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The Great Chain of Unbeing cover

Interzone has sent me Andrew Crumey’s latest novel, The Great Chain of Unbeing, for review. Review to appear in Interzone 275, May-Jun 2018.

Not the most prepossessing of covers, but I shan’t judge it on that.

Crumey has been one of my favourite authors since I first read Mobius Dick in 2010. Not one of his books has so far proved a disappointment. Let’s hope The Great Chain of Unbeing lives up to the standard he has set for himself.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

Headline Review, 2006, 213 p One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

The Hound of the Baskervilles cover

This takes the usual form of the Sherlock Holmes story. A client comes to Baker Street to enlist Holmes’s help in unravelling a mystery, in this case a Dr Mortimer, friend of the late Sir Charles of that ilk, who relates the legend of the hound of the title, said to be the curse of the Baskervilles and apparently responsible for Sir Charles’s death and seeking Holmes’s protection for the heir, Henry, about to arrive in the country from overseas. After some preliminary shenanigans in London our narrator Dr Watson is packed off to the Devonshire countryside to seek information and act as a kind of bodyguard while Holmes does his thing, supposedly on other cases but in reality following his own path to the answer. Throw in a few red herrings like the light on the moor at night, disguises of various sorts, people who are not who they pretend to be, and the mix is complete.

The attractions of the form are readily apparent. The book is easy to read, comforting (Holmes rarely fails to set the world to rights,) as well as formulaic. It is not, though, literature of the highest quality. The prose never rises above the workmanlike, the characters are little more than stereotypes and it surely appears on that “100 best” list only because Holmes has become so familiar as a cultural reference point.

The piece of dialogue, “‘Interesting, though elementary,’ said he,” incidentally shows that Doyle did put that word into Holmes’s mouth (though without appending to it, “my dear Watson.”) It also illustrates Doyle’s irritating use of “said he” rather than “he said.”

Pedant’s corner:- “If he would, confine his energies to this all would be well” (surely has an extraneous comma,) rosterer (roisterer is the best fit.)

Living Nowhere by John Burnside

Vintage, 2003, 377 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

Living Nowhere cover

Some books announce themselves from the outset, one way or the other. Within two sentences (and long before their seven lines ended) I knew this was going to be good; for all that I also knew it wouldn’t be straightforward. This is unapologetically a work that makes demands on its reader; but only in so far as it doesn’t lay its cards on the table openly. Burnside approaches his tale obliquely but in a way that reflects his characters, moreover the book’s structure is unusual in that it starts with sections dedicated to four viewpoints, not always following in the same order but doesn’t stick to those four throughout. They are Alina Ruckert, daughter of immigrants, refugees in World War 2; her mother Alma; Tommy Cameron, come down from Fife to Corby to make a better life for his family; and his son Derek. Alina is a somewhat detached young woman who has made a (non-romantic) friendship with her brother Jan’s bosom companion Francis (another of Tommy Cameron’s sons) who bonded most over photography. Alma feels alienated by her non-Britishness and her husband’s determination to give nothing of himself away. Tommy has brought up his sons to be aware of how tough the world is and always to be on their guard. Derek feels to be not altogether a man as he doesn’t experience the rage all the males around him seem to. That first part of the book is set in Corby, a town which, as Burnside tells it, in the late 1960s/early 1970s was in part a vision of Hell, dominated day and night by main employer The Works, spewing copious amounts of smoke, ash and iron ore into the town’s atmosphere so that clothing always reeked of sulphur and with the threat of violence never far away from its nightlife.

There are strong echoes of previous Scottish literature in the book. Tommy has been influenced by his Uncle Arthur whom he used to visit in rural Scotland and remembers his tales of the old days, “Tommy had never understood how the people tolerated the inhuman behaviour of the rich landlords.” Arthur had once admonished him, “‘Take a look around when you’re back in Cowdenbeath, walking down the High Street. Look carefully and see how many ghosts you can see.’” The tales of supernatural apparitions were about more than superstition, or the casual fatalism of people whose lives were governed by the random, they weren’t about something invented. “They were about something that had been lost. Something important.” Tommy knows to be hard only if the occasion demands it and skewers hard men as, “The boys who sat lonely in their own reputations, cold as stone, afraid to smile or say too much. Tommy knew you had to be afraid of something to spend that much time and energy on an image.”

Alina realises men treated everything they touched with contempt because it was life itself they hated and feared (feared more than hated) and is astonished by her workmate’s determination to get married, recognising, “that real, self-deluding affection that every bride-to-be harbours, against all the odds, till the week, or month, or year after the wedding, when she finds out what the man she married is really like.”

Derek contemplates the oddness of the life of the ex-pat. “He didn’t know what Scotland was. The mythology said it was The Sunday Post. The White Heather Club. The Highlands. But they never had shortbread at home, not in Scotland, and not here, except at Hogmanay when everybody turned into cartoon Highlanders, wandering the glassy streets with coal and bread in their coat pockets, leaving their doors open so anybody could walk in as tradition demanded,” he reflects on the New Year rituals. “Scotland was a myth. Burns suppers, tartan, Bonnie Prince Charlie, knowing what clan you were supposed to be in, it was all a bad myth.” But though none of the people around him at New Year came from that misreflected Scotland of the mind, “they were all going back there to die,” and he knows, “they didn’t want home. They wanted the same Scotland the tourists got.”

He has doubts about religion, “He didn’t want anybody’s love, he just wanted to be treated with basic decency. All these people talking about love, they were lying and cheating and robbing one another all the time, and nobody seemed to care. Maybe that was why they’d made up that impossible religion of love: because it was impossible, and everybody knew it, there was no real pressure to live up to it, no real need to do anything but go through the motions.” In another system based on the “ordinary possible decency of which people were capable, everything would be different.” If instead of having to love them, you just treated your neighbours as human beings.

The first half of the book weaves its overall narrative between the four viewpoints, sometimes seeing the same incident from more than one perspective, and the inevitable incident, brewing for 200 or so pages, which precipitates Francis’s flight from Corby occurs, like so much in this book, off the page, or at least we only come upon it in its aftermath.

Burnside seems to comment on his storytelling when Francis thinks, “the world is divided into two camps: (a) people who believe in stories and (b) people who trust the isolated, fleeting moments that stories seek to string together.” Here it looks as if Burnside has made a novel out of such isolated moments. It’s a bit of a pity that he then then over-eggs this underlining by adding, “like the little black points in one of those old join-the-dots puzzles you used to get in comic books,” but almost saves it with, “It never works. The picture turns out awkward and ugly, the story is, at best, a half-truth.” But Burnside’s story is neither awkward nor ugly.

The second half of the novel is couched as a series of letters from Francis to his absent friend Jan, telling of his life as a wanderer and some of the people he meets, before a coda section provides a resolution of sorts.

Francis meets all sorts, including privileged undergraduates in Cambridge, “they were the inheritors, boys who would be middle-aged in ten years’ time, working in the city or Whitehall, or running the family business, property owners, members of the club, men to be reckoned with….. moral within the narrow bounds of a system that refused to consider the intrinsic immorality of their position.” The pull these types can exert he sees as, “Women are always lamenting the fact that men are attracted to looks and nothing else, but they should see themselves when it comes to men with money.” Not big spenders, not flash but, “that quiet confidence that comes of having a trust fund behind you ….of wearing the right clothes, driving the right car, going to the right ski resorts for Christmas……” In a word, “Glamour.” In this context he tells us, “I love that expression ‘chip on the shoulder’: I bet nobody ever said it who was ever hungry and it was somebody else’s world.”

Of his experience of the US where he works for a while, he suggests, “If these people could only give a damn about something other than their own beautiful lives, they would be extraordinary.”

He excuses his lack of commitment by rationalising, “It’s the best luck a man can have liking women. Not just the pretty ones, or the ones who want to go to bed with you, but all women. It’s the worst luck when he chooses one woman and sets her apart, then lets his imagination go to work on her.”

He winds up in a Fife fishing village, making a living mainly through painting, and characterises the locals, “On the coast the people weren’t so much hard as indifferent,: their regard was fixed wholly upon themselves; if you weren’t from there, born and bred, you didn’t really exist, you were an incomer, a non-person.”

The one woman he settles down with for a while, Sally, eventually says to him, “‘You don’t want to stop moving, you don’t want to belong anywhere, because you think that’s how you are. But it isn’t. It’s because you’re grieving, it’s because you’re angry. Maybe you’re guilty too.’” She adds, “‘Your trouble is that you don’t want to live anywhere.’” And his inevitable reply, the one the book has necessarily been building to, comes. “‘No,’ I said, “my trouble is that I want to live nowhere,” but, crucially, Francis adds, “‘There’s a difference.’” For, “Home, wherever and for however long we find it, is, by its very nature, provisional and tainted.” His knowledge of himself is hard-won. “We think it’s the big dramatic happenings that make a difference, but it isn’t. It’s the long-drawn-out, drip-by-drip processes of loss and betrayal or grief that break us down; it’s the weeks and months of growth after some revelation, and not the revelation itself, that make us wise.”

Perhaps Burnside’s style in Living Nowhere is analogous to Francis’s musings on his painting. “To get it right, I realised, I had to abandon the literal: the meaningful juxtaposition, the telling contrast, no matter how well camouflaged didn’t quite work.” And then there is Francis’s idea of the pentimento. “What if the pentimento was the very point of the painting? What if you did just enough almost to conceal the thing you wanted the viewer to see, almost to hide the image that, because it wasn’t too obvious, would be all the more haunting?”

Substitute reader for viewer and that could describe Burnside’s achievement in Living Nowhere, a novel well worth its place in that list of best Scottish books.

Pedant’s corner:- homeopathic (homoeopathic, please; or even homœopathic,) staunch (stanch,) math (even if he was in the US at the time concerned the narrator here is British; so maths.) “A range of theories were proposed” (a range was proposed.)

The Distant Echo by Val McDermid

Harper, 2010, 569 p. First published in 2003.

 The Distant Echo cover

I probably wouldn’t have read this – I wasn’t particularly taken by the author’s The Wire in the Blood – but the good lady had just finished it and mentioned it was set partly in my old stamping ground of Kirkcaldy and partly in St Andrews (which I know well.) So I thought I’d give it a go. The locations in the book aren’t restricted to Fife, it does stray to Edinburgh, Stirling, Glasgow, and even Seattle but the main events take place in what the locals like to call “the Kingdom.”

The prologue lets us know of a Fife Police press announcement of a cold case review and a shadowy figure haunting a cemetery before Part One plunges us into the 1978 discovery of the dying body of Rosie Duff by four students at St Andrews University (schoolfriends calling themselves the Lads Fi’ Kirkcaldy) taking a short cut back to their flat after a party. One of them is a medical student and tries to save her life but fails. As discoverers of the body and covered in blood they naturally become suspects. The investigation cannot summon up evidence even to charge them and the case is unresolved but they are still subjected to suspicion, threats and violence – especially by the dead girl’s brothers. McDermid makes a lot of this finger of suspicion and the effect it has on the four and their relationship(s). Part Two sees the resurrection of the case and its reintrusion into the four’s lives. But in the intervening twenty-five years the main evidence from the victim’s clothing has been lost and there seems little hope of progress. But the review has stirred the old suspicions and someone has the four firmly in the frame.

McDermid’s prose is certainly efficient but rarely rises above the workmanlike. The book’s structure, too, made it slightly odd. Part One was more or less scene setting, involved a lot of information dumping and therefore dragged somewhat. McDermid makes passing reference to the fascistic fringe and government encroachments on citizens’ rights in the late 1970s. (That sort of thing has become even worse of late with intolerance having been adopted into the political mainstream and governments eager to seize any excuse to restrict citizen’s rights.)

I would have said that it was cleverly executed except that the resolution was disappointing. It has more holes in it than Stoke City’s defence and depends too much on the prior withholding of information from the reader. In the last (tie-up) chapter it is revealed that one of the four Lads had a piece of information that would potentially have pointed to the murderer but never told the other three – nor the Police – during all those twenty-five years of suspicion. We can only suppose this was to create an artificial sense of suspense and it kind of obviates the point of the book (no matter what reason he might have had for his reticence.) Moreover the murderer seems to have been able to carry the body up a hill to where the Lads stumbled upon it without seemingly getting any blood on himself, even though the victim had a gaping wound.

McDermid has a wide readership. I assume they don’t like taxing their brains overmuch.

Pedant’s corner:- the main drag (St Andrews has a main drag?) Roger Waters’ (Waters’s. And I know he wrote Shine On You Crazy Diamond but did he sing on it? Wasn’t that David Gilmour?) “[Kirkcaldy’s] Town House looked like one of those less alluring products of Soviet architecture” (is more than a bit harsh. It’s a fine buiding.) Raith Rovers’ (Raith Rovers’s,) Brahms’ (Brahms’s,) “had strode” (stridden,) “‘Gonnae no dae that’” (is referred to as if it were a catchphrase from the early to mid 1970s. It wasn’t. Chewin’ the Fat, where it originated, was first aired in 1999.) “‘We lay low’” (we lie low – but it was in dialogue and the character had lived in the US for years and they can’t seem to get the lay/lie thing correct over there,) Soanes’ (Soanes’s.) “The sky was clear, a gibbous moon hanging low in the sky between the bridges.” (sky….sky,.) Sainsburys (Sainsbury’s.) Plus several instances of “time interval later”.

Best of 2017

Fifteen novels make it onto this year’s list of the best I’ve read in the calendar year. In order of reading they were:-

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
The Stornoway Way by Kevin MacNeil
The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone
The Untouchable by John Banville
Swastika Night by Katherine Burdekin writing as Murray Constantine
Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Imagined Corners by Willa Muir
This is Memorial Device by David Keenan
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer
Psychoraag by Suhayl Saadi

That’s six by women and nine by men. Six were SF or Fantasy, counting in The Underground Railroad, (seven if the Michael Chabon is included,) seven were by Scottish authors.

Reading Scotland 2017

There are 36 books in this year’s list of my Scottish reading. (That’s three per month on average but I decided that in December I would not read anything Scottish at all.) 18 were written by men and 18 by women. 6 were SF or Fantasy, 3 were poetry, one was non-fiction.

Those in bold were in the Scotsman’s 20 Scottish Books Everyone Should Read. Those in italics were in the 100 best Scottish Books. The ones with an asterisk* were among Scotland’s favourite books.

Under the Skin by Michel Faber*
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnett
Driftnet by Lin Anderson
The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett
Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh
The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie
The Return of John Macnab by Andrew Greig
The Ragged Man’s Complaint by James Robertson
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan*
To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Waverley by Walter Scott
Divided City by Theresa Breslin
The Overhaul by Kathleen Jamie
The Stornoway Way by Kevin MacNeil
The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone
The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison
Garnethill by Denise Mina
44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith
Collected Poems by Carol Ann Duffy
Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty
The Missing by Andrew O’Hagan
Imagined Corners by Willa Muir
The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan
This is Memorial Device by David Keenan
The Magic Flute by Alan Spence
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle*
Pandaemonium by Christopher Brookmyre
The Revolution of Saint Jone by Lorna Mitchell
Psychoraag by Suhayl Saadi
Lilith by George MacDonald

Phantastes by George MacDonald
The Weatherhouse by Nan Shepherd
The Corporation Wars: Emergence by Ken MacLeod
The Wire in the Blood by Val McDermid*
The Golden Bough by James Frazer
Travel Light by Naomi Mitchison

Travel Light by Naomi Mitchison

Virago, 1985, 151 p, plus vii p Introduction by Elizabeth Longford. First published in 1952.

Travel Light cover

It wasn’t till I read Elizabeth Longford’s Introduction (after the story itself) that I realised this is a sequel (of sorts) to Mitchison’s The Corn King and the Spring Queen – apparently the best historical novel of the twentieth century – which is on my tbr pile but a much bulkier volume than this one so I had passed on it as yet. I must admit I was slightly annoyed to have read them out of sequence but Travel Light can stand alone. It is, though, a fantasy rather than a straight historical novel, the tale of Halla Bearsbairn, later Halla Heroesbane, and later again Halla Godsgift, born the daughter of a king of Novgorod whose second wife persuades him to get rid of her. She is saved by her nurse who turns into a bear and takes Halla into the woods where the bears are waking from their winter sleep. Halla spends the year with them picking up bear ways but is too lively for them as they begin to hibernate and so is adopted by the dragon Uggi as part of his treasure, most of which is kept at the back of his cave. Encounters with Norse heroes and Steinvor, a red-headed Valkyrie, suggest this may all be a Norse-based fantasy but events conspire to force Halla to leave. She has an encounter with the All-Father who tells her to travel light. She does, down the Volga to the Black Sea and the town of Marob, then sailing to Byzantium which the Norse had known as Micklegard. The bulk of the book is spent in this environment where Halla learns to navigate the ways of the human world, realising among other things that the emperor is merely a man not the near-mythical entity she had previously supposed. Halla’s ability to communicate with animals comes in handy for betting on the results at the Hippodrome and procuring the money needed for her friends from Marob to petition the court. Halla’s detachment from her human interlocutors, her air of wafting through the proceedings means that we never really feel a sense of jeopardy on her behalf, her other-wordliness, which might have been a danger, is a coat of protection. Along with this, in Travel Light, Mitchison also plays tricks with time.

The book is an example of Mitchison’s interest in other times and places, compare Blood of the Martyrs, and I did wonder about the significance or otherwise of the name which results when Halla is spelled in reverse.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction Dneiper (Dnieper.) Otherwise; mankind were (mankind was,) dispirited (dispirited,) one missing full stop.

The Wire in the Blood by Val McDermid

Harper, 2010, 537 p. First published 1997. One of Scotland’s favourite books.

 The Wire in the Blood cover

I have not seem the TV series into which this was adapted so had no preconceptions, nor illusions to be shattered, but it wasn’t long into the novel before I was wondering why it made it onto a list of Scotland’s favourite books. It seemed like a reasonably standard crime (or police procedural) novel with nothing particular to distinguish it. Okay there is a twist in the sense that we are in the midst of a newly set up (and experimental – for the UK) psychological profiling unit but we have the usual coppers reluctant to accept something different from their common practice. Then there were the things that swiftly irritated or grated. We discover who the baddy is in the prologue, pretty well dispelling the suspense and rendering the sections where we learn how he got to be psychopathic less revealing than they might be. Several early sections begin in journalese – the first three are, “Tony Hill lay in bed,” “Shaz Bowman understood perfectly,” “Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan slipped the original out of the photocopier.” With the odd exception this practice is repeated throughout, though perhaps with surnames omitted. Fair enough we are dealing with a range of viewpoints and authors may need to signal who the relevant character is but this way of doing it is, at the least, inelegant. Then there is the fact that in the text no crime is committed till well after page 100, which for a crime novel, I would submit, is lumberingly slow. The sub-plot, about a fire-raiser in East Yorkshire, seemed only to be there to give one of the characters a tenuous connection to the experiences of the profiling expert. And the victims are portrayed as almost asking for their fate – certainly by the killer but also by the police officers investigating (cursorily) their disappearances – which is disconcerting.

Having said that, McDermid does know her tool – language – and deploys it well (only three entries for Pedant’s Corner is remarkable for a book this length) and her plotting was accomplished even if it unravelled a little slowly and the psychopath’s mistake was obvious from the moment it happened (and somewhat unlikely I’d have thought.)

I have read that McDermid modelled her psychopath on Jimmy Savile (brave for the time, and she expected to be taken up on it) but while he is a very well-known TV personality here and does good works in hospitals as a cover, he is also married – albeit in a sham arrangement – and a former Olympic athlete, sufficient divergence I’d have thought for any resemblance to be muted or passed over. (Plus Savile wasn’t a murderer – as far as I know – and could he have taken the risk of litigation? Might that not have signalled his recognition of himself in the portrayal?)

I suppose the main attraction to this sort of thing is the possible insight into the mind of a killer and in particular in this case to the art of psychological profiling but I’ll not be in a hurry to read another McDermid.

Pedant’s Corner:- fit (fitted,) dissemblement (my dictionary gives dissemblance, but states it is rare. In any case inventing words isn’t impermissible.) “‘Play it as it lays.’” (Should be “as it lies” but it was in dialogue and so may have been true to the character.)

Scotland’s Favourite Book Update

You may have noticed from my sidebar I am currently reading Val McDermid’s The Wire in the Blood.

This is my latest from the list of Scotland’s Favourite Books I posted about here.

Of the thirty books shown there that will be 27 I will have read, the only exceptions being:
An Oidhche Mus Do Sheol Sinn (The Night Before We Sailed) by Angus Peter Campbell which being written in Gaelic I could not attempt except in translation,
Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, which simply does not appeal to me, and
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh.

That last is, along with Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, one of only two books to appear on all four lists of Scottish books I have slowly been working my way through.
(The other lists are:- the 100 best Scottish Books; the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books; the Scotsman’s 20 Scottish Books Everyone Should Read.)

I have long doubted that Trainspotting could be as good as Sunset Song and have so far resisted its charms. One day I suppose I’ll bite that bullet but for now The Wire in the Blood is the last from this particular list.

The Weatherhouse by Nan Shepherd

Canongate, 2017, 211 p, including 3 p Glossary: plus ii p Dramatis Personae and vi p Introduction. First published 1930.

 The Weatherhouse cover

I don’t normally pick up a book according to its cover but I did in this case. It helped that the novel was by Nan Shepherd whose The Quarry Wood I enjoyed a year or so ago. Yet I was also attracted by the illustration which is almost in the style of a 1930s railway poster – a very Art Deco form – even down to the lettering. The house shown is actually wrong though; in two ways. It is much more of an English type of building rather than Scottish and it bears no relation at all to the hexagonal construction described in the text. Pretty, just the same.

That titular Weatherhouse is the home in Fetter-Rothnie of the Craigmyle family, which consists of matriarch Lang Leeb plus her daughters Annie, Theresa and the widowed Ellen. The story though, is more to do with how Garry Forbes, the intended of Lindsay Lorimer, in turn the daughter of Andrew, Lang Leeb’s cousin, came to become a proverb in Fetter-Rothnie.

The former Minister’s daughter, Louie Morgan, claimed after Forbes’s friend David Grey had died in the Great War that she and Grey had been secretly betrothed and carries Grey’s mother’s ring about her neck as proof. Forbes, home from the war as a convalescent, is convinced that can not be the case. He attempts, first to bring the falseness of Louie’s claim to the attention of the Kirk Session (which upsets Lindsay) and then to prevent his knowledge of Louie’s theft of the ring becoming more widely apprehended.

Despite what appears to be a focus on small matters The Weatherhouse nevertheless has a wider resonance, and has some humorous observations. The incidental mention of the man who, because of his brother, waited twenty years to wed his fiancée (who nevertheless brought him children “as a wedding gift”) shows life in those times was not entirely as straight-laced as might perhaps be thought.

Human dilemmas and emotions occur in all places and at all times. Shepherd shows us the humanity of her characters, in all their complexity. This is a fine companion piece to The Quarry Wood. Both these novels bear some similarities to Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song and Cloud Howe but don’t quite have the sweep of the first of those.

Pedant’s corner:- Amy Liptrot’s introduction says Shepherd’s writing is very localised to the foothills of the Grampian mountains and quotes two of the words she uses, stravaigin and collieshangie as being specific to that area. Stravaigin certainly has no such specificity.
In the glossary: keeing (keeking,) snored (smored.) Otherwise: “you’re as light ’s a feather” (light’s,) knit (knitted,) chose (choose,) “a moment before made up on her sister on the road” (before she made up,) a missing comma before a start quote mark.

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