Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 1, 2022

Why the Four Verse-Novels of C.J. Dennis Matter, Guest post by John Gough

If you were following the conversation following on from my review of Doreen (1946) by British author Barbara Noble you may remember that reader John Gough reminded us about the iconic ‘Doreen’ from The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke (1915) by C J Dennis (1876-1938) a.k.a. the laureate of the larrikin.  You might remember too, that John responded to my comment that I couldn’t make sense of the slang in the poem with a sample of the annotated edition that he has published.  I didn’t hesitate: this was a prompt for me to invite him to do a guest post about it…

And here it is!

First of all, it is my pleasure to introduce John:

John (Anthony) Gough was born in 1949, in Melbourne, Australia. He attended Warrandyte Primary school, Norwood High school, and Monash University, majoring in Pure Mathematics. He trained as a Secondary mathematics teacher, and after two years of classroom teaching, shifted into Teacher Education for the rest of his working career, mainly in Deakin University (and ancestral institutions). He completed a Graduate Diploma in Education (Children’s Literature) and a PhD on the children’s and adult fiction of British author Penelope Lively. During his career, John published many academic articles on mathematics education, educational computer programming, assessment in education, and children’s literature and English literature. He has published books in all of these areas, as well as some children’s picture-story books published in Papua New Guinea in the early 1980s while John was lecturing there at the University of PNG.

In retirement he has published annotated editions of verse-novels by the Australian poet C.J. Dennis, and the American poet and novelist Alice Duer Miller. He has published long essays on several authors including Elizabeth Goudge, Magdalen Eldon, Margaret J. Baker, Robina Beckles Willson, Ivan Southall, Cliff Green, and Nance Donkin.

That’s a remarkable retirement oeuvre!


So, now to the verse-novels…

Why the Four Verse-Novels of C.J. Dennis Matter

by John Gough

C.J. Dennis (born Clarence Michael James Stanislaus Dennis: 1876-1938) was an internationally best-selling Australian author and poet in the first decades of the Twentieth century. Some of his books remain in print. But now Dennis is neglected and almost forgotten. I think he deserves to be reclaimed as a major Australian writer, appreciated for his appealing characters, their hearty lives, and humour. In particular, we should enjoy his masterpiece ‑ four sequential verse-novels narrated by Dennis’s character, the Sentimental Bloke: The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke (1915), The Moods of Ginger Mick (1916), Digger Smith (1918), and Rose of Spadgers (1924).

But there is a problem. Several.

First, they are written in rhymed verse – not a popular medium for fiction. Fortunately, this is easy verse, except for the second problem – it uses a great deal of obsolete, obscure, Australian slang. Dennis knew this would be unfamiliar to most of his readers, so he included a Glossary, translating the slang into mainstream English. Unfortunately, Dennis’s Glossary is incomplete, and unclear. A new enhanced Glossary is needed.

The third problem is that the setting of the novels – Melbourne and nearby rural hills, and the Great War and its aftermath – is about a hundred years old. The Great War may be unfamiliar. The background details of the novels need to be explained to modern readers.

Trying to understand Dennis’s novels is like trying to read Shakespeare, or Chaucer, without scholarly notes.

We need annotated editions of the novels. In fact, I recently created The Annotated Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, by C.J. Dennis, Edited and Annotated by John Gough (2016), The Annotated Moods of Ginger Mick (2017), The Annotated Edition of C.J. Dennis’s “Digger Smith” (2020), and The Annotated Edition of C.J. Dennis’s “Rose of Spadgers” (2022) – all eBooks at Amazon. I have also uploaded introductory articles about each of these annotated editions at Academia.edu, a free web-resource of academic papers.

This discussion introduces C.J. Dennis’s tetralogy, demonstrating how the annotations help read and enjoy the Sentimental Bloke’s story.

Here is the first stanza in the first chapter, “A Spring Song”.

The world ’as got me snouted jist a treat;
Crool Forchin’s dirty left ’as smote me soul;
An’ all them joys o’ life I ’eld so sweet
Is up the pole.
Fer, as the poit sez, me ’eart ’as got
The pip wiv yearnin’ fer ‑ I dunno wot.

Clear? C.J. Dennis, as Bill, the Sentimental Bloke, often spells phonetically, and has an ungrammatically distinct accent. Let’s correct the spelling and accent.

The world has got me snouted just a treat;
Cruel Fortune’s dirty left has smote my soul;
And all the joys of life I held so sweet
Are up the pole.
For, as the poet says, my heart has got
The pip with yearning for ‑ I don’t know what.

Clearer, now? Maybe there is more to explain, …

The world ’as got me snouted jist a treat;
Crool Forchin’s dirty left ’as smote me soul;
[Here, and elsewhere, the word “me” sometimes, as in the first line, has its usual meaning. But “me”, as in the second line, can also be slang for “my”. Many words, such as “Forchin”, are spelled phonetically, in an Australian accent. The second line says that, cruel Fortune’s dirty (unfair) left-hand fist has struck Bill’s soul. The first line says much the same: “the world has snouted him: his feelings are hurt. Where would a diamond-in-the-rough like Bill, might pick up a literary word such as “smote”? Occasional contradictions between Bill’s working-class vulgarity and his higher-flying vocabulary are part of C.J. Dennis’s humour. A metaphor of boxing combines in these lines with emotional and spiritual matters. I find this funny.]
An’ all them joys o’ life I ’eld so sweet
Is up the pole.
[These two lines mean that all the joys of life that Bill treasured no longer please him. Going “up the pole”, means going badly wrong. Nowadays we say, “things have gone pear-shaped”, although nobody knows what is wrong about the shape of a pear.]
Fer, as the poit sez, me ’eart ’as got
The pip wiv yearnin’ fer ‑ I dunno wot.
[By spelling “says” as “sez”, Bill shows how he “says” the word. We will never know which “poet” Bill refers to, and marvel that he knows any poetry at all! No poet, apart from Bill (Dennis), ever said, “My heart has got the pip with yearning …”, although many poets express the underlying meaning of a profound sense of weariness, depression, despair ‑ and an unsatisfied longing for something unknown. C.J. Dennis himself experienced periods of deep depression. “You give me the pip”, means “I am annoyed or angered by you]

So much, perhaps, for the first stanza. What is the rest of The Sentimental Bloke about? It is the story of a soft-hearted lout who falls in love, mends his naughty ways, marries, and finds the happiness and satisfaction that in the first stanza was “I dunno wot”. Of course, a great deal more happens, and Bill’s path to happiness is often bumpy! And funny!

The Moods of Ginger Mick (also known simply as Ginger Mick) tells how the Bloke’s best friend, Ginger Mick, a street hawker selling rabbit carcasses, volunteers for the Australian Army, once he understands his patriotic duty. He goes to war, …

Digger Smith is about a friend of the Bloke and Mick, who returns from the war, a man broken physically, suffering mentally, but strong and good within.

Rose of Spadgers completes the story. Rose had been Ginger Mick’s de facto (common law) wife. Officially, she is not recognised as a war widow. She struggles to earn a living, tempted to throw her lot in with a gangster. Can Bill honour his best friend, by saving Rose from a fate worse than death? You will have to read the book to find out, …


If you go looking for these annotated editions at Amazon Au you will find that John’s books are muddled up an 18th century John Gough and (for reasons I cannot fathom) some graphic novels.  You will need the ASINs, as below:

  • The Annotated Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, by C.J. Dennis, (2016): B06XV2B9KZ
  • The Annotated Moods of Ginger Mick (2017): B06XV1WPJQ
  • The Annotated Edition of C.J. Dennis’s “Digger Smith” (2020): B087G5YRW5, and
  • The Annotated Edition of C.J. Dennis’s “Rose of Spadgers” (2022) B0B5P9NKFS

Thanks John for your contribution!


Responses

  1. Really interesting post Lisa and John! I usually think I can manage pretty well with slang/phonetic spelling etc and I didn’t do too badly here but Crool Forchin had me completely flummoxed! The lines ‘Fer, as the poit sez, me ’eart ’as got/The pip wiv yearnin’ fer ‑ I dunno wot’ really made me smile. It’s great that these annotated versions are available to make the novels accessible today.

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    • Yes, and I think it’s especially useful for readers for whom English is a second language.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, madamebibliophile! C.J. Dennis can get you, like that, with a throw-away line, or half line – “I dunno wot”. The exasperation of feeling bad and not knowing how to put it into words! There are delights in Dennis’s verse-novels, including the church minister who marries the Bloke and Doreen, and helps rescue Rose of Spadgers!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A great post from John. I studied CJ Dennis and, particularly ‘The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke’ at Uni, making use of Ginger Mick, juxtaposed against the loutish lads of the Cronulla Riots. Attitudes had changed little in almost one hundred years. Sadly, the thug mentality highlighted by Dennis’ work, remains in sizeable pockets of Australian society. For that reason, as much as any other, the works of CJ Dennis matter greatly. He holds a mirror to sections of society as they were then and, in some cases, as they are today.
    I don’t remember much about Rose of Spadgers so I’ll have to seek out John’s annotated edition.

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    • That’s fascinating….
      I had somehow absorbed the idea of ‘lovable’ rascal larrikinism as in knockabout Bob Hawke and his costars Shane Warne (who had a state funeral, no less) but in 2012 I read ‘Larrikins, a History’ by Melissa Bellanta, and I learned that 19th century larrikins were a very different thing and there was not much to love about them! Yes *yawn* they were disadvantaged and all that, but IMO that didn’t give them a leave pass for bashings and street fights, rape, racist thuggery, gang rivalry and altercations with police. (See my review https://anzlitlovers.com/2012/08/10/larrikins-a-history-2-by-melissa-bellanta-2/)
      Bellanta says that kind of larrikinism was transformed by WW1 and other changes in early C20th society, and (as you can see in my review) she says that the popular image of the larrikin became Ginger Mick, Stiffy and Mo, and The Sentimental Bloke. So CJ Dennis was commenting on significant change in these poems, and they matter, as you say.

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      • Yes, I think we often refer to the Aussie Larrikin as a kind of loveable, fun chap but the origins are more associated with hooliganism. As you say, not much to love about them.

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        • Indeed, Karenlee and Lisa. I’m thinking of “Peaky Blinders” and “Gangs of New York”. A few years after Dennis’s first “chapters” about the Sentimental Bloke was published (“The Stoush o’ Day” in The Bulletin, 1 April 1909; “Doreen” in The Bulletin, 3 August 1911) Louis Stone published “Jonah”, a novel about larrikins (when a gang was called a “push”) in Sydney. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonah_(novel)

          Liked by 1 person

          • I’ve looked Stone up in the New Literary History…
            He gets a mention in the context of early C20th stoushes over curriculum, (basically British culture v Australian, and the proponents of Australian arguing over teaching middlebrow OZLit or including stories of working class life.) In a later chapter about realism and documentary, it says that post Federation writers “sentimentally admire their lively and resilient working-class figures.”

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        • Yes.

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    • Excellent, Karenlee Thompson. I am interested to hear that C.J Dennis and Cronulla riots were on the curriculum. Which university? Of course, C.J. Dennis’s larrikin characters — the Bloke and Ginger Mick — are members of street gangs who happily fight with one another, without doing much more to passing citizens than frighten them. Nonetheless, they have both served prison sentences — well-deserved, however brief. Stoushin’ johns, amongst other indictable offences against public order. By contrast, in “Rose of Spadgers”, Spike Wegg is clearly a criminal, and dangerous!

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      • Oh, the riots were not on the curriculum. My lecturer talked me into CJ Dennis for my honours thesis (University of Southern Queensland [I was a mature-age student]). I brought the riots into the paper. It ended up being published by Antipodes: a North American Journal. Can’t remember the year but I’ll see if I can track it down if you are interested.

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        • Yes, Karenlee. If it’s not too much trouble, I would be very interested to see your paper on C.J. Dennis. I’m not an expert on existing academic discussion of Dennis, so your thesis would be great. But don’t worry if it’s hard to find. (I often end up scratching my head over old articles of mine. Hard-drives come and go, … and maybe I can’t remember a title, …) Thanks very much for the suggestion!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. This is MARVELLOUS

    Liked by 1 person

    • I dips me lid, Carmel!

      Liked by 1 person

      • So keep on keeping on

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        • Thanks, Carmel. When you’re on a good thing, stick to it!
          Of course, there are other verse-stories written by C.J. Dennis, some written by the Bloke, himself, but they are not as good as the four longer novels, so I have not kept on annotating those.
          Anyone interested in Dennis, and his work, should investigate the excellent modern biography: “An Unsentimental Bloke”, by Philip Butterss

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        • Let me add, Carmel, for the benefit of others, that “Keep on keeping on” is, or was, the advertising slogan for Berger Paints, which do what good paint ought to do after being brushed on: keep on, implicitly, without fading or peeling. As you know, C.J. Dennis wrote a short poem, that is, the Sentimental Bloke told a short story in verse, about the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. In it, the Bloke recounts how he was sitting by the newly completed bridge, when he met the ghost of Captain Arthur Phillip, the leader of the First Fleet that established the new British colony in Sydney Cover.
          Several times through the poem, Bill, the Sentimental Bloke uses the expression “keep on keeping on”, or a close equivalent, such as dropping the “g”, or using “kep'” instead of “kept”.
          The explanation is that not only was the Sydney Harbour Bridge painted with Berger Paints, Dennis (that is, the Bloke) was commissioned by Berger Paints to write the poem: “I Dips Me Lid [to the Sydney Harbour Bridge]”.
          https://www.australianculture.org/i-dips-me-lid-c-j-dennis/

          Liked by 1 person

          • Fancy that!

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            • Yes, Lisa, C.J. Dennis can be a surprising writer. He was actually extremely prolific, although not usually writing as the Sentimental Bloke. He wrote regular columns for the “Herald” (Melbourne evening newspaper), on diverse topics, in prose, and verse, and sometimes slang-laden “letters” ostensibly by an old semi-literate bushman. In short, he was a professional writer, and I am sure his need to earn a living made the Berger Paints commission attractive, while reminding potential customers of the Bloke and his verse-novels.
              Separately from his writing for adults, C.J. Dennis is probably now best known for the funny poems and other items he wrote for children, “A Book For Kids”, which he also illustrated — in the style of funny verses and cartoon-like illustrations used by Edward Lear, and Spike Milligan. A handful of his children’s poems are classic! “The Triantigontalope”, and “Hist!”, and “The Ant Adventurer”, for example.
              And he was a great handyman — he made a banjo, and could play and sing, entertaining his friends, as people used to do before TV and radio.

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              • ‘Hist!’ was one of the poems I often used to recite when I was a child. Across the possum park.

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          • John, you always come along with more wonderful information. I trust yer dreams is sweet.

            Liked by 2 people

            • I used to read both “The Triantigontalope”, and “Hist!” in picture book form to my classes… I can’t remember now who illustrated them…

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  4. I think you always have to read C J Dennis aloud, then its easier to understand the slang; and at my advanced age much of it is familiar to me.

    Carol B

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Carol:)
      I wonder if there’s an audiobook version?

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    • Yes, Carol B, C.J. Dennis’s poetry is clearer when you read it aloud, or hear it. That carries you past the phonetic spelling. But, of course, the slang might as well be Double Dutch without a good translation, and things like “Little Lon” are meaningless to non-Melbournians.
      There are three audio books, Lisa. One is a compendium, another is “The Sentimental Bloke”, and the third is “Ginger Mick”. I have not heard them.
      John Derum used to be the famous performer of C.J. Dennis’s work, on stage, and on LP or cassette. But, again, I have not heard them.
      Googling “C J Dennis John Derum” I found several YouTube clips of Derum, and about him and his research into Dennis’s life and work. Derum and Dennis featured in an episode of Peter Luck’s TV series “The Australians” in 1980.

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      • And even Little Lon… there are layers of cultural knowledge lurking there. Even if you’ve worked out that he means Little Lonsdale St in the CBD, you may not know that it was the haunt of prostitutes. Somebody wrote a book about it recently…
        *pause, searches online
        … here it is, reviewed by Janine at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip:
        https://residentjudge.com/2021/08/17/the-women-of-little-lon-by-barbara-minchinton/

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        • Yes, Lisa. Here are two of the annotations I included on “Little Lon” (also “Little Lons”).
          Little Lonsdale Street, in the centre of Melbourne, is a long narrow roadway parallel to two large main roads. During the Nineteenth century, as a thoroughfare for wagons delivering goods for shops, with other even narrow alleys and lanes leading off it, “Little Lons.”, as abbreviated on street signs, became a haven for gangs of young men – larrikins, or hooligans, who spent their time drinking (getting on the shick,or shickered, or drunk), and gambling (heading browns, playing Two-up), and mixing with actual prostitutes.
          AND (from the augmented Glossary):
          Little Lon. Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, Australia. This is the long, but relatively narrow right-of-access laneway, parallel to, and between the wide main Melbourne roadways, Lonsdale Street and La Trobe Street, which latter is the northern-most main street of the inner-city grid designed by Robert Hoddle in 1837. Little Lon. was named after William Lonsdale, the first administrator and magistrate in Melbourne. The Wikipedia entry on “Little Lonsdale Street” reports that, “In the Nineteenth century, the eastern end of the street ran through a notorious ‘red light district’ [with buildings and rooms used as brothels, indicated by red lanterns shining in windows to attract clients], known as ‘Little Lon’. It was associated with prostitution, petty crime and ‘larrikinism’”. Larrikins were street hoodlums and petty criminals, and, more generally, carefree young men who often behaved badly in public. They are equivalent to hooligans, and hoons, and toughs.

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  5. I’d have to look it up to be sure, but I bet Robyn Annear would reference it in Bearbrass, and perhaps also Jeff Sparrow in Radical Melbourne?

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  6. Thank you Lisa for bringing this guest post to us. And thank you John Gough. I like the Sentimental Bloke (and have reviewed it) but I’m not a CJ Dennis fan. His opinions were often right wing and the slang in these poems is contrived – he was well brought up, in rural South Australia, and even when he moved to Melbourne, he lived a long way from ‘Little Lon.’
    Nevertheless, his writing here (his daily commercial doggerel is beneath contempt) is lively and carries a feel of the times.

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    • Well, I think the buyers who made this work into a bestseller might be better able to judge whether the slang was ‘contrived’ or not.
      Besides, being ‘well brought up’ doesn’t preclude a journalist who was out and about being able to reproduce the speech and mannerisms of others.

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      • Fair point … though it’s complicated isn’t it? These days we are so concerned about issues like appropriation that it can be hard to tease out what is and what isn’t, in whose mind!

        I’ve enjoyed John’s post and the discussion.

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        • *chuckle*
          I think we can spoil a lot of books for ourselves if we get too lofty about appropriation and apply C21st values (not universally shared) to books written in other times.
          I enjoyed John’s post too.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Even in our own times.. I worry about narrowing too much who can write about what. I understand the point, but I have read many male writers, for example, who have written well about women. And, really what do journalists often do, but bring stories to us about people very different to themselves (and often to ourselves). Why shouldn’t they convert those stories then to fiction? I have caveats, as we’ve discussed before, but generally, let writers write…

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            • That’s my POV too.
              After all, at any point in time, there’s a time when voices were not heard, not represented at all and mostly dismissed. Times change, and they can speak for themselves. But in between there’s a time when they are not able to tell their own stories (.e.g. when in the US it was illegal to teach a slave to read, or now in Islamic countries that oppress women) and some Other writes their story (e.g. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Hurma, written by a male author purporting to be a woman under the veil). This humanises the silenced and invisible and that representation, even if it’s flawed, makes people more aware of the feelings and concerns and human rights of others who are different to them. And this is just as true for class warfare as it is for race, or disability or LGBTIQ+ or religion.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Agree. It often starts with Others who have the voice and moves to Own voices . This is not “right” but it’s better than no voices.

                Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, WadHolloway. Of course, you are right that C.J. Dennis had a genteel upbringing by maiden aunts. But his father was also an alcoholic publican, and Dennis, in his drinking bouts, would have been living among vigorous slang users. He was certainly rescued
      Of course, you are also right that the slang C.J. Dennis puts into the mouth of the Sentimental Bloke is contrived. That is part of the art, artifice, contrivance — making a fictional character who speaks in a distinctive way. Dennis almost certainly could sustain speaking in a slang-laden way, on occasion, when the audience was appropriate, with or without rude words and swearing. Equally, he could turn that off, and speak in a courteous, mainstream, well-mannered way.
      Switching from one “register” (using a technical term), from one kind of spoken English to another, is, of course, a contrivance.
      As for politics, C.J. Dennis was variable, across his life. His changing attitudes through the Great War make that clear. But I wonder what right wing opinions he had (apart, perhaps, from appreciating that Mussolini made the trains run on time — not that Dennis ever went to Italy).
      Dennis’s daily commercial writing was, as you suggest, diverse — in nature and quality. But some of the daily verses made good, or at least adequate reading, and deserved to be collected and published in books.
      Doggerel? Maybe. Perhaps sometimes. Probably deliberately, to earn a quid, and amuse readers, and make a point.
      He was never as grim as William McGonnigal.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Ah CJ Dennis, one of my favourites. I think I discovered Bill and Doreen in lower high school, there may have been the (very old) films on TV at some stage. I loved the ABC biopic and I went to Toolangi on my first trip to Victoria. The phonetic speech is wonderful, I always read it aloud and The Austra(bloody)laise is a gem.I bought The Glugs of Gosh and would love annotated notes on that (please?)!

    Like

    • Thanks, JennyRecorder. Ah, C.J. Dennis’s “The Glugs of Gosh”. I have struggled with that several times. Struggled to read it. Struggled to appreciate it. Struggled to understand it, except at a literal level, knowing it has allegorical meanings, in the way “Gulliver’s Travels” is about more than a voyager finding strange lands and peoples. I am probably not the only reader who is put off by the silly names — initially intended to amuse a sick child, in the first “chapter”, but persisted with across the whole elaborate municipal/social satire. I think it is Dennis’s version of the kind of rebellious social satires Norman Lindsay wrote in his adult novels, where bohemian artists battle the conservative and puritan morals of around 1900. By contrast, the Sentimental Bloke’s four verse-novels are strongly grounded in actual society, and places, and times. These can be unambiguously identified and explained for readers. I am not sure “The Glugs of Gosh” can be unambiguously explained.
      Maybe I should look at the book again.

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