentless.  But then doubtless she would say she has succeeded in making her point (she claims her ‘intention is to allow shades of interpretation’ but to my mind she has a singular vision).  Fortunately zoo standards have improved over the last few decades, so much of what is shown here has been abandoned for more enlightened practices.  Whether such improvements would satisfy Jaschinski is doubtful as she seems to have a more existential issue with the institution.

A Jazz Pictorial, by Brian Foskett

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Subtitled ‘A collection of photographs capturing some of the greats of the Jazz & Blues world’ and with an enthusiastic foreword by critic Dave Gelly, A Jazz Pictorial (1997) is a self-published A4 compilation covering Brian Foskett’s music photography from the early 1960s to mid-1990s.

Cambridge resident Foskett sadly died last year at the early age of 77.  The copy I read is autographed by him, from which I know that for some reason his nickname was Fred.  There is also an autograph by Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, whose photo, labelled ‘Mr Jazz’, graces the cover.  Sweets declares ‘This book is a classic.  It is a must’.  His praise may be exaggerated, but this is definitely a fine collection of photographs.

Having previously been a drummer himself Foskett had a feel for musicians, and he captures them in their exuberance, sometimes at rest but mostly performing.  He was a professional industrial photographer but took music pictures as a hobby, and they had not been widely circulated prior to publication of this book.  It was followed by a sequel in 2005.

A Jazz Pictorial begins with Louis Armstrong, taken in London in 1962 (though there are images from 1961 – for some reason they are not in chronological order) and ends with George Melly in 1993.  In between is a huge range of performers, some well-known, others only to aficionados.

Foskett had clearly maintained his music connections and was able to gain privileged access.  Most of the images were taken in London, but he did travel to other places in England, with forays further afield to Holland and the United States.  He was equally at home with colour and black and white, though the latter predominates.

He sounds as if he was quite a character.  In August 2014 he made the pages of the Daily Mail when a neighbour managed to set fire to his first-floor flat by placing a candle commemorating the start of the First World War on a window ledge, which then set the curtains alight.  Foskett was asleep in the flat below when firefighters smashed down his door:

‘The former jazz drummer said: “I could hear this ‘bang bang’ and I thought ‘hello hello’ and I thought I must be in a bit of difficulty here with burglars.  All of a sudden these firefighters were in my flat with their yellow helmets on and I’m there starkers.  I was freaking out saying ‘what are you doing here?’ and they said I’d better get out. It was a bit of fright.”  He was strapped to a spinal board as a precaution but escaped with minor injuries.’

Why he didn’t make more of his pictures in the thirty years he took them before publishing this book is a mystery.  Gelly says that they were known only to a small circle of friends and few had been published; the book was ‘his long-overdue debut’.  But an agency would surely have been pleased to handle them: Mick Jagger at the Richmond Jazz and Blues Festival in 1964 would probably have funded Foskett’s pension on its own.  He could capture intensity and humour, and both would have made his output very saleable.

Reaktionen: Eine Retrospektive von Fotografischen Schwarzweissarbeiten 1950-1991, by Erich Kees

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Erich Kees (1916-2006) was a lifelong resident of Graz, in the Austrian province of Styria.  Apart from war service he spent his career as a structural engineer.  Becoming interested in photography as early as 1933, he founded a group in Graz in 1949.  He pursued the subject for the rest of his long life, both as organiser and teacher and as an active photographer, with numerous exhibitions and awards to his credit.  Keen to promote photography in Styria, he was a key figure in the creation of a thriving photographic scene there.

Reaktionen (Reactions: A Retrospective of Black and White Photographic Works 1950-1991) was published in 1992; it was tied to an exhibition at the College of Artistic and Industrial Design in Linz in the same year.  It is a compilation of black and white photographs made over a forty-year period covering a variety of themes which indicate Kees’s wide range of interests.  There is a German-language introduction by Otto Breicha, and a brief list of his photographic activities concludes the volume.  No captions are supplied, merely the year the image was taken.

Kees was to an extent influenced by Otto Steinert’s ‘subjective photography’, which he founded in Germany in 1951 as a means to explore the medium as a form of personal expression, employing experimental techniques rather than a straightforward documentary approach.  Reaktionen begins with a small group of photographs taken between 1955 and 1963 paying tribute to Steinert’s influence.

Following sections cover nature, or rather the empty landscape; water; rock formations; the urban environment in all its clutter, with what trees manage to survive in this inhospitable environment stunted and sickly; and isolated details, including a series taken in a crumbling cemetery.  The final section is a homage to a fellow Austrian, the symbolist and expressionist  Alfred Kubin,  inspired by a passage in his novel The Other Side which concludes with the words ‘a disease of lifeless matter’.  The feeling of damp decay oozes off the page.

In these images Kees is able to stand back and move in close in with equal facility, whether his aim is documentary or abstraction.  He is at his best when finding graphic qualities in natural forms, or unusual conjunctions, playing with scale or optical trickery (‘irritations’ as he terms it) and patterns of light and shadow.  There are very few people depicted, and when they do appear they are always small and distant.  Kees was more interested in the inanimate, the lifeless, that which he could control: lifeless matter.  As a result there is something soulless and ultimately sinister about the photographs.

Fruits of the Earth, by André Gide

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‘…the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.’  Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men.

André Gide published Fruits of the Earth (Les Nourritures Terrestres) in 1897 when he was 27, though it was written two years before.  Charting his growing sense of liberation from the constriction of Parisian life, it is a hymn to autonomy, escaping the rigidity of rules imposed by others and adhering to a philosophy of self-determination.  Influenced by Nietzsche, the narrator exhorts the reader to do away with convention, lead a nomadic existence in search of understanding, learn about the world and oneself, enjoy simplicity, look around with fresh eyes, and escape the decadence of civilisation.  He also throws off the Church with its restrictiveness, which is fine because one can find God within.  This is a way of living guided by intuition, not external authority.   No guru is required as it is democratic; anybody can do what he has done, if they have the will.  The result is a balance of asceticism and hedonism.

The book is fragmentary, reflecting the narrator’s absorption of myriad new experiences, even at times breaking into poetry.  The focus is on self-improvement, not standing still, living in the moment.  It is a celebration of freedom, certainly, but it is not an easy path, and courage is required as ties are to be avoided.  One will feel the pull of domestic comfort, and feel envious, but independence is more authentic for the effort.  At its core is seeking the spiritual in oneself and in nature.  As that summary suggests, it is all fairly anodyne, with the exception of the enthusiasm for young Arab boys, who the narrator concedes may have been too young.  Such expressions would doubtless get the perpetrator into trouble these days, and those of a censorious nature may feel it is not appropriate to read Gide in future.

For those who wish to continue, Fruits of the Earth is an existentialist tract and a precursor of hippiedom, though the narrator does have a comfortable home in Paris to come back to on his peregrinations despite all the talk of freedom from possessions.  Post-New Age, the sermonising feels banal.  Experience is key – the philosophy prioritises emotion above intellect, and words cannot do it justice, so it is important to live that experience for oneself.  Finally the narrator exhorts his friend Nathaniel, to whom the extended lecture is addressed, to throw away the book because it too represents authority.  But should Gide have written it?  The narrator can feel like a pub bore if the reader is not in tune with the sentiments, pontificating self-indulgently.

A preface to a new edition in 1927 tries to roll back on the suggestion of self-centredness.  After noting that the book was written after he had recovered from a serious illness, hence its ‘exuberance’, he states that he was usually judged as if it represented the ethics of his entire life, whereas he had followed his own advice and left the person he was when he wrote the book.  This is disingenuous: he does not say he had thrown away the book (he was happy to have it reissued in 1927), and just as one cannot go home again so he was never going to be the person he was when he wrote it.  He argues for fidelity to it in his life, which actually seems paradoxical.  There is surely hypocrisy in the preface’s final paragraph:

‘”May my book teach you to care more for yourself than for it, and then more for all the rest than for yourself.” This is what I said before in the Introduction to Fruits of the Earth and in its last lines.  Why force me to repeat it?’

True, but the fact he had to stress this so vehemently suggests that rather a lot of readers had not got the message the first time round.  The narrator dismisses Nathaniel at the end of Fruits of the Earth on the grounds that he is in the way, and there is no sense in the book of caring for everybody more than himself; in fact the fondness for young boys suggests the opposite.

Later Fruits of the Earth (Les Nouvelles Nourritures), also included, was written in 1935, during Gide’s communist period, and one wonders what his comrades made of him – dilettante probably.  With his romantic approach to its tenets and political naivety it is hard to imagine him sitting in a CP branch meeting discussing the latest directive from Moscow.  The entire thrust of both books is the emphasis on individualism and self-determination rather than collectivism and adherence to the class struggle.  There is regret at having resisted temptations, thereby turning aside from life, which has a Wildean tone.  The narrator certainly talks more about God, even having conversations with Him, than would be the norm in communist circles, despite the odd reference to ‘comrades’ and exhortations to leave the past behind in the name of ‘progress’.

One oddity occurs in this second instalment.  We read: ‘Corruptors, debilitators, wet blankets, retrogrades, tardigrades and scoffers became my personal enemies.’  Tardigrades?  Assuming an accurate translation, what did these blameless microscopic creatures ever do to Gide to warrant such dislike?  Save your bile for the wet blankets, André.

Blood on the Mink, by Robert Silverberg

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Though he is best known as a very accomplished, and lauded, writer of science fiction, when he was in his 20s Robert Silverberg was a prolific creator of whatever would pay, including hardboiled thrillers, when the SF market collapsed at the end of the 1950s.  Blood on the Mink was written in 1959, when he was only 23, and published in the November 1962 issue of Trapped magazine as ‘Too Much Blood on the Mink’ under the byline ‘Ray McKensie’.  This Hard Case edition is its first appearance since.

The yarn concerns an undercover government operative whose name we only find out right at the end.  His task is to infiltrate Henry Klaus’s outfit in Philadelphia (a city Silverberg doesn’t seem to like much judging by the number of digs he makes about it) who are turning out top-class counterfeit banknotes.  They have a brilliant engraver stashed, and the agent’s job is to smash the ring from the inside, locate the forger and facilitate the seizure of the presses.

To accomplish this he masquerades as Vic Lowney, the trusted lieutenant of a Californian mobster who is being sent to Philadelphia to do a distribution deal with Klaus.  It is easy to lift the real Lowney during a stop-over in Chicago and keep him on ice while the ringer does his job.  The rest is more difficult, and the Treasury Department’s man rates his chances of coming out alive and successful at about 50-50.

Apart from being boorish and making himself unpopular, things move slowly, until that is the boss’s gorgeous moll Carol Champlain falls for him and offers him her body – and a plan to rub out Klaus and take off with ‘Vic’ to set up business for themselves.  Selflessly our man takes her to bed to keep her onside.  She is a handy conduit to the inner workings of the gang, but she brings her own complications.  Things get even more convoluted when the new Vic is obliged to meet someone who knows the man he is impersonating.  Fortunately Ricky Chavez doesn’t tip Klaus the wink because naturally he has his own agenda.

There follow double- and triple-crosses aplenty.  The forger’s daughter, Elena Szekely, turns up and begs him to get her father away.  The pair are Hungarian refugees come to the New World in search of a better life, only for the old man to be held captive and forced to work against his will.  Elena implores Vic to help get him out, offering him anything – anything – as an inducement.  When Vic is approached by a New York gangster also wanting to make a deal, ‘Vic’ sees a way to play off the two, or is it three?, sides against each other.  If the plan works as he hopes it will save the government some expenditure on incarceration.

The characterisation is on the thin side, with the exception of Nick the Treasury man.  He is certainly lantern-jawed, resourceful and attractive to the ladies, but we learn that even though the high-risk job precludes attachments and entails a lonely life, the danger and excitement are addictive.  He is intelligent, and while happy to enjoy the job’s advantages, not least its expense account, he provides a moral centre; after all he could have taken advantage of Elena’s desperation to help her father.

The only major flaw in the story I could see was the silence of the real Vic’s boss, Charley Hammell, during the week the fake Vic was in Philly.  If Hammell was any kind of self-respecting crime boss he would have expected his trusted aide to keep him apprised of developments in such a big deal.  When Vic failed to touch base he might have been expected to find out what was going on and queer the pitch for Nick.  Having said that, the reader is occasionally reminded how laborious long-distance communications were in that age so perhaps Charley had better things to do.

To round out the package there is an afterword by Silverberg himself, outlining the publishing scene in the late 1950s, the sorts of writing he was doing at the time, very early in his career, to make ends meet, and the genesis of Blood on the Mink; plus two further short stories, ‘Dangerous Doll’ and ‘One Night of Violence’, which first appeared in 1960 and 1959 respectively.  These are thematically related to Blood on the Mink.

In the first, a none-too-bright courier waiting in a boarding house for a representative of ‘the Syndicate’ to pick up forged plates falls for a pedal pusher-wearing young lovely who moves into the next room.  When she tells him the Los Angeles Syndicate has been ‘reorganised’ and she wants the plates, greed leads him to make a fatal mistake.

In the second, more accomplished, story a travelling boiler salesman relaxing one evening in his motel room with a novel by Zola (surely a sly dig at the reader of ‘One Night of Violence’) gets mixed up in a gang war and is forced to act as go-between between the rivals to ensure the safety of his family.  Events escalate into a frantic shoot-out, but if any of the hoods survive, will they want to rub him out, or even go after the wife and kids?

Hard Case might claim Blood on the Mink is a ‘lost classic’ but while it is proficient it is no masterpiece.  What is remarkable, considering how prolific Sliverberg was during this period, and how young he was when he wrote it, is how well structured the novella is.  It could be argued that while the pace never flags there is little tension as it is obvious how things are going to work out, but hell, nobody is claiming it’s Zola.  For most readers the major interest is probably going to be seeing how SF titan Silverberg handles the crime genre. Very enjoyably it turns out.

The Battle of Britain: Dowding and the First Victory, 1940, by John Ray

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A campaign emblematic of the plucky stand taken by Britain, confronting the might of the Third Reich after the fall of France and the evacuation at Dunkirk, the response to the German’s aerial assault in the Battle of Britain was masterminded by Fighter Command supremo Hugh ‘Stuffy’ Dowding (a telling sobriquet), denying the enemy the blow it hoped would knock the British out of the war.  John Ray’s account, published in the excellent Cassell Military Classics series, analyses what went on behind the scenes as the Royal Air Force withstood the Luftwaffe during the summer and autumn of 1940.

Far from presenting a united front, Dowding experienced hostility for his approach both from within the RAF and from politicians at the air ministry as he strove to implement his strategy while faced by competing visions of how best to utilise the available resources, notably his emphasis on the flexible use of individual squadrons versus ‘Big Wing’ formations favoured by Trafford Leigh-Mallory, leading No. 12 Group, and Douglas Bader: massed fighters confronting German bomber raids.  Both sides were feeling their way as they developed the most appropriate tactics in this new kind of warfare.

Churchill may have lauded the RAF’s achievements, but they did not save Dowding.  He was obliged to relinquish control in November 1940 after the battle had been won the preceding month, in the face of criticism that he was not able to respond adequately to the new threat of night bombing; though as Ray makes clear, there had been a desire to replace Dowding even before the start of the Battle of Britain, and his age told against him.  The underappreciated New Zealander Keith Park, in charge of No. 11 Group which had defended London and the south-east, and seen as Dowding’s man, was similarly eased out.  Dowding may have been a sound tactician, but he proved less adept as a politician.

Ray’s book shifts the focus from the combat in the sky to that in the British corridors of power (‘The battle within a battle’) as it tracks the course of the conflict and how the various interests interacted.  He is even-handed in his assessments of the merits of the competing British approaches to confronting the Luftwaffe, a force whose poor performance in a situation different to the phenomenally successful blitzkrieg it had been used to contributed significantly to the British victory.

The conclusion drawn by Ray is that the Battle of Britain was the most important of the war, on the grounds that Britain’s early departure would have had a number of knock-on effects – an earlier invasion of Russia; earlier attacks by Japan on European interests in the Pacific as well as threats to India and Australia; a lack of US involvement in Europe and certainly the absence of England as a springboard for the invasion of Europe; not to mention the possible deportation of British men for use as slave labour on the continent and the psychological effect of the loss of  what was a beacon of hope to those already under the Nazi yoke.

The defeat was the first setback for the German military, and allowed space for the strengthening of Bomber Command so that it could take the fight to the enemy.  Dowding was key to the success of the Battle of Britain in building defence systems that operated more efficiently ‘than the Luftwaffe’s haphazard offensive campaign.’  But his weaknesses as a leader were exploited, notably by Big Wing advocate Sholto Douglas, who replaced him as head of Fighter Command.

If the victors normally write the history, in this case it was the survivors: Dowding and Park lived into the 1970s whereas Leigh-Mallory died in 1944, and Ray has rectified the views of the personalities that have become received, but partial, wisdom.  His book is seminal reading for anyone interested in the story behind the story of that remarkable summer as Britain fought desperately for its existence.  The Blitz was still to come, but the symbolism of the summer of 1940, as Britain took on the Nazi war machine single-handed, retains its potency to this day.

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