Category Archives: Culture

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London Film Festival 2018/7

If yesterday was a marathon, today was a double marathon! I had not fully taken on board that the first film was three and a half hours long. Then they added a fifteen minute interval (which says a lot about the decision of the director) so my scheduling became critical.

The plan

The Plan that came from the bottom up is a documentary about labour relations in the 1970s, seen through the lens of the Lucas Aerospace company. Director Steve Sprung clearly believes in “slow cinema”. There was a huge amount of mood setting, relevant once or possibly twice but not more. The film started in Lisbon, in a terrible fog and then there was a billboard which stated in three languages, Portuguese, English and Chinese, that “you can buy this view”. Following that there was an equally magnificent aerial view of London, with the legend “London, open for business”.

I do not want to trash this film as it is important, both for its message about top down industrial management, about the level of government payback to big business (leaving aside the bank bailout of 2008) and how this affected both the workforce and manufacturing in Britain.

The talking heads were all one-time workers at Lucas. Now retired, (actually they were sacked) but who, when they were shop stewards created a cooperative committee who tried, but failed, to persuade the management that the workers were able and willing to diversify production to more community based products – like wind turbines. Unbelievably, Lucas Aerospace felt that this did not fit with the company image and turned it down, the workers also created a proto-type of an electric bus that could run on rail and road. Also vetoed, although it would save millions in under-developed countries because it would run on concrete, rather than rails, what’s not to like? But no, Lucas preferred making killing machines.

With substantial editing this would be, as it is described above, “a gripping essay”, reflecting on the darker side of capitalism. What is really astonishing though, is the level of behind the scenes collaboration between the Labour government of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan and the management of these vital industries.

There were figures, which I did not copy down, but which showed that after a turnover of tens of millions, what with cost of production and Labour government subsidies, Lucas Aerospace paid only £470,000 to HMRC in tax. Does anyone else immediately think of Amazon and Starbucks?

I wish I could say this was a must see. Maybe a four-part-series on television. Because what it has to say about our choked up cities, about climate change and industry, and the death of manufacturing, is important; because there are people out there who have ideas that would help, if only they had been listened to in the 1970s!!!

It was a rush to get to the next film, which was a shame and this was redoubled by the fact that my neighbour (not the friend I was with but on the other side) seemed oblivious to the fact that a garlicky, chilli wrap followed by smelly, crunchy tacos are not suitable fodder for the cinema. I felt like asking her if she thought she would starve if she waited to eat until after the film.

Bisbee

Bisbee ’17 was not exactly the film I thought it was going to be. 2017 makes it one hundred years since a mass deportation of striking copper miners and other supporters was effected in Bisbee.

The town decides on an re-enactment. This film is the result. And while shining a light on the trauma of a single town, is probably a good thing for the town, I suspect that there would have been better ways to do this for the cinema. It was fractured and over-sentimentalized, which rather drowned the horror of what actually happened.

In July 1917, over 2000 people, nearly all of them Central Americans and Eastern Europeans, were transported into the desert in cattle trucks and left to die. No amount of re-enactment is going to bring to life the absolute inhumanity of that act; yet Bisbee survives – with the visible scars of copper mining all around them and the Mexican border just a short distance away – what better reminder is there?

Finally tonight a beautiful French film set in Paris and India. Two men get off a French Republic flight and are greeted by François Hollande. In spite of public denials, these two are hostages freed with a slush fund, held under wraps for the French Government.

This is another film with a female director, Mia Hansen-Love. Beautifully realised and filmed, but a bizarre choice of music – as Gabriel wanders around Indian cities, throbbing with colour, noise and traffic – we are hearing Shubert – why?

Maya

After a few weeks, young Gabriel goes off to India, a country where he grew up until his parents separated. We travel to India with him and it is utterly gorgeous, as he also travels. Starting from Goa, where his godfather has a hotel, he travels throughout the Indian subcontinent.

Maya is both a love story and a commentary upon what tourism is doing to India, to the farming community and to the still unspoiled places, with unscrupulous developers forcing sales of land and houses by fair means and foul. And possibly a gibe at the French government whose aid programme is dwarfed by the funds paid out to rescue French hostages.

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More journeys, but not mine

Two quite different and extraordinary books. The first a mixture of historical fact, myth and magic coupled with a searing currently relevant story of a family escaping from Syria. How might that work?

The contemporary heroine is a synaesthete (another – See Red Sparrow) and the book in partly set in Homs (See – Sea Prayer). Which considering this book was selected at random is slightly odd.

Salt and StarsIn The Map of Salt and Stars, the two stories are sectioned together in pairs. So in the historical-myth-magic section we follow the adventures of Rawiya, a young girl who leaves home to become apprentice (as a boy) to the twelfth century scholar and mapmaker Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi engaged by Roger II of Palermo to make a map of the known world and in the contemporary section we follow the story of Nour.

Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar has skillfully woven the historical strand with parts of the stories of Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights and also the stories of Sinbad the Sailor. These myths or fairytales are combined in a wonderfully starry tapestry following the actual known progress of al-Idrisi and his companions around the lands bordering the Mediterranean.

Rawiya’s partner in the contemporary world is Nour. She has grown up in New York, but on the death of her father, her mother and two older sisters return to Homs, and a quasi-uncle Abu Sayeed. The situation changes in Syria and the family are forced to flee, with devastating consequences. Nour, bolstered by her father’s wonderful story telling (as described above) treads courageously through the journey, in her head following in the footsteps of Rawiya.

The salt of the title are the tears that are shed along the way; but in all circumstances good people look to the stars hopefully, for stories and for comfort. No one who looks at the stars can be truly bad. This is what Nour/Rawiya firmly believes and it is borne out in her adventures.

But this is not all sweetness and light. There are passages in both sections that are unbearably tragic, and losses in one section are inevitably mirrored in the other, in much the same way as the exhibitions of tremendous courage and survival.

FrazierVarina is a book of a very different complexion. Charles Frazier has returned to Cold Mountain country; this time following the flight of Varina Davis away from the Federal troops and bounty hunters with a gaggle of children, not all of them her own. Accompanied by two faithful coloured retainers.

Varina is the wife of Jefferson Davis, upon whose head there is a bounty, and a suspicion that they are complicit in the death of Abraham Lincoln, and therefore guilty of murder and treason.

They are far away to the south before this small party hears about this; Jefferson has still not joined them and better it were by far that he had not.

This is historical fiction of the highest quality. A beautifully constructed story built upon the few details know about Varina and about her husband. Reconstructed over a period of weeks when one of the children, now grown up seeks her out to fill in the gaps in his own knowledge of himself, when he can only remember fragments of that terrible time.

So the sections switch from Saratoga Springs in 1906 to Varina’s youth in 1842, and the events of the American Civil War between about 1865 to 1879-93 as remembered by the two of them.

My knowledge of American history lags far behind that which it should, in spite of Gone with the Wind and other books. But Frazier brings it into focus in all its horror, messiness, mud and stink; the tragedy and betrayal of the African Americans; the brutality of the war itself and the unforgiving nature of the winners. It is all here and it is all pretty horrifying.

Read and learn.

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Books for the journey

I daresay most people now take e-books on journeys, but I have loaned my Kobe reader and also the journey was only to Scotland, so I took four books with me.

One by an American author that I have only just discovered, and cannot imagine why I haven’t read any of her previous novels, of which there are nine, plus eight non-fiction titles and two books for children. Oh joy, because Anna Quindlen is a find!

QuindlanAlternate Side is a particular sort of domestic novel, in line with novels by Barbara Pym, but even funnier and taut with bitchiness, gossip and neighbourhood squabbles and American. Which makes it sound horrible, but it isn’t.

Nora and Charlie Nolan live in a dead-end street in New York City. The neighbourhood is a close knit community of middle-income families, with one block only housing people of low or no incomes. Most of the people in this street have servants, housekeepers or domestics and most of these are coloured.

Although an urban setting, this block has a village atmosphere: a summer barbeque party hosted by different families each year and a Christmas party at the Fenstermacher’s house, coffee mornings for gossip and dog walking chatters.

And then there was Ricky, the handyman they all used for the small stuff: dripping taps, washing machines that refuse to drain, clothes dryers that were not functioning properly – that sort of thing, and then there was The Parking Lot.

At the opening stage of the novel, Charlie has finally achieved a parking space in the one lot on the street that was not built upon. Everyone who did not have a parking space on this lot were reduced to on-street parking and it concomitant problems. Problems that applied to Ricky every time he turned up in his van.

Life drifts on, seemingly happily, for all the people on the block until one day a sudden act of violence throws everything into confusion, and the cracks begin to appear on both sides of the street, with harrowing results.

There is a marvellous sense of humour bubbling along in this book. Nora has an acute eye and Anna Quindlen nails perfectly the way women gossip and speculate about each other, while still remaining friends. And it is the women who carry this story along, although they are most of them married.

I loved this book and will go back and find some of the others. I finished this on the train and then read the next book before getting to my final destination.

Ghost WallGhost Wall is the latest novel from Sarah Moss (Night Waking, The Tidal Zone and others – posted April 11, 2018and this novel is set in Northumberland, a wild and beautiful county, still largely unpopulated in its boggy moorland heights. Looking out of the window just as I started reading, I realised I was actually passing through the eastern end of the county.

This book is a chilling reminder that families are all unhappy in their own way.

Sulevia, more commonly called Sylvie (and wouldn’t you be?) is a teenage girl on holiday with her parents, her father has a passion for historical reconstruction and they have joined with a group of university students in ‘experiental archaeology’ led by Professor Slade. I have no idea whether such a discipline actually exists, but the aim is to live for a short time as if you were part of (in this case) an Iron Age settlement.

So poor Sylvie and her mother are dressed in coarse tunics, Sylvie and the other students are sent foraging on the moor or beach for berries and food. Her mother is left behind to tend to the cooking over an open fire, with an iron pot to cook an assortment of grains and roots, with the occasional rabbit. The students are two young men, Dan and Pete plus one young woman, Molly who refuses to take the whole thing seriously.

Not taking it seriously is a luxury Sylvie is unable to entertain, her father is adamant that she sleeps in the roundhouse, a construction of withies and deerskins on a mattress of straw and sacking without any accommodation for modernity (except for toothbrushes and tampons) or for the fact that there is a convenient shop a short distance away.

Hanging over the whole experiment is the haunting story of a human sacrifice, a bog girl found preserved in the peat.

This is a very short book, 160 pages only, but it rises to an unbearable and disturbing conclusion; there are plenty of hints in the build up to give you a sense of direction, but it is still shockingly chilling once the momentum builds up.

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Another for the reading list

Glos CresThis time an eloquent coming-of-age memoir by William Miller, son of the more famous Jonathan; neighbour to Alan Bennett and the Lady in the Van, Nicholas and Claire Tomalin and then Michael Frayn, George and Diana Melly, Colin and Anna Haycraft, Ursula Vaughan Williams, Max Stafford Clark and other, presumably less famous, neighbours and in the next street Sir AJ Ayer and Dee,  Shirley Conran and then all their many and various children.

The time was the 1960s and the place was Gloucester Crescent and the other street was Regent’s Park Terrace, the book is Gloucester Crescent, Me, My Dad and Other Grown-ups.

Colin Haycraft was the founder of Duckworth’s the publisher, so as well as publishing a lot of books by the writers listed above, he also published Oliver Sacks, Beryl Bainbridge, Robert Lowell, the American Poet and William’s godfather, and a host of other luminaries all of whom drifted in and out of each other’s houses as guests – long stay, short stay, coffee, dinner or lunch – and talked and talked.

The abiding impression of this fascinating and gossipy book, written now the author is in his mid-fifties, but from his perspective as a child, is of someone who longs to get a word in edgeways.

It all sounds rather chaotic and free, happy and unclouded. But actually, small children do need attention and preferably from their own parents, William seems to have got most of his parenting from some of his adult female neighbours. And that might equally go for some of the other children in this remarkable list of extraordinary people.

The section on William’s schooling is simply chastening.  Shades of Philip Larkin spring to mind as the political philosophy of the left leaning, public school educated adults choose the State system for their own off-spring. Even the journey to and from Pimlico School is fraught with stress and incipient danger, it breaks one’s heart.

This is the Bloomsbury Group of the nineteen sixties, the Gloucester Crescent set, I suppose you could call them, though I have never heard them described like this. It was a time of febrile activity for the grown-ups, William describes the tattoo-sound of typewriters pinging across the gardens of the surrounding houses, the pauses to drag deeply on a cigarette, then the tap, tap, tap. Some fluently hammering out words, Alan Bennett for example, played his typewriter as if it were a piano, using all his fingers, Jonathan Miller was a two-fingered typist, until the lovely Stella Coltman-Rogers came to type his letters, then the sound changed to a flowing, professional typing speed.

The games and the gardens, the dogs and the other children. All wonderfully present. The epilogue is a recap of where we are now, the departed (and lamented) or the simply moved away; Alan Bennett is one such, and he moved with Rupert into the house opposite my own in another North London crescent.

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Not the Man Booker 2018

The laptop catastrophe has meant lots of reading and no blogging. Here are four excellent novels of merit that I have read recently, anyone of which could have been on the Man Booker list:

Michael Arditti – Of Men and Angels

Patrick Gale – Take Nothing With You

Melissa Harrison – All Among the Barley

Pat Barker – The Silence of the Girls

ArdittiOf Men and Angels is a strange books, it is really the story of how the Angel Gabriel, Michael and other angels, but especially Gabriel, have been portrayed in human storytelling. Going back particularly to the part played by the angels in the telling of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the saving of Lot and his family.

Each section, and there are five, brings us nearer and nearer the present day. The opening section, By the Rivers of Babylon, deals with the familiar story and its origins in various scriptures, The Bible, The Koran and other Babylonian texts; the next section tells the story of the traditional Guild that staged the Lot story in the York mystery plays of the Middle Ages; moving on from the fifteenth century we arrive in Florence at the time of Savonarola and the Bonfire of the Vanities and finally more or less to the present day to Los Angeles, the City of Angels.

As a quick run through literature, painting and poetry this is quite a feat. There is drama, passion, humour and imagination. Each section is prefaced with a short introduction in the “voice” of Gabriel, but then the narrative takes off into a realm of its own. His/her wonderment at the way men imagine angels, at what point they acquired wings, sex and other attributes. It is a researched and well trodden topic, but here is gets the full panoply of treatments from the forbidding flaming sword of Michael, to the number that can dance on the head of a pin and finally to the creation and destruction of the modern city of the plains, Los Angeles.

GaleAn entirely different book from a prolific and favourite author, Take Nothing With You is a love story with a terrible difference. The narrator has only recently recovered from the loss of his long term partner and has found, online, a new friend; Eustace has just a day to reflect on his life and his new happiness before embarking on a radical, aggressive treatment for thyroid cancer.

The novel covers his strange childhood, his love of music and his cello teacher, Carla Gold, his adolescence and growing awareness of his homosexuality and the dramatic turn of events that leads to his parents’ separation.

This is set still in the age of Aids and HIV as a deadly disease, Eustace is surviving and the cancer is just the beginning of what might be the downward spiral. Meeting someone online throws up difficult decisions, about revealing his cancer and the treatment.

Patrick Gale’s writing is informed, insightful and full of gentle humour. There is a tremendous sub-plot which the intuitive reader will have understood immediately, but which the young man, the narrator, remains entirely unaware of. It is never spelled out, so it becomes distinctly possible that Eustace remains ignorant even to the end.

This is a stunning coming-of-age novel, complex, transitory, confusing. Patrick Gale never disappoints and this one has all the hallmarks of a masterly pen.

Melissa HarrisonAll Among the Barley is set in the years immediately before the Second World War, even the shadows have not started to fall. In a rural community a young girl, Edie Mather, watches as her life slowly disintegrates; with the coming of a journalist, Constance FitzAllen from London, the young girl begins to see her life from a different perspective.

She is not aware how very destructive are the motives behind Constance’s questions, and Constance inveigles herself well and truly into the farming community, only in the end to upturn the tables.

The narrative is bookended with the voice of an elderly woman returning to her community after a near lifetime in an institution – care in the community is the name of the movement, and that did not go well for anyone.

Melissa Harrison has a wonderful eye for detail and ear for cadences. Like Jon MacGregor we are made aware of the seasons. For lives in a farming community at that time, before mechanisation and industrial farming methods, the seasons and the weather were key.

Belief in influences that were unseen but deeply felt, tradition, superstition and magic were commonplace. Health and ill-health were transparently part of daily life, hospitals and doctors came at a cost, so why not go to the healers, who were mostly women.

England in all its past magnificence and glory is on these pages, and read now it is possible to take fully on board what was swept away by the coming conflict. The absolute unawareness of impending disaster hangs over this novel from start to finish.

The ending is one familiar to many farming families in its bleak tragedy.

Barker GirlsFinally, back to a re-telling of The Iliad. This must be the most richly mined resource in literature, after perhaps The Holy Bible. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Margaret Atwood, Madeleine Miller and many, many more have mined this great epic and Pat Barker is no exception.

Abandoning the First World War, she has turned her gaze on to the Greeks and Trojans. In The Silence of the Girls, she reminds us that there were two women at the heart of the Trojan War.  Helen obviously, since her abduction (or elopement) led to it all and Briseis, a Trojan princess who is abducted after the sack of Lyrnessus and awarded to Achilles, filtched from him by Agamemnon when he was forced to give up his own prize and all that followed from that fateful decision…

The narrative is Briseis’ summation. Long after the war is over and Achilles is dead, she looks back at the lives of the captive women in the seemingly endless war at the base of the walls of Troy. Slaves and concubines to their captors, they still had to make a life. It might not have been the one they had chosen, but to survive they had to put up and shut up. And that it the point really. The Iliad is all about the men; this novel is also all about the men, and Achilles mostly but the women are there, ever present and not speaking much.

There is an exquisite moment when Briseis’ silence speaks volumes…

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Man Booker Longlist 2018/4

2018 BLL BurnsMilkman by Anna Burns: I had heard and read a lot about Milkman before actually reading the book, and nothing that I had heard or read prepared me for how dense it was. It is a first person narrative, set in an unnamed town, fully of unnamed but identified people.

The time is clearly Northern Ireland in the 1970s, the place maybe Belfast, but if so it is not entirely recognisable, there is no mention of the docks or the sea, for example. The narrator belongs to a fairly large family: ma, da (deceased), first brother, second brother (deceased), third brother and fourth brother (run away over the border); there are also sisters and first-brother-in-law and third brother-in-law and the “wee ones”, three younger sisters.  There are neighbours, the maybe-boyfriend, Somebody McSomebody (not the boyfriend), the milkman and Milkman.

It is a narrative that begins at the end and circles back to the same ending. There is violence, suspicion, betrayal, death (violent and accidental). There are those “over the water” who are in this city: the soldiers and others; there are those on the side of those “over the water” like the police. Then there are the informers and the renouncers – both sides have these, both “our side of the road” and those on “the other side of the road”. And there is a great deal of menace and rumour and gossip.

There is one shocking episode that is scarcely credible, but must be true, I fear. Partly because it would be hard to make it up and partly because if you did, there would be an outcry and a lawsuit pending. It concerns the killing of all the dogs and runs from page 93 through to page 100, it involves the British soldiers killing all the dogs because they barked and gave away their positions, then having killed all bar one, they left them with their throats cut in “the entry”, presumably one of the safe roads into the “our side”.

The narrator explains, digests, digresses, thinks and reads while she walks, generally novels written before the nineteenth century. She is aloof but also considered; she thinks a lot about being a maybe-girlfriend and whether or not she wants to join coupledom; her maybe-boyfriend has the same thoughts but until now they have never coincided at the same moment, so it hangs in there unresolved.

Then there is a rumour that she is going with Milkman; she isn’t, although she has met him – or rather he has sidled into her life in a less than straightforward manner. He draws up beside her in his van, but she will not get in; he runs beside her in the park and makes threatening remarks about maybe-boyfriend and then he “runs into her” after a French lesson, but she thinks he must have been waiting for her unseen. He upsets her, she half knows what he wants but is repulsed. He is a known renouncer, a known terrorist and he is married (she thinks). He appears to know a great deal about her, her family, her habits and her maybe-boyfriend.

The writing is dense in the sense that the paragraphs are immensely long, they represent her thinking and her way of relating this to an imaginary friend (the reader probably); it is not precisely stream-of-consciousness because it is also actually narrative, without it we could not possibly know what was going on. There are six chapters but there could equally be ten or five, the breaks come slightly arbitrarily though generally starting with encounters with Milkman or post-Milkman encounters when she is trying to ingest what has happened.

Certainly the writing captures explicitly the tension which must have prevailed everywhere in Northern Ireland at the time; the local rules which if broken could end in tar and feathers, knee-capping, beating or death; the kangaroo courts held in out of the way sheds or hutments; the curfew; the suspicion of neighbours, of “the others”; the surveillance. It must have been nearly intolerable and then to add to the mix the innuendo, the rumour and the gossip. This is all there on every page, so that you must stop and take a breather.

Then finally there is a beautiful love story which lifts the whole tenor of the novel into another plane; wonderfully and delightfully revealed in the last chapter. Sheer joy and relief!

Do I think this will make it to the shortlist? The answer is yes.

My shadow book is an out-and-out love story; a debut novel by Anne Youngson.

YoungsonMeet Me at the Museum is an epistolary novel.  Initially Tina Hopgood writes to a Professor Glob, the finder of the Tollund Man but he is no longer there, being as it were 104 had he still been around. But the Curator of the Silkeborg Museum writes back and there develops over a period of about a year and a bit, an intense friendship.

In tone it is not unlike 84, Charing Cross Road, an epistolary memoir.  Helen Hanff wrote to a bookseller in London at this address and over time they created a warm and rewarding relationship, though they were never to meet, as Frank Doel died before Helen Hanff ever came to Britain, their correspondence lasted over several decades.

This novel is more intense, as the letters go back and forth by email attachment.

It also reminds me a lot of Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects, because Anders Larsen, the curator (who is fictional) writes quite a lot in his letters about the Tollund Man and the artefacts that are found that relate to his time.

Tina Hopgood describes her life on an East Anglian farm and he describes his life as a curator and widower. Their letters gradually draw out more detail and become more intimate and then right at the crux Tina has to make a serious decision.

Will their relationship on paper survive, and will she go to meet him at the Museum?

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The book, the sequel and the play

My Name is Lucy Barton Elizabeth StroutWho knew that My Name is Lucy Barton would produce such a flourishing industry? T-shirts and tea towels next? The novel was such a slight little book, physically that is – it packed a big punch.

A single person narrator (LB) recalls a time when she was ill for several months. Some complication, possibly not even physical, keeping her in hospital after a fairly routine operation.

Her two small children were clearly scared when they visited, seeing their mother so thin and so sick; her husband had hospital-phobia (who doesn’t? But some of us rise above it) and he gets her a single room because he cannot bear the woman who is clearly dying in the next bed. This causes Lucy chronic loneliness, as well as being ill.

Then she wakes up to find her mother sitting at the end of the bed. That is enough for now, anything else would be a spoiler.

The writing is sparse, direct and funny at times, laugh out loud funny occasionally and heart-rending. Amgash does not seem to have been a good place to grow up. Though during the book it is clear that Lucy has left her family and roots behind and is living in New York, AIDS has struck the gay community, but in her evident loneliness, Lucy even manages to envy those couples walking past the apartment block where she lives. It would seem that some people can be lonely even when married. Too right, Lucy!

StroutThe sequel, Anything is Possible, is centred in Amgash. So we get to meet, in person, many of the characters only referred to in My Name is Lucy Barton. Elizabeth Sprout has a vivid and extraordinary facility for character and place, you can really hear the wind in the fields of corn; you can smell the poverty and cringe and experience the terrible isolation. Amgash is not, seemingly, a huddle of houses, it is spread out so that one dwelling or farm is far, maybe even a drive apart, from the next.

But the two books together make a nice whole. Contained and absorbing. So imagine my surprise when I saw that the first book had been remodelled as a play. How was that going to work?My name is LB play

The answer is brilliantly!

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