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#1951club – revisiting some previous reads?

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Normally, during one of our reading weeks, I can go back over books I’ve previously read from the year in question and point you to older reviews. However, strangely enough, there seems very little on the Ramblings from 1951 and a limited number of books I can direct you to!

One of the major works I’ve covered from 1951 is the first book in the sequence by Anthony Powell now known as “A Dance to the Music of Time” – “A Question of Upbringing”. Back in 2013 I read through the whole series of 12 books a month at a time, and a very rewarding experience it was too. If you ever have the time to undertake this I’d recommend it!

Another major book from the year is “The End of the Affair” by Graham Greene but I hesitate to send you to my review as it was one of the first I did on the Ramblings and it’s hardly in depth. I loved some parts of the book but struggled with the endless guilt and agonising – though my Middle Child tells me that’s the whole point! I don’t imagine I’ll get to a re-read this week, but maybe another time I should give it another chance.

And I began the Ramblings midway through a year of reading Elizabeth Taylor’s novels along with members of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group; and had read “A Game of Hide and Seek” before I started blogging. It ended up being one of my favourite Taylor books and I can highly recommend it too!

Of course there are other books I’ve read from 1951 – “The Daughter of Time” and “Forbidden Colours” are the other two I can be sure of – but it’s so long ago that I can’t really offer substantial opinions! I don’t think there will be much re-reading this week – the new titles are very appealing, particularly the crime ones, and I can feel they’ll be grabbing most of my attention! Looking forward to hearing what everyone else is reading! 🙂

What to read for the #1951Club??

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One of the real joys of our reading clubs (where we focus on books from a particular year) is the fact that you get an excuse to rummage among the stacks and find out exactly which books from the year in question you actually own! I’ve been pretty good during previous clubs and have stuck almost completely to books I already owned. Coming to 1951 it seems I have rather a lot of volumes to choose from – and here they are in a lovely big stack! 🙂

This is probably not all the books I have in my collection from the year (there’s an Elizabeth Taylor for a start) but they’re all titles that appeal in one way or another. For a start, there’s plenty of Maigret:

I *could* just read nothing but Maigret all week – and that would be quite a pleasure! But there are other crime titles too:

I’ve read one Durrenmatt title and it was good, if dark; the Christie is that rare thing, one of her titles that I don’t think I’ve read!! And the Tey is one of my favourite crime books ever – but it gave me great grief when I was pulling books off the shelf to photograph! I knew which shelf my Teys *used* to be on, but having had a shuffle I wasn’t sure if they were still there. I looked on the shelf – not there. Searched the rest of the likely places but with no luck. Looked on the original shelf – still no joy. Looked in less likely places but to no avail. Went back to the original shelf and found them tucked up a corner behind some other ones – how do books do that??

If I need a break from crime these two are possibles – I haven’t read Steinbeck or Mitford for ages, so both would be good to pick up.

And then there are the heavier titles:

Of these, I *know* I’ve read the Greene and the Mishima; I *may* have read the Nabokov; and I don’t think I’ve read the Camus. These would probably take a bit more commitment, and I’m not sure if I’m in the right place mentally to revisit the Greene – we shall see!

So, plenty of choice from books I already own, though no doubt there will be temptation from all the interesting suggestions people come up with.  Watch this space to see what I *do* read! 🙂

Recent Reads – Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

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If in doubt about what to read, I’m finding nowadays that it’s often a good bet to head to ‘Greene-land’! I’ve been reading Greene since my teens – “Our Man in Havana” and “Brighton Rock” mainly – but it’s only recently that I’ve been exploring his work further. A number of the books I’ve read have been those that Greene labelled his ‘entertainments’, although I’d continue to argue that there’s a lot more depth in his lighter works than in any number of serious ones by other authors! However, on to “Stamboul Train”, the first of his so-called entertainments, apparently written deliberately for money in the hope a film would be made – which it was. The book was published in 1932 and is called “Orient Express” in the USA (which confused me a bit at first when I was looking into Greene titles!)

!st Edition cover

!st Edition cover

The action here takes place on or around an Orient express travelling from Ostend to Istanbul. As the various passengers embark from the boat train, we meet the various individuals who will take part in the tale: Carleton Myatt, a businessman on a trip to deal with a problem in his firm; Coral Musker, a rather fragile showgirl off to Istanbul for a job; the mysterious Dr. John, who appears superficially to be English, but is obviously not what he seems; Q.C. Savory, a Cockney novelist. At each stop, which corresponds with a section of the book, new characters join the train: Mabel Warren, a journalist; her partner Janet Pardoe, who is losing interest in Warren; Josef Grunlich, a thief and a murderer. Then there is a variety of supporting players, from a cricket-loving vicar to a prejudiced couple.

As the book progresses and the train travels on, we find out more about the various passengers. Coral is impoverished and not in the best of health – she faints at one point and the doctor recommends rest for her, which is not practical for a working girl. Myatt is Jewish, a fact that leaves him vulnerable to a number of slurs from fellow travellers, officials etc along the line. He is rich enough to pay to compensate for this, but nevertheless is aware of the attitude of others towards him. And Dr. John is in fact Dr. Czinner, a socialist leader in exile, travelling back to Belgrade to lead an uprising.

However, things soon go wrong all round. Myatt takes pity on Coral and as if to counteract the stereotypes about him, gives her his coat and lets her sleep in his berth. She is grateful, a tenderness grows up between them and they spend the night together. However, Coral gets off the train at Subotica and is caught up in Dr. Czinner’s issues which ends up with arrest, missing the train, more illness and somebody’s death.

“The world was chaotic; when the poor were starved and the rich were not happier for it; when the thief might be punished or rewarded with titles; when wheat was burned in Canada and coffee in Brazil, and the poor in his own country had no money for bread and froze to death in unheated rooms; the world was out of joint and he had done his best to set it right, but that was over.”

Czinner finds out that the socialist uprising went ahead early, before he could reach Belgrade, and it failed – he has lost many colleagues and decides to continue on to Belgrade anyway, in case he is able to be tried and at least state his case before the world. He has lived his life in exile almost as a ghost of his former self, and he cannot bear to go back to that exile. Unfortunately, Mabel Warren has recognised him, and although she has no power to force him to give her a story (as the uprising has failed) she follows him in an attempt to get a scoop.

Lovely vintage Pan (alas, not mine!)

Lovely vintage Pan (alas, not mine!)

It is at Subotica that things fall apart. Dr Czinner is arrested; Coral also as he manages to incriminate her; and Grunlich as he has a gun. Things spiral out of control with escape attempts, different characters going off in different directions and unexpected liaisons developing. The train finally reaches Istanbul, and the remaining passengers go off to try to sort out their altered lives.

Let’s face it, this is not merely an ‘entertainment’. Yes, it’s an extremely enjoyable read, as you would expect from a Greene book, but there is much more to it. The novel features such a wide range of characters with varied viewpoints, and is a complex and satisfying thriller. I got really bound up in the plot and the storyline, hoping that certain characters would survive, get the outcome they wanted, or get caught. There were many twists and turns, which kept me on my toes!

But there was of course another level, that of the issues of the time. The book was set in the early 1930s, a decade of turmoil in Europe. Post-WW1 and post-Russian Revolution there were many people wishing for change, and Greene’s portrait of Czinner and the revolutionary movement seems sympathetic. And then there is Carleton Myatt.

Accusations of racism have been levelled at Greene, and in particular I believe at Myatt. He is Jewish, and this is stated from the very start. However, I can’t really perceive any active racism in Greene’s portrayal. Yes, he’s something of a stereotype, but no more than any of the other characters in the book (the showgirl, the ageing lesbian, the revolutionary, the burglar). And in many areas, in the way he presents the racism that Myatt encounters and the hideousness of the characters who discriminate against Myatt, he makes it clear where his support lies. He gives Myatt a wonderful paragraph where he reflects on the hardships and the privations his race have suffered in the past that might have made them as they are (picked up by Christopher Hitchens in his introduction) and this really is a sympathetic response to the plight of a Jewish person in an increasingly hostile Europe. Greene also neatly plays with our perceptions as he has Myatt responding to Coral’s parsimonious behaviour by demanding to know if she is Scotch! (And as a Scot who’s dealt with the meanness stereotype over the years, I wasn’t offended!)

Oddly enough, while I was reflecting on the book, I found myself returning to Greene’s “Ministry of Fear”, which I read recently. The protagonist of this book suffered from excessive pity, and I sensed a lot of compassion from Greene in this book. He seems to empathise with his characters and their viewpoints, allowing Czinner in particular to state his case for the poor of the world. I have no idea of Green’s politics, but letting the doctor have his long, philosophical thoughts is much more effective than any polemic. His presentation of the divide between the high officials at Subotica and the lowly guards on the ground is very telling and although Greene holds back from telling us what to think, he shows us the conditions and lets us make up our own minds.

“The nearest he could attain to hate of these muddled men was envy; he would not hate when he remembered details no newspaper correspondent thought it worth while to give, that the man who, after firing his last shot, was bayoneted outside the sorting-room had been left-handed and a lover of Delius’s music, the melancholy music of a man without faith in anything but death. And that another, who had leapt from the third-floor window of the telephone exchange, had a wife scarred and blinded in a factory accident, whom he loved and to whom he was sadly and unwillingly faithless.”

This was a wonderfully involving and very thought-provoking novel. The more I read of Greene, the more I appreciate his work and his skill as a novelist. “Stamboul Train” is a great read, especially if you want a thriller with a bit more depth. I shall certainly keep visiting Greene-Land on a regular basis!

Recent Reads: The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene

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Hot on the heels of #greeneforgran, I have been lured into reading another of the great man’s works – this time, by an odd little Culture Show special on the BBC, which featured writers who stayed in London during the Blitz. It covered the obvious suspects – Greene, Bowen and Henry Green, plus poet HD, but strangely enough focused on “Ministry” and not “The End of the Affair” – the latter being only briefly mentioned. However, I did like the sound of “Ministry” very much and was inspired to track down a copy.

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First, a word about Greene’s description of the book. His works are notoriously divided into what he called his ‘entertainments’ and his more serious tomes. However, it does seem to be that the two often overlap, and although ‘Ministry’ is described as an entertainment, I don’t think it is. It’s certainly extremely enjoyable, and entertaining, but it’s quite a deep, thought-provoking work – but more of this later…

“The Ministry of Fear” is set in London in the middle of the Blitz, and our ‘hero’ is one Arthur Rowe – a vague kind of man, who lives in a rented room and wanders round the city. He comes across a charity fete, in aid of the Free Mothers (an organisation to aid mothers of the free allied nations) and in a surprise fluke wins a guess-the-weight-of-the-cake competition. However, the people running the fete seem surprisingly reluctant to let him take it away, trying to buy it from him or persuade him to donate it back. However, Arthur sticks by his cake and returns home, and immediately life becomes even stranger.

He is instantly pursued, and a strange, high-shouldered man turns up at his lodgings, ingratiates himself and tries to poison him. Rowe is saved by a bomb dropping and damaging the house, and determines to try to find out what is going on. He approaches the Free Mothers organisation to discover who is behind the fete, and meets two refugees, Anna Hilfe and her brother Willi. They enthusiastically encourage Rowe along, and the action spirals into odder and odder events – a séance where there is apparently a murder, a flight through the ruined city, a further encounter with Anna Hilfe where they are trapped in a hotel. And then suddenly the action switches to a seemingly different character in a rest home, with a lost memory. But as this character’s memories start to return it is clear that he is not who he (and we) think and there are even deeper layers to this conspiracy. Our hero fights to retain some kind of sanity, solve the spy mystery and save Anna – will he succeed?

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But there is another, major strand to MOF, and it is the character and past of Arthur Rowe; the events in his life that have led him to where he is now, and made him the unfocused, lost individual he has become. Arthur is burdened by an inability to deal with feeling extreme pity, so much so that he murdered his invalid wife rather than see her suffer. He classes himself as a murderer, despite the fact he was tried and acquitted, and he has cut himself off from his immediate past, existing only in the innocence of his childhood or the present. This is why he is vulnerable to the kind of memory manipulation in the second part of the story, and this tendency also allows Greene to explore deeper themes within the setting of a spy chase novel.

Pity is presented as a strong, almost debilitating emotion and I can empathise with the way Greene portrays Rowe’s feelings. Certainly, the older I get, the more of an effect pity has on me and it becomes harder to bear. Therefore, a sensitive man like Arthur Rowe (who even exhibited this inability to cope with the emotion in childhood) would never be able to handle being married to someone who is suffering. And as Arthur desperately tries to make sense of what is going on around him, he does eventually come to some kind of resolution, reaching a point in his life and a state of mind where he will be able to survive – even if he is not being truthful to himself and those around him.

Of course, as this is a Graham Greene novel, the writing is wonderful – he really was a masterful novelist. The atmosphere of the Blitz, the fragmented nature of life in the bombed city where you could lose your life at any time, the confusion and strangeness of not knowing who is friend or enemy; all brilliantly portrayed. He captures the human psyche so well, and one chapter in particular stands out – “Between Sleeping and Waking”. Rowe has gone underground – literally, while the bombing is going on, and metaphorically, while he believes he is being hunted for murder. As he attempts to sleep fitfully while sheltering in the tube, Greene captures brilliantly the experience of dreaming, half-waking, drifting off again and not being sure what is dream, thought or reality.

“He lay on his side breathing heavily while the big guns opened up in North London, and his mind wandered again freely in that strange world where the past and future leave equal traces, and the geography may belong to twenty years ago or to next year.”

Once again, Rowe visits his past but rejects it, acknowledging the changes that have come over the world in recent years:

Lying on his back he caught the dream and held it – pushed the vicar’s wife back into the shadow of the pine – and argued with his mother.

‘This isn’t real life any more,’ he said. ‘Tea on the lawn, evensong, croquet, the old ladies calling, the gentle unmalicious gossip, the gardener trundling the wheelbarrow full of leaves and grass. People write about it as if it still went on; lady novelists describe it over and over again in books of the month, but it’s not there any more.’

As you might expect, there are no traditional happy endings and plenty of moral dilemmas – would you expect any less from Graham Greene? However, the conclusion is satisfying and convincing, leaving us feeling that Rowe will have some kind of future, and that we leave him in a better mental state than he was at the start of the book – this section is not titled “The Whole Man” for nothing!

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I loved this book – for its atmosphere, the sense of living through the Blitz, its excitement and the mystery, its memorable characters and thought-provoking exploration of human character, and the wonderful quality of Greene’s prose. I can see why Simon’s Gran was such a fan!

Greene for Gran: The Third Man and No Man’s Land

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As many of you will know, Simon of SavidgeReads came up with the lovely idea of Greene for Gran, whereby we all read some Graham Greene this month as a tribute to his Gran, a great reader and a lover of GG’s work. Any excuse to read Greene must be a good one, so after a lot of vacillating, I finally settled on reading two novellas – “The Third Man” and “No Man’s Land”. I have several Greenes on Mount TBR, so the decision was quite difficult, but these two go together for reasons which will become clear!

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The Third Man is one of Greene’s best known titles, as it started life as a film treatment and became the famous Carol Reed movie, starring Orson Welles amongst others. It’s set in fragmented, post-War Vienna, which is being shared between the superpowers and is divided into zones. The place is a ruin, full of black marketeers, and Rollo Martins, a hack novelist, has been invited over by his old school friend Harry Lime who he thinks is going to offer him a job. However, he arrives just in time for Lime’s funeral and runs into the laconic Colonel Calloway, who is actually our narrator. Martins begins to learn the unpleasant truth about his old friend, and comes across quite a selection of characters: Anna, an actress with false identity papers who was in love with Lime; Cooler, an open-faced American who has to be telling the truth, doesn’t he?; Dr. Winkler, Lime’s friend who witnessed his death. There is also a very funny side plot, which didn’t make it into the film intact, where Martins is mistaken for a very different, very literary author and expected to take part in cultural events in Vienna. Martins soon suspects that Harry was in fact murdered and starts to investigate. But other deaths follow, and then Martins has a very strange encounter in the dark streets – who is alive, who is dead, and who is fooling who?

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No Man’s Land was another film treatment – Greene always wrote them as stories as that was how he worked – which was written after the success of The Third Man for a possible Carol Reed follow-up. However, despite it being set once more in a fragmented landscape, in the east-west border area near the Hartz Mountains, the feel of this novella is somewhat different. It was never actually filmed and lost for many years until it was rescued and republished by the wonderful Hesperus Press. One again we have a narrator – this time Redburn, a Boundary inspector – who tells the story of one Richard Brown. The area Redburn is patrolling is close to a Catholic shrine, just over the border in the Russian zone, and when Brown disappears into that area he initially claims that he is a writer who wanted to see the shrine. Captain Starhov, who takes charge of the investigation into Brown and his behaviour, is a sympathetic character and inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Starhov’s mistress Clara, who Brown encountered almost as soon as he entered the Russian Zone, falls in love with the Englishman and becomes an unexpected ally. The reality about Brown is gradually revealed and he plans to escape with Clara – will they make it or will Starhov succeed?

I found it absolutely fascinating reading these two stories in tandem, especially bearing in mind the pivotal point of Greene’s career during which they were written. Greene was inclined to dismiss some of his fictions as ‘entertainments’ and I’m not sure whether he regarded these two works as light or serious. However, there is darkness in both tales – the black racketeers in TM are dealing in penicillin and the consequences of their actions are death or madness and deformity. They are portrayed as completely immoral and unconcerned about the consequences of their actions, so much so that Martins’ previous hero-worship of his childhood friend Lime is utterly destroyed – so much so that he is able to apply the ultimate sanction.

“Human nature…has curious twisted reasons that the heart certainly knows nothing of. It eased the conscience of many small men to feel that they were working for an employer: they were almost as respectable soon in their own eyes as wage-earner; they were one of a group, and if there was guilt, the leaders bore the guilt. A racket works very like a totalitarian party.”

Likewise, the plot of NML is concerned with spying – but not for just little, petty secrets, but for information on uranium finds which will have global implications. It would be easy simply to paint the Russians as bad in this situation and the West as good, with Brown trying to gain information for the good guys but Greene is never so banal as this. Starhov is a sympathetic character, bonding with Brown while duelling psychologically with him over their shared love of the works of Turgenev, and both seem to realise that they are very much pawns in a bigger game.

Stylistically the books share many traits, most noticeably the fact that the story is told through an intermediary. In both cases, we have a character/narrator placed between us and the main protagonist (Martins/Brown), where a different author might simply have had the protagonist narrating. This is an excellent way of adding tension to the story because we do not know if the protagonists will survive or not as someone else is telling their story; but we still get the immediacy of events being related from their viewpoint. Galloway and Redburn are perhaps minor characters, but they are both integral to the story and allow the reader more leeway when interpreting the stories. I also realised whilst reading how much I like Greene’s distinctive style of writing!

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But it’s also relevant to notice the change of tone in the stories and this I think has much to do with developments in Greene’s life. As the excellent introduction to No Man’s Land points out, Greene was involved in a love affair which would have a major impact on his life. The characters of Anna in TM and Clara in NML are representations of this woman, who would become Sarah in The End of the Affair. Greene was going through a great deal of personal turmoil and it came out in his art. There is a shift of emphasis and the narrative voice in NML sounds much more like that of TEOTA – TM is lighter in tone and although it is about corruption and boundaries and a Catholic gone wrong (Lime is mentioned as a Catholic quite early on), the religious element is incidental. But in NML this is coming more to the fore – the Catholic shrine takes more of the centre stage, the religious imagery is present and there is contrast in the final dramatic scenes in the shrine between ‘good’ worshippers and ‘bad’ spies. By the time Greene reached TEOTA the moral, Catholic element was to the fore and pivotal to that book. Sandwiched between TM and TEOTA, NML represents a transitional point in the author’s work, where he was moving towards the representation of his Catholic beliefs and struggles in a more dominant role.

I wish I had read both of these books before I read TEOTA because I think they would have helped and informed my reading of it much more. I also have to applaud Hesperus for publishing NML as I do think it sheds much light on Greene’s development at this particular time of his writing career. As it is, both of these stories are excellent in their own right, gripping and thought-provoking reads by a masterly writer and thanks to Simon and his Gran for this initiative which made me read these two books!

SavidgeReads – #GreeneForGran

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I’m sure that anybody who reads this blog also reads the very wonderful SavidgeReads blog – this was one of the first book blogs I started reading regularly for its lovely mix of reviews and opinions. We’ve all been touched by the sad loss of Simon’s Gran Dorothy recently and he is having a Graham Greene August read-along to honour her.

This is such a lovely idea that I’m pleased to join in too, along with other bloggers like the other Simon and HeavenAli and Stu. I haven’t decided which Greene I shall tackle yet though I suspect it may be this collection of short stories:

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So do join in as a tribute to Dorothy Savidge, a great reader by all accounts, and let’s celebrate her life with one of her favourite writers!

Recent Reads: Loser Takes All by Graham Greene

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Yes, time for another try with Graham Greene – after stalling on “The End of the Affair” I’ve had my confidence knocked with GG, which is a shame because I read several of his books in my teens and loved them. I also watched a really interesting documentary on him recently and couldn’t work out why I was struggling with his work. However, I picked up this slim novella as part of a 3-for-£2 deal in one of my local charity shops (the others were an Agatha Christie for middle child and Zola’s “The Ladies’ Paradise” for me – bargain!). It looked amusing and short and so I figured I would give it a go – and I’m glad I did!

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“Loser Takes All” tells the story of Bertram, a middle-aged accountant about to embark on his second marriage to Cary, 15 years his junior. He muddles along in a not-outstanding fashion in his firm until one day fate takes a hand, and he is summoned to the realms upstairs, for a meeting with the Grand Old Man (known as The Gom mostly in the book). After solving an intricate accounting problem, The Gom is impressed enough to decide that instead of a quiet church wedding and a week in Bournemouth, the couple will get married in Monte Carlo and honeymoon there. After persuading Cary, they head to Monte Carlo only to find that the Gom does not appear. After a frantic marriage ceremony, our happy couple are stranded in the South of France with no rich patron and no money. To survive, Bertram tries winning at the casino, and after many losses uses his accounting talents to devise a system which wins them a fortune. However, money cannot buy love and it seems that the marriage may be on the rocks owing to Bertram’s obsession the gambling. Can the last-minute arrival of The Gom save things?

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Thankfully, I *loved* this novella. It’s witty, well-written, the characters come to life instantly and it has a lot to say in a short work. There are plenty of complications in the form of business rivals and shareholders, along with a penniless young man who attracts Cary for a while until she is allowed to see him as he really is. The characters were fleshed out enough to be believable in the context of the tale, and I ended up quite involved in whether Cary would stick with Bertram.

“She was not too young to be wise, but she was too young to know that wisdom shouldn’t be spoken aloud when you are happy.”

There is course the obvious moral – the proverbial gaining the world but then losing your soul; the fact that there are plenty of things that money cannot buy; and that gambling is not a solution. Obviously this is not one of Greene’s major works, rather one of the “entertainments” that he wrote to pay the bills. Nevertheless it still says much in its few pages, the love story is very sweet and the fact that the book managed to make a good few points without being heavy-handed shows what a great writer Greene was. An enjoyable page-turner – recommended!

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