‘The world holds its breath in this painting:’ The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca

May 27, 2017 at 2:21 pm (Art)

The Baptism of Christ,by
Piero della Francesca
Date made: 1450s
 The National Gallery, London

The world holds its breath in this painting; as hushed and still, ordered, cool and clear as a crystal. This is the moment when Christ, being baptised by Saint John in the River Jordan, is revealed as the Son of God. The Holy Spirit descends on him ‘like a dove’ (Mark 1:10) and his hands are closed in prayer to his Heavenly Father. It is unique moment in history, and is also timeless. The original viewers would once have recognised Christ’s divinity anew every time they worshipped beneath this altarpiece. Now in the National Gallery many still do, but for others  today this lonely, pale figure at the centre of things is just a human being like ourselves. Stripped bare, he looks deeply into his own heart, reflecting on his destiny. We have all known decisive moments like this, when nothing will ever be the same again, and we ourselves will be changed. Soon the dove must fold its wings, the river flow again, and the baptismal water will trickle down over Christ’s head; and he will step forward to confront and embrace his future. Another man behind Christ readies himself for baptism. Because this picture shows a universal experience, Piero della Francesca has relocated Palestine to the familiar countryside of Tuscany, near his native town of Borgo San Sepolcro.

This description appears in Masterpieces from the National Gallery. First published in 2000, a revised edition came out in 2003; it was reprinted in 2004. The author is Erika Langmuir.

Stunned by the beauty and depth of insight reflected in this commentary, I resolved to find out more about this writer. She held a Masters in Art History from Stanford and earned a doctorate from London’s Warburg Institute, where she studied under the renowned art historian Professor Sir Ernst Gombrich. Having  led an extraordinarily eventful and fascinating life, Ms Langmuir passed away in December of 2015 at  the age of 84. An affectionate an illuminating  tribute by her daughter is well worth reading.

Erika Langmuir receiving an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1995. Daughter Val is at the far left.

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There’s no stopping Your Faithful Blogger as she polishes off yet another Doug Selby DA novel:

May 26, 2017 at 9:10 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

This time it’s The D.A. Cooks a Goose.

Who are these fools anyway, who think they can escape the relentless justice, meted out against steep odds, by the young and fearless Doug Selby?

I’ve decided that what most attracts me to this series is its vivid evocation of a time gone by, in this country in general and in California in particular. Often it’s the small gestures that tell: the lighting of cigarettes anywhere and any time; uninsured  cars having the freedom of the road, with predictable consequences.

Each time I’ve read one of these books, I’ve been struck by the brief and unexpected beauty of various descriptive passages:

Selby found the atmosphere in San Francisco was a sharp change from the desert-tanged, dry air of Madison City.Cold fog which had swept in from the ocean surrounded the street lights with a golden aura of suspended globules.The clanging bells of cable cars, the monotonous whine of mechanical fog signals and the deep booming of whistles from steamboats drifted upward through the fog mantle, muffled into a soft medley of sound by the thick white blanket which lay over the city.

At the other end of the spectrum,  Gardner rarely misses an opportunity to dish up a nice helping of noir lingo:

“I was a pen-pusher once, and a  good one. I did my time in stir and got a clean bill of health – as much as  they can give you when you get out of the big house. But with that record of mine, all they need is just a little evidence, and  they could frame a murder  rap on me. I’ve seen those things done lost of times.”

In small Madison City, Doug has a lot to contend with: an ambitious sheriff, a hostile press, a scheming defense lawyer, and the general intransigence of the state’s legal machinery. And then there are the women in his life: Sylvia Martin and Inez Stapleton, one a reporter and the other a lawyer. There’s a hint of the femme fatale in Inez; nevertheless, she’s a thoroughgoing professional. The same may be said of Sylvia, whose unswerving loyalty to Doug is never allowed to interfere with her getting the scoop ahead of everyone else.

Now it’s on to the sixth in the series: The DA Calls a Turn. This title and the seventh, The DA Breaks a Seal, are in print, courtesy of House of Stratus.

On the back of The DA Calls a Turn, readers are informed that Erle Stanley Gardner “…wrote 146 books, 88 of which feature Perry Mason.” Alack, he only wrote nine in the Doug Selby series. For this reader, it will probably be on to the enormous Perry Mason oeuvre after that.

This has been escapist reading of the first order, especially welcome right now.

(For the complete list, see the entry at Stop! YoureKillingMe.Com.)

 

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The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Fergus Hume

May 22, 2017 at 11:21 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

I had already heard of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab when I chanced upon a short story written by that novel’s author, Fergus Hume. The story, entitled, “The Ghost’s Touch,” is the lead piece in Crimson Snow, an anthology in the British Library Crime Classics series. Editor Martin Edwards says of it:

This highly traditional mystery is a period piece, yes, but also offers a reminder that Hume was a capable storyteller; he deserves more than to be remembered solely on the strength of a single book.

I liked “The Ghost’s Touch” so much that I decided to dive right into the ‘single book’ upon which Fergus Hume’s somewhat elusive fame rests:

I would call this novel a locked room mystery, except for the fact that the murder happened in the middle of  the night, in the open air. In order to fully comprehend what took place, it’s necessary to know just what a hansom cab is. The Wikipedia entry offers a succinct description of  the vehicle’s design (and  features some excellent visuals as well):

The cab, a type of fly, sat two passengers (three if squeezed in) and a driver who sat on a sprung seat behind the vehicle. The passengers could give their instructions to the driver through a trap door near the rear of the roof. They could pay the driver through this hatch and he would then operate a lever to release the doors so they could alight. In some cabs, the driver could operate a device that balanced the cab and reduced strain on the horse. The passengers were protected from the elements by the cab, and by folding wooden doors that enclosed their feet and legs, protecting their clothes from splashing mud. Later versions also had an up-and-over glass window above the doors to complete the enclosure of the passengers. Additionally, a curved fender mounted forward of the doors protected passengers from the stones thrown up by the flying hooves of the horse.

It’s easy to see that at night, a criminal act could take place within the close confines of the carriage, without being observed by the driver, or by anyone else for that matter. And that is exactly what happens right at the outset of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. The deceased was found to have no identification on him; thus, the police  are left with two perplexing questions: What is the identity of the victim? Who killed him?

Hume gradually fills in the picture with the relevant dramatis personae: among them are Brian Fitzgerald, a young man about town who knew the victim; Madge Frettlby, Brian’s fiancee, a woman of uncommon grit and determination; Madge’s father Mark Frettlby, and Mr. Gorby, the police inspector. (There are many more supporting characters.) Gorby goes after Brian Fitzgerald like Javert pursuing Jean Valjean. He’s the very avatar of the investigator who, the more wrongheaded his theory of the crime, the more relentlessly he pursues its fanciful dictates.

While this conundrum is being set forth, the city of Melbourne, Australia comes vividly to life. I freely admit that the only things I know about this locale have been gleaned from watching the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries. Whereas these delightful productions are set in the 1920s, Fergus Hume’s novel was published several decades earlier. So the setting reaches further back in time, becoming even more exotic and intriguing in the process. Here, Hume describes one Melbourne’s more elegant venues:

It was Saturday morning, and of course all fashionable Melbourne was doing the Block. With regard to its ‘Block,’ Collins Street corresponds to New York’s Broadway, London’s Regent Street sand Rotten Row, and to the Boulevards of Paris. It is on the Block that people show off their new dresses, bow to their friends, cut their enemies, and chatter small talk.

When we venture away from Collins Street toward Burke Street, though, we encounter an altogether different, far less salubrious scene:

The restless crowd which jostles and pushes along the pavements is grimy in the main, but the grimyness is lightened in many places by the presence of the ladies of the demi-monde,who flaunt about in gorgeous robes of the  brightest colours. These gay-plumaged birds of ill omen collect at the corners of the street, and converse loudly with their male acquaintances, till desired by some white-helmeted policeman to move on, which they do, after a good deal of unnecessary chatter.

In other words, Melbourne in the 1880s resembles in some ways London of the same period.

Hume’s writing is sprightly and inventive and filled with literary allusions, from the classics of the ancient world to contemporaneous crime literature – and that includes both detective fiction and true crime. I was pleased to see Thomas De Quincey referenced more than once; likewise Mary Elizabeth Braddon, whose Lady Audley’s Secret was so fearfully entertaining, not to mention compulsively readable.

Hume knows how to render characters vividly. Here’s his description of Brian’s landlady Mrs.Sampson:

She was a small, dried-up little woman with a wrinkled yellow face, and looked so parched and brittle that strangers could not help thinking it would do her good if she were soaked in water for a year, in order to soften her a little. Whenever she moved she crackled, and one was in constant dread of seeing one of her wizen-looking limbs break off short, like the branch of a dead tree.

There’s more, but doubtless you get the idea.

Fergus Hume and Arthur Conan Doyle were both born in 1859. The Mystery of a Hansom Cab came out in 1886; A Study in Scarlet, the work that first introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes, appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887.   Scarlet barely created a ripple of interest in the reading public, whereas Hansom Cab created a sensation, first in Australia and then in Britain. The Sign of the Four, Conan Doyle’s second novel featuring Sherlock Holmes, came out in 1890. Like Scarlet, it did not make much of an impression on the reading public, although this delightful story of how it came to be written is recounted in the Wikipedia entry:

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described how he was commissioned to write the story over a dinner with Joseph M. Stoddart, managing editor of an American publication Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, at the Langham Hotel in London on 30 August 1889. Stoddart wanted to produce an English version of Lippincott’s with a British editor and British contributors. The dinner was also attended by Oscar Wilde, who eventually contributed The Picture of Dorian Gray to the July 1890 issue. Doyle discussed what he called this “golden evening” in his 1924 autobiography Memories and Adventures.

(Oh, to have  been a fly on the wall at that dinner party!)

“A Scandal in Bohemia,” the first short story featuring Holmes, appeared in The Strand Magazine in 1891. This was the work that kick started the mania for Conan Doyle’s brilliant eccentric creation. That fascination is with us still; if anything, it has grown in stature and intensity, spawning innumerable spin-offs and being handily adapted to modern media .  

Fergus Hume’s literary fortunes followed an opposite course. After Hansom Cab, he penned numerous novels and short stories, but none grabbed readers as his first novel had done, so widely and so unexpectedly.

If I have a criticism of The Mystery of  Hansom Cab, it’s that it is rather longer than necessary. The pace flags somewhat toward the end, and the plot becomes unnecessarily tangled. But for the most part it was a terrific read, filled with colorful characters and featuring a compelling love story.. I highly recommend  it.

Fergus Hume 1859-1932

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Joan

May 21, 2017 at 7:15 pm (Family, Remembrance)

My beloved sister-in-law Joan has said farewell to life in this world. She leaves behind a large circle of family and friends, all of whom cherished her wit, cheerfulness, loyalty, and unstinting generosity. These qualities, which she possessed in abundance, will remain with us.

Several years ago, Joan and I were talking about poetry and the possibility of an afterlife. Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” came into the conversation – specifically this passage:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
******************************
Joan said that is how she thought of life and the existence that follows: God sends out all these souls from a secret stash of sorts; then after their appointed time on Earth, He calls them home.
His stash of souls has just been greatly enriched: Joan’s own soul now dwells among them.

Joan, at her wedding in 1964. Radiant then; radiant now

 

 

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‘…Thomas began to learn how to apply the ointment of dreams to the wounds inflicted by experience.’ – The Opium Eater by Grevel Lindop

May 17, 2017 at 12:36 am (Anglophilia, Book review, books)

  The Opium Eater is subtitled, A Life of Thomas De Quincey. It was a deeply turbulent and difficult life. As an adult, De Quincey was chronically short of funds and relentlessly hounded by creditors, frequently needing to flee from them and find repose in the homes of friends or in designated sanctuaries like Holyrood House in Edinburgh. His health was frequently poor, with problems exacerbated by his use of opium.

All of this was preceded by a childhood positively Dickensian in its cruelty. That the cruelty was in the main psychological made it no less devastating to Thomas, a child in desperate need of warmth and encouragement. His mother Elizabeth Quincey, a domineering woman with a heart of flint, believed that praising children promoted vanity and this refrained from demonstrating any kind of approval or even basic kindness toward her children.

De Quincey’s father, a successful merchant, was often absent. He finally came home for good, to die of tuberculosis at the age of 40, as Thomas was approaching his eighth birthday. Shortly prior to this, Thomas had lost the one bright light of his chilldhood: his sister Elizabeth, who died at the age of nine.

What a catalog of miseries! The burden of sadness must have been nearly intolerable. And as for the mother in the case, I found her conduct so enraging that I had to stop reading from time to time, to give myself a chance to simmer down.

Despite the absolute lack of maternal love and support, De Quincey began to exhibit signs of an insatiable intellectual curiosity. These were accompanied by unmistakable signs of brilliance. His scholarship in the fields of the classics and philosophy was deeply impressive.

At thirteen he wrote Greek with ease; at fifteen he not only composed Greek verses in lyric measures, but could converse in Greek fluently and without embarrassment; one of his masters said of him, “that boy could harangue an Athenian mob better than you or I could address an English one.”

From NNDB.com

De Quincey attended Oxford but does not seem to have derived much joy from the experience. He began his writing career as a journalist, editor, and reviewer. He earned a precarious living in that manner  for the rest of his life. He married Margaret Simpson, a farmer’s daughter whom he loved dearly.

To this superb young woman . . . I surrendered my heart forever almost from my first opportunity of seeing her; for so natural and without disguise was her character and so winning the simplicity of her manners, due in part to the deep solitude in which she had been reared, that little penetration was required to put me in possession of all her thoughts and to win her love.

Quoted by Grevel Lindop from “The Household Wreck,” a story by De Quincey

They had a large family, though a number of the children did not survive to adulthood. The saddest story on that subject involves their son William. He contracted a rare and particularly cruel cancer called chloroleukaemia and died at the age of eighteen. He was the firstborn of Margaret and Thomas; they were devastated by the loss.

Somehow, amidst all the pain, loss, and hardship, De Quincey persevered. In September 1822, “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” was published in London Magazine:

The Confessions were instantly famous and have remained so ever since. Between 1821 and 1823 some fifteen reviews appeared, nearly all of them enthusiastic about the book’s style and imaginative power, though a few thought the author vain or immoral and there were doubts about the truth of his story. Imitations and parodies abounded, and before long De Quincey’s literary influence, unknown to him, was spreading abroad. In 1828 his work was introduced to France by Alfred de Musset in L‘anglais, mangeur d’opium, a very free adaptation; in 1860 a better version was to be made by Baudelaire in Les paradis artificiels, and by then the Confessions had reached Edgar Allan Poe and contributed an important element to his style and vision. vision. De Quincey had written a classic work.

I cannot praise this biography too highly. Grevel Lindop’s writing is wonderful; his research, exhaustive. This was obviously a labor of love, and I, for one, loved it.

Grevel Lindop

Here, from Lindop’s site, is the story of his thorough-going involvement in the life and work of Thomas De Quincey:

In the late 1970s I became interested in Thomas De Quincey, ‘the English Opium-Eater’, essayist and friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge. I wrote a biography of him, published in 1981 as The Opium-Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey. Later I edited his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings for the Oxford World’s Classics series in 1985, and later still I piloted The Works of Thomas De Quincey, a 21-volume complete edition of his writings, produced by a team of eleven editors under my direction and published in 2000-03.

There’s much more in this biography that what I’ve described above. Of especial interest is De Quincey’s relationship with Wordsworth and his family. Anyway, read it, for that and for so much more.

The question arises as to what to read by De Quincey himself. I won’t deny that I find some of his writings abstruse. For one thing, his prose is liberally sprinkled with quotations from the Latin and Greek. For another, there is an antiquarian aspect to his prose that can  be rather daunting for the modern reader – or this reader, at any rate. Be that as it may, there are works that Lindop really made me want to read: The Avenger, The English Mail Coach – and of course, The Confessions. I’m currently rereading On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts and finding it tougher going than I did this first time; don’t ask me why. I do, though, have to share this quote from it:

If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination.

The tone, I think, is what makes On Murder especially memorable. A good place to start, though, would be On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth. It’s short, powerful, accessible, and deeply profound.

Thomas De Quincey 1785-1859

 

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Things of Beauty, for Joan

May 14, 2017 at 8:26 pm (Art, Family, Music)

For my entire adult life, Joan has been more sister than sister-in-law: an exemplar of quiet strength, generosity, and compassion, sustained at all times by her unwavering Jewish faith.

Like me, Joan has always loved the Impressionists. For Hanukah last December, I sent her Norbert Wolf’s magnificent new volume:

She was thrilled to receive it, filled  as it is with images we both love. (I also own this book.) Here are some of those images, with accompanying music by the great Impressionist composer, Claude Debussy:

View from Artist’s Window at Eragny, by Camille Pissarro

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, by John Singer Sargent

For the Little One, by William Merritt Chase

Ballet Class, by Edgar Degas

Woman with Parasol (Madame Monet and Her Son), by Claude Monet

In a Park, by Berthe Morisot

La Loge, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir


Femmes au Jardin, par Claude Monet

Mother and Child Against a Green Background, by Mary Cassatt

The Pergola, by Sylvestro Lega

Irises in Monet’s Garden, by Claude Monet

Poppy Field in Argenteuil, by Claude Monet

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London art museums: the National Gallery and the Tate Britain: Two

May 12, 2017 at 11:18 am (Art, Smithsonian Associates World Art History Certificate Program)

[Click here for One in this series]

Last Saturday, Professor Bonita Billman regaled us with numerous fascinating stories to go along with the spectacular art works on display. For instance:

The Origin of the Milky Way, by Jacopo Tintoretto – ca. 1575-1580

According to myth, the Milky Way was formed by the goddess Hera, wife of Zeus, in a fit of pique. (If my recollection of the field of mythology is correct, she was prone to these.) It seems that her half-sister Athena brought the infant Heracles to Hera so that she could nurse him. Hera was initially willing to perform this task – never mind that Heracles (Hercules) was the offspring of one of Zeus’s innumerable illicit love affairs – but Heracles suckled with such vigor that she cast him off. In the process of doing this, she scattered her mother’s milk over a wide area. So wide, in fact, that it coalesced into the galaxy we now call the Milky Way.

How to respond to such a tale except by exclaiming: Who knew??

There’s more on this in the Wikipedia entry on Heracles, along with wonderful additional illustrations.

 

 

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London art museums: the National Gallery and the Tate Britain: One

May 11, 2017 at 2:23 pm (Art, Smithsonian Associates World Art History Certificate Program)

The Ambassadors, By Hans Holbein the Younger – 1533

[Click twice to enlarge.]

This extraordinary painting is one of many discussed last Saturday by our presenter Bonita Billman at our day long lecture on London’s National Gallery and the Tate Britain.  This was the second such outing for my fellow art lover and friend Jean and myself. It was just as enjoyable as Seductive Paris from last November, with the added attraction of the trains having run on time.

That strange object at the bottom of the canvas is what is called an animorphosis.  Wikipedia enlarges on its use here and also provides this normalized version of the image:

I read somewhere that if you hold the back of a highly polished spoon up to the image in the painting, you can resolve it into the image shown directly above. I tried it, and after much contorting and head twisting, had to admit defeat. Try it yourself, if you like, and let me know if you can make it work.

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‘…unbefriended men with long-simmering rage and elaborate plans for revenge.’ – Incendiary by Michael Cannell

May 3, 2017 at 10:52 pm (Book review, books, New York City, True crime)

   New York’s so called Mad Bomber was just such a man. From the early 1940s to the late 1950s, he terrified the city with homemade explosive devices. He placed them in movie theaters,  train stations, phone booths, and rest rooms. All anyone knew about him was that he held a powerful grudge against Con Edison.

For sixteen years, the New York City Police pursued this wraith, with no results. Finally, in desperation, they consulted Dr. James Brussel.

An assistant commissioner of the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene, his day job  was supervising the treatment of more than six thousand anguished souls at Creedmoor and other public asylums in and around New York City.

In addition to his responsibilities to the city, Dr. Brussel also saw private patients.

The question the police had for him was this: From the brief, handwritten correspondence provided by the Bomber, in addition to his actions and methods, could this distinguished psychiatrist venture any conclusions as to who this cunning and elusive person might be?

He could. And did. Hence, the book’s subtitle: The Psychiatrist, The Man Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling.

In Incendiary, Michael Cannell does a first class of job of reporting, particularly on the reporters themselves. He brings the world of the mid- century newsroom to vivid life. You can almost hear the noisy clattering of the typewriters and smell the tobacco smoke that suffused these places. In fact, the city itself, in that era, springs vividly to life. (As one who spent a fair amount of time in Gotham in the early sixties, this portrait really resonated.)

Standing on the corner of Forty-Third Street and Broadway, F.P. [as the bomber was known at first] could see the full neon honky-tonk shine of Times Square pulsating above him. Camel cigarettes. Admiral appliances. Chevrolet. The billboards glimmered and blinked with the wattage of a thousand light bulbs, as if to compensate for the gloom of a dying afternoon.

As I was reading this book, I found that George Gershwin’s Concerto in F, especially the adagio (middle movement) kept resonating in the back of my mind. And in my mind’s eye I kept seeing Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.  My husband, ever the helpful and resourceful onsite IT guy, put the two together for me:

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The Dungeon House by Martin Edwards

April 30, 2017 at 1:52 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  I was happy to return to the Lake District Series of crime novels written by Martin Edwards. In The Dungeon House, a cold case casts a sinister shadow over the lives of those who still feel its effects. Meanwhile, the relationship between Hannah Scarlett and historian Daniel Kind is getting warmer, albeit rather cautiously.

Twenty years prior to the novel’s main action, Malcolm Whiteley hosted a barbecue for friends and family at his residence, the rather ominously named Dungeon House. This seemingly celebratory occasion ended in terrible violence, but the question of exactly who was responsible has never been resolved in a manner that satisfied everyone. This is the cold case that DCI Hannah Scarlett inherits. As her investigation proceeds, troubling new events occur: disappearances, and even deaths, darken the beautiful Lake District landscape which forms the novel’s setting.

Meanwhile Daniel Kind, a gifted and sought after lecturer, is preparing to give a talk on the history of murder. Daniel has a penchant for choosing provocative topics. In The Serpent Pool (2010), his subject is the mercurial Thomas De Quincey. (I’ve read The Serpent Pool, but I may return to it, my interest in De Quincey having recently been stimulated by Grevel Lindop’s fascinating biography.)

In the words of the Kirkus review of Dungeon House, Martin Edwards “works exceptionally close to his characters.” Because of this, Hannah, Daniel and company are vivid and true to life. The plot is extremely complex – I admit that I lost the thread at several points – but as is invariably the case when I read crime fiction, my connection with the characters more than compensated.

Both Grevel Lindop and Martin Edwards are scheduled to meet with us on our British Mystery Trip in July.

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