Tag Archives: literature

Can grammar be glamourous?

Phil: Grammar. It’s dull, boring and essential.

Worse, it’s endlessly argued over by very dull and boring people who really need to get out more and take up and exciting hobby, like bus spotting.

You find them haunting on-line discussions, pouncing on minor infractions in someones posting, promptly dragging themselves up to their full height to denounce the criminal. Never mind the subject under discussion, they have nothing to add to this, no, all they want to do is show their superiority handling a preposition.

Sadly, grammar does matter when you are writing, which is why I pitched up to see David Crystal : Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar a couple of weeks ago.

David is described as ” the most famous name in English linguistics” although I’m not sure how much competition there is for that particular accolade. What I do know is he is marvelously entertaining.

Basically, grammar is all about ensuring your audience can understand you. And English is an evolving language. Things change over time and some of the rules laid down many years ago were arbitrary.

A good case is the Oxford comma.

Were I to be described by Cambridge University Press, I would be tall, dark and handsome.

Oxford University Press would say, tall, dark, and handsome.

See the extra comma before the and? Should it be there or not? I’m in the Cambridge camp here having been taught that you don’t comma before an and in a list. It’s the sort of thing that keeps grammar Nazis entertained for hours.

And what about starting a sentence with a proposition (e.g And)?

This rule dates back to the 19th Century when teachers decided children were doing it too often – so banned them from doing it at all. Sorry, who voted them in for the job? Perhaps they should be asked if it’s wrong, does that mean children should be exposed to Shakespeare, who writes, “And then it started like a guilty thing.in Hamlet. Yes Hamlet, that dreary play where everyone ends up dead. Basically, if starting sentences with And is A. Bad. Thing. Then the Bard can come off the syllabus.

For a potentially dull topic, this was a fun hour.  The Q&A at the end was especially entertaining as David punctured the balloons of some questioners who obviously had specific grammar crimes that really bothered them. A quick explanation of how each came about soon explained why this stuff isn’t life and death.

Me, I took away the knowledge that there are very few hard and fast rules. If the reader understands what you are saying, that’s all that matters. We’re writing a story, not a university text. Even if we were, would it be for Oxford or Cambridge? FIGHT!

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Michael Rosen talks English

Phil: It’s Stratford Literary Festival time again and I’m off on a solo trip to see an event because someone else is away on holiday (also why I’m writing the Tuesday blog post but I don’t mind). Looking at the listing I decided it would be interesting to see Michael Rosen.

Many will know Rosen from his role as Children’s laureate, a post he held from 2007 to 2009. Parents will probably know We’re Going On A Bear Hunt as it’s a notorious bedtime story book that children love to hear time and again until the reader can recite the story from memory. After this, it’s told through gritted teeth.

I’ve only read one book he has authored, Michael Rosen’s Sad Book , in which he describes how his son, Eddie, died of meningitis aged 19. It’s a book for children that talks about loss, sadness and the feelings around grief. I’ll be honest, I spotted the book displayed in the foyer of my local library and read it sat inside. It’s not a long book and as befits something written with children in mind there are lots of illustrations by Quentin Blake. Despite all this, it is a fascinating read, one of the reasons I thought the evening would be interesting.

All started well with a pun:

Q – Which are the most jealous letters in the alphabet?

A – NV (Audience laughs)

You see, it wasn’t Rosen the author we had on stage. It was Rosen the presenter of Radio 4’s Word of Mouth, a programme devoted to words, where they come from and how we use them.

You might think this sounds a bit dull. I’m not sure if all of the audience were ready for this as book festival crowds can be a bit star struck, but there were certainly loads of erudite members who thoroughly enjoyed themselves. To be honest, if you have an interest in language or writing, you couldn’t fail to be. It was a very entertaining show.

Nothing illustrates this better than the move from talk to Q&A half an hour in. This is a brave move, especially with a slightly academic subject. Needless to say the crowd were up for it. Most were so excited they couldn’t even wait for the roving microphone before bellowing their question. We over-ran too. The “final” quick question was, “When did the vowel shift take place and why?” – the questioner obviously being unaware of the meaning of “quick”. It wasn’t even the last as someone yelled out another final question, which our host couldn’t answer. In the end the organiser had to leap on stage and wrestle Rosen off so they could clear the hall in time for the next event.

If I’m honest, this wasn’t what I was expecting. If I’d realised, my enthusiasm would have been dampened by memories of Bill Bryson’s books covering similar ground which are the only ones in his repertoire I’ve never been able to wade through. Here though, we had a topic covered amusingly by an author who can communicate brilliantly. Rosen has strong views on education, Mikey Gove’s name popped up a couple of times and he deliberately declined to take the talk in that direction, on this evidence he probably has much to say. If my English teachers had been half as interesting when I was at school, perhaps I’d be a great writer now.

Oh. Hold on…

Visit Michael Rosen’s Website.

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Berlin

While we have been a bit slack on the writing front and don’t have a festive story as a present for you this year, we have a couple of pieces in the nolanparker archive that haven’t been given an airing. This effort was destined for a short story writing competition which we assume we didn’t win. Despite this, we don’t think it’s bad, so hope you enjoy our non-Christmassy tale.

Berlin

The house was uninviting but her future lay inside.

Grey paint peeled from weather beaten walls. A few straggly plants clinging to life drooped over the edges of a rotten window box. Peering through the filthy glass, all she could see were threadbare and stained curtains. A tiny, barely glimpsed movement revealed there was someone in there.

She stood in front of the front door and reached for the knocker. A moments pause. Just as she had paused before. Each time something had made her turn and walk away. Now it might be too late.

A final furtive look around to see if there was anyone watching her. All she could see was the clouds of her own breath. The gathering gloom made it feel even colder. Every breath felt like someone was stabbing the inside of her lungs.

A few months ago, it had all been so different. The summer sun was shining. The flowers were in full bloom. She was studying at Berlin University to become a doctor and in a few months planned to be back home working in the same Dresden hospital she had been born in.

Best of all Bernhard would be with her. They had met at a concert five months earlier and had been inseparable ever since. The day he asked her to marry him was the best of her  life. There had been no hesitation in her answer or any restraint in the kiss that had followed it. For a month she hadn’t been able to take her eyes off the ring he had bought her. The ring she could now feel under her glove.

After the best day came the worst.

Bernhard was an engineering student. He was lucky enough to be chosen to take part in a conference had at the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg.

A trip to decadent West”, he joked proudly showed off the papers that would allow him to travel, “I will try my best to avoid being corrupted by their degenerate ideals”.

They laughed. Like other students, they enjoyed what little Western music they could find of and sometimes gazed at the other side of the city wondering what it was really like. Surely not everyone was an evil Nazi as the political officers told them.

Bernhard even got into a fight with a drunken party member in a bar who berated them with stories of what he said was the evils being perpetrated just a few miles away and demanded to know why anyone should want to expose themselves to them. She dabbed his eye with a cold flannel to stop the swelling and soothed his temper. He would soon see it all with his own eyes. If they weren’t black that is.

A couple of days later, she chocked back tears as he climbed the steps of the coach that would take the group to the conference. Bernhard waved and blew a kiss from through the window. She watched the street until the vehicle was out of sight. Then it was back to her rooms while repeating that he would only be away for four days. She went to bed staring at the calendar where the date was ringed in red and drifted off to sleep.

Then the wall arrived.

In the university canteen everyone was talking about it. Overnight soldiers had started stringing barbed wire along the streets. People said that they had heard gunshots and someone claimed to have seen a man trying to cross the line being killed. Her heart froze as she realised what this meant. Bernhard was on the wrong side of the divide.

Weeks seemed like years  but she heard nothing. Concentration on daily tasks became impossible. Nights were filled with dreams of her love calling over the barbed wire.

Suddenly there was a letter. It took a few moments before she recognised the writing as his. People said it was hardly readable but it didn’t matter. His fingers had touched the envelope. His pen had caressed the page.

Not just his hand though. The letter had been opened, probably by the Stasi. Everyone knew about them of course but until that moment her life had never knowingly been touched by the secret police. Now they had pried into her private world. Defiled it. Dirtied it. Tears welled up. How dare they ? In a flash of anger she nearly threw the envelope away.

But she didn’t.

She unfolded the letter and read it. Quickly at first and then again and again. Each time absorbing the words as though trying to soak the ink itself into her fingers. His ink. The only connection they had.

Bernhard was safe. He had been found a room in the house of one of a fellow student from the conference. When news of the division of the city reached them, many had decided this was their chance to stay in the West. He said he had wanted to come back to her but had been worried that if he tried, the authorities might wonder why only a few of the party returned. The Western authorities had been only too happy to help these poor refuges from Communism.

Should she reply ? How could she ignore it ? Not knowing if her letter would ever arrive she hurriedly scrawled on some writing paper. At the post office the teller looked at her oddly but took the envelope and said it would be delivered. As she left there was a feeling that someone was watching her.

The wait for a reply seemed interminable but at last it arrived. Again, the envelope had been clumsily opened and re-sealed. For a while she just stared at the paper without reading the words.

Another letter posted. And another. And another. The teller was starting to recognise her so she started using different post offices around the city. After a few months she had been into nearly every one within walking distance and then had to start taking the tram to new districts.

Bernhard even remembered her birthday. He mentioned he might be travelling East on the day to meet Charlie. There was a point he wanted to check at noon. The code was crude but she in a flash she knew what he meant. Everyone knew that Checkpoint Charlie was what the Americans called the crossing.

On the day she stood at one side of the crossing and stared hard at the other side of the wall. He was there. A little fatter than before but unmistakable. He saw her and waved. She waved back. He tried to shout but the distance and noise was too great. In the end they just stood and stared at each other. She tried not to cry but eventually a tear ran down her cheek. A guard spotted her and shouted. Then he pointed his gun and she had to move away.

Back in her room she howled into her pillow. How could she bear to be apart ? Enquiries to see if there was a chance to visit the West had been sharply turned down. Far too many students had managed to escape already. The man she had talked to described it as a “brain drain”. He advised her not to try anything “silly” either in a way that made her shiver.

Her friends tried to console her. They said that the wall couldn’t last forever. Maybe Bernhard might come back. After all, he loved her and maybe the West wasn’t all it was cracked up to be anyway.

She hoped and dreamed they were right. Then she scolded herself for thinking that way. If Bernhard came back to her, his first few days would be spent being “de-briefed” in some  Stasi basement. Who knows what the bastards would do to him. They’d say he was a spy. She was sure that someone had been watching when they saw each other. They weren’t stupid, evil maybe but not stupid, they would have worked out Berhard’s code.

A week passed. Her friends were concerned. They kept telling her she needed to eat but her appetite had gone. Gone west. As she sat in the refectory toying with some awful slops pretending to be goulash, a blond man approached. He asked if the seat opposite her was taken. She grunted a response which he took to be negative and sat down.

Her companion seemed more interested in his food than she was. He was wolfing down the nauseating stew like he hadn’t eaten for a week. She tried to ignore the noise he made. Despite her best efforts he kept looking at her. Suddenly he spoke. Her face tried to express complete disinterest but there was something about his eyes that drew her in.

For a few minutes she resisted conversation but eventually he wore her down. He seemed to know a lot about her. For a moment she wondered if he was a plant. They said that there were spies at the university to check on disloyal feelings. He seemed to know about Bernhard. One of her friends had told him he said. Suddenly the tone of his voice dropped. He drew closer to her. She thought for a minute he was going to try and kiss her. There was still a bit of cabbage leaf in his beard. Seeing her recoil he looked slightly hurt and then lent in again.

Checking that no one was listening in he revealed that he asked if she had ever heard  about something called the Girrmann Group.

She thought and then shook her head. Even if she had known anything it wasn’t wise to admit it. You never really knew who you were talking to.

He smiled. The Girrmann Group might be able to help her he said. If she wanted to know more then she should meet him again the next day.

Suddenly her mind was a ball of confusion. Why was he telling her this? Was is a Stasi test? Had he thought her fiancée was out of the picture and was trying it on? How could she be sure? She twisted the ring on her finger again and thought  of Bernhard. What could the authorities do that was worse than separating her from him ?

More meetings in the refectory took place. Apparently discussing things in plan sight was the best way to avoid suspicion. That’s what he said anyway. She was glad of this. If he couldn’t try anything in a public place and she made sure he saw that she still wore her ring. Just in case

A week later and contacts were made, instructions given. No luggage. This was a one-way trip.

When it was whispered that escape was via the sewer system she had only a moments pause. All of a sudden it was serious. Until then, everything had seemed a bit like a game. Unreal. At the back of her mind a little voice said it could be a trap or even a cruel joke but she couldn’t bear the thought of that.

Her friends had become distant. Some had spotted her regular rendezvous and thought that she was “moving on” as one put it. Others felt she was just pining for Bernhard. She knew that if this worked, they would be questioned. Everyone would. The less they knew the better. Was it fair to them? Should she just wait for a bit to see if everything blew over?

In front of the house she pulled the bit of paper out of her pocket and looked at it for the hundredth time. This was the right address. The one she’d been at before and turned away at the last minute. This time she had to go through with it. Her friend had said that the route the group had used was likely to be closed. It was now or never. She turned at took a last look at the overcast October sky and knocked on the door.

Her future lay ahead. Whatever it was. At least there would be answers.

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An airport novel or a supermarket book?

TescoPhil: On Tuesday, Candice concluded “We just want to appear on the holiday read stand at the airport” because we don’t aspire to being “literary” authors, we’re in this to get a story out there and entertain people. As the one sitting beside a copy of the Writers’ & Artists’ yearbook which is currently costing me over 60p in library fines, targeting the publishers who supply to the airport bookstand is apparently my job.

Never mind that next week it won’t be me passing through an airport on my way to  Yankee Doodle Bloomingdales land. Apparently research on the way to check-in is impossible for security reasons. Something to do with jotting down lists of publishers in the departure lounge is a well know terrorist activity that could result in a free flight to the state (Good) but wearing an orange jumpsuit (bad, orange is so 2006).

So, I’ve been thinking about a quick trip to the local airport. I’d get a ride on the cable-tram thingy (good) that replaced the maglev (better) and then I can look over the branch of Waterstones to see what they stock.

But. I was wandering around my local Sainsbury’s supermarket a couple of days ago and happened across the book section. I’ve not really taken much notice but this time I was struck by the price. A quick check revealed that rival Tesco is the same. £3.85 for a paperback? Seems like a bargain to me. I’m not paying much less than this for second-hand books in a charity shop. If you are rubbish at returning loans, it’s not much more that library fines!

Anyway, this makes me wonder if our target market is people flying off on holiday, or casual shoppers?

Maybe the airport is more glamorous but unless you are my friend, trips there are for most an annual event. If we want sales, we need our book chucked in to the trolley with baked beans. It’s easier to do my research too as the publishers details are on the web site and I can Google the authors to find out who their agents are. Ignore the celebrity titles and I reckon I can narrow the search down to half a dozen. Even I can manage to write that list.

 

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Alan Titchmarsh on words

At school, I loved writing stories. I loved writing them rather more than Miss Weatherall liked reading them, but that’s by the by. And then I grew up. A bit. And I realised, when I grew up, that unless you are an artist, or a composer, or a novelist, you never get to use the one thing that gives so much pleasure as a child – your imagination. – Alan Titchmarsh

Phil: I don’t really do biographies. The phrase “History is written by the victors”, attributed to Churchill, could be re-worked as, “Biographies are written by lucky sods.” In many spheres, especially the biz called show, success is as much about being in the right place at the right time. As one who always manages not to do this, I’m not that interested in filling my days reading about those who did.

Yes I am bitter.

Anyway, Alan Titchmarsh’s biog , “Knave of Spades” came to me with the suggestion that I ought to read it because his writing style is similar to mine. Fair enough, it’s not a fat book and I wanted some easy reading so I gave it a go.

So far so good. There is an element of right place, right time with his post-Kew Gardens career but it’s amiably written and kept me turning pages. The bit that sparked my interest starts on P277 in the chapter entitled “Words…”

At this point, our hero decides to have a go at writing a novel. He sends off three query letters and gets rejection, mild interest and offer of lunch.

Hold on, A rejection letter? For Tichmarsh? The man who is considered some sort of sex God by the HRT patch crowd?

That must have been an interesting meeting for someone.

“So, you turned down Titchmarsh’s book.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Well, it’s not about wearing jumpers or doing gardens. Some sort of novel about a lighthouse keeper I think.”

“ARE YOU NUTS!!!! I DON’T CARE WHAT HE’S WRITTEN. TITCHMARSH WILL SELL BY THE TON!!!!! YOU’LL NEVER WORK IN THIS INDUSTRY AGAIN !!!”

And so it proved. Number 2 in the Times Bestseller list.

By the point he wrote his first novel, Alan had produced 40 books on gardening and stuff. I’m told that these are informative and easy to read without talking down to the reader. He understands that he’s not writing great fiction, that the literary world is desperately snobby. The point is made that JK Rowling was lauded as the successor to Roald Dahl until she started selling by the barrow-load and then faced a backlash from the establishment.

I think he puts it well when he says:

It is up to all authors to plough their own furrow – whether it be light fiction or prose laden with scholarly substance – and to write well, within their genre.

Which is pretty much what we are trying to do. Maybe it’s all bluff but he doesn’t come accross as someone who took acceptance for granted. It’s reasonable (if anoying) to expect that if you are a “name” you are a lot less likely to end up in the slush pile. Publishing is a business and celebrity sells. I like that he understands what he’s writing. It’s light fiction. Feel-good stuff to be read, “on the bus or the train, in a book-lined study or on a lilio, by butcher, baker, computer-maker or housewife.”

Which is all we aspire to. Kate vs the Dirtboffins isn’t high art. It is fun to read. It will make you laugh. We wrote it because writing it was fun. To sum it up in Alan’s words:

Provided that they can give the reader a day or two of escapism, and a fraction of the pleasure that they give me to write, I ask no more.

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How long should a book chapter be?

How long sir?

Phil: When working on people’s websites, I come from the usability camp. That doesn’t mean I sleep in a tent or walk funny, it’s those of us who decide how a site should work by looking at the people who use it and see what they are doing. We don’t ask them what they want, we watch to see what they do and then modify the pages to match those expectations.

The theory is that if you give people what they expect, using the website is easier and they achieve whatever it is they came to it wanting to do. It’s a bit like car design really – put the brake pedal anywhere but the middle and you’ll lose a sale. Steve Krug nailed it with his book, “Don’t make me think“. If I have to learn how to use a website then I’m probably not going to bother.

I reckon you can apply some of these lessons to writing a book and chief amongst these is chapter length.

Grabbing some books from my shelves, I did a quick survey:

John Wyndham – The Midwich Cuckoos – 12 pages

Tony Hawks – A Piano in the Pyrenees – 16 pages

Freya North – Pip – 13 pages

Stephen King – The Long Walk – 19 pages

Alan Titchmash – Knave of Spades – 7 pages

My methodology (for those who care about such things) was to pick a random chapter somewhere in the middle of the book and count the pages. Don’t complain, it’s as scientific as most of the stuff you get reported on the telly.

What does it tell us?

Not as much as I expected. My guess was that chick-lit would have shorter chapters than other genres. Freya North and Alan Titchmarsh (same audience I reckon) are on the lower end of the scale and she manages a few 2 pagers in the book. A quick look at our Book and I think we are in line with this.

Since it’s rude to gawp over people’s shoulders while they read, I’m basing the conclusions on Candice and my feelings. Both of us are fans of short chapters to give a story pace. We’ve broken our story pretty much every time you change scene as this seems logical and tried not to stay in any one place too long.

I also think it makes the book easier to read. I pick books up and put them down to snatch a moment of reading. If I can do a chapter, the bookmark moves in a satisfying way and it doesn’t seem odd to stop. If the chapter end is 4 pages away, I’ll stick at it. 10 pages and I’ll probably realise that I’m not going to make it to the end in this session so will look for another convenient place to halt, be it a paragraph or end of page. Picking up won’t be so easy but I don’t have any choice.

Injecting pace with short chapters will probably increase the tiem a reader spends with you each session. Get momentum in the story which carries you along and you think, “Oh I’ll just do another chapter” making the book becomes a page turner. Both readers and writers want that don’t they?

Conclusion: Length matters and for commercial fiction, short wins.

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A Personal History of Libraries

Whitnash LibraryPhil: My first library was unsurprisingly the one nearest where I lived.

Whitnash Library wasn’t always in black and white but in recent years, the original late 60s building has been extended a couple of times. They’ve moved the entrance around the side too. This photo shows it as I remember. Nothing special but important to me.

It was where I attained my first library card. Not one of your fancy modern computer readable jobbies – a little yellow wallet about an inch wide that the librarian would fill with the ticket from the book I was borrowing. It would then be placed in a drawer, the book stamped with a return date and off I would go for some serious reading.

It was here that I borrowed my first book on railways, “Model Trains, Railroads in the making“. More importantly, it supplied me with every Famous Five and Secret Seven story that Enid Blyton ever wrote. I remember being allowed to go on my own to the library, which was handy as children were only allowed a single ticket. Adults got 3 green tickets as they could be trusted to keep more books at home. It didn’t matter, I could work my way through the shelves one volume at a time. The most important thing was the choice was mine. An adult didn’t need to help, I learned to look at the covers and decide if I wanted to read the contents. Sometimes I would borrow a book more than once and re-read it if nothing else appealed to me.

Leamington Library

Leamington Spa Library

Later on, my Mum used to take me to the big library in town. This was a real revelation – the children’s section was nearly as big as the entire building in Whitnash.

I think I started with most of the “Marmaduke the lorry” stories writen by Eizabeth Chapman. A bit like the Rev W Awdry’s Railway series, these centred on an old lorry called Marmaduke who, along with his driver, had adventures. Nothing earth shattering but pleasant enough for a child.

It was here that I first dipped my toe into science fiction with Patrick Moore’s “Mission to Mars” series. Since he was of a scientific bent, as well as enjoying the stories, I learnt a bit. For example, I was introduced to the idea of muscle wasting because astronauts who had lived on Mars for a long while wouldn’t be able to stand Earth gravity. In one of the books, it was suggested that the base be shut down and so those unfortunates who lived there would have to live the rest of their lives on a space station. OK, not rocket science (pun intended) but when you are eight, quite something to take in. Even tougher was trying to pronounce Woomera – these were British spacemen so they launched from our fields in Australia. I didn’t understand exactly what an empire or commonwealth was until this point.

After a couple of years, there was the inevitable frustration that my reading had advanced beyond the children’s section. Young adult fiction didn’t exist but my Mum let me use one of her tickets (she had 5, I had 3) for books from the grown-up shelves.

Leamington Library

Leamington Library Today

The library still exists but has moved around the corner to the Pump rooms into the old swimming baths. They’ve taken out the water and replaced it with books. The old changing rooms have gone too, I won’t miss them as they were horrible.

Anyway, I still drop in from time to time. The number of books has been reduced, although you can still order them from stock elsewhere in the county. I’ve had the Writers & Artists yearbook out a couple of times. The reference section is still pretty good and you can read quite a selection of current magazines for free. There are banks of computers and people to help you make best use of them. There’s also someone I once interviewed for a job in there but I hope he doesn’t remember me as he didn’t get it.

Occasionally I drop in for the atmosphere. You can go into town, wander into the library just to sit and read. I like that. It’s a good place to work if concentration matters or I simply need to be somewhere different.

What I like even more is that there are books to borrow for free. And events to get youngsters interested in reading. And staff who want you to read – they change the display of books regularly so you are encouraged to discover something new. It was because of this that I read Michael Rosen’s moving book “Carrying the Elephant” about the death of his son. It caught my eye and I read it sat in a comfy chair in a corner. I’d never have seen it otherwise. More recently, I picked up my first Stephen King from the shelves.

All the libraries allowed me to read. It’s not like I come from a home where there were no books, far from it. No matter how many books we had, I could always read more. My parents didn’t need to try to keep up with my voracious appetite for reading, it was there for free. I could experiment – if I didn’t like a book, there was always another. I was proud of my library card and certainly gave it a good workout.

This post was inspired by John Scalzi’s Personal History of Libraries.

His post was inspired by the news that Horrible Histories author Terry Deary thinks libraries should be shut down. I think Terry Deary is an idiot.

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