Let There be Light and Enjoy The Illuminations

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I read for emotional engagement – a resonance in my heart as well as mind – and a love of story. Often I don’t finish a book, or take too long  reading  because it’s a struggle to engage with either the characters, plot, themes or the use of language.

However, a poorly edited book will be finished if the story is powerful or the characters grab me. Cliched I know, but a book must leave something with me to think about long after it’s been returned to its owner, library, put back on my shelf, or passed to a friend.

I have no interest in writing about books I don’t like so can never claim to be an objective book reviewer – I’ll leave that to experts on other sites like writer and friend, Lisa Hill.

I’m attracted to writers who can teach me something about  writing, and Andrew O’Hagan is one of my favourite authors. His use of words crafted into delightful and poignant metaphors and similes; minimal but evocative descriptions and always stories and characters with layers of meaning. He deftly structures his novels to lead to surprising revelations and links that have you nodding your head in amazement because of an ‘ah, ah’ moment of understanding.

I’ll be unashamedly partisan, O’Hagan’s lyrical prose speaks to me in more ways than one because he’s Scottish and many of his beautiful passages capture the Scotland and the people I grew up with and know so well. Even although it’s been many years since I lived full-time in Scotland, I can picture places he describes and hear beloved voices. The memories evoked pure nostalgic indulgence.

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I haven’t read all his offerings but first came across his writing in The Missing, a non-fiction book that had a profound impact. I might review this another time because like his fictional works I’ve read, Our Fathers, Be Near Me, and Personality and now this latest offering The Illuminations, O’Hagan tackles relevant social issues and newsworthy events and weaves them into his characters’ lives. He researches and champions important issues affecting the human condition, makes us think and generates empathy for people and situations we may otherwise ignore.

If you become captivated like me, you’ll seek out his other books – I tend to do that with authors. I remember Mrs Saffin, the librarian at Croydon High School in 1965 trying to break me of the habit of working my way through the shelves by reading all the books of a particular author before moving on to a new writer. (She had limited success.)

On reflection, because I always wanted to be a writer, I don’t think it was a bad idea on my part. When I found an author I liked, I was probably subconsciously studying and learning  their craft and how/why they earned my loyalty!

Thanks to a Christmas book voucher I bought The Illuminations at one of my favourite Melbourne bookshops The Hill of Content . A 40 minute train ride worth making. It’s an oasis of intellectual delight where I often discover books you may not pick up elsewhere and the customer service is second to none.

Andrew O’Hagan’s novel The Illuminations is as the blurb suggests ‘a beautiful, deeply charged story, showing that no matter how we look at it, there is no such thing as an ordinary life.

The novel’s chapters alternate between family events in Scotland and Captain Luke Campbell’s experiences in Afghanistan. Luke’s regiment, the Royal Western Fusiliers carry out the decisions of the powers that be who now believe, ‘creating electricity and irrigating the warlords’ poppy fields was a better idea than blasting the population from its caves.

However, this policy unravels along with the mind of Luke’s commanding officer and mentor, Major Scullion, whose ‘friendship used to be like a winter coat to Luke.’

When Luke examined his face he saw the eyes of a little counter-assassin from Westmeath. They were fogged with humanitarianism and strict orders, but they were still the eyes of a man who knew what to do in a dark alleyway.

In Scotland, we are in the world of Luke’s Canadian-born grandmother, Anne Quirk, once a well-known photographer. Anne lives in a sheltered housing complex in Lochranza Court, Saltcoats on Scotland’s west coast, but her mind is unravelling with the onset of dementia. She faces the loss of independence because ‘any resident incapable of working a kettle would have to be moved to a nursing home.’

Fortunately, for Anne, her next-door neighbour, Maureen has a fascination and fondness for the ‘quirky’ resident. ‘Maureen considered herself the warden’s deputy. It wasn’t a real job or anything like that but she could help the older ones with their laundry. She watered the plants and went for the milk, tasks that gave her a feeling of usefulness she had missed.’

Retirement complexes, small towns and villages, streets full of longterm residents all have, indeed need, their Maureens, who while coming to grips with the present, mourn the past when they looked after children.

And one by one they left the house with their LPs and their T-shirts. That’s what happens, Maureen thought, That’s how it is, You kill yourself looking after them and then they get up and leave you. She never imagined she’d end up in a place like Lochranza Court, but it had been six years and she was used to it.’

The novel is really about Anne whose relationship with her daughter, Alice is strained. Maureen observes there ‘was clearly a part of Anne’s life that was off limits or stuck in the past, but the dementia was bringing it out.’ (This ‘illuminating’ of the past is the crux of the novel.) Maureen feels sorry for Alice and keeps her in the loop regarding her mother. She also writes to Luke on Anne’s behalf and keeps that relationship vibrant.

We learn of Harry, Luke’s grandfather, a war hero in Anne’s eyes, and of Luke’s father Sean, another soldier, also a member of the Western Fusiliers, who was killed in Northern Ireland.  Anne’s dementia and occasional episodes of lucidity hint at unresolved traumas from the past and conflicting opinions about the present and future.

“…in “The Illuminations,” the Scottish novelist and critic Andrew O’Hagan has created a story that is both a howl against the war in Afghanistan and the societies that have blindly abetted it, and a multilayered, deeply felt tale of family, loss, memory, art, loyalty, secrecy and forgiveness.”

Dani Shapiro, NewYork Times.

At the beginning of the book, O’Hagan thanks Abdul Aziz Froutan and colleagues in Afghanistan, as well as members of the Royal Irish regiment for answering questions. And in peculiar serendipity as I was reading the novel the ABC was broadcasting the documentary series Afghanistan Inside Australia’s War featuring the same period as the novel.

In their own words and their own extraordinary, never-before-seen helmet-cam battle footage, Australia’s fighting men and women lay bare their hearts in an epic series – not just how they waged a war, but why and to what end.

O’Hagan did his research and it shows with his depiction of life in Afghanistan. He reveals the importance of  violent Xbox games and heavy metal music to modern soldiers, the amount of pills popped and marijuana smoked, the physical, emotional and mental price paid abroad and at home. The horror of the fighting fascinating, but stomach-churning reading. No wonder there is a prevalence of post traumatic stress syndrome in returning soldiers.

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Sitting on the wall, he smoked a cigarette, watched the water. It was a loss of spirit that had occurred in him… He later wished he could capture the peace he had known over those hours on the seawall as he looked into the the black distance, the lighthouse on the Holy Isle beating out a message just for him. The mountains of Arran he felt he had seen in another time, a recent one, but there was no gunfire or flares, no broken sleep, no enemy below, just the mountains themselves, the steady return of the fishing boats and the light that came with the morning.

After a mission goes horribly wrong, Luke leaves the army and in his quest to try and make sense of life he takes his grandmother on a road trip to Blackpool to see the famous Illuminations hoping to shed some light on the part of her life she has kept secret. In his reminiscing of growing up with a special relationship with this grandmother he reflects, ‘There was endless chat about how life used to be, with details missing.’

In the packing up of Anne’s life for the trip to Blackpool and the inevitable move to a nursing home when they return, Luke discovers letters and photographs which in Anne’s lucid moments she can explain. He begins to appreciate how talented she was as a photographer and wants to understand why she gave it all up.

In the observations and discussions about photography, the novelist has again done his homework. Another thank you at the beginning of the book is

...to Yaddo, and to Mary O’Connor and the keepers of the Joseph Mulholland Archive at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, where he studied the papers of the photographer Margaret Watkins. 

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Serendipity struck again – on March 13th my father would be 94 years old if alive. He died of dementia in 2005. He was an amateur photographer and although many of his photographs are of family there are others where I wonder what motivated him to take the picture? What did his artist eye see? What essence was he trying to capture?

And here in this novel we learn so much about Anne Quirk through the discussion of photography and photographs despite her dementia. I remember visiting with my dad and having conversations about the past. But did we talk about what happened? what never happened? what he wished had happened?

Dad manufactured stories to protect himself from past traumas and it seems O’Hagan’s Anne Quirk does the same. ‘You don’t see the connections in your life until it’s too late to disentangle them.’

This novel stirred many connections in my life, even the chapters set in Blackpool a place I visited in 1984 with my late husband just as they were setting up the illuminations. The B&Bs, the dance halls, the promenade, the pubs, the  grey sea – all wonderfully captured by O’Hagan.

Memory resides in the simplest things but to remember is a complex and complicated task. Are we remembering reality or an imaginary world? Is a photograph an accurate memory? What did the lens not see? Are photographs worth a thousand words?

Towards the end of the novel Luke discovers how good a photographer his grandmother was when he unearths a series of rare private photographs of The Beatles 1962:

‘Luke had to stand up, astonished at the scale and the mystery of what she’d done…For all her mistakes and her bad luck, she had managed this…’

And Andrew O’Hagan has managed to create believable characters and take us into their world to make us care what happens to them. Along the way his writer’s toolbox produced some wonderful descriptions and observations. You’l look at the night sky and the variations of light differently after reading The Illuminations.

I’ll give Andrew the last word from his essay explaining the inspiration for Anne Quirk:

My search … was also a search for the women I had grown up with on the west coast of Scotland. … I realised the book was a tribute to the hidden creativity of those women. I was always drawn to them as a child, and their sense of themselves, their pain and their Glasgow houses, were a kind of haunting thing for me. I was always aware of a certain amount of thwarted ambition on their parts, and by the sense of duty that clung to their gingham “pinnies”, their tabard overalls. As a novelist you come to know that people can be metaphors of one another. My fictional elderly lady has a grandson who is a captain in the British army fighting in Afghanistan. She is interested in reality, as every photographer is, but her own story, and the masking of her talent, play a part in explaining the daily news coming from the battlefront… One’s job as a writer is sometimes to find new proteins for the ideas that matter to you, and the story of this forgotten photographer locked on to my family history in a way that gave the novel the building blocks of life.

What more can I say – read and enjoy – or let me know what you don’t like about it!

The Writerly Self – A Reflective Essay on a Personal Journey of Professional Development

‘Writing about writing is one way to grasp, hold, and give added meaning to a process that remains one of life’s great mysteries… the moment of exquisite joy when necessary phrases come together and the work is complete, finished, ready to be read.’

writers by the bay - anthology 1, 1997
writers by the bay – anthology 1, 1997

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been engaged with reading and writing. In school, ‘to be a writer’ the first and latterly the only desire expressed whenever asked ‘what career do you want?’ At high school during the end of the sixties the education system, and indeed society, acknowledged females could dream of a career and not a job, however, the proviso ‘until they married to produce the next generation’ was implied.  Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch opened up an amazing new world of questions and ideas.

My working-class migrant home and public high school considered creative writing something done in your spare time; innate talent may lead to ‘discovery’, but rarely a financial success. No courses teaching the craft existed as far as I knew and the feminist rewriting of the male-dominated canon of Australian fiction did not begin until the late 1970s. Parents and teachers assumed ‘journalist’ and ‘writer’ interchangeable.

So, I studied history (another love) at university, travelled, worked at various skilled and semi-skilled jobs, married, had children, started a writing group, became involved in schools and the community, cared for my dying husband, devised courses and began teaching, and always kept writing: academic assignments, articles for magazines, newsletters, stories for family, poetry for myself and others, letters, postcards, haphazard journal entries, lesson plans, even some imaginative creative pieces. Enthralled by the power and beauty of words, I tried to harness the thoughts and stories swirling in my head.

No passion has been as constant, as true as this love‘.

I enrolled in the Master of Arts (Writing) after encouragement from Glenice Whitting, a member of Mordialloc Writers’ Group. A trusted ‘critical’ friend, Glenice finished a novel, won a literary prize and launched her book at the Writers’ Festival after studying a similar course at Melbourne University. This inspiring journey of achievement culminated in a PhD (well done Dr Glenice Whitting) and the completion of another major writing project.

Each fortnight, workshopping at our local neighbourhood house the group gained valuable tips to improve our writing when Glenice shared philosophical and theoretical ideas from her readings. This generosity, found in the Mordialloc Writers’ Group contributes to the quality of each other’s work. The listening, the absorbing, the constructive feedback, the valuing of learning and always striving to be better writers.

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In 2010, with Glenice’s insistent ‘do it,’ I took the plunge and enrolled at Swinburne University: to focus on my writing dreams, to transform entrenched habits and improve my craft, stretch reading horizons, and move out of my comfort zone by seeking help from more accomplished writers within and without, academia. I hoped the experience would make me a better teacher too!

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The online course suited family, financial, and work commitments. However, returning to tertiary study after almost forty years’ absence, a challenge with difficulties I didn’t foresee! The volume and academic style of most set readings confronting and at times overwhelming. Academic texts needed examination, deconstruction and clarification. What did they mean, if anything, to my writing life and style? This deep reflection of my work a new concept, as well as being time-consuming and requiring discipline, but two years in a life of over half a century didn’t seem much of a sacrifice – or so I thought.

I embraced new technology with limited expertise, trusted disembodied relationships with tutors and students, many living Interstate and in different countries. Despite being ‘screen’ tired with a mind ticking over like a Geiger counter, the joy in writing I sought returned, albeit slowly. I began to reflect on the process itself when the initial shock of ‘settling in’ was compounded by a diagnosis of breast cancer. Life is full of surprises, but perhaps the biggest surprise is the strength we find within when needed.

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A new world beckoned. With help and support from family and friends, I adapted my lifestyle, extended boundaries and learnt the true meaning of flexible hours: working into the night, forgetting what television looked like and leaving more of the day-to-day running of the house to my daughters. Although always open to change, this unplanned border crossing was never foreseen for my late 50s. On reflection, the journey not only proved worthwhile but gave me a fantastic focus and distraction through a health crisis I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy! In modern parlance, working towards and achieving my master’s degree a definite ‘game-changer’.

The richness of other student contributions gave new perspectives as well as exposure to a variety of genres. Could I write a suspense novel? A gritty screenplay? A monologue? Poetry? Be a short story writer? What about creative non-fiction? Historical romance?

I had been writing every day but not necessarily the writing I wanted to do. My goal of self-discipline to create time to write every day on a project I desired, and not because a deadline loomed, seemed elusive. The intensity of study, the volume and regularity of the submissions required, left little time for stream-of-consciousness writing or spontaneous creativity, but there was excitement and developing friendships amongst all the learning.

The concepts of dramaturgy and frame theory were new to me, although perhaps I’d been applying frame theory and considering dramaturgy for years without knowing the theoretical name. I visualise each scene before I write and edit – almost as if watching it on television or acting in front of a mirror – the preferred method of Charles Dickens who created characters and acted them out to perfect expressions and voices.

From the beginning there was a very strong connection between the oral and the literary in Dickens’ art.”

I work out the order of the detail in my short stories to help with sentence structure and avoid dangling modifiers. I’m an ‘outliner’, not a ‘pantser’. The dictionary defines dramaturgy as ‘a theory, which interprets individual behaviour as the dramatic projection of a chosen self’. I create characters, put them into situations, and imagine how they walk, talk, and act. I draw on my observations, but also personal experience. Some see dramaturgy as ‘a way of understanding and analysing theatrical performances… to help us understand the complexity of human interactions in a given situation’.

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As a people watcher, I observe and scribble in a notebook, taken everywhere. An event, a smell, sound or person triggers the muse. Later, these pages filled with character profiles, plus ideas for prose and poems become details in stories. Sometimes I’m inspired and start writing the story on the train or in the cafe if I can write undisturbed.

The bones of a story grow. Writers must be curious and record observations because this advice is repeated in almost all articles and books on the craft of writing.

On the city-bound train , two deaf people are having an animated conversation. Six metal bangles on the overweight woman’s right arm so tight they don’t jangle as she waves her hands. The man unkempt, yet an expensive camera hangs across his chest. Are they tourists tired or stressed from travelling? What is it like coping with such a profound disability on public transport where commuters rely on announcements over the tannoy? What if the train breaks down?

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” ‘Playing our parts.’ Yes we all have to do that and from childhood on, I have found that my own character has been much harder to play worthily and far harder at times to comprehend than any of the roles I have portrayed.”

Bette Davis 1908-89

I prefer this quote from Bette Davis to the Shakespearean ‘All the world’s a stage‘. I’ve struggled over the years being dutiful daughter, loving and supportive wife, responsible, nurturing mother, loyal friend and sister, diligent employee, interested teacher… ‘playing’ roles yet aching to be a writer and wondering how well I ‘perform’ when my heart and brain are focussed elsewhere. Everybody is an actor on a stage Shakespeare called ‘the world,’ however, for most people, the stage is a much smaller ‘my life’.

Shakespeare’s gift of using the stage as a metaphor for living clever because everyone is born (makes an entrance); dies (exits) and plays different roles from birth. Researching to find the context for the now clichéd quote I’m sidetracked as usual ( a major failing). So many Internet sites and tomes from bookshelves cite, deconstruct, dissect, and revere Shakespeare.

My ego wonders if in the future anyone will read my writing. Can/will I ever write anything as profound or memorable as the speech by the melancholic Jaques in As You Like It? The ‘seven ages’ of man condensed in cynical terms in a limerick by British poet Robert Conquest:

Seven stages, first puking and mewling,
Then very pissed off with your schooling;
Then fucks and then fights
Then judges chaps’ rights
Then sitting in slippers, then drooling!

When I think of writing Dad’s story and his love of pithy poetry and the verses he made up, I wonder if I should frame each chapter around poetry. Introduce the stages of his life using either a poem or song by Robert Burns, his favourite bard. I reject the last line of Conquest’s limerick. Dad’s dementia and the long period of emotional stress the family experienced will not be reduced to such an image. My Father’s life should not be defined by the changes wrought by illness and ageing.

I want my world to end with a ‘bang’ not a ‘whimper’ to borrow from T.S Eliot. A couple of my short stories work as ‘faction’ so I will keep experimenting. Sometimes it’s easier to fictionalise traumatic events or deep feelings, be the cold observer rather than a participator!

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An article on Dramaturgical Analysis gave me a new perspective and some good ideas on a play about the environment I was asked to write for Grades 5 and 6. An idea to teach the children about environmental sustainability and along a similar theme to Sense and Sustainability: A Fable for our Times. If developing the play, I’ll consider the ideological frame as well as the structural frame. I want the children to identify with the issues and realise they can make a difference. I hadn’t considered using a myth or folktale to provide the organisation for ideas, but appreciate how the reference to well-known stories may add depth to the script and enrich an audience’s understanding. In Australia, because of our multi-cultural population, there are myriads of folk tales to draw on.

It’s a steep learning curve to look through a playwright’s eyes and use dramaturgical analysis as a critical tool, but I enjoyed finding out about the proscenium arch and other terminology associated with theatre; how a play will be presented and the difference images and symbols make. The proscenium arch is the performance area between the background and the orchestra or between the curtain or drop-scene and the auditorium. Many innovative ways to use this space present themselves.

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In a piece of happenstance, I won free tickets to the Victorian Opera’s interpretation of Chekhov’s The Bear. There was a split stage, which gave wonderful visual framing ideas. Aleatory, another new word learned: ‘technology is used to suppress aleatory results‘. Aleatory is defined as ‘depending on the throw of a die or on chance, depending on uncertain contingencies or involving random choice by the composer, performer, or artist.’ Learning to use the Internet for research, it seemed the exact opposite sometimes.

I typed ‘workhouse’ into Google for family history information and came up with 3,460,000 links in 21 seconds. No doubt the number and speed increased since 2010. By only using the word, many irrelevant results and often random associations appear. To save time and get the most benefit out of the Internet I learned to be smarter.

The exposure to other writers in the course led to discussions about books by ‘colonial’ writers revealing heritage and raising issues of identity. I determined to reread many loved favourites as a writer as well as a reader, especially after a tutor asked, ‘to what extent do white writers have to consider their colour as writers?

A difficult question to answer as a white woman, who has always lived in a free society. I agree with bell hooks, there is a ‘link between my writing and spiritual belief and practice… how our class background influences both what we write, how we write, and how the work is received.’

Most white writers don’t give their colour a second thought if they live where they are the dominant culture. However, an Australian writer Harry Nicolaides while living in Thailand was incarcerated for insulting the Thai royal family in his novel. I would think many writers living in some Islamic countries need to be careful. In Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran and even Turkey imprisoned journalists and writers make the news. We tend to think of Europeans being the main colonial powers in recent history and the colonised non-white, but in the 1930s and 40s Japan expanded its empire. Even in recent times, the Indian sub-continent and African continent have more than their fair share of colonial trauma.

To write my family history with an Irish mother and a Highland father the experiences of the Irish and Scottish populations must be considered and the effects of England’s colonial behaviour. Dr Johnson’s view in his journal, Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland,reveals a narrow, disdainful individual, whose sojourns into that which is unknown to him may be compared to the impressions of those first Europeans who penetrated the African interior, socially placing its inhabitants as inferior.’

The Highland Clearances and the aftermath sent many people, including some of my relatives to Australia. They lost their land and came out here to displace the indigenous population. I’d like to explore this sad irony and grave injustice in my writing. You can’t rewrite history, but you can examine the story from different angles and make an effort for a balanced account.

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How does my hybridity affect my writing? I feel like an uprooted tree with memories and attachments to many places. I travelled a lot when younger and hope to do so again. I struggle to keep a journal yet when travelling, writing became second nature, especially letters home. Boxes of paraphernalia sit in the garden shed to be turned into stories ‘one day’.

I found a handful of old postcards after an aunt died and a fascination with a first cousin of my Father’s began. He bears Dad’s name and is buried in Egypt – another nineteen-year-old casualty of Gallipoli. I empathised with Hélène Cixous when she stood and cried at her grandfather’s grave, a person dead long before she was born – a photograph in an album, a family legend.

All biographies like all autobiographies like all narratives tell one story in place of another story.

I wrote a short piece of prose about discovering our family’s ANZAC, but further research makes the story change. I learnt his parents still spoke Gaelic and try to imagine what he thought in the trenches of Gallipoli fighting beside Scots as well as other nationalities. Did he identify as an Aussie? Did he think himself noticeably different?

One tutor asked, ‘What do you think of the idea that writing itself is a process of self-knowing… we come to know ourselves through the things we write? Post examples of your ‘voice’ to illustrate how you use language.’

Are the paths our writing takes us down, paths to self-knowledge? Often I surprise myself when I read a poem or story I’ve written. I ponder: did I write that? Even when I think I’m in control of the pen and words, my writerly self takes its own path!

I’m an ‘inheritor as well as an originator’ and like Bell Hooks, I believe my ability and desire to write are blessings. I am the keeper of the stories of parents’ and family, in particular my mother’s. Mum spoke into a tape recorder for several hours telling ‘herstory’, and I am immensely grateful we spent time together to record the events she thought important. It’s still a painful task to listen and type. Mum’s voice triggers strong emotions; fingers freeze on the keyboard and tears flow. Complicated grief can last a long time, her death still feels raw.

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A sense of ‘voice’ crucial in writing therefore I want to make sure it is Mum’s voice and not mine when I write her story. Yet, as I record extracts for a women’s memoir site in America, and life story classes here, my story is being written too. I know my voice changes depending on what I’m writing, sometimes from a conscious effort because I don’t want fictional characters to sound like me, or all the factual characters either!

Years ago, my brother George rang me after reading a story of mine in Mordialloc Writers’ third anthology, Up the Creek With a Pen. ‘Mairi, I had to read it twice it was so good. It’s very different from your other stories, I didn’t even pick you as the writer.

Up The Creek With A Pen, anthology 3, 2003
Up The Creek With A Pen, anthology 3, 2003

This ‘backhanded compliment’ made me go back and read the story again! What made it so different? The topic? The male protagonist? The language? The pacing? Another step along the road of maturity in the craft; learning to pay more attention to how the words sit on the page?

The craft of writing is what I enjoy the most; it’s my comfort zone and I know this is why I love teaching creative writing because for a few hours a week I share my passion for the English language, its nuances, its flexibility, the chance to experiment, and the fire of imagination.

I recall a student comment about family history, ‘It’s funny though, that the stories we tell the most are often the hardest to put to paper. Sometimes the best stories are the ones we are so comfortable with that they live and grow with us and so writing them is counter-productive.

As I interviewed Mum over four years, I noticed repetition in her stories, yet the telling was different. Dad, an entertaining raconteur repeated the same tales with or without embellishments. I don’t see writing them down as counter-productive, rather I consider the stories are part of our family lore, they’ve made an impression to be retained for a lifetime (in my parents’ case, 80 plus years). I want to record the memorable ones, work out why they remain important. Retain them for future generations because idiosyncratic tales make each family unique. I regret not recording Dad before Dementia robbed his memory.

Another student, an accomplished writer commented on poems I’d written, ‘I suppose I’m looking for you to take it one step further – is this the only side of Mum? What brings you to remember? and similarly, for Journey home – are you there? What’s it feel like? I want some personal insight or big picture analysis.’

For Mum
Mairi Neil
I think of you baking scones,
your floral apron streaked with flour.
Ingredients never measured,
just swirled together
by experienced hands,
used to work. And gifting love.
The soft splat of dough
against Formica,
the thump of rolling pin,
scrape of metal cutter,
and then,
the leftover scraps
patted to shape a tiny scone…
‘For you – this special one,’ you said.

The Journey Home
Mairi Neil

He squeezes past me
on the escalators
at Melbourne Central
overweight and red-faced
wheezing in time
with the clunk
of her strapless high heels
clattering like hooves
on cobblestones of old

He flings a challenge
over his shoulder
‘The train leaves in one minute!’

wheeze kerplunk clunk clunk
wheeze kerplunk clunk clunk

She puffs and pants
heels galloping
breath exploding
the momentary hesitation
as the ticket machine swallows
and reluctantly spits tickets
into waiting fingers
frantic eyes balloon
at more escalators
to be negotiated

wheeze kerplunk clunk clunk!

Mum was not just the cook, nor indeed ‘just a mum’. I’ve spent a long time (perhaps too long!) researching to ensure her time in the army, as a nurse and many other experiences BC (before children), as well as her achievements and contribution to community and church in Scotland and Australia, are recorded. The jigsaw of her life completed so people understand the big picture. We are all complicated human beings.

I wrote the poem about the scones as a special memory to read at mum’s funeral and it struck a chord with others to be published elsewhere.

‘Although I have not written in this journal for a month, storytelling has been an active and dominant part of my life during this time.’

Skywalker Payne

My writerly self understands imagination works overtime, characters and plots in abundance go unrecorded or not shared with writing buddies. Family history/tales come alive when we recount parents’ or our own lives to children and there’s an urge to record them for posterity. That’s what writers do.

Anais Nin, Katherine Mansfield and Henry Thoreau achieved much in their journals. The beneficial aspect of keeping a diary well-documented. It can be the start of poems, prose, and novels. One of my students kept a journal for 35 years before substituting it with a ‘blog’.

I often think of ‘the women writers whose work and literary presence influences me, shaping the contours of my imagination, expanding the scope of my vision.This blog could help me too.

Novels may still be unfinished, stories lacklustre, poetry mere doggerel – some days I feel everything, but a writer. The longing to write what I want instead of what seems to be needed (by deadlines, briefs, other people) exists. A deep yearning drives me to counteract the reality of creative writing as something squashed between other life commitments. To feel gladness, not just relief, when the words are on paper, will probably always be a difficult goal to achieve.

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I’ll keep scribbling and hoping it will gel one day.

Writing Family History and Life Stories as Literary Non-Fiction

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Rain batters the window as the white fluffy cumulus clouds, gathering and growing all day, decide to join together and release their load. A thunderclap booms and rumbles and a spectacular flash of lightning paints a jagged design across the sky. Nine-year-old Mary Jane huddles closer. ‘I’m not scared Mum, but that was loud, wasn’t it?’ She relaxes into my arms as I murmur, ’you’re safe here, darling,’ and I rest my chin lightly on her auburn head and close my eyes. An image appears of Dad lying comatose in his bed at Maroondah Hospital, Croydon.

False teeth awkwardly protrude from slack-jawed mouth; frail body shrunken and vulnerable. Only with concentration can I detect the almost imperceptible movement of his chest, and as trembling hands scrabble at the cotton bed sheet, I stop holding my breath; release an audible sigh of relief. My nose twitches at the sickly sweet smell from his dry lips and open mouth — it’s the residue of medication, not the smell of death – yet.

Several tears seep from the corners of my eyes, to lie hot and wet on winter-pale cheeks. I shake off the memory of our visit today and stare at the cluster of family photographs atop the maple entertainment unit. Maroondah Hospital, an hour’s drive, but also a world away from my comfortable reality. John’s culinary efforts fill the house with aromatic herbs and spices and in-between the rhythmic chop of vegetables, I hear the breathless tinkle of Anne’s voice, embellishing Year 7 tales.

More thunder rolls, this time far into the distance, but lightning flares again and a barrage of tiny hailstones drum a tattoo on the windowpane. A large shudder reminds me of Mary Jane’s need for reassurance and as I rub her back gently, subliminal flashes of her colicky babyhood make me smile; the nights pacing the floor to ease her pain. A surge of tenderness tightens my hold and I whisper, ‘I love you.’ My eyes ache with unshed tears as outside Mother Nature wails and weeps, reminiscent of a tempestuous night in another country… another time… a world away from Mordialloc.

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It’s Saturday evening at 35 Davaar Road, in 1961 Scotland. The film How Green Was My Valley broadcast on television for family viewing. The youngest siblings, Alistair (5) and Rita (2) are already in bed, but at eight-years-old, along with George (9), Iain (10) and Catriona (12), I’m allowed to stay up later than the usual 7.30pm ‘lights out’ rule of the school week.

Saturday night is ‘treat’ night. Dad has been paid on Friday and the budget allows a choice of favourite chocolate from the ‘Tali’ van coasting the neighbourhood playing Greensleeves. The mobile shop called the ‘Tali’ van and the driver referred to as ‘Tony’ regardless of his real name.

Ice-cream first introduced to Scotland by waves of Italian migrants in the early twentieth century. Most of the cafes, fish and chip shops, ice cream vans and restaurants established or owned by Italian families: Drivandi, Nardini, Capaldi, Spiteri. However, pizza and pasta have still not replaced the popular ‘fish supper’ in most Scottish homes. Italian families have lived in Greenock and surrounding districts for generations and speak with broad Scottish accents, but retain much of their Italian culture, especially Roman Catholicism.

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Allowed to stay up late to watch the Saturday Night Movie on television, we munch on chocolate (Cadbury’s Flake my choice of delicacy) and sprawl on the dark green and faded gold sofa; its tired cloth worn thin from thirty years of service. Wide sofa arms make great horse rides to watch The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid after school and the hard horsehair stuffed cushions become formidable weapons in sibling squabbles.

This lounge suite inherited from Dad’s family home takes up most of the spacious living room, just as it did in 2 George Square, the tenement where I was born. A Radio Rental television the only new item of furniture, ‘standing out like a sore thumb’ in my Irish mother’s opinion, alongside other items from George Square: a 1900 rosewood china cabinet, a 1950s radiogram and 1930s walnut bed-cabinet, the drawers of which store spare bedclothes wrapped in tissue paper, and a home for Iain’s hamster when it makes one of its many escapes from his fireside cage.

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We ‘flitted’ to Davaar Road when I was three years old, a successful privately negotiated house swap with a couple who wanted to move into the centre of the town. Mum and Dad were thrilled at the move to the new estate of Corporation houses at Braeside, the result of a building boom filling the twenty-years of demand for houses, to replace the hundreds of homes lost during the Greenock Blitz. The new houses provide front and back gardens to cultivate flowers and vegetables, room for pets, a washing line with poles, and grassy playing space. Luxury!

Three large bedrooms upstairs provide room for an expanding family (ours increased by two); plus separate bathroom and toilet. Downstairs, a welcoming vestibule leads to a kitchen, dinette and living room, plus an inside coal bunker in the back lobby. A profound and welcome change from the two rooms, kitchen and bathroom shared in George Square with Dad’s father and unmarried sister, Mary. Even although we were better off than the majority of Scotland’s population living in tenement flats of either one room and kitchen houses or ‘single-ends’ (a single room with a communal toilet and bathroom at the end of the hall), the cramped conditions of George Square meant Mum and Dad couldn’t wait to move out.

The bed-cabinet, Aunt Mary’s bed for years in George Square and latterly shared with Catriona, now only used at New Year when the family came to stay to celebrate Hogmanay. The ‘hole-in-the-wall’ bed, a unique Scottish adaptation to alleviate overcrowding, not missed either. Papa slept in this bed set in the wall cavity in the kitchen, which may have contributed to his deteriorating health. Research shows it caused shocking health problems, particularly respiratory disease. Poor housing, poverty, and ill health — the struggle for men to make ‘a living-wage’— a common story in a capitalist society and borne out by statistics. Most Clydeside families watching How Green Was My Valley empathising with the characters’ lives and struggles.

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Despite the limitations of black and white technology, which realistically depicts the bleakness of the lives of Welsh coal miners in the years between the first and second world wars, the film reveals the magnificent grandeur of the Welsh valleys. The story unfolds of a little boy growing up in a large caring family. His father comes home covered in black dust after a physically demanding day down the coal mines. My father comes home covered in black dust after a physically demanding day shovelling coal and driving steam trains as a locomotive driver. he works hard to support our big family, which for a long time included his father and sister.

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The film on the BBC is free from the advertisements that irritate my parents, and for once, Mum is happy our eyes are ‘glued to the screen’. However, I’m devastated when the father dies in the film. Overcome with sadness, sitting on Dad’s lap, the privileged throne for the youngest in the room, I sob into his shoulder. Grateful for the large man’s handkerchief he extracts from his trouser pocket, I give ‘a big blow’ at his suggestion and snuggle into his strong arms trying to imagine what life would be like if he died. A memory stirs of our first year at Braeside. The sadness of Aunt Mary’s long illness and death; followed a few months later by my Papa’s stroke and death. I don’t want life to be like that and cling to Dad’s woollen pullover to anchor him to me forever.

The living room cosy from the embers of a glowing coal fire and the subdued light of a standard lamp, but a November gale rages outside, a fitting backdrop to the tragedy witnessed on the television and mirroring my mood. Mum leaves Dad to console me and heads to the kitchen to prepare a bedtime Bovril. Dad suggests a piggyback up the stairs to bed, in a ploy to stem the flow of tears. Attempts by the others to ‘jolly me up’ abandoned immediately to race ahead in noisy competition. Iain piggy-backs George with a giggling Catriona as helper-cum- boss.

Instead of taking me straight to bed, Dad pauses on the landing at the top of the stairs. He thinks I’m shuddering and scared of the thunder and pulls back the pink floral curtains from the window. ‘Look, love, don’t be frightened. You’re safe inside. The storm is moving back out to sea.’

My hazel eyes stare at the window watching our breath steam the glass. I can just see the dramatic dance being played out over the tiled rooftops of neighbouring houses and across the heather clad hills. Shredded black capes of clouds flap across the sky driving icy rain to sparkle like crystals while bouncing off roof tiles and tree branches stripped bare of leaves.

Suddenly, as if by magic the wind runs out of puff; the rain eases. Supported by Dad’s strong arms, I caress the soft smoothness of his neck with my cheek; let eyelashes gently scrape his ears and feel his hair tickle my nose. Safe and consumed with a powerful love I breathe in the familiar fresh soaped skin, hair faintly Brylcreamed; a shirt collar impregnated with his perspiration. He smells so alive that the fear of losing him recedes.

His soft voice explains that lightning causes thunder. He talks about extreme heat, expansion, shock and sound waves, reminds me to read again the book What is Weather that I won for being first in my class at Ravenscraig Primary School. However, this is not school and staring into the darkness, I see thick, menacing, black clouds hiding the moon and stars. The foggy window’s tear-streaked glass shares my sorrow. I shiver, unsure whether the shadow hovering by the street lamp is a bat. I cling to Dad’s strong back and whisper, ‘I love you Dad. Don’t ever go away.’

With a surprise twirl, I’m swung around to sit on the windowsill, cold glass pressed against my back; transfixed by Dad’s dark brown eyes as he explains, ‘every living thing has a life cycle… I have to die one day darling.’ My horrified face crumples. He tries a joke. ‘If nobody died the world would be very crowded – eight in the bed everywhere, every day.’

He’s trying humour by recalling our special Sundays as a family. Sunday, the only day he doesn’t go to Ladyburn Depot to work for British Railways. The Sabbath important: we must rest, just as God rested on the seventh day after creating the world. For years, Dad has refused the lucrative double time he could earn by working on a Sunday. He swaps shifts with others so that he can honour his commitment to God, St Ninian’s Church, and family.

On Sunday mornings, we dive into Mum and Dad’s double bed for a rough and tumble, a tickle, and games such as I Spy and my Aunt Jane Went On Holiday. When it’s time to get up to prepare for church Dad sings, ‘There’s eight in the bed and the little one said,’ and baby Rita chants ‘roll over’. Then we all sing, ‘and we all roll over and one fell out,’ and of course the first one out is Mum as our raucous fun continues.

Down the stairs Mum pads, to light the coal fire, set the porridge on the gas stove, fold our underwear into the linen press to warm against the hot water pipes, set the Formica table for breakfast and buff our leather shoes lined up at the back door. The weekly ritual to be in our Sunday best, a triumph of organisation with only one bathroom and toilet to share, yet we make the nine o’clock family service at St. Ninian’s — and are never late – despite the local Church of Scotland where Dad is an Elder and Superintendent of the Sunday School, being a good half hour walk away. Our attendance records an amazing feat of achievement only rivalled by Mum’s similar success shepherding us out the door, on school days.

Mum’s nurturing taken for granted. It’s years before we reflect on how she was able to function on only a few hours sleep, rising with Dad’s soul-destroying shifts to ‘see him out’ and staying up ‘to see him safely home,’ while coping with the demands of motherhood, housekeeping routines and all the unexpected trials and tribulations of caring for in-laws as well as our big family.

In the kitchen, Mum clatters dishes, stirs pots and feeds the toaster with a loaf of bread, while the singing continues, until Dad and Rita are the last downstairs. A joyful family tradition, but the remembering only emphasises what a loss Dad’s death will be. I sniff and stifle a sob. Dad realises his mistake and tries another tack.  ‘I won’t be alone, Mairi. I’ll be with Jesus in Heaven and your Papa and Mamie will be there too.’

Shattered, the tears flood as if someone turned on a tap. I don’t want to be left lonely and sad like the boy in the movie. I don’t want to be reminded that people you love disappear. My chest heaves with wracking sobs. I’m conscious of moonlight reflecting off George’s glasses as he peeps from behind the bedroom door he has pushed ajar to see what’s going on.

The pain of my heart beating so fast it blocks my throat makes it hard to swallow. Red eyes ache as if full of grit; I rub my face into Dad’s shoulder transferring tears and snot, but he doesn’t mind. I want to bury myself beneath the blankets of the three-quarter bed I share with Catriona; forget the film, forget the storm, forget Dad’s attempts at making me feel better. Catriona doesn’t like me on her side of the bed, but perhaps tonight she’ll let me cuddle into her back…

‘Are you okay, Mum?’ Mary Jane places a tiny hand on my chest and pats it gently. Her other hand dabs at my tears with a tissue.  ‘Are you thinking of Papa?’ Her sympathy reflects an intuitive perception beyond her years.

These last few months have seen Dad deteriorate physically and mentally. At 76 years old, he’s a comparatively young man, in a society where we are being told seventy is the new sixty. However, an inexplicable, inexorable, inexpiable struggle with dementia is faced daily and I revisit the fear and pain of that long ago night each time a piece of music, a cooking smell, a photograph, a snatch of conversation conjures vivid images as if burnt into memory with a branding iron. Memories of a strong loving dad, not the shell of a man I visit in hospital or the nursing home where he resides and where I visit my future – perhaps. None of us has a crystal ball or knows how we’ll age!

The storm eases and the grandfather clock in the hall chimes seven o’clock. ‘Yes darling, I think about Papa all the time.’

The storm is over. Mary Jane eases from my grip. She kisses me again and notes my tear-stained face with concern. ‘I’m always thinking of Papa,’ I whisper.  She wraps her nine-year-old arms around my shoulders and buries her head into my neck, squeezing as tightly as she can.

‘I love you, Mum; I’m sorry about Papa. I wish he was safe with Jesus.’ My body wilts and I unashamedly sob just as I did all those decades ago.

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Health, Research and Giving Back

Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.  Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.  ~Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, 1977

How true! And after my sojourn with breast cancer I’m determined to try and keep my travels in the ‘kingdom of the well’. However, life can be a lottery: travelling on public transport, or teaching in community houses as I do, contact with the public can mean a random sneeze or cough transfers bacteria or virus. Then there’s genetics –– everyday it seems scientists discover links explaining why and how illness or disease occurs and whether family inheritance and/or environmental factors determines which passport you hold for the passage through life, and whether you can change your ticket. In the developed world, most of us are fortunate to choose our own lifestyle and our choices impact on our health.

Most people understand the value and importance of medical research and probably all know someone who has benefited from ground-breaking discoveries, many of which save lives, improve the quality of lives, and lead to huge advances in healthcare and public wellbeing. Various sciences need to be encouraged, developed, supported and sustained within our universities if medical research is to be advanced. There is an ever-growing patient demand for more effective treatments and care pathways to improve our health and wellbeing, and clinical science contributes greatly to ensuring the effectiveness of clinical care, but human guinea pigs are often necessary.

Almost ten years ago, I began volunteering for various research projects at Swinburne University of Technology and Melbourne University. The majority of the projects carried out by PhD students and their supervisors, and most related to Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and ageing, although there were some related to arthritis. Putting my hand up for a variety of relatively non-intrusive tests is not entirely altruistic –– with a family history of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dementia, arthritis and cancer –– I want to encourage clinicians and research-active physicians to evaluate the nature of the information that they are provided with from academia and apply it to improve current practices.

Even before I was diagnosed with breast cancer I had joined Lifepool, Australian women finding answers,  because my paternal aunt had a radical mastectomy in 1962. I lived with the fear/premonition that I was at risk. Unfortunately, there was no data collected on my aunt to be useful in my case. Breast cancer is assumed to be passed on through the maternal line, but it would have been interesting to investigate if there was a genetic or lifestyle link. Therefore, since my own diagnosis, the data they collect about me takes on greater significance. I have two daughters –– if there is the slightest chance researchers can prevent them developing breast cancer, I want to be part of that solution.

On Friday, I agreed to take part in a study exploring changes in blood flow in the brain of people of different ages using a new technique of inhaling carbon dioxide in room air. The project, designed to help researchers see how the brain changes with age, could lead to greater understanding of age-related cognitive decline in memory and thought processes. An MRI scan measured changes in blood flow in the brain while I performed finger tapping tasks, and then briefly breathed the carbon dioxide mixed with room air. There were many safeguards to this experimental research, a long checklist for suitability and a nurse and doctor nearby. The process took three hours because of the necessity of blood pressure and heart monitoring before and after the MRI, plus cognitive computer tests, breathing monitoring and an ultrasound of the cerebral artery.

Other trials, investigating memory, that I’ve taken part in over the years, involved green tea, special diets, herbal pills and numerous computer cognitive exercises and mobility tests. I’ve had caps sprouting electrodes gelled to my head, requiring a shampoo (but not set) before I left the building, and fasting and blood tests along with substituting different foods in my diet and keeping a record of food and drink consumed. All in the name of science with a lot of trust needed between researchers and participants. The other morning, I changed into partial ‘scrubs’ and through observation and conversation became part of a very different world for a few hours, reminding myself that all experiences are ‘grist to the mill’ for writers.

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Lying in the MRI scanner, head encased in a plastic helmet to ensure I kept still, I listened as the machine grunted its way through the steps to capture images. The ear plugs limited the sound, but the vibrations and persistent grinding could not be ignored, even with a David Attenborough nature DVD to distract me. I managed to suppress claustrophobia and cope with the experience by letting my mind wander and my imagination run wild. That overactive imagination criticised in childhood does come in handy!

I reminded myself that being my father’s daughter, I could easily develop Alzheimer’s disease; this research is personal. My Dad developed insulin-dependent diabetes in his 50s, suffered minor strokes in his 70s and was diagnosed with dementia and in a nursing home by age 76, where he lived for the last seven years of his life.

Writing about his experience and my feelings and fears, and ultimately about Dad’s life to try and reclaim the father I loved from the shell of a man he became, helped me survive those seven years. They were tough emotional years because my husband, John was diagnosed with asbestosis at the same time and told his lungs were so bad that it would be unwise to operate to correct the effects of a broken neck from a car accident. He’d have to live with the pain and limitations of a severe curve at the top of his spine, which of course impacted on his deteriorating lungs.

John in his inimitable style came out of the orthopaedic surgeon’s office saying, ‘I have some good news and some bad news. He can make me straight, but there is more than a 50% chance I will be dead straight, and he doesn’t want to take the risk.’

My mouth went dry, my whole body trembled and I clung to John, the pain of his disappointment and my fear of losing him melding to make us an immobile statue of anguish, until the sadness and sobs I had suppressed over the months of hospital and doctor visits, exploded. A scene played out in many hospital waiting rooms. The future too bleak to contemplate. The two men I loved the most disintegrating, slowly, painfully, inevitably before my eyes: Dad mentally and John physically.

A few months after accepting there was no operation to help John, researchers in England devised a new method of operating on the neck not requiring entering through the chest wall. By this time John’s health had deteriorated too far for any operation to be successful or I would have done what countless others have done to find a cure, or save a loved one. Disregard expense and the upheaval and travel overseas seeking the best help available.

Instead, we devoted our days and nights to quality family time, making sure John always had something to look forward to. Stay focused on the future and take one day at a time, our mantra. Writing, my salvation –– I had to earn money and teaching writing helped pay the bills, but it also helped quiet the mind and work through a roller coaster of emotions. It enabled me to keep life in perspective and function each day as a mother –– protecting and nurturing John and our two daughters daily priorities. Unfortunately, assuaging the troubled mind does not always translate to looking after the body and on reflection several health crises, even before breast cancer, could have been avoided, if I had taken better care of myself. Hindsight a wonderful gift!

Two stories were published in Together Alone, poems and other stories for the Anti-Cancer Council’s Daffodil Day, Text Publishing, 1998. One was about John, from his point of view. The Daffodil Day arts awards have become a fixture each year giving a voice to those who have been touched by cancer, either personally, or through knowing someone travelling that road. I’ve been fortunate to win several of their awards for poetry and short stories over the years –– a sad reflection in one way that I’ve witnessed so many people struggle with ill health, but also uplifting because I’ve seen people survive and get on with their lives.

A poem I wrote about Dad was published in Memory Weaving, An Anthology of Dementia Journeys, Poetica Christi Press, 2014. This anthology developed from Manningham Council awarding a Community Development Grant to Wordsmiths, the local poetry group, to explore the issue of ageing, and families touched by dementia. After a series of workshops they sought contributions from the wider community and my poem, and the poem of one of my students were chosen to be included. What an amazing project, weaving the threads and experiences of so many lives to remind us that being human is not just a list of achievements or solely defined by what you do, but a journey creating memories of loss and love and individual histories deserving of being recorded.

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