Spring Days in Devon

 

 

SPRING DAYS IN DEVON

 

and other Broadcasts

 

 

spring days     
First edition, HWS, 1992  
   
spring days ebook  
E-book edition, HWS, 2013  

Foreword, by Valerie R. Belsey

 

List of Contents

 

Extract

 

Critical reception

 

Book covers

 

 

Henry Williamson Society, 1992, paperback, x, 126pp, illus.; 450 copies

Edited by John Gregory

 

Limited edition, 1992; quarter-bound in red morocco with apple green cloth boards, 50 numbered copies

 

E-book edition, 2013

 

 

 

During the late 1930s Henry Williamson became a broadcaster of some repute on the BBC. Spring Days in Devon collects twenty-two of his talks, broadcast on the wireless between December 1935 (his very first appearance in front of the microphone) and 1954, presented chronologically. Most of them were reprinted in the BBC's magazine The Listener, and the original intention was to reprint these only. However the opportunity arose to include four further scripts, generously made available to the Society by the late John Hanson from his extensive collection of Williamson material.

 

Subjects include reminiscences from HW's inimitable viewpoint of the West Country and its flora and fauna; the significance in his life of the barn owl; four talks on the lives of English animals (otter, badger, stoat and red deer – the last, memorably, given from the studio as if it were a live outside broadcast); and the difficulties encountered on becoming a farmer in Norfolk, following his move there in 1937 to reclaim a derelict farm.

 

It is clear from his scripts that Williamson put as much care into the writing of these as he did into his books; they are of a high and immediate quality, and remain immensely readable today. All surviving scripts were gathered into two volumes and published as Spring Days in Devon and its companion book Pen and Plough.

 

The sometimes fraught working relationship between the BBC and Henry Williamson is explored further in ‘Henry Williamson and the BBC’, by John Gregory, reconstructed from the files of the BBC Written Archives Centre. Originally published in HWSJ 29 (March 1994), it has been added as an Afterword to the e-book edition.

 

 

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Foreword

 

Valerie R. Belsey

 

 

Henry Williamson's broadcasting history really goes back to 1928, a year after the publication of Tarka the Otter. In BBC archives there is an inter-departmental memo from one producer to another suggesting that they use Williamson's work in an Armistice Day broadcast. However, the idea was dropped as his thoughts on war were considered too 'gloomy' for broadcasting.

 

In 1932 Williamson approached the BBC offering to read 'The Fox in the Moonlight', a story from The Labouring Life (Jonathan Cape, 1932). This piece was to be read in an exciting, immediate manner. Williamson threatened to read it backwards into his wireless set if the BBC would not accept it. They did not, but did encourage him by stating that 'the whole of your letter shows that you have the right idea about broadcasting'.

 

After a successful voice test in 1935, Henry finally began his broadcasting career. His first talk, for Men Talking, was about 'all things I like – country things – my wood fire – my children – trout in clear water etc.' He received twelve guineas for this plus ten shillings and sixpence expenses. There is a delightful note in the BBC archives from Williamson to his producer, sent after this broadcast. It is written on blue bond G.W.R. [Great Western Railway] notepaper with the Filleigh Station address, dated New Year's Day '36, and states that he is sending him some fresh poached salmon, meaning a copy of Salar the Salmon – the producer's name was also Salmon!

 

From this moment Williamson was in popular demand: Schools Broadcasts, Children's Hour and the Empire Programme all wanted him to broadcast. The pieces from this period tell of his early days in Devon, Braunton, Georgeham, days out on Exmoor and so on.

 

When recording, Williamson used to travel by train to Bristol on the Barnstaple to Taunton line which ran through Swimbridge – Filleigh – South Molton – Bishop's Nympton – Yeo Mill – East Anstey – Dulverton – Morebath – Venn Crow – Wiveliscombe and Milverton. (The line was closed in 1966.) Sometimes he would travel by car, his Silver Eagle, always scrupulously reimbursing the BBC should his car expenses come below the value of his rail travel vouchers.

 

During this period his broadcasting style was improving, and Pennethorne Hughes of Radio Bristol had only one criticism: 'His material is usually first rate, although it is not always possible to get it out of him as early as one would wish.' This led to endless telegrams being sent to Shallowford, and for one broadcast Williamson even lost his copy.

 

Listening to those broadcasts of his which still survive, there is not only an energy and excitement in their delivery, but also a hesitancy. This almost sounds like Henry at work, crossing out and re-writing again as he strives for perfection, but this time with the spoken word. Yet this perfection he easily achieves, as in Red Deer, broadcast live from the studio without the aid of special recording equipment and sound effects of location bird cries, rustling bracken or sighing wind. His outside broadcast technique from within a studio works because he addresses the listener directly, quite an informal thing to do in those days. The Red Deer broadcast was thought to be a risky proposition by his producer, who wrote to him afterwards: 'I would rather that the following talks were "straight" as we call them. I expect you will agree with me about that. To have brought off the Red Deer like that was something of a tour de force, but one can't be too prodigal with tours de force.'

 

The broadcasts which seem to have made the most impact were those dealing with individual animals, many of which are featured here. Then there are those which deal with his farming days in Norfolk, and we have been reminded recently in the Radio 4 programme The Perfect Stranger what interesting listening this episode of his life makes.

 

The majority of the pieces in this book were broadcast, and then published in The Listener, an institution which has now disappeared. I mention this because in a 1936 edition of the magazine Henry Hall, the dance-band leader, appears. You may recall his stutter, which was a result of his experiences in the First World War. Henry Williamson too had a different voice when broadcasting about the war. Flat, agonised, devoid of joy. Perhaps this was why the proposed broadcast for Armistice Day 1928 was rejected by the BBC. Ironically, Henry's last recorded broadcast for the BBC was In Flanders Fields, transmitted on 17th June 1971, in which, together with Robert Graves, Lord Chandos and Brigadier C. E. Lucas Phillips, he was interviewed by Leslie Smith.

 

This anthology does not draw upon the dark years of Henry Williamson's career when he was persona non grata at the BBC. According to a memo dated 26th October 1943 and issued by the District Staff Officer his work was forbidden to be broadcast. This followed from Williamson's brief internment under Regulation 18b, as a member of Mosley's British Union party. [Editor's note: To be clear, HW was never interned under Regulation 18B. He was briefly held over a weekend in a police cell in Wells-next-the-Sea, pending an interview by the Chief Constable. Once interviewed, he was released immediately.] The ban continued after the war, and in an effort to break it, Williamson's agents, Heaths, wrote in 1949 to Frank Gillard, then Head of the Western Region, offering some of his pieces for broadcasting. Gillard wrote back, curiously, that he did not want a man to enter the studios again who had once done so with a pistol in his pocket. The mystery remains, and we are left wondering how this promising broadcaster might have developed between 1939 and 1954.

 

The final broadcast printed here is the first made after the ban was lifted. It deals, once more, with early days in Devon, when Henry takes us back to those times when

 

I heard so much in the pubs. They were stories they'd been repeating for centuries; you see, there was no wireless in the village, there was no telephone, no electricity; and all these stories were there and they were marvellous ones.

(Interview with Clive Jordan, 1970)

 

Because Henry is the supreme storyteller speaking about wildlife which is still there, he makes you want to reach for the car keys of your unleaded machine and head for Baggy; or better still, take the BR Regional Tarka Line from Exeter to Barnstaple, and read this slim volume as you go.

 

Totnes, January 1992

 

 

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Contents:

 

Recipe for Country Life

Spring Days in Devon

The Headland

East Wind

Our Gulf Stream Spring

The Deserted Shore

Around Dartmoor

Diversions in a Garden

Country Mind and Town Mind

Red Deer

The Otter

The Barn Owl

Tryst at the Gibbet

The Badger: England’s Oldest Inhabitant

Buying a Farm

Getting to Work

Building a Home

The Spirit of England

Devon Revisited

West Country Reminiscences

Atlantic Headland

Forty Years in Wild Devon

 

 

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Extract:

 

Our Gulf Stream Spring

 

 

Two years ago, at this time of year, I was in the State of Connecticut in New England. That country is about the same distance from the equator as the Severn estuary in Old England. It should, therefore, have had more or less the same sort of climate. But at the end of April there was a blank that to me was terrible, making me wonder what was the matter with myself, and in spite of the sun shining there was a blank vacancy everywhere. I wondered if I alone felt it, or sensed it, and asked my Yankee host. ‘It’s the ice,’ he replied. There wasn’t any ice to be seen; and there wasn’t much wind. But the spirit of ice was still there, a vacancy of heat, of life, rather than a deliberate cold: an emptiness of rock and dead grass and trees looking as though they were constricted, compressed, by the agony of cold. Some had been split open and were dead. Sometimes the black frosts of the winter just past had been as much as forty degrees below zero. After such a time, it seemed to me that the very air was maimed: that it was waiting for life to flow into it again: waiting for the spring. And although spring, I knew, was by then settled in England, in this land of Indian ghosts there was a bitter blankness as of death still moving down invisibly, silently, from the northern horizon.

 

The thrushes and robins were still on their way north; they were travelling with the spring. For spring is a spirit, as the Indians used to know. You can almost see the spring; or rather, you can sense it. It is more than warmth and colour and light; it is a spirit. That spirit was not yet come to the Connecticut countryside, although it was practically on the same line of latitude as Bristol or Wales, where I knew the daffodils had bloomed, the swallows had arrived a fortnight before, and cuckoos were flying and calling and gabbling over the new green of the hawthorn hedges. I was homesick for the spring of Old England: I was shut off in this New England of harsh rocks and thin trees and people who were, one felt, not truly at home there – they were transplanted Europeans.

 

Now this year, in Devon, one of the two warmest counties of England, I have felt that something has happened about the English spring. You will know why we in England do not have the ice-winters of those countries which are on the same line of latitude as ourselves. It is because a warm current of water happens to flow around our western coasts. That current comes from below Florida, from the Gulf of Mexico.

 

The Gulf Stream moves at a rate that has been known to bring a bottle from Mexico to the Devon coast in three months. This sure and steady current of water is pushed across the Atlantic by icebergs travelling south down the coast of Labrador and passing Newfoundland, gradually dissolving into cold water which sinks, and so helps to displace the warm water farther south. The temperature of the Gulf Stream is tepid, about sixty degrees Fahrenheit. It brings in its tepid flow trillions and trillions of elvers, to all the rivers of Europe. The elvers hatch from eggs laid under rotting masses of weed in the Sargasso Sea. Every grown eel that survives gets back to the Sargasso Sea to spawn. It is an extraordinary sight to see the elvers moving up an estuary in early spring. The water is thickly jellied with them. Salmon dread them, for elvers inside a gill-cover mean torture, and perhaps death.

 

If anything should happen to the Gulf Stream so that it is delayed, or rather diverted, from the south-west coasts of Great Britain, then the eel would become a very rare fish. But we should know more about it than that. England would soon cease to be what every young American imagines it to be – a land of fogs. We should have every year what we now have once or twice only in a century – a winter of rivers frozen. Even the sea along the shallow parts of the coast, such as estuaries, would freeze. Many birds, used to feeding in our present mild winter, would die. The plague of rabbits in many parts of England would cease to be a plague. Do you know, by the way, that some fields which used to swarm with rats are now almost ratless, simply because rabbits have driven them out of the buries? It may be, however, that the increase of rabbits has brought an increase in weasels, and the weasels found the rats easier to hunt than the rabbits. I have seen a big buck rat squealing in a lane, crouching still, awaiting a weasel, which was hunting it, to come up with it and kill it. The weasel was a quarter the size of the rat. It killed the rat without a fight.

 

But I am going too far ahead; I am coming later to what I saw yesterday of a weasel hunting rabbits. This spring it has seemed to me, more than once, that the Gulf Stream and its lesser branching currents may have taken another set, because we have had winds of exceptional iciness. In fact, almost to the end of April we have been waiting for spring. Spring to me begins when I see the trout in the moorland river, which runs a hundred yards from my cottage door, feeding happily near the top of the water. I saw this for the first time on April 26 at noon, a few moments after the first cuckoo had flown across the valley. A south wind was blowing at the time. But not the usual south wind that makes one feel in pleasant harmony with all life, but a strange south wind, as though it were a north wind that had veered and was still returning to the north star and the nihilism of the icefields. For a while, however, as I stood on the bridge, the wind dropped. I could feel the temperature rising; and soon those sensitive dwellers under water, the nymphs of the olive dun, were swimming up to the surface of the water. As the current took them down they struggled to break from their pellicles, or skins, and so to open their new wings and arise into the strange new element of their destiny. As soon as they began to hatch, the trout moved into position to take them. But I could not see them. Looking over the parapet of the little humped backed bridge, I saw only the water, stained by recent rains, a-swirl and bulging as the fish rose. Fly fishermen call this type of rise the bulging rise, for the trout swims up and takes the nymph just before it reaches the surface, and then turns down again to its place in the current to watch for the next nymph. Each trout has its own special place in the current, or food-stream. Each fish has its own window, which it watches. The window, or area of visibility, is forward and above it, and is limited by the angle of refraction, which means that all outside a fairly steep slant is blank to the fish’s sight.

 

The bridge has three arches which stand on two piers built on the river bed. Each pier has a cutwater which points upstream, to divide the force of the current. From each cutwater there is a rebound, causing a sort of cushion of water where all that comes down in the current is momentarily checked. This cushion of water is therefore the best place to be in when any food is coming down, because a fish can stay there with the least effort. It can, while waiting there, see any nymph coming in either the left or right division of the current. So of course the biggest trout is always to be found there during a hatch of fly. The lesser fish get for themselves the next best places, in order of size or strength. And if any fish dares to move into their places, he is, if smaller, at once driven away. Sometimes a small alert trout will take up a position in front of a big trout, but in the swifter current, where it can dart forward to left or right, and take the nymphs coming down. Then the big trout will go hungry. Day after day, week after week, it may wait for the nymphs that do not swim past, because a smaller rival or rivals get them first. You will see him there, getting thinner and duller, idling slowly in the conventional best place, although its economic significance has changed. Thus it is that many an old trout, owing to its slowness, gets very little fly food, and becomes what is called a cannibal, being driven first by hunger, and then by habit, to feed on smaller fish.

 

As I watched, I counted twenty-five bulging rises, all at fixed places. Some were mere flicks in the water; these were the fingerlings. Sometimes half-a-dozen bulges would appear together. I stared and stared, and at last began to see them in ghostly or shadowy outline, sensed rather than seen: a faint white line of dorsal fin: a group of black spots within a phantom streamline. Now and again a small eager fish, probably a salmon parr, would break the water and show a flick of nose and tail. As I stood by the parapet the heat of the sun came through my tweed suit, and I felt for the first time this year the sweetness of spring. There was a salmon in the pool above, a fish of about nine pounds, a little more than two feet long, which had run up during the heavy water of January. Poor old fellow, he was lonely and shut-in by this small moorland stream: condemned to hide all the summer, to wait there in a couple of feet of water for the autumn rains, the fever of spawning, and then perhaps exhaustion and death. But now awhile he felt the joy of spring: he was lured by the hatch of flies from his hide under the clumped alder roots, and there he was, hovering just under the surface like a trout, sometimes showing his great back-fin and tail as he sucked-in a nymph.

 

I wanted to stay there all the morning, forgetful of time and place, forgetful of the human economic struggle, to become thoughtless with the spring; but an iron gate clanged, and a small figure came running towards me, crying out that the radiator of the car, its engine running, was getting hot, and should he switch off? We were going to visit a hill-top field, near the coast. It was already past noon. We had meant to start at eleven. Life was more complicated than in the water below, although it was based on precisely the same principle.

 

When we had got to the hill-top, the wind had gone round to the south-west, a warm wind, bringing spring with it. Was it mere fancy that it seemed to be rushing over the new grass, which gleamed with it? I went down to look at my trees, which I had planted eight years before, in the south-west corner. The winter winds had dishevelled and cut them. During February I had stuck many willow slips into the bank. They were green with new leaves. While I was looking at them, happy because they were alive, happy because I was doing nothing, thinking nothing, relaxing in the warmth of the sun and the living stream of air singing softly through the branches of the pines, there was a thudding rustle, and a rabbit came bolting past. It ran almost over my shoes. Immediately there followed a great thudding of feet, and the flacking breathing of a dog. A long thin brown dog hurtled past. It stopped suddenly at a rabbit hole in the bank a dozen yards away. At once it began to dig. ‘Whose dog are you?’ I enquired. It took not the least notice. A very modern dog, it was, a straightforward sort of friendly beast, without complexes or fear.

 

I went towards it, and with a quick glance over its shoulder, and a gay wag of its long tail, which clearly dismissed me from its mind, it began to run along the hedge, looking for other rabbits. When it had worked along the southern hedge, it turned up along the eastern hedge and started to work across the field, following rabbits runs which wandered between tussocks of old grass. I followed it, and came to it near the gate. All but its tail was hidden in a hole, whence it ejected a periodical shower of dark brown earth. ‘Whose dog are you?’ I asked again, and receiving no answer, gave the tail a slight pull. After all it was digging out my banks. The dog backed out slightly, gave me a bright-eyed glance, shook itself, and went back to the hole, whence issued a vigorous shower of earth and stones.

 

Outside in the lane I heard voices, and climbing up the bank saw three young men, with two other dogs. On seeing me they began a conversation among themselves about the weather. Two of them had pockets that bulged, I thought. When one of the dogs with them so much as looked at my hedge, his master immediately ordered it to come to heel.

 

‘Have you by any chance lost a dog?’ I enquired. ‘A sort of digging, or tunnelling dog?’

 

After a pause one admitted that there might be a young puppy running round the lane somewhere. Had I seen one?

 

‘There’s a very smart dog nearly entombed under my feet at this moment,’ I said. One of the young men began to whistle. The dog took not the slightest notice, judging by the eager thuds under the soles of my shoes. And then, tiring of mining, it came out, shook itself, leapt easily on top of the hedge, stepping over brambles and through blackthorns, and ran out to its master before setting out to quest another hedge.

 

‘Yurr Prince,’ cried its master. ‘Come yurr at once’; but Prince was a couple of hundred yards up another hedge.

 

‘You should strap a little shovel on Prince’s back,’ I suggested, ‘and with a little training, the next time he comes and digs out my banks, he will be able to fill in the hole again when he’s finished.’ But they didn’t understand this kind of humour, and went off, hands in pockets, down the lane.

 

Having decided happily that the Gulf Stream had not completely altered its course, and that I was in the midst of a real old Devon spring once again, I jumped off the bank and went across the field to the trees in the far corner. I should explain that the grass is rough because it has not been grazed since the trees were planted. It used to be mowing grass, but now the wild coarse grass has taken its place. These tufts give shelter to rabbits. I almost trod on one, and it fled away up wind, but not at full speed. It ran as though it were leaving most of itself behind, which I think was the truth, for hardly had it gone twenty yards when there was a scream somewhere in

the grass near me, and the rabbit, which was a doe, stopped, turned round, sat up on its hind legs, and faced me with raised ears. Again there was a scream, and the doe dropped on her four legs and ran forward, then sideways, sitting up and dropping down again, running about as though aimlessly, while another feeble little scream came from the grass. Walking forward slowly, I saw a weasel biting furiously into the skull of a baby rabbit, while tugging at it and trying to drag it through the grass. When I got to within two feet, it looked up at me, a little brown slip of a thing, with a yellow-white chest and pointed nose, and bright wicked little eyes – and with the slightest rustle of grass it was gone, leaving the baby rabbit crouching there with filmy eyes. I picked it up, it kicked slightly, its head drooped. It was dead.

 

A moment later there was another scream, from half-a-dozen yards away. The weasel’s neck, scarcely thicker than my thumb, was arched as it bit through the bone of the skull. I put my hand forward gingerly to save the rabbit, but the weasel dragged it away, and when I took a step forward after it, again it silently vanished. This mite, too, was injured, so I put myself out of my misery by breaking its neck. I had scarcely dropped it beside the first rabbit when there was another scream, and there, by another tuft, was the weasel again, with a third rabbit. This time I turned and walked away to see what the doe rabbit would do. She came close and ran round in a circle and stopped. She struck the ground impotently with her hind legs, to give the warning of danger. She ran towards the weasel, she ran away from it. She did nothing. I thought if only she could make a determined dash at the weasel, which weighed less than one-twelfth – less than one-fortieth, it may have been – of her weight, she could have kicked it with her powerful hind legs and broken its neck. But she did nothing. Probably she had two or three other young ones crouching in the grass somewhere; and if I interfered again it would mean that the weasel would have got one of them when I had gone. And after all, who was I to interfere with this League of Nature? Was I any better than the weasel? Didn’t I deceive trout with little lures of silk and steel and feather, sent through the air on the long drawn thread of a silk worm’s intestines dissolved in vinegar? Then I heard a fourth scream. And a fifth scream. The fifth scream had come from the doe rabbit. The weasel, I could see, had got yet another of her offspring. Well, I thought, this poor doe should have at least one left, even if it does grow up later to eat one of my small trees. So full of determination to upset the balance of nature still further, I strode across the field, passing the two original corpses, the body of the third, the dying fourth baby rabbit, and came to the weasel, who was busy killing the fifth. The rabbit part of my nature felt quite scared when the weasel dropped its prey, and pointed its bright-eyed, wicked little head at me, and barked a warning. It vanished. I stood still. And would you believe it, there came a sixth scream, and there was the little brute doing it all over again. This was too much. I ran forward, to be in time before the sharp teeth of the blood-drinker should pierce the fragile skull of the last of the family. I put out my hand to save the baby rabbit. Did I close my eyes? All I know is that I felt a sharp pain in my hand, and then I was standing alone in the middle of the field, looking at four minute but painful punctures beside the nail of my index finger. Just at that moment a carrion crow flew over and gave a loud caw caw, and if there be a more apt comment, well, I can’t think of it.

 

 

Broadcast on 1 May 1936 as Out of Doors, 4.

Reprinted in The Listener, 13 May 1936.

 

 

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Critical reception:

 

Henry Williamson Society Journal (John Homan), September 1992:

 

The Society is fortunate in having members who over the years have researched into the more fugitive parts of Henry Williamson's working life. David Hoyle sought out those of his broadcasts that remained on record or tape at the BBC sound archives. This provided the base from which we worked to obtain a license to market them for the benefit and enjoyment of our members and others.

 

Independently Valerie Belsey was seeking to establish a list of scripts and transcriptions of these broadcasts, and where held. It is from this material that a selection has been made for our pleasure under the title, Spring Days in Devon.

 

Of the selected broadcasts only one of them, 'Recipe for a Country LIfe' – in fact Henry's first broadcast – exists in both media. A further eight pieces takes us round and about North Devon, his Shallowford home, and all the places he had grown to know and love so well. To a t.v.-less audience they can hardly have failed to stir the imagination and bring the smell of salt air and warmth of the sun into their homes.

 

These are followed by a selection of the broadcasts on one local animal, including 'The Otter' and 'The Barn Owl', both of which he writes about with authority and sensitivity. These proved extremely popular with his listeners.

 

We then turn to Norfolk and broadcasts of 1938; of the decision to buy Old Hall Farm and the true labouring life that followed. The extent of the sheer almost convict labour is clear though not over-played. It is doubtful that anyone would work so today; quarryman, road-mender, ploughman, builder, thresher, drainage expert and more. All this on top of 'learning' how to farm and then spending hours at night writing to pay for it all!

 

The final pieces look back at Devon and the wonder of those early days alone when he was born again after the horrors of Flanders and France. And later again, after the Second War, (1954), forty years on from his first visit as a callow but sensitive youth who all too soon, like a million others, would be called upon to become a man overnight.

 

For the well balanced selection and attention to detail in production, yet another sincere 'thank you' to John Gregory as Editor . . . More please.

 

 

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Book covers:

 

spring days large

 

 

The photograph of the cover of the e-book edition was taken in 2008 by John Gregory at the southern edge of Woolacombe Sands, an area called by HW Vention Sands. It was taken from exactly the same place that HW had stood more than 70 years earlier when he took the photograph that appears opposite p. 220 in Goodbye West Country (Putnam, 1937). The photo took two visits and literally hours to set up: the first visit was to identify the rocks – and that took an amazingly long time, considering how few rocks there are on that beach! On that visit the tide was wrong. The next morning he was up bright and early; but too early, and then had to stand around waiting for the tide to go out enough to match HW’s photo.

 

spring days ebook large

 

And from Goodbye West Country:

 

spring days2

 

 

 

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