Le Mystère ?


‘Adieu, Meuse, endormeuse et douce à mon enfance

Qui demeures aux près, ou tu coules tout bas.

Meuse, adieu : j’ai déjà commencé ma partance

En des pays nouveaux ou tu ne coules pas.’                           .’


Charles Péguy : Le  Mystère de las Charité de Jeanne d’Arc


I have a wonderful French teacher!  She has started to encourage me in my learning of French by using poems to focus the language and to provide a context for the dreaded French verbs.  I can take a plus perfect present when it is cloaked in verse. Yesterday we read a section from the above poem – and I had a great tingle of excitement as the familiar name of the author and Le Mystere brought me to Geoffrey Hill and his poem ‘The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy’.  I read this poem when I received Broken Hierarchies as a gift – one that will last me for the rest of my life.

So this morning I re-read the Geoffrey Hill poem and as I read it opened up to me with its images of innocence and war, of life close to the earth and its rhythms.  Recently I have woken up not to such illuminations and inspiration but to what Peguy wrote of as  ‘….our world in which we do not know anything, where all is vain-glory and arrogance’.  It’s a world of lies and false promises, self-aggrandisement and dangerous polarities. It’s a world in which I need poetry to take me deeper into the truths that still lie behind the lies.  It is important now to find a place in ourselves where ‘Une grande philosophie n’est pas celle qui installe une vérité définitive, c’est celle qui introduit une inquiétude.’  So perhaps we should welcome the uncertainty – or as my dictionary has the translation ‘twitching in the legs’ – or perhaps the urge to kick someone?

We have had our own disquiet recently with anxieties raised by Brexit and its uncertainties, which has made us consider the size of our house and garden and its expenses and to consider moving.  Slowly we are working towards the best solution so that we can continue to live a simple life, open to the sky and trees, the wonders of Nature in our part of the world, the hope for a philosophy that can embrace change and give us depth.

I recently went to England, first time in two years. I visited Morag in her new house, Woody home for Reading week from Warwick and Ari and Hannah in Falmouth.  Such a happy and loving time. Then I went on to the Contemporary Poetry Festival in Falmouth.  It was a very good experience, hearing and talking with poets that were new to me, meeting old and well-loved friends and having a chance to read some of my poems too.

I loved it all but I have returned home, to silence and weather, Phil and the cat, with renewed energy and great happiness.  Being away makes me very aware of how good it is to be back again.  Lots of new books to read, things to think about, poems to work on, pleasure in the simple domestic tasks of every day. Something like Penny Shuttle’s alternative universe??




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‘Leaf-fall hides the summer’s rot

reducing from the whole to part.

Leaf-shed: taking us all apart.’



Perhaps I am feeling as if I have been taken apart over the last few months, now, at last, I  begin to feel more mellow, more as if I can remember, interrogate and even integrate the world.

So first to Porcelain. I have just finished reading ‘The White Road: A Journey into Obsession’ by Edmund de Waal.  He is a potter whose love of white, of porcelain and of the means of displaying, opening up and inviting in the audience brings the reader deep into the heart of the history, the extraordinary obsession and the heart- breaking anomalies of white ceramic pottery.  It is a wonderful book.  It opens the eyes of the heart to the wonder of white.  He quotes Wallace Stevens ‘Here being visible is being white/Is being of the solid of white, the accomplishment/ Of an extremist in an exercise…’ and I go back to The Auroras of Autumn and find such energy, such infolding into meaning under words. And here we are, Autumn Equinox and the colours fading, blending, the white of winter on the horizon.  Reading a very, very good book changes me at some root level – as if I have been given a window into understanding.

Then Penelope Shuttle writes ‘and stamped on the sands/in white wheels and patches/salt unfurling/in shapes like ghost sails’ Bardsea Sands – more white and I am pulled along in another rhythm as I read ‘Four portions of everything on the menu for M’sieur Monet’, Penny’s new pamphlet (Indigo Dreams).  The title poem inspires – celebrating an artistic life in which everything has meaning, everything is needed and contributes to the whole. Both obscuring and defining Monet ‘…unlike Turner /does not resort to the trick/ of making the world taller, buildings,/ mountains, waterfalls, / but like Turner and Whistler / he offers us / (and so will Dufy) / a world (a Thames) of radiant precision.’  The ‘radiant precision’ in this poem and others in this book of poems of place and ‘Heath’ the collaboration of Penelope Shuttle and John Greening across Hounslow Heath re-starts my own writing again.

I am starting to write longer poems, series of poems about places, people, my life abroad (a word that has ambiguous meaning – both spreading out and being within the new) and starting to link my own internal experience with the places where I was changed, where life took turns.  What is difficult is keeping both the exuberance and the confidence.  I have four pamphlet length sets of poems at the moment.  One I am still working on and it is what is filling my head with images and emotions.  The other three I am going to send off on some literary journeys and hope that they might end up in some place where people will read and enjoy/re-act to them.  At the same time I am working on sending out poems to magazines.  It requires a different kind of discipline to revising, re-working, new writing and thinking. It is a discipline I need to revive from the time when deadlines, accuracy, presentation and timing were important.  The problem with the reading and re-reading of poetry magazines is the over-load of new images, ideas and clever inclinations in words that rush, teeter and spill across the page.  It seems important to keep reading the new but at another level it is a bit dis-spiriting to see how much there is in print, in performance and interaction and how removed I am from these ‘happenings’.

I have had to go back to raison d’etre – to ask myself why am I in the unpolluted light of rural Normandy, in my room filled with books and facing the orchard that changes through the day, through the month and the seasons?  It is about finding ‘radiant precision’, opening up the eyes to both Nature and its roots and to seeing detail in flowers, birds and trees.  Something about the particular defining the sweep of past experiences of countries and people, something about the spreading rhizome of words that connect and interact.



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Carnation Lily; Lily Rose


Light breaks across rock in sharp shadows, is turned in spills and cracks. It is visceral; moving by its impact. Here the distance is diminished. Small houses, feathery trees, bluffs of rock above a line of track scored in the crack of mountain that contains the river. The river is deep down, the houses and the villages on the top of the cleft are overshadowed and made small by the enormous heft of rock above them. The Himalayas fold. Like origami sometimes they open into recognisable space; sometimes they just endlessly unroll, unroll up to the sky.

Across the river stretch wires; sometimes there is a box attached, the Himalayan equivalent of homemade go-carts or swing boats. Sometimes there are boards laid down between the two sides and  the jeep can cross, up and down, planks shifting as the road reaches out to the other side.

The higher up we are the narrower the river’s span seems to be. Once or twice we walk across the river gorge. It is scary the way the bridge moves and the water appears and disappears through the cracks. The wire handrails are insubstantial – like clinging on to a slender twig to help in climbing a steep bank.

Where the bridge meets solid land it is cemented into great lumps of rock and stone. It is hard to negotiate a way down and by this time the altitude has produced breathlessness and chest pain and the steep rocky path up from the bridge end seems much too difficult. Bushes and small trees meet overhead and the tunnel winds up until solid walls start to appear and now and then the flat, log roof above the wall and a shy child or woman with scarf across their face peer through the half opened wooden gate.

At last the land opens out and the school is revealed. New and sharp edged. Its concrete dimensions cutting into the blue sky. All the men and boys of the village are waiting, seated on blankets in an open space of yellow grass surrounded by trees. It is harvest time and fruit is brought. In the distance women and girls have gathered in doorways. I am the only woman in this sea of brown faced, wrinkled men. We stretch out tentative hands to make connection.

Later I remember this and want to write about it. The way it works itself into a poem is surprising. It links with a very early childhood memory of being evacuated to the countryside and going on the milk round with an old milkman and his shaggy horse pulling a cart with a tall silvery churn, as big as me. He dips a ladle into the churn and the creamy milk streams out into jugs and  containers as we go through the village. I am about four years old and it is my first experience of countryside, milk outside the bottle, apple trees and orchards. Later, as I discover art, I love the Carnation Lily, Lily Rose painting that the mother also loves in ‘The Family from One End Street’ and that she calls one of her children after.

These are two stanzas from the poem Unreliable Narrations.

That moment crossing the river

to a slope of yellowed grass,

bearded elders sitting on blankets

offer nuts and apples.

One places a special peach

in my open hand.


Or the moment when I found myself

amongst churns;

the smell of milk, apples,

an old horse standing patient.

A white dress

in sun-slant.

I have a sudden realisation that the full poem needs to be linked in some way more clearly – field,  the mountains and child in the orchard, Family from One End Street and the Sargent painting Carnation Lily, Lily Rose and my own love of drawing little figures. Work to do!











clip_image004This book cover is the one that I remember. It was a book I read and re-read and it was important to me in at least two different ways.

The social milieu of the Ruggles’ family was unfamiliar to a child growing up in a new, bland suburbia but it was the childhood space in which my father grew up, he being an Elephant and Castle child. Later at school I went to The Settlement at Peckham on Friday afternoons and some holiday times and fell deeply in love with that working class, inner city community. It was the seed place of my future life and career.

This was the first book that I had which had such wonderful drawings as illustrations. I copied them endlessly and learned the ‘how to’ of figure drawing.

Thank you Eve Garnett.

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After a long time…..

‘Someone I now forget

once said

journeying is hard.

The moon glimmers

in the brown channel.’

This is the last stanza of the last poem in Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade.  I am on my third read of this book, I love it the language and words and formats are all interesting and challenging and much of it about China and Hong Kong,  I have wanted to write about journeying in these countries for a long time.  I have some Hong Kong poems and quite a lot of prose but not enough to make any kind of coherence in what I am trying to say. 

China I often think about – I was there for several months spread over three years and it was important in many different ways.  I have very vivid images of so much of it – but have not yet sorted through to find journal writing that I did at the time.  I did do a lot of other writing though and am remembering this because I am doing a Poetry School that is about portraiture and the images that keep coming up are of Troisieme Etage and China.  So I have just written a poem about my friend Zhao Jing and some of the journeyings that we did together.  It is on the third draft, still much too long but I am trying to capture a lot of experiences in a concise poem.  It’s difficult.

One of the things I am writing about is a  journey that we made together to a very remote and high school in the sandy mountains of Gansu.  When we arrived the children were sitting in school, at desks empty of everything but old textbooks, there was no sign of the project readers or the consignment of paper and pencils sent to help the teacher to teach literacy more effectively. This poem will, no doubt, be changed many times but this is the relevant bit:

Do you remember the tiny school we visited along a teetering mountain path,

jeep wheels only just biting into the sand?  No paper in the school,

readers unpacked, the terrified teacher, ‘So cold in winter ma’am

we took the paper home to stuff our broken windows with.’

afraid to give the children  books in case they spoiled them

Twenty boys and girls, from very small to adolescent,

red-faced and wrinkled with the cold sat at their empty desks.

You took off your coat and long scarf, took up a Big Book

to read them a story. You made them laugh. They drew pictures

wrote stories and at last leaving off his scowl, the teacher

joined in.’

And here is a photograph of those children listening to the story .


After a long time I am thinking about this part of the world.  I remember the case studies that I made of three teachers that we worked with and the stories that we made.  It was Loop of Jade that took me back – the smells, the sights, the taste of China – something Zhao Jing told me is important in every Chinese meal.  We produced training manuals and a video for teachers and the background was a picture and sounds of a group of little children singing in a circle and banging the rhythm with their tin pencil boxes – it was one of the loveliest things I was ever involved in.

I am struggling to get back into writing – so much anaesthetic in my brain still I think, mobility limited and Phil still very convalescent after his hip transplant.  One day we will be leaping among the flowers again I hope!  I have found other people’s poetry so important as it is gradually leading me back to writing again.  I think about the possibility of prose writing too. I’ve changed my novel about India three times to accommodate different pronouns for the voice – perhaps it should go graphic next!


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Frost, sun, awakening……?

Yesterday I took my recalcitrant legs for a walk up the lane, past the decaying house where the birch trees were banging against the window gaps. It was cold but bright but when I turned back to go home it was blisteringly cold and the wind whipped at my face and hands. This morning it seems as if winter has truly come – the frost was thick and as I walked, very carefully, over the patio and round the barn the frost was wheeling in the ridges of the lawn where the mower had cut through the growing grass. Ice on the bird baths, and in the long metal animal feeder that was full of water, was thick and immovable.

For the first time today, when I sat to write my journal, a poem came and slid under the pen and surprised me. I have pasted part of it onto the photograph of the lane in the frost. It is the first writing I have done since leaving hospital. There the writing of the blog from the Troisieme Etage was what kept me going – the ability to translate the detail into words, to leave behind the monotony of routine, to observe with a purpose and to forget myself for a while.

Coming home has, of course, been wonderful. It has been a new-coming – everything new and fresh, the silence and the long shadows of light, morning and evening, the moon and stars in the night that compensate for not sleeping, The company of friends and the careful faithfulness of Phil kept me going in the hospital and unit and continues to support me now at home. The cat has eventually forgiven me for going away – she had a long period of ignoring me and refusing to be friends which then turned into a refusal to get off my lap and a persistent attention seeking; but today she is sitting on the window ledge as the sun warms everything up, she may even be smiling.

I have been reading George Szirtes’ blog that he is writing after his quadruple heart bypass – it has such a resonance for me – the empty passages, the endless nights, the persistence of ups and downs and the way recovery keeps slipping away again for a while. Writing my blog and the responses that I had made such a difference and so I am going to post it in a side-bar of this blog – provided I can manage the technology. I have already lost this blog once as I tried to insert the picture/poem. This time I will save before trying anything fancy.


Here is the bit of poem that was elegantly pasted into the picture but I can’t get it to move together!

This morning, very morning,

frost has come. The high full moon

has licked the corner of the barn,

sharpens the field’s edge.

Trees charcoaled against the sky.

Cold penetrates the room. A single glazed window can’t keep it out.











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From the Troisieme Etage


After seven days in Clinique de Notre Dame I am to be transferred to the Re-education Unit of Vire Hospital,

It all sounds a bit en histoire – Stalinist or Cultural Revolution – but the reality is very different. Here it is tranquil and quiet on the third floor after a rather tumultuous arrival.  I was delighted that my friend Gaia from Ambulance Vissoire came to transfer me from Clinique Notre Dame to the Vire Hopital on Monday afternoon. On Monday morning suddenly two helpers appeared  and began to throw all my clothes, books, Perrier bottles and etceteras into my suitcase and a large carrier bag. I was told to lie on the bed and wait. As I had been told I was to be moved at 3 pm I was rather surprised but lay obedient.  Hours passed, lunch came – when I eventually found someone to ask they re-confirmed ‘You go at 3’. There was another Anglais down the corridor who went at 10.30 – mystery solved!

Gaia and his mate put me on the stretcher and we set off with him carrying suitcase, computer bag and enormous carrier.  At the door of the room the bottom dropped out of the bag and all my sundry and odd possessions rolled into the far corners of the room.  After much giggling and effort we arrived on Floor 3 of Vire hopital with my life in a black bin bag!

When I arrived I was put into a room with another person (I found out later she is 90 and a very jolly person).  My things were unpacked and stored but I was devastated.  We upgraded our medical insurance last time to include a single room because of the difficulty for someone who doesn’t sleep and reads the night away being in a shared room (all the rooms in Normandy seem to be single or double – wards as such do not seem to exist).  It only took a kindly nurse’s enquiry to reduce me to a puddle.  However half an hour later they came and wheeled me out to another room, on the other side where the huge window looks out on trees and gardens and hills in the distance. I found out later that some crucial paperwork had not been sent with me – or maybe it had blown away in the debacle!

All the time I kept telling myself how lucky I was to be here and thinking of the situation of so many unfortunate people – the problem with pain and incapacity is that it is hard to get away from the internalising self.  I waited for my ‘boot camp’ programme, that day and the next – the reason I am here is to help get my compromised mobility from knees and now hip back again.

The doctor is a lovely Syrian with excellent English – a privilege for me to be able to talk to someone whose journey has included Turkey, Egypt, Germany and now France where at last he has been able to get his wife and children out of Syria to join him.  The problem is that the physio has had a family tragedy and will now not return until Monday – so  bootcamping starts tomorrow hopefully.

We have a Salle a Manger where everyone is either wheeled or staggers down to eat lunch and supper.  There are about 14 people, some of whom have come or left in the week I have been here.  It has taken me some time to surface into the realisation that I am here because of age as well as operations; that this is the life lived by people on the end of the journey.  At first it was shocking.  There are about 50% walking wounded and the rest in various stages of real difficulty –  needing to be fed and everything done for them.  I share a table with one such old lady who is so sweet and patient and who now responds if you can engage her eyes or hold her hand.  I am very fond of her already.  There are two others, one in a wheelchair and one with a stick – they are very typically elderly French ladies – neat and pretty in matching blouses and cardigans.  They chatter away very animatedly and I try and join in but the speed, some patois I think and my accent make it difficult.  But we exchange important things – age – one is 87 and the other 84, how many children and grandchildren etc..  Where we live and I think about our Maries – one has a gendarme, presumably retired, aged 92. Sometimes we are all too tired to engage much but this lunchtime it was loud and jolly – the other table stopped to chat – I think I am part of the family!

This is what I wrote after the first few days – I hope to be able to share more of the positive in the days to come.  I appreciate so much those who write and the local friends/Friends who visit.

Lunchtime in Third Floor Re-education.


It is the hour to jump into the fish pool

and  come up spluttering.  I recognise

the toothless gape, the sad,soft grace,

of those whose intent has been lost,

the angry silence that cannot do but won’t let go.

This is a place of silent resistance, refusal

to take the spooned puree

rejoice in a creme fraiche.  All the spare limbs,

wheels, sticks, bequilles are stood in a corner.

The crouched old woman knocks her crutches together

to get attention; she is composing a list of grievances

to deliver to her exhausted daughter when she visits tonight.

The fish pool is in us all, rising up under the wave from the reef.

One old man sits, lean and weathered; where

is his old dog that should be curled at his feet?

Today he is going home, polished to a shine.

It’s there in us all, inside, waiting to engulf us

in its wetness.  The journey that’s taking us home.


Well there is a lot of change happening on the third floor! The young kinaesthologist returned on Monday and there is a welcome rush of air through the place – although I am quite grateful for the tranquil time that I had last week. I went to lunch yesterday and found there was only one person remaining in a wheel chair. All the rest had arrived with trolleys or supported by a nurse and there was no slouching and very little spoon feeding but lots of encouragement and chaffing which created a whole different atmosphere. I went on one crutch only and was congratulated by all. I can now lift my leg up some distance without support but the pain afterwards is considerable – ‘C’est normal’ the young man says! I know a bit more about the unit now.   It is for 75 year olds plus who need rehabilitation after ops etc. While here the home circumstances are considered and necessary help made ready for when people return. Yesterday I had many visitors – my neighbour Annick took a 10 km loop on her way to the gym in Vassy to deliver me a flask of very good coffee, a cup and four exquisite little biscuits. Then Kay and Paula came and Kay had made a fresh brown bread sandwich with smoked salmon and cream cheese. Wow! Les and David brought more books and took away all the Val McDermids that I had read. A good night waking at 5.30 feeling good. Hanging onto the positive is so important – managed to shower and dress myself entirely today and the wound is recovering so that little panic is over.


Well – people who only talk about their operations are very boring I’m afraid so enough of all that. What is rare is the time for silent reflection and reading. It’s been interesting reading so many books and it’s made me want to write prose again. I look at the people here and imagine what they used to do, what their lives were like – stories in all of them. Also the strange way in which time expands and lengthens, particularly in the night. At last I have opened Poem magazine and started to read PN Review. Penny has sent me Colm Tobin’s Elizabeth Bishop – I’ve started to read it and it is wonderful – insightful, personal and written with an exactitude of meaning and words that is inspiring. Maybe soon words and images will return refreshed after their traumatic lodging in the morphine room and the porridge head!


This is just a short bit that I started a few days ago:


Where do they go, the minds

tipped out of the brain nest, left pecking

aimless, on the plate of the skin?

Hurts in the body can be traced –

an incautious turn that screamed

from toe to hip, unused flesh

hanging heavy on the move.

These glassy inscapes.


Somewhere in my head a song goes

‘Five in the morning’ – can’t catch

the tail of it. My five is silent, muffled.

Hundreds of people here but

not a rumble or snore on the Troisieme Etage

just my feet shuffling across the floor.


Goodbye Troisieme Etage and all your occupants

After the longest three weeks I can remember I am going home. After a month in institutional settings I will be set free to ‘do for myself’! Madame Jalet left yesterday (she is a neighbour of Les and David) – all the time I have been here I have searched her face for some kind of recognition/ eye contact. She has resolutely refused, as she has also refused to take the food on the kindly nurses’s spoon. As they wheeled her out of the dining room for the last time she lifted her head and waved – sometimes silent resistance is the only way to get through I guess.

Others do communicate. If people are wheeled to the wrong table it can create real anxiety and misery. Our table of four is the noisiest – not me – the pitch and speed of talk is too fast for me to be able to join in. I get the gist though and now and then they remember me and throw me a slow bone that I can understand. One calls me ‘ma petite’ – because I am the youngest I suppose! Mostly the talk is about the food, or visitors. I am totally confused about how many ‘filles’ the 94 year old has – but they bring her tartes, gateaux and gallettes so she has always something to tell us about. Pas de – no in other words refers mostly to vegetables or fruit or maybe to a main course that doesn’t look gourmand enough. I have learned the French equivalent for ‘no way’ – c’est n’est pas mon habitude. Think I’ll remember that one.

I am so thankful to everyone who has sent messages, poems, haiku and emails – it has helped so much to make this a positive experience and given me an anchor when everything has been too confusing or different. I’ll never forget the third floor – its nurses and staff and its kindly support. But now – I’m nearly there. Home at last.



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I greet 2016 in the light – waking late after an evening watching old Morse films and Endeavour.  The need for story that absorbs and fills the mind helps to block out the coming three weeks that I will spend first in the Clinique de Notre Dame having my hip replaced and after in Vire Hopital Re-Education Unit – which my lovely doctor cheerily tells me is for ‘old people’.  2016 seems to be the year to disprove the adjective and to step resolutely forward. 

Well here I need to stop because the quotation is dimly resonating but I can’t catch it. ‘Be bloody, bold and resolute;  laugh to scorn the power of man…’ catches I guess the spirit but maybe not where the power lies. Perhaps more ‘the native hue of resolution..sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’ is  in keeping with the day.  New Year is the time for resolutions to be written in the new notebooks, whether they’re strong or sickly, but it is odd to be in the position of not knowing what the next swathe of time/journey is going to be like.

I have been reading Maitreyabandhu’s book ‘The Journey and the Guide’ which is a course of Buddhist reflections, nudges and map references for taking the journey of life.  I am very resistant to this kind of vocabulary but serendipity has been at it again dropping into my lap all kinds of journey-like readings. Maitreyabandhu’s ‘Yarn’ has been a beautiful, down to earth and humane view of life through the eyes of followers of Buddha and those, and others, met on the road, all wrapped up in the clear and succinct words that I love in his poetry. Then Clive James and Jenny Diski are writing with insight about the end of life and all kinds of poems in recent magazines seem to be about borders and passings.

What such reflection does, of course, is to focus the mind – not ‘hanging in a fortnight’ quite, but making real what matters in my life.  Many things that I usually maunder on about seem suddenly quite irrelevant.  Resolutions to send out poems more frequently, to keep up with the ironing in tandem with the washing, to plan meals ahead and keep the kitchen floor clean.  Instead I consider how many times the sunrise brings the distance into focus – I love ‘the turned year on its one foot’ that I am certain has already brought more light into the orchard in the mornings since the solstice.

There is a Quaker saying about standing in the light which brings everything clearly into truth – there seems to have been much darkness and horror in the year that is now behind us.  There is ‘an ocean of darkness and death,’ says George Fox but ‘there is an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness’.  Here’s something to hold onto then.  To stand in a place of light and not be afraid, to give up that need to control one’s destiny, to find the beauty of the world in the moment of light. 

Our little Quaker group is meeting early this Sunday to sit together in  silence, waiting on the light, and to send me off, after a  meal together, to resolution, patience and positive anticipation of a better, more mobile but focused 2016. 

How lucky I am.


Orchards in Skardu  and at Le Marais, Normandie.     


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