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The crowds in St. Peter’s Square parted as the Prod Bigot Incompetents rushed the IRA Jesuit.

Father Ryan O’Brian was almost taken by surprise as the howling bluenoses came charging through the crowd, decked in Rangers strips and King Billy tattoos. Not a sight you saw every day in Vatican City.

“Aw, not youse lot again,” he sighed, producing a heat-seeking surface to surface missile launcher and a Stanley knife from under his cassock.

BAM!

Stephanie, early on in my blog-writing career, tried to convince me not to use any swear-words in these reviews. I have a foul mouth sometimes, so it was tough. This book, however, this book almost defeated me. It has more cursing per square inch than a pub showing Monday night football.

The plot, such as it is, is concerned with the millennia long history of conflict between the Church and the State. We meet Jesus and his disciples in a scene reminiscent of Cyrus addressing the gangs in Walter Hill’s The Warriors. The Apostles are in fact a revolutionary brotherhood of peace and love and Jesus has returned to them to rap about eternal life. Of course then Saul shows up and ruins everything, deciding following the massacre to follow the letter of Christ’s teachings if not the spirit and found the monolithic Holy Roman Empire. We then cut to Henry VIII, speaking along with his courtiers in a thick Glasgow accent, breaking from Rome and sparking the present-day conflict.

Father Ryan O’Brian is at the centre of the conflict, a wiley assassin who specialises in playing one side against the other. The Pope presides over a corrupt cabal of deviants who are attempting to undermine the Queen of England. She, in turn, is a foul-mouthed monster, whose three sons are plotting to murder her in order to acquire the throne.  O’Brian is not able playing his cards close to his chest in these colossal conflict, he appears to be unkillable. God literally loves him too much.

Scatology rules the day in this book, building to an appropriately literal apocalypse, but the moment I decided I was actually having fun was when the author inserted an ad for defunct publisher Attack! Books into the book itself! I found an interview with editor Steven Wells outlining the approach behind these hyper-pulp novels. The scene with the unnamed Queen, face smeared in baked beans (….I guess it’s a fetish) laughing herself into hysterics while reading various titles from the imprint such as Tits-Out Teenage Totty, Satan! Satan! Satan! and Ebola 3000, followed by a postal address for any prospective new readers to order their own copies.

Now that’s funny.

Yes the language is rotten to the core. I am sure your average person on the street will be offended by Udo’s descriptions of venal priests, idiot princes and a psychotic Queen. He intersperses chapters with a series of extracts from conspiracy theories regarding the death of the Princess of Wales, the ties between the Royal Family and Nazism and in turn Hitler taking inspiration from the structure of the Jesuit order. The overt message of the book is that these two institutions cannot be trusted, built as they are on a history of conquest and war.

Oh and Jesus was a socialist.

‘Granny Weatherwax is going to hear about this, and you’ll wish you’d never been born…or un-born or reborn or whatever you are!’

‘We look forward to meeting her,’ said the Count calmly. ‘But here we are, and I don’t seem to see this famous lady with us. Perhaps you should go and fetch her? You could take your friends. And when you see her, Miss Nitt, you can tell her that there is no reason why witches and vampires should fight.’

Pratchett and vampires? Oh you do know how to make me happy.

I have always liked the Discworld take on vampires, which is essentially that they are pathetic poseurs (which is how you spell ‘posers’, in this instance). However, the Discworld also happens to be a fantasy world where racial pluralism is a reality (take that Tolkien!) so there are vampires who are members of the Black Ribbon society in Ankh-Morpork. Sure they are undead, but do they have to live as monsters? – is their creed and it is a very amusing take on the traditional fiend.

With Carpe Jugulum Pratchett returns to oldschool vampires, with a slight twist. No more talk of temperance. Just systematic murder, organised under the simple principle of their being superior to humans and all the other ‘low’ races of the Discworld.

The story itself is set in the kingdom of Lancre, the setting for most of Pratchett’s Witches novels. Now some folk like Rincewind, others Vimes, but my personal favourite Discworld protagonist has always been Granny Weatherwax, the witch who will brook no nonsense (needless to say I am also a big Nanny Ogg fan). At the start of the story Granny is feeling her age once again, as well as a sense of isolation. She abandons Lancre in a fit of pique, believing that she was snubbed by her fellow witches and Queen Magrat when she does not receive an invitation to the royal baptism. Of course her departure comes at the worst possible juncture. King Verence, the former court fool who was revealed to have royal blood, is once again trying to be modern and extends an invitation to a very important family from the Überwald region.  Except of course they are vampires and by inviting them, Verence has literally just handed them the keys to the kingdom.

Only Agnes Nitt seems to be immune to the glamour of the vampires. The youngest of the Lancre witches, Agnes literally has a thin girl inside her trying to get out – which is to say, she hears this voice in her head making a running commentary on everything that she does wrong. This ‘Perdita’, allows her to resist the influence of the vampires, enough for her to realize what is happening to the rest of the citizens of Lancre. Her only companion is a young priest from the theocratic state of Omnia, last seen in an early Pratchett novel Small Gods (which happens to be one of my favourites). Mightily Oats suffers from profound religious doubt about his vocation, so like Agnes he too is of ‘two minds’, about everything. Together they try to organise the people of Lancre to rise up against the racial supremacist vampires and find Granny Weatherwax before it is too late.

Pratchett is simply too clever by half at times. Yes on initial inspection this book seems like a merging of Small Gods and that *other* book about Lancre falling victim to an invasion Lords and Ladies. It is a brilliant combination of themes though. The crisis of faith suffered by Mightily Oats allows the writer to expound on his humanist beliefs to great effect.

What’s more the book also addresses the limits of tolerance in multicultural society. This is something of a bugbear with me, the notion that ‘multiculturalism has failed‘ continues to gain traction in political circles, which is absurd as the definition of what it means seems to change all the time. Different races living together is nothing new. What has changed is that now there is this expectation that races should be treated with equal respect, under a shared national identity, which is where politicos come grinding to a halt. How can a statesman exploit class and racial divisions in a multicultural society? The very idea.

Pratchett wittily dispenses with all of this in a book about vampires, little blue people with Scots accents and a dwarf highwayman. This is why he is the master.

Wonderful book.

This is one of the greatest books ever written. To say that Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BCE- 17 CE) known as Ovid, was possessed of a monumental genius, is to somewhat understate his influence on writing, painting, sculpture, music and poetry for the last two millennia. There are few if any artists of worth, certainly of the western tradition (indeed other traditions have such geniuses from whom we could all learn), who have not been enthralled by his brilliant imagery, his insight into the human condition, the sweep of his epic narrative, his capacity to depict the depths of human depravity and the heights of love.

The cover of this Penguin edition, with its very clear and lyrical translation by David Raeburn, has a picture of Bernini’s incredibly beautiful sculpture of Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne (1622), a scene from the dozens of stories in the Metamorphoses that are all threaded together by the theme of change, as life is indeed change, capturing the touching moment of Apollo and Daphne’s agonized frustrated lovemaking as she is transformed into a tree. The Metamorphoses weaves a difficult path brilliantly through Ovid’s vast knowledge of history and mythology, borrowing and rewriting Virgil, Lucretius and Homer to suit his own ends. This makes a great deal of sense, for in the life of an artist there comes a point of re-evaluation – an assessment and acknowledgement that she or he has arrived at the point they have through the influence and insights of others.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, reacting somewhat to the Roman idolized image of the gods, depicts them as deeply ambivalent beings. Some of the stories show them as monsters, vicious cruel murderers and rapists. Jove or Jupiter, is a dreadful being. As the king of the Gods with weighty responsibilities on him, he is also a psychopath, a serial rapist who uses his power to tryst with females of his fancy, fathering countless offspring to his wife’s horror and vengeful rage. This is hardly a sterling example of a moral life, an example of the kinds of godly behaviour in the Metamorphoses that leaves much to be desired.

So we are left with a dilemma. The world order, the nature of existence, is terribly out of joint. How does one live? What constitutes a moral existence? What hope is there for humanity when the gods are mad or corrupt or all too human? Ovid describes the world and leads us to the doorway of moral choice. He describes these beings, these gods, largely products of a complex evolutionary cultural anthropomorphosis, as being as capable of horrible acts as they are equally capable of heartbreaking tenderness. When the sun god, (Helios to the Greeks, also Apollo to the Romans, but Phoebus to Ovid) allows his all too overconfident ambitious son Phaeton to take the reins of his sun chariot on its daily journey round the Earth, things go terribly wrong. This is when Phaeton, filled with cock-sure ignorance, loses control of the sun-chariot and sets the world on fire, almost burning the earth, is killed by a bolt from Jupiter to stop the destruction of everything. Thus the Earth is shrouded in darkness as the heartbroken Phoebus covers his radiant being with his cloak in inconsolable sorrow at the loss of his beloved son. It is a terrible time, a tragic moment, handled with incredible tenderness by Ovid.

Pain, joy, ambition, jealousy, longing, loneliness, the burden of giftedness, overwhelming infatuation, the loss of love, lies, deceit, moments of hilarity, power politics and horrific acts of revenge – in other words the full sweep of the human condition – mark his subject matter, and in the Metamorphoses, Ovid deals more than anything else with what it means to be a human being, trapped in time, a mere plaything of the fickle and vengeful gods. He deals with this subject with a level of emotional and psychological accuracy that leaves an unforgettable mark on the reader. It’s not without significance that Shakespeare was a lifelong reader of Ovid, and returned to him over and over to seek new themes for his plays and poetry.

Rome remains the cultural centre of Ovid’s personal universe, and the glory of Rome is his joy and love. Despite all its horrors and imperial cruelties it remains his personal point of reference. It is a mark of the poet Ovid’s truly extraordinary self-assurance that at the end of this very large and very readable book, filled as it is with super heroes and gods, monsters and victims, saints and mystics, he modestly asks Emperor Augustus to immortalize him. After all, he argues, he has written the Metamorphoses. This same emperor, disdaining Ovid’s tendency to write rather explicit poems about sex and seduction and taking lovers and, moreover, how to keep ones lover, as in the Amores and the Ars Amatoria, had exiled the heartbroken poet (a banishment celebrated by Turner in a painting in 1838). Ovid, who found the world of Rome his inspiration, never got over his exile and he never stopped wanting to go home. The cliché of an artist never being fully understood in his own time is very true of Ovid, who died in what is now Romania, where he is celebrated as one of their own.

BIO ORAN RYAN

Oran Ryan

Oran Ryan is a novelist, poet and playwright from Dublin.  His poetry, short stories and literary criticism have appeared in magazines worldwide.  His novels The Death of Finn and Ten Short Novels by Arthur Kruger, both published in 2006, and One Inch Punch, his third is to be published in 2011.  His work has also appeared in the anthologies Census 1 (2008), Census 2 (2009), Living Streets, Anthology of the Ranelagh Arts Festival (2009), Dublin 10 Journeys, One Destination (2010).  His play Don Quixote Has Been Promoted was performed at the Ranelagh Arts Festival 2009; his has been shortlisted for the P J O’Connor Award; his words were performed on stage at the Stone Theatre in Manhattan, New York in 2008 and in 2010 his Radio Play Christmas 1947 was performed live as part of KRCB FM 91.1 Twisted Christmas 8 Live performance in California, as well as broadcast on KRCB over Christmas 2010.

They talked about the war in the Sudan, about the decline of the African Writers Series, about books and writers. They agreed that Dambudzo Marechera was astonishing, that Alan Paton was patronizing, that Isak Dinesaen was unforgivable. The Kenyan put on a generic European accent and, between drags at his cigarette, recited what Isak Dinesen had said about all Kikuyu children becoming mentally retarded at the age of nine. They laughed. The Zimbabwean said Achebe was boring and did nothing with style, and the Kenyan said that was a sacrilege and snatched at the Zimbabwean’s wineglass, until she recanted, laughing, saying of course Achebe was sublime. The Senegalese said she nearly vomited when a professor at the Sorbonne told her that Conrad was really on her side, as if she could not decide for herself who was on her side.

Back during my Leaving Certificate examination year, a friendly rivalry was sparked between myself and another student. We both fancied ourselves writers, submitted essay after essay to our teachers competing for the highest mark and when that was not enough, most literary references per paragraph.

Here’s the thing – he was a far better writer than me. Plus he was a pretty interesting bloke, often telling stories about taking treks through the African veldt, or fishing with Rastafarians. After school was finished, he gave me a standing invitation to visit him in Botswana. I never took him up on the offer. Ever since I have had this abiding fascination with Africa, an itch I will have to scratch some day.

The Thing Around Your Neck collects a series of short stories by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, some autobiographical, such as the passage quoted above taken from Jumping Monkey Hill which describes the difficulties faced by African writers trying to break through the literary glass ceiling maintained by the Western canon; others contrasting the lives of ordinary Nigerians with foreigners, often Americans.

Imitation has a Nigerian woman living without her husband for many months of the year, but enjoying every comfort in a fine house in the States. Her only companion is a fellow Igbo house maid. When she begins to suspect her art dealer husband is having an affair back in Nigeria, her only confidante is this – an employee who in this foreign land is the closest thing she has to a friend. On Monday Of Last Week has another expat named Kamara find employment as a babysitter to a mixed race American couple’s child. Driven to distraction by the neurotic father – and increasingly curious about the absentee artist mother – she finds herself becoming infatuated with the other woman in the house. The Arrangers of Marriage focuses on a newly arrived bride in the States, whose naturalised husband insists on eroding her Nigerian identity.

Ghosts and Cell One both concern academics struggling to survive in modern Nigeria, as a result of profound personal grief and increasing gang violence respectively. Cell One is the first story in the collection and features a family left distraught when the eldest son is arrested for being a member of a street gang. The son is described as  over-privileged and arrogant, a result of his coddle middle-class upbringing. When he finds himself behind bars, the shock of witnessing genuine oppression changes his personality. Ghosts has a grieving widower encounter a former university colleague he believed had been killed during the Nigerian-Biafran war. At first thinking his old acquaintance to be a phantom, he stops himself from performing the traditional ritual of throwing sand on him,  remembering that he is a Western-educated academic and above such things.

This alienation from tradition and language is a recurring theme of the stories collected here. Another is the perception of Nigeria and its history by external bodies, such as the international media, American embassy staff, or indeed literary critics, in the case of Jumping Monkey Hill, my favourite story from the selection. A Private Experience alternates between an encounter between two women, one a Muslim the other a Christian, hiding in a store and the media coverage of the event afterwards, which would have these two individuals be natural enemies.

Again and again Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie seems to make the appeal that the stories of these people, of Nigerians generally, should be heard for what they are, without the intrusion of inferred Western values.

This is powerful writing, with a wry and critical tone throughout.

The Camino is full of strange and wonderful experiences, and this is just another one of these moments. I’m not known as someone who bestows blessings on strangers, or one who appreciates poorly made timber products for that matter. But here in Spain, these things become so much more than just superficial. Somehow I catch the emotion behind what I see, the true spirit behind the words, and in this case, the actions, and it seems to make all the difference. Things become vibrant and the world becomes alive.

The second time I came to Australia, I thought of it as my great adventure. I had travelled around the world in pursuit of a relationship, leaving family, friends and employment behind. It was a big risk. So when my relationship with Stephanie continued to grow from strength to strength and I had successfully established myself in Sydney, I really thought that risk had paid off quite nicely.

Then two friends of mine announced that they were climbing to Mount Everest base camp. Suddenly my grand adventure seemed little more than a exchange of one homogenous environment for another, my lifestyle just a generic middle-class wage-slave existence in a metropolitan city.

One of the great pleasures of writing this blog is that occasionally I get to share in someone else’s adventure, read their thoughts and feelings while undertaking incredible challenges.

Brad Kyle explains in the book’s opening the circuitous journey taken by the eventual inspiration that led to him setting off along the Camino trail in Spain. Initially he learned of the pilgrimage trail from an anonymous girl one summers day in London, who introduced him to Paulo Coelho‘s The Pilgrimage. Following the death of his father eight years later, Kyle is reminded of that happy evening when he encounters a second book – Shirley MacLaine’s The Camino – A Journey of the Spirit, which finally sets him on the path to Santiago.

Between jobs, feeling adrift and in possession of some savings, Kyle flies from Melbourne to London and then across the water to the eventual starting point Saint Jean Pied de Port. Suddenly conscious that he may well be unprepared for the road ahead – the foul weather, steep terrain, blisters! – he also becomes acutely aware of just how alone he is, having set himself the challenge of marching across two countries over a period of five weeks.

Physical discomfort and the vagaries of hostel curfews aside, Kyle soon begins to get the hang of life on the pilgrim trail. Initial fleeting encounters with fellow travellers soon grow into genuine relationships. The spectacular scenery and encounters with some local animals – at one point Kyle gives a silent thank you to Dr. Harry for his advice on greeting horses – soon dwarfs the aches and pains. There are even stirrings of romance. In effect, this is a story of one man’s rediscovery of what makes life worth living.

Kyle describes his journey in a very personable and thoughtful manner. Often his reminiscences are grounded in terms that can be easily understood. For example he has a tendency of comparing certain experiences to popular films, such as Finding Nemo, Men in Black and Amelie.

In fact the style of writing here is deeply personal, with the emotions described obviously keenly felt. At times it reads much like an attempt by Bill Bryson to rewrite Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. The travelogue has moved on from overtly literary fare designed for the consumption of 19th century high class salons, evolving into personal accounts leavened with a lot of humour. I had a strong sense of familiarity while reading Memoirs of a Pilgrim – it felt as intimate as reading a friend’s blog on some far-flung adventure.

This is a touching, heart-felt and engaging story of an incredible journey through a timeless landscape.

With thanks to the author for my review copy.

‘Mark…I finally came, Mark. Please…’

Of course. You have to invite them inside. He knew that from his monster magazines, the ones his mother was afraid might damage or warp him in some way.

Back in ’94 our art teacher in school had an unusual idea. He would take his class of teenage boys and fashion them into a mini-movie studio. To inspire us he showed us a series of clips from various horror movies, pointing out how simplistic tricks could be used to shock audiences. This collage of films included John Carpenter’s The Thing, Dario Argento’s Suspiria, Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula and finally the adaptation of Stephen King‘s ‘Salem’s Lot, by Tobe Hooper. Specifically this scene. I am pretty sure that afternoon, spent in a classroom with the blinds down, probably scarred me for life.

Last night I could not sleep, so I picked up my trusty Kindle, wandered into the kitchen, poured a glass of milk and finally got round to reading ‘Salem’s Lot.

Ben Mears is a writer with three novels under his belt that failed to impress newspaper critics, but has managed to earn him a living:

Well, that was critics for you. Plot was out, masturbation in.

He returns to the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, a small village on the road to Portland that has not changed much since the briefs years he spent there as a child living with his aunt. Ever since he left he has been obsessed with the troubled history of the Marsten House. He hopes to acquire a lease to the long-abandoned building and exorcise his fears of what happened to him there as a child with a novel. Instead he discovers two European antique dealers, Mr. Straker and Mr. Barlow, have bought the building. Ben meets Susan Norton and the two of them quickly fall in love. She has dreams of living ‘Salem’s Lot for an artistic career in New York. He also makes a friend in high school English teacher Matt Burke, a quick mutual respect developing between the two men of letters. Ben, despite his troubled feelings over the Marsten House, begins to remember how much he enjoyed living in this quiet community.

Shortly after his arrival, a boy named Ralphie Glick goes missing. His brother Danny reports that just before he vanished, Ralphie described what he thought was a ghost staring at him. Shortly afterwards his parents are sent into even greater distress when he drops dead in hospital. After the funeral Matt encounters gravedigger Mike Ryerson in the local bar, delirious and weak, with a strange story about having passed out while burying the Glick boy’s body. The night Ralphie disappeared, the two brothers had been travelling to Mark Petrie’s house, to see his collection of models and horror film memorabilia. Even as Matt, Ben and a several other co-conspirators come to the conclusion that the strange events in town have been caused by an infestation of vampires – after hours of debate and argument – Mark has already identified the cause and set off alone to face the mysterious new residents of the Marsten House.

If you have seen the tv miniseries, or read the book, maybe you have noticed what I have done above – place the emphasis on Mark instead of Ben, who is yet another self-insert character in King’s fiction. That is because firstly I am quite tired of this tendency of the author’s; secondly I cannot help imagining what this book would have been like if it focused exclusively on Mark. It could have been To Kill A Mockingbird, but with vampires! As it is there is a huge cast in this book, with many voices overlapping during passages, as well as our old friend ‘the omniscient narrator’, weighing in to let us know how the vampire infiltration of the town is proceeding.

Of course this is all part and parcel of King’s project, which is to describe the damning of an entire community. The arrival of the vampires is in fact a judgement on the town of ‘Salem for their sins. There is barely a single sympathetic resident in the town.

In fact for me the most horrific scene in the book does not feature monsters, but a mother punching her own baby.

I find King to be heavy-handed, with a tin-ear for dialogue and yet – I sat and read this book throughout the entire day. That counts for something.

‘Catholics are indoctrinated from their childhood that priests take the place of Jesus Christ and are to be obeyed at all costs, and never questioned or criticized.’ A church that puts its children from this early age under the spiritual control of its priests, representatives of God to whom they are unflinchingly obedient, has the most stringent of duties to guard against the exploitation of that obedience to do them harm. That duty includes the duty of handing over those reasonably suspected of child sex abuse to the secular authorities for trial and, if convicted, for punishment. It is this duty that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, a.k.a. Benedict XVI, has for the past thirty years adamantly refused to accept.

Last month the Irish Times reported that two German lawyers, Christian Sailer and Gert-Joachim Hetzel, had submitted charges of crimes against humanity naming Pope Benedict XVI to the International Criminal Court. The document accuses the pontiff of preventing members of the Catholic church from using contraceptives, and hence stopping the spread of HIV, as well as the systematic cover-up of the abuse of children.

I wonder if the lawyers read this book by Geoffrey Robertson, which given its subtitle ‘Vatican Accountabilty for Human Rights Abuse‘, sets out to explain the legal protections and privileges enjoyed by the Catholic Church and the Holy See. ‘Privilege’, is quite an appropriate word, given its etymology in old French: ‘private law’. As it happens, news of the book’s publication was greeted with vociferous defence of the head of the Church by sites such as Protect The Pope, which states that a commentator for the site had refuted many of Geoffrey Robertson’s misguided accusations and erroneous legal conclusions in his legal analysis, ‘A Worldwide Conspiracy? (sic).

Not only does Robertson’s account identify the extent of the horrific crimes against children in the care of Catholic priests across the world, it also seeks to define what is meant by canon law, as well as the Vatican’s status as a nation state and non-member of the U.N., which grants various protections. As a QC, Robertson concentrates on identifying what liability for the crimes committed by priests the Church is responsible for. He argues that the abuse of children is both a crime and a violation of tort law. Given the global occurence of these offences, it falls to the Church to defend itself in a court of international law for crimes against humanity. As Robertson points out, Vatican representatives at the U.N. have repeatedly used their position to lobby against the spread of equal rights for men and women, as well as efforts to combat the HIV virus in third world countries. That it enjoys such a privileged position – one denied to any other religion, charity, or human rights organisation – is due to a treaty signed with Mussolini for their mutual benefit in 1929 is just another piece of uncomfortable history for the Church to ignore. It is also, Robertson claims, a very tenuous basis for the Vatican’s statehood.

The contempt of the Catholic Church for accounts of child-sex abuses in the media, described variously as ‘an American problem’, or a conspiracy mounted by homosexuals, or Jewish newspapers, or even as Pope Benedict memorably phrased it ‘petty gossip’, shows just how much the institution itself is an enclave that sets itself apart from the rest of the world. Hence the importance placed on canon law and the secrecy with which the Vatican protects its findings on the rates of child molestation occurences. Pope Benedict even went so far as to congratulate Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyas for hiding an abuser from the police. The testimonies of bishops responsible for the conduct of priests in their diocese through inquiries in the States, or from the Murphy Report in Ireland, reveal a disastrous combination of gross ignorance in some instances and the willingness to ‘smuggle’, paedophile priests across state lines, or even internationally, in others.

It was actually through commentary on the Murphy Report featured on Irish satirical site Bock the Robber that I discovered that my own parish priest in Rathcoole, Fr. Noel Reynolds, had been identified as a paedophile long before being appointed to the village I grew up in.  Proof of the efficacy of canon law.

Geoffrey Robertson has written a powerful indictment of the Church’s policy of obfuscation, outlining a series of legal arguments that define the case against the institution and the flimsy pretexts of its defence.

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