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Archive for July, 2021


David Nicholls’ Us — Douglas (Tom Hollander) and Connie (Saskia Reeves) in the present time summer of the novel as shown in the spectacular travel scenes of the movie (2015)

Gentle reader, Us, the book, works like Austen’s Emma; near the end a sudden unexpected revelation (if I’m reading aright, which I might not be as the information is delivered ambiguously) makes what we have been assuming all along sufficiently a blunder so a second reading uncovers clues we had not recognized. In order to explicate the book, and suggest why it is superior to the movie, Us, I tell this revelation in my 4th paragraph. For those not planning to read the book, this transformative information is left out of Us, the movie, so it won’t matter to you, except as you learn upfront you have been fobbed off with a far more superficial or at its end shallow experience (that hardly makes sense) or, aka, you are missing out …

Dear friends and readers,

Mid-summer is here and I’ve yet to record even one summer movie or book! The last time I wrote a blog on “summer movies” seems to be in 2018 (includes a summer adaptation of Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream) and before that, 2015 (Mr Holmes — if this be not a summer movie ….). The specific criteria might be that the summer film gives sensual pleasure (be partly a travelogue), that the catastrophic calamities of what’s called (somewhat absurdly) “the third world” not be visited on our characters, and immediate deaths and long-range historical dire events be for the duration of the film excluded. I called last summer’s movies, “Uplift” because as a group they were so earnest.

But, it will be said by those who’ve seen the movie or read the book, a death occurs in Us, Douglas and Connie’s first-born child, a daughter they name Jane, born prematurely, dies not long afterwards of sepsis; and there’s no denying that our hero, Douglas Petersen (Tom Hollander and Iain de Castecker in the film) undergoes strong trauma caused by his wife, Connie (Saskia Reeves and Gina Bamhill).


Us — Douglas (Iain de Caestecker) and Connie (Gina Bramhill) some 25 or so years ago in the movie

The story is initiated when Connie tells Douglas one night (after some 25 years of apparently contented enough marriage) she “thinks our marriage has run its course … ” and thinks (again the hesitating word) she “wants to leave” him. She just can’t explain herself further. She wants to be free; she’s tired of her life with him. Albie is leaving for college/university in the fall. It’s a good time to do this is implied. The rest of the book and film is an extended set of Douglas’s memories leading up to how this 25th summer he and Connie are so unadmittedly (is there such a word?) estranged and strangers that the statement, her desire is wholly unexpected. These memories are interwoven with one last summer tour together with their son, Albie (Tom Taylor) in which Douglas attempts to win his wife over again to get her to stay with him for the rest of their lives. This then (the action of the story) becomes a tour in which he finds he must mend a broken relationship with his son, because it’s clearly the dysfunctional elephant in the room of the marriage that has been helping tear himself and Connie apart.


The trio in a museum (the Louvre?), Albie (Tom Taylor) closest to us (and clearly bored)

What then makes it qualify as a summer book and movie? The deeply sensuous enjoyment of visiting with film-makers in charge, the actors, camera crew, and all those active together to make a film, experiencing many glorious and famous places across six different countries, and several major European cities. 162 sets worth, not excluding filming on trains and in train stations. The continual laughter – yes laughter, for the book is irresistibly funny as Douglas and (no omitting this) Nicholls continually deliciously sends up, brings out the absurdities of our daily life’s arrangements, and shows a extraordinary facility with sheer language – he emits cornucopias of wit — as some of the jokes are out of sheer language, or marvelous intuitive reductive send-ups of what we actually see in pictures, hear in music, how we dress, talk eat, drink, sleep is not left out. I’m a very jaded reader and it is so hard or rare for me to laugh, but I find myself not only laughing and beginning to giggle and stay laughing aloud for extended passages, but on my re-reading the book (I like it so much and feel it has riches not revealed the first time round, or probably only after several times and then repeatable) I laugh all over again.

Yes, the ending of the book has a dark unexpected revelation (omitted from the film) that it’s possible that what motivated Connie that first night the film begins was her lover previous to Douglas, one Angelo, whom on a second reading one realizes is mentioned far more than we had realized throughout the book, her “ex” from whom she said was on the rebound, deigned to show up and offer to renew the relationship. This suggests to Douglas (and us), she had indeed taken Douglas as some kind of super-superior husband material — kind, money-earning, responsible, loyal, hard working, very intelligent, well educated — whom she could spend a comfortable life with (just taking a part time job in a non-profit art museum) and bring up a son to enter the upper middle class through very good schooling. A fun tame-able convenience she could lead, having so much better social skills and daring ways. Not because she loved him deeply the way he had her. He knows the only way he can hold onto his son’s regard is to let him go live a life with no room for his father in it. Abie is Connie’s son. It’s only then and only briefly – but sincerely – in the book Douglas considers killing himself. Connie in the film 20 years later is not character I was much in sympathy with; she seemed shallow rather than “with it,” after all, what was she doing all these 25 years when she stopped painting. Douglas would have had her carry on. In the book there are hidden aspects of her discontentment and lack of inspiration that at least imply a thinking mind and heart, not just a pillow mother who enters into conventional life with child-like zest.

But Douglas pulls back; he tells us of the routine he builds up after Connie is gone, and then or nonetheless, in the book he types Freya’s name into his computer’s search engine. In the movie he turns up in a museum (the museums and a use of relevant old master paintings are a repeated motif of the film) and there she is, sitting, gazing at the picture waiting for him. Both book and movie offer the possibility of a partner for Douglas who actually sympathizes with and understands his socially awkward ways and high serious values. A woman newly divorced (flat left herself suddenly for a younger woman), Freya (Sofie Grabol), whom he met in Florence and spent the most pleasant congenial compatible day he’d spent in a long time — without fooling himself or being asked to be other than he is.


Freya and Douglas exchanging notes on this strange breakfast — cake and/or cheese slices with coffee

It should be obvious that as with the other summer movies I’ve urged readers here not to miss, my deepest pleasure in reading came from a depth of emotion that is carried so lightly and spoke home to me about myself and others. Nicholls’s crisp lucid analyses bring us recognition (not everyone is humble enough to enjoy this), and the kind of quiet or undirected ethical teaching and insight that have lost status of late (so Booker Prize books have turned into fashionable games too). But they are on offer especially in the book. I’ve discovered reviewers (Mark Lawson of The Guardian on the book in 2014) regularly condescend to Nicholls (there must be something suspect in a novelist and screenplay writers whose works sell so widely). Alex Robins of the New York Times is especially above this movie (Nicholls “wrings a certain amount of comedy out of Douglas’s hopeless squareness”). Rebecca Nicolson (again The Guardian) is similarly disdainful. I say especially in the book because (alas) Nicholls himself rewrites the book into a film where he endorses laughing at and rejecting Douglas for at least half the movie because he knows in social life the person who is all heart openly, is despised.

For myself I bond with, identify or maybe just am especially drawn to the personality type other laugh at, the kind of person so serious and earnest about life and his feelings for others and what they are doing together (as a worthy task to be done to the best of our abilities), and it’s that terrain Douglas inhabits. In book and film What his wife and son continually, sometimes unconsciously but often consciously do is exclude Douglas. Connie colludes in this; she precipitates the deepest crisis of the movie when she sides wholly with her son in an incident in a restaurant where Albie, rightly incensed at the obnoxious treatment by men full of themselves (fancy suits) of a waitress, carries this too far by going over to the table and provoking a physical encounter; Douglas seeking to calm things and appalled at Albie’s aggression, apologizes for this. Connie treats this as betrayal like that of Brutus to Caesar. The boy, awash with money he’s ever provided with, flees leaving behind a letter saying he will not get into contact with them for a long time to come.

Both then, but especially Douglas, become hysterically worried about the boy – he might be in danger — and Douglas’s psychological state becomes so revved up he begins an impossible quest to find the boy, apologize and bring him back home — to Connie (who, pragmatic woman, has returned home). The quest has its own traumas (losing all his stuff and being w/o money and a working cell phone at one point); it’s killing on his feet, but also exhilarating experiences. His son’s behavior when he finally catches up to him turns from utter rejection to comradeship when he sees all he means to his father and his father has a serious heart attack.


Douglas in Florence, soaking his blistered feet

It’s important to insist this sequence is not just a (ho hum) clichéd rehash of the character on the edge. Douglas has been hurt repeatedly — the person whose generous hearted gifts are not just turned back, but accepted on sufferance. To say he is underappreciated does not get to it. One typical incident: they blame him for not being adventurous in eating, and he goes with them to a restaurant where Albie knowingly orders him very hot spicy soup, and then hands him a very hot overcooked meat on a stick — and Douglas is driven wild with burning sensation in his mouth. He sees wife and son laughing at the table, ignoring whatever he has gone through in a bathroom to cope. If he shows an inability to understand mindless fun (with legos, at a quiz over celebrity items that pass as knowledge) he has given his all, to put it in philistine terms, pre-paid for all this with hard-earned large sums of money.

Given a chance, Douglas is liberal; his looking askance at an art major comes from his worry his son won’t be able to make a living out of strange photographs. I note that while the film ends with an exhibition of Albie’s art, implying Douglas was over-cautious, not trusting to his son’s special abilities, the book has no such scene. When Douglas discovered Albie is homosexual, there is not a second’s pause in his acceptance of his son’s sexual orientation. Matt Cain (The Independent) who wrote the film and book are heart-breaking and joyous has it right. Candace Carty-Williams of The Guardian in a short notice about the film said by film’s end she could not control her tears

At the book’s end for three pages, our usual narrator, Douglas, vanishes, and Nicholls as narrator or author retells Albie’s story from a very different point of view, and instead of the over-indulged upper class white male, naively self-confident (if he is only let be!) becomes an unconventional young man who had an unusual relationship with an artistic mother, who finally frees himself of an over-bearing well-meaning father (he sees this). Connie’s story is retold too as that of the frustrated artist who somehow (as a woman?) held back for 24 years now wants to fulfill herself before it’s too late, and resisting her husband’s pleas, separates herself from him, goes to London, and lo and behold begins to paint and not only that reconnects with this lover (now afterward for sure); she loves this man’s bohemian nature (all the pictures in the room Douglas saw in the first days of their relationship were of Angelo) and finds happiness with him “just in time.” (So as with Austen’s Emma, which contains very different stories of the characters besides Emma that Emma can never see, so here.) Nicholls says these might have made better stories than his own, that is, Douglas is a surrogate for him. We then trace Douglas’s anguish (as I outlined above), leading to near suicide, but holding out, to type in Freya’s name, with the words of the next unwritten chapter “dentist Copenhagen” (her profession and where she lives). For my part I disagree with Nicholls’ sudden startling turnabout and reversal, for it is Douglas’s story of ordinariness, of everyday failures, of the enemies of his promise (he has not been able to become that great scientist he dreamt of over his fruit flies either), of trying so hard and meaning so well, earnest seriousness, of ethical giving that can provide us with strength to carry on.

Several summers ago I saw a 2015 Far from the Madding Crowd (Hardy’s book adapted) with Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba and just loved it (though I never wrote a blog) and tonight have discovered Nicholls wrote the screenplay for that too. It’s the one time I have been able to appreciate Hardy.


Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene

Ellen

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Caryl Phillips (born 1958)

There are those who are willing to pay the highest price imaginable to resist people who would police their identities. And there are those who will pay the highest price imaginable to secure an identity — Phillips, “Color Me English”

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve another author, Caryl Phillips, specific quietly stunning novel by him, Crossing the River (short-listed for the Booker the year it was published, 1993) to urge you to read. Until you do, you are missing out! and thus far (what I’ve read) the novels, Cambridge (1991, powerful double journal of white European woman and young enslaved well educated Black man, brought to a violent brutal Carribean plantation), The Lost Child (2015, a sequel to Wuthering Heights, aka Heathcliff’s story), and original biographical fiction of Jean Rhys’ life, A view of the Empire at Sunset 92018); two books of essays, The European Tribe (a sort of travel book), and Color Me English (more autobiographical, about memory), and all the occasional essays I’ve come across (e.g.”One Grim Winter Evening,” TLS 2012, on the Windrush generation, now being harassed or threatened with deportation!, upon he occasion of the Olympics in London, TLS). I am thus explicit because it’s been my experience than when I mention this man’s name, I get a blank look! Nowadays you need to have a movie made of your book to achieve more instant recognition. But he is well-known enough; here he is speaking to a group of people at a Canadian institution in Vancouver on The City and the Newcomer:

Phillips says he presents “migrant experience in its broadest context; he is draw to the intense frustration and destructive laws, customs and hurt the non-white child knows, the insuperable difficulty of truly participating. What are in a culture true signs of inclusivity and change. Why do immigrants refugees when so punished by the place they come to persist in wanting to stay –- it’s question that could be asked of the Kendalls in the movie Shakespeare Wallah. Why do they want to be loyal (and then of course appreciated, understood as belonging) when they go out and fight for this place and culture and be willing to lose their very lives because it is their country too …

For myself I think what caught my eye or attention was the information he was brought up in Leeds (so I first bought Color Me English), where I spent over 2 and one half transformative years of my life with Jim: where I went to university, married him, and stayed on to work at John Waddington (at the time a card and game company), to wander around the West Riding on buses, see York Minister one day, and just become part of the Northern Yorkshire culture for a brief fulfilling (sometimes hard) moment of my life. The above video will show you how formative Phillips’s experience of Leeds was in his life.


Jim sitting on the gate in front of Leeds Church, 1968

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Crossing the River, is, like a number of Phillips’s novels, a historical fiction, one not made up of one long stories, but several intertwined, with a framing that makes his book, though clearly out of the African diaspora, one which is deeply invested in the vulnerable powerless subaltern person of any race, all genders, from a linked group of imagined interinvolved communities. Three of the four stories are about enslavement, enslaved people, two 19th century, one mid-18th. The fourth is about a young working class woman in England during World War Two, given little opportunity to develop her gifts, find herself, thwarted by her class, then ignorant husband; she meets a young Black man in the American military and they fall in love.

“The Pagan Coast,” centers on the relationship between Nash Williams, a freed enslaved man who is sent by the American Colonization Society to Liberia, and his beloved and loving patron and former master, a father, and once lover, Edward Williams. Nash is repatriated there in the 1830s to establish a Christian mission and colony. And much to his deep sense of loss and grief, he fails. As he story opens, it is seven years since Nash was freed by his master, Edward Williams and sent to Liberia. Now a letter arrives, which Edward reads and teaches him that all the letters Nash had sent had been destroyed before he could see them by his recently deceased wife, Amelia (who just drowned herself); in these letters Nash had at first asked for help of all sorts (money, equipment, advice, support) and then increasingly desperate cried out in despair and loneliness, missing his home and all the people he knew so badly; we read them eventually and learn of the impossibility of the task set before him – the unreality given the circumstances of this country and culture of the people. The novella is about these two men, their characters, their relationship, the painful nature of what each does to try to come up to the ideals the other has of him, and in the case of Edward to himself go to Africa, and rescue Nash — too late.

They are deeply appealing characters whom we see embedded in, unable to extricate themselves from the evils and failures of several different groups of people they encounter on their journey in time and space.

“West” is the tale of the life of an enslaved Black woman, birth to death: like the first, it is told through a flashback – we begin in present time when Martha is old, sick, dying, exhausted, and has been left to freeze or starve to death but in a central street in a town where it’s hoped (supposedly by those fellow “colored pioneers” who had to abandon her they felt as too much of a burden) she will be rescued. She is taken to a bare cold room with a thin bed (the stove cannot be got to work) by a kindly woman who appears to be part of some group who rescue the homeless, and as she lays there that night she dreams of her life. I am telling the story in more straight chronological order than it is told — it weaves beautifully from experience to experience. She was snatched from her mother with her two brothers, put onto a slave ship, brought to the US and sold to a plantation owner who names her Martha — she becomes Randolph as that is his family name (we wonder if we are near the Jeffersons). Sold and the second set of scenes is of her married to a loving man, Lucas, who we first met in exhausted silent despair (suicidal, drunk) because the present owner has died, and he, Martha, and their young child, Eliza Mae are to be sold with the other property. He must tell her: “he took me in the circle of his arms and laid me down” — She also remembers the fear and bewilderment of her daughter, and her inability as mother to provide any protection for her child: “I did not suckle this child at the breast nor did I cradle her in my arms and shower her with what love I have, to see her taken away from me …. My Eliza-Mae holds on to me, but it will be of no avail. She will be a prime purchase. And on her own she stands a better chance of a fine family. I want to tell her this, to encourage her to let go, but I have not the heart. . . . ‘Moma’ Eliza-Mae whispers the word over and over again, as though this were the only word she possessed. This word. This word only.”
This is the moment her mind returns to throughout the story; what she longs for most of all is to be reunited with a dream of this daughter grown up, strong, beautiful, living in a fine house, on a broad avenue — towards the end in California.

What happens is she is sold to a couple, the Hoffmans, who themselves seem to own only a very few people, up close to her they see how traumatized she is, and try to help her by taking her to some evangelical events; these do not take her out of her abject state of mind; then they do poorly and must they plan sell her and with the money they hope to make return to the east. At the last minute, they relent and allow her to escape (with nothing but her clothes a bundle of things she gathers together before fleeing). She knows some happiness once again: next scene shows her working with a beloved Black woman friend, Lucy, both cooks in a shop and laundresses, somewhere in the west, protected by Chester, a man who is kindly, generous, the lover of Martha. The story is dated by her saying during this time she is told she is now free because of the emancipation proclamation, but says it has little influence on her life as far as she can tell. Alas, Chester gets into a card game with some white men, they cheat him, he complains and they return and shoot him to death. She and Lucy are no longer safe; Lucy has a man willing to take her with him to California, but not willing to bring Martha along. That’s how she ends up with a group of pioneers making their way west, and for quite a while worked very hard for them (washing, cooking, ordering things) but finally grew ill, and they feel they cannot keep her, whence she is sitting where we come upon her when the story opens.

The story is deep tragedy – she dies, with dreams of Eliza Mae ahead of her, and unknown to her is given a yet another name by the woman who does not know her name. She has more than once voiced how she dislikes being renamed — it is a form of not having an identity when she has one. Or had. All of Martha’s geographical journeys are also journeys in search of family, and journeys that create and perform kinship ties. She finds other daughters (Lucy) and other husbands (Chester) and they all echo her original family. She mothers the pioneers in their trail westwards, “rallying them to their feet” in order that they may realize their dreams of freedom in California. What emerges from Martha’s story is diaspora of connectedness via the pain of original loss.


Dorothy Lange photo of a elderly Black woman in the 1930s

Two more. I can be brief about the third: it is based on captain’s journal, John Newton, whom we might see or argue is the lowest of low human beings – doing just horrific things to all the people he seeks to control, from his officers, to the impressed men, to the enslaved people in chains (or instruments of torture around their necks), a man who resorts to the lash continually, a slave trader, named by Phillips James Hamilton. For some who have not imagined this or read deeply detailed historical accounts (I recommend Clifford D. Conner’s biography of Colonel Despard, who briefly turns up in Winston Graham’s Poldark novels as Anglo-Irish rebel turned revolutionary who is guillotined for his pains, as a scapegoat but also spent years as the leader of British men in the Carribean trying to steal the Native’s lands from the ferocious Spanish and build communities in the fiercely hot diseased ridden islands using enslaved people.) How hard a business his was – he has difficulties picking and buying enslaved people, they run away, they rebel, they also get sick and die; his men get drunk, humiliate the enslaved, insurrections, disease, diarrhea (he feeds everyone rice) aboard ship as well his life (letters home to a beloved woman whom he treats with dainty kindness, discretion, courtesy) is strewn with difficulties.

How can you leave out the colonialist slaver? the nightmares might not have happened had such people not been possible, not existed …. not somehow been allowed to ply their vileness almost globally. I could have gone over the injustice and cruelties step-by-step. Like reading a day in the life of a guard in a concentration camp in Europe during WW2 – maybe not as – a day in the life of police force in the famous ghetto Lodz. But I spare myself and my possible readers.


Scene from a World War Two movie focusing on a heroine ….

Then the last. I unravel a story told in the Faulkner-Graham Swift mode by voice and diary entries arranged not chronologically but thematically so we must slowly work out the outer story as we confront the inner hidden life of Joyce Kitson — whose name also only gradually is told.

The novella-length piece is presented in a journal or diary form in the voice of Joyce, a young woman during the years leading up to and through World War II. Consistent with the title, the small town and smaller village from which Joyce observes wartime England remains unnamed. Joyce has had a hard childhood continually pressured by her hostile mother who has never gotten over the death of her military husband in the First World War and has taken refuge in religious zealotry. Her mother makes her leave school when she is very bright and loves to read – her mother resent this one pleasure of hers. She goes to work in a factory, and does not fit in. One night she goes to a theater to see the Christmas pantomime and meets an actor named Herbert playing in Mother Goose. Suffice to say she gets pregnant, and when she gets no answers for her letters, has an abortion out of fear of ostracizing and pressure from others, but goes to London to find Herbert. When she does, what a disillusion! He flees her within ten minutes (July 1936 to February 1938 but her relationship with her mother is interwoven throughout the letters from the very opening to her mother’s death). When the story opens Joyce has married a working class (it turned out thuggish, violent) young man, shopkeeper named Len from a small village near the town where she lives with her mother. We eventually discover Len beats her, and Joyce knew almost immediately that the marriage is a mistake Len eventually goes to prison for dealing in the black market during the war, leaving Joyce to run the village shop. She feels for him over this as an injustice.

There is a parallel story: a friend, Sandra has a similar experience of marriage (maybe not as bad) but her husband is also gone to war and either she had married him because she was pregnant by him (or another) and has had a child, Tommy, whom she cannot breast-fed (partly anxiety partly lack of nourishing food) and whom she seems anxious to hide from her husband. She says that she has never been able to deal well with people (she thinks Joyce does) and becomes pregnant again (with a friend of Len’s). Joyce advises her to write and tell her husband. Among other things, she cannot put the baby up for adoption without the husband’s permission. Alas he returns and kills her, shoots her dead instantly. As Joyce’s one friend, Joyce never forgets her or that Tommy, the child, was taken away.

Not long after Joyce’s job has enabled her to meet a young Black (colored) man from the US. The U.S. Army stationed a detachment of black soldiers near the village where Joyce lives, and she falls in love with one of the officers named Travis. He is kind, courteous, fun to be with; they lead off a dance one night. He is beaten once by some white officers for returning late (or perhaps for going out with a white woman). She becomes pregnant by Travis just before he is shipped off to Italy. He is able to return on leave to marry Joyce – whose divorce from Len is finally settled (after scenes of his rage beating of her, demanding she give him the shop — Travis intervenes in one beating) – just days before the birth of their baby, Greer. Travis is killed in Italy, and Joyce is forced to give Greer up to the county as a war orphan. (A parallel to Martha and Eliza Mae.) The only time she sees him again is in 1963, when he comes as a young man to visit her in a new life. Joyce secretly continues to love Travis, even in her new better life, still a working class woman, now with 2 children, and she is portrayed as a good person, caught up in bigotry and circumstances beyond her control.

I have probably not conveyed how this story told another way could take 500 pages and how it wrung my heart. The story includes the bombing and destruction of part of her village – which she registers fully the horrors and ordinariness of — which bombing her mother dies in as she will not flee to a shelter.

The book has a prologue and coda spoken by a symbolic father who has foolishly sold his children into slavery, driven to it he says by starvation. He turns into a universal figure standing for those who give into society, who simply provides as children and then grown-ups the characters whose suffering we live through across the centuries. The coda connects Edward and Nash, Martha, Joyce, Travis, to specific cases and types of the hurt and victimized in the 20th and 21st century. All his children. Phillips brings back some of the most painful poetry in each of the sections.

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Poster Art on the Banks of the Gaza Strip

Orwell said “who controls the past (the way it is described, discussed, taught), controls the future.” There has been and continues to be a real drive to erase the injustices of the past and create self-glorifying – or justifying tales for the winners and powerful to tell of their power, well-meaning good acts. Phillips realizes common ground among the subalterns of the world. – subaltern is a person of low or lower status – those excluded from the hierarchy of power. They may get to row a boat but no say in how or why it’s rowed or for what or whom. I love how he often has women at the center of his books – not that common for male writers and I give him the great compliment that he does not see them from a masculinist POV at all. Why do we read colonialist, post-colonialist writing? So we may understand what we are seeing happening in our world all around us today — and we hope be able to do something to improve matters however small.

Ellen

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