I’m a novelist, journalist and film maker interested in Neuroscience, Conjuring, Hustles, Deception, Illusion, Delusion and the nature of Love.

This is how the TLS summed me up:

Puns, gags, witty observations, surreal flights, there is a laugh of some sort in every line… A quip for Brill is the Cleopatra for which he will give up the world and consider it well lost.

And that’s a fair cop… which is more than you’ll find in The Wire.

Now, with the publication of my second novel How To Forget this is a pretty exciting time. What’s below may not be my life, but it’s a blog of events and tangential thoughts that grind the optics behind my own peculiar views.

Marius Brill

Re: Born

The leaves are out, the flowers blossoming, spring has not only sprung, its coils are stretched and it’s bloomin’ bouncing like a budding summer’s day. It’s all glorious and we should be enjoying it and though I’m loath to poop a party, I still feel we shouldn’t forget that it’s Springtime, at least the notion of it, that directly led to one of the most dangerous ideas, if not THE most dangerous idea, to affect humanity.
Rebirth.
The word itself is a paradox and an oxymoron and shouldn’t, by rights even exist. It is a meme that has survived centuries, has barely evolved, and remains the basis of all sorts of mystical thinking. Even though, empirically, nothing, ever, gets reborn. Thousands of years of human history and there’s not a jot of confirmable evidence that something dead can come to life again. Religions are founded on the concept, wars fought in their names, millions of lives lost in the fighting – and not a soul knowingly returned. All we know is life starts and ends but the idea that we might come back, or live on elsewhere, in some other sphere, is so attractive we’ve been unable to shake the rebirth meme; however enlightened we think we are.
The idea of Rebirth seems to come from early man’s fundamental misunderstanding of nature. Trees lose their leaves and plants bear no fruit in the Winter. They die. And then each Spring they come back to life.

But, of course, trees don’t die in the winter. They undergo “dormancy”, when everything slows down: metabolism, energy consumption, growth. They don’t need food so they have no use for leaves that require energy to maintain. Abscisic Acid is produced in the tip of each stem that connects to a leaf and the leaf falls off.
We can’t blame early man, even if his wife did for being premature. He knew nothing of acids or metabolism and didn’t even have a decent labcoat. He did, however, have a lot to fear, especially death. It’s easy enough to think of plants as dead in Winter and alive again in Spring. And if plants can die and come back to life, why not humans? It’s no coincidence that the day celebrating Christ’s Resurrection is not a fixed date like Christmas. It’s more laden with rebirth symbolism and each year changes depending on the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. Rebirth is the thing for Spring.
Although we may, centuries from now, still be classed as “early man”, I’d like to think we’ve come on a little since assigning gods to everything we don’t understand and witches to duckweed. We know, now, hibernation and death are very different things.
And yet there is a moment in a David Blaine TV show when he is talking to some New York cops. He finds a “dead” fly on the ground, picks up the lifeless body and holds it in his hand. After a few moments the fly starts to move, then walk and then flies off. The cops are agog. There is a palpable delight that such a thing could happen. It is Lazarus in miniature, a return from the dead. It’s also, I imagine, an appliance of science: a refrigerator.


Of course I don’t know exactly how Blaine did it. If I did I couldn’t tell you because, as a member of the Magic Circle, I have sworn to keep magical secrets. But conceptually we know flies go into suspended animation when their temperature drops; it’s why flies start appearing from nowhere when warm weather returns after hibernating through the winter. So, I suppose it’s just possible Blaine could have cooled down the fly, dropped it on the street, picked it up when the cameras were rolling and, from the heat of his hands, reanimated the fly. Of course I don’t know this, it could have been a miracle, or some fancy trickery, but the effect itself bought into our deepest fears and greatest hopes, that death is not forever and life could be.
Maybe it’s our egos that insist we are too grand, too elevated, too important, that it would be too great a loss, if our deaths were permanent. And as soon as we allow ourselves the possibility of one tiny non-empirically provable concept, we have Frankenstein’s Monster, we plunge into the murky waters of magical thinking, of miracles and religious credo. So embedded is the magical concept of rebirth, the most influential cultural turning point in modern history was named after it: the Renaissance. The flowering of lost classicism was subliminally used to perpetuate the “not dead forever” notion.
Whether it’s ghosts or reincarnation, Heaven, Limbo or Hell, an eternity for the soul has, no doubt, also brought some comfort to millions who would not go gently into that good night. The hope of being reborn has an aspirational allure for anybody contemplating their own mortality or not ready to face the loss of one they loved. Eternal life, even if it involves remerging followed by placenta every now and again, what’s not to like?
Well, for one: False Hope, one of the more depressing falsies we’ve come up with. History tells us that when it’s curtains, when it’s time to shuffle off the mortal coil, when you kick the bucket, it stays kicked, shuffled, drawn. But belief in rebirth, life after death, the beyond, the “other side”, the immortal realm, just encourages the living to accept their lot. Why rise up? Why change the world? All we have to do is be good and die and we’ll come back as something much better. It is the way religious and societal hegemonies maintain their hierarchies; keep their one-percenters at the top. Re-birth, born again, life eternal, it is snake oil for the masses, it is the suppression of the poor, it is the dream of the put-upon, it is the squalid deaths of billions wanting something better, and it all starts with Spring.
But the flowers are out, the blossoms are lovely, go out and enjoy.

First Appeared in

Democrafatigue

It’s raining. I’m upstairs on the no. 49 to Clapham Junction in a humid breath fug. Two gents are sitting in front of me, “May 3rd. More bloody elections. Might as well move in to the voting booth I’m in there so often.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s bigger than most flats round here anyway.”

“And you get a free pencil.”

“I don’t understand why MPs can’t decide anything on their own without asking everybody to go and vote all the time.”

I groan slightly at the luxury of their Democrafatigue and they shut up. But I’m left with a couple of thoughts: Democracy’s clearly not getting the respect it used to and, it’s been over a hundred years since he was cited in the Court of Appeal but the man on the Clapham Omnibus/Routemaster is alive and well and reeking of Old Spice.

On the other hand, Democracy in the internet age seems much less robust.

For a start, the technology – a piece of paper, a pencil and a balsa wood booth – is centuries behind most other opinion collating mechanisms. According to the Office of National Statistics, “90% of men and 88% of women” and “virtually all adults aged 16 to 34 years (99%)” are internet users. Compare that to the historic high voting booth user rate of just 68.8% in the last election.

Most of the UK has access to instant polling and voting on everything from a blue/gold dress to feeding celebrities live cockroaches and they attract more voters than your average election. More people know how to use Facebook than a voting slip. If we cherish democracy, rather than just give it lip service, and expect it to be relevant, we really need to help it adapt to modern life. For my university-aged kids, visiting a school hall with makeshift booths – that don’t even take whacky photos to upload to Instagram – is akin to entering some ancient church. You go there out of respect for an historical idea but everyone knows it’s barely fit for purpose when, in their pockets, they have the ability to instantly connect to the 65 million other people who live in the UK, to say nothing of the rest of the developed world.

You might think that the enforced slow speed of our pencil and paper democracy might encourage serious contemplation of the issues being voted

Plato knew a thing or two

on but, nowadays my opinion changes seven times before breakfast. I scroll through headlines on my phone before I get dressed, listen to the radio as I shave, and before the first oat hits the bottom of my bowl I’ve encountered countless arguments and I’m ready to voice my outrage, or support, for things I had no idea existed an hour before, let alone cared about.

The system has problems. Even back in its early days, when chaps with beards were still working out how to plague generations of schoolchildren with fiendish calculations for working out hypotenuses and other tangents, Plato spotted the fundamental flaw in democracy. “The insatiable desire of [freedom],” he says in his Republic, “introduces the change in democracy, which occasions a demand for tyranny. … When a democracy which is thirsting for freedom has evil cupbearers presiding over the feast, and has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom, then, unless her rulers are very amenable and give a plentiful draught, she calls them to account and punishes them.” Democracy, Plato argues, naturally leads to tyranny unless democratic leaders are benign. He recognised democratic voters elect personalities not policies. We vote in our image. We vote for people. Which means that the policies of those with charisma, or sheer force of personality, always trump (forgive the pun) boring people with ideas of good governance. Democracy leads to populism, populism is a cult of personality and the ultimate personality is a demagogue, a tyrant, a dictator.

Democracy is one of humanity’s most sacred memes, even Popes get elected. It’s an idea that’s been around so long you’d have thought we would have a handle on it by now. Yet it remains so nebulous Wikipedia just says “No consensus exists on how to define democracy, but legal equality, political freedom and rule of law have been identified as important characteristics.” Like ‘Art’ its lack of definition is both its strength and its weakness. We can’t dismantle it but we can’t enshrine it either. It’s anything we want it to be. A chore in Clapham, a liberation in Soweto. Whether it’s to elect another bunch of narcissists into Parliament or rip away our European citizenship, it can be both inane and profound.

On Thursday 3rd of May, on the face of it, all we’re doing is electing a bunch of faceless Council bureaucrats to oversee our parking permits and deny us planning permissions for our basements. But, in reality, this is the last official democratic opportunity to put our opinion to Parliament before Brexit.

It can’t be overstated how important this local election is. If it doesn’t matter what colour of politics runs your rubbish collection, if you believe that British sense of decency and fair play means tolerance even of bally foreigners, if your life (like mine) only exists because immigrants were allowed to escape here from war-torn Europe, if you’re happy being a European, if you were born a European, if your family are European, if you have children who may need the work opportunities that a 27 country bloc can offer, if your property is losing value as London loses international significance, if you want the Troubles in Northern Ireland to never return, if you want the economy to turn around, if you want the focus of our politicians to go back to genuinely pressing domestic issues like the funding of the NHS… then only vote for a party that definitively supports a referendum on the final Brexit deal: Vote Lib Dem, Vote Green, Vote Renew, Vote Remain. Send a message and use democracy like it’s still in fashion.

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Would smell as sweet

Merry Arse. Mari-Arty. Fat Slob. Dick. Bastard. Cockroach, Arsehole. Shit. Muvverfucca. Weirdo. Lefty Loon, Twat. Complete (Emmanual) Kant. Weirdo. Disingenu. Freak. And according to one of my teachers who struggled to get beyond the 18th century: Dionysian Strumpet. But that’s enough about me, what do they call you?

It’s marvellous how one person can mean so many different things to different people but I earned each and every one of those names. I’m not exactly proud of them but at least the things I’ve done have inspired people to reach into their personal lexicons to find an appropriate way to define me, as much as my birth inspired my parents to call me something which even I am not sure how to pronounce.

But nowadays I, and I dare say you too (unless you are using this newspaper as insulation on a frosty park bench in which case I recommend the collected works of Don Grant sufficient to keep a gentleperson toasty for life), find ourselves with a name which we did nothing to earn. A name that just collects us together as one side, a contemptible enemy. For you and I, almost certainly, are the “Metropolitan Elite.” We have been united in a name, despite the fact that we have probably never met, and even if we did we might find the only thing we had in common was our desire to meet someone better looking.

“Metropolitan Elite” is just a handy term reserved for hate speech, one that smacks of exclusivity and money in a time of austerity because (a) you can afford somehow to live or work in a city and (b) that in itself makes you elite. There’s no name for the other side – The Rural Rabble? – because this collection is an illusion. Over half the country lives or works in a metropolitan area. But then “One Percenters” probably seemed a little too small, and actually elite, to explain 48% of the UK voting to Remain or the same percentage of Americans voting for Hillary.

Hate terms can, of course, be adopted and repurposed by the hatees. Rappers use the N-word as an empowered and exclusive term of brotherhood. And for the rest of us, to hear it and never wish to say it, lets us never forget where it came from; but then it perpetuation also makes it all the more attractive for white supremacists to use it as a badge of bravery, doubling down and challenging the taboo. Do I like being called “Elite”? You can bet your Top Gun I do; the OED says an “elite” is “superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society.” I didn’t ask to be one but if you insist…

We have been branded like very posh cattle, so would any of us adopt “Metropolitan Elite” as a badge of honour? Unless we own it and try to change its meaning it will always sound like we fret over avocado shortages at Waitrose and the dreadful accent the nanny is teaching Imogen and Hugo.

For 20th Century Marxists the “Bourgeoisie” was the collective bête noire. But the word literally means “those who live in a borough,” city dwellers or, if you prefer, “Metropolitans”. Living in a city seems to inspire a political paranoia: all those people living near each other must be colluding against the interests of the rest. Creating a collective enemy from an economic perception is an old political con. Bolsheviks inspired a poor, mainly rural, Red Army to march on Russian cities. Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge forced all city dwellers on long marches to start farming; declaring anybody with glasses “intellectual” and put to death. In 1918 in Russia, in 1970’s Cambodia, it didn’t end well.

Despite these examples its not an exclusively Left Wing strategy. “Metropolitan Elite” is a term bandied by Left and Right because, if you hold an extreme view, you need to create an enemy of the middle, a way to define them as a collective who mean you harm. It’s no good just going after your polar opposite, that’s just sectarianism. So for Nazis it was the Jewish conspiracy, for ISIL or Al Qaeda it’s the “Kafir,” literally anyone who does not believe the same thing.

The neatest part of political paranoia is that once you start attacking your made up enemy, you force those you’ve declared as working together to, well, work together; you create the conspiracy you made up in the first place.

Name calling is as old as the meth user Methuselah, and in the modern era of Twitter and Snapchat, limited by either number of characters or, simply, juvenile vocabulary, it is the easiest shorthand to express complex ideas. There is no room for subtlety or debate on social media. Just statements or reactions, anger or mockery, puffs or put downs.

America’s Right have forged “young liberals” into “special snowflakes”, leading what might have been disperate “snowflakes” to adopt the insult and rebut it with a “beware of avalanches” rhetoric. The Alt-Right have created their enemy, now they can start recruiting.

But even the sound of names can have an effect. Time and again, names that dominate the political narrative lead the day. Both Trumps and Clintons are types of cards, but Trumps win. “Brexit” with its novelty portmanteau, its plosive and fricative phonemes, defined the entire referendum, while “Remain” sounding weak and ineffectual was always the opposition rather than the lead. Even now the people pushing the leave campaign are “Brexiteers” sounding romantic and swashbuckling whilst “Remoaners” fail to set the agenda. Why haven’t we got Brexshits and e-Uniters at the very least?

When the political middle is given a name, forced to become a side, extremism is on the rise. And, in this climate, we need to ask whether we should adopt the names we’re called, refute them or try to ignore them? Metropolitan that’s me, Elite if you say so. But if you call us that to dismiss us, we need to stand… for something.

 

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A Handy Guide to post #metoo Valentines

Well this is awkward.

Of course Valentine’s Day has always been awkward, it’s synonymous with, tongue-tied inept gestures and confused boundaries but this year, the rights and wrongs of romance are more opaque, confusing and dangerous than ever before. How can we know whether, when a date reaches out, they are mindful or a monster?

As populations grow, gene diversity widens. And, as potential mate selection becomes more complex so, it seems, proportionally, do our underlying courtship rituals and patterns; the taboos and to-dos of romance.

In pre-history, it’s thought, meet, greet, rape and mate was pretty much the order of the day; chocolates and flowers had little play with homo erectus. Even in the early civilizations of Greece and Rome, love poetry suggests there was more interest in ‘favourites’ than trying to beguile a mate to carry your genetic destiny. In Medieval Europe mating and marriage was strictly business and contracts. Romance itself didn’t actually appear until the 12th century and even then it came with a set of complicated and contradictory rules, (De Amore, Capellanus, Andreas, 1180), which has been baffling horny teenagers ever since.

Part of the difficulty of romance has always been that no one is ever sure that they’re doing the right thing. I urge you to read a fascinating history of this in Making Love – A Conspiracy of the Heart. (Brill, Marius, Doubleday 2001,)

So the course of true love never did run smooth, but now the #metoo and #timesup campaigns, while redefining sexual politics, are throwing the whole range of courtship behaviour into a maelstrom of complexity. Not just for lovers trying to learn new inoffensive ways to express sexual interest but for their objects who have to figure out intentions from ever more subtle signals.

Valentines Day’s most famous ritual has always been a little creepy. The line between sending an anonymous note declaring your passion, and stalking, has always been a thin one.

The line itself is reciprocation. You’re fine if the object of your passion wants it. But woe betide you if they don’t. And how are you to know, unless you’re willing to cross it?

Sometimes it’s pretty clear. If you’re convicted stalker Edward Vine, sending missives from your cell to newsreader Emily Maitlis (the clue’s in the name mate), then your attentions are likely to be unwelcome. On the other hand, if you’re 54-year-old Henry Bolton (leader of UKIP at time of press) being wooed by 25-year-old topless model Jo Marney, Christmas is definitely the best time to dump the wife, kids and any political credibility.

Most courtship signalling is less cut and dried. My own wife suffered 15 years of advances from a man she had no interest in before realising that the only way she might disillusion him was to marry him.

Much of the naming and shaming of the last year, which exploded with the Weinstein revelations, has been exposing not just rape, which is already on the criminal statutes, but other forms of sexual aggression which hitherto have inhabited the greyer area between slap’n’tickle and GBH. The vast majority of which seems to have something to do with what men do with their hands.

English does as much as a gender neutral language can to masculinise hands. They are manual, manipulate, manhandle, and so on. The French “main” has been conflated with the Germanic “mann” but something obvious is manifest and something you dare not refuse is mandatory. While you might get a handy man in to fix your boiler, a handy woman sounds more like a masseuse with a line in happy endings.

From the bragging “pussy” grabbing of the President, to the braying gropers of the President’s Club, right the way through to the horrific serial abuse of hundreds of children by the USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, what men do with their hands is no less invasive than what they do with their penises. Men’s hands are a menace. I’m not saying that men are not responsible for their hands, but what men find hard to consider is why they use them as they do. It’s not like there are any sexually stimulating arousal nerves in male fingers. So what possible satisfaction could a man get from grabbing an unwilling “pussy”, or for that matter any sexual anatomy or, indeed inserting their digits into anybody’s vagina?

The easy answer is power, it’s a way for disenfranchised men to show exactly who’s boss. It’s a way to feel strong and in a position of authority. You’re a king… or a President I guess. But maybe there is something else going on at a deeper level.

At one end of the hand-to-gland spectrum we have foreplay which, between consenting lovers, is the beginning of a path to mutual sexual satisfaction. At the other end is out-and-out assault. Between the two we have a host of words: stimulate – caress – touch – fondle – cop-a-feel – grope – molest. The correct verb for what might be exactly the same manual action relies completely on the receiver of this attention. The level of reciprocation defines everything and even if “no means no” is clear enough, “no” to intercourse and “no” to grope seem to occupy two different places in the male psyche.

Whether it’s down to too much testosterone, or the combination of X and Y chromosomes, or a genetic urgency, or because we wear our vaginas on the outside, or just the social expectation of gender dominance, men are never far from their own sexual needs. Gropers, fondlers, frotteurs, predominantly men, have all sorts of sociopathy but deep down, I have no doubt, there is also a misguided desperate expectation of reciprocation.

So here’s a simple secret that even men find hard to admit. When a man touches a woman or a lover it can mean all sorts of things as well, but it’s also a plea: “touch me”. It is a primeval do-as-I-do yearning for reciprocation, a desire to be touched right back. A longing to begin foreplay. Somewhere right at the back of Trump’s tiny mind there is the delusion that if he grabs a pussy, its owner might just sigh with delight, grab his tiny Donald Jr back and orgasms will follow. This almost psychotic delusion, ridiculous as it may be, may just lie at the very heart of every touch-feely, gropey, fingery man you ever met.

And as more and more #metoo stories emerge, it seems the male inability to gauge reciprocation, or their willingness to ignore the lack of it, is a delusion that creates monsters. Happy Valentines.

 

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Only the Lonely

They say no one wants to be on their own at Christmas but, seriously, by 6pm Christmas Day who doesn’t? Yes somewhere someone must be having a perfect Family Christmas but it’s probably not you and, for many, the Family Christmas is just a bitter breeding ground for passive aggression, spite, petty vengeances, bleeding bitten-lip tolerance and a timely reminder why you no longer live with these bastards.
Why we keep going back, like a cat to eat its own vomit, is complicated: the myth of seasonal good cheer is pretty overwhelming, we’ve had a year to forget, the human condition errs on the side of optimism – hope springs eternal otherwise how do you explain Marmite Chocolate bars – or maybe it’s just because we are, at core, social animals.
But the stigma of being “alone at Christmas” persists and it’s the word ‘alone’ that’s causing mischief. It sneakily conflates two ideas that are more mutually exclusive than we imagine: being on your own, and being lonely. A physical state and an emotion. And though one could lead to the other, we’ve got to recognise that being on your own does not necessarily make you lonely and being in company won’t stop you feeling feel immeasurably isolated. In fact, if you’re Sartre, always a joy at dinner parties, “l’enfer, c’est les autres,” hell is other people.
Personally I’m never lonelier than in the company of half-wits – which, up until last years referendum, I had believed was a fairly limited set – so watching I’m a Celebrity… is like peering into the abyss. It’s chilling to watch the wretched misery of those so desperate for love they allow their abject failure to be exploited for telly on the off-chance some viewer might sympathise for a moment, or the cash fee will fill the void.  You can see the terror in the eyes of every contestant. And maybe part of the series’ success, in airing just before Christmas, is that watching the bleak, hopeless, attention neediness of these lonely desolate individuals, and fearing that “there but for the grace…”, it gives us each the strength to go home for Christmas, forgive our families, and give it one more go.
The worst thing about the “no one should be lonely at Christmas” meme is the temporality of it all. The rest of the year? You can sling yer hook; feast your mince pies on the door you clingy bastard.
In ancient civilizations, the worst punishment short of death, was banishment. To be cast out. They recognised that one of the fundamental needs of man is company. Even today the most feared part of prison is isolation. Loneliness is such an aberration to the human condition it lacks an antonym. Most emotions have an opposite: sad/happy, fearful/confident, love/hate but we have such a basic requirement to be social we lack words to celebrate the joy of good company. The closest we might get is ‘a feeling of belonging’ but then that doesn’t come without overtones of ownership and subsuming the individual.
 The novelist Kurt Vonnegut repeatedly returned to the idea that loneliness was the worst thing to afflict mankind. He said “the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” Vonnegut’s influence should not be ignored. His strange concoction of war-damaged cynicism, bittersweet humour, counter-culture, social comment, misanthropy and science fiction was one of the great literary backgrounds to the nerdalescence of our present tech giants. Loneliness defined the eighties geeks, banished by their peers, desperately trying to code friendship into a mesh of wires, cathode rays and silicone. The 1985 Pygmalion movie Weird Science, in which two computer nerds create the perfect woman with a back comb and a boobtube who might love them and make them popular, reflected this well-recognised commonplace.
The idea that loneliness was like a disease, and therefore only lacked a cure, echoed through the development of the internet from the very first ‘Bulletin Board Systems’ to today’s social networks; Vonnegut’s “stable communities”.
Real life started to ape Vonnegut’s narratives with the story of a geek called Steve who was, by all accounts, one of the loneliest men in the world. The sort of chap who always went the extra mile he used to point out that, “the extra mile is such a lonely place.” For years he tried to find a cure for loneliness. He built machines that would play games with him, gave them friendly names, pretty designs and then, in 2006 he found it. The cure. It was the tiniest gizmo; you wouldn’t think it did anything at all. It was a little box you could keep in your pocket wherever you went, and every time you felt a little pang of loneliness, you could take out the box and it instantly connected you with every other lonely person on the planet. You could share your misery, embarrassing moments, secrets, jokes and never, ever, be lonely again. Sadly, Steve died just five years later but the iPhone and its clones lives on. Now you’re never alone with a phone. Any moment you might be bored or could just take a moment to smell the roses, you’ve got the world of the lonely in your hand instead with their status updates and their crazy kittens. Instagram the hell out of those roses. Go girlfriend.
Of course even Steve didn’t think it was a real cure for loneliness, it was just a brilliant distraction from the pain. But what a world it has unleashed. According to John Lanchester in his brilliant history of money, “there are at least seven billion mobile phone subscriptions in the world (four and a half billion people have access to a flush toilet)… more than twice as many people have a mobile phone as have access to a bank account.”
It turns out our tech gods had feet of clay. They only understood the numbers, they took Forster at his word, “only connect,” and went no further. Educated in bits and bytes with the the voices of Vonnegut and Ayn Rand in their heads, none of them had an inkling of real politics or philosophy or history, none of them realised how powerful their machines were or how delicately balanced western democracy and academic leadership was. Now Twitter and Facebook are belatedly trying to shut the barn door. Erase the hate. Too late too late.
If you have the cash to get online every voice is equal. Populism is the only winner. Everything that made society reject Benthamite Utilitarianism two hundred years ago has been ignored. The greatest good for the greatest number right? And the greatest number should know what’s good for them, shouldn’t they? Yup! Brexit, Trump, Daesh, Alt-Right, Breitbart, Extremism… With social media it’s far easier to sway the public than being chained to “traditional media” with their ombudsmen and fear of being sued which actually meant they check their facts. Feed them fake news, feed them desire and stories and the lies that bolster their prejudices – the game has changed.
So lonesome no more. But this always on interconnected world has not raised mankind. It’s connected hatred, spite, passive aggression, petty vengeances and bleeding bitten-lip tolerance. On social media, on your phone, every day is Christmas Day.

 

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The Good Fight

The last time I was roughed up was when I grazed myself on some sandpaper. The jury’s out on whether I’m a lover but I know I’m not a fighter. In my vocabulary, “punch” is a cocktail, “slap” is shoddy cosmetics, “hit” is an iTunes chart topper, and “knock out” is one of the rounds on X Factor. Violence is not only not an answer it’s a stupid bloody question in the first place. I am what Brietbart would call a snowflake and a soggy one at that. I try to avoid conflict in the same way I avoid charity bucket swingers, straphangers’ armpits and Birmingham. I don’t like it, it makes me nervous and anxious and far from the adrenaline rush of Fight or Flight it simply makes me nauseous.

Until recently I had thought myself pretty human in my disdain for disagreement and hankering for harmony. I considered myself evolved having no need to prove myself through physical prowess or even chuggalugga pint scoring. But I’m starting to realise I’m not evolved at all. My avoidance of conflict makes my genes one of our evolutionary tree’s billions of dead branches which would, through the generations, have become, inexorably ineffectual and unmatable had my kids not also had a mother who is more competitive than an elbow at the Harrods sale.

It’s true that after two world wars some deluded fools started to think maybe we could do things differently but conflict, it seems, is as human as halitosis. It is the perpetual state of man. The last few years have shown that it’s simply something that people are more comfortable with than concord.

I suppose that when there is us and them, we understand our place in the universe. A recent poll for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that people on low incomes are more concerned about immigration than jobs. Maybe because we know who we are through focussing on who we’re not. We can’t just know what we are for, we must know what we are against. Position through opposition. And anything that doesn’t overtly express the paradigm of conflict or competitiveness is odd and suspect.

It’s no wonder then that the EU appears so dubious to Brexiteers. Unless you are in opposition to all of it, within there are no clear sides, no distinct rivalry, no straightforward goal scoring, no lines to be drawn, nobody knows their MEPs or what they stand for and, maybe more importantly, what they stand against. For anybody wondering why the citizens of the developed world are voting for polarised politics, why Catalonians are desperate to express their difference to Spain, why Austria voted for a wing so right their reichsadler will only fly in circles, or why the US would vote for a man as transparently divisive as Trump, don’t. Conflict is us. It’s our dramas, it’s our stories, it’s what makes us us.

Every November we remember the dead, and we remember the conflicts that killed them. And though we murmur “never again,” stone me if I don’t detect an unspoken guilty yearning for yesteryear. Season of yellow fruits and wistfulness. It’s autumn-time and the nostalgia is high. We hanker for the good old days of black and white and knowing where we were. None of this spectrum crap, no shades of grey. The biggest computer game this season is Call of Duty: WWII with all-embracing immersive action bringing the past back to life like never before.

Yes you can be a brave Tommy biffing the evil Hun. It’s all so much easier than trying to cope with today’s reality of indefinites and infinitely variable social mores. A hand on a knee, is it a comforting gesture or sexual assault? Accepting a hug from a friend’s kid, is it affection or paedophilia? A sunny day, is it blue skies or global warming? Where are the boundaries, what’s the truth? We have Google so we know everything, we have Google so we know nothing, we need to remember nothing, we make our own memories and oh it was grand back then!

Except it wasn’t. Still. At least the squalor was closer to universal than it is now.

But in the end what we can be sure of is the fight. Perhaps it is the only thing we understand. It’s how we got here. When there isn’t a fight we find someone’s pint to spill. Our species’ evolutionary imperative is to survive and that’s done in battle. Forget the tanking pound, inflation, poverty and social injustice let’s have a punch up. We want parties of extremes and enemies of different skin colours and odd dress sense. We want sectarianism. We want to know there is us and them. The good guys and the enemy.

And when our radiated mutant descendents look back at the conflicts of the 21st century murmuring “never again” they’ll know that the guiding political polemic of the modern era were not Das Kapital, Mein Kampf or Wealth of Nations, but Nancy Mitford’s Noblesse Oblige in which she epitomised dichotomy and neatly defined everything in life as “U” and “Non-U”. Give peace a chance? Go on, I’ll fight you for it.

 

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It’s not the statues

The trouble with lazy sculptors is they never carve a niche for themselves.

Even the more diligent ones tend to get forgotten, hiding their works in plain sight to be treated, mostly, as just more irritating street furniture to bump into when you’re looking at your phone. London is stuffed full of a statues but we rarely see them. It’s only thanks to a publicity hungry rolling art exhibition that any of us are aware that there is an empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. But how many of us could actually picture or name any of the other three plinth occupiers?

Rhodes daring iconoclasts

I’m an admirer of gargoyles and other horrors that peek out from buildings but I walked past Oriel College in Oxford for three years and never noticed Cecil Rhodes lurking there until it was pointed out by the #RhodesMustFall campaign.

Does this old public art really still glorify the shitty deeds of past war criminals and genocidal millionaires, if their simulacrum are so easily, like daytime telly programmes, mistaken for décor? Or is it time to recognise that as our memes change so should our statues?

David Shrigley’s Really Good

At the moment the fourth plinth features David Shrigley’s Really Good: a relatively tiny hand with a massive thumbs up, the de facto photo-op hand gesture favoured by Trump. With a title that sounds as if it sprang straight from his little rose bud lips, every time I see the sculpture it makes me a little nauseous. I can’t wait for it to be pulled down and as a career iconoclast I feel I should enthusiastically support the pulling down of statues, the literal definition of iconoclasm. And yet… not only are ISIL doing a nice line in iconoclasm in places like Palmyra, I can’t help feeling that these statue topplers are missing a point.

“How about Thomas Jefferson?” Trump asked a press conference in what he believed would be a reductio ad absurdum “What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? OK good. Are we going to take down his statue? Because he was a major slave owner. Are we going to take down his statue?” But it’s not so far from inconceivable as his speech post-it makers thought.

Thomas Jefferson, founding father and author of America’s Declaration of Independence, was also a sound Palladian architect. He was so proud of the University he helped design, he had the trees knocked down between his Monticello estate, on a hill several miles away, and the

University of Virginia

university buildings so he could admire his handiwork from his terrace. Indeed, so becoming is the University of Virginia that, along with Monticello, it has been designated UNESCO’s first and only collegiate World Heritage Site. The actual builders, and tree clearers, were, of course, slaves and the city that grew around the university is Charlottesville.

Near the centre of Charlottesville is a park created to house the equestrian statue of Confederate General Lee. For decades this was a perch for pigeons but, after “Black Lives Matter” was daubed on the statue in protest to the statue’s glorification of Confederate values, which included slavery, its removal was approved by the Charlottesville council. Suddenly the statue took on new relevance as a static flashpoint for the focus of the Ku Klux Klan, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, White Supremacists, AntiFa and Unite the Right which, holding protests and counter protests, last month ended in fatalities.

Unlike Lee, Jefferson did own slaves but he didn’t actively fight for the right to enslave so perhaps his statues might stand a little longer. The Lee statue, like many Confederate statuary, was erected in the early 20th century perhaps less to glorify but to give credence to local families caught in the war that tore America in two, that pitted brother against brother. The war was not entirely about slave owning which was always a privileged business. The vast majority of confederate soldiers who actually fought and died would have never owned a slave, they just believed they should have a right to and thus the natural superiority of their own race.

So now the debate is whether we should respect the past for having a different point of view or if, in a changing world, our public art should reflect it. Of course it would be ridiculous to get rid of everything that offends us. Libraries are full of nasty works remembering nasty people. But then you have to seek those out if you are so minded. Statues in public areas do take more of a burden. Even if I really wouldn’t want to live in a world where Hitler was forgotten, would I welcome a statue of him? He already seems to be in a video installation on endless loop on the History Channel and one of the most disturbing things I have experienced in an art gallery was approaching from the back the apparent angelic figure of a boy, in a corner on his knees praying, only to peak around to the front to discover it was Adolf Hitler (by Maurizio Cattelan).

So the question is whether statues simply remember or do they glorify? And if they cannot help but glorify should we even keep our war memorials?

Burghers of Calais (sans pedestal)

The Kiss sculptor Rodin faced this problem with his work The Burghers of Calais. The statue was commissioned to commemorate the ordinary men of Calais who had martyred themselves by volunteering as hostages to Edward III to stop his siege of the city. Rodin was intent on not glorifying these men. He wanted viewers to understand how ordinary they were, not heroes. So Rodin not only cast his group life size he realised that it wasn’t the statue which would elevate these men, it was the pedestal. He demanded that they have no pedestal so people could walk amongst the group of men as equals. The Calaisians wouldn’t dream of this and promptly stuck it on a pedestal and, further, sold a cast to the English which proudly sits outside parliament… on a pedestal.

Maybe Rodin was right. It’s not the statues. Perhaps the statues are, on the whole, just a physical memory of what was important, or financed, in another time. They are memories of distant propaganda, or as we now call it, Fake News. What, we should really be concentrating on, what actually should be falling, is their pedestals.

 

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Shameless

“He said what!?”

For those of us who can still recall how politics was done pre-2016, with at least an appearance of diplomacy, consistency, courtesy, grace and manners each outrageous statement Donald Trump makes is greeted with a slack-jawed disbelief.

“He did what!?”

With every newscycle a new low seems to be reached, and the unavoidable question recurs, just what does a man have to do to get impeached around here? When is enough enough?

But then the self-styled ratings king is set on keeping his audience entranced. He seems to think that he’s giving politics the same makeover that TV was given thirty years ago. Bugger regulation and Reithian ‘entertaining, informing and educating’; the system was wrested from the hands of elite ‘tastemakers’ and thinkers and into the hands of populist “reality” and the race to the bottom. The most successful drama series of the time, commissioned by elite producers, just took reality TV and showed us the face of its future nadir: Shameless.

But Trump is only the premier cheerleader for reality politics where, just like real life, you get to change your mind whenever you want to and you get to say whatever you want to say, even if a few “pussies” and Mexicans get offended. Real life, that is, in our western world which a system of elites has spent centuries promoting and defending freedom of speech.

Like so many innovations, the brits did it first. Trump saw Brexit as the template for populist revolution. The Brexiteers can’t give the NHS £350 million a week, so what? May backed Remain, who cares? She swore she wouldn’t call an election and yet… and yet for some reason we do nothing or have no effective mechanism to hold politicians to their words.

Trump turns on a dime. So does May. But you’ll struggle to find the word “Sorry” in Hansard.

What if this is an improvement though? Blind conviction politics of the like of Margaret Thatcher was heartless. ISIL, like all despotic regimes, are deeply convicted to one way of doing things. There is no room for doubt. Jeremy Corbyn hates changing his mind, he is a politician of conviction (possibly not for the freedom fighters of the IRA but a man of conviction none the less) which is admirable even if those unswayable principles distances him from the views of the major electorate.

But conservatives hate doubt and there is a feeling that the Tories are tolerating May for fear of something worse taking her place. In the US, conservatives are starting to find Trump’s vacillation incompatible with their homoerotic vision of bullheaded leadership.

“Half his tweets show utter weakness. They are plaintive, shrill little cries, usually just after dawn,” Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal (Prop: Rupert Murdoch) “He’s not strong and self-controlled, not cool and tough, not low-key and determined; he’s whiny, weepy and self-pitying. He throws himself, sobbing, on the body politic. He’s a drama queen. It was once said, sarcastically, of George H.W. Bush that he reminded everyone of her first husband. Trump must remind people of their first wife.”

Noonan writes from the heart of American conservativism where the deepest insult possible is to be likened to a woman.

So, if we cannot take these politicians at their word, how do these leaders, neither of which were voted in by a majority, have the gall to carry on – and why do we let them?

Shame.

In 1945, concerned about war breaking out again in the future, the American War Office didn’t blindly send soldiers on to the streets to give out sweets and “win hearts and minds”, as they did in Iraq, they actually thought about what they didn’t know. They sent the anthropologist Ruth Benedict to Japan to study the people and commissioned her hugely influential book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Benedict noted that the reason Americans struggled to understand notions like suicide kamikaze pilots, or ritual suicide aka Hari-kari, was that the West had what she called a “Guilt Culture” whereas Japan had a “Shame Culture”. Western people internalise their moral compass, they value their own judgement and act correctly to avoid feeling guilty. The Japanese moral viewpoint was performative, your society enacted punishment, they shamed you and they watched as you did the right thing. Historians seized on this dichotomy to explain the enlightenment (guilt) emerging from the dark ages of a shame society.

The social media revolution introduced a new shame culture to the West. We tweet to seek approval from our followers. We update our society at every moment with what we are doing and they can like hate or even star rate our behaviour. Perhaps this is why the ramifications of Social Media’s global societal judgement was understood far faster by shame cultures like the movement for global jihad than liberal democracies which simply decried its invasion of privacy.

But as more people defer to their screens and their ‘followers’, there is no doubt we are once more becoming a shame society. And in the kingdom of the shamed, the shameless are kings. Trump and May are apparently without shame. Unapologetic, each represents someone that many, caught in the gaze of social media, might love to be. The obscenely successful in this world we’ve made, are the shameless. The bankers, oligarchs, world leaders, the 0.0001 percent; those who can sleep at night as we cannot shame them and they carry no guilt. Meanwhile RT, Like and subscribe if you think I’m right. I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t have said these things. What do you think? Love me.

 

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Thirty Four Storeys, A Million Stories

A few weeks ago if you said “Kensington” what came to mind might be leafy garden squares with elegant colonnaded terraced houses, estate agents displaying extra-wide cards to accommodate all the noughts, paper-thin housewives, crocodiles of absurdly uniformed prep school kids, Middle Eastern princelets gunning gold Lamborghinis, or maybe Notting Hill, Hugh Grant, Portobello Market, The Record and Tape Exchange or resident bays packed with automotive real-estate worth more than most streets, houses and cars, anywhere in the country.

In one week all that changed. Now Kensington itself has become an international meme. For decades it’s been a national symbol for all that is excessive in house pricing and the poverty in the borough treated as an anomaly; “Aren’t they lucky living in such a lovely borough near all those sweet smelling rich people?” But now, with the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, the blackened towerblock standing starkly against a bright sea of low-rise des-res, the borough is becoming a byword for a, quite literal, flashpoint in the conflict between rich and poor; the tinderbox of the economic divisions in the West. This borough has become the focus of our extreme political tides; between the purveyors of globalised austerity and advocates for liberal social welfare.

Just six days before the fire, the constituency that had voted over 70% to Remain in the Brexit Referendum kicked out their incumbent Brexit supporting Conservative MP with perhaps one of the narrowest margins imaginable. Just 20 votes. I got a call from a jubilant Labour supporter asking if Kensington had ever been Labour? I had to point out that Kensington as a constituency has only existed for seven years and since the 70s the area has been ceaselessly carved up into different shapes to try to maximise the, generally, left-wing poverty in the north of the borough and the tax wary right-wing south.

Then one warm summer evening, a fire broke out in a tower block in one of the country’s poorest social housing estates which happens to be in one of its richest areas. The fire quickly spread upwards fed by the flammable cladding that had been attached to the block for mostly cosmetic reasons making the drama of the inferno intensely dramatic for those outside and filling the more fireproof parts of the block with deadly fumes.

The apparent symbolism was too evident to miss. The poor dying because the rich who surround them don’t want to look at the ugly face of social housing. A constituency politically divided.

Certainly these issues had some role in the tragedy but in a world where deeper meaning is becoming increasingly fractured by social networking and wall to wall distraction, the need to impose a meaning on the Grenfell Tower tragedy has seemed irresistible.

In the 24-hour news coverage that continued long after, very few actual resident survivors made the news feed. Neighbours, representatives of all sorts, commentators,  politicians, everybody happy to see the ‘big picture’: the failures of government, the Council, building experts. The poet Ben Okri immediately penned a beautiful eulogy which has the chorus:

“If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower.

See the tower, and let a world-changing dream flower.

Residents of the area call it the crematorium.

It has revealed the undercurrents of our age.

The poor who thought voting for the rich would save them.”

Ben Okri Grenfell Tower June 2017

Just saying “The Poor” is an exercise in objectification and everyone in that building was so much more than that. I’m a little surprised how readily the term has been grabbed by so many. It just seems the potency and the clarity of the symbolism was so great few have been able to put the “big picture” down and see the little pictures. Clearly some media outlets preferred to stay away from the personal stories of victims because so many wore hijabs and were everything they see as wrong with the country, others may have been disappointed by some survivors’ lack of articulacy, English not being a first language. There isn’t just one big story here but millions of stories, of immigrants fleeing to this country, heroes risking their lives to effect rescues, those who face constant disbelief and sanction by the dole and, let’s face it, up until the fateful night the residents of Grenfell Towere were, relatively, the lucky ones who had actually found housing, in a country where so many fail to even get that far and are left homeless. But the meme of the poor being burned by the wealthy was just too overwhelming.

This country does have a terrible chasm between haves and have nots and Kensington does represent a particularly extreme delineation. When I briefly lived in New York in the 80s, 96th St on the East Side was known as the DMZ, the Demilitarised Zone, where the luxurious upper east side tower blocks suddenly stopped and the tenements and projects of Spanish Harlem began. The contrast was sharp and obvious. For decades, in Kensington, the DMZ between the wealthy south and the poor north was an exciting cross-over area stretching from Notting Hill Gate to the Westway. Gentrifying young bankers looking for a San Francisco Barrio experience proliferated the area, once the domain of poverty-exploiting slum landlords Peter Rachman and later Nicholas van Hoogstraten. But the money won and slowly the less well off in the borough got bought out, moved away and squeezed north of the Westway or, in the case of Latimer Road, into council estates. Kensington’s DMZ is just a street wide in many areas now.

All this is true. And the tragedy of Grenfell Tower was no doubt affected by these terrible inequalities. But there is a danger in memes, and symbols, and ideologies, that the individuals get lost. Sometimes it seems the irony is too great and we forget the actual cost. There is a problem in staring so hard at the message that you fail to see the messenger, dirty, worn out, hard-pressed, hungry, yearning to breathe free.

 

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Covfefe

There are only two types of people. Those who divide people into types of people and those who don’t.

Only those who don’t. Don’t exist.

Ever since Genesis got oddly specific in dividing things into categories, heaven, earth, “grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit,” and the frankly catastrophic decision to allow man “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth,” humans have been obsessed with justifying that supremacy through systematic categorisation.

By the time the Victorians rocked up we thought we’d nailed this categorisation game producing the Dewey Decimal System, Rogets Thesaurus, the Oxford English Dictionary, and most of the research academic institutions that are still providing grants and jobs today.

And every time we find and name something, we can divide it up into ever finer grains and names: from atoms and molecules, genomes and bacterium to the Higgs boson “god particle”; as if we might one day peel back the final layer of the universe’s onion and behold its ultimate secret.

The Victorian mathematician Augustus de Morgan quickly spotted the problem in all this, adapting Jonathan Swift’s couplet:

“Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em, And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum. And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on, While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.”

There is a sort of primal superstition behind all this, an ancient belief that may well have inspired homo sapiens to language: once you can name something you somehow have power over it. I helped name all my kids and I can tell you now, it’s not true.

The notion of magic, the sort practiced by Scottish hags, Faust and Harry Potter, is predicated on this power of verbalising. The idea of a spell is that certain words in a certain order have the power to make manifest or, at the very least, summon some slobbering supernatural creature to make it so. It goes against all our rational thinking to suggest that a simple assembly of words, a string of sounds from your voicebox, could bring about something concrete and real. Yet the possibility of this is so ingrained in our imaginations, kids’ magicians try to disempower it with “sizzling sausages” and “Izzy Whizzy Let’s Get Busy” whilst J.K.Rowling used Codum Latinus invocations, rather than anything that sounded like it might possibly have a chance of summoning the devil.

The magical belief that somehow “saying it makes it so” goes beyond art and conjuring, not just in the power of prayer, and “positive visualisation” but in the cold cash of advertising and politics. The phrase du jour post-Brexit was “a period of uncertainty”. Was it any wonder that the Conservatives campaigned for re-election in a direct response to that? “Strong and stable” was their simple substance-free mantra used so monotonously, it was as if simply saying it enough times would make it true. Like “Make America Great Again” it was a phrase full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Of course words can have power as persuasive tools and information carriers, just not in themselves. Great speeches have convinced people to do extraordinary things. Religions are founded on writings, and just the words “Allah Akbar” have been co-opted to strike terror. Jokes, well told, can bring forth involuntary laughter. But even in this world of technology and rationalism a belief persists that you can cut out the middle man as such, the agent of change, and simply affect change with words themselves.

A few years ago, when Islington Council found the end of a Tax Year looming, with some extra budget to spend for a project to improve the community, they canvassed the locals where it would be best invested. Perhaps a kindergarten, towards drug rehab, or a children’s playground? No. The scheme that won was, basically, an incantation. They invested in street signs telling people that they were in the “Neighbourhood” of Islington as if, once stated, it would somehow make it a real neighbourhood where petty crime, graffiti, fly-tipping and the ASBO magnets would magically disappear. Or, as Yul Brenner in The Ten Commandments kept repeating, “So it is written, so it shall be done.” Honestly – I’ve been writing for over thirty years and I still can’t get anything done.

But the potentially diabolical power of words is reaching its apotheosis – and words like apotheosis will be the first up against the wall when this revolution comes – thanks to a growing movement to disempower our language.

Jacques Derrida

Half a century ago Jacques Derrida, the French-Algerian deconstructionist philosopher, believed we should strip power from words by pointing out their constantly slippery, endlessly different, meanings. He saw this as a revolutionary act. Because language is, historically, developed by the wealthy, literate, educated classes, Derrida argued, clarity in speech promotes and prolongs the rule of the elite. The many should reject clarity and develop their own gobbledygook. At this point it’d be great to give you a pithy Derridean quote to back this claim up. Unfortunately he practiced what he preached and his writings were somewhere between impenetrable and gibberish. And worse than that, in French.

But basically: words and grammar and the like are them things the elite use to show they’re superior and enchant and entrap us with their spells and suchlike.

Well, against all the odds, Deconstructionism has made it to the mainstream. A populist movement led by no less than the Commander-In-Chief of The United States is stripping away the very point of words by rendering them meaningless. He tirelessly tweets authoritative untruths and a covfefe of meaninglessness. After which, his press secretary confirms that he doesn’t mean exactly what he says. His administration constantly assert inconvenient facts are “fake news” and there are always “alternative facts” anyway. You simply can’t rely on words anymore.

Political movements in other countries, wanting to recreate the popularity of such revolutionary linguistic anti-elitism are embracing this paragon of meaningless wordage.  So what if a lie appeared on a Brexit battle bus they were only words and what do they mean anyway? We’re not experts and we’ve had enough of them.

Finally, reason has won. That superstitious belief in the power of words – used by the expensively educated, Politically Correct, liberal elite to terrify us plebs – has had its day. This baby can go out with the bathwater. Whatever that means.

 

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