The naming of cats…. and dogs


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As an associate member of ninevoices, known to make my cuddly presence unavoidable on sofa or lap, it was suggested it was about time I made a contribution to our scribbling.

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter, It isn’t just one of your holiday games;”

See how my involvement with you literary guys has rubbed off.

The naming of cats, dogs, pets: Mr Eliot was right. I am fortunate that I adopted a family who believes animals should not be given human names. It seems that every cute little puppy that joins the dogs’ parliament on the Common has a fashionable human name. I have met three Hugos, several Charlies, Betsy – my sister’s name by the way but she adopted another family – Susies, Lucys, Alfies, and an Olivia.

I am pleased to say ninevoices seem to be in step with my family. We have Bamber, Gizzy, Rumble, Streak, Snowy, Flax, Keiko and Yuki. The last two work if you’re not Japanese.

Then there are the fictional pets: Bullseye, Flush, Jumble, Crookshank, Ginger and Pickles, Greebo, Mog, Tab, Buck. You’ve probably spotted Flush, a real dog who belonged to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. But my point is these are all distinctive names not borrowed by humans.

Queen Victoria’s childhood spaniel was Dash, but her great-great granddaughter chose Susan for her first corgi. Personally I think that let the side down.

When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.”

That’s what we pets need, whether in the real or imagined world, an  inscrutable singular name.
Thanks for reading – Skipper   

In Love With Mr Darcy (and others…)


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I must have been thirteen or fourteen when I fell in love for the first time – with Elizabeth’s Darcy. Warm feelings that have not greatly changed in the decades that have passed since.

For that reason I couldn’t resist entering last year’s Val Wood challenge (details of which you may have seen in our September blog): to write an imaginary love letter.

I learned in the fullness of time that my effort failed to either win or be shortlisted, though I was able to comfort myself that the ultimate winner had submitted a series of letters, with an unfolding story, which gave her more scope. Undaunted by this, I’m concentrating on the pleasure I had in composing Darcy’s imaginary words and the break that it provided from the hard graft of editing my novel. No writing is wasted. It’s like sketching is for an artist, the exercising of skills.

If you share my soft spot for Fitzwilliam Darcy, you might like to read my effort at putting myself into his shoes, and breeches…

Dearest, Loveliest, Elizabeth, 

You know – who better? – the difficulty I have always had in expressing my feelings. So, I take up my pen again, on this our first anniversary, to try and do better – and to explain how having you as my wife has transformed my life.

To begin with, I am no longer the man I was. Had my mother lived, she might have prevented me from becoming the self-satisfied prig you met at the Assembly Rooms at Meryton. She might have taught me that a living, breathing woman is so much more than a pair of fine eyes (entrancingly fine though yours are) and that knowledge of the fair sex should not be limited by lack of imagination.

When you promised to become my wife, it gave me pleasure to think of all that I could give you. Time, however, has shown me how obtuse that thought was – and what, instead, you have been able to gift to me. For you have become the teacher, and I the pupil.

Jealousy, of Wickham – and even of my excellent cousin, the Colonel, – helped to open my eyes to the value of things not material. And although I began by despising that opportunistic adventurer (an easy mistake, I fear), those feelings have changed to pity, for Wickham has always chosen pinchbeck over silver. Brass over gold. Transitory pleasure over lasting joy.

While you, my dearest, darling Lizzie, have taught me to be a man of sense and sensibility. Have taught me how to laugh. At your perceptive wit. At the nonsensical habits of society. At myself, and the fools we men so often make of ourselves.

When I now consider the marriages of my friends and acquaintances, I see too many wives transferred from the charge of their fathers into that of their husbands. The partnerships seem contented enough. But how blind they are to what might be – an alliance of equals, a communion of souls and bodies, a joint fortress against the vicissitudes of life.

For whenever I have my arms around you, my dearest heart, I am whole. You are the star in my night sky. My birdsong in the morning. And now that the two of us are so soon to become three, I cannot but observe that while my dear friend Bingley habitually smiles, I want to laugh out loud.

Your devoted husband,


If, like the Val Wood judges, you weren’t seduced by my Darcy letter, you may prefer something in a more modern style, as composed by another member of ninevoices…



29 February 2020 21.34


That’s what you’ll always be to me. Superman. I don’t suppose any of us would’ve thought that you would grow up to become a human rights lawyer. Getting that awful unelected, manipulative toad convicted was just so brilliant. Superman.

But then to me you were super boy, always taking on the world with your colander tin helmet and wooden sword, righting wrongs. You were the leader. The Outlaws followed wherever you led them. Outlaws, that was ironic, seeing that you became an upholder of the law.

I wanted so desperately to join your gang. I don’t blame you for not letting me. Thanks to Mummy I was never appropriately dressed for games in the woods. You were always kind to me and I like to think that was your genuine good nature and not because I was the brat who threatened to make myself sick by screaming. Actually, I couldn’t. You probably knew that. You were so clever. And obviously you still are.

A human rights lawyer. My hero. You know Hubert Lane is a hedge-fund manager. Fitting. We could’ve forecast that one, but did you know he wanted Daddy to register his company in the Caymans? But Daddy was having none of that. ‘I pay my taxes, he said, ‘besides I have my work cut out planning how to reduce the sugar content in Bott’s Table Sauce.’

I think my early hero worship of you was the basis of what became my love for you. I should be more like your sister Ethel and wait for a man’s proposal. That’s what this is, dearest Willyam – I always think of you like that because that’s how you used to say it. Look at the date, my darling. Please don’t make me wait another four years to take advantage.

Darling, I’m not asking for a ring, a white dress and all that pomp. We’re a modern couple and don’t need it. Sweetheart, isn’t it time that you and I moved in together? You could come to the Mayfair apartment Daddy bought for me. I somehow think that is not for you though. I’d be happy to come to yours in Islington.

What do you say, darling, darling Superman?

Yours for ever, Vi

If any of our followers fancy sending us their imaginary love letter, either for Valentine’s Day or as a celebration of Leap Year – just for the fun of it, no prizes, unfortunately – we’d love to see them. Sometimes we need to be reminded that writing is what we do to enrich and enliven our days. 

Happy Valentine’s Day!




The Impostor Syndrome



                                An imaginary cafe conversation

Leo:    Is this seat free? All the other tables are taken.

Franz:  I’m sorry. Let me clear my stuff away.

Leo:     Thanks. Haven’t I seen you here before? With your notebook?

Franz:  I expect so. I come because it’s usually quiet. And the coffee’s good.

Leo:     Forgive me asking, but you aren’t a fellow writer, are you?

Franz:   I only play at it. I studied chemistry at university, changed to law, then ended up in an insurance office. Writing’s what I do to keep sane.

Leo:     Tell me about it. I’m stuck in a bank, but dream of being a poet.

Franz:   My working hours are a nightmare: eight at night until six the next morning. That’s why I escape here. Though I sometimes wonder why I bother.

Leo:     Perhaps because of the people you’re going to inspire with your writing one day?

Franz:  I can see why you’re a poet. With that active imagination…

Leo:     I presume it’s fiction you write?

Franz:  Usually. Though I’ve also dabbled with journalism. Not very successfully.

Leo:     But you’re published?

Franz:   A few short stories.

Leo:     That’s great! Anything I might have read?

Franz:   I doubt it. The publications were obscure. I had one single review.

Leo:     Still, you mustn’t give up.

Franz:   My friend, I’ve THREE separate novels in my desk drawer. Not one of them finished, never mind published. And my health’s not good, which is a trial. I’d be better off spending my free time in the steam baths at the sanitorium.

Leo:     You must keep going. Think of all the creative effort you’ve invested.

Franz:   That’s what my friend Max says. My father thinks I’m a waste of space, but at least someone encourages me.

Leo:     Well, any time I see you in here I’d be honoured to do the same.

Franz: That’s generous of you. Now, I need to get going. But it’s good to meet another writer. Helps me feel less of an impostor.

Leo:     I’m sure you’re not that. But let’s at least exchange names. I’m Leo.

Franz:   And I’m Franz. Goodbye.


When Franz Kafka died of TB in 1924 in Prague, aged only forty, he was an unknown writer. His three novels were unfinished and unpublished. His few published stories had won no prizes and attracted a solitary review. It was only following his funeral that his writer friend, Max Brod, investigated his desk and unearthed genius. 

We are unlikely to become Kafkas, but hopefully we won’t need to be discovered posthumously and hopefully we will find friends to encourage our efforts.


(The excellent photograph above was taken by Ed, our solitary male ‘voice’, who often visits Prague with his lovely wife, Jitka, and presumably polished off that gorgeous piece of cake after setting aside his camera…)




























Competitions to Enter in February


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Here is my picture of Jane Austen’s tiny writing desk at the Jane Austen House Museum at Chawton to inspire you.

Unagented writers yet to publish a full-length work could receive £1,500 an Arvon Course and mentoring in Spread the Word’s Life Writing Prize 2020. Send up to 5,000 words which may be a complete work or the beginning of a longer piece. In addition to the first prize, two highly commended writers will receive £500 and a mentor. The competition is free to enter, and the closing date February 3rd. Details:   (Please refer to entry rules, since this writing must reflect ‘someone’s own life journey or references…and is not fiction.’)

Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook Short Story Competition for a 2,00-word story. Free entry, but you must register on Prize: Arvon residential writing course worth £1,000, plus publication. Deadline 13 February. Details:

Spotlight First Novel Competition for a one-page synopsis plus the first page of an unpublished novel. Prize: mentoring package and website showcase. Entry fee: £16. Closing date: 14 February. Details:

National Flash Fiction Day Micro-fiction Competition Story: up to three unpublished flashes of 100 words. Deadline 15 February. Entry fee: £2; £3.75 for two; £5.25 for three. Prizes: £100; £50; £25. Details:

CWA Margery Allingham Short Story Competition, for stories up to 3,500 word, fitting Margery Allingham’s definition of a mystery story*. Prizes: £500, two passes to CrimeFest. Entry Fee: £12. Closing date: 29 February. Details: (*Note: “Mystery remains box-shaped, at once a prison and a refuge. Its four walls are, roughly, a Crime, a Mystery, an Enquiry and a Conclusion with an Element of Satisfaction in it.”)

CWA Debut Dagger Award for crime novels. Submit 3,000 words, plus 1,000 word synopsis. Prizes: £500. Entry fee: £36. Closing date: 29 February. Details:

Exeter Writers Short Story Competition. 3,000 words. Entry fee: £7. Prizes: £700; £250; £100, plus £100 prize for writers in Devon. Details:

Scottish Arts Club Short Story Competition for stories up to 2,000 words. Entry fee: £10. Prizes: £1,000; £500; £250; Deadline: 28 February. Details:

Fiction Factory Short Story Competition, maximum 3,000 words. (No children’s/YA stories) Entry fee: £6 (with optional critique £10). Prizes: £150; £50; £25; publication. Deadline 28 February. Details:

Fish Flash Fiction Prize, maximum 300 words. Entry fee: 14 Euros for one; 8 Euros for subsequent entries. Prizes: 1,000 Euros; 300 Euros; online writing course; publication. Deadline 28 February. Details:

Flash 500 Short Story Competition, 1,000-3,000 words. Prizes: £500; £200; £100. Entry fee: £7 for one story, £12 for two; £16 for three; £20 for four, plus optional critiques. Deadline: 28 February. Details:

Kelpies Prizes for Writing and Illustration – Novel for children. Send the first five chapters plus synopsis: 11000-3000 words using a given sentence start. Writers must be Scottish and aged 18+. Prize: £1,000; mentoring; publishing contract with Floris Books; writing retreat or Picture Hooks 2020 Conference ticket.Deadline: 28 February. Details:

Please remember to check all details before entry in case we’ve misinterpreted or misread anything.

There’s plenty of potential here to let those imaginations run free – and I thought the Margery Allingham definition really helpful for almost all kinds of fiction writing…

Sanditon – ‘I must not depend upon being ever very blooming again’


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In rereading Jane Austen, we are able to experience something of that age of elegance which too often eludes us in the twentieth century. We are unrepentant about this form of escapism and turn to her six novels for relaxation… Like Mr Woodhouse, we enjoy the company of these old friends best; and though we prefer their actual company to secondhand discussions and speculations about them, anything concerning them will always hold a fascination for us…. writes Another Lady AKA Marie Dobbs.

In her An Apology from the Collaborator, included at the end of Jane Austen’s Sanditon completed by Another Lady published in 1975, Marie Dobbs admits that she offers her version for our sheer enjoyment, aware that Jane Austen’s language, integrity and meticulous technique cannot be faithfully copied.

She was too hard on herself. Marie Dobbs’ completed Sanditon is peppered with delightful passages poking fun at human vanity and folly, which feel as though they could be written by Jane Austen herself. The Miss Beauforts… were certainly no longer content to remain on their balcony now these two personable young men were to be perceived strolling about admiring the Sanditon views. Indeed, they felt a definite obligation to improve the landscape for them immediately by dotting graceful feminine silhouettes wherever they be most visible. The very next day Miss Letitia carried her easel out of doors and began moving it from sand to shingle, from hill to Terrace with tireless and unselfish activity. No concern for completing her own sketches interfered with her sense of duty to adorn whatever vista might require her presence.

There is some splendid Austen-ish dialogue too, as in this speech from Reginald Catton, one of the only two on-stage characters added by Marie Dobbs: ‘So that was Miss Denham! Predatory female – Sidney warned me. He said I would not be in the least danger from anyone else – could handle all the Miss Beauforts with ease – but Miss Denham would be hanging about me forever if once she caught sight of my barouche. I told the groom to keep it well out of sight in the stables.’ 

Reginald Catton may also remind fans of Georgette Heyer of her comic young men about town, such as Ferdy Fakenham in Friday’s Child. Marie Dobbs makes the hero Sidney Parker resemble the witty, charming, teasing Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey, but in his unassuming kind-heartedness there are echoes of Georgette Heyer’s endearing Freddy in Cotillion. The later developments of the plot come close to Heyer regency romances too – no problem for those of us who love both authors, as we must suspect Marie Dobbs did  – but perhaps some literary critics might argue that Jane Austen was intending to take a different and sharper line.

It’s difficult not to feel disappointment that Andrew Davies’ recent television adaptation of Sanditon didn’t follow the story and tone of the Another Lady/Marie Dobbs completed version. In the eleven chapters Jane Austen wrote before illness stopped her in March 1817, she set up everything we love in her other novels and Marie Dobbs fulfils the sparkling early promise with grace, respect and humour. Added to this we have in Sanditon a merciless satire of hypochondriacs and medical quackery, speaking to us all the more poignantly when we remember that Jane Austen was only four months away from her death on 18th July.

But as the ever-so-sensible heroine Charlotte says to the would-be seducer Sir Edward who has read more sentimental novels than agreed with him: ‘our taste in novels is not at all the same.’ Nor is our taste in television adaptations all the same, and this is probably a very good thing.

Rejection – The Fairy Story

With Hilary Mantel’s latest book due in the spring, and all those New Year Resolutions about writing, and re-writing, more, this blog of mine from 2015 seemed worth re-visiting.  Maggie.


You’re at the kitchen table, drooping over yet another rejected story. In her basket, Ruby, the cocker spaniel, looks expectant, head twitching and nose up. Then the door bell rings. She must have sensed a visitor. Anyway, she’s at the door ahead of you.

‘Hi, Ruby! I’ve come, as promised.’

The visitor sweeps past you into the kitchen while you remain, frozen, on the doormat. It is Hilary bloody Mantel, isn’t it? Are you going to scream? Faint? Wake up from a dream? And how does this world-renowned woman know your dog?

By now Hilary’s in the kitchen. She picks up your crumpled story, unearths a pencil from her bag, and starts scribbling all over it. ‘Just make me a coffee,’ she says, giving Ruby an absent-minded pat. ‘Instant will be fine, but make it strong.’

You’re in a trance as you boil the kettle. This wonderful writer is sitting…

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Competitions to Enter in January


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If you’re anything like ninevoices, one of your New Year’s Resolutions will have been to write more and to enter more competitions, especially those that might give feedback. Skipper would definitely approve. So it’s time to put on those reading specs and scrutinise the opportunities below:

You’ll need to be quick, as the deadline is to day, but The Exeter Novel Prize is looking for the first 10,000 words of a novel not under contract, together with a 500 word synopsis. Any genre except children’s. Prizes: £500, with five £100 runners-up. Entry fee is: £18 – but for £100 they will give you a 1-page report on your entry. Details can be found at:

The Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize for unpublished female authors over 21 to win expert guidance and support from publishing agent Peters Fraser Dunlop, plus a cash prize of £1,500. Deadline: 17 January. Entry fee: £12. Details:

The Mogford Prize for Food and Drink Writing. Short stories with food and drink themes, up to 2,500 words. (Plenty of inspiration from the last couple of weeks!) Judges Stephen Fry and Pru Leith. Prizes: £10,000, 3x£250. Entry fee: £10. Closing date: 13 January. Details:

Bath Flash Fiction Novella in Flash Award for flash fiction and novellas between 6,000 and 18,000 words. Prizes: £300, 2 x £100. Entry fee: £16. Deadline: 20 January. Details:

Retreat West First Chapter Competition for the first chapter of a novel up to 3,500 words. Prizes: Critique and review. Entry fee: £10. Closing date: 26  January. Details:

Arundel Festival Theatre Trail Writing Competition for short plays, 30-40 minutes. Prizes: £250, £150 for each shortlisted play, performance. Free entry – what do you have to lose? Closing date: 31 January. Details:

Fish Short Memoir Contest for personal non-fiction up to 4,000 words. Prizes: 1,000 Euros, publication; a week at Casa Ana Writers retreat in Andalucia and 300 Euros travel expenses. Entry fee: 17 Euros. Closing date: 31 January. Details:

Kent & Sussex Poetry Society Open Poetry Competition for poems up to 40 lines. Prizes: £1,000, £300, £100, 4 x £50. Entry fee: £5; 3 or more £4 each. Closing date: 31 January. Details:

Lancashire Authors’ Association Flash Fiction Competition for a story in exactly 100 words. Prizes: £150. Entry fee: £2, £5 for three. Closing date 31 January. Details:

Plymouth Writers’ Group Open Writing Competition for  short stories of 1,000-1,500 words. Prizes: £250, £50, anthology publication for top five. Entry fee: £5. Closing date: 31 January. Details:

As always, please check all entry details before submitting. Remember those New Year Resolutions and, good luck!

Make a resolution

At ninevoices’ annual Christmas lunch we make writing resolutions for the coming year. Well, resolutions, like rules, are made to be broken as we find the following year.
However, that said, we shouldn’t be discouraged to start again. If your aim is to enter writing competitions in 2020, and perhaps you had a go at our 2019 Summer Competition, may we pass on some thoughts?
We settled down on a November day to discuss the stories that had received the most votes from our individual readings. Skipper was there as an impartial observer. What he learnt was that we did not agree. It has been said before we have varied reactions and likes.
The overwhelming consensus, however, was that we are lucky to belong to a group. Simple inconsistencies, spelling and grammar mistakes and typos are seized upon by our sharp-eyed colleagues.
So if you are setting out on the writer’s lonely path, we would persuade you to find the company of others to work with you. These others, and here we are unanimous, do not include your family and close friends.
A Happy New Year and good luck with your writing in 2020.

Where do good ideas come from?


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Where do good ideas come from?

Sometimes you read a book with a strikingly original and simple idea; you then think, “Well, of course, I could have thought of that if I I’d tried,” but the point is YOU DIDN’T.

Two examples from books I’ve just read:

The Cockroach by Ian McEwan. We know Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which opens with a man waking up to find he’s a giant insect. Why not reverse that? Have an insect who wakes up to find he’s turned into a man? Brilliant. And when we learn that that man is the British Prime Minister, who is leading the country into a whole new economic system that merely a few years back was advocated only by people who were thought crackpots …. Well, you can finish the sentence. A topical satire and, as I’ve said, a great and simple idea. (Unfortunately I’ll have to return the book to my sister who lent it to me, as she got it signed by the author at the Cheltenham Literary Festival.)

The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent is the other (translated from the French by Ros Schwartz). Here the simple idea is to have a central character who loves books but is compelled to work in a factory that destroys them. This is an appalling place where books are pulped. They are devoured and converted into a disgusting slush by a dreadful and dangerous machine into which our hero has to climb each day as part of its maintenance. And each day he rescues a page from whatever book is going into its maw, and reads it to his fellow-commuters on the train to work the next morning. They love it. The other characters are grotesques, all with some often bizarre link to books and writing. (Fortunately I was given this by a friend so can keep it. Thanks, friend.)

Wondering what to do with that gift card you got for Christmas? You could see if you like as much as I did what these writers made of these original and simple ideas.

The Cockroach by Ian McEwan, published in 2019 by Jonathan Cape, ISBN 978-1-529-11292-4 RRP £7-99 (it’s only 100 pages)

The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent, translated by Ros Schwartz, published in 2016 by Pan, ISBN 978-1-5098-3685-7 RRP £8-99

PMRGCA – Jane’s story

As promised: Jane’s account of how the condition changed her life.


PMR (polymyalgia rheumatica) is a painful, debilitating condition which affects
the muscles. Symptoms and the condition’s severity vary from patient to

GCA (giant cell arteritis) can occur on its own but about 25% of patients with
PMR suffer from GCA. As the name suggests enormous cells form in the wall of
inflamed arteries. This affects the normal flow of blood to many areas of the
body. A patient’s sight is particularly at risk and this may occur unless
treatment is started quickly. The condition may cause headaches and
tenderness at one or both sides of the forehead, blurred vision, and (in my
case) jaw pain when chewing. It makes you feel very unwell generally.

I became ill, suddenly, seven years ago in August 2012. I was a fit and healthy
68 year old. Peter (my husband) and I had just completed an eight-mile strenuous walk along a coastal path in Wales when pains developed in my hands, then my shoulders. Within a few hours I was in agony. I couldn’t climb into bed. I couldn’t even switch on a light.

My GP was very quick to act. Blood tests showed my CRP (inflammation
marker) was 168 (normal is less than 5.) However, despite seeing a very senior
rheumatologist, diagnosis was slow. By now I was in a wheelchair. Strong
painkillers had very little impact on my symptoms. The rheumatologist was
unsure whether I had Rheumatoid Arthritis or PMR. He gave me a 60mg
steroid injection and within a few hours I could move and the pain subsided.
GCA was diagnosed five months later. I was lucky. As I was taking steroids
already, my risk of sight loss – in one or both eyes – was very much reduced.

PMR and GCA are auto-immune diseases. Although the majority of patients suffer with just one condition, some patients develop other auto-immune diseases. For the past seven years I seem to have a new diagnosis about once a year. The worst of these is Rheumatoid Arthritis. I have a severe form of this.

The good news is that new drugs are being developed all the time. I am on a
trial for a biological drug. It is hoped that, in the future, steroid-sparing
treatments such as this, will prevent the devastating side effects of conditions
such as GCA. In my case, I have had no GCA flares since starting the bio drug
twelve months ago. Even more importantly, I feel so very much better and, best of all, I am off steroids – they can have long-lasting side effects when
taken for many years at high doses. I am also able to walk about a mile without
suffering from overwhelming fatigue.

Much more research is needed to find treatments (such as the bio drugs) and
research any potential long-term problems with them. At present, the bios are
very expensive, so doctors have to ration their use. There’s a nice irony that
having so many auto immune conditions has worked in my favour.

Ninevoices is a group of nine enthusiastic writers. We met nearly twenty years ago, and have got together every fortnight for most of that time. We have organised several writing competitions and the members decided to donate any profits to the little known charity: PMRGCAUK. (Yes, terrible title. The organisation is trying to find a better one.)

I was delighted and so was the organisation. Each of you, who entered our
competition, has taken PMRGCAUK one tiny step further to finding affordable
treatments and, hopefully one day, a cure.

Thank you all so much.

Jane Dobson