Fidelity à la Française

I first went to Paris when I was 14 years old. I was travelling with my father who introduced me to a “friend” of his, a dancer at the Lido called Sophie. Something she told me has remained with me ever since. “All you need to be a French woman,” she said, “is two lipsticks and a lover.”
Having lived there for several years I would say the truth is closer to one lipstick and two lovers.
The French are famous for sex. Now we have it from an official source that they excel at it. And, rather predictably, they’re much better at it than us. An Ifop (Institut Français d’opinion publique) survey published this week entitled ‘Paris, City of Light, City of Debauchery’ concludes that Parisians have on average 19 lovers, whereas we Brits have a measly nine. It also found that 44 per cent of Parisians have slept with someone whose name they don’t know, 29 per cent have taken part in threesomes (or ménage à trois as they are known in France) and 22 per cent have been involved in an orgy.
In 2014 Ifop carried out a survey that found that 55 per cent of French men and 32 per cent of French women cheat on their spouses. I would guess the real figure is even higher. Do the French have time for anything else but sex? No wonder their economy is in such a state. And the fact that they’re always on strike, is that just a ploy to spend more time in the sack?
We Brits have always been slightly jealous of the French je ne sais quoi. If your husband announces he has a French mistress, you know the game’s up. Similarly when women dream of a tall, dark and handsome man, he probably has just a hint of a French accent.
But are their sex lives really fuelled by romance? Is it all candlelit dinners and longing gazes under the Eiffel Tower? Holding hands as you stroll along the banks of the Seine and drinking champagne under the shade of a Plane tree?
I would argue that no, it’s not. OK so they have more lovers, but that doesn’t make them more loving. The truth is that French sex is more about promiscuity than romance. If you are serially unfaithful your tally will increase, won’t it?images-1
While we Brits get married and settle down, the French get married and, er, carry on as if they’re not. A few years ago while discussing the difference between vous and tu with a married French couple, the man told me he always vous his mistress. “It’s much sexier,” he said. His wife didn’t blink. I half expected her to chip in with a ‘oh yes I always vous my lovers too, makes it seem so much more exotic, not to mention erotic.’
A friend of mine called Bernadette is 37 years old and has been having an affair with the husband of a friend of hers for a year and a half. “We knew each other, of course, and then one day we bumped into each other in town. We had coffee and he asked me if I was interested in becoming his mistress,” she says. “I was surprised at how direct he was, it was almost like a business proposal, he suggested we meet once or twice a week, he would book a hotel, and we would have sex.” They do just that; she goes to the hotel after leaving work and before she gets home to her husband and two small children. She is not in it for the romance, but views it more like a treat. “Some women go to the spa or the hairdresser’s to unwind, I go to a small hotel room where there is a man waiting for me.”
Jean-Claude is in his mid-forties. He’s a successful Paris-based businessman who has been married to Chantal for 15 years. They have three children. He freely admits that there is not one year out of the 15 when he has been faithful to her. He doesn’t have one regular mistress, like a lot of French men do, but a series of lovers, none of whom he sees more than a handful of times because he doesn’t want to risk getting too attached to them. His motivation is purely sexual. He finds sex with his wife boring, and he enjoys the chase and thrill of seducing other women. But he has no desire to break up his family, hence the need to keep the affairs brief and to the point. But is there really any point?
“It never even occurred to me to remain faithful,” he says. “It’s just our way of life. Added to which among my friends a mistress is a bit of a status symbol, you’re seen as a bit of a loser if you don’t have one.”
The fact that infidelity is culturally acceptable makes it so much more acceptable than it is here. Another friend of mine called Gilbert says that one of his most enduring memories from childhood is of his grandmother consoling his grandfather when one of his girlfriends had finished with him. There is no stigma or even surprise attached to having an affair, in fact it’s often seen as something to be proud of. No one would dream of asking you where you were between cinq and sept. In England, if you are an unfaithful person, you are also a bad person. Not so in France. For example, you can be a philanderer and still be a good President as we have seen with a succession of French heads of state. As far back as 1899 a French President called Félix Faure died during an oral sex session at the Elysée Palace. What a way to go. Makes Clinton seem like a lightweight. Before they had presidents, French kings were at it. Madame de Pompadour was Louis XV’s official mistress, and that title must mean he had several unofficial ones as well.
There are even those who argue that infidelity in France is a basic human right. As Michael Worton former (now retired) Professor of French Literature at University College London sums up: “The whole notion of freedom is deeply inscribed in the French psyche. Marrying and then misbehaving is seen as being free.”
The Paris-based American author Edith Kunz put it like this: “Wives, husbands, mistresses and lovers function together on a relatively peaceful basis in France when the players adhere to the non-verbal code of manners.”
Infidelity is a French specialist subject. But maybe because it is so entrenched it’s in danger of becoming as much of a burden as marriages sometimes appear to be? Jean-Claude admits there are times when he tires of the affairs. “Maybe I’m just getting old,” he laughs. “But there are days when I wonder if I can be bothered. And then I think about a certain pair of lips or the way someone laughs and I’m off again.”
Antoine, 36, who lives in Lyon, has been married for five years but has been having an affair with an older divorced woman for almost two years. They meet at her place two or three times a week. “I think it is nearing the end of its natural life,” he says of the affair. “There comes a time when it starts to turn into the same mundanity you have at home, and then you have to move on.” Antoine says he will probably always have a mistress on and off. “I can’t imagine being with the same woman forever. Never kissing another woman, or caressing another body. It would feel like a prison sentence. I think being sexually liberated is essential for your well-being.”
And the women? Well here again is a crucial difference between the French and us Brits. “French women are born to seduce,” a male French friend once told me. “And what are English women born to do?” I asked. He thought for a moment. “Cuddle their dogs.”
But does all this sex and seduction actually get them anywhere? Are they any happier than us semi-frigid Brits cuddling our dogs and counting our sexual conquests on one hand?
While it all seems terribly exciting running around chasing women or being seduced by men who one would assume after so much practice must be getting rather good at it, most French people concede that actually having your cake and eating it is just not possible. The statistic from the survey that 44 per cent of people have slept with someone whose name they don’t know is just plain depressing. For sex to be truly exciting and interesting surely there has to be an element of romance? There may be times when a nameless encounter is just the ticket, but I’m not sure it’s a sustainable path to fulfilment and happiness.
None of the case studies I spoke to seemed overly excited by their affairs. Funnily enough, if anything the women were happier than the men. With the men I got the impression they almost felt obliged to be unfaithful, as if it was somehow a reflection on their manhood (or lack of it) if they only slept with their wives. As Jean-Claude says: “I sometimes wonder if I’m doing this for me or if it’s only because it’s expected of me.” Another friend of mine who lives in Provence travels to Paris once a month to get his hair cut. Obviously being French he is not getting his hair cut at all, but seeing his mistress. But he admits that he sometimes enjoys the journey more than the actual mistress. “It’s so relaxing,” he says. “I think I’d still go even if it weren’t for her.”
The French might have more notches on the bedpost, but as with so many things, happiness through lovers is more about quality than quantity.
So while the French may have won the battle, we are winning the war. Plus ça change.

Can a frog turn into a prince?

Not even Scarlett Johanssen could do it. Hang on to a French husband that is. Two and a half years after she married Romain Dauriac the father of her daughter Rose, the actress is filing for divorce. She doesn’t give a reason, but in an interview a few months ago talked about how impossible monogamy is. Especially for Frenchmen, she could have added.

downloadJohanssen joins a long list of illustrious women who have loved and lost a la française.

In January this year pop princess Cheryl Cole split from her French husband Jean-Bernard citing unreasonable behaviour. The actress Gemma Arterton has broken up with her boyfriend Franklin Ohanessian.

When the sexy French actor Olivier Martinez leapt onto the world scene in the film The Horseman on the Roof and announced that “Madame a déjà un escort” we all wanted to be that Madame. Halle Berry and Kylie Minouge both were, for a while, but neither lasted the course. Perhaps though the most shocking of all news of the split between Kristen Scott Thomas (who is as close to being a French woman as you can possibly be without being actually being French) and her gynaecologist husband in 2005 after 18 years of marriage. The rumour at the time was that she was having an affair with the actor Tobias Menzies, but there were bound to be some Gallic issue underlying the split.

The list goes on. The evidence is blindingly obvious. If you’re not French, don’t marry a Frenchman.

Frenchmen make appallingly bad husbands. Along with their inability to keep their trousers on is a myriad of traits that make them so, well, impossibly French. Ego, the impenetrable language, misogynism and a loathing of anywhere outside their own arrondissement to name a few.

I had a French boyfriend. Once. It was a very long time ago, back in the days when the only men who used moisturiser were definitely “batting for the other side” as my grandfather used to put it.

Except Didier that is. Didier had a bathroom filled with more products than I had ever seen in one place. And remember this was when brands didn’t even have men’s skincare ranges. One look at those shelves was enough to send me running for the hills.

I’m grateful now to Didier and his skincare obsession. Because had it not been for him I might have been tempted, as so many women are, to actually marry a Frenchman.

“I’ve kissed a lot of frogs,” says Catherine, an English friend of mine who has lived in Paris for 15 years. “But none that have turned into princes.”

Catherine has seen too many of her compatriots fail to even contemplate marrying a French man. “They’re good for a love affair, but nothing more. Talk about a crowded marriage. If you marry a Frenchman you have to live not only with his pernickety mother watching your every move, but with his ego as well. I’m not sure which is worse.”

Catherine says that when looking for a husband someone from an Anglo-Saxon culture should look for a man from a country where there is more equality between the sexes than there is in France.

“The French are sexist pigs,” she says. “They’re very charming with it, but that’s the bottom line.”

Claire, another English friend living in Paris agrees. “I think we tend to put up with less shit than French women. For example, we expect a man to stay faithful and do the washing up now and again. Added to which, you always have to be perfect. There is no way a French man will put up with you mooching around at home in your pyjamas or gym kit.”

So apart from being habitually well groomed and turning a blind eye to infidelity, how do French women keep their men in line, and why do they want to?

“Oh they don’t keep them in line, unless she’s much richer or younger than him, or the man in question has some values, which is unlikely in France,” says Julia, an American mother of three who has lived in France for 17 years with her American husband. “But they prefer to stay married, as do the men. It gives them both security, albeit different types of security.”

Julia describes French society as an odd combination of more conservative and at the same time more licentious than ours. So while French men are allowed to behave as they want to, being unfaithful and refusing to do anything around the house, French women tend to put up with their behaviour due to a mixture of cultural norms and economic necessity.

“French women get peanuts in divorce settlements here, the law is as sexist as the men, so usually it’s in their interests to stay married.”

A very French village affair

News reaches me that Swedes recycle 99 per cent of their rubbish. Never one to be outdone by my compatriots, I am recycling this column first published in the Sunday Times. You will be pleased to hear that since this exciting episode things have calmed down and the bakery is now run by another family. The bread has improved as well…

Our location three kilometres away from the nearest village normally insulates us from local gossip. But news reaches me of a tale so gripping that I feel I cannot ignore it. Besides, it says a lot about life in rural France.
The story is centred on the most important building in the community – no, not the bank, nor the bar not even the post office. It’s the bakery. It is not my favourite bread shop – the range is a bit limited – but occasionally I have glimpsed the baker in the backroom, rather a muscular, handsome chap covered in flour. His wife sold the baguettes and croissants. A bohemian figure with long highlighted hair and a penchant for grungy outfits, we were quite friendly, partly because she shares a name with one of my daughters.
However, last weekend, when I went to get a loaf, I was served by a rather pretty youngster with long blonde hair. Where, I asked a friend, is the baker’s wife?
“You mean you don’t know? The whole village has been talking about it.” She steered me towards the local bar, and over a cup of coffee, outlined the sorry tale.

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It turns out that a couple of years ago a Parisian moved into the village with her husband. She became best friends with the baker’s wife. They spent many happy hours together in the shop talking about fashion, food and other French obsessions. But as Coco Chanel was fond of observing: “My friends, there are no friends.”

For when the baker’s wife went to visit her ailing mother, the baker took the opportunity of getting close to the Parisian woman. He may not be the first baker to be caught with his hands in the wrong bag of flour, but when his wife discovered what had been happening in her absence, she took it badly. She repacked her bags and left; nobody knows where she went.

The Parisian thought this might leave her free to move in with the handsome baker, but he apparently rejected this kind offer. This was the cue for her husband to get involved. He went down to the bakery with his shotgun and loosed a couple of rounds into the windows. Whether he was aiming at the baker, we don’t know, but it does seem a bit of an odd reaction to take it out on an innocent building.

What we do know is that the baker has got rid of two women who were beginning to show their age and apart from the damage to his windows, has come out of the whole saga unscathed. Moreover he now has a younger woman handling his baguettes.
“As long as she doesn’t end up with a bun in the oven, he’s had a result,” says my friend. What interests me is the reaction of the rest of the village. They are delighted to have something to talk about. It’s the biggest thing since Le Pen defeated Jospin in 2002. (Zidane’s World Cup head butt pales in comparison.)

There are now regular pilgrimages to gawp at the gun-shot wounded windows; much more interesting than the normal evening pastime of going to the bus stop in your slippers, carrying a deck chair and sitting there watching the traffic go by.
“You’ll notice the police haven’t been involved,” one village senior told me. “That’s the French noblesse oblige. If a man has been cuckolded then he is perfectly entitled to take a few pot shots at your window.”

There’s not much sympathy for the wronged wife. “She was always very grumpy,” says another villager. “She would look at me and say ‘what do you want?’ when I came into the bakery. ‘Some bread,’ I felt like responding, ‘isn’t that bleeding obvious?’”
Many locals think the baker might now spend more time on his bread, thus improving its quality, although the foodies in the village still make the journey into the local town for their banette moissons and apple tarts.

The Parisian and the cuckolded husband are said to be still living together in domestic disharmony. Apparently they have taken a floor of the house each, and eat at different times. God knows where they get their bread from.

What is also interesting here though is the French attitude to infidelity. No one has condemned the baker as a cheat and a cad. Everyone thinks he’s a jolly good bloke. When I asked another villager if he wasn’t shocked by the goings-on at the bakery he looked amazed.“Shocked?” He said. “This sort of thing has been going on since before time began.”

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I remember a friend of mine telling me the story of a woman who lived outside Toulouse whose husband had an affair with the local postmistress. Instead of turfing her husband out she asked a friend if she could borrow her house.
“What for?” said the friend.
“I need to seduce my husband,” was the wronged wife’s response.
She got dressed up in some sexy underwear, invited her husband round and performed a striptease routine. I can’t imagine an Englishwoman reacting in the same way. She might borrow a friend’s house to murder him in so as not to get any blood on her own carpets, but certainly not to show him her latest matching underwear.
De Gaulle once said that it is impossible to rule a country with over 350 types of cheese. Maybe it is the sheer variety of everything: bread, wine, strange vowel sounds and so on, that make fidelity more difficult for the French.

Strangely enough they seem more able to resist culinary delights than temptations of the flesh. I remember an extremely chic and slim Parisian once telling me about her little trysts, always carried out with maximum discretion in smart hotels around town.
“What else can’t you resist?” I asked her. “Croissants for example?”
She looked horrified. “I haven’t had a croissant in over twelve years.”

I should think the baker’s wife has gone off them as well.

The greatest soap opera of them all

Last night I dreamt about Ashley Cole. The night before I dreamt that we were no longer in the Champion’s League.

They say that women discover either God or gardening. I have discovered goals. More specifically goals scored by men wearing a dark shade of blue, ideally Frank Lampard, whom I adore so much I dedicated my last novel, The Ex Factor, to him. But I am happy with contributions from Hazard, Mata, even Fernando Torres.
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Rather than heading to church or the rose bushes, I have become an utterly fanatical Chelsea fan. My whole diary (during the football season that is) is dominated by Chelsea fixtures. Any opportunity to travel to London has to coincide with a home fixture. If I am asked to a dinner party the first thing I do is check that Chelsea is not playing. Our lives are so inextricably linked that I cannot imagine what on earth I did before this obsession began.

I’m amazed it hasn’t afflicted many other women. Because football is the greatest soap opera of them all. Forget Downton. Emerdale what? Football literally has it all. Money, men in shorts, cheating, glory, despair and elation – and you really cannot predict the outcome. Even if you’re 3-0 up at half time, you can still lose. As the recently-retired Sir Alex Ferguson put it: “Football is a drug that is hard to give up.”

My first brush with Chelsea FC came when I was 16 years old and a (female) friend of mine took me to Stamford Bridge. At the time I was more into fashion than football and didn’t really think much of it. My friend by the way never veered from the true blue course. She now has one child named after our home ground and another after Chelsea legend Gianfranco Zola.

It took a while for me to find my way back again. I married a man who has been a Chelsea fan since the FA Cup replay against Leeds in 1970. During our early-married life we would watch Match of the Day together.

“It’s not very exciting,” I grumbled once.

“Yes it is,” he replied. “You just need to pick a team.”

I can’t really say when a desultory interest turned into a total obsession. But from being on the sidelines of my husband’s football interest, I suddenly overtook him.

As I said earlier, football is the world’s greatest soap opera. It is not just the action on the pitch, but all the action off it. Take the ‘second coming’ of José Mourinho. It has elevated the soap opera to an even higher level. It’s a bit like having Lord Voldemort manage your team (the main character in my novel is nick-named after him). Even non-football fans have heard of José, and he is the kind of charismatic, enigmatic man that will attract a lot more interest in the game, especially from women.

I predict females following football will increase massively over the next few years. As we get more and more bored with celebrities we will turn our attention to things that really matter, such as sport. And there is no greater sport than the beautiful game.

La Belle Maison

Ever since we have been visiting our friends Norrie and Mary in the Savoie, I have been in love with a beautiful old farmhouse on the top of a hill in same hamlet as they live in. I call it THE house or La Belle Maison. It is actually very English in aspect I think, solid and imposing, with a tennis court and a view over rolling hills and a church (see below pic).

We always said to the owners that if it were ever for sale we would love to buy it. In 2009 they told us they did want to sell it, so we went inside to look at it and asked them how much they wanted it for it.

Sadly it didn’t work out, the price was too high and then they changed their minds about selling. So we left La Belle Maison and decided to rent it next summer instead.

Two days ago – a miracle. The lovely owner of THE house emailed to say that they do now want to sell, and that the price is substantially lower and, most crucially, she wants us to have it.

Yesterday we made an offer and it has been accepted. There is still a long way to go. We have to sell Sainte Cecile (not a popular choice with most of the children, although Hugo likes the idea of La Belle Maison in part because of the tennis court) and then there is the interminable French bureaucracy to deal with.

But at least we are one big step closer. Maybe we won’t be renting it next summer, but living there.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2011

Bea has a boyfriend

Baby Bea (almost 11) has a boyfriend. Rather confusingly he is called Leo, but apparently has lovely curly black hair and is very cute. They have so far carried out a rather Middle-Eastern style relationship, in that it was arranged, and they never really meet.

When Bea broke the news to me that she was no longer single, I asked her how she had gone about acquiring a boyfriend. “Well, we heard he liked me, and then Olivia made him,” she told me. Olivia apparently “made” him by telling him Bea was about to be asked out by someone else. That girl is so smart it’s scary. On the day Steve Jobs died her one comment was “does that mean Apple goods will become cheaper?”

Bea is on a bit of a roll. Last week was the class photo. “Can we have the pretty girl in the middle please?” asked the photographer. Bea was thrilled, as was, I should think, Leo, even if he was bullied into the “relationship” by her older sister. Olivia is on to her second boyfriend, having been chucked the first one,  the son of one of Olivia’s favourite teachers at school. My friend who works at the school told me that said teacher apparently told her son that he had “blown it”.

“All other potential daughters-in-law will pale in comparison to Olivia,” she said to him. The poor boy is only 12, but his mother is confident he will never find anyone as good again. And secretly of course, so am I. Although I can’t help feeling that if she really wanted him back, she could have arranged it. Or maybe got her sister involved…..

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2011

Tweet, tweet, I love you….

I am hoping it is a little but like the early stages of a romance. You know those first heady glorious weeks when you want to know EVERYTHING about the other person and spend EVERY second of the day with them, preferably in bed.

I am, of course, talking about Twitter. For so long I have said “I don’t have the time” and “What’s the point?” and “Who cares what all these geeks are up to?”  But now I am well and truly in love, or at least in lust.

A whole new world has opened up. A world where I can know the results at Roland Garros almost before Rafa has hit the winning forehand, where any major news events will not happen without my knowledge and where fashion trends are only a tweet away. In fact I can follow just about everything I care about, including my children and my husband.

My favourite tweeter is a man calling himself @FrankLampardUK who is hysterically funny and always spot on. I have a fantasy that he really IS Frank Lampard and my favourite footballer is as cool off the pitch as he is on it. Sigh.

The downside though is that my husband has fallen in love too, in fact he is much worse. Head over heels, obsessive love has struck him. He spends his whole day glued to his iphone. And he’s competitive with it. He now has twice as many followers as me so is jolly pleased with himself. And is up to all sorts of tricks like a ‘tweetdeck’. And he knows what all @ and the # are all about. Clearly a mid-life crisis. But I guess there are worse ways to spend it.

I am going to spend as much of mine with Frank Lampard as I can.

Copyright:Helena Frith Powell 2011

I am a sofa…..

I went to a baby shower last week, and just to give you an idea of how they tend to do these things in Abu Dhabi, I am uploading a photo.

Understated, eh? My first thought as I walked in was of the film Batman, when the duck turns out to be carrying gun-toting madmen. But happily it was peace and cup-cakes all round.

There was a fortune teller there so I decided to see what the future has in store for me. The good news is that I will write a best-seller. In fact I am soon to sign some mega-deal, possibly with a production company. What a relief, the amazon rating is teetering and sales are steady but not good enough to ensure I can afford to rent a giant duck for my next party.

The Russian fortune teller also told me that there is a man from my past (isn’t there always) who is going to reappear and try to take me away. Apparently my husband will react as a man reacts when someone tries to take their favourite bit of furniture away.

“He doesn’t say much, but he needs you, like his favourite sofa, and when someone comes to take it away, he will notice when he tries to sit down, and he will protect his world. He is a strong man and it is his right.”

So there we have it, I am a sofa, but at least I’m the favourite one. Am intrigued to see who this man from my past is and why he would want another man’s old sofa…..

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2011

I’m in the money

Well, not really, but for the first time since I started this blog in November 2006 someone has paid to advertise on it. And I still have to set up the PayPal account to actually get the money, but I feel this is a bit of a  breakthrough.

Rupes will be most impressed. he has been complaining that the books and the blog are a “luxury”, because they don’t really make any money. The other day he showed me a brilliant cartoon from the New Yorker with a man telling his agent he wants to write a book.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” says the agent. “If you really want $800 that badly, I’ll just give it to you.”

I think though that for books (and the blog) money is not really the point. I am already thinking about the next novel, in fact I have started it, and I am thinking about characters, plot-lines, themes, names and so on. The one thing I am not thinking about is money. Or lack of it.

I have also been given a bit of a helping hand with the new novel as my first love showed up in Abu Dhabi this week. Regular blog readers will know him as Heathcliff. I first met him when I was a teenager and was madly in love with him (unrequited, nach) for too many years. Obviously this theme has been done before, look at the hugely successful novel One Day, for example or Turgenev’s novella First Love. But as my father says: “There is nothing original since God said ‘let there be light'”. So watch this space.

Am looking for a good title if anyone has any ideas, just don’t expect to be paid….

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2011

Heathcliff comes to Abu Dhabi

So this ex-boyfriend thing has now reached ridiculous heights….not that Heathcliff (as you may remember him from blogs of years ago) was ever my boyfriend. No, he was the first love of my life. I was all of 17 when I met him at Pucci’s Pizzas in Chelsea and I fell in love in the way that only really stupid 16-year-olds can. Naturally he didn’t feel the same way about me, which is lucky, because what is the point of anguished teenage love if it is not anguished? Apparently I was too skinny I heard from a mutual friend years later. Which just goes to disprove the theory that a woman can’t be too thin or a man too rich.

Now he is a famous chocolate-maker, and he is coming to Abu Dhabi to launch his own brand of chocolate. You might even have heard of him, he is called Willie Harcourt-Cooze. He has been on TV and has written books all about chocolate.

Today I am interviewing him for the magazine, on the phone, so the article can come out when he is here at the end of the month. “It seems surreal you interviewing me,” he said in an email yesterday.

Not as surreal as Heathcliff pitching up in Abu Dhabi carrying bars of chocolate….

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2010