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Grey Gardens, Blue Skies, Long Dark Night, A Whiter Shade of Pale: Fall in London

Monday, November 11, 2013
On Monday morning, upon arrival at Heathrow, headed to the
AC arrivals lounge for a shower, then to Willesden Green via Paddington on the
Express.  A little disoriented and not
sure which bus was the right bus so pulled the luggage about 1.5 kms from tube to
Cricklewood.  A cool clear fall day.  Went through the usual greetings then crashed
for a bit then spent the evening with Simon and Rock reminiscing, their
daughter Lucy, and enjoying a lovely pasta Rock cooked up.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Tuesday, on a whim, in a walk that took me from Green Park
to Sloane Square to Oakley Street to Gloucester Road—one way towards Fulham
Broadway then all the way back the flipside to the V&A (where there is now
a spectacular Chihuly adorning the entrance kiosk)—then after a lovely lunch of
Pollock and wild greens at the Saatchi Gallery’s Mess restaurant on the Duke of
York’s square, I took in Stephen Frears’ Philomena at the Curzon.  A hugely civilized movie theatre, it’s where I
saw Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts in its opening week back in 1985 as well
as many other “art films” too numerous to mention.
Pullman seats (whatever that means) at two quid more than the wholly
satisfactory regulars.  Doomed however to
the development agenda; petitions on the go and chatter in the foyer.  Real estate like that belongs to the
billionaires who build swimming pools underground in Belgravia.  As per:

Iceberg Homes the Daily Mail has dubbed them: David Graham’s
Knightsbridge schoolhouse is modest above ground but expansive underneath with
a ballroom, gym, swimming pool, three car garage with car lift, etc.  If interested it’s an equally modest 16
million pounds.
But I digress.  I was
at the cinema.  “Philomena: Inspired by
real events.  Adapted for dramatic
effect. ” Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, in a search for the son convent nuns sold to American bidders.  Doesn’t have the rush of Rush.  Still, probably Frears’ sturdiest and most approachable film in
years.  Steve Coogan did seem a tad
understated though, as if each take edited in was the lesser of three much
livelier versions.  And Dame Judi Dench
is absolutely lovely but I never felt her heart was in it.
The actress is on the, er, left
London Idiosyncrasy: Why is it, say, Frears’ when
possessive, or Jesus’ when possessive, but St. James’s Park?
Home on the tube.
Direct on the Jubilee to Willesden Green.  No problem.
Except the Jubilee wasn’t running.
A police chase with a drug dealer had led to a jump on the tracks and
vehicular slaughter.  Back to Victoria
(where, no, you can’t catch a train to Cricklewood).  Onto the Piccadilly north to King’s Cross for
the Northern Line where, due to a switch problem, it was running tragically
late.  The 40% fewer delays ads placed by
Mayor Boris had little impression.
Missed the bus at Golders Green.
Six quid for a taxi.  Long day’s
journey into night.  We ordered pizza
pick up and gabbed a while before I crashed.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Took a cab down to my Air BnB West End studio for the next
five nights.  Lovely trip around the
perimeter of Hampstead, into Regent’s Park and past the zoo where the giraffes
were trotting alongside, weaved through Bond Street and made it to Haymarket
about half an hour before “let in.”  Had
a coffee.
Only in England would Flat 14 be on the fourth floor…
Checked in.  Small,
but twice the size of a hotel room.
Great light, laundry, decent water pressure.  Soon enough it was time to begin my theatre
marathon: A matinee at the Prince of Wales.
Walked around the corner, as in I walked out the door, turned right,
then turned right again and was standing at the box office of the theatre.  The flat really is that central.
No Photography Allowed
Book of Mormon: It has hands down everything going for it
you could ask for, singing, dancing, laughs, sharp lighting cues cut with
unexpected costume changes and glitzy numbers that somehow marry The Producers
with The Lion King.  Yes, it has
everything.  “London’s Favorite Night
Out” says poll.  (Probably said
favourite, I didn’t take a pic.) Except of course for content.  An absolutely first rate “worth every cent”
(or, in my case, pence) you paid for the ticket, this slick ,superbly
performed, perfectly staged, and brilliantly crafted production, is so overflowing
in talent and spot-on-tempo, that you might think the ghost of Vincent Minnelli
and Busby Berkeley had reincarnated as a Siamese twin.  Alas, it is unfortunately often shallow,
silly, and repetitive, expectedly yes but without even the sardonic sting those
South Park boys brought to Team America.
Still, absolutely no regrets.
It’s like getting drunk on expensive champagne that someone else has
paid for.  Except, of course, you paid
for it.  And through the nose.
Afterwards back to the flat, time for a quick supper
courtesy of Whole Foods, also three minutes away, then into Covent Garden, a
whole fifteen minute walk east, for a 1950s revival.  Ah the Donmar.  Some things never change, like the unbearable
straightback pews which are called stalls and circle.  I wish I had a diary of all the plays I’ve
battled through in those tortuous seats, but off the top all I can recall is
Steven Berkoff’s West in 1983 for which I remember a terrific amount of energy,
Cockney, and saliva spraying onto the patrons.


Linda Bassett of Calendar Girls renown rails on her daughter, Beatie (Jessica Raine)


Roots: Arnold Wesker takes three long acts, in what we now
think of as Harold Pinter/ Terence Davies-esque and not Wesker-ish, the gritty
reality of John Osborne and the bitter, monosyllabic pause ridden prose of
Pinter and Davies’ almost interminable longshots (it’s a carpet, it’s a carpet
running up a staircase, it’s a runner, it’s a staircase, it’s a carpeted
staircase in a hallway.  I’d like to see
how Hitchcock would have story-boarded takes like those…).  It takes time to gather steam but by god the
staging is so real the potatoes do actually come to a boil and the steam rises
to the rafters, the actors eat, they finish what’s on their plate, they even
smoke (not Mad Men herbal faux smokes but pure Virginia roll ups).  And it has a powerful message (left to the
very end; leave early and you miss it!). But is the rhythm of the working class
as vapid and stagnant as Wesker proposes?
Is the awakening of Beatie, the female protagonist, the moment, her
becoming an individual with opinions, political reflections and ideological
candor, a peak we all secretly aspire to?
I wasn’t convinced this was a black and white issue but nevertheless all
250 of us (crammed into the uber-uncomfortable Donmar pews) were bewitched,
bothered and even bewildered, start to three act two interval finish.  It may be a man’s man’s man’s world but at
least Wesker took the care to show women within it.
I was glad to only have to walk 15 minutes for night night.
November 14, 2013
Thursday.  Another
gorgeous day.  Shopped for Christmas
pudding and wandered St. James where, when I accidentally wandered into a John
Lobb, discovered the shoes started at a mere 945 pounds.  A pair.  I guess glass half full they were only £473 each.  A nice London story: Simpsons, the grand deco
chic department store on Piccadilly, is no more.  In New York it would probably have been
transitioned into a restaurant (a Guy Fieri enterprise).  Or an Apple store.  Or a home furnishings megalopolis.  But in London?  A bookstore.
Makes you want to kneel and pray.
I guess there is a ray of hope, Kindle and tablets and PDAs be
damned.  It was however where I’m pretty
sure I lost my cashmere scarf, so one strike against you Waterstones.
Birds in Fortnums
Sothebey’s is in the business of selling art


Could reduce NFL concussions (NB: £12k)
Lunch at Hix, a large and happening Soho brasserie with a
noisy business clientele drinking coke (not the 1980s!) and ladies who lunch nibbling
the edges of food rich in the richness of chefdom’s crutches: Butter, cream,
and more butter.  Still, the pureed leek
soup with gorgonzola and hazelnuts was nothing if not ludicrously delectable
and worth every multiple calorie.  Steaks
lay on the counter under tea towels aging ungracefully and one chef worked the
bar, a somewhat naked proposition given how cloistered they usually are in
their lairs.  Read the paper while a
Calder-like mobile drifted across my reading light leaving me alternately blinded
and blind.  Briefly used the WC downstairs, which was the bar, and saw the remnants of the 1980s business lunch scene, although tucked away in the dark.  How London can retain itself as the centre of the financial universe with so many suits taking a liquid lunch is a mystery.  Then, to a matinee.
A lovely steamed hake with clams, bitter greens and a polenta puree
that was an inch away from cardiac arrest
A chance to see Brecht done with respect and talent.  Even in NY there’s not too much Brecht
nowadays.  I saw Galileo at the National
in the 1980s.  Has there been a
revival?  IBDB reports that it last hit
Broadway in 1967.
Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui: The working class
is the clay for the Chicago gangster metaphorical Hitler whose superb portrayal
by Henry Goodman (one reviewer put “hard to resist this rise”)  overshadows even the scene stealing scenery
chewing accomplished peers beside him (I’m talking to you Joe McGann!  Theatre fun fact: Paul McGann, star of
Withnail and I, Aliens3, Doctor Who, and a long list of other credits, has not
one, not two, but three brothers who are actors.  How likely is that?) Nevertheless, if there is an indictment against the
theatrical experience it might be this bit of dialogue in the row behind me
during the interval:
  Wife: Everything in the play is a metaphor for the rise of
Hitler in Germany.  It says here the fire
in the warehouse represents the burning of the Reichstag.  In 1933.
Do you remember that?
  Husband: Oh yes, 1933.
Followed by some audible snoring in the (long) second act.



Truth, if there was someone who knew how to overwrite drama it was
Bertolt Brecht.  Which is weird, if
you’ve read his poetry; near Haikus and often haunting.  I mean here is a poem he published called Send Me A Leaf:

Send me a leaf, but from a bush


That grows at least one half hour


Away from your house, then
You must go and will be strong, and I
Thank you for the pretty leaf

(I’m sure it has more meaning in German.)

The American beside me left during the break
and I wondered if he was offended by the broad satirical swipes or missed the
irony of the gangsters singing America the Beautiful and was expecting, say, a
youth a la Cabaret singing Tomorrow Belongs to Me?  Premiered in English, in America, over 20
years after it was written.  Not sure if
I have a comment on that except my opening comment above.

Again, just time to walk back, freshen up, change, and hit
the streets again.  A ten minute walk
towards the National Gallery for a new ENO production by (theatre’s) Simon
McBurney.  Fun fact: His middle name is
A flutter of paper birds around the bird catcher

And that brings us to Mozart’s The Magic Flute.  It seems all he had to do was tap a quill to produce the most exquisite combination of scales, chords and arpeggios.  But here he pastes together a “two act” opera
over three hours with only flashes of what we all come to expect and despite an
overture that somehow leaves you drooling this production reached several peaks
but took dips between; weirdly reinforced by a theatrical play of drawing on a
chalkboard the crags of the mountains in the opening act and projecting that to
the scrim.  My love for some and
impatience with others was, I guess, not in the main: We all had to sit for
seven ovations.  I went for Ben Johnson but
I stayed for the bravura bass performance of James Creswell as Pastero. When I got home I said to Stephen “Have you ever seen The Magic Flute?” and he said “yes, it’s a bit silly though.”  Indeed.

chalk drawings give Ben Johnson much needed direction


If there is yet another nail in live theatre’s coffin it was
the interminably long wait after the interval.
We had been requested to sit as the production was to start in two
minutes, then one minute, then we sat for ten more.  The stalls began a clapping chant.  Seriously.
It was like being at a rock concert.
Finally a VIP (a man in a suit) came on stage to announce that a patron
in the Dress Circle had become seriously ill and we were awaiting paramedics to
remove that individual to a medical facility.
Was it a stroke from Simon McBurney’s strobe effects during the storm or
simply old age from waiting to survive the first act?  The Spectator panned the damn thing; the
Guardian laded on the lauds.  An endless
series of bows.  Go figure.  Truthfully, despite the establishment’s
rancor, I much preferred what Le Page brought to Wagner than what McBurney
brought to W.A. M.
McBurney adds a little Robert Le Page touch

Again, home in ten minutes and it was well past eleven.  I felt for the 29 pre-adolescent boys on a
school trip who not only had to endure an opera but somehow had to be escorted
home and to bed.  To say nothing of
anyone with an hour on the tube before they slept, got up the next day and did
it all over again.  (The Evening Standard
reports that working men in London in their 40s spend 42 days a year on the tube
going to and from work.  42 days a
year!  As for women, we can only presume
their work is worth less?)

Friday, November 15, 2013
Vivienne Westwood goes vinyl at 72: Still crazy after all these years


Another beautiful blue sky cold November day which made for
wonderful walking and window shopping through Soho, Covent Garden, and off
Oxford Street towards Hyde Park and no desire for film or theatre or hiding out
in a museum.  Around 1:30 my stomach
reminded me about what never goes away, appetite, and I had a decent prix fixe
lunch at a upscale bistro in Soho called Arbutus; any restaurant with a bar
where you can eat and barstools with a back is good in my books.  The menu was one of those chef-genius things
with myriad “undervalued” cuts of meat.
Good though.  The problem with a
late lunch in November is that afterwards it’s getting dark and you feel like
you’ve just had dinner and your mind plays tricks.  Still, there was plenty more time to enjoy
sights before a pitstop at the flat and back to the theatre.

Leg of rabbit at Arbutus


Not a Saturna Island craft fair item




Oh Mojo.  Two hours of
1950s east-end London louts scrapping it out.
Ben Whishaw as a psycho.  OK, he
doesn’t have the Christopher Walken cadence or the Willem Defoe “natural”
deformities, but he was eerie, unpredictable, believable and charismatic all in
one breath.  Shirtless for half of the
first act too; nice touch (director) Ian Dickson.  And if you’ve seen his Richard II, you’ll
know this is the real McCoy, not some soft recalcitrant Bond movie fill-in, but
an actor with the stuff.  And the
hair.  Oh yes the hair.  But also the stuff.  Still, it may be Daniel Mays amphetamine-fuelled
hyper paranoia that keeps the play apace, and not the solid centre, Downton
Abbbey’s Brendan Coyle.

Whishaw as Baby, Ezra’s psycho son
Downton Abbey’s Brendan Coyle watches Whishaw do the glitter dance

Dark and
sometimes deeply moving it nevertheless scored an Olivier for best comedy when
it premiered in the 1990s which makes me wonder what makes a comedy (maybe it
premiered in The Comedy theatre, now the Harold Pinter, where it enjoys a
revival).  To which I might add, if you
want to immerse yourself in a Wedgewood teacup and pay 50 quid to see live
theatre, the Pinter, née Comedy, is the place to do it.  Ask for a “restricted view full price” dress
circle ticket.  Two solid ovations, five
less than the opera and equal bows for a teddy boy with six lines who spends
half the second act chained, hanging upside down with a gag on his mouth; I kid
you not. It’s almost unwatchable.  When David Blaine hung upside down for three days, even then, he took a break each hour.  It did seem needlessly risky. I sense in America that there
would be legal proceedings…

Saturday, November 16, 2013
Saturday a very lazy morning reading and taking coffee in
the studio only to stumble out late morning to a veritable throng of
weekenders.  Trained as if robots to keep
right on the tube but then zig zag like frightened ants on the pavement.  Checked out if there were returns for Mormon
(no), looked at the long and slow moving line for half price tickets, then
sucked it up for a full price dress circle seat for Strangers on a Train.  Then, a leisurely trip into Knightsbridge,
South Ken and further west.  Lunch on
elite Wilton Street, a plain and simple affair at Jak’s, a bistro round the
corner from Joe’s, the old stomping grounds.
Eventually up to Kensington Gardens for a half hour walk; oh the days of
being too poor to take a bus and having to walk from Harrods to Holland Park
and finding it a chore.  About three I
hit Jean Paul Berthoin’s place on Victoria Grove; he has left his Notting Hill
flat to take over the family house which lies at the cusp end of a side street
on a most quaint and English bit of W8 with the feel of SW1.  We sat in his overgrown and near enchanted
garden for quite some time, watching his cat lie in wait, three squirrels
squabble over peanuts, looked at fox holes and overgrown ivy and variegated
euonymus competing with bamboo, holly, vines and the proverbial English magic
garden.  Inside we had a fresh market
pastry with Roobois tea in the sitting room and talked about recent events, old
times, photography, Ben Whishaw, the dearth of creative opps for creative types
in a world characterized by free access expression, looked at pictures,
including his recent short Dylan’s Room, talked about a yoga retreat he spent
time at in Spain and which was profiled in one of those monster Taschen tomes, and
then as it always happens it was time to go.
The Victorian street lamps were lit upon exit; there was a faint almost
indiscernible mist floating invisibly through the air which then burst into being in
the fluorescent halo; was like a Dickensian snowfall.  A very pleasant and engaging afternoon.
In and around JPB’s Victoria Grove home and garden





JPB’s father doesn’t have an English Wikipedia post but as a
significant French politician who brought the UK in the EC in the 1970s, made
the cover of Time, and sat on the Trilateral Commission for a few decades it’s
not hard to find his bio, the most interesting bit, I think, is that we was a
member of the Nine Wise Men Group on Africa in the 1980s, when I was studying
Africa at UofT, and for which I know nothing about except that if I’m ever asked
to join a committee I think it should immediately be renamed with a definitive
pronoun.Here are some plugs for Jean Paul.  His latest work is a short film called Dylan’s Room.  The Facebook page is here.  The YouTube excerpt is here.
Not much time for dinner, and the Piccadilly line running in
some sort of post-apocalyptic chaos, so quick take out (quickly corrected to “take
away”) and a change then off to the Gielgud (née Globe) theatre for the as yet
to open Strangers on a Train.  The Globe
is nothing if not a litany of theatrical prestige (Tallulah Bankhead doing Noel
Coward anyone? John Gielgud starring in and directing The Importance of Being
Ernest with Dame Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell.
Wow.  God of Carnage with Ralph Fiennes. Cripes.  We got Bill Millerd running the Arts Club for four decades.  Not really the definition of a thriving arts community.)
While trying desperately to see something original, not a
remount or a transfer, it basically came down to one of three: The Curious Incident of the
Dog in the Nighttime (sort of original, a National transfer, but Luke Treadaway
the star and previous star of War Horse had heeded Hollywood’s call), Dame Edna
(it seemed like the right choice, the last chance, but it also seemed not to be
so funny if seen alone and weirdly enough s/he had premiered at The Globe in
1967 to much acclaim) or Strangers on a Train.  Picked the latter.
On an actual merry go round.  Then strangled.  They had to move the plot along.


The stars are Jack Huston, nephew to actors Angelica and
Danny, but more interestingly, and I quote Wikipedia, the son of Lady Margot
Lavinia Cholmondeley (not to be confused with a chimpanzee Gerald Durrell owned
by the same name) and Walter Anthony (Tony) Huston.  So he’s a ladies’ man.  And, to be fair, turns in a wonderful cloying
smarm of a performance.  Think of how
evil Roman Polanski was in Chinatown then give that character the undefined
wispiness of Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter and you sort of get it.  His co-star is another actor of nepotismania,
Laurence Fox, son of James, nephew of Edward, etc.  Elsewhere in the mix: Veteran Imogen Stubbs
evoking the West End ghost of Kathleen Turner, MyAnna Buring, the “new” maid on
Downton, Mirnada Raison, whose credits include Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo,
Luke Beattie who studied theatre at UBC (!), Nick Malinowski who appeared in a
film called Fat Slags, and many others with equally weird and wonderful CV’s.
Barbara Broccoli of Albert Broccoli Bond fame produced.  Tim Goodchild, the Production Designer, may be the real star though, with his
rotating set of many sectors, places and times, gobos and scrim effects both
clever and distracting but always evocative.
And, yes, it did actually look like a train.  A star moment is when the various rooms and
places of the rotation are replaced as a merry go round only to go round and
turn back into rooms.  There is a sad ending
with real fire.  Shockingly real
fire.  But as the line goes from The
Producers: Oedipus won’t bomb if he winds up with mom, I doubt this will have a
long run.  Opening night awaits.
Theatre greats line the stairs, halls, bars


Sunday, November 17, 2013
A bunch of amaryllis in the window at the Holly Bush pub.  How much did that cost?

Theatre is dark on Sunday; no longwinded reflection on the
arts!  So, instead, up early for a trek
to Hampstead.  First, the organized
village walk; having only ever done one once before (Kensington) it was a bit
of a surprise that the guide was the same, an ex-pat Yank named David with
(fortunately) a booming voice and a few nice historical tidbits to share.  We cruised up the hills past a wealth of
wealthy, famous, noted, forgotten and sometimes misbegotten blue plaque
specials.  I pined for being in the
shadows when Dick and Liz haunted the place (or, more likely, Dick, on a tear
across the local pubs).

Once a sanitarium for diseases of the chest; now luxury flats


Ridley Scott’s home


Like Alice Munro, the Nobel committee had to come to John.  F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald stopped in too.  Rumour has it they woke up with something of a hangover.


This elegant Rick Mather renovated house, the Priory, was a RIBA winner. (Though Stirling runner up to Normy Foster).  While the street view is nondescript, you can  Link here to a gallery of his amazing work.


Hampstead fun fact: Erno Goldfinger was an architect (of the
marvellously modern 2 Willow Road) who inspired Fleming to, you know, write a
little book with a villain of the same name.
James Bond fun fact: Villain Goldfinger’s first name was Auric.
Anthony Minghella’s home in the Vale of Health.  May he RIP.


Liz and Dick breifly called it home.  Somewhere for Dick to rest his heavy head…


Ring my bell, ell, ell,  ring my bell



A nice place to stay until “more lasting arrangements” were made


Simon surveys the bar.  Link here to his lead letter in The Guardian post-Blair.

The two hour tour took a Gilligan’s Island spin as we ended
on a gorgeous Georgian side street nearly three hours later (home to the famous
for centuries, John Fowles, Peter Cook, H. G. Wells, Alfred Tennyson, etc.,
etc.).  Retraced my steps back to the
Wells Tavern, a local gone gastropub.
Simon was waiting with the London Review of Books on a table in the
front yard and with luck we scored a table inside within fifteen minutes.  We talked about his recent Danny Elfman
shoot, old stories about Kubrick and Iggy Pop, books we hadn’t read, movies
we’d seen but couldn’t remember, ditto actors, people we’d lost touch with,
people we’ll probably never meet, and of course real estate.  Following a long lunch we made it all the way
half a km back to the tube only to detour into The Flask—a pub mentioned in Richardson’s
1748 Clarissa (1500 pages, nearly a million words, not on the to be read radar),
as famously a place where the “healing” waters of Hampstead were once upon a
time bottled in flasks, not as the sign outside currently indicates, a tribute
to artillery. It is a Young’s pub and if this wasn’t a most wonderful toast to
a most wonderful week they already had Young’s Winter Warmer on tap and that
was the proverbial nightcap.  I left
Simon outside nosing through a book stall only to return to the higgledy
piggledy hordes of the West End whose insatiable appetite to dine at an
Aberdeen Steak House and queue outside Wagamama, seems never to wane  Quiet night with a book.

Historical pub with ahistorical signage.


Wells Gastropub. Nice spot for Sunday roast.


Monday, November 18, 2013
There was a sad sort of clanging from the clock in the
hall…  Check out time was ten.I said goodbye to the little flat that did,
walked outside (grey, no surprise, looked like some rain overnight too) and
caught a cab on Lower Regent St to Paddington.
Seamless transfer to the express.
Easy check in.  Then a flagged
item in my hand luggage resulted in chaos, confiscation, sourcing a potential
bag to check in, surrendering my piccalilli, my precious piccalilli (!) and hoping my little Christmas
treasures would survive the baggage, baggage handlers, and all manner of
“shifting during transit.”  Checked the
duty free against my YVR price list.  No
deals.  Into the lounge by one, famished,
and fortunately there were basic pub type salads and sandwiches and half decent
coffee.  Papers up the wazoo but no
Guardian and no NY Times.  Did either
insult BA?  Nary a plug to be found but
no matter, lost my adapter along the way.  Plane delayed hours.  Finally took off into the night.  Old 747.  Had a decent seat, 62J on the upper deck.  Dinner was mediocre (crab starter, beef main, you could taste the Bovril) but a half decent fruit flan dessert.  Watched Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (as a radio dj: “We’re asking listeners what’s the worst monger? Iron, fish, rumour or war?”) and The World’s End (Simon Pegg follows his mate’s sister in to the toilet.  She says “If you think I’m having sex with you in the ladies you’re crazy.”  Pegg responds, “Why? The disableds out of order.”) Four hours sleep.  Could have been worse.

The author of Here Hare has traveled to over 45 countries on six continents, and has lived in Canada, the UK and Australia.

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