litgallico title

In My Own Good Time - extracts


Once I had overcome my instinctive resistance to doing it at all, I looked for models, as I used to do for my fiction. So far as I know I have not 'made anything up'; nor have I used the device of dramatisation. That belongs, with metaphor and allegory, imagery and symbols, in the dozen novels and forty-odd short stories I have published. Some autobiographies give the impression of owing more to the imagination than many novels; among them those which, while purporting to tell you something very particular, end up telling you nothing much at all. What I want to learn from a memoir is who its author knew, what kind of struggles he or she had, from where help came and what achievement felt like. The extent of his or her sensitivity I can glean along the way.

From people who ask me about it, I know the interest there is in the particular period in English Letters in which I was first active. If that is one audience for what I have to say, another, partly overlapping it, is those who enquire about the process of writing itself and the ones who join residential courses in creative writing.

I should be a very unusual writer indeed if there were not readers who were indifferent to what I have offered, when they didn't actively dislike it. But I have known the intense satisfaction of finding a substantial readership over the years, and it is surely not too much to think that a good proportion of it will really rather like knowing a bit more about one who has been lucky enough to give them pleasure.

In My Own Good Time - extracts

There is a room, a square, all-purpose, working-class living-room, in the mid-1930s. It has one sash-window on to the street. There's a sink in one corner and a gas ring beside it. A coal fire burns in the high grate of the iron range, which has an oven for baking, and a movable hob for boiling kettles and heating pans. A sideboard against the wall has a looking-glass over it, and some ornaments and a couple of painted vases standing on it. Taking up more floor space than anything else is the big square table. High tea has been cleared off it ('sided') some time ago, and since it is Sunday it now has over it a cover of rich crushed velvet or velour, in dark green or maroon. (Sometimes, but rarely, I find myself in a room with a table-cover of deep rich blue, which pleases me as it is my favourite colour.) The high mantelshelf sports a matching pelmet.

Four pairs of feet rest on the hearth rug. I am perfectly content sitting at the table, three-quarters lost in my own world. If I am not drawing on a sheet of paper I am reading. This book is about heroes and heroines throughout history. It has some black and white illustrations, and the one I'm looking at shows a young woman in chains being threatened with some terrible ordeal. Her dark hair is parted down the middle. Her chin is lifted and her eyes flash defiance at her captors. She wears a long tunic frock, belted at the waist, which clings to the swell of her breast. This bosom is somehow not quite the same as any I have encountered in my world, and I find it and her predicament oddly disquieting. I turn back to the picture more than once, and the next time I come into this house I shall ask for the same book.

Some time after seven the men will put on their caps, and perhaps topcoats, and step out into the dark. They will not be gone very long. My father isn't much of a drinker and he has to be up early. When they come back their talk is rather more animated. One of their topics is always brass-banding, for they are both instrumentalists; but they also discuss current affairs, the state of the country and the often uncertain business of earning a living. My father's friend is a carpenter, my father himself, a coalminer.

When it's time for their return the kettle will be put on, and a cake and perhaps the remains of a stand pie brought out again; what is left from high tea. At this time in my life, high tea is my favourite meal. My mother despairs of making me eat a 'proper dinner'. Roast beef and pork are of interest to me only as providers of dripping for spreading on bread - mucky fat. While I love being taken into tea-shops on trips to Leeds and Bradford, the only hot food I relish is fried fish and chips, and even when I come to enjoy many dishes from many cuisines - from England, France and Italy, from Greece, Turkey, India and China - there will still be a special salivatory anticipation in a parcel of fish and chips fried by someone who knows to a nicety the temperature of his fat and who can mix batter that will coat a portion of flaky haddock with a crisp, airy lightness.

I can locate the warm heart of my childhood in the big family parties that my grandparents held at Christmas. How many there were I can't now say, and perhaps one very successful one, with a score or more relatives crammed into the small cottage, has left its happiness like a stain on my memory ever since. My mother's family were no strangers to rancour and bitterness: they bore lingering grudges against their own, and I recall that one of my aunts refused to speak to my mother for years. But none of that marred my pleasure in those get-togethers when, in the roasting heat of two huge fires, the square table in one room would be laden with all the good things of high tea, and games in the other would reduce the womenfolk and the children to helpless laughter. In that room also I would see my first dead body when my grandfather lay in his open coffin.

My mother's thrift was a powerful factor in keeping us afloat, and other people's deprivation could sometimes surprise even her. She told of once going to visit my father's half-sister in Darton, a mining village near Barnsley. They had just finished their Sunday dinner when there was a knock on the door. A small boy stood there with a message: 'Me mam says can we borrow your joint.' The joint was tolerantly handed over and brought back a little later minus the slices with which the neighbours had made their meal.

Expectations were much lower than they are now, of course. Many houses had a wireless set but there was no television. There were no refrigerators, no convenience foods, no washing machines, no central heating. Quick fry-ups would be done on a gas-ring, big meals like the Sunday roast, and baking, in a coal oven, part of the fireplace range. Clothes were washed in a corrugated metal tub and agitated by means of a hand-operated 'posser' - sometimes resembling a three-legged milking stool on the end of a pole, later a hollow copper hemisphere, also attached to a wooden rod. The action was reminiscent of black women in Central Africa beating meal in a big stone mortar that I'd seen at the pictures. Once they were clean, the sodden garments, sheets and towels were wrung out between the rollers of a mangle. After drying on a line in yard or garden, they would be pressed by means of a flat iron heated at the fire, or one about three inches deep filled with hot coals. Everything the hard way. Nothing to save aching muscle and bone.

With thrift went pride and self-respect. My mother had a fox fur, complete with head, which she wore to chapel. They were in fashion. Odd to think now of all those women with bits of a dead animal slung across their shoulders. Although, as I've shown, many of us lacked the facilities for personal hygiene so common-place today, my recollection of those chapel services is being among women who smelled fresh with the faint scent of toilet water. Nor was it only the womenfolk who kept up appearances. My father owned a bowler hat and a pair of spats, as did a couple of uncles.

My friend John Finch, creator of the TV series A Family at War and Sam, once had it put to him by a colleague: 'I don't think you've ever known real poverty, John.' 'Oh, yes, I have', Finch replied; 'but I've never known squalor.' For my part, I didn't like squalor then and I like it even less when it is accompanied by wealth or an arty-farty preoccupation with higher things than the simple matter of keeping clean.

My father's passion was brass-banding. My mother used to say that it took a lot to make him break his work when he wasn't well, but he was easily persuaded by a call to play. His cornet was in regular demand. At his peak he had the uniforms of several bands in the house. The brass band movement is essentially an amateur one, but my father was in receipt from time to time of small retainers and as many bands were run by industrial concerns, a musician's skill could bring him a secure and decent job. (There was one low point in his life when he reluctantly resorted to busking and joined a couple of fellow instrumentalists to play for money on the streets. 'They thought', my mother related, 'that they'd gone far enough away for nobody to know them.' But in one yard a door opened and my father found himself facing a woman who did. 'By', she exclaimed, 'but I never thought I'd see a chap like you doing this.' Ashamed to begin with, he was doubly shamed by being confronted and did not let it happen again.) My father did not aspire to the first division, though I believe he would have been a reliable section player in its ranks; his strength was as solo cornet with any number of village and town bands over the years, and I recall a glorious period just after the Second World War when he was with Gawthorpe Victoria who were winning third-section march prizes at contest after contest.

I remember the nights when my mother she would sit watching the clock, listening for the footstep in the yard and wondering if it would be the early hours when he returned. One morning, after he had been contesting at Belle Vue, Manchester, I came downstairs to find a new piece of furniture in the living-room, a Lloyd Loom chair. 'Where's this come from?' 'Your dad won it. It's a special prize for cornet playing. I heard him coming. When I opened t' door he were standing there with it on his head, the great gawby.'

I'd known Connie Kershaw at Ossett Grammar School. She was not one of the 'honey pots' whom the lads drooled over and dreamed about. Bespectacled, lanky, grown too fast, she seemed rather to embody a corrective common sense and scepticism; she was the go-between, the good pal.

I had been susceptible to girls since reaching double figures, endowing them with mystery and the possibility in them of completing the equation which could unlock the secret of happiness; though I had a way of falling for those who showed little interest in me. I had learned also what it was to pretend to more affection than I felt, for someone who had aroused sensual appetite in me, accompanied in that case by recurrent shame. So by the time Connie turned up to work at Charles Roberts engineering works and I saw how she had blossomed into a personable and spirited young woman well able to hold her own with the dry humour pervading the recently exclusive male preserve of the drawing office, I was ready to be drawn to her on the basis of interests we could share, and we began going out together.

We married in September 1951 at Ossett Parish Church. Our honeymoon was at Lorton Hall in the Lake District, a private hotel recommended to us by two acquaintances who spent their holidays cycling long distances, and after a taxi ride over Whinlatter Pass we arrived in darkness to be welcomed by the owner, a young woman, slim as a boy, who rather confused us unsophisticates with her habitual men's clothes, especially the dapper green double-breasted suit she wore when we made up a four with her and the live-in housemaid for an evening dance in Keswick.

The tariff was one guinea a day each, full board, and we were the only guests, served with breakfast when they heard us moving about, and enormous lunches and dinners at a time, within reason, suggested by ourselves. The house stood secluded from the road in grounds through which a fishing stream flowed. Our big corner bedroom gave views of the fells overlooking Crummock Water, and we had a choice of bathrooms, one with a lavatory like a throne, raised up on a mahogany pedestal. Lake District weather is, to put it no more strongly, inclined to be mixed. We walked when it was fine, accompanied by a delighted dalmation which had been penned during an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. And one wet afternoon, sitting in a corner of the big lounge, I had a first go at writing a short story.

'I might have been a poet if I'd thought on', says Barney Holly, in Winifred Holtby's South Riding. W H Auden records that he began to write poetry when, one Sunday afternoon, a friend suggested he should. I began because Connie Kershaw put the idea into my head. Would either Auden or I (to take the comparison no further) have thought of it for ourselves? If I had taken that job in Sheffield and gone to live in digs with my friend David Strafford, would I ever have started writing? It's an unanswerable question. What I do know is that, once I got underway and became hooked, I learned very fast and began to uncover a talent I certainly couldn't, only a year or two before, have known I possessed. Nor, I believe, could Connie have known quite the extent and depth of what she was encouraging. Because in the beginning, when I came back at her with 'It's all very well saying you think I ought to be able to write. But what? Write what?', she pointed to the number of women's magazines on the market and said 'Start there. I'll help you with the plots.' Certainly there was no question of my taking myself seriously, of thinking I had anything serious to say; but if there were people making money by writing for these publications, I might as well become one of them.

I bought a Remington portable typewriter and put it in the back bedroom on a card-table borrowed from my mother-in-law. A little boy, visiting next door, stood in the yard and looked up at my window. 'What's that pecking?' he asked. 'That's Mr Barstow using his typewriter', my wife told him. 'Why is it pecking him?' he wanted to know. Ah!

I was learning, and the first thing I learned was that even with a reasonably fluent flow of words such as I could command, writing insincerely rarely works. Those who write meretriciously have to believe in it while they're doing it. I sold nothing in that first phase. The envelopes came back. But I will not say that I wasted valuable time in trying to write what I thought editors would want, nor in beginning and abandoning two correspondence courses intent on teaching me to please others before I tried to please myself. For, interestingly, the courses I saw never did pretend that they could teach one how to write well, they maintained that they could teach one to make money by writing. With me they did neither, but I soon came to accept them as a necessary part of my initiation and early apprenticeship. They taught me what I didn't want to do and in fact couldn't do. And, while I was disappointed, I didn't despair. Significantly, for the first time when faced with problems and disappointment, I didn't throw my hand in. There had to be some way forward.

After my father's death in 1958 I had inherited his moped, and used it to make sorties into the heart of industrial West Yorkshire noting changes and collecting features for incorporation into the picture of Cressley, the fictitious town I had created for my stories, which was firmly based on Dewsbury, though rather bigger. (Though of similar size and population, Wakefield, the West Riding county seat, which I knew rather better, was made of brick. Dewsbury was a stone town, as were Bradford, Halifax and Huddersfield; and I preferred the stone.)

It was all coming to life; the feeling of a provincial renaissance was too strong to be denied. On one of my trips I bought Keith Waterhouse's second novel, Billy Liar, in a small bookshop, long disappeared now, in Halifax. John Braine's second novel, The Vodi, I bought in Leeds while returning with my mother from a visit to Lawnswood, where my father's body had been cremated. Odd how such details stick. Alan Sillitoe had made his entrance the previous year with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. I'd discovered The Good Lion, a novel about a young miner, by a writer living in Sheffield, Len Doherty. And by this time, the autumn of 1959, I had finally managed to interest an agent with a novel of my own.

After my first novel - a combination of crime thriller and character study, and more than I was at that stage able to handle - had failed to find a publisher, I had decided that the only thing I knew enough about to write at that length was the life of a 'lace-curtain' working-class family. Suppose I set out to describe a year in their lives? Suppose I gave myself two sons and a daughter? If I took a panoramic view and switched the story from one person to another, I'd surely find enough interest to carry me through. More pressing matters made me put it aside, and when I returned to my notes it struck me that the story I'd given to the older brother (soon to acquire the name of Vic Brown), in which he gets a girl pregnant whom he doesn't love, while 'borrowed' from a number of other novels, had nearly always been a stock situation thrown in to make weight. But handled properly and given its own length and depth, couldn't it become a novel in itself? Wasn't this my novel? There is nothing new under the sun: you just have to look at it in a different way.

How to handle it, though? Sharing the interest between the whole family had called for a straight third-person narrative with changing viewpoints. With everything concentrated into Vic Brown's point of view, there were still great advantages in orthodox third-person narration, because it would allow me to say things he couldn't express himself. The most tempting stance was with me at the reader's elbow, so to speak, and saying in effect: 'Now, you and I are going to watch that young man make a mess of things and I shall occasionally nudge you to make sure you don't miss anything important.'

That was how I started. But I constantly came to places where I was tempted to let Vic express himself, and finding that his dead-pan delivery and often unconscious humour gave a quality to some passages which, rendered in the third person, were flat and uninteresting. I ended up with a narrative told in both methods. Now I had to choose, and I decided that losing the opportunity of saying things that Vic couldn't - of, in fact, explaining him - was richly compensated for by the freshness and immediacy of letting him tell his own story.

So I invented for Vic a vernacular made up of West Riding idioms, Hollywood slang, and words and phrases brought back from overseas by returning servicemen. Before rewriting it all in this method, I thought of another touch: I would let Vic tell his story in the historic present rather than in the more customary past tense. Many people around me would relate events in the historic present (though, like the man who was surprised to be told he habitually spoke in prose, they didn't know they were doing it): 'I'm walking along Market Street when I catch sight of him coming round the corner. I can't get out of his way so I put a bold face on it and wait and see what he'll do …' It heightens the immediacy. You are there, even though what's being described has already taken place.

I had sold four short stories in eight years. I'd earned £77 18s 6d, out of which I'd spent £20-odd on a typewriter, and a good deal on typing paper and postage in sending my work to agents, editors and publishers who were not interested in me. Perhaps this novel would go to several publishers (Room at the Top had been seen by four, to three of which John Braine later sent Christmas cards asking: 'Have you turned down any good novels lately?') but one would eventually buy. That much I was convinced of.

The Society of Authors had recommended an agent who returned my earlier novel with a letter of regret. Within a week of his receiving A Kind of Loving, he wrote to say that he would like to try it on one or two people. It went to Michael Joseph. A month passed, then two. I called to see him in Red Lion Square. Innes Rose. A nice man. A gent. 'A little patience, old boy. In this case, no news is good news.' Christmas loomed. Four months. It had never occurred to me that I should not know the verdict by now. On Christmas Eve I telephoned Innes Rose's office. He was not available. Christmas morning finds me lounging disconsolately in pyjamas and dressing gown. The children play on the floor with their new toys. Connie has gone down with an attack of tonsilitis and is in bed. Mother and mother-in-law cope with the preparation of Christmas dinner. The letterbox rattles. Last-minute cards. (Yes, there was a Christmas Day delivery in those days.) I stir myself and slope along the hall. One envelope I immediately recognise. Whichever way, I have to know at once. 'I am delighted to send you some good news which I hope will reach you before Christmas. I have sold A Kind of Loving to Michael Joseph for an advance on royalties of £125.00.' I bawl the news up the stairs. Connie appears and sits down on the top step. I think she is near to tears. I think I might faint. This is what it has all led to. I am to become a published novelist.

An offer for A Kind of Loving had come from an Italian producer called Joseph Janni, who was based in England and had to his credit such films as The Glass Mountain and A Town Like Alice. We let him have a six-month option for £300 against an advance of £3,000 on ten per cent of producer's profits.

Janni, recently gone independent, had been a frustrated man for a while. Wishing to make a film about English working-class life, he had bought the rights to Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning before publication. He had then been advised by everyone to whom he took the project that he had an impossible subject and no one would wish to see such a film even if he managed to get it made. So he let the property go, only to see it wind up in the hands of Woodfall Films, who cast Albert Finney in what was to be one of his very finest roles, alongside Rachel Roberts and Shirley Ann Field. The director was Karel Reisz. This time Janni, with the rights to Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar in his pocket as well, went to Anglo-Amalgamated and secured a two-picture distribution deal.

Sillitoe had written his own screenplay; Janni asked me if I would like to do a script. As was to become habitual with me, my first consideration before any mention of money was to decide whether I could do the job well. I felt I was still too close to the novel to exercise the necessary ruthlessness in adaptation. I also suspected there to be some insuperable problems and I didn't wish any compromise to land on my shoulders. When Janni told me that Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall had already expressed an interest in doing the script, I told him I had no objections; they knew the story's setting and its idioms intimately.

A young director of documentary films for television, John Schlesinger, whose best known piece, Terminus, was an observation of people on Waterloo Station, begged Janni to give him Loving as his first feature film, sending him a telegram saying: 'Please, please, please let me direct A Kind of Loving.' Rumours began to abound. Albert Finney, who had starred in the stage version of Billy Liar, was to be passed over for the film in favour of Anthony Newley. Finney was to be offered A Kind of Loving instead. But he didn't want it because he was down to play the lead in the film of David Storey's This Sporting Life. None of this happened. Tom Courtenay would be the film Billy Liar; Richard Harris became Storey's rugby-playing protagonist, and Alan Bates was bought out of the Broadway run of Harold Pinter's The Caretaker to play Vic Brown. But all that is running ahead. I met Waterhouse and Hall in Janni's flat. I recall that I had just picked up an advance copy of The Desperadoes, my volume of short stories, and was feeling very pleased with myself.

Keith and Willis were having the time of their lives. After contemporaneous childhoods in Leeds, they had gone their separate ways, then come together again when each had made his own mark and Hall, best known then for his stage play The Long and the Short and the Tall, had seen theatrical potential in Waterhouse's second novel. Brilliantly successful with that, they had stayed together to exploit what could best be done in collaboration. Much in demand, they were earning a lot of money and delighting in the opportunities it gave them to indulge the boyish pleasure in practical jokes that each brought out in the other. One story has them calling at a small shop and buying all the wine gums in stock, then delivering them to the dressing room of an actress appearing in a play of theirs who had revealed a weakness for them. Another was sending their underworked office girl to Kings Cross with the money for a return ticket to Leeds and directions how, when she got there, to find Kirkgate Market, where she was to buy a couple of pounds of polony and a similar amount of tomato sausage, and bring it back with her. 'She didn't like it', Willis told me when I asked him about it, thirty years later. 'She'd never been north of Potters Bar before.' At my first question about the screenplay for Loving, they said: 'You'll love the bullfight sequence.' They were, all of them, best left to get on with it.

Little Bull
Photograph © Phil Hammond; used with permission

It is time to speak of the virtues of the English tavern. For someone like a writer, spending most of every day alone, living inside his own head, with no colleagues to talk to, a good pub is a clearing house for information, a place to express opinions that are not too contentious, where you drop the word when you need a job done, where you come blinking into the hum-drum world. Best of all, pubs sell alcohol. It has been said (I think of the Welsh) that some races are born two large whiskies ahead of everybody else, and I would not argue with the proposition that some of us (myself included) were born two drinks behind.

I was a late starter. My mother frowned on strong drink, and I have said that I never stood at a bar with my father and drank a beer with him. I have wished for many years that I could say otherwise.

The benefits of the regular use of a pub were made evident to me when I had had an operation on my right ear, in which I'd become totally deaf. I was told not to drive a car for a while, and my neighbour - intent, I suspect, on some therapy of his own - made this an excuse for fetching me out several times a week for a visit to our local, a small, simple, homely house only a minute's walk away. Small though it was, and its trade overwhelmingly working class, it was very popular. If you were not in early on weekend evenings, you could not get a seat. In the men-only taproom, your drinks were brought to you by a member of the tenant family; in the front room, you had the services of a part-time waiter in a white jacket. The landlord played the piano. The landlady's father's passions were bottled Guinness and the game of dominoes, into the mysteries of which he tolerantly initiated me, though at busy times he would always give up his place to a customer. I never took so wholeheartedly to darts because I lacked the necessary co-ordination of hand and eye, and I didn't add up quickly enough to take my turn at scoring. That connoisseur of licensed premises, the actor-playwright Henry Livings, there on a visit, noted the scene and suggested we get together a team to challenge his local, the Woolpack at Dobcross, some twenty-five miles across the Pennines. Two carloads blazed the trail, after which we received a return visit. When numbers increased and the breathalyser was introduced, we had a whip-round for the hire of a small bus.

It would be hard to exaggerate the pleasure and deeply beneficial relaxation I derived over the years from unintellectual but perceptive talk and the good-natured exercise of the skill in dominoes. Little money changed hands, certainly not enough to make winning more important than enjoyment, and the value of it was beyond price. I would often still be laughing as I walked into the house.

After thirty-nine years of marriage, a parting, when the absolutely unthinkable seemed the only way forward. Observing oneself constantly reflected in the mirror of so long a relationship is both a consolation and a cross. In what I considered an act of betrayal, a journalist I knew made the separation public. To my astonishment and subsequent fury, the tabloid newspapers then took it up. I learned what it is to be doorstepped and harassed - and how it could happen also to one whom I was no longer there to protect. But friends rallied, shunned sides, tried understanding. Their affection is a lasting strength. One burst with pride in, and love for, one's children. Somewhere, somehow, among the mistakes, something must have been right. There was joy in adding to old friends new ones of great value, to whom one came without history, to some without even reputation.

Another partner sustains. She is a writer too and I watch with pleasure the blaze of her creative fire. No two writers can live together free from tension - one has learned to ride one's own disappointments; it is not easy to add someone else's to that precarious balance - but we know how to laugh.

The world I look around at now is not the one I once hoped for. Of course we live in a much fairer society than that my mother was born into. But we are also in the throes of a second industrial revolution. The service industries outnumber the manufacturing. Fortunes ride on bubbles, and how the money is actually created before it is passed from one bank account to another is a mystery to one who was brought up with the belief that something had to be made before anything was earned. And if, despite it all, I find myself confident that human ingenuity will sort that out, I am much less optimistic about the ability of human beings simply to live in peace with one another. In the bloodiest of centuries just ended, we need look no further back nor farther away than the former Yugoslavia (for many once a model of a kind) to realise how close the beast lurks under the skin. Why is 'Come, let us reason together' so often the last favoured course of action? But though I do not now expect it to improve, cynicism finds no natural home in me and I have already said that I am a poor hater, a bad bearer of grudges. Never having possessed a natural gift for happiness of the kind I feared for a time I had killed in someone else, I have all the same enjoyed, and there is a certain contentment - if not serenity - in age.

I have lived by my writing since 1962. I have brought up my children and provided for those it has been my duty to support. That this has been achieved solely through my own efforts, without subsidy, grants, paid fellowships or awards with monetary gifts attached, should, I feel, be a cause for some pride. It has all been worked for, year on year. I have been a professional. I have survived.

And yes, I have been lucky. There is no justice in the writing game. Some better writers than I have known little material reward. Some much worse have become enviably rich. But how can I covet money given for work to which I would be ashamed to attach my name?

A friend phones me just before Christmas 1999 to ask if I have seen the new Radio Times and do I in fact know that A Kind of Loving is going out as BBC Radio 4's first Book at Bedtime of the new Millennium. Isn't it great? Am I not mightily pleased? Yes, well yes, I am, I suppose. And it occurs to me after I have hung up that the news has come to me forty years almost to the day since that letter of acceptance plopped through my letter-box. Of course I am pleased. I truly have had my good time, and that boy with the hernia, reading his illustrated book in that long-ago living-room, would hardly have believed a word of it.

© Stan Barstow 2001. Reproduced by permission of the publishers.

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