Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday 31 May 2015


The Swing

A boy and a girl on a baby's swing.
Brother and sister
(I think they were brother and sister)
and he the younger by maybe two years.

He sat and she stood and worked the swing
and her printed dress flapped in the wind.

The boy peered with childish glee
and the girl said, "You dirty thing,"
from time to time, but never stopped.

6 September 1981

Sex is fun. It really doesn’t need any marketing. A little advertising, maybe, just to let us know it’s there. Because if you don’t know it’s there then you can’t avail yourself of it, right? But it really doesn’t need anything to recommend it. Other than itself. A taste is usually enough. Which is why a lot of people think that the apple in Eden symbolises sex. Which is stupid because they’d already been told to procreate and fill the earth. The apple must’ve been something else then. Which means there are other things in this life than can excite people. And those things usually need to be sold to us. Like riches. Or power. We don’t really need them. Sex we need or we’ll all die out. Besides it’s fun. Not everyone thinks power or riches are fun. We need to be told what’s fun about them. I don’t have a lot of time for marketing. Especially when people start marketing something that doesn’t need to be marketed. Like sex.

Sex is wrong. That’s what’s fun about it. At least that’s how sex was marketed to me. Not the fun bit, the wrong bit. You shouldn’t be doing it. It’s not for the likes of you. Best marketing ploy ever. Did my parents learn nothing from the serpent? They studied the Bible and they studied it and they just went right ahead and did what Satan did. Only this time it was all about sex. You’re not allowed to look up girls’ skirts. That’s wrong. And you’re not allowed to look down big girls’ tops. That’s wrong too. So what did we do? We went and looked. To see what all the fuss was about. No idea what we were looking for—and, boy, was it disappointing—but we supposed it was like alcohol. Why did our parents drink it? It was horrible.

‘The Swing’ has never been published before. I probably never sent it out.

Wednesday 27 May 2015


The Medical Student

Paul went into doctoring
dogging his sister
who had just become a G.P.

It was an immature thing to do, but then
the clever ones always became
doctors, lawyers or vets.

Then his sister got pregnant and
left home to live with this man.

Suddenly, he felt insecure –
foetal, almost –
as if he had been born again.

19 May 1979

Paul was the boy next door when I was growing up. We were the same age and went to school together but we were never exactly friends. Odd that. Last I heard he was studying to become a doctor. He was certainly clever enough but I’ve no idea what happened to him after I left school; he could be dead for all I know. He had an older sister who did indeed fall pregnant and left home to live with “some man” but we didn’t see much of her after that. In Scotland in the early seventies that was still something frowned upon and there was “talk” among the neighbours. I don’t think she was a doctor. I expect I made that up. I do remember she was very tall. Her brother wasn’t. He was shorter than me and I wasn’t anything more than your average height.

Paul may have been gay. Another source of shame for the family. In the seventies in Scotland no one was gay. I say “may” because I never knew for sure but there was “talk”. In the seventies there was a lot of “talk”; it was all we could afford. My mother said she once saw Paul sitting on the door step with a roller in his hair. Well that was it as far as she was concerned. At school he used to pal around with the vet’s boy and they got slagged because everyone got slagged for something.—it was what we did—but, as far as I know, there was never any proof. Maybe they’re still together. Maybe they’re married. Stranger things have happened.

So there are autobiographical elements in this poem but it’s still mostly fiction. It’s been published twice but I have no record of what magazines took it. It was the third doctor poem—after ‘The Venereologist’ (#485) and ‘The Pathologist’ (#495). No idea why I started writing them but they dried up after this one.

Sunday 24 May 2015


Poetry Reading

Poems disappearing in words –
nothing there but voices.

Excerpts from other people's lives –
empty as a found photograph.
25 June 1980

I went to my first poetry reading on 25th June 1980. I would not go to another one for thirty-one years give or take just over a week. I had been invited which was the only reason I went. An editor, unbeknownst to me (I suspect Carl MacDougall since he gets a namecheck on the commemorative booklet), had submitted some of my poems to a competition. I didn’t win but my poem ‘The Medical Student’ (#513) got Third Eye Centrean honourable mention as they say. There was to be a prize giving ceremony at The Third Eye Centre in Glasgow which is now the Centre for Contemporary Arts. I went there when my friend Marion McCready was publishing her first book on 17th June 2011. That would be my second poetry reading then.

In 1980 I knew no other poets. I corresponded for a while with a guy in Bristol who was a big fan of Ginsberg but the correspondence dried up after a few weeks. He hated that I numbered my poems. I hated that he thought he was Ginsberg. I never wrote to another poet until I went online in the mid-nineties.

I hated that 1980 poetry reading with a vengeance. I spoke to no one and no one spoke to me. The poets who were invited to read were, as far as I was concerned, all full of themselves (not that I was lacking an ego back then) but I couldn’t relate to any of the readers. I remember thinking that this was exactly the kind of thing that would put someone off poetry. It felt pretentious and elitist. I didn’t hang around afterwards. I think I wrote the poem on the bus home.

What is interesting is that I find myself drawing on yet another old poem in the novel I’m editing:

Once, in the middle of the pavement, he’d stumbled on a passport photograph of a young woman and had nearly been ploughed into the ground whilst trying to pick it up by a harassed nanny with a pram before her and an irascible three-year-old anarchist in tow. He still kept the picture tucked away in his wallet even though he had no idea who the woman was and didn’t find her especially attractive; her washed-out hair added years to her; he wondered if she had a thyroid condition.

Ginsberg never read in the Third Eye Centre which opened its doors in 1974 but he did read at Scottish Arts Council building on Blythswood Square (where my poem ‘Heat’ (#530) was set) on the 10th August 1973 and the CCA has posted a grainy video here and here. The full Third Eye Centre archive can be found here.

Wednesday 20 May 2015



I lay in the park in the sticky heat
taking in walking wet dreams
to cool my thoughts till
their smoked glass bodies
melted in the heat haze.

The girl in the collarless coat
sat a little away from me
and our eyes met –
for a moment.

23 May 1980

Isn’t the Internet wonderful? You can get weather reports going back decades. Here’s an excerpt from one for May 1980:

Many parts of the United Kingdom had a spell of exceptionally sunny weather between the 9th and 19th but from the 20th until the end of the month amounts of sunshine were once again rather variable.

The girl in the collarless coat was real. Odd that I would relocate her to a park. I never saw her in a park. I saw her a few times—in my head it was a few times—on the path that ran from our flat to the corner shop. My wife and I had moved at this point. We were living in a Council flat in Calderwood in East Kilbride. This was back in the day when you could still get Council houses without having to wait half your life for one to come free. I remember nothing about the girl now and yet, thirty-five years later she reappears in a different park. Another excerpt from the novel I’m editing:

I do remember a girl from a long time ago all swaddled in a shabby, three-quarter length, collarless coat—it was green, verdant, yes—though I am at a loss as to what is was about her that caught my eye, perhaps simply the coat because now it is the only thing I can picture with any surety. She was no stunner. The best one could say was that she was… bonny, yes, that’s the word.

In the poem there is a connection. In the novel there is not, at least not with the girl; there is with a cat. I have to say I’ve always been fascinated by the amount of… I want to say ‘information’ but that’s really not the right word… the stuff that can pass between two total strangers in a split second. If I was spiritually-inclined I might think that we recognise each other from a past life or something but I don’t believe any of that which does leave me at a loss to explain the phenomenon.

I can tell you where the park I had in mind above was—Blythswood Square Gardens in the centre of Glasgow—but I have no clue why there. Not even sure I’ve ever seen anyone sunbathe there. That said that’s also where I set poem #550 ‘Sunbather’ which I wrote in July 1983. The park in my novel is a loose version of Victoria Park although it’s never named.

Interesting all the hard k’s in the poem.


Sunday 17 May 2015

Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife


Lives in stories have direction and meaning. Even stupid, meaningless lives, like Lenny's in Of Mice and Men, acquire through their places in a story at least the dignity and meaning of being Stupid, Meaningless Lives, the consolation of being exemplars of something. In real life you do not get even that. ― Sam Savage, Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife

Children’s books are often populated by anthropomorphic creatures but I doubt many of them would know what the word ‘anthropomorphic’ actually means. (Mental image of Winnie-the-Pooh staring blankly at me.) Firmin is not a children’s book. True, it’s narrated by an anthropomorphic rat but he’s a rat who’s quite comfortable with terms like ‘anthropomorphic’, ‘defoliated’, ‘philoprogenitiveness’ and ‘winze’. He’s a rat who knows he’s a rat but rather suspects he ought not to have been:

Firmin: fur-man. Ridiculous. The chin, or the lack thereof, caused me special pain. It seemed to point—though in fact this nonentity was incapable of anything as bold as pointing—to a gross lack of moral fibre. And I thought the dark bulging eyes gave me a revoltingly froglike air. It was, in short, a shifty, dishonest face, untrustworthy, the face of a really low character. Firmin the vermin.

The big problem for a writer when giving an animal human attributes is what level of anthropomorphisation to settle on. The animals inhabiting Hundred Acre Wood are effectively human in all but appearance; they don’t behave like animals. No doubt Pooh Bear does shit in the woods but I expect he wipes and flushes afterwards and then, in case Christopher Robin asks, washes his paws. On the other end we have Watership Down where the rabbits behave much like rabbits but interact like humans: they have conversations, use names, have a belief system. Firmin veers towards this end. He has a mother—Flo—and twelve siblings: Sweeny, Chucky, Luweena, Feenie, Mutt, Peewee, Shunt, Pudding, Elvis, Elvina, Humphrey and Honeychild; no mention of a dad. Firmin is the runt of the litter.

Having narrowly escaped with her life and well aware her time is close at hand Flo takes refuge in what turns out to be the basement of a Boston bookstore and as she can do nothing to defer delivery she improvises as best she can:

Dear Flo has made confetti of Finnegans Wake. Joyce was a Big One, maybe the Biggest One. I was birthed, bedded, and suckled on the defoliated carcass of the world’s most unread masterpiece.

firminSadly Firmin never chances upon a second copy. Ford Madox Ford, Pound, Dostoyevsky, Strindberg, Jack London, Stevenson (Robert Louis I’m assuming) and Balzac—all Big Ones—but never again Finnegans Wake although he does devour (metaphorically this time) A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. You see Firmin is a reader. He’s the kind of reader even the most voracious of us could only imagine being and that kind of hunger can never be sated. And it’s hunger that first drives Firmin to books, literal hunger. He can’t get enough food from his mother—the other twelve see to that—and so Firmin starts nibbling their bedding:

Despite the fact that I was barely out of my infancy, I think it fair to call this moment the beginning of the end for me. Like many things that start as small, illicit pleasures, paper chewing soon became a habit, with its own imperative, and then an addiction, a mortal hunger whose satisfaction was so delightful that I would often hesitate to pounce on the first free tit. I would instead stand there chewing until the wad in my mouth had softened to a delectable paste that I could mash against the roof of my mouth or mould into interesting shapes with my tongue and safely swallow.

This change in diet affects the young pup in an unexpected way:

I am convinced that these masticated pages furnished the nutritional foundation for—and perhaps even directly caused—what I with modesty shall call my unusual mental development.

Growing bored of the taste of what he calls “the Great Book” Firmin starts to investigate the other volumes in the basement:

My devourings at first were crude, orgiastic, unfocused, piggy—a mouthful of Faulkner was a mouthful of Flaubert as far as I was concerned—though I soon began to notice subtle differences. I noticed first that each book had a different flavour—sweet, bitter, sour, bittersweet, rancid, salty, tart. I also noticed that each flavour—and, as time passed and my senses grew more acute, the flavour of each page, each sentence, and finally each word—brought with it an array of images, representations in the mind of things I knew nothing about from my very limited experiences in the so-called real world…


At first I just ate, happily gnawing and chewing, guided by the dictates of taste. But soon I began to read here and there around the edges of my meals. And as time passed I read more and chewed less until finally I was spending almost all my waking hours reading and chewed only on the margins. And oh, how I then regretted those dreadful holes! In some cases, where there were no other copies, I have had to wait years to fill the gaps. I am not proud of this.

In time his mother abandons them—after briefly showing her progeny how to forage without her—and soon Firmin’s siblings also take their leave. Now he’s alone and free to indulge his passions. He starts to explore his world and realises that the basement holds only the dregs; there’s a treasure-trove of world literature in the floors above him.

Rats, however, cannot live on words alone and so literal hunger induces him to venture into the streets outside. It’s not a nice place and, as it’s infested with rats, there’s much competition but he eventually finds a safe place to fill his belly; it is here that another kind of hunger is awakened:

A combination movie theatre and flophouse, the Rialto stayed open twenty-four hours a day. Half the audience was there only to sleep—it was cheaper than a room and warmer than a street. It was known affectionately as the Scratch House, and most rats avoided it because of the vermin, a voracious population of fleas and lice, and also because of the reek—a stench of old people, poor people, sweat and jism, mixed with the stink of the pesticides and disinfectants they dumped in once a week. But to me, given my temperament, that seemed a small price to pay. The Rialto screened old movies during the day and evening, perhaps forty films in all, which it continuously recirculated, in order to maintain a front of shabby respectability. Then at midnight, when the citizenry and its censors were tucked in bed and the cops could safely look the other way, it would switch over to pornography. At the stroke of midnight, a halt, scratched, and flickering Charlie Chan or Gene Autry would come to a clattering stop in midreel. Utter darkness would follow, a few short minutes of coughing and shuffling, and then the projector would whirr back to life, and even its sound would seem younger, brighter. The change was spectacular.


The creature is torn. Between knowledge and lust, between the Big Ones and his Lovelies. Firmin may not be fond of looking in mirrors but he does hold up a mirror for us to look at ourselves. He is our proxy. And it’s clear he’s deluded and becoming increasingly so. As he says, “I must constantly remind myself, sometimes by means of a rap on the head, that Eisenhower is real while Oliver Twist is not.” He becomes fixated on the bookshop owner and imagines some affinity exists between them. If only he could communicate but, unlike Winnie-the-Pooh, Firmin is incapable of verbalisation:

I was never able to get beyond a few incomprehensible variations on the basic squeak. Here is Hamlet, dagger in hand: squeak squeak squeak. (And there is Firmin crushed beneath a barrage of boos and seat cushions.) I do better with the lines where Macbeth talks of life being a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing: a few pathetic squeaks serve pretty well there. Oh, what a clown! I laugh, in order not to weep—which, of course, I also cannot do. Or laugh either, for that matter, except in my head, where it is more painful than tears.

He considers sign language but it brings its own problems:

I soon discovered that whoever had devised this silent language had intended it for creatures equipped with fingers. With what I had in the way of feet and claws, I found it impossible to stammer out even the most rudimentary phrases. I could manage at best a kind of digital stutter. I stood in front of the mirror, painful as that was, and balancing on the rim of the sink, struggled to say in sign, “What do you like to read?” I tried letting my body stand for a palm and my legs for fingers and then midway through the phrase changed the principle and let my forelegs stand for arms and my hind legs for thumbs. Slapping my chest now, then crossing my legs, then curling up in a ball, I flung myself frantically about like a man with his clothes on fire. It was useless.

He’s trapped within his own head. But he has a vivid and active imagination and so lives his life there quite comfortably. Although he doesn’t write things down as such he does become a writer, “writing in [his] dreams”. But, of course, he finds he can’t avoid humans forever. The bookseller may have failed to live up to his expectations but after an ill-advised trip to a park where he gets injured Firmin finds himself in the company of Jerry Magoon:

E. J. Magoon
“The smartest man in the world”
Artist Extraordinaire & Extraterrestrial


He actually may not be any of the things listed on his business card—other than being E. J. Magoon—but he is a writer. Has Firmin met his soul mate?

In an interview Savage says:

The character Firmin is almost based on the character in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. He has the same manner of speaking to the reader as "you." In Notes from Underground, the character will say, "You find me ridiculous, don't you?" Firmin also does that. Firmin speaks about himself that way. "I'm a despicable character. I'm a sick man, I'm a weak man, and I think my liver is diseased," is how Notes from Underground begins. So Firmin had a very conscious relation to Dostoevsky. It's hard to say Dostoevsky's an influence, because that sounds so incredibly pretentious. […] I wouldn't want to say an influence, exactly.

He was not a young man when he wrote Firmin. He’s been writing all his life, poems mainly most of which he says were not very good, and he had ideas for novels but they never quite got off the ground. Eventually he gave up. For five years he stopped thinking of himself as a writer. And then one day the words came back. One night he wrote a page and a half in the voice of what he thought was a failed writer, inspired, as he says above, by Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. In a profile in Poets & Writers he explains what happened afterward:

The next morning he read what he had written and—ping—he thought, “‘Jesus, this is a rat!’ That seemed like the perfect outsider, the perfect metaphor for exclusion, because a rat is a part of human society. They live in our houses and yet they are the most despised. They became a metaphor for any kind of exclusion or invisibility,” he says. “So then the novel became this raging against this invisibility, this exclusion. There was this desire to become visible, to become human. The idea that art and literature could make him human, visible, that he could take his place among us. Art could save him. That’s something I got from my mother: that art can save you.”

Savage was sixty-five when the book finally made it into print and has since published three other books, Glass, The Cry of the Sloth and The Way of the Dog.

I liked this book. I can’t imagine any reader and/or writer out there not liking it. And clearly a lot of other people have too. It’s been quite the international success. It’s profound and wise and funny and tragic and short; you all know how much I love short. I’m sure there’re flaws in it but I got so caught up in it that I can’t say I noticed any. And that’s definitely a good thing as I’m a terrible one for editing books as I’m going along. But really there’s nothing here I’d want to change. Except the author’s name. I wouldn’t’ve minded seeing mine there.


Sam-Savage-author-photoSam Savage grew up in a small town in South Carolina in the '40s and '50s. Then he went north, first to Boston and New York, and later to France and Germany. He studied at the University of Heidelberg and at Yale, eventually acquiring a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale. He taught there, briefly and unhappily. It was a period when many had become convinced that there are no genuine philosophic problems, only genuine linguistic puzzles. This discovery did not leave any "career options" for Savage, since the only puzzle that interested him at that time was himself. In 1980 he went back south, to McClellanville, South Carolina (pop. 400), where he spent the next twenty-three years. He worked as a carpenter, a commercial fisherman, and a letterpress printer. He lived, however, mainly on a diminishing pile of inherited money and the labours of his wife, while he attempted to write, pretended to write, and often really did write. Most of the things he wrote have not survived. In 2003, he moved north again, this time to Madison, Wisconsin, where he now lives.

Wednesday 13 May 2015



Because we love you –
they said,
holding down my arms.

They said everything smiling –
even before,
as they pressed on the pillow.

It was like gagging on a mother's breast.

22 March 1980

I don’t say who’s narrating this poem. The term ‘assisted suicide’ wasn’t commonplace in 1980 but I wasn’t thinking about an older person who might well have given informed consent. My wife would’ve been five months pregnant when I wrote this poem and I clearly had a child in mind. Not that we had been led to expect anything untoward. We knew nothing of what was to come, not even the smiley pillowsex. I never gave a second thought when my daughter was born that there might be anything wrong with her so it wasn’t even a deep-seated fear. The only truth that was revealed that day was how much I wanted a daughter. Up until the moment my wife was actually giving birth I’d maintained that I was happy no matter what but as the child was slipping from her I found myself thinking: Please let it be a girl.

I can’t imagine smothering my daughter no matter what. That’s not what dad’s do. And yet there are parents faced with that decision daily. An amniocentesis test examines the amniotic fluid surrounding the developing baby. The test is not offered to every pregnant woman and we certainly were never offered it but what if we had been? And what if it revealed that our child had a 99.4% chance of being born with Down Syndrome, Spina Bifida, Cystic Fibrosis or Muscular Dystrophy? What then?

What would we have done? I don’t know. I really don’t know. There are some things you simply cannot plan for. And this is one of them. I’d like to think I’d have done the right thing. But what’s the right thing?

Sunday 10 May 2015


Old Walt

Old Walt used to watch the cleaning woman –

Through the spy hole.

Breasts hung as she scrubbed.

In the monochrome passage.

One day...
             ...and the neighbours
                 talked about it for weeks...

29 May 1979

This is not a very good poem but it is of some importance. It leaves things up to the reader. Completely. What did Walt do? Kill her? Rape her? Expose himself? Drop dead in front of her? It could be anything. Years later I expressed myself far better in my poem ‘Reader Please Supply Meaning’, the title poem of my latest collection. You can read it in this old post.

We never had a cleaning woman. I don’t think we had one. Or maybe we did. I know in the next flat we lived in the neighbours used to pass a bobbin back and forth. When it dropped though your letterbox you knew it was your turn to clean the stairs, the landing and the bin shed. But I don’t remember doing that in the first flat we were in so maybe we did have someone come in. That was the first place I lived in with a spy hole. Quite taken by it I was. So maybe I did watch a cleaning woman one day. Maybe that’s where the idea came from.

We have a spy hole in this flat and occasionally—as recently as yesterday in fact—I’ll hear some kerfuffle in the hall and go and take a look. Not sure what I expect to see. Not sure what I’d do if I did see anything. But I still go and take a look. Might be an idea for a poem there. You never know.


Wednesday 6 May 2015



Knowing of something
and going through it
are two different things.

Death – the eventuality –
can be accepted at a
distance, until it becomes
imminent, and turns to
an aching preoccupation.

At its end it becomes
an obsession and then
is realized but there
there is no more philosophy.

9 July 1978

Thinking is not something that most people include on their CVs. At least most people don’t. I’m not even sure than any of the “great thinkers” of our time—the Nietzsches, Kants and Hegels—actually called themselves “thinkers”—bit pretentious really—but I’ve definitely seen people described on TV as, say, “writer, poet and thinker”. I wonder if Stephen Hawking thinks of himself as a “thinker”. Or Isaac Asimov and Alan Turing when they were alive. Philosophers, obviously, have to be thinkers but so are politicians, writers and artists. A division should probably be drawn too between “the thinking man”, “serious thinkers” and “deep thinkers”.

Worst insult of my life? “You’re not deep, you’re shallow.” My first wife on the day she left me which is about four years on from this poem. Talk about kicking a guy where it hurts.

My name is Jim. And I’m a thinker. I got into thinking quite early on. I watched grownups thinking and it looked cool, a bit risky so I decided I’d give it a go. Pretty soon I was thinking all the time: at school, watching TV, in the bath, at night in bed. I never told anyone. It was my guilty secret. At first everyday thoughts were enough. thinking_3I’d think, Isn’t that a cute cat? or My, the sky’s blue today but pretty soon I was peering into the darkness and something in it was peering back at me. That’s when I knew I had a problem but by then I was… there’s no other word for it: addicted.

It’s been a long road. I still think from time to time—there’s no cure (don’t let anyone kid you)—but it’s not as bad as what it used to be. I used to think about deep shit like death and taxes. Not sure I’ve thought about either for years but every now and then I see a news item about some massacre overseas or a change to the basic rate of Income Tax and the old urges raise their ugly heads.

Sunday 3 May 2015



they walked
and did not speak
they walked
neither did they touch.

His face
creased like unironed shirt
and her tired eyes.

That is all,
so why do I moralise?

23 October 1979

Fodder. Often cannon fodder. It’s a word, like so many words, I’ve used for years and never really thought much about:

Fodder, noun:

1. Feed for livestock, especially coarsely chopped hay or straw.
2. Raw material, as for artistic creation.
3. A consumable, often inferior item or resource that is in demand and usually abundant supply.

My current novel is about a writer who spends much of the book—decades, in fact—sitting on a park bench watching the world go by. Of the people who wander into his crosshairs he says, “they were fodder, ordinary people going about their ordinary lives, food for thought.” And being a writer?

It’s not being ordinary, not going home having your dinner and sitting through some inane made-for-TV movie with a six pack for company and to anaesthetise reality. If you’re not a writer what are you?


That was what he wanted to capture, what it’s like being normal, not being him because he never thought of himself as normal. Were he the norm everyone would be a writer. And they weren’t. Nor were they artists of any description. Normal people went to the football or the bingo, they got married, had kids and affairs and they knew about mortgage rates and credit cards. He was surrounded on all sides by a nimiety, a too-muchness, of normalcy; it was depressing.

Not everyone has a novel inside them but everyone has a story. I read a book a while back by Amos Oz in which an author spends a few hours making up stories about the people he encounters in his day to day life. That book made so much sense to me. I’m not as bad as Oz but I do remember quite clearly the very first series of Big Brother before it got silly. I was quite addicted. Ordinary people doing ordinary things. I could watch them for hours.


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