One pig’s trotter, two pigeon carcasses and a soupçon of smoked sea salt

I read a recipe for coq au vin jaune in the weekend paper. It didn’t have the above ingredients, I should make clear, though they did make appearances elsewhere.

In fact, the coq au vin jaune recipe seemed unusually (for our weekend newspapers) make-able –except for that ‘vin jaune’.

The writer, helpful soul, explained that the wine is:
‘made from late-harvest savagnin* grape and matured in oak barrels beneath a layer of yeast’

*[not a typo, I copied it directly]

Ten pages later came a page of ‘Great French wines’. And, lo! A bottle of vin jaune, an ‘idiosyncratic’ wine from ‘the foothills of the Jura mountains’.

Apparently it’s a ‘must-have’ at the best restaurants.

It retails at – wait for this – £49.95! I’m not even going to bother converting the currency. It’s plainly expensive.

And this is in the Sunday edition of one of our lefty national newspapers. Yes, lefty.

Lefty, it’s plain, no longer means embattled working class, earning a hard crust (scraped with dripping). Nor public sector worker, poorly paid but following a vocation. Nor over-mighty trade unionist bringing the country to its knees. Or whatever you think lefty means.

But let’s not get into that today. I want to write about food.

Because I’m tired of the metro-centric media and their attitude to cooking.

Tired of recipes with ingredient lists as long as a child’s Christmas wish list. No, scrub that, they’re longer. And probably more expensive. And even less likely to be played with after the novelty has worn off.

Cookery writers, it seems, delight in searching out the most obscure ingredients. Not, I suspect, because they’re necessarily terrific additions to the taste of a dish, but because they want to perpetuate the elite status of the food writer.

It’s just a way of showing off. An ever-escalating treasure hunt for the newest, most obscure, most expensive ingredients.

‘Oh, dear,’ says supercilious food writer, glancing down at a serf.

‘You can’t find ptarmigan liver puree in Chesterfield? Poor you. I get it from my local Anatolian shepherd’s market in Notting Hill.’

And the foodie goes off to order an amuse bouche of tender bamboo shoots, plucked by baby pandas, cleansed in Icelandic volcanic springs, fried in peacock fat with larks’ tongues and finished in fairy dust.’*

*(I made that up. No one uses peacock fat.)

Seriously, if we want people to cook, eat well – and not become obese on high doses of nasty transfats, high fructose corn syrup and the like – we need to be sensible about food. Make good food easy to cook. And not suggest everyone should be cooking with the latest Mongolian delicacy dug up by some precious ‘expert’. Or (pet hate warning) the latest variety of chilli.

People, fish pie does not need chilli.

So, stop reading now if you’re just here for the fun and frivolity. Here comes my first recipe post. There will be some more, now and again, on the same theme:

‘simple food for simple folk (like me)’.

————————————————————————————————————

Simple food

This time it’s a meaty dish. Veggie next. Fish occasionally – maybe on a Friday.

Health warning: I’m not a one woman Good Housekeeping Institute – this is how I do it, all measures are approximate, based on my experience, my oven (electric), my hob (gas) and my taste (not too much salt and no chilli please).

Don’t blame me if you get it wrong!
SIMPLE CASSEROLE OF BEEF, SLOWLY-COOKED

This will feed two, three or four people depending on what, if anything, you add, eg, potatoes. If you can set a timer on your oven to start while you’re out this is perfect for an after-work meal on a wintry day.

beef

Oops! That’s a chicken stockpot – recommend beef or veggie actually! Nice mushrooms though …

Ingredients

1 large slice of braising steak* around 1 lb/450 g (more if you like) or 2 smaller pieces
*(thick flank, from the hindquarters)

1 or 2 onions

3 large flat mushrooms, or 5 or 6 medium closed cup ones or none if you don’t like them

1 pint/500 ml or so of liquid – enough to cover the meat and onions.
Options include stock, red wine or cider, or wine mixed with water and/or stock, or cider mixed with water and/or stock.

Seasoning of your choice – eg, pepper, Worcester sauce (despite the label, Worcester not Worcestershire sauce), a bay leaf or two, herbs such as thyme and marjoram.

Cooking

Slice or chop the onions and place them in a casserole (fry if you want, but not essential).

Place the meat on top (again, fry if you want but not essential).

Add the liquid.

Add the chopped, cleaned or peeled mushrooms.

Add some seasoning. You can always add more towards the end.

Put on a close fitting lid and leave in a slow-ish oven – say 160 (fan)/170 (conventional)/325 old-fashioned degrees, gas mark 3 – for at least two and a half, preferably three hours

Serve.

Optional variations and extras

Gravy/sauce:
If you want the sauce thick, you can either start at the beginning by flouring and frying the beef before you add the liquid, or, as I do, at the end use cornflour (check pack for instructions) to thicken it. Transfer the liquid to a pan if the casserole is not hob-proof, if it is, just take out the meat and keep warm on a plate in the cooling oven while you heat and thicken the gravy.
You can add a dessertspoon of tomato puree or even a tin of chopped tomatoes before cooking to make it richer.

Extra/different veg:
You can add more or less whatever winter veg you like to this dish – or even a tin of chopped tomatoes.
Chopped leeks work well with mushrooms. Or use a couple of big carrots chopped in thick rounds and one or two sticks of sliced celery instead of the mushrooms.
Small potatoes or chunks, with skins on to maximise the food value and help keep them from disintegrating, make it a meal in a dish.
Experiment!

Accompaniments:
Mashed potato/sweet potato, a 50/50 mix, is good with this dish. Add a bit of butter, a bit of milk (you need less with sweet potato than ordinary potato) and if you like, a spoonful of mustard or horseradish sauce, or a sprinkling of ground mace.
You can steam a green veg like kale or broccoli over the potatoes while they’re boiling.
Bon appetit.

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The Queen and I

I can’t imagine we have much in common, her majesty and I. Other than being British. What with me being a commoner and Catholic and all.

My sister’s called Elizabeth – that’s a kind of connection. Tenuous, I know. But there is one more thing. And on Sunday I hear it calling.

It’s the first jaunt for our new, slightly used car. We haven’t christened her yet – but she’s definitely not a Jezebel. More a Snow Queen – but that’s not a great nickname, is it?

Turning children’s hearts to ice? I don’t think so.

I can’t tell you how far we travel – we’re too busy checking the miles per gallon.

‘Ooh, 60 now!’

Impressive – and it keeps on getting better.

Passing over the first cattle grid, the car glides to a lonely halt in a parking place with a view. It takes us about three steps to realise the path heading downwards might just as well be a chute into a bog. It’s been raining so much the peaty ground’s saturated.

Across the road the drier path heads upwards. Steeply. But I have walking poles for such challenges and soon we’re huffing and puffing at the top.

pendle in the distance

Pendle’s at the back, the white speck’s not-the-Snow-Queen

The blunt contours of Pendle, the Lancashire witches’ hill, are dark against the skyline.

The moors dip and rise. The heather is scrubby, drained of its autumn colour, the purple whinberries long ago scoffed by nibbling sheep.

looking the other way from pendleThis is the edge of the Forest of Bowland.

Officially an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’, it’s not ‘forest’ in the sense of woodland, but an area once outside the law – from the Latin, foris, outside – a term dating back to medieval times. The Kings of England used the designation, ‘Forest’ to deter development and protect the habitats of their favourite hunting grounds.

A grouse, startled, rises into the air. It’s the only living thing, bar us, in sight.

Our usual goal here’s a tea van, set by a babbling brook. If the weather’s good and the time of year right, it’ll be there, nestling in a valley surrounded by grouse moors and sheep-grazing hills. We’ll have mugs of strong tea and Chorley cakes – round slabs of pastry spotted with currants, not to be confused with buttery, currant-stuffed Eccles cakes. Chorley cakes are real walkers’ stodge (or very guilty treats).

Today we’re feasting on a different, upland view – and magnificent though it is, it’s also bitterly cold. The wind’s biting slices out of my nose and ears – or that’s how it feels. Plus, I left my gloves in the car. Five minutes’ exposure and my hands are already numb.

A glance at my watch shows we’re nearing the lunching hour. Reprieved, we slither down the hill, hop into our clean white car.

Motoring back to the village of Waddington (60.8 mpg) we have fun trying the ‘B’ drive that brakes our descent as we wind our steep way down.

It’s the perennial Yorkshire/Lancashire tussle in miniature, Waddington. In the fifteenth century, Henry VI (house of Lancaster) hid in Waddington Hall for a year after his defeat at the battle of Hexham during the Wars of the Roses. He was captured by the Yorkists in 1464. In modern times, until 1974, this Lancashire village was in Yorkshire.

waddington country kitchen cafeToday the Country Kitchen café’s buzzing. Clattering, actually.

(Have you noticed, cyclists’ shoes clatter like a tap dancer’s? They do, trust me.)

There must fifteen or twenty of them, the cyclists. All skinny, all in Lycra, all embarrassingly fit for chaps (mostly men) older than me – well, they look it.

We shoe-horn ourselves into a tiny table for two and prepare to wait for hours. But, hoorah, they’ve had their tea, their beans on toast – they’re on their way.

It’s two years since we first sampled the game pie here. Last time it’d run out – we made do with corned beef hotpot and pickled beetroot.

The pie’s a treat – only in season when game is in season. I push aside thoughts of the chirpy grouse. They live a carefree life, until they’re shot.

game pieOur pot of tea’s half gone by the time the pie arrives, steaming in a puddle of gravy – red wine gravy, says the specials board – with one dish of boiled and mashed potatoes, one of carrots and broccoli.

I doubt the Queen’s tried it. But I can’t imagine she’s had better.

The man in charge, a cheery soul, isn’t here today, but six Lancashire lasses scurry to and fro. In a café seating 35, that’s very good service.

Anyway. I asked the boss what the pie’s secret was, its filling all stuck together, but not with gravy.

It’s no longer a secret: sausage meat and egg white.

This pie’s the food of the northern gods, believe me. A winter’s day, a cup of tea, tasty chunks of game with seasoned sausage meat. In pastry. Yumph.

More than half the potatoes are left untouched.

No room for jam roly-poly, nor baked egg custard. No energy left for another wintry walk.

We sneak away from the hills and valleys and streams and copses, heavier and happy. Wend our way through Clitheroe – a small town overlooked by a small castle – and homewards.

Ooh, 62.8 mpg – and rising.

As dusk creeps in, I wonder where, in Bowland, the Queen would choose to live.

Because that’s what the Queen and I have in common.

It’s said that someone asked her where in her kingdom she’d retire to if she had the choice.

The Queen answered …

Bowland.

If it’s good enough for her majesty, who am I to disagree?

And if she should feel a little hungry, out walking the royal Corgis, she could always try our café. Because there’s a notice in the window.

Dogs welcome.

P1010209

A stream running through Waddington

 

Posted in Going out - and having fun?, In Britain now - and then, Lancashire and the golf coast | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Sacrifice

Tonight could be emotional. I grab a handful of tissues, stuff them in my bag.

Braving twenty-seven sets of traffic lights, we drive into Liverpool. Stow our car in the warm space beneath the circular cathedral. Choose seats on one of the hard wooden pews and wrap our winter coats around us against the draughts.

I’ve been anticipating this concert with a little trepidation.

Not because of ‘Death and Transfiguration,’ by Richard Strauss. Nor the Elgar cello concerto – that holds no demons for me.

No, it’s the Fauré Requiem. If you’ve read my post ‘In Paradisum,’ you’ll know this has a special, sad, place in my heart.

It’s the first time I’ve been to a live performance of the work and the auguries are not good. The lighting’s so bright that looking at the centre, where the orchestra’s arranged, is painful.

As the concert’s about to begin, two women slide in next to us – on seats clearly labelled ‘Reserved’.

‘Um, those are reserved,’ we whisper.

‘So? We’ve got tickets,’ one responds, settling in.

It takes a while to vanquish my rule-follower’s annoyance. But soon Strauss wraps me up in a wave of emotion, sweeps me off – and deposits me in a calmer space.

The cello concerto, for some reason, fails to work any magic. Perhaps the acoustics are wrong. So I turn my attention to the surroundings and focus on a, small, ethereal figure rising over the altar.

Knees bent, arms outstretched, there is no cross, just a representation of a figure that died on one.

A sliver of a man, like soap worn almost to nothing by the cleansing of many hands.

Can that be Jesus? Why no heavy cross, no tortured body, no blood?

A massive installation hangs from the roof. It’s a vehicle for lighting, but also represents a vast crown of thorns. This heavy burden hovers over the sliver of a Christ. A burden one man took upon himself, for the sake of his fellow men.

Clapping signals the end of the concerto and we mill around, chatting until the interval is over and the requiem begins.

The tears come, but not where I expect.

Not in the ‘Pie Jesu’ – beautiful, but almost too sublime. (One of the women on the reserved seats, though, dabs at her eyes. I’m ashamed I was so hostile.)

Not in the heavenly notes of the ‘In Paradisum’.

It’s the Sanctus that sets my tears free. Glorious voices raised in praise. Hosanna in excelsis! The last notes dying away, like a leaf, fluttering to the ground on a still autumn day.

And that’s how Sunday dawns.

sally armyBy ten to eleven we’re in our local town. Standing under cool, clear skies, basking in sunshine, singing, as the Salvation Army band plays ‘Abide with me’.

An elderly woman steps into a picture I’m trying to take. Her gloved hand clutches a small wooden cross, at its centre a poppy. On it, written in blue ink, are words I can’t decipher.

Small as a child, with hair of steely grey, she’s all alone, wearing ear muffs against the chill of this sparkling wintry day.

I rebuke myself for my moment’s irritation. The picture’s not important. We’re here for her. For her and countless other ‘hers’ who’ve waited in vain for fathers, brothers, uncles, sons – and lovers – to come safely home from the wars.faithful to her we fell

It’s not all men, of course. Sisters, mothers, wives, aunts – and lovers – their names, too, live on in the vast monument by which we congregate today.P1010133 (2)

It’s the Sunday nearest the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

We’re waiting for the eleventh hour.

The hour the madness stopped in 1918.

I think of all those couples who married one hundred years ago today. The babies who were born that year, the architects on whose buildings that date was engraved, proud and bold.

None of those people would ever tell of the year of their birth, the year of their wedding, the year of their great commission being built, without a pang of pain.

1914. The start of the Great War. Millions dead. But not forgotten.

lord streetThe road on which we’re standing – an elegant, tree lined boulevard for which this town is famed – is partially closed to traffic.

Motorists rev by, far enough away to be ignored, impatient. An extra minute or two added to their journey to the temples of mammon. Or sport.

It’s always moving, Remembrance Day at local war memorials. Here, though, the monument is dedicated not to war, but peace.

I understand those who prefer the white poppy, those who feel the horror of war is masked, exalted, even, by our sentimental reaction to the scarlet ones.

But the red of the poppies says bloodshed, not just foreign fields.

look upwardSometimes the cause may be misguided, but that’s not the fault of those who fight.

Which is why, in two silent minutes, at eleven o’clock, we remember the dead. People who fought because they had no choice – or had a choice, but risked their all for their fellow humans.

Two minutes. A small enough gesture for those who sacrificed a life.

After the service we peruse the lists of the fallen.

A member of the Egyptian Camel Corps.camel corps

Men of the Polish Air Force. Merchant seamen. Salvation ArnyNurses.

Place names resonant with death.

Passchendaele. Ypres.

With the fleeting days of empire.

mesopotamiaMesopotamia. Burma.

Many walls, many lists, many names chiselled again, and again.

Many families losing their young – to what? To victory, sometimes. But at such a price.

A young army man in shorts – showing his prosthetic limb – marches out to lay a wreath.

Remembrance.

The slender figure without its cross, beneath the crown of thorns.

The grand monument to the ugly deaths of so many.

We all have our memories, our painful memories.

‘We will remember them.’

P1010185

P1010190burma star standard

Posted in Going out - and having fun?, In Britain now - and then, Lancashire and the golf coast, Liverpool, Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Something for nothing – and proud of it

Does IFLS mean anything to you?

It’s ‘I F—ing Love Science’ (the dash is where ‘uck’ would be) and it often hosts thought provoking posts. About Science.

You can pretend you don’t notice the name, call it IFLS for short. I do.

IFLS recently posted this image of a Tweet.ifs tweet

One of my ‘friends’on Facebook, who has a PhD, ‘liked’ it, which is how I came to see it.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean the friend actually ‘likes’ it.

And it’s possible IFLS posted it to stimulate a debate, not as an endorsement.

But judging by the few comments that I read (of gazillions), I suspect I’m being generous – unlike the people who posted links to sites where students can download illegal free copies. And yes, I know that they know they’re illegal – they use the word ‘illegal’.

Before I vent my spleen on this one, I want to make a brief personal comment.

As a writer (even if that’s as mythically as a unicorn in my own mind) my creativity – such as it is – is splurged for free on an unsuspecting world through this blog.

You’re reading it on a URL I pay for, so you don’t have to see advertisements and I don’t have to include ‘.wordpress.com’ in the site’s address.

You don’t pay me anything, I don’t ask you for anything. Well, except fair treatment of my stuff as regards copyright.

I have, however, written – and published – a book. It was a chastening experience.

Imagine you spend a lifetime acquiring the expertise to do something. Spend years – or many months – distilling it. More months honing it – and possibly your own money publishing it.

A friend says, ‘I’m enjoying your book.’

You smile, possibly ask where she or he bought it.

‘I borrowed it off Annabelinda.’

You smile back, with gritted teeth.

‘That’s a shame.’

Puzzled look.

‘Well, quarter of the proceeds from sales of the book goes to …’ a good cause.

Bewildered look. Money? Book?

‘What does it matter as long as I enjoy it,’ thinks the casual reader, ‘isn’t that why you, dear author, have written this masterpiece?’

I’m used to it, now. It’s a risk I took – and I accept it.

BUT …

what really, really angers me about the idiots who responded positively to the IFLS post, who displayed such nonchalance about behaving illegally, was their sheer, obtuse, ignorance about what goes into making the books they seem to need.

My husband has written three academic books as a sole author, one as a co-author with a colleague in Oxford. He’s edited one volume based on an international conference which he organised and for which he raised the funding. Two, possibly three of these books could be regarded as ‘textbooks’, albeit somewhat specialised in scope.

Each time he writes a book our world changes.

Life revolves around it. Spare time dribbles away. Deadlines result in stress, tension, overwork. We share some of the strain, because of my expertise in editing and proof reading.

We eat too much cake (the brain uses a lot of energy, I learned that from his most recent book) and grow chubby.

This takes months. Can take years.

If you add the learned expertise, or field work (many years of it) necessary to be able to write the wretched thing in the first place – well, it’s not just a matter of slapping a lecture series online and adding a few pictures, as one IFLS commenter suggested.

Pictures, for a start, have to be sourced. Grants have to be sought for travel to take the pictures. Museums have to be paid for photographing images. Specialist illustrators have to draw archaeological specimens.

Permissions have to be sought for quotations and illustrations. Copious references have to be read and amassed as lists. An index has to be written, or funding raised for an indexer to do it.  And then there’s the checking of the editing. And proof reading. And so on.

The author does all this, not the publisher. And mostly in his or her ‘spare’ time.

If you Effing Love Science, isn’t that knowledge – and work – worth something?

If no-one writes the books (because there’s no reward), how will that learning be recorded and transmitted? Is that worth paying for, or not?

But, let’s back to real, expensive books.

I have a rather daring suggestion to make.

If you’re at a university or college, chances are you have this thing you could use called a ‘library’.

Libraries tend to have lots of books -including textbooks available as e-books – for students to use, for free. Legally.

Radical, eh?

Until recently I was an academic publisher, in a very small way. I know how Effing unrewarding scholarly publishing can be if you’re not a giant conglomerate.

And who in their right minds, you might wonder, would want to write a book these days?

Well, it seems there are lots of mad people out there – and I’m one of the many.

But what a shame there are also so many lazy, law-breaking ignoramuses. People who’d rather exploit the limitless possibilities of our amazing, knowledge-sharing, liberating technology in illegal ways than log-in to a library and download an ebook.

Call me old fashioned. I believe in paying taxes, too.


 

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A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but …

… roses don’t indulge in matrimony, to the best of my knowledge.

They do have individual names, so you know what to expect by way of leaf and blossom and flowering habit. Some are silly, some are serious and some are like gaudy ‘SALE!’ signs – Silver Wedding and such like – slapped on by ruthless marketeers.

Humans, by and large, don’t tend to be called ‘Human’ first, then ‘Tall, pale, curly-haired and short lived’ as an afterthought, to help with identification. No, we have personal names and family names.

You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?

I live with my personal name – which is Mary – and my father’s surname.

My husband lives with his personal name, Lawrence, and his father’s surname.

And here I have to make an admission.

For once, even if I try very hard, I really, really, REALLY don’t understand something. (Well, in addition to infinity and the concept of multiverses.)

I don’t understand why women change their names.

I’ve read the arguments for and against. I can sort of understand wanting to have one name for a family when there are children, just to make life easier. Sort of.

But I have a lovely friend with four children whose surname is her dad’s. Whose husband has his dad’s surname. Their children don’t seem to mind being apportioned either one of their parents’ surnames.

By way of contrast, I had the central heating boiler serviced recently – no, hold on, it’s relevant.

Nice chap – I’d say he’s in his thirties – drives up in a smart red van with his name on the side. Hewitt, the surname. We get chatting – as you do – over a brew.

He tells me about his father-in-law, who does electrics. Been in the business donkey’s years. Young Hewitt gives me a business card. Hewitt, one side, for heating, Hewitt, the other for electrics.

But, hang on a minute? It’s dawning, a bit slowly (it was a Monday).

‘Um – your surname…’ I flounder.

‘I took my wife’s name,’ he says, ‘easier than my French one.’ He’s right. He told me what it was.

Now, I can understand changing names when one name is genuinely awful or difficult to spell.

But I can’t understand why so many young women of the ‘me’ generation rush to become someone else’s appendage.

Like, Mrs John Smith. Well, no, I suppose being married to a beer brand would be quite a laugh. But hang on, it’s John Smith’s bitter, isn’t it? Not so good after all.

Perhaps because the rest of the subjugation no longer comes with it – being just a sub-section of your husband’s tax return and so on – it feels less of a surrender of self.

I know, we aren’t our names – in theory. But I feel, somehow, I am. Or maybe I’ve become my name.

I’d reached the age of 30 by the time I married –  old, for marriage, in my day.

At school, like most girls, I’d tried writing my first name with a series of boys’ surnames. Hidden in inconspicuous places. Inside textbooks, on the plain brown paper or scraps of old wallpaper I’d used to cover them and keep them clean.

The names changed as my crushes came and went. Mary Mychalkiw, Mary Breslin, Mary Dyball – well – you’ve got the idea.

But by the time I was thirty I felt like me. I felt like my name.

My surname’s a solid, earthy, northern English name. The first (only) time I had a major article published in a national newspaper our neighbours – two gay guys from London – went wild about it – they’d never heard it before.

I’d gone through my childhood and teens hating my name. But at thirty, it had become my skin, metaphorically speaking. And I no more wanted to change my skin for someone else’s than my name.

My mother-in-law, believe it or not, before our wedding, sent me name tapes. Just initials. They’d been organised years since for her daughter, whose own initials would have been like mine, had I changed my surname. I didn’t use them, you’ll not be surprised to hear.

The ‘Mary’ bit of my name, though, has always been a trial – ‘quite contrary’ and all that. I’m sure it moulded my character. And people use it in the most annoying ways. Ouches come from all around, especially popular music.

Cat Stevens, before he converted, sang about a Mary dropping her pants on the sands – pants, I suspect, in the English not north American sense.

Bruce Springsteen settled for Mary: you ain’t a beauty but – hey – you’re all right.

Hendrix wailed, the wind cries Mary. Actually I like that one.

But you see what I mean.

And don’t get me started on all those variants of ‘Mary had a little lamb’.

All in all, I’d have been keener to change my first name.

Anyway. I’m going to stop right there – I’ve nothing else to say.

Because I just, don’t, understand.


 

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Of tinkers, magic – and the perils of mixing grape and chain.

I’m holding a small piece of black plastic with a hole at the top, like a short, fat, dysfunctional needle. Or a midget-sized witch’s magic wand.

I waft the holey end in front of a little light and – abracadabra – a metal grille groans its way up, letting me into a cage where I can stack my bike for safe-keeping.

It would’ve seemed like magic to little-girl-me, back in the days of three channel telly and a ’phone line shared with neighbours.

But it’s not magic, it’s just technology.

We’re at our local train station, setting out for an evening of who knows what. I have an inkling – I’ve looked them up online – but my partner-in-jaunts is heading for the ‘Corduroy Folk Club’ totally unprepared for the Oldham Tinkers. Well, other than being married to a Lancashire lass, that is.

A few minutes later we’re in town, the Sardinian restaurant bright and lively. It’s early, just six o’clock, but puddings are already arriving for a nearby couple. I stare at a sundae glass of mixed ice creams with a lust that I know will remain unfulfilled.

We start with a glass of Italian bubbly – delicate, but tasty.

Sardines – for him – arrive in a stinky cloud.

‘They taste better than they smell,’ says he. I would hope so.

My rocket and parmesan salad zings with lemon juice. Mmm. Never thought I’d feel  smug and virtuous!

Sardinian gnocchi – with sheep’s cheese and meat – succeed his smelly sardines. Gorgeously plump parcels of aubergine and smoked cheese ravioli for me. Grilled under more cheese and tomato. You can see why the ice cream’s a no-no.

A glass each of Canonau – dark, red Sardinian wine –– and we’re gooey-eyed, reminiscing about a very happy holiday on that island, many years ago.

http://www.theatkinson.co.uk/website/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/outside-building-web.jpgAlmost ftb (full to bursting) we saunter over to ‘the Atkinson’, a grand, newly refurbished town-hall style building in this fine, seaside town.

As we head for our seats we’re accompanied by a trio of musicians, lurking by the stairs. Squeeze-boxes a-flexing, singing shanty style, it’s a, ‘take your seats, wait for the Tinkers, don’t expect this to be formal,’ warm-up.

Eight o’clock arrives. Three men of more than a certain age amble onto the stage.

They’re no longer ‘little tinkers’ – as my parents used to call us as mischievous children. There’s serious effort involved in bending to put pints of beer on the stage – and picking them up again. And a bit of sitting down.

Tales are well-told, jokes well-rounded after many years of sharing. Playground songs winkle out childhood memories – and soon the room’s a-hum with many voices – including ours – joining in familiar-sounding choruses.

In this year when we remember the start of ‘the war to end all wars’ – oh, would that it had been so – the Tinkers strike up an old music hall song, ‘Up to mighty London came an Irishman one day’. Funny –  and poignant  – you might know it better as, ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’.

I step out to buy a drink at the bar, join a queue. Chat with a man who’s travelled many miles, with his wife, to be here.

‘We’ve been singing these songs for years,’ he says. ‘Drunk, at dinner parties.’

A shame they don’t live nearer.

It’s my turn to buy.

At folk clubs, you really need a glass in your hand. We could have a soft drink, but when Southport Brewery has an ale called Dark Night, in a pint bottle, at only 3.9% alcohol …

After the encores we wend our way to the station through a glowing Victorian shopping arcade – to the sound of more singing. Tribute night at a local restaurant. Chock full of happy smiling faces with flushed cheeks – and cheery voices raised in song.

The train, by contrast, is subdued. Just a gaggle of under-dressed girls on over-high heels heading out to Liverpool as we’re heading home.

Back at our station I wave the magic wand and conjure my bike from the rack.

Hills are few and far between, round here. But our station sits atop one. We decide to stick to the pavement – it’s broad enough for bikes and people – and there’s no-one much around.

Which is just as well.

I apply the brakes to my rather too rapid descent. Try to keep a straight line, but find it hard. The night air’s cool, the stars bright, the autumnal suburban shrubbery distracting. That’s my story.

As I dismount by the garage door my fellow pedaller’s face shows obvious relief.

Ah. I know what he’s remembering. My old bike, with the dodgy handle-bars. Stopping at a pedestrian light, one night, the front wheel turned beneath me.  I went crashing to the floor. And the chain came off.

My waterproof’s elasticated wrist kept the torrent of blood nicely contained. Months later a chip of bone finally made its way to the surface of my elbow.

Tonight we made it home without incident, despite the erratic ride.

I look fondly at my plum bike as I put her to bed. She wouldn’t let me down. But next time, perhaps, I’ll skip the second beer. Or take a taxi.

Whatever, we’ll be joinin th’Corduroy Folk Club again.

Oh, aye. It were a grand night out.


 

Here’s the Tinkers’ website: http://www.oldhamtinkers.com/

This (possibly copyright infringing but it’s on YouTube) recording is taken off a scratchy record but have a listen to the first track it’s a cheery respite from 2014: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1R-xHj4Q5_U

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The anaconda, or the hat?

The anaconda swallowed an elephant.

It was, admittedly, a very brown anaconda. Brown like the brown-paper-packages that Julie Andrews liked tied-up-with-string.

I love the concept: a little boy draws a picture of an anaconda that’s swallowed an elephant – but all anyone else sees is a hat.

He’s waiting, waiting, waiting for a soulmate who sees what he sees – but no-one does.

Then he wakes one morning in the Sahara, as you do, after crashing his plane the night before.  A Little Prince appears from nowhere and asks him to draw a sheep – but he can’t quite get it right.

Impatient, the boy draws a box and says the sheep is inside.

Lo! The Little Prince knows that inside that box is just the sheep he wanted.

One of the great (and irritating) things about blogging is that you worry and wrangle and wrestle with ideas and words – and meanings – then click publish, only to have someone trip your opinion switch.

You put your metaphorical hat online and all someone can see is an elephant in an anaconda.

In the light of which, it’s appropriate that I’m re-reading Le Petit Prince for a tangential reason.

I’m writing a book set in late 1970s London. At that time a small restaurant was making a big name for itself. That restaurant was called, Le Petit Prince.

LPP served couscous – something I’d newly discovered, thanks to the man I was tagging-along-a at the time. He’d been wandering the deserts of north Africa and with his return came a couscous habit that needed feeding.

It wasn’t easy to find, couscous, but eventually I discovered a delicatessen selling colourful cardboard boxes of the stuff, imported from Francophone Algeria.

On the back of the box was the memorable instruction:

‘stir to prevent the lumps that could have been occurring’.

It’s not just memories of couscous and putative lumps that my new project’s stirring up. As I worked on the first chapter, troubling pre-teenage memories started floating to the surface. Memories submerged so deeply within my psyche that at first I no longer recognised them – bad memories, from a bad time.

But, out of bad comes good.

Re-reading Le Petit Prince, for one thing. How I wish I could have written it. Almost every page has me sighing, ‘oh yes, so yes’.

Reliving interesting times.

Times when interest rates soared over 15%. When prices had risen every time you went to the shops, but pay was nowhere near keeping up.

When oil producers held the world to ransom.

When there were bitter strikes and angry demonstrations.

When daily life in London was lived with the ever-present threat of IRA bombings. An experience which helped me understand – in a very small way – how it feels to live with unpredictable, unsought, mortal danger.

And I’ve been reading about the people who’ve given (are still giving) their time – and sometimes their freedom – to try to save our world from nuclear annihilation. Members of CND – the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

That was then.

The Cold War, the arms race, terrorism, trade wars, industrial unrest, turmoil.

Today we have global financial crises, a different kind of terrorism, a Middle East in foment, climate change threatening the planet – and Ebola.

But what happened to those ‘arms’ in that race?

Britain and the USA have, apparently, been so selective (and weaselly) about fulfilling their obligations under many of the arms limitation agreements they’ve signed that you really can’t take them (us) seriously.

The USA, meanwhile, is committed to ‘Full Spectrum Dominance,’ which is:

‘the ability of US forces … to defeat any adversary and control any situation across the full range of military options.’

‘Options,’ include using land, sea, air – and space.

Yes, the USA is determined to continue as top dog and moral guardian for the world. I can understand why.  And that may be fine – if you always agree with the dog’s morals.

Call me a pessimist, but morals can be eroded, warped, suspended – sometimes with the best of intentions. Or perhaps as a side-effect of a rather aggressive approach to the concept of a ‘free’ market?

Our world is fragile. Distance is irrelevant. Even the biggest, strongest, toughest army and the widest, deepest oceans can’t protect the USA, no matter how dominant, from some things. Like climate change.

Like Ebola.

How it is that a nation can spend fortunes defending itself against possible war – with a missile defence system straight out of science fiction – yet get it so wrong on handling one person with a terrible disease?

At times I feel the old anger.

The unmanned spacecraft that landed the other day – what was it doing, circling the earth? Ensuring full spectrum dominance in space?

Europe’s destined to be ‘collateral damage’ on a vast scale if the USA ever engages in a nuclear confrontation. We’re their ‘theater’ of war.

Nuclear trip wires – missiles – are set in countries like Germany, Italy and Turkey with the aim, presumably, of destroying potential aggressors before they can nuke the only nation that matters.

Nuclear winter is one possible outcome of a big nuclear battle. That wouldn’t spare the USA, no matter how far from the ‘theater’ it is, but I take no comfort in that.

I’m trying to write this book quickly, before any more demons crawl out of my sub-cortex. I can feel them wriggling. I hope it’s not too late.

Too late for what? You may well ask.

I don’t know – that rather depends on whether you see a hat, or an anaconda.

anaconda or hat

Photographed from my 1979 Gallimard Folio Junior edition, originally published 1943. The author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, vanished in July 1944 after flying on a wartime mission out of Corsica.

 

 

 

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Temples, ruins and too much information

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Guisborough Priory, North Yorkshire, England

Monasteries, abbeys, priories – they never look so good as when they’re ruined, don’t you think?

I spent many a childhood holiday trotting behind a father who was batty about architecture. Grand houses decked out in precious furniture and china and paintings. Castles and abbeys in varying states of decorative decay. Cathedrals and churches held aloft by flying buttresses and topped by soaring spires.

Which is probably why I like nothing so much as a jolly good view. Romantic ruins silhouetted against moody skies. Empty buildings blessed by an absence of furnishing.

Historic sites endowed with quiet custodians – and a short guide book.

I know, shameful admission. I am ashamed. But it’s true.

A few weeks ago we went holidaying in God’s own county – Yorkshire folk are modest about their home – which has more than its fair share of romantic ruins.

The weather gods cooperated nicely.

Early mornings hazy with autumnal mist. Afternoon skies of Lapis-blue, humming with insects. Fields patchworked by dry stone walls and speckled with nibbling sheep.

north yorks etc 040The first romantic ruin – a hasty swerve off a fast major road that almost had me praying – was Mount Grace Priory. There, before the smash and grab of King Henry the greedy, Carthusian monks lived isolated lives in a community of non-communication.

It was built as a kind of commune of hermits – they came together only for prayer in the chapel – around three times a day.

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One cell’s little garden, with appropriate shadow

Seen with modern eyes, it sounds an idyllic life. A small cottage, meals delivered, a little garden for growing herbs and vegetables.

But then there was the prayer. And the work. And the lack of sleep.

The routine, at the original monastery at Chartreux, still begins at 11.30 at night, with prayer. Two or three hours later there’s a short sleep.At 6.30 in the morning a day of alternating prayer and work begins, ending around 8 pm with another snooze.north yorks etc 018

I feel sleep-deprived just thinking about it.

Add the chill air of winter, the rough woollen gowns, the injunction not to bathe too much, the blood letting …

It sounds like hell.

Anyway, in common with the other ruins we visited, Mount Grace suffered destruction as a result of Henry VIII’s ‘dissolution’ of the monasteries. But there’s still a remarkable amount left standing.

north yorks etc 020Each ruin I visit makes me marvel at the labour involved in building such monuments to the Christian God.

Massive blocks of stone – quarried, transported, shaped, stacked.

Complex arches perfectly balanced.

Fragments of glass painted, joined, with strips of lead, into delicate-looking but formidably strong – and beautiful – windows.

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Reconstructed monk’s cell – living accommodation downstairs, workroom upstairs

 

And all destroyed by a man who wanted to dispose of one wife and take another. To sever his ties with an inconvenient Pope in Rome.

It’s not a simple part of our history and one brought up ‘Roman’ Catholic must beware oversimplifying – especially when it comes to the martyrs.

Bonfires were lit under many people in those dark days, not just Catholics – and not all the monks were blameless souls praying for others. In fact, monks were some of the canniest businessmen of their day. As you learn at Rievaulx Abbey.

Rievaulx has a special place in my affections because of its name. I don’t know whether schools in Britain still do the ‘house’ thing. It was (maybe is) a kind of club within your school that everyone had to belong to – they had a team colour and tended to be sports-dominated.

When I first went to ‘big’ school, aged 10, our houses were named after sites of martyrdoms. Gruesome. But some kind nun must have realised we had enough ‘grue’ in our diet, what with our patron being Margaret Clitherow, a butcher’s wife who was put to death by being crushed beneath a door.

Anyway, abbeys became our new houses and mine was twelfth century Rievaulx, our house colour yellow. (I still have the badge.)

It was with some affection, then, that I gazed down upon the ruins from my vantage point near a ‘temple’. A temple built as a summer dining house by the lucky chap who bought up some of the ruined abbey’s estate.

And what ruins.

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Gorgeous, spectacular, dreamy, romantic. And beyond my ability to capture with a small silver box and millions of pixels.

I still hadn’t learnt how to focus on the distant vista – the hazy day and pale ruins combined with an automatic focus fixing itself on dark greenery was not a good combination.

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Nice dining room for occasional use!

A walk of a mile took us from one temple to another, oohing and aahing at views along the way, before we descended the valley to the abbey.

Sheep and their wool eventually made the abbey rich – and made it a key part of the regional economy – so when disease among the sheep ruined its finances, the king of the time had to step in to save it.

A bit like the banks and the banking crisis.

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Rievaulx Abbey seen from Rievaulx Terrace

 

 

As a big enterprise, covering a wide geographical area, many lay people – and their families – depended upon the monks. When the monasteries were destroyed it was not just the religious who suffered.

Today, these haunts of poets and water-colour artists stand forlorn. Romantic, but also tragic.

Is romance always tinged with sadness?

Is it that knowledge, lurking beneath the pleasure, that all good things must, one day, change? One day, come to an end?

I peer through the evocative, empty windows, wander the lumpy grounds and wonder. If only Henry hadn’t – what would this island be like, today?

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Husband and wife artists capturing the afternoon shadows in watercolours

We’ll never know, but we can imagine. Make stories of our own.

People it with ascetic, holy men or fat self-indulgent abbots. And sheep.

Historians can argue its meanings, poets ensnare its mood in words, artists capture its afternoon shadows in paint.

For that, I suppose, we have Henry VIII to thank.

It’s something.

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North, south and nowhere. Of rape, politics, PR and simple geography

I’m angry. I apologise in advance if this is poorly researched, disjointed and incoherent. I’m not stopping to find things out, I’m writing from the heart, not the brain. And I’m writing as a northern English person who feels passionate about fairness both at home and abroad.

First, abroad. Africa – that vast, awe-inspiring place that’s believed to be the birthplace of humanity – well, humans.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Africa over the last 32 years.

On my first visits I was shocked to my core by apartheid South Africa. I would say, with hindsight, it changed my life.

I was pleasantly surprised – superficially, it turns out – by Swaziland.

I was amazed and charmed by a Zimbabwe frozen in what now we might see as Mad Men world – without the ad agencies.

After a few summers spent looking after diggers in Swaziland, I made my first visit to Zambia, because of my husband’s work.

At the time Zambia was very poor – materially. Shops had blankets, soap, worming tablets and dried fish. Rolls of cheap toilet paper were cut in half – even in hotels – to make them go further.

I learnt, from that first visit, that I must take everything – absolutely everything – I might need with me.

It was a great place to visit. I hate to write ‘people are so friendly’ clichés but it’s true. Is true. We’ve broken down often enough to know how much poor people will do to help a stranger for no reward. Yes, there’s corruption, yes, there’s crime, yes, there’s danger – but no more than in any other country, really.

I tell you this because these are my credentials for saying things I don’t like – things I don’t want to say.

It doesn’t help that I’ve been reading about the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the end of the Cold War. About the US government’s attitude to peace and war. The military industrial complex. But that’s for my book, not for now.

For now, I’m stunned by the news I heard this morning on BBC Radio.

An interview with a doctor – sounded Australian but I don’t know if he is – that had me frozen where I stood.

Two hundred girls were kidnapped in Nigeria – remember? This man tells us he has been talking to leaders among their captors. He tells us that they would be willing to hand over 40 or so girls – but that 60 more girls would be kidnapped to take their place.

But this is not the worst thing. He then tells us that Nigerian government officials are involved. That this is part of a political campaign, if you like.

My husband tells me of a report he’s read of four girls who escaped and say they were raped every day.

Dear God, what kind of world is this?

Is there no oil to make world leaders sit up and take notice?

Yes – but, silly me, the Americans are doing quite nicely without it, than you very much.

Why is nothing being done for these poor, poor girls?

Why is so little, so late being done about Ebola?

Fly back, for a moment to the UK.

We know, those of us who live in the north of England, that our concerns are far from the minds of our leaders. They live, most of the time, in and around London. They absorb (and create) the London and south-east news.

They believe house prices are rising everywhere (they’re not – surely that’s a good thing?) and people enjoy working for themselves for a pittance – aka becoming ‘entrepreneurs’ – because they can’t get a real job.

Some believe that paying hundreds of pound a night for a hotel – or a meal – is normal.

If we, here, in our small island have such a huge cliff of perception separating the north and south of just one part of our small island nation, what hope does the south of the world have of being heard?

But don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it is the north’s fault that nothing has happened in Nigeria. Yes, the north could apply pressure, but Nigeria has oil and thus money.

Nigerian politicians have western educations. But that doesn’t make any difference. Like the UK, apparently, one region really doesn’t matter – other than for votes. But the way this doctor says they are going about getting them is, to say the least, extreme.

I think back to poor old Swaziland. Corruption endemic, a King with many wives and cars, spending money like water while his people suffer. I had high hopes, way back when – because this King was educated at Sherborne school in Dorset, England. Pah.

It’s all our fault? Colonialism?

Give me a break. How long has it been? It’s like a fifty-something still blaming mummy and daddy for sending them to the wrong school or buying them the wrong clothes. Grow up!

My own, maddening, experience this week is a paltry thing by comparison.

I sign up to a day of ideas about how to make northern England an economic success story. Eight events in cities across the north of England, twenty people in each.

I spend time thinking about it, do a bit of research. I’m pleased that someone – even if it’s our deputy prime minister, whose party is haemorrhaging support – is asking us for our ideas.

Yesterday we’re told we’ll be filmed. And have to make a film.

Can we bring laptops – especially if we have video editing software – or smartphones or tablets – and leads to connect to a big screen.

What a naïve fool I am. This isn’t just partly a PR exercise, it’s entirely a PR exercise. I should have known. I might have organised such a series of events myself – but, ye Gods, I would have given them meaning, too. I don’t underestimate ‘ordinary’ people. I’m not that much of a fool.

One last thing.

At university I did a term of ‘historical geography’ and saw an image that made a terrific impact on me – though sadly I can’t remember where – of a world map.

Communist Russia up top, rest of world below it. Aggressive-looking arrows showed the way the commies would march down and take over us good guys.

Turn the map upside down. It doesn’t look so simple.

North, south. It’s an illusion in a spherical world, rotating in the universe.

But two hundred girls being raped daily is not. Imagine them in Massachusetts or Surrey. Something would have been done.

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Dear Professor Cox, No thanks – but thanks

The universe.

All existing things. The whole creation. The cosmos.

That’s what ‘universe’ meant to me, as a schoolgirl.

And where did nine-year-old me live? I scrawled it on the packet which holds the pinking shears I still have in the sewing box:

Tong, Bradford, West Yorkshire, England, Europe, The World, The Universe.

As soon as I began to hear about universes, plural, my understanding – small as it was, like me – waned to a pinprick. So did the awe, the mystery. It simply became incomprehensible to a mere, little, mortal. And not incomprehensible in the magical way of one finite yet infinite universe.

It’s odd, that, because you’d think that the more incredible and beyond mere earthly horizons ‘everything’ (or nothing) was, the more I’d be inspired or amazed. But once anything becomes so utterly other – well, I start to switch off.

That’s not to say all things unfathomable turn me off. Doctor Who inspired me from an early age – still does, on occasion – but then, he’s a Time Lord and Brian Cox is not.

Here we go.

Last night I watched ‘The Human Universe’, with a nerve-calming bottle of red wine to hand and Archaeo-Man (AM) twirling edgily in his swivel chair beside me.

Because last year he was contacted by a researcher, working for the BBC, on a new programme featuring the affable, approachable, scientist-cum-presenter (or is that presenter-cum-scientist, now?) Professor Brian Cox.

As with all things, AM took the request for help on the early bits of human evolution seriously. Doing things properly requires more than just answering emails and talking on the phone. It requires checking the very latest publications, checking the right people to approach in places like Ethiopia, checking that you’re doing your very best to help them make something sound.

He reckons, AM, that he probably spent the equivalent of a day of his time on it. And enjoyed it. He always enjoys enthusing others about what inspires his own work. And the researcher bought his book, so that was nice. It’s called  From Hand to Handle, The First Industrial Revolution, published by Oxford University Press. Rather expensive – the paperback’s not out yet :(

There were early signs it might not go quite as well as he hoped when his advice, having balanced pros and cons, to go to South Africa rather than Ethiopia – because there was more information available and more to see, more accessibly – was rejected. But never mind, the Gelada baboons were fun. They make the most amazing ooh err umm sounds, don’t they?

When he heard what was being planned, he suggested that a novice (B Cox) might benefit from popping over from Manchester to nearby Liverpool, to award-winning labs where he might handle skulls, stone tools – and even learn basic knapping (shaping stone tools from scratch), in just a couple of hours. The suggestion was not rejected, just ignored.

The result? A rubbish attempt at knapping, from Brian, which looked like it annoyed him. (Yes, there’s something he can’t do.) But it amused me, so, thanks for that.

There’s more, but this is beginning to sound like vicarious sour grapes.

It’s not. Wait, you’ll see.

As the programme progressed – or rather, continued – I heard AM ask me, ‘did you follow that?’

‘What?’

Oops. I’d switched off.

It was, I thought, a rambling, hop-skip-and-jump of a programme, alive only when BC was briefly with the baboons, but mostly when dealing with his beloved space, the final frontier.

I hated the loud and persistent music, hated the demeaning ‘portraits’ of black rural poor people standing smiling or looking up at the sky but, mostly, taking no part. I hated the row of skulls on the ground and the villagers standing, a dutiful audience, as BC spoke to the camera, not them, about skulls.

Skulls! In rural Africa … Have they thought of people’s sensitivity to such things?

I hated the use of people whose mouths didn’t open when their words were voiced, as if they couldn’t be trusted even to speak on camera.

I know, I’m too touchy about the way we cultural colonials treat the human zoo in Africa – but I did not like the way this programme did what it did.

I also think it did it in a superficial, gaudy, disconnected, disjointed way that neither led nor followed.

I’m glad. Glad that the programme was not great. Glad that, after all, there was no credit to AM for all the time he put in – for free.

And I’m glad for another reason.

Seeing B Cox, the latest in a line of excellent presenters of knowledge, who have strayed beyond their own field to the detriment of their standing in my ordinary eyes, (Professor Alice Roberts, at one time taught by AM, is an honourable exception) I’m glad that many attempts at TV series featuring my own in-house presenter of things beyond my ken have come to naught.

I don’t like what fame does.

So, thanks, Brian Cox, for the no thanks.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

‘Lupemban point’ from Kalambo Falls, Zambia [approx 21cm long]

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