“A a most tender work of art...Bonfire Night is a treasure of a novel, beautifully written with the unflinching style and subtle psychological insights of such masters as Ian McEwan and Graham Swift.” –Natalie Jenner, internationally bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society and Bloomsbury Girls
Spanning from England's anti-fascism protests of 1936 through the aftermath of WWII, this moving, intricately wrought historical novel brings together a young Irish Catholic photographer and a British Jewish medical student, each discovering the price of love, art, and ambition…
London, 1936: At twenty-one, Kate Grifferty is a press photographer in a Fleet Street agency, an unusual job for a young woman. But Kate is both talented and daring, recklessly going wherever the story might be—including, one October day, to an anti-fascism protest in East London. There, she meets David Rabatkin, a brilliant Jewish medical student. While his idealistic brother is eager to go to Spain and join the fight for the Republic, David knows where his path lies: at home, fulfilling the expectations of his profession and his family.
Kate is exposed for the first time to the dangers and demands of David’s world, where marrying within the Jewish faith is seen as not only preferable, but key to survival. Kate neither expects nor wants to be any man’s wife, hampered by convention. And though she and David are both outsiders, as war looms, other differences between them are thrown into sharp relief.
Brighton, 1940: Catastrophe forces Kate to flee London and the onslaught of war finds her working at her sister’s seaside boarding house, while David tends patients at a busy London hospital as the Blitz rages. But Kate’s challenges and disappointments have only deepened her desire to capture images of life unfurling around her, the beauty and violence, struggles and surprising joys. And soon fate and ambition will align, providing her with the chance to make her mark at last . . .
Release date: December 26, 2023
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 368
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Ambition bowed Kate Grifferty’s head as she reviewed the shots she’d taken that morning: a fishwife and her daughter scrubbing barnacles off oysters in the basement of Billingsgate Market, a florist rejoicing over a crate of black tulips in Columbia Road, the queue outside the milk bar in Fleet Street. As her eye ranged from image to image, she used a white grease pencil to plan cuts on the contact prints. It was Sunday and the office was quiet except for a few stringers popping in and out, so she was startled to see her boss come through the door.
“I don’t like the idea of you going down to the East End today,” Mr. Scargill said, jiggling keys in the pocket of his cornflower-blue suit and leaning over her desk. In ’28, he had taken an iconic photograph of Amelia Earhart standing on top of the Hyde Park Hotel, with London at her feet. Even before Kate met him, she had a postcard of the picture pinned to her bedroom wall.
“A riot is no place for a lady,” he went on, puffing out his doughy cheeks, reminding Kate of a middle-aged cherub. “Oswald Mosley has some fruity ideas and I don’t blame the Jews for resenting him. But they’re getting a mob together. You won’t want to be in the middle of that.”
Kate nodded thoughtfully, as if weighing his concern. Inside, she prickled with impatience. She had no interest in being a lady. She’d already had her share of being jostled and pushed on the job, and felt quite powerful physically.
“You’re kind to worry,” she said. “But I was born and raised in the East End. I know those streets. I can look after myself.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. Hackney is a far cry from Whitechapel.” Mr. Scargill ran his hand down his tie and eyed her bare arms. “It’s a cesspit of vice. And you’re just a skinny little thing.”
Kate slid on the angora cardigan she kept on the back of her swivel chair.
“I’m taller than my father,” she said, straightening. “He was a boxer when he first came over from Ireland. Accidentally killed a man once, as the story goes. Still has great big hands like oven gloves.”
“Well, I’m certainly not your father . . .”
“Mr. Scargill. I’m a photographer. I go where the story is. That’s the job.”
He shrugged. “Please yourself, Shutterbug. Just don’t forget that the job I pay you for is in the darkroom, not the street.”
It was difficult to eavesdrop in Whitechapel; every third voice was Russian or Yiddish and David Rabatkin was no longer fluent in either. He strained to hear what the marchers were saying, to discover why they were so keen on endangering themselves. Perhaps the last of the summer sun had lured them into the streets, made them forget who—no, what—was coming for them. Would they be ready when the Blackshirts arrived to declare them Yids, Paddies, parasites?
David glanced over his shoulder, back at London Hospital, and a cool line of perspiration traced his spine. If he got injured today, there would be trouble. A lanky, working-class Jew couldn’t do ward rounds with knocked-out front teeth, and the consultant David was assigned to that term already looked at him like he was covered in pox.
Head tucked down, David nudged through the gathering crowd, toward the old Bell Foundry, where he and Simon had arranged to meet. He clambered over a corrugated iron barricade and dropped down into the spectators shuffling up Fieldgate Street. The farther he got from the hospital, the less anxious he felt, and his arms began to swing along with a mangled brass band rendition of the “William Tell Overture.”
Finally, he spotted his brother standing next to a tall woman with a press camera. Her auburn hair and delicate features were pretty in a stock Irish sort of way, but pretty girls were always speaking to Simon.
“Everyone knows Oswald Mosley hates Jews,” Simon was saying to her, “but today the police commissioner and the home secretary are allowing him and his militia to parade through our patch. The Communist Party of Great Britain is here to say, oh no you’re not. They shall not pass. You jotting this down, love?”
“Sorry, no,” the woman said, rifling through the leather satchel slung over her long torso. Her voice was raspy but sweet. “I’m not a writer.”
David clapped a hand on Simon’s shoulder and introduced himself to her. She didn’t exactly smile, but a dimple appeared in her left cheek. It felt like someone grabbed David’s heart and squeezed.
“Kate Grifferty,” she said. “Central Press.”
Grifferty. Just as David suspected: Irish, Catholic, not for him. He knew he should throw his arm over his brother’s shoulder and just walk away. Instead, he watched Kate Grifferty step onto the running board of a parked Austin Twelve-Six and prop her camera on its roof. Her paper-white skin suggested that she, like David, had spent the summer indoors. Lips pursed, she repositioned the camera and glared through its lens. The outline of her thigh was visible through the fabric of her wide-legged trousers, which buttoned all the way up the side of her hip.
David asked his brother how he knew her.
“I don’t,” Simon said. “She asked to take my picture and I thought I might make a name for myself, you know? In the papers. As a radical.”
“This will be the follow-up to your becoming an intellectual?”
Simon grinned. “Yeah, well, exactly.”
Meanwhile, Kate had wedged the toe of one brogue into the Austin’s window ledge and was hoisting herself onto its domed roof. In seconds, she was standing on top of the car. She yanked a card out of the side of the camera, flipped it over, and slid it back in with the heel of one hand. Then she surveyed the crowd, her eyes narrowed like a vengeful Celtic goddess. Simon started to walk away.
“Hold your horses,” David said, grabbing his brother by the elbow. “Shouldn’t we wait and help her down?”
“She don’t look like she needs helping, mate.”
“Did you ever see a girl press photographer? God, she’s bold.”
“Yeah, I will give you that.” Simon shifted back and forth on his feet, like a kid itching to jump into a pile of leaves. “I know going on demonstrations ain’t your idea of fun . . . ,” he said. He looked from David to Kate. “Why don’t you hang round here for a bit. Help her, as you say.”
“I dunno.” David hesitated. “I’m meant to be looking after you, aren’t I? I promised Mum.”
Simon waved him off. “I’m good. Just meet me at Shoreditch Town Hall at four. Tom Mann is speaking. We’ll walk home together from there.”
Kate was still taking photos. David could not keep his eyes off her. She worked slowly and methodically, seemingly unfazed by the raucous crowd swirling at her feet. Watching her, he couldn’t think; he was just a pulse.
“All right,” David said, more reluctantly than he felt. “Just don’t get yourself hurt, Simon. I mean it.”
And before he could change his mind, his brother was gone.
Kate knelt and slid down the side of the Austin. With the slightest glance at David, she walked into the road.
“I’d love to see that bird’s-eye shot in print,” he called, jogging after her. “Do you work for one of the dailies?”
“No,” she said. “A picture agency, in Fleet Street. Next door to the new Daily Express building. You won’t know it.” She tucked a shock of dark red hair behind her ear. “What about you? Are you a communist, like your friend?”
Of course, thought David, she fancies Simon.
“He’s not my friend. He’s my brother. I’m a medical student. I don’t have time to be a communist.”
“You’ve come today as a medic?”
“No. I’ve come as a Jew.”
“Oh,” Kate said with a small frown. She looked down at the pavement. “Right.”
She doesn’t like Jews.
So, David knelt to tighten his shoelace, giving her the opportunity to go on without him. But Kate waited, and then kept walking alongside him, her hand almost close enough to brush his.
“You live in Whitechapel?” she asked, skipping over a curb to keep up with him.
“Yeah. Born and bred.”
“I’m in Hackney,” she said, tilting her dark gold eyes toward him. “Just over the road from Vicky Park.”
David noted that Kate had not seized her chance to lose him in the mob and—twice now—had volunteered information about where she might be on any given day. She was obviously Gentile, but that hadn’t stopped him with Connie Bell and they’d parted as friends. It just meant there was a limit to how far things could go.
The tightening crowd gave David an excuse to stand near enough to feel the heat from Kate’s body, but he was careful not to touch her. He became acutely conscious of the borders of his own flesh.
As the mood around them grew more and more frantic, he sensed a lightness coming into his body, an optimism. Kate kept walking deeper into the fray and he went with her. It suddenly didn’t matter that the world was in a hell of a mess, or that fascism was at this very moment bearing down on Whitechapel High Street like a deranged lorry driver. Danger was everywhere, but David felt fleet-footed, untouchable.
She ducked into the arch at Gunthorpe Street to reload her camera.
“It’s a Speed Graphic,” he said, reading the silver label above the lens and pretending to know why that might be special.
“Yes, there are three viewfinders on this one,” Kate said devoutly. “Mind the flash apparatus, it will be hot to touch.”
From where they stood in front of the White Hart Pub, the Blackshirts were now in view, gathering like crows at Gardiner’s Corner. Some goose-stepped self-consciously, an embarrassingly English imitation of Hitler’s endless columns of glassy-eyed goons. The Blackshirts—their uniforms a pastiche of tatty fencing jackets, black turtlenecks, and homemade British Union of Fascists badges—were being protected by a ring of police guards, four men thick and counting. People in the flats above the shops hurled dirty nappies down on them like grenades. After a direct hit on one of the policemen, a chorus of cackles erupted from the windows.
Standing next to David, Kate seemed to use her forearms as a brace, her elbows tucked tight into the narrowest part of her waist. She noticed David watching her, grinned, and looked back into the camera with a furrowed brow. From the west, Mosley’s motorcade was approaching. Kate pointed to the silver Rolls-Royce nosing its way through the crowd, only about fifty meters in front of them. They could see Mosley’s beady eyes and rummy little mustache through the windscreen, his sham military officer’s hat and the gold buttons down his chest. According to the newspapers, women swooned over him.
Kate darted out ahead of David, shoving through until she was alarmingly near Mosley’s car. David watched in shock as she raised her free hand and smacked the bonnet of the Rolls. Mosley looked directly at her, his face blank with surprise, and gave her a magisterial wave. Kate got her shot and then stuck her tongue out at the leader of the BUF. All David could do was block people from banging into her.
“Bloody hell,” David said, shaking his head. “You’re terrifying, Kate.”
“I got him, didn’t I?” She was already reloading her camera.
Mosley’s car was swallowed back into the crowd and David’s eyes went to three plainclothes men, throwing the Nazi salute under the impervious gaze of a mounted policeman.
“THE YIDS, THE YIDS, WE MUST GET RID OF THE YIDS!”
The chants were coming from every direction, punctuated by pops of shattering glass. One of the men, tongue coiled in a mouth full of mustard-yellow teeth, locked eyes with David. He spat: “What are you looking at, Yid?”
David’s vision syncopated, like the pages of a Filoscope, and his fingers curled into fists. He wanted to say: I bring people back from the dead, you fucking caveman. What do you do, dig ditches? But the air had gone from his lungs, and then the man was gone.
Kate averted her eyes and put away her camera. “I’ve got to get back to process these negs,” she said. “It was lovely to meet you.”
“Wait!” David cried, not wanting that to be the last time they saw each other. He was ashamed the Blackshirt had shaken him, especially in front of Kate. “We could duck into the pub there, have a quick drink.”
“I can’t. I’ll get scooped.”
“Of course. Sorry if I slowed you . . .”
He broke off. Across the road, in front of Levenberg and Sons’ chrome-and-black facade, there was a body on the ground. Without thinking, David ran toward it. Somewhere in the throng of people, a blunt flying object connected sharply with the bridge of his nose.
When he reached the fallen man, David knelt down and easily found the racing pulse beating through his neck. When David glanced up, Kate was there, taking their photograph. Although the man was conscious, his skin was gray and his face was as rigid as a mask. He wore a black dress shirt and tie—one of Mosley’s tin soldiers.
“Don’t try to sit up,” David told him. “I’m David. I’m a medical student. What is your name, sir?”
The man groaned. His eyes rolled closed.
David looked around. There was almost no daylight between the marchers. They created their own atmosphere, hot and sticky and suffocating. The man needed a hospital, but nothing was getting through that crowd.
The freshly cracked plate glass window of Levenberg’s pharmacy was just a few yards away. Inside, behind jars of senna pods, sulfur, and arsenic album, the chemist’s wife surveyed the scene in the street, her eyes wide and her palm pressed to her forehead. One of the Levenberg sons, Marty, was a year younger than David and had gone to the local comprehensive with Simon.
“Help me get this guy off the street,” David said to Kate. “In there.”
She lifted the man’s feet; David lifted his head and neck. The proprietress did not open the door.
“Mrs. Levenberg, this man is gravely injured,” David called through the broken window. “Might he rest in your shop until an ambulance can come through?”
Mrs. Levenberg looked as if David had asked to bring in a rabid dog.
“It’s all right, he can’t hurt you, he’s barely conscious. I’m Davy Rabatkin, remember? My brother, Simon Rabatkin, was at school with your Marty.”
Recognition flashed in Mrs. Levenberg’s eyes. “Davy! The doctor. Yes, of course. All right then, come in . . .”
She unlocked the door. With Kate’s help, David lowered the man onto the scuffed wooden floor in front of a large glass cigarette case. The store was cool and dark and smelled of burnt herbs. David asked Mrs. Levenberg if she had any ice.
“Oy vey iz mir,” she said, scurrying behind the counter. “I don’t like this. My husband will not be happy if he comes home to find a Blackshirt in his shop, Davy.”
“Your husband is a professional,” David said. “He would feel obligated to save a life, as do I. This bloke will be trampled to death if we leave him on the street.”
“I don’t know . . .”
“And if he dies,” Kate said, “people will say the Jews of East London killed him. It won’t matter that the Blackshirts came here intentionally to provoke such an outcome. ‘Jewish Mob Kills Local Man’ would sell loads of papers.”
David looked at Kate with renewed awe. “That, too.”
With a sigh of resignation, Mrs. Levenberg went to the back and returned with a cold, wet flannel for the man’s forehead. David took his pulse. The heart rate was still galloping, well over a hundred and twenty beats per minute.
David stood up and wiped his hands on his trousers. In the mirror behind the counter, he saw that there was dried blood under his own nose.
Mrs. Levenberg’s eyes darted from David to Kate and back again. “Your mum is called Hetty, isn’t she?”
“Yes,” David said, searching his pockets in vain for a handkerchief.
“I know her. She’ll have fifty fits when she sees the state you’re in.”
“I’m all right.”
“You’ll have a cup of tea while we wait for an ambulance. And a plaster for that nose.”
“It’s not bleeding anymore.” David glanced at Kate, who had not been offered a cup of tea and was buckling her kit, preparing to leave. “Hang on—”
“I really have to get back to the office,” Kate said, one hand already on the door. “I’ve stayed too long. If I don’t leave now, I won’t be able to sell anything. But . . .” She hesitated.
“You could always tag along, if you wanted. We could go to the pub you mentioned after.”
Mrs. Levenberg made a show of shuffling for something in the drawer under the till.
“I can’t,” David said, trying to telegraph with his eyes how much he wished he could. “I’ve got to look after this bloke.”
Kate scoffed, like he’d said he was going to give the Blackshirt his wallet. “You’re escorting him to the hospital yourself?”
“No, but I won’t feel right until I know he’s sorted out.”
She pushed the door open with her back. “Right,” she said. “Well, good luck with everything.” The bell jingled above her head and she walked into the street.
The crowd had started to thin. Shopkeepers were sweeping up their shattered windows. Police officers dismounted from their horses to note damages in their little blue books, as if they’d just arrived to tidy up. In seconds, Kate disappeared.
The man had pushed himself up against the counter and was sitting with the wet flannel in his lap. He stared, dazed, at the red-, green-, and violet-colored bottles that lined one wall of the shop. A bulbous hematoma was blooming on his temple, but he no longer looked like a corpse.
“Can I have some water?” he croaked, scratching his side.
David would have loved to bolt after Kate. But he couldn’t do that in front of Mrs. Levenberg without it getting back to his mother. More importantly, he wouldn’t leave this Blackshirt alone with the chemist’s wife.
David pressed his tongue hard into the roof of his mouth and closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, he noticed what looked like a silver bullet on the counter. He picked it up and turned it over in his fingers. It was a camera part with GRAFLEX etched on its side. He slipped it into his pocket just as Marty’s fourteen-year-old sister came out from the back with a cup of tea.
“Who is your girlfriend, Davy?”
“You’re a little spy, Sylvie.”
“Mummy made me ask you,” she whispered, and pursed her lips, restraining a giggle.
David looked into the hot teacup Sylvie placed in his hand. It was identical to the ones his mother used for guests—painted with red and brown roses, probably from the same stall in Petticoat Market.
“Beats me who she was,” David said. “She was just helping me with this geezer. I don’t know her.”
5th October, 1936
The Central Press was not a press at all. It was a photo agency, a collective of photojournalists who buzzed in and out of Fleet Street and chased stories around England. Kate had the furious occupation of processing, drying, trimming, and contact-printing their negatives. If Mr. Scargill could not immediately sell a picture to a newspaper or periodical, she delivered the negatives to the photographer.
There were no staff photographers at the Central Press, only a scrum of freelancers and stringers. Kate and her counterpart, Gordon Davies, got the overflow jobs and were allowed to submit photos they took in their spare time. Officially, though, they were darkroom boys.
On Monday, Kate sat at the photo desk, hunting through the morning editions for coverage of the previous day’s demonstration. The Times was typically vague, writing the whole thing off as a public nuisance: On one hand Communists seem to make a practice of creating disorder at Fascist meetings and on the other hand the proposal of the Fascists to march through largely Jewish districts does not suggest a desire to avoid provocation. The Mail fumed that girls were among the injured, while the communist Daily Worker declared victory with a front-page headline: MOSLEY DID NOT PASS: EAST LONDON ROUTS THE FASCISTS. Kate sighed into her mug of tea. Not one of the papers had her incredible photograph of Mosley. She had been too slow returning from the march and missed the deadline.
Meanwhile, thirty-year-old Gordon captured the shot that now graced the front page of the Mail—a photograph of a young woman being carried away by the police. He knew how to start developing his negatives on the Tube and, once again, had beat Kate to the punch.
Next door, the Daily Express printing machines churned, sending tremors down the walls and up through the soles of Kate’s shoes. She folded the papers and went back to trimming negs.
At ten, Gordon came in with a cocky grin. He was wearing the same natty black suit and pressed white oxford shirt he wore every day.
“Any fresh negs come in?” he asked, his intense gray eyes scanning the numbered pigeonholes that lined the wall by the door.
“I developed them already.”
“Cheers. I’ve a blinding headache. Shot craps all night with the copyboys at the Express. Won a tenner. Must be my week.”
“Not a problem.”
“Don’t be jealous,” Gordon said, rubbing at some splattered chemistry on the cutting board with his thumb. “One of the weeklies may still buy something off you. Scargill could call in a favor.”
Kate shook her head. “I don’t think so. I lost the flash sync attachment off his Speed Graphic yesterday.”
“Pah! Don’t worry about that. You can do no wrong in his eyes, Shutterbug.”
“Don’t call me that, Gordon.”
Kate tied on a waxed-canvas apron and went into the darkroom to make a few prints. When she was in a bad mood, the red-lit darkness was the only place for her: the percolating tanks, the swish of water in the sinks, the concentration required to smooth one grainy half millimeter. The room had a revolving cylindrical door, like a film canister, that divided the office from the lightproof laboratory.
She stood at the enlarger, put the negative in the carrier, and brought a handsome young man’s face into focus—his straight nose, the cowlick at the front of his wavy hair, his full lips. David Rabatkin reminded her of the Eagle Slayer statue at the V&A in Bethnal Green, but with clothes on. She closed the lens to f/8 and placed a sheet of Ilford paper on the baseboard. First a test print: two seconds, four seconds, eight seconds, twelve seconds. Kate dipped the test print into the developer, the stop bath, the fix, and used her fingertips to push it around in a water bath for a minute.
She determined that the print needed about ten seconds of exposure. Another sheet of paper, and she switched on the projector lamp. This time, she dodged the edges to make them a bit lighter and to increase the drama of the face.
Just as the print went into its water bath, Mr. Scargill knocked on the darkroom door.
“Shutterbug!” he bellowed through the wall, jolting Kate from her reverie. “Please come speak with me immediately!”
The Central Press was a well-regarded agency and she knew she was lucky to work there. When she was first hired, Scargill had taken her out on his shoots and saw to it that she had all the film she wanted, even for her own personal projects. Out of all the staff and stringers and freelancers, she was the only woman, but everyone seemed nice and Kate had felt very fortunate indeed. But after two years working for Scargill, she’d learned his mentorship came at a cost.
Leaving the cool sanctity of the darkroom and stepping into the bright corridor, Kate wondered what toll he would exact today.
Scargill’s office was stacked with boxes and smelled like her father’s dirty laundry. She had to shuffle sideways into the room. He smiled at her and crossed his legs, pressing one thick thigh over the other.
“Shutterbug,” he said, after goggling at her for a few seconds. “I wanted us to have a little talk together, about your career.”
“And the Speed Graphic,” she said. “I’m so sorry, sir. I will replace the part.”
Mr. Scargill shook his head, held his hand up—a pantomime of benevolence. “I can easily replace it myself,” he said. “I cannot, however, replace your eye. If you were a man, DeMire at the Times would poach you, but fortunately for me the bloody fool doesn’t like ladies in his newsroom.” Scargill tutted. “Poor old girls. You’re just as talented as the lads. But there it is.”
“Thank you, Mr. Scargill. I’m grateful for the job.”
“It’s not camera parts I want to discuss. It’s you. I have been thinking about you . . .”
Kate felt her shoulders drop.
“When I look at you,” he went on, “I don’t see a woman. I see creative intuition. Females have this incredible power. If only you knew how to use it.”
Mr. Scargill studied the Zeiss Camera Company calendar on the wall next to the desk. He seemed to be trying to remember something. He uncrossed his legs, moved something around in his trouser pocket, and then crossed them again. Kate felt like she was looking down on them both from the ceiling. This was the routine and there would be no escape. If she wanted to keep her job, she would have to stand there and pretend, mostly to herself, not to notice.
“When I was at Oxford,” he started again, “some of the female students were exceptionally clever. They made fools of the rest of us.” He cleared his throat. “These girls did rather well by attaching themselves to the older dons. They got invited to all the important parties, met the right people. That sort of thing.” He looked at her expectantly, like he had just made a joke and was waiting for her to laugh. His hand remained in his pocket.
Kate managed a smile, but she felt ill. “There were no important parties at Regent Street Polytechnic,” she said weakly. “I suppose I was lucky.”
“Regent Street Polytechnic!” Scargill burst out laughing and finally brought his hands above the desk. “Oh, I do like having you about. That reminds me! A chap from Time magazine will be over from New York in a few weeks. I want to give him an idea of what our shop could contribute to a new photography magazine they have cooking. They’re pouring a fortune into this thing. I’d like you to meet him. Unfortunately, I can’t bring Davies.”
“Because he’s colored and I don’t see our transatlantic friends appreciating it. You know I don’t pay any attention to such things . . .”
Yes, you do, Kate thought. Gordon’s mum was Indian. Scargill often commented on it, but Kate didn’t remind him of this because she was desperate to finally be brought in on a pitch.
He went on: “I’d like you to tell the Americans what will make a girl spend her nylon money on a news magazine and maybe even read it.”
“Girls read news every day,” Kate said, light-headed with relief that Scargill’s hands were now busy searching for something in a file box behind his desk. When he wasn’t being disgusting, she didn’t really mind their chats. “I read at least five newspapers this morning.”
“Because you’re in the trade. You’re not a normal girl. From what I hear, Time Inc. want this photography magazine to have pride of place on coffee tables around the world. The photographs we present to them must be impeccable. And you, Shutterbug, shall need a finer class of instrument.” From the file box,. . .
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