Tickets Please!!

The early bird catches the worm.  And this early bird is going to catch the Christmas-train-home-worm.

Not for me, that frantic race against all the other last-minute ticket-buying folk for a seat in the only(!) unreserved carriage on the train. Oh, no. I’ve been left standing in the carriage corridor of that 1900 train from London to Penzance on Cristmas Eve too many times. And, by golly, it’s a four and a half hour endurance test I’ll be glad to give a miss this year.

I’m booking in advance, you see. All the best people are doing it now. Called forward planning or something terribly modern like that.

And what glee I’ll feel as I squeeze past those unfortunate late-comers and make my way over to that most glorious of all things, the reserved seat.

I love a good train ride. Give me a book, a selection of delicacies from M&S and (if my luck’s in) some neighbouring passengers full of hot gossip that I can listen in on and I’m set. What’s that you say? A four and a half hour journey? Pffff! Easy!

Back in the day, I think I’d have loved the journey home even more.

It’s a Brief Encounter-Virgin Trains Advert-Murder on the Orient Express Hybrid that I’m imagining and catching a ride on it  would have been a real treat.

Just picture it – wood paneled compartments, brass door handles, tasseled lamp shades… Oh! Heaven!!

For such a journey, I’d abandon my wheeled suitcase for something altogether more classic . Who needs practicality when you can have style? A small leather case, beautifully embossed with my initials would be all I’d need.

My vintage travelling companions would offer just the right amount of intrigue to keep me entertained without being tiresome. I’m always a little sleepy and (dare I say it?)  short of temper when I embark on these train rides home so screaming children, crude conversations and people with annoying personalities are are most unwelcome.

My travelling companions would be an altogether more refined bunch. Perhaps one is devastatingly good looking. A gentleman of consequence. A writer. The possibility of a torrid love affair is never something to be sniffed at on such a long journey and this man may well be the perfect candidate. After all, my book might turn out to be a no good at all…

It would be fun to have a retired Captain on board, too. One who’s post in India left him with a fondness for extolling the virtues of eating  kedgeree for breakfast (we’d have a lively conversation about this). He’d be the sort that, although now portly and quite the wrong side of seventy, insists on wearing his old uniform – pith helmet and beige plus-fours – at all times. He might have a grizzly scar running down the side of his face or a missing eye from a fight with a tiger in the jungle. Something like that.

My final companion would be a femme fatale – a lady of extremely fine breeding and with excellent deportment but bearing that fragility of mind that so often goes hand in hand with well bred folk. She is immaculately coiffured and devastatingly beautiful yet harbours a dark secret that will lead to scandal and … wait for it… MURDER. I’d take note of the pointed nail file she’s using. I’d observe that there’s something heavy sitting in the right hand pocket of her trench coat (a gun?). Noting both potential murder weapons in a small notepad could help solve a future crime and what better way to start one’s holiday than as a hero?

Now I’ve established my travelling companions, let’s have a look at the most important aspect of a vintage rail journey – the food.

It seems that the 40s and 50s were a bit of a  golden age for hungry rail traveller. Sumptuous feasts were offered in dining carts – roast lamb, oven baked chicken and fresh desserts – all delivered by immaculate waiters onto tables bedecked with flowers and spotless white tablecloths. And I bet you there wasn’t a plastic cup in sight.

But it wouldn’t just be the ride (and the food) that I’d have loved. Scoot back to the 20s and 30s and we get to see the start of the most spectacular advertising campaigns for the English rail travel.

Who could resist the delights of the tumbling cliffs of Devon when it’s presented to you like that? What joy! I’ll tell you something, First Great Western, if you’re looking to get more passengers, you’d do well to delve into the Great Western Railway archives.

Because, quite frankly, the sort of thing you’re currently offering  just doesn’t cut the mustard.

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Where did all the knits go?

I’m officially an inhabitant of the capital’s most moth ridden borough.

Yep, Hackney is the Mecca for moths according to my most trusted sources. I don’t doubt it, either. The little devils have been causing havoc at no. 60C. They’ve wormed their way into my food cupboard, laying their eggs on every bit of scrumptious food I have. The tighter I wrap up my almonds, muesli and biscuits, the more determined they become on making these foodie delights their nesting ground.

But it’s not so much the food moths that bother me. A bag of almonds can be replaced, I can have toast instead of muesli and and biscuits are bad for me anyway.

It’s the clothes moths that are the real problem. The thought of my precious knits being munched on – Oh, it doesn’t bear thinking of!  Take my food, ye moths but spare my clothes! I mean, come on – I bet wool doesn’t even taste nice.

I anxiously anticipate the (inevitable?) day when I open my wardrobe only to discover that my entire collection of wool jackets and silk dresses have suddenly acquired what I’ll call the hole-punch effect. In a desperate bid to waylay this day, I’ve scattered my wardrobe with cedar wood balls, lavender bags and and sticky fly-paper things (which do indeed seem to catch the moths but which also catch any unsuspecting item of clothing that mistakenly brushes against it. And boy, does this stuff stick).

As we inch into that familiar cold wetness of Autumn, I’ve been looking to add to my wardrobe some clothing of the woolen kind. The vintage woolen kind. Something from the 40s or 50s to be precise. But I’ll tell you, it’s been a devil of a job finding anything to fit the bill. Where, oh where did all the knits go?

And herein I shall present you with my highly academic hypothesis: It’s the moths wot dunnit.

That’s right, I portion full blame on those pesky moths for riddling with holes every last peter-pan collared cardigan and puff-sleeved, boat-neck jumper that was to emerge from my favourite two decades. Those beautiful hand-knitted creations, the likes of which Keira and Sienna prance about in in The Edge of Love have been destroyed by the very plainest of the winged creatures, the moth.

There’s simply no other explanation.

You see, even if money was no objet (which I sometimes pretend is the case), I’m just not seeing this kind of vintage knitwear for sale. Sure, the vintage shops of Shoreditch are packed with rails and rails of oversized 70s knitted monstrosities but I’ll be dashed if I can find a dainty woolen top from the 50s or a Land Girl’s sweater from the 40s.

All I want is a cute, cropped knit. Is that really so much to ask?

Now I know such things existed. They did. They absolutely did. And I know this because my quests for such items forever result in vintage knitting patterns – each with a photo of a delightful young lady sporting various interpretations of the woolen jumper. Bobbles, cable-knits, fairisle patterns … all manner of variations can be found from a quick search on Ebay.

      

As you can imagine, it’s been during these rather unfruitful searches that I’ve wished that I’d learnt to knit. Oh, how I long to be able to whip up some wooly, puff-sleeved delight!

So whilst I’ve the grandest of plans to wear knitwear made from vintage patterns, the stumbling point seems to be on the actual production line. I can get the designs, no problem. I can source the most delightful wools and I can even provide some excellent listening material for the production process (my new job in audio books will see to that). There is just one last question: who’ll be my knitter?

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The Moustacheoed Men of London

The moustache and it’s owner are a funny pair. They belong to a time when smoking jackets were de rigueur, when oranges were an exotic treat and when aviation was in it’s infancy. How on earth they found their way to London, 2012 is anybody’s guess.

I was once of the belief that if they weren’t white, bushy and adorning elderly Italian gentlemen (the sort of thing one see’s in a wholesome advert for pasta sauce), then moustaches should be regarded with a whole barrel-load of suspicion.

Perhaps they still should. But I can’t help liking the moustacheoed men of London. Gone is the moustache sleaziness that I was familiar with in the provinces (you know, the sort accompanied by a pallid complexion, nervous twitch and wandering hands) and in its place is the moustache rogue – straight from a bygone era and full of rakish charm. I much prefer rogues to sleazes.

For those uninitiated in the world of upper-lip topiary, here’s a quick summary of my favourites:

Handlebar

  • waxed ends twirl upward
  • gradual lengthening at the sides
  • can make drinking frothy substances a challenge
  • very Victorian

Pencil

  • short, clipped and neat
  • thin
  • usually accompanied by oiled hair
  • only noticeable on those blessed with darker shades of facial hair
  • had its heyday in the first half of the 20th century

Mutton Chops

  • moustache joins sideburns in a wild, eccentric manner
  • usually reserved for the older gentleman
  • looks best when accompanied by a beige explorer’s hat

Although there’s no beating an expertly waxed Handlebar moustache, I’m noticing a growing trend for the Pencil. Lower maintenance and a dating little bit later, the Pencil moustache is to the Handlebar what the speakeasy is to the music hall, the motor car to the steam train, the New York penthouse to the townhouse with fussy wallpaper. Altogether a bit more 20th Century.

Before embarking on ANY moustache cultivation, a gentleman must firstly consider whether he has sufficient raw material. You see, no Victorian dandy or Jazz Age crooner worth his salt would ever have presented himself to the public with some wispy thread of a moustache. It’s just not nice. In fact, ladies dislike this on a man more than anything.

A dense thatch of upper-lip hair is not the only thing needed for a successful entrance into the world of moustaches. One must also have the right mindset. If you’re aiming for a Handlebar, are you prepared to play the bounder? A Pencil moustache will only work if you have a slick, sophisticated personality – is this you? And Mutton Chops simply have to be accompanied by a jovial disposition. Your cheeks must be rosy and you must be prone to chortling.

Another thing to consider before cultivating your Handlebar, Pencil or Mutton Chops is the fact that you’re about to create a look that cannot be hidden. Facial hair is not something you can whip on and off for an evening (well, you can whip it off, but you can’t very well whip it back on again… ). A moustache is a commitment and must be worn with confidence and pizzazz every day.

There are some activities that are undeniably going to prove a challenge for the moustacheoed man. Wearing any sort of tracksuit should be avoided at all costs. You’ll immediately come within a gnat’s whisker of the aforementioned ‘sleaze’ if you attempt to combine anything elasticated at the waist and ankle with a moustache. And not many people can differentiate either side of a gnat’s whisker. If you must exercise, it should  take place outdoors and be limited to dumb-bells and track-running.

Coffee culture is also a danger for the moustacheoed man. When trying to woo a lady, stick to Americanos, espressos and flat whites. As soon as you start going down the latté and cappuccino route, your moustache is in danger of becoming an object of ridicule rather than a distinguishing feature and mark of a fine gentleman.

On that note, I bid you go forth, dear men of London (if you can comply with the above criteria) and embrace the facial hair of yesteryear!

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Nail it.

I’ve always had a bit of a thing about painting my nails. There’s nothing quite like a quick file and a splash of polish to boost the old glamour stakes. Chic and understated. That’s my usual look. And for anyone even the slightest bit interested, I swear by Essie’s Pink Glove Service. When going out on the (vintage) town,  however, screamingly loud, eye-poppingly bright red nails are the only way forward. A dash of OPI’s The Thrill of Brazil and I instantly feel like a 1940s screen siren.

Funny thing, this immediate association I seem to make between creating a vintage look and the colour red. No other colour’s ever got a look in. Red nails = vintage. Done. The more I research the matter, however, the more I’m assured by various historians, books and bloggers that the early days of nail varnish were by no means limited to the colour red (indeed there’s even talk of BLACK varnish having a bit of a moment in the thirties…). Despite this, red seems to be the the colour idellibly inked into my vintage varnish-wearing psyche and I will therefore continue to paint my nails in ‘The Thrill of Brazil’, ‘Fifth Avenue’, ‘Long Stem Roses’ ‘Jelly Apple’ and what ever other deliciously named red varnishes there are out there.

But if colour is not the be all and end all for the vintage nail, what else can we do to in pursuit of the ultimate vintage look?

Placement of colour

(for those well versed in the art of application)

When coloured varnish first hit the scene in the mid twenties, only the centre of the nail was painted. The white tips and half moons were left au naturelle. Achieving this look would have been a devil of a job for even the most steady-handed amongst us. There weren’t nearly so many nail bars about town in those days, either, so you couldn’t rely on a handy nail technician to do the job for you.

By the mid thirties, things had moved on (thank goodness) and women became content to leave just the half moons un-varnished. Still a bit of a bore if you ask me but hey ho, I suppose it was something to do whilst whiling away the evening hours….

Shape

Another factor to consider when aiming to create a authentic vintage nail is its shape. When we think of a classic nail shape today, most of us will immediately think of the oval. It’s a shape that I, for one, assumed to have been the staple for all of time before we got into this whole acrylic, french-manicured, squared-ended business in the late nineties. Not so, it seems. If you were after high glamour in the thirties and forties, there was only thing for it. Claws. That’s right. Sharp, pointy, watch-out-or-I’ll-poke-yer-eyes-out claws. Dangerous stuff, if you ask me.

It was the wonderful burlesque dancer extraordinaire, and vintage fashion queen, Miss Banbury Cross, who first brought the ‘claw’ to my attention. She currently sports a particularly lethal looking pair of talons which can be seen on her twitter account here. Whilst I don’t like them one jot, I have to admit, Banbury Cross seems to have got it bang on with the shape. Scanning through old advertisments that feature ladies’ hands, all the nails are of that wickedly pointed style.

And if you’re impressed by Banbury Cross, check out the bad boys on Joan Crawford below. Ouch!

So where are the pictures my half moon manicured, pointed finger-tips I hear you ask? Well, such nails aren’t really compatible with holding pens, typing, cycling, working, piano-ing, cooking, chopping, washing, dancing, sewing, eating, living, blah blah blah. Plus (and perhaps more to the point) even Joan Crawford can’t convince me that viciously pointed nails look particularly splendid. Sorry Joan.

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All Glasses Great and Small

The Benny Goodman look is riding high at the minute. Particularly amongst architects, my optician tells me. Those perfectly neat round frames must make calculating the square footage of a floor plan that much easier or something marvellous like that.

I imagine psychiatrists might soon start adopting the round-rimmed look, too. Their inspiration will have been man of the moment, Michael Fassbender, who plays Carl Jung in the widely acclaimed film, ‘A Dangerous Method’. Their frames will be slightly smaller and more wiry than the architects’. Altogether more Victorian. A little pokey and liable to make ones eyes look too close together but if it helps to make them look anything like Fassbender, it’s no bad thing.

For those gentlemen keen to experience the glories of the round rim themselves, British designers Saville Row should be the first port of call. These purveyors of fine eyewear have been around since the 1920s. Their current collection offers a series of frames that have been taken straight from original 1950s moulds, making them extra-super-authentic.

And what for the ladies, I hear you ask? It’s cats-eyes and horned-rims a go-go thanks to Chanel and Tom Ford. That’s right, the upswept is  back. And by golly, it’s about time us poor bespectacled ladies had a bit of glamour to brighten up our short-sighted lives.

Make like Marilyn and opt for full frames.* Small, narrow frames will make you look spiky and aggressive – more maiden aunt than sexy secretary.

Eyewearbrands is a good site for ideas although try, try and try again in the shops before you buy. Mail ordering a pair of prescription glasses is all too easy. Returning a pair of prescription glasses is certainly not.

* To avoid looking like Dame Edna, diamanté should be avoided at all costs.

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The Bus.

I’m a big fan of the London bus. Since the weather’s been too chill for cycling, I’ve become pretty darn fond of my daily commute on the 243. For the bus wins over its slicker sister, the tube, any day. And not just because there is no tube in my beloved home-patch of London. Oh no. A bus ride has many things going for it aside from being one of the only ways of getting out of Stoke Newington.

The first distinction I should make is that between the London bus and the countryside bus – two very different animals, I can assure you. The countryside bus, you see, tends to ferry about only three varieties of person: the very very elderly, those with little or no concept of hygiene, and, perhaps most commonly, the downright mad. It makes every rural bus journey an endurance test and is perhaps the largest driving force behind young country folk learning to drive. Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting that the aforementioned three varieties of person do not ride the London buses. They do. But in London, the concentration of senile, smelly and crazy people is diluted significantly with normal folk who just want to get to work.

Nowadays, I actually find it a bit of a treat when there’s a mad’un on board. There’s a lady who often clambers on the 243 at Dalston, makes her way to the top deck, unravels a script and proceeds to march up and down the aisle, preaching at poor drowsy commuters. I find this highly entertaining although most people are less than impressed. The driver took the case into his own hands the other day and put the ‘NO STANDING ON THE UPPER DECK’ voice-over on repeat. It drowned out preacher woman’s voice effectively, and, being a really very obliging woman, she obediently retreated back downstairs.

Aside from providing just the right amount of entertainment, the London bus also scores highly on the seating front. That is to say, I can always get one. Which is more than can be said if I decided to catch the tube. Another advantage of the bus over the tube is that I don’t have to plummet towards the centre of the earth in order to travel about town. This is handy because a) I am not a burrowing mole nor an adventuring miner and b) it means I can avoid the clammy, suffocating and quite frankly INTOLERABLE heat that the tube always seems to generate, regardless of the season.

In addition to this, a bus journey provides a view which extends beyond the people sitting opposite you. And as surely all London-bus-goers would agree, our Capital’s a rather fun old thing to gaze out on. Especially in rush hour. All that scrambling architecture is pretty interesting stuff in its own right but when it’s combined with swarms of commuters, even the most gripping paperback gets a run for its money. I should note that the most exciting stretch for people-watching on a morning commute is Shoreditch. The so called ‘hipsters’, and various other trendies who inhabit this area are the most peculiarly fascinating things. Neon skirts, stripy legs, clumpy wedges and a general too-cool-for-school look abounds here. Discrete doesn’t get a look in.

The final thing I’d like to note in favour of the London bus is that it’s bloomin’ cheap. And for a gal on a strict budget, that £72 monthly bus pass is a marvelous thing. I find myself taking the most ridiculous amount of bus rides – just because I can – at no extra cost. On. Off. On. Off – Oh yes, I’m quite the tease. I milk that bus pass for every penny.

As you have no doubt realized by now, I LIKE London buses. So imagine my absolute delight when I discovered last week that they are getting a vintage make-over! Although this is old news for many (the project was first in the papers almost two years ago), I will plough on and tell you about it, regardless, as it is new to me and excites me no end.

I’ve always thought the open-backed bus was the stuff of costume dramas, you see. Its design looks fabulous on film (BBC’s ‘Call the Midwife’ was my latest spot) but it always looked like too much fun to have been a working reality. Film makers are always using their creative licence to invent something that works wonders for the smooth running of a narrative and the open-backed bus seemed a prime example. For how else are fictional lovers to be parted if it cannot be as one hops onto a moving bus? Standing in a queue, rummaging for an Oyster Card just wouldn’t have the same effect.

I still can’t quite grasp how these buses could have functioned successfully in the real world, but apparently they did. Questions about their practicality (Wouldn’t that open back have caused an almighty cold draft? Where did one pay if you could run on and off at any old point? Weren’t people always falling out?) also apply to the new buses which share the same open back. After some www. research, my questions still aren’t answered but have found out some interesting facts about our new bus:

  • The design is inspired by the traditional London Routemaster bus that was first introduced in the early 1950s.
  • Each bus will feature two staircases to provide better access (and a good circular route for scampering children who like to play chase).
  • There will be a bus conductor!
  • The bus will carry a total of 87 people – 40 seated upstairs, 22 downstairs and 25 standing.
  • It will use super-green diesel-electric hybrid technology.
  • It will be initially introduced on route 38 – from Hackney to Victoria.
  • Ooh, and sports car maker Aston Martin had a hand in the design which adds a much needed touch of glamour to the idea of a bus ride.

The best thing about discovering the news of the return of the Routemaster so late is that I only have to wait 6 days until I can catch a ride on one of these magnificent beasts. That’s right – they’ll be up and running from the 20th Feb. Look out for me on the upper deck – if you want to catch my attention, loiter on Shoreditch High Street wearing something conventional. You’ll stand out a mile.

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The day I rocked down to Electric Avenue…

It all started when my dear friend Nana came into work with the most glorious new head of hair. She answered my look of utter confusion (her hair had gone from short to long overnight) by telling me it was ‘just a weave’ – as though that were the most simple explanation in the world. Well, not to me, it wasn’t. Fortunately, Nana was quick to realise my complete afro-hair-styling ignorance (my continued gawping at her shiny new tresses saw to that) and, being of the thoroughly decent sort, she instantly set a date to begin my education on the subject.

That date was yesterday. And that’s how I found myself following Nana’s lead down Electric Avenue, Brixton, in the pursuit of lace wigs, ponytails, extensions and clip-ins. Our chum Lauren came too – this was an outing not to be missed.

The expedition started as all expeditions should: with food. To get in the spirit of the Brixton, we went to Bamboula for some authentic Caribbean cuisine.  The service was preeetty darn relaaaaaaaxed and our meals didn’t arrive for an hour(!). Having said that, it was really no bother – put three gossiping girls together in a café and an hour whizzes by.

                  

Nana opted for the ‘Hungry Man’ – jerk chicken (MASSES of it), rice’n’peas, plantain and salad. Lauren and I went for ‘Satisfaction’ – jerk chicken (again, more bird than I’d ever seen on a plate) with mango and avocado salad and rice’n’peas. As you can probably see from the photos, this so-called ‘rice’n’peas’ just isn’t what it says on the tin. I was expecting to see little green pops of Birds Eye’s finest in amongst my rice but instead I got some sort of black bean. According to Nana, this is perfectly correct. And peas or no peas, the rice was utterly scrumptious – as was the whole meal for that matter. And such quantities! If I hadn’t been fit to burst by the end, I’d most definitely have ordered some of the delicious Rum Bread Pudding that seemed to be a firm favourite with the other diners. Next time, next time.

And so, with our bellies nicely filled, we headed to the hair shops. Huge, huge hair shops, full of the most extraordinary products and potions, lengths of curly hair and straight hair, blue, pink and purple hair and strange things called ‘bumps’ (which even Nana didn’t really understand the purpose of).

The shopping side of things got off to a bit of a rocky start when the first product my eyes fell upon was the unappealing named ‘Henna’n’placenta’. Yup, that’s right: PLACENTA. Who in their right mind would want to smother their hair with afterbirth? Eugh! Yuk yuk yuk! Only Tom Cruise’s crazy placenta eating antics top this in the list of grim things to do with the birth by-products.

We finally managed to drag ourselves away from the ‘placenta collection’ (a morbid fascination held us there for some time), only to fall foul of a sales assistant with attitude. Reluctant is too mild a word for this tracksuited, gold-toothed disaffected youth. In fact, he was so displeased when we asked him to get down some hair pieces from a shelf above the counter that I thought we might not come out of the shop alive. Hurling himself up onto the counter with far more aggression than necessary, he growled through clenched teeth ‘I don’t wanna waste your time or my time’…. argh! Fortunately, Nana’s a feisty little thing with all her wits about her and immediately challenged his back-chat. And no one messes with Nana. So we got our hair pieces, said goodbye to gangsta boy (who was suitably chastened by this time, I might add) and moved onto the wig section.

The wonderful Sam was our assistant here. It was her own spectacular afro wig that inspired me to try something similar.  After choosing the wig, Sam got to work on fitting me.

The first step in wig-fitting is to have a funny black sock pulled over your head to hold all your hair down. It’s a sensible idea in theory – the sock flattens your real hair and makes for easier wig-arranging. You just need to get the sock on. And there lies the rub. For someone with a head of gigantic proportions (me), and VAST quantities of hair (me, again), the whole thing can be a highly tricky business. Not to mention intensely unattractive and possibly disturbing viewing for unsuspecting onlookers.

Although Sam was clearly a pro at wig fitting, it was soon apparent that she needed some assistance. Together we tugged and pulled and yanked and stretched so much that I found myself making strange faces and odd squealing noises. But all to no avail. That funny little black sock just wouldn’t stay on. Every time we thought we’d got there and began to let go, it just shot right off my head, taking the wig with it.

The most mortifying moment came when Sam admitted that she’d NEVER been unable to get a wig on someone before. That was a roundabout way of saying that I’d got the biggest head she’d ever dealt with. After a moment of quiet despair at this thought, I landed on the idea that a longer wig would allow me to leave my hair out of the Cap of Doom (as I renamed the little black sock). The loose hair would be hidden under the fake locks anyway so no-one would know. This worked to an extent (see Alice in Wonderland style, below..)  although even then, the very act of smiling for the camera triggered an ‘up and off’ migration of the wig.

So I had to leave the hair shops empty-handed, my big old head feeling somewhat saddened by the fact that wigs just don’t some in size XXXL. Oh, but I soon cheered up when Nana sent me the amusing photos of the adventure. And I did learn a lot. I’ll now know exactly whats going on next time she comes into work with a new ‘do.

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