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The SRB Interview: Kathleen Jamie – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

The SRB Interview: Kathleen Jamie

June 8, 2012 | by SRB

Kathleen Jamie was born in Renfrewshire in 1962 and brought up in Currie, near Edinburgh. She was a philosophy student at the University of Edinburgh when her first poetry collection Black Spiders was published in 1982.

Since then she has gone on to become one of the most admired and original poets in the country, with collections such as The Queen of Sheba (1994), Jizzen (1999), Mr and Mrs Scotland are Dead: Poems 1980-94 (2002) and The Tree House (2004). She has won many awards, including the Somerset Maugham Award, the T S Eliot Prize, the Griffin Prize, the Forward Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial prize. She turned to essay writing with Findings, in 2005, which was widely praised, and was followed this spring with Sightlines, continuing in the same vein of reflective observations on the natural world. Jamie lives in a village in Fife with her husband and two teenage children, and holds the chair of creative writing at the University of Stirling. Later this year she will publish a new book of poems called The Overhaul, which she describes as a ‘midlife’ collection. Youthful-looking and simply dressed, she did this interview the week before her fiftieth birthday, which she was going to celebrate with a boat trip with friends to the island of Inchcolm. The conversation took place in the Scottish Review of Books’ west-end Edinburgh office on a gloriously bright morning. Her interviewer, Rosemary Goring, is a close contemporary, though marginally younger.

Scottish Review of Books: Could I begin with your upbringing in Currie, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, and where your interest in writing started?

Kathleen Jamie: It was very ordinary. I was brought up on a Wimpey estate in Currie, as you say. It was remarkable for nothing, really. I don’t know what to say.

You’re one of three children I think?

I’ve got a younger sister and a younger brother. My sister works in a bank here. My brother’s a welder, he lives in Ireland. So we’ve got a poet, a bank manager and a welder. Somebody was remarking last night, that’s quite a mix.

How does your sister cope with being a banker?

My sister doesn’t acknowledge that she is a banker. When people ask her she says she works in Greggs.

Up until the banking crisis, it was probably harder to tell people you were a poet.

Yes, interestingly. The poor people in the branches are having a rubbish time. And actually, she’s with the Clydesdale, which have been more prudent than some of the others.

So I went to Currie high school, and  left at the end of fifth year with no clear idea of what I wanted to do. I had a clear idea of what I didn’t want to do. My own kids are doing their exams the now, and what a difference those 30 years have made – the way they’re taught, the way they’re encouraged, the way they’re engaged with at school. It’s much more stress for them, but they come out of it with a better sense of themselves I think.

When we were at school, we were not given great books to read. There was so much wonderful stuff, and we didn’t get it. Did you enjoy English?

It was alright, yeah.

You’ve been writing poetry since…

Since I was at school. Most poets start at that age, I think. I remember reading a poem in class at school, and thinking, out of sheer youthful arrogance, I can do better than that. I can almost quote you the poem, I think I remember who wrote it. When you’re that age, if you have that sort of – it can only be arrogance – you felt it was doable. And I came here, into Edinburgh, and went to the Theatre Workshop in Henderson Place in Stockbridge – I just walked past it a moment ago. It seems to be all gone. And there was a writers’ workshop there, and that was the first I’d ever heard of writers’ workshops, creative writing. There was a poster put up in the school: Tuesday nights, creative writing workshops.
I thought, oh, I want to go to that. I got  the Number 52 bus in to town, down past here [the Scottish Review of Books office], down there, and met people there that I’m still friends with. Andrew Greig was taking it, Brian McCabe was a sometime tutor, Ron Butlin – those Edinburgh writers who are still here. This was before I became a student. I was about 16. I don’t know how long it went on for. Probably not long at all, but long enough to make those friendships and to understand that being a writer was a thing that was in the world, and possible.

That’s very young to know what you want to do.

It was a matter of knowing what I didn’t want to do. When I met those guys, it seemed a bit bohemian, you know, and that was very attractive, and it didn’t involve working in a shop, and it didn’t involve working in an office – these were the things that these people were striving to avoid. And I realised there were ways of bobbing and weaving and avoiding the dreaded job. If we’re girls of the same age, the options held out to us were not great. I was the first [to go to university in my family].

You’ve written about how it was hard if you didn’t have support, to go to university. How did that happen? You had time on an archaeological dig, and then time writing in Orkney. And then what?

I went to night classes, I went to Stevenson [College], and didn’t do terribly well. And then eventually, eventually I produced this book – Black Spiders – and I took it to the university, and saw somebody, it might have been the Dean, I don’t now know who it was, I saw a dusty person, and I said, look, I cannot get through my frigging Higher French, but I’ve published this book, I can do this, I can do that, will you let me in? And in those days they could say yes. So, I got in. In philosophy – not English.

You can see that cast of mind in all your work.

I wasn’t especially good at it, but I’m very glad I did it. It leaves you with a rigour of mind. I still don’t like English literature as a subject.

From the point at which you realised you were a poet – was it always poetry? Did you ever write short stories?

I think I wrote one short story as a teenager, and every so often in my younger life, whenever the Booker Prize came around and I realised that novelists could make actual money, I’d think, ‘Just do it, Kathleen, just do it.’ But it didnae work. So I’d write 30,000 words, then I’d think, I can do this in a poem, whatever this is trying to say, I can do it in a 20-line poem.

It’s the downside of the art form, isn’t it, to be good at it, you can distill anything. One of the things I noticed, in The Queen of Sheba, and in another poem ‘Arraheids’, you talk about that lovely Scottish thing of, ‘who do you think you are?’ Were you ever burdened with a sense of that?


From friends and family?

From the culture. It’s only in very recent years that I’ve accepted in myself that I am a poet. I’m still not entirely comfortable about it. One did feel embarrassed. You know that awful thing, that social faux pas, when you’re in a crowded room, and there’s going to be a speech, and everybody’s suddenly silent, and you hadn’t noticed, and you carry on talking? I felt like that for years.


Oh yeah, embarrassed about it. It’s possibly what saves one from being obnoxious, it might be a good thing.

Do you think there’s a slight woman thing in this?

It’s hard to remember now just how few women writers, especially poets, there were, and how few in Scotland. You know that Sandy Moffat painting [Poets’ Pub], which I hate and despise – I use it for teaching. I either give out postcards of it, or there’s a copy hanging of it in the corridor in Stirling. I take it to the students and say, that’s how it was. There’s one woman in that painting, and she’s unaccountably naked, and hanging over a banister.

I know the painting, but I’d never noticed.

Well, look in the top left hand corner.

From our perspective now, when the Poet Laureate is a woman, and the Scottish Makar is a woman, and the Welsh Poet Laureate is a woman, it’s hard to remember, but that’s how it was.

Even now in Scotland, poetry is the highest art here, but there are still relatively few women poets.

There’s not many younger ones. By this age, the age of 50, you’d expect somebody to be biting your arse, and there doesn’t seem to be, and I don’t know why that is.

All the men you mention at the Writers’ Workshop, and other men like Norman MacCaig were supportive –

In his way. He wouldn’t exactly give you a big bear hug and tell you you were wonderful, would he?

Was he one of the first people you ever showed your work to?

No, I don’t remember ever showing work to Norman. I remember him being around, in Edinburgh of the 1980s. I wish somebody would write a memoir – Andrew Greig would be good – of that time when these figures were still stotting about the street, Hamish Henderson I remember being about, people like Norman, and the scene was interesting. That would be interesting to write about, but I don’t remember showing the generation above my work. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to do that. I did show some to the writer-in-residence at the university, and that would have been Peter Porter, and he seemed to think they were all right – those were the poems that went into Black Spiders.

Did you see Andrew Greig, and Brian McCabe and the others as mentors?

I suppose so. I hadn’t thought of it. They were there doing it, being writers. There was still a bit of a hippy flavour about town. And they despised the old school stuff, like Hugh MacDiarmid, so because of that I didn’t come round to MacDiarmid and his
generation for a long time, I sort of blocked it off.

So basically you’ve beaten your own path.

I guess. Liz Lochhead was the only woman poet around and she was a very glamorous and remote figure. The way she dressed, in the most idiosyncratic manner.

Theatrical. She looked like a poet.  To go back to yours, there was lovely line in the poem Rooms: ‘though I love this travelling life and yearn like ships docked, I long for rooms to open with my bare hands’. I wondered, have you found those rooms?

I guess. Literally and metaphorically. Oh gosh, yes. It’s about possibility. I knew, I knew from an early age that the world was more plural, more interesting, more exciting and wider than we were ever telt, and I was impatient to explore and do that. Though geographically I haven’t gone very far, but the situation I’m in – these books under my belt, sitting here talking to you, prof of poetry – I couldn’t have imagined that at the time.

Did having children make a difference to the way you wrote and the way you looked at things?

Did it make a difference? I have to say  I’m very glad, very glad that I’ve had the children. And I remember the fear before they were born that a lot of women have, that this will be the end of your selfhood, the end of your creative life. That’s just baloney, absolute baloney. And the experience of having children can only deepen you out as a human being, and I think it did. And that in its various ways does feed into your writing. So yes, I’m
very glad I did it. But you’re still yourself, yourself with a baby. When you’re in the middle of it, baby days, life is just a heap of nappies, and you think, God Almighty, what have I done? And people say, it’ll pass quick, it’ll pass quick. And it does pass quick. My son is nearly at the door. A couple of years, and he’ll be gone. Oh!

Writing essays – it’s quite a jump from writing poetry…

Not huge. They’re related, they get called non-fiction, but they’re more related to poetry than they are to fiction. They’re not prose poems, but they’re more affiliated to poetry.

What was the impetus? Was it a commission that started you off?

No, I felt the need. I knew I couldn’t write fiction, I couldn’t write novels, but I did need another string to my bow, because poets do, you can’t only write poems. And I think I just liked the form. I took the London Review of Books, and I liked the diary section at the back, and I always turned to that first, and I thought maybe I could write such a thing. I think it was as simple as that.

Did writing in prose change the voice in your head?
It’s easier to access. Plain easier. You can sit at your desk at nine in the morning and work on a piece of prose until noon. You can’t do that with a poem. It’s more forgiving. And everything that one learns as a poet – if you do your apprenticeship
as a poet, it holds you in very good stead as an essayist. The things that people say they enjoy, and are unusual in my essays, I’m thinking it’s just poetry, it’s poets’ tricks!

Give me an example.

I’m not sure I should! I will change a sentence to alter the assonance and consonance, the same way I would with a line in poems, and I will play with the grammar, do quick handbrake turns with the subject, or put in a two-word sentence to pull it up sharp. My great analogy is that they’re like exploded diagrams. Do you know what an exploded diagram is in a car maintenance manual? No? You haven’t spent much time with car maintenance manuals.

Like an Ikea flat-pack plan?

Aye. That’s the prose. For a poem, you have to put it all together and make it spin. An essay is more like an exploded diagram than a poem. And it’s got some narrative arc to it which poems don’t have.

Has it changed you artistically, in what you are able to write about?

Mmm, possibly, yes. You can walk into any situation and any place, and think I could write a piece of prose out of this, if I so desired. Poems don’t come like that.

In the poems there are nuggets of autobiography, but you’re very open in these essays, at least to the extent that you’re giving away something.

In Findings, I felt like I was finding a home for a lot of little images and thoughts and ideas which had been kicking around in my head for a long time. There’s one image in here that I know has been in my head for 20 years.

Which one is it?

I definitely won’t say. When I put it down I thought yes, at last, it has found a home.

Why won’t you tell me?

It’s when birds suddenly bank, it’s like pulling a venetian blind. I’m good at similes, I can hear assonance and consonance in a sentence, that’s all it takes.

In terms of women, I can think of Nan Shepherd, but in the whole of the UK, I can’t think of any other women writers like this.

Nan Shepherd was unknown to me until I started working on this book. She was a bit of a cult figure. The Living Mountain was thrust upon me by an ornithologist. It was like it was being passed around in samizdat, she was out of print, almost unknown. I’m sorry she hasn’t lived to see that book get the attention it deserves. But I can’t think of other women… I’m sorry, I can’t even say the words ‘nature writers’, I can’t get it out of my gob … other women pursuing these interests. Why? Why? When women are botanists and birdwatchers and doctors. There’s a lot more women poets now than there are women nature writers. I don’t know the answer to that.

The more you think about it the less explicable it is. I’ve sometimes thought there are fewer women writers because maybe they lived in the countryside, not near a community of other writers, but you’d have thought that would be precisely the environment in which you’d start writing about what’s on your doorstep.

Or maybe you do need that community. Maybe that’s a good point. Because obviously I went into it from being a poet, in a literary community. But to start from scratch, out in the sticks on your own, maybe that’s not doable.

There’s always a kernel of a bigger thing you’re writing about, and I suppose it takes confidence to think you’ve got something worth saying.

It’s not that one has ‘something worth saying’. Then you’d be a newscaster. Something to explore, perhaps. But in terms of confidence, I’d had years as a poet, I didn’t have to get over myself, because
I’d done that already. And prose is socially easier.

Critics have said you’ve broken the mould of nature writing.

I don’t think that’s actually true. Some of the American writers are much, much stronger in this kind of form than we are, because they have more space.

More outlets, or more physical space?

Both. So writers like Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez, I like their essays, and I like their length and the shape of them. And they’ve got more places to publish them. Our idea of the essay got hijacked by academic discourse. So it needed reclaimed.

There was a sentence in ‘Sabbath’, in Findings – ‘If we work always in words, sometimes we need to recuperate in a place where language doesn’t join up, where we’re thrown back on a few elementary nouns. Sea. Bird. Sky.’ Could you explain that a bit and why you want to get away from words, and what you get from being outside.

I used to believe that language was what got in the way, and that if only we could stop thinking in language we’d have more direct access to the world, to the extent I could jump out of bed and go outdoors without getting my head into gear. But now I think that’s rubbish. I’ve learned now through reading that language is what we do as human beings, that’s where we’re at home, that’s our means of negotiating with the world. So it doesn’t get in the way, it enables. We do language like spiders do webs. So, that idea’s probably been superseded by other ideas.

That’s very honest. There’s somewhere else where you say, ‘this doesn’t bear scrutiny’. There’s a sense of you throwing things up in the air for other people to think about.

There was a man at a book festival said to me, ‘you don’t mind appearing stupid, do you!’ You’ve put it much more elegantly, but that’s what he was driving at – I’ll ask questions, but don’t feel obliged to know the answers. The puzzlement is more interesting than any ‘answer’ could be.

If you were Norman Mailer that man would have a broken nose. Just to nail the nature writing thing. I don’t like genres, I think they’re straitjackets, but you obviously have to have a corral of some sort. Sometimes what you’re doing is travel writing, sometimes the n– word…

… autobiography, memoir, travel, yeah, just stir it up.

Do you think we’re getting better at being looser in how we see things?

I think so. Cross-disciplinary studies are all the rage in universities. I did for a moment think we might be on the edge of a new enlightenment, at a time when people of different disciplines would actually speak to each other and want to know what each other were up to. Which would be a very good thing.

Are we going that way?

I’m not sure it is now, but there’s certainly a desire amongst the kind of professional people I meet to speak, both to me and to each other, and they get frustrated with being categorised and straitjacketed.
You mean archaeologists and scientists?

Yes. And speaking to me enables them to say things that their scientific discipline does not allow, and does not approve of.

So I can do that, I can say things on their behalf. And then you wonder, why are we in a situation where an ornithologist cannot say, ‘I love birds,’ because you’ve got to be a scientist. You think, this is a mess. If you’re writing a monograph about the decline in the population of larks, you cannot say, ‘I love larks, and the idea that they might be in trouble makes me cry’. You cannot say that in your scientific report, but I can say that in my essays.

So do people come to you – do they say, we’re doing this trip, we’d love you to come.

That’s the tricky bit, finding ideas. Having finished that book [Findings], one of the people in it gave it to a friend, and the friend said exactly that: ‘we’re going on a trip to North Rona, would you like to come’. I’d never heard of North Rona, so that introduction opened out this whole other world for me. And now, I’m waiting to see… It’s a wonderful calling card, to be able to give a book to people, to say this is the kind of thing I can do.

You’re able to anthropomorphise but you’re not sentimental.

That’s a good Scottish upbringing. Didn’t do sentimental. But I don’t trust the aversion to ‘sentimentality’ either, which can be used as an excuse to avoid real feeling, and literate emotion.

I wondered if there’s a slightly morbid side to you as well, because you’re fascinated by pathology and things in jars. Are you a vet or a doctor manqué?

I did want to be a vet when I was younger, yeah, and I think had somebody said to me when I was 17, ‘you could, with a bit of application, be a doctor…’, but nobody said that kind of thing to me. And I meet professional people today, like doctors, I have friends who are doctors, and I think, are you that much cleverer than I am? Yes – they probably are! But I wonder now and again, what could I have been?

I’ve been trying to argue with you in my mind, where you say ‘look inside for nature’ – I can’t decide if pathogens, the warped organisms that create disease, are part of nature.

But what are they?

But because they are anti–life…

Sometimes the natural world goes a bit bonkers. It has no moral duty to be otherwise. Bacteria that kill us are just doing their thing.

I suppose.

They’ll win in the end, bacteria.

That brings me to a line in Pathologies, which I wondered if you could explain? ‘We need disease to dance us on our way; we need to halt it if we’re to live morally.’

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live forever, and I don’t want my children to live forever. I can accept my mortality, it’s what we are, we’re mortal creatures. Come the day, if you’re suffering, I’d be glad for some disease to do the job quickly. So I have no problem with that. But, you can’t wish it on other people, or you can’t withhold, say, vaccines from third world children, you can’t say there are far too many people in the world, we shan’t inocculate them. That is an attitude you’ve got to keep an eye out for. Keep an eye on the people who say there’s far too many people in the world and the population’s too great.

Can I ask you about wilderness? You’ve said you sometimes have trouble with that idea. Robert Macfarlane said if there’s a tree in the middle of a city, that’s wilderness. What do you think?

I read Robert Macfarlane’s book, The Wild Places. And he is a good writer; we are often mentioned in the same sentence, when the ‘new nature writing’ is being discussed. But I’m afraid I got a bit bad-tempered with his book.

What was it that annoyed you particularly?

That he came up from Cambridge into the Celtic countries, Scotland and Ireland in particular, and went around saying, ‘it’s so wild’. It’s so not! He said, very eloquently, very lyrically, that it’s empty. There he
was, striding alone across this wild empty landscape. Robert’s fine, he’s on the side of the angels, but I just got annoyed with this figure thinking that the only way you can participate in our landscapes is to be male and stride and swim and be macho. And the reason they’re empty – well, we know the reason why places are empty. And that’s only recently. There’ve been mesolithic people, neolithic people, bronze age people. These landscapes have been humanised for thousands of years. There’s nothing wild in this country. I’m afraid I reviewed his book, and said so. It started a bit of a conversation about what is ‘wild’.

How did he respond?

I think he got a fright because other reviews of his book were pretty rapturous. But I thought the project seemed like an act of colonial adventuring: strike north into ‘wildness’ and then scuttle back to Cambridge . But half way through the book he comes to that realisation himself, and is honest about it. So we’re talking about the same thing.

It seems to me that history is hugely important to you.

I wanted to be an archaeologist, after the vet! In my teens, I definitely did want to be an archaeologist and I think, if memory serves, I may have actually applied to do archaeology at university and didn’t get in and then changed to do philosophy instead. But working in a cold freezing field, with dentists’ tools, put me off.

Everything you do is informed by a sense of context, of continuity.

Yeah, a sense of past certainly. Deep past, not as deep as geologists’, say, but yeah, I was aware of it. When I was a teenager I used to like ley lines and stuff. Whatever happened to ley lines, they were good!

Where you live in Fife, is that inspiring?

Not really. It’s been good to us, but I don’t consider myself a Fifer. I pine for Edinburgh, but it was where we could afford to live.

Your husband is a cabinet maker?

Yes. A house big enough, and workshop, in Edinburgh, that just wasn’t going to happen. I still resent that.

Do you ever resent the fact you’re not wealthier?

I did for years. Deeply. Deeply, deeply, deeply.

Because writers should be paid better?
At all! I can’t complain, because the job I have is a very well paid one, compared with other folks, but yeah, it’s just galling. That’s the same for all writers. Most writers. I get bewildered by it, I must say.

By the lack of value that’s put on it?

That the value doesn’t translate into money. Maybe it’s just one shouldn’t believe one’s own publicity, but when I open the Guardian and see myself there, and the Sunday Times, and every other paper, I think, if I was an athlete, or if I was a lawyer, if I was anything else, I would be making a living from my work. That said, I’d rather be a writer now than 40 years ago, because there’s so much available to us. Universities in their own fashion have taken their responsibilities seriously, and for a while we did have a Scottish Arts Council.

What do you think of Creative Scotland?

What are they? What are they doing? No one seems to know. I benefited so much from the Scottish Arts Council, my whole generation did. We would not have the writers we have now without their support. And now it’s gone. You look back: the idea of filling out a small form and being given a grant, an actual cheque, and be trusted to go and get on with what you do – it’s gone, isn’t it? I don’t get the feeling we’re trusted. The Scottish Arts Council, as was, was stalwart for the 20 years I was associated with it. It was concerned to allow writers to lay down a national literature. And now, it’s ‘investment’ and corporate la-la.

You’re almost implying that universities have picked up the baton.

Yes, but they want their pound of flesh. Many writers teach now. The Arts Council bursary as was would just enable you to write your book. The universities are very keen you write your book, but they also want you to do everything else as well.

Are you full-time?

Part-time. But it means I’m in contact with the young, and with other writers. It’s good discipline.

You say at one point your students are waiting for you to go back and to be taught how to engage with the world in language, so are you conscious when you’re teaching that all these students want to become writers, or are you actually teaching them something more important for getting on with life?

I think the latter, nowadays. The best we can do for them is teach them how to be creative and engaged citizens in a world which might not offer them a decent job or a decent living, but it can make them happy fulfilled people. Writing is one of several things they’ll have to do to be happy, fulfilled people.

When you’re teaching, are you putting ideas into their minds or are you…

… sooking them out.

So can you make a writer?

You can give them space. It’s nine months out of a young person’s life, it’s not a great deal. They’re not designing missile systems, after all. You give them space and time, and as Margaret Elphinstone said, we give them each other. The university group will do for them what the theatre workshop did for me all those years ago, except they’ve got to pay for it. But if they’re lucky they’ll develop a wee group that could last them for the next 30 years, and it gives them time to foreground their writing, because as we all know one’s writing is the first casualty. So for a short space of time they can concentrate on it, meet each other, think about it, talk about it, before they get booted out into the world again.

I suppose it’s self-selecting, though, in that those who can’t afford to do it won’t be in those groups. Where do you think the next swathe of really good writers will come from? Out of what?

It’s such a good question, because we’ve got no factory floors left, have we, there’s no mills or mines for people to come out of. It’s a question I’ve often asked myself, but I don’t know. It would be awful, it would be a cultural disaster if the only place a writer could come out of was a university creative writing course. I don’t think that will be the case. It’s an ongoing revolution, isn’t it? That’s the joy of it, you can’t predict.

A very tiny point: in an interview you did you said you were invited to the Arctic but you couldn’t justify it ecologically…

And then I went!

How did you square that with your conscience?
You just do it, don’t you?

It’s getting difficult now, going places.

If you’re concerned about the amount of aircraft fuel you’re burning up, yes of course. But we’re all in the same bind. You can’t take a holier than thou attitude.

You’ve had praise and encouragement from the very start, and you seem to make a step change with almost every book you do: How do you cope with praise? Does it make you self-conscious?


Does it affect you sitting down and writing the next sentence?

You can’t afford to bring it into your study, into your writing mind. That would do terrible things to your head. No, you can believe it, but you can’t inhabit that too much. What matters is your relationship with what’s on the page, and everything else is flim-flam. I don’t know what it would have been like to have had uniformly bad reviews all my life. That would be crushing.

It hadn’t occurred to me till now, but if you get so many good reviews, what would a bad review feel like?

It’s still shite, isn’t it? I get some snotty ones sometimes. This Sightlines was just ‘a nature blog’, according to Victoria Glendinning. That was in the Spectator, so we don’t care about that! So what. Actually, it’s not a blog, it’s a book, she should know the difference.

As you become established, and a name, are you conscious when you’re looking at something, do you in any way edit yourself, or start to…

… start to think as ‘Kathleen Jamie the Writer?’

Yes, that’s what I’m trying to say.

If I catch myself doing it, I would hope I’d soon stop. No, this interview with you is the last thing I’m going to do around this book. I’ll draw a line under it and try and enter a place of emptiness again, out of which a new piece of work may or may not come in the next decade.


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