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Murdo, The Life and Works by Iain Crichton Smith

Birlinn, 2001, 285 p, plus xiii p Introduction by Stewart Conn.

 Murdo, The Life and Works cover

In my review of his collection After the Dance I mentioned Smith’s very-unScottish deployment of humour. This is most evident in the pieces presented by his Murdo persona, which is, as the book’s title implies, very much to the fore here.

Murdo, the Life and Works is divided into three sections Murdo, Thoughts of Murdo and Life of Murdo.

In the first, Murdo has given up his job at a bank in order to write a novel about a man who has given up his job at a bank in order to write a novel. Every morning he stares at the blank piece of paper in front of him and out of the window to look at the White Mountain (which he tells himself one day he must climb,) throughout the day he fortifies himself with cups of tea and every evening the sheet of paper is still blank. When he ventures outside the house his encounters with others tend to the bizarre, his behaviour beyond eccentric. His wife’s parents think she should leave him, while she herself thought she had understood him when they married but is now not so sure. At one point Murdo ruminates that, “Those who approach most closely to the condition of the animal are the ones most likely to survive. And Woolworths. Woolworths will live forever.” How wrong he was in that last assumption.

The second contains a multitude of diverse snippets of Murdo’s thoughts and writings – notes, letters, manifestos, poetry and observations – replete with wordplay and allusion and including some of his tales of Free Church adherent and private detective Sam Spaid who strides down the mean streets of Portree (and sometimes travels as far as Inverness.) Some of these animadversions appeared in After the Dance. There is also an account by Murdo he gave of a talk on the humanity of Robert Burns as revealed by the text of To a Mouse.

A preface to the third section says that Smith used the word Murdo instead of I in the autobiography which follows to distance himself from his memories as outlined there – including some of Dumbarton. Of course Murdo must contain aspects of Smith himself but as Murdo these are undoubtedly exaggerated. Many of Murdo’s opinions have certainly been adopted by Smith for comedic or satiric purposes. This section also contains Murdo’s reminiscences of the Scottish literary scene and its characters.

In contrast to his days staying there Dumbarton, says Murdo, is “much improved” principally because it now has a Sue Ryder shop (plus other charity shops.) Murdo scours the shelves of these, as of those elsewhere, in search of books.

As an illustration of a certain kind of Scottish discourse at one point one of his interlocutors, when asked about availability for some project or other, says, “‘I don’t know about Tuesday. That’s my Hate the Catholics night.’”

Note for the sensitive; this contains the word ‘dagoes.’

Pedant’s corner:- ‘Bridge over Troubled Waters’ (a common misprision, the song’s title is “Bridge over Troubled Water”,) “smoothe away” (smooth,) fifth equals (strictly that should be fifths equal,) “The Comunn Gaidhealach have even produced” (has even produced,) “by the bye” (by the by,) corn-beef (corned beef,) “barely bree” (barley bree,) “in the the brine” (only one ‘the’,) Harris’ (Harris’s,) Holmes’ (Holmes’s,) aquaducts (aqueducts,) an opened parenthesis never closed (x 2,) “the world of the army was not Murdo’s work” (not Murdo’s world makes more sense,) “didn’t consider Donalda threat” (didn’t consider Donalda a threat,) “jelly fish” (jellyfish,) jsut (just.)

The Lament: A Scottish Tradition.

I mentioned recently in my review of Christopher Rush’s A Twelvemonth and a Day that it fell into that long list of laments with which the Scottish novel is liberally bestowed – going back at least as far as the poem on the state of the nation written on King Alexander III’s death after falling from a cliff in Fife in 1286, but which may well be an oral tradition older still.

This sense of things lost seems to be an itch which Scottish letters is unable not to scratch.

Many of the books on the 100 best Scottish Books list fall into this tradition; of the ones I have read not only the Rush but also Iain Crichton Smith’s Consider the Lilies, Archie Hind’s The Dear Green Place, William McIlvanney’s Docherty, George Mackay Brown’s Greenvoe, Neil M Gunn’s The Silver Darlings, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song certainly qualify. Arguably Jessie Kesson’s The White Bird Passes also fits the bill; its title certainly does.

Whether this dwelling on things gone by is due to a sense of lost nationhood or not is a matter for debate but the itch is played out not just in Scottish literature, the lament is a major strand in bagpiping and has a long history in song (eg The Flowers o’ the Forest.) The Proclaimers’ Letter From America – “Bathgate no more” etc – is merely a modern take on the form.

Another important strand in the Scottish novel is that of the döppelganger/the supernatural. Here James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which can certainly be seen as a reflection on the duality of the Scots psyche after the Treaty of Union as well as an illustration of Scottish literature’s fascination with the Devil, is the prototypical – and arguably the finest – example though Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is perhaps better known furth of Scotland.

On thinking about all this I realised that, despite being Science Fiction, my own novel A Son of the Rock was also such a lament (though it eschews any truck with the supernatural.) The book was certainly conceived in part as an allegory of the decline of shipbuilding on the Clyde which had occurred in my early lifetime but I had not consciously been aware of any wider resonances while I was writing it. I did though somewhat impertinently consider it as a “condition of Scotland” novel.

Perhaps Scotland’s condition has always been in decline, its writers always noticing what has been, is being, lost. I note here that Andrew Grieg’s Fair Helen is a retrospective lament for the loss of “wit and laughter, music and dance and kindliness” in the Reformation.

The Herald’s 100 Best Scottish Fiction Books.

The Herald – formerly The Glasgow Herald – is, along with Edinburgh’s The Scotsman, one of the two Scottish newspapers of note. (Aberdeen’s Press and Journal and Dundee’s Courier could never compare; not least in circulation terms.)

I found the following list of The Herald’s 100 Best Scottish Fiction recommendations just under a year ago at a now defunct webpage http://www.heraldscotland.com/books-and-poetry/your-100-best-scottish-novels where only thirty works were actually given; with a solicitation to readers for further suggestions. Perhaps the page has been removed. It provides some fuel for future reading, though.

Of the 30, I have read 19 (asterisked below – where I also include from the Herald’s webpage the comments which accompanied the nominations, complete with any typographical and other errors.) Where applicable I have also linked to my review on this blog of that particular novel. Those in bold also appear on the list of 100 best Scottish Books.

1 The Death of Men, Allan Massie, 2004*
Anne Marie Fox says: Compelling as suspense and profound as a philosophical exploration of political ideologies and terrorism, ‘post-Christian’ consumer society and family.
2 The White Bird Passes, Jessie Kesson, 1958*
Alistair Campbell, Elgin, concludes: Writing of the highest quality, pared to poetic essence. The unforgettable tale of Janie’s childhood in crowded backstreets richly peopled by characters who live on the margins.
3 The Well at the World’s End, Neil Gunn, 1951*
Janet Feenstra recommends Gunn’s most personal novel: The metaphor of light reflects Gunn’s quest for personal enlightenment. Its optimism has relevance for Scotland now more than ever.
4 The Bridge, Iain Banks, 1986*
Allen Henderson, on Facebook, says: I’m a big Banks fan and for me, The Bridge just pips the Wasp Factory.
5 Cold in the Earth, Aline Templeton, 2005
Julia MacDonald, on Facebook, says: a novel with a clear description of Scottish towns and folk.
6 Fergus Lamont, Robin Jenkins, 1979
Ian Wishart, Edinburgh made this choice.
7 The Antiquary , Sir Walter Scott, 1816
Bryson McNail, Glasgow, writes of the second Scott entry to our list: It has some of the finest descriptive writing ever – the scenes and vistas open before you. It also has a great story line.
8 Joseph Knight, James Robertson, 2004*
Megan Mackie says: It is both a great story and a powerful history lesson rolled into one…a narrative of family relationships, betrayal and social justice told within the context of Scotland’s involvement in the slave trade.
9 Body Politic, Paul Johnston, 1999
Elaine Wishart, Edinburgh, concludes: As well as a great crime novel it paints a very very believable picture of Edinburgh as a city run for tourists – brilliant satire and cracking characters. I read it in one sitting.
10 A Disaffection, James Kelman, 1989*
Mark Barbieri says: Any one of Kelman’s novels could make the top 100 but the story of frustrated school teacher Patrick Doyle is his finest. Sad, honest, funny, vital, incomparable and simply brilliant..
11 The Holy City, Meg Henderson, 1997
Diane Jardine, Glasgow, says: Captured my home town with unnerving accuracy and helped me appreciate its psychology and community just a little bit more.
12 Young Art and Old Hector, Neil M. Gunn, 1942
Myra Davidson, Livingston, concludes: Wonderful depiction of childhood and old age. A Glasgow child, I was evacuated to a croft on Arran and I am still grateful for the introduction to a way of life I would not otherwise have had.
13 Whisky Galore, Compton Mackenzie, 1947
Elizabeth Marshall says: A lovely book that deserves to be included.
14 The House with the Green Shutters, George Douglas Brown, 1901*
Joan Brennan: This has to be among the very top of the finest 100 Scottish novels
15 Consider the Lilies, Iain Crichton Smith, 1968*
Derek McMenamin nominates the writer’s best known novel, about the Highland clearances.
16 Gillespie, J. MacDougall Hay, 1914*
Alan Mackie, Kinghorn says: An epic tale. And just as dark, if not darker than Crime and Punishment as an insight into what it means to be human. Not the happiest book but in terms of style and sheer enjoyment it is right up there with the best for me.
17 The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, James Hogg, 1824*
Kenneth Wright justifies his choice: Theology might not sound like a promising subject for fiction, but Hogg’s critique of the hardshell Calvinism that was Scotland’s religious orthodoxy c.1700 is compellingly expressed as ghost story, psychological thriller, earthy kailyaird comedy and drama of personal morality.
18 One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night, Christopher Brookmyre, 1999*
Vicky Gallagher says: I really enjoyed Christopher Brookmyre’s books, especially this one and A Tale Etched In Blood And Hard Pencil – very funny – very Glaswegian!
19 The Heart of Midlothian, Sir Walter Scott, 1818
Robert Miller is convinced it’s a forgotten masterpiece: This book has a real Scottish heroine and is very accurately based in a interesting time in Scottish history.
20 Greenvoe, George Mackay Brown, 1972*
Siobheann Saville says: Tragic, funny, poetic, descriptive – a book that has it all. Some of the passages read like poetry and have to be re-read several times. The wit and setting of ‘Local Hero’ and the family sagas of ‘Stars look down’ – a personal favourite I can read many times and still be surprised.
21 Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, 1932*
The first – and best – part of the Scots Quair trilogy explores several key issues, such as Scottish identity and land use, war, and the human condition. All bound up in an accessible, moving human tale. An evergreen classic.
22 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark, 1961*
First published in the New Yorker magazine, the novel’s heroine was memorably brought to life by Maggie Smith, complete with the girls who comprised her “crème de la crème”. It’s a bitingly funny examination of love, relationships, and power.
23 Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh, 1993
The graphic portrayal of a group of junkies made a huge impact, helped by Danny Boyle’s film. Welsh added a sequel, Porno, and a prequel, Skagboys, is due out in 2012.
24 Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886*
It may have been written as a “boys’ novel”, but the book’s basis in historical reality and its ability to reflect different political viewpoints elevates it to a far higher place, drawing praise from such figures as Henry James and Seamus Heaney.
25 The Thirty-Nine Steps, John Buchan, 1915*
The first of five novels to feature Richard Hannay initially appeared in serialised form in Blackwood’s Magazine. A rollicking good read ¬- if rendered slightly outdated by its kanguage and attitudes – it inspired British soldiers fighting in the WWI trenches, and the various film versions cemented its place in the literary canon.
26 Lanark, Alasdair Gray, 1981*
Gray’s first novel but also his crowning glory: a marvellous mixture of storytelling, illustration, and textual subversion which set the tone for his future work. The author cited Kafka as a major influence, but just about any interpretation of his words is possible…and that’s the fun.
27 Black and Blue, Ian Rankin, 1997
Not everyone will agree with this choice, but Rankin is the acknowledged king of Tartan Noir, and the eighth Inspector Rebus book won him the Crime Writers’ Association’s Macallan Gold Dagger.
28 The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald, 1872
This son of Aberdeenshire’s fantasy is regarded as having had a seminal influence on children’s literature, with such luminaries as Mark Twain and GK Chesterton paying homage. Film versions of the book have not been huge successes, but it appears in the 100 Classic Book Collection compiled for the Nintendo DS.
29 Clara, Janice Galloway, 2002
Galloway first came to prominence with The Trick is to Keep Breathing, but Clara, based on the life of the composer’s wife Clara Schumann and which won her the Saltire Book Award, is seen as her finest achievement.
30 The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, Tobias Smollett, 1771*
Born in Renton, West Dunbartonshire, Smollett trained as a surgeon at Glasgow University, but moved to London to find fame as a dramatist. A visit back to Scotland inspired his final novel, a hilarious satire on life and manners of the time. His fiction is thought to have influenced Dickens.

Reading Scotland 2015

A lot of my Scottish reading this year was prompted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books I discovered in February. Those marked below with an asterisk are in that 100 best list. (In the case of Andrew Greig’s Electric Brae I read it before I was aware of the list and for Robert Louis Stevenson his novella was in the book of his shorter fiction that I read.)

Electric Brae by Andrew Greig*
A Sparrow’s Flight by Margaret Elphinstone
The Guinea Stamp by Annie S Swan
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson*
Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks by Christopher Brookmyre
Buddha Da by Anne Donovan*
Flemington by Violet Jacob*
Tales From Angus by Violet Jacob
Annals of the Parish by John Galt
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Change and Decay in All Around I See by Allan Massie
The Hangman’s Song by James Oswald
Wish I Was Here by Jackie Kay
The Hope That Kills Us Edited by Adrian Searle
Other stories and other stories by Ali Smith
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi*
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison*
No Mean City by H McArthur and H Kingsley Long*
Shorter Scottish Fiction by Robert Louis Stevenson*
The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett*
Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind*
Fur Sadie by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown*
Stepping Out by Cynthia Rogerson
Open the Door! by Catherine Carswell*
The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn*
Scotia Nova edited by Alistair Findlay and Tessa Ransford
After the Dance: selected short stories of Iain Crichton Smith
John Macnab by John Buchan
Another Time, Another Place by Jessie Kesson
Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith*
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan*
Poems Iain Banks Ken MacLeod
Mistaken by Annie S Swan
Me and Ma Gal by Des Dillon*
Tea with the Taliban: poems by Owen Gallagher
A Choosing by Liz Lochhead
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins*
Born Free by Laura Hird*
the first person and other stories by Ali Smith

That makes 42 books in all (plus 2 if the Violet Jacob and Archie Hind count double.) None were non-fiction, 3 were poetry, 2 SF/Fantasy, 19 + (4x½ + 3 doublers) by men, 13 + (3 doublers and 1 triple) by women, 2 had various authors/contributors.

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

Phoenix, 2001, 152 p including ii p preface by the author and vi p introduction by Isobel Murray. One of the 100 best Scottish books. Returned to a threatened library.

Consider the Lilies cover

The novel’s focus is on seventy year old, God-fearing widow Mrs Scott (who is only once referred to, by her neighbour Big Betty, as Murdina.) Mrs Scott is one day visited by the Duke of Sutherland’s agent Patrick Sellar and informed she will have to leave her house in a mutually uncomprehending conversation; uncomprehending partly because she speaks Gaelic and he English but also because each has no understanding of the life of the other. The intention is to have the inhabitants move to the coast and take up fishing. And so unfolds a story set in the Highland Clearances which took place mostly in the county of Sutherland in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Mrs Scott feels embedded in her home. “If you took (a potato) out of the earth before its time it would die.” It was where she tholed her mother’s illness till her death, married her husband (before driving him into the army) and brought up her son. “It isn’t easy for a woman to rear a boy. It’s easier when it’s a girl.” She decides to try to alleviate her confusion by first consulting the local elder and then the minister, but both are of no use and indeed seem, the minster in especial, to be in favour of the proposed change. In the meantime Big Betty has heard stories of those already cleared off the land further south finding no houses and no boats at their destinations and having to build their own.

It is only with the family of atheist (and stirrer-up of trouble via newspaper articles) Donald Macleod to whose house she is carried to recuperate after a fall that Mrs Scott finds compassion. He tells her, “To them we’re not people. That’s what we’ve got to understand. They don’t think of us as people,” and Smith articulates Macleod’s feelings as, “His hatred was not simply for those who were bent on destroying the Highlands, not simply for the Patrick Sellars, but for those interior Patrick Sellars with the faces of old Highlanders who evicted emotions and burnt down love.”

Restored to her own home and invited by the Duke’s agents to denounce Macleod, Mrs Scott realises, “There are far more defeats than victories, victories last only a short time and the defeats last for ever.”

In his preface Smith states he has not written a historical novel as he was “not competent to do a historical study of the period” but was interested primarily in the person of his main character. He mentions the problem of language – the displaced crofters would all have spoken Gaelic – and his conclusion that a clear, simple English would best encapsulate her mind. Yet while the Clearances are the ostensible subject of the novel (and probably account for the inclusion of this book in that 100 best list) I agree with Isobel Murray whose introduction argues that the real target is religion. Then again, in the traditional Scottish novel when isn’t it?

Pedant’s corner:- in the introduction “of of” (one of is enough) and a missing full stop. Elsewhere Mrs Scott finds a picture of her parents. The clearances took place in the era before photographs and a portrait would surely have been beyond a crofter’s means. As noted in the introduction there are other anachronisms to do with time scales. In this context I noted a mention of footballers. We also have “with bowl” (with a bowl.)

After the Dance by Iain Crichton Smith

Selected stories of Iain Crichton Smith. Edited and with an introduction by Alan Warner. Polygon, 2013, 256p plus 4 p introduction. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 After the Dance  cover

Of the many characteristics Scottish literature habitually exhibits – a preoccupation with the dark side of human nature, a fascination with the devil (or at least manifestations of the supernatural,) a questioning of identity, a sense of being peripheral, or isolated, a lack of communication, a love of the land – humour does not come high on the list. The former do appear in these pages (to great effect) yet humour is also here, in spades; a reflection of the author himself, as Alan Warner’s introduction to this collection attests. Warner considers Crichton Smith’s creation, Murdo, to be one of the most unpredictable, and most welcome, characters in recent Scottish writing. I can only concur.

Born in the islands, Crichton Smith straddled Scotland’s own two cultures, Highland/island as contrasted to Lowland, Gaelic versus English. Adept with prose and as a poet, his Consider the Lilies is in the list of 100 best Scottish books. I’ll get round to that sometime.

Murdo Leaves the Bank sees misfit Murdo, kilt, red feather in his hair and all, leave the staid bank branch he had tried to liven up. Mr Heine is an ex-pupil who turns up unannounced to the house of his former teacher to commemorate his retirement. In The Play a new young teacher of English finds the only way he can enthuse his raising-of-the-school-leaving age class is to have them improvise. The Telegram is being carried through the village by the elder, watched by two women each dreading it is bearing news of the death of her son in the war. Murdo’s Xmas Letter details the exploits which he got up to during the year; including running a Scottish short story competition – “What I look for first is good typing, then originality,” – and a crusade for truthful In Memoriams – “May James Campbell’s randy bones rest in peace.” The Red Door has been mysteriously painted that colour overnight. When its owner discovers the change it causes him to reassess his life. The Button has loosened from the jacket of a man whose wife and himself had come not to speak to each other. The untidiness obsesses her. Murdo’s Application for a Bursary is to help write his novel about a private eye, Sam Spaid, who is a member of the Free Church. (“I do not see why the Catholics should have Father Brown and we Protestants nobody.”) From there it digresses. The Mess of Pottage is one of Sam Spaid’s cases. A man has left his overly religious wife. In the interview with her Sam ponders the delights of predestination, then follows the trail to the flesh pots of Inverness. The Old Woman and the Rat is a total change of style, as it relates the violent encounter between the two titular characters in the woman’s barn. So too, is The Crater; an account of a World War 1 trench raid and its aftermath while The House is the tale of the delayed construction, over five generations of the Macrae family, of a stone house.

On A September Day young Iain comes home by bus from his school in Stornoway and walks through the village. The talk is all of the international situation and his thoughts become suffused with images of war. The inhabitants are proud of The Painter despite his less than flattering portrayals of the village, until one day he starts to paint, dispassionately, a fight between Red Roderick and his father-in-law. In Church, an abandoned one, in a wood behind the lines, is where Lieutenant Colin Macleod chances upon a deserter dressed as a priest. The Prophecy he has been told about is unwound by an English incomer to a Highland village who muses, “Life is not reasonable, to live is to be inconsistent. To be consistent is to cease to live.” To test out the prophecy he constructs a shed. This leads to a clash between the young (who want to use it for dancing; well, we know what that leads to) and the local minister. In Do You Believe In Ghosts? Iain and Daial go out hunting for ghosts while A Day in the Life of… chronicles said day of a woman who never married, whose parents are dead and who takes pointless holidays. She wanders Edinburgh, thinks what about what her mother would have said of illuminated bibles in an exhibition she visits, “’Nothing but candles and masses. Heathenism,’” before deciding she can’t bear total freedom any more.

Murdo and Calvin is another jeu d’esprit wherein Murdo goes to a police station to denounce Calvin, “a dangerous lunatic….responsible for the Free Church, for the state of Scottish literature, and for many other atrocities too numerous to mention. And especially the Kailyard.” He also believes him, “to have invented the Bible,” that (Calvin) hates women and deceives men, and is a man who uses boredom as a weapon. In After the Dance a man goes back to a woman’s house, they talk, and he asks to watch television. What he sees strikes a chord with him. Mother and Son portrays the eponymous pair in all their backbiting, resentful hopelessness. “He had now become so sensitive that he usually read some devilish meaning into her smallest utterance.” An American Sky sees a now retired emigrant to the US return to his island home for a visit. He reflects, “Perhaps those who went away were the weaker ones …. unable to suffer the slowness of time.” But there is no going back to the same place. Murdo and the Mod relates Murdo’s money-making schemes surrounding that annual celebration of Gaelic culture – protection for adjudicators, procuring B&Bs for choirs, invisible hearing aids (for turning off on the seventh hearing of the same song,) soundproofing rooms for pipers to practise their pibrochs etc. etc. Sweets to the Sweet tells of how a mini-skirted, peroxided, motherless, daughter of a shopkeeper behaves towards the owner of the shop next door. The Bridge is a story about legends and hauntings and being careful what you wish for set against the backdrop of a trip to Israel. The Long Happy Life of Murdina the Maid is a swipe at tales of the olden days, written in the style of a legend, and tells the story of a maid who was inveigled to the great metropolis, was disillusioned there and returned to set up business at home, where there is no competition for her trade. The Wedding is a Highland one but held in a city where no-one speaks Gaelic. The bride’s father makes an awkward speech and seems like the proverbial spare…. until the songs in Gaelic start. The Hermit plays his chanter – badly – when the local bus stops outside his hut. The Exiles are an old woman once from the Highlands but now living on a Lowlands council estate and a Pakistani law student doing a door-to-door round to support himself. In The Maze time seems to accelerate for a man who cannot navigate it. A boy is left In the Silence in a field when his playmates disappear.

After the Dance is a glorious collection; well worth reading.

PC:- For those of a nervous disposition the word negro is used; there is a mention – as depicted in a television programme – of the hooded axe-man at Anne Boleyn’s execution. (Someone’s got this wrong. Boleyn was executed with a sword, by a man clothed unexceptionally in order to keep her at as much ease as possible.) Each left hand page header is Selected Stories of Iain Crichton Smith but the right hand header is the particular story’s title – except on the last right hand page of Sweets to the Sweet where the header was Survival Without Error – which appears nowhere else in the book.

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