27 September 2008

In Which I Giggle

Yesterday I went up to Manchester.  It's England's second city, fact fans!  I didn't go there for 
that, though; I went to visit a friend. Nonetheless, let me take a moment to say that Manchester has some stupendous Victorian buildings.  Of which you can see one there on the left.

Anyhoo, I went up to see my friend.  And we got into a conversation, as you do, about the general state of our lives.  I said to him that I'm
 pretty happy, "except for being single.  I didn't envision myself being single at this point in my life."  And he said, "Yes, but that's remediable. You can fix that.  It's not like you're missing a leg."  Which struck me as extremely funny.  On the train home, laughing over it made me think of something M. said to me in Paris, when I told him how sad and worried I was about losing the person with whom I've just had a definitive break.  He interrupted me and said (imagine this in a French accent),  "No offence, Emily, but this guy doesn't sound like so much.  He's tense; he's tired all the time; he doesn't have a good job; he's always worried:  if you asked me, did I want to meet this guy? I'd say no." This also made me laugh.  And they both made me laugh for the same reason.  When you're in something, or when you have friends who have watched you go through it, that something always seems so important, so heavy.  Both these remarks took such a practical view, and such a correct one, that the situation suddenly looked completely different.  I had my eyes opened. After all, it's not like I'm missing a leg, and what I am missing doesn't really sound so great, after all.

Incidentally, isn't it sad about Paul Newman?  Now there was a through-and-through Stand-Up Guy.  The world is emptier for the loss of him.

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24 September 2008

In Which I Go to Paris, Visit Friends, See the Sublime Divine Comedy, and Learn a Delightful New Phrase, So the Entry is a Long One (oh, matron!)

For the last four days I've been in Paris, whence I returned yesterday.  I was originally going to see The Divine Comedy, but then the show sold out.  I wanted to see my friend M. and his family, though, so I decided to go anyway, then queue for a ticket to the band.

First of all, let me say that the Parisians definitely know how to design a public space.  This is the front of Gare du Nord train station, where I arrived and from where I left:

To me that station says, "Travel is a serious and special undertaking."  There's none of that tired smallness you sometimes encounter in American train stations, or even the relative austerity that you get.  As you walk around Paris you realise that the French government and French church never designed a public space that they didn't then cover with elaborate decoration.  Travel, government, church-going, culture:  all these are occasions of importance and grandeur, and reasons for celebrating, to the French.  And I concur.  Here is the Paris Opera, which M. loves, but which even I think is a bit much:  to me, it looks like an overdecorated cake:

And, in the tradition of my fascination with the tops of English buildings, on the right is an apartment building edifice that one could only find in France.  Whereas on the left is one, from maybe 50 yards away, that you could just as easily find in New York.

Anyway, because I was somewhat in a tizzy from leaving for Paris relatively soon after arriving in Cambridge, and returning two days before I go to Manchester for the day, which is itself two days before I change rooms, I forgot certain items, chief among them my guidebook and my map. This meant that my activities in Paris were somewhat limited, as I refused to buy a new guidebook (the one I have is an Eyewitness Guide, and - heads up:  product placement - absolutely fabulous, but rather pricey) and kept forgetting to buy a map.  So I went to the Louvre.  Fortunately, it happens that my very favourite Paris sight is at the Louvre:

I love that pyramid!  In this case, I really don't know why.  

Inside the Louvre, too, I found some things to enjoy.  This painting, which I love because of the absolute clarity of its representation, as well as the extraordinary eerie light in the back (also, those are some dead people in the foreground, and I always find dead people interesting):

This monument, which has been one of my favourite pieces of art since I saw it the last time I was in Paris:

And this painting of the three Graces.  Being rather overly gifted in the bottom department myself, I am always heartened to see paintings that seem to appreciate the ample female posterior.  This one makes no bones about that preference (as it were), and rightly so, say I:

But let us not kid ourselves.  Paintings are pleasant; architecture can make the mind and heart soar; but it's The Divine Comedy that's the meat of this entry...

Having no ticket, I queued up outside the venue at 5:30.  In front of me there was a first small and then large knot of Divine Comedy obsessives.  They had come over from England to see the band, and they seemed to follow him for every concert.  Wow, it's like people who follow the Dead, except they follow the Comedy (which is better, I suppose).  Now, I've never understood this.  I frankly admit that I'm an obsessive person, and I frankly admit that I like repetition. But it seems to me that this kind of obsessive repetitive viewing of one band in concert would destroy, rather than enhance, the experience.  Surely part of what makes a concert exciting is the sense of delight that you're seeing this band, this band the seeing of which is a special event. On any given tour the set list doesn't change that much, and to some degree the banter is honed as the tour progresses.  Each show will be different, and there will be spontaneity, of course, but it doesn't seem to me that the difference and the spontaneity would be sufficient to outweigh the repetition of other elements.  It seems to me that you would move pretty quickly from, "Oh, there's The Cure!" to "Oh, there's The Cure...," and to me that destroys something. But perhaps that's what followers like.  You become blasé, you become knowing, and so you become in the know, one of the elite.

In any case, there they all were.  But they already had tickets.  I and the 25 or so people behind me did not. It was tense, I confess.  It turns out, though, that in France venues are required to keep a certain percentage of tickets back, precisely to sell on the day to those who show up hoping.  Huzzah!  for socialism and egalité!  I got in to see The Divine Comedy!

Now, I need to explain at this stage that I've actually already seen them once.  In 2001, which I think might have been the last time the DC were a band proper, they recorded an album
called Regeneration.  This is an anomalous album. Apparently, the rest of the band got tired of the suits and the arch lyrics (doesn't he look arch even just in that photo there?), and in an attempt to stretch and to appease them Neil Hannon...what?...agreed to (?) a very different sort of cd, one that was much more earnest and down-to-earth.  This is probably my least favourite DC cd, although it does include the song "Eye of the Needle," in which Hannon waits in church for God to speak to him 

(They say that you'll hear him
If you're really listening 
And pray for that feeling of Grace.
Well, that's what I'm doing; 
Why doesn't he answer?
I've prayed 'til I'm blue in the face)

and observes his fellow worshippers in a wonderful quatrain: 

The cars in the churchyard are shiny and German,
Completely at odds with the theme of the sermon;
And all through communion I stare at the people,
Squeezing themselves through the eye of the needle.

In any case, in support of this cd Neil Hannon did a "one man and his guitar" tour (I believe the band had disbanded at this stage). In the States, where I saw him, he came as support to Ben Folds.  No one gave one tiny damn who he was; they were there to see Ben Folds.  I, however, gave many large damns who he was, stood at the very front, and stored the whole experience up, because I thought it would be my only time.  And I think it was because I thought it would be my only time, and because it was such a distinctive experience for me, that I expected this gig to be the same:  somehow I got it into my head that it would be Neil Hannon and his guitar, t-shirt and jeans and longish hair.

It was nothing like that.  First of all, Neil Hannon dressed nothing like that.  Indeed, he dressed in a manner so absolutely bizarre that I don't believe I could have imagined it.  I don't mean he dressed like David Bowie in Ziggy Stardust; rather, he dressed exactly like your fourth grade teacher, if your fourth grade teacher had dressed like a geek.  He wore:  a pink shirt and a tie with black and silver horizontal stripes.  Over that he wore a navy blue cardigan - just let me repeat that: a cardigan.  Over that he wore a corduroy sport jacket.  Yes, a shirt and tie, a cardigan, and a sport coat.  He wore chino-cut trousers in what appeared to be some sort of rayon or polyester mix (because they were soft rather than stiff), and leather-soled dress shoes. Oh, and sunglasses.  I'm willing to believe that this outfit was some kind of ironic statement, but I'm mostly willing to believe it because I cannot imagine any pop singer who would wear that outfit onstage unironically (and because of the sunglasses, which were quite cool).  Still, most outfits of this type that are ironic include drainpipe trousers or drainpipe jeans, not what I and my friend Terrence Tucker would have to call slacks.  But perhaps it was that kind of irony that's so cutting edge that it's deadly serious to those who don't know it's ironic.  And to be fair, when he came on stage he said, "Ah, C&A," and it did look exactly like the sort of outfit you'd buy at C&A.  And Paris does have one of the last few C&A's, so maybe he bought it there for nostalgia value.  Still, my mind was boggled. And yours will be, too!

Compare these photos to the one above.  Neil, do you want a job teaching English literature at the university level fifty years ago?  

(I have a suspicion about the sunglasses.  About five years ago I experienced a sudden problem with glare; I started finding certain light glaring that I never had before.  I think this might be one of the first permutations of eye-aging.  I thought perhaps he was starting to experience the same problem - he's two years younger than I - and with stage lights it would be particularly blinding.  So perhaps... )

Also, he was short.  He was so small that I briefly thought he was the same size as me, but because I just can't believe that any man my age who hasn't been deprived of nutrition would be 5'2" (157 cm, my European friends), I finally decided that he must be somewhere between 5'4" and 5'6".  But he looked so small.  For me, at least, it's very rare to see an adult about whom I think, That person is short.  Like, really, properly, short.  But Neil Hannon looked like that. Not that I cared.  He could have been 4'11" and I would have adored him, because his size became an utter irrelevancy in the presence of his completely delightful selfhood (which we'll get to).

Okay, so how else was it different?  Well, there was a band.  Of course, I knew there would be a band, but I didn't realise, somehow, the difference a band would make.  The sound was much louder, and fuller, and thus the presence of the experience was much more immediate and much stronger.  I had been there when it was Neil Hannon and his guitar, but this time I was there.  Ah! I thought when he came on stage and they started playing, Here he is!  (And for just a minute I understood what propels those people to follow the Comedy:  it's the moment when he comes on stage and you think, That's what he looks like.  But for me that moment would cease to appear after I'd seen him four or five times in quick succession.) And again and again as they played, when they did a song I knew and loved, I would think, This is it!  This is it! In all its fullness and completion, as vivid and present as it is on the cd. (of course I didn't think that last sentence, but that's what the feeling was, translated into words.)

And not only was there a band that supplied this feeling, but it was a band the male members of which seemed to have been selected solely for my viewing pleasure.  All of them were pale men with dark or dark and greying hair, with those long narrow noses that delight me (being as they are second only to the slightly too long, vaguely hooked ones.  Such a one as Neil Hannon has himself, in fact).  Cheers, Neil!


Small but distinct version of pianist

And, after all that - or with all that - he was a delight.  First of all, he tried to speak in French the whole time. Indeed, he spoke in French most of the time.  But he spoke French with the accent and intonation of someone who has learned phrases from a book, or perhaps by imitating someone else four or five times.  This is to say, he spoke. Like.....................this, and as if the French words were English words (so that, for example, "d'accord," which should be pronounced with the final d silent and the final r fading into the back of the throat, he pronounced "dacore").  I by no means have a French accent, or much vocabulary, but having spent a day and a half in France, listening to French people, it was very very funny to hear this Anglo-Irish pronunciation.  Particularly once I began to suspect that he had it all written out in the looseleaf binder on the music stand in front of him, to which he referred devotedly, and particularly because when he messed up he would screw up his face and go, "Oh, [under his breath] fuck!"

So what did he play?  Well, he played many French songs.  One of these was the French Eurovision entry for 1965, "Poupee de cire, Poupee de son," which won that year, and which was written by Serge Gainsbourg.  He also performed another Serge Gainsbourg song (in this clip you can hear his terrible accent), a Francoise Hardy song, "Joe Le Taxi,
" by Vanessa Paradis (this is the version from the second night, which displays his charm better, and has a nice surprise at the end),  "Les Playboys," by Jacques Dutronc, and a Georges Brassens song, "Les copains d'abord."
Your science teacher rocks out to 
un chanson

Yes, yes, I hear you say, but what did he play of his own? Ah, well...He played an unexpected one, "If," but that was quite late in the performance.  He played "National Express" (my least favourite DC song), but that was the encore.  He played "The Summerhouse," an early one, but not as early as "When the Lights Go out All Over Europe," from Promenade, which he also played.  From his more recent songs, he chose "A Lady of a Certain Age," which I think is one of his saddest.  It's about an elderly woman who's had a life that should have been wonderful and fulfilling but instead, the tone makes clear, was empty and disappointing.  She now lives in the South of France, and each verse ends with the lines, 

And if a nice young man would buy you a drink, 
You'd say with a conspiratorial wink, 
"You would think that I was ----three," 
And he'd say, "No, you couldn't be" 

but in each verse the age is ten years younger (first 70 [which makes the rhyme], then 63, then 53), and the intonation of the young man's utterance changes, so that the first time he say, "No!  You couldn't be!"  and the last time, "No.  You couldn't be."  It's a sobering descent.

He also sang "Becoming More Like Alfie," which is the first DC song I ever fell in love with.  I was introduced to The Divine Comedy in the best way possible:  by a person I loved.  I read an article about Promenade, bought the cd, didn't like it, and years later my then-boyfriend bought Casanova (a lyrically richer album), and when I said, "I don't like the Divine Comedy," he put it on, and I was silenced.  "Something for the Weekend" (which, alas, was not played in Paris) was the very first song, and it was funny, and clever, and had a surprise ending.  It also has a wonderful beginning, with two girls giggling, and a wonderful middle, with Neil Hannon saying in a louche purr, "Oh, come on!  You know you want to..."  You wouldn't think it could get better than that, but "Becoming More Like Alfie" is even better, beginning as it does with a sample of Michael Caine, and including one of the weirdest lyrics ever penned:  "Everybody know that no means 
yes, / Just like glasses come free on the NHS." ???? I've loved the song ever since I first heard it, and this summer I suddenly loved it much more, because listening to it one day I had one of those strange moments where you really hear a lyric for the first time, after having heard it a thousand thousand times before.  In this case, what I heard was:

Once there was a time when a kind word could be enough,
And once there was a time when I could blindfold myself with love;
But now, now I'm resigned to the kind of life I'd reserved
For other guys, less smart than I:
You know, the kind who will always end up with the girls...

I had just been disappointed in love for apparently arbitrary reasons myself, and listening to those lines I suddenly realised concretely for the first time that men, too, have the experience of watching someone inferior walk away with the sexual prize, of raging over why the less deserving nonetheless get the brass ring.  It was also the first time I noticed that the lyric was an admission that Hannon, at least, had been willing to accept crumbs off a table and to hang on in one-sided desire.  Both of these were experiences I had associated solely with women, and more specifically with myself, so it was illuminating and humbling to find them connected to men.

He also sang, "Our Mutual Friend."  Perhaps best of all, he finished as he always finishes, with "Tonight We Fly" (sorry about the Spanish subtitles in this clip, but I love the sweet smile he gives in the beginning, and I do think this is the best performance on youtube). This is a song of such grace and loveliness that I do believe it's my favourite Divine Comedy song.  Perhaps I like it because, I suspect without knowing it, it contains a reference to Le Diable Boiteux, an eighteenth-century French novel in which a devil leads a man on a night flight over Paris, lifting the roofs off the houses to show the sin within - this novel, and the character, mentioned in a Byron letter in reference to himself.  Perhaps I love it because of its soaringly beautiful melody. I think I do love it for the latter reason, but mostly I think I love it because it contains a very hard to master list of all the different people "we" see (and I love lists, and things that are hard to master [oh, matron!]), and because of its lovely, poignant lyrics,

Tonight we fly 
Over the chimney-tops, skylights, and slates,
Looking into all your lives 
And wondering why
Happiness is so hard to find.

I know it's silly, I know it is, but I've been so unhappy lately that I couldn't help feeling those lines deeply, thinking to myself, It is, it is so hard to find.  Why?  You would think it would be a simple matter.  

Even more than those lines, however, I love the final ones:

And when we die
Will we be that disappointed or sad
If heaven doesn't exist?
What will we have missed?
This life is the best we ever had.

First of all I like them because, although Hannon is often pointed to as an atheist, this suggests that he is rather an agnostic, a position I find much more intellectually admirable, admitting as it does that one just can't know (the opening lines of "Eye of the Needle," above, suggest this too).  But that's not really why I like them.  I really like them because always at the end of the final line I think to myself, Yes.  That's true.  Life is wonderful, and there could be none better. God love you, Neil Hannon, you make me an optimist!

And yet despite all these transports and delights and wonders (which they truly were), the best moment of the evening was not musical at all.  It came when he forgot which song he was supposed to perform next and, turning away from the microphone, he said (apparently to his pianist):  "I'm all of a fluster."  I suspect he did mean this to be heard, so I also suspect that this is not an expression Neil Hannon uses in everyday life, but, God, I hope it is! It's so self-parodic that it cannot but be charming.  I laughed and laughed over it, and am laughing over it still.  I have decided to use it all the time.

So there you are.  The Divine Comedy made my trip to Paris.  It was, as Neil Hannon himself would say, a joy.  

And wait!  Who is this standing in front of the Louvre pyramid...?

A Brief Paean to Music Itself

Sometimes I think about how lucky I am.  When I think about that, I think about my career, my skin, the fact that lots of people like me, the fact that I have thick hair... I never think about music.  But sometimes when I listen to music, I think, I am so lucky to love music this much.   What a gift I have in music like The Divine Comedy's, like New Order's, like The KLF's!  I occasionally play that game, If You Could Only Take Books or Music to a Desert Island, Which Would You Take?  and the answer is always:  music.  Literature is good; it's interesting, and sometimes it transports and amazes.  But very very good music always does that, and instantly.  It grabs you by the stomach or the air in your lungs and pulls you up and out, putting in your mouth nameless marvels that just defy the ability of utterance.  It makes you promises that it keeps, but that you can't explain to anyone else.  How lucky am I to have that?

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19 September 2008

Yowp! Only Not Quite.

My milk has gone sour.  Well, not exactly.  It's turned into a kind of thick gunge, and even though it smells as if it's not quite on the turn, I'm not risking drinking that in a cup of tea.

By rights I should be in a youth hostel down by St. Paul's right now, but in the end I decided that it actually made more sense to return home from London, then turn round and go in again tomorrow.  Unfortunately, I didn't come to this realisation until after I'd made the non-refundable booking at the youth hostel.  In this case, however, I decided to take the loss and make it an L.E. Now I know that it's easier (and actually cheaper) to make two returns than to stay overnight - you can't make an omelette without breaking an egg, and the lost money will be that egg.

So I'm back from Bill Drummond!  And it turns out...Bill Drummond is a scary man.  He came into the room; he told us how the talk was going to go; when someone came in late he demanded that the doors be locked so no one else could come in; he told us that when he was done talking he'd be asking us some questions; and then he told me off for saying "flagship store" instead of "flagship shop"! Okay, maybe I shouldn't have said anything, but he did ask the audience the general question, "Is that what you call those main stores?  Flagship somethings?" And the only reason I know it's flagship stores is because an English person called them that to me.  But I was hardly going to argue with Bill Drummond, who said to me "Shops.  We don't call them stores in this country; we call them shops."  Bill Drummond was a scary man.

Only not, exactly.  For one thing, he has a hunch.  Bill Drummond has a hunch!  I felt like doing that thing where you put one hand on the person's chest and one on their upper back and straaaaaiighten them up, but then it occurred to me that he's 54 - maybe it's early old age hunch.  Or maybe he leans over a desk a lot.  In any case, it reduced his 6'4" to conceivable size, and it also made him less scary.  Moreover, Bill Drummond is going bald.  I had high hopes from the recent publicity photos, but it turns out he's got that "bald on top and again at the back, but not at the front" thing going on, and he's also got a longish buzzcut.  To be honest with you, he looked more like a farm hand than like a guy who'd shoot blanks at you from a stage and then terrorise you with a dead sheep. In fact, I wondered to myself if Bill Drummond only owns one long-sleeved shirt, because he was wearing exactly the same shirt he was wearing in the earlier blog entry's photo, which is exactly the same one he's wearing here:

and apparently here, and this photo was taken eight years ago:

(incidentally, this picture is cunningly titled, "Bill Drummond puts up a shelf."  Nothing like truth in advertising.)

So here came this one-shirt fellow with a hunch and some patchy baldness, favouring his left leg, and when he requested that the doors be locked you could sort of feel the air in the room become taken aback, and then he roughed me up about the whole shop thing, but then he turned out to be quite sweet!  I don't mean he handed out chocolate and asked us about our problems, but he was good at being self-deprecating, and he made the occasional small joke, and he had an enjoyable Scottish accent. And after he snapped at me about the shop/store difference he apologised, which was nice.  At the end, however, he became Stern Bill again, and informed us that he would take questions from us, but only five.  Fortunately, I was one of those five (I think he felt he had to make it up to me).  Unfortunately, the question didn't work so well.  I noticed throughout his talk that he persistently set himself deadlines, or created certain parameters for his work:  there'll only be 17 people per choir!  I'm just going to listen to artists whose band names start with B for a year, then C for a year!  I'm going to implement a complex project, but not until I'm 50!  I'm going to finish my book in a year!  So I asked, "Why are you so rigorous?  You seem to place a lot of strictures on yourself; what's with that?"  

Alas, it turns out that Bill Drummond possesses an attribute that I find very irritating, one that seems to be limited to people who are used to having things their own way:  he turns around questions and comments that he doesn't want to deal with so that the asker looks foolish.  The most common way of doing this - which he employed - is to answer very quickly, not asking the questioner to clarify but rather acting as if the question is confusing in its essence.  That being said, I didn't phrase the question well, and I suppose it was too complex for a book signing and, again, he was quite sweet at the end of his response, asking me if he'd been unclear.  And then he did get me a new book when the one I picked up for him to sign turned out to be torn inside.

What I found exceedingly curious about this event, looking back, was that it was a completely KLF-free zone.  When he set up the question parameters Drummond did say we could only ask him "about what I'm doing now," but that was the only indication on his part that he'd ever done anything other than make art, conceptual or otherwise.  A couple of people brought KLF singles to be signed when he signed their books, and he signed them, and about 1/2 the audience were men of an age such that you could guess they were there because they'd been KLF fans, but those were the only indications on the audience's part that he'd ever done anything else.  Even while I was sitting listening to him, this seemed odd to me.  For one thing, that was probably the biggest public experience of his life.  For another, he WAS a musician, and he made recorded music - indeed, music that couldn't exist in any way other than as recorded music, music that in some cases he dismissed with contempt and in some cases he strove to give deep meaning.  So there was something a little odd about everybody simply ignoring this hugely important part of his life, and, to an even greater degree, about him disapproving of recorded music, or shallow music.  God, that should have been my question: how do you reconcile your current attitudes about recorded music with your career recording music, much of it nakedly capitalistic?  Bugger.  Okay, you know what?  I'm going to write Bill Drummond a letter when I get back from Paris.

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16 September 2008


I like the movies. In fact, I like them so much I'd rank them in my top four of likes, along with literature, music, and dealing with clothing. Here in England, however, the movies are called "films." I cannot call them this, because "films" are precisely what I do not like: I like movies. I also can't use the other British option and say I like going to the cinema, because I feel that others would then find me hopelessly pretentious. So I have decided to solve this issue by calling them "the pictures" from now on. I like going to the pictures.

I'm not exactly sure what it is I like. I don't get drawn into the pictures in the way many people have said they do. With very rare exceptions, I am aware that I'm outside what I'm watching, and I'm aware at some level that it's acted. I find going to the theatre alone very depressing, and you would think, given the similarities of the two activities, that I'd feel the same way about going to the cinema alone. But I never do. I think this may be because there is always a full or near-full audience at the theatre, and there is rarely a full or near-full audience at the pictures. In addition to this, the picture itself is so shiny. It's all glossy (even if grainy), and slightly hyper-bright, and because the screen is so big the experience is always at least slightly surreal. So I suppose the pictures retain a certain kind of magic for me -- plus there's also the fact that I become involved with another world for at least a couple of hours.

It turns out that Cambridge has quite a good picture house. Indeed, this is what it's called: The Picture house. Because term has not yet started, and I'm slightly at a loose end, I have made use of the Picture house twice in two days. The first time was an accident: I was wandering along the road and saw that they were showing Badlands, which I've never seen on a big screen. The second time was intentional: one of the Badlands previews was for a picture called Jar City, and it looked so intriguing that I decided to go.

Let us leave the discussion of my adoration for previews for another day.

I have seen Badlands twice on TV, once because I happened upon it and once because I rented it. Both times, I thought it was a weird movie. Now I've seen it on the big screen, and I think it is a weird movie. It's a realist film, in the same way that Madame Bovary is a realist novel, but the result of that realism is a curious kind of disinterest on the film's part. Stuff just happens (that's really the best way to put it). Martin Sheen shoots Sissy Spacek's father, and that's a little odd, as is the fact that he then burns down their house as a way of concealing the crime, but because Terrence Malick doesn't give these actions import or a frame - as indeed they would not have in real life - I am left feeling adrift, and curiously passivated. Badlands ends up being a really good movie, but part of what makes it really good is that no one involved with it seems to be very invested in its action: not the nominally real participants, not the director of the film, and not the viewer of the film. Somehow, though, this lack of investment is what makes it so riveting.

Also, I spent much of the film being astounded at how young Martin Sheen was. I've largely only seen him as a man in his 50s and beyond (except for Apocalypse Now, I suppose, and occasional other glimpses), and on a large screen his youth was truly arresting. Sometimes he would look like a man in his mid-thirties (as indeed he was when the picture was made), but at other times he just looked so young: younger than I had ever been able to imagine him being. I find there are certain people who look as if they've always looked the way they do, and Martin Sheen is one such person. Here, however, he looked, although recognisably like himself, nothing like the way I would have imagined him to look when young.

I kept being struck by this, and each time struck as if anew.

My second picture, today, was Jar City. It's the first Icelandic murder mystery film I've ever seen. I do not think it will be the last (assuming that this is a genre). It was complex and deeply surprising - not in its solution, which I got about halfway through, but in its commitment to intelligence and quiet thought. Thinking about it now, I see that it, too, was realistic. There was very little soundtrack, and there was very little drama. For the most part, it was a picture that was content to be human. Even the solution to the mystery turned out to be pretty human, pretty logical and everyday.

Not bad for two days' viewing.

In other news, the building in which I'm living seems to have few other occupants, or at least very quiet ones. As a result, when I went to the kitchen tonight to stash my milk in the fridge and paused on the central staircase landing (where there is a large open circle that looks down to a statue of Prince Albert), I had the sensation that I was living all alone in a gigantic house, isolated amongst all the long corridors and empty space. Lovely, lovely, lovely. Such a feeling.
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12 September 2008

As Is Usual with Beginnings...

You know how there are some days where, once one thing goes wrong, everything goes wrong? Well, this was one of those days.  I wish to begin this entry by stating that experience has taught me that getting to places and arriving at those places is always more hassle than one expects, and always ends up in wrangling and difficulty.  So what follows may not be that different from any other experience, but it seemed so to me.

This morning was my morning to check out.  I had to do this by ten am, which was also the time at which the box office opened for tickets to Hamlet in London.  I checked out by 9:45, and then rather than getting a cab to the station I sat on the steps of my building and dialled the box office. It was busy.  It was busy; it was busy; it was busy; it was busy:  I GOT THROUGH.  So there I was with my credit card out, fifth in the queue, and...my phone lost the signal!  I tried five more times, but, well, it was busy.  So I got a cab to the station.  I had two massively heavy bags, which I dragged along behind me, no one offering to help at all, and of course the station was filled with couples kissing good-bye, or walking companionably toward the train, blah, blah, blah.  So I started to cry.  Not big-time crying - just that sort of pre-crying, where your face goes all rigid and long, and you give a couple of experimental heaves.  Fortunately there wasn't time to give it a real go, as the train platform was announced.  So I dragged my bags to the train, yanked them on, and found a seat.  Then the conductress arrived to inform me that I had to move them, as they were blocking the door.  Great.  I moved one, which is to say I hauled it down the compartment to the bag holder, bashing people's feet as I went, and repeating, "Sorry, sorry, I'm sorry."

On the train journey down I rang and rang and rang the Hamlet box office, but never got through.  When we actually got to Cambridge, a terribly nice man who'd been sitting across from me with his wife helped me carry my bags to the taxi rank.  I got a cab.  I said to the cab driver, "One of these is enormously heavy," and he replied, "You can put that one in the car, then." Ha ha.  When my bags and I finally got in the cab and I told him where I wanted to go, he (driving) told me a whole story about how he'd met his wife at my college, and they'd got married and were together for five years, and then they separated.  He was married to someone else now, he told me, and had a lovely daughter, but he was still sad, because he'd really loved his first wife, and it wasn't so much that they'd had real problems as that things just weren't working any more.  I just sat there in the back of the cab thinking, What a story for me to have to hear at this time in my life!  I don't know what I should have said or could have said; I just said what I felt I ought to say, which was things like, Maybe you're still sad because it's so close to you, and as you get further away in time it will matter less...Maybe as you get older and five years becomes less of a percentage of your life, it will seem less important...Now you have a daughter, and if you hadn't gone through all that with your first wife you wouldn't have been in the circumstances you were to meet the mother of that daughter.  I didn't cry.

When I got to my college, I went to my room.  Okay, no.  It's a nice room, but it faces onto the main road, so that there's traffic swooping by even now, and it's somehow badly set up.  So I went downstairs and asked for a new room, but the accommodations officer wasn't there: could I come back in an hour?  Sure.  Mind you, that meant I had to leave my bags in the porter's lodge (for which read, the lobby) and carry my computer with me, but what the heck.  Fine. I repaired to the computer room, where I rang and rang and rang the eternally busy box office, and finally...I GOT THROUGH.  At 12:30, after they'd been open only two and half hours, the entire run of Hamlet was sold out.  Great.

Then I went into Cambridge.  This was the pleasant portion of the day, because I bought a bike. There was much debate both within me and without me (with the nice man selling the bikes) over whether I should get an old-fashioned granny bike or a mountain bike.  The granny bike,
mind you, was metallic orange, so it wasn't that old-fashioned. The mountain bike was metallic yellow.  When I hopped on the granny bike, the nice man said, "It suits you."  In the end, though, I went for the mountain bike, simply because I couldn't get used to sitting up the way you do on a granny bike, and because I like to go fast.  They're giving it a tune-up, and I'm to pick it up on Monday.  Figuring I might as well get it all out of the way at once, I also bought mudguards, two locks (which you're supposed to have to deter vicious Cambridge thieves), a front light, a helmet, and a back rack.  I'll be giving the rack back (ha ha), though, as I'd much prefer a
basket, and I have seen some wire ones attached to mountain bikes.  When I took my hair out of its ponytail to fit the bike helmet correctly, the nice man said, "You've got a lot of hair, haven't you?" What could I say?  "Wow, no one's ever said that before!"  "Someone I love used to tell me that admiringly.  Then he dumped me." "Yes. I've had that all my life."  I just said, "Yes, it says that on my facebook profile:  'I have a heck of a lot of hair.'"  Which, in fact, it does.

When I came out of the bicycle store it was, of course, raining.  It wasn't raining hard, but it was raining cumulatively, if you see what I mean.  By the time I got back to college I was pretty much soaked.  In I went to the accommodations office, where the accommodations officer was in a meeting, but there were two rooms I could switch to...in two weeks.  I went to look at them. One was really lovely, so great, fine, whatever.  I went to the room that will now be my room for two weeks, and started doing a partial unpack.  That was when I realised that I left the chiffon party dress for which I'd paid one hundred and ten pounds hanging in the cupboard in my room in London.  Great.

I rang them up.  No one had reported finding it.  Even if someone did find it, they don't send things to people.  That was fine, I said, I'm going to be in London next week.  Oh, okay, why don't I ring back and they'll let me know if they've found it.  Ring tomorrow.  I tried not to have visions of some member of staff making off with my Karen Millen dress.  I really did try.  

At that point I also realised that there hadn't been any kind of welcome packet or anything waiting for me here.  That seemed a little odd, but not entirely implausible - after all, what evidence did I have that there should be a welcome packet?  Still, I went over to the office of the nice college secretary, just to ask.  You have to understand that at this stage I'd had my chance of tickets for Hamlet cut off; listened to my cab driver tell me the story of his relationship woes while I made sympathetic noises; got a room I didn't like and been told I couldn't move into another one for two weeks, even though that other one was empty (but it was Friday afternoon, don't you know, so everyone had gone home, and there was no way to make the switch at the present time); and walked back along roads I really didn't know in the steady rain.  So I was wound a bit tight.  Nonetheless, when the kindly college secretary said, although kindly, "We have nothing for you because you said you'd arrive on October 1," I said NOTHING.  I give myself some credit for not apologising for being wrong - which I usually would have done - but I also figured there was no point in making an enemy of a woman who hadn't done me any harm, really, so I just didn't say anything at all.  She said she'd put a packet together for me and have it at the porter's lodge later in the afternoon.  I said thanks, and then I went back to my room and had a cup of tea...and I cried.  But only, like, two big tears down the cheeks.

After a little unpacking I set off for central Cambridge again.  All I wanted was a cup of tea, a nice little cake, and to buy a printer.  So I went into Caffe Nero, because I have a buy nine get one free card, and ordered a tea and a delightful apricot danish (I love apricots.  They taste delicious, they look lovely, and when you rub them against your cheek or lips they are the softest things ever).  It took forever for this to come, because Caffe Nero apparently seeks to hire those who make slowness their speciality (the same thing happened at the Caffe Nero in London), and when I pulled out my cashcard because I hadn't had time to go to the bank, the incredibly slow counterman said (quite quickly), "We don't take cards, Madam."  There was my steaming cup of tea; there was my apricot danish; both on the counter before me.  "In that case," I said, "never mind."  And I turned around and walked out.  Behind me he called, "No Caffe Nero takes cards..."  I'm not sure what his point was.

So then I went to buy the printer.  First stop, Currys Digital, which appeared to be entirely staffed by young men under 20, all of whom would have found it too much effort to describe themselves as apathetic.  When I finally snagged one and asked him which printers worked with Macs, he said, "Um...let me see..." and crouched down before the printers.  "I don't know," he observed.  "These all have the Windows Vista logo."  Then he squatted there, looking up at me. Next stop, the Mac store, where the cheapest printer was sixty pounds.  Next stop W.H. Smiths, where there was a nice HP for fifty pounds.  And around this time I noticed that the stores were starting to shut, which gave what you might call an added impetus to the errand.  Next stop, Rymans, which sold the perfect printer in London...but not in Cambridge!  So I determined to go back to Smiths, and only as my feet turned in that direction did I remember that these all come with installation cds that my American computer can't run.  I envisioned a year of printing at the library for 10p a page, and I turned my weary steps toward home.  Well, home for two weeks. When I reached the two-thirds of the way point I began to cry again, but it was only for a second, and it was mostly because, even though I knew I was going the right way, I had no idea where I was.

I arrived back at dinner time to find a pack awaiting me.  The pack included my college card.  Up to the refectory I went.  Ooo, chips!  Ooo, only semi-unappetizing quiche!  Oooo, bread and butter pudding!  My happy tray and I proceeded to the till, where the nice young man asked me for my payment card.  My what?  Okay, it turns out the college card is how you pay.  Like a credit card. So I went and got my card, whereupon the nice young man informed me that my card had no money on it and I had to go load it up.  My chips had been pretty much cold to start off with; five minutes while I went to sort the card out would be the ruination of them.  So I just handed him the tray and said never mind.  Then I went downstairs and put money on the card.  Then I came back UPstairs and started the whole process all over again.  God love him, he'd saved my quiche, the last decent piece, so no one else could get it.  My pasty chips he'd poured back into the general chip heating bin.  No doubt I got some of them again.  Waste not, want not.

After dinner I came back to my room and had a shower in my curtainless shower...area (what else do I call it?).  Newsflash, designers of this idiotic set-up:  the water really does get everywhere.  I suppose they imagine that you'll have your shower in the morning, and everything will dry out by the time you get home at night, but I can't take showers in the morning because it takes five hours for my hair to dry (except in Canada, where, for some mysterious reason, it takes only two), and then it looks like the hair of a madwoman unless I sleep on it.  So I think it's wet feet for me for the foreseeable future. Great.

What am I supposed to say?  That the whole day was shitty from beginning to end?  That I couldn't help seeing at as an omen for my time in Cambridge, even though I know it isn't?  That I couldn't help reflecting at various times during this exercise in misery that yet again I had to handle everything on my own, and that it would be nice, just once, to have someone just for me whom I could call up and tell it all to, or who might have greeted me off the train, and maybe taken over or made suggestions when things got tough -- not a friend, or a parent, but someone just for me?  All of those things are true.  But rather than dwelling on them I'll just say that I'm disturbed by something I've noticed about myself at certain times of unhappiness before: it distresses me to discover that I'm only really happy when I'm buying something.

Good things?  Well, a couple.  The man on the train was very nice, and very interesting, and we had a long talk about politics and economics and literature, which was pleasant.  On the list of activities for newcomers in my packet there is a trip to Stratford on October 30 to see
Hamlet. So I will get a second chance.  My cab driver's relationship ended when he had started off being happy in it, so relationships do end.  He'd found someone else, so single miserable people can end up happy.  As I wandered around Cambridge I was able to point out to myself that in a couple of weeks it would be filled with people, and that I would have a much greater chance of finding friends.  I've decided that the Mac store will be able to help me with the printer problem, so I'll buy the sixty pound one (after all, that's 600 printed pages, and I bet I'll produce that many). And it's actually pretty easy and convenient to shave my legs while I sit on the floor of that ridiculous wet room with the shower on low next to me to rinse the razor.  And I suppose I might get to buy a new Karen Millen dress.  I'm thinking of this one.
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07 September 2008

Manly Mystification and Confusion

Today I rang up my friend S. to ask him a very important question.  I'll just digress for a moment here to say that when I said to him, "I'm calling to ask you a question," he asked, "Is it trivial?"  I said, "No.  What makes you think it would be trivial?"  He responded, "Oh, I don't know.  Past experience, maybe?"  Thanks.  Thinking about this not so long afterward, however, I freely admitted to myself that he had a point.  I frequently ring people up to ask them trivial questions, simply because such a question will occur to me, and I wish to know the answer.  So I ring and ask the person most likely to know.  My parents have come to expect this, and so don't flinch when I ring to ask for a particular word, then say thanks and hang up. My best friend gets not exactly trivial but certainly obscure questions about what I would call "scientific" things (for example:  "When I lie in the bath, I feel the water as warm water around my fingers, but only as warmth around my chest.  Is this because I have fewer nerve endings in my   
chest?"), but that's because she's a scientist.  And, hey, if people want to ring me up or e-mail solely to ask a trivial question, I have no problem (not that that's an invitation).

Anyway, the question I wished to ask S. was, "If I go out for any sort of meeting or outing with a British man, should I assume that said meeting or outing has sexual/romantic overtones?" This is most certainly not a trivial question, because as recently as two weeks ago I discovered that a meeting which I'd thought of as perfectly uninflected - indeed, to my mind perhaps even off-putting - had been interpreted by its other, male, participant as "flirty."  And I do have quite a lot of male friends, and I do generally prefer men to women. AND I'm about to go away for the day to be shown around some Byron-related stuff by a male academic.  So you can see that a great potential need to restructure my thinking is at stake here.  And S.'s answer was yes!  

Can this be so? What about men who say, "We can still be friends"?  I know that in some cases that means, "I'm hedging my bets and still am interested in having sex with you," but surely when someone has really and truly realised they've made a mistake and you really WERE meant to be friends, that just means, "We can still be friends"? 

This leads me in a larger way to puzzle over the whole male issue.  Not that I think S. speaks for all men - there are just as many kinds of men as there are kinds of women, after all.  But, still...

I like men.  I have always liked them.  I like them, and I really honestly don't think they're that different from women.  A reverse example of this would be the oft-asserted fact that men evaluate every woman they meet sexually:  they think about what it would be like to have sex with her.  But I evaluate every man I meet (and some I just pass on the street) sexually!  I don't mean I spend half an hour planning it out and envisioning it, but for a brief second I think about it in a yes/no construction.  Then I move on (unless I find the person REALLY unattractive, in which case I try to think about in what way, precisely, it would be horrible to have sex with them. Or unless I find them really attractive, in which case I can always spare a few minutes to do the reverse).  And I bet if you asked most women, they'd say the same.  So I've always assumed that that "evaluate everyone sexually" thing means quick once-over and decision, followed by more if the evaluation warrants it, and we're quite alike in that way.  And I really do believe that men are as eager to find love as women, and that women are as restless once they're in it as men.  

So it rather distresses me to imagine either that when I'm being honest in acting like a friend to a man he's not returning my honesty, or that I'm being assumed to be being romantically interested in someone when I'm not.  I have to say, speaking from inside my body, that when I'm flirting with someone it's completely different from when I'm not:  my tone of voice is different; my body stance and language is altered; I get redder (although, to be fair, it would be hard to get less red).  And I notice the voice thing, certainly, with men I've flirted with.  But now I am forced to suspect that there are legions of (apparently very stodgy or REALLY repressed) men who are flirting when to my mind they're just being normal or even boring.

Frequently lately I've remembered a scene from As Good As It Gets in which the Helen Hunt character says, "All I want is a nice, normal boyfriend!" and her mother says, "Dear, there's no such thing," or something like that.  I don't want a normal boyfriend, but I would like a boyfriend who I can believe is being honest with me, not carrying around some secret plan or feeling with regard to me that I don't know about.  I'm not saying I believe in total revelation and honesty - I think that's unnecessary and can in fact be quite damaging - but I do believe in honesty about big things, and the pretences under which one engages in a relationship with someone else seems like a big thing.

Am I going to have to start announcing my feelings at or before every one-on-one meeting I have with a man?  

Of course the irony of this whole thing is that I've never been someone who finds men making moves on her, or for whom a meeting for a caffeinated beverage is followed by an indication of interest: all my friendly meetings with men stay just that, and I've always been jealous of those women for whom it's not so.  So I'm bitching about a subtext that I would be thrilled about if it were text. But such are the complexities of the psyche, I suppose.

Meanwhile, I read in a newspaper last week that something like 70% of British women hate taking off their clothes in front of their partners, because they so dislike the way they look. And apparently many of them engineer things to avoid certain sexual positions, so they won't look bad.  That made me want to cry.  I've hated my body when I was fat, and I've wished I had a different distribution of curves, but I can't imagine being so ashamed of my person that I'd refuse to take off my clothes in front of the person who's supposed to love me best, or compromise my own or someone else's pleasure for aesthetic reasons.  Although, to be fair, it's taken me a long time to get to that stage.  But I believe that if you choose to be with someone that means you choose to be with them 100%:  just as you should be fully and unconditionally supportive when the person confides his fears or hurts or sorrows, so you should be unconditional in your willingness to enter into other activities.  That doesn't mean you relish it from the get-go, but it does mean you should be willing to try, or else state why you're not.  (of course, I realise that those kinds of statements can be terribly hard to make, and I find them hard to make, so here again my psyche is in paradox.)

God, now I feel like most people are far more untruthful than truthful to other people, even those they love best.  Now I'm depressed.   Sorry.  Oh, also I'm sorry if this reveals rather more than you wanted to know.  But these things have been on my mind.

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06 September 2008

That One Looks Like Wales...and That One Looks Like a Short Play by Samuel Beckett

I finally figured out how to sent photos from my cell phone to my e-mail.  I think there must also be a cord so I can do this, but it's probably buried in my suitcase somewhere.  In any case, this means that I can post the photos I took on my trip to Wales:

This very large stone is supposedly a pebble that King Arthur took out of his shoe, grown to enormous size.  This was actually meant to be a picture of the houses and water just beyond, but I stood too far away.  And here is some genuine mud.  Unfortunately, I wasn't told to bring wellies, so I couldn't stride through it.  But I took its photo!


would be my favourite, if it weren't for what appears to be some sort of bloodstained rock in the lower centre.  That's actually a sheep, and I'm quite sure I meant it to be in the photo, but I was moving when I snapped it.  The sheep's been marked, so finders will know which farmer it belongs to (I know this because I saw such markings on the sheep on my then-boyfriend's farm when I went to visit.  I'd completely forgotten that until I saw this sheep, when I suddenly remembered that I remembered).

Because of the sheep, THIS is my favourite.  I regret the prominence of the side mirror, but it's marginally better than a wounded sheep:

I also quite like this one.  Something about the flatness of the ground and the great looming cloud overhead appeals to me.  

Somehow, describing these photos smacks of showing holiday snapshots to unwilling victims. Sorry about that.  It really was beautiful, though.  There's almost nothing nicer than proceeding through green countryside (or muddy countryside) with a stunning sky appearing and re-appearing around you...

This afternoon I went to a production of five short plays by Samuel Beckett.

They were:  Rough for Theatre I, Rockaby, Act Without Words II, Neither, and Come and go.  I love Beckett, I really do.  By rights, that love is very odd.  Beckett plays usually have no discernible plot; the people do aimless things (as they do when there's no plot to aim for); they often speak randomly and very fast. All of these things would usually mean that I wouldn't be interested -- not that I would dislike the stuff, but that it simply wouldn't hold my interest.  What I would like about Beckett is his grimness, but that grimness is actually a cliche, and not very accurate, so under normal circumstances I would expect myself to like the idea of Beckett, but not the works themselves.

But, no:  I love the works themselves.  I think this has to do in part with the fact that I don't really conceive of Beckett as gloomy or grim (as I just said).  He sees life as fundamentally meaningless or futile, that's true.  But the thing is, if you don't believe in an afterlife, life is fundamentally meaningless and futile:  you come in for no reason, leave at an unknown but nonetheless inescapable hour, and in between you do a bunch of stuff that fills up the time.  And that stuff is very important and meaningful to you, but ultimately it doesn't change anything, really (okay, okay, unless you're, say, Jonas Salk), and the only plot that exists is the one that's impressed by you or other people.  And I really, honestly, don't find that a depressing way to look at life.  Because that doesn't change the fact that you can fill up that time with wonderful, joyous, or illuminating experience, which will be incredibly important to you, the liver, no matter whether it's of larger importance or not.  I think that's great.

Okay, so leaving aside the grimness issue, I think what I love about Beckett is the way in which people in his plays try to make connections.  Well, I guess I'd have to say the way people try to make connections and fail.  This is not to say I find the work enjoyable; it's more as Mr. Fennyman says of Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare in Love:  "Sad...and wonderful."  For example, Rockaby is, in this production, a woman telling the story of her own life, in metaphor, as a life in which she first wanders the streets looking for "one other, like herself."  When she doesn't find such a one, she gives up and stays in her house, a house where she keeps looking out of the windows, but only other empty windows, or windows with their blinds down, face back. So eventually she pulls down her own blind and makes her way to the basement.  And of course this is awful, tragic, but it's such a wonderful description of a terrible kind of life, and a kind of life that one might sometimes feel one has, in which one tries to make contact with others - or to find love - tries to see into them and be seen into in return, but to no avail.  And of course there are people whose lives are like that (and I certainly think that one thing Beckett is suggesting is that all our lives really are like that, and I don't know if he's right).  Then, in Act without Words II, two men come on stage and get in sacks; first one man gets out of his sack, and everything goes wrong for him, and he crawls back into his sack; then the other man gets out of his sack, and everything goes right for him, and he crawls back into his sack.  And this, too, I took to be a metaphor for the way life seems, or perhaps even is:  one man has a life of nothing but mucking it up and being thwarted, and one has a life of nothing but smoothness.

In both cases here, the analogy or metaphor through which Beckett chooses to offer his vision of life is what makes the work so affecting, and so meaningful.  

The woman who performed Rockaby, Kathryn Hunter, was just astounding.  In fact, she was wonderful in all three of the pieces she was in:  she seemed to me to be, like Billie Whitelaw, a born Beckett actress.  I was thoroughly stunned by Rockaby altogether.  I wept all through it.  Sad...and wonderful.
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05 September 2008

Ah, David Bowie!

That's right, I ch-ch-changed the template.  But I'm not sure what I think about it...
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01 September 2008

Mmm, Blueberries!

Pret a Manger is a chain of British stores that sells fresh sandwiches, salads, and various other kinds of light, and usually cold, food.  They are one of my favourite chains - I really do find the food delicious, and not too heavy. Sometime last year they rolled out a series of in-store illustrations that were supposed to evoke the freshness of their food; these featured various anthropomorphised foodstuffs.  When I was here in January I saw one that delighted me, and last week I finally saw it again. It reminds me of Don Juan:

The reasons for this reminder might be more clear if I show you Delacroix's painting of the relevant scene from Juan:

I'm sure you get it now.  Here's the stanza from the poem itself, which comes after the ship in which Juan has been travelling has been wrecked on the high seas, and some fortunate few have been able to get in lifeboats:

The boats, as stated, had got off before,
And in them crowded several of the crew.
And yet their present hope was hardly more
Than what it had been, for so strong it blew
There was slight chance of reaching any shore.
And then they were too many, though so few,
Nine in the cutter, thirty in the boat
Were counted in them when they got afloat. (II.54)

So, Pret a Manger, I salute you:  not just fresh foodstuffs, but shipwrecked blueberries, too.
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