Traveller's tales

Friday, September 29, 2006

Looking back and looking forward

Walking around Ashton market one sunny day, we happened on a stall selling old photographs – black and white, mostly, but some older, sepia toned ones too.

Flipping through them, my Mum suddenly shouted.
“That’s my Dad,” she cried, and picked up the photograph to make sure. It was my grandfather, and although he had died when I was about 15, I could still tell his gait, the slope of his cloth cap, and his 5 by 5 build – he’d played as a centre half for the teams that later became better known as Oldham Athletic, and the famous Manchester United, once a team of railway men and called Newton Heath.

We looked at the scene, very familiar to both of us – Shaw Hall Bank Road, Greenfield, or Grenfelt, as my grandparents called the place where they had brought up their four children – David, Beryl (my mother), Walter, and Jean. Both uncles are long gone, but Mum’s well enough, and Jean’s as sound as a bell.

The gas lamp went long ago, replaced by an electric arc lamp high above the pavement where the two men are seen talking. By the look of Edgar, my grandfather, he was coming home from work, taking the time to have a few words with one of his cronies from the Railway public house at the other end of the road.

Living in a place where things change almost overnight, it’s odd to see a photograph of a corner that has hardly changed at all in more than 50 years or more.

What will our world look like half a century from now, and will people have time to say a few words to anyone?
Robert L. Fielding


"Of course I live here in Trabizon, but I am not Turkish. You see, I have to put a sound between the b and the z. It is not possible to say this word like you Turks say it.
My language is Georgian, and of course I know Russian but do not speak it anymore. We had to learn it at school, but we didn't speak it very much. If ever we had to go up to that frozen city in the north, we would practise Russian, but Georgian is my language, and now a little Turkish.
I came here because it is not very far from my village in the green hills of Georgia. We do not grow tea as you do along this coast. We used to but the 5 Year Plans never allowed for it, and so we only grew it for our own use, a little patch behind the kitchen.
Nobody loves tea like a Georgian, except the Turkish, and the English who do not make tea like we do. We know how to brew tea, we do not rush it, to spoil just to get in front of the television or a football match. In Georgia, and now here in Turkey, we make our tea with love and we are rewarded with a drink fit for the Czar to enjoy.
When the border opened and the 5 Year Plans were over we crossed and came along that road that leads to the first town, Hopa. We could see that you had been frightened of us. That road, the only way into your country from ours, could have been destroyed easily and sent into the sea. The faces of the quarries would have rolled over the ashphalt and we could not have come.

It was not our doing you understand, to be unfriendly to you beside your firesides watching the news of this and that, listening to the ideology pouring out of that cold city in the north, and I am sure that it was none of your doing to say and think about our too large brute that is now not anywhere.

We have come, that is all, and everything that ever was is forgotten for as I have said we had no control over the saying.

Now we are here we are happy. My friend over there, you see, on that stall selling bits of anything, watches, bottles of Vodka, spanners, she is no beauty but she makes a fortune in the night, around the hotels.

Those girls, I do not do such things, tell me that this is not Trabizon, this, they say, is Eldorado, they say that the streets are paved with gold around Taksim Square up in the centre of the town.

They are not bad girls. Some of them were schoolteachers in Georgia, but they have families in the villages. One has an old mother who needs treatment in hospital. Such things were not possible five years ago, but now she can earn enough on her back in two or three nights in the hotel bedrooms of Taksim Square to send her mother to hospital, although now it will probably be too late for the poor cow should have gone in years ago.

Like a pheasant that has too many brown chicks, we did not look after our own. The men who ruled us but never cared for us, took us for granted, and fed their own glory from the mouths of statues, and now the statues of stone are knocked down forever, we have to look after ourselves again, but I think that is too late for some.

We never really thanked the man with the marks on his head until it was all over. Nobody ever imagined that what he did could be done. We just brushed him aside as yet another good talker, just another zealous reformer who would end up in the Lubyanka, but he did it and we are free from that yoke.

You called us Russia but we were a lot of little countries. Look at that grey haired man selling lathe tools. He comes from a little country on the Caspian Sea which used to be under the same yoke, but now he is free.I cannot speak his lingo and, he has forgotten any Russian he ever had to learn at school so now if I want to talk to him we talk in this language of yours, Turkish.

Those women over there, yes, look, they are different. They come from a little country, cold and grey, and yet they are warm people. They look not like us who are from the same villages and the same towns. They have high blue eyes, high cheekbones and proud faces, plenty to be proud of. They had to speak other tongues than their own in what they thought was their own country, and work like dogs only to starve like dogs, but that is all forgotten, I do not forget, but my husband who is dead, lying in Georgian earth, said I was a fool, but it is sometimes hard to not remember, and so do not try to forget for a while, that is the way to stop these things from happening again to us, or to any of us who are together in this world.

Enough talk. You want to buy. Look what I have for you. Playing cards, you play cards, don't you? A bottle of Georgian vodka, better than that cheap stuff she is selling over there.
Here we have clothes for the young people. They are listening to music that is loud and wild, I do not like it but I like our young people being a bit crazy like all young people, while it is the time for them to do things like I don't know what in these new days.

You want a watch, maybe a stop-watch on a chain that looks silver. Look on the back. See it has an emblem. It is from our navy. Look here you will find these nowhere else in the world, dishes for holding I don't know what, they have a hole in the centre. This one is the 10th symphony of that fool Shostakovitch. He was in favour with those jackals in Moscow until he got an international reputation. He was criticised for writing subversive music, though how you can tell instruments are being subversive beats me, but that was for the intelligentsia to know. We were made to think we knew nothing.

Anyway, he was criticised. We thought he would be spending the rest of his days in exile, but what does he do, but reply, through his music of course, and before they could stop it being played, we were hearing it on the BBC from London.

That is one of my ambitions by the way, to see the magnificent Bush House, full of plays and symphonies, that would be something to see. I suppose my daughter's kids will see it someday.
I tell them, I say, go to England and tell me all about it when you get back. Tell me how it can be again in Georgia, and I will perhaps start to forget. Imagine my granddaughter walking along the Strand, and double buses full of people, and the Queen still living in London, and visiting the East End bombed in the war.

But look at this stuff, the leftovers of a superpower. Don't make me laugh. You want to know what really makes me laugh, that the crazy Americans were shit scared of those bastards in Moscow and Leningrad. Here were we, making this stuff in our poor factories, on antiquated machines, our friends coming out of the gates every day, maimed for life by the cruelty of progress, and not a thing to be done, to have to beg for a crust on some street corner the rest of his miserable life.

The world's richest, most advanced country, frightened of us, beavering away behind our closed borders producing this, a coffee grinder that wouldn't grind a monkey nut, a drill that hasn't been hardened, it wouldn't even drill wood, and a radio that might get the World Service from Bush House if you were sitting in the Strand.

And now it's all over, and we are Eldorado. The British and the Americans go to the Middle East, that is their Eldorado, with black gold under the sand dunes, but this is ours, here on the beautiful Black Sea, a few kilometres for some of us, a thousand for him from the shores of the Caspian sea. And these green hills are looking like our green hills, from the same rain that is always pouring from grey skies full of more rain, making our tea grow, and our people fat and happy again in Eldorado, with that loud voice shouting the Muslims to come to prayer, morning, noon and night.

I never hear it these days, it is just so much noise, but they still go to the mosque, the devout, the ones with beards, and little skull caps, and their women, covered from head to foot, they go, at different times, and they are good to us. They come to buy the things that they can't get from their own shops. The trip to the capital, or to Istanbul is too long, fourteen hours on a coach is a long time.

And us, we learn their language, and live in their houses and apartments, sell them all kinds of rubbish, and see some of their menfolk behind closed doors on hotel corridors, and we do exactly what we want, or should I say, do what we are capable of doing.
We know the value of goodness, and we are glad to do things, to make money. Yes, of course, for nobody can live without money, but as well, it is for the making and the doing, and to see what we have made and what we have done. To be able to say to you, look what I have done with these hands. I was not ordered to do it. I did it because I wanted to, that is all, and that is the best reason for doing something, because of wanting to make something and say that is mine, and now you will give me something for it, and it is yours. You give me some of that tea you have grown, with your hard work and with the hand of God, and this is yours.
And we do what we can, whatever that thing may be, it is good. She has the looks and the figure, she earns her life on her back. That man was an engineer in Rostov, he sharpens scissors and knives, I was a shop assistant with empty counters and queues for nothing much, and I sell this stuff under the covered market, sitting in the shaded roadside, looking across at the row of cheap hotels, watching my sisters leading men in suits up the whitewashed steps.
We each do what we can, and we are free, free to starve if we must, but free for all that. The threat of starving to death is better than being told that you have to move to a farm two thousand kilometres from the place you were born, to starve there instead.

The pheasant with too many chicks, and her bright plumage showing everywhere that she is a good mother when she is nothing of the sort.

That old piece of nastiness, Joe Stalin, they say, was a Georgian, but I never believed it. No Georgian that I ever met would do such things. We are a kind people, who just want to be left to get on with our lives, write music, sell vodka, or ourselves, it doesn't matter, so long as we live by our own decisions, to live or to die, here in this green, pleasant land, where they grow tea, and sit drinking it in the evenings, without the fear of somebody coming to take them away. This is Eldorado.
*This story is from my book of short stories entitled 'Other people-other worlds'
Find my other book, 'Ginger's Tail' at
Robert L Fielding

My first day at university

My first day at Lancaster University was not a normal first day type of day at all really. Those are usually characterized by new undergrads wandering around in a daze, looking for buildings, rooms inside buildings and professors and tutors inside rooms.
My first day happened to coincide with the university's new chancellor's first day. The university's new chancellor was Princess Alexandra, after whom the square in the middle of the campus was named.
As I wandered up and down The Spine, the walkway that connects the north and south sides of the Bailrigg campus, I was aware of the presence of uniformed policemen. They were almost everywhere; loitering in doorways, being vigilant on rooftops, talking to each other on walkie-talkies, everywhere.
"Security," I said to myself, "top security." They were taking no chances. Princess Alexandra was an active member of the Royal Family, her name would be high on a lot of lists, and some of those lists belonged to people who didn't necessarily adore and love the Royals.
Returning my thought patterns to the matter in hand, I walked down The Spine to the southernmost end, to Gillow House, named after a local benefactor. The tutor I had been assigned to had an office there.
I reached the main door only to find it locked. Undeterred, I wandered around the left hand side of the building, stepping gingerly and quietly across flower beds to avoid the long walk via the paved walkways.
As I rounded the corner of the building, with the sun shining across green meadows and hindering my view of what lay before me, I tripped right over a man huddled down near the ground. I felt a searing pain in my right knee, fell over, and saw the black shape of a machine gun tripod slip from the man's grip.
My knee had banged into him and now he lay unconscious in the low gorse bushes that had been planted there to give the bare corner some greenery.
I looked at the man, dressed in dark clothes, a balaclava over his head. He was out all right. I nudged him to make sure. He was unconscious, but would probably soon regain consciousness, I thought.
I picked up the sub-machine gun and its tripod. As I lifted it up I felt a hammer blow on my shoulder.
What happened next was all a mystery to me, was and still is, but I found myself in a hospital bed, surrounded by flowers and a woman in white talking softly to me.
As I came round, I felt rather than saw more uniformed men, and then they parted in waves to let another woman through. Even in my sleepy state I knew I had seen the woman before somewhere. She leaned over me, smiling.
"Thank you so much, Robert", she said, and left me to sleep a little longer.
A short time later, I woke up with a start. I got up quickly. "After all", I said to myself, "I don't want to be late for my first day at university, do I?"
Robert L Fielding

Wonders of the deep

Talking dolphins !
Robert L Fielding
In the Gulf of Oman off Al Bustan)
Ten passengers and a driver (at least that's how K referred to the man sitting at the back of the boat) sailed (without any sails) out of The Blue Marlin yachting marina on Friday. We were hoping to see some dolphins out in the Gulf of Oman.
Sitting at the front (bows to you landlubbers) right and left, sorry, Port and Starboard seemed like a good idea till we got out of the calm waters of the harbour. Once in the open sea, it felt as if we were out there in the North Atlantic, searching for Moby Dick. The sea did more or less what it wanted with us, and what it wanted was destruction. It hurled the white fibre glass hull about like a cork. It swept over the gunwhales of the boat, (I'm getting into this nautical stuff now) and over us, and it did its unlevel best to make our lives uncomfortable. The Captain remained sensibly dry at the tiller, 'tilling' us across the blue till we spied dolphins. A few at first, then scores of them, adopted our boat as a sort of flagship. They swam alongside, dove swiftly in front of the bows from both port and starboard sides, playing "Last one across " kind of games with us. And we cheered them every nautical mile of the two hour trip. We marvelled at their sleekness and their prowess in the water, leaping out of the water in rows of up to ten or twelve sometimes. I wondered what kind of Red Arrow-like messages were going to and fro in the water either side of us to enable them to come up in exactly at the same moment.
Other boats full of mesmerized passengers floated past us from time to time. They looked astonishingly dry in such a heavy swell. We waved at them. They waved at us. And back we went to the enthralling job of dolphin spotting.
'There's some more over there," shouted someone pointing. All heads turned and the laughing and cheering started up again.
Why do dolphins jump out of the water? To take a look at the humans. To breathe. For the heck of it. Because they can do. And my thoughts on the subject; for the sheer joy of being alive.
Then came the cracks.
"What do dolphins do when they want a wash?"
"I can't come out tonight, I'm washing my hair." And "Do you usually go out with your hair that wet?"
Like all good things, the trip was over too soon. We waved the fish (or are they mammals?) goodbye, and sailed full speed back to the shore, to warming cups of tea, even more warming gentle sea breezes, and heartwarming memories of a great morning with those loveliest of God's sea creatures, dolphins.
Robert L Fielding

Changing boundaries

Changing the electoral boundaries is something that has to be done from time to time - demographic changes demand it. However, someone usually loses and somebody gains in every such change. Any changes gains and losses could and should be taken care of by a better system of counting in General Elections. The first past the post system we have now will always favour major parties at the expense of smaller ones. To my mind, this is hardly democracy at work. The person who always votes for the Green Party,for example, never gets his candidate into the Commons. All this talk about democracy - I wonder we call ourselves a democratic country when our electoral system is so biased and skewed against minority voices. If we had an alternative - a real alternative voice to the ones we hear, perhaps this country would improve. Lord knows, it needs to.
Posted by: Robert Leslie Fielding 26 Sep 2006 19:34:38 on Adam Boulton's Sky News blog

Thursday, September 28, 2006

BBC Radio - the ultimate travelling companion

When I first came to work in a Muslim country, one of the hardest things to get used to, after the ferocious heat of the day, was the fact that Saturday was a working day - the equivalent of Monday. Being a football fan, I found it strange having to work on Saturday afternoon. I would have preferred to have been on the cold, damp, noisy terraces of Old Trafford or Boundary Park than teaching Dickens ' A Tale of Two Cities to a group of young lads who had never been nearer to those two cities than 11 degrees North.

The one thing I was thankful for on Saturday was the fact that Britain was three, sometimes four, hours behind, which meant kick off was at six rather than three.

By six o'clock, I had showered, rested and eaten and was ready to tune in my radio to BBC World Service to listen to the lads taking on Tottenham Hotspur or West Bromwich Albion or the like.

I would bring my bed out onto the broken earth at the front of my house, switch on the outside light - a bulb hanging precariously by its wire over the doorframe, and once tuned in, would listen with rapt attention as the game unfolded. At half time, Lilly Bolero rent the air and a summary of the news told me what was going on in the rest of the world.

After the game was over, the results would come in thick and fast on the device we used to call the teleticker or some such name. On TV, it was a little electric hammer tapping out the names of teams and their scores, but on the radio there was only the sound of the typing and then the voice of Renton Laidlaw to tell me what I wanted to know - that our nearest challengers had lost or drawn at home.

When it had all finished, I put the radio and my bed back indoors and went across the little town of El Meselemiya to drink some tea in the early evening and try out my Arabic on the friendly locals, who were listening to the BBC Arabic Service outside the cafe that looked out on the central marketplace of a town in Gezira Province in Sudan.

The BBC World Service was one of my lifelines in those hot days and nights. It has been my companion ever since.
Robert Leslie Fielding

Monday, September 25, 2006




Robert L Fielding

It was a warm summer's evening in August, and I was walking up Lothian Road in the heart of Edinburgh. My destination was the Usher Hall, a superb Victorian building, which on this particular night was the venue for a performance of the aptly named Symphony of a Thousand, The 8th Symphony by Gustav Mahler. As I was walking up towards the Usher Hall I started to think about the composer, Mahler, who had been a hugely sucessful conductor in Vienna many years earlier, before his untimely death. He must, I thought, have walked to many such magnificent halls in Vienna on just such lovely evenings as this one. Thinking about Mahler, and the music I was about to hear, I began to whistle the opening bars of the symphony as my pace quickened.
I whistled away, oblivious to the noise of the traffic, and perhaps my whistling grew louder in response to the hooting of car horns and the revving of engines. Suddenly, I heard a voice, a woman's voice at my side.
"He's whistling our tune," she said to someone behind me. I looked round to discover that I was surrounded by women in long gowns.
"Your tune?" I enquired.
"Yes" said another to my left, "we're singing here tonight," she said, pointing at the grand building in front of us; the Usher Hall.
These were some of the thousand performers about to take part in the musical evening.
They had surrounded me, and they told me that they had all come down from the Granite City, Aberdeen. I asked them if they had rehearsed it up there, the thousand performers.
"Oh no," another woman said, "we rehearsed our bit of it, and other groups in other cities, Perth, Dundee and Glasgow, they did the same, and last night we all rehearsed it together for the first time." The performance I was about to hear was only the second time that they had all sung and played together under one roof. They laughed gaily, and told me how nice it had been to meet the other performers for the first time last night, and they laughed again when I asked them how on Earth they had managed to rehearse only their own part of something so vast, so grand and so long. They couldn't really answer, but one of the women said, "You'll see." They said they had all thoroughly enjoyed taking part in something which had to be built up bit by bit, and put together in one live performance. They asked me where I came from, and I told them that I had travelled two hundred miles to hear the piece. They had travelled down from all over Scotland. We had come from all over Britain to be there, to take part in one glorious evening of live musical entertainment. Music really does bring people together.
Robert Leslie Fielding
I wrote this as an introduction to a booklet on music that I wrote for students listening to tapes and CDs of classical music in Bilkent University's amazing library.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

I belong to Glasgow, dear old Glasgow town


In what sense does anyone belong to anywhere? Do I belong to Boundary Park Hospital, where I was born? Do I belong to Saddleworth, where I haven't lived for 30 odd years? Or do I belong to Glasgow, where my wife and I spent a lovely summer this year?

I don't belong anywhere, and yet I do belong everywhere - that's the answer. I belong in the bosom of my family, spread thinly over the globe - in Melbourne, Australia, in Springhead, where my mother and my sister and her family live, in Ankara, Turkey, where most of my wife's family live, and here in Al Ain, UAE, where I live and work.

We, the people of this Earth, belong in every part of it. We originated in its various corners, becoming homo sapiens, and consequently, we belong to it all, and it belongs to all of us.

We need to take better care of it than we do at present, though, and behave as if it is our property, not to own and do with as we like, but to pass on to our children and their children, intact, and in all its pristine glory, like it was on the day we inherited it.
Robert Leslie Fielding

Friday, September 08, 2006

Calum's Road

One not unlike my own; rocky in parts, full of obstacles to overcome, and difficult bits to skirt around.

Unlike Calum's, which is finished, mine still lies before me. The difficulties and the obstacles remain, and I have to get over them or go round them.

Having just missed what I thought was a plum job, I have picked myself up and bent to my work, the better to forget any disappointments I have had.

It is working; busying yourself is therapeutic, but then I expect you already know that, don't you?
Robert Leslie Fielding

Kimmeridge donkeys

Coming round from Houns Tout on the second day of my Coastal Footpath walk, I can't say I was overly impressed with Kimmeridge Bay; the dark shales on its foreshore were dull and uninviting to the eye.

Stepping down, along the shore, after being aloft on Purbeck limestone, was also disappointing - there are fewer wide vistas from the water's edge.

This part of Dorset though, is perhaps among the more intersting parts of the 500 mile walk from Poole's Sandybanks Ferry to Minehead in Somerset - five or six weeks away.

Kimmeridge Bay shales hold oil and ammonites. Fossil hunters and fossiil fuels don't strike you as comfortable neighbours - they are here. The donkeys drawing oil up out of the shales beneath, do not really impinge upon the bay, except visually.

I didn't find any ammonites - probably because I didn't look hard enough. When you've got a destination to head for, a few fossils beneath your feet don't seem as significant or intersting as they may do when you are taking things at a more leisurely pace.

And if you want to complete that walk, the one thing you rarely have is a leisurely pace.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

To admire greatness and rejoice in beauty

Daniel Bell, writing in the 1990s, said that whereas former ages had been characterized by man’s struggle with the world of nature, and then the struggle with manufactured nature, this age of ours is characterized by man’s struggle against man.

There is something in man that needs to struggle, that seems clear. Barnes Wallace, the innovator responsible for the ‘bouncing bomb’ during the struggles of the 2nd World War, said that ‘life is a battle, and when the battle is over, so too is life.’

Man has conquered to achieve, and in his conquests found his greatest achievements. The ability to create machines that can fly, or till the soil, or kill has been his keenest, most developed ability.

To admire greatness, man has either had to conquer it, in its natural form, or produce it through innovation. Kipling urged us, though, not to be overtaken in our admiration of the machine; he said that ‘they are only the children of our mind’, putting them firmly subordinate to us, which is right and proper.

Now that we seem to have entered this final phase of Bell’s; one characterized by man’s struggle against himself, we have come to lack the greatness to admire. We no longer have Newton, da Vinci or Darwin to look up to and aspire to. In the West, in particular, the decline of our greatness in manufacturing has brought with it our obsession with the new, disparaging the obsolete as though it never existed or had its uses.

The geological map of Britain, and the A4 Pacific locomotive, the fastest steam powered locomotive ever, signify, to me at any rate, all that should be admired and all that has beauty. True, neither has the beauty of a symphony, or the majesty of the stag in its highland haunts, but look beneath the surface, as you must with both artifacts, and you will learn of the vast amount of knowledge and expertise, the skill and the diligence necessary to produce both.

We can stand and admire a painting by Van Gogh, a statue by Michelangelo, or a dome by Brunelesci, as simple onlookers, marveling at their beauty, but it is only in the understanding of genius, partial though this may be, that true greatness and real beauty come to be apparent. And that is probably what we are losing, may have lost already, but it is in understanding that one comes to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty, from the hand of man, or his creator.

Robert L. Fielding

Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Beaks of Eagles - Big Sur

The Big Sur coastline, immortalised in the poems of Robinson Jeffers, is a wilderness – that most threatened of all our environments. Wildernesses afford all living things the space they need to live.

Although a wilderness is, by definition, a place devoid of human habitation, or at least largely devoid of it, wildernesses are also vital for people too.

In places that are wild, free of the trappings of modern life, or anything approaching what we term ‘civilisation’ at all, a person can find herself, find who she is, what she is like, what she can do or can only do with difficulty.

In a wilderness, she finds closer ties to nature. We say ‘Mother Nature’ for a very good reason – She nurtures us and provides us with everything we need. The real value of a wilderness is that it can show us how little we need – how much of what we think we need, is actually superfluous, or even detrimental to our lives as beings.

Robert L. Fielding
'The Beaks of Eagles'
Robinson Jeffers

An eagle's nest on the head of an old redwood on one of the precipice-footed ridges Above Ventana Creek, that jagged country which nothing but a falling meteor will ever plow; no horsemanWill ever ride there, no hunter cross this ridge but the winged ones, no one will steal the eggs from this fortress. The she-eagle is old, her mate was shot long ago, she is now mated with a son of hers.When lightning blasted her nest she built it again on the same tree, in the splinters of the thunderbolt.The she-eagle is older than I; she was here when the fires of eighty-five raged on these ridges,She was lately fledged and dared not hunt ahead of them but ate scorched meat. The world has changed in her time;Humanity has multiplied, but not here; men's hopes and thoughts and customs have changed, their powers are enlarged,Their powers and their follies have become fantastic, The unstable animal never has been changed so rapidly. The motor and the plane and the great war gone over him, And Lenin has lived and Jehovah died: while the mother-eagleHunts her same hills, crying the same beautiful and lonely cry and is never tired; dreams the same dreams,And hears at night the rock slides rattle and thunder in the throats of these living mountains. It is good for man To try all changes, progress and corruption, powers, peace and anguish, not to go down the dinosaur's wayUntil all his capacities have been explored; and it is good for him To know that his needs and nature are no more changed in fact in ten thousand years than the beaks of eagles."

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