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Low Culture 14: Wu-Tang Clan, William Blake, The Fall & The Hidden City

Trudging through the inverted worlds of Staten Island, Putney and Prestwich come a crew of rappers, a poet/ engraver and a dyspetic singer, says Tom Ellen. They steel themselves against the disappointment of the surface world - the feeling of 'Is this it?' - by doodling on the maps of their cities, adding monsters and demons, gods and angels, hidden passageways and secret portals.

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The fields from Islington to Marybone
To Primrose Hill and Saint Johns Wood:
Were builded over with pillars of gold
And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.

William Blake – ‘Jerusalem’

Entrances uncovered
Street signs you never saw

The Fall – ‘Winter’

Claiming New York was ancient Babylon
Where the skies stay the colour of grey like heroin

Raekwon – ‘Knowledge God’

In Ben Moor’s 2006 radio comedy, Undone, an aspiring journalist (Sarah Solemani) accidentally stumbles upon a parallel London. The place is known as Undone and, according to one of its residents, it is "a city that exists in the same space as London. Most people aren’t aware of it, and those that do become aware try to forget about it quickly. You see… this is where the weirdness lives."

The concept is entertaining, but not particularly novel. This idea that there are two worlds – one a drab, dreary surface realm, the other a hidden plane of visions and nightmares "where the weirdness lives" – has been knocking around for centuries. It runs through philosophy from Plato to Schopenhauer, and powers some of the greatest sci-fi/fantasy literature, from Robert Sheckley and Alasdair Gray to the works of objectionable adjective-happy horror loon HP Lovecraft, who begins one story with the cheerful statement: "Life is a hideous thing and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemonical hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous."

The word "truth" is important: for most of the artists and writers who’ve engaged with this two-worlds idea, it is the unseen one – the weird one – that is the more real.

This is certainly the case for William Blake, The Fall and the Wu-Tang Clan – three very different sets of working-class autodidacts, all of whom saw their own distinct versions of Undone behind London, Manchester and New York respectively. Blake’s Peckham with its trees full of shimmering angels; Mark E Smith’s occult Prestwich seething with hobgoblins and gremlins; the Wu’s Staten Island – rebranded ‘Shaolin’ – pulsing with pagan Gods and radical Islamic imagery: all were hidden from the uninitiated, but appeared vividly to those with their third eyes open.

Almost exactly two hundred years after Blake wrote, "For man has closed himself up, ’til he sees all things thro’ the chinks of his cavern", the Wu-Tang’s Inspectah Deck felt a similar frustration: "A vision… This is way beyond four corners/ Escape this mental prison/ Before we’re all goners." For Blake, MES and the Wu, the doors of perception had been cleansed, the mind-forg’d manacles discarded, and all three saw everything as it really was: infinite.

I move through the Third World, my third eye the guiding light
On the frontline, I shine to the dumb and blind

Inspectah Deck – ‘Assassination Day’

The link between Blake and The Fall is well established, but I’d argue that the Wu-Tang can be slotted neatly alongside them to form a glorious triptych of weird visionaries. Truthfully, I suppose this is because, despite maintaining the pretence of a broad musical taste, there have only ever really been two groups for me: The Fall and The Wu. Everything I have ever looked for in music is catered for by both of them, and while the sound they make isn’t particularly similar, they have more in common than you might think.

Both groups operate(d) at their creative peak when run like a dictatorship. Both boast a Wikipedia-buckling list of former and/or affiliate members. And both mangled ‘high culture’ (existentialism/Vorticism for The Fall, Chinese mythology/Islamic theology for the Wu) and ‘low culture’ (pulpy sci-fi/kung-fu flicks/comics) to create music and lyrics that were unlike anything else that had come before them.

But most importantly, both groups – like Blake – saw the boredom, squalor and violence of their hometown streets, and knew there was something older, nobler and stranger behind them.

My aim by comparing them is to look closely at these veiled versions of London, Manchester and New York, and try to discern what goes on within them. What exactly powers these invisible cities, how similar are they to one another, and why might they have materialised to our main players?

Capaneus The Blasphemer as envisioned by William Blake. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

In his excellent book Occult London, Merlin Coverley talks about Blake’s "intermingling of the eternal and the local". It’s a great phrase, and could also be used to sum up The Fall and the Wu-Tang’s philosophies. Just as Blake was eager to namecheck Primrose Hill and Saint Johns Wood as the spots he saw Jerusalem’s pillars stand, so MES makes a point of specifying Ardwick Bridge as the place he ends up after his time-hopping "flabby wings" go haywire. Similarly, on ‘Brooklyn Babies’, Wu-Tang head honcho RZA thinks nothing of placing the lyric, "I’m from the tribe of men that would bury kings" right beside, "On the back of the A-train."

For all three, the eternal isn’t something you have to ascend to Heaven to find. It’s right there, within your city, if you only look close enough.

Blake and The Fall have helped us out by separating their ‘eternal’ and ‘local’ worlds into easily memorable categories – ‘Innocence’ and ‘Experience’ for Blake, ‘Wonderful’ and ‘Frightening’ for The Fall. In the innocent, wonderful world, we glimpse the raw magic of existence, where at any moment the Archangel Gabriel might rip the roof off your study, or your local pub’s jukebox might gain sentience and begin making music for itself. This world is – to use MES’s phrase – "the home of the real".

The other world, though – the surface world; the experiential, frightening world – is a dead zone of jobs, money, industry, pollution, the grey day-in-day-out drudgery of everyday life:

The crap in the air will fuck up your face
Boss’ll bloody take most of your wage

The Fall – ‘Industrial Estate’

I wander thro’ each charter’d street
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
William Blake – ‘London’

One world is ecstatic, the other cruel, dirty and dull.

For the Wu-Tang we find this distinction in the gap between crime-ridden, racist Staten Island, and mythical, dreamlike ‘Shaolin’. On Staten Island – Deck tells us – there’s nothing but "stick-up kids, corrupt cops, crack rocks and stray shots", and soon enough you "learn life is hell/Livin’ in the world’s no different from a cell".

Shaolin, however, is a place of vision – of bird’s-eye rather than worm’s-eye view. A living, breathing body-borough where the streets are transformed:

Use my third eye for a periscope
Take flight to the edge of night…
See subway train run through the city like blood through the veins
To the heart of Medina, but Shaolin is the brain.

RZA – ‘Sunshower’

There’s an eerie similarity here with the name Blake chose for his "spiritual Four-fold London eternal" – ‘Golgonooza’ – derived from ‘golgos’ (skull), because it’s a city born in the human brain. It is not, as we shall see, the only similarity between Golgonooza and Shaolin.

The name ‘Shaolin’ is lifted from the Shaw Brothers kung-fu films that RZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard were fixated by as kids. However, its mythical landscape owes just as much to the Old Testament and Qu’ran as it does to action movies. And it’s here that we find the first major fork in the road between our three sets of visionaries. The hidden cities of Blake and the Wu-Tang are both fundamentally religious: each takes shape out of its creators’ violent reactions against formal Christianity. MES’s Mancunian shadow world, on the other hand, is indebted largely to atheist sci-fi writers like Lovecraft and Philip K Dick:

Someone’s always on my tracks
And in a dark room you’d see more than you think
I’m out of my place, gotta get back
I sweated a lot, you could feel the violence

The Fall – ‘Frightened’

Despite (or perhaps because of) his Methodist upbringing, MES never seems to have had much time for religion. He’ll only usually incorporate it into his writing if it can be spiced up by ghostly possession (‘Spectre vs Rector’) or murderous conspiracy theory (‘Hey! Luciani’). Instead, rather than Gods, angels and devils (who, as we shall see, make up the majority of the populace in Un-London and Un-New York), Smith sees his Un-Manchester overrun with harpies, cyber insekts, purple-eyed dog-children and squid-bodied revolutionaries with an odd taste in clothing:

R Totale dwells underground
Away from sickly blind
With ostrich head-dress
Face a mess, covered in feathers
Orange-red with blue-black lines
That draped down to his chest
Body a tentacle mess

The Fall – ‘The NWRA’

All this sounds about as ‘eternal’ and otherworldly as you can get. But within two lines, Smith localises it, informing us that Manchester’s Arndale shopping centre "had been razed". The nightmarish R Totale may well be lurking just under the Corn Exchange.

MES’s Manchester is essentially Lovecraft’s New England – the only difference being that while Lovecraft seemed genuinely terrified by his own visions, Smith appears to revel in them. Yes, the City Hobgoblins may be "evil" and J Temperance’s unorthodox offspring may be "hideous", but you still get the sense that Smith rather enjoys telling us about them. His tone is that of a campfire raconteur, torch under his chin, cackling as we grimace and shiver and groan. "The next bit is hard to relate", he says on ‘The Impression of J Temperance’, "the newborn thing hard to describe" – before going on to relate and describe in gleefully gory detail. This is not a one-off. He takes obvious pleasure in freaking us out by relaying his visions in vivid high definition:

"A figure walks behind you
A shadow walks behind you…
It’s got eyes of brown, watery
Nails of pointed yellow
Hands of black carpet
It’s a quick trip to the ice house!"

The Fall – ‘A Figure Walks’

He’s having fun in this other-Manchester – and why shouldn’t he? As unsettling as the place is, at least it isn’t boring. Here you can spot "brown-monk ghosts" in your local park. Here the spare room of your new house is haunted by suicidal neighbours. Here "advertisements become carnivores and road workers turn into jawbones", and instead of swapping inane small talk about the weather, "villagers dance around pre-fabs and laugh through twisted mouths".

By ‘uncovering the entrances’ to this hidden city, MES is doing exactly what Lovecraft warned against in the first sentence of ‘The Call Of Cthulhu’:

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far."
HP Lovecraft – ‘The Call Of Cthulhu’

In The Fall’s songs, MES is correlating his mind’s contents like Billy-O – and clearly having a whale of a time doing it. After all, he’s thicker skinned than Lovecraft – who was, by all accounts, a jellyfish of a man, psychotically sensitive and near paralysed by racism. No, Smith is tough and nihilistic – like his other hero, Wyndham Lewis – and as such he is perfectly happy to peel back the veneer and see what madness lurks beneath. He laughs in the face of fear (as the Great God Pan will attest) and he wants nothing more than to evacuate the "placid island of ignorance" he depicts on ‘Industrial Estate’. The good news is, he doesn’t have to voyage far to do so: it’s all already there, right behind those pre-fab houses and estates that "stick up like stacks".

He just has to step sideways and squint.

Mark E Smith by Krent Able

For MES, then, Un-Manchester is about escaping the tedium of everyday existence (and giving us, the listener, a good old scare in the process). Blake and the Wu-Tang used their hidden cities as boredom busters, too, but they also conveyed something larger: a sense of religious fervour.

Blake was a a dissenter, a radical, a free thinker. He felt tethered by the rules and regulations of the mainstream church:

"I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking [the] Ten Commandments; Jesus was all virtue and acted from impulse, not from rules."
William Blake – ‘The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell’

For him, religion was not a seatbelt but a slingshot – it should open minds rather than close them. It should be loud and vivid and terrifying and wonderful. He believed that "the modern Church crucifies Christ with the head downwards". Its teachings were the "clothes of death" and "notes of woe" that the Chimney Sweeper laments in ‘Songs Of Experience’. He simply couldn’t believe what he had been told – "that night and day were all that I could see… that I had five senses to inclose me up" – because he saw so much more as he strode through London:

"Instead of morn arises a bright shadow, like an eye
In the eastern cloud; instead of night, a sickly charnel house"

William Blake – ‘Visions Of The Daughters Of Albion’

"My Streets are my, Ideas of Imagination.
Awake Albion, awake! and let us awake up together.
My Houses are Thoughts: my inhabitants; Affections,
The children of my thoughts, walking within my blood-vessels"

William Blake – ‘Jerusalem’

The Wu-Tang also shared this hatred and mistrust of formal Christianity – or, more specifically, white Christianity – and it formed the foundations for the hidden New York they unearthed.

On ‘Jah World’, RZA aligns himself with the pre-Christian pagans, lamenting "German Catholics whitewashing Roman sculptures". This is after Ghostface Killah has already skewered the subhuman hypocrisy of slave-holding ‘Christian’ colonists on the previous verse:

"Branded by the steel iron
Bullets flying, ladies being hit
The wickedness! I’m losing my grip
I thought we lived by the books? The Bible?
Come on, we picked cotton
My back is still hot and darkened"

Ghostface Killah – ‘Jah World’

He’s in a more playfully destructive mood on ‘Wu Banga 101’ as he exposes a corrupt Christian pastor:

"He pulled out his blue Bible
Change fell out his coat
Three condoms, two dice, one bag of dope
Ooh! Rev ain’t right! His church ain’t right!
Deacon is a pimp – tell by his eyes!

Ghostface Killah – ‘Wu Banga 101’

(As a potted summary of William Blake’s oeuvre, you could do worse than: "Ooh! Rev ain’t right! His church ain’t right!")

Ultimately, the Wu-Tang gobbled up any form of spirituality they could find – with the exception of the tepid, hypocritical, white Christianity they’d been taught in school. On ‘Knowledge God’, Raekwon listens in wonder to the mad pagan ramblings of a demented coke dealer who "claim[ed] he couldn’t die", and saw New York as "ancient Babylon". On ‘Jah World’ – and many other tracks – we can see evidence of the group’s shared fascination with the blood-and-thunder mutant-Christianity of Rastafarianism – imported by the Jamaicans that had emigrated to NYC over the decades. All of this filtered down and coloured their worldview.

What really stuck, though, were the teachings of the not without controversy Nation Of Gods And Earths, otherwise known as the ‘Five-Percent Nation’. All nine core members of the Wu subscribed to this radical revisionist theology – an offshoot of the Nation Of Islam – founded in 1963 by one Clarence Edward Smith (no relation to one Mark Edward Smith…)

Later re-christened Clarence 13X, ‘CES’ stripped away all religious myth and metaphor and claimed that the Asiatic black man was – literally – God: the original man, father of the universe. He preached the importance of self-knowledge, condemned eighty-five per cent of the world’s population as dumb, blind savages, and renamed entire chunks of New York after noble Islamic cities (Harlem became ‘Mecca’, Brooklyn ‘Medina’).

This was the fervent visionary climate that the Wu-Tang were raised in. Clarence 13X taught that they were genuine ‘living Gods’, and – unsurprisingly – it sent their lyricism spinning to lofty, hallucinatory levels:

"The world can’t touch Ghost…
Woolly hair, eyes fiery red, feet made of brass
Twelve men following me, it be the God staff"

Ghostface Killah – ‘Mighty Healthy’

"Loungin’ between two pillars of ivory
I’m lively, my dome piece is like building stones in Greece
My poems are deep, from ancient thrones I speak"

Killah Priest – ‘4th Chamber’

Consider for a moment the words of another famous visionary – the French poet Arthur Rimbaud – who wrote that: "A poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless and systemised disorganisation of the senses… I got used to elementary hallucination: I could very precisely see a drum corps of angels, horse carts on the highways of the sky… a mosque instead of a factory."

Clarence Edward Smith made himself a visionary, too. He looked out at Harlem and Brooklyn and did see mosques instead of factories. He knew that this surface New York – this stolen land of racism and corruption and poverty – could not be all there was. He knew there must be something more meaningful behind it. And as a result, the Wu-Tang did too:

"Don’t look towards the sky cos there’s no heaven above
Don’t look down beneath your feet, there’s no hell below
But heaven and hell exist within
Heaven is what you make it and hell is what you go through"

Popa Wu – ‘Wu-Revolution’

"Heaven and hell exist within" – yet again the Wu nail Blake’s cosmology in one succinct sentence.

But for the Clan, Heaven and Hell existed not only within themselves, but within New York – and America – too. Clarence 13X didn’t stop at Harlem and Brooklyn: he re-christened half the US map. Chicago became ‘C-Medina’, Connecticut ‘New Heaven’, Atlanta ‘Allah’s Garden’, and so on. Ghostface sounds particularly Blakeian on ‘260’ when he references Clarence’s name for New Jersey:

"Where’s the cat from?
Think he’s from New Jerusalem"

Ghostface Killah – ‘260’

Under the influence of the Five-Percent, the city – the entire country – that the Wu resided in was now almost entirely restructured to resemble ancient, mythical lands full of kings and queens, Gods and demons. Armed with this new geography, a simple jaunt from Harlem to Jersey becomes a Biblical odyssey:

I begin between the meteorite, now I walk like Christ…
Following six flaming lights burning over 1 million degrees Fahrenheit…
I began to flock, flock, flocked
Flocked across Mecca with a vivid projector
Seeking my accepter, looking at Rebecca
Two sons bopping through Jerusalem like the hoodlum
Principalities enable me to see the other galaxies

Killah Priest – ‘Atoms To Adam’

Just as Herod, Mahomet and the Angel Gabriel were gracious enough to make the trip to Blake’s Soho, so the Wu’s visions are firmly grounded in New York. On ‘Silverbacks’, the group’s elder statesman, GZA, tells us that he "went from the slums of Hell to paradise in Heaven… drank with the Devil and ate with the Reverend", making sure to specify that this happened not up in the clouds nor down in the abyss, but behind the "collapsed buildings" of New York City. On ‘Beneath The Surface’ (a song title that would make a decent alternate headline for this article), he echoes Lovecraft’s shrill warnings when he highlights the gossamer-slim veneer between the real world and the hidden world:

"On a man-made lake there’s a sheet of thin ice
Where unskilled skaters couldn’t figure-eight twice"

GZA – ‘Beneath The Surface’

(Note that the lake is "man-made" – just as Blake’s first draft of his famous "mind-forg’d manacles" line was "German-forg’d manacles" [i.e. manufactured by the Hanoverian King George III]. Both Blake and the Wu-Tang occasionally wobble into David Icke/ your-aunt’s-Facebook-page territory in their belief that the elites and authorities must keep the free thinkers shackled at all costs.)

Anyway, the point is this: for the Wu-Tang, surface New York – "man-made" New York – is already an unreal place. It doesn’t function like cities are supposed to. Everything is upside down. Schools don’t enlighten you; they blindfold you. Police don’t protect you; they murder you. On ‘Nutmeg’, Ghostface even marvels that violence in his projects has become so rampant that dialling 911 is now a futile gesture: "Stapleton’s where the ambulance don’t come!"

Hardly surprising, then, that he must rely on more ethereal emergency services:

"Call on the chariots…!
For those that murdered me shall stand before God!"

Ghostface Killah – ‘I Can’t Go To Sleep’

Put simply: Staten Island is not fit for purpose. In it, the Wu are either ignored or persecuted, their histories erased ("They kidnap the truth/Destroy the black evidence!" RZA hisses on ‘Jah World’). As such, their only option is to build a new city from their collective imagination – a place where they are given the freedom, protection and reverence they deserve. A place that outsiders cannot penetrate or navigate – a labyrinthine place, full of smoke, mirrors, trapdoors and Penrose steps:

"The 9th Chamber, leave you trapped inside my hallway
You tried to flee but you got smoked up by the doorway"

Ghostface Killah – ‘Criminology’

"Police pulsated that they almost trapped Bobby
Near the staircase outside the 240 lobby
But son just disappeared in thin air"

RZA – ‘Show U Love’

We’re reminded of Lovecraft’s comment about Cthulu’s sunken palace – "the geometry of the place was all wrong" – as well as Blake’s "Grain of Sand in Lambeth that Satan cannot find", which is "translucent & has many angles". Not to mention The Fall’s ‘Flat of Angles’, where "Doors open to specification/And keeps out stupid neighbours."

Police, pastors, politicians: in Shaolin all are just wasps in the Wasp Factory, stumbling blindly towards a sticky end:

Unforgivable snakes face the double-edged swords
Starts to swivel
Decapitates the head, makes the projects more liveable
Interchangeable, caution: flammable
My chamber is 99 plus 1 unnameable angles"

RZA – ‘Assassination Day’

"Makes the projects more liveable" is the key phrase here. The Wu’s visionary Shaolin may appear violent and nihilistic, but in reality it is a coping mechanism. If the surface world is a place of poverty, fear and discrimination, then their only choice is to will another world into being. A world where – for once – they come out on top. This is what Jim Jarmusch meant when he called the Wu-Tang Clan "warriors of the imagination". Their imagination is a tool they use to make an unbearable life bearable:

Innocent black immigrants locked in housing tenements

Eighty-five per cent tenants dependant welfare recipients

Stapleton’s been stamped as a concentration camp

At night I walk through, third eye as bright as a street lamp

RZA, Impossible

For RZA, imagination is the armour he wears to ward off the horrors of the surface world. Blake was thinking along similar lines when he designed the frontispiece for ‘Jerusalem’. Los – his avatar for the poetic imagination – is seen stepping through the ‘Door of Death’, holding the sun as a lamp to guide him.

The concept is summarised nicely by the philosopher/sci-fi writer Colin Wilson – one of MES’s faves – who wrote of Blake: "[Most people] do not know themselves. They live in prison. How can an individual hope to escape the general destiny of futility? Blake’s solution was: Go and develop the visionary faculty."

This is the Wu’s – and The Fall’s – solution, too. The mystical thrones, pillars and chambers of Shaolin are simply "more liveable" than the crack-riddled slums of Staten Island. So too the "alcoholic dryout house" that MES trudges past every day is rendered less bleak and depressing when given the once-over by his vivid imagination:

"On the first floor of the dryout house
Was a replica dartboard
And the man on the floor
His soul went out the window, over the lawn
And ran into the mad kid…
Two white birds cross the sky
Look like krakens
And sometimes that little…
Makes me tremble"

The Fall – ‘Winter’

Like Blake and the Wu-Tang, Smith engages his visionary faculty to make his dreary, downtrodden surroundings "more liveable". Because in spite of all his surliness and bile, Smith is still – like the others – an optimist at heart. All visionaries are optimists by definition. They are searching for another way. They steel themself against the disappointment of the surface world – the feeling of ‘Is this it?’ – by doodling on the maps of their cities, adding monsters and demons, gods and angels, hidden passageways and secret portals.

In Endgame, that arch-pessimist Samuel Beckett makes one of his characters cry: "You’re on Earth – there’s no cure for that!" But for Blake, The Fall and the Wu there is a cure: vision.

Blake wrote in his notebook that "The Nature of my Work is Visionary or Imaginative/It is an Endeavour to Restore the Golden Age". This is perhaps going a touch far for MES (unless you replace ‘Golden’ with ‘2nd Dark’), but it rings particularly true for the Clan. On ‘Reunited’, Ol’ Dirty Bastard alludes to the original American ‘Golden Age’ by informing us that he is directly linked to an older, more ‘innocent’ New York – a New York before it was even called New York:

"The Indian that sold Manhattan to the white man –
My grandfather!"

Ol’ Dirty Bastard – ‘Reunited’

This is more than just lyrical hyperbole. The Clan’s three cousins – ODB, RZA and GZA – are all blood relatives of one Fred Cuffee, a descendant of the Shinnecock Indian Nation. Their ancestors walked on Staten Island long before the corrupt pastors rocked up, with their Bibles, rifles, dope and dice.

Fuelled by this knowledge – in addition to the Five-Percent’s bombastic theology and the kung-fu films they lapped up – it’s not surprising that so much of the Wu’s imagery focuses on chiefs, warriors, Gods, thrones, kings and prophets – as well as, to quote Killah Priest, "searching for paradise which is the birthright". Just prior to revealing his Native American heritage, ODB screams the couplet, "I don’t walk, I get carried!" – an exquisite line, leaving us unsure whether he’s referring to his noble ancestry or his near-constant state of inebriation. Maybe both.

But then, ultimately, that’s the beauty of all three of them – The Wu, The Fall and Blake: each walk with a foot in either world. They are simultaneously clown and prophet, drunkard and king, lunatic and genius.

RZA channels the duality perfectly when he spins out of control on ‘I Can’t Go To Sleep’:

"Walking through Park Hill, drunk as a fuck
Looking around like… THESE DEVILS!
I’m ready to break this world down!"

RZA – ‘I Can’t Go To Sleep’

Blake thought the ‘doors of perception’ just needed a quick razz with a J-cloth; the Wu wanted them ripped off their hinges. MES simply wants to slip through occasionally while the "stupid neighbours" aren’t looking.

The method doesn’t matter so long as the goal is achieved.

All entrances must be uncovered.

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