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OUR BOOKS > OZTRALIA

Oztralia
Essays
Written by Chester Eagle
Designed by Vane Lindesay
DTP by Karen Wilson.
First published 2005 by Trojan Press
Circa 41,700 words
First edition 200 copies
Electronic publication 2006 by Trojan Press
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Here’s what it says on the cover:

The name of our country derives from the Latin australis meaning ‘southern’ or ‘belonging to the south’; hence Australia, a name conferred by people from the north. The history of this land has been one of allegiance to the British Empire, first, and more recently to America as it’s become the world’s dominant power. Proud as Australians may be of their country, the name it possesses hints at those habits of subservience which are part of its character. There has long been another strand, however, of those wanting their land to be better than its sources, in particular, those expressing the ideas, feelings, intuitions and passionately held values which have arisen here. The essays in this book deal with the Australian land, the responses to it of the black civilisation, the ways of those who came later, but most of all with its writers, giving the land a voice of its own, the sounds of its most deeply felt expression.


To read some extracts from the book click here:
The land (1)
The land (2)
The land (5)
The land (5) again
My dear old Swanee …
The new timidity
Owning ourselves
The book’s conclusion

To read about the writing of this book click here.

from The land (1)

Our most gifted people went to England, to Europe, and the wealthy, if they could find reliable managers of their Australian stations, went back for periods of two or three years, perhaps even longer. By the time of my childhood, families of long residence in Australia were a little scornful of those who thought of England as home, but this was perhaps an over-simplification on their part, as if they wanted something of great pain and delicacy resolved more simply than its nature allowed. Here is a passage from a book about a family once thought representative of the Australian pastoral expansion:

Through the first decade of the century, even with so much going on my father never lost sight of the fact that as soon as they could afford it they would return to England for a visit, as homesickness had increased with the years. … At last, in 1910, they set sail … When they arrived in London Mother stayed there for a few days to allow Father to go to Somerset to see his parents alone. They met him at the train and drove to Baltsborough. As they neared the village father could hear the church bells ringing out gaily and he was surprised as they were rung only to signify some major event such as peace being declared. When he looked at his mother in astonishment she said, ‘But they’re ringing for you, son. Because you’ve come home.’ (1)

Austin William Austin had been in Australia – Hay, Narrandera – for fifteen years. Other members of his family had come out too, they’d taken up properties, they’d built homesteads, excavated lakes, had shearing sheds erected, and fences … mile upon mile. They, and thousands like them, had played great parts in the appropriation, the expropriation, of Australia, they had gained and lost by the experience, and they knew it. They had lost England as the centre of their sense of normality. It was too small for minds that had accommodated the distances, the irregularities, the scale and scope of the land they’d adopted and adapted, and which, in its turn – the land is ever active in unsuspected and powerful ways – had done the same to them. The Austins, like all Australians, had been changed by the place they’d set out to alter.

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from The land (2)

Aboriginal societies appear to have been based on the development of their members, the preparation for learnings to be revealed to them, and the secrecies whereby things were sequestered until the time was right. In a society that built virtually nothing, this involved the necessity of being able to keep things, and knowledges, apart. Tjuringa, or carving sticks, with all their encoded messages, were kept hidden, not so much by the fact of inappropriate people not knowing where they were but from such people being forced to stay away because taboos, restrictions, were a necessary and normal part of daily life. This is not easy for a modern, democratic society to accept. Parliamentary government is an elaborate set of codes of behaviour for the management of human affairs, and it is only when one attempts to explain it to people from non-democratic societies that one can see how mystifying it all is, even though the insider may think it clear as crystal. Knowledge, now called ‘information’, is an almost-currency today, which means that it is transferable and can be considered separately from the person whose mind and behaviour carry it. This is a distinction which the aboriginal people appear not to have made. Their societies were much tighter than ours, and for two very good reasons: they were far, far smaller, and their survival, their continued existence in a landscape not concerned with sustaining them, was rarely guaranteed for more than a few days. Successful hunting on one day didn’t ensure success the next. Obvious, isn’t it, but important too. Aboriginal vigilance was endless, and had to be; their awareness of everything else, those things which the whitefellas called ‘nature’, was the only thing that kept them alive, and was, therefore, inextricably mixed with those matters which the whitefella defined as ‘religious’, that is to say those levels of thought concentrating on what for the most part the human brain finds it difficult to know. For the black people, these matters were not transcendent, but everyday. The whites, observing them, thought they were childlike, lacking, all too often, in those personality layers which we call maturity, wisdom, responsibility … The synthesis of these things which the black people made was a different one, and, as I have been saying for some time now, the synthesis was held together for the black people by a whole range of things which the whites would have regarded as mumbo-jumbo, despite their own inability to see that similar types of thought-behaviour held their thinking together too.

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from My dear old Swanee …

They had words for everything, and they looked like Martians (whatever they look like; the Yanks would find out one day, we had no doubt) when they dressed up to play gridiron. Australian footballers were said to strip, but not the Americans who had helmets and padding that would have protected them in a bodyline series … another thing they ignored, as they did most of the customs of older civilisations they were putting behind them as they created something new. Where would it end?

It was going on and on. They didn’t fear failure because they didn’t care what happened to those who fell by the wayside. They were warm and generous to your face, strangely heartless about those who dropped out of sight. Australians became aware, eventually, that America had a higher rate of imprisonment than almost any country that thought itself halfway decent. They slapped’em in jail! They had queues on Death Row and the end, when it came, was via the electric chair. A certain number of people were allowed to watch these executions, which must have been fearful. Clergymen, as dramatic as the rest of their system, prayed with the fated individual until the last. I remember my father making jokes about the condemned man eating a hearty breakfast. Did he mean bacon and eggs? Toast? A little more milk in his coffee, which was what they drank instead of tea? America, when you got to know it, seemed to be a juggernaut rolling forward with overwhelming momentum and taking little notice of what it crushed. Perhaps our systems did have a little more feeling, a little more sensitivity, than theirs?

The frightening thing was that they didn’t stop with the bombs that had obliterated two Japanese cities. They went on, and built hydrogen bombs. They were frightened of the Russians and the Russians built hydrogen bombs too. The Russians – the Communists, let’s call a spade the dirty black and diabolical device we know it is – were not only militarily formidable, they’d gone down another path in the relationship of money, business and society, and they challenged the American – wait for it – Way of Life! The Americans had a way with rhetoric and they quoted Lincoln at Gettysburg, their own constitution and some notable Supreme Court judgements with aplomb. There was no greater certainty on earth. Many Australians still feel ashamed of our lack of rhetoric, feeling the comparison is in the Americans’ favour. I respectfully disagree. Their rhetoric reassures them, preventing them from seeing what they’ve done to themselves …

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from The new timidity

Managerialism works, for them, bullshit as it may seem to us. And managerialism works because their society is set up to make it work. Efficiency and productivity are flags that Americans will always salute. Why is this so? Because the virtues underpinning efficiency and productivity have been established in those areas of life where few challenges take place. I mean the arts, entertainment, song. Dance, legs kicking high. The murmur of the voice before it starts to pump words into amplifying systems. Any analysis of power in modern societies could start, I think, with the questions who gets microphones put in front of them so we can hear them speak, and, who’s given a way into that higher rank of the microphoned society where someone gets a mike to carry as they move around, spotlight following. Did the Americans invent this way of segregating, those whose words are heard and those who follow their lead? Perhaps not: they had predecessors, no doubt, but they’ve perfected the art, and the way to test this is to ask anyone what’s wrong with the microphonic society and most, I fear, would be unable to answer.

So what is wrong with it? That’s easy enough. It’s undemocratic. It’s a practice that empowers one voice over others. You don’t see anything wrong with that? Oh dear.

If voices can’t be heard, then they’re not equal to those which can. Seems obvious, no? Democracy has been reshaped many times over since the days of European royalties resisting it. Democracy triumphed in parts of the world, not least Australia (we can be proud of that) but it can be subverted, and it is, all the time. If you give people votes you need to control what they think. A more effective form of control is to ensure that campaigns to get someone elected are so expensive that only the rich can run! Ever thought of being President of the United States? If you come from a log cabin, forget about it; you couldn’t even pay for a busload of cheerleaders, and you’re going to need plenty of those. Again, have we gone as far as the Americans in this direction? No, we don’t have the wealth and possibly not the inclination. There is a third way of controlling votes, or at least restricting the issues which will be decisive in the way people cast their votes. That’s to get people to accept debt and repayments so large that economic issues are larger in their minds than any others. You have then only to frighten them with the possibility of interest rates rising, and their debts becoming so unmanageable that they’ll have to sell half of what they own (at lousy prices because everyone’s selling, not buying, see!) and you’ve got them pretty close to where you want them. What I’m describing is the rearrangement of things so that the political processes are kept out of any matter until they’ve been so shaped that the formal political processes only come into play at what I shall call the enactment stage. By the time a decision’s required, the decision’s already been made. It’s a weakness of democracy that people think it can be trusted, and in many ways it can, but it’s hard to defend it against those influential and clever people who can stage-manage things so that the matter of import to them is a fait accompli by the time a rubber stamp is needed. It’s only possible to achieve this level of sophistication if you have the right people in the right stages of every process, so this means that incoming governments need to replace their people with our people; in countries with democratic forms, this art was perfected and most ruthlessly practised in the US of A. America. The world’s shining light, the beacon of hope by which they have characterised themselves, that lamp standing off Manhattan Island to attract the dispossessed, the unhappy, the wretched and forgotten of Europe to live in the light of the light of the world!

America has trained the world to look to it for hope, and its success has been incredible. The world’s poor still look to it with envy, and the educated people of China, a country with a long and illustrious theme of painters and poets to illumine its existence, look to it too. America is revered in many countries because its people have what the people of the poorer countries don’t have: happiness, freedom, choice, wealth, wealth and more wealth, and the confidence that is born of surety. America gives the world a message that it cannot fail …

… yet anyone with a halfway reasonable pair of eyes can see that it has failed, at times in the past, is still failing, and will fail again. America is failing as I write, it seems to me, because it has invaded Iraq, a country it has no way of understanding: its very presence in the country attracts all the America-haters (there are plenty) of the Muslim world, thus allowing a surrogate version of the old crusades, and, if you think about it, a re-creation in another place of that old American favourite, the battle of good and evil. They’ve gone around the world, they’ve invaded a country where they’re not wanted, and they’ve created, not peace, not a new society, but an old form of battle, one they need, apparently, so the drama in their minds can be mirrored in a world of bombs, shooting, destruction, wrecked buildings, hospitals where the human wreckage is wheeled around on trolleys, with cameras panning over bodies needing surgical attention. The Americans have landed. The Americans are here!

All of this is so far, for me, from the sort of visions which our country, Australia, gave birth to, allowed, in the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, that I struggle to see why it isn’t easy to resist the American influence. Yet we can’t seem to reject it. The reasons why this rejection are so hard to find must be my subject in the next of these essays.

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from The land (5)

How have Australians loved their land? What does the land compel from those who look at it, cross it on foot or by modern, motorised means? That is my subject, and I propose to deal with it via a case study, the life, and family, of Stella Maria Miles Lampe Franklin and the places she had in mind in her pioneering saga, All That Swagger (7).

This book is not well known today, having slipped behind My Brilliant Career, the book and the film, both still full of life. All That Swagger has a huge cast of characters, and it’s dedicated ‘to the memory of my paternal grandparents whose philosophical wit and wisdom and high integrity are a living legend of the Murrumbidgee.’ The Australian river gets the first of many mentions on page 1, and then the author slips back to Ireland for a few indulgent paragraphs; Danny Delacy and Johanna Cooley, the girl who elopes with him, are leaving a fabled, fairied land, surrounded by seas and stories, for something that neither of them knows. Johanna tells Danny that what he has in mind is only a dream, and he answers, ‘Everything is a dream till it is made come true. Come make this true with me, Johanna.’ With brave words of this sort great undertakings begin. Danny and Johanna ship themselves to Sydney, they go inland, and they take up ‘Bewuck’, a deserted property, said to be haunted, on the Murrumbidgee some way to the west of where Canberra stands today. Danny longs for land, and when he gets it he has to clear it.

Guarding the illusive land were throngs of giants – the stateliest trees on the globe. Delacy was like an ant in the aisles of box trees and towering river gums, but he attacked them as an army, grunting with effort, sweat dripping from him. His slight form grew as wiry as steel; his hands were corneous and scarred with the work of felling and grubbing.

Danny’s work makes things clear for him; Johanna’s situation is less certain.

… work relieved her loneliness, intensified by the moaning of the river oaks, and the noise of the queer grey birds that threw laughter back and forth for miles, until dark and after. Their lusty guffawing, upon the smallest provocation or upon none, had a brow-beating effect on her; and she was mortally afraid that the bunyip would rear his undescribed form from the fish hole, or the ghosts would cry in the crossing. These fears festered; she dared not confess them to Danny.

Danny loses himself, and finds himself, in his work. Johanna is never secure in her new existence, since it never provides nor seems likely ever to provide the elegancies she hopes for. In her native Ireland such things were to be found in wealthier and more cultivated homes but on the banks of the Murrumbidgee there seems no prospect of wealth, elegance or cultivation, ever. Johanna sees no hope, while Danny, for whom everything important takes place in the mind -- ‘the moind, the moind’ – finds challenge inspirational in itself. No matter how hard he works at Bewuck he has his eyes set on ‘a valley that the blacks called Burrabinga’, further back in the mountains …

‘Utterly inaccessible,’ Johanna would say with falling heart.

‘ Wasn’t Australia inaccessible till Cook found it, and America out of bounds till the Puritan fathers settled it? No place is inaccessible if you have the mind to go there.’

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also from The land (5)

This is why Franklin claims the aeroplane and those who fly it as continuations of old Danny’s mind. The moind! The moind! Australia glows in Franklin’s rapture as Brian Delacy prepares to return to Sydney:

All too swiftly the day ascended and declined. The shadows lengthened from the cropped tussocks pimpling the hillsides. Perfume of wattle bathed approaching evening in delight. The bright landscape danced in air translucent and dazzling. The westering sun laying vesper offering on the rim of day, melted sky and mountains into a glory of filtered light and retreated to the core of a continent over which as yet man had no sure dominion. A land of distances, a land dependent on distances for preservation; a land gorgeously empty and with none of the accumulations of centuries of human occupation …

For those of us who love the land as Miles did, it would be easy to end there or thereabouts, but honesty compels me to include what she says just before Brian Delacy takes his plane into the air again, when she sees some of the dangers inherent in man taking to the skies:

Critical days ahead with the machine as master, looming as the destroyer if manipulated to Satanic ends! But it was inconceivable that men would hurl themselves into the abyss when the way out was as clear and wide as the shimmering track of the departing sun.

These words were printed in 1936; three years later the European powers were warring again. Civilian populations were being bombed, armies were at each other’s throats, Jews dragged into death camps, and before long Japanese soldiers were sweeping through Asia, cruel and brutal, and Germans were dying in the Russian snow. Humanity had shown its hand again! Where, then, do the visionaries belong? Is there anything they can see for us, out there at the edges of what it’s possible for humans to see, that’s actually true, or capable of being brought from dream to reality? Can those things which the mind – the moind! – imagines be made to happen?

Yes, sometimes, occasionally, perhaps …

It seems to me that vision is one of the most precious characteristics of being human, but it is only a step in a longer process whereby the imagination has its first, delicious, contact with something that’s new, and yet to be made real. The reality, the incorporation of the vision into daily activity, will happen when it’s ready, which normally means when it suits somebody to make it happen because it will help to make them rich. Humanity’s greed and ambition are never to be kept out of the reckoning very long. And, since I have been discussing Australia – Oztralia – in terms of vision, where does this leave my argument? Is there anything left standing at all?

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from Owning ourselves

Why have we let ourselves become like the Americans? One could argue that we never quite outgrew the problematical aspects of being part of the British family, we simply transferred the difficult aspects of the relationship - those relating to our lesser status - to America, which meant, as I have said earlier in these pieces, that we were wide open to the darker forces in American society when these became apparent. You may agree with that or not, but for me the easier question to approach is how we’ve been overpowered, and it’s been a cultural tsunami that’s done it. American music, film, the sheer force of its popular arts, have done more to shape the minds of Australians than the efforts of our own artists, though they’ve always been there, building up a stream of understanding which has seeped at least a little way into the substratum of our society’s mind. I mean you, dear reader, and myself, and everyone we know. The only voices we can rely on are the ones that seem to speak truly, and many of them will have worked and died before Australia had been heard of, that land that may or may not have existed in the blank spaces down there in the south! The only voices we can rely on are those that seem to speak truly, and we’ve had many of those in our country down the years. As a writer, it’s natural for me to turn to those artists whose work I best understand, in hopes that what they’ve had to say will give us awarenesses to fill out our thinking and leave us feeling that there’s little that we can’t understand in a way we know to be ours.

The rough and tumble of early white history sorely tried those not strong enough to bear what it chanced to give them. Here’s Henry Handel Richardson (8), dealing with the gold fever that struck her country in 1851:

This dream it was, of vast wealth got without exertion, which had decoyed the strange, motley crowd, in which peers and churchmen rubbed shoulders with the scum of Norfolk island, to exile in this outlandish region. And the intention of all alike had been: to snatch a golden fortune from the earth and then, hey, presto! For the old world again. But they were reckoning without their host: only too many of those who entered the country went out no more. They became prisoners to the soil. The fabulous riches of which they had heard tell amounted, at best, to a few thousands of pounds: what folly to depart with so little, when mother earth still teemed! Those who drew blanks nursed an unquenchable hope, and laboured all their days like navvies, for a navvy’s wage. Others again, broken in health or disheartened, could only turn to an easier handiwork. There were also men who, as soon as fortune smiled on them, dropped their tools and ran to squander the work of months in a wild debauch; and they invariably returned, tail down, to prove their luck anew. And, yet again, there were those who, having once seen the metal in the raw: in dust, fine as that brushed from a butterfly’s wing; in heavy, chubby nuggets; or, more exquisite still, as the daffodil-yellow veining of bluish-white quartz: these were gripped in the subtlest way of all. A passion for the gold itself awoke in them an almost sensual craving to touch and possess; and the glitter of a few specks at the bottom of a pan or cradle came, in time, to mean more to them than “home”, or wife or child.

Such were the fates of those who succumbed to the “unholy hunger”. It was like a form of revenge taken on them, for their loveless schemes of robbing and fleeing; a revenge contrived by the ancient, barbaric country they had so lightly invaded. Now, she held them captive – without chains; ensorcelled – without witchcraft; and, lying stretched like some primeval monster in the sun, her breasts freely bared, she watched, with a malignant eye, the efforts made by these puny mortals to tear their lips away.

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The book’s conclusion

The last word goes to Frederic Manning, 1882 – 1935, child of a well-to-do Catholic family; his father was for a time Lord Mayor of Sydney and Manning’s household was in close contact with the State Governor, at a time when vice-regal circles were socially central. He was sickly and used his weakness to keep himself away from school, having private tutors instead. While still a youth he went to England and when war came he waited for a time, then joined the King’s Shropshire Regiment as a humble soldier, when it was available to him to become an officer. His front-line experience lasted only three months, but it gave him what he needed. In 1929, he wrote it down (16). Manning is, alas, hardly known in his own country and forgotten in England, but his book holds all that he learned of war and his reflections upon it. It is also a model of stylish, shapely prose, responsive to everything it conveys.

On the march to Louvencourt they passed an Australian driving a horse-drawn lorry, with a heavy load whereon he sprawled, smoking a cigarette with an indolence which Bourne envied. The Colonel wheeled his grey, and pursued him with a fire of invective practically the whole length of the column, to the man’s obvious amazement, as he had never before been told off at such length, and with such fluent vigour, in language to which no lady could take exception. He sat up, and got rid of his cigarette, looking both innocent and perplexed.

Certain national stereotypes were well established by 1916! Again, it is tempting to end the quotation there, but Manning has more:

The men were delighted. It was quite time somebody was made to pay attention to their bloody mob.

The Shropshire soldiers are pleased that somebody is getting ticked off. The Colonel is their man, not the Australian. Indolence is not allowed within their ranks. We need to recognise that the English soldiers are protecting their sense of themselves and the ways in which they’ve been made. Others will always be others to them. As for Australians, the responsibility of understanding, expressing and portraying ourselves … that will always be ours.

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The writing of this book:

When I finished Melba: an Australian city I felt that I would move on to a similar book of essays on Australia. I did. I searched my mind for what I shall call basic feelings about the country and found myself returning to the Bernard O’Dowd poem quoted at the very beginning. This poem posed questions to, at or about the country so it seemed it might be useful to work towards some answers. But how to do it? I found myself differentiating between the land and the life lived on it. This could vary immensely, something we can see easily if we contrast office workers in city towers with the lives of semi-nomadic tribal people living off the land.

The black people lived very close to the land and its ways, but it seemed to me that white people did too, even though they appeared frequently to ignore it. The land influences us, and its effects can go much further; I had myself been brought up as part of a farming family and from my experience white people who worked the land became deeply attached to it. As a young man I thought the landscape was boring and as I grew up on the flat plains of inland New South Wales it wasn’t hard to justify this. It was harder to sustain, though, when I too came to love the land. Eventually I wrote about it (Mapping the paddocks), and then I read Joan Austin Palmer’s Memories of a Riverina Childhood (1993). Joan was sixteen years older than me, and her family’s properties larger than my parents’ holding, but there was a great deal in common. Reading her book made me think of all the station properties I’d been driven past in my childhood. I saw that even though I was as tied up in the global financial system as anyone else, the connection I felt with the land would not be denied. This, then, was the way I would approach writing about Australia.

Which I called Oztralia, for reasons made clear in the introduction. It wasn’t long before I was riffling through Miles Franklin’s All that swagger, a book I had come to love quite a few years earlier. I had driven through Talbingo before I became aware of the Franklin family’s attachment to the place, and I had loved it at first sight: it was the most beautiful place I’d seen. Years passed before I discovered the Franklin connection with the place, but when I discovered it I felt a bond with Miles. No wonder it was so important to her.

Another important influence in the development of this book was a visit I made to Central Australia with my daughter and friends; on a sign near one of the waterholes in the West Macdonnell ranges I read that these mountains had once been as high as today’s Himalayas, but had been eroded over time. Time! The aboriginal people had known the land through many thousands of years, had seen climate changes, and had adapted to them. The land presented itself to my thinking as a fundamental force in our existence. It seemed to me that Australian life had been exposed to many influences external to that fundamental shaping force of the land (the British empire, the American empire), and that the interaction of these external forces with what was local and undeniable was where the action was, so to speak, in the shaping of my country’s civilisation. British, European, even American ideas weren’t quite the same when moved to the context of the land we lived in and on.

My approach was settled; I had only to write. There are only two more things I want to say about this book, and they are connected. I had had for many years a little collection of writings in which various of my fellow authors described the business of folding sheets, or perhaps a tablecloth. Hal Porter was the first writer I remember doing this and I’d read his account with delight because I’d seen my mother and numerous other women doing the same thing. It had been one of the rituals of my childhood. Hal described it and so did others. For years I wanted to do something with these writings but all my ideas involved developing the idea in some way whereas I thought the quotations should stand without explication. Finally, in this book, I got my chance to put them on show in the simple way I thought was right.

In the book’s last essay I do a similar thing with writers summoning up in some way the idea of Australia, or the way Australians lived. I managed this process as carefully as I could but it took control. I had heaps of books on my oval dining table, sometimes two, three or four books by the same author. I browsed through these books that I knew well anyway, and put slips of paper in to mark possible quotes. I stared at the growing piles of books and told myself that many of them would have to go back on the shelves because the piles were too big. I added more. Then, when I began the essay, the whole thing became easy. As I started writing each day, I picked up a couple of books, riffled through them speedily for a quote that suited, and put it in my essay. (Mine?) At the end of the writing session the book went back to the shelves. Any number of wonderful and much-loved books didn’t get quoted but the essay was writing itself. The process was in control, as happily as ever. I read the essay now and see that it knew what it wanted, and had used me to get what it needed. I am privileged to be a writer. I serve a demanding but wonderful master.

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