Archive for January, 2014

the alchymist = jospeh wright 1795

In Paulo Coelho’s best-selling story, the Alchemist – as near as I can remember it – a humble shepherd boy falls asleep under a tree on a Spanish hillside and dreams of a pot of gold buried in Egypt. (Spoiler alert) The dream has such a numinous feel to it, the boy is compelled to set out on a life-changing quest to find the gold. The story recounts the boy’s adventures, describes the characters he meets and what each encounter teaches him. After many hardships, he reaches his goal and starts to dig, but finds nothing. In despair he relates his story to a stranger. The stranger laughs at the boy’s foolishness and tells of a dream he had about a similar treasure lying buried under a tree on a Spanish hillside, and compliments himself on not being stupid enough to waste his entire life in setting out to look for it. Enlightened, the boy returns home.

You can take many things from this story – and for such a short book, as with all of Coelho’s work there’s a lot in it. But for me the gold is not the point – or rather recognising the gold for what it truly is – that is the point. The story tells of our compulsion to make a quest out of life. We are seeking something – satisfaction, happiness, self-justification – but seeking it always in material terms. In our consumer society this materiality all too often boils down to money – a literal gold – in the belief that the more material goods we can buy, the happier we will be. We all know this is wrong, yet altering our misguided perceptions is very difficult, since we seem preprogrammed into accepting the former view as the more sensible one. No matter how hard our higher will struggles to elevate us from the mud of the material mire, there is a default condition in which we prefer to wallow in it.

In the material world, having no money is a cause of great deprivation, unnecessary suffering and unhappiness, but having a fortune is no guarantee of happiness either. Money (gold) might buy us a more comfortable life, one free from hunger and curable disease, but it cannot make us a better human being. In the mediaeval alchemists’ quest, the esoteric texts relate the seemingly foolish attempt to transform worthless base metals into gold. But the Master Alchemist, Hermes the Thrice Great, source of all Hermetic wisdom, warns that this is a dangerous path, one that leads only to madness, because it’s not that kind of gold we should be thinking of. I look at the world today and imagine Hermes shaking his head in dismay.

The quest for gold leads us on, always looking for the next thing, imagining our treasure to be out there somewhere, hidden from view yet ultimately discoverable if we can only apply ourselves in the right way. But in fact, as in Coelho’s story of the shepherd boy , we already possess the thing we’re seeking, though it can take us a long time on the dusty trail of life before we wise up. In alchemy, the process is one of sublimation. We take the base metal and we apply heat, we melt the base, loosen its impurities and let them rise. We tend the fire for years and years, and we watch as the base metal undergoes a cyclical process of purification and transformation. But the substance glowing in the alchemists alembic, has to be seen as a metaphor. What the alchemists were talking about was in fact the human spirit. We are the base metal. What we are seeking is the transformation of ourselves. Alchemy was, and still, is a spiritual quest.

I’ve been thinking about this recently as I write, and wondering as I do from time to time, why I write and for whom, and what it is I’m seeking from doing it. Sometimes I forget, you see, that I’m not actually doing it for anybody, or for anything, that I’m just doing it. I know the treasure lies inside myself, yet there are times – such as now – when I refuse to see it and wind up stretched out, face down in the mud. I’ve read books on Zen, studied Daoism and Buddhism, also the various alchemical traditions as well as European Romanticism. I’ve felt the glow of an inner peace, courtesy of the practice of meditation, Qigong and Tai Chi. And such things have each at times opened the door on a very special and self contained room, within myself, and what I’ve glimpsed in there I’ve tried to describe in my writings. But like the alchemists’ quest, it’s a circular path, not a linear one; there’s a rhythm to the openings and closings of that door. When it closes on me, the practice has already fallen into disarray. The fire has gone out. I become twitchy, irritable, plagued by aches and pains, jumping at shadows, doubting everything I thought I once knew and held to be true.

It takes a while to pull myself together, rekindle the flames, strip myself bare of all the false trappings of the material world, clothe myself once more in the homespun cloth of that purer sense of being. But without that first spark of an autonomous inner will, all else is useless. Attempts at firming up a routine of meditation, qigong, or even high minded reading, fall apart at the first hurdle. The fire splutters and is extinguished by the most trivial of occurrences – a blocked drain, the washing machine making a funny noise, a toilet cistern that won’t stop filling up, a car that fails its MOT. At such times life’s little snags take on the proportions of epic disasters, disruptive of our lives and insulting to the very core of our being. Indeed, once we enter this frame of mind, this mentality of siege, the universe obliges by providing one assault after the other.

It surfaces in my writing too, especially the blogging, when I find myself checking the stats, counting the likes and the visits after each entry, to see what effect I’m having on the world. But this is pointless. The effect I have, or rather the lack of it, is irrelevant. I took the decision, long ago, that I wrote simply because I write, and that to self-publish online is merely the completion of a contract with the inner daemon who would have me write in the first place. I have also told myself that whoever reads my writings thereafter, simply reads them and takes from them what they will. I write then, primarily, for myself, to stir and sift my way through the soup of what it is I think I think. Beyond that there is no purpose, no goal, and to find the place where I can take pleasure in that alone, is finally to come home to myself.

In material terms, we are none of us anybody, and we are none of us going anywhere. That the universe appears infinite can only be accommodated by the assumption that it is also nothing, that the reason it seems to occupy so much space, is that it occupies no space whatsoever. As human beings I think we begin from that position of nothingness, but we are born with an innate fear of it, not realising that only through its acceptance do we finally sublimate the spiritual gold of the alchemist in our hearts, through which our true, infinite worth might be glimpsed, at least in so far as any mortal being is capable, locked in the illusion of time and space, as we all are.

In the quest to find our own alchemical gold, we should each start out with the insight that, like Paulo’s shepherd boy, we’re probably already sitting on it. Whether we recognise it or not is down purely to the way we view the world, and sometimes it takes a long journey to alter our focus sufficiently to realise the power within us, and to return home. Nobody else can do this for us. It is the supreme paradox, that we are each of us nothing, but also everything at the same time.

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portrait of the artists wife - La Thangue - 1859-1929I posted a letter today. Not much to comment on about that, you might think, except the whole experience of that letter has given me pause. I wrote it with a pen on plain A4 paper – four sheets, two for the letter, and a further sheet each for a poem. No, I wasn’t submitting work to a publisher – heaven forbid, and thank goodness those days are over! It was to a friend of a friend, an amateur poet, like me, but of an older generation for whom the idea of email, or blogging, or indeed any form of digital communication are alien concepts. She had written to me before Christmas, a personal hand-written letter, and I had felt awkward responding with impersonal print.

So, out came the Harvey Makin pen, (note shameless brand-dropping) I had thought it a somewhat redundant Christmas present to myself, since I rarely “write” anything with a pen at all these days. But suddenly, there I was, pen poised over a sheet of paper. (£16.99 from the local garden centre – the pen, not the paper). I don’t know who Harvey Makin is, and forgive me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like an “antique” brand targeted at the old fuddy-duddy traditional types, who frequent garden centres on wet winter Sundays, while hiding its usual ultra-modern Chinese manufacture. But the pen has a good weight, and makes a smooth mark. Yes, Harvey Makin, whoever he is, made the writing of that letter feel special. He added a sense,… of occasion.

I did cheat, however.

It seems I have forgotten how to write spontaneously. I sat a while staring at that first sheet of virgin paper, afraid to make a mark because, well,… a pen-mark is not deletable – there are no second chances, no back-tabbing. Short of a clean sheet, we have no choice but to plough on, once we have begun. So, I drafted it first on the computer before copying it all down by hand – rather a backwards way of working, but never mind.

The first thing I noticed was how inefficient the written word is, compared with print. What had been a few column inches of 12 point type on the computer screen expanded like crazy-foam to fill two sheets of A4 in no time at all. Perhaps the sheer physical volume of the hand-written word discouraged a verbosity in olden times to which we are more prone today. The other thing I noticed was how using a pen for anything more substantial than a shopping list makes your hand and arm stiffen painfully.

Stamps are quite expensive things now – 60p for first class. I’m not sure how much it costs to send an e-mail, but it must be fractions of a penny. Demand for hand-written letter deliveries is falling. We’re therefore losing economies of scale, so the price of stamps must go up still more, thus further hastening the decline of posted letters to the point where the post boxes are being decommissioned and all the postman brings me these days, apart from my online purchases, is machine franked junk.

That stamp added a seal of something to the envelope, conferring upon its contents a degree of worth they perhaps did not deserve. It also got me thinking about the slower snail-mail way we used to do things. It got me thinking too about that box of love letters in the attic.

My girlfriends wrote good letters, their handwriting always so much better than mine. And stamps, looking so quaint in their design, and the Queen so young, perhaps even moistened by a kiss – the stamps, not the Queen – still have the power to fire the imagination. I mean, that these women should have taken the trouble to sit with pen and paper, and aching hand, spontaneously expressing themselves, without back-tabbing or endless redrafting,.. and it’s not without significance – at least to me – that they thought of me, while they wrote! My last love letter is dated 1986, marking the end of an affair. It echoes fresh from long ago, and bitter-sweet memories rise anew from the flow of a woman’s hand, porting me back in time a quarter of a century. Ah,… the abiding magic of the written word!

Emails by contrast, I tend not to keep. They lack gravity, and personality.

It’s a pity – this decline in the hand written form – though inevitable, I suppose. But we have learned so much about the lives of others through their letters, ribbon bound and kept in shoe-boxes, preserved as each the encapsulation of a moment from that person’s life. Now the world is criss-crossed with invisible aether-channels into which we tap with our devices – devices to which we are enslaved, emailing, blogging and tweeting our sweet nothings – things of no import and to nobody in particular – and which can be so easily deleted to save precious cloud-space, or embarrassment. What shall we leave for future historians to ponder? Will our blogs, our emails, our tweets, still be around a hundred, two hundred years from now?

The letter sat upon my desk for a few days while I found the opportunity to take it to the post-box. And as the time passed, it assumed a more self-important air – those contents, sealed with gum, seeming to mature within, and the address so boldly displayed, a magical incantation that would speed my missive to its goal. I posted it this morning, outside the Post Office in town – pushed it, after a momentary pause, into the red pillar box with the official markings, gave it up into the care of the almighty postal system. It’s a system that’s been establishing lines of communication, and mapping out the bounds of civilisation, for centuries, but seems suddenly anachronistic. In a generation, it will be gone, this way of doing things.

I had not realised.

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clapham cottages

Ingleborough is one of the loveliest of England’s mountains. The summit forms a large plateau which boasts the remains of an Iron Age fortress. At around 2400 feet, this must have been quite a place to retreat to. It would certainly have had the advantage of leaving your enemies breathless by the time they came within range of your arrows – unless of course, your assailants were a hardy breed, and certainly a lot hardier than I was the other weekend when I made an attempt on it.

No matter which way you approach, the walk up Ingleborough is always a delight, but my favourite route starts from the village of Clapham. Dales villages are magical places, unspoiled by tourism, to say nothing of the usual plague of millionaires seeking to snap up quaint, rustic abodes for the weekend – these are still places that are lived in. I noted more gift shops in the village this time than on my last visit, but there’s still something very homely about Clapham.

My photograph of the cottages is the best I managed to take that day because the weather higher up the dale was challenging to say the least, and the light very poor. I would have like a picture of the summit, but you’ll have to link to Wikipedia, because the summit was hardly photogenic that day.  Sheltered in the deep of the dale, following the course of Clapham beck, the wind roared overhead, teasing the bare trees, tugging at black winter branches, hinting at the challenge to come, but my first real sign of trouble came as I climbed through the narrow nick of Trow Gill – a feeling of bone-weariness, yet with the main part of the ascent still to go.

I paused at Gaping Gill to munch an uninspiring cheese butty while watching with a morbid fascination as Fell Beck, running high and roaring boisterously with lots of white water, simply vanished down that infamous little hole. Gaping Gill doesn’t look much from the surface, but as pots go, it’s stupendous – the stuff of nightmares, really – a hidden cavern about the size of a bathtub on the surface, but which opens out to the girth and the height of a Cathederal, below, and into which the beck tumbles and sprays out like rain, deep into the dark of the earth.

Gloomy thoughts on a cold day, shivery cold, about 3 degrees, and a wind that would be gusting sixty knots across the summit. And the mist was down to about 1000 feet. In another ten minutes, I’d be in the teeth of it then, and blind.

From Gaping Gill, the path rises with an unremitting steepness to the summit of Little Ingleborough, and the first hint of a mountain proper comes undefoot – shattered rock and a moonlike sterility. The ascent was tough – not enough slack in my springs to maintain balance against the gusting wind, and the rain, coming at me horizontally, managed to find its way with dispiriting ease through the taped seams of my walking jacket. I was bottomed out and struggling pitifully.

I’ve been in worse conditions, but not very often. I remember a wild bit of weather like this on the summit of Helvellyn. We had ice too, that day, though it was late March – men appearing out of the mist, their beards thick with ice, and weird dendrites growing out of the rocks, into the wind. And me, much younger then, untroubled, and perfectly balanced on slick rock, without the geriatric aid of poles or crampons.

Inglebborough was another matter, tackled at a point much later in life, when life has drained much of the energy from me, left me staggering in the face of its occasional brutality. I never tackle a mountain in one big chunk – not my style at all. Instead, I pick a series of objectives along the way, set my sights on the next one, and care nothing for what follows, until I’m ready for it. Thus, piece by piece, I make my way, and have thus explored most of my nation’s high ground, though many would think my approach timid. I apply the same method in much of my life, and my legs usually carry me through. But not this time. This time I was going to fail. Or worse, I was going to fall.

So,… Little Ingleborough, I told myself. And then we’ll see.

From the summit of Little Ingleborough, the path continues North, across a stony plateau, then breaches the fallen walls of the old encampment on the summit. It’s just a few hundred feet of ascent and much less than a mile away, but in strong winds, and with visibility down to only a few yards, it was looking too far. Leaning into the wind, I could feel it biting my ear. Then the wind would drop suddenly and I’d propel myself off the marked way, or it would gust a little higher and overbalance me in the other direction. A man’s life is nothing when the earth has its dander up like that. The best we can do is crawl, insect-like into the crevices, and wait for better weather.

On Little Ingleborough, I took the circumspect option and hunkered down a while in a depression, let the wind roar over my head while I caught my breath. But my weariness that day was coming from a deep place, like Gaping Gill, a thing of seemingly immeasurable depth, and one that could not be filled by any amount of ragged breathing. I did not quite crawl away, but made my way carefully, back bent, centre of gravity low, the last dregs of energy to set me on the downward route, where I let gravity do the rest.

Later on, I sat in a tearoom, in homely Clapham, dripping wet from outer shell to skin, and cold, still shivery, with chill-swollen hands wrapped around a scalding hot teacup. I’d not been up to it – not up to a lot of things these days. I’ve raided myself empty, hollowed myself out, so when the wind blows, I have not the strength to face it down any more, to maintain a proper balance. Mountains of the mind and, all that.

I’m regrouping now, getting my breath, building stronger legs, then I tell myself I’ll be back. Ingleborough smiles, not unpleasantly, promises sunshine next time, tells me not to hurry, that it’ll be waiting.


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man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885My thanks to fellow blogger Bottledworder for this idea – I beg her forgiveness for borrowing it. We bloggers can sometimes have very high ideals about what it is we’re writing for, that we’re slaves to our art – or something – but when we look at our blog stats, at what’s the most popular material we’ve written, we can sometimes be brought down to earth with a bump. In my own case, while this blog at times gets lost with its head in the clouds, readers are more interested in my thoughts on how to get rid of verrucas with tea-tree oil and exterminating headlice with vinegar.

While I may be a little careless when it comes to predicting popular blogging topics, I am of course grateful for the occasional, if inadvertent, bullseye, or my hundred hits a day would be more like ten. But being a staid old married man, I’m perhaps forgetting one other thing that really piques the interest of the reader – the judicious tagging of which might just boost my stats even more – namely Romance, and Dating!

So in the interest of shameless self promotion, and with tongue planted firmly in cheek, here goes.

We’ll have to imagine for a moment I am a single man, that the good Lady Graeme has decided to abandon me to the company of my mistress-laptop, and run away with a less socially retarded non-writer, therefore plunging me squarely back “out there”. With the scene thus neatly set, what advice would I give to ladies of a certain age who might be contemplating dating someone like me?

Hmm,.. let me see,…


That’s the simple answer.

But let’s say for argument’s sake, the lady is very determined, very sure of herself, and perhaps irrationally hung up on the romantic idea of hanging out with a woolly minded writer-type. It may even be that my helplessness in social matters, and the holes in my stockings, arouses her maternal instincts – and yes I do need a bit of looking after, to say nothing of the occasional bit of feminine sympathy. But I might remind the lady that I was never much of a looker, even in my youth, to which she might point out that I still have all my own teeth, and can walk unaided – things that are considered attractive attributes in later life, apparently. She might point out that I’m also financially solvent and, since giving up the whiskey, on account of intermittent bouts of anosmia, I no longer snore. Nor am I violent or abusive – indeed I’m quite passive, to the extent of not being fully “there”.

Put like that I sound like rather a docile mate, that a night in bed with me would guarantee, if nothing else, a very sound sleep. And unless the lady in question were also completely self contained in her stimuli – say an avid reader, lover of jigsaws, devoted mother and follower of soap opera – she would probably be bored stiff, as I rarely give much attention to anyone who is not a fictional character.

In dating the older male writer, you see, you have to realise you’re not dealing with the full shilling. Our feet are not planted firmly in the real world at all. If the fridge is empty and a trip to Tescos looming, the priority for the writer will be the story first – food later. When the story is finished and hunger calls, the shops are usually shut, and the only solution is to go to bed.

But as I hinted earlier, bed is not what it used to be. Did I once hunger for the more intimate delights? I vaguely recall that I did, and frequently, but for an older writer, bed is more a place for – well – sleep and dreams. Where once the size and quality of the mattress were of little interest, and certainly a poor second to other “bed-minded” matters, I’m afraid now the parameters of the mattress are of primary concern. The Princess was not exaggerating about that pea!

Do you like late nights? No, I’m not talking about going out and dancing until the small hours. I’m talking about sitting, curled up with my mistress-laptop, lost in a thread of my story, or even battering out nonsense like this, losing track of time as I hone my thoughts – because I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t even know what he thinks until he’s written it down, and redrafted it a dozen times. I’ll curl up at 10:00 p.m., thinking to tidy up a few spurious commas, and suddenly it’s 2:00 am. Then I’m tiptoeing to bed in pitch dark, trying not wake the house, and usually failing on the home straight when I stub my toe on the corner of the bed-post.

Other men sitting alone at night with their laptops find plenty to tickle their fancies, I’m told, leaving their women to raise their brows in stern dismay and not a little disgust. Me? I have other distractions, more vital and less transient, because I can only accurately paint my heroines if I can imagine myself in love with them. Therefore, the real life lady in my life must be prepared to be for ever cuckolded by imaginary mistresses.

I’m not totally neglectful. I might take her out at the weekends for shopping and lunch, but in the cafe she’ll look up, mid-sentence to find me absently stirring my coffee, my gaze fixed in the distance, having heard not a word she’s said. I am, in all probability, thinking of another woman – just not a real one. Always it’s the same. I will be for ever unfaithful to my mates in this, so you’d better get used it.

She’ll need to be particularly forgiving then, and not for ever jumping to the conclusion that if I appear out of sorts it’s because I’m upset with her. More often my upsets rise from the creative side of my life, their causes a mystery.

You might be thinking by now that life with a writerly type isn’t sounding so romantic, and you’d be right, or do you think the fame and fortune I am undoubtedly courting with all this introverted creativity makes it worth your while? I mean money is money, after all, and a nice sports car and a villa in Tuscany would be ample compensation for being saddled with a neglectful chump of a mate like me. I’m not saying you wouldn’t deserve these things – indeed you probably would, if only for putting up with me, and I would gladly gift them to you, were I able, but actually, you see, I don’t make anything from my writing – nothing at all! I have the day-job, the nine to five, an old car and a modest pension building up. In that sense I am quite ordinary, and Tusacan villas are out of my league. A week away with me would most likely involve the Lake District, and rain.

I am, it seems, quite mad!

Would it help if I told you what I wanted from a woman, what I needed the most? Probably not, so, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, here goes:I’d like a quiet kind of loving, undemonstrative, but true – a thing to stand the test of time. And an easy going companionship is a must, plus an independence of spirit and the realisation that I cannot make you happy, that you need to be happy in yourself first, for only then could you be happy being with me.

Is there such a woman, I wonder? Of course there is.

But just the one.

And I’m already married to her.

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Unusual one this. What do you get when you mix a stormy Sunday, a digital camera, Microsoft’s unbelievably flaky “Movie Maker”, and a newly minted You-tube channel:

Hours of fun and, for want of a better word, a kind of visual poem,… or something.

Welcome to the Rivendale Review, 2014:



Set gently down to rest

Wet Sunday,
Hours leaking,
To the sterile void.

Reading, writing,
Doggedly seeking direction,
From calamity,
For freedom’s sake.

Puzzle of Pilgrims old,
Long coded;
How diligently I fail,
With these false starts.

How rare the vital flow,
Where water falls,
And feels the surer shape,
Of All that’s true.

How neat then turns,
That beguiling beauty,
Twisting in my fingers,
Its vital heart!
Beating true.

Or is it only time, ticking?
Black wings of flight?
If I could arrest its motion,
This code,
I’d grasp it true.

Meanwhile the hours rotate.
Clang-shut in time.
This fool,
Still frantic with the puzzle,
Making haste,
And Blind,

He forgets,
How the mind opens best,
With eyes closed,
And the pen,
Set gently down,
To rest.

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Walking on the Sunny Side  blog picMy thanks to Drawmeasmile for prompting me into action on this one. It’s a collection of my short stories, going back to 1999, which seems an awfully long time ago now – indeed, how positively twentieth century! They’re all available as individual downloads from Feedbooks here, but this collection gathers them together in their most up to date form – hopefully with fewer typos. I put it up on Lulu a couple of years ago, but then suspended it following the mysterious pirating of many of my works on there. I’m not sure why Lulu should have been vulnerable to this when my stuff on Feedbooks and Smashwords has been overlooked, (famous last words) but that’s one of the reasons I’m no longer active on Lulu – the other reason being that Lulu seems to have embedded itself firmly in the print-on-demand world for authors who are stuck on the idea of paper-books. Personally, I no longer think that’s the way to go. I believe the future of the form – at least for writers looking for readers – is in the clouds. I imagine the biggest demand for indy titles is from people reading on their ‘phones – stuck waiting for trains, stuck commuting on trains, stuck waiting in the dentist’s waiting room – wanting a quick, cheap – hopefully even free- download. Imagine all those 3G devices sitting in pockets all over the world – millions and millions of them – and people just wanting something to pass the time? As a writer, how can one resist? It’s what popular writing used to be about – the Victorian penny dreadful era – and now it’s going back to its roots, but in a new way, and this time the writer – not the publisher – is in charge.

Click the pic for the download – you’ll also find it in the margin of the blog.

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free indie readerIf you’re looking for some new names in fiction to tickle your fancy, then look no further. Tom Lichtenberg has just put together a collection of short fiction by several indie authors (myself included). All of these authors write for free, their work having appeared on Feedbooks and Smashwords in the past. The Free Indie Reader No 1 is available from Feedbooks or Smashwords – just click the pic. And it’s free. Yes, FREE!

I’ve spent the Christmas holidays dibbing into this collection and I’ve enjoyed it very much. I also consider myself fortunate to find myself in the company of these very talented writers, whom probably – no disrespect to them – no one has ever heard of. I’d like to say thanks to Tom for taking this project on, and I’m happy to join with him in drawing the attention of the e-reading public to a little collection of work I’m sure they’ll find is well worth their perusal.

As fellow Indie author Paul Samael says here, the problem with self published works online is the vast and ever increasing amount of it, and trying to find something worthwhile can be a little daunting, to say nothing of discouraging, given the questionable nature of much of the work that’s out there. But believe it or not there are writers who take the medium seriously and are using it to bring to the public works of serious artistic merit, as this volume will show. I think there’s a great future for little edited collections like this in shining a spotlight in the right direction. Indeed, it may be that we’re looking here at the future of literary fiction.

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