Birmingham’s new Library: the last “people’s palace”?

September 3, 2013 at 5:05 pm (Art and design, Brum, culture, Cuts, Jim D, labour party, literature, modernism, reformism, socialism)

A “last hurrah for local pride“?

The new Library of Birmingham: rubbish outside (above); magical inside (below)

To the opening ceremony of the new Library of Birmingham in Centenary Square today: an occasion made all the more powerful by the superb choice of anti-fascist Malala Yousefai to do the deed. In an inspirational speech, emphasising the emancipatory power of books and learning, Malala brought forth laughter by calling us (and herself) “broomies” – oh well, she hasn’t yet had time to pick up the accent. For the record, she called Brum her “second home” after “my beloved Pakistan.”

The new building itself is superb in every respect, except its outer appearance, which is a gigantic, square and over-decorated cake. The interlocking ornate circles on the outside are, supposedly, intended to represent Birmingham’s history of metalwork and jewellery manufacture. Unfortunately they weren’t manufactured in Brum or the Black Country, but in Switzerland.

Frankly, I think the “old” (ie: previous) library, designed by the now almost-forgotten modernist John Madin and completed in 1974, is a much more handsome building, and I’d been hoping it would be retained and given a new role. Sadly, I overheard Birmingham Council’s Deputy Leader Ian Ward today, telling someone that it’s going to be demolished.

But enough carping: once you’re inside, this is, indeed, a “people’s palace,” as architect Francine Houben of designers Mecanno, describes it. It includes everything you’d expect of a modern library (ie “an open information hub for the City”), plus a “library within a library” for children, massive archives accessible to the public, elevated gardens with stunning views of the city, and -right at the top- the reconstructed 1882 Shakespeare Memorial Room with Europe’s most extensive collection of Shakespearian manuscripts and Shakespeare-related literature.

This is, truly, a “people’s palace” and credit is due to Council / Labour Group leader Albert Bore (someone I’ve had clashes with in the past) and the Labour leadership of Birmingham City Council, who drove the project forward against Tory opposition at local and national level.

But this is likely to be the last such civic project in the UK for the foreseeable future. With the present cuts and the emasculation of local government finance by the Coalition, the idea of another £189m public project like this would now be unthinkable.

So why the hell was Tory / Coalition Minister for Culture Ed Vaisey invited to attend and speak at the opening ceremony?

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Women in men’s airspace?

August 13, 2013 at 11:04 am (academe, adventure, AWL, Feminism, history, literature, Marxism, modernism, reblogged, women)

From Workers Liberty

Camila Bassi reviews Liz Millward’s Women in British Imperial Airspace, 1922-1937 (2008, McGill-Queen’s University Press).

The period of 1922 to 1937 represented significant inter-war development of gendered airspace within the British Empire.

From 1922, when the International Commission on Air Navigation debated the place of women in commercial airspace, to 1937, the year in which the female pilot Jean Batten completed her last long-distance record-breaking flight, the British Empire was at its peak, ruling about one-quarter of the world’s territory. Millward notes:

“The interwar period was a window of possibility for many young white women in the British Empire. The First World War had undermined powerful old certainties. Women who were determined to learn the lessons of the past turned to internationalism, pacifism, nationalism, and fascism as they looked for ways to control the future.”

Millward’s concern is with the contestations of female pilots in producing, defining, and accessing civilian airspace during this time. What’s more, she is interested in how such struggles were bound up with different kinds of airspace: the private, the commercial, the imperial, the national, and the body; that in turn had their own relations of gender, class, race, sexuality, nationalism, and imperialism.

Like many geographers seeking a radical understanding of space, Millward draws on the work of Henri Lefebvre, who wrote that “a revolution which does not produce a new space has not realized its full potential; indeed it has failed in that it has not changed life itself, but has merely changed ideological superstructures, institutions or political apparatuses”.

Millward concludes that post-war airspace had the potential to be what Lefebvre coined, capitalist “abstract space” par excellence, specifically, in its commodification, bureaucratisation, and decorporealisation.

In one sense it is a curious application of Lefebvre, given Lefebvre’s focus on the city. Lefebvre denounces capitalist urbanity for its drive to repress play and prioritise productivity and rationality. He also recognises potential within the centrality of the urban, meaning that a whole range of social interactions converge.

For Lefebvre, all people have the right to space, i.e. to access and participate fully in urban life, thus the constraints placed on this possibility by capitalism must be critiqued (Lefebvre, 1991; Shields, 1988). Lefebvre’s interest lies in working out the spatial strategies for social change and, as such, his ideas resonate with the French Situationists (with their slogan of May 1968 “beneath the pavement, the beach”) and Britain’s “Reclaim the Streets” movement of the 1990s.

Millward concludes that notable female pilots modelled achievement and “beat the men”, so, in effect, supported wider feminist struggles and proved that women were part of airspace.

Nonetheless, civilian airspace was naturalised as masculine and had the potential to become abstract space. She ends: “‘To change life,’ writes Lefebvre, ‘we must first change space’. Women pilots tried to do just that.”

Reflecting on the book as a whole, I wonder: what does Millward gain from a poststructuralist feminist approach? Such an approach emphasises the discursive and contingent nature of all identities with particular focus on the construction of gendered subjectivities. This intersectional analysis combines the cultural and economic features of gender, race, sexuality, nationality, and class.

“Capitalism”, “imperialism’”and “class” are given wider definitional scope: capitalism and imperialism as social, cultural, political, and economic relations, and class as a cultural construct (to include the economic but differing from simply wage-labour). So, rather than asking what is gained, perhaps the real question is — what is lost? Actually, rather a lot I think.

In the context of all that is solid melting into air, I cannot help but sense that the book would have been a richer account had the dialectics of the struggles been fully explored. Three aspects of dialectical materialist thinking would have strengthened the study: firstly, looking for the interrelationship between phenomena to other phenomena (past and present, and including apparent opposites); secondly, seeing conditions (and relations) of existence in continual movement; and lastly, comprehending societal processes moving through contradictory tensions.

Moreover, the book missed (or rather, seemed to bypass) the centrality of class and imperialism and its intersection with gender, race, sexuality, and nationalism. I’ll end, before any retort accuses me of crude economic determinism and class reductionism, with the words of Engels (1890):

“If somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, he is transforming that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase.

“We make history ourselves, but first of all, under very definite assumptions and conditions…history is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a variety of particular conditions of life.

“Thus, there are innumerable crisscrossing forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant — the historical event.”


Engels, F (1890) “Engels to J. Bloch”, Marxists Internet Archive

Lefebvre, H (1991) The Production of Space (Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith), Oxford: Blackwell.

Millward, L (2008) Women in British Imperial Airspace, 1922-1937, Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Shields, R (1988) “An English Précis of Henri Lefebvre’s La Production De L’Espace”, Working Paper, Department of Urban and Regional Studies, University of Sussex

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How Hitler destroyed German music

June 7, 2013 at 6:46 pm (anti-semitism, culture, fascism, genocide, Germany, Jewish music, modernism, music, thuggery, tragedy)

By Terry Teachout, in Commentary

Vienna Philharmonic

Above: the Vienna Philharmonic under Hans Weisbach, playing in Bucharest in 1941

The Vienna Philharmonic recently issued a report by a group of independent historians in which the orchestra officially acknowledged for the first time the closeness of its relationship to the Third Reich. Not only had half its players become members of the Nazi Party by 1942, but all 13 of its Jewish players had been fired four years earlier and five of them later died in the camps. A few weeks later, Der Spiegel published a 6,000-word essay called “Wagner’s Dark Shadow: Can We Separate the Man from His Works?” in which Dirk Kurbjuweit dealt no less honestly with the continuing inability of many German music lovers to grapple with the fact that Richard Wagner was a virulent anti-Semite whose writings directly influenced Adolf Hitler.

The extent to which Hitler and his cultural commissars sought to control and shape European musical life has been chronicled in detail. But most of these books have dealt primarily or exclusively with German-speaking performers and those performing artists from other countries, France in particular, who collaborated with the Nazis. Yet the unswerving determination of the Nazis to rid Europe of what they called entartete musik (degenerate music) may well have had an even more far-reaching effect on postwar European musical culture. After all, many well-known Jewish classical performers—Fritz Kreisler, Artur Schnabel and Bruno Walter among them—managed to emigrate to America and other countries where they continued their careers without significant interruption. Not so the Jewish composers whose music was banned by the Nazis. Some of them were killed in the Holocaust, and none of those who survived succeeded in fully reconstituting their professional lives after the war.

A turning point in our understanding of the effects of Nazism on European classical composition came in the 1990s when Decca/London began to release a series of albums called “Entartete Musik” containing some 30-odd works by such celebrated Jewish composers as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Schreker, Arnold Schoenberg, and Kurt Weill, all of whom had their music banned. After the series came to an end, Michael Haas, its producer, decided to devote himself to further study of the subject. Now he has written a book called Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis (Yale, 352 pp.). It is, amazingly, the first full-length history of what happened to the composers who ran afoul of the Nazi regime.

Though Haas is not a historian by training, Forbidden Music is still an outstandingly fine piece of work, one that not only tells the story of what happened to these composers but also places it in the historical context without which we cannot fully understand their sufferings. For the history of entartete musik is in large part a tale of Jewish assimilation and its discontents—and of Wagner, whose own mad obsession with Judaism had much to do with the fate of the composers who later felt Hitler’s wrath.

Prior to the social emancipation of Jewry that followed the establishment of Austria-Hungary’s dual monarchy in 1867 and the German Reich in 1871, it was all but impossible for German-speaking Jewish classical composers to achieve success in their native lands. The most important ones either emigrated (like Jacques Offenbach) or spent large parts of their career in other countries (like Felix Mendelssohn).

Given the extent to which Austro-German musical culture dominated classical music throughout the 19th century, it stands to reason that emancipation should have inspired many Jewish composers not merely to assimilate socially but to embrace a new cultural identity for which they had longed so intensely. It was, Haas writes, “the long-awaited entry [of the Jews] into the most élite, educated and cultivated ‘club’ on earth.” Arnold Schoenberg, the least “clubbable” of men, went so far as to proclaim that his invention of the 12-tone method of atonal composition would (in his oft-quoted words) “ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.”

Not surprisingly, many of these composers sought to expunge all recognizably Jewish elements from their music, hoping thereby to compose in the “true” Germanic tradition. Those who, like Karl Goldmark, failed to purge their styles with sufficient thoroughness were attacked for that very reason by such assimilated Jewish critics as Vienna’s Eduard Hanslick, who complained in a review of one of Goldmark’s operas of his “musical transliteration of Jewish Orientalism….It’s even used when general human feelings are called for rather than anything specifically Jewish.”

Despite their fondest hopes, these musicians were never able to escape the blight of anti-Semitism. Part of the problem was that their success led to growing envy on the part of less accomplished Gentile musicians. Just as important, though, was the emergence of a specifically racial brand of anti-Semitism of which Richard Wagner was the first major proponent. In Judaism in Music and Other Essays (1850) and other writings, Wagner proclaimed his “instinctive repugnance against the Jew’s prime essence” and decried “the be-Jewing of modern art,” going so far as to claim that Judaism threatened German culture itself, since Jews were “the purest of all races and it matters not with whom they mix: the Jewish race always dominates.”

Wagner’s race-based anti-Semitism became an accepted part of the cultural conversation in fin-de-siècle Europe, and it may have had an inhibiting effect on at least some of the Jewish composers of the period. The vast majority of German-speaking Jewish composers of the post-emancipation era were so determined to emphasize their “Germanness” that their music became derivative. Some favored Wagner’s hyper-romanticism, others the conservative traditionalism of Johannes Brahms, but whatever their choice, the result was a body of work that is—with good reason—almost totally forgotten today.

Not until Gustav Mahler, whose First Symphony was performed in 1889, did a Jewish composer of profound, even radical, originality appear on the scene. Yet Mahler’s relationship to his Jewish heritage was complex in the extreme. On the one hand, he unhesitatingly incorporated Jewish elements into his music—the slow movement of the First Symphony, for instance, contains a section that evokes the pungent sound of what would come to be called klezmer. At the same time, though, Mahler was, as Haas explains, equivocal about his background. Not only did he convert to Roman Catholicism to facilitate his appointment as director of the Vienna Hofoper (later the Vienna State Opera), but he “shuddered at the sight of kaftan-wearing, bearded Jews from Eastern Europe and refused to identify with them.”

Whatever his personal feelings about Judaism, Mahler was the key figure in the development of the next generation of post-emancipation Jewish composers. For those who were convinced that Wagner’s all-encompassing romanticism was a dead end—a “debilitating condition” (as the musicologist Alfred Einstein put it) that threatened to smother Austro-German musical culture—Mahler’s symphonically oriented style, at once more acerbic and more linear, offered budding modernists such as Schoenberg a much-needed alternative to the stodgy conservatism of the Jewish composers of the late 19th century.

Schoenberg soon found himself in the vanguard of musical modernism, though he and his followers, Jewish and otherwise, were outnumbered by other composers who still looked to Wagner or Brahms for guidance. But whatever their musical allegiance, these men all followed the path of assimilation, for they were true believers in Austro-German musical culture who wanted to preserve or (in Schoenberg’s case) improve it. It never occurred to them that their passport to that culture could be revoked.

How would Austro-German musical culture have evolved had Jewish composers continued to play a part in its development? The question, while provocative, is unanswerable, for starting in 1933 Adolf Hitler removed them from the scene. Read the rest of this entry »

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100 years of The Rite of Spring

May 29, 2013 at 8:01 pm (culture, France, history, Jim D, modernism, music, revolution, theatre)

Stravinsky’s  The Rite of Spring (‘Le Sacre du Printemps’) opened 100 years ago in Paris, to derisive laughter that quickly developed into a riot. The orchestra was bombarded with vegetables and other missiles, but kept playing. Nijinsky’s choreography, featuring dancers dressed as pagans, caused as much outrage as Stravinsky’s polyrhythmic and dissonant score.

The critics (and some fellow-composers) were savage:

“The work of madman …sheer cacophony” –  Giacomo Puccini

“A laborious and puerile barbarity” Henri Quittard, Le Figaro

“If that’s a bassoon, then I’m a baboon!” – Camille Saint-Saëns

It was “a revolutionary work for a revolutionary time” as George Benjamin writes in today’s Graun.

‘Riot of Spring’: Norman Lebrecht in Standpoint, here.

Above:  Stephen Malinowski’s animation of Part 1 ‘The Adoration of the Earth’ (from NPR)

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Stockhausen over Brum!

August 22, 2012 at 7:12 pm (Brum, Jim D, modernism, music)

I’m keeping my eyes peeled, but haven’t spotted the helicopters yet. Apparently, during the rehearsals, a fifth chopper came on the scene: the cops, wondering what the hell was going on.

An earlier performance, below:

Those of you not so close to Birmingham might be able to hear it live

H-t: Alan Saul, via Bruce Robinson

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The Curse of Coltrane

August 8, 2012 at 9:17 pm (Christianity, comedy, Guardian, jazz, Jim D, literature, modernism, music, religion)

It’s Edinburgh Fringe time, folks, and radical comics from every corner of the the world have decended upon that fine city to purvey their wares, make their names and split our sides. Or not, as the case may be.

Today’s Graun reviews one such hopeful, giving him three (out of a possible five) stars, and a so-so writeup.

What drew me to the review, however, was the name of this would-be mirthmaker with a political bent: Chris Coltrane.

Now, I may be barking up the wrong tree here, but I’d be willing to put good money on the proposition that Chris wasn’t born a Coltrane. In fact, I suspect that like Robbie of that ilk, he was born with another moniker entirely, but somehow reckons that “Coltrane” is kind of cool, knowing and rebellious.

Presumably (as with Robbie), Chris’s choice of surname has someting to do with John Coltrane, the late saxophonist with the distinctions of (1) having a Church established, after his death, which considers him a saint, and (2) having a book written about him by a leader of the (Brit) SWP.

For those not familiar with the work of “Saint” John Coltrane, here’s his acknowledged masterpiece:

Now, opinion of John Coltrane’s saxophone playing varies (from adulation to revulsion), but he did at least act as the catalyst for some of Philip Larkin’s most entertaining writing; here’s the old curmudgeon on the death of Coltrane in 1967:

“The obituaries produced by the sudden death of John Coltrane sent me back to some of his records, picked out more or less at random: ‘Black Pearls’, ‘Live at Birdland’, ‘A Love Supreme’, ‘Africa/Brass’. For although I do not remember ever suggesting that his music was anything but a pain between the ears, here was The Times and Melody Maker (great friends since the Jagger case) agreeing that Coltrane stood beside Hawkins, Young and Rollins in the roll call of tenor players supreme. Was I wrong?

“Well, I still can’t imagine how anyone can listen to a Coltrane record for pleasure. That reedy, catarrhal tone, sawing backwards and forwards for ten minutes between a couple of chords and producing ‘violent barrages of notes not mathematically related to the underlying rhythmic pulse, and not swinging in the traditional sense of the term ‘ (Encyclopedia of Jazz in the ‘Sixties); that insolent egotism leading to forty-five minute versions of ‘My Favourite Things’ until,  at any rate in Britian, the audience walked out, no doubt wondering why they had ever walked in; the latter-day religiosity, exemplified in turgid suites such as ‘A Love Supreme’ and ‘Ascention’ that set up pretension as a way of life; that wilful and hideous distortion of tone that offered squeals, squeaks, Bronx cheers and throttled slate-pencil noises for serious consideration – all this, and more, ensure that, for me at any rate, when Coltrane’s records go back on the shelf they will stay there…

…”Virtually the only compliment one can pay Coltrane is one of stature. If he was boring, he was enormously boring. If he was ugly, he was massively ugly. To squeak and gibber for sixteen bars is nothing; Coltrane could do it for sixteen minutes, stunning the listener into a kind of hypnotic state in which he read and re-read the sleeve-note and believed, not of course that he was enjoying himself, but that he was hearing something significant. Perhaps he was. Time will tell. I regret Coltrane’s death, as I regret the death of any man, but I can’t conceal the fact that it leaves in jazz a vast, blessed silence.” (From All What Jazz – A Record Diary 1961-1971).

Further creative use of the name:

Change your name (back), Chris.

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Get ready for Bloomsday!

June 15, 2012 at 6:37 am (BBC, good honest filth, Ireland, Jim D, literature, modernism, surrealism)

(FILES) An undated reproduction of a pho

James Joyce: all day on Radio 4

Saturday 16 June is Bloomsday, the date that the apparently mundane perambulations of the characters in Ulysses take place. Joyce’s novel is one of the great milestones in modernism, but there’ no denying that it’s heavy going and probably ranks asa one of the great unread books of the twentieth century. I gave up a few years ago at the chapter that begins “Deshil Holles Eamus. Deshil Holles Eamus. Deshil Holles Eamus. Send us bright one, light one Horhorn, quickening and wombfruit…”
People who’ve struggled through to the end tell me it’s well worth the time and effort: a rich, boozy, bawdy, song-filled celebration of words and thoughts, centred round the kindly figure of Poldy Bloom (though his unfaithful, sex-loving wife Molly and Joyce’s alter ego Stephen Dedalus are, in their ways, equally as important). Like many others, I’ve long promised myself that one day I’ll finish it.
Well now the BBC is doing at least some of the hard graft for me and my fellow Ulysses-shirkers. Tomorrow, Radio 4 is devoting the entire day to the novel, with a five-and-a-half hour unabridged dramatisation, punctuated by Mark Lawson in Dublin, discussing the book’s place in twentieth century literature. Henry Goodman, who plays Poldy in the dramatisation, will start the ball rolling by cooking kidneys on the Today programme. Molly’s Bloom’s stream of consciousness soliloquy (where most of the really racy stuff comes) is, conveniently for the BBC, at the end of the novel and so after the 9.00 pm watershed.
It may seem an indulgence on the part of Radio 4 to devote an entire day to one book – even a book as important as this one. No doubt some listeners will object, although news, Any Questions and Women’s Hour will survive non non-Joycean form. But Radio 4 is supposed to be about serious current affairs coverage and arts programming. It’s supposed to educate as well as entertain. It’s supposed to treat its audience, in other words, as adults. Which is why I’m looking forward to Bloomsday – and the prospect is all the sweeter because (if only for one blessed week), it means the disapperance of the insufferable Saturday Live, a programme whose twee middle class banality represents everything that Radio 4 must not be allowed to become.
Yes I said yes I will Yes.

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Nil Significat Nisi Pulsatur

November 25, 2010 at 11:51 pm (jazz, Jim D, modernism, music, United States)

Only a brief blog tonight because I’ve been at a rehearsal of ‘Kinda Dukish’, a West Midlands-based fifteen-piece band that plays  Messrs. Ellington and Strayhorn’s original arrangements (ie, not just their compositions): what a thrill! I pretend to be Sonny Greer and/or Sam Woodyard. We’ve even got a motto: “Nil Significt Nisi Pulsatur.”

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Betty Boop and commodity fetishism

July 31, 2010 at 6:51 pm (Champagne Charlie, cinema, comedy, jazz, Marxism, modernism, surrealism)

Un-fuckin’- believable!

Fleischer Studios, 1932

“The simplicity of commodity fetishism makes it a starting point and example for analysing non-economic relations. It establishes a dichotomy between appearance and concealed reality (without the former necessarily being false) which can be taken up in the analysis of IDEOLOGY. It discusses social relations conducted as and in the form of relations between commodities or things and this has application to the theory of REIFICATION and ALIENATION. (See also FETISHISM.)” – Ben Fine, ‘Commodity Fetishism’ in ‘A Dictionary of Marxist Thought’, ed Tom Bottomore, pub: Blackwell 1983.

H/t: Norman Field

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Roth describes a ’39 Chevy Coupe

May 4, 2010 at 12:05 am (Art and design, Jim D, literature, modernism, United States)

A masterclass:

“Ira’s ’39 Chevy was black, a two-door coupe, and really good-looking…

“The car had been somebody’s grandmother’s and had only twelve thousand  miles on it when Ira  bought it in ’48. Floor shift, three speeds forward and the reverse on the upper left of the H. Two separate seats in front, with a space behind them just large enough for a small kid to perch uncomfortably. No radio, no heater. To open the vents, you pushed down a little handle and the flaps would come up in front of the windshield, with a screen on them to keep out the bugs. Pretty efficient. No-draft windows with their own crank. Seats upholstered in that mousy grey fuzz that all cars came with in those days. Running boards. Big trunk. Sort of a pointed grill, and the hood ornament had a piece of glass in it. Real fenders, big and rounded, and the headlights separate, like two torpedoes, right behind that aerodynamic grill. The windshield wipers worked on a vacuum, so that when you stepped on the gas the wipers would slow down.

“I can remember the ashtray. Right in the centre of the dash, between the two passengers: a nice elongated piece of plastic, hinged at the bottom, that rocked out toward you. To get at the engine, you twisted a handle on the outside. No lock – you could have vandalized that engine in two seconds. Each side of the hood opened independently. The texture of the steering wheel was not slick and shiny but fibrous, and the horn was in the centre only. The starter was a little round rubber pedal with a corrugated piece of rubber round its neck. The choke  that was needed for a start on a cold day was on the right, and something called the throttle on the left. The throttle had no conceivable use use that I understood. On the glove compartment a recessed clock. The gas-tank cover, smack on the side, to the rear of the passenger-side door, screwed off like a lid. To lock the car, you pressed the button on the driver’s window, and when you got out of the car, you pulled the rotating handle down and slammed the door. That way, if you were thinking about something else, you could manage to lock the key in the car.

“I could go on and on about that car because it was the first place I ever got laid.”

From ‘I Married A Communist’by Philip Roth (1998).

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