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The first piece in a new series by Catrina Davies exploring the relationship between art and landscape

I take the path through the old forest. An extended family of oak, ash, beech, birch and holly, dripping with bright red berries. Puffed-up cushions of psychedelic moss. Leaves drifting downwards in weightless silence, like the first snow. The ground beneath my wet feet a trillion different colours. The silence full of voices. The woods full of faces. Trees twist into animals and twist back again as I get closer. A pair of antlers turns into some fallen branches. An old man on a bench is a couple of rotting stumps.

The path follows a full-to-bursting river along a valley in Snowdonia that is buried like a dream beneath a scarred and shivering landscape of defunct slate quarries, bleak villages and howling peaks. The old forest is circled by managed conifer forestries. The forestries feel placeless, in the same way that new towns, identikit high streets and shopping centres feel placeless. It is difficult to connect with them. They have nothing to say. The old forest has plenty to say. Sculptor Dominic Clare is listening.

Dominic has lived in a rambling stone house in the bottom of this valley for 24 years. He is one of the reasons I keep coming back. I am fascinated with his garden. I come back and back to surreptitiously peer over his wall. It’s like peering into the mind of the forest.

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Spirals hide behind trees like spirits. Faces blend into the woodpile, making me look twice. Punk haircuts, sunglasses, a charred torso in the fire pit. This is Dominic’s workshop, his playground, his head turned inside out. A sculpture garden and a sculptor’s garden.

Dominic was assistant to David Nash in Blaenau Ffestiniog around the same time that I was born not three miles away (as the eagle flies) from Nash’s studio, in a tiny village by an old slate-quarry at the foot of a dark mountain. Being 50 miles from the nearest hospital, and November, my home-birth was an act of bravery on the part of my parents for which I am truly grateful. The first sounds I heard were not the bleeping of machines, but the bleating of sheep and the laughing of the stream at the bottom of the garden. The light that opened my eyes was not a fluorescent strip light but crackling firelight and the rapidly-changing cloud shadows sprinting over the mountain tops. Like Nash’s famous Wooden Boulder, I resurface from time to time, near the stream where I was born. Pulled back by an invisible thread.

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As I wander, with Dominic’s blessing (having finally mustered the courage to knock on his door), through his barn of a workshop, which is overflowing with ideas, and his enchanted garden, which fills a couple of hay-meadows right next to the river, I reflect on the propensity we humans have for developing strong emotional ties with the places that made us, investing them with deep and personal meanings, loving them like lovers. Art helps with this.

Dominic’s wood carvings have become part of what Snowdonia means to me. They are the human face of this landscape I love. They are watchful mountains that fold back endlessly on each other, like a hallucination. They are cold feet and clouds that descend in seconds, turning an ordinary climb into a terrifying ordeal. They are bogs with arms that snatch at my legs and wind that roars like a dragon. And they are the laughing spirits, faces and voices of ancient trees.

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As he shows me around Dominic is thoughtful. This time next year he will have relocated to southern England, in order to be closer to his family. ‘A hard place to leave,’ I venture. ‘Yes,’ comes the reply. I get the feeling he doesn’t want to talk about it.

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Dominic Clare is a sculptor and land artist with previous commissions for the Hay Festival and the National Trust. His art reveals a sensuous enjoyment in the rawness of form that is resonant and moving. The scale and size of his sculpture heralds the totemic and is made with an eye and heart fixed firmly in the majesty of Snowdonia.

www.dominicclare.co.uk


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by TOAST ( 24.10.14 )

Orlando Random House

Alexandra Harris on fashion and thought in Virginia’s Woolf’s novel Orlando

Orlando’s trouble in the eighteenth century is that she is ‘apt to think of poetry when she should [be] thinking of taffeta’. This is understandable; after all, it was not long ago that she woke up as a woman, having been a young man at the court of Elizabeth and then an Extraordinary Ambassador in Constantinople. In the East she hardly noticed her change of sex; it necessitated no great alteration in her wardrobe, so she put on her customary long shirt and Turkish trousers and continued life unperturbed. Back in England, however, skirts are required. Thought must now be given to their fabrics. Though Orlando has for centuries taken most of life’s challenges in her long stride, her new dresses flap around her ankles and pull her into step with the times.

Virginia Woolf, writing her ‘biography’ of this fantastical Orlando in 1927-8, was apt to think of poetry and taffeta at one and the same time. Literature was, for her, inseparable from the fabrics of which the world is made. Readers often come to Woolf expecting her to be ethereal, and it is true that she is a great writer of absence, of what goes unspoken, of empty rooms and cast shadows; she finds ways to write the immaterial. But all her books are full of stuff, not least the stuff from which to make a dress.

When she writes about loss, Woolf makes us feel the weight of absence by inventorying all the bits and bobs her people leave behind (cloaks, brooches, ‘what people had shed and left’ in To the Lighthouse, the books, notes, pictures, and finally the pair of boots left by Jacob in Jacob’s Room). When she writes about presence, and Orlando certainly has presence, she conjures character from the swish of a cloak or a negligent attitude to skirts. So, while Orlando daydreams at the eighteenth-century tea-table, thinking not of silks but of pastoral lyrics, her biographer interrogates the relationship between inner lives and outer garments.

‘Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm’. For example (Woolf explains): ‘when Captain Bartolus saw Orlando’s skirt, he had an awning stretched for her immediately, pressed her to take another slice of beef, and invited her to go ashore with him in the long-boat’. Social custom has told Orlando which clothes to wear and, once togged out in whalebone, she is treated as noblewomen are customarily treated. Regarded as a lady, she accordingly becomes one, curtseying to her admirers and grateful for the awning, though she is the same Orlando (or is she?) who rode under blazing suns and wielded a swash-buckling sword.

This, at least, is one view. Woolf ventures another: ‘Clothes are but a symbol of something hid deep beneath. It was a change in Orlando herself which dictated her choice of a woman’s dress and a woman’s sex’. Or was it that, possessing manly and womanly characteristics all along (a penchant for drink; a predilection for tears), Orlando could just as well be male or female? Rarely has a jeu d’espirit probed so astutely the question of determinism. All ways around, if the soul cuts the cloth and the cloth colours the soul, there can be no such thing as the immaterial.

Cue, then, a full-dress pageant through four centuries: if we are to know anything of our ancestors we must get a feel for their wardrobes. And since Orlando models the more extravagant fashions of each era, the wardrobes in this life-story are spectacular. Carelessly, expansively, in ten minutes flat, Orlando throws on and off costumes that may – or may not – have anything to do with who she is: crimson breeches, shoes with rosettes ‘as big as double dahlias’, ‘plaguey skirts’ made, nonetheless, from a flowered paduasoy* which makes even Orlando pause, enraptured, and declare it the loveliest fabric in the world.

Paduasoy (from Middle French pou-de-soie, skin of silk): Rich silk fabric, usually corded or embossed

Alexandra Harris is the author of Virginia Woolf, an introduction to the writer’s life and work, published by Thames and Hudson

Pictured: Orlando, published by Random House.


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by TOAST ( 17.10.14 )

Nation Museum of Denmark

Andie Cusick

The parka is often thought to have its origins in the military uniform worn by American soldiers during the Korean War. In fact, the parka goes back much further. Invented by Caribou Inuits, parkas made of skins and sometimes fur were a necessary shield from the inclement weather in the Northwest Territories. The word ‘parka’ is derived from the Nenets language and means ‘animal skin’. Interestingly, it is the only Nenets word that has entered and remained in the English language. Originally made using caribou or seal skin, the hides gathered in summer would provide heavier, warmer coats (they were also used for tents, mittens and boots), while spring skins created a sleeker, thinner coat often worn in layers.

This seasonal approach to coats, with a lightweight or heavyweight option, was further developed by the US Army. Both the fishtail parka and the snorkel parka were designed for military use. The Snorkel N-3B with a full hood (that could be zipped tightly to produce a small, snorkel-like view) in sage green nylon with a blanket lining was worn by flight crews in extremely cold conditions. The fishtail, named for its elongated fln-shaped back, was primarily intended for combat armed forces to wear over layers of uniform. This looser style made of thin poplin offered ease of movement while being wind and rain-proof. It’s thanks to the garment’s practical features that the parka transitioned to post-war 60s attire—specifically, to bikers who found it essential in protecting their work clothes from oil and dirt.

It would therefore be impossible to delve into the history of the parka without mentioning the film Quadrophenia, the 1979 classic depicting mod subculture. Genuine army surplus fishtail parkas were worn by the film’s scooter boys – a look that garnered a loyal following through the 80s and into the 90s, with the Brit-pop set, led by Liam and Noel Gallagher, adopting the style as their own. Fashion followed suit and the army classic became grunge staple, often juxtaposed with items more luxe – think Kate Moss in a ‘God Save the Queen’ parka shot by Craig McDean for i-D in 2002, or on the cover of British Vogue in a fur-lined parka and crystal Versace dress. The parka was a pivotal item for the introduction of high-low dressing, becoming the go-to throw-on for any summer festival.

From indigenous groups in Arctic regions to the military and the mods, the parka, steeped in history, continues to be adapted with new versions each season. No longer restricted to sage green, choices range from varied fabrications, colours of black, navy and brown, fur-trimmed hoods, quilted linings, toggle, zipper or button fastenings. While styles vary, one thing is certain: the parka redux continues. No scooter or migrating caribou required.

Pictured: an Inuit woman wearing a reindeer skin parka, with thanks to the National Museum of Denmark

Click here for Toast’s range of parkas.


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by TOAST ( 13.10.14 )


An animation by Poppy Reay, one of Toast’s talented graphic artists.


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by TOAST ( 10.10.14 )
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by TOAST ( 08.10.14 )

Brittany

Michael Smith

At the end of the summer I spent a week at my brother-in-law’s family home on the Côtes d’Armor, an enchanting stretch of the Brittany coast. Imagine the lush, dramatic green and the rustic stony villages of Wales, but with Mediterranean sun, emerald sea, and pink sandstone that glistens and sparkles in the glorious rosy sunsets we seemed to get every night, pink stone that sweetens the stunning, rugged beauty of the coast and the rustic solidity of the small villages and fishing towns, giving the area the feel of a rose-tinted version of Britain’s celtic fringe. I mentioned this sense of Britishness to my brother-in-law and I realised I wasn’t the first to have thought this: “In France they say we’re Britain’s Cote D’Azur.” The longer I was there, the more it made sense to imagine Brittany as an outlying part of the British Isles that just happened to join on to France.

One evening we caught some local folk music, a tangible link to Brittany’s celtic roots, with its pipes and fiddles sounding every bit like it was straight out of a Dublin pub, only well oiled by lots of that rich, savoury cider that somehow tastes perfect in this climate and this place, and moules frites to die for, made in a huge tent, and devoured by hungry locals sitting down on long benches, eating and drinking as the sun set dramatically over the bay.

A walk along these cliffs is a magical experience – up close, the heather is an explosion of neon colours, rolling down to sandy coves with no one in them. The lighthouse of Cap Fréhel makes for a romantic combination of natural and manmade beauty, and the surrounding headland has blossomed into a spontaneous expression of D.I.Y folk art, where hundreds and hundreds of people have made little towers from the pink pebbles lying all around. It’s a strangely moving sight, these hundreds of tiny pink sandstone towers, as you gaze out at the magnificent blue distance, and on a clear day, Jersey, where my brother-in-law tells me that in the dead of night you can make out the car headlights driving along the country roads.

We were staying a stone’s throw inland, in the village of Plurien. My brother-in-law chuckled as he told me that tourists never visit Plurien, because its name means ‘nothing left’. I didn’t see it like that – it’s a sleepy little spot with bags of charm, an eccentric-looking medieval church full of gorgeous naive wooden sculptures, and a village pub I still can’t think about without smiling. The bar was always packed with locals, and a boozy conviviality prevailed, steered by the brusque landlady who also ran the butchers next door. I ended up walking the family spaniel round the village every day, and soon got into the habit of stopping by the side window of the pub; the lady gave me a knowing smile and poured a cheeky calvados she’d pass me out the window while the dog watered the weeds, before we ambled home past the beautiful Welsh looking rugged stone houses and posters advertising tractor fairs, feeling far away from London, far away from Paris, and far away from all my usual concerns.

Pictured: Ploumanac’h in Côtes d’Armor, Brittany, with thanks to Mark Poppleton


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by TOAST ( 03.10.14 )

At last night’s Forward Prize 2014, poet Liz Berry won the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection. We had expected the news. Her debut, Black Country – about place, childhood and flight – soars with promise. For Liz, though, who says she “wanted to tell a story about the Black Country, the place where I grew up and where my family lives,” the win was “a wonderful surprise”. Describing the collection as a love letter to the Black Country, Liz says, “I wanted to write poems which uncovered the magic beneath its grit and to reclaim its beautiful (though sadly often much maligned) dialect as the stuff of poetry”. In this, she excelled, as you can hear in her spellbinding reading of ‘Birmingham Roller’, above.

Our thanks to Sasha Hoare, Toni Busque and Chris Meade, who created this film for Arvon. Liz Berry is an alumnus of the Jerwood/Arvon mentoring scheme.

Black Country is published by Chatto & Windus.

Black Country Cover680


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by TOAST ( 01.10.14 )

Hakonechloa macra copy

Kate O’Brien

As the sun set on the New York City skyline last month, sweaty and dishevelled from a long-haul flight and towing a travel case with one broken wheel, I decided to step up and walk the High Line. On what was once known as Death Avenue, plant life now bursts through steel seams, running wild along 1.5 miles of elevated railway.

Climbing above street level, I begin on West 22nd Street at the Chelsea Grasslands where the wooden walkway is bordered by a mix of meadow grass (I note fuzzy pink muhly and Japanese forest grass as favourites) and native plants like rattle snake and wild quinine. Prairie blazing star is present in abundance, New York City the backdrop seen from the new vantage point. The architecture of West Chelsea and beyond stands obediently still and I can almost see into adjacent apartments that run along the tracks. I wonder about New York lives and the neighbourhood opera singer known to practise from her balcony. I resist the urge to stop and spy through windows and with my broken bag stowed safely in a corner shop below, move stealthily south without fear of disturbing the peace.

Familiar with the plantmanship and talent of landscape designer Piet Oudolf, I was nonetheless taken anew by this thoughtful wilderness of his. A park in which depending on your mood or disposition either commands your full attention and draws you close (bluestem or prairie dropseed?), or affords the space and distance to push on: study the city’s skyline of the High Line at your leisure.

There were certainly plant spotters, but mostly there were people watchers (in a quiet sort of way). The selection of grasses, shrubs and slender grey birch are practically stage set for the voyeur. This is what I loved most about the High Line. Two builders in hard hats looking friendly, barely covered by firetale mountain fleece. A woman stretched long on a wooden recliner, watching rush hour traffic as if it were a sport. Her feet dancing contently over Frank Gehry’s ICA building, dwarfed in the middle distance. Tourists hover over beds of yarrow, while Parsons students take notes on benches designed for that very purpose. Plants usually taken for granted – like echinacea or aster – I admire in a bright new light. There is the genius of Piet Oudolf. Or is it the effect of walking on a high?

From a bench at 10th Avenue Square, a middle-aged man in successful pinstripe sets down his oversized coffee and offers to tie a veteran’s ragged shoelace. You couldn’t make it up! Maybe I caught the High Line on a good day? He gently pats the bench and a foot arrives between his parted legs. ‘A double knot please,’ said the homeless man kindly.

Walking the High Line that evening was like touring a bright moment in the future, where for once the world aligns and we get it right. At least to me, everybody seemed to be their better selves. I looked on luxury apartment buildings with the same generous eyes I did the wildflowers, forgetting all about the mean streets below and that bag with its broken wheel.

Kate O’Brien is editor of The Plant

Pictured: Hakonechloa macra, or Japanese forest grass – a cyanotype by Holly Mitchell


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by TOAST ( 26.09.14 )

Brogues_Toast

Andie Cusick

As a child, I loved polishing shoes. Every week I would help my dad by buffing his left shoe while he shined the right. I remember prising open tins of Kiwi wax polish; the mustard yellow colour of the polishing cloths; and a couple of well-used wooden brushes that fitted in the palms of my hands. The task instilled in me not only a sense of care for good shoes but pride in them, too.

By the time I started secondary school, Sunday nights staged a shoe ritual and I was no longer polishing my father’s Church’s but my own brown leather brogues. With a strict uniform policy at school, my choices were limited: penny loafers or flat lace-ups. I chose the latter with great consideration. What won out for me was something my father’s shoes lacked: intricate detailing in the form of tiny, perforated holes.

Identified by distinctive patterns punched in the leather and serration to each visible edge, brogues (from the Gaelic word bròg, meaning shoe) were created in the early 20th century as a men’s walking shoe. Originally designed with larger, open holes to allow water to escape when striding through boggy terrain, they were not deemed appropriate for formal occasions, nor were they intended for women. But, aided by Hollywood stars including Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich and many more in recent years, today the brogue is a unisex classic.

Northamptonshire’s shoe industry, which dates back to the 15th century, took note and women’s brogues are now widely available. As Clive Parnell of heritage shoemakers Joseph Cheaney & Sons notes, “The brogue has become finer and more elegant over the years”.

For many years I abandoned formal blazers and wingtip shoes in favour of a little sartorial rebellion — boy-jeans and old Converse or Birkenstocks. But recently, a less slouchy style increasingly appeals to me. I’ll always elect for flat comfort over extra height, but that too is part of a brogue’s charm — for the more you wear them the more comfortable they become. Marcus Jaye, style writer and author of The Chic Geek’s Fashion, Grooming & Style Guide For Men decrees shoes “need to be comfortable as well as look good. A good men’s shoe is something which is in proportion to the size of the foot and makes it look elegant… and will last, once you’ve broken them in.” Cheaney recommend breaking-in their shoes in dry conditions for the first few wears. “With leather soles this is important… it gets grit into the grain and hardens the sole giving longer life,” explains Parnell.

Handmade in England, each pair of Cheaney brogues takes nine weeks to make, from selecting the calf-skin leather to placing in the box. This level of quality has not gone unnoticed. “As traditional English style has come back into fashion, so too has the complementary footwear,” says Jaye. “English shoes, especially brogues, are usually Goodyear welted, which means they can be repaired over and over using the traditional construction. People have realised it’s worth investing in an English pair,” he adds.

Caring for handmade shoes is not only a necessity but also part of their charm — and, for me, a nostalgic reminder of a father-daughter ritual. As the warm days recede, I’ve put away my Birkenstocks for a pair of lace-up, perforated, leather shoes. And I know just how to keep them shiny.

Click here to browse Toast’s collection of shoes for women – including a selection of English brogues, monks and loafers. Click here to see our range for men.


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by TOAST ( 18.09.14 )

Falafel_Ken Anderson

Orlando Gough

Gaza. O, O, O, O.

I’m working on the production of a piece called The Shouting Fence that I wrote with the composer Richard Chew in 1999. It was inspired by a photograph of a woman in a burqa standing on a hillside shouting through a megaphone. The setting was the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights. The village was, and still is, after an endless series of border changes brought about originally by the Six Days War, divided by 50 metres of no man’s land. The inhabitants would come on Fridays to either side of the fence to – how can one describe it? – converse. Our response to this curious, touching, disturbing ritual was an antiphonal choral piece in which two choirs sing across a divide – only 20 metres, cowardly – with the audience in the middle.

In one section of the piece, two women sing, through megaphones, the passage from the Song of Solomon which begins: Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm… One woman sings in Hebrew, one in Arabic. It’s impossible not to be struck by the similarity of the two languages. In Hebrew (excuse the iffy transliteration): Sime ni kahotam al libecha, sime ni kahotam al zroecha… In Arabic: Ij’alni kakhatim ‘alaqalbika, ij’alni kakhatim ‘a la sa ‘idika… Of course, it’s not surprising – they’re both Semitic languages, and have the same roots. The word anti-Semitic, habitually used as a synonym for anti-Jewish, or even anti-Israeli, actually means anti-more-or-less-everyone-in-the-Middle-East. Confusing.

What about Semitic food? The signature Semitic dish is falafel, claimed as the national dish of Israel, Egypt and Palestine. The Palestinians accuse the Israelis of having appropriated it; like almost every other point of contention in the area, the origins are murky. Actually, it’s close to becoming the national dish of the world (do I mean the international dish of the world?), amazingly threatening the ubiquitous pizza. MacDonalds have unveiled their MacFalafel. National dish of vegetarians. National dish of the festival world. Consequently, there’s a lot of iffy falafel on offer. Here’s a good recipe, which my wife Jo makes, courtesy of Sam’n’Sam, the Wizards of Moro:

Serves four

Soak 250g chickpeas overnight. Drain them. Put half of them in a saucepan with plenty of water, bring to the boil, and simmer for about 15 minutes until tender. Using a food processor, grind up the uncooked chickpeas, then the cooked ones. Put them all in a bowl with several chopped cloves of garlic, plenty of chopped parsley and coriander, 1tsp ground cumin, 1tsp ground coriander, a grated onion, 50g plain flour and a beaten egg. Mix well, and season with salt and pepper. Shape into small balls and fry in plenty of sunflower oil. Very good with pickled beetroot as well as the usual flatbread and tahini sauce or hummus. Falafel and hummus – chickpeas and chickpeas – slightly tautologous combination.

It would be a mistake to overstate the similarity between Jewish and Arabic cuisine. But consider also the excellent dish mujadarra (megadarra/mejadra/mudardara etc etc). It’s eaten in many parts of the Arab world, and it’s particularly popular with the Palestinians, but the great cookery writer Claudia Roden’s Syrian Jewish aunt Régine used to serve it, and it’s very similar to several Sephardic Jewish dishes involving rice and caramelised onions.

Serves four

First make caramelised onions. Take three onions, cut them in half and then slice as thinly as you possibly can. Heat 200ml sunflower oil in a frying pan, and fry the onions in batches until they are golden brown and crisp. Meanwhile, cook 200g brown or green lentils in plenty of boiling water for 10 minutes, so that they have begun to soften but still have some bite. Drain. Heat a few tbsp of olive oil in a frying pan, add 1 tbsp coriander seeds, 2 tsp cumin seeds and fry for a few seconds. Add the lentils, 200g basmati rice, 1 tsp ground allspice, 1 tsp ground cinnamon and 300ml vegetable stock or water. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, cover, and simmer gently for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat, slip a tea towel under the lid, and leave for 10 minutes. Mix in half the onions anspicesd put on a serving dish, with the rest of the onions on top. Claudia Roden’s aunt ‘used to present it regularly to guests with the comment: “Excuse the food of the poor!” – to which the unanimous reply always was: “Keep your food of kings and give us megadarra every day!’’’ Serve with a bowl of yoghurt and a relish of finely chopped tomatoes, cucumber, carromujadarrat, mint and parsley, mixed with lemon juice. Very good with burghul instead of rice.

I look forward to MacMujadarra. Actually, that’s a lie, I don’t look forward to MacMujaddara at all.

Meanwhile, the fear and the fury and the recrimination and the revenge go on. A fragile ceasefire is in place in Gaza. But you’d have to be the world’s greatest optimist to believe that it will last.

The Shouting Fence will be performed at the Culture Factory in Limerick on October 17-20.

You can read more of Orlando’s culinary tales in his Recipe Journal. Click here to find out more.

Photo: Ken Anderson.


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