Pre-Raphs in Space

I’m surfacing for a brief moment as I haven’t blogged properly for yonks, and with Pseudotooth coming out next month I need to make it look like I’m alive.

Those who know me are well aware of my weakness for Beautiful Tragic Dead Boys. This means I frequently get gifts of antique photographs to hang on my wall where I can imagine the anonymous subjects were thwarted poets who died at sea. We all have our preferences.

Rejoice: I have a new Beautiful Tragic Dead Boy. Nils Asther was beamed down to earth in 1897 by the same aliens who gave us David Bowie. He grabbed my attention a few weeks ago for being the dead spit of my Az from Beauty Secrets of The Martyrs. I had in mind an androgynous silent film star look for Az, and Nils’ dark, unearthly prettiness, though rather too tall, is precisely how Az materialised in my head, stealing my silverware and hijacking the neighbours’ wifi.


Thank you, Outer Space, for loaning us your bisexual cheekbony creatures.

So I’ve been watching as many Asther films as I can find. Mostly, he was the romantic bad boy, which he hated, but there are a few surprising films. Himmelskibet (A Trip To Mars) featuring a twenty-one-year-old, rather skinny Nils as a citizen of Mars, which is probably where he came from in the first place. While lacking the whimsy of Georges Méliès’ 1902 A Trip To The MoonA Trip To Mars – made in 1918 – has a certain Pre-Raphaelite flavour that caught my eye.

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As unlikely as it may seem, the Pre-Raphaelite link to sci-fi is something that keeps popping up. (See the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood post on Princess Leia for some hair-talk.) Although the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were, by definition, interested in the naturalistic style of art before Raphael, they still interacted with the issues of their own Victorian age through a lens of medievalism and myth. Science, okay, not so much – Rossetti, famously, had no idea if the sun revolved around the Earth or vice versa, and argued it was unimportant anyway – but later disciples of the PRB did dip their toes into the world of modern technology. This 1910 Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale painting of an angel guarding a biplane has always fascinated me…

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The celestial meets the mechanical.


There’s something odd about watching a film about space exploration made during the First World War. And there’s a yearning quality to A Trip To Mars. While the Earth is tearing itself apart, Mars turns out to be populated by peace-loving vegetarians. We get to watch a rocket full of uniformed Earthmen barging onto the peaceful planet where everyone floats around like Grecian deities. It’s as if Man has found Eden again, and another way to ruin it all.

Are the Earthmen ready for the Martians’ message of peace and love, or will they give in to the temptation to hurl grenades for no good reason? Here’s their chance to go back in time and halt things before they go wrong – something the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were deeply concerned with.

Here are a few of my favourite rather Pre-Raphaelite moments. You can watch the whole film here.

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Wedding Feast Denies Him Her Salutation

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Frank Dicksee – La Belle Dame Sans Merci

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William Holman Hunt – Rienzi Vowing To Obtain Justice

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John Everett Millais: The Black Brunswicker.

John Everett Millais – The Black Brunswicker.

And finally, a spaceship decked in flowers. Just because.

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#PRBday: Visions of hope in Pre-Raphaelite art.

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 23.54.42Baudelaire. I posted this quote on Twitter this morning in response to last night’s terrible violence in Paris.

In times of darkness, art reminds us that humans have always been capable of wonderful things, regardless of war, oppression, or sickness. Sometimes more so for the suffering, if you look at the poems and paintings of the early twentieth century. Art, like heroism, shows its colours more brightly when the world is bleak.

And art can bring people together in strange, synchronistic ways. Now there’s the Internet, people who might never encounter each other in the flesh can link up and enthuse together – something unimaginable just a few decades ago.

The 15th of November is #PRBday, when Pre-Raphaelite devotees raise the group’s profile, shine a light on their legacy, and welcome new friends into the online circle. I’ve met so many fabulous people thanks to these mid-Victorian “boys who couldn’t draw”, as Rossetti called himself and the other PR Brothers.

I was going to write something else today, but none of it seems appropriate. I think what I instinctively want to do is share some hopeful Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Joan of Arc

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Joan of Arc

Edward Burne-Jones - Love Among The Ruins

Edward Burne-Jones – Love Among The Ruins

Ford Madox Brown - The Last of England

Ford Madox Brown – The Last of England

Frank Cadogan Cowper - St Agnes in Prison Receiving from Heaven the ‘Shining White Garment’

Frank Cadogan Cowper – St Agnes in Prison Receiving from Heaven the ‘Shining White Garment’

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Found

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Found

William Holman Hunt - The Light of The World

William Holman Hunt – The Light of The World

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Evelyn De Morgan – Field of The Slain

We’ve got art, and we can make more. We’ve got friends, and we can make more of those, too. There’s inspiration in that. There always has been. And where there’s inspiration, life prevails.

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Between you and me, William…

As it’s the two-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, I thought I’d share this Pre-Raphaelite tidbit from the twenty-one-year-old Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

In the autumn of 1849, he and William Holman Hunt took a holiday to the continent together. Rossetti journaled the experience in verse which he duly sent to his brother, William Michael, back in London. Between sniggering in art galleries and noticing pretty girls (French ones weren’t as nice as English ones, naturally), the PR Brothers took in the usual famous attractions, including the site of the Battle of Waterloo. Here’s what Rossetti thought of it:

On the Field of Waterloo.

So then, the name which travels side by side
With English life from childhood—Waterloo,
Means this. The sun is setting. “Their strife grew
Till the sunset, and ended,” says our guide.
It lacked the “chord” by stage-use sanctified,
Yet I believe one should have thrilled. For me,
I grinned not, and ’twas something:—certainly
These held their point, and did not turn but died:
So much is very well. “Under each span
“Of these ploughed fields” (’tis the guide still) “there rot
Three nations’ slain, a thousand-thousandfold.”
Am I to weep? Good sirs, the earth is old:
Of the whole earth there is no single spot
But hath among its dust the dust of man.

Oh dear. But he does have a point. And then, in a letter to William at home:

One of the great nuisances of this place, as also at Waterloo, is the plague of guides from which there is no escape. The one we had at Waterloo completely baulked me of all the sonnets I had promised myself; so that all I accomplished was the embryo bottled up in the preceding column. Between you and me, William, Waterloo is simply a bore.

Yawn.

Yawn.

 

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Open Day at Cambridge’s Pre-Raphaelite Church

This Saturday, the 13th of June 2015, All Saints Church on Jesus Lane will be open to the public from 11.00am to 3.00pm.

Building started on site in 1863 where no former church existed. Instead of a mishmash of different ages like most medieval churches, All Saints is a testament to the vision of one man, George Fredrick Bodley, one of the most significant architects of the Gothic Revival.

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With the artistic input from William Morris, Charles Eamer Kempe, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Maddox Brown, Frederick Leach and Philip Web, there are plenty of stories to tell. Volunteers will be on hand to guide you around the church’s intricate details, including the pre-WW1 graffiti in the chamber to the right of the altar.

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Friends of All Saints are always looking for more volunteers. Opportunities include being part of an advisory forum, research, events and fundraising. Email Karen Fishwick for more details: kfishwick@thecct.org.uk

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No need to book – just drop in between 11.00am and 3.00pm All Saint’s Church, Jesus Lane, Cambridge, CB5 8BP.

Please contact: southeast@thecct.org.uk or phone 01223 324442 for more information or see visitchurches.org.uk.

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Review: Silent Partners at The Fitzwilliam

It’s been a good couple of months for writing. After getting some lovely responses over my last short story (it’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize – I got the news in the middle of the night during a bout of chronic pain, and I initially thought it was my medication playing tricks) I’ve been putting concerted effort into finishing the novella that’s been lingering about since last winter. To be annoyingly vague, it concerns the nocturnal lives of mannequins, so, for a bit of research and a break from my desk, I visited Silent Partners at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum.

Reposing, by Alan Beeton

“Silent Partners is a ground-breaking exhibition devoted to the artist’s mannequin, that uncovers its playful, uncanny – and sometimes disturbing – history from the Renaissance to the present-day.”

The exhibition is far bigger than I anticipated. Three large rooms of artists’ lay figures, anatomists’ models, and fashion clotheshorses charting the evolution of the human simulacrum from religious devotion to arch Surrealism, along with striking photography and disembodied limbs dotted around the rest of the Fitz.

Life-sized dolls, no matter how beautifully made, are creepy, and the curators understand. From the moment you enter Silent Partners, you’re hit by the ‘uncanny valley’ effect. Viewing Walter Sickert’s life-sized wooden lay figure – laid out in a coffin, no less – I realised I was experiencing the same sensation of voyeurism I get when viewing Egyptian mummies or one of Doctor Gunther’s anonymous corpses. CT scans add to that sense of the uncanny. The mannequins once had life and purpose. Now they lie still.

To my perverse delight, the Fitz has sourced one of Thomas Edison’s horrendous talking dolls. It’s about as adorable as a vocal manifestation in a poltergeist haunting. The business went bust in the 1890s because children were understandably terrified. Dolls – blonde and smiling or otherwise – have the power to scare, whether you want them to or not.

Are you still with me after that?

Less unnerving is the lay figure’s role as studio companion. Many of the nineteenth century mannequins on display have small, faintly smiling faces and eyes that look submissively up from under the lashes as if to say, “…master?” This of course led to accusations of fetishism – a new term in fin-de-siecle psychology. After all, an artist’s lay figure is an idealised, usually female figure, posable, silent, and always there. A kind of sexless mistress, lifelike but lifeless.

Edward Burne-Jones bears the brunt of this. Comparing his Pygmalion series to the vibrant new woman of Jones’ time, one label points to Ned’s fixation with statue-serene models as a symptom of his own sexual repression. That strikes me as a bit harsh, particularly when looking at his famously fiery lover, Maria Zambaco. You don’t roll around on the cobblestones with someone if you’re not at least slightly open to the urgency of your own passions. But I see what they’re getting at: ‘I love you, but please stand still and shut up’.

The_Soul_AttainsThere’s a surprising amount of Pre-Raphaelite art, considering the movement was so concerned with realism. Ford Madox Brown owned five lay figures at the time of his death (including a horse), and The Last of England was completed partially with the help of these figures. Critics noticed. There’s a fun insult from the eighteenth century: “This painting stinks of the mannequin”. Millais was better at hiding his use of lay figures. The Black Brunswicker required two so that the models – Dickens’ daughter Katy and an army private not of her acquaintance – wouldn’t have to hold such an intimate pose.

The fashion segment was particularly interesting. Earlier clothes modelling mannequins have far more physical agency than the ones you’ll see in Topshop windows. These eighteenth century lifeless girls have hands that reach and gesticulate, and faces poised as if to speak. It was only in the nineteenth century that shop windows began to display disembodied hips and busts. A decline in tailoring to the individual? Or a less sinister preference for cheap mass production?

Overall, Silent Partners is an impressive undertaking and hugely interesting – and free! I’ll be returning at least once. The only downside was the lack of labels on the large photographs dotted around the other galleries, because I loved them but couldn’t find the photographer’s name. It’s probably my shortsightedness, but somebody enlighten me, please.

Photo by StuffandStories on Twitter.

Photo by StuffandStories on Twitter.

Silent Partners is on at the Fitzwilliam Museum of Cambridge until the 25th Jan 2015, and then the Musée Bourdelle in Paris from the 31st March until the 12th of July 2015.

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That Damned Elusive Pearl Spiral

You will have seen it again and again in Rossetti’s paintings of lush, isolated women – a spiral of pearls nestling in waves of red or raven hair. Once you’ve noticed it, it keeps turning up. Here it is in ‘A Christmas Carol’…

christmas-carol…and in Alexa Wilding’s hair in ‘Monna Vanna’…

dante_gabriel_rossetti_12_monna_vanna…and, naturally, adorning Jane Morris in ‘Mariana’…

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Rossetti was an incorrigible collector. His Chelsea house was crammed with musical instruments he never played, mirrors he never polished, and great swathes of fabrics for the beautification of his models. He spent the evenings rummaging in junk shops for exotic jewellery and amassed quite a collection of cheap yet dramatic pieces. Some of these pieces still surface in Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic exhibitions. Unfortunately, the spiral hair pin he obviously adored was allegedly borrowed by a friend and never seen again. That probably didn’t do Rossetti’s latent paranoia any good.

While we wait for it to turn up on Antiques Roadshow, we have Kirsty Walker’s biscuit replicas to enjoy, and – at last! – beautiful handmade replicas by Joanna of Nanya Online. I don’t normally do plugs, but I won Joanna’s Tumblr competition and I’m just thrilled. It arrived today in a tiddy box adorned with ‘The Beloved’.

IMG_2672 IMG_2678Isn’t it delicate? It feels like a network of tiny bones in my hand. Joanna also makes earring replicas of the spiral. Have a look at her shop.

Unlike Alexa Wilding and friends, my hair is made of ghosts, so nothing will ever stay in it. Luckily the spiral comes with another pin so it can be worn as a brooch. I’ll be wearing it on my Victorian riding jacket at Portsmouth’s Victorian Festival of Christmas where I’ll be ‘performing’ – ha! – later this month. See you there.

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New readables

My short story, Cremating Imelda, is the featured story in this month’s Animal Literary Magazine. When Imelda’s 440lb body overwhelms a crematorium’s ventilation system, the newspapers are equally horrified and amused. But Imelda had a life before her cremation, and a secret talent only her parish priest was privy to.

Also out soon in the Pre-Raphaelite Society Review is my article ‘In Defence of Walter Deverell’. Sometimes referred to as the ‘lost’ Pre-Raphaelite, Deverell died before his talent could truly take off. What happened to his family – and how they kept Walter’s place in PRB history alive – was interesting and poignant to research. Some typically bitchy Victorian letter-writing, too, with what appears to be the use of some rather sneaky pseudonyms.

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Pre-Raphaelite Poetry II

My sonnet ‘Kelmscott’ has been published today in The Pre-Raphaelite Society’s annual poetry competition anthology.

“Collected in this book are the entries to the second Pre-Raphaelite Society Poetry Competition. The poems offer a myriad of pleasantly surprising responses to the Pre-Raphaelites, their successors, paintings, poetry and lives.”

Copies are £3.99 from lulu.com.

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Tributes of an old friend

It’s no secret that Fred Stephens has a special place in the hearts of Pre-Raphaelite acolytes. ‘Swoony Fred’ to the initiated, because, well…

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Yes.

Frederick George Stephens was one of two non-artistic members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Stephens tried his hand at painting and poetry, but, dissatisfied with his efforts, reportedly destroyed most of his paintings (a handful now hang in the Tate) and turned away from poetry:

Most sadly falls this life on me,
With noble purpose unwrought out:
The steeled soul rusteth thro’ the day;—
My life it flitteth fast away.

Poor Fred. He stuck instead to criticism, writing for the Athenaeum for forty years until his conservative views on British art and dislike of Impressionism caused friction. Despite the growing paranoia and grumpiness of his Pre-Raphaelite associates in their old age, he remained a steadfast friend and one of the most ‘sensible’ figures in the bunch.

I’ve got my hands on an original copy of Stephens’ ‘Dante Gabriel Rossetti’, gifted at Christmas 1897 to a Miss Foster from Emma V. Roberts, who clearly knew how to spoil her friends.

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Stephens was aware of the race to the publishing houses in the wake of Rossetti’s death. The outpouring of grief and praise (for a fee) from those who barely knew the man bothered him, as did the bickering of his former Brothers. While some placed Rossetti at the helm of the PR movement, other recalled him floating along in his own bizarre bubble, and others still – particularly an increasingly batty Holman Hunt – were unhappy with the cultish following Rossetti had accumulated (“Rossetti was the planet round which we revolved,” gushed Valentine Prinsep), and took pains to defend their own place in the movement’s history.

In 1894, Stephens published his own biography of his old friend. It’s a short, affectionate book with vivid, amusing descriptions of the early scenes of Rossetti’s life, including the “respectable, but dull” Charlotte Street with its “opposing lines of brick walls, with rectangular holes in them, which Londoners call houses”.

It also contains my favourite description of the student Rossetti in full-on self-conscious Romantic mode, by an anonymous ‘fellow student’ (possibly Fred himself) who had evidently been staring a bit too intently:

“Thick, beautiful, and closely curled masses of rich brown much-neglected hair, fell about an ample brow, and almost to the wearer’s shoulders; strong eyebrows marked with their dark shadows a pair of rather sunken eyes, in which a sort of fire, instinct of what may be called proud cynicism, burned with a furtive kind of energy, and was distinctly, if somewhat luridly, glowing. His rather high cheek-bones were the more observable because his cheeks were roseless and hollow enough to indicate the waste of life and midnight oil to which the youth was addicted; close shaving left bare his very full, not to say sensuous, lips and square-cut masculine chin. Rather below the middle height, and with a slightly rolling gait, Rossetti came forward among his fellows with a jerky step, tossed the falling hair back from his face, and, having both hands in his pockets, faced the student world with an insouciant air which savoured of defiance, mental pride and thorough self-reliance.”

I love that. Have you ever described one of your friends so minutely?

The book itself is rather fragile, one-hundred-and-twenty years on. The tissue paper over the illustrative plates feels like dried petals. Luckily, you can read the text in full at the Rossetti Archive.

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The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter

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With her latest book, Lucinda Hawksley delves where the monarchy would rather she didn’t.

The life of Princess Louise is one clouded by rumours and misdirection. Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter was said to be simultaneously difficult and charming, dense and witty, beautiful and naughty. With her files still closed to researchers and the public alike, getting a good look at this headstrong woman is a challenging task, fraught with dead ends and muffled hints of scandal. Hawksley’s new biography is the closest we’ve yet come to the true face of ‘Loosy’.

“Luckily the habit of moulding children to the same pattern has gone out of fashion. It was deplorable. I know, because I suffered from it. Nowadays individuality and one’s own capabilities are recognised.” – Princess Louise in a newspaper interview from 1918.

Louise as a child, by Queen Victoria after Franz Xavier Winterhalter.

Louise as a child, by Queen Victoria after Franz Xavier Winterhalter.

Individuality and independence were luxuries Louise refused to take for granted, likely because Queen Victoria’s treatment of her children was toe-curlingly cruel. The Queen frequently communicated through notes delivered by servants (even when the child at fault was sitting beside her) and laced every affectionate statement with a critical undercurrent. Even when they flew the nest, Victoria would do her best to interfere in her children’s lives to a stifling degree. The psychological effects make for heart-rending reading. When Louise’s father, Prince Albert, died, the thirteen-year-old cried out, “Oh, why did not God take me? I am so stupid and useless.”

It is not surprising that Louise strove to be the polar opposite of her overbearing mother. While the Queen deplored the concept of equal rights for women, Louise admired the drive and ambition of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole. The Queen adored Scotland – Louise craved sunshine. The Queen was a stickler for propriety, but Louise, who took on many of Victoria’s official duties during her long mourning for Albert, would openly remark her mother simply couldn’t be bothered any more. The Princess’ charismatic disregard for protocol made her charming, yet her mother seemed set on the idea that Louise was had learning disabilities, or was, as she put it, “naughty and backwards”. Most likely, the artistic young woman was bored.

Louise, with Pre-Raphaelite accessories.

Louise, with Pre-Raphaelite accessories.

This frustration found release in the hard physical work of sculpture. Although William Michael Rossetti took a public swipe at her, tartly (but also quite rightly) stating that an artist who happens to be a royal cannot be judged on merit alone, Louise was genuinely a talented and thoughtful sculptor. She befriended a number of the Pre-Raphaelites (though Dante Gabriel Rossetti was out when she called) and adopted their sense of style, moving in Aesthete circles among radical thinkers, to the horror of her class-conscious mother.

The biography sensitively charts the ups and downs of Louise’s unconventional marriage to the homosexual Marquess of Lorne, a man she came to detest, and later to platonically respect. Rumour had it, the Princess knew Lorne picked up soldiers in the park near their apartments. She consequently had the windows facing them bricked up. More shockingly, Louise herself had a number of affairs. This, Hawksley surmises, is why her files are so forcefully concealed to this day. Although her brother Bertie was a famous philanderer, and even Queen Victoria enjoyed a healthy sex life, there are indications that before meeting Lorne, Louise had done the unforgivable and been an unwed teenage mother – via her brother’s tutor. How Louise concealed this alleged pregnancy – and what may have happened to the child – provides a fascinating insight into the Victorian double standards of gender and sexuality, and also Louise’s indomitable spirit.

Louise's statue of her mother at Kensington.

Louise’s statue of her mother at Kensington.

The scandals don’t stop there. Louise was at ease in the company of men, and therefore attracted a great many admirers, including the artist Sir Edgar Boehm. Despite efforts to wipe the affair from the record, it would seem Boehm died during sex with Louise, leading to comical rumours that the body had been rolled up in a carpet and bundled into a cab to avoid a scandal. That Louise continued to be a vivacious, fun-loving woman after this and other such traumatising events is testament to the inner strength forged by years of her mother’s bullying.

But the book is much more than a catalogue of naughtiness. Far some being yet another fawning royal biography, Hawksley’s The Mystery of Princess Louise is unflinching about the human flaws of her subjects. Hawksley conjures the nineteenth century in an accessible way, showing the royal family as being an active part of the great Victorian machine rather than simply perching in its upper echelons. She regularly brings up the contemporary republican viewpoint, which may surprise and interest readers. The same arguments are debated today.

Hawksley also brings up a very important point: Queen Victoria’s diaries as we know them now are the product of heavy editing by ‘the arch-inquisitor’ Princess Beatrice. We will never know her stronger comments on Louise’s liberal lifestyle or the lengths she went to to conceal her daughter’s teenage misdemeanours. In the mid-twentieth century, Princess Margaret made an attempt to research the Princess Louise – even she was barred from the most sensitive records. What we do have is the testament of the companions, servants and chance encounters Louise had during her long life; people who found Louise to be an engaging, headstrong, charming, and exceedingly modern artist and princess.

Lucinda Hawksley’s The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter is out on the 21st of November 2013.

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