Category Archives: mistranslations

Samhain!

20131030-233033.jpg Every October as a kid, some time about midway through the month, on a Saturday, my parents would announce it was time to go to Tice’s Farms and pick a pumpkin. Our mouths would water and our eyes would form wide euphoric circles. Forget Halloween. For my brother Paul and I, Tice’s Farms was the event of the season. Vast patches of pumpkins great and small just off the main road in Woodcliff, New Jersey, guarded by sentries of scarecrows with painted face pumpkin heads, gilded with American country charm (which is extra challenging in New Jersey), exuding the olfactory sensations of fermented apple, warm dough, cinnamon and sugar, and rivalled only by the almost-as-good Van Riper’s Farm across the way, Tice’s Farms, or Tice Farms to give it it’s proper name, still embodies the beauty of the fall in America for me. 20131030-234550.jpg For at Tice Farms we glutted ourselves on Autumn itself. We began the day paying 25 cents for a small refillable paper cup which we would fill from the spigot of one of several large aged wooden barrels full of cider (non-alcoholic of course). We would then use the same cups to return to the same barrels to water ourselves throughout the day until our young mouths were glazed and sticky with the sour/sweet taste of Red Delicious. We paid another quarter to fill our bellies with warm donuts hung from metal hooks behind glass displays and coated simply in cinnamon or sugar, having watched, like Pavlov’s dogs, the ring shaped pieces of dough dipped in the fryer to be transferred to aforesaid hooks for the few seconds before purchase and consumption. This process of eating and drink would repeat itself with a hayride and a haunted house thrown in at random intervals for good measure until we returned home, splayed out in the back of our parents’ sedan, a great globe of orange carefully selected and waiting in the trunk to be carved and personified, signifying to all our willingness to participate in the rituals of the season. 20131031-001947.jpg Now, with a son of my own, and wishing, albeit a little late, to recreate some Halloween magic for him, I cast around for places further afield from our urban environment to pick our own pumpkin and rosy our cheeks in the winds of autumn. After asking Twitter and googling, I have to admit, it was tough finding much, but Crockford Bridge Farm in Surrey did come up. With a web flyer that promised “spooky fun,” “apple bobbing,” “and more…,” we dutifully headed out to Surrey and were pleasantly elated by what we found there. 20131031-002759.jpg Not only was there a vast and plentiful pumpkin patch, Grimm’s Scary Storytelling in the Woods, and surprisingly tasty hot chocolate (you leave London, you’re never sure what you’ll get, ya know?), but there was also a full stand set up for Bird and Animal Rescue with owls. Owls I tell you. And zipwire. Zipwire!

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Gourd-geous. Get it? Gourd-geous? Oh. Nevermind.

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The “Creepy Teepee”

20131031-004054.jpg Alright. It didn’t have endless cups of cloudy apple juice. Economics have changed since I was a kid and even the hot chocolate was on the pricey side. The scary walk in the woods was entertaining but a bit hammy. The drive via the North Circular, as anyone who lives in London and drives knows, was hell on asphalt, the North Circular being the single most unpleasant highway ever constructed. Ever. But it did, as I think is evident, create a sense of innocent wonder and glee that is the closest thing on this side of the pond to embodying the spirit of All Hallow’s Eve. Heartbreakingly, Tice’s Farms and Van Riper’s both closed in the 90s, replaced by an A & P and a strip mall, but it’s nice to know there are some ways of still carrying on the tradition. Happy Halloween! 20131031-010450.jpg 20131031-010459.jpg

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Alas, Poor Tice, I knew it well.

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Technicolor Americans: Imitations of Us

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“How can you be American and have got away this long without seeing Seven Brides for Seven Brothers?”

We are in the pub for the Great British tradition of The Sunday Roast. My friend S is incredulous. She has certain criteria that must be met by her Americans.

“Well, he’s not really American, is he?” My friend P “wittily” retorts.

Oh, touché. I do my best to stretch my face into indignation. It’s no good. I’m used to my muddled accent and my “Europeanism” attracting similar commentary. I’m a mutt by lifestyle now as well as birthright.

S is technically correct. Earlier in the week, I had been to see Seven Brides in The New Wimbledon Theatre in order to review it for The American Magazine. I had never heard of it, despite its unflinching, cliché-embracing Americanness. I had received the email from my editor, seen “press tickets” in the body of the missive, thought: opportunity, and replied in the affirmative.

I didn’t think it was going to be a musical. I thought it was possibly some mythical magical realist piece (seven repeated in the title?) or some Kung Fu romance (there is a lot of avant garde theater in London).

I was right about the mythologism, well, half-right. It is based on the Roman story of “The Sabine Women,” in which the early Romans abduct women from the neighboring tribe, the Sabines in order to marry them and propagate the species. The story was rewritten as a Twain-esque parody called “The Sobbin’ Women” by Stephen Vincent Benet. From there, it was made by MGM into a movie musical in the heyday of movie musicals, fated to become one of the most beloved films of its kind of all time.

Except by me of course, since I’d never heard of it. That, and I tend to hate musicals.

I can’t stress this last point enough. In order to give you some sense of scale, I hated Billy Elliott. With a passion. I despised it for two hours while my wife and our friend, A, sat spellbound in a West End Theatre marvelling from expensive seats, open-mouthed with amazement at the gravity-defying feats of acrobatic excellence taking place on stage while I kept thinking: this is Elton John’s way of getting us all under one roof to say, “Aw, look at the cutesy wootsy working cwass! They’re soooo adawable! The way they dance away their pwoblems with idiotic gwins! I love love love it! Le Sigh.” Pass. The. Bucket. I think the film was a masterpiece, but the stage show does its best to trivialise the struggles of the miners and the main character himself, captured with such beautiful conviction in the film.

So, not generally a musical guy. Which is why Seven Brides took some getting used to.

Because once you realised that Adam Pontipee was an unreconstructed Davy Crockett lookalike with a barely post magnon attitude towards women, who was only slightly more well-rounded and modified by curtain call, and further realised that the denouement of the whole narrative involves Adam’s “sassy” wife Milly finding his overt sexism really rather charming (bless his beautiful hide), you begin to wonder what there is to like about these rustic types. Suffice to say the two principle characters were not what held my interest in the end. No, I ended up enjoying myself in spite of myself and them.

Why? Because it is with the entrance of the seven brothers of the title that this big musical comes alive and is injected with some much needed vim. For it is their civilising, their reformation, and the edges that are left of them after that process of transformation that generates real interest in this story; the brothers on stage form a solid rousing chorus of toe-tapping unity, solidarity and at times, lament, that feels attractive, that envelopes you and lifts you along on a tide of rhythm and country charm.

And this brings me nicely and perhaps metaphorically back to national types. As I watched the brothers, I wasn’t convinced by their accents — which were inconsistent and sometimes pure Punch Magazine caricature — but by the flavo(u)r of their sentiments. I realised that the directors had made no attempt at authenticity or nuance in depicting America. This dancing, leaping pinwheel of colo(u)r is not really what the British think we are. This is what the world is nostalgic for and really want us to be: swaggering, confident, sometimes foolish, unerringly optimistic and larger than life in vibrant technicolo(u)r.

Seven Brides The American

You’re scandalized, aren’t you?

I stress, the West is not part of who I am as an ill traveled tristate boy, but this show made me wish that it was. There is still a mythical hold the American West has over the imagination, a place where one can still go to seize some space of one’s own, whether real or of the mind, and reinvent oneself as a prospecting, prosperous go getter, a rugged individualist with initiative, with getup and with gumption!

I’ve seen Seven Brides now. I can tick it off my cultural heritage list. And there are many beyond our shores who know enough to look past the stereotypes, and know that we are a diverse people full of cultural richness and intellectual depth. Although I’m critical of my country, it is because I love where I am from. Unlike Michael Moore, it personally annoys me when Americans blithely dismiss their compatriots in favour of a misty-eyed romanticisation of Europeans as though they are somehow innately better (just more civilised, that’s all). Nothing could be more false.

I will confess that I don’t always, as a Canadian friend recently put it, “give good American.” Upon my first meeting with my late grandmother-in-law in Dublin, her first comment to my wife-to-be once I’d left the room was, “Very quiet… for an American. Very quiet.”  And it is probably important to bear in mind after the humbling last few weeks in which we’ve become the stereotypical belligerently drunk American frat boy at war with ourselves and unable to do anything productive or function stumbling around in our own corrosive bitterness exposing the very worst of ourselves, our partisanship, our literal mindedness, our refusal to see the wood from the trees, our insularity, that of the national stereotypes there is to choose from — Hollywood’s walk-on English baddie (preferably Alan Rickman), the stage Irish drunk, the humourless German hun, the snooty Frenchman — you could do worse than the uncouth American frontiersman, staring down the elements and adversity, still offering something to the stage that is the world and open to new possibilities and to change.

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Blatantly Islamophobic $#*! My Dad Says

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Image taken from americanprogress.org

“Do ya ever see any of those Muslims in London?”

We are sitting on my parents’ back deck. We have settled in for a warm and pleasant evening of beer, nibbles, and mildly racist banter by the pungent flicker of the citronella candle.

I know my father too well to think he is joking, but I am still blindsided by the brick bluntness of his solid granite wall of insularity that you would be hard pushed to surmount. He says “Muslims” like Jaques Cousteau would if he were talking about some rare multicellular organism found only in the deepest and most uninhabitable depths. I imagine the nature programs in my Dad’s head run as follows: “And here we have the rare and vicious Muslimus Britannicus Arabius Londinius, commonly referred to as the English Brown Muslim; not to be confused with its American cousin even though both depend on a parasitic relationship with other mammals in their environment.”

“Um…” I begin. How does one answer a question such as this? Have I ever seen any Muslims in the great and sprawling metropolitan capital of England and seat of governance of Great Britain? Do you ever see any Christians, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Scientologists, Hardcore Zionists, Liberation Theologists, Dawkinsists, Seventh Day Adventists, Seventh Seal the movie fan clubbists, card-carrying Communists, frustrated Agnostics, Gnostic Christians, Coptic Christians, Eastern Orthodox mystics, Papal Cannibals, austere Protestant, tee totalling Northern Calvinists? Why not? Why not, damn it? Why can’t they all walk around with neon signs atop their heads and big brands burned into their foreheads from when they were all branded like sheep into their respective pens?

“Well…” I begin. “I’ve worked with Muslims. I’ve worked for Muslims and I’ve taught Muslims. In fact, one of my best students is called Hamza.” Thought my parents would like that last one in particular given all the trouble-making, freedom-hating, headline-hogging Hamzas that always seem to make it into the news here in the UK.

Plus, it’s just like saying, “I don’t roll like that, man. I’ve got plenty of Muslim friends.”

My Mom sees my liberal positioning and raises me a casual-racism, “well, I guess if he’s studying he can’t be making bombs at night.”

What?

Really?

Really?

My face must look a bit like I’ve been handbagged by the old one-two from Ma and Pa American Londoner because my mother – not widely known for her awareness of the jarring abnormality of her worldview shrugs as if to say, “What’s your problem, mister? I’m just proclaiming the gospel of Regressive Thinkers of America and saying out loud what every other American is afraid to say.”

And it is possible (just possible) that my father’s question and my mother’s ponderous observation are entirely innocent. It is possible that I’ve been spoiled by the tolerant melting pot that is London. It is entirely possible that you can live atop a mountain with nothing but Fox to watch, pretzels and chips to eat, and racist neighbo(u)rs with which to “exchange views” to quite innocently hate Muslims. In the same way you might hate really evil aliens. Or zombies (though what with zombie chic I don’t see how you could) that are hungry for brains.

I should disclaim at this point that my father is a generous man, my mother a kind and nurturing woman. These thoughts seem to happily settle themselves and thrive like fungus in amongst the sweetest and sunniest of dispositions. My Dad is as innocent and sometimes as unintentionally funny as Archie Bunker (British Translation = Alf Garnet).

Archie Bunker

As harmless as a friendly racist with a vote. Image taken from Wikipedia

And let’s face it. Before 9/11, my parents probably didn’t know what a Muslim was beyond some vague notions of a hate figure in Iran. In fact, they probably couldn’t rightly tell you what a Muslim is now (I have called my father out for insisting he’d seen “them” running around town “in their turbans”). No more than I could have told you what a Communist was when I was seven and taught to hate them. No more than children can stand up and swear allegiance to a piece of cloth (oh alright) symbol before they know what “allegiance” means.

It’s a simple thing to hate something you know little about and that doesn’t enter your sphere of existence from day to day. Pennsylvania has often been ranked number one for hate groups even with a low population of racial minorities. Draw what you may from that.

I’m not sure I can call my parents, as one kind reader wrote to me this week, “friendly racists… who mean no harm,” as they do seem to mean harm to all those who “hate freedom”, whatever that means. I’ve not met such an individual after nearly a decade in London. But what does scare me is that they are not harmless. They’ve got great big weapons: one vote a piece and plenty who think like them.

Beware America. Beware.

Won-derful, Won-derful, KØBENHAVN!

Wonderful Wonderful KOBENHAVN

As the Northeastern United States has finished recovering from the inexplicably named Superstorm Nemo, and as we prepare to head off to Oslo for a few days, I reflect this week on our Northern vacation last February up to the city of Hans Christian Anderson and macabre, underplayed murder mystery serials, the Danish capital of Cophenhagen.

It’s true, some prefer to go someplace warm and Mediterranean to escape the cold — hours lounging on the Costa Del Sol perhaps or maybe some Island hopping in Sardinia and Corsica —  but not us. My wife, being Irish, tends to react to the sun the same way the witch of the west reacts to water, and I, being raised in Northeastern Pennsylvania on the Mount of Pocono… by wolves, tend to prefer the cold wintry winds and see them like a refreshing tonic to the system. Besides, the missus has a penchant for design and no one is more beloved in the design world right now than the Scandinavians. And I’m easy and I like the ancient and proud notion of beautiful and desolate North. 

And Easyjet flies there fairly cheaply. Bonus!

Snow covered streets in Copenhagen

Snow-covered streets in Copenhagen

But I have to admit, aside from visiting the Design Museum and the Lego Flagship store (Lego is Danish! Yes, really!), we didn’t really know what to expect of Copenhagen. It turned out to be full of surprising delights.

Going from Place to Place

Transport for instance, which, I know, is usually relegated to the end of the writeup under a subheading like “getting around” or “Tubes and buses” or, in some countries, like Ireland, “Good Luck”, was one of the most exciting elements of our Danish getaway. We touched down thinking that it was a Scandinavian city and so bound to have an efficient underground and bus network of which we would take full advantage. But by our first evening, we couldn’t help but notice that there was really only one main, preferred mode of transport: Bikes!

Christiania Bike Copenhagen

Ring my bell? Me, looking ever so slightly confused pedaling my son around in one of the famed Christiania Bikes. (photo by Paula Hughes)

Everyone rides a bike in Copenhagen, including the tourists. And because of the sheer joy of doing as the Romans do but not having done it in years, this became our healthiest holiday in years. We rented a standard issue four speed for the other half and a Christiania Bike, the kind that were actually invented in Denmark, in which to transport my son.

And we biked for miles every subsequent day of our stay. Gloriously, we cycled through snow, over bridges, in sun and warmth, in traffic and out of town until our leg muscles ached with a kind of gladsome soreness at the close of each day. As Copenhageners are well catered for with cycling lanes on every road, cycle traffic lights, and even metal footrests for when you are waiting for a light to change, biking in this bustling hub was easy, exhilarating, and inspiring (we bought bikes on our return to London). And for my money, the only way to travel around.

Rush Hour, Copenhagen (Taken from the Winnipeg Free Press Website)

Rush Hour, Copenhagen (Taken from the Winnipeg Free Press Website)

The Views

The Rundetarn (Round Tower) in Copenhagen

The Rundetarn (Round Tower) in Copenhagen (photo from Wikipedia)

Other impressive elements of the Danish capital included its sheer and audaciously impressive grandeur. We visited the Rundetarn on our first full day and were awed. A cylindrical edifice built in 1642 by King Christian IV as an astronomical observatory (Remember Tycho Brahe from Science class? Danish.), it is essentially a cobblestone pathway that ascends spirally for 686 feet affording a breathtaking view of all of the city from the top.

Copenhagen from the top of The Round Tower

Copenhagen from the top of The Round Tower

And do you know what? This doesn't even do it justice.

And do you know what? This doesn’t even do it justice. 

The “Quirky” Neighborhoods

When we first started exploring different parts of the world, being vegetarian, we acquired the habit (naturally) or seeking out vegetarian restaurants in each new city. It’s become a kind of pastime and it always tends to lead us into the most intriguing parts of a city. Thus you will find vegetarian cookery in The Lower East Side, Soho (the original, you know William Blake’s Soho), Stoke Newington, Kensington Market in Toronto, Montmartre in Paris, and artsy, bohemian neighborhoods in Edinburgh, Amsterdam and Madrid. So it was with Copenhagen, but the area, in this case, formed part of the main “destination” or attraction.

Christiania Copenhagen

Christiania, Copenhagen (photo taken from ehrasmussentrip.blogspot.co.uk)

The Freetown of Christiania is a ramshackle collection of dirtstreets, homemade houses, caravans, corrugated iron roofed houses, and some new cheap chic looking warehouse studios that falls within the confines of Copenhagen, but outside its laws. Originally a deserted military barracks until squatters took up residence in the 70s, it now boasts a 1,000 residents. Drugs can be bought fairly openly on the streets and there is a wonderfully hippy-dippy free spirit about the place. Despite being on the map, it’s also charmingly difficult to find. We ate hearty vegetarian stews in a clapboard cottage-housed cafe called Morgenstedet and despite the food being delicious and the staff being uncharacteristically effusive (the Danes don’t effuse), the fire-in-a-steel-drum charm of Christiania wore a bit thin on us and we began to worry about the safety of our bikes.

Still, a fascinating wander off the beaten path just for the sheer sight of this community outside of the laws of its surrounding community. And the cheapest hearty lunch to be had in Denmark.

Lego! 

Lego Flagship Store, Copenhagen

Lego Flagship Store, Copenhagen

Yes, we all love Lego and it was a brilliant store, but even more brilliant was how child-friendly a city it was and how child-centered a culture it seems to be. Scandinavians don’t tend to send their children to school or even think about teaching them explicitly how to read until they’re about seven. It may all sound a bit Steiner School, but it also values the idea of a child being allowed to have a free and well adjusted childhood full of play. Not for nothing do our Northern neighbo(u)rs give some of the most generous parental leave of any country in the developed world. Children are encouraged to form strong bonds that will see them through adulthood with confidence. Parents and their charges are openly affectionate and lavish attention lovingly and unashamedly. We could learn a lot.

Plus, Lego!

Lego Copenhagen

My son, in a Lego World

Lego Copenhagen

The fierce dragons of the North

Food and Drink

It surprised me that Copenhagen has recently developed into a culinary capital, but it was a surprise beyond mere joy, especially with a fantastic place like Bio Mio.

Bio Mio in Copenhagen

Bio Mio in Copenhagen

Food is comforting and divine, but the fun element is in the ordering — from a “mood-based” menu, directly from the chefs. I ordered from our chef, trying my one stock Danish phrase, “Taler du Engelsk?,” to which the Danes stock reply was, “Yah. Of course.” To this day, I can’t figure out whether “Yah, of course” is a stock reply they learn when in school or whether they just think it’s mind-numbingly obvious to any foreigner that all Scandinavians speak English better than quite a few native English speakers, but whichever the case, it’s delivered with such amiability and charm that it has to induce a smile, as did our night of dining at this lovely eatery.

Dyehaven Copenhagen

Dyehaven, Copenhagen (taken from mettebassett.com)

And for lunch to Dyehaven, which, again, reminded me of a trendy place you’d find in the lower East Side, or rejuvenated and trendy West Philly, with its artsy locals meeting for a pint over some warming vegetable soup or some impressively tasty beetroot-dependent vegetarian smorgasbord, which of course, we could not leave Denmark without trying. As in the UK and the US, the craft beer movement is in full swing here in Denmark and the local brews were delightfully sophisticated, a party on the palate for the beer connoisseur.

Dyehaven Copenhagen

Vegetarian Smorgasbord from Dyehaven. Mmmm.

Dyehaven Copenhagen

Pale Ales and Dark, Wintry Stouts

And who could forget, Danish Pastries! They really are delicious, but they don’t  really call them Danishes in Denmark.

Well, they wouldn’t, would they?

They call them wienerbrød (literally “Viennese Bread”) and really, what better way is there to start the day. I can’t imagine a single health benefit, but some mouth-wateringly flaky wienerbrød topped with chocolate or cinnamon does transport you. It transported me anyway.

Proper Danish Pastry in Copenhagen

Proper Danish Pastry topped with almonds  from Lakagehuset on the Vesterbrogade

Best of all though… Snow! 

Some people really despise snow. They can’t stand the cold, are frustrated by the icy roads, and won’t take a step outside.

I wonder if those people have ever been to Copenhagen.

Snow in Copenhagen

Snowy City!

Although I’m often asked if I miss America, one of the things I miss most is a proper snowy winter to rejuvenate the soul. Snow, having fallen faintly and faintly fallen gently on the back or our necks hours after checking into our hotel in Copenhagen, snow that chilled the air and seeped into our bones, invigorating our constitutions, that froze the harbo(u)r as we strolled through Nyhavn, packed tightly as we threw it at each other with gusto, snow that rested gently on every branch and bough as we rode through light layers of it, covering the streets of Frederiksstaden, on a crisp morning on the way to a comforting breakfast, snow renewing an innocent spirit of joy.  Here it is in the far North in all its arctic, purely driven, exhilarating grandeur and glory (yes, thank you Geography majors I know that’s not quite correct) in a place that wears a dusty blanket of snow with a particular panache.

Nyhavn Port Harbour Copenhagen

Nyhavn Port Harbor, Copenhagen

Snowy and quaint Frederiksstaden

Snowy and quaint Frederiksstaden

Suburban Snow Copenhagen

Suburban Snow!

Nocturnal Frost Copenhagen

“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling
faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” James Joyce, “The Dead”

Christiania Bike on a bridge in Copenhagen

My son, getting into our rented Christiania Bike, “Dukes of Hazard” style.

And with that, we turn our heads away from the snowy North and its enthrallingly desolate beauty and turn our heads towards Spring, which is supposed to come early according to Punxatawney Phil. Before we do, here’s another ode to the Danish storyteller Hans Christian Anderson, an oldie, but goodie.

All photos were taken by Paula Hughes.

 

 

Three Expat American Writers You Must Read

Turn of the screw

The Turn of the Screw, A haunting American Gothic tale about the protection of innocence… (Taken from The Londonist.com)

I went to see the spine-chilling tale The Turn of the Screw Tuesday night in The Almeida Theatre in Islington, my review of which appears on The Hackney Hive soon to be followed by an interview with the famed director Lindsay Posner. It’s a deliciously indulgent and penetratingly haunting tale about a young governess trying to protect her charges from the corrupt influence of phantoms from the past. I could go into an interpretation that sees this as an analogy for the American condition, but like jokes, some figurative comparisons just write themselves.

But seeing The Turn of the Screw led me to thinking about Henry James, a man with whom I’ve always felt a bit of a kinship since he is American-born, but lived for so long in Merry Old England, like myself, negotiating the foggy obscurities of being a stranger in a strange land, always living as though his soul is split in half, a condition that seems perfectly reflected in the dense and difficult resistance a reader encounters in the language of say The Beast in the Jungle or Daisy Miller, the latter featuring an American character trying to find herself ‘on the continent’ and ending up doing the opposite.

But funnily enough, it took leaving America to appreciate American culture. It was only after I left, and especially after I started teaching in Ireland, that I started to appreciate the genius of Arthur Miller, Mark Twain, and Emily Dickinson to name but a few.

huck finn cover

It would take leaving America to appreciate the genius of the great American novel.

What has intrigued me for years though is the number of writers who’ve gone a bit further than their “tour of the continent”; those writers who, like James, left their homeland to find their own sense of belonging and in so doing carved out for themselves a new literary identity. Not to put too fine a pretentious point on it. Here are three of my favo(u)rites. A by no means exhaustive list, but certainly some good ones to start looking at writers who’ve traveled to find home.

1. Edgar Allan Poe

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You old devil, you. The Master of the Macabre was practically a Hackney boy. (taken from poetryfoundation.org)

What do you mean Poe doesn’t count? He went to school in Chelsea and then got gritty and spent 3 years in Stoke Newington right here in Hackney, East London. It’s no wonder his writing is permeated with gloom and shadow. He had some easy material growing up in the gloom and shadow first in Irvine Scotland and then down here in the famed London fog living through the tumultuous “year without a summer”. Sure, he was only a child, but these were surely his formative years.

Besides, it’s easy to underestimate Poe, as a staple of the school curriculum of most American schools, the assumption is that he’s kid’s stuff — high class pulp. But see past that for a second and you’ll see the Derridians and Barthesians who have done so much to revive him are right: his work is all about the obscure nature of existence and the horror of uncertainty. What is more expatriate than that?

What’s a real pity is that so many seem to miss his bleak sense of humo(u)r. How could he have been doing anything but messing with his readers and seeing just how far we could go with monkeys for murderers and the gleeful insanity of Dr Feather and Professor Tarr? For that wonderful mix of bleakness and surreal wit that centres on expatriate concerns of travel, survival and negotiating the cultural other, I would start with Poe’s only published attempt at a novel, the incomplete but wonderful Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

2. James Baldwin

JamesBaldwin

An outsider in his own country, beautifully articulating the perpetual condition of isolation, Baldwin was a truly gifted expat writer. (taken from allthingsjamesbaldwin.tumblr.com)

Black in the 1940s in America, gay, and deeply disturbed by the political environment of his native country, James Baldwin was assuredly a writer destined to find his voice abroad. That he did, giving voice to that displaced condition that situates an intellectual in a lonely place in their own country and yet yearning to feel a sense of home. For that, he had to join the cultural radicalism of Paris’ Left Bank, where Baldwin would remain resident for most of his life, writing about that recurring sense of disorientation that all of us as expats feel. You have to admire a man who can capture this condition so perfectly in a phrase like, “the earth tilts, he is thrown forward on his face in darkness, his journey begins,” which is, by the by, from Giovanni’s Room, a novel depicting that thing that has ensnared so many of us and rooted us down in foreign climes, a romantic relationship abroad. For aesthetic beauty and a deep sense of pathos, it is a compelling read.

3. Bill Bryson

Surely required reading for American Expats? (taken from telegraph.co.uk)

Surely required reading for American Expats? (taken from telegraph.co.uk)

On a lighter note, I don’t think any bookshelf should want for a volume or several of Bill Bryson’s witty words; nor, in fact are there many expat bookshelves that do, such is the joy one feels on curling up with Notes from a Small IslandThe Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid, or The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-town America. Bryson is one of two writers (the other is David Sedaris, another great American humo(u)rist, on the darker side of things) whose writing has actually made me snort aloud on public transport, such is the power of his convulsion-inducing sense of the comic. He ranks up with H.L. Mencken for incisive delivery that illuminates the ridiculous in things we have taken for granted, from American diets and walking habits to the inability of provincial middle England to keep its streets clean, nothing is safe, nor should it be. It takes a man who has lived outside his native land for a number of years to highlight its faults and foibles to his fellow Americans and he does it with style.

I could of course have included countless others in this list. Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth moves my soul, but I can’t quite stomach her politics. Amy Lowell’s poetry, especially pieces that concern her travels abroad, renews the world-weary spirit. But I decided arbitrarily to stick to prose. And then there are non-Americans who have given us their perspective on our country, Joseph O’Connor (brother of Sinead) in his side-splitting The Secret Life of the Irish Male, Dickens’ scathing American Notes, which lost him the Downton audience of his day, and Orwell’s irony-laced accounts, not of America, but of Europe in Down and Out in Paris and London, and Homage to Catalonia, in which he fought in The Spanish Civil War and remarked that his life was saved many times by the merits of Spanish marksmanship.

But as Levar Burton used to say, you don’t have to take my word for it. I’m forgetting, ignoring, or unaware of countless others that help us to identify our own sense of wandering through this kaleidoscopic mass of confusion that is cultural displacement. But I see great value in any author that is able to bring us out of our day-to-day existences and grant us a sense of the wider world.

The Problem of Choice in America — Roe V Wade, 40 years on…

Pro Life March

Lives Reduced to Numbers: Well done in striking one for hypocrisy everywhere, Dallas Pro-Lifers (Taken from The Guardian’s website)

I must confess, to you my brothers and sisters, my dirty little secret at last: I. Am. A. Recovering. Republican.

That’s right. Reagan became president when I was a wee slip of a toddler stumbling forth into the world and stayed in that Oval Office for the next eight years, until the man I thought at the time was his heir apparent assumed the throne and for me, this just seemed to be part of the natural circle of life. I just assumed that Reagan had reigned as a sort of Republican Emperor, a sort of Caesar for a while. What he stood for was part of The Holy Trinity of my childhood: Father, Mother and the Holy Right. I felt an unspoken, unarticulated loyalty to something I knew nothing about and, like Pope Benedict, had there been a Reagan Youth, I probably would have joined it because it seemed for a time like he represented a larger tradition of which my parents, my father vocally, formed a part.

Reagan Roe V Wade At 40

Glib arguments:Reagan was full of them, but they still don’t stand up to scrutiny. (taken from zazzle.co.uk)

Why do I make this digressive confession and risk losing my audience after the fourth sentence? Apart from the fact that it is characteristic of me to interpolate myself in an outdated, postmodern sort of way?

Because looking back, very little of my childhood makes sense. There was a number of years, possibly three, possibly four (the math gets fuzzy when I think of my Republican childhood), when my father, being an active member of our local church, organised coach trips to Washington D.C., annually, to march on the capital and demonstrate solidarity with… well I didn’t really know at first. For me, as a kid, jeez, it was an adventure. An adventure to march in our numbers against… Again I hadn’t a notion what why we were there. It was so hot most of the time I just hoped there was ice cream at the end of it all. And I was impressed by the buildings. I had a childlike inkling that I was in the presence of some great power both fascinating and well beyond my ken.

All I knew then was that my brother and I took our comic books and pack lunches, bundled on the back of a coach, met other Catholics on the bus and spent the day near the center of government in the free world. I observed several things through young and impressionable eyes. That for some people making similar pilgrimages from different parts of the country, this was a day of fancy dress, but for some reason, those marchers always chose the same costume, that of the grim hooded figure with a scythe on stilts. I always kept well clear of those Christian soldiers. Others carried posters that looked like they had emerged freshly from some horror films with bloodied and barely formed, lifeless infants. Those images hurt my eyes and thundered in my brain for ages afterwards.

Grim Reaper Roe V Wade at 40

Bogus: Surely an innocuous way to recruit the youth?

A movement that indoctrinates youth by desensitizing them to violent imagery and and demanding an unquestioning adherence that makes detractors sound cowardly? Remind anyone of any other historical movements?

Strange Times indeed.

Both my adoration of Reagan and the right and my steadfastly dogmatic and childlike support of the pro-life movement came to an eventual end, the former, oddly enough, far faster than the latter, which goes to show they are not one in the same, much they may seem like it. I got to be a teenager and I did what teenagers do, I questioned things. I had help along the way. I met a friend when my family uprooted from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, from strip malls to the boondocks and this friend had the most unlikely family to ever exist in the heart of the bible belt of the Pocono Mountains, with a Scottish intellectual medieval literature scholar for a father, an artist for a mother and a sister who would go on to work for the democratic party, there were times when I felt oddly like I had walked into the lion’s den, going over to my friend’s house for dinner. Did they corrupt me? I don’t think so. If they did, I needed corrupting, but I think all they did was help shine the light  a little brighter on the collection of ideas that had amassed in my mind at which I had never really looked very closely. After I started questioning, there was no going back. “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” And so it goes.

So it amazes me that in my country the issue of abortion still polarizes so badly. In fact, it seems, the issue is more divisive and corrosive than ever.

For the left, the right’s position is staked out by psychotics that bomb abortion clinics, kill doctors and care more about the unborn child than the ones that walk around as living, breathing sentient beings. This fanaticism and view of Pro-lifers as slightly unhinged is not without basis, especially considering the documented violence connected to doctors who perform the procedure and a quick read of Rick Santorum’s views on the politics of childbirth. But I loathe reductionism and to be fair to my father, while he was organizing parish coach trips to the capital, he was also putting in countless hours for Several Sources, a charity that provides shelter, help and advice to expectant mothers who have, because of difficult circumstances are tempted to have a termination, but have turned away from that option.

For the right, and I should know, having been a sheep that has long strayed from the fold, pro-choice supporters are murderers lobbying for abortions on demand as a source of some sort of dystopian population control. Glib arguments lash forth from their tongues about how “rape doesn’t justify MURDER”, “abortion stops a beating heart”, and about individuals who choose to have the procedure are tantamount to Nazis. And nothing moves forward in this language of fire and brimstone, but it does serve to ignite a populace’s collective temper. My parents are Catholics who believe in social justice, my father being a retired social worker. It confounded me that he was also a staunch Republican until I realized that his vote turned on the issue that also turned so many Kennedy Democrats into eventual Reagan Republicans: childbirth politics in America, which is what seems to connect my two childhood anecdotes that I started with, the idea that the conservative right has used this intensely incendiary issue to indoctrinate those who know no better and lasso  a tight hold around those that might otherwise stray from the collective by violently tying moral, personal values to good old, screw-the-poor, virtue-of-selfishness, social conservatism, embittering the taste in my mouth for either.

pro-life-demonstration

March For Life (Taken from schmoop.com)

Despite the issue rising up like a geyser every once in a while, it does not play a significant part in UK politics and oddly enough, we are the better for it over here. In 2011, the US recorded 20.8 abortions for every thousand pregnant women. Britain comes in significantly lower at 17.2, Scotland at 12.0, despite having legalized abortion six years before their American counterparts. To listen to the pro-life movement, you would think the NHS was doling them out.

If I speak with some bitterness and some certainty, it is because I speak also with a modicum of empirical authority, having to make the choice with my wife to terminate our unborn daughter’s life at 24 weeks. It was not a choice we took lightly and not one that I’d wish on anyone. But our baby’s liver had not grown, her body was not circulating fluid and neither her lung capacity nor her brain development would have been sustainable for any length of time. We chose what we did over her dying in my wife’s belly, or taking a few short breaths outside of it. We held our dead daughter that never lived, we buried her and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending played at her tiny funeral. We named her Pip and I weep bitter unutterable grief thinking about her.

But I also find it bitterly galling to see individuals presume to label and judge and pronounce about “murder” and “inviolability”. Our experience, if anything, made us more personally pro-life for ourselves. We would never have willingly chosen our situation, and no one who is pro-choice is pro-abortions, no one seriously wants abortions to happen, but at the time the situation chose us and we had to work within a very small space of limited choices. I’m thankful that Roe V Wade happened, not for most of the reasons that you hear volleying back and forth in high profile debates, but for all those reasons that you can’t think of and would wish never to need to think of, but for which every individual or individuals should have the freedom to make that most loathsome and difficult choice. I quoted from that old rascal St. Paul earlier and though Shakespeare warns us that “the devil can cite scripture for his purpose” I think that Damascan pilgrim gives some particularly good advice to those who would purport to follow him:

“Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts of men.”

Whew! That was close… But why?

President Obama celebrates re-election

Jubilation as we Americans just about manage to make the sane choice for the second time in the last twelve years (Photo from ABC News)

And the rest of the world breathes a sigh of relief. Because this is a president with whom the world likes to talk. This is a president that has built bridges and restored our image. This is a president who realizes the value of international cooperation and of pragmatically building constructive relationships, even with former ‘enemies.’

That argument won’t sway many moderates or independents, who are, after all, the gold dust that campaigns painstakingly panhandle for before elections. It does matter, but it won’t sway most Americans. After all,  it was the economy, stupid, with a few issues to do with equal rights thrown in, moron. Which doesn’t square, I know, since more voters tended to say they trusted Romney with the economy than Obama, until you look at the demographics of the voters. In times of economic difficulty, conservatives have trouble convincing those less well off, who voted en masse for Obama, that they can provide jobs and economic security. It’s summed up well in the plutocratic image that Romney projected in the 47% video. Those living on significantly meaner incomes don’t generally think the conservative, especially the rich conservative, will give a damn about their situations.

And yet…

It does baffle me, not so much that the race was close, but that so many issues that still feature so prominently now seem so foreign to me, morally. I do understand there is a socially puritanical vein that runs deep in us, but not so deep that we willfully stand knee deep in the mire of the social stone age of the world while everyone else moves on. I offer below three such examples of issues that, really, we could do without in our politics.

  • Healthcare — This is that great fantastical, fire-breathing boogeyman of American politics. Mention it and watch Rush Limbaugh foam at the mouth and Karl Rove manipulatively asking hard-working Americans if they really want to pay for some freeloader’s healthcare? Of course you don’t, you’re a God-fearing American. I don’t not get the healthcare thing because I’m an expatriate. I don’t get the healthcare thing because we call it moral to take money from sick people and refuse to take sick people with no money. Paying more in taxes for universal healthcare is not giving a handout. It’s investing in your fellow human being. It’s time to welcome ourselves as a country, my compatriots, to the rest of the developed world as well as the human race. That way everyone has one thing guaranteed and one less obstacle to individual independence and initiative.
  • God — I have to admit, I was a bit surprised that Martha Raddatz asked about both Biden’s and Ryan’s Catholicism. It’s not her fault. She’s just the moderator, but we have to get over the idea that a person’s very personal religious beliefs should in any way be outwardly manifested in the way we govern ourselves. The more I hear the left talk about it, the more I think that the separation of church and state is the worst thing that ever happened to America. Do you know who the head of state is in the United Kingdom? The Queen. Do you know who is the head of The Church of England? The Queen. Do you know, in 2012, how high profile a role religion plays in British politics? It makes not a visible difference to a single issue. John Prescott, Tony Blair’s Deputy Prime Minister used to talk about how he likes to avoid all that “mumbo jumbo” and the current Labour leader has professed himself an atheist. Political suicide in America, but a passing novelty here. As it should be. We need to leave the personal beliefs of an individual firmly in the personal world of the individual.
  • Gay rights — I’m not saying homophobia no long exists in England. It does. Nor is the legal status of gay marriage necessarily any better here. But it is indeed courageous for a British Prime Minister to come out (tee hee) in support of gay marriage and promise to the electorate to  introduce legislation by the end of the year on it. But that is also suggestive of how socially liberal conservatives have to be in order to survive politically over here. We’ve had gay cabinet members including Peter Mandelson, and high-ranking conservatives turned journalists such as Mathew Parris. According to a Yougov poll, 71% of British voters support the introduction of gay marriage throughout the country.  And yet, for nearly half of Americans, it still seems to be an acceptable prejudice for no apparent reason. Legal recognition in three states in one election gives me great hope, but it also explains why the GOP are screaming unintelligible oaths about their country being overrun.

Four years ago, Obama ran on the idea of ‘Change.’ The next four years are supposed to be allowing him to ‘finish what was started.’ I hope for the sake of the country that he continues the great work in changing Americans’ attitudes towards issues like these.

As a reminder, I am still doing Movember and have raised £135 for research and awareness of men’s health issues. We are coming into the giving season and it is a worthwhile cause. Please follow the link to give:

Pete Lawler’s Movember Page

In honour of POTUS winning a second term, here is a special list of presidential mustaches:

The Best Presidential Mustaches

Our Special Relationship

Prime Minister on US TV

Now now. I’m not here to talk about why my public school education has left me ill equipped to answer questions about British culture. That’s for my researchers. (Photo taken from BBC News site)

For the life of me, I cannot see what David Cameron was thinking. Stiff as a waterboard, there he went, onto Letterman to face an audience of my compatriots, supposedly to “bang the drum of British business”. Did he not think that BP had done enough damage? He was very worthy and neither likeable nor wholeheartedly dislikeable, just affirming to America that, like the perception of British food, this country’s people are as insipid and as humourless as salty Scottish gruel. So worthy and so bland.

Somewhat bizarrely, much like his first Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons — not as Prime Minister but in opposition facing off against Tony in his last days — he seemed to come off very left of centre, which may suggest he knows how to play a Letterman audience after all. Facts of existence in the UK like the absence of gun usage and the thought of carrying a gun being incomprehensible drew cheers from the live audience, as did the fact that political parties are not allowed to advertise on British TV. Period.

But the point of the exercise still baffles me. Letterman controlled the banter and all the best lines were his, as they should be, so the only motivation one can possible detect is that this appearance is the latest in the bizarre oneupmanship contest between Cameron and the more affably charismatic Lord Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who also appeared on Letterman in June, and who, unlike Cameron, took an equal share of the best lines and drew a much better reaction from the audience with all his bumbling and foppish Freudian slips (Letterman: Would you ban giant sodas [as Bloomberg has done]? Johnson: I I I… We’re not that… We’re not that… Whilst I am certainly bigger than Mike [Bloomberg], as a city, we’re not that… … fat. YET. [hearty and appreciative, self-deprecating guffaws from the audience]).

Much as it kills me to admit it, Boris is one conservative that I don’t wholeheartedly disagree with on all policies. He opposes a third runway at Heathrow, is pro-public transport, pro-cyclist, and stood up to Romney over the summer when Mitt paraded his blustering ignorance in the field of statesmanship doubting out loud that the capital could handle the Olympics. He’s very far from perfect, but his interview is well worth watching and quite entertaining.

American Classic? Hard to tell.

The Great Gatsby Baz Lurman

Who needs narrative? We’ve got Jack White and Jay Z

I’m torn.

I was ready to like Leonardo DiCaprio as the eponymous protagonist in this upcoming adaptation directed by Baz Luhrmann. I had forgiven them both for Romeo and Juliet and had come to accept that cinematic effort in all its smoking guns glory as a useful and exciting way to introduce teenagers to one of the most difficult stories Shakespeare has to offer in terms of engagement and narrative.

I thought  Carey Mulligan would work as the beautiful, thoughtless and morally bereft Daisy Buchanan, and I actually thought Toby Maguire was perfect for Nick Carraway, the deceptively innocent looking young man from the Midwest who comes out to New York to make a living and resist the city corrupting his soul while he hypocritically claims the moral high ground.

Nor am I so close-minded as to think that a non-American director can’t handle an American story. Sam Mendes did too good a job with American Beauty for anyone to think that.

Apprehensive though my English teacher’s heart was about this sublime story being given the Hollywood treatment again, I had been convinced by various parties and was ready to believe that it could be done with style and still convey some sense of the aesthetic wonder that is Fitzgerald’s prose.

And then I saw the trailer.

It left me with something nameless beyond apprehension, something approaching dread. How can you tell a quintessentially ‘Jazz Age’ story without jazz? What this trailer appears to do is take Gatsby out of the roaring 20s, and place him firmly in the twentyteens (that seems all right, doesn’t it?) not so much roaring as swaggering with his trousers around his knees and his bling firmly on show, dressed to impress.

Which is not to say I have a problem with the presence of hip hop or even Jack White’s cover of U2’s ‘Love is Blind’. I can actually see the parallels and the reasoning perfectly. The song that was chosen for the trailer, ‘No Church in the Wild’ by Jay-Z and Kanye West, seems to ‘teach the lesson’ of Gatsby, dropping lines like, ‘When we die the money we can’t keep,’ but it also talks about ‘the girl in all leopard… rubbing the wood like Kiki Shepherd,’ not quite the flapper dresses, feather boas and the Charleston of the roaring 20s.

But still, I can see the temptation. In all honesty, there is a lot of rap that is about acquiring material wealth and flaunting it as a kind of two fingers to an oppressive state and rigid class structure that has made it all but impossible to acquire such wealth or any sort of social mobility. And Gatsby is a man who makes his fortune dishonestly but for what seem like the right reasons, holding a quixotic candle for years to one day impress Daisy in the same way Pip one day would like to be ‘good enough’ for Stella. So the excess, the decadence, and the emptiness is all there. And I can see that. 

But why then does it need to be updated? Why take away the joie de vivre of jazz that ultimately evokes the hollowness of the glitz and glitter indulged in by these characters, especially when that loud whizz bang blare of apparent life and unthinking esprit serves to heighten the depths of pathos at the end?

It’s not as though it’s a story that’s completely alien to us. The young and the restless of a generation get carried away speculating with money they either don’t have or that doesn’t exist or will never come back from bad loans but no one heeds the warnings because everybody’s having fun. No one wants to hear about it because everybody’s too busy spending money and partying. The desolation when the party stops is stark and unbearable. Sound familiar anyone?

Those of us who have been in education or in theatre or just appreciators of beautifully composed language know that translation is an occasional but lamentable necessity and that something is always lost. Will what appears to be one long F Scott Fitzgerald inspired music video manage to convey the existential longing in lines like ‘Men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars…’ and the subsequent tragedy, or will this story be a narrative with the life-blood cruelly drawn out of it? Will this, in the more modern sense of the word be, simply a tragedy?

Great Gatsby 1974

Gatsby, with the jazz left in

Don’t Tread On Me – America The Branded

U-S-A! U-S-A!: American visitors wear the stars spangled banner with pride on hats, t-shirts and even sunglasses as excitement builds in the Olympic Park
Taken from The Daily Mail’s website

I am on the District Line, traveling west, sitting across from a stocky young man who’s just boarded at Whitechapel. This corn-fed meal with tanned skin, mirror sunglasses, loose fitting jeans and chunky sneakers wears a t-shirt with the words ‘America, The Beautiful’ in red, white, and blue on top of a vertical star spangled banner, behind which seems to float the diaphanous image of a woman’s face that I can only assume is a feminine representation of ‘America, The Beautiful.’ I resist the urge to lean over to him and say, ‘You know, people would have known without you announcing it on your t-shirt like that. And another thing: It’s neither of the things you think it is – vaguely, subtly artistic or stylish.’

One is put in mind of the Irish poet Louis MacNiece: ‘Why,/ Must a country, like a ship or a car, be always female,/ Mother or sweetheart?’

Why is it that as a nation we feel a desperate compulsion to label ourselves?

It’s as though no one listened to Springsteen carefully enough to read irony into him.

Or as though we are still worried that someone might mistake us for being from somewhere else or belonging to some other cultural group.

No one will.

The minute we begin to speak, they know. Everybody knows. And it’s no bad thing. What is a bad thing is trying desperately to label it and somehow make it chic or cool and pretend it’s some artistic statement.

Here’s what I like: on the same tube journey, an individual boards the train in jeans and plain, off-white t-shirt, sits down and starts tapping his feet to the rhythm of whatever tuneful track is playing away in on his MP3 player. It’s then that I notice, his Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars, faded, worn, ragged, but clearly patterned with Old Glory, stripes on each side, stars down the tongue. A cheeky treading with the flag, not on it, naturally, not flashing, not waving, but toe-tapping with a wonderfully tacit acknowledgement of nationality as a simple, softly spoken part of who you are.

On the tube back, a heaving, humid, flesh-wall-cramped train car. A short stocky man of some sort of East Asian heritage squeezes on (melting pot significance, not passively racist. Swear). He is wearing red Bermuda shorts, a plain blue top, red, white and blue star-shaped sunglasses, a soft, fuzzy looking Uncle Sam style top hat and a red and white striped draw-string bag slung over both shoulders with a little American flag poking chirpily out the back. This too strikes me as utterly and completely appropriate. It’s too loud to be obnoxious. This man is America personified, wearing the country, proclaiming the preamble like a big flamboyant flamingo shouting to all and sundry, ‘I am the U. S. A!’ without saying a word.

Taken from the Scavenge Costumes website

I’m not given to wearing my national colo(u)rs very often, the 4th of July being an exception some years, but I think what bothered me about the first man’s shirt, aside from the inherent and age-old sexism and the mixture of telltale labels, was the pretension that there was some conscious art in declaring your national heritage, as opposed to treating it as some part of you that is as natural as your shoe size, as innate as a sexual orientation. We are Americans and intensely proud of who we are, but I’d rather we all avoid standing in odious uncritical hand-on-heart reverence to the flag, not in front of the foreigners, most of whom have a bit of a sense of humo(u)r about their homelands.

So, bundle of contradictions that I am, that’s what I think we all need: more pride, less reverence. 

LET ME BE FRANK

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