Blog Posts

What’s the worst that could happen?

Today I flicked through a book on writing by Bridget Whelan, called Back to Creative dog-726006_960_720Writing School. Don’t all dash out to by it but yes, writers read about writing, too.

I quite liked a chapter at the end of the book (why do I always start there?) which explained the difference between journalists and creative writers. Journalist need to know:

What is the story about?

What happened?

When did it happen?

Where did it take place?

Why did it happen?

So, yesterday on the BBC website I read this. The story is about a dog thought to have cancer. She became sick and had a CT scan. It happened in Yorkshire. Miraculously, the dog did not have cancer, she had simply eaten four teddy bears, toys of the owner’s chihuahua dogs, apparently.

A creative writer asks: What if?

Or even what is the worst that could happen? 

That is what creates the story. However, is it that different to journalism? If poor old Maisy the St Bernard had cancer, no one would actually bat an eyelid, sad though it would be. Four teddies in her gut sends the imagination into overdrive.

Was she jealous of the chihuahuas? Did she like the taste? What kind of teddies? What’s it like to be eaten by a St Bernard? On it goes. People, you have a story.



Wicca – what’s it all about?

I’m not Wiccan, I’m not anything particular in terms of belief systems, but when offered the opportunity to find out more about Wicca from some practitioners in Bude, I jumped at the chance. Research for my writing is always welcome, and I always enjoy learning new things/being open to ideas. The session was held at the Wise Old Crow shop.

The workshop was promoted thus:

Wicca is the backbone of modern paganism, and owes much of its popularity now to a man called Gerald Gardner, who strove to widen the horizons of what had been an underground belief system. This most British of mystery religions has been a satisfying spiritual path for thousands and is still growing and evolving today. Come along and find out about it from three Gardnerian witches from a local coven based in the Bude area.

I learned that Wicca and witchcraft are not the same things. Wicca is an organised belief system, while witchcraft is, according to this website a spiritual system that fosters the free thought and will of the individual, encourages learning and an understanding of the earth and nature thereby affirming the divinity in all living things…

Wicca believes in a female (goddess) and male (horned deity) demonstrated through rituals that revolve around nature and natural cycles.

It has no uniform doctrine, no scripture, no bible; therefore, the ritual of the system is of vital importance. Animism is important, the idea that all objects, even inanimate, are enthused with life force.

There is also a focus on pantheism, the idea that all things are divine. That is quite hard to wrap my head around.

It struck me that Wicca varies from organised religion, despite the insistence on ritual, because of its focus on the feminine (not to dismiss the masculine, for it is a balance) compared to the more patriarchal nature of more established religions such as Christianity. It is an aspect I rather liked and found engaging.

Meanwhile, the idea of naked witches dancing around a coven is old hat scaremongering. Now, nakedness is used as what is known as ‘skyclad’ ritual in some groups, more as an energy force than some weird sexual practice.

I’m not convinced it is for me, as I am not big on ritual. That said, I enjoyed holding a wand! It is, however, an interesting belief system to check out and those who try it seem devoted to their craft and magick.


My elastic (I hope) brain

cranium-3199408__340Mum had dementia. Dad has Alzheimer’s. My big brother had Multiple System Atrophy. Pardon me, but when I think about brains, it is often negatively.

Listening to Radio 4’s recent words on the ‘elastic brain’, I was intrigued in a positive way. Neuroscientists have been into this for some time, but it was new to me, and I enjoy the novelty. Neophilia, it’s called. Novelty is good for the brain. Keen on crosswords, try a sudoku. Cereal every morning, have toast. Challenge yourself and your comfort zone.

When I taught sociology, social change was one of the big social issues. Very generally, it is thought that people do not like change as it leads to uncertainty. However, change also leads to progress and improvement, which is wonderful. Think of all the things we would not now have if no change occurred. We’d be stuck doing the tedious stuff of our forebears.

I like the idea that we can rise above conventional ways of thinking and be creative.

I like the idea that we can look beyond the existing order, thereby challenging it.

I particularly like the idea that we can think in non-linear ways that sometimes defeat logic.

I begin to feel excited at the thought of challenging existing ideas and questioning assumptions. Let’s have a paradigm shift (taking me back to Kuhnian sociology).


Stretch it and shape it by:

  • trying new things/foods/activities
  • making mistakes by doing the above
  • living your passion – alway
  • moving outside your comfort zone
  • changing life in positive ways

And yes, I also like the idea of brain downtime, when you can stop thinking, giving your brain creative space. Maybe that’s why I enjoy reading in the bath so much.

Further info:

This article goes into much more interesting detail.


Blood Brothers

Down here on the north Devon border there is not much choice of theatre unless you are prepared to travel many miles. I struck lucky to see that Blood Brothers was on the bill  at the Queen’s Theatre, Barnstaple, on my birthday. Promptly got two tickets (rather decent ones, actually) not sure of what bang I’d be getting for my bucks. I mean, Willy Russell is amazing but what calibre would this performance be? I had nasty visions of Flashdance endured at the Blackpool Winter Gardens whirling in my head, though I had since seen a rather better musical in the shape of Paint Your Wagon at the Everyman in Liverpool.

Russell, the Merseyside writer of Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine has an intuitive way of presenting downtrodden women and Blood Brothers is no different. It is heartbreaking throughout but primarily when one sees yet another young woman ‘up the duff’, her future assuredly crap.

Blood Brothers was one of the longest-running musicals in the West End, ably produced and directed by Bill Kenwright, before it set off on tour; it has been massively popular. As the lady in the queue for the ladies’ loos – there is always a queue) said to me: “Who’d have thought something of this calibre would come to Barnstaple?” Who indeed?

The show is a ‘Liverpudlian folk opera’,  a tale of two twins separated at birth to live very different lives, one poor, one posh, reunited later by a strange twist of fate. The script contains so many tugs on the heartstrings it is hard to know where to begin. A mother of too many children whose husband ups and leaves her in poverty. A woman unable to have children who is prepared to lie her way to getting someone else’s. Unemployment, depression, social divisions, all set against a backdrop of Liverpool’s iconic Royal Liver Building. Crucial to the tale is an unnerving ever-present and all-knowing narrator, chilling in tone, who my daughter found extremely menacing. He was meant to be.

In the version at Barnstaple, Lyn Paul played the key character, Mrs Johnstone. Her vocals were strong, powerful and outstanding; her acting is pretty decent, too. Lyn was a singer with the New Seekers and lead vocalist for this song. To be honest, I couldn’t fault the casting, nor the strength of class-based feeling the play evoked.

Could I get through it without shedding a tear? No. I held out until the end when Mickey’s depression got the better of me. I’d grown to like Mickey, a decent lad born into difficult circumstances (despite a later move to Skem – Skelmersdale – which is pretty grim) whose future/fate (prison, depression, losing the girl he loves) is sealed by his real brother, Sammy, who is a total hard case, and probably brain damaged.

The poignant question he asks his mother, why not me, why didn’t you give me away? hurts like hell.

Yet, it isn’t all doom and gloom, for there is a tremendous amount of humour within the show. We were gripped for the entire performance; despite being middle class, my sympathies were most certainly with the stricken Johnstones and I really, really wanted a happy ending.

Alas, for the poverty-stricken classes, it simply doesn’t happen. Russell was realistic to the last.


Life writing – anyone wishing to learn?

Life Writing

Photo of actress Ellen Terry and friends including Pamela Colman Smith

If anyone is interested in life writing, I’d be keen to offer a group, as it is a particular interest of mine.

Do you have:

  • Secrets to tell?
  • Stories about your ancestors?
  • Events from the past you wish to explore?
  • A desire to tell your version of your life from your perspective?
  • Loss or experiences to deal with?
  • A fascination with a historical or public figure?
  • A love of writing?

Life-writing can be transformative.

It involves biography but it can also relate to the lives of objects and institutions or perhaps individuals, families and groups. So, autobiography, memoirs, letters, diaries, journals and oral accounts/interviews.

Can also cover issues suited to blogging or tale collection: birth, dementia, gender, conflict, family life, travel, etc.

If you have an idea you’d like to work on, please advise Dawn at and I’ll find a time/space to offer these sessions.


  • To encourage self-confidence in memoir and life writing and get you started on your quest.
  • To enable you to develop appropriate skills and practice to succeed.
  • To develop self-awareness and self-evaluation as a writer – make your words count.
  • To develop an awareness of any ethical issues.
  • To consolidate your learning with group feedback on yours and others’ writing

Writing is like giving birth!

Aside: men can still do this!

My friend who had written her first blog post in five months used this very phrase this morning, and she’s right. So, this one’s for her.

First, you conceive an idea which you tenderly and possessively incubate and nurture; every fibre of your being is relentlessly aware of the idea growing and developing; you are essential to its success.

Then, the day eventually arrives when your idea must make an entrance into the world. Usually, it is a natural process, but sometimes you need help from others, as in an assisted birth.

It can feel like a very slow process reaching the breakthrough moment.

Following the natural route, giving birth is a very individual experience, one of immense self-focus. Your entire being concentrates on pushing this baby out. Every fibre is wired to the task at hand. You know exactly what you need to do and only you have the strength and wherewithal to do it to your exacting requirements.

There will be tears…and mess!

People may make encouraging comments or mop your brow, feed you sips of water, or offer advice, but it really is all down to you. No one else can do it for you; the same goes for writing where, in fact, others can get in the way.

Yes, it helps to have lovely surroundings and a cheery band of followers, but they do not actually affect the end result.

It can feel like a long way to climb

That end result is, at that time, your only reason for being. This is exactly what being immersed in a book/writing project is like. It is not meant to be easy, but remember…

When writing, everyone else in the room is superfluous.

The end result is an achievement for life.

So, my advice is to write for yourself, not an audience.

Push out of your creative self what you want to say.

Forget the rest of the world. You can deal with them later.


The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen

I cracked through this book at quite a pace.

‘Another year and I still don’t like old people. Me? I am 83 years old.

A tale of a grumpy old man in an old people’s home in Amsterdam is not the likeliest candidate for a global bestseller. Having sat in nursing homes for many an hour, however, it appealed to me. I liked the idea of someone creating an old-but-not-yet-dead club which spoke to the renegade within. I want to be a cantankerous, challenging old woman who refuses to eat poor food and to be shoved in front of the telly to watch inane drivel. I want to zip around on my scooter if I can’t walk, like the fabulous folk I see along Bude Canal. And I want fab friends to have a giggle with when the chips are down.

Now, I detest being stuck inside, I dislike being told what to do, and I hate having my freedom curtailed. Living in a regulated environment where I have to eat what I’m given (or not), wear nappies and do as I’m told is unthinkable, yet it is what has happened to both of my parents, so I stand a fair chance.

This book brings hope. First, that one can remain subversive and break the rules well into one’s last remaining years. Second, that you can make new and very deep friendships even in your eighties. Third, that you can still fall in love when old, and fourth, that you may struggle with your ailments but can also approach them with dignity and humour.

Along with the kind old chap that is Hendrik, the diary author, I warmed to the rascally Evert who likes a drink, loves his dog, and who keeps having bits of his limbs amputated. There is a wonderful section where Evert and Hendrik are playing chess, the latter in a blue mood so amputee Evert suggests he stops whining and buys a noose if life really is that bad. What are good friends for? Not making light of it, the issue of assisted suicide arises again and again.

Meanwhile, I am enamoured by Eefje, a sparkling lady who joins the throng, but mostly I fell for Grietje, a woman slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s, perhaps because it resonated. Her friends see her gradual decline and vow to support her, which we know they will. She meanwhile, prepares herself and accepts her fate with far better grace than I would.

A book about a nursing home that is funny is a rare old twist and one I recommend reading. It will have you in stitches but also empathising with the issues surrounding old age…


We are family…

My brief when I once wrote for someone else’s blog, was to conjure up something on family, so here is an updated/amended version…..and I’ll start off with the now getting on a bit (aren’t we all?) Motherhood Rap, just because I like its humorous realism…

I asked around for a few definitions/thoughts of what family means to people. Most people cannot quite explain but provide quotes, soundbites. Maybe that is telling us something.  They were all very different soundbites but all very appropriate in their own way, so let’s deal with them as they come. I’ve chosen three.

“Americans should be less like the Simpsons and more like the Waltons!” – George Bush


I’m no expert on Americans but we do have this rather candy-sweet idea about families, a false notion that families are all sweetness and light; thus, we are doomed to failure in expecting family life to deliver. I used to love the Waltons, all that large family fraternity and kindness, everyone helping each other, all very polite, sweet as apple pie, having their own individual ambitions, like John Boy scribbling away in his diary to become a journalist. They all put their pyjamas on and wished each other good night. It was sweet, loving, lovely.

As one of two children, I clamoured for lots of siblings and especially wanted sisters. I felt quite hard done by merely having an older brother. Now I haven’t even got him! Maybe this is why I had five children of my own, except in my case, it was nothing like the Waltons: rather a never-ending round of laundry and cooking, taxi-driving and money-lending, fearsome tiredness, and a constant melee of argument and noise; it felt rather like being invaded by aliens who play Call of Duty. That said, this astonishing array of personalities who somehow all emanated from the same gene pool, are also there for each other when the chips are down and have all grown to be fine adults (well, one is nearly there).


Yes, we’re more like the Simpsons, though I’m not sure I’d quite call us dysfunctional.

That said, with the oldest at  28 and the youngest at 17, the thoughts that they would all provide company for each other and share interests were quickly laid to rest. Clothes were rarely handed down as they all developed different tastes and body shapes/sizes. And while one went for non-stop horse riding, the others did ballet, or football or drumming or guitar – and then moved on to the next thing, as my hard-earned bank balance depleted by the day. They all had different friends, most of whom seemed to ‘live’ at our house at some stage or other, and they all liked different foods. They made me financially much poorer, though as people always tell me – “you are sooooo lucky, you are blessed”  emotionally richer. 

In my bid to cater for different personalities and preferences, while still working and remaining that dream character ‘my own person,’ I spent most evenings in a daze when they were young. R & R to me was locking the bathroom door with a hot tap and a book – and sometimes a glass of wine – though even then they’d hammer on it asking me things – and still do. Or they’d shove notes under the door! Early mornings became my bastion of solitude, my precious ‘me time’. And still are. At least when they are young they go to bed at a reasonable hour, but as they grew older ones stayed up later and the younger one got up earlier…..stuffed at both ends!

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way ” –  opening line of Anna Karenina

The families one always finds interesting, or the ones people talk about, the ones who are seemingly unhappy. This rather fits in with the Waltons. We all have this idea of the sanctity of family life, so watch in appalled horror when some level of conflict or unhappiness unfolds. We are raised, after all, to marry and have children, and to assume that this is what we should all aspire to – and indeed enjoy. Some people hide the conflict really well; for example, they practise passive-aggressive indifference instead.

Reality is, of course, that it doesn’t always work, that long-term fidelity, children, financial struggle and competing demands, even civil conversation, are a strain on most people. So, happy families are alike in the sense that they have developed workable strategies to deal with the rubbish times (and there are plenty of them for most of us if we’re honest).Unhappy families are basically the ones who can’t manage that at a certain period of time.


Happiness is quite dull and boring, really, especially other people’s. We all want some excitement and only have to look at newspapers to realise that the world thrives on a drama, preferably someone else’s so we can sit smugly in the fact that it hasn’t happened to us, and pontificate on how we would have handled it differently. There but the grace of, say I….

“Family … the home of all social evil, a charitable institution for comfortable women, an anchorage for house-fathers, and a hell for children” – Strindberg

Goodness, well this one is quite strong, isn’t it? As a teenager, I rather liked Strindberg’s idea that life on earth was hell and that we must suffer to achieve ‘salvation’. Well, I was less keen on the second half, but my thinking was that humanity was doomed to an eternal frustration of dissatisfaction. Everywhere I looked, people seemed, while not exactly miserable, discontented. Always striving for what they couldn’t have, whether it was materialistic yearnings or something else. They bought more, they grew less contented.

Not sure I even know what this quote means but I do know that Stringberg was fairly anti-family. Certainly, there is much that is uncomfortable about family life. For example, as a feminist, I have many qualms about the sexist division of labour I seem to easily fall into, as do the rest of us. The wearing of a ring, the ‘giving away’ of a bride, the name change, and the general unceasing demands of it all tend to make me feel queasy.


Strindberg seems a bit harsh on us women because I reckon family life is hardest for us; we get the rubbish jobs like constant housework. These days, we are not ‘charitably’ kept in comfort to raise children (well, maybe some are, I wasn’t) but we are raising children whilst being simultaneously out in the workplace, bringing home the bacon, jointly, or in many cases, on our own, because the one-parent family is the fastest growing.

Are house-fathers men who are tied to the home/role of father against their will? I don’t know but I carried out a piece of small-scale research for one of my Master’s degrees many years ago which demonstrated that professional men wanted more input into childcare though were less keen on the housework, and the women wanted the same. So, lots of playing and quality time with their children required by both sexes, but no one to clean the loo. You can see the beginnings of dissatisfaction creeping in……because ultimately someone has to clean that toilet!

Children were perceived as a reward for marriage or long-term commitment, housework was a punishment.


Bad Parenting?

Problem is, we all have this media-led idea that our homes should look like a magazine spread, that untidiness, grime and mess is a sign of bad parenting. It isn’t, and men (sexism alert) generally don’t notice. It is largely a woman thing…..and we get brassed off about it. We have to remember we do not live in ‘House Beautiful’ but actually, we get dirty and messy, sweaty and bloody. That’s the reality. And it’s good, shows we’re alive, not disinfected.

Hell for children? I don’t know but I have been alarmed by the numbers of young teenage women I meet who are on anti-depressants, self-harming, anorexic and involved in other self-damaging behaviours. Also, the numbers of young males who seem to have no function, aspiration, motivation or role. We can’t blame the family for everything but significant others must play a part, along with other social structures like unemployment and media.

My husband tells me that marriage is economically the most efficient way to raise children. One home is cheaper than two and the work can be shared to some extent. I guess if we view the family as an economic institution, then that makes sense, though what happens when the children have grown and flown? Oh yes, we get the ageing parents to look after and pay for…and start all over again!



Happy, ready or not!

Now this is interesting…because we all want to be happy, right? On top of the world? And if you’re not tapping your feet or dancing to this link, then you’re in need of some serious assistance…

Happiness (according to an online dictionary, so it must be true) is:

Feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.

Having a sense of confidence in or satisfaction with (a person, arrangement, or situation).

This may explain where I’m going wrong in life because I always thought that happy required more than simply being ‘satisfied’.people-2567915__340

At university, friends and I would sit around for hours into the night discussing the meaning of life, assuming that meaning meant happiness.  

Not sure if we ever reached any conclusions but we enjoyed the conversations.


It must still go on but I rarely hear younger people questioning it; perhaps they are too busy enjoying the hedonistic mindfulness of life  I do hear plenty of middle years people asking: ‘is this all there is?’ which seems like an extension of the same idea they tackled when younger. Maybe it is a generational thing?

So, is this it? And what is the meaning of life? (We maybe need to address these before happiness even enters the equation).

I still don’t know the answer to the latter and I suspect the answer to the former is ‘yes’ unless one is prepared to change – and that’s loaded and difficult because change requires an admission that something is not quite right and requires action – eek, scary proactive, disruptive, disturbing stuff…

Is this it? implies a sense of dissatisfaction, unhappiness or just a general grudging acceptance of the ‘ok, but nothing special’ situation. It is actually what most people survive on, on a daily basis.

But, is all this quest for meaning – and even happiness – merely setting ourselves up for failure and frustration? Maybe gratitude, thankfulness and acceptance would make us more contented?


Try Mindfulness

It’s one of those words that we are all using right now. Should we simply be living in the moment and developing ‘mindfulness’, not looking back, nor forward, for life’s satisfaction? Love life, live in the now, love where you live, what you have, stop wanting and yearning…all very mindful…

Mindfulness is hot stuff in pop psychology at the moment and draws from eastern philosophies such as Buddhism, Yoga, and Taoism. It involves paying attention to the here and now, embracing the moment with interest, receptivity and openness, in a non-judgemental way. It is thought to reduce stresses, so it sounds lovely. We should all be practising it.  It also rather feels like taking a tiny portion of Buddhism and doing it to death through meditation. But to reach this state of ‘nirvana’ really takes time and effort. Most of us are not easily ‘mindful’ when faced with the everyday practicalities of earning a crust and getting through the day-to-day.

That said, if you accept your situation and do not question it but instead embrace it, then discontent should presumably reduce. But is that happiness, or mere acceptance? Because acceptance seems a long way from happiness, and even from meaning.

Mid-Life Crisis?

Or is all this concern with ‘happiness’ merely mid-life crisis? A mid-life crisis was a term coined by Canadian psychoanalyst, Elliot Jaques, back in 1965; the stereotype is that it mainly affects men who suddenly yearn for women in short skirts while driving fast cars; women suddenly wish to be free of their shackles. Midlife, Jaques reckoned, is the time when adults realise they are no longer invincible and that their own mortality is kicking in. Time is running out, in other words, so if you’ve not cracked ‘the meaning of life’ or at least a semblance of ‘happiness’ by now, then panic (understandably) starts to kick in.

How to find out more? Try Logotherapy…

Well, it makes sense – to me – that someone who has suffered extreme circumstances, and a threat to their very existence, must have some idea about what life means. Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist, survived life in Auschwitz, but his family sadly did not. In 1946, based on his experiences, he wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning”  thus gleaning some hope from an abysmal situation, using logotherapy.

He expressed the view that we can choose our attitude, and that resilience makes survival more likely. He felt that consciousness of responsibility kept some people alive in that concentration camp, once the shock and hopelessness had done their worst. The basic principles of logotherapy are:

Life has meaning whatever the circumstances, even in miserable existences.

Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.

Even in the most extreme circumstances, we have the freedom to find meaning (but not fulfilment or happiness) in what we do, and what we experience. I rather like this one because regardless of anyone else, we choose how to feel.

Happiness here becomes secondary to meaning. Happiness, he felt, was not something that could be pursued; it must ensue. In essence, there must be a reason for it to happen. But to some extent, he is focusing on what we would today call mindfulness, living in the present moment. Seeking out happiness doesn’t guarantee great results for there are no guarantees for the future.


Is the ‘meaning of life’ the wrong question?

Philosopher, Julian Baggini, says that we will never get a sensible answer to the ‘meaning of life’ question because it is not a sensible question. It needs some deconstructing. Bear in mind that this quote is from 2004, but Baggini says:

“I never thought I would say this, but in this very particular sense, life is like a Celine Dion concert: if we want to know why we are here, we can look backwards or forwards, and the answers we get, or fail to get, are very different and satisfy different needs.”

Why ARE We Here? Why Not?

A quick trawl of Google shows that 4 out of 10 Americans either feel they have no life purpose or feel neutral. They feel “there must be more to life than this” whatever this is. They appear to be seeking happiness or meaning; either will do.

According to evolutionary theorists, happiness is apparently about drive reduction or maybe a better term would be drive fulfilment. This maybe explains why a trip to the beach makes my dogs unashamedly happy. They run, fetch a ball and play = happiness. Simple.

So, if we humans work out what drives us (and that may be individual) then perhaps drive fulfilment is the answer (assuming it isn’t just out and out hedonism again).



Now, some people feel that happiness is found in community-spiritedness, altruism, and I’ve bought into that,  many times, yet investing in ‘the bigger picture’  apparently tends to cause more stress and anxiety. Doing things for others does not provide that meaning that we’d like to think it does. Probably because it gives us less time to focus on our own needs.

Having children is a good example of this. Harvard psychologist and world expert on ‘affective forecasting’  (predicting one’s future emotional state) Daniel Gilbert, apparently uncovered that most parents are happier when watching TV or going for a run, rather than interacting with their children, perceived as most definitely ‘not fun’. Shocking though this is,  I can see where he is coming from….

Let’s face it, watching your child do averagely at sport, playing musical bumps at a party, murdering a musical instrument, or acting in a nativity play may be all kinds of things, but ‘fun’ it most generally is not.

So after that little journey of exploration, I’m none the wiser about meaning, mindfulness, or happiness. And probably thus no nearer to achieving any of it. However, I feel that good relationships with others come into it, through meaningful friendship and interaction. 300 Facebook friends do not make us happy. 4 or 5 real friends definitely add to the capacity for it. 

However, as Baggini says:

“Something only seems to be missing because you’re expecting much more”

which takes me back to the idea I had as a teenager that life on earth was hell because people were doomed to a sense of always wanting more or different, life consists of dissatisfaction. Maybe if we can all be satisfied with less, it will indeed be more.

Or just maybe reincarnating as a dog is the answer?


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