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When I was a child, a large amount of my favourite books were written before the war, and quite a lot of my favourites were written before I was born. So I was always used to seeing attitudes presented on the page that I was quite aware were now unacceptable. Archaic racism, sexism, anti-semitism, snobbery and homophobia always causes a cringe at the very least, but there are cases when it's so stupidly mild or casual that you can just roll your eyes and think, "well, it was a more racist/sexist/etc time". Yes, I am annoyed by "comedy" Irish characters in books from the '20s, but not nearly as annoyed as I was by Euan Ferguson giving free reign to his own anti-Irish bigotry in the Observer just a few days ago.

Sometimes - as in Julian's appalling treatment of the lower orders in the Famous Five books - these archaic attitudes are now very funny. Most of the time it's just eye-roll-inducing - the sort of thing you have to put up with if you want to read almost anything pre-1970. But in some cases the bigotry is so extreme and gratutious that it actually prevents me from reading on.

For example. References to gay and lesbian characters in older books can often be casually derogatory, but in many cases references to "pansies" don't seem to contain anything more than ignorance. Unfortunate and unpleasant, but not intentionally cruel or nasty. In other cases, however....well, a few years ago I read my first Ngaio Marsh novel. It was pretty good, and soon afterwards I picked up a batch of her books. However, the next one I read - Death in Ecstasy turned me off her books forever. The depiction of the gay characters was so deeply, deeply unpleasant - not only were they pathetic, whining grotesques, but entire paragraphs are devoted to other characters saying what "beastly, disgusting things" they are - that it went far beyond the casual prejudices of the time. It was horrible, and I never want to read another of her books again.

When I was a kid, I loved Enid Blyton's Adventure books (The River of..., Circus of..., Island of... et al). I was well aware of Blyton's snobbish, sexist and racist attitudes when I was small, but while I reacted to some of her statements with outrage (encouraged by my parents), I could still read and enjoy them, accepting her attitudes as being of their time. Recently, however, I had the urge to read one of the Adventure books again, and picked up the River, in which the children travel by boat down an African river. However, I had forgotten that this is the book in which Philip, the child whom all animals love, becomes the idol of a young native boy with "wild rolling eyes" who calls Philip "Massa" and who insists on sleeping on the floor at his feet. It was just too disgusting to ignore, and I couldn't finish the book.

So where do you draw the line when it comes to older fiction? When does casual archaic bigotry become gratuitous bigotry? And what books can you just not read because of that?

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pisica
May. 6th, 2006 09:33 am (UTC)
I don't think I've ever stopped reading a book because of bigotry, though it's definitely kept in mind - it's been a few years since I've read a Ngaio Marsh, but Alleyn's jovial comment 'that's the color of the nigger in the woodpile' remains in my head long after the plot does.

I do cringe a bit at the use of the n-word in the Chalet books, particularly as I got to well past the war years before stopping my run through the series, and it still turned up occasionally. I think EBD stopped using 'golliwog' well before that, though.

slemslempike had an entry about this issue not too long ago, I think.
jane_the_23rd
May. 6th, 2006 10:10 am (UTC)
This is a really interesting question, and I think my position on it depends on the specific book, and on my reason for reading it. There are certain books -- like the ones in my small 'antique' book collection -- which I actually look at because the attitudes toward race, class and gender are archaic, but I see them as artefacts. I see them as amusing on one level, but I also see them as very important things for us to understand today.

But not too long ago, I re-read A Little Princess, and was mortified that I ever thought it was anything but terrifyingly imperialist and racist. I couldn't actually enjoy it. The fact that I didn't pick up on these things as a child is both comforting and worrying. Comforting that I read this book and loved it and still managed to grow up with a deep understanding that colonialism and classism and racism are bad, but disturbing to think about how these things can pass by our conscious attention and yet become embedded in our minds somehow, too. I mean, first of all, the little girls in the book were all awful little jerks, and the goody-goody chick was irritating as hell. But then, all I could think about was the Captain's diamond mine, and how diamond mines are just about the most evil thing ever, and how many other things we see that allow a sense of 'benign imperialism' to go unchallenged.

glitzfrau
May. 6th, 2006 10:18 am (UTC)
Yes, agreed and agreed, on all fronts. Tracing attitudes in artefacts is fascinating, particularly when attitudes that we think of as "progressive" (e.g. ecologism) turn out to be embroiled with vile ones (e.g. eugenics.) I hadn't even thought about the diamond mines in A Little Princess - I, too, loved the book when I was little, but my moment of disgust came when Sara gets to swan around in furs and jewels at the end of the book as her reward for refusing to become déclassé when she is working as a maid, whereas Becky's reward for enduring much worse abuse and starvation is to become a properly-fed maid, and be happy in her place. That casual thinking about heredity - that blood will out and has certain rights attached to it - is all over Edwardian fiction, isn't it?
stellanova
May. 6th, 2006 10:24 am (UTC)
That casual thinking about heredity - that blood will out and has certain rights attached to it - is all over Edwardian fiction, isn't it?

It totally is, and one of the best things about the '70s Edwardian period drama Upstairs Downstairs (which I have been watching recently on DVD, and which I think you would enjoy, as it is by the creators of The House of Eliott, although it's a bit less soapy) is the way it constantly attacks and subverts those attitudes, especially the well-meaning, arrogant paternalism with which so many people treated their servants.
glitzfrau
May. 6th, 2006 10:37 am (UTC)
Eek! I would say "Lend it to me!", but I am going in FOURTEEN DAYS, so it may have to wait till September!

The E. Nesbits contain a lot of that genealogical thinking, sadly enough, don't they? Along with the L. M. Montgomerys, and, now that I come to think of it, even a really bad Noel Streatfield didactic historical novel that my mother has lying about. I think I took it for granted when I was little, even when I knew the sexism and racism was wrong.
barsine
May. 6th, 2006 11:22 am (UTC)
The Lorna Hill books definitely push the notion that nature is much more important than nurture -- several of them have adopted or fostered children having much less 'common' manners than their adoptive families (Ella Sordy, I'm looking at you!); because they are ballet books, though, foreign people and arty people and circus people are fine, it's just the comical working classes that you don't want to be related to.
stellanova
May. 8th, 2006 10:15 am (UTC)
Ella is a perfect example! She even has a "gentle way of speaking", unlike the brash and vulgar "our Doreen" and "our Vera" or whatever her awful siblings are called. It's completely illogical!
barsine
May. 8th, 2006 12:52 pm (UTC)
'Our Lily' and 'our D'reen' and Ma Sordy! I think, but I am much less familiar with it, having only read it once, that The Secret has a similar cuckoo in the nest plot, but it's a boy in that case. Also, Nona, the dancer with the hare-lip in Dress Rehearsal(one of LH's more outre plots) is brought up with rough children in an orphanage, but it's clear that she is of gentle birth. Sorry for hijacking your thread, glitzfrau!
biascut
May. 6th, 2006 02:04 pm (UTC)
Not quite the same thing, but I'm always fascinated by the way the Sherlock Holmes stories talk about physiognomy. They completely depend on that late nineteenth century certainty of typology, and everyone's moral character (and of course their class and occupation) is written on their face and body. You can't actually separate the story from that kind of proto-eugenicist and racist pseudo-science.
jane_the_23rd
May. 6th, 2006 10:33 am (UTC)
Yes! I know! I mean, the happy ending is that everyone retains their class position, but that they are in whatever ideal conditions can be achieved within the limits of that position.

I read it about a year ago, and was like, "AAAAAUGH!" Eeeeek.

Thing is, when you look at it in historical context, there were books being written -- even prior to that -- that try to deal with racism, classism and sexism. I struggle between the, "Oh, it was just a different time..." and, "Wait a minute, if other people knew better, how come this author was so ignorant!?"

It is a sticky issue when we judge literature in historical context. I mean, one of the things that I have come across in some stuff I've been reading for my thesis is that, among literary historians and critics, there is a real issue about how to rectify Spenser's place in the literary canon with his very real assertion that all Irish people should be starved to death. Where do we judge, and how far do we judge, and what do we do with something once we've judged it?

It's my favourite question, in fact, because it's so dizzying, and it's something that I keep coming back to in my research. My maps are fascinating statements about negotiations of courtier relations in Elizabethan England and Ireland, and yet, I have this problem that, yes, these people were fascinating, but they also thought nothing of chopping off someone's head and moving into his or her house.
glitzfrau
May. 6th, 2006 10:41 am (UTC)
I agree, because obviously this also comes up in German literature a lot. I tend to get more intolerant as I get older: if Goethe could say that homosexuality was a perfectly natural and pleasant choice, and Nietzsche condemn antisemitism as the worst kind of lazy, snobby thinking, there's not really any excuse for anyone else who claims to be an intellectual or writer at their time. I can judge an antisemitic or misogynist as an interesting historical artefact, but you're right, their ignorance is pretty inexcusable when it comes to judging that text on its literary or intellectual merit.
jane_the_23rd
May. 6th, 2006 10:51 am (UTC)
This issue has absolutely not been dealt with in archaeology, and people are really resistant to even talking about it. At the same time as other fields are having a long, hard look at their histories, archaeologists fail to see that the development of things like 'typologies' and 'cultures', which equate material culture with actual human settlement and territorial rights, are directly related to what Himmler was doing. But it wasn't just Himmler doing it. EVERYONE was doing archaeology in this way, and I look at people who continue to place a heavy emphasis on ideas that come from the late 19th or early 20th centuries, and I shiver with fear at their lack of self-awareness. We still are not self-aware, and for a discipline that is so strongly connected with national identity, it is very much to our peril.

It's interesting that in German archaeology departments, the Nazi-era literature is dealt with in different ways, but they engage with the issues. In our department, which had a DANGEROUSLY close relationship with Nazi archaeologists, the Nazi-era stuff is just out on the shelves. I think that's a good thing, but very few people are willing to talk about it. Interestingly, the person most willing to talk about it is the son of someone who was studying in Germany in 1939, and witnessed a lot of what was happening then. It's interesting that someone so close to it all is willing to engage with it, and has actually encouraged me to come back to him and talk about doing a book on it, but that others think it's wrong to 'air our dirty laundry'. When, dude, the stains on our academic underpants are really, really important to talk about.

PS: I heart you, and don't want you to go away for the summer, even though I want you to go because I know you want to go.
glitzfrau
May. 6th, 2006 10:12 am (UTC)
Oooh, good point. I get this a lot in my research, too - I do refer to Freud and Nietzsche a lot, even though part of their thought is based on absolutely crazy misogyny. My thinking there is that one can use the useful thoughts and discard the rest. But I wouldn't touch Jung with a barge pole, not just because I think pretty much everything he says is junk, but more, because he is a racist. And I just can't have theory that is contaminated with that in my research: ditto Heidegger.

I used to be able to read James Bond and the rest of my mother's spy thrillers from the 60s, and I sure as hell can't any more: the misogyny makes me sick. I haven't come across anything homophobic for a while, but I do find it hard to cope with. Ultimately, prejudice is lazy thinking, a refusal to do the groundwork questioning that is required to come up with a well thought through and informed answer. And why would I be arsed reading a book by an author who can't even be bothered to invent a more interesting attitude to gender? It doesn't say all that much for their plotting or characterisation, does it?
jane_the_23rd
May. 6th, 2006 10:27 am (UTC)
Ultimately, prejudice is lazy thinking, a refusal to do the groundwork questioning that is required to come up with a well thought through and informed answer.

We should get this on t-shirts.
alltheleaves
May. 6th, 2006 10:51 am (UTC)
I read a couple of Agatha Christies recently and it is always very weird reading just stupid phrases that existed. The one I find really odd is "Rich as a Jew" not exactly derogatory but never meant in a good way. I first came across that in Jane Austen but it's still around in Agatha Christie. The weirdest part being that, as refugees, Jews were living in some of the nastiest slums at times. The Merchant of Venice has a lot to answer for.

I'm not sure where I would draw the line, I guess the books I read don't demand line-drawing; makes it easier to not have to think about it.
lizarfau
May. 7th, 2006 06:11 am (UTC)
A few years ago, I attended a 'talk' on Agatha Christie, and apparently she was very anti-Semitic, which comes across in many of her stories. Then she visited Germany during the 1930s, saw some of the results of anti-Semitism, and bitterly regretted her own prejudices and words.
sdn
May. 6th, 2006 12:26 pm (UTC)
what's also interesting is reading the various iterations of established series, like the bobbsey twins books. in the earliest ones, their maid and handyman (both black) speak in eye-rolling dialect, and by the most recent ones they're speaking the same as the other (white) characters.

you might want to check out jo walton's forthcoming farthing, which is a cross between a nancy mitford book and it can't happen here. (for adults, obviously)
violetcreme
May. 6th, 2006 01:50 pm (UTC)
As a massive Blyton fan I have to say I've never been remotely bothered by the un-PC themes in her books. I'm a huge Agatha Christie fan as well and really the same applies. They're products of their time and I think a lot of the 'ourtage' over Blyton books is just bandwagonism becuase no one gets on their high horse over the ompression of women in Austen for example. That is how children thought/behaved in the 30's and 40's and I'm uncomfortable with whitewashing that now for modern tastes.

Social history is social history, we look at it now for what it is but it in no way devalues the quality of the book or the story and Blyton is still the best children's writer in the World.
glitzfrau
May. 6th, 2006 02:24 pm (UTC)
The difference between Austen and Blyton, though, is that Austen's ironic language and complex portrayal of social and sexual norms actually interrogate the sexist structures of the world that she describes. The reader both condemns Mrs. Bennet for scheming to marry her daughters off to rich men, and recognises that she has few other options as the mother of five girls. Whereas Blyton never once bothers to show that she recognises that other ideas of gender and class exist in the period that she's writing about, never mind depict them. I agree with you that Blyton is excellent social history, as is Austen, but the difference between them is that Austen makes the reader laugh at the hypocrisy of the day, while Blyton goes right ahead and reinforces it for the purpose of making her readers feel safe.

That's not to say that many other writers aren't morally compromised - Dickens, for example, swerves all over the place in his attitude to women and misogyny, and there are plenty of writers still living who use dreadful misogynist and racist clichés in their books (Houellbecq, among others). Perhaps the difference is, as jane_the_23rd says, in the way that the readers approach the books. I still enjoy the Little House on the Prairie books, even though they're so horrifically racist - but I think part of the pleasure is being utterly horrified by the attitudes Wilder so unquestioningly repeats.

By the way - my mother said that she was forbidden to read Blyton as a child in the 1950s for exactly the same reasons as I would object to the books today. Even at the time they were being written, not all English-speaking readers shared Blyton's views.
socmot
May. 6th, 2006 02:15 pm (UTC)
I think for me it is also an Enid Blyton book - one of her "Barney Mystery" series (The Ring O'Bells Mystery etc etc).

The first book recalls how Barney, the boy from the circus is introduced to the father of the other boy in the books. I distinctly remember feeling horrified at the description of this event, which went something like - "He looked up with disdain, expecting to find a mean looking gypsy boy, but instead found a tall boy with blonde hair and blue eyes, and his demeanour changed and he got up to shake hands.

It's practically Nazi propaganda!
stellanova
May. 6th, 2006 10:52 pm (UTC)
Ha!

And actually, didn't it turn out that Barney wasn't really a "native" circus child at all? His real (blonde, blue eyed) dad turned up eventually, I recall. Or am I mixing him up with someone else?
socmot
May. 6th, 2006 11:46 pm (UTC)
Yes, I seem to recall that's how it went!

Also, there's a great line (well, not great, but typical Blyton) in a Famous Five book where Julian says "you'd make a great little houswife, Anne"!! Oh dear.

By the way, and I'm not sure if you'd be this much into Doctor Who, but Gary Russell who played Dick in the 1970's TV series, is apparently a big name on the Doctor Who scene - one of the producers or some such.
alicetiara
May. 6th, 2006 04:58 pm (UTC)
This is a fascinating discussion and frankly, something I haven't thought much about. Growing up, I much preferred Victorian/Edwardian children's lit (and pre-WW2 books in general) to anything else (except perhaps Beverly Cleary). I remember working my way through a huge box of Cherry Ames, War Nurse books my mother got at a yard sale, and my dad sneering at me (when I was going through my highly annoying aggressive 12 year old introduction to feminism), "Why are all the women in your books always nurses, not doctors?" I smartly retorted that the book was written in 1941 and that female doctors were rare at the time.

But I do have to wonder how many of these attitudes I have internalized to a certain extent. I read all the Secret Seven and Famous Five books, all the Swallows and Amazons books, all the jolly good white British ruling class fun foundational texts (which let me tell you have absolutely zero referent in American culture; even Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins are less classist). And I *clearly* remember writing stories at age 6-7 that aped a lot of the stylistic conventions of Blyton's use of non-standard English for particular accents, etc. Which just horrifies me now, of course. But is part of my sense of my own whiteness and class privilege somehow founded on these texts which I consumed in enormous quantities as a small child? Are these books part of how I came to understand who I was and my place?

I mean, I hate to say that, but I think we /learn/ what it means to be raced/classed/gendered and a great deal of that comes from the media. I can look critically on absolutely anything, but I also seem to have an enormous propensity to turn it all off, which is how I manage to relax by watching atrocious reality television (rather than reading postcolonial poetry or something).

So my answer is: I think these texts are very problematic, I think it is very important that they stay intact in order to preserve them /as/ historical texts, but I think if I ever have children I will make sure they get a healthy dose of books from a wide variety of times and cultures and that we will talk about the presuppositions in the books together, which I think is an excellent way to teach a child critical thinking and media literacy at an early age.
stellanova
May. 7th, 2006 09:47 am (UTC)
And I *clearly* remember writing stories at age 6-7 that aped a lot of the stylistic conventions of Blyton's use of non-standard English for particular accents, etc. Which just horrifies me now, of course. But is part of my sense of my own whiteness and class privilege somehow founded on these texts which I consumed in enormous quantities as a small child? Are these books part of how I came to understand who I was and my place?

I mean, I hate to say that, but I think we /learn/ what it means to be raced/classed/gendered and a great deal of that comes from the media.


I did exactly the same thing when I was writing stories as a kid - a while ago I discovered a '20s-set detective story written when I was about eleven in which a parlourmaid inherited a fortune from her mistress and the detective basically knew she'd forged the will because she [the parlourmaid] was really "common and vulgar"! When you think that I came from a very ordinary middle class Dublin family (and my dad's family were completely working class), with very liberal, unsnobby parents, this bizarre attitude could only have come from books. I think I was unaffected by the racist and sexist attitudes in books I read because I was so conscious of them even back then, but the classist stuff definitely sneaked in under the radar.

So my answer is: I think these texts are very problematic, I think it is very important that they stay intact in order to preserve them /as/ historical texts, but I think if I ever have children I will make sure they get a healthy dose of books from a wide variety of times and cultures and that we will talk about the presuppositions in the books together, which I think is an excellent way to teach a child critical thinking and media literacy at an early age.

I totally agree. And that's really what my parents did - they always made sure that we were conscious of these obnoxious attitudes. I have fond memories of pointing out all the sexist generalisations about girls in one of the Fatty books to my mum....
nineveh_uk
May. 7th, 2006 05:03 pm (UTC)
I think I was unaffected by the racist and sexist attitudes in books I read because I was so conscious of them even back then, but the classist stuff definitely sneaked in under the radar.

Hmm, I think I was relatively nonchalent about the racist/sexist aspects of Blyton because they were both obvious to me as a reader, and acknowledged whenever anyone mentioned the books, but I certainly found the classist aspects disquietening. I remember a line in one of the Malory Towers books in which Maureen (who as a working class come into money character, is inevitably depicted as not washing much) wonders whether it really is appropriate for people 'of her type' to attend such a fine place as Malory Towers.

Having said that, compared to "Strangers at the Abbey", which I read recently, Blyton is a paragon depicting an open society. The sheer rudeness of the girls towards less-favoured characters was astonishing. Thinking about it, perhaps that's another victory to chalk up to Arthur Ransome - the Swallows and Amazons are never rude to adults because (and in the other books it so often is because) they belong to a lower social class.
drcopernicus
May. 6th, 2006 06:04 pm (UTC)
Much as I enjoyed the Famous Five (especially on the telly) I always found them fantastically rude in the books, which really confused me as they were so obviously posited as socially well-got. I certainly wasn't being brought up like that. In fact, I remember being a bit embarassed reading things like Shepard! Give us some milk and eggs!

I was always cautious about Enid's writing anyway since being outraged by her depiction of the Gollywog as nasty and friendless in her Bedtime Stories. I didn't get the racist message, but I, er, had one myself for which I had formed a deep and lasting affection, especially as he became more and more timeworn and his red striped trousers and blue tail coat lost their original smartness and lustre. Enid's Golly was not the Golly I knew.

I agree with the points people have made about those sentiments being "of their time". It certainly wasn't the case that those ideas weren't equally discredited as they are now and I think we should be cautious about thinking how great we are now. If anything people becoming more and more reactionary again. Racism and homophobia might not be as ingrained with the bourgoisie as once they were, but anti-working class sentiment seems to be in the ascendent again (anyone heard the abusive term "povo" in the rugby playing suburbs lately?) and the depiction of women in the media and the whole girls gone wild phenomenon is deeply disturbing. I fucking hate those Wikid vodka ads for example.

Anyway a lot of those ideas have simply dressed themselves up in the language of "choice", "freedom of association" and the rights of property as advocated by a collection of deeply unsavoury creeps around the blogosphere and elswhere.

I think my absolute favourite books as young fella were Michael Ende's Neverending Story and Sebastian Barry's Elsewhere, which I won off the radio for being brilliant.

I won't get into the diamonds thing as my family made quite a nice little pot of money out of the mines in South Africa at the turn of the century, thank you very much. Always liked King Solomon's Mines actually, with its weird blend of noble savage encomia and unreconstructed racism.
stellanova
May. 8th, 2006 10:35 am (UTC)
Heh, there were no diamond mines in my family history, but my great-grandfather fought in the Boer War (and attended Cecil Rhodes's funeral procession - we have his photos of it), so my family does share the shame of imperialism (minus the fortune).

I agree with the points people have made about those sentiments being "of their time". It certainly wasn't the case that those ideas weren't equally discredited as they are now and I think we should be cautious about thinking how great we are now. If anything people becoming more and more reactionary again.

Exactly, and we have to be careful about excusing the racists of the past by saying "oh, everyone was like that", because we know perfectly well that they weren't, and even if they were, that doesn't make it all right. And as you say, we're not exactly perfect and enlightened now. The rise of anti-working class sentiment is really scary. I loathe the whole "chavscum" phenomenon, because it has basically legitimised openly laughing at the poor. And don't get me started on those fucking Wikid ads, particularly the "taking her out for dinner, Wikid style" ones. My friends and I have agreed that we look forward to "showing your feelings, Wikid style", illustrated by the glum girlfriend sitting in Casualty with a black eye.

To return to the "of their time" thing: I think that in many cases - and those are the cases that I can just roll my eyes over, rather than actually fling away the book - I can acknowledge that in the past people who were just apathetic or stupidly ignorant did say things that these days would mark someone out as an enormous raving racist. So when it comes to what I can stomach when reading a book, I draw a line between a certain sort of inexcusable stupidness and ignorance and an active biogtry. There's a difference between someone making a noxious generalisation like "works like nigger" (which makes me cringe when I read it) and someone actively using black characters to demonstrate racist beliefs (like Blyton). The former is horrible but could be a result of laziness, while the latter is an example of someone who feels strongly enough about the inferiority of other races and classes to put it in a book. And while I can plough through the former, I just can't read the latter for pleasure.
drcopernicus
May. 6th, 2006 06:09 pm (UTC)
Er, that last bit came out wrong. I didn't like the racism, I just found the mental contortions involved interesting and illuminating.
lsugaralmond
May. 6th, 2006 07:44 pm (UTC)
One of the things I enjoy the most about reading older books is how evocative they are of their time. I find early twentieth century Britain a fascinating place and era, and I love to read books written then, and the racist and bigoted attitudes that they often contain have never offended me because I accept them as part of that background. Saying that, I've never read Ngaio Marsh so maybe it's just that I've never come across anything offensive enough to cause me to stop reading.
A few years ago I was in a book group and we read Kipling's Just So Stories, I'm thinking particularly of How the Leopard Got His Spots. ('plain black's best for a nigger...', 'The Ethiopian was really a negro, and so his name was Sambo' etc) and we were discussing whether or not we would read these stories to our children. I was the only one in the group who would. I said I thought it was important for children to understand and recognise such attitudes, but also for them to understand that they were wrong, and not acceptable any longer. But others in the group felt that children should just not be exposed to such things at all. I thought that was interesting.
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