Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday 23 February 2009

There's something we need to talk about



ME: So, how’re you doing?

YOU: Me? Fine. Y’know, some good days, some not so good. It all pans out to a kinda grey fine . . . and you?

ME: Well, since you asked, not so fine actually. Come . . . let’s go for a walk.

YOU: Where?

ME: Nowhere in particular. Let’s just see where we end up.

YOU: Look, I don’t really have time. I just came here to have a quick look at your blog and . . .

ME: This is not your first visit I take it.

YOU: Since you asked, no.

ME: Then you knew when you came here there was not going to be anything quick about any of this. I have been known to go on a bit.

YOU: A bit. Well a lot actually.

ME: So, if we kept this down to say . . . 1500 words, how would that be?

YOU: Good. Fine. Fine. By 1500 you mean 2000 don't you?

ME: Probably. And we’ll see how far we’ve got by then and maybe we’ll feel like going on a bit or maybe that’ll be enough. Enough is one of those things that I personally find very hard to quantify. I mean is one HobNob really enough with ones coffee? [Pause] Well?

YOU: Oh, I thought you were being rhetorical? Er . . . no, now I come to think about it, I think one HobNob is perhaps a bit on the stingy side.

ME: Me too. Just hang on a sec . . . I think I’ll go and get three.

YOU: Three?

ME: Yes. Too much?

YOU: I'm not your keeper.

ME: You're very . . . diplomatic. I’d get you some but, well, you’re not here.

YOU: I beg your pardon.

ME: Well, not in any physical sense but, please, feel free to stock up with as many cookies as you feel necessary to get you to the end of the blog.

YOU: Fine. I will then.

[The sound of rifling in the cookie jars]

ME: Is that us?

YOU: Yes.

ME: So, how many did you settle on?

YOU: Two.

ME: Me too. How sad are we? [Pause] Anyway, now that we’re all stocked up shall we proceed?

YOU: Indeed.

ME: And don’t start looking back to see how far we’ve been. We’ve only used up about 400 words so far. So we have plenty of time. Now, there’s something I wanted to talk to you about.

YOU: I figured as much.

ME: No, it’s not you before you start thinking things. Everything between thee and me is just fine and dandy.

YOU: Glad to hear that.

ME: Mind you, you could visit more often.

YOU: I come as often as I can.

ME: I’m sure you do. But how would I know?

YOU: Excuse me?

ME: Well, you don’t comment very often.

YOU: I make a comment when I can . . . when I can think of something to say. I mean if you don’t get in quick then there’s a dozen clever and witty remarks already sitting there and what the hell am I going to add?

ME: You could just say: “Great post.”

YOU: And what would you think of me if that’s all I wrote? You’d just jump to all the wrong conclusions.

ME: True. Anyway I didn’t start all of this just to have a go at you.

YOU: You could have fooled me.

ME: Look, a conversation has a life of its own. It doesn’t always head off the way you think it might. Especially one like this. So just hold your horses while I try and get back on track. Have a cookie.

YOU: I’ve already eaten mine.

ME: Me too. Two wasn’t enough, was it?

YOU: Not really.

ME: Anyway, I’ve been meaning to talk to you for a while.

YOU: You said that already and then we got sidetracked. So what is it?

ME: It's a bit delicate.

YOU: You’ve not become incontinent have you?

ME: If I had I don’t think I’d care to share that kind of information. I’d just avoid chats.

YOU: You never chat anyway.

ME: One cannot be too prepared for something.

YOU: So, you’re not peeing yourself as we speak?

ME: Go and wash out your imagination this very minute.

YOU: Sorry.

ME: Aye, and you mean it. And, no, for the record, by bladder has its full faculties . . . or what ever bladders have,

YOU: Do you still pee standing up?

ME: What?

YOU: I mean, you are getting to a certain age.

ME: Cheeky bugger. My doctor told me I was at ‘a certain age’ when I was thirty-two. I remember it well. One of those defining moments in a man’s life. I mean every age has its ‘certain age’. If I was six and went to see him with mumps or chickenpox would he not say to me: “Well, Master Murdoch, you have reached ‘a certain age’ now”? But that’s not what he meant. He meant that certain age. I mean thirty-two is not the right age to be that age.

YOU: I wouldn’t have thought so. Are you that age now?

ME: [Pause. Sniff.] I would have to admit I probably am and I probably have been for a wee while but I was not ‘a certain age’ at thirty-two, that’s all I’m saying.

YOU: So what does your doctor say these days?

ME: [Sigh.] He says . . . he says . . . that . . . I should concern myself more with managing my condition than looking for a cure.

YOU: So you’re not to expect to get better any time soon?

ME: That’s about the size of it.

YOU: And how do you feel about that?

ME: How would you feel about that?

YOU: I’m not you.

ME: No you’re not. You’re out there getting on with things as if there’s no tomorrow.

YOU: I have my problems

ME: Everybody has their problems.

YOU: So, you’re not getting better? That’s what you’re saying.

ME: I thought I just did.

YOU: So what's wrong if you don't mind me asking?

ME: I have no idea.

YOU: Well, what’s he putting on your sick lines?

ME: N.D.

YOU: And what does that stand for? Nearly Dead?

ME: Christ knows.

YOU: Maybe he does but he’s not here.

ME: I thought it was Neurological Disorder but actually it's Nervous Debility.

YOU: And what’s that when it’s at home?

ME: It’s one of those safe, vague, cover-all terms they tend to opt for these days. If they said I had x-itis then I might sue them for wrong diagnosis if somewhere along the line it’s discovered I’ve really had y-itis all along. What it boils down to is a cocktail of anxiety and depression and a dash of other stuff. Generalised Anxiety Disorder was mentioned and then my first doctor packed me off to a shrink for Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.

YOU: So you've got a cog loose. Gadzooks!

ME: It's not Gad, it's G-A-D and could you wipe that smirk off you face?

YOU: [Still smirking] Sorry.

ME: I mean Gad – what kind of disease is that? I mean if I'm going to have an abbreviation why couldn't it be one with a pedigree, something with a bit of kudos or character? I mean I can't go around telling people I have ND or GAD – it's just not … cool. Besides he's not said I've got GAD.

YOU: Good Gad!

ME: Stop it! He's just not said I've not not got it.

YOU: So, what’s the bottom line?

ME: Pills. Pills, pills, pills and more pills. I’ll tell you, a kid could use me as a rattle.

YOU: And will these pills make you better?

ME: Not as such. The doctor says they will just suppress the symptoms.

YOU: And that’s a good thing.

ME: It would be if the damn side effects weren’t almost as bad as the condition. So I went back.

YOU: And what did he suggest?

ME: By this time it was a she. A nice Irish doctor. She said: [Assumes fake Irish accent] “Wull, James, do you not think we might be trying you on something else then?”

YOU: She didn’t talk like that.

ME: Okay, she didn’t talk like that but that’s the only Irish accent I can do. Will you let me tell my tale of woe?

YOU: Tell, do tell.

ME: Anywise, she’d been all for putting me on antidepressants from day one but my wife had found mention of a new treatment for anxiety which would also address the peripheral neuropathy issues I had, so I persuaded the doctor to let me try that. I mean, what had I to lose? I knew exactly what effect the antidepressants would have on me.

YOU: And the pills didn’t work.

ME: Which pills? The new pills or the old pills?

YOU: The new pills, the miracle drug, the one your wife found.

ME: Maybe they were the old pills. I get so confused. Oh, they worked. Only I couldn’t sleep. I napped. The dosage got increased and eventually I settled into a routine. There were other side effects, but I started feeling better. I weaned myself off them a while ago just to see if I'd been cured. I’d been on them for . . . what, eight, nine months? I was hoping that even if the pills hadn’t cured me then at least the rest would have done me some good.

YOU: And?

ME: And all the old symptoms came back with a vengeance.

YOU: So, you starting taking them again?

ME: No, the doctor talked me into taking an SSRI in the morning and a second kind of antidepressant at night to help me sleep. So this would be me on not one but two kinds of antidepressants. And like the mug that I am I said: “Okay.” But it wasn’t okay. Well, it was. I slept. It’s all I did. It’s all I wanted to do. I lost interest in everything. Quite depressed I got with it all. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t write. I didn’t want to listen to music. I couldn’t even be bothered playing with the bird. Duty kept the fish fed.

YOU: When was that?

ME: November.

YOU: Well, no one would have known. I mean you kept your blog up every week.

ME: No I didn’t. I started to use my stockpile. It was taking me over a week to write anything with the odd hour of mental clarity that came my way.

YOU: Sounds crap.

ME: It was crap. But I’m not looking for your pity or sympathy or anything like that. So get that look off your face right now. I wasn’t going to tell you at all.

YOU: Well, I’m glad you did. What changed your mind?

ME: I got a new doctor in . . . whatever last month was . . . or it might have been the start of this month – another bloke – and I had a good long chat with him, gave him my whole history right back to the first bout of depression I had when I was twenty-four. And I’ll give the fellow fair dues, he sat and listened to my whole spiel because I think he realised that it was rehearsed and if he interrupted me to ask a question I’d lose my place.

YOU: He sounds all right.

ME: And he may well prove to be so. Anyway, He’s put me back on my old pills because we know I can function up to a point on them but they take a while to build up in your system. So my body doesn’t know if it’s coming or going.

YOU: Or been and gone.

ME: Exactly. Which brings me to what I wanted to talk to you about. I’ve almost used up all the blogs I had lying around and I’m pretty much posting them as I write them now.

YOU: At lot of people do that. I bet most people do.

ME: Well, I’m not most people. And I don’t write that kind of blog. I’m not really into opening my gob just so people can hear the sound of my belly rumbling. If I don’t have anything to say then I prefer to keep quiet.

YOU: So, you’re telling me you’re going to quit the blog. This is what this is all about? Well, I’m never going for a walk with you again. What’s this then, your farewell post?

ME: No and no and I don’t know. That’s the honest truth. No, this is not my last blog; no, I have no intention of giving up blogging and I don’t know what is going to happen. None of us do. I expect to start feeling more like . . . I was going to say ‘my usual self’ but to be frank with you I’m not really sure what that usual self is anymore. I think he’s moved on and I need to find myself again. I never in a million years expected to be sitting here trying to find myself at the age of fifty.

YOU: You’re only forty-nine.

ME: Well, my dad always rounded up and if it was good enough for him then it’s good enough for me. I’m in my fiftieth year for God’s sake. The thing is I’m not going to bounce back this time like I did the last three times. And that’s a fact.

YOU: Which pisses you off.

ME: Which royally pisses me off.

YOU: But you can obviously still write. You’re writing all this. And quite witty some of it is too.

ME: That I am . . . at three in the morning. And when I do go back to bed I’ll probably wind up sleeping till ten and I won’t be fit to talk to till lunchtime by which time I’ll be looking forward to my post-lunch nap.

YOU: At least you’ll be well rested.

ME: If only that was the case. I just don’t think I’m getting the right kind of sleep yet.

YOU: And how many kinds of sleep are there? You shut your eyes and go to sleep.

ME: Yeah, I used to think it worked like that too. Anyway, that’s up to date with as many of the facts as you need to know and we’ve already passed 2000 words.

YOU: Already? Christ, doesn’t time fly.

ME: So, you’d better be off then.

YOU: I should. I should. Lots of other sites to visit . . . blogs to read.

ME: I’m sure. You’ll not forget me now?

YOU: You’re not easy to forget.

ME: I’ll give you that. And you'll keep checking in to see if I'm still here? I'm aiming for one a week for the next wee while.

YOU: I'll keep checking in.

ME: Promise?

YOU: Promise.

ME: Right, bugger off before you get all huggy on me. There’re another couple of HobNobs in the kitchen with my name on them and if Carrie nips my head when she proofreads this I’ll just tell her I was just trying to think of a clever way to end the post. Probably by then I won't remember anyway.

Monday 16 February 2009

Are you an imposter?


Goldfish_with_shark_fin The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.

Bertrand  Russell


I am an imposter. At least I feel like I am. I feel like I'm pretending; that I've not earned the right. I don't always feel this way but I do some of the time. The veneer is very thin and all it takes is one sharp remark to tear it and then the truth will be out. At least that's how I feel. If I keep writing, if I keep firing out words between you and me, then I feel safer. The words are a distraction. So I write as many as I can. If I can keep them coming then you won't find me out, although I know it is only a matter of time. Of that I'm sure. And then everyone will know I'm not a real writer. The words should be enough. That's all real writers have to work with, that and some genuine talent. I feel that I have to keep writing because as soon as I go silent then there will be room for someone to do one of those fake attention-getting coughs and I’ll know I've been found out.

Do you ever feel like that? I do. As soon as I'm not writing then I feel that I'm no longer a writer. And the more time that passes the more I'm convinced that I'm a fake. You could take me through to my office and pile up the folders on my desk with all the hundreds of thousands of words that I've written and I'd still find some way to shrug it all off as if it was some other me that did all that. I know it’s not true, but, as I've said to my doctor several times, it is possible to have an irrational fear, know it's irrational and be able to talk rationally about it but still be unable to face that fear.

When does one become a real writer? I don't have an MA in Creative Writing. There's no bit of paper in a teak-effect frame in my office saying that I am. I don't have letters after my name. What proof am I looking for?

There's an expression for this: imposter syndrome. It's more common amongst women so I've read but I assure you men are not exempt and I suspect this has nothing to do with genes of chromosomes or any of the biological differences between the sexes. More likely it has to do with how women have been treated over the years but let's not get distracted here. We can talk about feminism some other time.

Dr. Valerie Young was sitting in class one day in the fourth year of a doctoral programme which, as you can see from her title, she must have got through. Another student rose to present the findings of a study conducted by psychology professor Pauline Clance and psychologist Suzanne Imes called The Impostor Phenomenon Among High Achieving Women. I'll let her continue:

In a nutshell, Clance and Imes found that many of their female clients seemed unable to internalize their accomplishments. External proof of intelligence and ability in the form of academic excellence, degrees, recognition, promotions and the like was routinely dismissed. Instead, success was attributed to contacts, luck, timing, perseverance, personality or otherwise having "fooled" others into thinking they were smarter and more capable than these women "knew" themselves to be. 

Rather than offering assurance, each new achievement and subsequent challenge only served to intensify the ever-present fear of being...

"Oh my God," I thought, "I've been unmasked!" 

Clearly flustered, I quickly scanned the room checking to see if anyone had caught me nodding in dismayed recognition. No one had. They were too busy bobbing their own heads in like-minded unison. 

The bottom line is that the good doctor has now spent twenty-five years working with women who feel like imposters, fakes or frauds. She maintains a site called Overcoming Imposter Syndrome, runs courses and – of course – has written a book about all this. I've not read her book nor attended any of her courses so I'm not recommending her as such but the simple fact is that she clearly has a market for her product.

Examples, one famous and three not so much:

Jodie Foster said in a tv interview.. that before her Oscar-winning performance in The Accused she felt "like an impostor, faking it, that someday they'd find out I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't. I still don't." - Gifted Women: Identity and Expression

Social anxiety and personal insecurities are at an all-time high. The situation is probably a bit better than the way it feels (it just has to be)... My stomach is constantly churning--when will my new co-workers figure out how much I actually don't know? I just know they'll find me out for the impostor that I am. – Land of Yajeev

Why is this so difficult? It's a confidence thing. Every time Kelly and I start a new book, I am scared shitless that this is the one that will reek. I'm terrified that we have run out of gas; that our ambivalence is showing and we will become one of those pathetic writers who phone it in. I'm worried that we don't have the energy to do it again. I'm thinking that this is the plot that is pallid, that this story is shapeless. I am certain that this is when it will all fall apart and everyone will see me for the fraud I am. – Cabbages and Kings

You know, I've been working where I am now for almost a year.  It's gone very well.  I've achieved a great deal since I've started, learned a great deal, and met some great people.  And almost every single day I go to work, sit at my desk, and wonder if they'll catch me.  If they'll finally realize I'm faking it. – Stultiloquent, The Observations of a Lifelong Introvert

There were two things that came together for me to write this post. The first was my wife reading an article about Imposter Syndrome and mentioning it to me. The second was a comment made by Marcy on a recent post, When is enough enough? In her comment she includes a quote from the post:

"I shy away from [regarding myself an expert on Beckett] because although I know a lot I couldn't stand up and take questions from the audience with any degree of confidence."

Actually, I would bet that you could to some degree. Based on my experience, I would guess that the only difference between you and those who do regard themselves "experts" is that you actually admit to not knowing things.

I've thought about what she said for a while. Would I be happier if I'd written a book on Beckett? Perhaps. I did write all those entries on Wikipedia, every Beckett play bar Endgame (don't get me started on Endgame) and I don't see anyone hacking them to pieces. I even included a couple of pieces of original thought which I know you're not supposed to but I did back them up. I should be quite pleased with myself and yet I shrug them off as if they were nothing but the simple fact is they took me six months to research and write; the entry for Waiting for Godot alone took me six weeks since I felt I needed to triple check everything. So, why am I dissatisfied with them? I think one of the main things is that I had to cut my cloth to fit. The Godot entry alone is just under 10,000 words although I see someone has added in a section on 'Interpretations from compassion' that makes a few unsubstantiated claims. Anyway, add all the entries together and you'll have a book. That's all I'm trying to say.

We are all our own harshest critics. I certainly am. I wasn’t always – when I was a teenager I was a genius and the world was blinded by my brilliance which is why they failed to recognise that. Yeah, right. In her article, The Inner Critic, author Sharon Good makes this comment:

* The first step in dealing with the inner critic is to recognize it as a separate entity from yourself.  

It is a voice within you, but it's not you. This voice has been your constant companion since childhood, and it's likely so much a part of you, like the air you breathe, that you hardly even notice it.  

Realize that these are the combined voices of all the authority figures you grew up with -- parents, teachers, religious leaders or just about any adult. When you were small, not heeding these voices could result in physical or emotional pain or humiliation.

I found this interesting. It states the obvious but so often the wisest words of wisdom do exactly that. I look at some of the things I've written that have affected people and I scratch my head because all I've done is exactly that: state the obvious.

Those lucky few of you who have a copy of my first novel, Living with the Truth will recognise these words:

For my father
despite the fact he never finished it

The dedication was always going to be 'For my father … something, something' although it was years before I realised what the 'something, something' was going to be.

My father lost his sight after he retired from work. Gradually it slipped away from him. By the time I'd finished my novel he could no longer read and so I offered to read it to him. He'd not heard any of my work since I was a teenager at which time my 'genius' escaped him I'm afraid.

I read the book to him over several sittings but we never got to the end of it. I don't know why we never finished it and I'm not simply saying that because I don't want to talk about it. I honestly don't remember why we stopped. He never said he liked it. He never said he hated it. I don't think he really got it.

We used to trudge up the stairs to his study. And he'd call out to my mum:

"We're just going upstairs to read our Jimmy's story."

"It's a novel, Dad."

"Aye, that's what I meant."

Of course he meant no insult by calling my novel a 'story' because it is a story but I would've been so much happier if he'd at least said 'book' but it wasn't a book, not then, just a manuscript, not a real book.

Now, let's not paint my dad in too dark a shade here. He was actually very supportive and he would often come into the front room when I was a teenager and get me to play him some of my tunes. Music made sense to him. All you had to do was like it or not like it. Words needed thinking about. He read but never fiction. My mother was the same.

My parents are both dead now. And yet still my inner critic lives on, impossible to please as always.

There's a bit of writing that had a great effect on me which I've mentioned before. It's by Camus, from his novel The Plague. In the book there's a character, Grand, a low-level clerk with a passion for writing who has been working on the same opening sentence for years, unwilling to move on until he is convinced his first sentence is perfect, something very romantic and imagistic involving a horse and a complicated narrative perspective.

Triumphantly he read out the sentence:

"One fine morning in May a slim young horsewoman might have been seen riding a glossy sorrel mare along the flower-strewn avenue of the Bois de Boulogne."

But, spoken aloud, the numerous "s" sounds had a disagreeable effect and Grand stumbled over them, lisping here and there. He sat down crestfallen; then he asked the doctor if he might go. Some hard thinking lay ahead of him.

horsewoman_in_the_bois_de_boulogne-400 A Morning Ride in the Bois de Boulogne

I used to be like that, putting in the proverbial comma and then taking it out again. You can drive yourself potty doing that. More and more I became dissatisfied with words; they were all inadequate, imprecise. This is how I began to realise I wasn't the genius I was so sure I was in my teens; I couldn't string a sentence together and get it right. I was an imposter, a pretender to the throne.

Nowadays I don't pretend so much. Or at least I'm more open about my pretences. I realise that anhedonic character I am prone to be is never going to be completely pleased with anything I ever do. So I use other people more often than not as benchmarks. If my wife is pleased with a poem, it gets a number and goes in the big red folder. And that's it.

It's easy to lose perspective and find yourself writing the same sentence over and over again until you get it right.

Without looking you can find you've lost perspective and find yourself writing the same sentence over and over again until you get it right.

Without thinking you can discover you've lost perspective and find yourself writing the same sentence over and over again until you get it right.

Without thinking you might suddenly realise you've lost perspective and find yourself writing the same sentence over and over again until you get it right.

One day you might suddenly find you've lost the plot and find yourself writing the same sentence over and over again until you get it right.

One day you might suddenly find you've lost the plot and discover you've been writing the same sentence over and over again and it's never going to be right.

One day you might suddenly find you've lost the plot and discover you've been working on the same sentence or poem or novel over and over again and it's never going to be right.

One day you might suddenly discover you've been tinkering with the same sentence or poem or novel for days or weeks or years and it's never going to be right.

One day it will dawn on you that you've been reworking the same sentence or poem or novel for days or weeks or years and it's never going to be right.

Some day it will dawn on you that you've been reworking the same thing for days or weeks or even years and it's never going to say exactly what you wanted to say.

One day it will dawn on you that you've been going over the same ground for years and it's never going to say exactly what you wanted to say.

And one day you've have forgotten what you wanted to say in the first place and you'll wonder if what you had to say really needed to be said at all.

I'm not famous or successful. I may never be either. Probably when I'm dead – that's the way it usually goes. Possibly. Who knows? But I don't think it's too early to put what talent I have in perspective. And I'm sure there will be a few out there reading this "bobbing their own heads in like-minded unison."

Thursday 12 February 2009



1841954896 The blurb at the back of Fup, a novella by Jim Dodge, says: "Fup is a contemporary fable that inspires an almost evangelical fervour in all those who read it." I've read it – it was one of my Xmas presents – and I'm still waiting for that "evangelical fervour" to hit me. I guess I've missed the boat. It's not that I didn't like the book because I did like the book – I liked it a lot and I'll tell you about it if you'll give me a minute – but I'm not a fervid individual at the best of times so maybe it's simply me. Let's say for the moment that it's simply me.

As regular readers of this blog will know I am fond of short novels, the shorter the better, so it surprises me that I've had this book in my hand (which weighs in at a mere 121 pages of not-small print) and not bought it, especially since one of the times it was in Fopp and I think all they were asking was three quid for the thing. This I cannot explain. I know that each time I looked at the cover, did not read any of the blurb, returned it from whence I had retrieved it and moved on. Most unlike me. So, it's a miracle that having received the book as a present I didn't stick it at the very bottom of my to-get-around-to-sometime-in-this-lifetime pile. I guess I reckoned if the universe kept shoving this book in my face then maybe it wanted me to read it, and I did.

There are three protagonists in the book: Granddaddy Jake Santee who is 99 years old, five times married, an unreformed gambler, a cranky reprobate and fierce opponent of the work ethic who, for some reason, is under the delusion that he is immortal; Tiny, who is anything but and who was adopted by his grandfather when he was four, is a quiet, unprepossessing (size excepted) man with more than a fondness for building fences, lots of fences. And there is Fup – "Fup Duck. Ya get it? Fup … Duck." – an overweight mallard with a fondness for Granddaddy Jake's homebrewed Ol' Death Whisper, food of all kinds and movies of a romantic nature, "whether light and witty or murderously tragic." The villain of the piece is a huge wild boar called Lockjaw.

These are simple folk who live on a ranch in the coastal hills of Northern California. Apart from the discovery of Fup as a duckling their lives have become uneventful. Both have had enough of events in the past. Granddaddy Jake's life has been the more colourful. At the age of sixteen (circa 1894) "he set out forty years behind everybody else for the gold rush in California." He is moderately successful and amasses sufficient to comfortably last him for the rest of his life, if he was judicious.

For the next two years he travelled California on horseback. He was not judicious. Three marriages – the longest lasting seven weeks – seriously dented his bankroll. Gambling covered his drinking but the drinking gave him crazy visions. Always one to follow the inner light, Jake invested lavish amounts in highly speculative ventures, learning the hard way that sometimes when you put your money where your mouth is, it's only to kiss it goodbye.

Tiny's life was really only marked by one event prior to his making the acquaintance of his grandfather and that was the death of his mother. His father, a pilot, had been killed in a freak accident when the wing of his X-77 jet fighter "tore off [his] plane at 800 miles an hour over the Mojave Desert" two month before he was born.

Fup's life was also only marked by a single event which immediately preceded his first encounter with Tiny. Tiny goes out one day "eager to finish digging the last 100 holes" when he finds that Lockjaw has been at them, the neat pile of earth beside each posthole "had been trampled, scattered, and generally ravaged." However he notices that one of the holes near the end has been the object of some "focused destruction." On investigation, "[n]ear the bottom, half buried and three-quarters drowned, he found a newly-hatched duckling, its feathers matted into a ball of muddy goo." He takes it home and with a judicious squirt of Ol' Death Whisper – administered with "the dropper off a bottle of Vick's nosedrops" – the bird is saved and shortly thereafter named.

It takes a delicate touch to cover a century's worth of living in 121 pages which Dodge does. It is a remarkably laid back little book in that it feels neither rushed nor so crammed full of details there's no room for the story. Granted there's not much of a story but then most fables don't have much of a story to them and their characters are usually a bit two-dimensional. And in some respects both Granddaddy Jake and Tiny are two-dimensional but they are drawn with such precision that the lack of depth seems not to matter; these are not deep people.

One of my favourite scenes in the book involves a minor character called Johnny Seven Moons, "an old Pomo that wandered the coastal hills without an apparent home or source of income." One day the man turns up "asking if he might do a chore or two in exchange for something to drink, preferably whiskey." At this point I should interject that Jake's whiskey was powerful stuff that probably had more in common with paint-stripper than whiskey. Here's how things progressed:

They sat on the porch and drank whiskey for two days and well into late evening of a third. Granddaddy Jake found him to be an excellent companion, for in that time Johnny Seven Moons didn't utter a word – just sat sipping from his jar, gazing at the day, the night, calmly and extremely still.

On the third evening he took a deep breath and turned to Jake: 'Let me tell you about my name, Seven Moons. I added the Johnny when the white man came because I thought it sounded young and sexy, but it didn't seem to do much good. I think it's bad now to just make up names, but I keep it to remind me that you must live with your mistakes. I earned my name Seven Moons when I trained as a doctor. I went away alone to find my name in a vision. I wandered and sought without food for three days, a week. Nothing happened. On the seventh day, as the sun touched the sea, I came across a group of maidens from another village out on a foraging trip for reeds and berries. […] I joined them and we feasted. And that night, as the full moon travelled the heavens, I made love with every one of them, and with each I felt the full moon burning in my body, a great pearly light exploding inside my head. Seven Maidens. Seven Moons.' He paused, smiling in the dusk. 'Your whiskey … four moons, maybe five.'

Okay, up till this point you may be wondering what there is in this book that might inspire "evangelical fervour" in anyone. Well, up till this point I've only talked about the first three-quarters of the book. It's in the final chapter (actually there are only four) that Lockjaw comes into his own. Before that we're aware of him, we know that he killed Boss (Tiny's dog) and that Tiny has been taking part in the regular Sunday morning pig hunt ever since. During these hunts he's now accompanied by his faithful pig-duck seeing that he no longer has his faithful pig-dog.

And I expect most of you are ahead of me now in realising that in the final chapter we have the climatic confrontation between Tiny and Lockjaw. It is the nature of that confrontation and the subsequent dénouement that will take you unawares as it certainly did me.

And I can't talk about it.

Remember The Sixth Sense, The Crying Game and the original Planet of the Apes? In each there was a major revelation that you really didn't want to know about before you saw the film and yet were desperate to share afterwards. Fup is like that. The first 106½ pages are fine and I unreservedly recommend them to you. And some people will even more highly recommend the following pages and with an "evangelical fervour" I have no doubt. I can say that I certainly read the remaining pages more than once and with much more care than I read the preceding pages and I was certainly motivated to go back to the start to see if there were any clues that I had missed.

The full title of Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist is The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream. It leaves you in no doubt. Fup, however, is only called, Fup, not Fup: A Fable. It's the reviewers that call it a fable. The Glasgow Herald called it a "very funny, profoundly silly, oddly profound Zen-punk, California-backwards moral fable;" the Independent on Sunday said it was a "witty and spirited modern allegory;" Scotland on Sunday opted for "a hilarious, scurrilous parable" whereas that once venerable institution The Times cut to the chase: "This novel is fupped uck."

I, of course, have my own idea about what the book is. As for whether it's a fable, a parable, an allegory, an apologue (my personal choice) or an overgrown anecdote I'm not too sure; there are arguments for and against all of 'em and so I won't burden you with a list of them.

The reason I veer towards the apologue is because a fable usually leaves you with its moral as a punch line whereas an apologue, according to Wikipedia, is "a pleasant vehicle for a moral doctrine or to convey a useful lesson without stating it explicitly." In place of a moral this is what we get from Granddaddy Jake:

It just ain't possible to explain some things, maybe even most things. It's interesting to wonder on them and do some speculation, but the main thing is you have to accept it – take it for what it is, and get on with your getting.

An interviewer read that last quote to Dodge and asked him: [D]oes wisdom spring up like weeds through the paving stones of your narrative? To which he replied:

I would never claim wisdom for my work, conscious or otherwise, partly because I'm not sure I'd recognize wisdom if it latched on my ass. Wisdom, it seems to me, entails not only knowing what and why, but, just as important, when and how to move understanding into action. I assure you I'm as confounded as most people I know, and if you find wisdom in my work, you do so at your own risk. – Bookmunch

I'm sure the book’s lack of explicitness is what will divide people. At the very least it will encourage friendly debate. I can't imagine anyone hating the book although there will probably be some and there will be others, indeed there are, who will develop an "almost evangelical fervour" for the thing. I wasn't one but you would do well to make up your own mind. As for me, I'm going to get on with my getting, that's what I'm going to do.


dodge3 Dodge was born in 1945 and grew up as an Air Force brat. As an adult he spent many years living on an almost self-sufficient commune in West Sonoma County, California. He has had many jobs including apple picker, a carpet layer, a teacher, a professional gambler, a shepherd, a woodcutter and an environmental restorer. He received his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing/Poetry from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop in 1969. He has been the director of the Creative Writing program in the English Department at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California since 1995. He has published three novels, Fup, Not Fade Away and Stone Junction and a collection of poetry and prose, Rain on the River. He now lives in the Klamath Mountains with his wife and son.

Monday 9 February 2009

It all boils down to brown sauce

HPSS12 We'll never see eye-to-eye until Glasgow chip shops start serving brown sauce!
Gogs, Edinburgh

I've spoken before about the relationship between Scotland's first and second cities, that would be Edinburgh and Glasgow for those outwith the UK; even though Glasgow is the larger of the two it's somehow still not the capital. I'm a Glaswegian but I can't say I have any deep-seated loathing for Edinburgers. I can't say I have a deep-seated loathing for anyone.

All said and done I have to say I'm not that fond of Edinburgh as a city. Too many painful memories but I'll get round to that in a minute. Even when I had a car it wasn't a place we'd think to take a drive to even though it's only about an hour away. I'm sure most of my American cousins will scratch their heads when I tell them that but the simple fact is we never did. The only time it feels like I ever went there was to attend some training course or other. I've never been to the Edinburgh Festival or the Fringe despite the fact I pick up the programme most years and study it carefully to see if there's anything of interest. But even when there is I still don’t go. We did get taken to the zoo a couple of times as kids. In fact I was in my twenties before I knew Glasgow even had its own.

And yet somehow through all that I've managed to investigate a huge amount of Edinburgh. Of course I was younger then when walking the length of my own shadow didn't exhaust me. Something about the place must have impressed me because when Carrie first came over I insisted on dragging her all over the city looking for wee independent knickknack shops that all had long since been turned into Subways and Costas. She didn't like the place and yet she took to Glasgow right away. The reason for this: the people in Glasgow were friendlier and the place felt less touristy. Dublin was a similar disappointment. There seemed to be hardly any ruddy Irish anywhere. In fact the first day I was there I walked into a Tesco’s to be served by a young Portuguese girl with a tenuous grasp of English. But that's a story for another day.

There is, as always, an element of truth in stereotypes: the typical Edinburgher is seen as posh, snotty, more refined, a bit aloof and Protestant Conservative; your average Glaswegian is more rough and ready, chattier, down to earth and a Catholic Labour supporter. But these are caricatures. I tried to find out the origins of the antipathy that exists but it feels like it's always been there. In 1700 Glasgow was the place to live and it was Edinburgh that had slums all along the Royal Mile but by the mid-1800s things had turned around completely; due to influx of Catholic Irish workers fleeing the Great Famine the population grew unexpectedly and Glasgow's slumland spread eastward from the Gorbals towards Bridgeton. Nowadays Glasgow has pulled down many of its slums and is engaged in serious regeneration. 1180612308171

The simple fact is that after generations no one has a clue how it all started. Kids are brought up with a chip on their shoulder, in some cases a whole fish supper, and they squabble about how that should be served. The first time I ordered fish and chips in Edinburgh (which is what a fish supper is) I was asked if I wanted "salt and sauce". I never thought about it (I may well have been inebriated at the time) and said, "Yes, please." It wasn't till I was outside in the dark and tucking in that I realised that my chips tasted funny. They'd slathered them in brown sauce which I am not fond of to start with. Now, in Glasgow, they offer you the traditional "salt and vinegar"; sauce (brown and tomato) is available upon request in sachets for those so inclined.

The fact is that this is one pissing contest that I expect to last a long time yet.

As I mentioned in my review of Laidlaw recently, Glasgow is known these days as 'the friendly city' so I was quite struck when I read a newspaper article which said that Edinburgh was officially the loneliest place in the UK because I've always found it a very lonely place to be. I had always assumed it was just little ol' antisocial me to be honest because I was every bit as lonely when I was in Aberdeen. But there you go; it's in the papers so it must be true.

A couple of days after I read by sheer coincidence I got an e-mail from a friendly resident of Edinburgh, Claire Askew, telling me about this collection and asking me if I'd like to submit something. I'm telling you, within ten minutes I had a poem written; I pottered with it for a couple of days but the guts of it never changed.

It's called 'Lonely City' and you can read it here.

So, what's this collection about? I'll let Claire explain:

this collection is a collaboration between Edinburgh writers and Edinburgh filmmakers, which aims to create a detailed picture of day-to-day life in the city, with all its foibles and issues, through the media of poetry and film.

Basically, we want to gather 100 poems by Edinburgh writers, each poem no more than 100 words long.  Once we’ve done this, we’ll pass them on to a carefully chosen group of young filmmakers who will get to work on creating 100 short films to accompany the poems.  We then intend to showcase the poems and the films together, both online and at events across the city throughout Spring and Summer 2009.

Okay, I know what you're saying: You're not an Edinburgh writer, Jim. And you'd be right there. The simple fact is they're spreading the net a little wide to include Edinburgh and surrounding area. Now, I'm not sure where the line is being drawn but I was glad to be asked and I can't wait to see what a filmmaker might make of my wee poem.

The poem is biographical. It dates from about 1982, the first time I was sent through to Edinburgh on a training course. Having nothing better to do, and as I recall not having a TV in my room in the bed and breakfast, I took to wandering the city late into the evening. One of these sojourns found me strolling along Rose Street which is basically a glorified lane that runs parallel to Princes Street, Edinburgh's main thoroughfare. Since then it's been tarted up but in the 1980s it was a bit rough.

Anyway, I stumbled across a wee corner pub that had an advertisement in the window for go-go dancers. How 1960s, I thought. And so I sneaked in through the swing door and ordered a pint. It was a small place and I really couldn't see where the dancer was going to perform but I didn't have long to wait. A scantily-clad young lady came out with a handful of change, plonked it in the jukebox, made her selections and climbed a small podium in the corner of the pub. It must have been a good five feet off the ground and with not a great surface area but I wasn't complaining. I drank and she danced and much to my surprise (okay, and delight) during the third song (Centrefold by the J Geils Band) she took her bra off. Now I led a pretty sheltered existence as a young man and this was the first time I'd seen anything like this. I must have been a picture sitting there with my mouth hanging open.

Anyway, the song ended, the top went back on, she clambered down and sat at the bar. I think about a half-hour later everything was repeated and following the end of that set a third followed by which time I was quite drunk. But even as drunk as I was there was no way on earth I was going to go over and try and spark up a conversation. So, seeing that three sets was going to be it I left and made my way back to my B&B. It is my suspicion that this was the same night I encountered the chip shop I mentioned earlier.

Anyway, the next night was I not to be found down Rose Street in time for the young lady's first set. Yes, of course I was. And a young lady did arrive and partially disrobe at the end of each set but it wasn't the same girl and it wasn't to the dulcet tones of Mr Geils either. The second one had her own way with her I have to say, she was shorter and curvier and danced a lot faster, but it wasn't the same. Nor did the girl reappear on the third night; it was a different one again.

Anyway, by this time my week was up and I had to head off home. It was years later before I was sent back and, yes, I did head to Rose Street on my first night there only to find the pub had had a refurb and there was a potted plant on the stand in the corner. Now, of course, I have no idea what that first go-go dancer looked like. I can't remember her face or her body but every time I hear Centrefold it makes me feel a little sad. Queer bugger aren't I?

Anyway, any of you who feel you might fall within the Edinburgh and surrounding area catchment should pop over to the site and see if you meet the criteria.

In the meantime let me leave you with the video to Centrefold.


Wednesday 4 February 2009

Author cameos



It's becoming a bit of a trend, an author cropping up in a film adaptation of his own work. Part of the joy in watching a film based on a Marvel character is waiting to see where they manage to write creator – or more often co-creator – Stan Lee into the proceedings. He's popped up so far in two of the X-Men films, all three Spider-Man films, Daredevil, the two Hulk films, both Fantastic Four films and Iron Man but even before his big screen cameos he could be found in the made-for-TV adaptations of Nick Fury: Agent of Shield, Generation X and his first appearance was as the jury foreman in The Trial of the Incredible Hulk.

There is a precedence for this because as far back as 1963 Stan Lee and his collaborator Jack Kirby appeared as themselves in The Fantastic Four #10 (Jan. 1963) where the two are depicted as similar to their real-world 398px-FF10 counterparts, creating comic books based on the "real" adventures of the Fantastic Four. Needless to say he's cropped up periodically and in various guises for many years afterwards.

Lee, of course, is not the only author who has appeared in an adaptation of his or her work. Stephenie Meyer has a cameo in the film version of her novel Twilight, Inspector Morse writer Colin Dexter has made appearances on the small screen as has Ian Rankin in Rebus. Dexter's cameos are more like those of director Alfred Hitchcock – blink and you'll miss him kind of things – but if I recall correctly Rankin got to say a few words. Of course, in all of these instances the writer is playing a part, they're not playing themselves. Dexter has appeared as a monk, a doctor, a prisoner and a tramp but usually he's just floating around in the background of a pub or walking by; if you weren't looking for him you'd never pay him any heed, just another extra.

Oh, and while we're talking about Dexters, writer Jeff Lindsay who penned Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the debut in a series of crime novels which were used as the inspiration for the grisly TV hit, also gets to appear in a cameo.

Alexander McCall Smith did give Ian Rankin a cameo part in his serial novel 44 Scotland Street, mentioning in his introduction that Rankin thought his portrait much "nicer" than he really felt himself to be. That's one thing, writing someone you know into your book as himself – a nice way of tipping your hat to someone you respect (the same goes for naming a character after someone you admire) – actually writing yourself into a work of fiction is something else entirely.

I suppose I could be facetious and say that the first person to write himself into his own story was God but that might be opening a whole can of worms so I won't bother. But if we stay with some of his penmen for the moment: Mark wrote himself into his gospel by describing the “young man with just a linen cloth round his body” who followed Jesus and the disciples to Gethsemane and who nearly got captured by the soldiers; Matthew wrote himself into his gospel by describing the time Jesus turned up at a tax office and called the tax collector to follow him and John wrote himself into his gospel by all his references to “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. Not sure about Luke. Are these the first author cameos one has to wonder?

Of course these are based on historical events but not all historians have felt the need to include details about themselves. When writing In Cold Blood author Truman Capote did five years of painstaking research before committing what he learned to the page and yet, he is not present. It would have been impossible for the flamboyant Capote to have put himself into his book without taking away from the story.

However when it came to his book, Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War, Jimmie Briggs felt that in his opinion only a first-person narrative could convey the emotions he felt as a chronicler of the events he recorded. Only then could he make his reader feel the same indignation and horror that he felt, he said.

I would suspect that the most common time when an author inserts himself into a piece of fiction is in the form of a 'Mary Sue'. I'll let Wikipedia explain:

Mary Sue is a science fiction fandom term for a popular form of home produced Star Trek fiction that first emerged in the 1970s. In it, young writers, mostly women, projected themselves as Ensign Mary Sue, the beautiful brilliant adjunct to Spock and or Kirk with whom everyone was in love, who saves the Enterprise (and the Federation) and who, often as not, dies with dramatic tragedy at the end, because the author knows she has to restore the Trek characters to their universe instead of have them live happily ever after with her alter ego.

Of course that was just the start. The real problem with Mary Sue is that she is perfect and perfection gets in the way of realistic story-telling but since her only function is to get it on with the True Love nothing is going to stand in her way. Nowadays most of the Mary Sues have moved to Hogwarts and are called Phoenix Niall, Ember Cree or Khrystle Jones who has a thing for Professor Snape.


ms1Click to enlarge 


But what we're really talking about here are works of serious fiction. There is the argument to be put forth that an author is all of his characters, that every work of fiction is autobiography – we've talked about this before – but there have been instances where the character on the page is more than something that has come out of an author's mind, the character represents the author in all but name. John Polidori wrote himself into his 1819 story 'The Vampyre: A Tale' as 'Aubrey', a naive young man who is forced by an ill-considered oath of secrecy to be complicit with the crimes of the mysterious and predatory Lord Ruthven.

In Beckett's Watt, the author includes a character called 'Sam' and assigns to him specific details concerning his own life. It is typical of Beckett to muddy the waters and many men cleverer than I have fretted over his motives for this.

Ernest Hemingway, arguably the most afflicted war correspondent there ever was, wrote himself into his novel The Sun Also Rises as the shell-shocked lush, Jake Barnes.

Agatha Christie includes herself in a number of her stories as 'Ariadne Oliver' a mystery novelist and a friend of Hercule Poirot, clearly a spoofed and caricatured alter ego of Christie. According to Wikipedia:

She is more usually used for comic relief or to provide a deus ex machina through her intuitive or sudden insights, a function that is especially apparent in Third Girl in which she furnishes Poirot with virtually every important clue.

Further functions of Mrs. Oliver are: to enable Christie to discuss overtly the techniques of detective fiction; to contrast the more fanciful apparatuses employed by mystery authors with the apparent realism of her own plots; and to satirise Christie's own experiences and instincts as a writer. Mrs. Oliver therefore serves a range of literary purposes for Christie.

Indeed this is the reason many authors put themselves into their own books, either for comic effect or to enable them a platform to air their own views. John Fowles did similar: he inserts himself into his novel The French Lieutenant's Woman to allow himself the freedom to comment upon his story from outside its framework.

Probably one of the most famous surrogates is 'Kilgore Trout' a recurring character in the works of Kurt Vonnegut. In interview Vonnegut has stated that Trout is based on the science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon but it is generally believed that Trout is actually a parody of Kurt Vonnegut himself. Not only of himself, but of all sci-fi writers. Several  stories Vonnegut attributes  to Kilgore  Trout  appear  someplace else  written by Vonnegut himself. Perhaps the best example of this is the Trout story called '2BR02B':

The people in '2BR02B' are so hopeless, and the world is so overpopulated, that the government has set up a purple-roofed Ethical Suicide Parlour at every major intersection, right next door to an orange-roofed Howard Johnson's". The visitors to the Suicide Parlour die painlessly and patriotically, and even get a free last meal at the Howard Johnson's next door. In Vonnegut's  short story 'Welcome  to  the  Monkey  House'  the story  opens in an Ethical Suicide Parlour  459512170_14b7f8b13e_o almost  identical  to  the  ones  described  in '2BR02B,' right down to the  purple roof and the Howard Johnson's next door. By actually writing stories that he had earlier attributed to Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut emphasises the similarities between the two. - Stephanie E. Bonner, Kilgore Trout: Kurt Vonnegut's Alter Ego

One of the clearest examples of an author writing himself into his own novel is in the case of Dickens. Before he set about writing David Copperfield he apparently attempted an autobiography which came to nothing but some of his working notes finally found their way straight into Copperfield with little editing and only a change of tense to first-person narrative according to Lynn Cain in Dickens, Family, Authorship.

What I'm more curious about are the authors who include themselves as themselves actually in the text of their novels or stories. I get the idea of adding in things that have happened to you personally to flesh out your character. I'm sure we've all done that. Some of Jonathan's memories in Living with the Truth are things that have happened to me. Take this section:

In the hospital, when he’d had meningitis (the bad kind) his parents weren’t allowed to visit him and all the nursing staff wore white masks all the time…

That bit is true – I believe it's my earliest memory – but the rest of the paragraph isn't, though I've never tried to disassociate myself from Jonathan. He is however a gross caricature of what I might have become twenty years in the then future. I do the same with Jim Valentine in The More Things Change but he's also not me.

According to Martin Amis, his father, Kingsley Amis, famously showed no interest in his son's work. "I can point out the exact place where he stopped and sent Money twirling through the air; that's where the character named 'Martin Amis' comes in." "Breaking the rules, buggering about with the reader, drawing attention to himself," Kingsley complained.

Amis writes himself into the novel as a kind of overseer and confidant in the narrator John Self's final breakdown. He is an arrogant character, but Self is not afraid to express his rather low opinion of Amis, such as the fact that he earns so much yet "lives like a student."

I do appear as myself – very briefly – in Living with the Truth. It’s a real blink-or-you'll-miss-me moment:

…and a young Scot had put the finishing touches to his first novel and couldn’t sleep for thinking about it, but he had no one to tell.

In the sequel, Stranger than Fiction, I decided to give myself more than a nod. I have to say I have no idea why I did, apart from the fact that it amused me at the time, but it was something I went on do develop in my third novel once the idea had got into my head. The idea was not new and I admit freely that I got the idea from a comic book author, Grant Morrison. During his (in)famous run on the comic Animal Man he actually wrote an issue where Buddy Baker (a.k.a. Animal Man) gets to meet and discuss the nature of his existence with Morrison himself. It is a fascinating concept.


AnimalMan26_01 Click to enlarge


There was another novel in my head when I decided to put myself into my own book and that was Spike Milligan's Puckoon where the lead character gets to have a dialogue with the book's author and takes the opportunity to complain about the state of his legs:

      “Holy God! Wot are dese den?”
      “Legs,” replies the author.
      “Legs? Whose legs?”
      “Mine? And who are you?”
      “The Author.”
      “Author? Did you write these legs?”
      “Well I don’t like dem. I coulda writted better legs myself. Did you write your legs?”
      “Ahh! Sooo! You got someone else to write your legs - and someone who’s a good leg writer - and den you write dis pair of crappy legs fer me.”

This is similar to Woody Allen writing himself into one of his one act plays in a scene where the characters get to phone him up and talk to him about their predicament.

You get the idea. Anyway I won't go and spoil things by explaining how Jonathan and I end up face to face but I do end up apologising to him for everything I put him through:

You’re sorry? Jonathan thought. So what good does being sorry do? And what good does being vindictive do? Part of him felt like punching him, part felt like hugging him but not enough of him felt anything to do either of these…

There is a school of thought that a reference to ones personal experiences might undercut an author's credibility. I don't think that it does. I regard myself as a serious novelist despite the fact most of my writing is leavened with humour. I think writers who suggest they never plunder their own lives are deluding themselves. It may not be specific events but it could be attitudes and experiences. At least if it's a character with my name then I have to hold my hand up: "Yeah, that's me, that's what I really think." That is assuming that the me you get to hear in the book is the me that's writing this. And that's all I'm saying on that subject.

As for the world of Mary Sue, from what I can see these are young girls enjoying themselves using pre-existing scenarios as templates. And why not? One of the hardest things with writing is getting all that stuff together. Many is the time I've thought of using some great work of fiction as a jumping off point. If it gets kids writing then that's only a good thing. Most will never take it further but for some it might lead to bigger things.

I'm curious if any of you have written yourself into any of your stories even if it was as a young ensign or yeoman on the USS Enterprise.

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