The Reader’s Gazetteer: T

West front of a cathedral with two west towers and one central one in yellow-grey stone, seen across a broad grass green
Wells, standing in for Torminster. We’ll get there shortly…

Tarta is purely a place to spend the night, so I return to The House of the Four Winds and Evallonia for the sake of the inn, which is another of those wonderful Buchan establishments:

Part of it was as old as the oldest part of the Schloss, and indeed at one time it may have formed an outlying appendage of the castle. In the eighteenth century, in the heyday of the Odalchinis, it was a cheerful place, where great men came with their retinues, and where in the vast kitchen the Prince’s servitors and foresters drank with the town folk of Tarta. It still remained the principal inn of the little borough, but Tarta had decayed, and it stood on no main road, so while its tap-room was commonly full, its guest-rooms were commonly empty. But the landlord had been valet in his youth to the Prince’s father, and he had a memory of past glories and an honest pride in his profession; besides, he was a wealthy man, the owner of the best vineyard in the neighbourhood. So the inn had never been allowed to get into disrepair; its rambling galleries, though they echoed to the tread of few guests, were kept clean and fresh; the empty stalls in the big stables were ready at a moment’s notice for the horses that never came; there was good wine in the cellars against the advent of a connoisseur. It stood in an alley before you reached the market-place, and its courtyard and back parts lay directly under the shadow of the castle walls.

You could come by horse, as implied here, but it’s the 1930s and this party is travelling by car. Start in the Tirol (more on that next time), drive all day, cross the Rave, pass through the village of Zutpha, and follow the boundary of the Odalchini estate. Dinner will be worth it.

Alyssa Cole’s Thesolo takes us to Africa for the first time in this series. (In fact, reading her Reluctant Royals series earlier would have solved my problem finding a place for the letter N, since we also visit a country called Njaza.)

I have to say that I think the way that Cole introduces the country is absolute genius: our heroine Naledi receives an email headed Salutations from the Royal Family of Thesolo. No wonder she thinks it’s a scam. The reader, more familiar with the conventions of the genre, knows better, and into that gap between the character’s suspicions and the reader’s knowledge Cole slips an entire country.

Much of the action takes place in the USA, and we learn about Thesolo little by little. It’s in the south of Africa. (In fact, a little anagram work makes it seem plausible that it’s modelled on Lesotho.) There is ‘an above ground light rail system in the main city’. (This is the sort of detail I like. I am always here for fictional public transport infrastructure.)

It’s at about the two thirds mark that we arrive in Thesolo, and it is perhaps not what we expect:

Your current location is fifteen hundred feet above sea level, nestled in the mountains, and it is winter. It’s ski season here.

You can get there by private jet, getting a good view of the mountains and waterfalls, if you are a reluctant royal. There seems to be a reasonable commercial service, too. And of course the longer we spend there the more we learn about the culture, the scenery – and the politics. Of which there are plenty. Delicious.

And T has a cathedral city, too, in Torminster. Elizabeth Goudge says in the foreword to my edition:

Torminster is not an entirely accurate picture of Wells in Somerset, where I was born and spent the first eleven years of my life, but I think it is an accurate picture of a small west-country cathedral city in those safe, motorless days.

I have a soft spot for Wells; I was there for a week with a visiting choir in the summer of 2013, and spent most of the time when I wasn’t rehearsing finally getting Speak Its Name into a coherent shape. Here is Torminster in the narrative:

The train swung round a bend, the blue hills parted like a curtain and the city of Torminster was visible. Seen from a little distance it had a curiously insubstantial air, as though it were something real yet intangible, a thing you could see but not touch. It lay in a hollow of the hills like a child in its mother’s lap, and it seemed that as it lay there it slept. It looked so quiet that it was hard to believe the ordinary life of men and women went on in its streets. Rather it seemed a buried city sunk at the bottom of the sea, where no life stirred and no sound was heard but the ringing of the bells as the tide surged through forgotten towers and steeples. Jocelyn could see a confused mass of roofs and chimneys and church spires, some high and some low, weather-stained and twisted by age into fantastic shapes. The smoke from the chimneys went straight up into the windless air and then seemed to dissolve into a mist that lay over the city like the waves of the sea that had drowned it, and out of this sea rose a grey rock with three towers… The cathedral… It stood there gloriously, its majesty softened by the warm day but not diminished, its towers a little withdrawn in the sky but no less watchful.

Gorgeous.

Books mentioned in this post

The House of the Four Winds, John Buchan

A Princess in Theory, Alyssa Cole

A Prince on Paper, Alyssa Cole

City of Bells, Elizabeth Goudge

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The Reader’s Gazetteer: P

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We were in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Orsinia for the last post in this series, and we’re going to stay there for a little while, in Portacheyka:

… whose peaked slate roofs and climbing streets lay under the windows of the monastery school… The town was set in a deep gap between Sinivya and San Givan Mountains; framed by the towering slopes, Portacheyka’s northward view had a quality of vision. It seemed as if the shadowed pass could not lead out to those remote and sunlit, azure hills, but only look down on them as if on fabled kingdoms across the barrier of possibility. When clouds gathered full of thunder on the peaks and hung low over the town sometimes the view of the lower hills shone out in a clear, golden light, an enchanted realm, free of the storm and the darkness of the heights.

Those lovely mountains! I’m living in a very flat land at the moment, and have to find my gradients where I can. Fiction is as good a way to get there as any.

Idling by the Golden Lion Inn, Itale saw the coaches of the Southwestern Post set off for distant cities or come in, high, swaying, dusty, from their journeys; and Portacheyka, the gateway of his province, had for him the glamor of voyage and the unknown that a seaport has for one whose country’s border is the sea.

Indeed, there’s nothing to stop characters from a fictional location to find their way into less fictional ones. In John Buchan’s Castle Gay some mysterious foreigners turn up in Scotland, which is real enough, and the town of Portaway, which isn’t,  and find it a lively place.

The town of Portaway lies on both banks of the Callowa, which there leaves its mountain vale and begins its seven miles of winding through salty pastures to the Solway. The old town is mostly on the left shore; on the right has grown up a suburb of villas and gardens, with one flaring Hydropathic, and a large new Station Hotel, which is the resort of golfers and anglers. The capital of the Canonry is half country market town, half industrial centre, for in the hills to the south-east lie the famous quarries, which employ a large and transient population. Hence the political activities of the constituency centre in the place. The countryside is Tory or Liberal; among the quarrymen is a big Socialist majority, which its mislikers call Communist.

To tell the truth, it didn’t occur to me until I started this blog series that Portaway and the Canonry were made up by Buchan. Having had the Dickson McCunn books read to me as a child, it didn’t occur to me to doubt any of the Scottish bits. I understood of course that there wasn’t any such place as Evallonia, because you can’t very well have your characters meddle in the affairs of real monarchs, but what’s a by-election here or there? When I was eleven, Portaway was as real as London, and both were a very long way from where I was, just on the English side of the Welsh border.

Actually, this is a really good example of how to introduce a fictional location in half a paragraph. We have the physical geography, contextualised with a real-world feature, and then, more importantly, we learn about the people: the residents, the visitors, the workers, the politics (and those take us back to the physical geography: no quarries, no workers). The casual ‘famous’ is doing a lot of work, here; if we haven’t heard of this place before, it implies, then that’s an accident, because it’s been there all along. The politics will turn out to be useful a few chapters later, but here it’s doing the equally important job of telling us what this town is like some time in the 1930s.

In the same decade, we can travel through a little cluster of English villages along with Lord Peter Wimsey and his new bride, previously Harriet Vane, on the way to their Busman’s Honeymoon. After a day that’s taken them from Oxford (apologies: that map was the best I could find) to London, in an epistolary prologue composed of the first person narratives of various friends and relations, we follow Peter and Harriet (and, of course, Bunter) into Hertfordshire:

A town with a wide stone bridge, and lights reflected in the river…

‘Are we getting anywhere near?’

‘Yes – this is Great Pagford, where we used to live. Look! that’s our old house with the three steps up to the door – there’s a doctor there still, you can see the surgery lamp… After two miles you take the right-hand turn for Pagford Parva, and then it’s another three miles to Paggleham, and sharp left by a big barn and straight on up the lane.’

It’s an expansive, disjointed, chapter, with the time of the journey filled with memories: earlier in the day; earlier in the week; earlier in Harriet’s life. Paggleham is perhaps too much a stereotype of an English village, or perhaps the problem is more with its residents. I rather think that’s meant to be a feature, not a bug, at least in Harriet’s eyes:

In London, anybody, at any moment, might do or become anything. But in a village – no matter what village – they were all immutably themselves; parson, organist, sweep, duke’s son, and doctor’s daughter, moving like chessmen upon their allotted squares.

And of course it undercuts itself: usually dukes’ sons don’t marry doctors’ daughters. But that happened in London. I’m still very fond of this book, though, and ended up rereading the whole thing the day I looked up that passage.

Finally, further west, J. K. Rowling has another Pagford. I’m not sure that I would want to reread The Casual Vacancy – partly for the appalling fatphobia, partly because the whole thing is intentionally pretty bleak – but it definitely deserves its place in this series. It’s a fairly typical English village, in both appearance and culture:

They drove down Church Row, the steeply sloping street where the most expensive houses stood in all their Victorian extravagance and solidity, around the corner by the mock-Gothic church, where he had once watched his twin girls perform Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and across the Square, where they had a clear view of the dark skeleton of the ruined abbey that dominated the town’s skyline, set high on a hill, melding with the violet sky.

But what makes it particularly credible is the politics, of which there is plenty. I’m not sure that I can find a particular passage to quote, because the whole novel is saturated with the pettiness, the power games, the paranoia, of local politics; it informs everyone’s actions and character, usually not for the better. Some of Rowling’s characters are as much caricatures as Sayers’ are, and as susceptible to Funetik Aksents, but the overall impression is depressingly convincing. It’s the people that make Pagford what it is: a small-minded, suspicious, affluent, Nimbytown. You might want to live there, but you wouldn’t want to think about it too hard.

Books mentioned in this post

Castle Gay, John Buchan

Malafrena, Ursula K. Le Guin

The Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling

Busman’s Honeymoon, Dorothy L. Sayers

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The Reader’s Gazetteer: K

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K is a much easier letter than J. People might get stuck on the th or the ee in my name (in any sensible language that would be an i or an í) but they always get the k right.

I wanted to say something about place names beginning with K having a sense of exoticism that proclaims to us that we’re abroad without subjecting us to the embarrassment of not knowing how to pronounce them. Then I remembered that I grew up between Knighton and Kingsland, with Kington not that far away. And indeed, there are some fictional British places beginning with K: Thomas Hardy has Kennetbridge (it’s about an hour from London Paddington) and Kingsbere (take the train from Waterloo and then the bus from Casterbridge) and Knollsea (train to Anglebury, and then there’s a bus).*

I suppose I must have been thinking of Sophy of Kravonia. It feels wrong to deal with that one before The Prisoner of Zenda, but hey, that’s the way the alphabet works. Kravonia also doesn’t quite meet my requirements in that I still have only the haziest idea of where it actually is:

Kravonia was a rich country, and its geographical position was important. The history of the world seems to show that the standard of civilization and morality demanded of a country depends largely on its richness and the importance of its geographical position.

The neighbour on the west had plenty of mountains, but wanted some fertile plains. The neighbour on the east had fertile plains adjacent to the Kravonian frontier, and would like to hold the mountain line as a protection to them. A far-seeing statesman would have discerned how important correct behavior was to the interests of Kravonia! The great neighbours began to move in the matter, but they moved slowly. They had to see that their own keen sense of morality was not opposed to the keen sense of morality of other great nations. The right to feel specially outraged is a matter for diplomatic negotiations, often, no doubt, of great delicacy.

The publication date of 1906 might provide a clue, but then again it might not. Any ideas?

I’ll look at the careful placing of Ruritania, Strelsau and Zenda later in the series. In the meantime, I do rather get the sense that Anthony Hope had been asked for another Zenda and was phoning it in. Or sending himself up. (Sophy, the Rudolf Rassendyll analogue, is a kitchen maid from Essex with a flair for languages, which I suppose makes her exactly as qualified to run a country as an idle younger son of the aristocracy. The prince is interested in one thing, and that one thing is big guns.) Never mind.

We return to The House of the Four Winds to visit Kremisch and Krovolin. Kremisch is just this side of the border from Evallonia – which border isn’t specified, since John Buchan has gone to quite a lot of trouble to get us there without knowing, or really caring, where exactly we are. And, like many places in Buchan’s oeuvre, it has a really, really good pub:

The inn at Kremisch, the Stag with the Two Heads, has an upper room so bowed with age that it leans drunkenly over the village street. It is a bare place, which must be chilly in winter, for the old casement has many chinks in it, and the china stove does not look efficient, and the rough beechen table, marked by many beer mugs, and the seats of beechwood and hide are scarcely luxurious. But on this summer night to one who had been tramping all day on roads deep in white dust under a merciless sun it seemed a haven of ease. Jaikie had eaten an admirable supper on a corner of the table, a supper of cold ham, an omelet, hot toasted rye-cakes and a seductive cheese. He had drunk wine tapped from a barrel and cold as water from a mountain spring, and had concluded with coffee and cream in a blue cup as large as a basin. Now he could light his pipe and watch the green dusk deepen behind the onion spire of the village church.

Krovolin is the monarchist headquarters in Evallonia, and a good distance from the border:

The great forest of St Sylvester lies like a fur over the patch of country through which the little river Silf -the Amnis Silvestris of the Romans – winds to the Rave. At the eastern end, near the Silf’s junction with the main river, stands the considerable town of Krovolin; south of it stretch downs studded with the ugly headgear of oil wells; and west is the containing wall of the mountains. It is pierced by one grand highway, and seamed with lesser roads, many of them only grassy alleys among the beeches.

We spend quite a lot of the book getting there, and then get a somewhat fragmentary picture of the town, fitted in around the action:

The cars turned along the edge of the water over vile cobbles, and presently wove their way into a maze of ancient squalor. This was the Krovolin of the Middle Ages, narrow lanes with high houses on both sides, the tops of which bent forward to leave only a slender ribbon of sky.

There’s a Street of the White Peacock, and a hotel called the Three Kings of the East. Which, by the way, has a ‘pleasant restaurant’, but there’s no word on the menu. Maybe one would do better to stay in Kremisch after all. On the other hand, we haven’t got to Tarta yet…

Books mentioned in this post

The House of the Four Winds, John Buchan

Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy

Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy

The Hand of Ethelberta, Thomas Hardy

Sophy of Kravonia, Anthony Hope

*I should say that I’m relying on the Wikipedia page for Thomas Hardy’s Wessex and Traveline for this guidance. The author of this blog takes no responsibility etc etc. Besides, do you really want to end up in a Hardy novel?

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The Reader’s Gazetteer: E

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The second post in this Dickson McCunn mini-series takes him, and us, to Evallonia. We’ve left Dalquharter; we’ve left Glasgow. But, for the duration of Castle Gay at least, we are still in Scotland.

Buchan does a thorough job of setting up Evallonia, taking advantage of the disarray at the end of the Great War to suggest that it was always there; we just hadn’t been paying attention. In the middle of the newspaper magnate Mr Thomas Carlyle Craw’s biographical note he reminds us:

It will be remembered that a republic had been established there in 1919, apparently with the consent of its people. But rifts had since appeared within the lute. There was a strong monarchist party among the Evallonians, who wished to reinstate their former dynasty, at present represented by an attractive young Prince, and at the same time insisted on the revision of Evallonian boundaries. To this party Thomas gave eloquent support. He believed in democracy, he told his millions of readers, and a kingdom (teste Britain) was as democratic a thing as a republic: if the Evallonians wanted a monarch they should be allowed to have one: certain lost territories, too, must be restored, unless they wished to see Evallonia Irredenta a permanent plague-spot. His advocacy made a profound impression in the south and east of Europe, and to Evallonian monarchists the name of Craw became what that of Palmerston was once to Italy and Gladstone to Bulgaria.

My father skipped most of this chapter when reading the book to me as a child, so we could get straight to the action. But I rather think he included this paragraph. It establishes Evallonia in the guise of telling us more about Mr Craw; it gives us a vague geographical location; in describing current politics it suggests the past; and, invoking real names and real countries, slots it neatly into real history.

Mr Craw is repaid for his interest in Evallonia with a visit. Several visits. But the action doesn’t leave Scotland. Evallonia comes to him.

In the next book we go there. Incidentally, if I had to credit one book and one book alone for my desire to go wandering around Europe, it would be The House of the Four Winds. It’s this passage that did it:

The milestones in his journey had been the wines. Jaikie was no connoisseur, and indeed as a rule preferred beer, but the vintage of a place seemed to give him the place’s flavour and wines made a diary of his pilgrimage. His legs bore him from valley to valley, but he drank himself from atmosphere to atmosphere. He had begun among strong burgundies which needed water to make a thirst-quenching drink, and continued through the thin wines of the hills to the coarse red stuff of south Germany and a dozen forgotten little local products. In one upland place he had found a drink like the grey wine of Anjou, in another a sweet thing like Madeira, and in another a fiery sherry. Each night at the end of his tramp he concocted a long drink and he stuck manfully to the juice of the grape; so, having a delicate palate and a good memory, he had now behind him a map of his track picked out in honest liquors.

Each was associated with some vision of sun-drenched landscape. He had been a month on the tramp, but he seemed to have walked through continents. As he half dozed at the open window, it was pleasant to let his fancy run back along the road. It had led him through vineyards grey at the fringes with dust, through baking beet-fields and drowsy cornlands and solemn forests; up into wooded hills and flowery meadows, and once or twice almost into the jaws of the great mountains; through every kind of human settlement, from hamlets which were only larger farms to brisk burghs clustered round opulent town houses or castles as old as Charlemagne; by every kind of stream – unfordable great rivers, and milky mountain torrents, and reedy lowland waters, and clear brooks slipping through mint and water-cress. He had walked and walked, seeking to travel and not to arrive, and making no plans except that his face was always to the sunrise.

It takes him – this is the first chapter, so it’s hardly a spoiler – to Evallonia. Which is all set for a revolution, but nobody can quite agree on what it ought to look like. It has a youth movement, Juventus, which I suppose is what the Hitler Jugend might have been like had it somehow managed to get rid of Hitler and become its own thing: ‘… no less than a resurgence of the spirit of the Evallonian nation,’ says Count Paul Jovian.

He explained how it had run through the youth of the country like a flame in stubble. ‘We are a poor people,’ he said, ‘though not so poor as some, for we are closer to the soil, and less dependent upon others. But we have been stripped of some of our richest parts where industry flourished, and many of us are in great poverty. Especially it is hard for the young, who see no livelihood for them in their fathers’ professions, and can find none elsewhere. Evallonia, thanks to the jealous Powers, has been reduced to too great an economic simplicity, and has not that variety of interests which a civilized society requires. Also there is another matter. We have always made a hobby of our education, as in your own Scotland. Parents will starve themselves to send their sons to Melina to the university, and often a commune itself will pay for a clever boy. What is the consequence? We have an educated youth, and no work for it. We have created an academic proletariat and it is distressed and bitter.’

Although Jaikie notes that it doesn’t quite sound like his friend talking. You can’t quite believe what anybody tells you about Evallonia.

(I always have to check the publication date on this book. 1935, though my Penguin copy says 1925. This would be impossible in terms of Jaikie’s age if nothing else: he can’t be older than about nine in Huntingtower, just after the War.)

I would still have difficulty pointing to Evallonia on a map (‘er… somewhere in the Balkans…?’) but Buchan does a very good job of making me believe that if I set out walking south and east, not really bothered about where I was going, I’d have a good chance of ending up there.

There are, because this is Buchan, some glorious landscapes, but I’m going to save most of them for towns that begin with letters later in the alphabet. Here, though, is Jaikie looking back towards the frontier:

His eye crossed the Rave and ran along a line of hills ten miles or so to the west. They were only foot-hills, two thousand feet high at the most, but beyond he had a glimpse of remote mountains. He saw to his left the horseshoe in which Tarta and its Schloss lay – he could not see the pass that led to Kremisch, since it was hidden by a projecting spur. To the north the hills seemed to dwindle away into a blue plain. Just in front of him there was a deeply-recessed glen, the containing walls of which were wooded to the summit, but at the top the ridge was bare, and there was cleft-shaped like the back-sight of a rifle. In that cleft the sun was most spectacularly setting.

Ivar followed his gaze. ‘That is what we call the Wolf’s Throat. It is the nearest road to the frontier. There in that cleft is the western gate of Evallonia.’

Finding your way to a place is one thing. Finding your way out again can be another thing entirely.

Books referred to in this post

Castle Gay, John Buchan

The House of the Four Winds, John Buchan

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The Reader’s Gazetteer: D

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D and E will both feature books from John Buchan’s Dickson McCunn series. I’m not going to apologise for this: I can think of few authors who are so good at landscapes, either real or imaginary, and, if you don’t know the place yourself, it’s difficult to tell where the seam is between the two.

D is for Dalquharter, but it’s interesting to see how Dickson McCunn gets there. He starts in Glasgow – real enough – and takes a train.

A little after midday he descended from a grimy third-class station whose name I have forgotten. In the village near-by he purchased some new-baked buns and ginger biscuits…

We’re already in imaginary countryside. Dickson stays overnight in a village called Cloncae, which Google optimistically suggest might be an anagram of ‘Conceal’, and passes through Kilchrist, which also seems to be fictional. Then he reaches Kirkmichael, which might or might not be this village, and spends the night at the Black Bull before setting out again:

Westward there ran out a peninsula in the shape of an isosceles triangle, of which his present high-road was the base. At a distance of a mile or so a railway ran parallel to the road, and he could see the smoke of a goods train waiting at a tiny station islanded in acres of bog. Thence the moor swept down to meadows and scattered copses, above which hung a thin haze of smoke which betokened a village. Beyond it were further woodlands, not firs but old shady trees, and as they narrowed to a point the gleam of two tiny estuaries appeared on either side. He could not see the final cape, but he saw the sea beyond it, flawed with catspaws, gold in the afternoon sun, and on it a small herring smack flapping listless sails.

And then he gets the map out:

The peninsula was called the Cruives – an old name apparently, for it was in antique lettering. He vaguely remembered that ‘cruives’ had something to do with fishing, doubtless in the two streams which flanked it. One he had already crossed, the Laver, a clear tumbling water springing from green hills; the other, the Garple, descended from the rougher mountains to the south. The hidden village bore the name of Dalquharter, and the uncouth syllables awoke some vague recollection in his mind.

By this point I’m very happily convinced. I’ve had my railway journey (and some extra trains), I have a reasonable idea how I’d get there from the real world, and I have been shown the map.

Dickson encounters a poet, John Heritage, who he’s been avoiding, and they speculate about Dalquharter and Dickson’s psyche before heading towards the village.

In front of groves of birch and rowan smoked the first houses of a tiny village. The road had become a green ‘loaning’, on the ample margin of which cattle grazed. The moorland still showed itself in spits of heather, and some distance off, where a rivulet ran in a hollow, there were signs of a fire and figures near it…

… There were not more than a dozen whitewashed houses, all set in little gardens of wallflower and daffodil and early fruit blossom. A triangle of green filled the intervening space, and in it stood an ancient wooden pump. There was no schoolhouse or kirk; not even a post-office – only a red box in a cottage side. Beyond rose the high wall and the dark trees of the demesne, and to the right up a by-road which clung to the park edge stood a two-storeyed building which bore the legend ‘The Cruives Inn’.

And we’re off. Up until now, Dickson was on holiday; from here on it, it’s an adventure. And this, I think, is why the McCunn stories are my favourites. I don’t have mysterious men getting murdered in my London flat, and I don’t get recruited for spying missions. But I do go on holiday. I haven’t had a holiday turn into an adventure as yet, though there was that time I found myself in Vienna, explaining to an opera singer how to go about organising a strike…

Come to think of it, that’s probably John Buchan’s fault, too. More on that next time.

Books referred to in this post

Huntingtower, John Buchan

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