Category Archives: Writing

Pepita by Vita Sackville-West

You have probably heard of the multi-talented Vita Sackville-West. Born in 1882 she shone in many fields before her death in 1962. Consider the many ways you know of Vita Sackville-West.

Her love affair with Virginia Woolf

 

Somehow the rather intellectual Virginia was bowled over by Vita’s charms and they were lovers and great friends for many years. Their love letters were recently published by Vintage press: Love Letters: Vita and Virginia. Vita was also the lover of other women and men.

Orlando

One of the outcomes of that relationship was Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando. Vita Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, wrote, 

The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her. (From Wikipedia)

I like that: Orlando is ‘the longest and most charming love letter in literature’. It’s also great fun.

All Passion Spent

Vita Sackville-West was a prolific writer herself, poetry, novels, journalism and biography. One of her 17 novels takes pride of place in the older women in fiction series on this blog: All Passion Spent, published in 1931. 

In the novel, Lady Slane is in her 60s. She is the widow of a Very Great Man, and when he dies her six middle-aged children meet and decide what she will do: stay with each of them in turn. To their consternation, she announces that she saw a house in Hampstead thirty years before and that it will do for her now. She rents it and lives in it with her maid. These final years bring new friends and interests, and after a lifetime of being eclipsed by her husband, Lady Slane finds happiness on her own terms.

Sissinghurst Castle

You may also know that Vita Sackville-West was a great gardener. Unable to inherit the family property Knole, she bought Sissinghurst Castle in Kent and created a beautiful garden there, which you can visit as it is now a National Trust property. She wrote regular columns for the Observer on gardening from 1946 until 1961.

Her portrait

Lady with a Red Hat by William Strang.

Love that hat!

Pepita by Vita Sackville-West

Vita came from a long line of rather remarkable and flamboyant women. She wrote about three of them in Pepita, published in 1937: her great-grandmother Catalina, her grandmother Pepita, and her own mother Victoria Sackville.

Her great-grandmother Catalina was a Spanish gypsy, who made her living selling second-hand clothes. It is not entirely clear whether Catalina’s barber husband was the father of her child Pepita. It suited people in their circle to suggest that the father was the Duke of Osuna, Catalina’s lover. The barber disappeared quickly from the story and died.

Pepita became a dancer of some renown in Europe, partly because she was very beautiful. She became very rich and supported her mother, who rose to be a landowner of a considerable estate in Spain. Pepita had been married briefly to her dancing master, but soon separated, apparently on account of her mother’s unpardonable actions – there’s a theme beginning here. While performing in Europe Pepita met the English diplomat and aristocrat Lionel Sackville-West. They became lovers, and he was the father of her children, including Victoria. 

He seems to have been a taciturn diplomat, one who did not observe the niceties of proper society for it was widely known that Pepita was his mistress and mother of his children. Pepita died in 1892 in the South of France, giving birth to her final child, who also did not survive. The children were farmed out, Victoria to a convent in Paris. Later her father needed her to act on his behalf in the social and diplomatic world of Washington. This was not a conventional arrangement as Victoria was not legitimate. Nevertheless, she played the part very well, and bowled over Washington society receiving many offers of marriage. 

Back in England she met and married another Lionel Sackville-West and went to live at the family estate at Knole. They had one child: Vita. Victoria was a very difficult and demanding woman, who also attracted admirers. 

Vita retells the stories of these women in Pepita. Her sources came from a trunk she found of papers, researched in Spain as part of a court case by one of her uncles. The Sackville-West men seem to be rather socially withdrawn, taciturn even, who liked these dramatic women, but did not exert themselves to make their lovers’ lives easier or mind much about the scandal that followed them. Vita’s own father did not (?could not?) leave Knole to her, so she invested her energies in Sissinghurst instead. 

As historic background to a talented and vibrant figure of the twentieth century, Pepita makes good reading, even if it is somewhat rose-tinted. 

Pepita by Vita Sackville-West first published in 1937 and reissued by Vintage in 2016. 266pp

Picture credits:

Sissinghurst Gardens: by Grace Kelly September 2011 via Wiki Commons

Pepita Dancing via Wiki Commons

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Summerwater by Sarah Moss

To create her compelling fiction Sarah Moss places her characters out of their usual location, often on holiday. The characters are tested, by each other and by the environment and having wound them up she sits back and lets the drama unfold. This is something of a pattern in her books and it is very effective.

In Summerwater the characters are staying in log cabins in a holiday park in Scotland beside a loch. It is summer and it should be beautiful, but it is raining. It is raining so much that it feels like the end of the world. They have no phone signals and no nearby shops. The rain and the random selection of guests at the holiday park isolate the cabins’ occupants from each other.

Summerwater

We begin with the rain.

the sounds of blood and air

Light seeps over the water, through the branches. The sky is lying on the loch, filling the trees, heavy in the spaces between the pine needles, settling between the blades of grass and mottling the pebbles on the beach. Although there is no distance between cloud and land, nowhere for rain to fall, it is falling; the sounds of water on leaves and bark, on roofs and stones, windows and cars, become as constant as the sounds of blood and air in your own body.
You would notice soon enough, if it stopped. (1)

Short interludes, such as this one, separate the chapters. But pause a moment before getting into the story to notice the quality of the writing, the observation that rain in these circumstances gets everywhere and distorts the landscape (the sky is lying on the loch … no distance between cloud and land) and feels visceral. 

The occupants of the log cabins emerge into the day slowly, for what is there to do? Justine takes an early morning run. As she creeps out of the cabin, leaving husband and children sleeping, we learn about her frustrations, the lack of money, the lack of opportunities for families like hers. Her observations about the other occupants of the holiday cabins are revealed, including the Rumanians who held another loud party the previous night.

We meet a young lad who goes kayaking and ventures out on the loch and whose trip nearly ends in disaster. He does not tell his parents. A young teenage girl climbs out of her bedroom window to find a phone signal or to visit the ex-soldier in his tent. Here she is as she escapes from her parents for a while.

She goes along the side of the gravel track, not that anyone would hear her footsteps over the weather, past the cabin with the sad woman who never goes out and the two kids. They’re still having their tea, and the scene reminds her of her old Playmobil dolls’ house, the stiff-jointed figures you could arrange around a green plastic table, the tiny plastic cutlery Mum was always telling her not to lose. The rain is seeping through her leggings and Alex’s hoody is beginning to cling to her hands at the cuffs. (150)

A couple spend most of the day in bed as they pursue his ambition of simultaneous orgasms. An older man, with his increasingly disabled wife takes her for a drive. He muses upon the happy times they had in the park when the holidaymakers owned their own cabins and came every year, providing consistency and friendship. Those times have long gone, and he must take care of his wife in the face of the limitations of the cabin, the park and the weather.

There are nearly middle-aged women who, like Justine, are finding life hard, and this cheap holiday is no holiday for them. Children are bored. The men are bored. Only the Rumanians appear to be enjoying themselves, although some of the holidaymakers think they might be Bulgarians and other that they might be Russians. What’s more, they appear to have phone connections, for as evening arrives so do visitors with drink and music and another party starts.

Here is a nightmare scenario: rain all day, nothing to do, nothing to see except your neighbours, the only thing to think about is your sad life and then loud music at night prevents sleep. Resentment is building and the partygoers are clearly going to be the object of judgements and aggressions that are building up. The men decide to go and ask the Rumanians, or Bulgarians or Russians, or Shit-chenkos, (according to one family) to turn the sound down. 

Watching from the neighbouring cabin the little girl see what happens when they knock on the Rumanians’ door.

The Shit-chenko woman steps back into the cabin and a man comes out with two bottles dangling from between his fingers and nods and hands one to Dad and one to the other dad, and then all of them go inside. (193)

By now the tension is very high and the novel’s resolution unfurls very fast, rather surprisingly and very badly. The little girl witnesses the events. She sees the tragedy, but also the community that is suddenly created in response. 

Sarah Moss writes so well, so succinctly, with detailed observations and, in this novel, fully inhabiting the range of characters in the cabins. 

Observing the way we subtly edit ourselves and one another – the limits that puts on us, as well as the strengths it creates – is Moss’s metier. [Melissa Harrison in a review in the Guardian in August 2020]

It is bleak, and harsh and almost apocryphal. It captures the current generally depressed mood and seems to be a comment on the modern world.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss (2020) Picador. 202pp. A paperback version is available.

Related post about books by Sarah Moss on Bookword

Night Waking by Sarah Moss (2011) in a post of two short reviews

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (2018)

Names for the Sea: strangers in Iceland (2012) in a post called Bookword in Iceland

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Literary Lifelines and Stepping Stones

Here is another guest post on Bookword Blog. After my friend and co-author Eileen Carnell’s contribution Perfect Presents for a Bookish Bod I invited other blog subscribers to write me something if they wished. The writer Jude Hayland has written this brilliant post which connects her reading and writing.

Literary Lifelines and Stepping Stones

It’s the question that so many writers are asked and that is so impossible to answer:

So when did you start to write? 

It feels akin to being asked:

So when did you start to read?

And I suppose the honest, but no doubt frustrating answer is – as soon as I could. For me, the reading and writing have always gone hand in hand. Once I had begun to read – with early memories of Milly Molly Mandy, Little Pete Stories, Teddy Robinson, My Naughty Little Sister– I wanted to write. My bedroom was full of small exercise books bought with pocket money from Woolworths, lined pages filled with my ill-formed handwriting spilling out stories of dolls that came to life at night, talking cats and bewitching fairies.

As I progressed onto reading about skating stars and vicarage children with Noel Streatfeild, wallowing in ballerina ambitions with Lorna Hill and harbouring theatrical dreams with Pamela Brown, so more exercise books were filled with attempts to emulate such plot lines. Always a child who enjoyed her own company, nothing was more treasured than retreating to my bedroom when I came home from school, losing myself in a book, then writing the latest chapter of my ballet tale or stage school saga.

When I was a teenager there was no such thing as YA literature. The transition to adult books from the children’s section of the library was via Catherine Cookson and Jean Plaidy before discovering Monica Dickens, Lynn Reid Banks and early Margaret Drabble. I am afraid I can’t claim that I read all of Jane Austen and most of Dickens by the time I was 18 as so many writers impressively seem to do – although Jane Eyre, studied for ‘O’ level, became a lifelong favourite and I remember reading LP Hartley’s The Go-Between one teenage summer, thinking that finally I had left children’s fiction behind. 

But my own writing had stopped – those Woolworths’ exercise books now seemed childishly redundant – as I embarked on an English Literature degree and spent three years reading such awe-inspiring literature that the only way I could put pen to paper or tap away on my manual Olivetti was in critical praise of their brilliance.

What got me writing again?

Then I began to teach. 

And, standing one day in a classroom of 14 year olds, setting them the task of writing a story, I thought I want to be doing this! I want to write stories, have the fun of making up characters, playing with words, inventing settings and conflicts.

And I began to write fiction again.

Not with any high literary aspirations – but for the pleasure of writing and the desire to be read. By this time, I had already had several non-fiction pieces published in national magazines – lightly amusing articles on learning to drive, my sister’s wedding, holidays for singles, flat hunting and sharing – so it seemed the obvious route to take to start submitting short fiction to women’s magazines.

And I was lucky.

Over the course of the next twenty years or so, I was published widely (under a different name than the one I now write under) both in the UK and in Scandinavia, Switzerland, Australia and South Africa. I acquired an agent and she took over the submissions to magazines such as Woman’s Realm, Woman, Woman’s Weekly, Bella, Fiction Feast and similar publications abroad. The market was rich with opportunities at that point with a high demand for stories – providing they fitted in with the prescriptive brief of the magazine.

And I was happy to fulfil it, delighted to derive some small income from sales to supplement my teaching salary as well as to see my name, briefly, in print. The discipline of writing to a given word limit was a good training in editing skills and even the limitations of subject matter provided an interesting challenge.

By now, I was reading Anita Brookner, Margaret Forster, Jane Gardam; Susan Hill and Penelope Lively; Carol Shields and Anne Tyler. Of course my reading of contemporary novels was not limited by gender and writers such as William Trevor, Ian McEwan and William Boyd found their way into my selections. But somehow it was and is the women writers whose books I return to again and again – both as a reader and also as a writer, to examine and study their craft. 

After a couple of decades of writing commercial short fiction, I was straining at the leash to write more freely. The markets were fewer, the parameters imposed growing more restrictive.

Confidence and self-belief were woefully lacking. Who was I to think I could write a novel of some 100,000 words, to believe that I had a story to tell that was worth a reader’s time and attention? 

How did I dare to write a novel?

Two events, however, nudged me into trying. First, I had been a runner-up in the Bridport short story competition, judged one particular year by Margaret Drabble. Not exactly a full length novel, but at least my writing had been favourably judged. Then I graduated with distinction from an M.A. in Creative Writing. My final submission was the first 20,000 words of a novel and the examiners’ comment was: this is worth continuing and completing. 

I would like to say I was off and at the finishing line within the year – but real life, of course, gets in the way of the best of intentions. There were the small matters of earning a living and bringing up a child, combined with increasing visits to much loved, aging parents. 

Eventually, however, I completed that first novel. Then tucked it away out of sight and embarked on the next. And it was only after completing and publishing that next novel, Counting the Ways, that I went back to what was, ostensibly, my first book, redrafted it extensively, and released that as my second, The Legacy of Mr Jarvis. The journey to writing my third novel, Miller Street SW22 which was published in February, was a little more chronological and straight forward and I am now working on my fourth.

What I like to write

Like the novels I love to read, the novels I write are character driven. I am at heart, unfailingly fascinated by other people. About the chance events, the choices and impulses that drive their lives. Ideas start with a character, a relationship or a family dynamic that drives the plot. 

I set my novels in the recent past – in the last half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. This is partly out of a need to write about a time that is fixed and open to hindsight. It also reflects my interest in domestic and social history and in particular how the nature of our lives is inevitably determined by the era in which we are born. 

There is also a practical aspect for such setting. Technology in the form of mobile phones, internet access, social media et al can run rough-shod through plot lines that require characters to be elusive, capable of dissimulation. Secrets were far easier to perpetuate and thus fester in the past and all three of my novels depend partly on such concealment. 

These days I am still reading and loving Anne Tyler. Additionally, Anna Quindlen, Linda Grant, Ann Patchett, Mary Lawson – to mention just a few of the names that flit into my head. And I am now trawling back to some wonderful 20th century writers that I unintentionally overlooked years ago while reading Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing – writers like Cecily Hamilton, Dorothy Whipple, Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Taylor. 

And I am pleased to say that I have never lost that childhood thrill of walking into a book shop, into the local library (lockdowns permitting) and spending time mulling over the shelves, suppressing the smile on my face at the thought of a new book to take home for company.

Reading and its inseparable partner writing are, for me, lifelines – this particular body’s essential daily bread. 

©Jude Hayland

Look out for Jude Hayland’s novels:

Counting the Ways

The Legacy of Mr Jarvis and 

Miller Street SW22

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Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy

They are at it again. They are always at it. Teacher bashing! I spent nearly 50 years working in schools professionally (and another decade as a school child). They have always done it. Blamed teachers for: falling standards of morality; falling standards in exams; grade inflation; poor grammar; crime; teenage pregnancy; homosexuality; radical politics. And now blaming them for the pandemic, or for being cowards or not helping with the roll out of testing. Or for the rising rate of infections. Whatever it is it’s the teachers what done it.

I have way more experience of schools and teachers than any gavin-come-lately education minister. I know teachers who knew what it was to hold to a child steady between the chaos of home and their own selves. I have seen teachers feed and clothe children, not their own. I have known teachers coax necessary disclosures from young people. And teachers who have inspired youngsters with love of knowledge, of history, or geography or maths. Teachers who introduced young people to literature and to becoming readers for life. 

You know these people. You have met these people. They always have stories to tell. They always have experiences that are illuminating. They are adaptable inside the classroom or in the playgrounds and corridors to rapidly changing situations , and to governments and ministers who claim to know better what to do. (Governments and ministers easily fall into this trap as there is so little over which they have influence, especially, it seems, at the moment).

I found the experience, including as the headteacher of in inner London comprehensive, so draining, so exhausting that I have retired to the country and don’t involve myself very much at all with educational discourse. This book changed that.

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me

I first came across the talent of Kate Clanchy when I discovered her tweets during the first lockdown, many of which contained poems by young people she was working with. That taster led me to Unmute, a collection of poems by young poets who met on-line during Lockdown. All thirteen had at one time or another attended her weekly poetry workshops when attending their Oxford secondary school. I obtained a copy and was very impressed and wrote a post on this blog about it. You can find it here.

A friend (yes from the world of education) told me about this year’s winner of the George Orwell Political Writing prize: Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. She knew I would be interested in the writings of a teacher who respected the voice of students. It came to the top of my reading pile recently

The world of schools and teachers must seem a little exclusive to outsider. It is hard to understand the way it calls you, holds you, gives back almost imperceptibly the richness of the school community. But in her Introduction to Some Kids, Kate Clanchy has captured why so many people become entrapped and entranced.

Thirty years ago, just after I graduated, I started training to be a teacher. As far as I remember, it was because I wanted to change the world, and a state school seemed the best place to start. (1)

Most teachers I know began with the same desire. To those who belittle the profession, partly because it employs so many women, Kate Clanchy suggests more people should listen to teachers. Having considered and accepted the title Miss, she goes on:

I would like more people to understand what Miss means, and to listen to teachers. Parts of this book, therefore, are a kind of telling back: long-stewed accounts of how teachers actually do tackle the apostrophe; of how we exclude and include; of the place of religion in schools; of how the many political changes of the last decades have played out in the classroom; of what a demanding, intellectual, highly skilled profession teaching can be. These confident answer, though, are short and few, because mostly what I have found in school is not certainty, but more questions. Complex questions, very often, about identity, nationality, art, and money, but offered very personally; questions embodied in children. (4)

It is not the public perception that teaching is ‘a demanding, intellectual, highly skilled profession’ is it? But this book demonstrates exactly that.

And the perception that the questions raised in schools are ‘embodied in children’ is succinctly put. I remember Oddy (full name Odysseus) and the stolen koi carp, Boris (another wayward one) and the milk float, the child of the murderer, the refugee who did not know the fate of her parents, the child afraid he was homosexual, Carl who lied and lied and was not literate, the slow to read, to write, to understand. 

Kate Clanchy explores the questions raised by the young people she has met, and by some brilliant fellow teachers, much of it mediated through poetry. Here are some chapter headings:

About Love, Sex, and the Limits of Embarrassment,
About Exclusion
About Nations, Papers and Where We Belong
About Writing Secrets, and Being Foreign
About the Hijab
About Uniform
About Selection, Sets and Streaming
About What I think I am Doing.

Each chapter embodies its topic in young people’s stories and struggles. 

No wonder readers are suggesting that trainee teachers and would-be teachers read this as part of their preparation. 

I would have liked to  have worked with her. I would like to have had her teaching poetry in the London Comprehensive where I was headteacher in the early ‘90s) alongside the many brilliant teachers of Art, Drama, RE, English, PE and life. And all the brilliant work that we did with our students.

The Schoolyard by Cynthia Nugent. (That’s me on the right there, in the blue jumper, carrying some files.)

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy, published in 2019 by Picador. 269pp Winner of the Orwell Prize for political writing 2020

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Missing my writing group

I miss my writing group. We have not met in person since March, six months ago. The Coronavirus pandemic has postponed or cancelled some of the good things planned for this year, including an away day to work together on writing.

The Writing Group

I have been in this writing group since it started 7 years ago. The librarian called together some local writers and we formed our group. We have retained the library connection because we want people to be able to join in, as freely as they visit a library. It’s open to all. We only have one rule: don’t put yourself or your writing down. (None of this ‘it’s very rough really and I think you’ll hate it,’ or ‘I’m not sure about this, I’m not as experienced as the rest of you,’ and so on. It’s surprising how hard it is to wean people off this way of introducing their writing.)

Over the years we have achieved some rewarding things. We produced an anthology of our writing called Gallimaufry. We sold it to the public for £5 a copy, using the marketing ploy that it was an excellent Christmas present. We put our oldest and whitest haired members to the front and stood in the library entrance and sold them. 

It was a good experience. We learned a fair bit about producing a book and although it did not raise any funds for the group we were proud of our efforts.

Then there was the evening when brave members performed their work. We celebrated our 4th birthday with a brilliant bookish cake. We were not quite brave enough to open this to the public, but the event was attended by tolerant and appreciative friends and relations. 

Emboldened by all this, and wanting to try new aspects of sharing our work in the community, we decided to host a one day writing festival. None of us had realised what a step up that would be. It tested our organisational skills and rather got in the way of writing for the committee members. 

But in September 2019 we hosted about 100 local people to attend 12 workshops, some readings, a school’s writing display, a sale of books, and a poetry slam. It was a great success 

The feedback was positive. No we wouldn’t be doing this annually. We might repeat some of the activities. We needed to recover. We got ourselves sorted to use our funds for various activities, all aimed to support writing by people in the community and –

Covid-19 locked us down.

Writing in a pandemic

It’s been hard, writing in this pandemic, or rather not writing. Like many people I wrote a lockdown diary. I stopped after 4 months because I felt that my life was being prescribed by the virus. I began to feel that I should make my life be about more than Covid-19, that I would take account of the pandemic of course, but not be more defined by it than necessary. 

I have continued with my Morning Pages. I follow a modified version of the recommendation in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I start every day with Morning Pages. It helps me reflect on my writing and my reading and other activities important for my mental health. 

And I have continued to post on this blog every 5 days. Bookword was launched in December 2012, and I have since posted 613 times. Most of those posts are about books, but a fair number are about writing and publishing. I have no plans to stop soon.

Recently I felt frustrated by my lack of writing. I stopped wondering why I wasn’t getting on with my short story. They always take me a long time, but this one was largely conceived in November 2019. I have written perhaps two thousand words, some of it very poor and written just to get something down. So I decided that I would write 500 words a day. That’s roughly two handwritten sides of A4. I have been doing that since the beginning of September and enjoyed it. Some of it is memoir. Some of it is comment on what’s happening. Some is more like an exercise, a description or a response to a prompt.

And I have decided to take advantage of some on-line writing courses. I love writing courses, although I did feel at one point that I was a course junky and that attending courses was replacing or displacing my writing activities.

And in the last two or three months the writing group has been meeting on zoom. Or rather a few of us have been meeting on zoom. Usually one of us volunteers to offer a prompt and then we write together and read the results of our efforts. There is always laughter and always lots of praise and encouragement. We were just thinking that we might meet in person in a suitably distanced way when the rule about meeting in groups of six as a maximum was introduced. 

We are at the point of thinking about some variations in the way we use the zoom facility to share our work on the chat or screen share facility, using the audio and visual possibilities and so on.

So now I know

So now I know that my writing group, in person, round a table, with people who I know only as writers (often nothing more about them, their families, jobs, where they live etc etc) is important for my writing and that I will want us to operate again as we did when this is over.

What I like about the group is the stimulus, the laughter, the audience, the critique and above all the community.

Tell us what do you need from a writing group?

Related posts

Gallimaufry or why my writing group is cock-o-hoop (January 2016)

A Writing Festival – why would you organise one?

A Birthday for Our Writing Group

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The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

Do you have this experience? It doesn’t happen very often, but when I finished The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard I felt that I had been lifted onto a different plane. In part it was the accomplishment of the writing, its elegance, sparseness and the observations of human relationships revealed in the prose. And in part it was the breadth of Shirley Hazzard’s observation and of her imagination of the post-war world.

The Transit of Venus is my choice for the 1980s in the Decades Project 2020 (see below). The novel captures something of the international influences happening in the decades following the Second World War. 

The Transit of Venus

The novel’s narrative stretches over 30 years allowing the characters and their relationships to be played out with the inevitability of the transit that gives the book its title.

Two Australian sisters have come to Britain in the 50s and are staying in a house of an eminent astronomer, Professor Thrale. Grace is the younger, very pretty, engaged to the son, Christian. Caroline is older and with more purpose in life. There is a third sister, a half-sister Dora who is an eternal victim who has cared for Caroline and Grace since their parents died. We follow Grace and Caro through several decades, and mostly Caro because Grace leads a calm and largely unexplored life. 

Ted Tice is a young astronomer come to spend time with Thrale and he falls for Caroline, a love he nurtures beyond the end of novel. Caro however is seduced by a friend of the family, a young playwright, Paul Ivory who in turn is engaged to Tertia who lives in grand style nearby. Paul and Caro begin an affair. The reader is sure that Paul is untrustworthy and that Tertia knows about the affair but has other motives for continuing with her engagement and marrying Paul. 

Paul Ivory is the bad boy, cynical, calculating, enjoying power and influence. He has a secret, known to Tice (and he knows Tice’s secret too). He breaks up with Caro.

She works in an office, subjected to the taken-for-granted sexism of the time. She is very hurt by the end of her affair with Paul but eventually marries an American benefactor and goes to live in NY. Christian Thrale has an affair because he believes he should. Grace falls in love with her son’s doctor, but he refused to compromise her. The marriage is not made better or worse by these episodes. Ted Tice goes on loving Caro from a distance until two important secrets are revealed. 

Themes

Although the transit of Venus across the sun is predictable it is an event that occurs only every 120 years, and then twice in 8 years. Captain Cook’s voyage to Tahiti in 1768 was designed to coincide with one transit to help with astrological measurements, specifically the size of the solar system. His measurements were inaccurate. The next transit will be in December 2117.

Shirley Hazzard understands that our lives are influenced by both predictability and chance, by those we meet and the moment we meet them. The important thing is what we do with our experiences: perhaps use them to manipulate others as Dora does. She turns every situation into a story of wrong being done to Dora. She is the saddest of all the characters.

Dora sat on the corner of the spread rug, longing to be assigned some task so she could resent it. […] Dora was not one to lie down under the news that a veranda was called a loggia, or a mural a fresco. Let alone villa for house. (45)

Grace lives a life of conventional comfort, with her husband making steady progress in the Foreign Office, and children and a nice house with beautiful things. A mirror bought in Bath is frequently mentioned, yet towards the end of the book Caro reflects that

It was not clear now, as formerly, that Grace was satisfied with chintz and china – with Christian saying, “A wee bit fibrous,” or hoisting his trousers at evening and announcing, “Must get my eight hours.” It was not quite certain Grace had remained a spectator. Those who had seen her as Caro’s alter ego might have missed the point. (324)

The reader has seen Grace’s thwarted love for her son’s doctor and noted the dignity ascribed to her by Shirley Hazzard.

With these prospects and impressions, Grace Marian Thrale, forty-three years old, stood silent in a hotel doorway, with the roar of existence in her ears. And like any great poet or tragic sovereign of antiquity, cried on her Creator and wondered how long she must remain on such an earth. (289)

Caro’s life has also contained much hurt and loss. She had not remained a spectator, but engaged with the experiences life sent her with dignity, reflection and generosity.

Writing

Reading The Transit of Venus one could not fail to notice the quality of the writing. The novel’s plot is skilfully managed and the tension is held to the final chapter. Some of the sentences are beautifully constructed. Look at what she wrote about Grace’s reaction to the departure of her would-be lover quoted above. And as I typed Caro’s reflections I noted the provisionality of the sentences: ‘not clear now’, ‘not quite certain’, ‘might have missed the point’. 

Within her sentences the choice of words, especially adverbs and adjectives, add complexity, depth and nuance to the novel. She writes on a wide canvas: across several decades and across the globe: Australia, Britain and New York as well as parts of Europe and South America. It has been described as an unbearably sad book, but I felt moved by it, as if the experience of reading it had added to my own life. In part this is because of her ‘huge charity towards the people’ (Kirkus Review 1980). 

Perhaps you have felt uplifted by this novel and are only surprised that I mention it. Or perhaps you have yet to experience one of Shirley Hazzard’s novels, in which case you have a great treat in store for you.

Shirley Hazzard

Shirley Hazzard was born in Australia and died in 2016 in New York. She had spent time in the Far East after the war, before being employed by the UN from 1951. She was posted for a while to Naples, and developed a love of Italy. 

It wasn’t until 2003 that she published her next and final novel, The Great Fire, which was also much acclaimed by the critics. I am currently reading some of her essays in a volume called We Need Silence to find out What we Think.

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard, published in 1980) and reissued by Virago in 1995. 337pp The novel also won the National Book Critics Award.

The Decades Project 2020

In 2020 I am exploring previously published novels by women. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The most recent choices for the project are

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979)

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Unmute: Young Voices from Lockdown

Every now and again in April- July I noticed that on Twitter Kate Clanchy had posted a poem written by a young person. So often these were beautifully crafted lines that made me stop my scrolling and wonder at the young person who had written the poem, and at Kate Clanchy the teacher who had assisted at the emergence of the poem and the poet. Like. Retweet. 

Recently a friend told me about the winner of the George Orwell Political Writing prize for the book: Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me (2019). She knew I would be interested in the writing of a teacher who respected the voice of students. I told her that I was excited because that very morning I had ordered Unmute, the collection of poems written by her students.

Young Voices

I am not whimsical or romantic about young people. Twenty-five years working in urban secondary schools knocked any of that out of me. But my professional experiences also embedded in me a belief in the importance of giving young people a voice, helping them to find it, amplifying it. So what Kate Clanchy has done is quite in tune with my professional beliefs.

Let us have no talk about young people being ‘the future’. They will make their own future, as we did. It will be both worse and better than the one we created.

And no talk of the innocence of youth, because that denies the reality, the rawness of each person’s experiences at whatever age. I was headteacher of a school in Islington where one third of the population had a different mother tongue than English. And where many of those children had been refugees. Helping those young people explore their experiences, their individual biographies was a major task for the English department. It was a validation for those young people of the lives they had led up to that point. And for some it was a very fearful and dangerous and difficult childhood.

Our young students brought us face to face with their experiences and they also did what young people have done: looked at the familiar with fresh eyes. They can question accustomed responses, traditional ways of expressing ideas; they can experiment with form and language and metaphors and images. They can remind us, too, of the younger selves that we carry within us. 

Unmute

The poets met on-line during Lockdown. All thirteen had at one time or another attended the weekly poetry workshops with their teacher when attending Oxford Spires Academy. Some are sixth-formers, some have moved on with their education. They sought each other’s company to make sense of the lockdown experience, together in poetry. 

And in doing that they touched many people, through the Tweets and now the book. They write about hair, masks,  loss, clapping, separation, changed perceptions and mothers among other themes. I chose the poem below as an example because it speaks to each of us of the smallness of what matters, the invisibility before Lockdown of important truths. 

Crossing

I didn’t know I’d miss waiting
at traffic lights, waiting for a burst
of colour, a static sound.
I didn’t know I’d miss noise,
crowds, the breath of rain
as it hits parched tarmac,
being near enough to hear people’s 
breath. I didn’t realise I was only
exactly alone when I was
walking home from school, or 
to the shops. I didn’t
realise it was the in-
between times that held
me together.

Linnet Drury

You can read more poems from the collection by visiting Rathbones Folio Prize. And you can buy the kindle version here. For £5.00

Proceeds from the sales of UnMute go to Asylum Welcome, which is an Oxford organisation. I have made a donation on account of quoting the poem in this review. 

Unmute: Young Voices from Lockdown edited by Kate Clanchy (2020)

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These Wonderful Rumours by May Smith

Diaries are interesting because when they are written people do not know the outcome of the events they are describing, as I remarked in the previous post. This is especially true of war diaries, such as the subject of this post: These Wonderful Rumours. It is also true of my Covid-19 diary. How long, oh lord, how long?

Tuesday 3rd September 1940: The first anniversary of the war. It seems to have been going on for ages. I wonder how many more anniversaries there will be.

There were to be five more, and it did seem endless.

Friday 3rd September 1943: 4th anniversary of the war – my stars! And we have landed forces on the toe of Italy this morning at 4.30. Have a short service in school from 11 to 11.15

And the D Day landings were noted with caution.

Thursday 6th June 1944: A day of dither. We have invaded Normandy, and landings have been going on successfully since early morning. Oh dear! Sit around listening for news and poring over paper.

Meanwhile everyday life still had to be lived. May Smith is an excellent diarist, recording her reactions to international events and goings-on in her own world.

These Wonderful Rumours

In 1938 May Smith was 25, a school teacher in the primary school in Swindlincote near Derby. Throughout the war she lived at home with her parents and a few doors from her grandmother. Her grandmother’s cellar was used during air raids. By the end of the war her grandfather, grandmother and mother had all died from illness. 

May’s diary begins soon after she has been jilted by Ron. We learn that he has just been ordained as a priest in the Church of England and is thereafter referred to as Bishop Ron or some other such sarcastic phrase. May had been very much hurt by his rejection.

She writes nearly every day. There is a great deal in the diaries about her local friends. She plays tennis as often as she can in summer, and parlour games at home with her family. Two men are interested in her: Dougie a farmer in Norfolk and Freddie (who she eventually marries) who is a local school teacher. He retrains in meteorological skills during the war. She has a healthy correspondence with many friends, including those who trained with her at Goldsmith’s, and her two suitors. 

It seems from her diary that she was very keen on clothes, and spent most of her earnings on her wardrobe. She has clothes made for her by the local dressmaker Mrs W (frequently in ‘Narky and Independent Vein’) and visits the department stores in Burton and Nottingham. As the war progresses this pleasure becomes more difficult to indulge. Not only are there shortages of materials for making clothes and prices rise  but rationing comes into force and she even resorts to making her own brassieres.

Despite the war her work in school goes on. Sometimes her class is augmented by evacuees from Southend and Birmingham. A class of 40 is considered small. She does not say much about the pupils, except to refer to her need to keep them in order, absences after air raids and their excitement at snow, Christmas and the building of the air raid shelter in the playground.

The air raids begin in June 1940. At first, despite rehearsals, it was chaotic. 

Friday 7th June 1940: Something always happens on my birthday, and this one opened at 2 a.m. with an air-raid alarm. The awful wail of the sirens broke out, so said ‘oh lor’!’ and clambered out of bed, downstairs, grabbed the gas mask, and we all migrated to Grandma’s to the fringe of the cellar. Took us hours to get safely parked, as we were all pottering about in the dark, distrusting the efficacy of Grandma’s blackout.  … Finally we all moved into the cellar, Grandma leading. It took an age to pilot her down, and when she got there she decided she wanted to visit the lavatory and turned to come back up but was firmly checked.  … Just as we were finally settled, the All Clear sounded, so we had to march aloft again. Drank tea and ate biscuits with relief before retiring to bed about 4 a.m. The birds were just beginning to chirp.

As the weeks and months of raids went on the family and their lodgers became more efficient. There was damage nearby, especially on collieries and other industrial sites. They were near enough Birmingham, Nottingham and the Rolls Royce aircraft engine factory in Derby to be constantly disturbed.

May writes about books she reads, WEA lectures she attends and records her frequent visit to the flicks. She notes the food they ate, not bad despite rationing. They had friends who supplied some items. She also records some holidays, hiking near Buxton or at the sea at Llandudno, welcome breaks from the daily privations of war at home.

One thread of the diaries is her recovery from the despised Ron, and the constant attentions of two of her male friends. She keeps both at arm’s length for much of the war. One is called up into the Army motor corps, and the other is relieved of his school teaching job to train as a meteorologist. The threat of his posting overseas prods May into accepting his attentions. She marries Freddie in August 1944 and they have their first child in Autumn of 1945.

The diary is merrily written, with lots of capital letters when she is quoting people.

Some thoughts on diaries

Of course, as I read These Wonderful Rumours I compared it to my diary. Like May, I focus on new situations such as Lockdown for example which quickly become normal as the air raids did. Humans seem to adjust to new situations very quickly.

This is apparently an identified response. Writing about after the Coronavirus, Oliver Burkeman suggests that it will not feel very different, rather it will feel normal. We have a ‘tendency to swiftly adapt to positive or negative changes in our circumstances, drifting back towards our baseline levels of curmudgeonliness or cheer.’ In addition we always overestimate the impact of future changes.

Finally he reminds us that we are not passive in the face of the future and what it will bring us. We are, on the contrary, creating it as we go. I find this a comforting thought, and an empowering one.

We know from the section called Afterward that May and Freddie continued with their lives, well into the end of the 20th century, creating a family and continuing to contribute to the education of the young.

I find it reassuring to learn about the immense changes brought by the Second World War and how people adapted. We are told that the Covid-19 emergency will be over, at some point. We too will make our future.

These Wonderful Rumours: a young schoolteacher’s wartime diaries 1939-1945 by May Smith, edited by Duncan Marlor, published by Virago Press in 2012. 401pp

Life in a post-coronavirus world: will it feel so very different? By Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian in June 2020

Other Experiences of 2nd World War on Bookword

A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

So much more than an amusing Provincial Lady – EM Delafield

Maidens’ Trip by Emma Smith

The wartime stories and letters of Mollie Panter-Downes

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What I did during Lockdown

One thing I have been doing in the Lockdown is keeping a daily diary, a journal of my experience of avoiding Covid-19. I have written something every day since Sunday 15th March, when I decided to isolate myself. At the time of writing I have done nearly 100 days.

So what is this diary for? 

Why did I start it? 

Why haven’t I stopped writing it? 

What does it contain? 

What have I learned from it?

My Covid Diary – thank you Sarah

What is this diary for? 

Here’s how it starts.

Sunday 15th March (Day 1)
Today the rumours began that people over 70 would soon be forced into self-isolation for 4 months.I find myself trembling with fear. It seems that there is some truth to these stories. And I wonder – with loneliness known to be the biggest killer of older people – how can this be contemplated.

Later that day I record that there were NO plans to ask over-70s to completely isolate themselves, only to reduce social contact. And I decide to limit my contacts from that day.

Monday 16th March (Day 2)
The Finnish PM – a woman- says we should not speak of social distancing/isolation but of physical distance/isolation. We must insure that social connections are kept.
New cases 330 Deaths 35

It is a record, a historical record. I hope we are not in for repeated lockdowns, although I fear that is a possibility. But this is our first and many things are strange and unusual. I planned to record some of them.

I note the announcement of the Lockdown.

Tuesday 24th March (Day 10)
New restrictions announced last night – for 3 weeks at least. Everyone to stay at home, only go out for exercise and with one member of your household. Cases 6650 Deaths 335

As it goes on I note what I observe about things closing, (GPs’ surgeries, schools, pubs, gyms, and so on) and how Michel Barnier, EU chief Brexit negotiator, had the virus, two news stories collide. I note too that it gets hard to remember what day it is, the need to keep exercising, the figures rising, how I long for a haircut and the UN’s 4 key qualities: being kind, generous, empathetic and sharing solidarity.

I make a note of bad nights, the events being cancelled, and the friends with whom I talk on the phone. At first it feels as if we are in some kind of hiatus, life suspended, frozen in time.

From the first day I record the figures of cases and deaths (once a researcher, always a researcher), although we now know that the totals were much higher because statistics we were given were only from those people who had been tested. 

As  historian I know that looking back at something has a different flavour from a record of reactions at the time, before one knows the outcomes. For example, war diaries are interesting, because they do not have hindsight, they were written before the outcome of hostilities was known.

I recorded many of the contradictions and tensions in the situation

Monday 30th March (Day 16)
Contradictions:Reassurances – it’s not that bad for 4 out of 5 people but terrible for those who suffer.The virus is global – we live locally and in very restricted waysWe are all in it together – but we must stay 2m apart. Cases 22,141 Deaths 1408

We are isolated physically but better connected than ever. (Day 43)

We are all in this together but some of the established fault-lines are visible: gender (men appear to die more than women), age (older people are 60% of the victims, ethnicity (BAME people are suffering more deaths). I expect there are class differences as it is harder to observe lockdown in a small overcrowded flat with children and no garden (Day 44)

And I had an obscure idea that if I was going to find the lockdown as difficult as I feared, then writing would be helpful in avoiding depression. It may have helped, it may still help. 

Sunday 12th April (Day 28)
Something must change. I don’t want to mope about anymore. More contact. More writing. First rule of lockdown life – be nice to yourself – food, activities, and above all no running yourself down.2nd rule – find and enjoy the small things. Cases 78,991 Deaths, 9895

A change of mood comes when I speak with friends. An important change came on Day 42. I decided that I needed to stop seeing Lockdown as a hiatus, and accept that this is life now and it still needs to be lived.

Friday 1st May (Day 47)
Are we nearly there yet? Cases 177,454 Deaths 27,510

I noted all the things we currently count: deaths, deaths of the over 60s, deaths of men vs women, cases, tests, days in lockdown. And that my friends were making fewer phone calls. And that Kier Starmer was asking – how has it come to this? VE Day, the new slogan Stay Alert replacing Stay Home, WHO warning that Covid-19 may never go away, the horror of the care home infections and deaths.

Sunday 17th May (Day 63 – 9 weeks)
I am a little haunted by two things. Is death by Covid-19 horrible? I imagine a kind of drowning as lungs fail, or suffocation as oxygen doesn’t reach the parts that need it. No-one has said.And what will the ‘new normal’ be like? For a start I imagine it will not be new, just emergent from what we have now. And normal – hardly. I look at my 8 friends on the Writers Group [zoom] meeting, and I wonder if we will ever be in the same room again, whether we can ever be together as we used to be. Cases 233,151 Deaths 34,636

And a few days later I note that the over 70s are being condescended to again, patronised, and that the advances since the late C20th against ageism are being rolled back and an intensification of ageism is emerging.

And then the mood everywhere changed with the Cummings debacle and then again with Black Lives Matter.

Monday 8th June (Day 85)
Shocking news that many people died at home, alone, often not found for 2 weeks. Possibly 700 in London. Cases 287,399 Deaths 40,599 No deaths in London or Scotland todsay

What have I learned from my diary?

One thing I learn is that reality is not the same as fears. I still think it is crazy to refer to social rather than physical distancing, but rarely make that point now. The purpose, to reduce contact, is most important. 

I learned that once I knew I would not run short of food, or even toilet paper, I could manage. I also needed contact with key people in my life, preferably when I can see them. But I still have bad nights.

I am horrified by the failures of the government in so many things, and that they spin their record to claim pride in it. They deny faults and hide the truth.

And some fairly random things: I prefer doing Pilates in the morning; I don’t have a good recipe for banana bread; I can live a boring life and survive; there are more adders around this year; too many government contracts have gone to private companies without due process; some grapes are pretty tasteless and not the first symptoms of the virus.

I’ll continue with my diary until I stop physically distancing myself. I don’t expect much to be ‘normal’ again, whatever that was.

How was your lockdown?

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Refugee Tales III

It’s Refugee Week 15th – 21st June 2020 and I am launching my Crossing 25 Bridges challenge to highlight the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG) who since 2015 have been making an annual walk

in solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers and detainees.

In the manner of the Canterbury Tales, as they walk they tell stories, which are collected and published. Some refugees tell their own stories, and some are retold by accomplished writers. 

Human Rights?

The UK is the only country in Europe  that detains people indefinitely under immigration rules. For all kinds of reasons this is wrong. One reason is that it is contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Article 9

No one shall be subjected to arbitrart arrest, detention or exile.
[Universal Declaration of Human Rights]

Refugee Tales III 

In the third volume of Refugee Tales, six stories are told by individual refugees in their own voice and 13 more are presented ‘as told to’ some notable authors such as Monica Ali, Roma Tearne, Patrick Gale, Ian Samson, Bernardine Evaristo, Gillian Slovo.

Tales are told by the stateless person, the orphan, the foster child, the father and the son and more. The people are identified by activities that we can all understand. 

A terrible picture emerges. Each person’s story has a brutal start in their country of origin. These stories are individual, often violent and involving betrayal, torture and always fear.

Once the refugees have arrived in the UK the themes coalesce into a horrific story of the obstacles to being granted asylum. They all involve indefinite detention.

For a moment pause and consider what it might mean to have left your country, often your family, your identity, your language, culture, food and history. There is likely to be trauma in that story. You arrive, looking for safety and find yourself met with a wall of disbelief, distrust, cruel and labyrinthine administrative and legal processes, and ever-changing personnel. And imprisonment, without apparent reason, often removed when signing on as required, and often released again with as little apparent cause. 

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, or detention?

But more significant perhaps than the transgression of the UN Declaration is the inhumane aspects of this policy. Most people are aware of the Hostile Environment initiated by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary, in 2012. Fewer people are aware that it involves indefinite detention. More people need to be aware that refugees have few rights to benefits, or a job, and only to meagre accommodation and, until very recently only £5 a day to live off. The current Home Secretary raised it to £5.26p in early June.

Responding to Refugee Tales

I cried a lot, and then I got angry and then I decided to do something.

Here are some things to do:

• Buy and read one of the three collections of the Refugee Tales.

• Listen to what refugees have to say

You are not really going to listen. No one listens
You’re not really going to hear. No one hears.
But I will tell you my story anyway. I will tell you my story because you have asked to hear my story.
But that is all. You want my story from me. I do not want anything from you. […]
Now you have my story. And I still have nothing.
[From The Fisherman’s Tale as told to Ian Sansom]

  • Hear what refugees have to say, be a witness, enter the community that acknowledges these stories and these lives.

So I ask him, why does he want me or anyone else, to tell his story? Wouldn’t it be more powerful coming directly from him? His response is that he needs someone else to hear, a person outside the immediate experience, to acknowledge and record what happened to him and to those whose sufferings he heard and saw. He wants me to be his witness, not because his narrative requires verification, but because of the fact of hearing itself; because it signifies that in a world that so often seeks to deny and disbelieve such accounts, his story has been absorbed by a listening heart.
[From The Erased Person’s Tale as told to Jonathan Wittenberg]

  • Be a vigilant witness against evil and heartlessness and stand up for solidarity, beyond all seeming borders or nationality and creed. Jonathan Wittenberg knows the importance of this from researching the history of his own parents who were refugees from Nazism.

As I listen and record, I become a companion in defiance against the silence in which vicious regimes try to bury the knowledge of the crimes they have committed against the dead and disavow the living trauma of those who manage to survive them.
S needs me, us, to be allies. [From The Erased Person’s Tale as told to Jonathan Wittenberg]

  • Support my lockdown walk over 25 bridges in support of retelling the stories of flight and detention and the work of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group.
  • Join in the weekend of online events with Refugee Tales –  3rd – 5th July – details on their website.

My Lockdown Walk with Refugee Tales

Staverton Bridge, Devon.

My walk this month will, as far as possible, cross 25 bridges. Some may be crossed twice. I hope to walk with friends and family, including remotely. The bridges will be photographed and I’ll put them on Twitter, Facebook and my Just Giving page.

You can donate to the Just Giving page  and the  here:

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/caro-lodge

Anything from £1 to £100 will be welcome towards my target of £400

Refugee Tales III, Eds: David Herd & Anna Pincus (2019), published by Comma Press. 201pp

Other connected pages

Refugee TalesEds: David Herd & Anna Pincus: a post in February 2017 on Bookword about the first collection of tales. I was raising money for Freedom from Torture at the time.

Refugee Tales 2, Eds: David Herd & Anna Pincus: a post in April 2018 on Bookword about the second collection. 

Refugee Tales

Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group

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