Monday 27 September 2010

"Eat, Sleep and Pray": An Author remembers the road to publication

American novelist, Elena Maria Vidal, author of Trianon, Madame Royale and The Night's Dark Shade, writes about the long and difficult road between starting a novel, finishing it and getting it published. It is a long and drawn-out process, which I myself am familiar with - as I am with the rejections!

"It was a turbulent time in my life, as I was undergoing a major career change. I had no computer, no internet, and little money. Nevertheless, I was imbued with the desire to tell the story of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette as it had never before been told, shedding a new light upon the gravely misunderstood King and Queen. I wrote ten hours a day, stopping only to eat, sleep and pray. Before I even completed the final manuscript, I began sending out query letters and sample chapters to every publisher I could think of. Rejection after rejection came. I knew in my heart that somehow Trianon would be published although at the time it seemed futile."

Every novel has a different road to publication and it's true to say that for every one which reaches the reading public, there are a hundred which do not. Thankfully, Trianon was one of the ones which made it! And deservedly so.

For this blog's review of Elena Maria's first novel, Trianon, click here. A review of its excellent sequel will be posted in the next couple of weeks.

For an interview with Elena Maria, click here.

Sunday 26 September 2010

"In a true democracy, everyone can be upper class and live in Connecticut": Has the Preppy Era gone too far?

Thirty years after the publication of Lisa Birnbach's The Official Preppy Handbook, Eric Felten wonders if the culture of preppiness has actually been harmful to America's middle- and upper-classes? I think he may be overstating the case slightly, but it's well-written and it does point out that what was perhaps intended as satire suddenly became a bible for those who wish their lives were like something out of a Cecily von Ziegesar novel.

Via Tea at Trianon, to quote: -

The clothes may have been the most visible part of the preppy phenomenon, but they represented only a small part of the upper-class way of life Ms. Birnbach was championing (however cheerfully sly and subversive her advocacy may have been). Much of the book was devoted to a world-view that was casually aristocratic. Ms. Birnbach promised to make that outlook available to one and all. "In a true democracy," she wrote, "everyone can be upper class and live in Connecticut."

How could the suburban teenager from Peoria or Pomona all of sudden be "upper class"? It was less a matter of pink oxford cloth and Kelly-green poplin than of adopting an aristocratic lassitude, an attitude that exuded privilege by treating effort with contempt. One simply mustn't try too hard. A key principle of what Ms. Birnbach called the Preppy Value System was Effortlessness: "If life is a country club, then all functions should be free from strain."

There's no denying the seductive appeal of the old aristocratic disdain for those who strive. How much nicer (and, of course, easier) it is to adopt a blasé and boozy contempt for the grinds and geeks who put in effort than it is to compete with them. The original Handbook warned acolytes not to waste their college days studying "Professional majors" such as engineering, chemistry or mathematics, because they "all reek of practicality." Nor, we were told, did the preppy go for intellectually demanding subjects such as philosophy or linguistics because, "they smack of an equally undesirable effort."

And there's the rub. Unless you actually have a fat trust fund to underwrite your nonchalance, an aversion to effort is hardly a strategy for success. Which may explain some of our national woes.

Saturday 25 September 2010

New blog

As many of this blog's regular readers will know, my first novel Popular will be released by Penguin in the UK in 2011. To keep people informed about Popular's progress and with information about the novel's setting in Belfast and its characters, I've decided to start up a brand new blog, which also means that I can maintain this one with the more historical, literary and theological posts without compromising their content. It'll be a lot of fun to be writing two such totally different blogs, but if anyone is interested in checking out the new one, it can be accessed here.

Friday 24 September 2010

September 24th: The Feast of Our Lady of Walsingham

 Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Walsingham, with its cult centre in Norfolk, England. There are currently two churches in Walsingham - one a High Anglican chapel, the other (one mile away) is its Roman Catholic sister. In the Anglican church, a small Russian Orthodox shrine to the Virgin is also kept, so Christians of all denominations are represented. In a further sign of Marianist ecumenicalism, pilgrims regularly walk barefoot along the Holy Mile between the two churches. For High Anglican and Catholic members of the Armed Forces, there is a long tradition stretching back to the First World War, which placed the Virgin of Walsingham as one of the British army, navy and air force's patrons.

Although it is certainly a lovely place, Walsingham is by no means as well-known as other Marianist shrines at, say, Lourdes or Fatima, or even Knock and Loretto. Its visitor numbers are ant-like in comparison to those who visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, the most visited Catholic shrine in the world. But, prior to the English Reformation, Walsingham was perhaps one of the most visited Christian centres in Europe, certainly in England, and it boasted an enormous, lavish complex and church.

Thursday 23 September 2010

Trailer for "The King's Speech" released

And it certainly doesn't disappoint!

"I intend to be a very good queen - to a very great king."

The new movie The King's Speech has had its trailer released online - and you can watch it, here.

The movie follows the political career of the Queen's father, the late King George VI (Colin Firth), as he struggles to overcome his crippling speech impediment with the help of his wife, the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (Helena Bonham Carter) and an Australian speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush), in the wake of his unexpected succession to the throne and the British Empire's coming struggle with Nazi Germany. Timothy Spall co-stars as Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Michael Gambon appears as King George V.

George VI was one of this country's most underrated sovereigns and the courage, honesty and fundamental decency with which he lived his life is, I think, admirable and heroic in a way which so many people overlook. It's the dignity of the quiet struggle to better himself and live up to his duty, which I think is truly inspiring. Sympathetic and moving, The King's Speech is already generating an Oscar buzz for all three of its leads and I can't wait to see it.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

September 22nd, 1515: The Birth of Anne of Cleves

"On this day in history, the 22nd September 1515, Anna von Jülich-Kleve-Berg, or Anne of Cleves, was born near Düsseldorf. She was the second daughter of John III, Duke of Jülich, Cleves and Berg, an important German ruler, and Maria of Jülich-Berg. Elizabeth Norton writes of Anne’s grand lineage – not only was she descended from Edward I, she was also, on her father’s side, closely related to Louis XII of France and the Duke of Burgundy."

Claire at The Anne Boleyn Files commemorates the anniversary of the birth of Anne of Cleves, Queen of England, the fourth wife of King Henry VIII. To date, Anne holds the record of having held that title for the shortest period of time amongst the confederacy of consorts, having been Queen from January until July of 1540. In second place is another unlucky German princess, Caroline of Brunswick, the consort of George IV, who held the title from January 1820 until her death in August 1821. Anne's predecessor, Jane Seymour, her successor Catherine Howard, Richard II's child-bride Isabelle de Valois and Richard III's wife, Anne Neville, were other women who did not long enjoy their throne.

Sunday 19 September 2010

"A gift of the Grace of God": Reflections on Mozart's Requiem

The Introit to Mozart's Requiem Mass is perhaps my single favourite piece of music and so I was pleased to hear the current Pope, Benedict XVI, praise it so highly.

Despite being routinely present as either an enthusiastic Freemason or an equally enthusiastic agnostic, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that Mozart did not remain a sincere Catholic for all of his conscious life. In one of his final letters, he wrote that his faith had given him the ability to no longer fear death - "And I thank my God for having given me the good fortune of having the opportunity of recognizing in it the key to our happiness. I never lie down without thinking that perhaps the next day I might not be. And yet anyone who knows me will not be able to say that in their company I am sad or in a bad mood."

Via Tea at Trianon comes the current Pope's reflections on Mozart's Requiem, to quote: -

"Everything is in perfect harmony in Mozart, every note, every musical phrase is as it is and could not be otherwise; even those opposed are reconciled; it is called "mozart’sche Heiterkeit" (Mozart's serenity), which envelops everything, every moment. It is a gift of the Grace of God, but it is also the fruit of Mozart's lively faith that, especially in sacred music, is able to reflect the luminous response of divine love, which gives hope, even when human life is lacerated by suffering and death..."

Friday 17 September 2010

Point of Information

A few of this blog's readers have been e-mailing or commenting to me on Anne Boleyn's age, pointing out that I have it wrong and that she was, in fact, born either in 1500 or 1501.

I am always very grateful that people feel like getting in touch and passing on information, but, in this case, I wanted to clarify that it's not that I am unaware that many historians argue that Anne Boleyn was born at the turn of the century, it's simply that I don't agree with them.

I've tackled the debate before, on the post The Age of Anne Boleyn, which you can read here.

Many thanks to all those who have been in touch!

Wednesday 15 September 2010

"The Special Relationship" Trailer

Having already tackled his relationship with his successor, Gordon Brown, and the monarchy in The Deal (2003) and The Queen (2006), Stephen Frears has returned to the subject of Tony Blair's career as Prime Minister in HBO's amazing new movie, The Special Relationship, which tells the story of Blair's relationship with the then-President of the United States, Bill Clinton, at the time of the Northern Irish Peace Process.

President Clinton, played by Denis Quaid, is joined by Hope Davis as First Lady Hillary Clinton, with the amazing Michael Sheen reprising his role as Blair, with Helen McCrory returning as Cherie Blair and Mark Bazeley playing New Labour's spin doctor, Alistair Campbell, as he did in The Queen.

The trailer can be watched here.

The Queen Mother's Movie Request

More news on the forthcoming movie The King's Speech, which is already generating a buzz for next year's Oscars.

Starring Colin Firth and Helena Bonham-Carter (above) as the current Queen's parents, King George VI and the late Queen Elizabeth (better known to us by her widowed title of the Queen Mother), The King's Speech tells the true story of King George's speech impediment, which he and his wife worked to overcome with the help of a republican speech therapist (played by Geoffrey Rush), after the abdication of George's brother in 1936 propelled a reluctant George onto the throne.

The writer, David Seidler, who wrote the script for The King's Speech, actually began researching the story back in 1981 and even wrote to the late Queen Mother, asking her permission to tell the story of her brother-in-law's Abdication, the political crisis and her husband's journey to the throne.

"I wrote and asked her permission to tell the story in a film," Mr. Seidler told the Mail, "But it was still so raw for her - the whole business of having to relive what her husband and her family went through, with the Abdication and him becoming King. It was too much, and still painful, so she wrote and asked that the film not be made until after her death."
Bonham-Carter, who has already played two queens of England - Lady Jane Grey in 1986's Lady Jane and Anne Boleyn in 2003's Henry VIII - put an enormous amount of research into playing Queen Elizabeth, as did Colin Firth, who has spoken affectionately of the late King in interviews: "It never occurred to me the enormity of what he was up against. But he had inner steel, and that's what I had to bring out."
The King's Speech will be shown at the Toronto Film Festival next week and will be released in the United Kingdom on January 7th. 

I'm very excited about this one.

And as soon as the trailer is available on Youtube, I shall post a link.

The full Daily Mail article can be read here.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Anne Boleyn: The Mother

"Courtiers were often embarrassed by Anne’s displays of affection for her baby and that she loved to have Elizabeth next to her on a cushion, rather than shut away in a nursery."

Back in March, Claire Ridgway at The Anne Boleyn Files posted an excellent and personal reflection on Anne Boleyn's role as a mother to the future Queen Elizabeth I.

Monday 13 September 2010

"Elvis, Chatsworth, JFK and Me:" An Interview with Deborah Mitford

In light of the release of her memoirs, Wait for Me!, The Daily Telegraph writes a wonderful and very entertaining profile of Deborah Mitford, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. There are certain quotes in the article, which remind me why I find the Mitfords' style so inimitably delicious and hilarious. There are also moments of great triumph in diversity, downplayed in a very old "stiff upper lip" kind of way - the quarter of a century it took her and her husband to pay of the Death Tax levied upon them, the deaths of three of her children and the Duke's battle with alcoholism.


Debo, as everyone calls her, was 90 this year. Having greeted me in her pretty garden, shaking my hand and looking me directly in the eye, she leads me into the apple-green-walled and flagstone-floored hall – 'Do put your bags down, no burglars here' – and shows me into her sitting-room, which has an extraordinarily nice atmosphere, and we take to the floral sofa, where she positively lounges, looking at me brightly, waiting to be amused.

There have been countless books about the Mitfords, both biographical and autobiographical, and now her own memoirs, Wait for Me!, are about to be published. (She has written several books, mostly about Chatsworth, her former home.)

"Wait for Me!": The memoirs of the last of the Mitford girls

"Money and illness and sex were not talked about in those days and they are the only things people talk about these days, aren't they? ... Self-pity and self-esteem, which are now the key things in school, were not allowed. Self-esteem? Nanny used to say, 'Who's going to look at you?'" - Deborah Cavendish (nee Mitford)

"This last surviving member of the Mitford clan has written a memoir old-fashioned in its unwillingness to spill the beans, yet one which is still rich enough in anecdote to be unputdownable."

Bel Mooney at The Daily Mail reviews the newly-published memoirs of Her Grace the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, perhaps better-known to the world by her maiden name of Deborah Mitford. Known within the family as "Debo," the Dowager Duchess's memoirs sound fascinating and I've ordered my copy to keep as a treat for finishing Popular's sequel in October - along with the official biography of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, C.J. Sansom's new novel Heartstone, Charlaine Harris's Dead Until Dark and re-reading Elena Maria Vidal's Madame Royale and William Boyd's Any Human Heart. So looking forward to two weeks of doing absolutely nothing.

I've always had a great admiration for the Duchess. My grandmother told me a story that, during the Blitz, coming across a working-class woman sitting amidst the bombed out ruins of her house, Deborah walked over and handed her her diamond engagement ring, to sell and re-start her life with. It's easy to see why she is so respected and why she managed to keep-up amicable relations with all over her, often-quarrelling sisters. However, some harsh words are reserved in the memoirs, apparently, for the brilliant but difficult Nancy, who (it was recently discovered) was actually one of the sources writing to the British government recommending the imprisonment of her pro-fascist sister, Diana, during the Second World War.

Copies of Wait for Me! can be ordered here. (And, on a side note, I couldn't agree any more with Miss Mooney's description of inheritance tax/death tax/death duties as a "crippling abomination.")

Sunday 12 September 2010

James II's wedding suit

Via Tea at Trianon comes an account of the sumptuous wedding suit worn by the future King James II when he married his second bride, the lovely Italian princess, Maria-Beatrice of Modena, in 1673. The suit, shown above, is still preserved and on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

James's time as King in Britain was short, lasting only from 1685 until he was deposed in 1688. He and Maria-Beatrice were to spend the rest of their lives in exile, as guests of the French Royal Family, with Maria becoming an important figure in Court life at the recently-completed palace of Versailles, where she was much admired.

James, then Duke of York, had been married before, to the late Lady Anne Hyde, who had lost her battle to cancer two years earlier. With Anne, James had fathered eight children, although only two survived - the future queens, Mary II and Anne. With the beautiful Maria (or, to give her her full name, Maria-Beatrice-Eleanora-Anna-Margareta-Isabella d'Este of Modena), James was to have a further seven children - Catherine-Laura (died at the age of ten months), Isabella (died aged five), Charles, Duke of Cambridge (died as a baby during the smallpox epidemic of 1677), Elizabeth (died a few weeks after her christening), Charlotte-Maria (died of a possible allergy at the age of three months), James Francis Edward, regarded as "King James III" by his father's supporters and "the Old Pretender" by those who supported James II's exile (1688 - 1766) and Princess Louisa-Maria (1692 - 1712), who was born during the royal couple's exile in France.

The couple and their surviving children lived out most of their exile in the magnificent château of St. Germain-en-Laye (below), a gift to them from King James's cousin, Louis XIV. James II died there in the autumn of 1701 and he was originally buried in the Chapel of Saint Edmund in the Church of the English Benedictines on the Rue St Jacques in Paris. James was followed to the grave eleven years later by his daughter, the unmarried Princess Louisa-Maria, who died at St.-Germain at the age of nineteen in the spring of 1712, to her mother's great distress. The princess's body was taken to the Church of the English Benedictines, to rest alongside her late father's. Queen Maria-Beatrice died six years later in the early summer of 1718, after an agonising battle with cancer. She was buried in the Abbey of the Visitation of Saint Mary at Chaillot. The bodies of King James, Queen Maria-Beatrice and Princess Louisa-Maria were all destroyed during the French Revolution.

After a failed attempt to retake the British thrones in 1715, James-Francis re-settled in Rome, where he married Princess Maria-Casimira of Poland and fathered two sons - including the future "Bonnie Prince Charlie" of legend. James-Francis or, "James III and VIII" as his most loyal adherents had known him, passed away as a guest of the Papacy on New Year's Day 1766 and he was granted the honour of being buried in Saint Peter's Basilica.

Today, James II and Maria-Beatrice of Modena have no mutual living descendants. All of their children, bar James-Francis, died before they could reproduce and of James-Francis's two children - "Bonnie" Charles-Edward's marriage to Princess Louisa-Maximiliana von Stolberg-Gedern was barren and his younger brother, Henry-Benedict, entered the Roman Catholic Church and became Cardinal of Santa Maria.

Friday 10 September 2010

"The Queen of Maryland"

Historical novelist, Elena Maria Vidal, profiles the life of Henrietta-Maria of France, Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland, wife of King Charles I and mother of Kings Charles II and James II. The daughter of King Henri IV of France and his second wife, Marie de Medici, Henrietta-Maria married the new King of England in 1625 and remained by his side until the traumas of the Civil War, which took her husband's life. It was in the Queen's honour that the future American state of Maryland, Elena Maria's home State, was named.

"In the lone tent, waiting for victory,  
She stands with eyes marred by the mists of pain,
Like some wan lily overdrenched with rain:
The clamorous clang of arms, the ensanguined sky,
War's ruin, and the wreck of chivalry
To her proud soul no common fear can bring:
Bravely she tarrieth for her Lord the King,
Her soul a-flame with passionate ecstasy."
From Henrietta Maria by Oscar Wilde

Tuesday 7 September 2010

September 7th, 1533: The Birth of Elizabeth I

For someone who was to go down in history as “the Virgin Queen,” there were certainly enough signs of the most famous of virgins surrounding Elizabeth Tudor’s birth. To begin with, she was born on September 7th, the day before the Church celebrated the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin – the Virgin Mary’s liturgical birthday. (And, just as she was born on the day before one of the Virgin’s great feast-days, so too would Elizabeth die on March 24th, one day before the Feast of the Annunciation in 1603.) According to an old tale, Elizabeth’s mother, Queen Anne Boleyn, had selected a tapestry displaying the legend of Saint Ursula, one of Christianity’s most beloved virgin-saints, to hang in her birthing chamber. The birth took place at three o'clock in the afternoon at the beautiful palace of Greenwich, a red-brick residence alongside the banks of the Thames, famed for the beauty of its gardens and one of King Henry's favourite homes.

The baby princess’s gender, as everybody knows, was a terrible disappointment to both of her parents and a subject of ill-contained glee to their many opponents. However, it was not quite the death-knell in Henry and Anne’s marriage that later tradition was to suggest, nor is there any evidence to suggest it affected their treatment of her. Henry was always a capricious parent, alternating between indifference and indulgence, whilst Anne was a devoted mother and, as Elizabeth's biographer, Dr. David Starkey, has written - "her mother plainly adored her."

At the time, apart from upset at the baby's sex, many people were simply relieved that the Queen had not only had a fairly easy delivery, but that she had lived through it at all. The last trimester of Anne Boleyn’s pregnancy had been a difficult one, something common to many thin women. As July and August had rolled on, the Queen’s health had suffered, the Court’s Summer Progress was cancelled and the King was so concerned about his new wife’s well-being that he had ordered that all news which might upset her be withheld. It is therefore highly doubtful that when she took to her chamber to give birth Queen Anne even knew that, at long last, the Pope had ruled on the subject of King Henry’s marriage. According to the Pontiff, Henry was still legally wed to his first wife, the exiled Katherine of Aragon, and as such, not only was Anne’s queenship illegal, but her forthcoming child was a bastard. Characteristically, the Pope’s edict came too late to save Katherine, but just in time to cause serious trouble for Anne – which was probably the intention. At the age of twenty-six, Anne Boleyn was also slightly late by the standards of her class to be going through her first childbirth. Henry’s first wife had also been a late bloomer, having gone through her first pregnancy at the age of twenty-four, but, in the case of both women, there had been a set of extraordinary circumstances delaying their marriage to the King. Baby Elizabeth also seems to have been born somewhat premature - since Anne did not take to her chamber until August 26th, less than two weeks before the birth, when the traditional withdrawal period was one month. This suggests that Elizabeth was probably conceived sometime around Christmas 1532 or early January which means that, even if the marriage ceremony in January 1533 was her parents' only service (which it wasn't, since we have evidence from both sides of the ideological aisle for the date in November too), the reason cannot have been that Anne knew herself to be pregnant at such an early stage. All that, of course, is by the by and an object of curiosity only to the historian and, later, to Elizabeth herself. What mattered at the time was that an Elizabeth had joined the royal nursery, not an Edward.

Had Elizabeth been a boy, of course, her mother's new found title would have been unassailable. Even opponents of her marriage, like Sir Thomas More, had been prepared to “wait and see,” on the issue of her children. If Anne had produced the longed-for son and heir, then all the criticisms of her would have evaporated and her predecessor regarded as a cantankerous irrelevance. As More had said, if the new Queen did produce a prince, then it would be to the “rest, peace, wealth and profit” of the entire country. No matter how much anyone liked Katherine of Aragon, they would have liked a Prince of Wales and a stable succession a lot more.

Throughout 1533, the progress of Anne Boleyn had been seemingly unstoppable. At long last, everything seemed to be going her way. She and the King had finally been married in November of the previous year, going through the proscribed second Nuptial Mass in January, by which time Anne must have already been pregnant with Elizabeth – although, she cannot have known it yet. At her lavish Coronation in the early summer, foreign observers noted that “the English sought, unceasingly, to honour their new princess… everyone strove to be as attentive and solicitous as possible to serve their new mistress.” It seemed so unlikely that the culmination of a year of triumph would have been the anti-climax of the birth of a daughter, rather than a son.

Sunday 5 September 2010

September 5th, 1548: The Death of Katharine Parr

"She was not a pretty woman, or a beauty, but rather comely with red-gold hair and hazel eyes ... Katherine's looks, however, were not her chief attraction. People were drawn more to her warm and amiable personality and her intellectual qualities; she exuded goodwill... Katherine was also to prove popular with most people, mainly because she had a pleasant manner with both nobility and servants alike. Her chaplain, John Parkhurst, who later became Bishop of Norwich, remembered in his latter years that she was 'a most gentle mistress'. Perhaps the most outstanding thing about her was her formidable intellect, which had been cultivated to an unusual extent by her mother and by the people with whom she associated herself in later life. She was perceptive, articulate, thirsty for knowledge, both general and religious, and industrious. Her virtue, a female quality always suspect in an age that believed that teaching women to write would encourage them to pen love-letters, was beyond question."
- The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir (1991)

On this day in 1548, Katharine Parr, Queen Dowager of England and Ireland, died an agonising death at the age of thirty-six. She had outlived her third, and most notorious, husband by just over eighteen months and had died as a result of trying to give her fourth husband, Lord Thomas Seymour, a son and heir. Instead, the former Queen had given birth to a sickly daughter and she herself was now "lying on my death-bed, sick of body but of good mind and perfect memory".

"The beauteous Anne Boleyn and the guilty Catherine Howard"

"In front of the altar, repose the beauteous Anna (sic) Boleyn, and the guilty Catherine Howard, two ill-fated wives of Henry VIII".
- The History and Antiquities of the Tower of London by John Bayley (1830)

Claire Ridgway at The Anne Boleyn Files concludes her series of posts on the exhumation of several bodies in the Tower's Chapel of St. Peter-ad-Vincula and concludes that there is no good reason to conclude that the body exhumed in 1876 was not, in fact, the remains of "the beauteous Anne Boleyn." Claire writes:
"My conclusion is that there is no reason to think that the Victorians were wrong in their identification of Anne Boleyn’s remains. I know that their identification relied on circumstantial evidence, the fact that the body lay where they expected to find Anne Boleyn, but there is no hard evidence to suggest that it wasn’t Anne."

The 1876 exhumation and whether they were Anne Boleyn's, Jane Boleyn's or Catherine Howard's, also feeds into the intense academic debate over Anne's date of birth, which was discussed on this blog, where I put forward the case for the minority position - arguing that Anne was born in 1507, not 1501, as is commonly argued by most historians today. (And as proof of how seriously Tudor enthusiasts take this debate it is, so far, the single most commented upon post on this blog.)
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