Author Archives: Harry Cochrane

Matthew Hollis – The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem

Ted Hughes said “Each year Eliot’s presence reasserts itself at a deeper level, to an audience that is surprised to find itself more chastened, more astonished, more humble”. So it’s strange to learn in The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem that Eliot’s presence was very minor indeed before the publication of the poem in question. Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) had made ripples, but Poems (1920) had sunk beneath imputations of coldness, heartlessness, and the general idea that its author was not so much a poet as a satirist. Prufrock had been published in a run of a mere 500 copies; Poems was printed by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, but in only half that number. Eliot’s greatness was hardly a foregone conclusion.

Image credit: Faber

By and large, Matthew Hollis manages to recreate the uncertainty that Eliot must have felt. It would have been easy to write this ‘biography’ in the voice of hindsight, but teleological flash-forwards are few and, though we know how the story ‘ends’, we always sense that the stakes are high. The first half of the book actually has nothing directly to do with The Waste Land at all: it is as much about Ezra Pound as it is about Eliot, and as much about the reviewers as it is about the bards. Hollis brilliantly evokes the street-fight nature of publication and literary criticism, leaving us in no doubt as to the hostility that Eliot, Pound, Joyce et al. had to weather, or the independent-mindedness of the few who dared promote them. The composition of Poems, according to one review, had been time spent “very laboriously writing nothing”, while Prufrock and Other Observations met with the opinion that “erudition is one thing, the dictionary another, and poetry different from either of them”.

Thank God that Pound, unlike Eliot, was not easily demoralized. For Hollis, there is no overstating Pound’s role in the The Waste Land (or to use the working title provided by Dickens, He Do the Police in Different Voices), from the micro-edits to the badgering of publishers. He made good on one of his oft-quoted modernist manifestos – “To break the pentameter, that was the first heave” – and was constantly steering Eliot away from his instinctive formal purism. Part II, ‘A Game of Chess’, originally opened “The chair she sat in, like a burnished throne, / Glowed on the marble, where the swinging glass”: Pound knocked out the “swinging”, which jolted the stiff blank verse into something twitchier. He culled whole passages, such as the scatological couplets which started Part III, ‘The Fire Sermon’. He whittled down Part IV, ‘Death by Water’, to a tenth of its size, and he had the intelligence to leave Part V, ‘What the Thunder Said’, virtually untouched.

But Eliot arrived at some of the most important decisions himself. How different the first lines of the poem might have looked:                

First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom’s place,
There was old Tom, boiled to the eyes, blind…
Then we had dinner in good form, and a couple of Bengal lights.
When we got into the show, up in Row A,
I tried to put my foot in the drum, and didn’t the girl squeal…

Eliot realised that this wasn’t the register he was after, and at some point – it is not quite clear when – he came up with a radical alternative:                                                 

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Hollis pinpoints the crucial event: April is “not a month of growing or nourishing or nurturing as any other spring might expect, but breeding, as animals and bacteria breed.” He manages to convey the excitement of this, one of literature’s Big Bang moments, without resorting to any cheap tricks. It’s enough to know that breeding, at the end of the line, serves as a “supercharger”, one that “would fuel the early engine of the poem through a chain of reacting echoes. Breeding, mixing, stirring, covering, feeding.”

Draft of ‘A Game of Chess’

The Waste Land is often narrowly read as a symptom of a collapsing marriage, but A Biography of a Poem nuances Vivien Eliot’s reputation as a worry and a nerve-frayer. The truth is that both parties were constantly breaking down, taking it in turns to nurse each other back to precarious health; moreover, Vivien offered another sounding-board for Eliot’s draftsmanship, and her hand lives on in the finished poem. It was she, Hollis believes, who argued for Lil’s husband being “demobbed“, instead of the flabby “coming back out of the Transport Corps”. Vivien’s rehabilitation is a surprise; another is that Eliot composed straight onto a typewriter, working only from the sketchiest pencil notes. Indeed, there was little of the ‘professional’ poet about him: no real writing routine, no cave to retreat to. John Berryman summed up the Eliot phenomenon best: “he would collect himself and write a masterpiece, then relax for several years writing prose, earning a living, and so forth; then he’d collect himself and write another masterpiece, very different from the first, and so on…a pure system of spasms.”

“A system of spasms” could at times describe Hollis’ book, whose structure occasionally crosses to the wrong side of quirky. 187 pages in, we cut back several decades to Hailey, Idaho, where Pound was born in 1885; there are similar excursus on the Eliot family, one of which (admittedly early on) widens into a nine-page history of their hometown of St Louis, Missouri. These scene changes are sometimes effected with rather too much sense of their own style. A discussion of Eliot’s Poems is followed by a section break, then: “Remote, extreme, foreign: such was the mind of W. B. Yeats. Subtle, erudite, massive: that of James Joyce.” It all gets back on topic soon enough, of course – we learn that Yeats never cared for Eliot’s poetry – but in a book that is overwhelmingly both scholarly and fascinating, those adjectival triads are trying a little too hard. I would have swapped them for a bit more date-dropping, as I often found myself wondering whether it was 1920, ’21 or ’22. No doubt Hollis is keen to avoid a linear through-line that could have made The Waste Land seem inevitable, a cosy assurance that ‘he’ll make it in the end’ – he did, but Eliot couldn’t have known that for sure.

Maybe he suspected it, though. One of the most spinetingling passages in The Waste Land: A Biography is an extract from the diary of Virginia Woolf, who had failed to catch a train with the poet that she published.

‘Missing trains is awful’ I said. ‘Yes. But humiliation is the worst thing in life’ he replied. ‘Are you as full of vices as I am?’ I demanded. ‘Full. Riddled with them.’ ‘We’re not as good as Keats’ I said. ‘Yes we are’ he replied. ‘No; we dont write classics straight off as magnanimous people do.’ ‘We’re trying something harder’ he said.

by Harry Cochrane

The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem is published by Faber and is available here

William Boyd – The Romantic

‘This is a true story’, The Romantic all but begins. It is based, supposedly, on the incomplete biography of Cashel Greville Ross (1799-1882), which William Boyd is meant to have obtained a few years ago and which peppers the novel’s sporadic footnotes. The reader is part of a game from the outset, but one that is easily settled by a bare minimum of research. Cashel Ross did not exist; nor, probably, did ‘W.B.’ actually sign off his preface from the same city in which Joyce finished A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – ‘Trieste | February 2022’. The play’s the thing.

Image credit: Penguin

If Cashel had lived, he would enjoy a sizeable entry in Encyclopedia Britannica: IQ aside, he is essentially a nineteenth-century Forrest Gump. He is raised by a single mother (initially pretending to be his aunt) in County Cork. He joins up and fights at Waterloo, where he is wounded not quite in the ‘but-tocks’ but a little lower. He is cashiered for refusing to exterminate rebellious villagers in Sri Lanka, and then falls in with Byron and the Shelleys at Pisa. This is particularly tempting but always treacherous ground for a novelist, and whether Boyd has a handle on His Lordship is open to debate. His Byron has little in the way of verbal panache; in fact he reads like an insecure, intemperate bore. “[Shelley] knew that I was the greater artist. But he couldn’t live with the fact that he was inferior to me, socially speaking. In terms of rank”. This doesn’t sound much like the Byron who survives in letters and journals and anecdotes, but then Byron probably didn’t.

But if Boyd avoids the pitfalls of ham, the defining episode of Cashel’s life is a piece of Byronic plagiarism. It’s not so much that Cashel, like Byron, should fall into a passionate relationship in Ravenna – which of us hasn’t done that? – but that the relationship should be with a young, singular countess under the very roof of her weird, wizened husband. For Cashel and Contessa Raphaella Rezzo and Count Giacomo, read Byron and Contessa Teresa Gamba and Count Guiccioli. One can’t help but suspect Boyd if not of contempt, then at least an underestimation of his readers, and this shameless lifting is one of the many telltales of an author who ploughs the poppy fields of pop-lit. Being lightweight is not a crime, of course, and at least this pop sensibility lends itself to discussions of Love in all its weird, heaving brain chemistry. When Cashel meets Raphaella, “he [knows] – as an animal knows – that he had found his mate”, which doesn’t mean that Boyd will immediately give them the mind-blowing, eye-rolling sex that we think we know is coming. In fact, their first congress takes place in a cramped brougham with a servant keeping watch outside. But things get much better before they get worse, when Cashel writes Raphaella a snarling farewell and storms out of Ravenna, almost immediately starting to regret it.

We never really get to know Cashel, maybe because Boyd never tests our sympathies very far. He enjoys a good number of liaisons, as the book’s title suggests; but like Byron’s Don Juan, he is less of a great seducer than a great seducee. Claire Clairmont invites him swimming – to the outrage of a spluttering Shelley – and he accepts her further invitations on the warm sand. He is unmasked as the famous author of Nihil by a genial salonnière, and undressed: “As she had confidently predicted, [he] succumbed to Mrs Davenport early in the morning.” In New England he sleeps with the engaging Frances Broome, an apple farmer who reminds him of Raphaella; but we suppose that he wouldn’t have done so if his wife, Brìd Corcoran, had not been consumed by religious mania and ended their sexual relations. Boyd’s comment is spare to the point of perfunctory: “Cashel decided that the best and only course of action was to wait it out…He was always smiling at her, no matter what he was thinking”. The second sentence is talismanic of our mild but mildly boring hero; the first, meanwhile, is typical of Boyd’s urge to hurry things along. Pace is good, of course, but it’s the pace of a skimming stone, bouncing from place to place and rarely getting below the surface. A monkey bite in Zanzibar, for instance, sends Cashel spiralling through a handful of urgent paragraphs:

By now Cashel developed a fever, far worse than the malarial ones that he’d experienced in the expedition. He felt raging heat flaring up, in and around his body, and his bed was soon soaked in sweat. Then he began to lose track of time, not knowing whether one day or three had past, or which night he awoke, doubled up with agonizing, contorting cramps in his abdomen. His whole left leg was now discoloured, the skin hard with a dark brown crust that cracked and oozed blood when he put any weight on it. Only Kendal Black Drop provided any release or oblivion.

The prose is perfectly smooth and serviceable, oiled by pat collocations like “raging heat flaring up”, “soaked in sweat”, “lose track of time”. The narrative quality seems secondary to the action, and one fancies that Boyd is writing the source text for a film script, which is where most of his fiction ends up. Perhaps this is always a risk with the ‘life novel’, in which he has carved such a niche.

The Romantic works better when we accept that the protagonist is not Cashel but the nineteenth century itself, which develops, evolves and expands even as its journeyman remains remarkably ageless. The very title suggests that Cashel belongs to the time of the Shelleys and Byron; however well he adapts to later decades, we feel a growing nostalgia for the pre-Victorian age that we typically call ‘Romantic’. This is partly due to Boyd’s spare but convincing touches of period detail, so that we perceive a changing social timbre even without realizing it. Perhaps no surprise, then, that the final chapters should fulfil the promise of the cover image, as Cashel makes for the most romantic, cinematic, and out-of-time city of all.

by Harry Cochrane

The Romantic is published by Penguin and is available here.

John Banville – April in Spain

“Terry Tice liked killing people”, begins John Banville’s nineteenth novel: “it was a matter of making things tidy…he had nothing personal against any of his targets…except insofar as they were clutter.” In a certain sense, Banville knows whereof he writes: April in Spain is a clutter-free giallo, utterly filleted of red herrings. It’s not a detective novel; it’s a crime novel, in which the characters converge on the nexus of their fates.

Image credit: Faber

This is my fifth Banville but my first Banville thriller. The man himself used to be frightfully coy about his genre fiction, churning out his Quirke series, set in the 1950s, under the name of Benjamin Black (the nineteen books cited above do not include the novels on the Black list). Only recently has he acknowledged Quirke as his own, which seems like good sense – everyone knew that Black was Banville, and it’s only worth having a pseudonym if you’re going to do it properly, like Elena Ferrante.

Again, April in Spain is not a detective novel, and Quirke (we never learn his first name) is not a detective. He is the Irish state pathologist, but we meet him out of the office: his second wife Evelyn has dragged him away for a holiday in San Sebastián, which he endures with studied ill grace. Banville loses no time in flagging up Quirke’s failings. He sulks. He boozes. He asks for his steak well-done. He “enjoy[s] occasions of social awkwardness”, and expends some energy on others’ discomfiture. All this is serenely borne by the saintly Evelyn, who indulges his strops and loves him unconditionally. When Quirke finds himself in hospital – courtesy of takeaway oysters and a pair of nail scissors – he meets an Irish medic called Angela Lawless, who jogs something in his memory. Eventually he clocks that she is April Latimer, sometime tearaway friend of his daughter Phoebe. Except that April Latimer has been declared dead these four years, murdered by a mad brother.

From this point – roughly a third of the way through – Quirke ceases to be the narrative tentpole of the book and becomes one interior voice among many. The investigation falls to his daughter Phoebe, who makes the mistake of mentioning the news to April’s repulsive uncle William Latimer, Irish Secretary of Defence. Latimer extorts the help of the deviously bland Ned Gallagher, a civil servant who cannot afford to be outed from the closet, which is where he keeps all the ministers’ skeletons (and he himself has some rather more serious secrets than his sexuality). Phoebe, for her part, comes out to Spain under the protection of Detective Inspector St John Strafford, who plays the main role in Banville’s previous thriller, Snow.

Thus the narrative slinkies from one character to another, with virtually everybody getting at least one chapter except Evelyn, who remains as unknowable to her husband as she does to her reader. In fact Evelyn, who is Austrian, is the one voice on which Banville occasionally trips up: he tries to convince us that “English was the language in which she was least proficient” and makes her stumble over some unlikely words like “confound”, while not letting her miss a beat in lines like “Remember what you told me about Hemingway, that he brushed his teeth only with brandy because there were so many germs in the [Spanish] water?” More assured is Terry Tice’s geezer schtick, which goes far beyond mere patina and deep into the ventricles of his brain – indeed, as we head into the final act, it feels more like a Tice novel than a Quirke novel. On a whim, Terry buys a copy of Brighton Rock, and we follow his progress with it. “The book wasn’t bad, though he hadn’t read many books so he couldn’t really judge. The people in it were the sort he knew, though they were described in an exaggerated way. They were loud and brightly painted, like characters in a pantomime.” The literary faculty of Terry’s mind has hardly developed past childhood, hence the gauche, almost touching naiveté of his criticism. For the same reason, “the author” is never named: Graham Greene means nothing to him.

Banville has always done a good line in psychopathy (see The Book of Evidence), and Terry Tice is a psychopath who stirs both pity and queasiness. When an unwitting Phoebe spies him leaving the bookshop, he strikes her as “a sorry runt of a thing…going along at a rapid sort of strut, shoulders back and pelvis thrust forward…a not quite life-sized and in some way damaged manikin.” But if Terry is damaged, so is most of the cast. Quirke used to be a dysfunctioning alcoholic, and is now just a functioning one. Phoebe grew up believing him her uncle rather than her father. Evelyn’s family were exterminated in the Holocaust, though not even Quirke is allowed to know her parents’ names or how many siblings she lost. So the whole thing is pretty noirish, with only a light dusting of crime fiction’s campier pleasures. There’s no real sleuthing, no great moment of revelation; just the dread of the inevitable dénouement. And it’s a skill, keeping the reader hurtling towards what they know is going to happen.

by Harry Cochrane

April in Spain is published by Faber and is available here.

J. L. Carr – A Month in the Country

I’ve seen the film. I probably wouldn’t have picked up the book but for learning that J. L. Carr died the very day I was born. The title doesn’t do it any favours, I think: ‘A Month in the Country’ calls up Georgian images of greenwood trees and dusty parsons, the complacent England that Laurie Lee had to get out of. And the Guardian’s words on the front cover – “tender and elegant” – read less like a ringing endorsement than a stifled yawn. A good thing, then, that A Month in the Country speaks for itself, unlike the Booker-shortlisted ephemera that actually need a volley of press quotes.

Image credit: Penguin

It’s summer 1920. Tom Birkin is a young art restorer with a twitch from the trenches. His wife has run off with another man. He arrives in the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby, where he has been commissioned to uncover a whitewashed medieval mural in the parish church. The money comes from the late Miss Hebron, who is also funding another veteran, Charles Moon, to dig around in the neighbouring fields for an illustrious ancestor: all this archaeology takes place under sufferance of the Reverend J. G. Keach, who has Protestant misgivings about what the images might do for his flock’s attention span. As Birkin’s month passes and the locals make themselves known to him from down in the pews – he sleeps where he works, on the scaffolding – he realizes that he is falling in love with the vicar’s wife, Alice.

The narrative is signed off by Birkin as an old man, looking back on this month from nearly sixty years on. But age has not wearied him: his memory is sharp. Despite the idyllic Yorkshire setting – not a Yorkshire of Brontë heathland, but a Yorkshire of lavish greenery and stolid heat – the War never feels very far away. Carr doesn’t lay it on thick, and Birkin rarely alludes to it himself; his facial tic serves as an objective correlative. “I don’t need to be told you didn’t catch that twitch on the North-Eastern Railway,” Moon observes, “so we may as well start straight away swapping stories about the same bloody awful place.” But the stories remain between them, and reader is left to imagine.

However, A Month in the Country is not a well-worn tale of a damaged soul healing in an innocent, ingenuous community. Yes, it’s an unconditional welcome that Birkin receives from all the lay locals, especially from the Ellerbeck family, and by the end of the month his facial spasms have virtually disappeared. But Birkin’s hosts are far from pastoral cliché, just as Keach is far from a cardboard antagonist. When Birkin visits the vicarage to claim his first payment, a gothic cloud descends upon the prose. Alice Keach meets him on the doorstep, reeling from a nightmare: “trees had been closing in on her, first swaying menacingly, then dragging up their roots and actually advancing…And the air, it too had pressed in till she felt the house had become a compression chamber.” Lesser novels would pin it squarely on her husband and paint him as a country Casaubon, but it’s here that Carr gives Keach his own vulnerabilities, in “this wilderness of a house” where “they huddled together for each other’s company.” Later on, in a final showdown with Birkin, Keach allows himself a flickering moment of candour: “It’s not easy. The English are not a deeply religious people.”

Be that as it may, the old pieties hold very firm in Oxgodby, which lies too far from the Front for the shells to have pounded away Christian belief. One of the most touching scenes, omitted from the film, comes when Birkin, Mr Ellerbeck, his daughter Kathy and the blacksmith Mr Dowthwaite troop down to Ripon to find a new organ for the church. They incense the contemptuous vendor by holding a mini choir practice, under Mr Ellerbeck’s direction:

Here Kathy, let’s have No. 264, “Low, He comes with clouds descending once for guilty sinners slain”. It’s got  plenty of go in it.’…

   And off they went; Kathy leading off in an unusually strong soprano howl, Mr Ellerbeck’s exaggerated tenor almost harmonizing with the blacksmith’s basso profundo (both mighty hands across his waistcoat)…it was a splendid noise and they were well into verse 3 before a maniacal yell choked them off: it was the proprietor, beside himself with rage.

Amidst all these set pieces, the Oxgodby Last Judgement is inching into view, piece by piece, figure by figure, fanning out beneath the fearsome gaze of Christ – “no catalogue Christ, insufferably ethereal. This was a wintry hardliner.” Carr seems to know his technical stuff, his cinnabars and his sinoper haematites, but the poetry of these passages really turns the mural into something like a living organism, as it is for his protagonist. At some point on the job, it strikes Birkin that one of his flaming wretches is a portrait: “a crescent shaped scar on his brow made this almost certain” (and without wishing to drop spoilers, that scar turns out to be symbolically significant). If Birkin’s trek to the vicarage has shades of gothic, his exposure of the painting reads a lot like a detective story – but not entirely, because detective stories don’t give the sense of two people communing across a space of centuries, and detective stories always wrap up neatly. A Month in the Country doesn’t wrap up neatly; it bears out the either/or nature of Yeats’ choice, perfection of the life or of the work.

by Harry Cochrane

A Month in the Country is published by Penguin and is available here.

Susan Sontag – Notes on Camp

This is not so much a review as some notes on the Notes: “Footnotes on ‘Camp’”, I should really call it. Note the punctuation in the title: “Camp sees everything in quotation marks”, notes Sontag. “To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role”. The inverted commas capture Camp’s fugitive nature, for “to talk about Camp is…to betray it”. Hence her “Notes” are precisely that: nothing so grand as an essay, just 58 bullet points, most of them no longer than a paragraph or two.

Image credit: Penguin

Sontag starts with the premise that Camp stresses artifice and style, or stylization. It is dégagé and apolitical, which is not to say heartless. Indeed, to jump ahead to the closing remarks, “Camp is generous. It…find[s] the success in certain passionate failures”. And “The Ultimate Camp Statement: it’s good because it’s awful”. Of course, many awful things are just awful, and a lot of Camp things are great just because they’re great, not because of any Camp the Redeemer. The point is that Camp lies off the rails of value judgements, beyond the reach of Rhadamanthine pundits.

Sontag pinpoints the turn of the eighteenth century as one of the great Camp boomtimes, and Alexander Pope as the great Camp High Priest. It then, she argues, largely kept its head down until the late nineteenth century, when it was exhumed by the Pre-Raphaelites and Oscar Wilde. Wilde is Sontag’s Camp spirit animal, whose witticisms round off many a paragraph. Indeed, it was Wilde who unwittingly provided the libretto to Richard Strauss’ opera Salome, which appears – specifically Luchino Visconti’s production of it – in Sontag’s arbitrary catalogue of Camp things. Strauss himself recurs as one of Sontag’s Camp icons, while Wagner, for all his absurd over-the-topness, does not: some things can be “’too important’, not marginal enough” to be Camp.

No other reason could explain Sontag’s omission of Byron, whom I would have thought ticked all the Camp boxes. Epicurian, check; epicene, in many ways. Urbane, there was none more; and Sontag insists that Camp, being artificial, is by definition an urban (and first world) phenomenon. Byron’s poetry “dethrone[s] the serious”, as Camp is meant to do; it is exaggerated and amplified, as Camp is meant to be. It also defies the traditional trammels of worth. The question “Is Byron’s Don Juan good or bad?” doesn’t make a lot of sense. It is simply brilliant and enviable.

So we might consider: what English poetry from, say, the last hundred years could reasonably be described as Camp? Maybe parts of Auden, but less than you would think. Wendy Cope is more outright comic than Camp. Dorothy Parker’s poems are arch, clipped, scathing and superb, but smack of an author “wholly conscious”, in Sontag’s words, “when one plays at being campy” – and with such a high percentage of her poems threatening suicide, she does rather lack the requisite Camp joie de vivre. Whisper it, but I might propose Seamus Heaney as one of the great occasional (and highly controlled) masters of Camp: less in his nuggety bog-and-viking poems – often overwritten, and always dead serious – than in his sonnets, where the lines are allowed to stretch like the limbs of a ballerina.

…What would I meet, blood-boltered, on the road?
How deep into the woodpile sat the toad?
What welters through this dark hush on the crops?
Do you remember that pension in Les Landes…

The rhetorical questions are laced with Camp, especially when couching such a hyperbolically Beowulfian compound as “blood-boltered”. The italicized French adds a bit of Camp, as does the bathos and the non-sequitur of the road/toad full-rhyme; while “this dark hush” nibbles at the hammy. The middle two lines also affect a Camply archaic syntax – modern English prose-speech would ask “how deep into the woodpile did the toad sit?”, if we can imagine such a question being asked at all. Instead, Heaney opts for a sentence structure that would spook most contemporary poets, which is one of the reasons why contemporary poetry so often seems to take itself so seriously.

But Notes on ‘Camp’ actually has more to say about other, more popular art forms. It’s a shame that it was first printed in 1964; had she waited but one more year, Sontag would have witnessed a modern icon of Camp strut onto the big time in the gyrating form of Mick Jagger. And one wonders what she would have made of heavy metal, whose British permutations often seem like Camp’s supreme embodiment. Iron Maiden and Judas Priest are invariably at their strongest when at their campest; the opposite is true of (the American) Metallica, whose high points are crushing slabs of irrefutable moral seriousness. Naturally, much of this is down to the bands’ respective lyrics, wardrobes and general attitudes, rather than their instrumentation, though we might question Sontag’s belief that “Concert music…being contentless, is rarely Camp” – an idea that at least begs a definition of “contentless”.

This reader would also have appreciated a fuller exploration of Camp as it relates to gender. Sontag does have a few female totems of Camp, it’s true – “The Cuban pop singer La Lupe” and “the great serious idol of Camp taste, Greta Garbo…[whose] incompetence (at the least, lack of depth) as an actress enhances her beauty.” But it seems to me that she’s talking about acts, performances, about these women’s art, not about their mannerisms. One can dress Camply, one can favour Camp décor; can we picture a woman with, let’s say, Camp gestures and speech traits? When it comes to the tics, is Camp the sole preserve of the male? But maybe it doesn’t matter: maybe we’re just talking about the tics of an iceberg. Sontag sees a bigger picture, in which “Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers”.

by Harry Cochrane

Notes on ‘Camp’ is published by Penguin and is available here.

Michael Henderson – That Will Be England Gone

T. S. Eliot wrote an essay called ‘To Criticise the Critic.’ Michael Henderson surely considered calling his book To Criticise the Cricket, but then he would have been limited to talking about cricket. That Will Be England Gone – a title cribbed from another poet, Philip Larkin – is a book with little concept of limit or restraint: it arraigns everything from the modern Scouser to latter editions of the BBC Proms. If it’s new, it’s fair game, and duly hammered beneath the crushing density of Henderson’s prose.

Image credit: Hachette

For That Will Be England Gone is a very dense book, in a certain sense of the word; and though its page count stops at 296, an extremely thick one too. Once you attune to Henderson’s way of “thinking”, there are depressingly few surprises, apart from how he manages to draw the wrong conclusions from the right premises. He justly laments the near-disappearance of cricket from the state schools, but, in Henderson’s world, this just argues the need for private education. The chapter in question – nominally about Derbyshire – ends on possibly his smuggest crescendo, reporting the (alleged) words of one Andreas: “We Germans are educated to be obedient…You English are educated to be independent”. One has the impression of reading a platoon address from Captain Mainwaring.

But of course, the English nation does not represent the end to Henderson’s tribal loyalties. He oh-for-the-days when Yorkshire Cricket Club could only select players born within its county borders: no racism scandals back then, one can almost hear him reasoning. He is suspicious of (now former) England captain Joe Root, who “doesn’t talk like a Yorkie. Players to him are ‘the guys’, a word that [Len] Hutton never used in all his born years. He smiles easily.” And worst of all, Root is suspected of taking more pride in his England than in his Yorkshire victories. Yes Joe, how dare you be pleasant and pluralist? You need a good stint down t’pit, a smack around t’ead, and then you’ll appreciate God’s own country a bit more.

One almost admires Henderson’s bloodhoundish ability to sniff out malaise in every corner of contemporary Britain while patting himself and his generation on the back, which he obviously loves keeping firmly to the wall. Another moment of regal tone-deafness: “It is certainly true that English English has more layers of meaning than American English. [But] Irony, sarcasm, understatement and wordplay do not belong exclusively to us.” Reading That Will Be England Gone, one really feels obliged to cross out that word “exclusively”. Kevin Pietersen, who left South Africa to make his name as one of England’s greatest batsmen, was apparently hamstrung by “his inability to understand English humour”. Henderson, naturally, has a devastating command of English humour, and proves this by finding some back-cover endorsements from Michael Parkinson and Sebastian Faulks, both of whom appear between the covers as well, in glowing terms. Oh Hendo, you card.

The thing is, he’s preaching to the choir. I am a cricket lover, the only type of person that would ever pick up a book like this. And he makes some valid points, whether on The Hundred, the England Cricket Board’s £300 million gimmick; on the dilution of first-class cricket, and on his favourite hobby horse, our ever-dwindling attention spans. There’s at least a grain of truth in much of what he says; the problems are a) he says it so gracelessly and b) so little of it needs pointing out, at least in a book like this. Premiership football “is run for the benefit of foreign billionaires who have no emotional attachment to the clubs they have bought.” Well yes, but I didn’t pick up a book subtitled The Last Summer of Cricket to be lectured on the moral bedevilments of another sport; still less on the shortcomings of the modern Church of England, which Henderson sees as dumber-downer in chief.

But that’s indicative of a general lack of structure. Each chapter is vaguely ubicated in a particular area of England, where Henderson tootles through a list of local historical greats, cricketing or not, and picks fights with just about anything more recent. A mid-volume excursus on northern comics eventually winds its way back to the cricket, but it’s only a matter of time before he goes off in pursuit of some perceived evil. Opera directors, why not? Many of them “have the gall to imagine they know more about the work than the writer or composer. Humility…is essential”. Hmm, quite. Of all the things to dislike about That Will Be England Gone, perhaps the main one is that Henderson seems to imagine himself an authority on everything. In the acknowledgements, he thanks one (possibly the aforementioned) Andreas for having “persuaded me to write this book”, even though nothing therein suggests that he needed much persuasion. And is this really the book that the obedient German proposed, a book about everything and nothing?

Storm Henderson does eventually blow itself out, and the latter chapters achieve some sort of serenity, though hardly the “smooth and satisfying prose” that Faulks seems to find somewhere. Anecdotes about the cricket-loving Harold Pinter are well received, as the tone drifts into the melancholia embodied in Pinter’s tiny poem: “I saw Len Hutton in his prime / Another time / another time”. This new timbre works well for a twilit coda on Hardy’s Wessex, and on the gifted and (self-)destructive cricketers and cricket writers that the West Country produced. But it’s too late: by this point, Henderson will have shed just about all the readers who gave him a chance.

by Harry Cochrane

That Will Be England Gone is published by Constable and is available here.

Diana Athill – A Florence Diary

Diana Athill made her name in the publishing houses, and in 2016, at the age of 98, she decided that it was time the publisher became the published. The book in question was a slim diary that she had kept almost seventy years before, an account of her trip to Florence in 1947. She was never, she admits, a compulsive chronicler: she wrote it at the behest of her mother, who had begged her “Keep a diary for me”. Nowadays, we invite our loved (and unloved) ones into our holidays through Instagram stories, yet Mrs Athill’s entreaty still seems quite novel, far bolder than a simple plea for letters. There is a big difference between “Write to me” and “Write for me”.

Image credit: Granta

Back then, of course, one reached Italy by train or boat: Athill and her cousin Pen took the former, which at forty hours sounds like a pretty grim affair. They share their compartment with an Italian mother and her baby, whose “dirty nappies were hung on the rack to dry and then used again”. Nor is incontinence just for infants, as they discover when they arrive: “Pen has had the collywobbles today, although she has eaten exactly the same as I have and…I often lace my Chianti with the Arno”. Oh, what times, what customs, I smile as I idly open the Google searchbar. To my horror, I learn that the river still provides 90% of Florence’s tap water. “It seems very well filtered”, Athill promises.

Plus ça change, the more Florence stays the same. Those familiar with the city will enjoy the detective work occasioned by Athill’s vaguer notes, which require some piecing together. The “rather slummy part, where workmen sit in the doorways busily carpentering genuine antiques” must be San Frediano, because it opens up on the church of Santa Maria del Carmine. Nor have Florence’s visitors changed much over the last seventy years, as shown by “a most useful Englishman” who is soon revealed to be “a photo-fiend, who travels solely in order to take photos which he can show to helpless visitors”.

But who can blame him? There’s so much in Florence that begs the camera, and so little that can survive it. Athill’s own black-and-white snaps are well chosen: they focus on the details, a fruit vendor on a street corner, or a hole-in-the-wall serving drinks. Any grand bella vista, such as the famous view from Piazzale Michelangelo, is almost always diminished by the lens; and as for works of art, forget it. You really can’t photograph the Fra Angelico frescoes in the monastery-museum of San Marco, which Athill finds open at the fourth attempt. They have “a sort of early May morning freshness about them and the people all seem as though, if you watch them a moment more, they will complete the gestures they are making”. (The only thing that she sells short is their Daliesque freakiness, with no mention of the disembodied demonic heads that circle and snap at a crucified Christ). “We have felt about so many things ‘It would have been worth coming to Florence just to see that’ – but of Fra Angelico it is superlatively and utterly true”.

Of course, Athill’s register is of its time, which is part of its charm. There are all the “rathers” and the “jollys” and the “oh bliss! oh rapture! oh poop poop!” that we might expect. Still, they come as a surprise to anyone (admittedly, there can’t be many) who have read extracts of her letters to the late Sir Geoffrey Hill, a famously rebarbative poet who first published through André Deutsch, where Athill worked. “Your points a) and b)”, she replied to Hill’s list of grievances, “seem to me – I’m sorry – irrelevant”. Publishers are by necessity a hard-nosed breed, and the people at Granta who priced this 64-page volume at £9.99 are as brazen as any. But some books are expressly written with money in mind, and A Florence Diary is not one of them.

by Harry Cochrane

A Florence Diary is published by Granta and is available here.

David Batterham – Dear Howard: Tales Told in Letters

Never was there an apter book for a blog about books than a book by a book dealer. Even aptlier, it was found behind my bookshelves, just a few days ago. I have no idea how it got there, nor who gave it to me: I certainly didn’t buy it. But if Dear Howard tells us anything, it’s that provenance is always a misty business, and who knows where the thing will end up? David Batterham’s decades of letters to his friend, the painter Howard Hodgkin, never received a reply, but then they weren’t written in the spirit of pure correspondence. Batterham diagnoses himself as “a bit like an alcoholic about my letter-writing. I sneak off with my pad and binge a few pages, blanking out the real world and its problems.”

Image credit: Redstone Press

And certainly the world of book-dealing seems, if not unreal, at least unrecognizable to our humdrum lives. Batterham’s peers flounce in and out of the letters: one, “more irritating and successful every visit, has installed a pallid linguist who now conducts all conversations, though I am still allowed to shake his hand.” But if many of his contacts are necessary evils, some become dear and longstanding friends. A letter from Paris in 1990 touches on Charlotte and Jacques, who has just sold four Old Master sketches to the Louvre for 200,000 francs.

On my last visit we had been discussing whether collecting is an obsession, as Charlotte suspected, or a passion as Jacques insisted. Charlotte was very cheered when I said he seemed to have become more obsessive about his passion. Jacques just beamed and clearly thinks he’s more passionate than ever.

By this point, 200,000 francs bats no eyelids. We have long since learned that in the book trade, at least at this level, it’s some pretty handsome sums that change hands, then slip straight through the fingers. In May 1974, Batterham writes that “my overdraft has increased during the last eighteen months from ₤3,000 to ₤18,000. This ₤15,000 doesn’t seem to be on my shelves.” By 1987 he has got this down to ten grand, “but still [has] no stock to speak of.”

The money that Batterham spends on stock, wine and the odd trader-wooing blow-out, he saves on accommodation. The letters give off a shabby, Bohemian glamour, a sort of Graham Greenery with the due jet-setting – his raids include Texas, Tunisia, Venice, Istanbul, etc. – and the mildly vicious streak. In Texas he bumps into “a huge bald slob,” and in Barcelona “a fascinating Jewish gnome” by the scarcely credible name of Edmund X. Kapp (“his chief claim to renown seems to be that he is the only person for whom Picasso actually sat for a portrait”).

Indeed, Batterham is never far from greatness, or rather from the great and the good. We learn that he counted the late Prince Philip among his clientele for a while – “a good customer”, apparently, if an atypical one. “The Duke keeps a cupboard of goodies, such as the books he buys from me, so that people who want to give him a present can choose something he is known to like! They then buy it from him and give it back.” Perhaps we should not be surprised to learn that Batterham specialises “in books one can enjoy without having to read”: the kings of the coffee table, like Edward Lear reprints or Les Meilleurs Blés, “a seed catalogue with coloured lithographs of ears of corn.” Bibliomania takes many forms, and despite the presence of “no poetry, history or literature,” the reader rests assured of some heavy-duty, lightly-worn culture on Batterham’s part. None of which matters as much as the prose, which rarely strays or falters.

It might be that, like Plato, Batterham fights shy of Literature because it represents his great temptation. “I may be ‘in denial’ over my childhood ambition to be either a Tramp or an Author, or even both,” he admits. In a letter dated 3rd January 2000, he reports that he and his wife Val had a tryst with the Heaneys, Seamus and Marie, at Thomas Hardy’s childhood church on New Year’s Eve. They were there for the turn of the twenty-first century, right where Hardy himself had seen the turn of the twentieth. The party “huddled under a yew tree” to shelter from the pouring rain, while Seamus read “The Darkling Thrush”, Hardy’s great vigil poem on “The Century’s corpse”. If you and I had been party to that, profit and loss would likely have been far from our thoughts, too.

by Harry Cochrane

Dear Howard is published by Redstone Press and is available here.

James Joyce – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…
    His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

    Mr King told them that story in A-Level English. Kinglish, it was called.
    Mr King gave them each a book. It was fat and red, and full of essays in the back. He circled every word that Mr King said was important, and he circled every word that he thought was important too, and wrote notes so that he would remember why they were important. There were more important words than unimportant words.

So ends my poor pastiche of the book’s opening pages. For a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is pretty inimitable, largely because the style poses a moving target. It evolves, develops, possibly overdevelops over the course of its 200 pages, moving from the tactile babble of a toddler to an expatiation on Aquinas and aesthetics. But after all, Stephen Dedalus is a complex hero (and the book’s working title was Stephen Hero), one whose self-possession and self-regard go counterwise to his family’s fortunes. He is acutely aware of his strange surname, and of the namesake that he has to live up to. And in a coincidence that would surely have delighted Joyce, I have just re-read Portrait, for the first time in ten years, in a copy bought from a man called Icaro. An Icarus sold me a book about a Dedalus.

Boarding school, as we know, is often barbarous. Boarding school in late Victorian Ireland sounds worse than the hell that its rectors and præfects invoked to terrorize their wards. The heart bleeds for the young boy who boards at Clongowes, who is caned for having broken glasses but who can’t have the curiosity beaten out of him:

It was very big to think about everything and everywhere. Only God could do that. He tried to think what a big thought that must be but he could only think of God. God was God’s name just as his name was Stephen. Dieu was the French for God and that was God’s name too; and when anyone prayed to God and said Dieu then God knew at once that it was a French person that was praying.

You probably wouldn’t describe this passage by the overused term ‘stream-of-consciousness’, but I would like to see the paragraph that more touchingly translated the innocent wonderings of a child. It’s almost as tearjerking as the thought that comes to him out on the football field: “Soon they would be going home for the holidays. After supper in the study he would change the number pasted up inside his desk from seventyseven to seventysix.”

But Christmas does come in a matter of pages, and it’s a fraught affair. Parnell has just died, and the family friend Mr Casey dares to lay his death at the door of the Irish priesthood, all in the presence of the devout Dante (Stephen’s infant pronunciation of “auntie”). The tension simmers, then boils over:

– God and religion before everything! Dante cried. God and religion before the world.
Mr Casey raised his clenched fist and brought it down on the table with a crash.
– Very well, then, he shouted hoarsely, if it comes to that, no God for Ireland!
– John! John! cried Mr Dedalus, shaking his guest by the coat-sleeve.

Even the Fenian-minded Mr Dedalus, who has sided with Mr Casey up till now, balks at the blasphemy. And Stephen, “raising his terrorstricken face, saw that his father’s eyes were full of tears.”

Simon Dedalus grows the more pitiful over the book’s five chapters, while Stephen grows only the more pitiless. They have a father-and-son jaunt to the ancestral home in Cork, a nostalgia trip for Dedalus père and a purgatorial one for fils. Puberty has hit: Stephen writhes in disdain and desire, and addresses the latter with a paid partner in the Dublin stews. Their overtures have a poetry all of their own, as the lights dim on Chapter Two. He “closed his eyes, surrendering himself to her, body and mind, conscious of nothing in the world but the dark pressure of her softly parting lips.”

Thus Chapter Three finds Stephen in mortal sin, a fact that is brought terrifyingly home to him when he attends a spiritual retreat with his school. The speaker expounds upon the nature of hell, containing “All the filth of the world, all the offal and scum of the world…a neverending storm of darkness, dark flames and dark smoke of burning brimstone, amid which the bodies are heaped one upon another without even a glimpse of air.” So far, so hellish, but it’s Joyce’s image of eternity – the length of the sinner’s sentence – that tests the resolve of even the most secular reader:

Now imagine a mountain of […] sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space, and a million miles in thickness…and imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before the bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many eons upon eons of ages before it had carried away all. Yet at the end of that immense stretch of time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended. At the end of all those billions and trillions of years eternity would have scarcely begun.

One critic reached the end of the sermon and wondered: “My God, what if it’s all true?”

I’m not going to spoil what follows, because I don’t want to give anyone a reason not to read the book for themselves. Certainly, anyone with ambitions of tackling Ulysses should tackle Portrait first, as it stars the same artist and young man, often forgotten for the novel’s other, more famous protagonist Leopold Bloom. Among the general reading public, it seems to me that Portrait has always got lost between two stools. Unlike Dubliners, it doesn’t attract the more timid reader; unlike Ulysses, it doesn’t appeal to the vanity of the show-offs. (Though compared to the equally undermentioned Finnegans Wake, on which I have made three fruitless attempts, Ulysses reads like The Old Man and the Sea).

I have four copies of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which chimes with Joyce’s commitment to omnivorous plurality. Martin Amis argued that he “doesn’t respect the reader enough”; that rather than welcome you into his world, he gives you the wrong address and then, when you finally locate his house, he leaves you sitting on his doorstep for hours until he finally turns up, reeking of alcohol, and then he can’t find his keys… That metaphor may be true of Joyce after Portrait, but it isn’t quite true of Portrait itself. The artist is too young to yet be a drunkard.

– Newcastle 2011
– Firenze 2021

by Harry Cochrane

Humphrey Carpenter – W. H. Auden: A biography

In Lower Sixth, my English class trooped down to Newcastle’s Theatre Royal to see the new play by Alan Bennett, The Habit of Art. It was a play within a play: a fly-on-the-wall insight into rehearsals of Caliban’s Day, with its uptight, upcoming author looking on. The lead actor, Fitz, plays an old W. H. Auden, who is living out his last years in his alma mater of Christ Church, Oxford. He receives a series of visitors, including his former collaborator Benjamin Britten, a male prostitute, and an earnest young BBC journalist called Humphrey Carpenter.

Ten years later, I spent half a euro on Carpenter’s biography of Auden, not expecting that I would ever read it. Yet last month I did, building on the summer in which I finally ‘got’ Auden’s poetry. Auden disapproved of poets’ biographies, arguing that, unlike with “a man of action,” there was nothing about a poet’s life that a reader could possibly need to know. But he might have approved of Carpenter’s, which in the classical biographer’s tradition is sober, egoless (with one sole mention of “the present author”) and not over-familiar – “Wystan” cedes to “Auden” from the second chapter onwards, when the subject moves into adolescence. Ethically, the book lives up to its (fairly) morally upstanding – and intensely moralistic – protagonist.

Image credit: Oxford University Press

In many ways, Auden must have been a biographer’s dream: generous with his time, a bundle of quirks and eccentricities strapped into the strictest routine, and a font of “memorable speech,” his own definition of poetry. His personal magnetism pulled sundry characters into his orbit, and the book has some great names, like Edward Upward and Nob Snodgrass. Poets of varying quality soon fell under the umbrella of “the Auden school,” from the tall, curly-haired Stephen Spender to Louis MacNeice, who described the former as “a towering angel not quite sure if he was fallen.”

Whatever Spender’s condition, Auden certainly saw himself as fallen in some way. He once said that “Real artists are not nice people. All their best feelings go into their work and life has the residue.” But he himself did a pretty good job of disproving this. There was none of the self-regarding bard in him. One of his colleagues at the BBC, where he contributed to a few documentaries, admitted that he “kept bringing [the most beautiful verse], and – the cheek of us, in a way – we turned down so much.” Auden would say “All right, that’s quite all right. Just roll it up and throw it away.” He set no store by poetry’s post-Romantic elevation; he preferred the then (and still) unfashionable Pope and Dryden, whom he named as “the ideal poet to read when one is weary, as I often am, of poetry with a capital P.” In his later years, he reiterated a line quoted in Bennett’s play: “nothing I ever wrote saved one Jew from extinction or shortened the war by five seconds.” And as if to make up for this, his biography is littered with acts of charity, such as paying the school fees of two impoverished teenagers in Kirchstetten, the little Austrian town to which he retired. He had never met the boys in question.

Carpenter presents a picture of a man ruled by the clock and by notions of what a respectable person should be and should do, yet who frequently flummoxed all expectations. In 1935, his longtime friend and sometime lover Christopher Isherwood wrote to him on behalf of Erika Mann, daughter of Thomas: she was seeking a British passport as a way out of Hitler’s Germany. Auden replied with a telegram: DELIGHTED. After the wedding, he commented: “I didn’t see her till the ceremony and perhaps I shall never see her again. But she is very nice.” In fact, he and the Manns saw each other many times more over the years, with Auden fond of saying: “The most boring German writer? My father in law!”

A marriage of convenience is one thing, but the reader will be surprised to learn of Auden’s actual sexual affairs with women. He described himself as “quite ambidextrous,” and generally enjoyed his fair share of “copotomy and sodulation,” which Carpenter accounts for with a perfectly straight face. Neither prurient nor prudish, about the facts-of-life he is simply matter-of-fact, and that was probably quite a brave thing to be back in 1981. Even more so when we consider D. J. Taylor’s recent column in the Times Literary Supplement, which notes that it wasn’t really until the turn of the millennium that homosexuality became openly mentionable in obituaries, having previously lurked under the euphemism “he never married.” Which Auden, of course, did.

Before settling into a cosy High Church Anglicanism, Auden spent most of his pre-war life hunting for a bedrock of beliefs, which in physical terms gave him itchy feet. Like many Britons, he pitched into the Spanish Civil War, which he found a static, disillusioning limbo. In 1938 he and Isherwood sailed for China, whose creaky coalition of Nationalist and Communist government was held together only by war with Japan. It was all a bit of a jolly to the travellers, who immediately had business cards made with their names transcribed into Chinese phonetics: ‘Y Hsiao Wu’ and ‘Au Deng’. Au Deng sought out the fighting wherever it was thickest, seemingly impervious to danger. As Isherwood wrote to Spender, “Auden knows he won’t be killed, because Nanny would never allow it, and it Can’t Happen Here.”

My summer reading of Auden’s poetry left me with the strong impression of a poet who declined after the War, an impression shared by most of his contemporaries (Carpenter repeatedly begs to differ, but one wonders if he really believed his own defence). He succumbed to the ageing poet’s cardinal sin of tampering with their earlier work, invariably for the worse; and struck one of his most famous poems from his anthologies altogether. Thankfully, ‘September 1, 1939’ was already out there in the world, long past being reeled back in. And no wonder, given the first stanza:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

It may start in a dive in Fifty-Second street, but by line four the poem has soared to what Carpenter calls Auden’s “hawk’s vision,” with “a low dishonest decade” in his sights. It’s a lesson to all poets who fight shy of absolute values and moral judgements. And the final stanza is a lesson to all poets who kid themselves that the words they write make a greater difference than the lives they lead.

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Auden never reconciled himself to the last line, thinking “that’s a damned lie! We must die anyway.” In later versions, he changed it to “We must love one another and die.” Geoffrey Hill, as one of Auden’s successors as Oxford Professor of Poetry, ventured that Auden had forgotten his original motive: “He meant to die spiritually, and that seems to me an entirely acceptable sentiment.” But Auden eventually came to think the poem riddled with “dishonesty,” and completely disowned it. Its very mention would probably earn Carpenter a black mark, in his book. But then, good biographers spare no blushes, and Carpenter is a very good biographer. He also wrote Lives of Tolkien, Britten, Evelyn Waugh, Ezra Pound, John Murray, and one presumes that they are all as clear, as readable and as unconceited as Auden: A biography. As Bennett notes in the preface to The Habit of Art, he deserves a biography all to himself.

by Harry Cochrane

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