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I've just been to see The Downfall/Der Untergang with Steph.

I genuinely found it staggeringly good. Those who criticise it for making Hitler and his inner circle seem human seem to me to be utterly missing the point. That is the point, that they weren't aliens from the planet Zog. Like it or not, the message is, ordinary humans are capable of extraordinary evil - and then of being very kind to their secretaries. And that the secretaries, like Traudl Junge, on whose book the film is partly based and from whose point of view it is told, can, as she effectively admitted in an interview made shortly before her death in 2002 shown at the end of the film, close their eyes to it. She says for many years she felt detached from it all, that it was nothing to do with her. And then, at a memorial to a White Rose girl of her own age, killed around the time she was being interviewed for her job by Hitler at Wolf's Lair, she says she realised - she could have found out what was really happening. If she had wanted to do so.

Beautifully shot, and a convincing portrayal of a city under siege. The characters are brilliantly played, so friendly and kind from her point of view (with the exception of Goebbels, where they seem to have given up and decided to portray him as pretty much insane throughout). Most of the film takes place in the last week of Hitler's life, with Traudl awaking in the bunker to realise "those aren't bombs. That's artillery." Eva Braun, desparately trying to believe everything is going to be fine. Hitler himself, one moment the kindly grandfather, the next accusing everyone of treachery, ordering divisions that no longer effectively existed to move on Berlin and contemplating how they're going to recapture oilfields after they've dealt with all this. Frau Goebbels, devastated at Hitler's decision to die, and then calmly, efficiently, executing each of her children rather than let them live in a world without National Socialism. That rather pleasant plump bloke, who's he.... oh, you realise in the titles, that was Bormann. Speer, an enigma in the film as he is, to me at least, in reality. Hitler's personal SS detachment, resolving to fight to the last bullet. So brave, you think, and then you think again.

And that's the thing about the film - it can only make its point against the background of what you know about these people. But surely its right: if Hitler and his inner circle were somehow other, then how could there be a lesson for us worth remembering?

One odd historical point I didn't know, but assume wasn't made up. Himmler, early on, mentions secret negotiations with Eisenhower with the aim of a managed peace, and others in the bunker raise the same idea later. I can see why the Americans and British would have been interested - they were already thinking ahead and worrying about Stalin - but I'd have thought by then it would be far too late.

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I've just spent a fascinated half hour poking around Prokudin-Korskii's photographs of Russia from about 1907 to 1915. Colour photographs, some time before colour film was invented (he took three photos of each image, through red, green, and blue filters, the three negatives have now been digitised and had things I Do Not Wot Of done to them by magic computer elves).

They're absorbing in themselves, but the impact of colour is staggering. I'm having one of those "the past is just over there" moments. If that means anything to anyone else. Probably not. Link found by poking around on Ryan's journal, he being the man behind not only "Songs as Lists" but also the wonderful Dinosaur Comics (have a look at the archive, if you aren't already familiar with this work of genius). Like him, this, of Alim Khan, Emir of Bukhara (1880-1944, photo 1911) is my favourite.

***

In a rash moment this afternoon I appear to have said I might go clubbing on Friday, albeit only to Popstarz. Hmm. We shall see. I also threatened to wear a tweed jacket, but suspect this will, in fact, not happen.

Pepys

Feb. 3rd, 2005 12:31 am
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(Entry for 2nd February 1662)

(Lord’s day). To church in the morning, and then home and dined with my wife, and so both of us to church again, where we had an Oxford man give us a most impertinent sermon upon “Cast your bread upon the waters, &c.

But what did he say that was so impertinent? (Is there some 17th-century meaning/connotation of "impertinent" of which I'm unaware? Still, good for Oxford.

Alexander

Jan. 7th, 2005 11:48 pm
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I'm just back from three hours of historical epic: the short version - I rather liked it and don't think it deserves the slating it's had, though it has many failings. I would, however, like to know what someone who hasn't read Mary Renault's Alexander Trilogy several times since they were 10ish makes of it.

Apropos of which... that trilogy is quite blatantly the foundation of the film -of the way the story was told and the characters were portrayed-, and so far as I could see it wasn't explicitly acknowledged, though admittedly although I stayed for most of the titles because there were so many people in the cast we'd sat there thinking "oh, that's wossname", I didn't stay to the very end (it was 10 to 11) and there may have been an acknowledgment there. In particular the very first sequence after Old Ptolemy's framework introduction is the beginning of Fire from Heaven: an episode which I'm fairly comes almost entirely from Renault's imagination and serves to set out the emotional relationship between Phillip, Olympias and Alexander, one of the driving themes of both her trilogy and the film - and, quite probably, of the real Alexander's psychological makeup to be fair. Stone goes on to point a big red arrow at what, so far as I remember, Renault leaves as a join the dots exercise for the reader by having Philip include in a discussion with Alexander about mythical heroes not only Achilles and Prometheus but also Oedipus, and a warning about women. That isn't the only bit where I saw her hand but it is the most explicit.

There's nothing wrong with that: her trilogy is probably the best fictionalisation of Alexander's career out there, far better than Maurice Druon's Alexander the God, particularly if you're looking to portray him reasonably positively. But it would have been good to see it acknowledged. I suppose that scene may itself have been Stone's nod to her, but still.

Score a typical Vangelis score: I didn't know for a fact it was him until the credits but would have staggered to find it wasn't. Large chunks of it sounded very much the 1492 score (which I rather like).

One of the reviews I read said Farrell gave a strong performance but was let down by a weak script. While the script is indeed weak, particularly in Farrell's major speeches, his performance was bloody awful, the worst element of the film by a long way. And they really ought to have bleached his eyebrows as well as his hair. The best performance, by far, was Angelina Jolie as Olympias (though I'm biased here). Hopkins as Old Ptolemy was, I thought, fine but there was too much at the end of him summing up.

By and large it seemed pretty close to the historical narrative as I remembered it (I did wonder whether they'd changed the order of his marriages but that was the only significant point). I'd have preferred it had they left it ambiguous whether Alexander was involved in his father's death before the fact: for most of that sequence I wasn't sure how whether Alexander knew what was going to happen or not and then they went and answered a question which should have been left, as it in truth is, open.

Only two battles are included -Gaugamela and, presumably, the battle of the Hydaspes in India but, frankly, wow. I can't remember many better battle scenes. Far and away the high points of the film, excepting only, possibly, Alexander standing looking over the Hindu Kush, and beautifully shot (classic Stone stuff here), particularly the latter. The former in particular had Lane Fox written all over it - a really quite unnecessarily (in that unless you already knew how the battle worked you probably wouldn't get it) accurate account of the battle that shows Alexander for one of the greatest military tacticians of recorded history.

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"When five-year-old Jehan Martin was murdered in 1457, the culprits were quickly apprehended, imprisoned and brought to trial. The case followed the normal procedure for such a serious crime, except in one important respect: the accused were pigs. Following the customs of the Burgundian court that dealt with the matter, the pigs' owner was invited to make representations "concerning the punishment and execution of justice" against the animals. He waived this right and the prosecutor demanded the death penalty. The judgment that followed was unusually tricky, since one of the animals appeared to be more culpable than the others. The child was killed by a sow in the presence of her six piglets. These were stained with blood at the scene of the crime but there was "no positive proof that they had assisted in mangling the deceased". After consulting with local experts[*] the judge ruled that the sow should be executed. A hangman was brought from a neighbouring town to hang the beast by its hind legs from an oak tree. The verdict on the piglets was less severe. They could return to their owner if he was prepared to vouch for their future behaviour and present them in court "should further evidence be forthcoming to prove their complicity in their mother's crime". The owner refused these terms and the pigs were forfeited to a local noblewoman. It appears that their subsequent conduct was blameless and no further punishments were needed."

Darren Oldridge, Strange Histories: the trial of the pig, the walking dead, and other matters of fact from the medieval and Renaissance worlds chap. 3 citing E.P Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (1906 repr 1987) and E. Cohen, "Law, Folklore, and Animal Lore", Past and Present 110 (1986)

[*] This was a recognised area of expertise?

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Today in Alternate History on different Armistice Days...

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I'm just back from appearing before the Judicial Appeals Committee of the Privy Council.

This isn't quite as impressive as it sounds: I was there to collect a judgment, and since one never (well, almost never) argues about costs when doing so my involvement consisted of leading in the column of barristers for the respondents in some eight appeals, bowing in the right place, sitting still for ten seconds while judgement was given (the reasons for judgment aren't read out, just delivered on paper afterwards, all you get are the headlines), rising again and bowing in the right place (I think I got this bit wrong) and leaving as the next case was called. All in wig and gown of course. There are worse ways to earn a hundred quid.

The Judicial Appeals Committee of the Privy Council )

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When Violet Asquith, aboard the Enchantress in 1912 [on a Bonham-Carter/Asquith/Churchill family cruise] looked out at the lovely Mediterranean coastline and exclaimed, "How perfect", [Churchill] replied, "Yes- range perfect, visibility perfect-If we had got some six inch guns on board how easily we could bombard..."

(D. Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace (2003), chapter 1)

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I've just discovered that Patrick Wormald died recently. I feel rather sad: I knew him well enough to say hello and chat for a bit at drinks after seminars and similar when I was in my third year and then at Oxford. One of the best Anglo-Saxon historians of his day, and a genuinely interesting and friendly guy, at least when sober.

I remember him chain smoking throughout a seminar once, much to the chair's despair. I also remember seeing him drink... which was sad -as most who knew him were well aware, he was a heavy-duty alcoholic. His work was, even with that burden, an impressive body, despite the fact he was only 57 when he died.

Ho hum.

Sep. 27th, 2004 08:50 am
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Well, so I bought a new laptop (I did look at second hand etc but for various reasons decided against it). And all went well, installed linux and all worked like a dream.

Until the power unit completely failed on Sunday morning.

After throwing the fucker out of the window I decided to revert to hunter-gatherer. Sadly I haven't caught anything on Primrose Hill yet. I am still reflecting on whether fire and the wheel fall within my definition of an acceptable level of technology*.

To settle my fit of temper I decided to go and visit two places I didn't manage to fit in on Open House London weekend: Wellington Arch (v. unfamiliar perspective on familiar views from the top) and Apsley House ("No.1 London", the Duke of Wellington Museum).

Both are well worth the visit. The oddest thing I found in the latter was the colossal -and I use the term advisedly, and technically- statue of a nude Napoleon holding Victory (or Peace?) in the palm of his hand, which lives in the stairwell (couldn't really go anywhere else). When I saw it my immediate comment was "Oh my gawd" and it would seem Napoleon's must have been similar: apparently the Emperor found it so embarrassing he had it hidden behind screens at the Louvre. Then the British Government bought it from Louis XVIII for 66000 livres (he must have laughed all the way to the bank), and the Prince Regent gave it to Wellington, who put it where it now is.

Now, leaving aside the odd distinction between the British Government buying it and the Prince Regent giving it (this may have something to do with the removal of control over Crown finances from him and the institution of the Civil List, which must have happened around then) it seems to me that there are more than two levels of messages here, bearing in mind that the Prince Regent's relationship with Wellington was somewhat ambivalent. I'm just not sure what they are, or on whom the joke is.

There is, incidentally, a much better (and more recognisable) portrait of Napoleon at the head of the stairs.

Wellington was a noted art collector (so Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell says in passing, anyway). When he defeated Joseph Bonaparte, he captured the Spanish Royal Collection, and the King of Spain told him to keep it (so sayeth the museum, this may be something of an exaggeration as the last time I looked the Prado was hardly empty). Wellington had them put in the Waterloo Gallery, where he held his annual Waterloo Dinner, and what struck me here was that one of the three pictures in prime positions (ie in the centre of the three walls with pictures) was of Mary Tudor (the others were of Rudolph II, and of Charles I on the long wall). It's reasonably obvious what it was doing in the Spanish Royal Collection but prominently displayed in the formal collection of the High Tory of High Tories, in a room used for a specific formal purpose? Was there more than pragmatism to Wellington's support for Catholic Emancipation? No, almost certainly not, but still...

It's a good portrait actually. I haven't seen that many of her (I doubt there are many): one can easily see the resemblance to her sister. I always think Mary gets a raw deal: not only does her equally bloodthirsty sister get to rule for a generation after her and thus control the history, and have the most gifted generation of English writers to help her establish her image; but their unbelivably stupid, arrogant, and irritating cousin, her namesake, gets all the tragic status. Bah humbug.

*The computer is covered under warranty of course, and they've agreed to replace it, but I left the manuals etc, which they want back, at home, so I'll have to do it tomorrow. What's bothering me are the mildly confidential documents I'd put on there and can't delete until it has power, though they are protected by passwords... They're on the linux partition, and in any case I'm fairly sure that they'll reformat the hard disk as a matter of course: anyone with the requisite knowledge have any views or ideas?

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Reading the Speccie on the loo just now I was struck by a letter from John Osman, a former BBC correspondent, who writes that at a dinner at the Life Guards mess to which Osman had been invited on his return from covering the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war Mountbatten sat next to him and talked frankly and at length about the subcontinent. Mountbatten's final verdict on his own work: "I fucked it up."

Very true, Louis.

Meanwhile, in linkage, Ken McLeod has interesting, if depressing, things to say about the Caucasus. Having said that, I rather thought Britain and the US were on Russia's side so far as Russia's internal problems were concerned, though less so when it comes to Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan and Russia's attempts to regain power there. Apropos of which, have they decided where this sodding pipeline is actually going to run yet?

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With my morning hearing having started remarkably promptly and having taken something under four minutes to resolve (hurrah for no-nonsense circuit judges) I decided I couldn't, after all, face spending the next four hours in a gloomy north-west London county court or its grimy environs and headed back into central London and my favourite Soho café.

When that excitement palled. and mindful of the injunction I've issued againt myself to prevent me crossing the doorstep of Foyles (or indeed any bookshop) before my birthday, I was aimlessly wondering up Greek St when I noticed the House of St Barnabas in Soho was having an open day. )

Yawn

Jun. 18th, 2004 10:03 pm
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I bought two books in Foyles on my way home. To my immense irritation, I realised on the tube that I had bought, read (and loved) one of them (Robin Hobb's Golden Fool) several months ago (for some reason I thought I'd read a library copy, ok?). To my even more intense irritation I haven't yet reached the end of the first chapter of the second, Margaret Doody's Aristotle and Poetic Justice, a historical crime novel with the interesting conceit of Aristotle as the great detective, and I've already thrown it on the floor in a fit of boredom twice.

The problem with the book can be simply summed up: infodump. The author has done her research, and by god is she going to let us know it: so far we've had exposition on the process of passing laws in Athens at the time, a discussion of social structures and relationships, a digression on the basis of the Athenian economy with the surprising and staggering information that being a slave in the silver mines at Laurion wasn't very pleasant, some information about lawsuits, a quick rundown on the Peloponnesian War, a discussion of marriage law, and more. In ten pages. As for Aristotle, he hasn't appeared.

What we haven't had is anything that looks like the semblance of the smidgeon of a hint of (a) a plot, or (b) character exposition. Except that the first person narrator seems to be the kind of intensely dull person who would at a moment's notice launch into a story a la Ancient Mariner and then divert into explaining the British parliamentary system and the process for passing bills, including an exposition on the committee stage. Since he's a first person narrator, one presumes that the people to whom he is hypothetically addressing himself might actually know as much about this stuff as they wished, no?

Failing to research the setting for a novel properly is, in my view, a Bad Thing. That doesn't mean that you have to spill every detail you've researched instantly. Lindsey Davis is a prime example of how to do it: sending Falco to the mines rather than telling us they existed and weren't very nice for instance, at least up until A Body in the Bathhouse, where she'd obviously been lectured to, and enthused by, someone who knew about recent excavation work there in detail.

Perhaps, with that terrible burden, the benefit of a classical education (and a degree in ancient and modern history -modern history starting with Constantine and, for me, not including any courses from after 1485-) I'm being unfair. It's certainly true that I find it particularly irritating because I still remember enough of all-nighters spent writing essays on the Athenian constitution. But I don't know that I'd find the equivalent information in, say, a novel set in the British Raj, any less irritating and I know sweet FA about that. Sod this, where's the Kipling I was reading gone?

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Hurrah. Glastonbury tickets have arrived, and the hearing someone booked in for the morning of Thursday 24th before I remembered to book it out has now gone away because I'm too expensive, apparently. Such is life.

I've been reading a book about the Greek-Turkish war in 1919-1922, a coda to the First World War, recently: fascinating, particularly when read alongside Fromkin's Peace to end all peace, which deals with the Allies squabbly attempts to rebuild the middle east out of the Ottoman Empire in some compromise between the different images that suited them, thus landing us all in the shitty place we now are. (It's also amazing to think about just how many different balls Lloyd George was keeping in the air in those years. His attitude of encouraging the Greeks, against the advice of Churchill, Curzon, and most of the rest, while refraining from giving them any actual help, was the root cause of the mess the Greeks eventually found themselves in.)

Anyway, like most such tales of high level diplomacy behind the scenes, there are moments of mordant humour. Lloyd George, in a memo of 21st July 1921 sent to the Minister of War, was obviously unimpressed to learn major news from the Greeks rather than from British sources:

"Have you no department which is known as the Intelligence Department in your office? You might find what it is doing. It appears in the Estimates at quite a substantial figure but when it comes to information it is not visible. Please look into this yourself."

D-Day

Jun. 6th, 2004 09:05 pm
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(In which I pontificate pretentiously)

I went home for the weekend, as I hadn't seen my parents for a while and won't be free for a longer while of weekends.

Since my father had a minor stroke some years ago now, his health has progressively degenerated. He takes a vast cocktail of prescribed medicines, one side effect of which has been to make him extremely emotional. We've got used, over the last couple of years, to him bursting into tears when something said in dinnertime conversation, or on the radio makes him feel this way.

A weekend of D-Day reminiscences )
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Starting with the sublime, Brad reports Eric Alterman on Plan of Attack, and adds:

"I don't know when I'll read it: I don't think it would be healthy for me to get depressed to any further extent. And close engagement with the details of this administration--on any issue--is always depressing."

Secondly, and rather more cheerfully, Samuel Pepys speaks from beyond the grave to tell us just how he felt the morning after the coronation of Charles II, 24th April 1661:

"Waked in the morning with my head in a sad taking through the last night’s drink, which I am very sorry for; so rose and went out with Mr. Creed to drink our morning draft, which he did give me in chocolate to settle my stomach".

Ah Sam, I sympathise. But.. chocolate and beer?

Finally, as always... Fafblog advises Ariel Sharon on how he can ensure he remembers what he needs to do and not to do:

"Now I usually get myself more organized with a To Do List. It reminds me what I have to do and not do and keeps me organized. I think Ariel Sharon would be able to keep things much straighter if he just kept a goals calendar to keep himself on track. Ariel Sharon, here is an idea to get you started:

Monday

  • brush teeth
  • buy eggs
  • aerobicize!
  • do not kill Yasser Arafat.

Tuesday

  • go jogging!
  • dismantle settlements
  • for lunch: a light salad.
  • do not kill Yasser Arafat."

Who needs other blogs when you have these three? Well, me, obviously, neverthless they're all high on my list.

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It was sunny when I woke up, and I was full of the joys of Spring. Now hail sweeps across central London, and my mood.

But enough of that.

KenMcLeod of the Clan Mcleod (you did that yesterday: Ed) writes, as so many others have, on the appalling general knowledge test results coming, for once, from England rather than the Transatlantic Colonies:

Blame is being divided between the Left in the education system (downgrading 'kings and battles' history for social history) and Hollywood (making shit up). This seems fair and balanced.

...

I can think of ways in which the method of the survey could bias the results. If, for instance, people were presented with a list of names of battles, and asked to indicate which were real and which were not, wouldn't Endor and Helm's Deep sound more historical than the Little Big Horn and the Bulge? Still, I like the idea that some of my compatriots believe Harold Wilson flanked by Xena and Conan led an army of cyborgs to victory over the apes in the Battle of Woking during the Martian invasion ...

There's a novel in there somewhere.

Plus a later post on smoking bans:

In the smoking culture war, of course, 48.03% of statistics are made up, so I prefer to stick with arguments from liberty and common sense. If it turns out to 'work' in Ireland, I won't take that as a reason to oppose it less in Scotland. I'll just take it as bad news about the Irish.

Glad to know the hard left are on my side.

Anyway, having made it look as though I've made a substantial post by quoting someone else at length, and having spent the day on a fairly complicated Thing (raising the interesting question of whether long-established subtle differences that may -or may not- exist between equitable presumptions about gifts made by husbands to wives and those about gifts made by wives to husbands, usually operating to the benefit of the wife, should be revisited by the courts or left to Parliament to resolve), and having run out of breath on that last parenthesis, I shall now go forth from this place and wend my way slowly and via a cafe to Soho House, apparently, at the kind invitation of Simon. Went out with K. last night, so this idea of living quietly while I recuperate seems to have gone for a Burton. What is a Burton? Can I be bothered to google? Tune in tomorrow for the next thrilling installment...

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Lloyd's of London sued for underwriting slave transports. Interesting. Almost certainly doomed to failure, on any one of a number of grounds, and I'd say quite rightly so, but interesting none the less.

I'd like to know a little more though. For one thing, are they suing the Corporation or the Society's current members? Is the corporation itself effectively underwritten for such things by its members?

Guinness

Mar. 17th, 2004 04:29 pm
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Oh and one final thing... I always think that there's a certain irony that Guinness, or rather Diageo, a multinational built on a business founded by a strongly Unionist Church of Ireland Ascendancy family, does so well out of St Patrick's day.

In the 1830s O'Connell's supporters argued for a nationalist boycott of Guinness because of the strong opposition of the family to home rule. It was largely because O'Connell himself said nay that it didn't happen.

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Yes, it's that time of year again: time to drink as much as possible in as short a time as possible.

No, I'm not talking about wearing green and drinking Guinness in commemoration of a composite of at least two and probably three historical figures, despite the fact I hold an (out of date) Irish passport as well as the UK one. Wise Uncle Gordon is on his feet, telling us "we've never had it so good" (have I not heard that somewhere before?), and putting up excise on beer and wine but not, praise be, spirits. Hurrah. So the rest of youse who are with me in this sceptered isle had better drink while you can and I'll stick with the whisky and gin, I think. 8p on cigarettes though...

Soddit.. I'm actually trying to find out things about more serious taxes, in preparation for a meeting my co-writers and I have next week on our forthcoming work The Little Book of How Not To Pay Much Tax When You Die, or whatever name we decided upon. Frankly, however, I'm finding the betting at Cheltenham more interesting...

Oh, and Jimmy White has been arrested for a "white powder found in his room". There's a thing.

Still can't find any cheap flights to New York for the middle of next month. In fact they seem to go up by the second. Sorry H but even for such a good reason £450 for a flight via Amsterdam isn't very attractive.

Guy Kay has a new book out: seems he's gone Norse/Anglo-Saxon this time, in his usual parallel multiverse-type-thing.

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