Armchair Exploring 4 – Japan


My love for The Pillow Book has been well-documented, and when I started to count how many Japanese writers I have on my ‘loved books’ shelf, I must admit I was surprised. Latest addition are the short stories of Yoko Ogawa.


But while I didn’t pick her, because I’ve read her stories so recently, do note that cover quote from Hilary Mantel: ‘Original, elegant, very disturbing’, because that’s exactly what I might say about my own Japanese armchair exploring: Seven Japanese Tales by Junichiro Tanizaki, and translated by Howard Hibbett.


So while I loved these stories, they might not be for everyone. They date from between 1910 and 1959, and several are disturbing! For me the most wonderful – story of all was The Tattooer, about Seikichi, ‘an exceptionally skillful young tattooer’, who is searching for the perfect body for his art. Along the way, the power play between tattooer and ‘client’ is explored so beautifully and viscerally, that I couldn’t help but shudder physically while reading:


But then one day he catches sight of a ‘woman’s bare milk-white foot peeping out beneath the curtains of a department palanquin’. Finding the owner of the foot becomes a passion, and when he does, he finds no shrinking violet:


So why did I love this story so much? I’ve been thinking about this. The whole reading 50 books challenge has certainly taken me out of my comfort zone, which is exactly what I wanted. I think it’s because these Seven Japanese Tales break many of our safe taboos but with the utmost control, and as Hilary Mantel says of Yoko Ogawa, elegance.


Any cruelty in these stories, and there is, is integral to the whole story, to the characters, to the time, and to the balance between the characters, and within themselves too, as opposed to being the main hook or for the sake of sensationalism. I’m suddenly realising that I haven’t read much of this side of human nature, and yet it’s part of us. How much we accept it, or even see it around us, is of course individual, but it could be argued that it’s the writer’s job to look at the whole of humanity.


And, as I’m finding out to my cost, one book is leading to another.


In his introduction, Howard Hibbett talks about the debt Junichiro Tanizaki owes to the Japanese classic, The Tale of Genji, written as is The Pillow Book by a woman, Lady Murasaki, born in 978, and recognised still as the supreme classic of Japanese literature. So how could I resist…


And I can’t do a post about Japan, without mentioning the charity, Cocora Charity my sister, Mary Atkinson, is involved in to help the victims of the recent Tsunami. Please click here to find out why the heart!

Posted in 2015, Armchair exploring, Howard Hibbett, Junichiro Tanizaki, Pillow Book, Seven Japanese Tales, The Tale of Genji, Yoko Ogawa | Leave a comment

Writing in your swimsuit

As an ex-fashion student, I’m already convinced that the clothes we wear have an impact on how we feel. It’s an interesting dilemma these days when I write mostly from home and don’t need to make any attempt to impress. Hmmm. I don’t think so. Comfort is the king here.

Cor… look at those elasticated leggings and cosy slippers.

And yet, and yet… the last thing I want in my writing is comfort.


Being involved in the Bespoken Project with ace tailor, Nathalie Limon led me to write more about clothes and fashion recently. And it’s been fun. And exciting to see how much clothes can tell, how many memories are connected with clothes, and just how much emotional resonance they have. Here’s one of the writing prompts that was written for Bespoken:


There is a paragraph from one of my favourite novels, The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, that gave me a frisson of recognition when I first read it as a child and still does. It comes when Maria Merryweather is on her way to live with her mysterious cousin, the Lord of Moonacre. She’s understandably nervous but finds a surprising source of comfort:

And the boots she had on today were calculated to raise the lowest spirits, for they were made of the softest grey leather, sewn with crystal beads round the tops, and were lined with snow-white lamb’s wool. The crystal beads, as it happened, could not be seen, because Maria’s grey silk dress and warm grey wool pelisse, also trimmed with white lamb’s wool, reached to her ankles, but she herself knew they were there, and the thought of them gave her a moral strength that can scarcely be overestimated.

Write about a fictional character who gets much-needed strength for a particular situation from something she or he is wearing. Ideally this should, like Maria’s boots, be invisible to the outside world. Some examples could be ‘lucky interview pants’, a particular pair of socks, or even a scrap of material hidden in a pocket. Try and describe the garment as lavishly as possible, bringing in the senses as much as you can. Give us the history of the garment, why does it have this magic power? Why does this character need it? You could write this also as a piece of memoir. If you would like a line to start, try… ‘It should have been just a normal day…’


I think lucky clothes is a concept the psychologist Karen Pine, who amongst other things has a title to die for, Professor of the Psychology of Fashion, would understand. I’ve just finished her book, Mind What You Wear which is full of research, notes and anecdotes that kept me reaching for the pen.

… in a world where people endlessly try to work out what others are thinking, many interpersonal forces operate beyond consciousness. Impressions, aesthetics, judgements, prejudices, desires all work beneath our mental radar, cunningly dodging our awareness and conscious understanding.

The most startling research project for me was by Barbara Fredrickson. She conducted an experiment in which 42 women and 40 women were given a maths test while wearing either a swimsuit or a sweater. The result? While it made no difference to the men’s results what they were dressed in, those women who wore a swimsuit had a significantly diminished score. Fredrickson put this down to the fact that the women were so consumed in worrying about other people evaluating their body that this used up their mental resources.

Men, it seems, just got on with the test, not caring what they looked like.


So, in an effort to add some edginess to the short story I’m struggling with at the moment, I am sitting here writing this in my bikini…

Nah, only kidding. BUT I must confess I did dress up a little this morning as a result of reading this book. I’ve been a big fan of Dr Pine ever since I discovered her Do Something Different project, and I can see the benefits of her fashion-based programme – what fun to receive an instruction every day to dress a little bit differently. It certainly seems to work for some of the case studies she quotes in the book, and as she says:

After two weeks of wearing something different, participants’ life satisfaction scores had gone up. More importantly, their negative mood levels had gone down. Simply breaking free from their usual wardrobe habits, experimenting a little, dressing more consciously and less automatically, improved their positive emotions and feelings about life in general.

So here’s one of the Do’s that I’m going to try tomorrow –

‘Do wear the oldest item in your wardrobe today. You loved it once, why not wear it again? Dig deep and resurrect an old favourite’.

superman bikini

And if it’s a swimsuit, at least I’m going to make sure it’s a Superman one. Dr Pine also found out that wearing a Superman t-shirt led to students gaining better exam grades.

Posted in 2015, Bespoken, Clothes, Do Something Different, Karen Pine, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Shake Up Your Writing – one-day workshop


I’m really pleased to let you know about this one-day workshop (from 10-2pm) that I’ll be running, via the University of Kent, in Tonbridge on Monday 9th February.


The workshop is for you if…. you want to start writing, you’re tired of writing the same old things, you need some fresh inspiration, you want to see if you actually want to write something, you’d like to find people nearby who write too, you have always wanted to write, everybody keeps saying you need to write these stories you tell down, you’re in the middle of a long project and want a break, if you’re a poet, or a novelist, or only want to write for yourself, or you’re not sure what kind of writer you actually are.. I think you get the picture!

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For those of you who have worked with me before, a little reassurance. We won’t be repeating exercises. All that we will do is fresh and new and… ok, we MAY repeat one or two but only those worth doing again and with a different slant. I’m aiming to surprise you!

Treat it as a little writing spa…


All you need to bring with you is a journal (oh and a pen, perhaps two because people often run out.) I promise you that we will write and write and write…. but you won’t have to read anything out until you feel ready.

Details are here, and you will need to contact the University office in Tonbridge for more information and to book. Do book early, these courses often get sold out.


Posted in 2015, Tonbridge, university of kent, Workshops, writing courses, Writing space | Leave a comment

Armchair exploring, part 2 – Czech Republic and Norway

Who on earth arranged this travel itinerary??? Geez, you could almost believe I didn’t do very well at geography in school.

1. First stop on this whizz-bang tour is The Czech Republic. HOW I CAME TO KNOW FISH by Ota Pavel.


There’s a great interview with Ota Pavel here which gives a clear description of his life and works. But really I imagine you could just read this book. It’s autobiographical, and quite devastating in the simple way it’s told through short chapters.


Pavel was born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother in Prague. He was eleven when the WW2 broke out, and most of his family were arrested and imprisoned. By the time you reach this in the book, you know the family, and you know how central fishing is. So it’s fitting that the craziness of the world situation is introduced through a simple remark about fish:

At the beginning of the occupation they confiscated Papa’s pond in Bustehrad.
“How can a Jew breed carp?” the mayor asked.

The same stark simplicity is given to Ota Pavel’s own situation in the epilogue.

I went mad at the winter Olympics in Innsbruck. My brain got cloudy, as if a fog from the Alps had enveloped it. In that condition I came face to face with one gentleman – the Devil. He looked the part! He had hooves, fun, horns, and rotten teeth that looked hundreds of years old. With this figure in my mind I climbed the hills above Innsbruck and torched a farm building. I was convinced that only a brilliant bonfire could burn off that fog.

I’m not sure when I have read a better description of what it must feel like to be mentally disturbed. The cold – almost rational – explanation for this behaviour. The biography at the beginning states that he “spent much of the rest of his life in various mental hospitals, during which time he wrote the marvellous How I came to Know Fish.”

But that suggests this book is ‘therapy’ or will somehow be disturbing to read, and it reads as neither. It is an absolute joy, with humour, wry characterisation and some beautiful descriptions of both landscape and women, such as: ‘Papa was in the maarket for a pond, a very particular pond. This pond of his soul would be surrounded by leaning willows and marsh marigolds with yellow blossoms, and basking in its waters would be carp the size of calves.’

And then there’s the incomparable boss’s wife, Mrs Irma: ‘As she turned, you could see her gorgeous plump buttocks and slender legs which tapered down into high-heeled snakeskin shoes. The elaborate curls in her hair suggested a magnificent butterfly about to escape the musty stairway of the boring academy.’

Oh Irma. After she is disappointed, she ‘never wanted to see my dear Papa again. She remembered how he had eaten chicken with his hands.’

How perfect is that? Or this?


It’s these little touches of humanity and humour that I loved in this book. And somehow the fact that the memories came from a man dreaming of this childhood from a mental hospital just made the details more poignant. How about this list, to sum up the man who taught him to fish:

With Prosek we were burying a real English soccer ball, cold buttermilk, pickled fish and marinated deer meat, Prague sausages, Holan the dog, and the phonograph recording of ‘A Thousand Miles’.

We’ve got to know Prosek throughout the book, right from the very first paragraph in fact:


How I Came to Know Fish is translated by Jindriska Badal and Robert McDowell.

2. And now to Norway, for The Blue Room by Hanne Orstavik, translated by Deborah Dawkin.


This has this rather unpromising – for me – line at the start of the book:


Hmmm. Actually, it resembled more The Story of O, a book I first read when I was 18 with my then-boyfriend as we walked in the snow in Hyde Park, taking it in turns to read pages out to each other, and circling the Serpentine again and again. A strange and rather wonderful memory.

So I did want to love the book, especially as the publisher, Peirene Press are one of my crushes at the moment, and probably the reason behind this project in the first place. I’ve read so many DELICIOUS books in translation from them. However, despite the fact that I was able to see the similarities between this book and my own, Tell Me Everything, this one didn’t do anything for me. I felt as trapped in its pages as Johanne is in the story.


Perhaps I was missing something. It just all felt a bit distant and mannered for me, although it has had rave reviews. Anyway, I’m planning to come back to Norway later, because now I’m moving on to Japan.

I told you I was no good at geography.

Posted in 2015, Armchair exploring, Autobiography, Czech Republic, Hanne Orstavik, Norway, Ota Pavel, Peirene Press, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Armchair Exploring – 1st stop EGYPT

(Read about my armchair exploring project here)

And we’re off…


And in fine style too. Naguib Mahfouz is one of Egypt’s best known authors and Nobel Prize winner, but this is the first book of his I’ve read. As the title suggests, it’s a tribute to One Thousand and One Nights, starting off where that one ends.


As the book’s introduction suggests, Shahrzad is safe from threat. Her stories have had the necessary result of making the sultan consider his responsibilities and she has borne him a son, but she is not in love with her plot-eating blood thirsty sultan:

‘But you know, father,’ she said in a whisper, ‘that I am unhappy.’
‘Be careful, daughter, for thoughts assume concrete forms in palaces and give voice.’
‘I sacrificed myself,’ she said sorrowfully, ‘in order to stem the torrent of blood.’

Indeed, thoughts DO assume concrete forms in the seventeen stories that follow. They aren’t however told by Shahrzad, and are a combination of magic realism, politics and moral lessons. But much more lively and amusing than that sounds largely because of the solid characters Mahfouz creates. Take Ugr the Barber, for example, the ‘deeply-rooted minder of other people’s business.’


There are deaths, transformations, lusting, trysting and robbing. Not all good men win, and some bad men don’t repent. There are questions of whether ends justify the means and whether corruption is a necessary part of power. Just when you think you know what might happen, you are whizzed down another alley, into another storyteller’s head, and a new adventure. And so back to the beginning, but now it’s a completely different beginning. Stories to completely give yourself over to – just like the sultan did.


There’s an interesting interview (1992) from the Paris Review, and I liked this answer to that usual question – How do you come up with the characters and ideas for your stories? – here. I think this is why I enjoyed this book so much, it might have been written about an medieval Arab community, but I can imagine varieties of all these characters in Tunbridge Wells too.


Let me put it this way. When you spend time with your friends, what do you talk about? Those things which made an impression on you that day, that week . . . I write stories the same way. Events at home, in school, at work, in the street, these are the bases for a story. Some experiences leave such a deep impression that instead of talking about them at the club I work them into a novel.

Take, for instance, the case of a criminal who killed three people here recently. Beginning with that basic story, I would go on to make a number of decisions as to how to write it. I would choose, for example, whether to write the story from the point of view of the husband, the wife, the servant, or the criminal. Maybe my sympathies lie with the criminal. These are the sorts of choices that make stories differ from one another.

The translator:

The translator of my edition is Denys Johnson-Davies, described in the book by Edward Said as ‘the leading Arabic-English translator of our time.’ He has written his own book called Memories in Translation.

Posted in 2015, Armchair exploring, Denys Johnson-Davies, Egypt, Naguib Mahfouz | Leave a comment

Reading My Way Around the World in 2015

It’s like a New Year quiz. How many countries in the world are there??


Well, here’s a thing. No one is quite sure. But I’m going to go round the world in 2015.

Not really of course.

Better than that. My resolution is to read one book from 50 different countries over the next year. I’m looking forward to exploring the literature of Slovakia, Palestine, Nepal as well as South Africa, Australia, Canada. Oh, and heck yes, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and England as well. All suggestions of books I should/could read are very welcome.


I haven’t set myself any rules. I can read books I’ve read before. I can read short stories, poetry, fiction and memoir.


It’s a celebration of the translators, as well as independent publishers such as Periene Press, And Other Stories, and Dedalus Books, and inspired by proper reading bloggers such as my friend, Ted Altschuler.


Can you tell I’m excited?


Of course, I’m also going to lose weight, save the world, and be a better person….

… after I’ve finished this chapter.

Posted in 2015, And Other Stories, Books in translation, Dedalus Books, Literary translators, Periene Press, reading, Reading round the world, Ted Altschuler, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Happy holidays!

read instead

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Sharing confidences like this is our last night alive….


There has been something special about nearly every writing group I’ve been part of, or indeed led. Often I won’t even know the ‘normal’ facts about the other writers – whether they are married, what job they do, how many children, if any, they have – BUT by the end of the session I may probably know something about them – and they will know something about me – that very few people do. This isn’t to say that writing groups are therapy groups, or confessionals, but the very act of writing together can feel special. In fact, the best writing groups generate their own energy so you end up writing something that surprises even you.


So I have counted myself very lucky this year to meet some extraordinary writers in the groups I have run – whether it be for the University of Kent at Tonbridge, in my own house, and even outside as much as I can (luckily mostly in the sunshine)!

outside teaching

We have written haikus, sonnets, novels (or parts of). We’ve shared knowledge about volcanoes, silences, photo-journalism, architecture, continuity, bees. We’ve written letters we’ll never send and letters to people we admire that we do send (and get replies from). We’ve written about food, places we’ve never been to, adventures, wishes, regrets. We’ve pretended to do things we’d never want to do and happily told lies about ourselves, some of us have committed murder (on paper) and others have turned innocent bystanders into people you would never ever want to meet in real life. It’s exhausting, fun and surprisingly brave to get words down on paper. Sometimes we’ve even told them out loud.


I’ve been teaching writing for some years now but I still can’t tell you how much it means to get comments like this one (as I did this morning): “This year, therefore, I shall cherish forever.” Or to be told that the writing group has changed someone’s life.

Sometimes I think it’s easy as writing tutors to take what happens in a group for granted BUT that’s because we all know is that it isn’t really us, standing or sitting at the front talking about poems or setting topics for writing (really it’s a hard life) but the group that takes off and makes magic happen. All we need to do is let it go and marvel at what happens.

rocket launcers

I’ve been thinking about this because of this wonderful post from a writer I very much admire, Anthony Wilson, and also because I’m still crumbling a little inside at having to send an email about my writing classes next year FOUR TIMES because I kept getting it wrong. I almost gave up third time thinking that no one would ever trust me to lead any group ever again, but then I got this kind reply straight away from one of the writers: “Please do not cry, it’s only numbers. You are awesome at words!!!!!!”

It’s only numbers. Yes! And this is exactly the kind of support I value from other writers – knowing just what to say and when to say it. Because it’s the words that matter. So here’s a poem from one of the writers I’ve written alongside this year, always admiring her grace and determination to really get across what she wants to say. It sums up writing groups – not just mine but many – much better than I can, not just the phrase, ‘we will not be judging you’, but also the fun, skill and comradeship of all those involved.


Here’s Yasmin Khan Murgai’s poem. Enjoy!

We are ladies and one man who meet before lunch

If you arrive on a Tuesday with your cashmere slightly askew
or your hair escaping unbrushed, we will not be judging you.
Between ten and twelve we search for words
to take us from heart to page and brain,
words which will then take the journey back again.

we say to readings from a book
or new writing from the group
“I’ve had something published,” says one.
“But it isn’t any good.”

Elegant women will write how this Christmas
they wish to find a white horse
tethered to a tree,
and with the next moment smile and ask
“Would you like coffee?”

We struggle to see the meaning of what it is to write.
Our teacher suggests “You could try this …”
and even more gently “You might …”

We work like spies on a mission
sharing confidences like this is our last night alive,
and yet, like bounty hunters, we keep a cold eye on the prize.

“My novel is a movie playing
in an abandoned cinema
in a forgotten town.”
I announce when suddenly I see.

my smiling group agrees.
We are ladies and one man who meet before lunch.

“I am an expert orienteer”, our factual expert offers,
“in case you lose your way”.
“And I have a specialism in volcanoes”, the clever lady says,
“they’re very important day to day.”
“And I am a scarf!” says the writer opposite. We smile because
we know.

All so difficult I suggest, with work and family.
Someone gives me a sideways look
and I sigh.
And that evening work on a writing plan
so I can finish my book.

Note: The writing classes I run from my home on in Tunbridge Wells on a Tuesday morning and Tuesday evening are – despite my lack of admin skills – full, but I do keep a waiting list so let me know if you would like to be on it. Realistically, there probably won’t be a place until summer though so I’d be happy to suggest other local options for you. I’d really advise anyone wanting to write to join a group, and let the magic happen!

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Sharing ideas and stepping outside your comfort zone…

The subject line of this post is a quote from the application of Francesca Stocker, the new Poet Laureate of Bendenden School. Here she is with Abegail Morley.


I was lucky enough to judge the competition this year, and announce Francesca’s appointment at morning prayers. It was a little daunting to be honest – imagine this hall filled with people!


But better than that… imagine a school filled with poets! Here are some of my favourite lines from the students who applied for the post.

The capturing of a moment here:

My heart beats like the subway,
blood pulsing with pedestrians…

And another… “a lullaby to the/hum of the streetlights..’ ah…

We swung slowly on the swings, your feet just touching
the ground; the creak of the chains a lullaby to the
hum of the streetlights…

And then this sharp observation. I loved this!

You scale that social ladder like
there’s an unattainable you at the other side.

And this one, heartbreaking but so beautiful I hope the poet won’t mind me sharing it – it’s a real reminder that poetry can help us when we can’t find comfort anywhere else…

The seasons fade and merge into one but the pain in my soul is a constant anchor into despair that neither the spring of tomorrow nor the snow of today can reach

Beautiful, eh?

Of course, the school is lucky in their librarian, the wonderful poet, Abegail Morley, who runs a regular poetry workshop. I had a little smile too when I saw the poetry aisles in the library….


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Hidden messages and what’s your weirdness standard?


It was probably hard to avoid the launch of William Gibson’s book, The Peripheral in London this week even if you wanted to. From Start the Week to the 30th anniversary of Neuromancer, a book, he said, he had little hopes for:

My fantasy of success, then, was that my book, once it had been met with the hostile or indifferent stares I expected, would go out of print. Then, yellowing fragrantly on the SF shelves of secondhand book shops, it might voyage forward, up the time-stream, into some vaguely distant era in which a tiny coterie of esoterics, in London perhaps, or Paris, would seize upon it, however languidly, as perhaps a somewhat good late echo of Bester, Delany or another of the writers I’d pasted, as it were, on the inside of my authorial windshield.

Amazingly enough, my books somehow emerged, hopefully not yellowing too fragrantly, for him, and we met in Vancouver a couple of years ago when he invited me to join him for a CBC broadcast (podcast here).

william gibson

And so I was lucky enough to go to several of his events this time round and also meet him over a full English breakfast. As you do. Well, he had the full English, the lovely Mrs G and I had pea fritters. Much more delicious than they sound, and I imagine far far nicer than this…


Anyway enough about food. Here are just some of the many writing-ly thoughts I’ve come away with. I was too busy listening to make full notes so this is my interpretation, hopefully accurate…

1. I was struck by the idea of writing in the hope that some people will recognise some of the references (from W H Auden to clothing fabrics) and be rewarded by that moment of connection between author and reader. I love how this can mean we don’t have to explain everything, but hope that we will be lucky enough to make at least one of those connections (as both writer and reader). But also that not everyone will get every reference, and different readers will get different references. It makes me want to sprinkle my manuscript with hidden messages to YOU, yes you, my beloved reader in the future.

2. He talked about the advantages of studying anthropology and economics. One economics module about multi-national corporations apparently had a big effect (which you can see in the books). I’ve been thinking about what he said about multi-national corporations quite a lot – as one example he talked about a war situation, the corporation might divide to service both sides of the war, and then come together afterwards. Stronger, and probably much stronger than the countries at war. Now I’m wondering why we’re not all writing about this.

3. What’s the cross-over between science fiction and classical Westerns? This was one of the questions at the BFI, and I keep thinking about it. It’s not just about new worlds and crossing boundaries, but perhaps more about the search for a distinction between good and bad. Do we need this at certain moments in history more than others? I’m still brewing on this one, particularly as my dad, one of the most complicated men I’ve known, was always hungry for Westerns and even as a child, I could see he was remarkably relaxed afterwards. (To be fair, the last meanderings are mine, not WG’s!)


4. “It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future.” This is a quote from William Gibson in his Paris Review interview, and which he touched on several times in his talks. There’s much in here, not least how impossible it is NOT to keep rewriting history, especially with different angles.

5. What’s your weirdness standard? I loved how WG said he found the world was much weirder than his books. Therefore to think about the future he needed to ‘recalibrate reality.’ Writing about brands was essential, and he wasn’t worried whether these went out of date or not. His books are of their time, even when they aren’t (if you see what I mean!)

6. And I almost cheered when he admitted he never thought he was writing an original, revolutionary work with Neuromancer. Writers often seem scared to admit their influences, but he included Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett amongst his which interested me, that detective element. I also liked how he credited Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, and in another talk, he mentioned Steely Dan. Too often we forget music.

7. Another influence was E M Forster’s Aspects of the Novel which he studied at University, particularly Forster’s claim that a writer fully in control of his characters is not doing his job right. So reassuring for me at the moment as one minor character of mine will keep chatting, while the main character refuses to do anything or say anything no matter how much I try to prod her.

And if you’re wondering whether it’s worth reading the book, here’s a paragraph that should persuade you. Beautifully done. All of it.


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