Sunday, 31 August 2014

Information on "The Emperors" in the US!

Good evening! I've had a few comments and enquiries about The Emperors on Amazon US, so I contacted the Marketing team at Amberley for clarification. The Emperors is available to order for US customers, but since it comes via a UK distributor because it is published by a British firm, it may be 4-6 weeks before it is available in the USA for delivery. Apologies to anyone who is waiting for a copy and thank you so much for your interest in it. I'll keep everyone posted with news of its availability in the States. 

Monday, 25 August 2014

The Eagle and the Maple Leaf: The Austrian Imperial Family in Canada

This is part of a series looking at vignettes in the life of figures who featured prominently in The Emperors, and what happened after the fall of the monarchy.

The death in office of Canada's esteemed Governor-General, Lord Tweedsmuir, during the open months of the Second World War presented the Canadian government with a dilemma, for although they had intended for Lord Tweedsmuir's successor to be a native-born Canadian, the war made the replacement of the Governor-General a top priority and there was not time to go through all the potential Canadian candidates. The Royal Family were hugely popular in Canada and the people's support for them had been attested to by the outpouring of affection and interest surrounding King George and Queen Elizabeth's visit in 1939. Inviting a member of the Royal house to assume the post for the duration of the war therefore seemed a sensible solution, satisfying both the urgency and tact required in making the new appointment; King George VI's uncle, Alexander, Earl of Athlone, who had previously served the Empire as Governor General of the Union of South Africa, accepted the post and crossed to Canada in the company of his wife Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone (above.)

This energetic and capable couple were not the only royal arrivals in war-time Canada. Having been overthrown at the end of the First World War, the Hapsburg dynasty found itself the focal point of Austrians opposed to their country's Anschluss with Germany in 1938. The last emperor, Karl, had died in exile but his widow, Zita of Bourbon-Parma (right), had been active in monarchist politics throughout the 1930s and their son, Crown Prince Otto, was a vocal opponent of Nazism. As the Wehrmacht moved through western Europe, Zita no longer felt safe and dreaded the prospect of any of her children falling into Nazi hands. She had every reason to be afraid, for as they hurtled towards their own ruin in the fire and horror of war, the Third Reich had no respect for human life, royal or otherwise. Two of the Hapsburgs had already been captured - Maximilian, Duke of Hohenberg, eldest son of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination had helped start the First World War, had vanished behind the barbed wire fences of Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany, for daring to oppose the Anschluss, while the Archduke Albrecht emerged from Gestapo custody blind in one eye and partially paralysed as a result of the torture inflicted upon him. In time, the King of Italy's daughter, Princess Mafalda, was arrested for "subversive activities" and sent to her death at Buchenwald. 

The British Royal family had helped arrange the Austrian Imperial Family's evacuation from Austria in 1919, something I talk about in chapter 12 of The Emperors, and they came to their aid again by arranging safe transport for the Dowager Empress and her younger children to Canada. The family had fled Belgium after the Nazi invasion, making it through France, Spain and Portugal, and across the Atlantic to New Jersey, where they spent some time in New York and the Hamptons, but with the Germans having cut off all access to their bank accounts, funds were tighter than ever and Zita was reduced to making salad made from dandelion leaves. Eventually, the British once again came to her aid by facilitating her move to Quebec, a predominantly Catholic and French-speaking part of the Empire, which suited the Dowager Empress perfectly, since French was her first language and some of her children were still learning English. 

Zita (with her children, above), who always wore black in mourning for her late husband the Emperor, moved north, but her five sons chose to join the war effort. Otto, as the eldest, remained in America, making anti-Nazi propaganda films, raising money for Allied causes and coordinating Austrian exile groups; his younger brother, the Archduke Robert, went to London to work with other exiled representatives of countries which had fallen to the Wehrmacht; Karl-Ludwig and Felix both later signed up to join the US Army, and the youngest boy, Rudolf, smuggled himself back into Austria to join the Resistance.

Initially, it was Karl-Ludwig, Rudolf, Charlotte and the youngest daughter, the Archduchess Elisabeth, who accompanied their mother, along with their grandmother Maria Antonia of Portugal, Dowager Duchess of Parma, who had fled the Austrian revolution wearing nearly every piece of jewellery she owned. So much so that one British officer onboard the train thought she looked like an over-decorated Christmas tree. Felix went north to help find a house for them. In Montreal, they met with Princess Alice and her husband, the Governor-General, and I came across this account of their friendship in Princess Alice's hugely enjoyable memoirs, For My Grandchildren, which, as its name suggests, was constructed almost like a long letter, a reminiscence of an extraordinary life, for the Countess's grandchildren. 

We went to Montreal in October, where there was a reception for us and Granpa received a degree from the University of McGill and attended one of the luncheon-club dinners at which seven hundred people were present. These are only for men and all the big-shots attend them. Granpa had a long talk with Sir Edward Beatty, President of the Canadian Pacific Railway, about Canadian affairs... We saw Archduke Felix of Austria and the Archduchess, who were taking a house in Montreal. The Empress Zita had not yet arrived with her mother ... [She arrived a few weeks later] The four children, Carl, Rudolf, Charlotte and Elisabeth were also there. The Emperor had died in 1922, after being married to Zita for about ten years, during which time they had eight children and Granpa remarked that had he lived he and Zita might have exceeded the record set up by her parents, who had twenty-one! These four children, whose ages ranged from nineteen to twenty-three, were all well brought up, with charming manners, and appeared young for their ages. 

The Countess was slightly mistaken about the number of Zita's siblings - while her father Roberto had fathered over twenty children, they had been between two wives. Zita's mother, Maria Antonia, was his second, married after the death of his first, Maria Pia.

After Felix and Karl-Ludwig returned to America to fight in the war, the Governor-General and Princess Alice invited the Empress and her two youngest daughters, Charlotte and Elisabeth, to visit them and stayed in regular contact whenever they visited Montreal.

The Empress Zita of Austria and her two charming daughters, Charlotte and Elisabeth, came to stay with us. The Empress led an austere and secluded existence, and as a consequence the girls, although they were old enough to attend university, had little experience of social life. I well remember their excitement when we took them out to dinner and a movie in Quebec! They are both happily married now [Author's Note: After the war, Charlotte married Georg, Duke of Mecklenburg, and Elisabeth married Prince Heinrich of Liechtenstein]. The Empress's lady-in-waiting, Countess Kerstenbruck, used to visit our aides-de-camp in the staff room in order to have a sherry and a cigarette, as such indulgences were not permitted in the ascetic apartments of the Empress! They lived in a dreary little house with no curtains, no pictures and floors covered with linoleum which had been a priests' convalescent retreat. I felt very sad for her [Zita] and her eight children, and I thought they seemed very poor. She was strict with the girls, so that they knew no one and were always chaperoned by the lady-in-waiting to and from the university. Zita still wore the same dress as she did when she became a widow - down to the ground, right to her hands and up to her ears and chin with no ear-rings or any bit of jewellery. In contrast she was very talkative, well informed and cultivated. She spoke English fluently, but we spoke French to the children (they lived in Quebec), but they were learning English. [Zita] had her old mother with her, who was much more worldly She was looked after by one of Zita's hideous brothers - she had twenty-one brothers and sisters of the Parma family. We sat down to a typical German tea of butterbrod and little square cakes and biscuits. Only [a friend] and I were allowed cups of tea - the others, tumblers of water. 

Eventually, one of the Empress's sheltered daughters, the Archduchess Charlotte, remarkably flew the nest to return to New York under the pseudonym of Charlotte de Bar and enrolled as a social worker in East Harlem, one of the city's most underprivileged areas. Zita returned to Europe after the war, where she died at the age of ninety-six in 1989. 

Sunday, 17 August 2014

An extract from "The Emperors"

Below is an extract from my new book The Emperors, which is released in the US on the 19th and already out in the UK. This excerpt covers the moment when the Tsarina Alexandra heard about the outbreak of the war. Copyright: The Emperors by Gareth Russell (Stroud: Amberley Press, 2014)

When Anna Vyrubova, a dumpy thirty year-old unhappily married to an officer in the Russian navy, left her apartment on 5 August 1914 she was surprised to find the streets of Saint Petersburg alive with unusual activity. Men were cheering, women were weeping and children were running around whooping with excitement and singing patriotic songs for Tsar and Fatherland. Everywhere, she could see posters proclaiming the mobilisation of the Russian armies. War with Germany and Austria-Hungary seemed inevitable. 
Boarding the train for Tsarskoe Selo, the imperial village fifteen miles outside the capital containing two palaces, a park and a host of courtiers’ residences, Anna wondered what she would encounter when she reached the Alexander Palace, a small neoclassical residence commissioned during the reign of Catherine the Great that became Nicholas and Alexandra’s main family home shortly after their marriage. Vyrubova, rather meanly described by Prince Felix Yussopov as ‘tall and stout with a puffy, shiny face, and no charm whatsoever’, was one of the Tsarina’s ladies-in-waiting and her appointment had raised aristocratic angst in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. She was not a noblewoman, she was not clever, she was not charming, she was not fashionable and she was not particularly interesting. However, she was spiritual, malleable and obsequious. Her marriage was abusive and she needed rescuing from it. All of this made her a very attractive companion to Alexandra, who liked to help people but also to dominate them. With her devotion and inability to form a thought independent of the Empress’s, let alone to criticise her, she was exactly what Alexandra was looking for, although from time to time even she seemed to find her adoration a touch suffocating. Nicholas was fond of Anna, but he found her habit of bringing all gossip great and small to the Empress’s attention in the hope of winning her approval extremely irritating. ‘You, for your part, must not allow Anna to bother you with stupid tale bearing that will do no good,’ he told her, ‘either to yourself or to others.’ 
When she arrived at the Alexander Palace that evening, Anna was taken through to the Empress’s rooms, all of which were kitted out in furniture ordered from English catalogues, to the general revulsion of the nobility who thought the Tsarina’s interior decorating at Tsarskoe Selo a never-ending crime against good taste. Shown into Alexandra’s all-mauve boudoir, Anna excitedly told her what she had seen in the city. Alexandra stared at her blankly and then said she must be wrong; the only units that were on the move were near the Austrian frontier. When Anna insisted that she had seen the posters confirming mobilisation, the Empress rushed from the room and went to her husband’s study. For half an hour, Anna could hear them quarrelling on the other side of the door, as Alexandra discovered that Nicholas had deliberately kept the news from her because he was worried about her health. Storming back in to Anna, Alexandra collapsed on her couch. ‘War!’ she said, breathlessly. ‘And I knew nothing of it. This is the end of everything.’ When the Tsar called over to take his usual evening tea with his wife and her ladies-in-waiting, the tea hour, normally a time for friendly conversation, passed in torturous silence. Anna wrote later that for the next few days, ‘The depression of the Empress continued unrelieved. Up to the last moment she hoped against hope, and when the German formal declaration of war was given she gave way to a perfect passion of weeping’.  
Alexandra’s horror was shared by some of those who had once been close to her husband. Sergei Witte, the financial wizard who had been shunted off into the political wilderness for mishandling the crises of 1905, tried to use every connection left to him to stop a war. He thought it was fundamentally wrong to go to war on Serbia’s behalf, because after what had happened to Franz Ferdinand they were only going to ‘suffer the chastisement they deserved.’ When someone suggested that a victory might bring an increase in Russia’s size, Witte snapped, ‘Good Heavens! Isn’t His Majesty’s empire big enough already? ... And even if we assume a complete victory, the Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs reduced to begging for peace... it means not only the end of German domination but the proclamation of republics throughout central Europe. That means the simultaneous end of Tsarism... we must liquidate this stupid adventure as soon as possible.’ His words showed that he had lost none of his powers of perception. The fact that he said them in the company of the French ambassador, representative of Russia’s main ally, showed that he had lost none of his powers to annoy.

"The Emperors" - Out Now in the UK

My first non-fiction book, The Emperors, is out now in the UK and available to order. It's been such a wonderful experience writing it and I hope readers of the blog who order enjoy it. Later this week, I'll be posting a short article on one of the figures, Empress Zita of Austria, and her life in Canada during the Second World War.

The book will be released in the United States on Tuesday.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Review: "George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat"

Diana Mitford once reflected that when reviewing a friend's book, the reviewer is inevitably predisposed towards a favourable conclusion and that only the disingenuous would pretend otherwise. In a similar spirit, I should begin this article by pointing out that I am a friend and, via my novels Popular and The Immaculate Deception, a colleague of one of the authors of George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat - Claire Ridgway. Both our books are published by the same press and I helped lead two of her beautiful Tudor tours in 2012. So I approached this, the first full-length modern biography of the third Boleyn sibling, with a sympathetic eye and hopefulness that it would prove an enlightening read. 

Passion and scholarly probing saturate this book; the authors' excitement and fascination with their subject is underpinned by years of research into the compelling story of his life and the awful trajectory of his demise. Having made a career by inviting people to experience her ongoing research and education into the Tudor court with her, Claire Ridgway uses the same tactic in this book. There's a touch of Antal Szerb here, the great Hungarian-Jewish historian, who began his 1942 study on the court of Marie-Antoinette by informing the reader that "if he absolutely insists that a writer should address him in the scholarly manner, from on high, in ex cathedra tones, then he should simply toss this book on the floor. My way is to speak as one human being to another, looking to fine kindred spirits and good company." Ridgway and Cherry adopt this tactic in George Boleyn and it's very successful. If a reader finds a conversational tone grating or jarring, then this book mightn't be for them, but for many it's likely to prove, as the English say, a tonic - a refreshing and enjoyable change.

The lack of any surviving portraits of Boleyn or much in the way of letters and, crucially given the book's subtitle, his poetry, makes it difficult to flesh him out in too much detail, but both writers work with what has remained to paint a relatively convincing portrait of a headstrong but pious courtier with a passion for living and a solid mind. If George doesn't quite pop out as being as much fun as some might imagine him, it's a relief to see why he was nothing like the horror imagined in later fictional adaptations like Bring Up the Bodies or The Other Boleyn Girl. By shifting through all the available information and crucially being able to admit where Boleyn was guilty of hard-heartedness and even outright cruelty, Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway are able to present a biography that is sympathetic without being hagiographic. Rather like the latter's website which has, wholly unjustly and in a spirit of sweeping reduction, been described as a Boleyn "fan site." Empathy is not a whitewash and sympathy or identification is not always a bad thing - as shown by beautiful biographies like Antonia Fraser's on Marie-Antoinette, Lauren Mackey's on Eustace Chapuys, William Shawcross's on Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon or David Starkey's on Elizabeth I.

There are a few flies in the ointment - I would have liked to see a bit more of how George has been reimagined in culture after his death. We have seen a pious George, George the buffoon, gay George, bisexual George, kind George, saintly George, George the rapist and an incestuous George. His afterlife is fascinating and it would have been nice to see a little bit more of that, but that's a personal preference and in a biography that seeks to liberate George Boleyn from the shackles of cultural history, perhaps a facetious and contradictory one.

All things considered, George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier & Diplomat is a gem of a book. Thoughtful, erudite, charming, passionate and clever, it helps set George Boleyn centre-stage and to paint a fascinating portrait of an aristocratic career that ultimately sailed too close to the Sun and paid a tragically unfair price for it.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

A lovely endorsement by Leanda de Lisle

I am so pleased that the wonderful Leanda de Lisle has provided a lovely quote for the front covers of The Emperors, which is due to be released on 28th August. Leanda described the book as, "A family story of the royal rivalries that tore Europe apart, full of fire and tragedy." Leanda is not just the author of one of my favourite historical biographies (The Sisters Who Would Be Queen), but she is also the god-daughter of Tsar Nicholas II's younger sister, the Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna, who fled to Britain after the Revolution.

The book is available from Amazon UK, Amazon US, Amazon Deutschland and Amazon Canada.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Bert, Ernie and Belfast's big "gay cake row"

Bert and Ernie - the unlikely poster children of controversy

Recently, a Northern Irish customer wanted a cake for the centrepiece at a forthcoming party. (My friends Lauren and Claire handmade one from an Old South recipe for an engagement party, but that's by the by.) This cake was to feature the fairly innocuous co-dependent duo of Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie, with a slogan beneath them that encouraged the full legalisation of same-sex marriage. When this request was handed over to a local bakery, they eventually refused to make it on the grounds that to do so was "against what the Bible teaches". (So is bacon and multi-fabric dresses, but I digress.) The bakery was founded by Christians; even its name is a reference to one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel - the tribe of Asher, which, according to ancient tradition, usually produced the finest bakers. The customer in question was piqued, the bakery has since been accused of discrimination and the hashtag "gaycakerow" is doing the round on the Province's Twitterspace.

Not since the sublime Marie-Antoinette allegedly told everyone to up their carb in-take with some brioche have pastries proved so controversial. (Marie-Antoinette, shown rocking a linen gown and casual day-time ostrich plumes to the left, never said "Let them eat cake," by the way. Whatever else her faults might have been, crass insensitivity to suffering was not one of them. But that's the historian in me talking, not the cake enthusiast.) That Gay-Cake-Row somehow managed to make the front page of tonight's Belfast Telegraph is depressing enough; so important were North Belfast's butter-cream quandaries that they bumped the story of an 18 year-old girl, raised in a devoutly Christian family, who had been caught on camera bouncing through a night-club in the holiday resort of Magaluf (imagine Sodom and Gomorrah with perma-tan and too much gel and you're half-way there) pulling the penises of approximately thirty random guys into her mouth in return for a free holiday. ("Holiday" turned out to be the club's name for a cocktail. One of the more sordid elements in a story that offers tough competition in the sordid stakes.) Horror at the girl's antics and rather more touching concern for the level of shame both she and her family must now be suffering thanks to Twitter and the media's explosion of the issue, all acting with pearl-clutching disingenuous disbelief that this kind of thing goes on in Magaluf, has all swiftly been replaced by the debate over whether or not the bakery was right to refuse to make "gay cake" and if their offended customer was right to report them to the Equality Commission.

I have been a citizen of the World Web Wide long enough to know that there are few groups in the world who are quicker to scream "discrimination" than ultra-conservative Christians the minute 1000-years of habit is turned on its head and they are no longer allowed to do anything they like based on their religious philosophy. "Discrimination," in this context, all-too-often means "limits." And "gay-cake-row" (oh, what a ludicrous world we live in) has kicked that hornet's nest. Out in full force once again are the bible-thumping zealots who claim to speak for their entire religion and twisted, bitter armchair commentators, who mutter darkly about the "gay agenda", the "lavender brigades", the "gay mafia", the "same-sex totalitarianism". (A similar dispute about a bakery in America produced deadly-series opinion pieces on the blogosphere which compared the gay rights movement to Lenin's League of the Militant Godless, which was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Russian Christians and the dynamiting of Russian churches, Nazism and the martyrdom of Thomas More in 1535.) Equally, the liberal and pro-gay-marriage media were broadly, though not universally, sympathetic to rumours that the bakery would or could be prosecuted for discriminating against minorities, under current British law.

Little-known fact: there are some subtle differences between the Soviet Union's League of the Militant Godless (shown above, practicing for the execution of priests, nuns and ordinary Christians) and the insidious modern gay agenda (shown below, with actor Neil Patrick Harris, his husband, chef and actor David Burtka, and their two children. Notice how they're forcing their lifestyle choices on the camera - gross, right? Deliberate? Preach it.) Can you spot the differences? I imagine the people Lenin's censors cut out of  photos like the one on the left could.

In the interests of transparency, I should nail my colours to the mast on the gay marriage issue: I am strongly in favour of it. I think the fact that Northern Ireland is the only area of Her Majesty's United Kingdom that does not have marriage equality is absurd - it offends both my unionism (of the slightly to the Right of NI21 variety before things took an embarrassing turn for the shambolic) and my humanitarianism. In a nation in which secular marriage has been a fact courtesy of registry offices for over a century, it makes no more sense for religious institutions to claim they have the right to define what marriage is simply because they have their own version of it than it does for them to claim they have the right to define what architecture is based on the fact that they happen to own and run quite a lot of buildings. However, I also believe in common sense and limits to the current climate of go-to litigiousness.

If a hotel chain refused to serve a gay couple on religious grounds, I would be outraged and I would support legal action. A corporation cannot take that stand unless it was prepared to refuse service to single mothers, unwed couples, people who have lost their virginity outside of marriage or, if we're really going to go to town with Leviticus or Saint Paul, those who oppose the abolition of slavery. (No deluxe room with a riverside view for you, Mr Wilberforce.) Similarly, if a teacher casually and passively observed homophobia in their classroom, I would want answers as to their dereliction of duty, regardless of their religious faith. (Teachers still do this and they get away it. I carried out interviews with teachers for the bullying storyline in The Immaculate Deception and I came away frankly horrified by what some of their colleagues can get away with.) But when the issue comes to smaller, family-run businesses like Asher's Bakery of Belfast, it's not the same thing as a public sector employee or a national or multi-national business.

The customer in question had no reason to know the bakery was named after a Biblical figure when he placed his order. Even if he had, he may have assumed they would take his order because there are millions of practicing Christians all over the world who are strongly supportive of gay rights and, indeed, there are millions of gay Christians. The customer may even have been upset, hurt or mortified by the bakery's refusal of his order - who wouldn't be? But does that automatically justify a letter to the Equality Commission? In my heart of hearts, I'm just not sure that it did. Asher's did not refuse to serve him because he was gay, they refused to make a cake that contained the phrase "Support Same Sex Marriage" because they felt it contradicted Holy Scripture. Were they right? That's for theologians to decide, and they agree with their colleagues even less frequently than economists or historians do. The point is that Asher's were more than within their rights to refuse to make a cake that they felt morally or politically uncomfortable about. To shrink things down to their most reductive, would we expect a bakery situated in a strongly republican area in Belfast to make a red, white and blue cake to celebrate the Twelfth of July showing William of Orange, our most popular 17th-century Dutch invader, astride his marzipan-sculpted horse? Or a bakery at the opposite end of the town to gladly make a cake for this year's Ard Fheis?

Tobias and the Archangels
From Moses to Corinthians, bread, leavened or otherwise, plays a big supporting role. For those interested, left to right, it's Saint Michael, Saint Gabriel, Tobias and Saint Raphael.

People in small businesses like Asher's have a right to hold onto their opinions. Equally, the jilted customer can let his or her friends know that this bakery is opposed to gay rights etc., and those people can, in turn, choose to take their custom elsewhere for all future orders, regardless of their nature, if they feel strongly enough about the issue. That's freedom of choice; it's what makes capitalism, big and small, tick. And, for what it's worth, it's a big running theme in Genesis and its 65 critically-acclaimed sequels. (78 if we're counting the Apocrypha, which we should be, but that's a different debate for a different time. Maybe a dinner party over a glass of wine? Who knows?) One could justifiably query if someone should go into business with these kind of views, but I tend to think people should be able to and then pay the price for having principles, whatever that might be. There is so much nonsense written about gay people and Christians online and in the press, and this story does neither group any favours. Is the conscience of a privately-run bakery and their choice of what to ice or otherwise really worthy of front page news? Asher's Bakery aren't martyrs, even though there are those who will be quick to wreath them in the garland of John 15:18. (Only an era as soft as this one could see the crown of martyrdom in something like this...) They are a bakery who made a decision based on how they interpret a few verses in a much-debated religious text. For somebody else, the dividing line on where to bake might be politics, syntax or the imagery itself. Would a baker who was gay or who supported gay rights be wrong to turn away a cake that asked them to craft in icing, "Keep marriage between a man and woman" or "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve"? (If they did, I can take a guess at who would be the first people to claim discrimination.)

There are bigger fish to fry/cakes to ice (what a truly awful pun, I detest myself) than this. Let's bring solicitors and the press into the fray only when the situation really warrants it. If you feel strongly about something this specific, this localised, then, for me, the answer is in our wallets, not a solicitor's office. And to the customer in question, I hope whoever made the cake in the end did a fantastic job and that you had a wonderful party. To the Equality Commission, this seems a bit like over-egging the proverbial cake. (Once you've hit one stinker of a metaphor, it's best to keep going, I find. No regrets.) To the bakery, to paraphrase an apocryphal quote so often attributed to that old rogue of the Enlightenment Voltaire, I don't agree with what you said, but I have to reluctantly defend your right to act upon it. And any previous cakes I've nibbled from your shop have been delicious. 
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