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Another of my short stories from way back, reviewed and rehashed for the blog. Printed here in three parts. Next part tomorrow:

I have a problem with my memory. It isn’t that it ever fails me – quite the opposite, in fact. Indeed, my recall of events from all but the earliest years of my life is photographic. There was little doubt in my mind then, this  woman was the one who had stolen the book. I had seen her only minutes before in Brady’s Antiquarian Book shop, having looked up from my perusal of a box of eighteenth century prints to see her tucking the book down the front of her trousers. It wasn’t something I approved of, but one had to admire her cheek.

It was Brady who raised the alarm and ran out after her. She was on the street in a moment and would have got away, except she blundered into the arms of a passing policeman. It was all a bit of a farce, and might have been amusing except Brady then delved into her clothing to recover the book. I know she’d stolen it, but to my mind, his ungentlemanly conduct trumped her petty thieving, and I found my sympathy siding with the woman.

She fought back, managing to recover the book from Brady, and she kept him at bay, clinging steadfastly to the book. “It’s mine,” she protested.

“Nice try,” he said.

“No, really. I just hid it to avoid confusion.”

The policeman listened to this exchange before asking the woman if she could prove the book was hers.

“Well of course I can’t,” she said. “But can he prove it’s his?”

This was a good point. She had taken the book from the second hand section. The stock there was low grade stuff, and bore no proprietary markings. The constable turned to Brady: “Well, can you?”

Of course, he couldn’t prove it either, but shop-lifters were the bane of his life and I could see he was determined to make an example of the woman. That’s when he turned and jabbed a finger at me.

“He’ll tell you. He saw it all!”

Now, in fact, I had not seen her take the book from the shelf. I had only seen her slipping it down her trousers, so, to the letter of his request, I was unable to help. This may seem a little pedantic, but I felt I did not owe Brady any favours. Many were the times he had asked me, sarcastically, if I’d intended buying anything, this being a barbed a reference to the fact I only ever browsed. He was not to know I did not need to buy his prints, that the act of looking was enough for me to possess them. Also, the affair seemed overblown. The book in question was a tatty volume of essays by one J. V. Lanchester. The fly cover was missing, the spine broken. Why the woman should have risked prosecution for such a worthless thing, I could not imagine.

So, all eyes were upon me: the policeman’s, Brady’s, the woman’s. She looked pale and nervous and, all right, you might be thinking my sympathies were misplaced, but there was more. I knew this woman, and apart from a few wrinkles around her eyes, she looked exactly as I remembered her from our first, indeed our only meeting, a decade ago.

“I really couldn’t say,” I told them.

Brady turned an ominous bright red colour, like he was about to pop his cork. The policeman decided to give the woman the benefit of the doubt and let her go. Then he rubbed salt in Brady’s wounds, telling him off for interfering with the woman’s clothing. I turned to Brady and gave a helpless shrug, at which he gruffly announced he would be closing his shop for the rest of the day. Then he ushered everyone outside.

Walking back to my studio, I thought about the woman. Our encounter had been in the library at the polytechnic, where we’d been students. It had been a wet afternoon and the place had been busier than normal, with very few places remaining to sit. It was thus by chance we’d found ourselves facing one another across a cramped reading table.

I’d found her attractive of course, but I was already jaded by my experience of intimate relations. It’s my memory, you see? Everything is recorded, all the things you normal people are the better for forgetting. Every slight, every cross word, every bitter misunderstanding, they’re like rocks being added one after the other to the sack on my back, and it’s getting heavier and heavier. It’s our nature the negatives always carry more weight than the positives, so is it any wonder then my condition provides so little nourishment for the first delicate seeds of attraction to blossom into something more lasting?

It was for this reason I’d tried to ignore a growing and somewhat irksome arousal, that day in the library, but with little success. Indeed, such was the strength of her effect upon me, I had begun to imagine her undressed and in all manner of lurid poses. I assure you I was not normally given to such prurience. Indeed, at the time I had found the experience rather unsettling and was only able to overcome my distraction by gathering my books and moving away.

And that was it. I did not see her again, until the day of the incident in the book-shop. That I can remember her from so long ago, and after such a brief and, you might say, insignificant encounter is not so remarkable for me since I can bring to mind the face of every person I have ever met. What is remarkable, though, is I was certain she remembered me, and with equal clarity. But, if true, that would have been very strange, wouldn’t it?

As I walked, reminiscing over the incident, I came upon her. She was waiting a few doors down, having flopped onto the steps of a shop. The tatty memoirs were pressed against her bosom. When she saw me, she eased herself to her feet and fell in step with me.

“I should thank you,” she said.

“It’s fine. I saw nothing, really.”

“But I’d like to explain. I mean, I don’t make a habit of this sort of thing.”

She looked away, perhaps reading my silence as disapproval. Then she said what she had meant to say in the first place: “We’ve met before, haven’t we?” She almost whispered the words, as if she couldn’t believe it herself. “I wouldn’t mention it,” she went on, “except I think you might also remember me, which would be rather remarkable, wouldn’t it? I mean, considering how brief that encounter was.”

“We have met, yes.”

“So,… we’re the same, you and I?”

“It would seem that way. I’d no idea there were others like me.”

As we walked, I noticed her pace slowing and her steps becoming erratic, as if she was growing dizzy. Eventually we stopped, and she took my arm to steady herself. I looked at her, wondering about the power of her memory. Could it be true?

“Obviously, we need to talk,” I said.

Part two follows tomorrow,…

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mazzy at rivington

I broke cover from Covid and drove thirty miles to Glasson. It’s the furthest I’ve been all year. I was there for nine, and the car park was empty, but by mid-afternoon it was full. I did a walk through the meadows to Cockerham, then back along the Lancashire coastal way. It was hot and humid. The Cockerham leg was quiet, but on the meadow by the abbey, I hit the crowds coming the other way.

By now I imagined there’d be a vehicle parked within a wafer of mine, and a big ding in my door because that’s what I assume most people are like – gormless, and void of social awareness. My car is eighteen years old now but still looks good. I’m trying to keep her that way against the press of time and entropy, and the carelessness of others. Naturally, as with anything manifest, it’s a losing battle, but we do what we can.

I know, I know,… I have a problem with people. It’s been worse in these Covid-haunted times which makes avoiding them all the more urgent. I’m not sorry to admit it. Indeed I’m less sorry as I get older and begin to understand myself.

Understand myself? Let me see:

I find others draining on account of a strongly introverted nature. That’s just what we introverts are like, and we need make no apologies for it. I’m also often taken advantage of on account of my agreeableness, and in turn I take that bad on account of my neuroticism. Then I don’t say anything in my defence on account of my aversion to confrontation. Instead, I withdraw my support, or more likely these days withhold it in the first place, before some others start feeding off me.

It’s worse at times of imbalance, when I’m shadow boxing. Then I behave in a passive-aggressive way, which is stupid and self-defeating. What I need to do is stand up and be more assertive. But that’s easier said than done. Understanding one’s self is only the first part of the problem, you see? The second part is deciding if it’s a problem or not. These are shadow issues, and you can’t beat them. The best you can do over time is accept them as part of yourself, make peace and move on.

As I walked, horse-flies had found the undersides of my fingers. I’ve never known them do that before. By the time I noticed, my fingers were already swelling from the bites. Nature’s all well and good until you’re bitten by horse-flies, and then you’d rather do without it. We aim for better than nature, at least in the raw, and mostly we manage it, I think, but at times we get above ourselves, and nature sinks its teeth.

Coming back to Glasson harbour, there was by now a carnival atmosphere, crowds milling about, and a couple of yachts coming through the lock to meet the tide. The cafés and ice-cream-vans were doing a roaring trade, kids and dogs running amok. I pulled my bandanna up like a bank-robber and bought a brew from the chuck-wagon. Then I sat with it, well away from the crowds. Few were wearing any sort of face covering. In shops, it’s compulsory, at other times optional. But the “optional” will likely get you stared at, face coverings being a new front in the culture wars.

While I ruminated, a group numbering twenty or so came steaming down the car park on bikes, raising dust and hollers. They crowded me like wasps, while complaining among themselves how busy it was. They couldn’t see they were their own crowd, crushing my two meters of safe space down to a dodgy less than one. I took my brew to the car.

She was unmarked, and my neighbours had allowed a good deal of space between us, redeeming humanity for me somewhat – sure weren’t we all out here just enjoying the summer as best we could? I sanitized my hands with anti-bac gel, which also took some of the sting out of the bites. Then I dropped the top. Driving used to be a bore, but since teaming up with this little car, I’ve rediscovered its pleasures. Plus, we’d had the best of the day and – okay – the crowds were pecking my head. It was time to be off.

I drove home through Cockerham, kept her in fourth, kept the revs up, so she met the bends and the undulations with a bit of zest. It’s still such a lovely car to drive, well-balanced, not powerful – about a hundred and twenty-five horses – light as a feather, and a bottomless well of torque. But, as much as I treasure her, she’s worth about the same these days as some of the bicycles I overtook – pelotons of men in Lycra, spitting. It’s not a good look, guys, the spitting I mean, especially now amid a pandemic spread by body fluids.

I picked up the M6 at Broughton. Traffic eastbound from the M55 was fast and stupid. You have to change lanes early here, so you’re right for the southbound M6. Miss it and you’ll be scooting back north to Lancaster. Even though I was indicating my intentions, an SUV zoomed up and sat on my shoulder, pinning me northbound, so I stamped on the gas, and the car responded like a rocket. The SUV shrank in the rear-view, and I picked up my lane just in time. The way ahead was clear, so I kept on with the power, and we ate the road, fled the crowds and the heat, and all those damned horse-flies.

None of this sounds like me. It’s more like something unravelling, or working its way through the psyche. I’ve been thinking about the novel, Winter on the Hill, and something Annie said to me. Annie’s imaginary of course, which makes her both real and not real at the same time, at least in the phenomenological sense:

You’re a warrior, Rick, but you’re tired, and right now you’re up to your knees in mud, and your sword’s blunt from swinging it at shadows all day long, and the snow’s lying thick on the ground, and you’re cold because it’s winter on the hill. What can you do about that? Well, you get back on your feet, find somewhere warm for a while, and sharpen your sword. Because remember, a warrior can’t live without a fight. Anything else is just death. So you sharpen that damned sword and get back out there,…

For the introvert, it’s easier to take the way of the Lover, especially after a few knock-backs. We just cosy up with a good book, unplug the ‘phone and close the door. We sheathe our sword, withdraw support. Sometimes then, the warrior has to fight first the lover in himself. Then, like Annie says, get back out there and do the best we can, even if all that amounts to is standing our two meters, and telling others to back off.

Keep well, keep calm and keep going.

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high angle photography of people in ground

Photo by sl wong on Pexels.com

The study of personality helps explain why people behave the way they do. Likewise, it can help us understand our own idiosyncrasies and guide us over the occasional bumpy road. We’re all different, but these differences can be categorised as differing blends of a finite number of basic psychical patterns.

Though there are numerous models of the psyche now, it was Carl Jung who first developed a psychoanalytical theory of personality, defining a primary pair: the introverted and the extroverted types. Then each of these is further characterised by two pairs of opposites: Sensing and Intuiting, which determine how we perceive the world around us, and Thinking and Feeling, which determine how we decide how to act in any given situation.

Although we each possess characteristics of all the types, we have a dominant type, a mode of being we tend to favour under all circumstances. But when the dominant type fails to make headway against life’s ever-changing demands, we get stuck and lose our energy – what Jung called the libido. It’s this progression and regression of the libido that marks how well we are adapting, and in turn how happy and motivated we feel. The personality needs some flexibility. The more rigid we are, the more we suffer and struggle.

The mother and daughter team, Myers-Briggs, built on Jung’s work, adding in another pair of opposing functions: Judging and Perceiving. These determine whether we relate to the world in a structured (Judging) way – always making plans and striving for control of events, or unstructured (Perceiving) – more spontaneous and always keeping our options open. It’s the Myers Briggs type-test you’re most likely to come across in business and human resource studies today, and defines a total of sixteen possible types.

I map closely to the Introverted, iNtuitive Thinking and Perceiving type (INTP), which means I undervalue the feeling approach, can come across in person as a bit of a cold fish, and I can be wilfully blind to the evidence of my senses. I’m also evasive of schedules, only ever making plans at the last minute and I’m impatient of pushy, outgoing people who never seem to know when to stop talking.

If we’re unable to recognise our flaws, if we think we’re perfect, we cast a strong shadow over our potential for growth. Our shadow is our type’s opposite and it’s there we find the solution to whatever ails us. But it’s one thing knowing our faults, quite another to know how to go about correcting them.

I’m writing a weird, semi-mystical novel at the moment, relying heavily on the dominant intuitive side of my nature to draw a mind-picture of this world I’m creating, and then the thinking side of me decides what makes sense, what to keep, and what direction to head off in. But having your head in the clouds all day, counting fairy dust doesn’t help much when things are literally falling apart all around you in the real world.

An intuitive imbalance can be countered by getting to grips with some hard facts. As unlikely as it sounds, when you’ve run your dreamy ship aground on the sandbars of improbability, fixing that leaky garage roof can get the energy moving again. There’s a burst of satisfaction, and a confidence that comes on completion, allowing us to return to the dreamy stuff feeling refreshed. But sometimes it’s not so easy; we find there’s an irrational reluctance to engage with the very thing we most need, so when I’m in deepest intuitive thinking mode, the sight of a dripping tap can tip me over into a foul mood, have me cursing the numpties who fitted it, and endlessly procrastinating rather than simply reaching for the spanners and getting to grips with it myself.

Sometimes this imbalance of function can lead to deep seated neuroses, things we try to avoid all our lives because they make us anxious and depressed, and since our dominant type is what we’re stuck with, it’s not so easy to get to the root of things. But if we’re fishing for solutions, it’s at least useful to know where to cast our net. Indeed freeing up our inferior functions might take the whole of our lives, but it’s also one the most useful and liberating things in life we can do.

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watchwordThe Watchword technique is method of self analysis. Its origins are obscure, but find themselves formalised in this 1990’s title by Michael Daniels, senior lecturer in what was then Liverpool Polytechnic’s Department of Psychology. The book has a very Jungian grounding, and aims to give the reader a clear picture of the forces at play in the currents of the psyche – where we’re going, what’s holding us back, what are the dominant forces driving us, what areas we need to work on, to let go of and so on.

If you’re of a New Agey, self analysis, Jung-fan bent, you probably already have a number of methods for getting inside your head. Tarot cards are popular, as are Runes. For a long time I favoured the I Ching but, like all oracular devices it can be misunderstood and, like the Tarot and Runes, is somewhat tainted by an occultish aura which does not appeal to everyone.

Oracles do not foretell tell the future. It’s a common misconception. Instead, they read the psychical landscape and make projections from it. They grant us a look inside our heads, revealing what might otherwise be hidden. All methods have their attractions and drawbacks and we should feel free to take them up and set them aside as and when the mood takes us, never adhering to them too slavishly, but rather listening to our own instincts for what’s right at the time. In this way the Watchword technique can be looked upon as another thing to try, perhaps when answers are failing you elsewhere. The method is direct, and carries none of the occult baggage associated with other methods, though this is not to say its intuitions are both startling and mysterious.

The technique involves writing down sixteen words – whatever comes into one’s head – then pairing them off and looking for an association with the linked words, then pairing these off. Reminiscent of a Jungian word association test, and dream amplification, what we end up with is a grid of highly charged words which, like dream symbols, represent the archetypal forces, or a kind of psychical weather forecast. As a method I find it very powerful, though as Daniels cautions in the book, it is not something to be read too literally or follow too slavishly.

So, our sixteen seed words are boiled down by a process of association into a square matrix which we then interpret using a form of directional symbolism. In short, the up and down directions indicate progressive and regressive tendencies, the left and the right involve the more subtle interpretation of inner (left) and outer (right) psychological urges. The overall balance of the square therefore comes to represent a map of the forces within us and the complex dynamical churn between them. A further pattern of three words emerges in the centre of the matrix, the middle one of these being taken as the ultimate direction implied from the interplay of all the other forces in the mix.

While this may sound dubious to anyone not versed in symbolic or archetypal thinking, I find the method has an uncanny way of homing in on the key dynamics. The answers arise from our own thought processes, it’s just that some of them are normally hidden from view and the method tries to tease them out. At its most basic level the Watchword technique can be treated as a word game, as a bit of fun, and when beginning with it, it’s perhaps best to treat it as such. But at its deepest level it can aid us in coming up with some profound insights into our own strengths and failings.

A more individual analysis of the words we’ve chosen can also reveal our Myers Briggs type, and the book goes into this in some depth, but I’ve found the technique less reliable in that respect, probably due to my own failings in grasping the symbolic significance of the words we use, better to use the Myers Briggs method itself, but in all other respects this is a valuable tool for anyone on the path towards self discovery.

 

 

 

 

 

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british and german casualties ww1 - wikipedia - Photographer Ernest BrooksOn July 28th, this year, it will be a hundred years since the outbreak of the First World War. Already the commemorative columns and books are hitting the press. This is to be expected and indeed welcomed because the lessons taught by the trauma of the Great War cannot be overstated or too often repeated. But less expected has been an attempt by voices within the British establishment and the media to repackage the war in a less than cautionary light. Of particular note, TV presenter, historian and “personality” Dan Snow writes that most of what we think we know of the war is a myth, and that much of the bad press surrounding the war has been overplayed – that as conflicts go, it wasn’t so bad. Indeed he writes there is much in our (allied forces) conduct of the war to be proud of, and that far from being worse off, most men who fought were better looked after than they would have been had they stayed at home.

You can read that article here.

This came as a shock to me since my own impression of the war comes from other writings, all of which paint a very different picture, one that is much at odds with this rather more “upbeat” view, but the argument runs that the things I’ve read were written by authors equally bent on a re-visioning of the truth, so all we are left with now are the myths.

But what it was really like for the men who fought? Can we no longer get at the truth of it? Was it simply too long ago? Well, let’s not forget the personal accounts, both poetic and narrative. These words cannot be massaged to suit the prevailing mood of the times, and therefore remain for ever the most forcible in persuading us of the horror, the inhumanity and the sheer stupidity of war. In this centenary year, I will not be “celebrating” the conflict in the sense of making a flag-waving Jubilee out of it, but I will be marking it by reading more of the stories of those who fought: the colliers, the quarrymen, the farmhands, the weavers and the tram-drivers. They alone have earned the right to teach us the lessons that a certain class of society seems incapable of remembering for very long.

They are gone now, those men who fired the rifles beneath an unimaginable deluge of shells. The last of them was Harry Patch, who passed away in 2009. He did not speak well of the Great War, indeed he did not speak of it at all for eighty years. But their stories are written down for us, and we should make it our business to read them. The ordinary people of the world do not learn much from the careful analysis of historians and statisticians. We learn from others, like us.

I trust this revisioning of the conflict is not a first attempt at inspiring us still beleaguered Brits to a flag-waving patriotism, as a diversion from our continuing economic woes. Such things will not wash. Anyone who has traced their ancestry will be familiar with those trails lost in the mud of that gargantuan conflict; of grandfathers and great-uncles who did not return. It’s quite plain to me that something awful happened, something on a scale never before experienced, something that has left its mark on the memorials in every town and village in the land, and has left its mark too in the ancestral memory.

How all of this touches me is in part through the story of my grandmother’s brother who enlisted as a private in the King’s Liverpool Regiment, 2nd Garrison Battalion. He died in Salonika, in October 1918, aged 26. In my wife’s family, there are two other young men who served in the war. One was killed at Ypres, aged 19. His name is engraved at the Menin Gate memorial. The other, aged 21, was lost at the battle of the Somme and is remembered at Thiepval as one of the 70,000 “Missing”. Uncovering the stories of these young men still comes as a shock to the gut, even after a hundred years. It makes the remembrance personal and it exposes all historical revisioning as ultimately meaningless.

One of the ten myths “busted” by Dan Snow is the one that says most men who went to the war did not come back. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard that said, but anyway it’s not true say the statistics, and the statistics may be right, for all I know. But what I also know is that of the sons of enlistment age I have chronicled among the ancestry of my own sons’ family, we have three who fought, and who did not come back.

It was Joseph Stalin who observed that the death of a single man is a tragedy, while the death of thousands is a mere statistic. To the politician, to the historian, to the chroniclers of war, sixteen million deaths can be counted and cut and spun at us any way they like. But the real story of war, its lessons, and the measure of its waste, can only be found in the hearts of the individual families for whom each man lost is indeed a tragedy, and one that still echoes down the generations.

I am not so naive as to think that war can always be avoided – sadly sometimes it cannot. But let those who would make war imagine first that it will be their own sons they are sending out under a rain of shells. Let the remembrance Sundays continue to be occasions for solemn reflection. It still matters that we think of this, and keep the lessons close. And let us keep also at arms length those who would paint a rosy picture of armed conflict, seeking to convince us those involved in it had anything like a jolly time. Let us remember too that from the higher human perspective, it is always war itself that is the enemy, the real struggle being against those so often intangible forces within the human psyche that would subvert a lasting peace in favour of yet one more bloody conflagration.

 

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The_ScreamNo one knows who I am, not even friends and family. I have an introverted personality you see? I guard my deeper thoughts, sit upon the fence of life, and talk to others of nothing more controversial than the weather. Everything else I keep, well,…

Private.

I share my deeper thoughts here of course, and in my stories, but only under the veil of a pseudonym. As an audience you are equally anonymous and unseen. We are ships that pass in the night, and will never meet. I could be anyone. You might have passed me on the M61 this morning, or stood beside me in the chippey queue last night, but you’ll never know me. I’ve grown up this way, no one really knowing me. It used to make me feel strange, isolated, alien, but now, in the September of my life, I realise I prefer it.

I speculate a lot on things that are probably beyond my intellect. I dream too, and write a lot, but I fear those who know me will only take the piss, and pick up on my typos, so no one who knows me knows what I write, or even that I write, let alone that I write as Michael Graeme. I seem to find my balance in it, but still, sometimes I pause, like now, and ask: is it healthy, such a secret life?

Online social media encourages us to open up more of our lives, our thoughts, our indiscretions, even our downright stupidity to the scrutiny of others. But to one possessed of such a private, introspective nature, openness of this degree borders on obscenity.

Private. Why?

There’s a dignity in it, I suppose. Old fashioned word – dignity – and misunderstood. Some think it’s about putting on a show, walking around with a stick up your arse, but it’s not – quite the opposite. It’s about not putting on a show at all.

I suppose it’s a wonder I’ve been married as long as I have – 25 years next year – for to hear myself speak I would surely be better living alone, but the present Lady Graeme seems understanding, and is anyway possessed of her own quiet dignity, so we see eye to eye most of the time. But I sometimes wonder what it would be like to out myself – to live as Michael Graeme and say the things I say here, express my thoughts, my most capricious desires,…

In the open,…

I’ve made speculative forays in this direction, around the dinner table, but I find eyes glaze over and yawns are stifled. Others cut in with irrelevant asides, and then I hear the sound of my own voice, so I shut up. Better to leave the pontificating to Michael Graeme, and to you dear anonymous reader, as my patient listener, the pair of you preventing my whole self – the whole ambivalent bag of me – from going slowly mad.

Life is never simple; personas do not always complement one another – indeed they must by nature be contrasting. But fortunately, both this self and all my others seem at least capable of cooperating, so there’s a good chance I may yet survive my life.

I’m reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s final movie “Eye’s Wide Shut”, a tale of destructive sexual fantasy containing more full frontal female nudity than I think I’ve ever seen in any Holywood movie. To paraphrase the closing lines, the best we can hope for is that we survive our fantasies. But then so much of life is fantasy – even the bits we think are real – the thoughts we speak out loud, and those we hold closer to ourselves. But it is only through this, our vehicle of fantasy, imperfect though it might be, we can explore the nature of reality. And I suppose I’ve always viewed reality as more of a personal interpretation, than a consensus thing.

In maintaining a veil of privacy then perhaps we’re simply protecting others from our view of the world, a world we sense, rightly or wrongly, may not sit well with others. Are we right then to look to our own privacy? Is there greater integrity in dignity, are we being truer to ourselves? Or is it a deceit? Do we fail utterly to engage with life, when we make ourselves so private, no one even knows we’re there?

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