Emails and paper

A few weeks ago someone gave me the name of a literary agency that she’d dealt with before, who she thought might be in the market for Not Your Heart Away . So I had a look at their website.

I’d heard every agency around is swamped with manuscripts, good bad and ugly these days and if most of them are anything like the stuff I find in most ‘writer’s forums’ it’s a job I don’t envy.

There was a huge section of the website about submissions and how to send them, along with the now-almost-statutory:

‘Lurk, we’re rarely busy yah? Say you won’t hair from us for three months and nay, dain’t keep calling to see how it’s gaying, rarely, because it just gets rarely say irritating and if you piss us orf we’ll just put it in the bin, yah?’

Maybe they don’t still speak like that, but I like to imagine they do. The Sophies and Tansys and Carolines that used to knock about Palings wine bar in Hanover Square after a heavy shift at Conde Nast did anyway, even if it was a while ago I went there.


Sophie’s Choice

After that there was an almost equally as big bit on the website about how not to send email submissions, meaning just don’t. Paper only, please. If you can’t be bothered to do that then just don’t bother at all, which I think is fair enough, if a tad anachronistic. I think it’s specifically done because it’s so easy to fire off an email with an attachment – as an agent you’d have to read the whole lot that came in. Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory came in unsolicited, after all.

So I did. Printed it all out, about 270 pages of line-and-a-half spaced A4. It wasn’t totally unsolicited, a friend-of-a-friend had dealt with the agency for years and thought NYHA might be their sort of thing so give it a go, no guarantees. That was a month ago. Last week I got email from them. Can you send it as an email attachment? Got the paper version, lovely, immaculately presented but look, frankly a bit much to pack around town so be a pal and just send it in Word so I don’t break my shoulder, taking it home to read?

Well, since you ask and as you said you liked the the way I’d done it the first time, ok. Just this once, mind. I just hope it’s the same version, that’s all.

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Lies, damn lies and Facebook

I was thinking of advertising somewhere. Sorry, I meant leveraging my cross-platform modalities. And where better than Facebook. Well as it turns out, practically anywhere. I think my ad would have done better in the newsagent’s window in Aldeburgh, frankly. It would certainly have been more cost-effective.

I had an ad there for a month. On Facebook, obviously. The results were memorable. Two click-throughs. Two. In a month. I certainly remember that.  Then Facebook phoned: “Would I like to buy an ad?”

Well no, Facebook, I bought one and nothing happened so I won’t be buying another. “We’ll look into it,” said Facebook. And by an AMAZING coincidence there were 50 click-throughs in the next 24 hours. I must be born lucky that way.

Over the next week my little old Facebook ad, the one that garnered no clicks at all for a month, managed 150 click-throughs to the Amazon page I’d specified. The results, or ‘insights’ as Facebook’s newspeak has it, were impressive, or they would be if my stats-inclusive BSc put most of its emphasis on BS.

Facebook Insights

In the new amazing world of business school MBA Advanced Know Nothingness, ‘insights’ just means ‘some numbers.’ You can tell the quality of them by the way they record website hits (a search engine crawled across it) instead of visits (someone actually went to the site). This is the upside down-world of insights, Search Engine Optimisation and ‘creative’ content. In the modern Alice Through the LCD the medium isn’t just the message, it’s actually more important.

So here are some insights anyone on The Apprentice would be proud to trot out.

150 clicks. £60. 9 new Facebook likes. Net sales – er one.

The ad was straightforward. Buy Not Your Heart Away, now, in paperback and Kindle. Click here.


That was it. There could only be one reason to click on it, to go straight to the Amazon page. It’s not exactly ambiguous. I never saw the ad. No-one I know has ever seen the ad, but then, considering a friend’s house-to-rent is on there most days and she’s never even considered using Facebook let alone paid for it maybe that’s not too surprising.

That house is advertised on another website, one that’s nothing to do with Facebook. Nice-looking house.

Nice of someone to run an ad for it without the owner knowing.

There’s one difference between those two ads, of course. Mine was paid for, my friend’s wasn’t. But they both have at least one thing in common. They don’t produce any results.

Whatever you do, don’t buy a Facebook ad. It’s a total waste of time and money. But it’s the transparency of the con-trick that’s the most insulting part of all.

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Big Words

I used to know this girl.

She was really, stunningly pretty, thin, even wore a jumpsuit and stockings. Yes, at the same time. You could tell.  It was a long time ago. About the time Not Your Heart Away was set. From here, from this impossible distance away I’d have said something to me about it. Of course I would. But what more could anyone possibly want at 19?

Well, someone who didn’t think ‘big words’ was an insult might have been an idea. Except when I’m getting bogged down writing things I can hear that still, when I’m taking fifteen words to write something that really should have taken five.

Try it. Visualise a really pretty face about six inches from your own, lips parted, the eyes modestly lowered and then they lock onto yours. The lips part gently, the lovely teeth gleam and then that voice screams: “BIG WORDS” straight at you. Sorry. Were  you expecting something else to happen there?

It’s all in the delivery, isn’t it? Maybe she was right after all.

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The curse of big words

I officially heard it all today. Read it, anyway. It’s finally happened. I knew it would one day. After this – I’m not sure there is an ‘after this.’ I read the most stupid, conceited, 15 year-old know-it-all gee-mom-thanks-for-the-psychology-textbook-guess-I’m-a-psychiatrist-now thing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some. And that, as we used to say, ain’t no lie.


It’s Saturday morning. I just got some tea and sourdough toast, some not-very-nice figs (I didn’t get them because they were’t very nice, they just weren’t) and a bowl of rhubarb stewed with ginger and went back to bed to write, because I didn’t want to start the cleaning and clearing and all the stuff I have to do today quite yet. The Eagles were playing on the radio. The Eagles have been out riding fences for so long now that you can’t really tell which of their songs is which until you stop and listen carefully. You just know they can play, they wrote their own stuff, didn’t use a rythym machine, the lyrics mean something and one of these days you’ll stop and listen and find out what they are.

After a few seconds of listening I looked up one of those lyrics-with-meanings websites. I should have known better. You get those days when it seems as if the whole interweb is written by a teenager living with their parents in Ohio, my shorthand for someone whose worldview is incredibly circumscribed but officially knows everything there is to know about everything, on account of he’s not paying the bills and shucks, all them cornfields cain’t be wrong.

Lying Eyes

City girls just seem to find out early
How to open doors with just a smile
A rich old man
And she won’t have to worry
She’ll dress up all in lace and go in style 
Late at night a big old house gets lonely
I guess ev’ry form of refuge has its price
And it breaks her heart to think her love is
Only given to a man with hands as cold as ice

Luckily, thanks to websites like this we can share Traynor or Chuck’s insights on what the Eagles really meant with all the collective wisdom Moose Droppings, OH can muster. She’s got Narcissistic Personality Disorder, you see? She could benefit from some counselling, quite a lot of it. It’s people like her Mental Health Awareness Day was set-up for. She’s ‘phony,’ a word I haven’t really heard since Holden Caulfield got drafted to Veet Naym.

She gets the wanted attention that she so misses in her NEW relationship. This new person is so wonderful and all the feelings she remembers having in her “old” relationship are coming back. However what her narcissistic personality fails to understand is that these feelings (as nice as they are) will be temporary. Relationships grow and as beautiful as the guy thinks she is, telling her how wonderful and great she is everyday gets tiresome. Again, it’s all about her and he will realize this in time or just become a doormat.

So now you know. Obviously Traynor hasn’t got to the chapter about projection yet. That’ll be a good day. He’ll probably be listening to Take It To The Limit.



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The past is another country

Google Earth is a strange thing. It gives the idea you’re looking at the here and now, but like any photo, it’s just a snapshot of the past, however many colours there are, whatever angle you look at the picture. The wondrous thing is once you have an address practically anywhere in the world you can see what someone’s house looks like, see the rake or the plastic broom they left outside, see the things they see when they walk down the street. But when? You don’t know exactly when.

For all the redacted car number plates, the weird Germans getting out of the boot of a car naked (yes, Google Earth snapped that picture one particularly German day) and the occasional man wearing a horse’s head it’s not now. It’s then. One of the most vivid ways of imagining it, checking out other people’s lives as well as places, but still then, not now.

I think that’s the attraction for me, of the past. You know how it ends. It’s one of the themes, maybe the main theme of Not Your Heart Away. It’s preoccupying me now I ‘m trying to start the sequel, not the past, but the idea of the past. And that’s the thing about it – you know how it turned out. When you look at the house you stayed in, when you follow your drive to work that summer, down the hill, over the railway crossing, down into the old town, you know what happened next. You know what became of you. You know who you were, as well as who you became. You know how that part ended.


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A Voice Of Their Own

“The characters just had a life of their own. They wrote the book, not me. I don’t know where they came from. I had one idea in my head for where the story was going, but they changed it. It’s as if – as if they were somehow speaking through me.”

Ever read this? I have.  It’s rubbish.

Statutory plug for Not Your Heart Away

When I was writing Not Your Heart Away I wanted to make sure the three main female characters, above everything else, were not just believable but equally importantly, different from each other. It’s one of the hallmarks of rubbish fiction that however many people appear in the book they have just two voices, one male and the other female. Often that means those two say pretty much the same things too, except one of them twists her ankle when she’s being chased by a lion and has to be rescued. Hey, this is MY story, ok? Write your own if you don’t like mine.

I was paid an odd compliment yesterday: ‘If I didn’t know you I’d have said whoever wrote it was gay, because he knows what women think.’ Odd in two ways, I thought. First a sad comment on my fellow Suffolk metrosexuals, or as this is a predominantly rural area maybe retrosexuals would be more appropriate. Maybe that’s what she meant.

Secondly though, I can’t remember ever writing a single word about what any other character except the narrator ever thought about anything. It’s a first-person narrator story – Ben can’t think about anything anyone else thinks because he has to be told it or see it. Aside from the format of the form, he’s supposed to be 18 or 19. Of course he can’t think what anyone else thinks. Especially girls. He can barely articulate what he thinks himself, for heaven’s sake. But flattering anyway. And almost as odd as the person who told me she admired the book as a treatise about the way women face choices in their lives and reach crossroads that decide who they are going to be.  Er yeah, that’s what I hoped it would be. Allow me to pour you some wine?

But rubbish as the idea that the characters had to tell their own story is (ok, let’s see them do it. Come on. I’m waiting), I know what the idea means, that they decide what’s going to happen. Except they don’t. It’s the way they speak.

The Uses of English

Somebody wrote that an Englishman and by extension woman, only has to open his mouth to make another Englishman despise him. I think despising is too strong a word for it and quite un-English in itself. Making another Englishman say ‘really?’ is quite damning enough. Even better these days, you can get them to repeat their nonsense on Twitter if you put your mind to it, so everyone can see. Only one of the characters in NYHA speaks with anything much approaching an actual accent, although another one is afraid they might do. Mostly they speak like totally normal young people, not very rich, not very poor. Where words are used as weapons in the book it’s mostly as a defensive mechanism rather than an indicator, conscious or otherwise, of social class.

But they all had to have individual voices. That’s where ‘they took it over’ comes from. Whatever the story, in a dialogue-lead novel where the things that are said are much more indicative than the things that are done, there being very few helicopter gunship shoot-outs in the book now, it has to be the words that matter. The phrasing. And once you’ve got a character’s phrasing in your head that’s the only way they can speak. That’s what leads the story down a track you maybe hadn’t thought of. A character can’t say something except in their own voice and unless you want to go down the Raymond Chandler route you just have to trot after them and nudge them round to where you wanted them to be, but not so hard you make them speak like someone else.

What ‘they took over and their words just flowed out of me’ means is simple: it took me three days to get that character back to where I’d planned they were going to be, because I couldn’t be arsed to rip-up what I’d done and start again.  And they were speaking in character and real life isn’t linear very often. Not as often as we’d all like to pretend, anyway.

Raymond Chandler had the advantage of writing about violent murderous drunks, after all. Whenever he got stuck down a dead-end in the text he just had someone kick the door open, holding a gun. Maybe I should try that, next time.

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Learn to play the saxophone

Back in Wisconsin – it’s not a bad start, is it?

Actually it’s not a brilliant start if you know Wisconsin. Nothing much happens there. It’s a land of lakes, America’s dairyland, full of pine trees, water and mosquitos, empty roads and rain clouds a lot more of the time than I expected that summer. A place of big old wooden barns on farms that looked like something out of a child’s picture book, or the American picture books I grew up on, anyway. Hexmarks cut into the lintels told an older story, one the Scandinavian settlers brought with them in the 1800s when they came to clear this land.

Like any country place, there wasn’t much there. The local people were either desperate to get away or sometimes just desperate, trapped and often as not contemplating a lifetime of temporary jobs and drunkenness, pretty much the two options available when some of the lakes had eight feet of snow of them four months of the year.

I saw an elk there, splashing through the shallows near an island I’d sailed too, so impossibly huge it was like a dinosaur up close. On land I wouldn’t have got so close. Writing this is bringing a lot of memories back, so much I nearly wrote  gotten.

I was on summer camp. I went there to teach children to shoot because I couldn’t find a job in England that summer. I didn’t want to join the Army or be an accountant or a solicitor and where I lived there didn’t seem to be much else to do as the factories shut and the ordered world my parents talked about seemed to be as credible and real as anything else parents ever say, which in my house wasn’t much. For eight weeks six days a week I drilled the basics of not shooting yourself or anyone else by accident or design into groups of five children, aged between eight and sixteen. I bought a twelve year-old Chevrolet and tooled around the backroads like a Springsteen refugee, sometimes with one of the counsellors from one of the other summer-camps nearby.  Where I grew up we sometimes had Max Boyce singing how the pit-head baths were a supermarket now; if I drove around Eagle River today I could reflect on how Nancy-Jean was a professor of performance art now and won awards for her story-telling children’s books. The difference seemed significant to me, then and now.

The time and place for Nancy-Jean’s story and how I drove down to Indiana and cleaned up a sawmill the wrong side of the railroad tracks isn’t now; now was when I started to learn to play the saxophone. I had a friend on camp called Mel Taylor. I still can’t find-out what happened to him. He came from Kentucky where every boy learns to shoot and fish the same way you learn to tie your shoelaces anywhere else. His uncle made speedboats and played the saxophone. He’d loaned Mel his old one to take to camp, see if he wanted to learn to play it. He did a little, I did more, so a few afternoons a week I’d borrow this old tenor sax and take it out to the shooting range after we’d closed, or out into the woods beyond if I was feeling more uncertain about the sound than usual. Mel was able to show me how to put my lips on the mouthpiece, just about and the rest was up to me. I had a load of Glenn Miller songs in my head, along with Dexy’s Midnight Runners and the Motel’s Total Control. It was a long time before I could even think about having that over anything I played.

I wanted to come back to London and join a band, maybe stay with a friend in Camden while I worked the pub-band circuit, drinking Scotch whisky all night long and playing just what I feel. A foggy wet winter on Eversholt Street was a lot different to anything Steely Dan had in mind though, as I knew already.

That’s how it started. It’s still going on. There isn’t anything much about saxophones in Not Your Heart Away, except I kept playing Kate Bush’s Saxophone Song while I was writing it. I kept hearing that sound in my head for pretty much always.  You’ll find me in a Berlin bar, in a corner brooding. You know that I go very quiet when I’m listening to you summed-up a lot of that book, listening to my memories, listening to ghosts of the past and the future. That’s just what I feel. I’m still learning to play it. These days it’s a 1924 Martin Low Tone.


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The Riddle of the Stains

Once up a time proper chaps and chapeseses spoke in RP, the BBC’s Received Pronunciation. Or we were supposed to, anyway. It was designed, created, invented even, when for the first time everyone in the country was being spoken to and could actually hear the words back in the 1920s and ’30s, when radio ruled. It wasn’t about snobbery, which is easy to assume now. It was about mass communication, a common pronunciation designed so that everybody could understand it, whatever their accent.

It doesn’t come from anywhere. That was the whole point. It blends aspects of lots of different accents into one. Like any other accent it became exaggerated for better or worse into the  strengled viles Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard used in Brief Encounter, which tragically, still does it for me. It was interesting at the university reunion last weekend to hear how many people were using it more or less, although none of us would have admitted it without water-boarding. Despite that, I tried to keep extreme accents out of Not Your Heart Away. Nobody’s commented on them yet, anyway.

I was talking to a friend about the general rubbishness of estate agents, the sort of conversation Celia and Trevor would have been quite at home with.

“Yes, I see thet.”

Splendid! The whole reason I was thinking about this at all was due to an estate agent, or rather remembering the way she spoke when I was selling a house once, back so long ago that you could actually (a) sell houses and (b) make a profit doing it! Rarely! It was true!

I’m not jaking!

Even then the estate agent woman was something of an anachronism. She didn’t just have a tartan skirt, but also a huge chrome safety pin for it, the sort of rig I’d never actually seen on anybody over six years old. She could safely have put a couple of decades onto thet.

The house was a bit of a wreck when I bought it. We moved the bathroom down a floor, put another one in upstairs, moved the kitchen from the middle floor to the ground floor, made a study and treated and re-stained the wooden beams in the kitchen, which is what I assumed the estate agent woman was talking about. She seemed keen.

“Rarely like the stains! Did you do them?”

Yes, I said, after I did the woodworming.

Rarely? You hed woodworm thar?

Lots of it. All fixed now. So of course the wood needed to be made to look good after that.

The woman looked at me to see if I was trying to be funny. She looked at the wall and the mullioned windows, the way the sunlight caught the mellow Cotswold ashlar masonry blocks and turned to me again.

Nay! The stains! 

Ah. Ok. The ones they dug out of a quarry a long time ago. No, they were already there. For the last 300 years and more.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have something in my eye.


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The smell of freedom

Patchouli used to be the smell of the tribe. It’s a dark, earthy smell that’s hard to describe because it meant so many things. There’s a coldness to it too, along with the warm, fuzzy buzz it puts in your head, the feeling it puts in your heart that for once, just this once, we could have a revolution without blood on the streets.

Well we had a revolution. It was called Thatcherism. It wasn’t much to do with patchouli and there was blood.

I tried to get some patchouli in Bath two weekends ago, to fly the flag when I went to a university reunion. Bath didn’t have any which was odd where they may as well have crop-dusted the whole city with the stuff once upon a time. I got some patchouli massage oil in Body Shop a few years ago but that’s another story. It’s not the same.

That smell was how you recognised the tribe, a not-very-secret code. The police and Drugs Squad and Customs officers always assumed it meant you were in possession of a controlled substance. I got made to turn my bag and pockets out on the street in Bath when I was stopped by two plain clothes officers whose hep-to-the-jive antennae told them ‘if you’ve got patchouli then you’ve got dope,’ as Poppy said in Not Your Heart Away. Like any assumption, a lot of the time it was wrong. They’d have been better-off targeting people who drank milk. Some did, some didn’t. In itself, patchouli was nothing to do with it.


Head Shops

After ten days of being more oddly disturbed than usual after that weekend, remembering someone’s incredulity when I said I’d only used two aftershaves in the past ten years, I decided to fly the flag again. I went to buy some patchouli.

There aren’t those little head shops where I live in rural Suffolk, nowhere the whole shop stinks of the goatskin-soled knitted slippers that might keep your feet alternatively warm or might equally give you anthrax. Nowhere with brass bells on strings and a wall full of dried beans and joss sticks and Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics and tiny Chinese porcelain bowls. There probably aren’t any shops like that anywhere now. I remember when there were.

One of the all-time great albums. Click it and see.

There was a gallery and gift shop in Woodbridge that had a suspicious number of dangly things that might be mistaken for mobiles hanging from the ceiling when I went in yesterday. The blond woman who ran the shop was about my age. I hung back a bit while she was trying to sell some tourists a painting of the quay. After they’d decided they were really nice pictures but not quite nice enough today I asked if she might know anywhere that sold patchouli, for the first time in decades. She was out around the counter in seconds, eyes darting from side to side. Old habits. I might as well have asked if she had any king-size strawberry Rizlas and a lighter.

What seems to be the problem, officer?

“This shop used to be a chemist. People sometimes think – But no. We have some joss sticks. I might have some patchouli ones. Cinnamon. Amber.  No. No patchouli. Nobody’s asked for that for years. That used to be how you knew, when I was a teenager!’

It was. What it was we knew we didn’t really know. But we knew. We didn’t know where to find any, either of us. Maybe The Purple Shop in Ipswich, she said, but it sounded exactly like the mythical Purple Shop in both our heads, too good to be true and guaranteed if it actually did exist to be closed when you got there. Not worth the drive to find out. It won’t be there anyway. Maybe it’s our age.

You can still get that smell, now and then, if you try. It’s called an essential oil now, but it always was. I eventually got some in Holland & Barrett’s aromatherapy section. They said it would help me relax. When I got home I unscrewed the top and held it under my nose and was about as relaxed as if I was caught in an avalanche that hurled me straight back to the Walcot Nation in my mind, before the picture framers and bathroom galleries moved in. Somewhere very precious where we can all go only for a little while, with the right kind of nose and one sniff of patchouli.



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The shining plain

Into my heart an air that kills from yon far country blows. What are those blue remembered hills? What spires, what farms are those? That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain; The happy highways where I went and cannot come again.

Box Hill

I can’t really remember when or where I first heard Housman‘s A Shropshire Lad. That’s as it should be, indefinite, always there, underneath everything, the landscape in my heart.

The rest of the poem goes on a bit, but those lines come back to me again and again. I’m not from Shropshire and those lines weren’t written there either, whatever Claire thought in  Not Your Heart Away, if ‘thought’ isn’t too strong a word for her off-her-face recollections one evening in a mythical country pub.

The pub I described in the book really did exist once, making it a real land of lost content. It really was called the Red Lion – I’m not an imaginative writer. It was made of stone in a village that once used water from the nearby river on the very edge of the Mendips to power a mill that made broadcloth, the stuff (and it was properly called ‘stuff’) that made hunting pink riding coats and billiard table covers, wool that was teased out with teasles, hence the name, then cropped with eight-foot long shears worn around the waist then hammered flat over and again until it was dense, hard-wearing. It all ends in the beginning though, that story. The whole point of the mill was to provide power and once that walk starts it ends with the shearers replaced by machines, as Thomas Helliker, our local martyr found.

The Red Lion

But we didn’t know any of that in the Red Lion, not then. The only food they sold was crisps, Kit-Kats and Mars bars, the way country pubs always used to. Then peanuts came along and the rot set in. The next thing was the amazing thing, the Star Trek invasion. Somehow the Red Lion owner got hold of probably one of the first microwaves in the universe. It only cooked one thing, plastic-wrapped cheese and onion sandwiches that were microwaved in the bag. People used to watch it being done, the microwave machine behind the bar where everyone could see it. We made our own entertainment in those days.

Someone tried to organise a school reunion ten years ago and phoned the Red Lion to see if we could hold it where we’d spent so much of our school time, at least in the evenings and weekends. There was a big fireplace, a door at the front and another, the one everyone used, at the back leading into the car park that was more like a little wood than anywhere you’d leave your car now. It was warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Nobody bothered anyone. You could have a conversation if you wanted one and be left alone if you didn’t. On Friday and Saturday nights it was literally wall-to-wall people in all three rooms of the pub. Cars were borrowed, crashed, had their rusting sills ripped off on the stones that bordered the grass, abandoned with the doors open and lights on and even sometimes parked normally in the car-park. Love affairs started, flourished, turned into disappointment or jealousy and ended in that pub. It’s possible that whole lives started there too, but that was nothing to do with me even if I did know exactly who was involved in that particular episode.

The Red Lion shut over a decade ago. There’s another pub called the Red Lion just over a mile away but it’s not the same. It never was. It just wasn’t the one you went to. Was it so good because of the place, or the people who went there? It’s something I’m asking myself more and more these days. And more and more I’m thinking the land of lost content is a place in your heart, not anywhere you can find on a map.

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