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Return To The Marshes by Gavin Young

4 out of 5 stars

Young was in Basra working for a shipping company in 1952 when he heard that the great Arabian traveller Thesiger was in town. He managed to wangle a meeting with him via the British Consul and over lunch told him about his dream of travelling across Saudi Arabia on the back of a camel. Expecting encouragement from him, he was rebuffed and told that he would never get a visa for the country. At that moment, the thought of sitting in an office for the rest of his working life almost became too much of a burden to bear. Instead, Thesiger suggests a trip to the marshes. He was going there tomorrow, but would be back in six weeks, for a bath and could take him then.

He had never heard of the place, but six weeks later he is climbing out of a taxi, alongside a tribute of Tigris. Alongside the bank is a long slender black canoe with some lads sitting in it. He is told to carefully climb in as it can tip. In no time at all, they are gliding silently through the water. Greetings were exchanged with other canoes that they passed. There was a word from the lad paddling in the front and they turned a corner and Young had the first glimpse of the home of the Madan. The following morning they would travel far deeper into the marsh.

It was the beginning of a series of friendships that would last all his life. Like Thesiger, he grew to love the watery landscape and most of all the people. It was a harsh life there, aa lot of the people he knew or saw had some form of injury or illness. Even though it was tough there, the people seemed happy, but he could sense that pressure from the outside world starting to seep in, men were starting to use nets to fish rather than the more traditional spears, guns that had been looted from various armies had changed the dynamics between the various tribes to a certain extent.

He returned many times to the marshes, but the last time he went before this book was written was in the early 1970s. His memories flood back as he pulls up in a taxi in more or less the same spot as he did all those years ago. Fear mixed with elation as he wondered how it would have changed over that time…

I really liked this book, like Thesiger he is a sensitive traveller, accepting of the hospitality that he is generously offered and wanting to help and spend time with the people of the marshes. It is partly a history of the region, how it moved through its various changes before adopting Islam from the Arabs before it moves onto his travels around the place with Thesiger and then by himself a few years later. He has a perceptive eye for the people and the wildlife as he travels around the marshes in his own boat with locals acting as guides. The final part of the book was excellent; he heads back after a large number of years and not only does he find the people that he knew from the 1950s, but they remember him. His writing style is a little warmer than Thesiger and it is a good companion volume to The Marsh Arabs and A Reed Shaken By The Wind. You get a sense of the events and places that all three authors saw from a subtly different perspective.

The Accidental Countryside by Stephen Moss

4 out of 5 stars

We as humans, like to put various things into separate sections, the shops are here, the roads are there, housing is in this part of town and so on. This is great in principle, but it has the effect of obliterating the wildlife that was there before. What happens though is that we are not always neat at finishing these projects off, there are gaps in between and it is in these hidden corners that our wildlife finds a way to cling on, survive and in certain cases thrive.

He begins with the peregrine, a bird that after years of persecution and the horrific effects of DDT we nearly lost. They are most commonly found high on cliffs, but now if you know where to look they can be seen in the artificial cliffs we have built in our towns and cities. We even have some in Poole that fly between the high rise buildings near the harbour, picking off the pigeons that populate our towns now. Also, while in Dorset he visits the town of Blandford Forum to see what the council have been doing to the verges. We are lucky not to have a single meter of motorway in the county, however, there are over 5000 miles of roads and these almost all have verges. What they have done is to stop cutting them until the late summer this allows the wildflowers on them to set seed properly and providing a bounty for insects and therefore for birds and small mammals. These little mini nature reserves have become recognised as Sites of Nature Conservation Interest in their own right.

These linear wildlife highways also exist on the railways, or what is left of them, the embankments and cuttings having their own little ecosystems. The lines that were ripped out after the 1960s cuts have changed in usage now are have become cycle paths and in their own way very long and thin nature reserves now. In Wiltshire, there is a huge tract of land that is used for military training, Salisbury Plain. As well as having lots of unexploded ordinance around the plain is basically an untouched chalk grassland. The tanks make a little difference, but the wildlife is there because the military has ensured that it has never been developed.

Developers much prefer to build on untouched land as the cleanup bills for brownfield sites can be huge. There are a lot of them around the country, previous industrial sites that have been closed as we have moved manufacturing offshore. Where they have been left for a number of years, the natural world creeps back in moving to scrub land in what feels like no time at all. And in these unplanned scruffy patches of land, the natural world does really well. At one site, Moss goes to hear nightingales, it didn’t have the same ambience as a glade in a woodland, but the dense scrub suits the birds perfectly. One of these scraps of land, Gunnersbury Triangle, would become the subject of a famous ruling in favour of keeping it because of its value as a natural space for local people.

As with all of Moss’s book this is well researched and very readable. He is an engaging writer, with a fine eye for detail of the places that he visits and more importantly knowing the limits of his knowledge and when it is best to seek that from a local who knows far more. It is a book that builds on others writing on these marginal spots, including the excellent Edgelands and Richard Mabey’s Unofficial Countryside. Well worth reading.

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Díaz

4 out of 5 stars

The oppressed are sadly not given the chance to speak and say things in their own way, but that is beginning to change. On of those who is taking the opportunity to speak on behalf of Latinx, black and brown and other indigenous women is Natalie Díaz.

Her poems are about the things that matter to her, the landscapes that define and nourish her tribe but also of the pain that that nation suffers in trying to rise again. It is a metaphorical and actual pain that she writes about here too, the pain of suffering the loss of their land and the pain suffered by their bodies whilst being persecuted. Her strong and deeply rooted native America culture flows through words like a river. It is the struggle against the subjection where she draws her power from. Being a Mojave and gay have been held against her, and she has to fight back against the overwhelming odds that want to see her become a footnote in American history

What is a page if not a lingering, an opaque
Waiting — to be marked , and written?

There are some powerful poems in this collection, poems that probe the future that we might make as well as mourning for past mistakes. I really liked her way with words; a simple verse can evoke such emotion for a place that I have never seen. Great stuff.

Three Favourite Poems
The First Water Is The Body
Wolf OR-7
That Which Cannot Be Stilled

Spying on Wales by Nick Pyenson

3 out of 5 stars

I have been fortunate to see dolphins in the wild twice, but as yet have not seen any whales. It is one thing that I would love to do one day, assuming that we ever get back to anything resembling normal. These amazing creatures are the largest species that have ever graced our planet, the largest of which is the blue whale. Their size means that they can only live in the water, but they have adapted to this hostile environment perfectly. This is even more amazing when you think that they are not fish but mammals.

They evolved from dog-like creatures over 50 million years ago into the animals that they are now. We are still discovering new species too, the most recent of which is the Rice’s Whale found in the north-eastern Gulf of Mexico. We know so very little about them, how they got that big, how do they eat enough to survive, and will they survive the onslaught of mankind. Nick Pyenson’s research has been looking at these and many other questions and this book is part of that story.

The begins in space of all places where he mentions that the Voyager spacecraft both carry sounds from our planet and one of those sounds is whale song. Not that anyone on this planet has been able to decipher these mournful squeaks and moans. However, they have discovered lots about the sounds, how they can travel vast distances across the ocean and that humpback songs are incredibly complex. The book is split into three sections, the first part is looking at the fossil records of whales tracing back (as much as they can) to the original species that decided that going back to the oceans was in its best interest. Ironically the best places to find whale bones in nowhere near the sea, rather it is in the driest parts of our planet; former sea beds that have been thrust high because of tectonic plate movement over thousands of years.

The second part of the book is about the whales we have here and now and how a mammal can get that big, how it breathes, feeds and thrives in the ocean. It was a bit grim as part of his research takes him onto a whaling ship where these magnificent creatures are harpooned, hauled out and slaughtered for pure greed from what I can make out. In this bloody mess though he does make a discovery about a sensory organ that now one new existed. The final part of the book is about the possible futures that whales might have. We have been particularly cruel to them, slaughtering millions of them and driving a few species to the very brink of extinction, but there is a glimmer of hope, provided we understand the interconnectedness of the ocean inhabitants.

I didn’t think that this was too bad overall. It is quite readable and full of interesting and fascinating anecdotes on whales. I thought that the prose was a little dry, but he is an academic more used to writing research papers and grant applications rather than popular science books. That said, there were parts that showed wry humour and a little humanity. It is a good introduction to whales if you have never read anything about them before.

Un Lun Dun by China Miéville

4 out of 5 stars

There were supposed to be loads of foxes around, but you had to have really sharp eyes to see them. This one was standing watching the girls as they walked towards it. It didn’t seem in any hurry to move and seemed in fact it seemed to be watching them, or at least watching one of their group, in particular, Zanna. Strange things had been happening to her for a month, graffiti on walls, being handed an unmarked envelope with a travel card in the name of Zanna Moon Swazzy and there was the time that three squirrels left a nut each as an offering. It came to a head when her father was driving as was distracted by thick smoke or smog and hits someone.

One night they are disturbed by something, it is an umbrella that seems to be moving outside their window, they get dressed and follow it to a room with pipes in . Zanna turns the wheel and the sounds of the street fade away. They have left London as they know it and have entered the twin abcity of Un Lun Dun.

It is here that Zanna finds that she is Swazzy, or the chosen one, and is taken to the ‘Propheseers’ who are located on the magic bridge, the ‘Pons Absconditus’ that can move anywhere in the city and even between this city and the London we are more used to. She and Deeba learn that the city is under attack from the smog, and a man called Brokenbroll is fighting back against it by requiting umbrellas. They also meet Benjamin Unstible who has also crossed over from London. He tells them he has defeated it in London by using the ‘Klinneract’. However, there are people there who don’t want Swazzy in Un Lun Dun and attack her. She is forced to return to London to recover.

Deeba doesn’t believe that those left will be able to fight this smog and does some research while back in London. The results shock her and she knows that the city is in real trouble. She has to try and pass again between the worlds to try to save the city…

Well, that was a romp. China Miéville’s imagination knows no bounds really. I like the way that he takes the things that people are familiar with in London, Westminster Abbey, for example, and turns then round to the unexpected. A particular favourite of mine was the Binja’s, dustbins that have arm and legs and nunchucks to attack the enemy with. Some of the creatures that he has dreamt up (and that are brilliantly drawn throughout the book) are as fantastical as they are horrifying.

I didn’t think it was that strong plot-wise, I always can tell how these books are going to end, as there are very few authors who would want to eliminate their protagonists. It is just the route to that end that has the opportunity to startle and shock.

It is not dark per se, rather there are dark streaks running through the plot and the characters. It is also about nepotism and corruption that is endemic in the corridors of power regardless of the society that you are in. There is a touch of the emperor’s new clothes too, as some of the characters who should know better are taken in by the bad guys. Deeba was a great character, strong-willed and able to see through to what she knew was the right thing to do. It feels like a halfway house between the London that I know and the London below created by Gaiman in Neverwhere. That is much darker and more sinister than Un Lun Dun but has a similar vibe running through the creation of Miéville. Great stuff.

Mirrors Of The Unseen by Jason Elliot

4.5 out of 5 stars

The Iran we see portrayed on the TV is very different from the country and the people that inhabit it. They are a generous and warm people who are prepared to welcome visitors to their homeland and most importantly their homes to show generous hospitality to guests.

Elliot starts his journey in the back of a taxi leaving the airport that he had passed through with surprising efficiency. The driver asked him if he had been away long and was slightly surprised to find that this was Elliot’s first time in the country. He’d thought that he was Iranian…

As is the taxi drivers right, he is full of opinions of his city and how is was much better back in the day. A cigarette is passed forward, and he lights it while steering with his knees. Asked why he has come, he says that he is there to write a book. What is there to write about comes the question back, so he reels off a list of things that the Persian people have given humanity over time. The driver looks puzzled but shoves a tape into the slot on the dashboard. Listen he says and this wonderful, hypnotic music comes out of the speakers. He arrives at his hotel, pays the driver and tries to pass him the rest of the cigarettes, he refused to accept, until pressed a little more and then grudgingly accepts. The ritual of ta’arof has been performed once again. It is utterly different to Afghanistan, with no bullet holes in the buildings and he can just see a normal street from his modestly equipped room. It felt both surreal and yet normal.

It is a welcoming start to his travels in this most ancient of countries. He is there primarily to absorb the culture of the people and the places and has a particular fascination with the Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan and what he thinks is the glaring lack of alignment between the dome of the Sheikh Lutfullah Mosque and its entrance portal. This seeming lack of attention to detail that he had come to expect from the Persians piqued his curiosity and led him to a detailed investigation and trips back to the place to study it before it reveals its secrets to him.

The book is full of evocative scenes. When he is in the land of the Parthians and as the lamb kebabs are grilling over the open fire you can almost taste them yourself. He spends time with a young man called Zizou, who has taught himself about the history of the Iranian ancient sites, he refused to accept any money for the time spent, saying that the cost had been spent and shared with learning and knowledge. He spends time in the home of many people seeing just what they are like out of the glare of the religious police and spends many a night in some grubby hotel rooms, sharing the space with cockroaches and bathroom taps that spit like demented cobras. It didn’t matter if he was speaking to a plaster adding ornate touches to a domed ceiling or watching a tile-cutter teach his son the trade or sharing an opium pipe with an older man on a horse ranch.

The landscape pales, unfolding from the roadside in yellowing sheets which merge with the sky along a mirage-infused horizon. Moving against these desiccated expanses, one feels like a survivor, adrift without bearings.

His first book, An Unexpected Light about his travels in Afghanistan was so jaw-droppingly good that I had very high hopes for this one. And mostly this book didn’t disappoint. The way that he engages with the people that he encounters as he travels around the country is the best part of this book, he is sympathetic and tolerant of almost all, bar the one or two that see him, as a tourist and therefore a source of income. He has grown up too, there is not the wide-eyed joy that you got in the first book, rather he has taken the time and effort to find out about the places he is going to with the intention of bringing extra depth to the book. He has learnt the language so his passage through is easier he can bring those subtle nuances to life even more. It is a fascinating book about a wonderful country. The accompanying photos are excellent, in particular the one taken in Kurdestan. If you want to read more about Iran, I can also recommend Revolutionary Road by Lois Pryce for another amazing book.

February 2021 Review

Compared to January that was a much faster month. I think the extra daylight helps. The only disadvantage with February is that there are only 28 days, so I only managed to get through 16 books from the huge TBR that I had set myself. That said there were some really good books in the ones that I read. So, here they are:

 

I really like most of the books that China Miéville has written, with The City and The City being an outstanding favourite. Un Lun Dun is his first children book that I have had on a shelf for ages and this month I read it. Really enjoyable with the imagination that he has, but it was a touch predictable plotwise.

   

I read two fiction books this month, the first was a family drama set in Ireland. The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Huges is about a family coming to term with financial losses after the crash and with the added dilemma of the request from a very ill parent. I was sent Sunny And The Wicked Lady by the lovely people at Salt. This is Alison Moore new children book. I don’t normally read these any more but it took no time at all to read this little adventure ghost story.

   

I really enjoyed Toast when I read it recently so thought I would read, Nigel Slater’s second foodie memoir, Eating for England. Thoroughly enjoyed it, but just felt it could have been better laid out. Also on the food theme is The Lost Orchard. THis is the story, with recipes naturally, of Raymond Blanc’s desire to create an orchard in Oxford. Not a bad book.

If you want a memoir about a life taken far too early, then I can recommend The Mahogany Pod by Jill Hopper. This is a tribute to her boyfriend of no time at all who passed far too early from cancer.

        

Botanical Curses and Poisons sounds like quite a morbid book, but thankfully Fez Inkwright manages to make plants that can kill an utterly fascinating subject. One of my favourite nature writers is Stephen Moss this was a book from a little while ago. It is following on from the great books, The Unofficial Countryside and Edgelands and is about the wild life that exists in the cracks. Great stuff. Nicholas Pyenson’s book is more academical and is about his passion, whales. Quite liked this, but there was the odd flaw here and there.

   

The two poetry books I read could not have been any more different Black Country by Liz Berry is about home life and How The Hell Are You? by Glyn Maxwell is more contemporary and political.

How Britain Ends – Gavin Esler Politics 4

I was sent this ages ago by Sandstone Press and they moved the publication date got moved back. Paul Braddon’s The Actuality is a dystopian science fiction thriller about an android who has been living in an apartment illegally. She has to flee when people realise that she is there and this is the story of her trying to escape to Europe.

    

I read wo travel books from the middle east that share a border Writing from Iran, Mirrors of the Unseen is Jason Elliot’s follow up to the spectacular Unexpected Light. Not quite as brilliant as that, in my opinion, this is still an excellent insight into that country. Moving over the border to Iraq, Wilfred Thesiger’s The Marsh Arabs is a travel classic and well worth reading.

My book of the month is the latest travelogue with recipes by Caroline Eden, Red Sands. She has a way of getting to the essence of the places that she is passing through, partly via the food, but mostly because she is a sensitive and receptive traveller.

Any of those take your fancy from this month?

The Marsh Arabs by Wilfred Thesiger

4 out of 5 stars

Where the Euphrates and Tigris rivers meet used to be a Marsh. Mostly these places are uninhabitable, but in the case of Iraq, there were people there who had developed a way of life that fitted and suited their environment almost perfectly. They had lived this way for around 5000 years, absorbing changes that suited them but keeping their culture and spirit very much alive. That was before Saddam Hussein drained the marshes and did all he could to wipe them out.

Thankfully before their life disappeared completely, it was documented by various people, including the author of this book, Wilfred Thesiger. The middle east was a particular passion for him and his book, The Arabian Sands is his account of crossing the Empty Quarter. He has an affinity with the people of the region and this area of Iraq fascinated him. He visited many times between the years of 1951 and 1958 staying for extended periods of time and got to know the various tribes and people of this marsh.

Memories of that first visit to the Marsh have never left me: Stars reflected in the dark water, the croaking of frogs, canoes coming home in the evening, peace and continuity, the stillness of a world that never knew an engine. Once again I experienced the longing to share this life, and to be more than a mere spectator.

He visited on the native people’s own terms, sharing their meals, staying in their reed constructed accommodation. He was a modest guest, but the people of the marshes grew to trust this man and to a certain extent rely on the medicines that he bought with him. He tried to treat as many cases as he could, from cleaning wounds and treating illnesses and he came to realise that some of what he was seeing was caused by a total lack of hygiene. At one of the villages he was asked to circumcise a lad and he took more care than was usual and he healed quickly with very little paint. It would be the first of many hundreds that he would do.

He engaged some lads to help him get around the marshes in their long slim canoes called taradas. He didn’t employ them, a sensible precaution as it could have sparked jealousy with other members, but he did ensure that they were generously supported in lots of ways. Their intimate knowledge of the waterways was such they would be heading to a wall of reeds and as the almost touched them the narrow passage through would be revealed. If he were alone, he would never have spotted it. He bought himself a boat one year to find out soon after that one on the tribal leaders had had had one made for him.

He documents all layers of the life of these people, from the intertribal rivalries and the disagreements that sometimes happened, to the crops they grew, how they sealed the Taradas and the way that they built their homes. There is a substantial section of the amazing photos that he took of the people. I did find his writing a little cold and matter of fact, probably an effect of his upbringing, but you do get an underlying sense of how fondly he saw the people. It is an important historical document of a way of life that can never exist anymore since the Marshes were drained. Well worth reading.

Use Of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

3 out of 5 stars

One of Special Circumstances’ foremost agents, sometimes known as Cheradenine Zakalwe was known for doing the overt and covert Culture’s work. He had been plucked from relative obscurity by the woman that is often known as Diziet Sma. She thought that she knew him, but she had only been looking at a shadow of his character.

The drone known as Skaffen-Amtiskaw know both of these people and he has been asked to contact Zakalwe for another job that needs his expertise. He agrees to take on the work, however, his payment for doing so is to be told the location of an individual called Livueta. Livueta is also present in the other storyline that runs in reverse throughout the book which tells of Zakalwe’s other Culture-based jobs he was involved in all the way back to his pre-Culture childhood and where we learn of a boy called Elethiomel. It is the very personal battle between Zakalwe and Elethiomel that is the lynchpin of the plot of the book.

Apart from Excession, I have loved all of the Culture series that I have read so far. Banks is a magnificent science fiction writer who could weave complex plots in amongst the universe and populace that he created all of which is underlaid by his dark humour. This though I didn’t like as much sadly. It had lots of elements that make the other books so good, the character with a back story, galaxy-wide storyline and the ever-present ships that form the backbone of his books.

Even though it had all of that, there were some things that didn’t work for me, part of it was the ending that was supposed to be a shock and yet felt more of a letdown and part was the intertwined and reversed storylines. I prefer my books to take a more logical timeline and this very much didn’t. It is such a clever plot though and I think it could have been so much better laid out.

March 2021 TBR

Blink and February has gone. I didn’t feel as long as January did. I think that the lengthening days helps. This time of year always makes me think of one of my favourite Kathleen Jamie quote:

Every year, in the third week of February, there is a day, or more usually a run of days, when one can say for sure that the light is back. Some juncture has been reached and the light spills into the world from a sun suddenly higher in the sky.

And it is true. You can sense the days getting longer, but then all of a sudden the days seem full of light and the promise of summer. If you haven’t read her books by the way, you really should do so. Anyway, you’re hopefully here about the books. Here is my totally ambitious plan for the books that I am intending on reading in March. I have split them into categories as usual, it helps me get my head around all the books that I am wanting to read.

Finishing Off (Still!)

The Marsh Arabs – Wilfred Theisger

Mrs Moreau’s Warbler How Birds Got Their Names – Stephen Moss

Lotharingia: A Personal History Of Europe’s Lost Country – Simon Winder

A Reed Shaken By The Wind: Travels Among The Marsh Arabs Of Iraq – Gavin Maxwell

Return To The Marshes – Gavin Young

BLOG TOUR

The Notebook – Tom Cox

Review Copies

Wyntertide – Andrew Caldecot

In Miniature: How Small Things Illuminate The World – Simon Garfield

Stroke: A 5% Chance of Survival – Ricky Monhan Brown

The First of Everything: A History of Human Invention, Innovation and Discovery – Stewart Ross

Behind the Enigma: The Authorized History of GCHQ, Britain’s Secret Cyber-Intelligence Agency – John Ferris

Astral Travel – Elizabeth Baines

The Germans and Europe: A Personal Frontline History -Peter Millar

Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society – Ronald J. Deibert

Britain Alone: The Path from Suez to Brexit – Philip Stephens

Like Fado – Graham Mort

Million-Story City: The Undiscovered Writings of Marcus Preece – Marcus Preece (Malu Halasa & Aura Saxén Editors)

How to be Sad: Everything I’ve learned about getting happier, by being sad, better – Helen Russell

Touring the Land of the Dead – Maki Kashimada Tr. Haydn Trowell

Barn Club: A Tale of Forgotten Elm Trees, Traditional Craft and Community Spirit – Robert Somerville

The Future of You: Can Your Identity Survive 21st-Century Technology? – Tracey Follows

Finding True North: The Healing Power of Place – Linda Gask

Hyphens Hashtags*: *The stories behind the symbols on our keyboard – Claire Cock-Starkey

 

Library

A Beginner’s Guide To Japan: Observations And Provocations – Pico Iyer

Constellations: Reflections From Life – Sinéad Gleeson

The Bells of Old Tokyo: Travels in Japanese Time – Anna Sherman

Everybody Lies: What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are – Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Road Trip – Paul Theroux

 

Books to Clear

Our Kind of Traitor- John Le Carré

Symbols: A Universal Language- Joseph Piercy

So Long, See You Tomorrow- William Maxwell

 

Poetry

Desert Air: Arabia, Deserts And The Orient Of The Imagination- Ed. Barnaby Rogerson

Springlines – Clare Best and Mary Anne Aytoun-Ellis

 

Challenge Books

From Rome to San Marino: A Walk in the Steps of Garibaldi- Oliver Knox

Hokkaido Highway Blues- Will Ferguson

 

Stanford Award

Without Ever Reaching the Summit- Paolo Cognetti

The Border – A Journey Around Russia: Through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, … Finland, Norway and the Northeast Passage- Erika Fatland Tr. Kari Dickson

Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul- Taran Khan

Travelling While Black- Nanjala Nyabola

Owls of the Eastern Ice: The Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl- Jonathan C. Slaght

 

Science Fiction

None this month; have you not seen all the books above ^^^

That is quite some list. There are a moderate number of shorter books, which will help, but still…

 

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