Word for the Day

During his talk a few days ago, Richard Ford used the word fricative.  I don’t think I’d ever heard it before, but, from the sound of it, I felt that I knew straightaway what it meant.  It had to be something to do with the percussive sounds of consonants blown through with air, if the principles of onomatopoeia are worth anything.

Finally, yesterday I got round to looking it up in the dictionary, my parents’ well battered volume of the Oxford English, which does sterling service in support of checking spelling for their weekly crossword marathons, and just assisted me in the writing of onomatopoeia when the spellchecker let me down so woefully!

So, here you are: fricative, adjective denoting a type of consonant made by the friction of breath in a narrow opening, producing a turbulent air flow; noun, a consonant made in this way e.g. f and the.

Richard Ford used the word in the context of describing how he constructed what, for him, were the right sentences.  He reads out his work to hear the sound of it, to know that the flow has the rhythm and cadence he wants, and so that the fricatives are doing their work harmoniously.

But with the dictionary open, it was hard to resist the other words on the page.  Fricative comes after fricassee (a dish of stewed or fried pieces of meat served in a thick white sauce), and before friction (the resistance that one surface or object encounters when moving over another)….. and my favourites: fribble (noun, informal, a frivolous or foolish person), and friar’s balsam (a solution containing benzoin in alcohol, used chiefly as an inhalant), and Freudian slip (an unintentional error regarded as revealing subconscious feelings).

Now, to try and write a paragraph containing all of them…… any suggestions?

Richard Ford at the Purcell Room

I’m a fan of his writing, although I haven’t yet read Canada, his latest novel, but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I went to hear him in conversation at the Purcell Room last week, but he won me over almost immediately: Richard Ford speaks in a mellifluous voice, with a hint of the South and the added grist of a dry sense of humour and perfect comic timing; it’s a powerfully seductive combination.

He read from the opening pages of Canada, setting out a brief  history of the narrator’s parents, with the revelation that they committed a bank robbery.  It’s a bold beginning, setting the tone for the novel to come.  It’s written in the short declaratory sentences typical of Ford’s writing, but in his manner of reading it to us, I could hear the rhythm of the phrasing, how some sentences should flow one from the other, before a break for a breath and then onto the next run.

In speaking about his writing process, it was clear how much effort goes into reaching the right balance and rhythm for these sentences.  He explained his writing process was to read out loud as he was working, and then, when he had a complete draft, he read the whole thing to his wife, for her comments and her help with any infelicities in the sound and fluency of it.  In these days of instant gratification and speed writing it was enlightening to hear about such a slow meticulous crafting process; it took him a month to write the first sentence of the novel.  In order to achieve the right balance in a piece of writing it might be as simple as to insert the word ‘not’ thus changing the sense, but improving the sound.

His other observation, which I have taken to heart and will remember is that every sentence should bear the weight of the whole novel.  In order to achieve this he rereads the notebooks containing all his ideas for the work in progress at least once a month during the writing of it.  He started doing this when he felt a bit disappointed with his first novels, and didn’t feel that he had fully realised all his thoughts and ideas on the page.  It’s an idea to bring tot he front of my mind as I rush towards the completion of another draft.

I also enjoyed his explanation of how he developed the plot of the novel.  Many years ago he had written several pages of an idea in which a teenage boy was left alone by his parents; he hit the buffers with it then, but kept the image of this boy at the back of his mind, wondering how the boy came to be alone.  And then he realised that it was because the parents had robbed a bank, a rare event, but still something that might happen in a novel.

It harks back to the notion of a contract between reader and writer, which he also discussed, in that the reader expects the writer to create a coherent world using a consistent tone and register, but that, on occasion, at his own discretion, the author can depart from that, so long as he gives the reader something extra in return.

And while you’re not writing, you should pay attention to the world.  He suggested that Americans tend not to pay enough attention, so perhaps he’s making up for the others.

If only the evening had ended before the questions from the floor, it would have been perfect.  My admiration for Richard Ford increased watching the grace with which he dealt with the barking mad questions he was asked by some members of the audience.

15 Years Ago

On 1 July 1997 I set off on what turned out to be a 5 month round the world trip.  I’d recently finished a stint of working in Moscow, and was reluctant to return to the familiar world of work in London.  I’d never had any kind of long break before; I’d gone from school straight to university, and thence directly into a job.  I’d been made redundant once, but took the job in Moscow right on the back of that, and I didn’t want to rush into another thing again without a period of reflection.

My objective was Australia where I wanted to see the red desert, the flying doctors and Sydney Opera House, but decided to stop off in a few places on the way there and back, and bought myself a round the world ticket and a stack of guide books.  Having just spent a couple of years dealing with the idiosyncrasies of mid 1990s Russia, I wanted to travel through places where language shouldn’t be a barrier, where I could hire cars and drive myself, and where my credit card would work.  It might not have been everyone’s idea of an adventure agenda, but it was what I wanted.  That, and good wine.

My basic itinerary, reflected in the stops on my airline ticket was:  London, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Perth, Alice Springs, Melbourne, Cairns, Sydney, Auckland, Christchurch, Tonga, Vancouver, Boston, London.  The savvy of you will have spotted that I was going what many regarded as ‘the wrong way’, following Autumn, but I’m not a sun worshipper,and although it hadn’t been part of my calculation, going everywhere off season took away a great deal of the anxiety of finding somewhere to stay, and allowed me to practice the art of spontaneity without worry.

I wrote a journal most days throughout the trip, and I’ve been rereading it for the first time since.  The overlap between what I remember, what my photographs show, and what I chose to record in the diary is interesting.  There are many things which I wrote about which I’d entirely forgotten, while some things which are bright and distinct in my recollection don’t seem to have made it onto the page.

It’s also very interesting to see how my writing style has changed, and – dare I say – improved!

The opening entry for the adventure is all rather downbeat : Didn’t sleep very well the night before the first flight and did not, in all honesty, set out with any great enthusiasm.

 Oh dear, she doesn’t sound like she’s going to be much fun as a travelling companion.

And then, almost as the worst kind of omen, I was allocated a ‘middle seat’ on the plane, between a couple of rather broad South African ladies; one of whom, it appears gave me the benefit of her experience of a couple of days in St Petersburg: couldn’t drink anything not even bottled water, couldn’t buy anything not even plasters, saw nothing but run down buildings and poverty.  

It was but a brief foreshadowing of many conversations I was to have over the next several months: two things that most people felt compelled to comment upon were, firstly, their view of the dangers and privations of living in Russia, and secondly, how unusual it was that I should be travelling on my own, as I was clearly neither a student nor retired, so why wasn’t I working.

I stayed in a hotel called the Metropole, in Cape Town, chosen partly as it shared its name, if few of the attributes, with what was, at the time, one of the fanciest hotels in Moscow.  I’d read the guide book on the plane, but it’s clear from the journal that I didn’t really know where to start, so I kept being drawn back to the Waterfront area, with stops along the way and round about; but I was preoccupied with the repeated warnings that I shouldn’t be out on my own after dark.  Returning to my room at dusk each day I seem to have spent the evenings watching Wimbledon on the television, wondering if I was missing out on anything as I couldn’t understand the commentary.

Two experiences which are etched on my memory are walking to the top of Table Mountain, and visiting Robben Island.

Reading my reaction to Robben Island makes me think about the difference between seeing what you expect to see, and being surprised at what you encounter.  I suppose I had seen news coverage of the prison, and read the history of the treatment of the political prisoners, and it’s clear from my diary that what I saw on my visit corresponded to what I had anticipated; small cells, and harsh and humiliating treatments.

What I reflected on more specifically was that the guide who showed us around the prison and the island was himself a former prisoner who had made the decision to return, in spite of what happened to him there; it’s a powerful way of reclaiming your own story.

And I hadn’t expected the village to be there; a whole community that had previously been home to the prison staff, houses, a post office and a primary school with a rapidly shrinking roll, and ginger haired children running around us as we toured the island.  It had been a whole micro society centred around the prison, in sight of, but isolated and distant from the city of Cape Town.

I also specifically noticed the discomfort of the boat to the island which was unimproved since it had been used as the prison supply vessel.

And the final sentence of the entry for 5 July was, I must eat something healthy tomorrow.….. So some things never change!

Authenticity or Bust

There is  a lot written about the need to find one’s own authentic voice when writing.  You hear stories of people working for years struggling to find that turn of phrase, that rhythm that is uniquely their own, that tone which expresses their intent precisely.

At the beginning of this year WordPress suggested it as a topic for a post.  Have you found your own authentic voice?

I made a note of the idea in my diary, a subject to keep in my back pocket for when I needed one.  I wasn’t quite ready to write about it immediately; I needed the topic to settle a little; I wanted some time to ponder the idea of authenticity.  It means reliable, genuine or trustworthy, doesn’t it?

How can I judge my own?  Everything I’ve produced, I’ve written myself; every email, letter of complaint,  application form, powerpoint presentation, short story, every blog post, a completed novel, several novel false starts, hundreds of writing exercises, thousands of words explaining tax and accounting rules.

I wouldn’t know how to begin to copy anyone else’s style, and I would never (well hardly ever) brazenly copy someone else’s sentences word for word, but I am different people in different contexts, I express myself differently depending on the circumstances.  Is one style more authentic than the other?

Is the stream of consciousness email, full of non sequitors, partial sentences, grammar and spelling mistakes, any less my voice than a formal document setting out a business proposal on which I have worked hard to make fluent, clear and persuasive, even for non native English speakers (let’s leave out the hideousness that is a bullet point list, of which I have been a guilty use in the past)?

Is a spontaneous timed writing exercise any less my voice than the 20 chapters of my completed novel?  Does working on something make it more or less authentic?  Sometimes things written at speed with no thought of where they’re heading have more fluency and originality than something which has been edited and re-edited. A case in point is Chapter 1 of my novel, which, since I first wrote it longhand sitting on the roof of a rented house on the Greek Island of Syfnos, has gone through at least nine iterations.  I no longer have any idea whether it has authenticity of any kind.

And what of the near 200,000 words I’ve written on this blog since January 2011?  Of course they’re authentic, but are they my polished self, or the spontaneous one?  I think they’re somewhere in between.  Sometimes I write them at great speed, with very little editing along the way (with apologies for the grammatical and spelling infelicities that sprinkle them), if I didn’t I would never have managed to post something most days; sometimes it takes me longer, especially if I want to give a considered comment on something I’ve read or seen.

I’ve realised that a key element to maintaining the regular posting is that no single entry can be allowed to matter too much.  If any one had to carry a weight of expectation or be of superlative quality, wit, relevance or erudition, I’d worry too much about them, I’d spend hours havering over this word or that, they’d become like homework rather than my own little soap box.

So, authenticity of a sort…….

First Impressions and Letter Writing

A few months ago I watched an increasingly tedious exchange of comments on Twitter between people in the publishing world about the ‘hilarious’ things they had received by way of approaches by writers seeking their assistance.  Many of them seemed far from comical to me, in fact they more had the tone of one professional person introducing themselves to another;  for example sending some information and enquiring when it might be convenient to call to follow up, had them all squawking in exaggerated horror, at the audacity of someone who didn’t understand the proper role of the supplicant.

The temptation to tell them to stop reinforcing the impression of mean spirited, self importance was very strong; but fortunately passed.

I, too, at various times in my career, have been in the position of being the gatekeeper, usually for people applying for jobs. When faced with an enormous pile of applications you have to sift through them as quickly as possible, eliminate the obviously unsuitable and spend more time on the ‘possibles’.  In those circumstances spelling mistakes, green ink, block capitals, incomplete application forms and sheets torn out of exercise books would all go straight in the rejection pile.  Only when the pile had been whittled down would I read about experience and qualifications.

It’s being in a position of power, to have something that a surfeit of other people want, that allows us to be so discriminating, and so easily dismissive of those who don’t quite obey whatever idiosyncratic rules we have set for the particular competition.

I always thought though that it was a legitimate test in the context of the business world in which I was operating.  Our business was the provision of advice for which people paid, and on which they relied.  The least we could do was make it look as good as we could.

I thought about this last week when I received an unexpected letter from my doctor.  If it had been the covering letter for a job application it would not have survived the first cut: on a scruffy piece of paper, the surgery address was clearly applied with a skew-whiff rubber stamp using insufficient ink, and the body of the letter was too far up the page.  Yet because we are all supplicants when faced with the medical profession, instead of ignoring it, I had to respond to it.

Maybe I attach too much importance to appearance of the letter; it’s not necessarily a reflection of their medical competence. Is it?

True Grit – Mumbling, Lisping and Enunciating

I went to see True Grit a couple of weeks ago, and have been thinking about it a fair amount since.  I should declare up front that I am a fan of the Coen brothers’ movies.  Mainly I think because of their sly humour and the often odd angles through which they appear to view the world.  While they have moved away from the strange long shots from floor level that they used so eerily in films like ‘Barton Fink’ and ‘Miller’s Crossing’ their framing of the shots is still a pleasure to the eye.

The landscape behind the action of True Grit is wintry; the viewer feels the cold; it is no surprise that the earth is frozen too hard to permit the burying of a body.

The clothes on the actors’ backs are bulky against the chill and grow ever dirtier as the film progresses; you can feel the distance they all are from the nearest settlement: is ‘civilisation’ the right world?

They are all on their own and will have to rely on their joint resources to survive and to achieve their objective to track down Tom Chaney.

But I think the greatest pleasure for me was the dialogue, or if not the dialogue the manner in which it was delivered.  There was a real sense of humour behind it, I think.

Jeff Bridges spent most of the film mumbling and Matt Damon, after coming off worst in a fight in which he bit his tongue, spoke for the remainder of the film with a pronounced lisp from behind a ridiculous moustache, while Hailee Steinfield, the young actress playing Mattie, spoke in deliberately arcane formal sentences which might have come straight from the Bible.

The dialogue was sharp and witty, and rewarded careful listening, as sometimes Jeff Bridges’ mumbling made it difficult to hear; it was dry and underplayed all the way through.  I enjoyed the minimalism of it.

‘That didn’t go the way I planned’ as he surveyed a row of dead men; but equally he became nearly garrulous when telling Mattie of his marital misadventures; painting for us a picture of a self-centred, deeply flawed man.

By lisping with his damaged tongue, Matt Damon gave the character of LaBoeuf a sustained but low-key comic air.  Behind his moustache and underneath his tasselled, hide jacket there is a man of some principal, forced to throw in his lot with Cogburn, because he too is motivated by money in his quest to track the villain Chaney.

It is Mattie who is the one solely motivated by vengeance in the search; but it is her speech idiom and clear-eyed determination that lets us know that she has right on her side.  She seeks the retribution that is her right according to the Old Testament.

So there it is…once again I’m recommending a film on the basis of its dialogue and the manner in which it is delivered.

The three act structure and reality TV

It’s almost too obvious to repeat: every story has a beginning, a middle and an end.

For a story to feel satisfying each of these three stages has to perform its own function.  If you’ll forgive some simplification to fit this into a daily blog rather than a dissertation, the beginning sets up a scenario and its protagonists, the middle creates complication in the situation or jeopardy for the characters, and the end draws the strands to a pleasing conclusion.

Dressing up for Tea

Sound familiar?

Once I’d started thinking about it, I see it everywhere; it seems especially strong in every reality television programme I’ve ever managed to sit through.

If it’s home improvements, it always has to be completed against the clock, and if no disastrous structural problem is uncovered during the work, then there has to be tearful, stand up knock down row over the choice of paint colour; but in the end it all gets finished and everyone is smiling for the hands to face ‘Oh my God’ reveal moment.

Conflict between the participants and the added spice of extreme time pressure are key to the creation of the tension in the middle section of the show, and the teary eyed moment of completion is key for the audience to be satisfied sufficiently to watch again next week.

It’s a clever design, based entirely on ancient principals that can be traced back to Aristotle’s ‘Poetics‘, and the TV production teams squeeze every last viable ounce out of it.

I’ve been thinking about it recently as I’ve been watching the UK television version of  ‘The Biggest Loser’.

I’m not even going to attempt to explain what I find so oddly compelling about it – but I have been drawn into the stories of the participants, their self delusion, self destruction and self pity, and ultimately end up rooting for their success as they shed some of their personal myths along with the pounds.

In Act I we were introduced to the participants and the set up.  Several very overweight couples will stay in a big house and be trained by two determined, whippet thin physical instructors.  Each week, based on a weigh in conducted in a crucible of dimmed lights and serious music, and following a vote by the participants, one or more contestant will be eliminated and sent home.

The end of Act I was marked by the joyous loss of at least half a stone by each person.

In the first part of Act II, one couple was identified as not eating enough and were reprimanded by a serious faced trainer.  It wasn’t long before they were eliminated by their fellow house mates who felt they had failed to gel with ‘the group’.

The next major complication was a week in which most of the contestants lost hardly any weight.  Shocked faces on the screen; tears.  ‘I’ve worked really hard, I couldn’t have done any more’ all round.

‘There must be a problem with the food intake.’

Hmm.  Those of us who were paying attention in Week 2 know that they’re all meant to be putting all their food consumption into ‘The Biggest Loser’ computer application so the trainers can monitor them all the time.

But clearly it’s much better television to leave chronic over eaters to their own devices, to ramp up the narrative tension and create a real risk of on screen failure.

Up until now, there has been very little personal antagonism between the participants, the usual bread and butter of reality telly, so I am anticipating that the next phase will be to create a rift between the two teams.  One will feel the other has been shown favouritism of some kind, or they will accuse each other of underhand behaviour, put up to it by the trainers….

Or maybe I’m just too cynical.

Whichever way it turns out, we can be sure that Act III will culminate in a hands to the face ‘Oh my God’ reveal of a transformed person, who started out wobbling with excess, but who will have developed a neck, cheek bones and a waist.

Can’t wait.

Exploring memory

Aged 4 with marrow

Nostalgia for the 1960s seems to be very in vogue at the moment.

Fashion is following the lines and silhouettes of the early 1960s; ‘classic’ designs have been revitalised.

Is it all down to the influence of ‘Mad Men’?

We enjoy watching the constant smoking and drinking and the casual misogyny, racism and  anti-Semitism, and say to ourselves ‘Good heavens, haven’t things changed?  No-one behaves like that any more.’  (Dimwit TV sports presenters excepted.)

Part of the phenomenon must be down to the fact that the generation which was children during the 60s are now commissioning editors for television and films, and there is a curiosity to explore the way things have changed in their own lifetimes.  The research they have been doing must be exhaustive and exhausting as no-one could possible remember all the details, could they?

It’s certainly made me think about what I remember.

This is a photo of me from that time.  It was here initially because it makes me laugh to look at it; if only because of the ridiculous expression on my face.  My sister used to take ages to take a photo and I’d be staring into the sun for so long I’d have to close my eyes and screw my face up, as only a four year old can do.

And then I studied the picture more closely.

It’s taken at the bottom of the garden of the first family house I remember clearly; but if I ever conjure up an image of it in my mind, there is a six foot wooden fence across the bottom and trees down the side.

Clearly they must have come later.  But my father had evidently already established his vegetable patch and grown a marrow too big to eat.

The houses in the background were still under construction, but I have no memory of that either, yet I would have thought that a construction site would have been a source of fascination for my child self;  but I do remember what it feels like to hold a really big marrow!

I’ve been mining my memory for the ideas to explore in my new novel, but inevitably they can only ever be a starting point.  The best bit is both improving the reality and embellishing it.

The revival of the BBC’s Doctor Who is probably also part of the 1960s nostalgia movement.  I watched the early episodes from behind the sofa, particularly terrified of the Daleks.  I think I imagined that they were really about to take over the world if William Hartnell didn’t stop them.

It must have become quite a problem as my parents conducted a co-ordinated programme of reassurance.  As he cultivated the garden and came across big lumps of clay, my father would fashion a Dalek from each lump, with three twigs for the eye piece and arms.  He’d arrange them on the outside windowsill and bang on the window until I came to see.

Somehow, realising that they were only small, well they’d have to be to get inside the television, wouldn’t they, I was no longer frightened.

Black Watch

I went to see Black Watch at the Barbican last week.

When I told a friend afterwards that I thought it was extraordinary, she asked me what had been so good about it.  I found myself at something of a loss for words.  While I took a moment to think about it, I rather limply repeated, ‘it was simply extraordinary.’

Where were my vocabulary and my critical faculties?

Sometimes a reaction to a performance is visceral; you allow yourself to be totally absorbed, forgetting the passage of time, the discomfort of your seat, the people around you and the pure artifice of watching grown men pretending to be something they’re not.

When it works well, you experience something that can only happen in the theatre; you know it’s make believe, but there are real people conjuring something out of nothing, right there in front of you.  It’s not the fakery of CGI or special effects, it’s the illusion of a well constructed magic trick.

It’s the alchemy I hope for every time I go to the theatre.

I experienced it during War Horse; I knew that it was men, canvas and a metal and leather frame, but I believed there were horses on stage, and was moved in a way that I would not have been by a film of real horses.

So what was it about ‘Black Watch’?

It was all of it; the coming together of idea, script, staging, props and performances.  In a space, bare apart from a couple of freight containers and scaffolding, ten actors performed a piece constructed around a real fatal incident in Iraq in the period after the war had been declared ‘over’.

Their props were a few bar chairs, some guns and a pool table covered in red baize, which served as tomb, dug out, armoured vehicle and least of all, for playing pool.

The dialogue captured the cadences of speech of Fife, and the vocabulary of the squaddie, as well as the mealy mouths of politicians.

The actors switched from the aggression of  angry soldiers to the near ballet of a sequence in which one man was dressed successively in the regiment’s uniforms over the centuries by his mates.

There was singing, swearing, marching, mute signing while reading letters from home, laughter, tears, explosions, more marching AND bag-pipes.

Did it make me think?  Yes.  Did it change my mind about anything?  Probably not.

I still can’t quite understand why anyone would join the Army, although I know they make that choice freely.  And I know that it is young men who are the victims of war; and that latterly it is the hubris of our politicians that has taken us into our most recent wars.

One of the distinctive memories of my childhood was the constant coverage on the television of the war in Vietnam.  I don’t notice so much attention to the fighting that is going on now, other than the dryly clinical recording of the names of the dead.

Either I am inured to it, or there is genuinely less coverage; which is why to be faced with a piece of theatre which makes me focus on the humanity of armed conflict has to be worth it; and is extraordinary.

The sauce bottle reader

As nicknames go it at least has the virtue of being accurate, some of the time.

It was coined, and used, by a friend who has watched me read the labels on sauce bottles on restaurant tables from Hong Kong to Peru, who once tested me on the country of manufacture of the towels in a hotel bathroom in Guatamala, and screamed with frustration when I knew the answer (Costa Rica, if you’re interested.)

In the 1980s, when it was so fashionable for restaurants to lay the tables with elaborate settings which were whisked away before any food was brought, I would embarrass my dining companions by lifting up the plates to find out their make (at that time, usually Villeroy and Boch).

Why am I so interested?  I think it’s because of the stories that can be revealed, the relationships suggested.  When you see where something was made, you can imagine how it travelled to get to you.

On that trip in Guatamala, we went around the Mayan ruins with a guide who told us stories of evidence that they believe shows that people from the Far East may have landed on their shores in ancient time.

It didn’t seem such a stretch from that to ask how the bottles of Coca Cola got into the jungle; or on other trips, how Cadbury’s chocolate got half way up a mountain in Nepal, or how Laughing Cow cheese got to the middle of the Sahara.

On a trip to Cuba I was surprised to see American soft drinks and cigarettes in spite of the US trade embargo in place since the 1960s.  A quick read of the packets revealed Canadian and Mexican origin, and a tiny insight into the creativity of the legal minds operating within a couple of multi-national corporations.

At home, shopping in the local supermarket it is no longer surprising to find radishes from Morocco, asparagus from Thailand or Peru, raspberries from Spain.  Last week noticing that the butternut squash came from Egypt caused only a a momentary pause, simply because I’d never seen Egypt as a country of origin in Tesco’s before.

In 1997 I spent two weeks on one of the small Tongan Islands in the Pacific; the Air New Zealand flight from Auckland to Honolulu landed for a brief stop over on the main island late at night.

In the morning, driving from my hotel to the harbour to catch the boat to my destination, I passed a Toyota garage with around 15 shiny brand new cars sitting in the forecourt.  When I remarked to my guide on there being so many new cars on such a small island, he said

‘They’re ready for when the pumpkin money comes in,’ and pointed to where wooden crates were being loaded onto a ship.

‘Pumpkins?’

‘They’re a special kind, very popular in Japan.  They grow here when no-where else has the right season; we plant them underneath the palm oil trees.  When the money for the shipment arrives, the cars will be released.’

He turned and smiled at me.  ‘Mostly they end up in a ditch within a couple of months.  There isn’t really anywhere to go.  But the farmers think it’s good to have had a car.’

Now, that’s got to be the start of a story, hasn’t it?

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