Sunday 23 March 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I’ve got a special anniversary coming up: on 5th April it will be seventeen years since I first landed on these shores. Saturday 5th April, 1997 to be more accurate. That year I spent a month here on vacation, I went back to Havana the next month, on 3rd May, as Labour came to power. Do not read too much into the previous sentence; there’s no relationship between both events whatsoever.

If I cast my mind back to that first trip from Gatwick airport to the outer London suburb where my then girlfriend and now wife used to live, one memory stands out: typical red-brick, gabled-roof English houses dotted around the rural and urban landscape through which we were driving. A scene reminiscent of my lectures in uni in which the implicit message was that Britain (England, really) was a country attached to its traditions where people sat to drink tea at four o’ clock on the dot. If only we, students, had known then that what the British call tea at that time is more like a late afternoon light meal regardless of the hot beverage that accompanies it! Back to 5th April, 1997, though, I still recall watching the top of the roofs of the neighbouring semis through my wife’s bedroom window that evening. To me this was the London I had always heard about.

So, London, what happened? When did you start giving up on low rise property? What happened to the detached, semi-detached and terraced houses that made you famous?

According to a recent report more than 230 tall building (20+ storeys) have either been approved or are under construction in the British capital. That includes both living and working spaces. In fact the majority of these towers are likely to be residential blocks, which is good news if social housing gets a larger piece of the architectural pie. Yet, this piece of news has left me with an uneasy feeling. Call me romantic, in fact, call me hopeless romantic, but I love the traditional British house. The one with red bricks and gabled roofs. Whilst I understand the importance of “building high”, I am also concerned about the aesthetic side of it. And I’m afraid to say that I am not really impressed by the latest developments in the field of construction.

The Gherkin: a phallic symbol of London's new skyline
The Shard and the Gherkin are my usual examples of what hubris can do to a city. To say that I do not like either building is the understatement of the century. I loathe them. Every time I have to drive near any of these two humongous, urban mountains something inside me snaps. They make me cringe. Not just as Cuban-cum-Londoner who is proud of the city in which he lives now, but also as a man. Come on, I dare you to take a look at the Gherkin and not think of a... phallus, or at least a dildo. Hey, no sniggering at the back, please, this is serious!

I am not the only one. Plenty of Londoners I have spoken to do not see the need of “building high” and higher, and even higher. Who do we want to be like? New York? Skyscrapers might fit the US urban behemoth but I do not think they are suitable for a city like London where many streets are still quite narrow. The beauty of London – once you live here – is how quaint and delightfully maddening it is. Plenty of one-way roads, just to drive you bonkers, out in the ‘burbs lots of streets with width and height restriction just to confuse you (will I fit through here?) and low-rise property that no matter how unique it is, it still manages to convey smallness. That, to me, is the key phrase when it comes to London: a huge city that looks small.

As I mentioned before I understand the importance of finding suitable spaces for people to live in. In fact for more than three years I was a resident in a high-rise which, by the looks of it, would not have been considered a very tall building nowadays as it had only eighteen floors. The building where we used to live, however, was ugly, impersonal and lacked character. Same with a lot of new properties. I am not an architect and my design skills are non-existent but I do not think you need to be one to notice that many current urban developments, especially “towers”, place practicality before aesthetics. Without wanting to sound too melodramatic, London’s skyline has been ruined.

My only consolation is due to my special anniversary I am getting lots of flashbacks of the gabled roofs I saw that first time I arrived in London, as dusk turned to night, through my wife’s bedroom window.

This is it for the time being. I am taking a month off for Easter. I will be back on Sunday 27th April. I am not planning to go anywhere so expect me to pop by your blogs every now and then.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 27th April at 10am (GMT)

Wednesday 19 March 2014

Urban Diary

It is early in the morning and yet, the sky is already a bright, azure blue. Today I am attending a training session in town and therefore I have to catch an early train. I amble up the short distance from my house to the station. On the way there a brisk and chilly breeze reminds me that I was wise to don my scarf, gloves and flat cap today.

The road I am on will lead me to the market and through it to the overground station. Along the way I pause every now and then to contemplate my local “landmarks”.

First it is the now vacant space where the Indian takeaway used to be until a year ago. They cooked good, proper Asian grub here and delivered the food to your door with a smile on their faces. But the prices were not competitive enough and the business went bust. I can see now that the place where the takeaway stood is being done up. Another eatery, perhaps? Next up is the old hairdresser’s and straight after that, the new barber shop. The former caters mainly to seniors and the latter is always full of young men. The hairdresser’s, long-established in the area, hints at longevity and tradition whilst the barber shop points at the future: big screen television broadcasting the Premier League.

On my right now is the Greek Orthodox Church. This magnificent, red-brick building takes more than half a block. I remember going in once when my mother visited me for the first time and marvelling at the richly decorated interiors.

I reach the train station. I still recall the times when this used to be the start of my journey as a commuter. Before the new ticket barrier was installed there was a guy from the local newsagents with a small stall selling newspapers. Branching out, you could say he was doing. Do not bother to walk the long(er) distance to the shop, I’ll bring newspapers and magazines to you. The vendor and his stand might be gone but I still see the guy who hands out free copies of The Watchtower outside the station. There was a time during my commuting days when there used to be him, another bloke distributing the Socialist Workers’Party newspaper and, inside the station, our newsagent friend flogging copies of The Daily Mail. Three publications advertising the end of days. For the Jehovah’s Witnesses behind The Watchtower, it was the apocalypse, for the burghers of the SWP it was the demise of capitalism (just don’t mention Stalin, please) and for the Daily Hate the collapse of British (English, in reality) culture and traditions.

My train arrives within minutes. I look up before entering the carriage. The sky is still a bright, azure blue. Spring  is here.

© 2014

Photo taken from the Guoman Hotels website

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 23rd March at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 16 March 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I lived in the same flat in Havana from the day I was born to the day I left to come to the UK. I breathed the air of the same streets for more than a quarter of a century. My two primary schools (I was transferred to a different one in Year 6 due to a shortage of teachers) were within walking distance of my house. And I mean walking distance! I could have skipped to either without knackering myself out in the process. I learnt how to ride my bike in the local park and whenever I go back home these days I see other children learning to ride their bikes in the same park. Despite the myriad economic, social and political problems we face in Cuba and which I have discussed here, returning to Havana and watching those children on their bicycles gives me a sense of continuity and feelings that perhaps in the near future the situation will improve. As long as it is sans Castro. However, if truth be told, my family did consider moving to a different borough in Havana because six people living in a one-bed flat was, you might imagine, a tad bit tight. On the other hand, part of a child's job description is not to be bogged down by adults' concerns and problem. When I look back on my childhood through the rose-tinted lenses of maturity I see a carefree existence.

Will children born and raised here in the UK have the same memories I have of my barrio? Some will, many won’t. Especially those whose families are in receipt of housing benefits.

Soaring property prices in London mean that not only those looking to buy a house or flat are affected. Those at the bottom of the property chain are bearing the brunt, too. You could say the latter are in an even more desperate situation. They have seen the financial support they receive towards their accommodation suffer as a consequence of an increase in the government’s welfare bill.
What kind of memories will today's children have of the houses in which they grew up?

The way it works is simple. An unemployed or low-waged person rents a house or flat in the private sector. After a lot of form-filling the new tenant is able to pay the rent with her or his housing benefits. The landlord or landlady receives the money directly from the tenant’s bank account. In theory everyone’s happy. Including the children, if any. But the reality is anything but uncomplicated.

Earlier last year the overall benefit cap of £500 per week to cover rent was introduced. Immediately tenants renting in the private sector found themselves out of pocket. On top of that housing benefits sometimes can take weeks to be processed, meaning that your rent goes in arrears. Even the most sympathetic and understanding landlord/landlady will come knocking on your door one day. Unfortunately those in receipt of housing benefits will not be able to come up with a proper answer. Eviction, then, becomes a reality.

Since part of my work consists of advising families who are in this situation I will not include any of the cases I come across regularly. Suffice to say that I can provide enough examples of people who are going through this type of crisis and whom I have met in my personal and private life.

There is, for instance, the single mother of two who is going through her fifth move in two years. She started in south London where she was born and grew up and is now about to be sent to Ipswich. No more London for this Londoner, whose missing intervocalic “Ts” will no longer delight the ears of yours truly.

There is the other mum of a boy and a girl who until recently had a job she loved in the social and community sector and was respected by her neighbours. Her only crime was to live in a flat that cost approximately 400 quid per month. Once the benefits cap was introduced in April last year she found herself about £150 short. Her children had been in that apartment since birth and loved the area. This mother felt safe and despite this being London, one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth and therefore prone to causing detachment and isolation sometimes, there was a strong sense of community amongst her neighbours. Because she worked locally she was also able to form solid relationships with people.

What of the children? The little people are the ones of whom I think the most. My most indelible memories as a child is the sense of protection I had around me. If I got myself into trouble I could always count on a neighbour to knock on my house’s door and tell my mother or father. What will become of the children who have to move houses six or seven times before they are even eight years old? On one hand we want resilient individuals but on the other hand we are not making that possible. A house and the sense of security it brings is probably one of the most important influences on a human being’s life. Of course, if you are of a peripatetic nature, then this post does not apply to you. Some people like moving, they like change, they can never settle anywhere long enough. It might have something to do with our nomad existence millennia ago; the constant search for the right conditions.

It is different however when we talk about little ones who do not know the meaning of the phrase “housing benefits”. Without wanting to sound socialist (I’m not, believe me), everyone should have the right to a decent habitable abode where their offspring (if any) can realise their full potential. When will we, in this capitalist society, realise that the happier the workforce, the better the results? That the more satisfied families are with their living conditions, the more positive their contribution to society will be? When you look at Nordic polities, for example, and you analyse new, forward-thinking laws and their impact on people, like paternal leave, you will see that the carrot always works better than the stick. It has been noted in countries like Norway, for instance, that men feel much happier after they have been on paternal leave. Their productivity levels increase and there’s less risk of the couple splitting up. The consequences of what many children in the UK are going through right now because of the change in housing benefits and increase in property prices will only come out in the future, both immediate and mediate. Loss of curricular times, instability, psychological damage, conflicts between children and their parents (to the former the latter will be the ones to blame for yet another move), withdrawal symptoms (when you are in your fifth or sixth school making friends is more difficult, and anyway, what’s the point? You will be sent somewhere else soon), the list of adverse effects goes on. All the for the sake of a few bob.

In the past couple of years whenever I’ve been in the park with my daughter or walked through my local market or popped down to the shops I have run into people whose faces I recognise from living in my same barrio. After a courteous “hello”, the conversation immediately switches to those who are absent and have no chance of coming back. Remember so and so? They will ask me. Then a name pops into my head followed by an image. They’re gone, they’ve been re-housed. Re-housed, what a funny word. Re-housed until they are moved on again. And the children? They will be lucky to find a park where they can learn to ride their bike.

© 2014

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on 19th March at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum

Mexican chocolate, chilli and black bean soup

As I promised a few weeks ago I have "nicked" one of Jack Monroe's recipe and included it in my food and music section tonight. Jack Monroe is one of the most inspiring cooks around at the moment. The fact the her recipes do not cost an arm and a leg is also a plus. I hope you enjoy the dish below.

Mexican chocolate chilli and black bean soup

Serves 2
dried black beans 100g
onion 1
garlic 1 clove
small red chilli 1 or a pinch of chilli flakes
paprika a generous shake
ground cumin a generous shake
oil a splash
carrot 1
red wine 30ml
chopped tomatoes 1 x 400g carton or tin
vegetable stock cube 1
dark chocolate (3 squares, approx 20g)
fresh parsley to garnish

Put your beans in to soak the night before, or early in the morning if you're going to be cooking that evening. Place them in a bowl, cover with fresh cold water and then some, and cover the bowl with clingfilm. Leave for a minimum of 8 hours to soak.

When soaked, drain and thoroughly rinse your beans. Put them into a saucepan with fresh water and bring to the boil for approximately 10 minutes, then turn down to a simmer.

Meanwhile, peel and slice the onion and garlic, and chop the chilli (reserving a couple of slices for a garnish), then put them all into a saucepan along with the paprika and cumin. Add the oil and cook over a low heat until the onions and garlic soften.

Wash and chop the carrot, and add to the saucepan. Pour the red wine and tomatoes in, and stir through. Crumble in the stock cube, then add the dark chocolate and 400ml boiling water. Drain the beans and tip into the pan. Stir and leave to simmer for 20 minutes, or until the carrot is tender.
If you like, pulse the soup in a blender until smooth. Serve hot, garnished with a sprig of fresh parsley and a slice of red chilli in each bowl.

Tip: swirl cream, natural yoghurt or creme fraiche on top before serving.

The music to go with this recipe has to be feisty and you don't get more feisty than Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. Joan loves rock'n'roll, I love rock'n'roll and I'm sure Jack loves rock'n'roll, too. What with that paprika and the generous shake...

The follow-up to Joan is a little 90s number. Groovy Elastica's Connection is a throwback to  Britpop times. It still sounds fresh, though.

Rita J's album Artist Workshop still gets heavy play from me at home. I love her energy and "in your face" attitude. No Regrets is a top tune. Enjoy.

Carleen Anderson's voice is like the small red chillies in Jack Monroe's recipe. It leaves a nice, warm feeling in the mouth, throat and stomach. Leopards in the Temple shows off this artist amazing vocal range. Beautiful.

This recipe was taken from The Guardian. Jack Monroe's book can be bought here.

Next Post: "Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music", to be published on Sunday 16th March at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 9 March 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

On thinking about the events in Ukraine recently, Scotland and its independence referendum came to my head. They might be two unrelated subjects prima facie but dig a bit deeper and both nations have commonalities. The two countries have their own language (although English is the official language in Scotland, Gaelic is also spoken), their own flag, traditions and identity. In the case of Ukraine they have the painful reminder of having been part of the former Soviet Union. Scotland is still joined to the United Kingdom by the hip. Or the head, if you look at a map of Britain.

I guess that what’s surprised me about the referendum that will take place in Scotland in the autumn of the current year is how strong opinions on this issue have been. It is not that I have not come across nationalist sentiments before in relation to this territory that lies north of the border with England. It is just that I never took them 100% seriously. Sure, there has always been animosity towards the English which usually comes out when both countries battle it out in the football or rugby theatre of war. But, unlike the northern Irish and their IRA campaign, Scots did not look as if they were about to take their bid for independence up to the next level.

What if the rest of the UK follows?
So, will it be the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland minus Scotland from September 2014 onwards? Some people do not think so. They reckon that Scotland will remain in the union because what the country stands to lose far outweighs whatever gains they might make as an independent nation. My opinion on the matter, after reading and listening to all parties involved, is that a lot of Scots will adopt a “better the devil you know” attitude on referendum day. Namely, they will choose the comfort of the UK rather the uncertainty of a future on their own. I can’t blame them, especially in these straitened economic times, but I cannot say that I would make the same decision. I am one of those people who value independence and self-reliance greatly.

Besides Ukraine and other ex-Soviet republics, the only other example that comes to mind of a nation or nations seeking autonomous status is the regions of Galicia, the Basque Country and Cataluña in Spain. Every time I travel to the Iberian nation I never cease to be amazed at how self-assertive and proud of their cultural heritage gallegos, Basques and catalanes are. The Spanish situation, however, is different to the Scottish one. For starters, the UK has never had to endure a dictatorship as harsh as Franco’s. The fascist despot clamped down on autochthonous languages such as Euskera, the Basque language. As far as I know Gaelic has never been banned. There is a different type of dilemma in Britain, however: that of the Southeast versus the rest of the country. Britons might not have had their own version of Franco; yet, those regions that lie beyond the M25 are sometimes seen through the prism of condescension and ignorance. It is no secret that most of the wealth in the UK is concentrated in the Southeast, mainly in London, but what is lesser known is that a lot of that wealth is produced outside London.

That could be the main reason for the referendum on Scottish independence and eventually total autonomy: to relocate the economic centre to Holyrood, away from Westminster. Scotland has access to vast reserves of oil and gas in the North Sea, enough to last for the next two decades with the right attitude. Factor in a Tory-led coalition in Britain and suddenly the “yes” vote looks no longer like a crazy option.

That’s all on the Scottish side. What about the English one? By that I do not mean politicians, broadcasters and Sunday columnists. I mean the average Joe and Joanna Public. Based on my totally unofficial, mini-survey of half a dozen (English) people to whom I have spoken on the subject, I have found that they don’t give a damn about what happens in September in Scotland. Most shrugged the shoulders, whilst others just said: ”It’s up to them, isn’t it? If they want out, it’s their problem." Hardly water-cooler stuff.

There is a problem with that theory, though. As I mentioned before I never thought that Scottish nationalism might one day lead (probably) to independence. If that is possible in a country that is so far away, albeit with its own flag and identity, what could happen closer to home in England? Suddenly Cornwall doesn’t look safe anymore. After all they have their own Cornish flag and have their own language. They would still have to sort out the number of townies (especially from the Southeast, ironically!) coming in, buying property and either using it as holiday accommodation or letting it out and using it as a second source of income. What about Tyneside? Would we perhaps be looking at a future Geordie Republic of the Northeast? Cumbria, too, has much more in common with Scotland than with England and it is closer to the former. How about Cumbria coming under the aegis of Scotland?

Ultimately, the whole Scottish independence issue is a gamble. The “no” camp is relying on a familiar, but uninspiring choice (especially with Cameron still at No. 10), whilst Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party and first minister of Scotland offers a leap of faith into the future for those who want to vote "yes" in September. The only problem is that that future is uncertain. Which way would you go?

© 2014

Photo taken from

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 12th March at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday 5 March 2014

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana

Your stutter and beard took me by surprise, up to then I was only used to the millions of whys, that with your verses and notes you asked of the state, your voice was full of concern, in it not a trace of hate. A key part of the New Song Movement triptych you were in those years, although there were also others it was always so clear, that Silvio, Pablo and you were blazing the trail, which to thousands of Cuban youngsters was our own Holy Grail.

That night at the theatre, the first time I saw you live, not for a single second the thought crossed my mind that one day would arrive, when I would not only mourn your untimely demise but the impact you had on thousands of Cubans who have now bid you goodbye. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht via Silvio’s dream of snakes, there are singer-songwriters who sing one day and do not make many mistakes. There are others who sing one year and manage better, compared to the former they are musical go-getters. There is a third group who can go for many lustra, countless plaudits they receive like a heavyweight boxer. Yet there are also those composers and performers who inspire generations, who sing, not just to their own country, but also to other nations. We call them the indispensable ones, without whom life would be dark, bereft of the sun.

That night at the theatre I realised you were that person, so did everyone else, of that we were certain. On the way to the show, my mates by my side, we sang and we joked, we still had our pride. We were the chosen ones, we kept hearing, for us there were neither borders nor for that matter a glass ceiling.

That night in 198_, however, you gave us a wake-up call, metamorphosed into song, it surprised us all. You asked how it can be that a man can change his mind to the point where his prejudices and narrow-mindedness make him blind. How is it possible that his principles can be traded so easily for a car, a secretary, a desk and a life to be lived lazily? Suddenly the white sheets we had seen hanging on clotheslines on the way to the theatre looked no longer normal but frightening creatures. Like white flags of surrender, they ominously warned of a false splendour.

“What became of the communist Quixote?” was your next question, was the windmill that broke his spear to blame for so many concessions? Or were his hopes dashed by too many hallucinations?

On the way back home we all were deeply silent, quiet, disturbed even, but also defiant. We were the generation that would pay the price, for the disaster over which another bearded man was about to preside.

As I write these lines I still remember that night, the palm trees, Revolution Square, the moon (it was so bright!). I also remember your beard and stutter, but guess what, I remember more the words that you uttered.

This post is dedicated to the Cuban singer-songwriter Santiago Feliú who died a few weeks ago on 12th February at the age of 51 from a heart attack. I first saw Santiaguito (as he was known) at the Covarrubias Hall, National Theatre in the mid-80s. Along with Silvio Rodríguez Domínguez and Pablo Milanés, Santiago was a key part of the New Song Movement in Cuba and Latin America. Unlike the former two who eventually became part of the status quo,  Santiago was a rebel, a real rebel who, through his songs, influenced generations of young Cubans like me. Rest in peace, brother, and thank you for the music.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 9th March at 10am (GMT)

Sunday 2 March 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Rain. It is the same everywhere, isn’t it? Madrid, Sâo Paulo, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo, Johannesburg. No matter what your surroundings look like, what the geometry of your town, village or city is, or the size of the buildings that populate the main avenue, rain remains unchanged.

Well, guess what, you’re wrong.

Not wrong from an objective point of view. The same condensation process takes place all over the world. The same aqueous vapour that forms in the atmosphere before plummeting to earth in the shape of fat drops occurs in all the aforementioned cities. But it’s the subjective, the unbidden subjective interpretation of rain that renders this phenomenon distinctive.

A few hours ago (on the day of writing this post) I went out for a run. It had been more than a month since I last had jogged. The storms sweeping across the UK put paid to any notion I might have had of nipping out for my usual seven-mile run. But today we had a glorious afternoon in London and I felt like doing my longer circuit; ten miles and sixty yards in total.

Halfway through my run the skies opened. To my amazement, to the west the sun still shone brilliantly, whereas to the east (where I was headed) the rain was coming down hard with a vengeance. I could have done a left turn there and then and headed back home. It was still a bit of a jog, about a mile and a bit, but at least I knew I would be dry in minutes as opposed to getting soaked to the skin.

I got soaked to the skin. I carried on running, not only out of enjoyment (I was going at a good, steady pace and the music pumping into my ears was the right one) but also out of the magic this unpredicted rain produced out of its wet sleeve. Sorry, London, the Southeast and Britain: this rain was not British.

This rain was Cuban, or at least tropical.

This was not the rain that has kept pumps working overtime in the last three or four months, the kind that has left cars stranded and made people mutter under their breath: “Oh, bloody 'ell, not again!”. No, this was rain in Technicolor, throwing shapes around as if one were on an LSD trip (which I have never undertaken, mind).

The rain in which I got caught a few hours ago was not cold (we had 14 degrees in London today for the first time in ages, unusual for February). This rain had a warm muzzle with which it poked me gently on my ribs. This rain had “home” written all over the sleeveless T-shirt it was wearing.

What I saw in this downpour was my birth city in my adopted one. Home in home. As I pounded the pavement the scenery around me changed and a sense of randomness took over. Like a film set where leading and supporting actors, extras, the crew and the director mill about and move aimlessly in between shots, the objects and people around me as I ran looked as if they had been scooped up by a giant hand and thrown back down like pick-up sticks. In my delirium (what else to call it?) I heard glasses half-filled with Havana Club cincoañejo rum (the better one) clinking and dominoes being shuffled. I saw a postman stopping right under a balcony and screaming out: “¡Carmencita, telegramaaaaaaaaaaa!”, raindrops falling off his moustache. A couple of children, feet swimming in their oversized shoes, approached me and asked me: “Mi tío, can you get us the ball that went over the fence, please?” The bluesy, funky music on my mp3 player was replaced by the sound of conga drums, hand-clapping and a Spanish guitar. This was not London's February winter rain, but Havana's May’s first spring shower, the one you allow yourself to get caught in because it brings you good luck. The one where the sky parts in two; one side sunny, the other one rainy. I was soaked in the rain; I also was soaked in voices, sounds, rhythms and pregones.

I ended my run an hour and thirty-five minutes later. By then it was letting up. A slight drizzle saw me to my front door. To the west the sun was still shining. Sorry, London, the Southeast and Britain, the rain that had just assaulted my senses was not British. I had just had a Havana moment. Or at least a tropical one.

© 2014

Photo by Keith Cardwell.

Next Post: “Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana”, to be published on Wednesday 5th March at 11:59pm (GMT)


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