David Peterley’s Peterley Harvest was first published on 24 October 1960. The book had a curious history and, shortly before publication, stories began to appear in the press declaring it to be an elaborate hoax.

The jacket of the book contained the information that David Peterley was the only son of an old Quaker family that had ‘lived in the Chilterns and been neighbours of Milton and the Penns’. He had left college in 1924 at the age of 22 and, despite ‘having been trained to no trade or profession’, gone to work in a solicitor’s office. To escape the tedium of this work, and as an alternative to marriage with a woman of his father’s choice, he set out to see the world and, after staying some four years in Australia, returned to England in 1930. From 1926 to 1939, when he went back to Australia, Peterley kept an extensive diary, rewriting the personal passages so as to produce a ‘more or less continuous autobiographical narrative’ which, we are told, the editor Richard Pennington further abbreviated for publication. The first four years of this diary are dissolved into Mr Pennington’s Introduction, and Peterley Harvest, ‘the private diary of David Peterley now for the first time printed’, opened in June 1930 as David Peterley disembarked at Liverpool.

This framing of the book provoked much bewilderment. Readers were not told whether or when David Peterley had died or how his papers came to reach McGill University in Canada. They were told that since 1946 Richard Pennington had been head librarian at McGill University. But by including an anonymous drawing in profile of David Peterley as frontispiece, and a photograph of Mr Pennington on the inside flap of the jacket, the publishers were giving away too many clues. The drawing showed the young man whom Mr Pennington describes in his Introduction as having the ‘slight irregularity of face that women find handsome, especially when matched with blond hair and blue eyes’. The photograph of Mr Pennington revealed a dark-bearded, middle-aged man who was described as having been at different times a publisher, sailor, printer, university lecturer and frequent speaker on Canadian radio and television. Yet were these not likenesses, light and dark, of the same man? If so, it would give point to such jokes as the Peterleys having been near neighbours to the Penns (which when added to Milton almost gives you Pennington), and to the remark made by a friend to Peterley while on a visit to Prague: ‘that it was a pity my name was David, and that if it had been Richard I could have become the second Richard of Prague.’

Confirmation of this single identity appeared to have been provided by the copyright line, which simply read: © Richard Pennington. It seems unthinkable that a sometime publisher and printer would have allowed such a line to appear had he wished to float a forgery – he would have used the more discreet tactics of Madame Solario or Letters of an Indian Judge to an English Gentlewoman. Peterley Harvest is not in fact a forgery, but one of those ‘fakes’ that present autobiographical material with the foreshortening and ambiguity of an imaginative work – what Wordsworth meant by ‘to throw over incidents and situations from common life a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect’.

The unusual aspect of Peterley Harvest gave its first reviewers an appalling headache. They did not know what to make of it, ‘unless, of course’, hazarded the Sunday Times literary editor, ‘the diary is really the work of Richard Pennington’. Even then, how was one to evaluate such a strange enterprise? Some papers gave it cautious notices (‘has atmosphere’, noted the Guardian) or retaliated with venom: ‘The harvest of David Peterley was sour grapes,’ commented the Times. Others left it alone. It is easy to feel sympathy for those literary editors who at short notice found themselves in this predicament, but their fears of becoming the dupes of a sinister literary plot now seem exaggerated. Philip Toynbee, for example, who declared that he had never really been taken in for a minute, his scepticism having been awakened early on by the frontispiece (you can’t get much earlier in a book than its frontispiece), obviously had been taken in and felt let down. He wrote in the Observer.

While I could still believe that it was dealing, through however many curtains of romantic gauze, with a real life and a real person… I wanted very much indeed to know who he was. But as soon as I had concluded that he was nobody at all I found Peterley Harvest a serious strain on my patience. Did the author foresee such a reaction … how could he imagine that the hoax would work? How could he dare to introduce his figment to men and women of authenticated flesh and blood?

Toynbee was particularly sensitive to the danger of literary victimisation, having been much mocked in the late 1950s for the generous welcome he gave to Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. Determined not to be taken in again, he was aggressively on guard against some of his own best instincts. There was, too, a genuine problem of category. Was Peterley Harvest a novel autobiography or an autobiographical novel? And does it matter whether the book is a memoir or fiction or an ingenious amalgam of the two?

Short of the Hitler Diaries, this question has seemed to matter less in the last twenty-five years, partly because there has been considerably more cross-fertilisation between fiction and non-fiction. This process has enriched our recent fiction – most remarkably, perhaps, the novels of Peter Ackroyd, D.M. Thomas, Beryl Bainbridge, Julian Barnes and Thomas Keneally, whose Schindler’s Ark was marketed in America (under a slightly different title) as non-fiction and in Britain as a novel. Writers of light fiction, too, have added to the enrichment of their work by introducing people from history to fictional characters from the books of other novelists – a notable example being the co-operative sleuthing of Sherlock Holmes and Freud in Nicholas Meyer’s adventure The Seven Per Cent Solution.

Many American and British novelists, from Truman Capote to Piers Paul Read, have taken on the non-fiction thriller. But the benefits of fictional devices to serious non-fiction, from the days of André Maurois’s romanticised version of Shelley to Norman Mailer’s pastiche of Marilyn Monroe, have seemed more dubious. With Peterley Harvest there was an additional problem because, unlike recent fictional diaries such as Nazi Lady: The Diaries of Elisabeth von Stahlenberg 1933-1948, or fictional autobiographies such as Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, or Danny Hill: Memoirs of a Prominent Gentleman (edited by Francis King) and Margaret Forster’s ‘edition’ of Thackeray’s Memoirs of a Victorian Gentleman, the book mingled respected literary figures still alive in Britain with private characters who, if not invented, were surely concealed like the author himself under pseudonyms. Peterley Harvest therefore seemed suspended between the fictional diary that has a well-established place in English literature and such fraudulent productions as The Whispering Gallery, those anonymous ‘leaves from a Diplomat’s Diary’ whose author had been prosecuted in the late 1920s on a charge of attempting to obtain money under false pretences. The author of that hoax, reputed to be Lord Birkenhead, turned out to be an actor named Hesketh Pearson. In a subsequent book of breezy reflections on the craft of biography called Ventilations, Pearson gave examples of how the non-fiction writer may use his fancy to improve on fact – a perversion of Wordsworth’s prescription, which Pearson renounced for solid Johnsonian principles of biography once he became a professional biographer himself in the 1930s.

It seems to have been Mr Pennington’s aim to shake these Johnsonian conventions, which had become somewhat fossilised by the 20th century, and use more ambiguous combinations of methods to achieve his particular artistic ends. He writes in his Foreword that the justification of Peterley Harvest is to be found ‘in the revelation of the inner life of fugitive images in the mind and fitful impulses of the heart, that inner life which with most of us goes unrecorded and which it is the aim of the official biography to conceal’. This is very similar to Virginia Woolf’s view of traditional life-writing which she parodied in her fantasy-biography Orlando: ‘Directly we glance at eyes and forehead, we have to admit a thousand disagreeables which it is the aim of every good biographer to ignore ... all these sights and the garden sounds too, the hammer beating and the wood chopping, began that riot and confusion of the passions and emotions which every good biographer detests.’

There had been a number of experiments in the late 1920s and early 1930s – among them Harold Nicolson’s delightful vignettes Some People, Lytton Strachey’s psychological melodrama Elizabeth and Essex and A.J.A. Symons’s detective mystery. The Quest for Corvo – all designed to find more imaginative and adventurous ways of writing non-fiction. What these authors were trying to do was to release biography from the mechanical processes of the card-index, the confinement of chronology, the heavy impedimenta of reference notes and bibliographies, as well as from all the pompous paraphernalia of 19th-century Lives and Letters that had made the getting of information their chief priority and locked up biography in the reference library. Peterley Harvest does not even have an index. We are told that it is ‘strangely one-sided’, that ‘all the memorable things are omitted’ and that ‘as a record of living it is absurdly false.’ ‘I do not believe that the choice of entries for a journal is made à votre insu by your subconscious,’ writes the author, ‘and therefore is a true revelation.’ But this declaration cunningly prompts the response that the diary nevertheless is a fantastical revelation, since the entry goes on to describe all those convivialities that it states go unrecorded. Of course, the biographer must respect facts, and these may be independently authenticated; the novelist seeks a truth that may be verified by his own vision and the imprint that the novel comes to make on the minds of readers. By finding legitimate ways of managing the facts and incidents of life with the imaginative techniques of novel-writing, Harold Nicolson, Lytton Strachey and A.J.A. Symons had wanted to put biography back on the English literature shelf. Peterley Harvest is another attempt to combine the advantages of both worlds by attaching the substance of biography to the freedom of fiction.

A number of facts may be checked. It is a fact, as Peterley writes, that in 1937 Graham Greene was chosen to edit an English imitation of the New Yorker called Night and Day, and it is a percipient comment, in view of the coming success of Horizon and the brief existence of Night and Day, that Cyril Connolly’s talent might have better fitted him to be its editor. The bibliographical information concerning the British poet Robert Nichols’s career is factual; the biographical asides surrounding that drunken social outcast, the Australian poet Christopher Brennan (whom J.C. Squire believed to be an invention of David Peterley’s, and who is now recognised as Australia’s first poet of international significance) may be checked against a long manuscript in the Mitchell Library at Sydney – by Richard Pennington. Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies did take the part of Etain in Rutland Boughton’s opera, The Immortal Hour in 1922, with Peter Shelving’s designs, and since she also acted in a play called Spring Tide which opened at the Duchess Theatre on 15 July 1936, we may safely bet that this play was, as Peterley reveals, co-authored by J.B. Priestley under the pseudonym Peter Goldsmith. Richard Pennington’s slip here, by failing as editor to move Peterley’s diary from June to July, is almost an invitation to the critic to misunderstand his methods. For in terms of such events we are reading an accurate account, including some unorthodox items that find no place in official biographies and academic bibliographies. It follows that Peterley’s record of the Czechoslovakian crisis in the late 1930s is historically true, and Harold Nicolson’s attitude, though more sympathetically presented in his diaries, not unfairly shown. But there is no mention of Peterley or Pennington in Nicolson’s diaries or in James Lees-Milne’s two-volume biography of Nicolson.

There is no mention of them, or of this book, anywhere. They do not appear in the biography of Arthur Machen by Aidan Reynolds and William Charlton, though Peterley Harvest has some vivid pages on Machen. From this biography, published three years after Peterley Harvest, the facts of Peterley’s narrative may be verified. There was, for example, a dinner held in Machen’s honour at the National Liberal Club on 19 October 1937. Pennington can introduce Peterley to it because Pennington was actually Gladstone Librarian at the National Liberal Club. He gives a fuller description of the event than the biography, which contains nothing so wonderfully evocative as ‘the night of Machen’s punch’.

The most arresting picture of a writer in Peterley Harvest is that of A.E. Housman delivering his Leslie Stephen Lecture, ‘The Name and Nature of Poetry’. Every fact that Pennington uses, from the date and the time to the presence of Quiller-Couch and Will Spens, the Vice-Chancellor, may once more be checked from works subsequently published, such as The Letters of A.E. Housman (1971) and Richard Perceval Graves’s excellent biography A.E. Housman (1979). Peterley Harvest has been overlooked by Mr Graves (who uses the evidence of commentators such as Frank Harris): but who can doubt that the non-existent Peterley was among the audience at the Senate House that May afternoon in 1933, and that we are reading an exact, first-hand account from this invisible man?

Housman rose, placed a brown-covered small octavo pamphlet (of paged proofs?) upon the reading-desk and immediately began to read. He spoke slowly, with precision, in a pleasant, even, low, but clear and well-modulated voice, not raising his eyes, and frequently twitching the pamphlet up to the top of the desk, and holding it there with one hand. Even at the witty points he did not look up or change his tone, but kept the outward severity of face and the evenness of voice. Only twice or thrice did his voice falter or change, when he read the stanza ‘Take, oh take those lips away’ and Blake’s verse about the lost traveller’s dream under the hill, and once when he recalled the time long past when he had composed the last poem of the Shropshire Lad: then he was checked for a moment, and brushed his eye with his hand. And there was a solemnity at the end when he bid adieu to literary criticism – and to the world – with the words ‘Farewell for ever.’

  Housman is of middle height, spare of figure, with severe, sharp-cut, well-complexioned face, with thin white hair and white Edwardian moustache and dark black eyebrows. In profile the head is remarkably elongated at the back. He wore a very dark-grey suit, with stiff upstanding collar folded right round the throat, and long stiff cuffs. He spoke for seventy minutes, and the applause at the end was fervent and enthusiastically prolonged, and repeated after the formal thanks of the Vice-Chancellor, and throughout the whole reading there had not been the least stir in the audience, so intent was it upon each word, so conscious of the importance of the occasion, so enthralled by this marvellous discourse. I am immeasurably the more content with life after having heard and seen Housman, and am certain that there can be no comparable experience possible now. I am sure that this greatest of living Englishmen will be great even among the dead.

Housman is especially a poet for the young, and it is appropriate that he should appeal so deeply to the Peterley who doubts at the end of his journal whether he has grown more mature. ‘One develops a worldly wisdom for the struggle for existence; but this is cunning rather than maturity,’ he writes. ‘I am in danger of staying too long in the aesthetic stage, where one should not linger too much.’ Housman, no less than the Welsh wizard Arthur Machen with his magical brews, was a splendid solitary figure from the past who had become stranded in the 20th century, as Peterley feels himself to be, and was consoled in his isolation with the timeless sounds and sweet airs of our literature. He valued poetry as Peterley values the music that fills so much of this journal: for its non-intellectual power to ‘transfuse emotion’, as Housman expressed it, bristling the skin, shivering the spine, constricting the throat, watering the eyes: and for its power to summon up ‘something older than the present organisation of his [man’s] nature, like the patches of fen which still linger here and there in the drained lands of Cambridgeshire ...’

Peterley, too, feels the need of something older than 20th-century organisation, something represented by the 18th-century house which carries the same name as himself and which, he writes, ‘I cannot help thinking nobler because less commercial, and because rooted in the soil’. With Peterley himself we reach another layer of this book, which cannot be authenticated against records but must be measured by its imprint on our minds and emotions. What Richard Pennington attempted to do was to create an Englishman of the Imperial decadence, a contemplative aesthete, incapable of action, who self-consciously reflects the mood of an inglorious period of English history. ‘Peterley [the house] seems now to be merely the symbol of an England that is lost for ever,’ Mr Pennington makes David Peterley write before casting off for Australia early in 1939.

The entre deux guerres is joining the Edwardian age and the 19th century as history. There does not seem to be any present, apart from this waiting for the first shots of the second war. Time and a future may still exist abroad; but here there is only suspension of time and movement, a mere waiting. I shall go abroad.

To establish David Peterley as a figure pinned to this transitory period of decline, and mirroring it through his idle and unpurposed life, Richard Pennington makes him come and go from the other side of the world, and assigns him to that class with most ‘downward mobility’, the upper class. But this invention of a historical character is superseded by something more personal, a Yeatsian image or mask of the anti-self. ‘We are made up of all the things wished for as well as all the things achieved,’ he writes. One may imagine the people whom Mr Pennington saw while employed as librarian at the National Liberal Club, and imagine how in his mind’s eye he followed them from the club into the country and a different world – a world he comes decorously to inhabit as David Peterley and which, being longed for passionately, becomes, not something merely outside himself, but a part of his being. ‘Do you know, I had the feeling at Peterley of being in another century,’ one of the visitors to this make-believe house remarks. It is a romantic past, like an extended evening, gentle and melancholic, that Mr Pennington conjures up around his alter ego. In David Peterley he gives us, not someone simply caught between two wars, but a character adrift between two centuries. Peterley feels that ‘the 18th century was right in its horror of mountains, as in most things. Civilisation is connected with the river valleys.’ He loves the dead ceremonies of the Church: having had all meaning rubbed away by the 20th century, they ‘have gained instead a pacifying perfection like that of Byzantine frescoes or Raphael paintings, that soothe but not inebriate’. He wants transportation to be ‘slowed down rather than speeded up’, suspecting that there may be an inverse relationship between speed and the cultivation of the mind. With his own cultivated mind and from his privileged (if reduced) situation, he understands the word ‘uneconomic’ to mean something that, while not making money, is capable of fulfilling our human needs: ‘My advice would be: if it’s uneconomic, let’s do it. Most things that have given most satisfaction to human beings have been uneconomic – cathedrals and gardens, plays and paintings.’ Peterley’s interests lie in the rural society built upon an agricultural economy. ‘The life of the village and of the small country town I know and love, and think the only life worth living,’ he writes: ‘the life of the industrialised world is a blank.’

David Peterley’s romantic preoccupation with the past pulls against his romantic attraction to Polly, a middle-class musician living in London and belonging very much to the 20th century – ‘the only woman for whom I have any passionate feeling’. It is, as he admits, ‘the attraction of the unknown’, and it makes him come alive in the present. But ‘marriage would be unthinkable: one does not go to Sydenham for wives.’ At the beginning of the narrative he has married Jane, a lady better suited to the style of the house than the personality of David Peterley himself. But after this empty and passionless union is ended, it seems as if he will repeat the error by sacrificing Polly to his obsession with the past and marry another well-cast mistress of the house. The emotional suspense is tightened by his exquisite hesitations. Peterley shows himself to be a connoisseur of indecision, procrastination, and all the sensations of vicarious experience. ‘Life is cruder and simpler than you imagine,’ Polly rebukes him. But it is not simple for Peterley, a creature of the imagination, who hovers agonisingly between his hopes for the future and regrets for the past, knowing life to be the risk of choosing, ‘and having that choice we are the slaves of the anxiety it occasions.’

Eventually he is impelled into action by Hitler, who both opposes order deriving from the 18th century and threatens existence in the 20th century. The Nazi element in the diaries is introduced early through Peterley’s ‘Cousin Richard’. David Peterley is not taken in. ‘I bought a paper and read of a bloodbath of more than oriental amplitude that the National Socialists have been enjoying,’ he writes in the summer of 1934. ‘There seems to be less of the Puritan Ironsides about this new party than Cousin Richard would have us believe.’ Cousin Richard, ‘who’s always as full of the hot gospel from Munich as of Niersteiner’, asks Peterley whether he would like to receive an invitation to a party rally at Nuremberg, but ‘I felt bound to refuse this so flattering offer, and rejoined Polly in the street below ...’

Until the later years of the decade it is the pleasures of private life that absorb Peterley. ‘We lingered amicably my charming companion and myself in the deserted lounge behind the closed shutters,’ he writes during a visit to France in 1934, ‘and if Hitler had at that moment been reported crossing the Rhine I doubt if I should have been disturbed.’ But the shutters must eventually open. The journal skilfully plots the change of emphasis from private into semi-public life. There is a horribly convincing account of the effect of Hitler’s speech-making on a Viennese audience in 1938:

I knew that voice. I had heard it before in days when it held an appeal and had a fascination. Its power was still there to charm men’s ears, and I had to admit that I was listening to one of the greatest orators of the world... the venom in the mind of the orator spilled over into his voice and my companions of the Viennese café were in a murderous heat. The spells of the enchanter were still terrible, and these fat lazy pub-crawlers had turned into man-haters, with their blood pounding in their arteries, their eyes strained and bloodshot, and their sagging muscles tightening under the stimulation of the chemical reaction of their glands.

This, too, must have been the effect produced on ‘Cousin Richard’. But the Munich crisis opens his eyes: he is disenchanted with his Fuhrer – and Cousin Richard joins David Peterley, in forming a political group for the defence of Czechoslovakia.

The politics of Peterley Harvest offer an unfashionable counterpoint to The Orators or Down and Out in Paris and London.‘The young Auden, the young Orwell, longing for signs of change, angry and impatient at the persistence of ingrained forms of social injustice or inequality of wealth, speak of the same world as Peterley’s but seen from the opposite angle,’ John Wain has written. ‘There is no evidence that Peterley worries about social injustice, or thinks about it at all, for that matter.’ With whatever undertow of self-disapproval, Richard Pennington rises from an inferior social position through the phantom figure of David Peterley. His Peterley wants reaction rather than reform: ‘books on economics and sociology therefore have no meaning for me,’ he writes, ‘and the plays of Mr Galsworthy bore me, and I cannot share the conscious worries of Fabian reformers.’ He sees himself as an individualist and spectator of the current scene, though he seems to belong very much to his age, the age of Proust and Dunne’s Experiment with Time, as he calculates the effect on his emotions of the present drifting into the past, and tries ‘not to think of the future.’

Much that is severely hostile to this position and critical of Pennington’s ‘frozen caricature of yourself’ comes through the letters of Peterley’s friend Alice Peers or ‘A.M.P.’, who blames him for his empty egocentricity and terror of commitment. Peterley’s political views are expressed with deliberate arrogance. ‘I am sitting in cafés and enjoying the life of the senses and the mind,’ he writes as late as June 1938. ‘But, after all, that is exactly what all politics are only the administrative machinery for making possible. The only justification for Mr Chamberlain, Herr Hitler, and M. Benes is that they enable me to sit under the castle of the Winter Queen on a summer night drinking wine, and wasting time, and enjoying that strange game of arranging words so as to form an image for the listeners to guess the meaning of, and feeling that emotion of contentment and quiet desire that comes from watching handsome women.’ This view of politics would sound more sympathetic if it insisted on everyone’s right and opportunity to sit in cafés. It is not so far from Dr Johnson’s

How small of all that human hearts endure
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.

Like Johnson, Peterley has inherited a vile melancholy – ‘that very paralysis of will which prevents your voluntary escape from it’. As the record of these years grows darker, so Peterley’s accidie intensifies and his speculations on the elusive nature of happiness become more rarified. Walking through London in the spring of 1938, with the sense of being on the snow line of a new ice age, depression overwhelms him like a black wave. ‘Whitehall is a gloomy street,’ he writes, ‘... and at night dead as the Acropolis, and my own past and the past of history came up like a darker cloud in the dark night, and I seemed to be walking in the ruins of a buried civilisation.’ Whitehall was Mr Pennington’s place of work at the National Liberal Club – the club where the mysterious Peterley sometimes drops in to brood or entertain his guests. The formality of belonging to this disappearing world oppresses him, but ‘when it passed away I am not sure,’ he writes in the autumn of 1938, ‘nor whether it was merely my world that has vanished, or the world of all the people around me. I suspect the latter; and that it was almost certainly the Fuhrer who uttered the spell that dissolved the baseless fabric.’

It is a tribute to the strength and sensitivity of Richard Pennington’s writing that Peterley’s journey through the 1930s does not irritate or depress. The structure of the book is many-layered. It includes an anonymous diary within the diary, letters from known and unknown people, a ghost story by ‘Cousin Richard’, a short story and a few poems by David Peterley, more than one love-affair, some travellers’ tales and an intermittent narrative of historical events. These layers of fantasy and actuality give the work a complex, satisfying texture, and reinforce the central theme at private and public levels. Listening to the King’s abdication speech on 12 December 1936, Peterley records: ‘I shall long remember the shudder that ran through the celebrities ... when the phrase “the woman I love” came so awkwardly out of the mechanical box. I felt it too.’ He feels and will remember it because the King’s moral dilemma has been a magnified version of Peterley’s own risk of choosing.

To solve all the riddles of Peterley Harvest would need a preface by Mr Richard Pennington himself, and perhaps, after all, that would only add to them. Shortly after the book’s first publication, and greatly to the publisher’s dismay, Mr Pennington had it withdrawn and destroyed. Such an act recalls Arthur Machen’s words to Peterley:

‘The job of the literary man – at least I’ve found it so – is inexpressibly painful, nervous, laborious, with more of disappointment and despair than happiness. Only your belief in the value of the written word supports you, and it needs all your strength of will to cling to that belief in this country.’ He showed me a book of newspaper cuttings. ‘These are the unfriendly reviews.’ It was quite a large book

It may be that adverse criticism had some effect, but there are likely to have been other reasons for its withdrawal, some of which (in the spirit of Peterley) were vicarious and some regretted. In any event, a few copies had been bought and others sold abroad before the edition was suppressed, and these so appealed to the common reader that rare copies were soon fetching greatly inflated prices. In 1963, Mr Pennington issued a small new edition in Canada without the frontispiece and with the title page slightly amended. Until now, there has been no other printing.

It may be seen as one of those rare hybrid works, blending realism and romanticism, the serious and the tongue-in-cheek, of which the forerunner was George Borrow’s Lavengro – a book that also had in its beginning few appreciative critics and some vituperative ones. Whatever its forebears, Peterley Harvest fits perfectly into the Arts Council Reprint Library. This already includes fiction and non-fiction by Norman Douglas, Wyndham Lewis, William Gerhardie, F.W.H. Myers and J.B. Yeats, and is designed to rescue maverick work such as this remarkable exercise in ventriloquism.

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