Jun 242020

Duncan Harley reviews Mike Shepherd’s latest book, ‘The World Makers – Who Gets to the Top and Why’.

At first glance Mike Shepherd’s new book might well appear to be a detailed instruction manual on how to reach beyond the greasy pole and become a super-achiever.

And, there is certainly a glut of content here to sign-post the ambitious.

Tales of Olympians, top scientists, infamous and not so infamous politicians, ground breaking engineers and innovative business leaders – over achievers the lot of them, inhabit the pages.

But, as Mike points out early on in his introduction, the ambitious amongst us will undoubtedly gain insight here but the tales within might actually deter them from ever trying to get there in the first place.

Described as gossipy by the author, this is certainly no dry academic tome and throughout the 300 or so pages of discussion there are dozens of entertaining and often supremely bizarre tales involving the unexpected aspects of human behaviour exhibited by the gifted few.

Mathematician John von Neuman – who worked on the Manhattan Project, could memorise entire telephone directories and seemingly was able to recall any of the entries on request.

Moroccan Emperor Moulay Sharif who fathered some 1,200 children. Heiress Evalyn McLean who took the art of gloating to new levels by parading the Hope Diamond on the collar of her pet pooch.

Henry Morton Stanley who rose from penury to prominence as the man sent by the infamous New York Herald press baron Gordon Bennett Jr to find the missing David Livingstone.

Churchill, who despite episodic attacks of the Black Dog and a fairly mixed early career, rose to some prominence in the 1940’s. And many many more.

A stoic belief in one’s own destiny, an obsession with achievement, intense ambition and on occasion an intense and incorruptible – as in the case of Thomas Plimsoll of Plimsoll Line fame, desire to do good all feature within these pages alongside much discussion regarding the nature of those single-minded achievers.

Throw in a bit of hubris and a measure of narcissism and you get the drift of this book.

Many of the featured hyper-achievers deserve to be celebrated but inevitably many others do not. Florence Nightingale certainly falls into the former category – for her achievements after the Crimean Campaign.

Saparmurat Niyazov – tyrannical dictator of Turkmenistan, resides firmly in the ranks of the latter. But no spoilers here.

At the core of the discussion though is the idea that these big ideas of those few in number super-achievers shape our world and, like it or not, the rest of us have to fit as best we can into the framework they create.

On an optimistic note Mike concludes that the folk at the base of the pyramid can usually rub along just fine with those at the pinnacle but tempers this with the brutal thought that the actions of those achievers, whom he labels world makers, might just be a little extreme.

He may very well be right.

The World Makers by Mike Shepherd is published as a Kindle Book (291pp) and is available from Amazon @ £2.99

Aug 122018

Duncan Harley reviews  Far, Far From Ypres at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen.

It’s difficult to adequately classify Far, Far From Ypres.

Described as “the story of the Scottish war effort during World War One” with “its excitement, hope, suffering, endurance, humour, fear and disillusionment in the face of horror told through the eyes of fictional, prototypical soldier Jimmy MacDonald” this ambitious multimedia production sits oddly – and please excuse the pun – with its feet astride two camps.

A strong documentary-styled historical narrative, delivered by veteran broadcaster Iain Anderson, frames a broad range of popular song from the period whilst overhead a mix of trench imagery combines to add poignancy to the performance.

We are told that the fictional Jimmy is from any town or village in Scotland and that when issued with his tin hat and his rifle, he heads off to the continent in search of medals for the victory parade and of course for a great foreign adventure.

An acceptable figure for Scottish war dead has yet to be calculated – some put it at between 100,000 and 146,000 – and the enthusiastic Jimmy is portrayed as one of those who did not return.

Killed in France or Belgium, not by bullets nor by shells but by an influenza better known as Spanish Flu, he certainly died in uniform but is probably not numbered amongst the roll of the war dead.

Based on a Greentrax double album of WW1 songs, “Far, Far From Ypres” is laden with familiar and not so familiar song.

Within the context of the narrative, most are a good fit for the performance and most are delivered strongly by a cast of largely familiar folk-figures. Barbara Dickson, Dick Gaughan, Alan Prior, Tam Ward, Ian McCalman and Mairi MacInnes are just to name a few.

In fact, there are around 27 performers on stage at any one time making for a crowded performance space and indeed a difficult place for the soloists to excel in.

It was perhaps the male dominated chorus which brought the intent of the production solidly home. Decidedly appropriate and atmospheric of the era, Pack up your Troubles and When this Bloody War is Over vied with Tipperary and Armentieres to tug the heartstrings.

All in all, this is a largely successful attempt to track and trace changing perceptions during the course of that First War to end all wars through the songs of the day.

From hopeful beginnings through to eventual despair, the song list bravely traverses some four years of the bloody history of that hundred-year-old conflict in which young men could take the boat-train to the continent, stick a bayonet into the skull of a youngish man from a neighbouring land and, if he were lucky enough not to be stuck in his turn, return home with a medal in time for the local victory parade.

At the close of the night and indeed during the performance, not a few tears were shed.
Stars: (4/5)

Following last night’s performance at HMT, Far, Far From Ypres heads off to Oban, Skye, Ullapool, Stirling, Inverness, Dumfries and Edinburgh.

Jul 282018

By Duncan Harley.

To my complete surprise and astonishment that’s a short story of mine heading towards the Aberdeen stage in a few weeks. And I have to say that I am humbled.

A call for entries came via Rachel Campbell at APA and after a day or so I got to thinking that, although I have no realistic idea regarding how to even pronounce Ypres, I do have an intimate store of first war recollections albeit at second, third or even at fourth hand. 

A grandfather, now long missed, left a family story regarding his first war experience.

A regimental quartermaster, or so he had us all believe, he recalled only that following a long and muddy march through France and then Belgium he played some football then marched all the way back to Glasgow. 

I have his war medals and one at least appears to be a military medal plus bar from his Black Watch experience.

Based on a Greentrax double album of WW1 songs, Far, Far from Ypres is an acclaimed production of songs, poems and stories, following the terrifying journey of a Scot to “the trenches” and back. 

A Scottish squaddie heads off to the continental adventure and is given a tin hat and a rifle in anticipation of heroic deeds and victory over the unwholesome Hun. Told largely in songs of the day, the performance lays bare the squalid fate of the boy next door who marched off to adventure amongst the jaws of death.

I concluded my recent book – The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire – with a tale, not of the trenches, but of the unexpected bombing of the Garioch by the young men of the Kaiser’s Zeppelin squadrons and Ann Wells of gov.scot seems intent on sharing my tale.

She writes:

“Many thanks for sharing this with us.  I knew about the Edinburgh raids but had never heard tell about those further north.  Enemy or not these guys were incredibly brave to venture up in those things.

“I would like to add this into the programme for the performance at Aberdeen and possibly Dundee and/or Inverness.  Is that OK?  We are starting to get quite a few stories in now, really interesting tales, but this one is slightly different.”

Naturally I replied in the positive and my tale of the 1916 Zeppelin night-time terror-bombing of the Garioch features somewhere in amongst the programme for the night.

The blurb for the performance informs only that:

“The show features the large screen projection of relevant images throughout the evening, enhancing greatly the audience’s understanding of the story unfolding before them. The format of the evening takes the form of two fifty-minute halves with an interval.

“It has a cast of ‘folk singing stars’, who remain on stage throughout the performance, singing the ‘trench’, ‘marching’ and Music Hall songs of the time. From that chorus, groups and soloists come to the middle of the stage and perform songs, both contemporary and traditional, about the Great War.

“The narrator, Iain Anderson, brilliantly links the songs with stories about the hero of the show, Jimmy MacDonald, who was born in “any village in Scotland”. It tells of Jimmy’s recruitment and training then follows his journey to the Somme and back to Scotland.

“It would not be a Scottish tragedy without laughter, so there are also stories of humour and joy that take this production well away from the path of unremitting gloom.”

Produced by Ian McCalman and with a huge cast of performers including Barbara Dickson, Siobhan Miller, Mairi MacInnes, Dick Gaughan, Ian McCalman, Iain Anderson and Professor Gary West, Far, Far from Ypres plays at HMT Aberdeen for just the one night – Thursday 09 August 2018. 

Seats are becoming scarce for the Aberdeen performance but can still be had via the Aberdeen Performing Arts booking site @: http://www.aberdeenperformingarts.com/events/far-far-from-ypres

Do go, if only to hear about the Zeppelin bombing of the Aberdeenshire villages of Insch, Old Rayne and of course Colpy.

Nov 082017

With thanks to Roger White.

A prestigious North-East Scotland magazine of new writing and the visual arts, Pushing Out The Boat (POTB), is reminding young writers and artists in the North East and
beyond that they’ve got less than a month left to submit entries for their new online venture, ‘ePOTB’.

ePOTB will be the magazine’s first e-zine and will be devoted entirely to work by young people aged 12-17.

Like its parent magazine, ePOTB submissions will be subject to the same distinctive ‘blind selection’ process, which ensures that work is selected on merit alone.

Prize-winning author Juliet Lovering, chairing the ePOTB team, said:

“We know there’s a wealth of young writing and artistic talent out there but this is the first time we’ve given young people the chance to shine in their own publication. Three prizes of £50 are also on offer for the best contribution in the prose, poetry and art categories.”

The ePOTB team encourage anyone considering entering to read previous editions of the magazine, which are available on its website, to understand the variety of work accepted in years gone by.

Young writer Hannah Kunzlik, one of POTB’s previous contributors, said:

“I was published in POTB when I was 16 and it remains one of my proudest moments. Submitting a piece is something I would advise any young person to do with even a passing interest in writing or art. Apart from the creative fulfilment, it’s like gold dust on a CV for college or work.”

The call for submissions to ePOTB opened a month ago. Full details and registration are available at www.pushingouttheboat.co.uk.

The deadline for submissions is 30 November 2017 and the e-zine will be published on the Pushing Out The Boat website in Spring 2018.

Jan 272017

With thanks to James Soars Media Services. 

“An epidemic is sweeping the world: an epidemic of loneliness. Never before have we, the supremely social mammal, been so isolated. The results are devastating: a collapse of common purpose, the replacement of civic life with a fug of consumerism, insecurity and alienation. We cannot carry on like this.” – George Monbiot

So how do we respond to this trend towards social breakdown?

Breaking The Spell of Loneliness is a remarkable collaboration between writer George Monbiot and musician Ewan McLennan.

They launched their project because they believe that nothing has greater potential to unite and delight than music. They seek to use the music to open up the issue of loneliness, and their performances to help address it.

The project began with an article that the journalist George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian, about the age of loneliness. The article went viral, and several publishers asked him to write books about it. But George had a different idea.

He approached Ewan McLennan – a musician whose work he greatly admired – and proposed a collaboration. Together they would write an album, a mixture of ballads and anthems, some sad, some stirring, whose aim was to try to break the spell that appears to have been cast upon us; the spell of separation.

It would touch upon issues as varied as our relationship with nature, our capacity for altruism and co-operation, the politics that lie behind loneliness, and the ways people are together overcoming this social scourge.

Around the time of the album’s release George and Ewan will perform a small number of special concerts. George will narrate the show, describe the ideas behind the songs, and encourage members of the audience to engage with each other, both then and beyond the concert. Ewan will sing the songs and perform the music that has emerged from this innovative collaboration.

Tour dates:

2 February Eden Court, Inverness
3 February Celtic Connections, Glasgow
4 February The Reid Concert Hall, Edinburgh
5 February The Blue Lamp, Aberdeen
8 February MAC, Birmingham
11 February Aberystwyth Arts Centre

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Jun 102016

outside_cover_vol_3_Bennachie_Duncan Harley reviews Bennachie Landscapes Series 3.

In this, the third publication in the Bennachie Landscapes Series, further aspects of the story of Grampian’s favourite hill are discussed in often minute detail.

Dedicated to Gordon Ingram, treasurer to the Bailies of Bennachie until 2000, and with a foreword by Dr Jo Vergunst of the University of Aberdeen’s Department of Anthropology this publication focuses on both our historical and our modern day relationship with the Bennachie range.

Funded through the Connected Communities programme the content reflects the work of project partners including the University of Aberdeen, The Forestry Commission Scotland and The Bailies of Bennachie.

The book presents as 10 research papers, each distinct but related and written by both Bennachie experts and Bennachie enthusiasts.

The ecology and social history of the area feature alongside the geology, flora and the exploitation of both peat and stone on and around the hill. Additionally there are excavation reports featuring Colony houses and Drumminor Castle.

Several of the papers make for highly technical reading and are not for the faint hearted. Peter Thorn’s description of the geological setting around Drumminor Castle is a case in point. Other chapters such as the interim report into the excavations at Drumminor Castle are written with the general reader in mind and should be accessible to anyone happy to sit through an episode of Time Team.

The site of the Bennachie Colonists comes under particular scrutiny. Sue Taylor provides insight into the social and domestic lives of the crofters, who made a living on the slopes of the hill, through the interpretation of pottery found at the Bennachie Colony site.

The excavations during 2011 – 2013 at Shepherd’s Lodge and Hillside yielded both sponge decorated and transfer printed earthenware indicating perhaps a previously unsuspected degree of economic sophistication amongst Colony settlers who often lived at subsistence level.

Barry Foster’s introduction to the peat lands of the hill not only gives the reader food for thought but illustrates clearly, using aerial photographs, the scale of the 18th century peat cutting industry.

In 2013 a partnership between Keig School and the Bennachie Landscapes Fieldwork Group surveyed the ecology and landscape use within the Lordship of Forbes. The research report makes for fascinating reading and describes the discovery of a previously unknown water-mill in the grounds of Castle Forbes.

A dig at the Back of Bennachie by students of Kemnay Academy features alongside an investigation of the English Quarry by Andrew Wainwright and a paper, by Colin Millar, reflects on the controversial 19th century seizure and “Division of the Commonty of Bennachie” by a group of powerful local landowners.

Illustrated throughout with both images relating to Bennachie and survey maps describing the digs and investigations, this book is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the North East and clearly illustrates the value of community partnership research.

At 115pp, Bennachie Landscapes Series 3 is available from Inverurie Library and at www.bailiesofbennachie.co.uk  p
Price £10. ISBN 978-0-9576384-1-9

This review was first published in the May 2016 edition of Leopard Magazine.

Words © Duncan Harley

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May 222015

PushingBoatWith thanks to Freda Hasler.

North-East Scotland’s Magazine of New Writing and the Visual Arts launched Issue 13 in April 2015.

Stories and poetry from this wonderful new edition will be performed by writers and members of the Pushing Out The Boat team at the AU May Festival on Sunday 31 May, at noon. Copies will be available for purchase.

What a lot the team have achieved since the last edition!

They have:

  • become a Scottish Charity, ‘for the advancement of the arts, heritage & culture’
  • launched an online Submissions system, with a major upgrade to its website
  • reached financial independence – fully funding this edition for the first time ever.

In around 100 pages of stories, poems and visual art, the contributors,  57 writers and artists –  many from or with connections to the North East of Scotland, plus a few from as far afield as the USA & Australia – are introduced in a glowing Foreword by aclaimed local writer Esher Woolfson.

As always, the first-time published are represented, as well as youngsters aged from 12 to under-18, all alongside their recognised peers.

After its launch on 26 April, this new edition of Pushing Out the Boat, alongside many of its predecessors, can be read in the public and school libraries of both City and Shire, and those of Aberdeen’s Universities and Colleges. The magazine retails in many galleries, shops and cafés throughout the North East, and costs £7 (the first increase for three years). For online orders add postage and packing.

More Info:

email: info@pushingouttheboat.co.uk
Book tickets for the MayFestival.

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Oct 172014

Jenny Hartley bookBy David Innes.

Aberdeen Dickens Fellowship was honoured to have Professor Jenny Harley as guest speaker at its October 2014 meeting. Jenny is President of the International Dickens Fellowship and Scholar in Residence at the Charles Dickens Museum.

She is well-known to Dickensians for her publications The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens (OUP) and Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women (Methuen). The latter topic was the Fellowship’s focus for the evening.

Angela Burdett-Coutts, a woman of considerable means, being the heiress to Coutts Bank fortune, was a significant philanthropist, funding Ragged Schools and concerned about the plight of homeless and other unfortunate women in London Piccadilly.

She turned to Dickens to assist in creating a refuge for such women, some who would have been sacked servants without references, others prostitutes and not a few ex-prisoners.

The relish with which Dickens took aboard the project in 1846 is remarkable. He planned the refuge to replicate a familial environment, drew up a behavioural code, based on Maconnochie’s reward scheme, micro-managing the establishment of the house, Urania Cottage, in London’s Shepherd’s Bush.

It aimed to educate its unfortunate residents with a view to helping them to become ‘good domestic servants’, the type that would be attractive to employers. Yet the agreement was that those who had passed through Urania Cottage’s rehabilitation would need to be cut off from former immoral associates for fear of backsliding into former ways.

Transportation to the colonies to begin new lives was seen as the solution to this potential issue. Unfortunately for history, Dickens’s Case Book in which he recorded personal interviews with Urania Cottage hopefuls has been lost. He was notorious for fits of consigning personal records to bonfires.

The focus then shifted to the portal of ‘fallen women’ in Dickens’s writing. Oliver Twist (1837) had already shown Nancy in semi-sympathetic light, but in the novels which followed the establishment of Urania Cottage, Little Emily and Martha (David Copperfield 1849), Charley and Esther (Bleak House 1852), Sissy Jupe (Hard Times 1854) and Little Dorrit and Maggie (Little Dorrit 1855) are each examples of women suffering misfortune, saved by education, altruism or personal effort.

In the case of the Peggoty family in David Copperfield, there is even a successful and prosperous migration to Australia.


It is reasonable to suppose, our guest commented, that character and outcome in these works were in some way influenced by Dickens’s Urania Cottage experiences.

In researching Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women, Jenny Hartley was painstaking. She described how her efforts eventually took her to Adelaide and Melbourne – “that was the fun bit” – to try to conclude whether or not the experiences of Urania Cottage had enhanced former residents’ lives.

Dickens himself made some comment. In Household Words, he wrote of seven successful marriages of Urania House women, but tracing those who had passed through its doors was difficult for Professor Harley, in no small way due to the reluctance of Antipodeans, in decades past, to acknowledge transportees in their family history.

The jewel in the crown, however, is Rhena Pollard, one of the more feisty and assertive of Urania Cottage residents, and on whom, Jenny mused, Tattycoram (Little Dorrit 1855) may have been based.

It was to audience delight that we were informed that Rhena was traced to Canada, married successfully in Ontario, bearing eight children to Oris Coles. Pictures of the prosperous-looking Mr and Mrs Coles and of a plaque commemorating Rhena’s story were a happy conclusion to a fascinating and highly-informative talk from a dedicated and genial Dickensian.

The local Fellowship’s next meeting is on Tuesday 11 November.

Our good friend Grahame Smith of the University of Stirling will kick off our series of meetings studying this session’s featured volume The Old Curiosity Shop, with a seminar, ‘Youth and Age in The Old Curiosity Shop: Nell as an Abused Child’.

We will meet at Grampian Housing Association, at the crossroads of Huntly Street and Summer Street, Aberdeen, from 1900-2100. Annual membership costs £20 and includes admission to all meetings. Entry to individual meetings costs £3. We are a welcoming and convivial collective.

Jun 132014

SilverLynx1A new Aberdeen based literary journal has begun the process for ‘proving the existence of contemporary culture in Scotland north of Edinburgh – and refining it’. With thanks to Andrew J Douglas.

The Silver Lynx Sporadical, ‘a literary journal on an enigmatic publication schedule’, has launched an online campaign to spread awareness and has already started reviewing submissions for their debut print issue.

Intended as a throwback to when print was the foremost method of storytelling, The Silver Lynx was established by two friends who found themselves tired of constantly furrowing their brows in a vain attempt to understand the lack of original literature being read in Aberdeen by people who live in Aberdeen.

The Editors-in-Collective, Andrew J. Douglas and Christopher W. Bradley, may not have been born in our fair granite city, but they say the fact they have stuck the place out, living on the ‘breadcrumb’ line, is a reflection of a magic energy found here which is lacking in other cities.

Andrew said:

“We both moved to Aberdeen for Uni.

“I have an immigrant’s love for the place because it has afforded me with opportunities I found severely lacking in Glasgow.

“Glasgow and Edinburgh are seen as the bedrock of Scottish culture but who gives a shit? Aberdeen has always been a town of note throughout the world for its history but in terms of a city it has only really started to grow into itself since the oil was found.

“There are subcultures and lifestyles being lived here that no one knows about because traditional media in the city either ignores it or fails in its editorial responsibilities by reporting from a loaded point of view.

“The Sporadical is primarily a literary journal, but we have bigger plans on various back burners to turn it into a key weapon in the battle for the North-East’s heart, soul, voice and identity.”

The key players in The Silver Lynx certainly have the right kind of credentials for starting this kind if venture.

Editor-in-Collective Christopher W. Bradley is an English literature graduate whose prose style is heavily influenced by the Icelandic sagas (specifically Njal’s), and he harbours delusions of being:

” the world’s last skald with a Bukowskian twist”

Editor-in-Collective Andrew J. Douglas is a journalist and currently lead reporter at the Deeside Piper but writes fiction because he ‘can’t not’.

In-House Artist Ezra Fraserburg says his qualifications are being:

“gay, depressed and having access to sharpies.”

What kind of thing are they looking for?


“We don’t want anyone to be put off from submitting… except idiots writing thinly veiled porn and calling it chic lit, westerns, romance or fantasy.

We want to read about living here, being from here, moving here, that penny you found on George Street that changed your life, that abandoned building in Ferryhill, that night in Torry, that day in Duthie park… We just want to read anything that anyone who thinks they can write has written.

This is a place of struggle and opposing ideas. It is a breeding ground for creativity.”


“Everything Andy said, but I’ll add: if you’re not from the North-East nor writing about the North-East, still submit. We still want to read what you’ve got to write (assuming its excellent). Sure, The Beast sleeps in the granite city, and a large portion of the stories will be relating to Aberdeen, but the city’s just the conduit.

So long as it’s in English and we think it’s brilliant, it’ll probably go in.

“I see The Lynx as a significant turning point for the city, and if we get it right, a significant turning point for literature. Aberdeen is the frontier town of consumer-capitalism… black gold in the sea and what should be a cultural hub from all the nations it attracts people from for their share of it, but its not… yet.”

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Jun 012014

The Bookshop Band were formed in their local bookshop – Mr Bs Emporium of Reading Delights, Bath.

With thanks to Eoin Smith.

An evening of literary entertainment is set to take place in a popular Aberdeen bookshop on June 3, blending writing with world-class music and magic.
Bath musicians The Bookshop Band will headline the event at Waterstones on Union Bridge, which will also feature a reading from acclaimed author Alan Spence and a performance by local magician Eoin Smith.

Playing original songs inspired by the books they have read, The Bookshop Band play their unique brand of acoustic folk in bookshops around the UK and internationally.

Formed in their local bookshop – Mr Bs Emporium of Reading Delights – their repertoire now includes almost 100 songs inspired by an incredibly diverse range of books – from Booker Prize nominee Ruth Ozeki to Ian Rankin’s Rebus.

Alan Spence, whose latest novel Night Boat was published in 2013, has strong ties with Aberdeen as Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen. Also a prolific writer of poetry and short stories, he has become one of Scotland’s most respected writers since the publication of his first collection, Its Colours They Are Fine, in 1977.

Over the past three years, magician Eoin Smith has become a regular face at variety and comedy nights in and around Aberdeen. Blending humour with jaw-dropping illusions, he is guaranteed to leave the audience spellbound and will also compere the show.

Eoin said:

“I studied English Literature at university, so performing at an event like this is a dream come true. I have a lot of time and respect for The Bookshop Band and Alan Spence, so to be appearing alongside them is sure to be a fantastic experience.

“I hope book lovers around Aberdeen jump on the opportunity to attend such an unusual show, and hope that music and magic fans will also come down to check out what promises to be a really unique evening.”

For more information, please visit www.facebook.com/autorockaberdeen

The Bookshop Band | Alan Spence | Eoin Smith
Waterstones, Union Bridge, Aberdeen
Tues 3 June 2014
Doors open 7pm

Tickets £8 – available in store and at www.wegottickets.com/autorock

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