The Year In Books: July & June

A literary pick ‘n’ mix…

So it’s summer and of course that means we’re all sitting by the pool, reading something light and airy.

Or maybe not…

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To be entirely truthful, my reading over the last few weeks has been extremely patchy. I’ve certainly downloaded and read a lot of sample chapters on the Kindle, but as for actually reading through a whole book, ummm, well.

The trouble started when I decided after buying the next Gareth and Gwen novel, not to read it straight away. I’ve gulped down so many series novels over the years, I suddenly thought I’d wait and read this later in the winter. But what to read instead?

I won’t bore you with all the titles I tasted. In the end, on the Kindle I have lined up the following;

  • The Passion – Jeanette Winterson (thank you to My Search For Magic for the recommendation)
  • The Gospel of Loki – Joanne M Harris
  • The Enchanted April – Elizabeth von Arnim (guaranteed to make you feel good)

While I was dithering about what to read, Jo at The Hazel Tree posted her review of the classic The Old Straight Track – Alfred Watkins.  This is one of my favourite books, so after reading her post, I dug out my copy and promptly starting dipping in again. Not only is it a fascinating read, but for me it’s quite nostalgic, bringing back lots of happy memories.

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Then my yoga teacher lent me her copy of Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness – Erich Schiffman, so I’m gradually reading through that too.

Which would probably have been more than enough to get my teeth into. But then, a few days ago, I happened upon the new Marc Morris history book – The Norman Conquest. What is a history junkie supposed to do! I like Marc Morris’s style, and I thought before I buy the new book, I’ll re-read his previous one, about Edward I – which I did.

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And then – big mistake, I looked Marc Morris up on the Kindle and found he’d written another book, about castles – Castles: A history of the buildings that shaped medieval Britain. It’s at times like these someone should take my Amazon account off me. Naturally I demonstrated no self-control whatsoever, not only did I order Castles, I also found a copy of Prof R Allen Brown’s classic, English Castles online, which I’ve also ordered.

Which would have been alright I suppose, if I hadn’t then decided I might as well buy The Norman Conquest anyway – which I have…

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My name is Anny and I am a history-bookaholic.

Happy reading

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Tree time: July…

Phew, we made it to the last day of term! Things are a bit behind around here, but I’ve just stolen a few minutes to write up the latest from my daily tree project, before I pour a large glass of something red and delicious and head to the sofa.

This was the oak at the beginning of July

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As the weeks go by and the hedges fill outwards and upwards, it’s getting harder to see the tree behind the green screen.

And here it is today (July 23rd) – the bird box is now almost invisible behind all the growth.

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Seven months in and the best thing for me about this whole project so far, is that I’ve gone from sort of noticing what was going on around me, to really being interested and looking out every day for changes in the hedges and trees along our route. I’ve become much more aware of what’s growing where and the developing leaves, flowers and now fruits too. I wish there was a pet naturalist handy to come along on the odd walk and tell me more about what I’m seeing, but I’m definitely learning a lot about the local plant and animal/bird life.

A while ago, I realised that I’m inevitably going to want to be able to compare what I’ve seen this year with what happens next year. At first I tried keeping a daily diary – on paper and then digitally, but I just don’t have the time to keep up that pace, so I thought I’d try to do a summary here once in a while.

So the highlights of July on our daily walk have been…

IMAG6720_BURST001Seeing the baby conkers start to form.

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But being concerned that the horse-chestnut trees already seem to have gone into autumn mode – they’re all like this, is that normal or are they ill?

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Ok, you’re probably wondering why I’ve put this picture here. Well, until mid-July the whole lane was a mess of huge, dangerous pot-holes (which it has had for as long as I’ve been walking this route) Then one morning two weeks ago, as the dog and I stood clear of a fast approaching Audi, we watched him hit a particularly big hole and blow out his front tyre. I stopped to talk to him and he said the council should sort out the road - oh yes, I thought, and pigs will be sprouting wings any day now, but just look what happened a week later!

Mind you, it was a very patchy job to say the least, as you can see by the amount of water still filling the holes after the mid-month thunderstorms…

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Can you see the squashed traffic cone in the hedge – it used to mark the biggest hole. You’d still be foolish to drive, walk or cycle in those puddles.

Talking of rain, we’ve certainly had our share this month. The lane becomes a fast-flowing stream – which I love, but the dog hates…

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The sky has been wonderful

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But perhaps the best part of the month has been watching the fruits arrive in the hedgerow…

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elderberries, not ready yet, but there will be plenty.

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Hazelnuts,

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and blackberries, although there are still a lot of brambles in flower.

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These thistles are nearly over now, but I loved their shape and texture.

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The lane feels more like a tunnel now that the hedges are so high. This was the lane in February

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And today.

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I think I may have become a tiny bit obsessed with all this :)

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Harvington Hall, Worcestershire

A house of secrets…

One very hot afternoon last week, I headed up to Worcestershire to carry out a couple of family errands and to reward myself with a visit to my all-time-favourite historic house – Harvington Hall.

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This isn’t the first time I’ve written about it. After a Christmas trip I wrote a post for Mists of Time explaining some of the historic background – which in essence is: Elizabethan moated manor, incorporating older hall section. Famous for having at least seven priest hiding holes, created by NIcholas Owen, none of which ever gave up their secrets during the time they were being used.

Oddly enough, in all the many years I’ve been going to Harvington, I don’t remember going before on a sunny day. I wondered how it would affect the atmosphere, because although I’ve always loved it, you couldn’t really call it a particularly warm house. The word I’d usually used to describe the Hall was brooding.

But I may have to revise my opinion after the latest trip.

I get the impression that Harvington is having a bit of a resurgence. Back in the 1960s when I started going, it felt as if it was only a few winters away from ruin, now it almost feels inhabitable!

And now instead of an overriding atmosphere of broodiness and secrets, it actually feels warm and welcoming. The creaking floorboards sound like people having a good time rather than ghosts shuffling across a room.

I’m going to stop waffling on now about how wonderful it is and just show you a few of the photos I took.

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This is new – now you can really see how a Tudor kitchen might have looked.

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I loved this little touch (although I think they should have some adult sizes too).

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One of Harvington’s secrets here. This isn’t really a fireplace, just a dummy which conceals one of the hiding places – neat!

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And there’s another hiding place here – but you can’t see it – a clue: the vertical panel on the top right rotates to give access to a hide. It would have been hidden behind a bookcase originally.

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The herb garden has been created in a tiny space between the Hall and the moat, you can’t tell it’s there unless you know where to look – a green secret.

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Years ago I couldn’t imagine wanting to spend the night at the Hall, but now, I’m not so sure.

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The original staircase was stripped out and reused by the Throckmorton family at Coughton Court – this is a recreation. Oh and there’s a hide under the stairs too.

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One of the new secrets about Harvington is that the food served there is absolutely wonderful. You can eat in the tearoom which is in the oldest part of the Hall, or take your lunch outside – beware the rapacious ducks.

The Elizabethans were singing and playing. I’m not generally a fan of this sort of thing, but on that afternoon it felt perfect. My eldest daughter says that if she were ever queen, she’d insist on being accompanied everywhere by minstrels…

And finally, the secret of the wall paintings. They’re very faint, you might want to click on the gallery to have a better look. Imagine just how amazing this old brick and timber house would have been in its painted hey-day.

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Well, I couldn’t end without another window… looking out over the moat.

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Harvington Hall is owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham and obviously greatly loved and cared for by a host of devoted, friendly and enthusiastic people. It may not be the grandest house, it may not have any major works of international renown, it may not be on many visitors top-ten attractions list, but it is and always will be my favourite – summer and winter.

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For visitor information, see this link here.

Under one roof…

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Many of you will know that I have a passion for historic places and keep a blog where I record my various visits. This seemed like a good idea when I started, no need to bore people who expected stitchiness with historical stuff over here, and visa versa. But – you knew there was a ‘but’ coming didn’t you – but, having had things arranged like this for a couple of years, I’ve decided to risk it and bring the historic stuff under this blogging roof.

To be honest, keeping it separate has always felt a bit weird, but when I started blogging, the advice was all about being topic specific. However, I think the latest post from Annie Cholewa (AKA Knitsofacto) sums it up perfectly, especially her quote from Mark Kerstetter .

‘The best blogs are acts of bricolage, a new kind of collage, incorporating images, texts, ideas. Why not use them all? And while you’re at it, be yourself.’

Until I brought the history stuff together with everything else, I wasn’t really being myself.

I apologise in advance for any pant-removing boringness, but at least you’ll now be getting the whole me.

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Why I Stitch…

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If you spend half as much time trawling Blogland as I do, you’ll no doubt have seen a fair number of bloggers lately writing about why they write. I love reading these posts, I suppose we’re all fascinated by what brings us back to the blank screen, time after time.

I started thinking about writing one myself, but before I got very far, the word stitch booted out the word write and just wouldn’t go away. So why I write will have to wait for another day, this post, shamelessly using the same format, is about…

Why I Stitch…

What am I working on?

This is what I’m stitching at the moment – well, I would be if I wasn’t also running a part-time taxi service for two teenage daughters, doing daily battle against the invading laundry pile and attempting – frequently in vain –  to keep on top of the cooking/shopping/gardening and cleaning.

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This time I’m going for some gentle texture, so it’s what I’ve taken to calling a canvas embroidery as opposed to the stitched tapestries which are smoother (because they’re all done in tent stitch).

How does my stitch differ from others in the genre?

Ummm, is there a stitched tapestry/canvas embroidery genre? I’ve never been able to decide if what I do fits into any category, which is probably why I find it difficult to know what to call it. All I can say that I know is perhaps unusual, is that I much prefer to stitch into loose-weave canvas materials rather than the rigid monos and interlocks – it makes for interesting times trying to square anything up, but I like the feel, the weight and the drape of the finished pieces much more than anything I’ve ever done on stiff canvas.

Or perhaps I should say that for me, stitching is just painting in threads. I use wools, silks and cottons as a painter would apply oils, acrylics or watercolours – thread just happens to be the medium in which I’m most at home.

Why do I stitch what I do?

I was tempted to answer this ‘I stitch, therefore I am’ (sorry Mr Descartes). I don’t know why I stitch, but I don’t seem to be complete, to feel at one with life the universe and everything unless I have some stitching on the go. It’s just something I’ve done for so many years, it’s integral to who I am.

I tell people that I find the process of stitching meditative and that’s true. When I’m repeatedly passing the needle backwards and forwards through the canvas, I find a peace and inner calm. But when you think about it, that’s not surprising because it’s not something you can do quickly, so it forces you to slow down, and then finding the tiny holes literally requires one-pointed focus, both characteristics of meditation techniques.

As for subject matter, I always wonder where inspiration comes from. I’ve mentioned before how the druidic concept of awen* appeals very much to me, I like to embrace that idea. And somewhere deep in the machinations of my mind, my love of all things ancient and historic, of medieval arts and crafts, and of the patterns and textures from the natural world, coagulates into the designs that finally end up in the canvas.

How does my stitching process work?

Much easier to answer this. I’ll generally start with something loosely seen in my mind – it might be a combinations of colours or a pattern or something that has kindled an idea. I might try to sketch something on paper – probably getting the paints out too, although I never end up with anything even vaguely akin to the cartoons tapestry weavers may use. I just try to see how it might sit in two dimensions.

Then I lay out the canvas and draw on a rough guide (one advantage of using loose-weave scrims and crash, is that it’s much cheaper than tapestry canvas, so I’m not afraid to get anything wrong).

Then I rifle through my stash of yarns and pull out all the colours and textures I think I’m going to want. (If the project starts with a colour concept, this stage will come before the design). Often I’ll decide I need to add shades, so it’s off to whoever has what I’m looking for – I love that part! And frequently, once I’m into the piece, I’ll decide it needs additional shades, so these are bought in as and when they’re wanted.

I mainly use a clip-on frame to hold the canvas because I like to be able to move around it – I suppose this is where I really depart from woven projects which have to be created line by line and this is also why I tend to think of it as painting in threads, after all you don’t paint from the top up or visa versa, you go all over the canvas as the piece requires, and this is to some extent how I stitch (this is also how I decide how to fine-tune which colours to use where).

And after that, it’s just a case of sitting down and stitching and stitching and stitching until all those little holes are finally filled with threads.

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* Awen: It’s not an easy concept to sum up in a few words here. The wiki link is a start, but there are druid bloggers and writers who do a better job – albeit in many more words if you’re interested.

A couple of Why I Write posts I’ve really enjoyed are from Sue at The Quince Tree and Jessica at Rusty Duck. Check out the comments on both these blogs for links to more lovely bloggers’ posts – you’ll need a large mug of your favourite beverage and half and hour at least to while away, but it’s one of the best ways to meet some new Blogland heros.

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Do continue the hop if you haven’t already, whether it’s why you write or stitch, or, well – whatever makes your heart sing.

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Open gardens…

One of our local villages held it’s open gardens event at the weekend. They really couldn’t have asked for better weather, in fact for those of us walking around it was almost too hot. (Note to self: must buy a decent sun hat that doesn’t make me look like a cricket umpire or extra from a Poirot episode)

I didn’t take many photos because it was just too bright to see what I was doing in most of the gardens, but also because it felt rather impolite.

But there’s no doubt that a HUGE amount of work had been done, bringing the various gardens to a peak of perfection. A great variety in styles and planting on show too, from immaculate Japanese -style, to a mini-Hidcote, cottage garden to stumpery, all beautiful in their own ways.

I’d assumed when we went that I’d end up feeling inadequate about our own little space, but oddly enough I came home very happy because I know I don’t have what it takes to create the sort of garden we visited yesterday. I love seeing what other people have achieved, but it doesn’t inspire me to do the same.

It was a thoroughly lovely way to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon, but I’m content that re-classifying our garden into a nature reserve was the right move for us. I’m much more of a potterer than a real gardener, although I do reserve the right to change my mind, who knows what might happen in years to come…

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Tree Time: June…

So here we are, half way through the year. I must admit to being quite pleased with myself for sticking with my daily tree photo project, but the truth is that I’m enjoying doing it very much indeed.

When I started, it was the changes in the weather and the light that held my interest while the tree didn’t seem to be doing very much, but since then, I’ve become far more aware of all the other developments happening as the year progresses along our route. So this year I’ve watched all the wild flowers as they bloom, I’ve seen the hawthorn blossom turn the lane white, I’ve heard the first cuckoo of spring, I’ve been soaked to the knees wading through a sea of grass in the field after rain, and I’ve held onto the dog’s lead as the new tiny rabbits made their initial forays into the lane.

It will be midsummer in two days time and I think I can already feel another change in the air. There is so much growth, bracken and nettles tower over me in the hedges, I have to force my way into the place where I stand to take the tree photos, but all that energy can’t be sustained, it will soon be time for nature to rest.

I’m excited to see how the next six months unfold.

Happy Midsummer.

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Moonbeams…

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Inspiration comes from many places and sometimes we don’t really know exactly why a piece evolves the way that it does. But that wasn’t the case with the latest piece of stitched tapestry, because from the moment I saw the fabulous silk Moonbeams on a Mystic Sea from Eleanor Lee at Solstice Yarns, I had a good idea in my mind of how I wanted to use it.

And so here it is. I’m calling this one Moonbeams because that’s where it all came from.

In addition to the greeny silk in there, much of the purply background and big purple patches also came from Eleanor’s wickedly enticing store. There are also a couple of blatantly sparkly gold and silver metallics and a rather subtler, almost silver silk in there, to add a twinkle or two as you walk past.

Working with Eleanor’s threads has been pure bliss. They stitch into the cotton crash so happily, you’d think they’d been designed with that in mind.

Thank you Eleanor.

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Moonbeams.

Approximately 38cm x 38cm

Silk, wool and metallic threads on cotton crash.

May & June 2014

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Hidcote Blues…

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If all had gone to plan at the weekend, this post wouldn’t be here. Instead I’d have written about a visit to Chastleton House over at Mists of TIme (I’ve only been waiting about fifteen years to go to Chastleton, it had better be worth it when I finally get there!).

But on Sunday morning, after a week of rain and grey skies, the sun came out  as we  were driving westward and we made the executive decision to ditch Chastleton and head for Hidcote instead.

Which was such a good move, because it turned out to be the most perfect English summer’s day, and really, what better way to spend it than languidly wandering around one of the most beautiful and iconic gardens in the country (rather ironically the creation of an American).

I took about a zillion photos while we were there, but in honour of the famous lavender ‘Hidcote Blue’ (which I didn’t photograph at all…), here are just a few alternative blues spotted as we meandered through the seemingly endless secret gardens.

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For me, the experience felt like walking through an Impressionist painting. The dazzling variety of textures and jewel-like points of colour seep into your soul and I’m certain it’s not only gardeners who feel inspired by its treasures.

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Hidcote Manor is tucked away in the countryside close to Chipping Camden and managed by the National Trust. It’s always beautiful, but just occasionally, when the Fates decide, it’s magical.

 

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All over the shop…

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So, how’s May been for you?

I was mildly surprised this week to find it’s almost over, surely it can’t have gone by quite that fast.

I seem to have walked in a lot of rain lately, which has had the benefit of making everything smell wonderful, although the elderflowers are refusing to come out until they get some more warm sunshine.

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There has been some stitchiness, but I’m having real trouble getting this one to photograph – this is the best shot I’ve managed so far. Is it me, or does my phone simply not like doing bluey shades – anyone else have this problem?

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Otherwise, it’s all been a bit of a blur.

Did manage a quick trip to Berkhamsted Castle yesterday (dodging the rain – just!). There’s a post over at Mists of Time if you’re interested in ruined castles that had a lot of big name medieval visitors… (oh I know, no need to feel guilty). 

Back in June!

Happy stitching.

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The Year in Books: May

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It’s all been in the mind this month…

There have been two reading highlights for me this month, one pure escapist fiction, the other not fiction at all, both have given me and my imagination a great deal of pleasure. Fiction first…

The Good Knight - Sarah Woodbury

This was another Kindle late night purchase. The reviews said it would appeal to Cadfael lovers and I was ready for a mix of history, mystery and a light touch of romance.

So, it’s set in Wales in the 1140’s, a similar time period to the Cadfael novels, and the hero and heroine – Gareth and Gwen are out to solve a murder mystery, but I’m not sure that’s enough similarity to endear it to Cadfael aficionados. I’m a huge fan of Ellis Peters and I don’t think we’re on the same page as far as literary style goes – but and it’s a big but, despite the sometimes awkward Americanisms that crop up, I thoroughly enjoyed the read. (Let’s put it this way, if you liked the film A Knight’s Tale with Heath Ledger, with its modern speech and soundtrack, then this book won’t offend – if you prefer your history more in period, it will probably annoy you).

Anyway, this is all a bit beside the point, because what kept me up reading wasn’t the plot, but one of the characters, Prince Hywel. I managed to fall in love with him! Fancy that, a middle-aged woman going gooey over a character in a book. Just goes to show what the brain is capable of given the right stimulus.

Needless to say, I’m already reading the next in the series…

My other favourite for May, was unexpected. It was…

Sane New World: Taming the MindRuby Wax

This is really an exploration of depression and her views as a sufferer on ways to treat it.

I came to mindfulness and meditation via a different route to Ruby, a much more esoteric one, and one she’d probably have no time for, but  what I enjoyed were her facts about the brain and it’s function and the research results that have led to mindfulness being used as a treatment. It was a bit like being given a factual explanation for what you already knew on trust or faith.

It’s written in a very accessible style, not aimed at neuroscientists, but doesn’t dumb-down. It doesn’t give you the techniques in detail, but there are many sources for taking up a mindfulness or meditation practice if you’re persuaded to try yourself. Even if you’re lucky enough not to experience depression, I’ll bet you know someone who does – it’s an interesting read and anything that helps make mental illness less of a stigma has to be good.

Right, off to find out what Prince Hywel is up to…

Happy reading.

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