Archive for U-Z

Wings by Mikhail Kuzmin

A key text in the history of gay literature, Wings was published in 1906 to the scandalized reaction of contemporary society and the generations which followed.

The novel deals with teenager Vanya Smurov’s attachment to his older, urbane mentor, Larion Stroop, a pederast who initiates him into the world of early Renaissance, Classical and Romantic art. At the close of the first part, Vanya is shocked to learn that the object of his admiration frequents a gay bathhouse. In order to sort out his feelings, Vanya withdraws into the Volga countryside, but his sickening experience with rural women, whose call on him to enjoy his youth turns out to be an awkward attempt at seduction, induces Vanya to accept his Classics teacher’s proposal and accompany him in a journey to Italy. In the last part of the novel, Vanya and Stroop, who is also in Italy, are seen enjoying the smiling climate and stunning artworks of Florence and Rome, while Prince Orsini mentors the delicate youth in the art of hedonism.

The novel, partly based on Kuzmin’s experience of travelling to Italy in 1897, is full of conversation in the Platonic vein; the title itself alludes to Phaedrus. Although the book was competently written in an elegant style all its own, its reputation has been dogged by scandal.

Kuzmin was one of the first writers in modern Europe to argue that homosexuality “was not immoral or ungodly, but morally distinctive, ethically sanctioned, and even at times spiritually superior, a matter not of decadent immoralism but the personal creation of values”.

The central theme of aestheticized sensuality has spawned comparisons of Wings with contemporary works by Oscar Wilde and André Gide.

Wings is in three parts, set respectively in St Petersburg, on the Volga and in Rome, and it is told in myriad episodic scenes of perhaps 2-3 pages in length: a curious and intriguing structure. In his Introduction, Hugh Aplin compares this structure to cinematic montage, which seems a fair approximation. These scenes, often thematically linked (e.g. death by suicide appears in parts 1 and 2, and the ‘death’ of an artist in part 3), are like dots that the reader must join together. It comes across as a series of brush strokes. Like Chekov, it addresses people by different versions of their name and you overhear seemingly isolated snatches of conversation.

“Wings”, is a metaphor threaded throughout the novel for a whole host of things: for the culture and friendships which allow us to soar, for what we acquire when we are open to beauty and courageous in our love, and as an allusion, in the final pages, to Icarus and his brothers.

Poignantly, many of the young men at the baths, including the one with the large penis, will soon be conscripted to war.

I found the “story” hard to follow. It is more allusive than narrative and is becalmed with philosophical soliloquies about love. Indeed, was the philosophising trying to justify homosexuality? Too didactic? Too much lecturing?

It’s misogynistic: ‘She’s only a vile female.’ (which may be inevitable from gay men of a certain type) and a callousness in their treatment. They are dismissed as worthless – relationships between men and women are portrayed as base and coarse.

Kuzmin was lucky to die of natural causes in 1936; just two years later other gay artists were rounded up with and shot.

Relevant today, given Putin’s current crackdown. In 1928, at the invitation of students of the Russian Institute of Literature, Kuzmin gave the final public reading of his life. He assumed the event would be poorly attended; the once-great writer had been largely silenced and, he worried, forgotten. The reading was not advertised to the public and only students with tickets were allowed entrance. The director of the Institute feared that any reading by Kuzmin would attract a large contingent of homosexuals and thus the attention of the authorities.

The director was right in his fear. On the night of the reading there came a crush at the doors, the ticket system broke down, and gays crowded in among the students. Kuzmin’s reading electrified the audience — no surprise, as he read his poem The Trout Breaks the Ice, a staggering work swirling with autobiography and cultural allusions that is also an ode to the triumph of desire, a poem that maintains its electricity through translation and time. An ovation followed the reading and the gays pushed to the front, showering Kuzmin with flowers, bouquet upon bouquet landing at his feet. The director and student organizers quaked — they knew they would be called before authorities to account for the scandal (they narrowly escaped punishment, pleading ignorance) — but Kuzmin beamed.

Nothing like Wings had ever been published; not in the West and not in Russia. As print runs sold out the book was immediately reissued. Also difficult to fathom is the relative ease with which gay artists were allowed to live their lives and envision their possibilities in prerevolutionary Russia. With the crumbling of the czarist empire, before Soviet repression took hold, we see a flowering of artistic daring and a measure of sexual freedom. But even so, Kuzmin’s daring humbles this writer, and ought to inspire us all.

He was in the Old Believer tradition – having spent some years in defiantly Old Believer guise, including cap, tight-fitting coat, boots and beard, he switched abruptly to the mannered dandyism of the Russian admirers of Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde

Old Believers are Eastern Orthodox Christians who maintain the liturgical and ritual practices of the Eastern Orthodox Church as they existed prior to the reforms of Patriarch Nikon of Moscow between 1652 and 1666. In 1652, Patriarch Nikon (1605–1681; Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church from 1652 to 1658) introduced a number of ritual and textual revisions with the aim of achieving uniformity between the practices of the Russian and Greek Orthodox churches. The main objectives of reformers in the 16th century, many from the secular “white” clergy, were to outlaw pagan rituals and beliefs and to standardise the liturgy throughout the Muscovite realm. Old Believers use two fingers while making the Sign of the Cross while new-style Orthodoxy uses three fingers for the sign of cross (three fingers (including the thumb). Is there a degree of sending up Tolstoy with his seeming primitism?

It is salutary to reflect that Wings was first published in Russia in 1906, when Kuzmin was in his thirties. He had at last come to terms with his homosexuality, as Vanya Smurov is beginning to do in the closing paragraph of the book. That he was openly gay in the final years of Tsarist rule and the opening decade_of Soviet Communism almost defies credibility, particularly when one thinks of the agonies of mind and body Tchaikovsky was forced to endure.

They are relatively little known outside their homeland

He was a eading figure of what was, arguably, Russia’s most brilliant and he began studying in 1891 at the St Petersburg Conservatory, where his tutors included Rimsky­Korsakov, but he remained there for only three years. None­theless, music was to continue to play a very significant role and enabled him to form ties

Wings brought about a genuine furore in Russia’s literary world, the success of ‘Alexandrian Songs’ enabled him to become closely involved with many of the most prominent figures of the then dominant Russian Symbolist movement but he had artistic independence and produced an -ism of his own, in Russian `klarizm’, from the Latin ‘clarus’, signifying clarity or transparency, and the ‘beautiful clarity’ that was its essential feature was one of 1 the abiding elements in all Kuzmin’s writing during his most successful, pre-revolutionary years

Our broad-=ranging discussion even mentioned the Bhagavad Gita.

Despite the glossary, I had to look up anacreontic = (of a poem) written in the style of the ancient Greek poet Anacreon, known for his celebrations of love and wine.

Quotations:

It does sometimes happen too, they say, that a woman loves a woman and a man a man … And it’s not hard to believe it, is it not possible for God to put that thorn too into the human heart, then? And it’s hard, Vanya, to go against what been put in, and perhaps it’s sinful too.

“Love, whatever its nature, can never be depraved except in the eyes of a cynic.” 

“I was in that kind of terribly stupid but not unpleasant situation, when you know that both of you know something, but are keeping silent. He stared straight at me, motionless, with a kind of mermaid look, not quite drunkenly, not quite insanely, almost terrifyingly, but when he began to wash me there was no room for doubt.”

Eroticism there had been aplenty in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts, and gender ques­tions, particularly the role of women in society, had been under discussion for more than half a century; but serious mainstream works with sex, let alone homosexuality, as their primary subject were almost unknown

The youthful hero, Vanya Smurov, is shown in three novel, unorthodox and increasingly exotic settings. Newly orphaned, he is vulnerable and susceptible as a series of mentors introduce him to various possible approaches to life, and other characters, through differing experiences or parallel situations, suggest the fates that potentially await him, depending on the decisions he makes.

It was considered stylistically careless ­’all over the place, awkward phrases written any old how,’ commented Andrei Bely — and the mosaic-like structure, which may be a positive attraction to the modern reader accustomed to the frequent cutting of cinematic montage, was not deemed a success. Inevitably, however, it was the thematic nature of the work that drew most attention

the sense of the words, thinking how his mother had died, how the whole house had suddenly filled with old women of some sort who had previously been strangers and who now became extraordinarily close, recalling the fuss, the offices for the dead, the funeral and, after all of that, the sudden emptiness and desolation

the rotten smell of sour cabbage soup… mothballs…Stroop’s scent

think, Vanya,.how odd it is, that here you have another person entirely, and his legs are different, and skin, and his eyes — and he’s completely yours, completely, , you can look at, kiss and touch all of him; every le mark on his body, wherever it might be, the little golden hairs that grow on his arms, every little furrow and hollow of the skin that is loved much too much. And you know every­thing, the way he walks, eats, sleeps, the way the wrinkles spread across his face when he smiles, the way he thinks, the way his body smells. And then it’s as if you cease to be yourself, and it’s as though you and he are one and the same: your flesh, your skin cleaves to him, and in love, Vanya, there’s no greater happiness on earth, whereas without love it’s unbearable, unbearable! And what I would say, Vanya, is that it’s easier not to have while loving, than to have without loving. Marriage, marriage: the secret isn’t about the priest giving his blessing and children coming — look at a cat, it’s carrying as many as four times a year — but about a soul getting a burning desire to give itself to another and to take him completely, if only for a week, if only for a day, and if both of their souls are burning, then that means God has united them. It’s a sin to make love with a cold heart or for gain, but anyone who’s touched by the fiery finger, whatever he does, he remains pure before the Lord. Anyone who’s touched by the flaming spirit of love, whatever he’s done, it’s all forgiven him, because he’s no longer his own, in the spirit, in the rapture…’

`How are you to understand? I’ll say this: a husband lives with his wife, and a bachelor gets mixed up with a woman; someone might say that it’s all the same, but there’s a big differ­ence. What is it, one asks?’

`I wouldn’t know,’ responded Sergei, all eyes.

`Imagination. The first thing,’ said Prokhor Nikitich, as though searching not only for words, but for ideas too, ‘the first thing is: the married man has dealings with one woman — that’s one thing: the next thing is — they live quietly, peacefully, they’re used to one another, and the husband loves his wife in just the same way as he eats his porridge or curses the bailiffs, but the ers have nonsense on their minds all the time, it’s all fun and es, there’s no constancy, no steadiness; and that’s why the thing is lawful, and the other — fornication. The sin isn’t in act but in the application, how the thing’s applied to what.’

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Wonderlands: Good Gay Travel Writing by Raphael Kadushin

WsHighly disparate pieces, some fiction, most not, with the feel of places, rather than mere descriptions of them. It all looks rather like some project done for the sake of it, though there are some gems e.g. Toibin’s and the one about the Isle of Lewis.

Mack Friedman’s recall of summer vac jobs with salmon almost evokes the smell of fish. The workers’ camp, the backdrop of an Alaskan fish factory, is as male-bonded a world as any Marine Corp barracks and it underscores the poetic first love that is the work’s more authentic refrain, and that becomes all the more moving for its lack of realization. His first novel was about a Jewish gay teenager, who goes to work in a fish factory – so there’s a(n autobiographgical?) connection. I had to look up ‘ulna ‘ =  long bone found in the forearm that stretches from the elbow to the smallest finger,

Brian Bouldrey’s piece was very boring, with all the stuff about languages and continual ‘Moo moo’.
Mitch Cullin has some interesting observations about travel and Japan, Hiroshima in particular.
Edward Field drinks tea with Paul Bowles – an occasion for name-dropping.
Rigoberto González – with him I share the energising feeling of being in a strange city
Raphael Kadushin settles into the ethereal sun of a Dutch spring.
Wayne Koestenbaum’s Vienna is both a city of high low culture, and as I don’t relate to operas I didn’t relate to his piece.
Michael Lowenthal remembers a jarring encounter in the Scottish Highland
Alistair McCartney writes airmail letters to his long-distance lover Tim Miller, who tallies the 1001 beds he has slept in all over the world as an air steward.
David Masello laments modernizing cities e.g. a church being demolished to make way for a car park.
Robert Tewdwr Moss tracks through the back roads of Syria and his own version of Arabian nights. I also had to look up ‘corniche ‘ = a road on the side of a cliff or mountain. It was becoming more liberal in 1998.
Bruce Shenitz also wrote The Man I Might Become: Gay Men Write About Their Fathers. Here, he explores a Dutch island – nicely enigmatic.
Colm Tóibín discovers a Spanish Brigadoon. Post Franco, the people are allowed in to ceremonies but there’s a dig at the officials who observe while drinking champagne.

Philip Gambone’s poignant “Do You Join in Singing the Same Bigness?” details his stays in China and a life-altering trip to Vietnam. Asia becomes a place of second chances.

Edmund White’s beautifully muted “Death in the Desert” elucidates the impact of AIDS with haunting clarity during a stay in the Middle East and recounts his harrowing drive through the Sahara with a man he loved.

Matthew Link’s “No Man’s Land” depicts his trip to the literal ends of the earth—Antarctica—in terms befitting Amundsen or Darwin.

Boyer Rickel’s paean to Italy, “Reading the Body”; observes male body language.

J.S. Marcus’s “Everywhere” deals with botched archaeological excavations.

Not all of the collection has overtly queer themes, and few pieces are truly sexual; there are no tours of gay Amsterdam, the Berlin homostrasses or the bath houses of the tropics. Rather, Kadushin has gathered highly disparate pieces, some fiction, most not, about the character of travelling, the subtleties and nuance that attend gay men together (or alone, but seeking companionship) in foreign climes and the feel of places, rather than mere descriptions of them,  learning about a place teaches about one’s self.

 

Overall, the world seems more hostile now.

Quotations:

Soon, I realized, Japan would seem no more real to me than my vivid dream of the crows, and I’d again find myself surviving on my own in the desert. And yet, for a while at least, I was content with the sudden realization that we are born alone, that we die alone, and that living provides us with the rare opportunity to truly love and to be loved; that, I suspect, is the only thing I know for certain.

Then, while sipping my coffee at the Excelsior Cafe and reading a short story by Haruki Murakami, my eyes stopped on a single sen­tence: “No matter how far you travel, you can never get away from yourself” Shimao said. How true, I found myself thinking. How per­fectly true. And so I shut the book, preferring instead to gaze out­side, mindful of the crows that were beyond the window and which were just now sorting through the debris of the storm’s widespread havoc—their long, curved beaks pecking at the messes created by both man and nature. Sitting there, my coffee growing cold, I could have stared at them all morning.

“Ever wondered what traveling and returning home have in common? In his introduction to “Wonderlands,” Raphael Kadushin writes, “We’re always leaving home because we’re partly looking from something else. And usually what we find, in the end, is a gift, a small wonderland that we may only recognize years later, when we’re back home, safe again.”

You can download it from here

 

 

 

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Untold Stories by Alan Bennett

A lot of this book has already been told in ‘A Life Like other People’s’

Compiled in the aftermath of an operation for bowel cancer, Untold Stories is, in effect, a giant autobiography, taking us from his childhood in Leeds to his present eminence by means of essays, dairy entries and family memoirs: the result is endearing, entertaining and pleasingly provocative. However, that makes it a ragbag: bitty and repetitive (How many funerals did Thora Hird have?).

It’s also extremely funny: he taught medieval history at Oxford and when, at the end of his first lecture, he asked for questions, a long silence fell, broken only when an undergraduate piped up with “Can you tell me where you bought your shoes?”

Bennett combines comicality with sadness, righteous indignation about the state of the world – Iraq, Tony Blair, the destruction of Victorian Leeds – with an observant delight in its minutiae. He recalls how the teacher who took him in the 1940s to the Leeds City Art Gallery had “the kind of old lady’s legs that seem to have gone out now, which begin at the corners of the skirt and converge on the ankles”.

The author describes his late start, anatomically, not maturing physically till he was 18, a circumstance that has lent a quality of perpetual precocity to everything he does, seeming to warrant special admiration as if it were a wonder that he’d done it at all. His remarkable writing here about his parents – Mam and Dad, as he invariably refers to them – reveals the extent to which he is still their lad Alan. Their sense of the home as a fortress, their horror of attention-seeking, their rejoicing in their ordinariness is shared by Bennett: he also shares his parents’ disdain for the enterprise, the ebullience, the sheer extroversion of Mam’s shop-assistant sister, Myra, and her “desire to be different, to be marked out above the common ruck and to have a tale to tell”.

Like many bright children, Bennett always felt himself to be a loner and a non-joiner: a late developer with both sex and shaving, he realised that he was one of those who would never learn to “dive, throw a cricket ball, piss in public, catch the barman’s eye”. His mother might diagnose his shyness as “the mark of a natural aristocracy”, but he worried that he might end up as a “denizen of tea shops and haunter of libraries”

His observations about education, which became obvious in ‘The History Boys’ are astute.

His experience of (assumed by the police) ‘queer-bashing’ is vivid and shows up police prejudice.

The ending, about cancer, is a bit depressing.

Like me, he loathes Earl Hague and Paul Johnson.

As he complains about dumbing down, I won’t let him get away with the notion that March 30th 1997 was ‘Easter Saturday’.  It was a week later. (Not the day after Good Friday.)

Quotations:

“You do not put yourself into what you write, you find yourself there.”

“the more institutions and freedoms and benefits one can take for granted – of which in my view free state-supported galleries and museums come high on the list – the more civilised a society is.”

Alan Clark and Kenneth Clarke resurrected this lunchtime to comment on the arrest of Pinochet. Both routinely acknowledge Pinochet’s crimes, although Clark A. is careful to refer to them as `alleged’, probably because he didn’t actually hear the screams of the tortured himself. Both have that built-in shrug characteristic of eighties Conservatism, electrodes on the testicles a small price to pay when eco­nomic recovery’s at stake. They both talk contemptuously of gesture pol­itics as if Lady Thatcher having tea with the General isn’t gesture politics too, the gesture in question being two fingers to humanity.

Appalling scenes on the Portsmouth housing estate which is conducting a witch hunt against suspected paedophiles and the nation is treated to the spectacle of a tattooed mother with a fag dangling from her lips and a baby in her arms proclaiming how concerned she is for her kiddies.

The joy of being a mob, particularly these days, is that it’s probably the first time the people on this estate have found common cause on anything; it’s ‘the community’ they’ve been told so much about and for the first time in their lives each day seems purposeful and exciting.

Also reading Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars, which is hard going but full of interesting stuff about the ceremonial life of the late medieval church and its systematic dismantling under Edward VI and Elizabeth. I hadn’t realised that the Elizabethan Settlement also meant the end of the mystery plays, which were pretty well forgotten by 1580. It shames me that I am more outraged by these events of nearly five hundred years ago (particularly by the iconoclasm) than I am by anything that’s currently happening (and to flesh and blood) in Yugoslavia or SierraLeone.

not for the first time I wonder if Blun­kett would be a more liberal man if he were not blind.

Ludicrously I assumed that these recycling men would (because greener) be a cut above the ordinary bin men. In fact it’s the reverse. The traditional crew is jolly, know me by name and call out if they see me in the street. They also close the gate and don’t leave any mess. The green men are unsmiling, wanting in any obvious conviviality, shove the crate back any old how and don’t close the gate. Green, in Camden any­way, isn’t necessarily nice.

Much talk of republicanism, recalling Brooklyn-born Joan Panzer’s remark twenty years ago: ‘England without the Royal Family? Never. It would be like Fire Island without the gays.’

That Tony Blair (as today talking to troops in Basra) will often say ‘I honestly believe’ rather than just ‘I believe’ says all that needs to be said. ‘To be honest’ another of his frank-seeming phrases…. T Blair claims to the Hutton Inquiry that if the BBC had been right and the Iraq dossier had been ‘sexed up’ he would have resigned. This is presumably intended to pre-empt any calls for his resignation at the conclusion of the Inquiry, which, whether it reports so or not, has conclusively shown that this is exactly what happened to the Iraq dossier. I suppose ‘sexed up’ is a euphemism for ‘hardened up’ (`stiffened up’ even), fastidiousness about language not being one of the characteristics

 John Schlesinger dies. The obituaries are more measured than he would have liked… Short, solid and fat, John looked like the screen Nazi he had once or twice played in his early days as an actor; he was a scaled-down Francis L. Sullivan, managing nevertheless to be surprisingly successful in finding partners. Not invariably, though. Sometime in the 1970s he was in a New York bath house where the practice was for someone wanting a partner to leave the cubicle door open. This Schlesinger accordingly did and lay monumentally on the table under his towel waiting for someone to pass by. A youth duly did and indeed ventured in, but seeing this mound of flesh laid out on the slab recoiled, saying: ‘Oh, please. I couldn’t. You’ve got to be kidding.’ Schlesinger closed his eyes and said primly: ‘A simple “No” will suffice.’…. A memorial service for John Schlesinger. It’s in the syna­gogue opposite Lord’s and though it’s Liberal Jewish I don’t feel it’s quite liberal enough for me to tell the bath-house story. Still, there are a lot of laughs in the other speeches, so I do feel able to give John’s own account of his investiture with the CBE. John was so aware of his sexuality that he managed to detect a corresponding awareness in the unlikeliest of places. On this occasion HMQ had a momentary difficulty getting the ribbon round his sizeable neck, whereupon she said, ‘Now, Mr Schlesinger, we must try and get this straight,’ the emphasis according to John very much hers and which he chose to take as both a coded acknowledgement of his situation and a seal of royal approval.

At Cambridge as an undergraduate he was once in the Rex cinema when the adverts came on, including one for Kellogg’s Ricicles. ‘Rice is nice,’ went the jingle, ‘but Ricicles are twicicles as nicicles.’ Whereupon Cedric boomed out: ‘But testicles are besticles.’ By their jokes ye shall know them.

Finish reading Toast, Nigel Slater’s memoir of his child­hood. It’s such an enjoyable book I regret reading it so quickly, bolting it in fact, the metaphor appropriate. Food apart, it’s also a very sexy book. The young Nigel must have had some sort of glint in his eye because he’s always getting shown a bit of the action until at fourteen he starts spend­ing his evenings hanging round the local lay-by spying on couples having it away. Life finally takes off when he fucks a girl-friend with his best friend watching from the other bed. An idyllic childhood I would have said. The rest is history. Or cookery.

Around nine I go out to put some rubbish in the bin to find someone curled up on the doorstep. I say someone because, swathed in an anorak, it’s impossible to tell whether it’s a man or a woman; he/she doesn’t speak and when shaken just moans a little. He/she is surrounded by half a dozen plastic bags, most of them empty and not the carefully transported possessions of the usual bag lady, if it is a lady. So, having talked about it, we eventually ring 999, where the Scotland Yard opera­tor is quite helpful and within ten minutes (on a Saturday night) a squad car comes round with two policemen. They’re sensible and firm with what turns out to be a young man. He’s filthy, his hands so black he might have been shifting coal, and is no help when they try to get him on his feet, moaning still and saying he has an abscess.

Now an ambulance arrives, and it’s this that seems to bring the young man round. He plainly doesn’t want to go to hospital and, abandoning whatever possessions he has on our doorstep, vanishes into the night. One of the policemen conies back and explains that, because among the rub­bish is a squeezed-out lemon, he is likely to be an addict, the juice used to purify the drugs. He counsels caution when we’re clearing up the mess lest there be any needles about and then says, ‘Actually I can do it,’ goes to the car for some gloves and tidies everything away himself and in such a sensible, straightforward way it seems genuine goodness.

It makes me ashamed of my habitual prejudice against the police when here is one dealing with what for him is presumably a regular occurrence and going out of his way just to be helpful. I think what a dispiriting job it must be night after night coping with the thieves and addicts of Camden Town and how hard it must be not to despise respectable folk who call them in to solve what for us is just a problem of hygiene. With a final instruction to swill down the flags, he goes off in the squad car, I go up and have my bath and then we sit down to our shepherd’s pie.

There is a wood, the canal, the river and above the river the railway and the road. It’s the first proper country that you get to as you come north out of Leeds and going home on the train I pass the place quite often. Only these days I look. I’ve been passing the place for years without looking because I didn’t know it was a place; that anything had happened there to make it a place, let alone a place that had something to do with me. Below the wood the water is deep and dark and sometimes there’s a boy fishing or a couple walking a dog. I suppose it’s a beauty spot now. It probably was then.

‘Has there been any other mental illness in your family?’ Mr Parr’s pen hovers over the Yes/No box on the form and my father, who is letting me answer the questions, looks down at his trilby and says nothing.

‘No,’ I say confidently and Dad turns the trilby in his hands.

‘Anyway,’ says Mr Parr kindly but with what the three of us know is more tact than truth, ‘depression isn’t really mental illness. I see it all the time.’

Mr Parr sees it all the time because he is the Mental Health Welfare Officer for the Craven district and late this September evening in 1966 Dad and I are sitting in his bare linoleum-floored office above Settle police station while he takes a history of my mother.

‘So there’s never been anything like this before?’

‘No,’ I say and without doubt or hesitation. After all, I’m the educated one of the family. If there had been ‘anything like this’ I should have known about it.

‘No, there’s never been anything like this.’

‘Well,’ Dad says, and the information is meant for me as much as Mr Parr, ‘she did have something once. Just before we were married.’ And he looks at me apologetically. ‘Only it was nerves more. It wasn’t like this.’

The ‘this’ that it hadn’t been like was a change in my mother’s personality that had come about with relative suddenness. In the space of a month or so she had lost all her fun and vitality, turning fretful and apprehensive and inaccessible to reason or reassurance. As the weeks passed the mood deepened, bringing with it fantasy and delusion: the house was watched, my father made to speak in a whisper because there was someone on the landing, and the lavatory (always central to Mam’s scheme of things) was being monitored every time it was flushed. She started to sleep with her handbag under her pillow as if she were in a strange and dangerous hotel and finally one night she fled the house in her nightgown and Dad found her wandering in the street whence she could only be fetched back into the house after loud resistance.

Occurring in Leeds where they had always lived, conduct like this might just have got by unnoticed, but the onset of the depression coincided with my parents’ retirement to a village in the Dales, a place so small and close-knit that such bizarre behaviour could not be hidden. Indeed the knowledge that they were about to leave the relative anonymity of the city for a small community where ‘folks knew all your business’ and that she would henceforth be socially much more visible than she was used to might have brought on the depression in the first place. Or so Mr Parr is saying.

My parents had always wanted to be in the country and have a garden. Living in Leeds all his life Dad had never even had an allotment, but in his childhood he had spent holidays on a farm at Bielby in the East Riding, which he always talked of as a lost paradise. The village they were moving to was very pretty, too pretty for Mam in her depressed mood: ‘You’ll see,’ she said, ‘we’ll be inundated with folks visiting.’ The cottage faced onto the village street but had a long garden at the back and it seemed like the place they had always dreamed of. A few years after they moved I wrote a television play, Sunset across the Bay, in which a retired couple not unlike my parents leave Leeds to go and live in Morecambe. As the coach hits the M62 bearing them away to a new life the wife calls out: ‘Bye bye, mucky Leeds!’ That had always been the dream. Now Dad was being told that it was their longed for escape that had brought this crushing visitation on his wife. Not surprisingly, he would not believe it.

In their last weeks in Leeds Dad had put Mam’s low spirits down to the stress of the impending move. Once the move had been accomplished, though, the depression persisted, so now he fell back on the state of the house, blaming its bare unfurnished rooms still with all the decorating to be done.

‘Your Mam’ll be better when I’ve got the place straight,’ he said. ‘She can’t do with it being all upset.’ So, while she sat fearfully on a hard chair in the passage, he got down to the decorating.

My brother, who had come up from Bristol to help with the move, also thought the state of the house was to blame, fastening particularly on an item that seemed to be top of Mam’s list of complaints, the absence of stair-carpet. I think I knew then that the stair-carpet was only the beginning of it but my brother galvanised a local firm into supplying and fitting the carpet in a couple of days. Mam seemed scarcely to notice and when, stair-carpet or no stair-carpet, the clouds did not lift my brother went back to Bristol and I to London.

Over the next ten years this came to be the pattern. The onset of a bout of depression would fetch us home for a while but when no immediate recovery was forthcoming we would take ourselves off again while Dad was left to cope. Or to care, as the phrase is nowadays. Dad was the carer. We cared, of course, but we still had lives to lead: Dad was retired – he had all the time in the world to care.

‘The doctor has put her on tablets,’ Dad said over the phone, ‘only they don’t seem to be doing the trick.’ Tablets seldom did, even when one saw what was coming and caught it early. The onset of depression would find her sitting on unaccustomed chairs – the cork stool in the bathroom, the hard chair in the hall that was just there for ornament and where no one ever sat, its only occupant the occasional umbrella. She would perch in the passage dumb with misery and apprehension, motioning me not to go into the empty living-room because there was someone there.

‘You won’t tell anybody?’ she whispered.

‘Tell anybody what?’

‘Tell them what I’ve done?’

‘You haven’t done anything.’

‘But you won’t tell them?’

‘Mam!’ I said, exasperated, but she put her hand to my mouth, pointed at the living-room door then wrote ‘TALKING’ in wavering letters on a pad, mutely shaking her head.

As time went on these futile discussions would become less intimate (less caring even), the topography quite spread out with the parties not even in adjoining rooms. Dad would be sitting by the living-room fire while Mam hovered tearfully in the doorway of the pantry, the kitchen in between empty.

‘Come in the pantry, Dad,’ she’d call.

‘What for? What do I want in the pantry?’

‘They can see you.’

‘How can they see me? There’s nobody here.’

‘There is, only you don’t know. Come in here.’

It didn’t take much of this before Dad lapsed into a weary silence.

‘Oh, whish’t,’ he’d say. ‘Be quiet.’

A play could begin like this, I used to think – with a man on-stage, sporadically angry with a woman off-stage, his bursts of baffled invective gradually subsiding into an obstinate silence. Resistant to the offstage entreaties, he continues to ignore her until his persistent refusal to respond gradually tempts the woman into view.

Or set it in the kitchen, the empty room between them, no one on-stage at all, just the voices off. And what happens when they do come on-stage? Violence, probably.

Her fears – of being spied on, listened to, shamed and detected – were ordinary stuff. This was not the territory of grand delusion, her dread not decked out in the showy accoutrements of fashionable neurosis. None of Freud’s patients hovered at pantry doors … Freud’s selected patients, I always felt, the ordinary not even getting past, or even to, the first consultation because too dull, the final disillusion to have fled across the border into unreason only to find you are as mundane mad as you ever were sane.

Certainly in all her excursions into unreality Mam remained the shy, unassuming woman she had always been, none of her fantasies extravagant, her claims, however irrational they might be, always modest. She might be ill, disturbed, mad even, but she still knew her place.

It may be objected that madness did not come into it; that, as Mr Parr had said, this was depression and a very different thing. But though we clung to this assurance it was hard not to think her delusions mad and the tenacity with which she held to them, defended them, insisted on them, the very essence of unreason. While it was perhaps naive of us to expect her to recognise she was ill, or that standing stock still on the landing by the hour together did not constitute normal behaviour, it was this determination to convert you to her way of thinking that made her conduct hardest to bear.

‘I wouldn’t care’ Dad would say, ‘but she tries to get me on the same game.’

‘You’re imagining stuff,’ he said, flinging wide the wardrobe door. ‘Where is he? Show me!’

The non-revelation of the phantom intruder ought, it seemed to Dad, to dent Mam’s conviction, persuade her that she was mistaken. But not a bit of it. Putting her finger to her lips (the man in the wardrobe now having mysteriously migrated to the bathroom), she drew him to the window to point at the fishman’s van, looking at him in fearful certainty, even triumph; he must surely see that the fate she feared, whatever it was, must soon engulf them both.

Few nights passed uninterrupted and Dad would wake to find the place beside him empty, Mam scrabbling at the lock of the outside door or standing by the bedroom window looking out at a car in the carpark that she said was watching the house.

How he put up with it all I never asked, but it was always the aggressiveness of her despair and her conviction that hers was the true view of the world that was the breaking point with me and which, if I were alone with her, would fetch me to the brink of violence. I once nearly dragged her out of the house to confront an elderly hiker who was sitting on the wall opposite, eating his sandwiches. He would have been startled to have been required to confirm to a distraught middle-aged man and his weeping mother that shorts and sandals were not some subtle disguise, that he was not in reality an agent of … what? Mam never specified. But I would have seemed the mad one and the brute. Once I took her by the shoulders and shook her so hard it must have hurt her but she scarcely seemed to mind. It just confirmed to her how inexplicable the world had become.

‘We used to be such pals,’ she’d say to me, shaking her head and refusing to say any more because the radio was listening, instead creeping upstairs to the cold bedroom to perch on one of the flimsy bedroom chairs, beckoning me to stay silent and do the same, as if this were a satisfactory way to spend the morning.

And yet, as the doctor and everybody else kept saying, depression was not madness. It would lift. Light would return. But when? The young sympathetic doctor from the local practice could not say. The senior partner, whom we had first consulted, was a distinguished looking figure, silver-haired, loud-talking, a Rotarian and pillar of the community. Unsurprisingly he was also a pull your socks up merchant and did not hold with depression. At his happiest going down potholes to assist stricken cavers, he was less adept at getting patients out of their more inaccessible holes.

How long depressions lasted no doctor was prepared to say, nor anyone else that I talked to. There seemed to be no timetable, this want of a timetable almost a definition of the disease. It might be months, but one of the books I looked into talked about years, though what all the authorities did seem agreed on was that, treated or not, depression cleared up in time. One school of thought held that the depression should be allowed to run its course unalleviated and unaccelerated by drugs. But on my mother drugs seemed to have no effect anyway, and if the depression were to run its course and it did take years, many months even, what would happen to my father?

Alone in the house, knowing no one in the village well enough to call on them for help, he was both nurse and jailer. Coaxing his weeping parody of a wife to eat, with every mouthful a struggle, then smuggling himself out of the house to do some hasty shopping, hoping that she would not come running down the street after him, he spent every day and every fitful night besieged by Mam’s persistent assaults on reality, foiling her attempts to switch off the television, turn off the lights or pull the curtains against her imaginary enemies, knowing that if he once let her out of his sight she would be at the front door trying to flee this house which was at the same time her prison and her refuge.

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What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

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As with the author of Guapa, the book we read in October, the author visited the city to give a talk, previous to our meeting, which once again provided us with some valuable insights to the book and the author.

The book divided opinion on this occasion, but there was no particularly enthusiastic response to it.

Perhaps unusually, a supporting character, Mitko, the protagonist’s sexual interest, provided more of a talking point than the lead character. However, whilst one member commented that they felt the lead character seemed sad by the end of the novel, another admitted to feeling very sad for Mitko by the end; that they felt sorry for him.

The dynamic between the the foreign teacher and his hustler associate, with, as one member noted, his coterie of clients, was poignant and an almost constant throughout the story. Yet it was commented that the power between the two characters remained unexplored and was notably absent in the descriptions of their sexual encounters, which lacked detail and clarity of who did what to whom.

Although their relationship was, at it’s very base a sexual and financial transaction, both characters seem inexplicably drawn to each other and their relationship is limited, by and large, to an ongoing series of transactions. One member voiced his lack of understanding of why the lead was involved with Mitko, asking “was it love or lust, or something else”? Considering the numerous suggestions of and allusions to Mitko’s violent temperament, it appears that the teacher may be attracted by the danger.

One member felt the interaction between the lead character and Mitko was interesting, but  that the main bulk of the story detracted from that part of the story, that the main narrative was perhaps a distraction to the meatier side story.

With one member proclaiming Miko to be “a blackmailing shit”, another felt they warmed to to the character as the story progressed. Another chipped in that they found Mitko to be “vile and not even attractively so”.

Our proclaimer went as far as suggesting that the character of Mitko was the cause of them not enjoying the book, or that he made the book “bad”. They added that they were “appalled” by their inability to read the novel, which he did so in fits and starts as a result.

They did however concede that there were bits of the novel that appealed, such as the bus trip taken by the teacher to a city neighbouring Sofia, for the purpose of obtaining treatment for an STI. Another noted about the trip that the hospital staff treated their patient, who was quite open about his homosexuality, like filth. There was general surprise that he would be treated in such way in 2012, when the novel was set.

The lack of a homosexual nucleus for the lead character was highlighted. In the group’s previous novel, Guapa, the protagonist and his circle of friends congregated and sought refuge in the liberal and accepting titular bar, whereas the setting of this novel contained no gay scene or any other gay characters. As such, it was felt we didn’t learn anything of the culture or politics of Bulgarian gay society; perhaps due to both lead characters being quite isolated. This was perhaps borne out of the notable sense of shame which runs through the novel.

The amount of Bulgarian the author includes in the book was raised. A member, who attended the recent talk with the author, mentioned that he was interested how the sound of the Bulgarian language appeared to non-speakers. He believed the cadences of the language couldn’t be successfully translated, so included Bulgarian in the novel to illustrate that point.

There was appreciation of the author’s distinction between ‘you’ in the formal and informal sense of the term, which added an interest to the linguistics of the book.

That the story was told in the first person was commended, as the reader never knew what the other characters thought. It was claimed that it would have been a completely different novel had it been told by an omniscient narrator. The long passages used by the author were frustrating to some, while others didn’t enjoy the writing style as a whole the author employed.

A member felt it reminded him of a Hollinghurst novel, feeling that the author was trying to convey consciousness. Another likened it to Mann’s Death in Venice.

For some members, who read the novel for the second time, felt it made more of an impression the second time around, as there was a lot in the novel which can easily be missed.

Whilst some enjoyed the novel, with one adding that not all of it was good, some felt it was very much a ‘first novel’ and not great, but they did enjoy reading it. However others felt a lot more strongly about it, with someone stating that they just didn’t care about the novel; that it failed to make him care.

The three part structure of the novel drew criticism. One member found the second part of the novel difficult to follow. But it was thought that was the author’s intention; being a very traumatic time for the lead character. Another made reference to the “list” part of the novel as “utterly boring” describing it as completely different to the other two parts of the novel. Another added that the third part of the novel was self-conscious and another described it as “something to love or loathe”.

A member who attended the talk with the author stated that the author had been interesting, but added that they don’t know what he might write next.
The title comes from Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice’

Greenwell wrote the novel while teaching in Bulgaria himself, though he says the book is fiction and “the narrator is not me”.

Greenwell is unabashedly a “queer writer”, one who is interested in articulating a specifically gay experience.

Cruising has been central in my life since I was 14 years old. It was the first gay community I found in the pre-global internet in Louisville, Kentucky, where I grew up. I do think “community” is the right word for those places, which have not disappeared. When I found this cruising bathroom in Bulgaria where the novel begins, I immediately knew what it was. I barely spoke Bulgarian, but I descended into this place, and I suddenly had a complete fluency.

The latest proof of Greenwell’s genuine interest in  Bulgaria’s reality is called Mitko – an award-winning novella about the romantic relationship between two men, who meet in the bathrooms of the National Palace of Culture and travel emotionally between desire and intimidation all the way to a hotel room in the Black Sea city of Varna.

In its article, “Of LGBT, Life and Literature,” the Sofia Echo credits Greenwell’s publications with bringing much needed attention to the LGBT experience in Bulgaria and to other English-speaking audiences through various broadcasts, interviews, blog posts, and reviews

What Belongs to You really started with a place. I moved to Bulgaria in 2009 and spent four years there, teaching high school at the American College of Sofia. Bulgaria is a fascinating, beautiful, difficult country, and I fell in love with it. I think the spark of the novel came from the weird experience I kept having there of foreignness and familiarity. On the one hand, my first months in Sofia were a time of intense disorientation: I had never been to that part of the world before; I could barely speak the language; everything seemed strange to me. At the same time, though, and especially as I started meeting gay men and exploring queer communities, both online and in person, I found myself forcefully reminded of my adolescence in Kentucky in the early 1990s. This was especially true of the cruising places I found in Sofia, where all the sudden I found I could communicate fluently: all the codes I learned as a kid cruising the parks in Louisville were the same in Sofia. And when I started to talk to gay men in their thirties and forties, I found they said many of the same things that I heard gay men that age say when I was an adolescent. It seemed to me that there was a similar horizon of possibility, a similar set of assumptions about the world and what it offered.

A Grave – stream of consciousness – a very long chapter – 56 pages. The middle section, “A Grave,” is a departure both from the character of Mitko and from the style of the rest of the novel. Some news from home triggers a flood of memories and associations that the narrator experiences while he walks through the Bulgarian city where he lives. While the first and last sections are concerned with action as it unfolds.

“A Grave” came very much as a surprise. I wasn’t intending to write it—I had ideas for other things I wanted to work on. But then, one hot day when I was walking around Mladost, the part of Sofia where I lived, I was seized by a voice that demanded I follow it. I really don’t know how else to put it, and I haven’t had an experience quite like that before or since. It was a really angry, importunate energy, and I remember I went to coffee shop and started writing on the backs of receipts, on scraps of paper—on trash, really. I wrote the first draft very quickly, and it ended up being a long block paragraph, much longer in that first version than it is in the book. I stuck it in a drawer and couldn’t look at it for more than a year; it made me nauseous to think about it. Once I could look at it again, I rewrote it by hand several times, something that I didn’t do with the other sections of the book. It was really hell to write. And as I said before, it wasn’t until I was halfway through that I realized how it was responding to the story told in “Mitko” (and later continued in “Pox”), that the exploration of the narrator’s childhood was a way to try to investigate some of the weird things about him, especially in his approach to intimacy, the way he seems to disclose everything while actually hiding a great deal of himself away. I think the middle section is the part of the book where the narrator is most vulnerable and available. And I hope the block paragraph format gives a sense of the simultaneity of his memories, how he’s thrown back and forth between various times: his early childhood, his adolescence, the landscape he’s walking through and the landscape he has fled.

The only character who is fully named in the book is Mitko, and even he isn’t given a full name: Mitko is a nickname, short for Dimiter, and his family name is never disclosed. In the first scene the narrator is stripped of his own name, when we learn that Mitko can’t pronounce it, that it’s unpronounceable in Bulgarian. I wanted Mitko to be the only character in the book with a name, which felt to me like a kind of spotlight illuminating him throughout the book. Like a spotlight, it felt like a way of giving him a kind of privilege, of foregrounding him and making him the most vivid thing on the page. And, again like a spotlight, it’s also a kind of vulnerability: he’s stripped of a protection, or the semblance of a protection, other characters are afforded.

In the novel’s final section, “Pox,” the narrator has overcome some of his internal hurdles and formed a healthier relationship with a man from Portugal called R. At the same time, he can’t quite let go of Mitko — or is it that Mitko will not let go of him? Greenwell poignantly evokes the narrator’s inability to resist the draw of Mitko’s erratic neediness. Much (but not all) of the sexual charge of their relationship has dissipated for the narrator, yet a mysterious feeling of responsibility for Mitko’s increasingly grim fate remains.

wbty-2From the author, whom some of us met recently: For him, this is related to being asked repeatedly whether he would consider himself to be a “gay writer”. This, he understands, is a fraught question for many writers, who for decades have been told “if you write books centred on queer lives, where the gay guy isn’t just one strand, or a friend, then there are straight people for mainstream readers to identify with – but if a book really is centred on gay lives, you’ll be in this gay ghetto”.

But, he says, he has never accepted that – in fact, he thinks quite the reverse. “Absolutely I am a gay writer. And not only that, I want to tell gay stories about gay communities for gay readers, because I think that this incredible progress that queer people have made in things such as marriage equality have come at the cost of a mainstreaming narrative that has homogenised queer lives in a way that has sacrificed far too much and, tragically, has further marginalised the most vulnerable members of the queer community.”

He talks further about marriage equality as “really a marketing battle: it was about packaging queer lives in a way that allowed the value of those lives to be seen by people who are disgusted by queer lives” – although his point is also that this is probably an inevitable and necessary stage that any minority rights movements has to go through. Where that becomes problematic, he insists, is when those at the edge of the movement become further distanced, as when human rights campaigners “at their rallies in front of the supreme court in support of marriage equality, said, Oh trans person get off the stage.”

Ultimately, he says, “any project of liberation has to have as its goal the multiplication of legitimate models of life”.

much in the book turns on the gaps between English and Bulgarian, and in particular the word priyatel, which Mitko deploys to mean friend, boyfriend and client. Some of it is structural: while the narrator appears to control the story, and we are never granted direct access to Mitko’s consciousness, Greenwell shows enough to allow us to empathise with him. It is a novel of transactions, of inequalities, and of fine moral judgments; the narrator, it is clear, could leave Bulgaria whenever he wished, while Mitko, who becomes increasingly frail, is trapped.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/mar/26/books-interview-garth-greenwell-what-belongs-to-you-gay-rights

Reviews by two who couldn’t attend the discussion:

 This book has been heavily trailed on the social media circles I hang around; twitter, Facebook etc of writers I tend to follow.

I found the mid-way switchback to his early life an unwelcome distraction; it was clunky and seemed to hold the story up for me. I understand that this book had originally been a novel and I suspect that this was bit stitched in. I’m not sure that worked.

I did like visceral nature of the attraction, which drew then together and continued to hold them together. I think that was a good reason, but I then felt the descriptions of the sexual attractions could have been even more visceral.

I was often asking myself how old the American was, I imagined older, but not so much older, and I’m sure the writer was trying to steer away form it just being an age thing…as there was foreigner/local,  richer/poorer, seller/buyer thing going on. He explored those things but not age, interesting decision.

As the world becomes smaller and less friendly (e.g. Russia) to westerners and especially gay men the exploration of this subject (the western gay man abroad) and his loves and losses I think are an interesting area for gay writers.

I think this was a very good first novel, better than Guapa I think.

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I enjoyed the pace of this book, and the rich descriptions and vocabulary.  I went back and reread the first section I had enjoyed it so much but felt I had missed details from the first reading: I wanted to slow down and immerse myself more in the atmosphere of the book. I enjoyed the reread.

I loved the character of Mitko, and felt like he was real and present. This was unsettling by the end of the book when I realised I actually knew very little about him. We were seeing Mitko through the experience of the narrator and I felt a lot of empathy with his superficial knowledge of Mitko. The development of their relationship was fascinating and the rich writing helped me feel immersed and close to it. I felt the desire and the need to have a human connection, but how this was not going to be successful. It was a simple set up, and a complex emotional relationship that I hope you get a chance to discuss.

The book ended bleakly and with little hope. The beautiful, confident Mitko was almost at his end, the narrator was alone in a difficult foreign country, isolated from his mother and his new partner and seemingly not further on than when the book started. I saw no happy ending for him either.

SUMMARY: I loved this book: I found it a strong experience emotionally (even though the characters were not deeply emotional) and I really enjoyed the writing (I know some of you didn’t).

It wasn’t all great though:

The Bulgarian words thrown in became annoying and self-indulgent. Early on this did help establish that the narrator was struggling with the language and the culture. I would have phased out most of these after the first 1/4 of the book.

At times the descriptive and detailed writing got a bit wearing: e.g. the bus trip to the out of town hospital and the fly: Why?

Quotations:

I was there not as guard but as audience. I was there to see how different from me he was.”

“You disgust me, he said, do you know that, you disgust me, how could you be my son?”

“I wouldn’t answer, I wouldn’t see my father again, I wouldn’t mourn him or pour earth on him.”

Even as I descended the stairs I heard his voice, which like the rest of him
was too large for those subterranean rooms, spilling out of them as if to climb
back into the bright afternoon that, though it was mid-October, had nothing
autumnal about it; the grapes that hung ripe from vines throughout the city
burst warm still in one’s mouth.

As I knelt there, still tasting the metallic trace of sink water from his skin, I felt my anger lifting as I realized that my pleasure wasn’t lessened by his absence, that what was surely a betrayal (we had our contract, though it had never been signed, never set in words at all) had only refined our encounter, allowing him to become more vividly present to me even as I was left alone on my stained knees and allowing me, with all the freedom of fantasy, to make of him what I would.

Suddenly I was enraged for him, I felt the anger I was sure he must feel that futile anger like a dry grinding of gears. But from a distance Mitko didn’t seem to feel anything at all; these were only my own thoughts, I knew, they brought me no nearer him, this man I had in some sense loved and who had never in the years I had known him been anything but alien to me.

I understood his desire to be naked before the world, his madness, as he says, to be in contact with it. I even felt something of that desire myself, though it was nothing like madness for me, in my life lived almost always beneath the pitch of poetry, a life of inhibition and missed chances, perhaps, but also a bearable life, a life that to some extent I had chosen and continued to choose.

how helpless desire is outside its little theater of heat, how ridiculous it becomes the moment it isn’t welcomed, even if that welcome is contrived.”

“…always I feel an ambivalence that spurs me first in one direction and then another, a habit that has done much damage.”

I said, come on, tasting him and tugging at his shoulders. He tried at first to put me off again, he said we could take our time, the night was long; he was counting on a place to spend that night, and no doubt had experienced hospitality withdrawn by men whose desire dissolved immediately to disgust.

He did speak of the terrible     boredom he felt in the hospital, where he was confined to a bed, without a computer or even a television for distraction, since the one mounted in his room would only play if fed constantly with coins. Nor were books or magazines a diver­sion, since he read Cyrillic with difficulty; he had left school in the seventh grade, and was more comfortable with the Latin characters used in Internet chat rooms.

But he was still detached, he kept glanc­ing at the television, and when I asked him what was wrong he just shrugged and answered that he had already had sex that afternoon, which seemed like a breach of contract, though I suppose I had no real basis for complaint.

It’s not like there were that many of them, she said, seeing the dismay I felt, I didn’t even have sex with all of them, I just liked being with them, I liked the attention. I don’t know why I cringed at her stories, when I had done so much worse at her age, having sex in parks and bathrooms, dan­gerous and indiscriminate sex; but I was troubled that her history seemed to parallel my own, that we shared what I had thought of as my own gnawing affliction. And I knew she would outgrow the satisfactions she had found, that soon she would desire other and more intense experiences, drawn forward by those appetites we share, that humiliating need that has always, even in my moments of apparent pride, run alongside my life like a snapping dog.

It would be years before my father spoke the words that finally severed the bond between us, but there were no more showers or games. Nor could I find anywhere else the closeness I had taken for granted: the friends I turned to were scared off by the need I felt for them, and soon the best I could hope for was their indifference.

“As I walked along that path,
I felt drawn from myself, elated,
struck stupidly good for a moment
by the extravagant beauty of the world.”

“I fell back from him then, I lay next to him thinking, as I had had cause to think before, of how helpless desire is outside its little theater of heat, how ridiculous it becomes the moment it isn’t welcomed, even if that welcome is contrived.”

“You can’t speak to him, he said, if you speak to him, if you give any sign to him at all, he will come back; he has to stop existing for you.”
“What would it mean to do enough, I wondered, as I had wondered before about that obligation to others that sometimes seems so clear and sometimes disappears altogether, so that now we owe nothing, anything we give is too much, and now our debt is beyond all counting.”
“He had always been alone, I thought, gazing at a world in which he had never found a place and that was now almost perfectly indifferent to him; he was incapable even of disturbing it, of making a sound it could be bothered to hear.”
“the poorly typed lines, the symbols and abbreviations of Internet chat that make such language seem so much like a process of decay. As”
“There was something in his manner of seduction, no show of desire at all; what he offered was a transaction, and again he showed no disappointment when reflexively and without hesitation I said no to him. It was the answer I had always given to such proposals (which are inevitable in the places I frequent), not out of any moral conviction but out of pride, a pride that had weakened in recent years, as I realized I was being shifted by the passage of time from one category of erotic object to another.”
“I realized that my pleasure wasn’t lessened by his absence, that what was surely a betrayal (we had our contract, though it had never been signed, never set in words at all) had only refined our encounter, allowing him to become more vividly present to me even as I was left alone on my stained knees, and allowing me, with all the freedom of fantasy, to make of him what I would.”
“He caught me and held my gaze without welcome or warmth or any hint of what we had shared, and my sense of having violated something, of having looked where I shouldn’t have faded, as I understood that this was what he wanted me to see all along, that I was there not as guard but as audience. I was there to see how different from me he was, how free of the foulness my father had shown him; and now that I had seen it, I knew our friendship had run its course.”
“But I’m your son, which was my only appeal and the last thing I would say. He made a dismissive sound, almost a laugh, and then he spoke again, with a snarling voice I had never heard before, he said The hell you are. He went on, he spoke without stopping, A faggot, he said, if I had known you would never have been born. You disgust me, he said, do you know that, you disgust me, how could you be my son? As I listened to him say these things it was as though even as I laid claim to myself I found there was nothing to claim, nothing or next to nothing, as though I were dissolving and my tears were the outward sign of that dissolution.”
“I grew up at the height of the AIDS panic, when desire and disease seemed essentially bound together, the relationship between them not something that could be managed but absolute and unchangeable, a consequence and its cause. Disease was the only story anyone ever told about men like me where I was from, and it flattened my life to a morality tale, in which I could be either chaste or condemned. Maybe that’s why, when I finally did have sex, it wasn’t so much pleasure I sought as the exhilaration of setting aside restraint, of pretending not to be afraid, a thrill of release so intense it was almost suicidal.”
“I had been sick before, of course, but this felt more than sickness, like a physical confirmation of shame.”
“That’s all care is, I thought, it’s just looking at a thing long enough, why should it be a question of scale? This seemed like a hopeful thought at first, but then it’s hard to look at things, or to look at them truly, and we can’t look at many at once, and it’s so easy to look away.”
“Sometimes we talked the whole night long, as one does only in adolescence or very early in love. I was happy, but also I felt an anxiety that gnawed at me and for which I could find no cause, that gnawed at me more deeply precisely because I could find no cause.”
“Love isn’t just a matter of looking at someone, I think now, but also of looking with them, of facing what they face.”
“As we joined the line of people getting off at the last stop before Sofia, I looked once more at the little boy, whom I felt I would never forget, though maybe it wasn’t exactly him I would remember, I thought, but the use I would make of him. I had my notes, I knew I would write a poem about him, and then it would be the poem I remembered, which would be both true and false at once, the image I made replacing the real image. Making poems was a way of loving things, I had always thought, of preserving them, of living moments twice; or more than that, it was a way of living more fully, of bestowing on experience a richer meaning. But that wasn’t what it felt like when I looked back at the boy, wanting a last glimpse of him; it felt like a loss. Whatever I could make of him would diminish him, and I wondered whether I wasn’t really turning my back on things in making them into poems, whether instead of preserving the world I was taking refuge from it.”
“… my mother reached over and laid her hand on my arm, saying that was true, … and I felt something twist in me, the motion of some unthinking thing when it is gripped too hard, and I had to resist the urge to pull away.”
“He stopped then, as if he realized he had gone too far, had leaned too hard on the fiction of our relationship and felt the false surface give way.”

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The Visa Affair – Jake Arnott

tva(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)In 1965 Joe Orton visited the American Embassy in London to get a visa to attend the Broadway production of his outrageous West End hit ‘Entertaining Mr Sloane’ and was caught up in a Kafkaesque world of oppression and paranoia. He was forced into absurd interrogations and accused of “moral turpitude.” In the mid-1960s Orton was one of the most talked about new playwrights of the decade – even attracting the attention of the Beatles to write them a new film.

Writer Jake Arnott has uncovered a previously unpublished story by Orton about his this encounter. This story becomes the heart of a new drama, in which Arnott also draws on letters, archive, newspaper reports and personal testimony to create a darkly comic drama revealing Orton’s life and the world that he lived in.

Orton’s first commission as a playwright was from Radio 3’s predecessor the Third Programme in 1964 and this new play is part of the station’s 70th season, celebrating seven decades of pioneering music and culture.

In ‘The Visa Affair’, Orton has just found success in the UK after years of obscurity, and Broadway beckons, but events in his past threaten his American dream. As embassy staff challenge him about his criminal record we follow a labyrinthine struggle as Joe is forced to defer to authority, deny his sexuality, and to look again at his subversive acts and how they affected his writing and work.

Throughout, Orton plays a game of hide and seek with bureaucracy – evading its surveillance whilst revealing its absurdity.

Leonie Orton-Barnett, the playwright’s younger sister who oversees his literary estate, suggested Mr Arnott adapt The Visa Affair for radio.

Orton’s own narrative voice forms the heart of this drama. It is a rich source of character, dialogue and unfolding plot. Writer Jake Arnott says: “Though his work often seems surreal, Orton always insisted that what he wrote was reality. This is real. What excites me about this project is the opportunity to dramatise a hidden work: Orton’s own encounter with the kind of absurd bureaucracy that he brilliantly depicts in his plays.”

Mr Arnott, whose novels include The Long Firm, intends to add more material from letters, personal testimony and archive documents to flesh out the story. It will be his first radio play and a “huge honour”, he said

The 20-page story follows Orton’s Kafkaesque visit to the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square in 1965.

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UTS3(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

The start, straightforward gay cruiser looking for hitchhikers – except that it’s a woman and nothing is straightforward thereafter.

Set in northern Scotland, it traces an extraterrestrial who, manifesting in human form, drives around the Scottish countryside picking up male hitchhikers whom she drugs and delivers to her home planet where her compatriots mutilate and fatten them so that they can be turned into meat, as human meat, or “vodsel”, is a delicacy on the aliens’ barren homeworld.

The novel is darkly satirical. Its themes include sexism, big business, factory farming, and environmental decay; and reflects on more personal questions of sexual identity, humanity, snobbery, and mercy.

Isserley spends her spare time walking on the pebbled beach by her cottage, marveling at the beauty of Earth compared to her home world, where most beings are forced to live and toil underground, and the wealthy Elite live on the surface, but are still unable to tolerate being outside.

Eventually, she is raped by a hitchhiker, and is forced to kill him and leave his body. The experience shakes her, and she captures the next hitchhiker without interviewing him to assess the risk, failing to discover that she actually shares many inner thoughts with him, as well as the fact he would be missed by family (usually a key factor). In anger, she demands to see what happens to the vodsel during “processing,” where she watches as his tongue is cut out and he is castrated. Due to her claustrophobia of the subterranean structure, she has never seen this, and is shocked and disappointed at how fast it goes. She insists on seeing one actually killed and becomes hysterical at not being able to see the entire gruesome process.

Isserley is calmed down by Amlis, himself an Elite, whose beliefs are that vodsel should not be consumed, suggesting they are more similar to him and Isserley than she admits. After he departs to their home world, to share with their people what he had witnessed (the beauty of Earth, the treatment of vodsel), Isserley’s attitude changes. She begins to doubt her job, and is especially nonplussed after learning that others are more than willing to take her place. She captures one last victim, but feels guilty for doing so knowing that his dog has been left trapped in his van. Returning to where she found him, she frees the dog from the hitchhiker’s van.

Isserley decides to quit, and not return to the base of operations. She is forced to pick up one last hitchhiker, a man who insists on needing a ride to see his girlfriend give birth, and mentions reincarnation on the way. Driving faster than usual, Isserley gets into a car accident. Isserley’s body is essentially ruined while the hitchhiker is thrown through the window, still alive. Isserley ponders what will happen to her body, as she must activate an explosive that will destroy all evidence of the crash, and her. She thinks her atoms and particles will become dispersed in the environment and air, and is at peace with that. She then hits the switch.

UTSQuotations

“Shared suffering, she’d found, was no guarantee of intimacy.”
“Most distracting of all, though, was not the threat of danger but the allure of beauty.”
“The word troubled her, though. ‘Indispensable.’ It was a word people tended to resort to when dispensability was in the air.”
“The past was dwindling, like something shrinking to a speck in the rear-view mirror, and the future was shining through the windscreen, demanding her full attention.”
“she and they were all the same under the skin, weren’t they?”
“In the end, though, vodsels couldn’t do any of the things that really defined a human being. They couldn’t siuwil, the couldn’t mesnishtil,they had no concept of slan.”
“They both sat in silence for the rest of the journey, as if conscious of having let each other down.”
“The variety of shapes, colours and textures under her feet was, she believed, literally infinite. It must be. Each shell, each pebble, each stone had been made what it was by aeons of submarine or subglacial massage. The indiscriminate, eternal devotion of nature to its numberless particles had an emotional importance for Isserley; it put the unfairness of human life into perspective.”
“Strange how a specimen like him, well cared for, healthy, free to roam the world, and blessed with a perfection of form which would surely have allowed him to breed with a greater selection of females than average, could still be so miserable. By contrast, other males, scarred by neglect, riddled with diseases, spurned by their kind, were occasionally known to radiate a contentment that seemed to arise from something more enigmatic than mere stupidity.”
“Needs could not bully her.”
“MERCY. It was a word she’d rarely encountered”
“Nothing happened, and time stubbornly refused to pass.”
“You know,’ Amlis went on, ‘Some water fell out of the sky not so long ago.’ His voice was a little higher than usual, vulnerable with awe. ‘It just fell out of the sky. In little droplets, thousands of them close together. I looked up to see where they were coming from. They seemed to be materializing out of nowhere. I couldn’t believe it. Then I opened my mouth to the sky. Some droplets fell straight in. It was an indescribable feeling. As if nature was actually trying to nurture me.”
“it was already tomorrow. She should have known from the beginning that it would end like this.”
“I sometimes think that the only things really worth talking about are the things people absolutely refuse to discuss.”
“Unreality was swirling all around her like the delirious miasmas”
“The indiscriminate, eternal devotion of nature to its numberless particles had an emotional importance for Isserley.

UTS2“ISSERLEY ALWAYS DROVE straight past a hitch-hiker when she first saw him, to give herself time to size him up. She was looking for big muscles: a hunk on legs. Puny, scrawny specimens were no use to her.”
“Isserley walked along the path the generations of sheep-flocks had made, up the tiers of the hill. In her mind, she was already”
“was a female. Isserley wasn’t interested in females, at least not in that way. Let them get picked up by someone else. If the hitcher was male, she usually went back for another look, unless he was an obvious weakling. Assuming he’d made a reasonable impression on her,”
“oh how she wondered, what she looked like to him, in his alien innocence.”
“The walls shrugged themselves loose from their foundations and slid towards the centre of the room, as if attracted by the struggle. The ceiling, a massive rectangular slab of concrete furrowed with fluorescent white, also shuddered loose and loomed bdown on her.”
“Their consciousness was rudimentary.”
“protective of his gleaming domain, beavering away in it alone like an obsessed scientist in a humid and luridly lit laboratory.”
“Vess Incorporated had simply dug them out of one hole and buried them in another”
“could indicate the cocky self-awareness of a male in prime condition.”
“behaving as if his actions didn’t need defending. Typical rich kid, typical pampered little tycoon. None of their actions ever needed defending, did they?”
“She couldn’t quite believe it, even after all these years. It was a phenomenon of stupendous and unjustifiably useless extravagance. Yet here it lay, soft and powdery, edibly pure.”
“Men! Armchair heroes the lot of them, while women were sent out to do the dirty work.”

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With Angels and Furies – John Sam Jones

WAAF(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

Having read his “Crawling Through Thorns”,”Welsh Boys Too” and “Fishboys of Vernazza”, I wanted to read this, his first full-length novel. However, to start with it didn’t ‘grip’ me as much as they did and there were too many characters, which became confusing. Then it all came together, rapidly, in the last third of the novel. Many of them are types of people or roles in his other books and many of the places ain them are revisited here.

The author’s description of male bodies from a female point of view is actually a male appreciation *

We are taken back to the homophobic taunts and bomb scares of the late 20th Century. And we get a lesbian vicar at a time when women priests didn’t exiost here but did in the USA.

* With only limited experience of men’s charming ways, however unsubtle, Bethan was flattered by his attention. When she joined him again at the top of the stairs he put his arm around her waist to escort her down to the dance floor. His touch set off a chain of tingles that were as delicious as they were disconcerting.

Cigarette smoke, mingled with an evocative, humid blend of perfumes and colognes that exuded from the press of dancers, clung in the air of the low brick-ceilinged vaults. They wove together into the knot of dancing bodies and Bethan felt the frantic rock music propel her charged body into an energetic dance. The fluid movements of Ben’s body washed over her and the sway and thrust of his hips seemed to resonate through the space between them, fusing his body to hers. When their eyes met, they lingered. Bethan read the suggestions and interpreted the intentions evoked in the deep pools of green, and she relished the possibilities.

Beginning to overheat with all the energy, Ben unbuttoned his shirt and tugged its tails from inside his jeans. Bethan tried not to stare, but she found herself fascinated by his tight brown nipples, as tempting as two sun-ripened raisins, and she wondered whether her experiences with women would count for anything as she fantasised about arousing Ben’s body. Surprising herself, she reached forward and traced the outline of muscle on his chest with her fingertips and allowed her thumb to rest momentarily at his nipple. She teased it coyly and felt its contractions. Its erect hardness thrilled her. The skin on his lightly downed chest and belly, taut across toned muscles, glistened in the flashing disco lights and his navel, a moist pitted cherry, looked good enough to suck and probe with her tongue. Below the cherry, like the twinkling lights hung up in the shrubs along Portland’s Peacock Lane through the Christmas holiday period, tiny diamonds of sweat sparkled through a thin hedge of hairs. Her insides churned.

He folded her into his arms and moved her with him into the more “OK, but hurry,” Ben said, beginning to dance coquettishly and giving her his come-to-me eyes.

gentle rhythm of a nineties ballad. Lightly gripping his shoulders, she felt the firmness of his deltoids through the gauzy cotton skin of his shirt; she squeezed with her fingers unconsciously, probing the density of the muscles, and concluded that his body felt so different from those of the women she’d known. Pulled close into him, her cheek brushing against his, she breathed in his smell: a gentle spicy mix of a not inexpensive cologne, laced with some unique, masculine pheromone that stirred her with startling urgency, churning her insides again with a potency more keen than had ever been true with any of those Berkeley girls. The languorous cadence of the ballad swayed their bodies into sensuous closeness — then he kissed her cheek, tentatively at first. She turned her face gently into his and, carried on the rushes of passions coursing through her body, she tasted him deeply, becoming intoxicated as his presence surged through each of her senses.

After two more hectic dances, Ben beckoned Bethan to follow him across the dance floor to where a wide passage, dimly lit and lined with couples being intimate, led to the toilets, a bank of telephones and a spiral staircase that went back up to the atrium. They kissed for a while, leaning against the wall. Now she concentrated on the taste of his mouth and was surprised that it wasn’t at all unpleasant, though why she’d thought that boys might taste odious was beyond her. Ben’s lips and tongue were a heady mixture of mango and apricot, basil and cilantro, fresh and pleasing. She knew from the way he pressed against her that he was aroused and when she felt his delicate fingers, first at her breasts, tentatively teasing her nipple, and then pushing under her skirt to stroke the inside of her thigh, she cupped the swelling in his pants and felt the hard ridge. The feel of the metal studs in his fly confused her, but, when Ben moaned gently and said, “That feels nice,” she let her hand linger. And they kissed some more.

Bethan’s body responded to his touch and her mind raced with the possibilities that might be realised between them. If only it had been another time, she thought, when her mother wasn’t there, and after she’d had some time to think about what she wanted from someone like Ben — and how she wanted it.

“You’ll spoil it all if you do that for too long,” Ben said, breaking into her misgivings.

“But I thought you said it felt good,” Bethan alleged, suddenly raked with self-doubts and pulling away from him.

“It does feel good Bethan — wonderful,” Ben reassured her over a disco remix, the dimple coming back to his cheek.

Bethan was even more confused by his mixed messages, and her face was slow to break from the scowl that furrowed her brow. Her diffidence puzzled him, and, pulling her back to him, he kissed her.

“It really was very nice, Bethan,” he said. “But when you’re bursting for a pee it’s not so cool. Why don’t I meet you back upstairs?”

“I’ll be with Mari and my mom, then, in the Dyke,” she shouted back as he pulled away from her, the music suddenly too loud.

She watched him disappear between the groping couples. For a few moments, before mounting the spiral steps, she felt abandoned and disconcerted. Her eyes lingered on the couple closest to her. The girl sucked her boyfriend’s nipple through his shirt, leaving a lipstick stain, and with her long, slender fingers she massaged his buttocks. He kissed and licked her earlobes, and under her hitched-up miniskirt the fingers of his left hand were lost beneath the scarlet cotton of her panties. Her crimson nail extensions writhed like an upturned crab’s legs. Ridiculous as they looked, Bethan caught a fleeting glimpse of herself and Ben in their embrace and the feverish pitch of her excitement startled her. What she wanted from him began to take shape in her mind — and, now that the possibility of it seemed within her reach, she began to question her motives. She tried to stifle the ethics of it and her confusion became palpable; she’d never experienced such moral qualms with any of the women she’d slept with, so why was it suddenly so different with a man?

 

She watched him undress. She knew that he slept naked but now she wondered if he’d leave anything on; she’d take his lead. Not wanting her watching to seem too obvious, she sat on his bed and picked up the poetry book she’d lent him.

“Are you still learning one a week?” she asked.

“I’m struggling with ‘The Whitsun Weddings’,” he said, stepping out of the khaki chinos.

“Do you like Larkin, then?” she asked, kicking off her shoes and thinking to herself that the reason his buns looked so good in those pants was that he didn’t wear briefs.

“Well enough,” he said, scratching among his pubic hairs without embarrassment and wondering whether he’d tell her about what had happened the previous afternoon when he’d sat in the quiet of Llan Illtud church. He moved over to the French windows.

“Shall I leave these open?”

“Yes,” she said, pulling her top over her head. “The lilacs smelt lovely and it’s still so warm.”

Folding her clothes neatly and laying them over the back of the chair, she wondered whether he’d notice her nipples and whether he figure it out.

“I hate it when some sentence drifts into my head, though,” he said, pulling back the duvet on his side of the bed. “You know, when you just can’t fit it into the right poem, but it stays with you, and torments you.”

“But that really gets your brain working,” she offered, wondering he’d noticed the fluster in her voice as she took off her wet-creased panties.

“What are you reading now?” he asked, lying back and resting his head in his hands.

“I’m working hard on T H Parry-Williams’s sonnets,” she said, noticing how his penis had flopped back to rest on the thick tuft of black hairs. “But his use of the language is so rich and my Welsh vocabulary is still pretty limited. I’m really struggling.”

“Do you want me to read them aloud for you?”

“That would help me a lot, I think,” she said, fascinated by how much the wrinkled opening of his foreskin looked like the polo neck of one of her sweaters in miniature, and unsure whether she’d prefer that he were circumcised.

“How many of his sonnets are you doing?”

“Six or eight,” she said, counting them off on her fingers. “Let me think: there’s `Dychwelyd’, `Cyngor’ and Tyr Ysgol’.”

” `Tyr Ysgol’,” he said with enthusiastic nostalgia. “I remember that one from school; it’s one we did for GCSE: ‘Mae r cyrn yn mygu er pob awel groes, a rhywun yno weithiau n sgubo r llawr ac agor y ffenestri..! ”

She tried to concentrate on the poem but Gwion’s body stole her thoughts. She wanted to touch him. Not just a sisterly hug or the offer of a reassuring pat with her hand, but to really touch the different parts of him: to hold his hand in hers and kiss his fingertips; to trace circles with her fingers around each of his nipples and delight at seeing them peak; and brush her lips over the hairs that guarded his navel and probe

its mystery, gently, hungrily with her tongue. And she wanted to take his penis in her hands; she imagined its eye winking playfully at her from somewhere beneath its sheath and she let her mind linger, rolling back the polo neck to explore a territory that was new to her, as intriguing as a foreign country, if not a little frightening. It looked benign enough, lolling on its bed of softness, but just how big would it

grow and would it then seem menacing? And would he hurt her? Would he touch her body as he touched a man’s and would that be hard and rough? And she surprised herself by how little she knew of the intimacy there might be between two men and chastised herself for assuming their sex would be without grace or warmth. And a desire to feel the qualities of his touching enveloped her and she yearned for him to reach for her, to reassure, to encourage, beckoning her to him. But Gwion stared at the roses in the ceiling cornice and recited the sonnet.

He lay quietly, after finishing the recitation, pleased that his memory hadn’t failed him and content in Bethan’s company. After a while he felt her move next to him and her fingers began to trace delicate lines along his thigh. It felt nice. Realising how grateful he was for her friendship, he turned into her embrace.

“Thank you for being such a friend,” he whispered into her ear. “I don’t know what I’d have done without you those couple of days last week after Gareth dumped all his shit on me.”

“Thank you for being here for me this afternoon,” she said, and kissed him.

She’d never kissed him like that before, on his lips. He noticed it was a different kind of kiss, somehow loaded with possibilities, a kiss that made him think of Gareth, who was such a good kisser. What if Gareth came home and found them together? How would he explain their intimacy? And the thought of Gareth pushed Bethan away from him, although they remained tightly embraced, and Gwion began to understand. Her hand, the one that had stroked his thigh, had become trapped between his legs when he’d turned into her; now its touch was too intimate, nuzzled against his balls. Her other hand was on his chest, the fingers playing a gentle melody on an imaginary keyboard. And she was kissing him again, her tongue tickling his lower lip.

“Please, Bethan, let’s not do this,” he said, not wanting to reject her, but wanting it to stop. “I don’t want you to touch me there, like that,” he said, shifting onto his back and releasing her hand from between his legs.

“Haven’t you ever wondered what it would be like, though?” she asked, sitting up and taking his hand in hers.

“No,” he said, more out of shock at the suggestion than any certainty that he might not like to try. “I’m Gareth’s lover,” he added quickly, perhaps to convince himself.

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