Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Authenticity and the modern Brit.

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I know: a post about Brexit and a Scottish folk band is going to have most clicking straight on past – but that is my point: hear me out!

There is much in modern life not to like; that ultimately seems to be what the Brexit vote was about. I am not however going to enter the fray here as to whether it is right or not – but it is unarguable that it has provoked a national debate in this country the like of which I have never seen. After several decades of somnolence, the conspiracy of ‘events’ has finally woken the British up to what their nation(s) have become – and plenty (on both sides of the debate) don’t much like it.

I would argue, however, that the reasons for this have little to do with our membership of the European Union, so much as the free reign that the forces of globalised capitalism have been given in this country – see the previous post. It is that which has really generated the crisis of identity currently being experienced in Britain. We have willingly been fed a diet of mass-produced, commercialised everything, whose main purpose is to hoover up as much of the nation’s disposable income as possible, as efficiently as possible. That means products that are cheap to produce and so bland that they will offend no one. As a result, they also come completely devoid of any cultural references that might make them distinctive – and this is no less so with the music industry as any other.

So it saddens me that for all the bashing many have been giving our country, perhaps justifiably, there are plenty of things of which we can still be proud – but which are regularly overlooked or ignored by the national mainstream. The fact that we have a vibrant folk and roots music scene is one – our musicians are in demand around the world within their own relatively small pool. Breabach, the subject of this piece are off to Australia next month, and regularly play across North America and continental Europe, where people seem to appreciate our native music if anything more than many British do. Possibly the strongest elements of a varied tradition are found in Scotland and Ireland – but while the Union endures, I am going to claim part of them for myself. In particular, the Scottish music scene has benefitted from the cultural confidence that devolution has brought, and a generation of young musicians has grown up shamelessly bringing new takes to something anciently British.

Breabach may well look like a traditional pipe-and-fiddle band – but that is not the half of it. Their music is almost entirely original, for all that they introduce traditional motifs and instrumentation. They are superb musicians, as tight as anything you would expect to find from people with a far higher profile. You won’t find much more than a hint of strict traditional music here – much of it ranges from a ‘wall of sound’ associated with much more contemporary genres, to lengthy pieces that verge on the symphonic on occasions. They are unafraid of sophisticated, syncopated rhythms, in amongst which they weave elements of Gaelic song and traditional tunes as well as many of their own compositions. There is even step-dance, used on an amplified ‘floor’ in part for its percussive quality.

They played to an appreciative full house and standing ovation in The King’s Place in London on Thursday, the first of a few warm-up gigs for the slack period between the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow and their Australian tour. There is little affectation and few huge egos about these people: for a first encore, they went completely unplugged on a Gaelic song – and in the interval and after the concert, they were out front-of-house in good folk style, chatting with their audience and selling the inevitable CDs themselves.

The Scottish scene is but one part of a lively music genre that is affirmative and authentic. It exists not in a few large stadia for the financial gain of large international promoters, but in small venues the length and breadth of the nation, where it is a real and distinctive part of community and national identity. Breabach, however, show that it can also put its best clothes on and become something of much more contemporary relevance – a mark of a newly-emboldened national consciousness – in a way that is entirely of the present, even as it pays its due respects to the long and ancient history of these isles. Those in search of genuine Britain for a dose of national pride could do a lot worse than listen in.

http://breabach.com/

Sceptics also see also: https://tommygirard.wordpress.com/2012/02/14/breabach-the-desperate-battle-of-the-birds/

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Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

The cultural cost of Carillion

Carillion
source: Carillion plc website

 

(…and others like them).

As a child of the Sixties and Seventies, I have never shared the view that public utilities are a bad thing. I remember visiting the local SWEB electricity board showroom when we needed to buy new appliances, or to pay a bill (those were the days…) – and to a lesser extent, there was a consciousness that the basics of life were provided for all by a caring, social State. Even the much-maligned British Rail was somehow a benign entity, cash-starved and declining though it was. SWEB too may have been a bit dowdy, but even to a six year old, it somehow exuded a benevolence that a private company never can.

I was in my twenties when most of the privatisations took place. Even then, I had my doubts: why should the civic assets of our nation be placed in the hands of a few, for their private profit? Macmillan’s observation about selling the family silver was correct. And how can a private company, with shareholders to keep happy and a profit to make, deliver basic needs more cheaply and more equitably than the State?

We now know the answer: it can’t. Deregulated markets have come to mean one thing only: an opportunity for a small group of greedy individuals to enrich themselves at everybody else’s expense. It is no coincidence that the wealth of the richest has hit the stratosphere during this period. Deregulation primarily gave carte blanche to those people to devise ever more devious ways of meeting short-term shareholder expectations – thereby releasing huge rewards for themselves. And we won’t even begin on corporate tax avoidance.

A lot of this has happened below the radar: who knew, for instance, that almost all of the water utility companies are now de-listed and owned by private equity funds and the like? No opportunities there for the small investor. Then we have the executives of Persimmon reaping huge bonuses on the back of state-subsidised housing construction – and Carillion’s bosses brazenly altering rules to ensure their bonuses could not be clawed back even in the event of company failure. How much more evidence is needed? And yet there are those in government who still hesitate “to interfere in the affairs of the business sector”… The fact is, the private sector exists, as it always did, to make a profit for the few, not serve the many. It will not do anything that compromises its short-term profitability – and it will do anything that enhances it – immoral or illegal included – if it thinks it can get away with it. The myth of the customer being king has been revealed for the sham it always was, and the only surprise (to me at least) is that so many knowledgeable people apparently believed it would be otherwise.

For four decades, Britons have been fed the ‘wisdom’ that the private sector is more dynamic and more efficient than the state. A whole string of failures is now showing this not to be true, and as Polly Toynbee suggested in The Guardian recently, Britain is now lumbered with a toxic brand of unaccountable, amoral capitalism that will probably take more decades to rectify – or preferably dismantle. Public-private profit may be one thing, but working against the public interest is another. My impression is that things have not gone as far on the continent; few countries followed Britain down the wholesale-privatisation route – and it is now evident how wise that was.

Yet there are two elements of this disaster that are not receiving much coverage.

Firstly, many of the rogue individuals who are responsible for this wholesale malpractice are the products of one toxic generation, whose genesis dates back to a certain Prime Minister whose policies encouraged them: the almost-forgotten Yuppies of the Eighties and Nineties, the Nick Leesom clones who never got caught – but who still made their fortunes gaming the post- Big Bang deregulated City. They nearly ruined the system then; in the meantime they have gone on to become the captains of industry and are still lining their pockets – only from positions of much greater power and influence. The sooner they are brought to book, the better.

The second is the cultural change that has accompanied privatisation. I sense that the commercialised private sector extends much further into people’s lives – and the wider cultural institutions of this country – than has been permitted elsewhere. As a non-TV viewer, it is most evident to me on the few occasions I do see broadcast media – the level of commercial intrusion that people seem to tolerate shocks me. It seems there is no aspect of British life that the private sector has not been able to turn into an opportunity to make a quick buck. The homogenising effect on the population has, I believe been huge: people’s lives have increasingly become mere conveyor belts of pre-packaged, standardised offerings, from the homes they live in to the clothes they wear, from the holidays they take to the food they eat, to the music they hear – everything revolves around that which it is profitable for commerce to purvey. There is a huge difference between a citizen and a consumer; in Britain, we only have the latter.

It can be argued that people have choice – but I think the wider corporate case masks the truth here: it is the M&S white-knickers argument again. People will buy what they are given if it’s all there is, and the hassle of trying to go against the flow is too much for most. Most companies attempt to homogenise their markets around mass-producible products. And they are becoming ever more sophisticated – and ever more disingenuous – in persuading people that that is what they really wanted all along. Orwell’s Big Brother has turned out to be a private corporation.

It has gone too far when nearly all elements of our culture are now determined by their profit margins. There is, in my view, no case whatsoever for running schools and hospitals as even quasi-commercial operations. Quite apart from the inefficiencies that are the same as elsewhere, management has been diverted from providing basic services into meeting contractual targets; interpersonal relations on which such organisations run have been severely damaged by the target-chasing that results. It is also fundamentally morally wrong for profit to be made from basic needs, let alone misfortune. It amounts to the monopoly of the helpless.
Cornerstones of our culture, such as the intellectual independence of our universities are being subordinated to their need to run as increasingly rapacious businesses; this cannot be right. Unrestrained business appeals most basely to people’s greed; in that sense it is also responsible for high levels of debt, the psychological damage of over-consumption and the environmental disaster that services it.

I would also include wider cultural matters in this: is there really a need for art galleries, museums and even charities to be made to operate as profit centres? Why should welfare targets be determined by how much money they save, rather than disburse? Their benefit is of an entirely different nature, and in difficult times most of all, it should not be denied those who cannot make them pay. Contractual constraints and that same profit motive have made it impossible for ordinary people to do the obvious things in situations where the personal touch ‘going beyond the necessary’ makes all the difference.

Forty years on, it is inescapable that the promised Eden of high-quality, privately provided services for all has proved to be an illusion. It was always going to, not least because in the eyes of profit-seekers, the most vulnerable either merit only the most pared-back of loss-leader provision – or they simply don’t even exist. One might even consider it only marginally more ethical for the private sector to offer every last luxury to the wealthy – and then fleece them utterly for it. This country is now run as a private racket for the benefit of a small number of greedy, amoral people – and they need to be stopped.

I have great doubts that any politician will have the courage to tackle this; even Corbyn will probably find tackling the vested interests a lot more difficult than he expects, assuming he ever wins power to begin with. And even if we start making amends now, the cultural damage will take decades and generations to put right. It is one thing to have a market economy – but we now have a market society. It was never much of a ‘partnership’ to begin with – more of a mugging.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Choice architecture

salt flat

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’  Anon

Isaac Asimov wrote a 1957 short story called The Last Trump. Come the Last Judgement, the dead rise as expected, and the topography of the earth disappears, leaving just a featureless plain. People no longer die – but they no longer grow or develop either. Those finding themselves there gradually realise that they are not in Heaven but the other place… Hell is utter, unremitting blandness.

I’ve written before about the judgements people make in their lives; maybe it’s professional instinct, but I remain fascinated (and sometimes horrified) by why people decide as they do. I am interested in what Nobel Prize-winner Richard Thaler describes as ‘choice architecture’ – or the way in which the decisions people make are framed, either by themselves or others.

I get the impression that being wrapped up in their own little worlds, many people don’t look particularly closely at their fellow humans; or maybe they do, and are just concealing their dislike at what they see. On the contrary, being nosy, I can’t help looking hard: at what people are putting on the supermarket conveyor belt, at what they are choosing to wear, where they choose to go, how they choose to spend their time. Maybe I attribute too much to small actions, and I do respect people’s right to do as they see fit – but that also applies to my ‘right’ to draw conclusions as well. Like Thaler’s, my interest is nothing more than a benign concern for the health of our society and democracy, and in some ways the little things speak volumes.

We could head here in the direction of Brexit, about what seems to be so fundamentally different in the world-views of Remainers and Leavers – we both inhabit the same planet, and yet from some of the conversations I have actively sought out this year for ‘research’ purposes, one can be left with the impression that the two groups inhabit parallel but mutually exclusive universes.

I have encountered something of the same at the local scale: having become involved in moves to support the small, historic town where I live, I have tried to advocate a forward-looking stance for maintaining its future viability. While there were some voices of support, I have encountered what I suppose is ‘typical small-town conservatism’: people do not want anything to change, or to be different from an imagined past – even when it is cogently argued that the ‘continuity’ they support is in historic terms an illusion. It is no good arguing that past eras were bold in their time; neither does it wash to argue that a lot of supposed historicism is actually fake: medieval UPVC doubled-glazed leaded lights, anyone?

As I said at the start, one must respect people’s democratic right to hold their views: but whether that implies that all views are of equal validity is another matter, particularly when some can be shown to be inconsistent or based on factual inaccuracies. It makes for fraught communal decision-making, particularly when some of the most vocal reactionaries are advocating precisely the approaches that are causing the problems in the first place. It’s like defending people’s right to eat as much junk food as they choose, knowing that the cost will eventually fall on the taxpayer.

In my opinion, the worst thing is unthinking conformity: the people whose supermarket shopping consists of exactly the same manufactured ready-meals as everyone else. Christmas Cake? Buy it in a box. Mince pies? Ditto. I think one can reach tentative conclusions about the world-views of people who do this, especially when one remembers the many benefits of making (or learning to make?) one’s own. Need new clothes? Head for the department store to buy the habitual uniform of leisure-wear. I think it does say something that so many people pay so little attention to their appearance. Need a holiday? Just pick up the nearest bucket-shop resort package. And so it goes on, the majority just following the herd, without, I suspect giving any thought whatsoever to their democratic right to stand out from the crowd. I worry that the main cause is the normalising effects of mass-media and rampant commercialism, stopping people from using their own critical faculties. I suspect, too, that some of this is a malaise brought on by the dominance of work: until I stopped working, I had simply not realised how many things I had been blocking or shelving simply on account of the head-space dominance of my working life. Is this good for us?

It is no more righteous to be a habitual rebel than a habitual conformist: it’s not the stance so much as the authenticity of the decision that matters. I suppose one could argue that majority views are simply arrived at because they are ‘right’ – but how so, when they demonstrably lead to harm? And not only of the visible kind, for I suspect there is a mental price, too, for the fear of standing out from the crowd. The predictability of the behaviour worries me too: as The Independent used to claim “Great Minds don’t think Alike”.

Back in my historic small town, I proposed we should construct a modernist centrepiece, a new community building that would be a confident statement of the town’s future. I found some buildings that in my mind’s eye would look stunning; a lot of people reacted as though I had suggested they should spit-roast their grandmothers. What is fascinating here is not the actual opinion so much as the deep differences in the mechanisms that result in them: why do some people react with revulsion to precisely the things I find inspirational, and vice versa? My best-fit answer so far is that it is not a matter of considered judgement so much as a fear of standing out, or of the unknown; some people are less afraid of their own minds than others.

A rather unkind word that I encountered for the first time this year is ‘sheeple’. Unfortunately, it does increasingly seem to sum up a large part of the population’s view of its own power of agency. It wouldn’t perhaps matter so much if it didn’t have the potential to lead us into deep difficulties – as all those who believed the lies peddled by the key Brexiters have shown. Whether Brexit or the health effects of junk food, it just shows that the majority is not always right.

Unthinking conformity can only lead to a featureless societal plain that is indeed some form of hell.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Why I am not wearing a poppy this year.

It’s a great pity when life is so full of avaricious commercial operators shouting at the public, that even those who do inalienable good, such as charities, feel the need to copy them. I do sympathise – how else are they to be heard? But in fact, I think that is a misconception: most of the public is entirely capable of distinguishing between the two and acting accordingly. I rather suspect that the problem comes from the executives of charities, who more and more closely resemble the CEO’s of big business, maybe on  occasions are even one and the same, and self-promotion is the one strategy they know. After all, they probably have targets to meet.

So I was somewhat displeased to receive a good month or more ago, in the mail (which will have cost) a wooden cross (which will have cost) with a poppy attached, some rather over-assertive promotional material and a donation form. This commemoration is for good reason focussed on 11th November, and does not need to start in early October just to steal a march on the competition.

My other reasons are regrettably more political: the lesser is the memory that for years, my former employer required me to wear a poppy (at my own expense)  ‘to set a good example to the pupils’. I felt it did the opposite, by turning a voluntary gesture of patriotic remembrance into an act of corporate policy. And it certainly removed from those who might have wanted it, the opportunity to set an example of a different kind.

And more seriously still, in the past twelve months, I have seen too many social media pictures of French war cemeteries deployed in the service of the Brexit movement. If the two are to become conflated, I will never wear a poppy again: this Remembrance should remain essentially apolitical, and if those whom I consider to have committed the most atrocious act of national vandalism are going to claim, even incidentally, the poppy as a symbol of their so-called patriotism, then I can no longer comply.

Inasmuch as any of those largely conscripted dead really held the lofty ideals we often attribute to them, I suspect they too would be appalled at the wanton damage by some in this country to the internationalism that was founded to stop more having to follow them. Furthermore, the misappropriation of symbolism by overt nationalist movements has far too many uncomfortable historic precedents for me to be comfortable with it.

I may be taking this too seriously, but I think not: these are serious matters. I hope someone from the Haig Fund, which I have supported for many decades is reading this, and reflecting on the implications of other people following suit. It is a long-standing national institution that does not need to stoop to base commercialism; charitable giving is a principled, voluntary activity, and the hard-sell only serves severely to undermine that ethic.

And in the current political climate, the Haig Fund (as it was) perhaps also needs to look hard at who is, by accident or design claiming its totem, and for what purposes.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Sartoria

Suits E.U., sir!

I can hardly be the only British gent who is regularly bombarded by advertising from Jermyn Street shirt manufacturer Charles Tyrwhitt. I wrote to them several years ago pointing out that while I approved of their democratising marketing strategy, I would be more happy to buy their clothes if their tailoring and design was not all so old-school British. I pointed out that traditional British menswear is often starchy-formal and has associations of occupation and social stereotype that I don’t feel happy with – and that’s without the age profile that it still implied.

I received one of their habitually jolly letters in reply, explaining that this was what the British market still wanted. Well, some years on, I note a distinct modernisation of Tyrwhitt’s catalogue, with sharper styles and fabrics sourced from amongst others, good Italian mills. I also noticed recently, the first appearance of a non-white model in the catalogue: well done – but about time too! I’m certainly not claiming any influence over the decision, but I think it has made Tyrwhitt a more appealing clothier, and has hopefully broadened their market as a result.

While there’s no question over the quality of traditional British men’s tailoring, my reservations still hold, and this is why I tend to prefer French and Italian style – it is slightly sharper while also less formal, more open to interpretation and relatively devoid of the overtones of social class.

So I’ve been delighted to discover more recently, a number of British companies that are challenging the conservative norm by offering British clothing – designed for British body shapes – while looking to the continent for some of their design inspiration. I will be reviewing items by a number of these companies in forthcoming posts.

In the meantime, I must admit I rather worry about the effect of Brexit on this welcome development. Here we have companies doing their design work in one country, sourcing their materials and doing their manufacturing in others, and retailing from others again. A number of them seem to be relatively small start-ups, and one might almost suggest that there is the making of a pan-European industry here, which provides for a range of clients by taking the requisite elements from the different traditions. And that’s without the large number of European companies now selling internationally. If it leads to an improvement in the general sartorial standards of the male British population, that will be a welcome bonus, too.

I will mention the names of Chester Barrie clothing, Lussoti Shoes, Scarosso Shoes and of course Charles Tyrwhitt as some that seem to be taking this route (there are others) – and end by saying that I hope they have plans for dealing with Brexit, because it would be a great shame if their interesting business models and the stylish, well made products they are making, were destroyed as a result of this madness.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Getting on with the in-laws

Pont d'Europe
Pont de l’Europe, Strasbourg. France on this side, Germany on t’other.

 

The marriage vows of the Christian church revolve around the notion of lifetime commitment. If there is a lack of commitment, or a failure to take those vows seriously, the chances of the marriage lasting are immediately weakened . So it has been with Britain and the rest of the E.U.

A few brave souls have recently been suggesting that there should be more rather than less European engagement in Britain, and it is perhaps instructive to consider what might have happened had British domestic power decided to encourage the nation fully to engage with the E.U.

I wonder how many people know that the southern counties of England and the northern regions of France technically constitute Trans-Manche Euro-Region. It is part of a policy called Interreg dating from the 1990s to foster cross-border co-operation in all parts of Europe.

Here is how the Daily Mail reported it in 2006:

New map of Britain that makes Kent part of France…and it’s a German idea

For centuries the people of Kent have called their county the Garden of England. So they might find it quite a surprise that – according to the European Union at least – they are actually part of France.

Along with next-door Sussex, Kent has been rolled in with the Calais area on a map drawn up for Brussels.

The Tories accused the EU of plotting to undermine nation states and even “wipe Britain off the map”.

Never failing to use the E.U. to make domestic capital, Eric Pickles claimed:

“Under the Labour Government, Britain has already been subdivided into regions as part of John Prescott’s empire building.

“I fear Eurocrats could literally wipe Britain off the map and hardworking families and pensioners should be concerned that Europe wants the authority to build a database of their homes – this threatens to lead to an EU-wide property tax.

The Daily Telegraph reported the same development thus:

New EU map makes Kent part of same ‘nation’ as France

They have tried to redraw the map of Europe before. Now a German-led “conspiracy of cartographers” stands accused of trying to use a new European Union directive to give Brussels the power to change national boundaries.

Under the changes, those living in Kent and East Sussex would find themselves not inhabitants of Britain, but the TransManche region, where their fellow citizens would not be their English-speaking neighbours but the French-speaking population of northern France.

North of the TransManche would be the North Sea region, taking in all of eastern England and vast areas of Scandinavia, Germany and the Low Countries.

Western Britain and Ireland would become the Atlantic region, a huge zone that also takes in parts of France, Spain and Portugal.

Perhaps most bizarre would be the Northern Periphery region, lumping together the population of north-west Scotland with their very distant cousins in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Greenland and Iceland.

The barely-disguised xenophobia made no attempt at balance, barely even at accuracy, beyond a footnote to the effect that the Euro-regions were largely intended to co-ordinate economic, environmental and transport planning, and that they were chaired by local authorities. There was no attempt whatsoever to consider why such co-operation might have been beneficial.

No matter that plenty of people in northern Scotland do not consider Scandinavians to be ‘very distant’ cousins, or that there is already a healthy cultural exchange going on between the ‘Celtic fringe’ nations of Europe.

The implications of such reporting for British perceptions of Europe hardly needs further explaining.

Our failure in Europe became a self-fulfilling prophesy. Had we joined Schengen and the Euro and –yes – shared the associated risk, the practical impact would have been significant. For example, the planned trains from the British regions to the continent would have remained viable because domestic passengers could have filled empty seats (as happens every day on the continent), rather than their being neurotically ‘sealed’ on departure. Without the deterrent of airline-style check-in at the Tunnel, it would become as easy to commute from say Ashford to Lille as it is across any continental border. The Channel would have become no greater barrier than the Alps. Had we joined the Euro, there would not even be the inconvenience of differing currencies.

I have a friend who lives in Basel; every day, his son used to travel to school in Germany and thought very little of it. Every day, thousands of people travel from Belgium into the Greater Lille area, from Kehl in Germany into Strasbourg, and from France into Basel and Geneva to work or shop. It is a non-event. But we British have never been allowed to find out what benefits this could bring. Our political classes have utterly failed to see that the world has moved on. Their every action still reeks of a colonial mindset where Britain’s supposed ‘sovereignty’ needs to be defended against hostile outsiders, no matter what cost to the nation. They cannot get their heads around the fact that Britain is now – and should be – just one amongst the many partner-nations in Europe. They never even got round to removing European Affairs from the Foreign Office. Which says it all.

In fact, the real issue here is the refusal of the British Establishment to relinquish power even when it is clearly in the nation’s interest. We see the same thing evident in their reluctance to move power down the scale to the regions as well. It is all about keeping maximum power in Whitehall.

I believe we would be in a very different place now, had British opinion-formers decided to commit to the European marriage rather than remaining the frigid, stand-offish partner who only ever wanted to remain single anyway.

It is true that as an island nation, we Brits probably had more work to do to get used to our new marriage: visiting the in-laws is rather more involved than walking across a bridge. But had those in government taken a different line, by now we would be seeing the benefits of a seamless relationship with our partners.

Instead of declining post-Tunnel, the channel ports might have connected and thrived – and the shameless Brexit-disdain that the residents of Dover have shown for their opposite numbers in Calais might never have happened.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Notes from beyond 4: Are we all together in this?

teaching personally

If Gaby Hinsliff is to be believed, it seems as I’m not so much on the scrap-heap as in the vanguard of a revolution against the long-hours culture. If she’s right, people are tiring of the amount of time they are being required to give to their employers. Of course, there’s more to it than that, particularly in a vocation like teaching – but it is possible that a combination of stagnant wages, the country’s ever-growing wealth disparity and the sense that those in charge really don’t care very much really is causing the blinkers to fall.

In my case, I put my all into my career for thirty years, to an extent to which that was so is really only apparent now I have stopped. It is what we were told we should do – by people whom, it turns out were offering illusory rewards, and who were interested…

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