Published in: on August 26, 2013 at 8:33 am  Comments (1)  

Some brief thoughts on Snowden in historical perspective

I’d just like to point out a few parallels and contrasts between the current case of whistleblowing CIA hacker Edward Snowden and some examples from my milieu of research, mid-C20 Mexico. Snowden is currently attempting to find a state which will offer him political asylum having had his passport suspended by the U.S. government following his leaking of revelations about the NSA’s spying activities (both domestic and foreign).

Snowden had, among his initial flurry of asylum applications, included Russia. Like many other examples from the list, this was curious since his asylum is a result of his (apparent) commitment to open, popular scrutiny of government, something Russia has very little of. Understandable, though – he is backed into a corner and cannot afford to be choosy at this point. This application was withdrawn by Snowden, however, when Vladimir Putin stipulated that his asylum would be dependent on his cessation of human rights-based campaigning. Incidentally, Henrik Hertzberg has written here about the brilliance of Putin’s multi-layered statement on the matter.

This condition of exile naturally brought to my mind that placed upon (first) Leon Trotsky and (later) Republican refugees from the Spanish Civil War in Mexico. In both cases, those negotiating on behalf of the asylum seeker conceded that they would not partake in political activity in their place of exile. This meant domestic political activity – for example, when Pablo Neruda arrived in post-WWII Mexico he was free to criticise the Chilean government. Similarly, Trotsky continued his life as an international revolutionary, but practically-speaking his international map suddenly had a Mexico-shaped hole in it. Hence, when his initial closest allies the LCI called for sabotage and direct action against businesses to protest against the high cost of living in 1937, Trotsky disowned them, describing their methods as “stupid”. (Note that this debate has barely evolved since 1937 and lives on in the Trotskyist and anarchist divergence in current methods to oppose the coalition government in the UK). Nor could Trotsky comment on the manner in which the railroads were (in all likelihood) handed over to workers’ control deliberately in order to fail in 1938.

When the Spanish exiles began to arrive fleeing the Francoist advance, they too were obliged to keep to non-Mexican affairs in their political discussion. In the case of the Republican government in exile this was not too taxing since they spent much of their time engaged in bitter personal recriminations. For those lower down the political hierarchy, though, the safety and opportunity Mexico afforded meant having to put their passions and energies into (usually) cultural – rather than political – affairs. When many of their children became involved in the 1968 student movement and more generalised opposition, the first generation of immigrants panicked, fearful that the political ‘sins’ of the children would be revisited upon them and all would find themselves once again without a home.

I suppose what I am trying to convey is that asylum is a tool for the state which offers it too. It can be used as a fig leaf for domestic authoritarianism, as it was in post-Revolutionary Mexico and (rather honestly, it seems) would have been in Putin’s Russia. Just as the Mexican government could trumpet its fraternal attitude to the Republican refugees while muting them politically, it would later proudly boast of a revolutionary brotherhood with Cuba while providing the U.S. government with lists of passengers travelling there from Mexico and supposedly allowing the C.I.A. to use the Mexican embassy in Havana as a listening post. While we ought to be appalled at the actions of the United States government in twisting arms across the globe to deny Snowden political asylum, we must not forget that states which receive exiles do so for their own politically-expedient reasons – even if they are nominally left-wing.

Published in: on July 3, 2013 at 10:16 am  Leave a Comment  
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Highgate Cemetery

We went for a wander around Highgate Cemetery in the pouring rain on Friday. Here are a few of the more notable graves.













and of course…


Published in: on June 23, 2013 at 6:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hadrian’s Wall: Day Two

On Tuesday we undertook the second day of our Hadrian’s Wall run challenge. Day one had been difficult, due to my ongoing illness, and had really left us up against it on the second day – we had until around six ‘o’clock to finish, and where we had hoped to reach about 49 miles on day one, the time lost to various things (though mainly dashes into the bushes) meant we finished at around 41 miles. Nick also twisted his knee in a boggy field just at the end. We didn’t know how serious that would be until the next morning when it was clear he was in a lot of pain. I was also reduced to a slow pace to keep my guts in check, and we spent most of the second day at a walking pace – this put us at about 3 mph over the hilly middle section, and it rapidly became obvious we wouldn’t be able to get to Newcastle by evening. We ploughed on, eating up the miles at a steady rate – Housesteads, Brocolitia, Chollerford, Portgate… but once we got towards Wallhouses, Nick’s knees were becoming cripplingly painful. We’d had a lovely run of well maintained, relatively smooth grass surfaces, but on the way up to Harlow Hill we hit a series of waterlogged, boggy sections and heavy side-to-side gradients which knocked us out. We called in the support van (thanks again, Nic Sr.!) so Nick could try walking with poles, and we did the last few miles like that. Though progress had been slow on the day, we’d made almost thirty miles over some pretty hilly terrain at walking pace, and on top of the 41 miles on day one we feel like it was a decent achievement.

Nonetheless, it was frustrating not to be able to get to Wallsend. The time constraint, my illness and Nick’s knees all contributed to us ending up about twelve miles short or so. We’ll go back at some point to run that final stretch as soon as we can, but in the meantime we really hope nobody who sponsors us feels like we cheated or didn’t fulfil our attempt properly. Obviously if anyone is aggrieved let us know! Two other important points – first, and foremost, this was done to raise money for Refuge. As our donations page shows, we have reached around £1100 so far. Although it probably sounds trite, having Nick’s dad as our support team to come and help us when the pain got too much drove home exactly why I’d been running – there are hundreds of thousands of people with no support network who need Refuge to help them escape from domestic violence. Secondly, we had a good time – in spite of the pain, in spite of the indignity of dashing into the bushes every couple of miles, it was fun. The views were absolutely spectacular at points, and it was the first time I had really seen Hadrian’s Wall properly. Anyhow, here’s some photos from the two days. A video may follow later in the week…

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Published in: on August 2, 2012 at 7:30 am  Leave a Comment  

The Literal Collapse of Social Democracy: Robin Hood is (Nearly) Dead

I wanted to write a long and probably boring piece on this, but I don’t have time, so thank your lucky stars. The basic points I wished to convey were as follows, in shameful brevity:

1) Robin Hood Gardens, the Smithsons’ (subjectively) beautiful but (objectively) run-down social housing development in Blackwall, east London, is due for demolition. Built for ‘the socialist dream’ and now, in classic neoliberal fashion, a public good which has quite intentionally been allowed to malfunction and decay in order that a private alternative would seem attractive. See also, for example, inner city state schools, and, shortly, the NHS. When Jonathan Glancey went to visit in 2009, he took a rather skeptical view, but almost all of the documented complaints refer to maintenance, not architecture. When I visited, the streets in the sky concept – which I love – was in full swing, with groups of kids playing football and cycling up and down.

2) Social democracy and the welfare state as a linked pair of historical phenomena seem to be just as run down (or to have been run down just as much!) as Robin Hood Gardens. In the cases of Italy and Greece elected governments were earmarked by the EU for demolition and replacement with private-finance friendly technocratic post-states. In Britain we are consensually daydreaming our way to something similar. Here was a physical representation in east London of the grand political shift of our era.

3) But wasn’t the social democratic ideal always like the Robin Hood of legend? Couldn’t a capitalist welfare state only ever survive as long as there was money coming in, strongarmed from the rich in times when there was gold sloshing around to be thrown at foreign wars and other follies? What happens when Robin Hood is dead? Weren’t such handouts always dependent on the goodwill of an enlightened member of the nobility (the mythical Loxley, the actual Beveridge) to sweep crumbs from the table into our grateful paws? Where do we go next?

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(Note, there are two photos of nearby, more modern buildings – hopefully it’s obvious which ones!)

So I went to look around and take some pictures before it is gone. A few things struck me. In relation to the surrounding monstrosities of Canary Wharf (and other faux-marble or glass-and-steel yawnfests slightly further north), Robin Hood Gardens is a fine piece of architecture. It is elegant, sweeping and open, with its deck access ‘streets in the sky’ and setting around a shared garden. It’s not too high so even in early spring (when I went) the sun comfortably enters the communal space. The ratio of windows to wall is extraordinary compared with most more recent mass housing (whether social or yuppie). Even in its decrepit, boarded-up state, there is something friendly and hopeful about it. It’s a great shame that it has been deliberately run into the ground. I really liked it.

Published in: on May 15, 2012 at 3:04 pm  Comments (3)  

Holiday Reading

Monsters, fascists, slaughterers and liberal parents

I took what seemed a ridiculously ambitious six books away for the two weeks in Fiji. In the end, there was enough hammock, beach and early bed time to necessitate an additional seventh. Above you can see what constituted my holiday reading; hereafter, a few thoughts on those volumes.

First out of the hemp knapsack was John Wyndham‘s The Kraken Wakes (as an aside, the recent Penguin editions of Wyndham’s fiction are rather lovely). I’ve written about my admiration for Wyndham before, here – and some of you may have noticed that this blog is in fact named after one of his first stories.* Wyndham, for me, is a bona fide genius; a follower of H G Wells, certainly (though less of a Huxleyite than often presumed, I would suggest), he is the antecedent of J G Ballard, Allan Moore, Margaret Atwood, P D James – and China Miéville, of whom more shortly. Wyndham’s overarching project was the utterly plausible depiction of disruptions to parochial (even where nominally metropolitan) petit bourgeois daily life caused by exogenous shocks of a non-economic kind, expertly weaving in the Cold War context. Allied with an anachronous penchant for strong woman characters and a devilish eye for social satire, some of which is every bit as biting as Isherwood and even early Waugh, Wyndham’s major works are both time capsules and timeless stone tablets; they contain snapshots of his era but illustrate eternal human processes and interactions. The Kraken Wakes is exemplary in this regard: an alien threat manifests itself and nations are rendered inactive by mistrust and petty jealousies, while human-scale responses are undermined by entirely surmountable fractiousness and attitudinal inertia. Whereas other of his works progress steadily, TKW follows a more episodical path, with separate ‘phases’. This invites the reader to fill in the lacunae, which one may attempt neatly, logically and without colouring over the edges, or abstractly, ranging into the future as darkly or optimistically as a prevailing mood permits.

From dystopian fiction (of a sort) to the dystopian reality of Arundhati Roy‘s Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy. Roy’s retreat from fiction (or rather her preoccupation with factual reportage and advocacy) is well-documented and, in my view, deeply admirable. To be outspoken not only on regional disasters such as the Sri Lankan genocide but also specifically on the Indian tinderboxes of Kashmir and Naxalism (which she weaves together as part of a wider thesis on India’s crassly brutal ‘development model’) is brave beyond belief. Many of the essays contained in Listening to Grasshoppers concern the mishandling of the investigation into the attack on India’s parliament in 2001, though there are also detailed sections on genocide in Gujarat and some explorations of peasant resistance to state-sponsored barbarity in the rural northeast. The flagrant perversion of Indian democracy leads Roy to question the value of such a concept at all. It is an uncomfortable and courageous line of enquiry, and one which we should be brave enough to follow here in the UK too, where the real government so clearly extends to media moguls and police chiefs. The writing is at once characteristically elegant and abrasive: a call to arms without hectoring; clear, unanswered questions without the pretension of easy answers.

Moving back to fiction, I finally got around to one of the ‘buzz books’ (ugh) of the decade, Lionel Shriver‘s We Need to Talk About Kevin. I must say I found this unusually irritating. I thought it was pretentious, mind-numbingly middlebrow and mostly unconvincing. It was far too long to sustain interest, and while I was gripped by the last sixty or so pages – by that stage I wanted the details of the denouement, much of which was guessable early on – the preceding four hundred were annoying in the extreme (and I am too stubborn to abandon a book half read). None of the main three characters was vaguely sympathetic. The mother, and ‘author’ of the letters which make up the book, was a cold, vain, arrogant borderline sociopath; the father a wet, patronising, irresponsible, myopic – and in his own way equally arrogant – dupe. Kevin himself is a sadistic non-entity; I don’t feel that the author herself really ‘knew’ him. A bitch, a bore and a little bastard, to put it crudely. None of the relationships in this triangle (later square) were particularly realistic, or rather there were enough jarring disjunctures to make them seem phony. I am intrigued to see whether the film can breathe some life into them.

Interestingly, as the immigrant of the piece, the mother (of Armenian heritage) embodied much of America’s cold, robust, enterprising side. The father was homely, faux-warm and empty. Kevin was perhaps meant to embody some version of post-modernity. Absurd or surrealist violence as annotated by Baudrillard. The whole thing was depressing but more aesthetically than emotionally, as so little of it rang true at a gut level. The story was all-too plausible of course – the banality of the high-school massacre being one legacy of the last fifteen years – but the characters were constructs or ciphers. The writer seems as cold as her proxy, the mother, and it shows on each page. I would perhaps recommend it as a point of interest for discussion – after all the book has gained some cultural currency – but I’m not sure it’s a healthy intervention into the debate on contemporary child-rearing; more a sad commentary on one person’s interpretation thereof.

I was relieved to be able to tuck into Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Eating Animals – though I shouldn’t have been. I’ve teetered on the edge of some degree of meat rejection for a long while, and this book feels like the permission I needed to move properly to what the author terms ‘selective omnivorism’ – that is, the eating of meat only when its rearing and slaughtering meet ethical minimums (assuming one is comfortable with the ethics of eating meat in the abstract, which I think I still am). The book has so many fascinating and horrifying parts; too many to describe really, I would simply urge all to read it. There is an Emperor’s New Clothes element to it: I’m sure at heart most of us know how degraded and disgraceful the meat industry is, but we are very good at closing our eyes and ears to the facts. Really though, as Safran Foer expertly argues (and from an everyman position – this is not simply about middle-class guilt), the game is up. We are well on the way to creating Atwoodian ChickieNobs. Something has gone horribly wrong with our flesh consumption (not least the ridiculous underpricing of meat – where externalities are ignored and will only be costed later, in future antibiotic uselessness and dangerous genetic monopoly). And fish. Yes, fish is just as bad, if not worse. Even if you think his fiction to be too clever, too arch, too portentous, this is a different kettle of line-caught sustainable tuna.

After the travails of Kevin and the grimness of the meat industry, a book offering a snapshot of a transition to fascism might not seem like light relief, but every moment of Antonio Tabucchi‘s Pereira Maintains was a joy. This was given to me with high recommendation by friends of impeccable literary taste, and the anticipation was ramped up further by (what seemed) a rather gushing introduction by Mohsin Hamid. However, the superlatives were spot on. Rarely have I read a book with such economy of language; an efficient prose which loses no richness in its trimming. In just a couple of hundred double-spaced pages, the dawning of the fascist state in Portugal is unveiled, with excursions into the worlds of the Spanish Civil War, Portuguese literature (and wider culture),  and that great inter-war institution: the health retreat. Oh, the heat! Oh, the lemonade! Oh, the hidden communists! Pereira himself is both a fully-rounded character and a representative of a substantial section the population at large; not only in Portugal, but more broadly in a Europe descending into the grip of various fascisms. The literary device used to frame the entire narrative is risky but successful, leaving an element of doubt as to the story’s (in)conclusion. A wonderful book, and one I am very glad to have encountered.

Next stop: China Miéville‘s Perdido Street Station. At around eight hundred and fifty pages it was a bit of a doorstep – at one point so unwieldy that it ended up in the sea. Its enormous scope and effortless grappling with a myriad of metaphysical concepts belie the precocious author’s then twenty six years of age. The city of New Crobuzon is highly evocative of London, though on an alternative development path lacking digital technology and dependent upon steam-driven machinery (and pseudo-computers). Not precisely analogous to our world due to the existence of many non-human sentient races and something akin to magic, the city nonetheless has areas and communities which feel familiar. Isaac, the main protagonist, could easily be working in the Imperial or University College science labs as conducting his Universal Force Theory experiments in Brock Marsh; were it not for her insectoid head, his partner Lin might be at home exhibiting at the White Cube. Actually, the insectoid head might be fine there too.

The themes – loyalty, community, democracy, censorship, the criminal-state nexus – are universal, and the size of the book allows genuinely thoughtful exploration of each. There are brief moments which induce a wince, but in general the writing is playful, provocative and very smart. In some places it reminds me of a less self-satisfied Iain M Banks; in others, a humbler Will Self. The warts’n’all urbanophilia of Iain Sinclair is also coursing through Miéville’s veins like the rivers Tar and Canker (and, by extension, Thames). Perdido Street Station was compulsive and challenging; in fact, its page-turner nature worked against it somewhat as I occasionally felt as though I hadn’t enough time to process all the ideas. A great read; while I had followed Miéville as an activist and commentator it was my first engagement with his fiction and certainly won’t be my last.

Finally, on the plane home I hoovered up Bolaño‘s Last Evenings on Earth. A rich collection of haunting, wistful and melancholy short stories, often deploying the author’s semi-autobiographical alter-ego Arturo Belano (see also The Savage Detectives). As with other of Bolaño’s triumphs the ebb and flow of the text is captured beautifully in a sympathetic translation. While many of the stories are, prima facie, bathetic wanderings through the minor circles of literary purgatory – was a writer ever as playfully obsessed with the taxonomy and hierarchy of other writers as Bolaño? – there are the usual revelations of life in Spain, Mexico and Chile. As always, the interstices of political and cultural landscapes are the key scenes of Bolañoverse dramas, but it is easy to extrapolate broader human themes from these micro-level tales. Much like the Tabucchi, a wonderful and lasting reward for just a few hours of reading.

So, in sum: Wyndham continued to impress me with prescience and precision, ditto Bolaño with wist and wit; Roy was precisely as promised by a friend, ‘articulate and bracing’; people really need to talk less about Kevin, notwithstanding the fascinating wider subject matter; Safran Foer broke free of portent and pretension to offer something deeply affecting and painstakingly researched (which I realise is what fans think of his other books); Tabucchi dealt an absolute ace; and my first Miéville was entrancing: the course is set for Embassytown.

Two weeks off from the doctoral writing-up and a few months’ worth of pleasure reading caught up on. Now back to work.

The first entry here was a quotation from The Kraken Wakes and encapsulates much of my intellectual reaction (if not my emotional instinct; or is it vice versa?) when confronted with the likely collision of climate change, resource security and energy depletion.

Published in: on July 28, 2011 at 11:27 am  Comments (1)  

A Momentous Week? Perhaps

It is too early to tell what might be the outcome of this week’s political and media scandals. It is certainly too soon to be overly optimistic about the long-term consequences. But to me there seems to be something afoot. Are the hazy filters being lifted from peoples’ eyes? Are there folk up and down the country joining the dots marked police, media, politicians?

Most bizarrely of all, I find myself asking whether it really takes Hugh Grant to catalyse such logical leaps. He is no radical; he’s a privileged somebody who was stung by the machine. Yet his experience has enraged him to the extent that he is no longer afraid to bite the hand that once fed him.

And through such fearless proclamations as we heard in that hour of Question Time tonight more and more people will recognise that what we have before us is a vile, corrupt, deceitful and thuggish snake which constricts us in so many ways. Not so much a snake, perhaps, as a hydra – as pointed out by Stavvers here – since this creature’s heads are manifold, assuming the form of the Metropolitan Police, the Westminster regime, the print media and the pathetic regulatory bodies which supposedly guard our liberties.

And as always in such moments, Shelley calls out from the past, urging:

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you – 

Ye are many – they are few.

Published in: on July 7, 2011 at 11:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

Four Lions and a Bogeyman

Most of the pub quiz team names this week were based on the Osama Bin Laden story rather than the royal wedding, which restores my faith somewhat in the priorities of the British public. Nonetheless, the significance of the assassination of one terrorist shouldn’t be overstated…

On Sunday night I saw the film Four Lions for the first time. I’ve been a huge fan of Chris Morris’ various works for as long as I can remember, but for some reason I hadn’t got around to seeing this (I think I was living abroad when it was in the cinemas, and parsimony meant I waited for the DVD price to come down – it’s a very reasonable fiver at Fopp).

It’s a great film, with all the edgy laughs you would expect from a Morris construction, but it goes far beyond comedy. Not simply into political satire, where the message is perhaps a little obscured by the surreal aspects of the production, but into tragedy. I found it genuinely sad and at times very moving. Riz Ahmed is outstanding as the *serious* Jihadi, Omar, a strangely sympathetic young family man whose wife (Preeya Kalidas) and child are perfectly happy about the idea of his impending martyrdom.

Each of the other main characters was given tragic aspects. Faisal is a crackpot who trains a crow to fly into a tower full of “Jews and slags”; Waj (Fonejacker Kayvan Novak) the hopeless dope obsessed with paradise, or “rubber dinghy rapids” as he prefers to imagine it; Barry (Nigel Lindsay), the presumed convert with the zeal of the neophyte but not the intellect to match; and Hassan (Arsher Ali), the son of a wealthy textiles man who wants to prove himself.

When news of the film’s production first broke there were the usual Morris-related bleatings about inappropriate humour and insensitive subject matter. Yet again – as with the Brass Eye paedophile special – he has proved incredibly adept at revealing the flaws of protagonists and the prejudices of outraged observers alike. Also of note: great cameos from Benedict Cumberbatch, Julia Davis and The Actor Kevin Eldon, among others. And the most important message of the film is, of course, “fuck mini-Babybel!”

The events at the end of the film are predictably and traumatically pathetic. Without giving anything major away (for anyone who still hasn’t seen it, that is), it is mentioned in passing that Omar and Waj had – during their less-than-glorious stint training in Pakistan – accidentally knocked off Osama bin Laden. With that, I went to bed, and woke up to the news that this had actually happened. Well, not exactly, but close enough.

So, the bogeyman then. Joe Glenton’s Ghost. Fisk’s Middle-Aged Nonentity. Blair’s Perpetrator of Violence. Amis’ Product of his Family Background.

I was unpleasantly surprised that, alongside creeps like Don Foster, David Starkey and Nicholas Boles, one-time historian Tristram Hunt was calling the killing of Osama Bin Laden an unequivocally good thing (see Young Voters’ Question Time). Aside from his now-forgotten historical training – we know that there are no unequivocally good things, it’s a ridiculous conceit – this case in particular is as murky as hell. When Rowan Williams has an uncomfortable feeling it’s probably a good idea to break out the metaphorical Alka-Seltzer.

I’m not surprised that Bin Laden was killed rather than captured alive. If he ever stood trial (which, in any discussion of justice, would have been infinitely more preferable), he was bound to reveal all sorts of C.I.A.-related grime. Particularly, it would be no shock to discover that the U.S. was closely involved with the post-Mujahadeen until the very moment of the war in Afghanistan and perhaps beyond.

The dumping of the body is more puzzling, and has led to all manner of conspiracy theories. A rather compelling one is that it was done precisely to encourage such whispers and divert attention from the fact that the U.S. carried out a hit against a criminal in a nominally unrelated (and allied) country. Clearly Pakistan emerges from this debacle with little credit either way.

What has bothered me most is the fog of lies that emerged in the first press conference. It immediately brought to mind the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, who was originally reported to have been running away, wearing a padded jacket with protruding wires. I remember at the pub that night the primary reaction of those I spoke to was “they had to do it”, based solely on those initial reports. And first impressions count. If the U.S. was worried about global reaction to the killing of an unarmed combatant (no matter what he had done in the past*) in dubious circumstances, then there would be somebody preparing a story which prima facie made the Navy Seals out to be the unequivocal (in the Manichean terminology of Tristram Hunt et al) ‘goodies’. They can worry about letting the real story trickle out later.

Like Menezes, like various stories involving the state and its agents in the U.K., like so much else in the news, the message here is not one of good triumphing over evil. It is that you simply cannot trust your elected politicians and unelected agents of the state to present anything like the unvarnished truth.

*Again, why don’t we have to use “allegedly” in this case? He never went to court. Not that I doubt it, but you know, a little consistency would be good…

Published in: on May 5, 2011 at 2:54 pm  Comments (1)  


… and a day in Chester, walled border city of yore.

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Published in: on April 28, 2011 at 9:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

Buxton, Cressbrook Mill & Bakewell

A lovely day in picturesque Derbyshire, revelling in the civic pride of historic towns and wandering along the old railway line near Arkwright’s Mill…

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Published in: on April 27, 2011 at 5:15 pm  Leave a Comment  
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