The ‘First Blitz’ – Terror Comes To The Home Front

220px-It_is_far_better_to_face_the_bulletsHow many people know anything of the ‘First Blitz’ – war waged by Germany from the air between 1915 and 1918?

As I researched Shell Shocked Britain : the First World Wars’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health I was surprised that so few of the stories from that time were well-known. I discussed the subject with a number of people and they had little or no knowledge of the horrors perpetrated by first the Zeppelin airships and then enormous fixed wing aircraft.

By 1914 Germany had several Zeppelins at the disposal of the armed forces. They could fly at speeds up to 85 m.p.h. with the capacity to carry approximately two tons of bombs. The first raid was on Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn in January 1915 and continued across areas in the Midlands and along the East coast, including Hull where raids in June 1915 caused devastation.  I was lucky to discover letters describing these raids in the Liddle Collection held by Leeds University Library, and those from Mrs Nell Hague to her husband George, who had remained in London whilst she visited her mother, offer a fascinating insight into the mix of horror and excitement many felt:

“The Zeps are here! And from mother’s bedroom window the whole town seems on
fire…..

It is no exaggeration to say that there were thousands of people in and around the fields and houses… the dear little children -the cripples, the aged – oh my dear it must be seen to be realised…”

The raids became a tool to boost recruitment; many men so disgusted  that the enemy had brought war to the homes of Britain that they felt compelled to join up in response to official posters, such as the one illustrating this post, above.

Gotha_RG_im_FlugBy 1917 Zeppelins had been replaced by fixed wing aircraft – the Gotha, and, shortly afterwards, the ‘Giant’, with a wing span of 42 metres (138 feet) and tail roughly the same size as a Sopwith Pup. It is hardly surprising that British planes had such difficulty countering these fearsome attacks.

In his recent series Britain’s Great War Jeremy Paxman briefly touched on the physical and emotional trauma experienced by the populations of towns along the East and South East coasts of England and in London, the target of many of the raids. He focused on the first daylight raid of June 1917 during which (amongst a total of 162 people) eighteen pupils of Upper North Street School, Poplar, in East London were killed. Sixteen of them were aged from 4 to 6 years old. In Shell Shocked Britain I develop the story of that day, and others, to consider some of the lasting mental scars of the air raids.

In total, around 1,500 civilians were killed by air raids over the period of the war.

My Great Uncle Alfred Hardiman was a conscript into the 31st Battalion Middlesex Regiment, a works battalion, and spent his short service in the army in London. At some point in 1917 he was involved in the aftermath of one of the Gotha raids on London and his experience marked him so deeply that he spent several months in hospital. He was eventually discharged ‘unfit for service’ due to enuresis – he had become,at the age of 27, incontinent. In 1922 he would finally break down, killing his ex-girlfriend and himself. By all accounts a previously gentle man, he was not alone in finding the terrible sights of war on the Home Front impossible to forget.

wwi-british-policeAs always, one has to be wary of imposing present day values and responses on those living 100 years ago. When the bombs of July 2005 went off in London we were given minute by minute accounts of the situation by all media outlets. In the First World War, coverage of raids was actively suppressed, ostensibly to avoid panic. When we look back just the few years to the terrorist attacks, we can recall fears of further attacks, utterly unpredictable and our lives endangered simply by virtue of the train or bus we boarded. In the war, the suppression of news reports had the undesired consequence of heightening rumour and suspicion. No accurate reports resulted in a population constantly on the alert and the continued official resistance to proper air raid warnings (even to the point where policemen could only warn people by wearing a placard around their necks) resulted in more disruption rather than less.

In Shell Shocked Britain I discuss the ensuing ‘collective trauma’ in more detail, looking behind the reports of calm responses and stoical public at the deeper, personal terrors. On the Kent coast, particularly in the town of Folkestone, severely battered by Gotha raids in 1917, doctors had already begun to describe a form of shell shock amongst the families involved. I found reports of suicides both during and after the war due at least in part to continuing air raid shock.

Of course many were left unmarked by such events; some even found them exciting. But others, such as Alfred Hardiman, were left so traumatised that the anxiety became impossible to bear.

I have not yet been made aware of many planned events to mark those lost in the air raids of the First World War. Discussions on twitter suggest that thus far these horrors have so far been neglected. I hope that, in the next four years, places affected will take time to remember the horrors of the days when death first came from the skies..

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‘Mental Cases’ by Wilfred Owen: Writing the horror of shell shock in poetry

Wilfred_Owen_plate_from_Poems_(1920)

Wilfred Owen

On Friday 21st March it was World Poetry Day. It is often one of those ‘days’ that passes people by, especially if they do not consider themselves a poetry lover. (I don’t think anyone truly dislikes poetry; they just haven’t found the right poet…) The UN states that World Poetry Day reminds us that:

‘Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings’.

As anyone who follows this blog regularly knows, I would agree wholeheartedly with that statement. I adore poetry and like nothing better than a couple of hours browsing an anthology or looking at the Poetry Archive online and discovering someone new; or a poem that expresses just how I am feeling at that time.

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegA common humanity and a recognition of kinship is something I have been working through in my book, Shell Shocked Britain, which has been occupying a lot of my time recently. My editor is sending me her final edits and I am adding a few, last paragraphs that I have thought of since the manuscript was first presented in December. I have also started a twitter feed for the book and given it a Facebook page to ensure I can follow as many interesting First World War sites and projects as I can and offer tantalising snippets from the book and the research I have done for it. If you feel like following either then do ‘like’ or ‘follow’ for more details.

Anyway, as it was World Poetry Day on Friday, and because I was unable to post anything whilst in London for the day (and at the launch of Angela Buckley’s fabulous book ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes’) I thought I would offer here a poetic tribute to the shell shocked men of the Great War in the words of the wonderful Wilfred Owen. Owen was himself hospitalised at Craiglockart in 1917 to recover from neurasthenia (another term for shell shock). A chapter in Shell Shocked Britain uses line 15 as its title – Always they must see these things and hear them. It sums up the enduring trauma the men experienced, during and after the war, and indeed the whole poem expresses vividly the horrors that haunted the men that broke down, unable to articulate their pain.

shellshcokIn my book I do recognise that many men came through the war and lived happy and fulfilled lives, safe with families and able to leave the war behind them. Some trod a path between the past and the futures they wanted – a narrow way that held dangers should life decide to deny them the support they needed to maintain their sanity. Others could never recover and spent the rest of their lives dismantled emotionally and physically – ‘set-smiling corpses’ that woke each day to face new torments. Ten years after the war 65,000 men were still receiving treatment and many broke down many years after the conflict ended.

These truly were ‘the men whose minds the Dead have ravished‘.

Wilfred Owen – Mental Cases

Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain, – but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands’ palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

- These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them, 
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense 
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
- Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
- Thus their hands are plucking at each other; 
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness

The images Owen uses, of nameless men reduced to’slavering’ like animals and suffering an endless purgatory, is surely a metaphor for the de-humanising effects of the war and the resultant retreat inward to a hell these ‘helpless’ men cannot escape from.

Do read this poem through a few times if you can. It is shocking in its graphic description of the men Owen was treated alongside at Craiglockhart, under the enlightened care of psychiatrist William Rivers. It is a vision worthy of Dante and surely berates us should we forget these men who reach out to ‘paw’ and ‘snatch’ at those of us who might live on without giving them a thought….

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Talking Books talks Septimus Heap & writing magic with Angie Sage

Septimus_Heap_-_All_Seven_CoversOn the 28th February I was very lucky to have as my guest on Talking Books Angie Sage, an author who has received global success with her series of fantasy novels, featuring Septimus Heap, seventh son of a seventh son with magical powers. Starting with Magyk and ending with the seventh book, Fyre, we gallop through the adventures of Septimus and his friends. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is another Harry Potter wizard-alike however. Septimus is funnier, more intelligent and supported by a cast of characters that can keep anyone aged seven to seventy plus interested and amused.

Angie is also a really inspirational and creative writer, and illustrator, who lives in a fifteenth century house in Somerset that exudes its own mystery and magic, including as it does an old mural that purports to be of Henry VIII, but turns out to have something of the devil in it…

So after rather too many ‘umms’ at the beginning (on my part) we had a wonderful chat; the thirty minutes flew by and I wished I had read more of her work before we met. However, Angie agreed to read a passage from one of the books in the series, which as you can hear on the link below, had us all chuckling. There are ghosts, witches, dragons and human interest aplenty. Yes – even wizards can fall in love and as J.K. Rowling discovered, young readers growing up with their characters long to know who has paired up with whom. We talk about this, along with the joys of writing and developing characters and stories over a long series of books, the ‘Harry Potter’ effect and the pitfalls associated with selling film rights to Warner Brothers. Angie is a hugely successful writer, selling in numbers beyond the hopes of most writing fiction today, but that doesn’t mean a writing life is without complications.

Good news for Septimus lovers is the planned trilogy, TodHunter Moon, which takes up the story seven years on. Readers  just can’t get enough of the stories and Angie just doesn’t want to leave the world of Magyk….

But back to Septimus. I was given a wonderful copy of the last in the series, Fyre, by Angie after the show and I will treasure it. I just wish my children were still of an age to enjoy them. They will have to come back to them with their own children, should they change their minds and have them….

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The BBC, the Great War & being part of the ‘bandwagon’…?

DCER001307

From the jacket of Shell Shocked Britain

First of all, thank you to all those who chatted to me, on and off-line following my Introducing ‘Shell Shocked Britain post. It was really heartening to find out so many are interested in the legacy of the Great War for the mental health of the nation and I have worked hard to do the subject justice; but the next six months are not so much about writing as marketing and I want to approach that properly as well.

However, I am aware of the first rumblings and grumblings about the coverage of the centenary so far. ‘There is SO much on the television’ said one friend ‘that it is hard to see how it can continue’. Another drew attention to the fact, one hundred years ago,  the war had not even started; yet the BBC (and it is almost wholly an issue for the BBC Coverage) is offering television and radio programmes on a daily basis. Radio 4 is awash with adverts not just for its own programming, but for Radio 2 and the television channels too. ‘Every presenter seems to want to jump on the Great War bandwagon…’ they said ‘I am feeling rather ambivalent about the seeming glorification of the war’. This is not really the response one would want for the centenary of one of the great turning points in British history. What we have today, we owe to those who fought in, and lived through, a conflict that sent out those first shoots that grew into ‘modern’ Britain.

I have been gripped by many of the programmes broadcast so far, but I have a lot of sympathy with these concerns, most particularly because it is another six months until Shell Shocked Britain hits the shelves. Although it is hardly possible to comprehend, people may be jaded and less interested in hearing about the First World War by October. And aren’t I doing exactly the same thing as the BBC by publicising the book so far in advance of the launch date? I want to make sure everyone who may be interested in the book knows it is there. But will anyone still be listening?

paxoThe subject matter of Shell Shocked Britain is so different from most of the programmes aired thus far. Jeremy Paxman in Britain’s Great War touched on some of the issues I aim to highlight, but without making some of the links I think are necessary – how the trauma experienced by combatants and civilians, adults and children alike affected the mental health of the nation. How behaviours, responses and attitudes in the post war period resulted in an approach to mental illness that resonates even into the twenty-first century. It is an important subject that I hope will find an audience. I want that audience ready to listen. I want it to be there.

Is anyone out there privy to the workings of the television and radio scheduler’s mind? Has the BBC a formal programme of events across the next four years? Are we to have programmes covering each of the battles? At what point does something become, in a programme maker’s eyes, ‘worthy’ of a documentary? Is the output original, or a re-hash of things we have seen before? Is this deluge of documentaries respecting the history of the period or exploiting it? So many questions.  Can this frenzy of programme making last four years?

Over the next few weeks I am going to be posting some pieces on topics I cover in Shell Shocked. These will include The First Blitz, the outbreak of Spanish influenza, Eugenics, and the fascination with spiritualism that saw a resurgence during and after the conflict. I will also tell you some of the sad stories that have materialised during my long trawls through the newspaper archives – stories that mirror that of my great-uncle Alfred Hardiman, who killed his ex girlfriend and then himself in 1922. They highlight how the strain of dealing with trauma experienced during the war could lead even the gentlest soul to commit shocking acts, often years after the Armistice.

Is it possible to make too much of such an important subject?

So what do you think? Is there too much too soon? Is this early festival of remembrance from the BBC the best way to remember and to honour those that lived through those years?

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Rattling the Bones of Detective Caminada

Jerome Caminada

Jerome Caminada from The Greater Manchester Police Museum and Archives

Today I am thrilled to be hosting Guest Blogger Angela Buckley, whose new book, The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada will have its official launch in London next week. She has taken time out on a hectic blog tour to tell us here of a dilemma many of us, as researchers, face – how to ensure we deal with the stories of the dead in a sensitive fashion and why she believes Detective Caminada’s story must be told.

The first time I visited the grave of Jerome Caminada in Southern Cemetery, Manchester, I had mixed emotions. I was excited at the prospect of uncovering the story of this exceptional detective, which had remained hidden for almost a century, but at the same time I wondered if I was doing the right thing. Is it fair to rattle bones that have been long since buried and bring the dead back to life?

Jerome Caminada was born in Manchester in 1844 to immigrant parents. A child of the slums, he overcame staggering odds to become one of the city’s finest police officers, reaching the lofty heights of Detective Superintendent. He was an extraordinary man: a fearsome law enforcer who was never afraid to tackle the most daring and desperate of criminals, but also a man with a compassion for others and a deep sense of social justice. I began my journey into his past with his memoirs, published at the end of his 30-year-long career.

Nineteenth century police memoirs are essentially work histories, rather than accounts of domestic life, and Twenty-Five Years of Detective Life by Jerome Caminada is no exception. In this weighty tome, he recounts ‘over fifty stories, dealing with all manner of crime and criminals’. I used contemporary newspapers and court records to reconstruct his cases, and although the accounts often differed, I was able to re-discover his adventures as he tackled thieves, pickpockets, cunning swindlers and even cold-blooded murderers, on the streets of his city. But it wasn’t until I dug deeper into his personal circumstances that I really began to bring Detective Caminada truly back to life.

SlumsJerome’s parents were Francis and Mary Caminada. His father was a cabinetmaker of Italian descent and his mother was an illiterate textiles worker, with her roots in Ireland. Both families had been among the masses of workers who had migrated into the city of Manchester in the wake of the Industrial Revolution at the turn of the nineteenth century. Their meagre existence was totally precarious and when Jerome was just three years old, his father died of heart disease, leaving his mother alone with the surviving four of her six children. There was still worse to come and the family was forced to move into one of the worst rookeries in Victorian Manchester, later described by Jerome as ‘a very hot-bed of social iniquity and vice’. It was in these crime-infested streets that Detective Caminada developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the shady characters and nefarious criminals who lived there, which would become one of his most effective weapons in fighting crime.

GraveThe terrible suffering of his family, who experienced further devastating losses and grinding poverty, instilled in Jerome great empathy for others and kindness to those less fortunate than himself. Throughout his career, he never failed to help individuals in genuine need and to plead their cause, whatever they had done. His faith and hope in humanity kept him going in the most difficult of circumstances, in both his professional and personal life. It has been a challenge to bring Detective Caminada back to life but now that his story is ready to be heard once again after a century of silence, I am proud to have rattled his bones!

angelaMy sincere thanks to Angela. The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada by Angela Buckley is published by Pen and Sword Books. For more details see her blog, http://victoriansupersleuth.com

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Talking Books on why we should all want ‘Little Creative Days’ for our children

What are seasons but children’s soft dreams, and
Sunrise, their opening eyes?
Seeing at a glance
The days and years open…waiting,
Fringed with softness, or
Laced with abandon…

(From Children’s Eyes and Children’s Toys by Elysabeth Faslund)

The incredible Pojo

The incredible Pojo

This is SO late going up but I thought it important to make sure you got the opportunity to listen to my Talking Books show on 10Radio.org from February 14th. It wasn’t a ‘Valentine’s Day’ themed show – I have featured poetry and prose that expresses our romantic yearnings on past shows – but it was one that should be of interest to anyone with children, or who is involved with children’s education. I started this post with an excerpt from a poem that sums up for me how important it is to see the world through a child’s eyes and to give them the tools to make the most of a time when their imagination should be allowed to fly.

Tonya Meers kindly came in to the studio to talk about the business she has established with her sister, Natasha Dennis. Little Creative Days started with the provision of craft kits for children, but when Tonya decided she would like to write children’s stories the sisters decided to combine the two. Between them I think they have come up with something that can really bring out the creative side of all children and perhaps inspire them to be the writers, dramatists, artists and even theatre impresarios (well let’s think big!) of the future. Working with and in schools they have developed kits that work across the curriculum; Pojo and the Chest of Dreams for example can support work in geography and Pojo Saves the Rainforest uses puppets to tell children about the impact of deforestation.

This isn’t a sponsored post, or a review of the products Tonya and Natasha offer but it is something of a plug for anything that fires a child’s imagination and after this show you will be in little doubt that Tonya’s stories, and the opportunities the kits offer to children as part of their primary school education, are exactly the sort of thing to engage children across ages and abilities.

When my children were much younger they both had issues with certain aspects of their school day. My son would daydream and lose concentration; my daughter is dyslexic and found phonics a real challenge. They both found an outlet in performance – my son in drama and my daughter in sport – and finding a way to express their true selves, away from the challenge of tests and league tables proved invaluable.

Creative storytelling uses ‘creative group activities to bring stories alive’ and in our interview Tonya describes how puppet making for example can  enable all children to explore a story and become engaged with the story and its message. The drama activities can build confidence and offer children a way to express themselves in their own stories. Do take a listen; I am sure you will be as inspired as I was by Tonya’s enthusiasm and by the Little Creative Days ethos.

Find out more by going to the Little Creative Days website at www.littlecreativedays.co.uk

Posted in Author interviews, Book, Books, Family, Parenting, Radio Show, Reading, Talking Books, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Introducing ‘Shell Shocked Britain': how war trauma casts a shadow across a century

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegI know that some readers of my blog (and thanks for that!) already know that throughout 2013 I was writing a book called Shell Shocked Britain commissioned by Pen & Sword History. We are now in the final edit stage, with proof-reading to come before it is finally published in October of this year, marking both the Centenary of the start of the First World War but also the month in which World Mental Health Day falls.

The publisher has given a sub-title to the book –  ‘The First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health‘. I cannot argue, as it is exactly what the book is about.

I was thrilled when I was commissioned to write Shell Shocked; not simply because I got my first ever advance and felt truly ‘professional’ as a writer, but because I would have the opportunity to take the Great War and offer up an alternative view of the bloodshed and horror. There have been, and will be, many television programmes, books and academic papers released this year and rightly so, but my book examines the wider, emotional implications of the war, not just for the shell shocked troops but for the civilian population and for the nation as a whole in the inter-war period and takes a fresh look at why we may engage emotionally with WW1 over and above other conflicts. Jeremy Paxman addressed some of the same issues in his recent four-part documentary Britain’s Great War, but in a superficial, and dare I say it of the great man, rather bombastic way. Those he interviewed  must have been shocked at questions such as that asked of a relative of a conscientious objector – ‘If I suggested he was just awkward…?’ I hope I have been a little more sensitive, whilst remaining objective and accepting of realities.

Myths about the war abound and by the end of this first year of commemorative events there is a danger that arguments by politicians and media opinion will sully what should be a sombre time of reflection.  Dan Snow published a wonderful list called ‘Lions and donkeys: 10 big myths about World War One debunked that highlights how far we have strayed from what may be called ‘a truth’ about that war. It is important we recognise what was universal about WW1 as well as what was unique and for me, having just ‘completed’ Shell Shocked Britain it was a relief to see him write

By setting it apart as uniquely awful we are blinding ourselves to the reality of not just WW1 but war in general. We are also in danger of belittling the experience of soldiers and civilians caught up in countless other appalling conflicts throughout history and the present day.

Having read widely and having spoken to those who have had a role in the modern-day Armed Forces as well as the Army of the 1940s and 1950s, it seems to me that the response to the horrors of armed combat are as difficult to comprehend today as they were for those first soldiers faced with mechanised and trench warfare. As civilians we simply cannot understand the bonds between men and women in war zones; we can’t imagine what it is like to see one’s friends blown to pieces before our eyes, or sit to eat our meals with the numbers around the table dwindling as injuries and fatalities increase. We see the names but we don’t know the people, or understand what took them to that front line in the first place.

netley-shell-shock-1917Combat stress and PTSD  are the descendants  of  shell shock. Many (though not all), of the responses to the trauma of battle are the same now as they were then – anxiety and depression, anger expressed as aggressive and impulsively dangerous behaviour, alcohol and other substance misuse and nightmares and flashbacks. Currently the national charity Combat Stress is helping 5,000 veterans deal with their symptoms. By the end of the Great War some 80,000 men had been diagnosed with shell shock but there were thousands more affected, to some extent by the trauma of war.

In addition, they came home to a nation where almost everyone knew a bereaved family, even if they had been lucky to welcome their own sons home. Many felt guilty; many were themselves scarred by anxiety as they waited for the dreaded telegram, ran for cover as Zeppelins or Gotha aircraft flew over their homes bringing death behind the Front Line, or welcomed young men home only to find them taken from them by Spanish Influenza, or later manifestations of shell shock that drove them to suicide. Relationships had changed in a fundamental way and many found it hard to adapt. It can be argued (as well as challenged of course) that there was a sense of collective trauma, as the prelapsarian world of the Edwardian era was shattered

But as Dan Snow rightly points out, many young men actually found the war offered them a way out of grinding poverty and unemployment and offered them opportunities to enjoy freedoms denied to them at home. Now, we still find young men and women signing up to find a career, to gain respect and take themselves away from a damaging home situation. These young people live 100 years apart but (despite the caveat that we cannot attach 21st century mores to 20th century lives), they are not so different.

And this is what I wanted to express something of in Shell Shocked Britain; that we are a world apart now, as the last veterans pass on and the numbers who lived through that time dwindle, but we are in many ways the same people. We talk of the ‘stiff upper lip’ and the stoical way many veterans dealt with their experiences, but for many this was not simply the British way. There were simply no words to express the experience to a world that seemed desperate to get on with living.  And it is still that way today for veteran and civilian alike – the trauma has no words and if unaffected it is hard to comprehend.

However, failing to deal with the issues the war raised stored up health problems that reverberate even today. Work has been undertaken by psychologists that shows how far the memory of war can cause mental health issues not only in first generation, but second and third generations of a family. A grandchild may remember an angry grandparent, perhaps reliant on alcohol, aggressive and unkind. Or there were men in the family, like my great uncle Alfred Hardiman, whose acts changed the lives of sisters, brothers, nephews and nieces. Some of them are alive today. Ask them.

If all the work over the next four years of commemoration is to mean anything, we must try to understand, and I hope Shell Shocked Britain may help, just a little bit.

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