13 February 2018

Tuesday Talk with Helen Hollick: What pirates needed was a...

... Book of Boat Names!

We've all heard of the more notorious pirates: Blackbeard, Charles Vane, Callico Jack Rackham - along with his female sidekicks, Anne Bonney and Mary Read. Then there's Henry Avery, Black Sam Bellamy, Stede Bonnet... (Jesamiah Acorne!)  and a good few more.

But what about their essential requirement to be a pirate?
not a plank...
not a treasure chest of gold...
not a bottle of rum...
not a cutlass...
not a parrot...

A ship. 

Every pirate had to have a ship (otherwise he would be a mere thief or a highwayman, although for the latter he would need a horse.)

Pirates usually stole the ships they needed, although the technical term is 'commandeer'. Stede Bonnet is the exception along with William Kidd, both of whom legally obtained their first ships.

A ship was more than just a wooden hulk to sail about in. To the men aboard it (she!) was home, the community where they lived and worked all with the same purpose: to survive whatever the sea and the weather threw at you. Or in the case of pirates, to get rich quick with as little effort as possible. The best ships to acquire were sloops, schooners and brigantines, although in the pre-1700s galleys were also favoured because they had oars as well as sails.

So what is the difference between a ship and a boat? Simple. A boat has one or two masts, a ship has more than two, but this only applied to sailing vessels pre-mid-1800s, for modern ships/boats it gets more complicated: ‘the difference is about the way  a vessel heels (tips to the side) when going around a corner. A vessel is turning to port, and you are standing on deck facing the bow. If it heels outward during the turn (i.e. leans so your right foot is lower than your left) it's a ship. If the opposite is true, it's a boat.’ Or at least, that is what my engineer nephew tells me, but I think the 'two or more masts' rule is easier to work out and remember (sorry Tom!)

 Most pirates preferred smaller boats because they were easy to handle – not so many sails and less men required, which in turn meant more profit per person. The disadvantage being that it was more difficult to attack larger vessels, there were less men available in a fight and not so many guns could be used (it took more than one man to load and fire, then reload a cannon.)

More often than not a Prize did not suit the pirates who had captured her. They would head for the nearest careening place, or a safe harbour like Nassau, and customise her by removing unwanted decks, particularly the raised quarter or poop decks, shortening masts and removing bulkheads (inner timber walls/partitions) and cabins. Extra gunports and gun mounts would be added, then Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt … you have a fully-functioning pirate ship.

She is made of wood, well-seasoned oak being preferred by the English: note that the English oak tree is different to the American, ours is the familiar broad-trunked, wide canopied monarch of the forest, the American oak is taller and narrower. Then there are the tall masts stretching upwards and another pointing forwards. She has decks, and a hull, and a keel. A pointy bit at the front, a blunt end at the back. There are acres of canvas sail and a lot – a lot – of rope for the rigging. She is powered by the wind, or by oars as well, and the tall ships we are familiar with, such as the Cutty Sark and HMS Victory that are seen in dry dock as visitor attractions are steered by a steering wheel – the helm.

So why is a ship called a ‘she’? The legend goes that She is capricious, likes to do as She pleases and often has ideas of her own. She has a waist and stays, and it needs a lot of paint to keep her looking good. There is always a gang of men around her and it takes experience to handle her whims. She proudly shows her topsides, demurely hides her bottom, and when entering harbour She heads straight for the buoys. Very 'sexist' but now you know.

Nearly all the larger pirate vessels had a main deck with below it the living space and the cargo hold – the larger the vessel the more decks it would have. Space, particularly height, was limited with sturdy beams supporting the overhead deck, often with less than five feet of headspace. Light was provided through gratings and hatchways which were battened down in stormy weather and covered by tarpaulins or oiled sailcloth. For the Great Cabin at the rear (the captain’s quarters) there would be windows across the stern and sometimes at the sides for small quarter cabins, which would house a bed on one side and a latrine, which was nothing more than a hole leading to the outside, with a wooden surround, in the other. For the men the latrine, the Head, would be up towards the bow, and again, mere holes cut in a plank suspended over the sea. More often than not they would simply  urinate over the side – which side depended on which way the wind was blowing. The crew, especially on merchant ships lived mostly towards the front of the vessel at the forecastle (pronounced fo’c’sle). Here they would eat, sleep and pass the day when not needed on deck. The captain and officers aboard a merchantman would have wooden box-beds slung on ropes at each corner from the overhead beams. The crew had hammocks which would be taken down during the day, or they slept on the open deck.

Some of the vessels had a galley, a kitchen, which would have a secure brick-built oven set on a flagstone floor. Gunpowder would be stored below deck away from here, and usually protected by a wetted canvas curtain instead of a door. 

Conditions below deck would be dark, cramped, damp at best, wet at worst, would smell of mildew and mould and be infested with rats, lice and fleas. In heat it would be sweltering, in cold weather, freezing. The hold was amidships, supplies, sails, cargo, or treasure if there was any, would be stored here, with beneath this deck the bilge, a space filled with ballast which could be stones, rocks, gravel or sometimes timber if this was part of the cargo. It was always damp and stank; the anchor cable was also stored here.

Related image
Below Deck HMS Victory
Cannons would be placed according to the size of the vessel, and fired round-shot, grapeshot, langrage and chain-shot. The size of a gun was measured by the size of the round shot, so a four-pounder ball to a twelve or eighteen pounder meant bigger and heavier guns. Swivel guns mounted on the rail were of about two-pounder range and could, as the name implies be swivelled around to take aim or reload.

During action, the decks would be cleared of everything movable, the bulkheads below deck, that is, the inner walls, were taken down, and the stern windows swung up to be secured on the ceiling above. The galley fire would be doused and the lower sails on a square-rigged vessel ‘clewed’ up, that is furled away, to give a clear view along the deck and as a precaution to avoid the spread of fire. Sand would be scattered around the guns to prevent the men slipping.

Lady Washington firing her guns
The masts – vertical poles, or for the bowsprit at the front, a horizontal pole – were not one, long solid piece of wood, but had several sections that fitted neatly together, the lower section supporting the topmast, which in turn supported the topgallant. In bad weather these top two sections could be taken down – struck. The sails hung from wooden poles called ‘yards’, which could be hoisted up and down or turned back and forth by means of hauling on ropes. To ‘know the ropes’ meant to know what all the various ropes and pulleys did, where they went to and came from. The yardarms were the end of the yards and each yard was known by where it was situated with the fore yardarm being the least popular as it was from here that men were hanged. The sails themselves, made from canvas by sailmakers, with the canvas coming from flax, were hung either in a fore-and-aft vertical line along the deck, or at right angles for a square-rigged vessel. Even on a square-rigged ship sails were not square but tapered or rectangular, and the bigger the ship, the larger the area of sail. HMS Victory, seen now in dry-dock at Portsmouth, had about four acres of sail in total, although smaller ships such as those used by pirates were more likely to be nearer one acre. 

Rigging consisted of running or standing, running being rope that passed through blocks and tackles for moving the yards around, and hauling and lifting, while the standing rigging of shrouds and stays were ropes of various widths and lengths that were in a permanent fixed position to support the masts and yards. There could be about forty miles of rope on board with over 1,000 pulleys.

The topmen were those who went aloft to the highest yards, were usually the young, agile men, were the elite of the crew and valued their position. Working aloft meant they were out of sight of the officers for one thing, and they were left alone to get on with their job. They often had their own mess groups, and thought very little of the waisters, the non-sailors such as marines, sea-based soldiers. Until standard uniforms were introduced, they preferred colourful clothes and jewellery and wore different hairstyles. To be a topman also required courage. To go aloft to manhandle the sails and work dangling from the yards in not just bad weather but storms and gales, often in the dark, required a touch of madness as well as bravery.

Dangers to ships were shallows, rocks, and storms which could snap a mast in two or be so severe that waves would swamp the below decks, despite all hatches being battened down. Lightning was an unpredictable danger, especially if it were to strike near to where the powder magazine was situated. The lightning rod, or conductor, was invented by Benjamin Franklin  in 1749, and proved to be most useful for ships with tall masts, except too many conductors were fitted incorrectly and caused more damage than necessary. 

As if all that was not enough, you had managed to cross the Atlantic in one piece, with only a little water and food left. Your masts are just about intact despite the lightning, your keel is scraped for getting too close to the shallows and rocks, the hull is covered in barnacles and the sails are worn and patched from the rage of the wind. You have survived all that – only to come face to face with a damn pirate!


Howell Davies 
Sloop Rover 32 cannon 
Sloop Adventure 10 cannon

Edward Teach –Blackbeard,
Frigate  Queen Anne’s Revenge 40 cannon

Charles Vane
Sloop Ranger 10 cannon
Brigantine Ranger unknown

Bartholomew Roberts 
Brigantine Good Fortune 32 cannon
Frigate         Royal Fortune 32 cannon
Brigantine Sea King 32 cannon

Samuel Bellamy
Sloop Mary Anne 8 cannon
Galley Whydah Gally 28 cannon

Stede Bonnet 
Sloop Revenge 10 cannon

Jack Rackham 
Sloop William 6 cannon


Galley, or Gally, both versions are correct. Built in London in 1715 and launched a year later she was captured by Sam Bellamy in February 1717 and wrecked on 26th April 1717 off Cape Cod, Massachusetts Bay Colony. She was a Galley of 300 tons, 110 ft in length, carrying twenty-eight guns, fully rigged with three masts, she had a possible speed of thirteen knots (15 mph), and could carry a complement of 150 souls, but went down with 145 men and one boy. Her wreck was discovered in 1984, buried beneath the sand between sixteen to thirty feet under water.


Frigate, launched 1710, England, 200 tons, 103 ft, complement, 125 souls. Captured by the French and renamed La Concorde de Nantes, then captured by Benjamin Hornigold on 28th November 1717, near the island of Martinique, but commanded by Edward Teach who renamed her Queen Anne’s Revenge. She ran aground in 1718 near Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina. Intersal Inc., a private research firm, discovered the wreck in 1996, located by director of operations, Mike Daniel in twenty-eight feet of water, one mile of Atlantic Beach, North Carolina. Thirty-one cannons of different origins have been identified, and more than 250,000 artefacts recovered which support that the wreck is that of Queen Anne's Revenge


Lady Washington Commencement Bay2.jpg

Not herself a pirate ship, but as HMS Interceptor she was commandeered by pirate Jack Sparrow in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. 
The original trade ship, Lady Washington, was a ninety ton brig, she left Boston Harbour in October 1787 and sailed around Cape Horn the first vessel carrying an American flag to do so. Named for Martha Washington, she was the first American vessel to reach Japan. She foundered in the Philippines in 1797. 
The replica was built in 1989, and designed by John Fitzhugh Millar of Newport House B & B, Williamsburg, Virginia. She has appeared in several films in addition to Pirates of the Caribbean as the brig Enterprise, a namesake of Starship Enterprise, in Star Trek Generations, in the IMAX film The Great American West and in the TV mini-series Blackbeard.


Again, not a pirate ship but, for me, a pirate connection as in her new guise as HMS Surprise, from the movie Master and Commander, I commandeered her as the template for Sea Witch. The movie is adapted from the novels HMS Surprise and The Far Side of the World by Patrick O’Brian, the screenplay co-written and directed by Peter Weir and starring Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey, with Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin and was  released by 20th Century Fox, Miramax Films and Universal Studios. For an almost authentic feel of what life was like aboard a ship in the eighteenth century watch this movie.

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Her specifications are: 500 tons, full rigged ship; overall length, 179 feet; length on deck, 135 feet. Height of main mast, 130 feet. 13,000 sq feet area of sail; draught, 13 feet, beam, 32 feet.
My original intention had been to model Sea Witch on the Whydah or Queen Anne’s Revenge, but the plan never gelled. Rose/Surprise fitted my imagination like a glove, except she was built several years after the period that the Sea Witch Voyages are set – 1715 to about 1725, but then my series is part fantasy and it is not meant to be taken seriously, so I bent the facts a little.

Moored in San Diego, California, Surprise is a beautiful ship, originally built as a replica of HMS Rose, an 18th century Royal Navy vessel that was, in part, responsible for the outbreak of the American War of Independence and cruised the American coast during the Revolutionary War.

The replica was originally built in Nova Scotia in 1970 by John Fitzhugh Millar, using construction drawings from 1757. The real Rose was built in Hull, England in 1757 and her duty was to be a scout ship for the British fleet and to patrol the coasts of any enemy country during the time of war. In 1768 she was sent to America to patrol the eastern coastline where high taxes were causing unrest – and in 1774, commanded by James Wallace, she sailed to Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island to put an end to the extensive smuggling.

On 4th May 1776 Rhode Island initiated the Declaration of Independence from Britain, two full months before the rest of the Colonies. It is often believed, especially here in the UK that the Boston Tea Party, where a cargo of tea was thrown overboard into Boston Harbour as a protest against the payment of taxes started the American War of Independence. In fact, it was the petitioning to Congress to form a Continental Navy in order to rid Narragansett Bay of the highly efficient Rose which fanned the flames of unrest among the Colonies.

But why my suggestion that pirates would have benefitted from a book of boat names?

Well, as you can see from the list of names above, many pirates called their ships by the same name - Revenge and Fancy being great favourites.

Maybe pirates didn't have much of an imagination...?

© Helen Hollick

article based on
Pirates Truth and Tales

6 February 2018

Tuesday Talk: The excitement of that new book!

On holding your first published book 
           by Christine Hancock

It has been delivered.
It was brought by a large van and arrived at my door in a cardboard box, five boxes, in fact. The copies of my debut novel; Bright Sword.

How do I feel?

It is like giving birth. I don't know whether to laugh or cry. I touch it carefully, stroke it's soft skin. I check it has the right number of pages and that everything is in the right place. How did I manage to produce this beautiful thing?

It all started a long time ago, five years almost to the day. On a cold day in January 2013, I joined a class at the local Adult Education Centre. I was a keen family historian with a flourishing blog. I wanted to write about the people I had discovered - non-fiction of course.
That Christmas I tried to write a short story about one of them, a pirate (doesn't everyone likes a pirate?) I found it difficult. I wondered why. I saw the class advertised: Writing Fiction. Why not give it a go? It would be a bit of fun. Little did I know it would change my life.

Each week we were set exercises, learning different aspects of writing, preferably  from our "Work in Progress". For several weeks I floundered. What was my WIP? I flirted with a Victorian painter, considered my pirate; did I know enough about ships? Then, gradually he revealed himself. Byrhtnoth, a tenth century Anglo-Saxon warrior, famous for a glorious death in battle. He was old, about my age, which nowadays is not old!

I wanted to find out more. What had turned him into this hero? I couldn't find much. He appears in history here and there. We know his father's name, but not his mother's. We know he married and her name. But where was a born and where did he live? Nothing. The perfect subject for a novel. Even the period was right - midway between King Alfred and 1066, no one else seemed to be writing about it. I had found my WIP.

Together we went back to the start. I mothered him when he was an orphaned child. I worried as he made friends, and enemies. We had our moments of crisis, when we nearly gave up. Now he is a man and I have fallen in love with him, and now our child has arrived, a publisher acting as midwife.

What will happen to our child? Will it be successful or will it fail, dying in poverty and disgrace?

I know it isn't perfect, all books have their faults, especially a first book. Everything is new. Are you doing things right or should you have tried something different?
I will try again. The next one will be better.

For the story hasn't ended. My hero thinks he has grown up, but he still has a long life before him. The book has become a series. I am writing book three and have plans for the fourth. After that, who knows?

But for now, I hold this, my first book. It is a wonderful feeling. Will I feel the same about the next? Perhaps not. For the first time is always special.

© Christine Hancock

"England in the tenth century is close to peace, but the king is still in need of warriors. At the age of seven, his mother dead, Byrhtnoth is sent to train with other boys, but suffers as he has no father's name. He is shown a sword, his father's sword, and he is told that it will be his when he proves himself a man. When the girl he loves is captured by the Vikings he is sent to rescue her. A king tragically dies and Byrhtnoth blames himself. Can he overcome his fears and discover the truth about his father? Will he live long enough to become a man and claim the sword?"

cover design www.avalongraphics.org 

Buy the book

Find out more about Christine

Twitter:    @YoungByrhtnoth

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30 January 2018

Tuesday Talk with Helen Hollick : My King Arthur's women and children

I was highly honoured to learn that a wonderful lady is writing her university thesis based around my Pendragon's Banner Trilogy. Honoured, flattered, and I must admit, awed - in my opinion, she has taken on a mammoth task. But she loves the books (again I am highly flattered) so is, I think, enjoying herself.

© original drawing Amani G.
Several months ago I went up to London to meet her (over a wonderful lunch) and I don't think we stopped talking. My only problem was that as I wrote the trilogy over twenty-five years ago (I was accepted for publication by William Heinemann UK in April 1993 - a week after my 40th birthday,) so not having read it through for quite a few years, I could not remember all of it. I am tempted to read it again - but I know I'll then want to fiddle, and after all these years in print, fiddling is probably not a good idea. 

However, I did tell my new friend all I could, and promised to answer, to the best of my ability, any further questions that cropped up.

About the Trilogy:

#1 The Kingmaking  #2 Pendragon's Banner  #3 Shadow Of The King.

The 'tagline' is: 

The Boy - who became the Man
Who became the King
Who became the Legend

My Arthur is set firmly in the mid fifth century Post Roman era. The Legions have left and Britain is in chaos, a free-for-all. May the best, and strongest, survive. 

My Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) is a fiesty red-head Celtic born and bred. There is to be no 'love-triangle' for her. She admires Arthur, comes to love him (and has the occasional volatile fight with him!) but she is way too sensible to throw away her pride, her position, her status and everything in between on a Lancelot type character.

I must add here: I have no patience or liking for the later Medieval knights in armour / holy grail stories of Arthur. Can't stand them. Also, confession, Zimmer Bradley's novel annoyed me. Her Guinevere was so irritating. Many readers loved the book, although alas, the author has now also fallen from favour.  The one nod I will give to the book - it annoyed me so much it made me determined to write my own.

The early tales, though, of a war lord who has to fight to gain his kingdom, and queen, and fight even harder to keep them - ah that is a different matter entirely!

Much of my version is based on the research and ideas of Geoffrey Ashe, for no other reason than I liked his suggestions. (Let's face one fact here - Arthur is NOT FACT. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to prove that he did, actually, exist. Very probably he is a composite of several - even many - people). We are talking fiction here - and we all have our own ideas and beliefs and squabble like mad with anyone who dares disagree with us. 

Anyway: my Arthur is flawed. He is a pagan, not the Christian 'good king' of latter tales (told I am certain to encourage men to go on Crusade). My Arthur has affairs, is not always kind,  is occasionally violent. He is a warlord - such men were not the goody-two-shoes type. Sorry to disappoint!) You will not find Lancelot, the Holy Grail, turreted castles, white Samite or ladies wielding dangerous swords in lakes, between the covers of my novels. Nor will you find Merlin. Again, so sorry to disappoint, but he didn't exist either.

However, there's plenty to make up for all these missing figures!

Morgause is the lover of Uthr, Arthur's father - and through jealousy, she loathes Arthur. Figures of 'fact' are included - King Vortigern, (although this may be a title - something like 'High King', not a personal name),  his son Vortimer, Ambrosious, Gildas, the first Gwynedd and North Welsh princes... as Geoffrey Ashe suggested, Arthur initially marries Vortigern's daughter Winifred by his Saxon wife, Rowena, daughter of Hengest. The marriage is a disaster. Their son is Cerdic... the founder of the West Saxon kingdom.

Winifred is a spiteful bitch (I thoroughly enjoyed writing her and Morgause - they are so deliciously horrible!) 

You will also meet Cei and Bedwyr, and some more familiar - pre-Medieval tales names.

So, back to my friend and her thesis: One  recent email question was:

"The more I think I've 'finished' your trilogy, the more I feel I'm only skimming the surface and that there is much more to see. I've come across sources that place Morgaine/Morgause's first appearance in literature in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini (1150) and Historia Regum Britannia (1136) respectively rather than in the earlier Welsh legends. The Arthur/Morgaine incest story doesn't appear until Mort Artu (early 13th century).  Can you point me in the right direction and correct me if I'm wrong.

 "Another question is regarding the children in the novels. The amount of detail you've included recreating their childhoods is both unique and amazing. However, a number of them have very unhappy childhoods (almost all children except Gwenhwyfar and her children, as far as I can tell):  Arthur and Morgaine were abused by Morgause; Winnifred was unloved by her family; Cerdic is over-indulged, but not loved, and in turn, is eventually hated by his son; and Cadwy is scorned by Ambrosius.  I was wondering about the social context of the stories - was there anything that would have affected the way you wrote the children's stories?

"Your characters are fascinating and so real, I feel that I want to know everything about them and how they came about.  Honestly, it takes an incredible talent to create 'people' rather than fictional characters."

(Blush - but isn't that last sentence a nice thing to say?)

My answer went something like this: (Warning, may contain spoilers)

Yes you are quite right about the Morgause/Morgaine/Lady of the Lake character appearing later than I set my trilogy, [5th/6th Century] but Mordred/Medraut is there in the older legends and his back-story fitted with a Morgaine character. I also wanted him to be on Arthur’s side at the end, so had to develop him towards that aim. I also wanted to use Glastonbury Tor in its pre-Christian setting – but without the magical side, so again Morgaine fitted... and Morgause was such a delightfully horrible character to write, she had to stay in! I also felt their underlying characters fitted well into the pre-Medieval tales... so I used them as mother and daughter, but in my own imaginative way.

The children. Hmmm you make an interesting point, one I hadn’t consciously thought about. Gwenhwyfar’s three boys - Llachue, Gwydre and Amr, were very much loved by Arthur and Gwenhwyfar, but they had to die because they never appeared as adults in any of the early stories or Welsh legends. They were mentioned though: a son who died in battle, one killed by his father (Arthur the soldier) and one killed by a boar. As an author of fiction these brief  'facts'  needed to be interpreted and incorporated into my version of the story of Arthur. While writing the scenes of the deaths of these three  children, I sobbed for hours. Especially one scene which I imagined while on holiday camping near the River Wye when my own daughter was only about four or five years old.

I needed a reason for Medraut/Mordred, as an adult, to go to join Arthur, and I wanted to be completely different to the usual, familiar, tales. Morgaine, his mother,  did love the boy, but poor girl, because of the abuse by her horrid mother when she was a child, she was quite mentally unstable by the time we get to her and Arthur being in Avalon in ‘France’. Had Medraut survived Camlaan I think he would have been a good chap. I liked him. Morgaine was devoted to Arthur because he was the first person in her entire life to be kind to her. She never forgot his smile, and never stopped loving him. Of course, she - nor Arthur - had any idea that they were half-brother and sister until it was too late.

For Cadwy, son of Ambrosius Aurelianus, I needed a reason for him to turn from Ambrosius to Arthur, plus their relationship was an ideal ‘plot mechanism’ to get across the difference between Ambrosius v Arthur’s ideals, the former, a staunch Roman, certain that Rome would return to Britain, the latter as certain Rome was finished and treaties had to be made with the incomer Anglo-Saxons. Opposing views, which caused great conflict.

Ditto Cerdic – I had to make his preference for supporting the Saxons believable. What triggered his character for me was that his name is British, yet he led what was to become the West Saxons. Who was he? A son of Arthur was an obvious conclusion.

And to any social reasoning? No nothing really. I originally started writing the books in the mid 1970s, so I would have been in my early 20s. I started writing the trilogy properly (i.e with a determination to write a novel and get it finished) in 1985 when my daughter was three and had started playgroup. A 'now or never' situation.

So why create these unhappy children? I do not think I wrote this consciously (apart from Morgaine).  I was a lonely child, very shy and very lacking in self-confidence, had very few friends, and preferred the company of imaginative friends from the pages of books. I think my extreme short sight was the reason behind all this. When you cannot see you make enormous blunders, which means people laugh at you. Better to stay quiet and unnoticed in the background, nose stuck firm in a book where the people within do not mock you. 

Perhaps it is interesting that my pirate character, Jesamiah Acorne from my Sea Witch Voyages series also had a dreadful childhood - but just as with Arthur, as an adult he is self-confident, competent and well, a Hero. 

I will admit to making my characters confident and self-assured because I am not!

Die Krönung Pendragons: Pendragon-Trilogie: Band 1 (Pendragons Banner-Trilogie) or The Kingmaking in German, published by SadWolf Verlag ... click here for Amazon Germany - or for my page on an Amazon near you click here 

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What are your views about Arthur's women? Do leave a comment below! 

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