Saturday, March 12, 2011

Chapter Five of Hampton from the Halfway Line


Maidenhead, Berkshire

Well, here I am, back where I started. Who was it, Harry Chapin, who sang, “All My Life’s a Circle”? I’m back to where the food’s not as good, nor the rock music, nor the films. But it’s brilliant for not getting mugged – except maybe in Kidwells Park or in front of the McDonald’s on High Street. Or the ... all right, maybe it’s not brilliant for not getting mugged. People tend to walk around in comfortable clothes, though, in places like Maidenhead, as opposed to London where one has to worry about constantly looking smart. More boring than, say, Camden Town? Well, sure.
I’m way bloody out here, even further away from London than the now-famous Slough Trading Estate just off the M4. I knew Slough before it was … Slough. We’d, none of us, any idea of the romance of the place.
But, as they say in Maidenhead and its villages, “Not everyone can get to Slough. So isn’t it time we fixed them sidewalks?”
But, er, return of the native, eh? And would Ben Hampton have come back to his roots, as it were, had he not made something of himself; had he not become a name figure? Would I have shown my face back in the hood without something to show for my life so far? Dunno.
I’d like to apologize just now for that appalling and pretentious bit of ‘third person’ there. I promise it won’t happen again. That is not me, seriously.
Luckily for my privacy, since my friends will agree that I am debilitatingly modest, the Spice Girls themselves are widely known to have holed up in Maidenhead prior to their blitzkrieg on the globe. So their tidal wave of fame easily drowns me out, wouldn’t you say? Perhaps “holed” is not the word I might have used here.
No, lots of celebrities out here. Lots of important, high-achieving types, you know, success stories, kickin’ back. A bit Tory and all that, but the riverside is irresistible. Near to LegoLand. Say what you want; I’m fifty, mate. Twenty-five plus years of North London, more or less; I’d say I put my hip, urban time in. I now understand the whole commuter thing, the whole Silicon Valley moniker. Someone once said about the Maidenhead area, but they could have been referring to hundreds of similar burgs and hamlets in the south, “Close enough to London for a decent Friday night, but just far enough away to survive the worst of a nuclear bomb.” A rather coarse, post-post-imperialist sentiment, I admit.
Time was, I couldn’t wait to move out of the Home Counties and into Finsbury Park. Eventually, I was more than keen to do the reverse. I still keep an office in London to escape to, however.
When we were house hunting here not long ago, my wife and I popped into the quite pleasant and civilized Stag and Hounds, in Pinkneys Green actually, and I was pleased to see that they were pulling Arkell’s Kingsdown Ale from the cask. This beer has a special, terrible place in my heart, as it was first brewed in commemoration of Swindon Town’s League Cup triumph over my Arsenal in 1969 when I was twelve years old and really crushed by the whole experience. I’d like to think I’ve matured. Cheers, darling. It was there in the cozy saloon bar that we had the pleasure of confronting one of the chatty locals for which Maidenhead is famous. (Something I would have been had I never moved away. Chatty local, that is. I am famous.)
“Of all the places I've lived in this country,” he said, over his glass of Archibald Beckett, “Maidenhead is clearly, unutterably the worst. It's a real shame actually, because its river situation offers the potential to be a nice, well-located town, y’see. Instead it just seems to be populated by barely-literate, violent degenerates – a.k.a. ‘chavs’ – little wankers whose only pleasure in life is to dress up in sportswear, pawn all their neighbor’s electric goods down the local Cash Converters, get mashed on various cheap beverages and class B drugs, sit on a wall eating out of a KFC family bucket, and then smash up people's property for fun. And then have a fight with someone just for good measure. Thinking of buying here, eh? Just bought a flat myself in this dismal little suicide-hole. Tragic town, tragic life.”
And that was the MP.
I won’t go as far as to say ‘the burbs are back.’ One problem with that would be to ask, “Were they ever here at any time previously?” But, er, I get it. You’ve got your edgy and vibrant urban world, and you’ve got what people have referred to as your rural idyll. So what, if anything, lies between? Does it fall to relatively creative individuals such as myself to put places like Maidenhead on the must-visit literary tour map? Or just a celebrity map; doesn’t have to be writers. You know, Howard Jones lived in Maidenhead. Say no more. Rolf Harris, of course. “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport.” Freddie Star -- great. The drummer from Supergrass. Too many to name. Kid Galahad. Take that, Clerkenwell. It’s a veritable Left Bank Salon round these parts.
And tell me there’s not a colorful street life. Charlie the Drunk? Come on. The one and only.
As many know from reading “Out in the Cold” – thanks, by the way – I spent the first segment of my adult life in London trying hard to fit in, or, rather, as though I had always been from there. I wanted to be from there, a cockney from the Avenell Road, because that’s where I believed all the Arsenal supporters lived, for one thing – within walking distance of the ground. Can’t really blame an adolescent for that. Course I was still an adolescent well into my twenties. My first wife would probably go further. You don’t think I plucked my laddish, blinkered, male protagonists out of thin air, do you?
North London, though. I didn’t belong, really. So I made myself belong. And now I’m back. “Back where I belong?” That could be the title of my first solo album. I’d only be the five hundredth person to use it.
There were times, to be honest, when I thought that my attempts at being a writer living in London were just a sham. I had a fantasy of the writerly life and all that it constituted; but, during my innumerable low points I often resigned myself to the strong possibility that it was just that … a fantasy. I’d sit with mates having a fag and a pint and talking about football and where we’d seen The Clash and quite often wishing, pretending that I’d already written the bestselling novel or the pithy literary criticism or the clever radio play without actually having had to sit down and do it.
But that’s the thing. I knew that I could do it. You know, Oscar Wilde or Kingsley Amis in a cheap leather jacket and trainers. By the same token, I seriously feared that I couldn’t. This is the point where millions of people like me, if they’re not vigilant, find themselves having to slug it out with Monsieur Depresser. Or as a highly-respected, former chat show host might say, I was “clinically fed up.” Course I never drove to Dundee in my bare feet.
I tried the obvious remedies: therapy, medication, nutrition, five-a-side, sex. Hm, five-a-side sex -- never thought of that. Blimey, once I even stopped drinking coffee on the advice of some know-it-all. A couple of weeks later, feeling no positive effects from my fast, I was in a coffee bar with a mate and everyone’s having, you know, espresso drinks, high-powered java, caramel latte, café mocha, the usual.
When I told him I’d stopped having caffeine because it counteracted my Prozac, he said, “Why don’t you just top yourself and be done with it?”
Best advice I’ve ever gotten.
I stood up, walked to the bar, and in my best Anglo-Italian accent, said, “Un cafe doppio, per favore.”
Little plastic spoonful of raw sugar, and I’ve been enjoying the modern, cappuccino life ever since. Never felt better.
I’m fine, really. Fifty, but fine. No, fifty’s great. I’d reckon fifty could take thirty in a fight eight times out of ten. Unless thirty does nothing but scrap every Saturday night behind The Jack of Both Sides.
Physically and mentally I feel just as sharp as I did twenty years ago. I still have the energy to do the things I want to do and need to do.
Well, there’s the small talk done.
So, OK, several months back, August of last year it was, I get this phone call from a friend of my wife who asks if I could please ring up a friend of hers immediately about a business matter having to do with ‘me.’ I’m easy going, so I call the number. Rosalie McMahon is the friend of the friend in question, a literary agent who wants to set up a meeting to talk about a book project having to do with a “fascinating” ex-footballer.
She’s laughing, from the word ‘go,’ in this strangely infectious way, like we’ve been mates since childhood and telling me about herself and her children and Île de Ré and her husband the Arsenal supporter and the Clock End and how my name came up last weekend with two other couples at The Havelock Tavern and she thinks we were at Cambridge at the same time or else her sister was there when I was there and Maggy somebody is good friends with Ellen Monroe, who edited “Revolutions Per Minute” with me … and blah-blah.
But she soon gets me to talking without my even realizing it, and suddenly I’m telling her about the breakup of my first marriage and how I was in therapy (She knows my therapist. Great!) and where I met my current wife and which playgrounds we take our children in central London and my favorite place to eat on Brick Lane and why I think ‘Maggie May’ is such a classic song. Then when my head is spinning properly to suit her, she eases back into the “fascinating” mysterious ex-footballer.
At first she won’t tell me who but just goes into this riff about how there’s a buzz out there about this being a potential “Out in the Cold II” sort of blockbuster. The time is ripe for you, she feels, to comment in a big way about where football has come since the early 90s. Legitimate literary fodder, she called it. Who better than you to bring the narrative forward? And she’s got this subject lined up to work with me, if I’m interested, to help “bring it all together.” His story, his personality in the hands of a proven critical and commercial master of the genre (She actually said ‘master of the genre’ like ‘Masters of the Universe’ or ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’) … well, I agreed to meet with her. Her energy was a joy and it caught me up.
I should mention, there’s a word in the industry for what she was doing, of course, in relation to the very act of this conversation. It’s the same word used for criminals who sneak onto South African game reserves and shoot elephants. Still, she sounded genuinely fun. So much of work life isn’t, you know. To be honest, at that time, I feared even picking up the phone when I saw it was my agency calling. Absolute chaos over there, it was; the person who looked after me was right in the middle of it. Very ugly. Whenever the subject crawls into my mind, I’m quite put off by it. Contract renewal time for me was nigh, but that was never going to happen. Frankly, I had come to find this particular firm (recommended to my solicitor and me several years ago by someone at BBC Films) to be something less than the sum of its parts. I’d never felt a real connection with their self-importance and their posing as American ‘players’ and their pseudo-hip air of global-ness. Not that I have a problem with the globe. I just think if you’ve got attitudes and beliefs, then they should be genuine as opposed to being a pretense for the sake of doing business. I’m a writer, not a corporate thing, not an asset.
I would meet Rosalie McMahon, ball of delight, if she would at least reveal the name of the larger-than-life focal point of this potentially earth-shifting page turner. I’m thinking ‘Eric Cantona or maybe Ian Wright. Of course, if she says David Beckham I’m slamming the phone down and getting a different unlisted number.’
“Julius Novak.”
Apparently I just did a fast blink and didn’t speak for several moments because I heard Rosalie’s voice again.
“Yes, I’m here,” I said. “I’m sorry. You caught me off guard, there. Er … I’ll have to … uh …”
“How does tomorrow work for you?” she asked.
“Tomorrow? I’m sorry. What for?”
“To talk about the Julius Novak project. You said if I told you …”
“Oh, right. Er … yeah. Julius Novak? Are you sure?”
“I’ll explain tomorrow,” Rosalie said. “But if you think about it yourself for a few minutes, then I believe you’ll naturally come to the same conclusion I have. There’s a massive story here, Ben. Almost a morality play.”
She was speaking my language.
I laughed. “Congratulations, Rosalie. I’m officially intrigued. Intrigued enough to have lunch anyway.”
“I’m so pleased.”
“Lemme see. Tomorrow is Wednesday? OK. Where are you then? Oh, yeah. Brook Green. How about this? I have an office near Euston Station. We could meet up there and walk to get a bite.”
“Fabulous, Ben. I could fall in love with you, you know. This is going to be so amazing. You won’t be sorry. Oh, wait a minute. I’m afraid I’d need my husband to help me get to Euston Station. I’m quite hopeless alone on the trains. I only know going straight to Russell Square and walking to Coram Street. How far are you from there?”
“Walking? I don’t know. Ten minutes? Do you know the Euston Road underpass?” I asked. “That makes it easier. If you just … ”
“Darling, do I sound like someone who does underpasses?” She bit her lower lip.
“Right,” I said. “I suppose I can get on the District Line at Ealing Broadway and just come straight round to Hammersmith. Not a problem from Slough. How’s that?”
“Much better, thank you, Ben,” she sounded relieved. “You are so sweet. Besides, endless lunch possibilities in my leafy little triangle.”
I’ve worn myself out replaying that first conversation. Rosalie took some getting used to. But as my wife points out, I must have been poised for something like Rosalie McMahon in my life because I was immediately attracted to the idea of working with her and becoming her friend and she mine.
So I’ll tell you about Novak. But I can’t tell you about Novak without telling you about Marianne as well. The Novak story quickly became more for me than just a book about football culture. I know; believe me, I know that I signed on to write a Hampton-esque football biography – a ‘can’t miss’ proposition according to those who purport to know about such things. Interestingly, word has leaked out about what I’m supposed to be up to. I attended a book event in Düsseldorf a couple of weeks ago, and as I was giving an interview to a woman for German TV, I could have sworn I heard some people across the room utter the words, “Oudt in ze Koldt 2.” They were looking at me.
I’ve even received phone calls that have caused me to be somewhat suspicious about the secure nature of my professional doings.
A booker for Jonathan Ross (how did she get my number?) called and said, “We understand you’re writing a book about Julius Novak, the ex-Arsenal player and tying it into where you feel football culture has come since the mid-90s in kind of an ‘Out in the Cold II’ sort of thing. Any interest in promoting it any time soon … say, Friday?”
It’s enough to make one move to the Faeroes and open a Puffin-egg omelette hut. Excuse me while I pop into the kitchen for a jolt with my rather high-end espresso machine. I have one. Yes, lots of people have a kitchen. I meant the cappuccino maker. Honestly, I’m not joking, I don’t believe I really lived until the moment I made my own froth. It was a Sunday morning – a birthday brunch. I lined up several steaming cappuccinos for my nieces and nephews to show off my new gift. I was old enough to know that nothing tastes right if you prepare it whilst familiarizing yourself with the instruction leaflet.
Still everyone was like, you know, “Make a cappuccino, Uncle Ben.”
Tasted just like you’d imagine an ashtray in a work and pensions center. Nearly got me smoking again.
So I’ve gotten to know this couple quite well in the last few months. Interesting wouldn’t begin to cover it. It’s best, when one is a writer, if one’s subjects have a certain captivating energy or allure. Well, suffice to say, I’ve been rendered captive. Marianne, I should tell you, is quite well regarded in her own right as a sculptor. I’m not an aficionado, still I’m blown away by her work, which, at some point for those of you who are unfamiliar with the art of Marianne Papineau, I’ll attempt to describe. Philistines.
Looking at a picture of a sculpture, however, or any work of art really, and actually being physically next to it, are two different experiences entirely. Try standing in the Botticelli room in the Uffizi in Florence and not be transported back to the Renaissance. Or any of the chapels or government buildings or guildhalls or private residences containing frescoes or portraits or statues. I once stood – and sat – for two hours going back and forth between the Venus and the Primavera. Utterly transfixed. I’m aware that presuming to comment on two of the most popular and widely-viewed paintings in the world does not make me a connoisseur. I’m just saying you can’t appreciate Marianne’s sculpture by looking at a snap on the Internet.
Can I mention that, on a different trip to the city of Michaelangelo (September 1999, Champions League first group match v. Fiorentina, 0-0), in the Brancacci Chapel of the Carmine, I actually got a stiff neck from craning up at the Masaccio frescoes for who knows how long.
My mates were like, “Ben, will you come on?” Luckily, we found a pub round the corner and everything was soon fine again with my neck.
Most of the supporting characters in the paintings, the faces comprising the crowds in the background, are actual people from the artists’ time – fellow Italians known to the artist. They come alive for us again anytime we want to pop in for a viewing. But you already know this. Now I’m Sister Wendy all of a sudden.
Anyway. Marianne. Not as well known as Novak in some circles, it must be said. Then again, he’s most likely, largely, if not completely, unknown in her circles – or should I say her curve of the earth. I think I’ll keep that.
I’ve only just met her for the first time. I was fortunate enough to be invited to her parents’ place in the Vermont hills just after the holidays. They call them mountains there, but they’re not terribly high up. Yes, I know I live in the Thames Valley; what do I know? But I’ve seen the Alps and I’ve been to Park City, Utah. High enough to ski though and very beautiful, the Green Mountains. Understated, maybe. Pastoral, you know, Robert Frost.
That visit was one of the more serene yet fecund (as Henry Miller would say) experiences of my life. I was able to schedule it in the midst of a book tour for my last work – the novel for young readers, “Fit But You Know It.”
So far I’ve answered the question, “This is a real departure for you, isn’t it?” about, oh, two hundred times.
Overall, though, the reception has been positive, and I’m glad about the book and proud and sick of talking about it. Next time to New England definitely I’m bringing my family. It was great. Sleigh rides. Star gazing. Fresh milk and eggs. Maple syrup. Roaring fires. Frosty night air. Tacky sweaters.
I need to say a couple of things straightaway. First, that Julius and Marianne are – and I’ve given this a fair amount of thought – my all-time favorite couple that I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Sheer delight. Great people. Fun. Funny. Smart. Genuine. Sensitive but with irony. Accomplished. Comfortable with themselves and one another.
The other small matter is that they broke up for good in 1988.
Yeah, just say it. Not much of a couple really. No sex for almost twenty years for one thing. I asked. Well, if you could see them together, you know, I thought maybe once or twice, right, a couple of margaritas, Christmas Eve, a little Billie Holiday in the background. A light snow outside. Their little girl put to bed. I don’t know. What would it hurt -- a shag? Or, maybe, when someone close to one of them has died, like a mum or someone. There’s the comforting; one thing leads to another; and Bob’s yer uncle. It happens.
The daughter. Yes, their love created a baby, as it will. She’s nineteen now actually. Sparkling young woman. Very sharp. Brought up in Paris. Off to university in New England. A famous women’s college. The world at her feet, I’d reckon. They seem to have managed, all of them. She looks as though she loves them both dearly. I suppose there’s been some sadness that the three of them have never lived all together in the same place as a family – for more than a few weeks at a time anyway. You know, special occasions, holidays and that. Surely there must be. But you’d scarcely detect any ill effects of the separation on Isabel.
In some ways, it’s not all that different from a family in which the dad’s career dictates that he’s away from home far more than he’s at home. A mum would never do that. Even if she were Secretary-General of the United Nations or something. She would be with the children a good three quarters of the time. Most mums. I’m sure there are a couple of shits out there somewhere in their power suits or on movie sets or saving the planet snubbing their tots. Generally, I have a high opinion of mothers. Mine’s a peach.
I still think it’s sad; because as I’ve watched them, I can’t help imagining all the missed moments they’ve … missed. They’ll tell you they’ve compensated along the way, and that they had the money and the lifestyle to be able to patch over the cracks. Granted.
I won’t bore you with my own story, but I can relate to the despair of a divorce involving a child. And as you know me to be a sensitive, levelheaded bloke, you can only wonder at the intensity of my broken heart over the whole demise of my first marriage. Shattering. We both moved on after a bit, but it’s still there – the pain mixed with the joy (and different pain) that came before. Nothing intrinsically wrong with pain though.
I’m not a psychologist, but, for example, Novak. In conversation, when he gets round to Marianne and Isabel, his eyes begin to change. Maybe I’m projecting my own feelings or imagining because I know where the story comes to at present. Perhaps the novelist in me desires a plot where there is none. But I don’t think so. I’m not blind, and in my opinion you’d have to be not to see it.
In his eyes, there is that flicker of acknowledgement or resignation that he has missed out on his raison d’etre -- the crucial bits of a relationship and of family, the zig-zaggy bits that round off the linear bits. That is, to say, all the shit. All the heartsickness and the actual sickness with vomiting and rubbing foul-smelling creams all over one another and emergency rooms at three a.m., both false alarms and the real thing. Your wife’s slacker nephew living with you for a month and drinking all your Worthington White Shield (even dousing a barbeque fire with it) and then you don’t talk to the brother and sister-in-law anymore and there’s a big row or a chilly silence or what did your mum mean when she said that snippy thing about how your wife lets your daughter question the Virgin Birth or any number of ordinary tragedies that end up making the lovely moments that much more joyous and extraordinary.
All the bloodlettings and all the things you said that were merely the worst things you could think of at the time when nothing less will quite do. Throwing her expensive linens in a tree or, God forbid, a love affair. Cancer’s bad. Not to mention petty jealousies, childishness, midlife crises, menopause, and the genuine emotional or utilitarian transformation of one to the detriment or abhorrence of the other. She changes. You hate it. You won’t change. She’d like to kill you.
Yep. Julius Novak missed it.
Tongue in cheek there. No, the crises and tears and stomach upset are among the many threads of fabric that knit us couples together. Not every strand is pretty and perfect. But the ugly patches help make the glittery strips more sublime. The great stuff really pops when you hold them up next to some horrendous low point. And there are countless of those simply because you spend so much time together. Marriage can be an excruciating terror ride and quite uncomfortable.
Without having had a pewter candlestick hurled at your head, though, you might not remember the weekday evening, just at the cusp of a long-awaited springtime when the three of you sat in the backyard after dinner on the edge of the sandbox you just had your handyman put in. The four-year-old playing in the sand, the dogs sitting next to you to be stroked, the light from the sky fading away, the scent of new flowers wafting along. It’s your first house, small but precious and sweet. A tiny garden. Your wife’s bare feet. The dishes still to be put away. Not much privacy; you can hear the neighbors on both sides. You’re still in your office clothes, but you’ve taken your tie off. Everyone is digging with fingers in the sand because the cat’s not shit in it yet. You talk about other improvements you’d like to make out here in the yard. Something in that shady corner where the grass won’t grow. A tree house; a swing. Some lavender. That’s her, not you.
Your life together is under way, and so much is before you. So you’ve taken these moments, maybe fifteen minutes, to stop and talk and think and gaze at one another and your baby and allow your mind to enjoy what you’ve both accomplished to get to this humble but quietly satisfying point. The moment may not be much, but it’s yours. It belongs to your young family and to no one else. No one took a photograph, so you return to it every so often to keep the memory treading water.
Over the years, these treasures of the heart multiply, and what you’re left with is a profound and consequential love. Or just … love. What else can you call it? You don’t say “perfect square.” It either is one, or it isn’t.
Looking at Julius Novak and Marianne Papineau up close, I sense a shape with missing segments – not even half perfect. I’ll spare you further top-shelf metaphors if any occur to me. I do keep things to myself on occasion. Meeting them, though, allowing the experience of them to seep into my consciousness, has got me thinking, I have to say. Don’t know about what exactly.
Well, I don’t and I do. But is this really what I want to be playing at? Thinking about the deeper, more relevant aspects of love and trying to pull it all into some kind of shape and making it sound interesting enough for … you know, Rosalie McMahon and the publisher Jonathan James.
They did say to ‘go where the story takes you.’ Of course in the same breath, they allude longingly to “Out in the Cold.”
But what am I doing? I feel like Novak at the Parc des Princes in ’95. I’ve dozens of safer, more satisfying lanes to travel. Low-hanging fruit, if you will. Lots of writing projects now, much of which I could do with my eyes closed. It’s mad. No one, including myself, who knew me twenty years ago, can believe it at all. My professional life is everything I’d dreamed and more, obviously. In the last ten years I’ve been fortunate to be able to branch off in whatever direction I fancy -- plays, film, reviews, contribution, editing, songwriting, young adult, more novels. And I figure I’ve got a few good years left, eh?
I do have my ear to the ground, you might say. Journalists, colleagues, other people in the book business, friends and family ask me. Le monde stop me on the street. That’s right, the street -- the constantly upgraded sidewalks of Berkshire.
“When you gonna do another football book, they say. Sure loved “Out in the Cold,” mate. Lots of football books out there, for sure, but if you did one …Look how great ‘Out in the Cold’ was, and you weren’t even a real writer yet, eh? Here we are, fifteen years on; you’ve got, what, a sackful of novels and all this other stuff. Write about Arsenal now, mate. Write a book about football. You’ll sell a billion of ‘em. Or what about Maidenhead United? There’s a book. We’ve just got that bloke who scored for Havant and Waterlooville in the FA Cup at Anfield. Go on, Ben.”
I’ve resisted. Wouldn’t it be somewhat trite, I asked of Rosalie? I never ask such a thing of le monde. I would not use a word like “trite” when speaking to le monde. Cliché. There’s a word I could use with le monde. Wouldn’t it be all cliché for me to do a whole book about our national game? I mean, an article is one thing or a Web posting or a clever aside on a chat show. A column in The Guardian or some other daily only takes a person five minutes to read. But can I truly, with my dignity intact, ask a total stranger to pay and then spend a further week or more – depending on one’s reading speed – sloughing through yet another in an endless lava flow of books about fucking football (the game I love)?
Aren’t we sick of football yet? Or at least aren’t we sick of twats getting rich off of our game by our having paid a king’s ransom to watch it?
Ben Hampton has written an enthralling book about football and his feelings for same. Please make your check out for £10 please to Ben Hampton for a revealing book about … football. It’s not a cheap holiday rip-off. Honestly, we think you’ll enjoy it.
Could I live with myself? My bestselling-novel, yet humble and down to earth self? My award-winning, taken-seriously, middlebrow, mid-list author, groundbreaking screenplay-writing self? Well, I could rather; if the subject of the football book were about something novel. You know, novel?

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