Loaded Secrets

So here’s the reason why my friend’s dad spent the last two years of the 2nd World War in a Scottish internment camp. And why he earned a Russian medal.

During the war he was seconded from the merchant navy to serve on a US built ship re-named HMS Dasher. Adapted as an aircraft carrier she was given to the Royal Navy under the Lend-Lease scheme and had quickly earned a reputation for being difficult to handle. So much so the RN needed experienced mariners to maintain her engines.

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The Russian Gold Star was awarded to all personnel who served with Arctic Convoys sent to break the German embargo on Murmansk. Dasher was one of 26 Royal Navy ships that left Loch Ewe on 15th February 1943 but that month the North Atlantic suffered some of the worst storms ever recorded, bringing huge waves and gale force winds. Six ships turned back and Dasher reported a 60 foot hole in her side. She limped into shelter in Iceland where she was declared ‘unfit for duty’ and was quickly escorted back to Dundee for extensive repairs to be carried out.

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HMS Dasher on Convoy Duty in the North Atlantic, picture from the collection of Sub-Lieutenant (A) John Vallely RNVR.

On 27th March 1943 Dasher was fit to carry out training manoeuvres following her crucial repairs. A new captain had recently taken over the ship and he was determined to improve her safety record so that day was to be spent practising aircraft take-off and landings. However, as usual, the engines kept stalling and instead of steaming out into the Atlantic she was ordered to remain in the Firth of Clyde, chugging between the islands of Little Cumbrae and Arran. The mood on board would have been cheerful because all non-duty crew were due to go on leave as soon as she returned to shore at 1800 hrs.

At 1630 hrs some of the aircraft were refuelling in the hangar while another waited on deck. Suddenly, at 1640 hrs, a huge explosion ripped through the aircraft lift, shooting the whole thing into the air. While all personnel on the flight deck were toppled into the sea a plume of smoke and flames shot out of the hole and the wooden flight deck folded ‘like the lid on a tin of sardines’. Almost immediately the ship began to list backwards and the bow lifted out of the water.

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Few of the 527 men on-board survived, despite being within sight of shore and having immediate assistance from the many boats present in the Firth. Of those who managed to abandon ship only 149 men were rescued, every attempt at pulling them out of the freezing water being hampered by the quantity of oil discharged. Dasher’s fuel tanks had contained 75,000 gallons of aviation fuel. Thick and slippery it floated on the surface of the water, covering survivors. And then it caught fire. Several ships involved in the recovery were given commendations for ploughing through flames to rescue seamen.

By 16.48 the HMS Dasher had sunk.

The sinking of HMS Dasher

All survivors, and those who took part in the rescue, were warned they must never talk about the disaster. It still bares little mention in official records. The reason given at the time was that morale was low and the RN still had other US ships in service. Many sailors were already calling these ships ‘floating bombs’ because the aviation fuel tanks were placed too near the ammunition stores. Whatever the truth my friend’s dad was held in an internment camp because he was a merchant seaman and not Royal Navy, therefore deemed a civilian.

But the story doesn’t end there. Recent research has led to a different reason for the secrecy – Operation Mincemeat. One of the sailors who drowned in the Dasher disaster was apparently used for the deception that played a key role in diverting German intelligence from the Allied landings at Normandy.

Whatever the truth the story is a strange one. If the navy was so short of able men it seems absolutely ridiculous to keep experienced sailors under lock and key. Having trawled the internet I’ve found many stories written by descendants of Dasher’s survivors but not one ‘first-hand’ report. It seems nobody broke their oath to keep the whole affair secret.

There is a memorial to HMS Dasher and all who were lost on the fore-shore at Ardrossan.

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Secrets

Raffles estate, Carlisle, late Saturday night.

Mary (not her real name) hears a heavy knocking on her front door. In her eighties and recently widowed she takes a long time to reach the entrance and slot the safety chain into the frame. She’s lived on the estate all her life and knows its dangers too well. Her eyes struggle with the darkness and she can barely believe her eyes when she sees two bulky men in uniform standing to attention on her doorstep.

Clearly they’ve come to the wrong address. They’re wearing identical smart black uniforms but speak with strange foreign accents. Surely can’t be police.She asks them to wait while she phones for her son. Looking out of her window she sees their car; bigger and blacker than the Daimler hired for her husband’s funeral. And there’s a flag on the bonnet, she can just make out the colours under the street lights – red, white and blue.

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Her son arrives in minutes. Known as the local enforcer his legend is usually enough to keep anyone from messing with his mum.

Aware the neighbour’s curtains are twitching he invites the strangers inside. He can barely believe it when they announce they’ve come from Moscow with a special honour for his dad. What exactly did his dad do in the war?

In a brief ceremony they present his mum with the highest honour for bravery that the Russian people can award, to a foreigner – the gold star.

As soon as the Russians leave he sits his mum down, makes a cup of tea and fires off questions. All his mum remembers is that his dad spent half the war in prison, up in Scotland. Well a sort of prison, it was really an internment camp.

But his dad was English to his bones. What on earth had he been doing that condemned him to spend half the war in prison? Was he spying for the Russians? That couldn’t be right surely.

Next day he looked through his dad’s papers, discovering that he’d served in the Merchant Navy before the war began. So what led to him being arrested? Nothing in the boxes of photographs and faded documents explained this time in prison.

That’s when he asked if I could do some research. And I discovered a dark secret that the government tried very hard to hide. So much so that everyone involved spent the rest of the war in an internment camp. And it had nothing whatsoever to do with Russia.

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Destined to never sleep

A week from the finish of our loft conversion. I had been looking forward to achieving some sense of a ‘normal’ marriage after sleeping separately from Jake for 2 years.  And looking fo…

Source: Destined to never sleep

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Day Trip through Cumbria

Tuesday. Michael’s birthday (age irrelevant) and we took off for the day, abandoning all our responsibilities. Bliss. Autumn is such a majestic season and Cumbria does it so well. When the sun shines (and it did) the scenery is due a sharp intake of breath as the fells stride across the horizon, grandiose and serene.

Mist cloaked the Eden plain as we set off, the landscape still holds memory of the long shallow lake that once lay between Penrith and Carlisle. Our first call was Sizergh Castle, a conglomerate of stone buildings dating from the Norman Conquest. The Strickland family were movers and shakers during the Border Wars but made their fortune (and extended their lands and power) through pertinent marriages. Since the 1950’s the house has been in the care of the National Trust.

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We arrived to discover the house didn’t open until noon, because they were into their ‘winter’ programme, but there was a ‘tour’ at 11 so we explored the gardens while we waited. The famous lime-stone rockery was designed by Hayes of Ambleside in the 1930’s when Sizergh was undergoing renovations by the current lady of the house (reported to be the third richest woman in England). Volunteers were busy tidying the long borders still brimming with blousy blooms and a velvet-smooth croquet lawn steps down to the small lake which is surrounded by wild flower meadows. We discovered a traditional Maltese gondola laid-up in the great barn and during our tour of the house learned a Strickland was first Prime Minister to Malta. Unfortunately at the same time he was MP for Kendal and virtually dismissed from the House of Commons for putting Malta before matters more pertinent to his constituency. Perhaps our first MEP?

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Sizergh Castle

During their years of tenure the NT have re-established Sizergh’s unique interior – negotiating the return of its Elizabethan fixtures and fittings from the V & A Museum in London. Death duties forced the family to sell what is thought to be the best surviving example of domestic Tudor panelling, restored to its original setting in the master bedroom in 1999.

Almost noon and we crossed into the vale of Windermere. We rarely get a chance to visit this part of Cumbria because it’s clogged with tourists all summer, making the roads impassable.  We took the opportunity to visit Blackwell, a property gifted to Kendal Museum of Art at the turn of the 20th century. Architect MH Baillie Scott was commissioned to design a summer residence for brewing magnate Sir Edward Holt of Manchester. It encapsulates all the innovations of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

When I went to Art College we were drilled with the achievements of Morris & Co and Blackwell House captures the spirit of that revolution in design. Every detail in the house is produced to work in harmony with the overall theme of nature. Worth a visit although very little of the original furnishings remain.

The weather still being kind we decided to forego lunch in order to visit Holehird Gardens, another long-held wish fulfilled. Originally the Lakeland Horticultural Society leased two acres of an abandoned rock garden above Holehird Mansion in 1971 but this has grown into a magnificent series of gardens which provide inspiration for anyone who loves gardens, but most particularly those north of Preston. And the views across the surrounding fells are breathtaking.

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Holehird Gardens

 

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Balance

roobs

A study of Reuben, by me.

 

There has been much talk of late about raising the health of the nation, following the Olympics and Paralympics in Rio, and how we’ve all become couch potatoes. Now I don’t want to bang on about the pros and cons of physical fitness because I don’t see this as the issue. What I see lacking in our society is the conviction we should follow our dreams, whatever they might be.

My life is spent being creative and I find it really difficult to relate to any client who says she can’t visualise a piece of jewellery that I’ve drawn or described. That’s really sad. To me it seems a more serious flaw than not being able to run or jump or skip (although Delilah tells me only girls can skip). Not being able to see something in your head, not being able to imagine… that’s frightening.

Writing is my outlet but it isn’t my life, I’m surrounded by family, business and an unruly garden which I vindicate by saying it’s fashionably wild. Mother tells me all the things I should be doing like trimming the lavender and pruning the roses. Once I’d have obediently dropped everything in order to keep the borders contained but I need my writing more than I need tidy hedges. Mother comes from ‘chapel’ stock, where ‘play’ of any kind is seen as frivolous and may only be undertaken when ‘work’ is diligently completed. And that’s how I grew up, believing ‘frivolous’ activities such as drawing, painting and writing were for another breed, not mine.

A recent study of the mental health of our nation produced some very damning statistics. More young people than ever before are suffering mental breakdowns, a truly worrying reflection on our culture, on the constraints that fixate society. I’m not qualified to give reasons but I believe everyone has problems and life is complicated. Surely balancing the bad and the sad with doing something creative, even if it means imagining a dream world, is one way of coping. My way of coping.

Once upon a time… isn’t that the most enigmatic beginning? But it isn’t healthy to put the past before the present. Dreams are about tomorrow. Dream Big.

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From York to Eternity

How did it get to be September 2016? I’ve not written a blog for months and feel ashamed of my lack of discipline. I could pile on the excuses and extrapolate sympathy but in all truth I just didn’t feel I had anything interesting to say.

 

However, I’ve just returned from The Festival of Writing at York University. Over the weekend I learned much about the publishing industry and that insight absolutely terrified me. If it hadn’t been for the lovely author Tracy Rees (writer of Times Best Seller – Amy Fox) describing the process of publication like building a bridge between the creative process of writing and the competitive world of publishing I would have left downhearted and more than a little afraid.

 

Often I’ve toyed with the idea of going back to study full-time but after listening to lectures all weekend realised I can’t sit still long enough. I’ve often regretted the fact that I didn’t have the opportunity to go to university when I left school (my family didn’t believe in further education for girls) and it was always my dream to study creative writing when I had time but now I’m not so sure. York University is like a small city and the grounds beautiful and I envy anyone who goes there but my life has moved on and I don’t have any hopes of being a literary writer. But still I absolutely love to write.

 

So I’ve written my first book and edited and edited and edited until I can’t see a way of making the words any better – what next? Attending the festival gave me a different education, a hard-nosed, money-toting, commercial education. Obviously if a publisher takes your book they want to make money BUT the sad truth is that hard copy book sales have been falling steadily while eBook sales are growing and latest figures seem to indicate that this trend will continue.

 

Over the Festival weekend I listened to many authors talking about their careers, about their ups and downs, and it struck me they all had one thing in common, even when their work was dissected, damned and destroyed they never ever gave up.

 

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Wet Weather Blues

Today it’s raining again. In fact here in northern England it’s been raining practically all winter – storms have engulfed the county almost every single day since we returned from our mammoth whirlwind tour of SE Asia on 26th October. The biblical 40 days and 40 nights that sent Noah on a boat-building mission seem like a storm in a teacup compared to the relentless deluge we’ve endured for sixty plus nights and days. Everywhere the ground is sodden, local rivers have repeatedly burst their banks and destroyed whatever stands in their way. Our garden is a soggy bog and the special bonfire we built to celebrate my 60th birthday back in November remains unlit, just waiting a week’s respite.

My mother keeps saying it will be better when we get January out of the way. True, it isn’t so bad when daylight hours grow longer, but ever since she moved to Cumbria from the south she seems to think I’m responsible for the weather and unfortunately this year is turning out to be the wettest on record.

However, despite the doleful winter, mum remains more optimistic than me. I’ve known the temperatures drop to well below minus in February, March, or even April, and still remember driving over the fells with snow falling in June. Thank goodness for holidays.

So I thought, to brighten the day, I’d post a series of photographs from our last trip abroad, travelling courtesy of our son David and his partner Stacey. They were doing a seven month stint as ‘skaters in residence’ on board the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Voyager of the Seas. And we were allowed to sail free!

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What do I know of hate?

A ricochet fire-crack splits the night streets.

The sound chills my soul.

I have never fired a gun but the media have taught me this sound and I recognise its tyranny.  It is synthesized in my knowing as the sound of terror.

The distinctive stutter of mechanical death.

What do I know of hate?

During the seventies I worked in central London. In 1978 a car exploded immediately outside my place of work. After the rancid bellow of explosion I stood with my colleagues in a vacuum of silence. The window of our office had become a gaping hole and a cold December chill was biting my face.

Within minutes an army of police arrived. They cordoned off our road. Dover Street, the heart of Mayfair, where things like this should never happen.

We were told to go home. Gianni pointed from the sandwich shop across the road. I looked up to see a helicopter hovering above our building. The police had found body-parts on the roof. The event was barely mentioned in the news – nobody died except the perpetrators.

Later we learned the men who died were delivering the bomb to a destination never discovered, or revealed. The London papers reported they were Iranians but quickly fell silent as another story, another crisis, grabbed the public’s gaze.

I was angry my comfortable world had been invaded by somebody else’s war.

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What do I know of hate?

Last month we visited, as tourists, the place which most represented war during my childhood – the Chu Chi tunnels in Vietnam. As we followed our guide Michael through the maze of jungle paths he explained how the ‘communist rebels’ survived in these inhospitable conditions for twenty years. His father had died fighting on the ‘other’ side, for the South. He described without emotion how his mother was forced to abandon him and his brother to a Catholic orphanage. He said the priests had made him a scholar. He was proud of his country – ‘we look forward, never back’.

During our tour the sound of Kalashnikov gunfire echoed above our heads. The sound was unnerving, adding a distinctive edge to our visit, but we never felt afraid. Michael led us finally to the firing range, a small clearing squeezed behind the café and gift shop. For the price of a bullet, anyone could have a go with a gun – no rules, just pay the man and he’ll load the gun with live ammunition. It’s an easy gun to shoot, Michael said.

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Roaming

It’s good to be back. I’ve been away since mid-September and although I generally thrive on travel the last few weeks I’ve been homesick to such an extent I couldn’t bare to access the internet or even check my e-mails.

Looking down the garden mid-summer.

Looking down the garden mid-summer.

It didn’t used to be such a wrench. I’ve been globe-trotting since child-hood. Dad was a civil engineer and most of his ‘projects’ were based overseas. We hardly lived anywhere longer than a couple of years so rarely put down roots. Home never meant belonging and I grew up believing that mine was a ‘gypsy’ soul. Friends were always few as I itched to move on, to discover just what lay beyond the next horizon. What ties I owned were weak and unsentimental. Yet I was always jealous of people who ‘belonged’ and wished I could claim one place as home. And I suppose that’s why I’ve always loved history. While the present world is always in flux there is a sense of permanence about things past. History exists in the mind’s eye and therefore can’t disappoint or betray expectations. Anyway, that’s my excuse, or perhaps it’s more an apology?

With that in mind our latest round of travels began in Italy, in the Bay of Naples to be exact, a place I’ve wanted to visit for many years. We opted for an eight-day tour because we’ve learned from recent experience that popular sites are virtually impossible to enter without serious forward planning (of which we are incapable) and specialist companies secure priority tickets over individual tourists.

On first arrival I did begin to question that logic, especially when caught-up in rush-hour traffic along the Bay of Naples. Then we enter a series of tunnels culminating in a seven kilometre run which ejects us dramatically onto the rim of cliffs hovering above Sorrento and images of 1950’s movies starring Audrey Hepburn or Sophie Loren transpose my view. Azure seas lap beneath an undulating conurbation of white-washed villas clinging, rather haphazardly, to the cliff-tops; of course it’s entirely breath-taking.

Sorrento

It takes another airless hour to reach our hotel, crawling through narrow lanes packed with traffic, negotiating hair-pin bends not designed for cars never-mind tour buses. We drop fellow passengers at city-centre hotels and wish our destination was closer. However our choice of accommodation proves worth the wait, we have the best view in Sorrento, high above the bay and tucked amongst high-staked vines and olive groves. Our home for the next week is the traditional, family-run Hotel Vue d’Or, and within minutes of our arrival we are flopped, like jetsam, on the marble-tiled balcony, sipping cold beer and expiring in the heat like true Anglophiles.

Hotel Vue d'Or

Next morning, after a solid night’s sleep, our first day unwinds slowly. I sit on the balcony, writing down my thoughts and impressions. Although not yet nine o clock heat seeps down the mountains, crimping at the shade. Sunlight, unleashed, breaks with utter force, smothering, impaling, disturbing, discomforting. A distant mountain is ablaze. Soft grey smoke gathers, suspended like a balloon above the red glow of flames. The smoke sits slovenly and impassive. There isn’t a breath of wind.

Fire mountain

By mid-day the northern horizon hangs grey while small, bee-like planes skim across the smoke dropping buckets of water onto the flames. They seem an ineffectual nuisance. The sun’s brilliance filters through a smothering haze. But far below me sits a turquoise pool, shimmering invitingly. The hotel is clamped onto the mountain-side like a concrete rock, surrounded by red-tiled roofs poking through the dark green mantel of ancient olive groves. The air smells potently of charcoal smoke and hot-house herbs.

The week holds a fast-paced itinerary. There’s no more time to sit and stare as the bus arrives to take us to our first destination. Worse, except for one other day, we have to be ready to leave by 7am. No leisurely breakfasts, no sitting by the pool and wondering if the fires will be subdued, we have an agenda to pursue. I begrudge the means but this is modern tourism, I can’t afford the time, never mind the wider elements of a true ‘grand tour’.

Fast-food outlet, Roman style

Fast-food outlet, Roman style

Coming into Pompeii for the first time it was mind-blowing to think this city was seven centuries old before the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD. Seven hundred years of trading with the known world, of ambitious families accumulating wealth and substance in a city perfectly situated for growth and expansion. Even though it now lies in ruins it still possesses an arrogant beauty. No wonder its citizens were reluctant to abandon their hopes when a series of earthquakes shook Pompeii’s foundations to the core ten years before the final destruction came.

The forum, with Vesuvius lurking behind.

The forum, with Vesuvius lurking behind.

Of course those with real money were able to leave, to abandon their villas by the sea. There is evidence they packed up their riches and left slaves to guard their properties. In fact one of the earliest finds, during the excavations of 1748, were the skeletons of several men who’d been trying to tunnel into the city not long after its annihilation. More recent archaeology has proved they were attempting to recover a large chest containing the combined household silver of a wealthy aristocrat. Historians think it quite possible there was the offer of a generous ransom but poisonous gases still pervaded the site, sealing the treasure-hunters’ demise. And they probably weren’t the only victims because local legend proclaimed the site not merely dangerous but ‘damned’.

Plaster of paris cast of citizen lost in despair

Plaster of paris cast of citizen lost in despair

So Pompeii was largely forgotten. While boiling mud extinguished its existence, the massive eruption diverted the river which bound its wealth and subsequent lava-flows changed the lay of the land until the sea fell back from its harbours and the surrounding marshes became mosquito laden backlands where few dared to linger.

To be continued…

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Getting Back to Work – Phase One and Two

PHASE ONE

The official period of recovery is over and I’m back to the day job and wondering where on earth summer has gone. While time is tightly spliced with family and work and trying to batter the garden into some sort of order and failing I feel I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere, exchanging the luxury of time spent reading and writing with the need to do things I couldn’t attempt during convalescence. It’s not a bad thing, taking a step back, but being recovered I’m finding it harder to justify. As soon as there’s space in my schedule I notice something else that must be done and recent weeks have flown by without much time for writing.

Anyway I decided to seek inspiration by reading some of my fellow writers’ blogs. Last week the Crimson League (http://crimsonleague.com) had an interesting article about creating successful characters using something called the Myers-Briggs type. This device for assessing character came as a complete revelation but rather than discovering how to improve on writing about people I discovered something fundamental about myself. For those unfamiliar with psychology it basically suggests our character is divided into four dominant forces – sensation, intuition, feeling and thinking – and that only one of these functions can dominate most of the time.

The third continuum reflects the person’s decision preferences. Thinking types desire objective truth and logical principles and are natural at deductive reasoning. Feeling types place an emphasis on issues and causes that can be personalized while they consider other people’s motives.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myers%E2%80%93Briggs_Type_Indicator

Revelation! Now I understand every bad decision I’ve ever made. The very fact I act on feelings renders me incapable of making rational decisions. And for years I’ve been blaming mother! Freud eat your heart out, I should have been looking to Jung.

Mum and me

Mum and me

PHASE TWO

Only recently I’ve come to realise the very practise of creative writing is quite absurd. Putting words into a sequence in which they can be recognised and interpreted by a reader to such an extent they can impose the same images into their imagination is completely illogical when you really think about it. Why not just stick to pictures? Words are a form of code, and the essence of a code is that it requires translation and excludes those who cannot understand. When a writer puts a story into words the anticipation is that whoever reads that story will comprehend what is being described but it’s impossible to know what feeds the imagination.  I believe the real art of writing is explaining enough that the reader is transported to another time and place – every scene must have a setting –while giving no more detail than required. I have to trust that readers (like writers) have very active imaginations but what if they have no personal experience of the time and place involved? What really breathes life into a story is something far beyond words.

Shakespeare's Seal

Shakespeare’s Seal?

I write about the past because I love history. I enjoy unravelling the uncertainties of a time I can never experience. History is mystery but I can become so completely lost in researching my subject that the stories slide further and further from completion. While I prefer to have some semblance of reality I can never describe the past as real, however delicious or detailed the research. So how can I make something that only exists in my imagination come alive through words?

Shakespeare seal ring

Ring found buried in the garden at Shakespeare’s home in Stratford upon Avon.

I feel like the traveller who, having got lost, asks directions from a local only to be told they are starting their journey in the wrong place. Perhaps I should turn to writing about the future? With the tramlines of the past erased there is total freedom to invent. Actually that’s rather scary and never forget the very first Star Wars movie begins with the words – A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away – George Lucas framed his tale in history, not science fiction!  Projecting into the future may seem a very good way of escaping the present but I doubt anyone would be interested in my fantasies. Some believe Shakespeare’s Tempest was the first work of science fiction but I’d rather have my stories rooted in actual events because, as they say, truth can be stranger than fiction.

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