While holidaying in Cornwall with his family during the summer of 1927, Eric Blair announced his intention to quit a well-paid job with the Indian Imperial Police to become a writer. Six years later he published his first book as George Orwell.
This was not the first time the Blair family had holidayed in Cornwall but scant attention has been given to these summer months, except for the story of his resignation and a “first adventure as an amateur tramp” recounted in a letter with a Polperro address. On closer examination, there is evidence that Orwell may have learnt a great deal about the natural world, science, art, literature and politics during these long summer holidays.
One biography does offer a tantalising glimpse of carefree summers, as recalled by Orwell’s youngest sister, Avril Dunn (1908-1978):
“Before 1914 and the Great War, the summer holidays were spent in Cornwall, either at Looe or at Polperro. An old Mrs Perrycoste of Polperro had been brought up by Richard Blair’s mother, Eric’s grandmother, who survived her husband by many years… Mrs Perrycoste’s children, Honor and Bernard, played with Marjorie, Avril and Eric. ‘We used to have a lovely time down there, bathing,’ Avril reminisced in a BBC programme in 1960, ‘we had some friends down there with children who were almost cousins really, and we used to go rock-climbing and all the sort of usual pursuits and he always seemed perfectly happy.’ She remembered Eric, the Perrycoste children and herself going down a lane at Polperro where a headless ghost was said to lurk; and as a precaution they carried sprigs of rowan and a leaf from the Prayer Book. Eric was always interested in ghost stories.”
Bernard Crick, George Orwell: A Life
Who was Mrs Perrycoste? She was only “old” in the sense that to Avril, who was was a little girl at the time, adults all probably seemed that way. Maud Perrycoste (1864-1938) was a little over 40, active, creative, educated and intelligent. An artist and botanist, she had resided in Polperro with her husband since 1898.
Born Mary Maud Hastings, she was the illegitimate daughter of Colonel Samuel Hugh James Davies (1820-1869) and a clergyman’s servant, Mary Ann Hastings (1842-c.1888). Davies was Superintending Engineer on the Bengal Staff Corps when he died of fever in Shillong, India. From a large Anglo-Indian military family, he had never met his daughter but was wealthy, clearly worried about her wellbeing and made provision for ongoing care and significant financial support. Unusually, his will names the man her mother had subsequently married insisting that his daughter is not raised in the household of such a ‘reprobate’ and ‘fugitive’ from the law.
The story of how Maud was raised after the death of her father illustrates a complex web of Anglo-Indian family connections and class consciousness. On Davies’ death in 1869, five-year-old Maud is living with her mother. By 1871 she is residing near Bath in the household of Orwell’s paternal grandmother, Frances “Fanny” Blair (1823-1908). Maud must have ended-up here as Fanny’s younger sister, Laura Elizabeth Hare (1835-1919) was married to Samuel’s brother, General James Snow Davies (1823–1903).
Orwell’s father, Richard W. Blair (1857-1939), was Fanny’s tenth child and one imagines the wealthy Davies family provided much-needed funds to the recently widowed woman ensuring Maud was raised in a genteel home as her father had willed. In 1875, the teenage Richard Blair commenced his Indian Civil Service career in the Opium Department. He remained in this department until 1911.
By 1881, Maud is being educated at a boarding school in Clapham. A decade later she is studying painting in London. By 1896, Maud is exhibiting her work at Birmingham Art Gallery.
Around about this time Maud attended botany classes at Chelsea Polytechnic. The lecturer was Frank Hill Coste (1865-1929) who shortly afterwards changed his name to Perri-Coste (written variously as Perry-Coste, Perry Coste or Perrycoste) to reflect his mother’s maiden name. They married in 1898 and moved to Cornwall where Maud owned a fisherman’s cottage in Polperro.
“… there were few artists who were not bewitched by its twin harbours, its three old stone piers, one of which had properties built on it, its quaint, haphazard housing, the bubbling River Pol, which ran through the village under intriguingly named old stone bridges, and the jagged crags of Peak Rock at the mouth of the harbour.” David Tovey
Polperro, an enchanting Cornish seaside village with the requisite history of smuggling, was quite isolated and a popular destination for artists. Maud painted and passionately pursued botanical research. She maintained a significant private herbarium and was a longterm member of The Botanical Society and Exchange Club of the British Isles (here is a specimen she collected now stored at Kew Gardens). Maud continued to exhibit her paintings at a number of galleries.
Frank was “a gentleman” without any considerable means and Maud was wealthy. The couple built a spacious new home, “Higher Shute”, in a prime position on Talland Hill overlooking the harbour and village. One local recollected that it was always “the gentry” back in those days who lived on “the hill” but felt (a little ungenerously perhaps) they had “built a very ugly house”. Today, online advertising describes the place as an “unusually spacious arts and crafts-style house” with “wood beams, open fireplaces” and “oozing character”.
The current owners of Higher Shute are cognisant that, Frank and Maud, as newlyweds set about a substantial project to extend and modernise the house:
“The original building was quite a large a 18th century cottage on the hill. The Perrycostes extended the building in all directions and built a south wing over two floors to provide a large drawing room and a studio above for Maud with fine views over the harbour. There is a nice commemorative plaque over the new front door, F&M P-C 1899.”
The Blairs must have enjoyed memorable summers at this residence (which is listed as vacant on the 1921 census suggesting it was available for friends and family). They also stayed at a guest house named “Grove Terrace” and possibly Maud’s other local residence, “Warren Cottage”.
Maud appears to have ceased painting (or at least exhibiting) when her children were born. Fanny Blair died in 1908 but her son’s children developed a fun relationship with her ward’s family in the coming years. These “cousins” Avril mentioned playing with in Polperro before the war were Wykeham Bernard Cuthbert Perrycoste (1902-72) and Honor Maud Mary Perrycoste (1903-1987).
The same contemporary, who did not like the new house much, reminisced in her old age about Maud and Frank. She thought her a “good artist and botanist, but inclined to be affected, and at times hysterical”. She was “very kind” and others “liked her” even if “they laughed at her”. She noted an aunt was genuinely “shocked” by Maud’s “modern ideas on religion, especially on Sunday observances…”. Frank, although he had “a reputation for cleverness” she “never heard of anything he did or said that confirmed this”.
A newspaper report offers a tantalising glimpse of Maud’s personality and one can imagine how much a young Orwell would have relished traipsing all over the district looking for botanical specimens with this unconventional woman, Avril and her children.
The “Polperro Fingerprint Man”
“Mr Perry Coste had taken the finger-prints of nearly the whole population of Polperro.” Francis Galton
Frank Perrycoste (1865-1929) was a polymath. He won a scholarship to St. Paul’s School and subsequently completed a Bachelor of Science (with honours in chemistry and biology) which led to employment as an analytical chemist in London. He soon abandoned this job for a literary career, often writing about scientific topics. He published prolifically during the 1890s and until his death in 1929.
Frank is mostly remembered as the “Polperro Fingerprint Man”. In 1903 he wrote to Francis Galton – a polymath and eugenicist deeply influenced by his cousin, Charles Darwin – volunteering to conduct research into inherited characteristics by fingerprinting the entire population of the village. Galton agreed and their correspondence, discussing fingerprinting Frank’s son, poor handwriting and the resulting need for a typewriter is mildly amusing.
Perrycoste would spend most of the next 25 years combing parish records, exploring graveyards and conducting oral research (which continues to be an invaluable local genealogical and scientific resource). “Pedigrees of Polperro” was published by the Cornish Times in 1925 (and other similar studies followed). A posthumously published book, Gleanings from the Records of Zephaniah Job of Polperro (1930), provides a comprehensive look at smuggling during the Napoleonic Wars.
Francis Galton was not the only eugenicist with whom Frank Perrycoste corresponded. Havelock Ellis (1859-1939), who spent the winters in Cornwall and summers in or near London, was a radical intellectual who wrote extensively on human sexuality.
Ellis and Perrycoste had many shared interests and corresponded hundreds of times from 1893 until Frank’s death in 1929. Their initial exchange was in relation to Ellis’ first book, The Criminal (1890). Perrycoste challenged aspects of the critical summary of this new science of criminal anthropology. Ellis replied, on the 4th of June 1893:
“Many thanks for your notes on The Criminal. The book was written four years ago, and I should now be more cautious concerning some of the points you mention — especially the question of inheritance of acquired characters.”
Contextually, the first editions of Ellis’ multi-volume, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, were published in German and then English in the aftermath of Oscar Wilde’s incarceration in Reading Gaol for ‘acts of gross indecency with another male person’. Ellis’ pioneering scientific study of homosexuality soon fell foul of censorship and morality laws.
Perrycoste had written to Ellis in a effort to assist him with a publisher for his research. Watford University Press published Sexual Inversion (1897) which was almost immediately withdrawn from sale after George Bedborough (he was considerably more than just a bookseller) sold a copy to a police officer and a very public trial resulted. Lesley A Hall has an excellent chapter analysing the case (which impacted significantly on Ellis).
The publishing history is quite complex. A first edition was co-authored by the poet, John Addington Symonds, who had assisted with interviewing gay men in an effort remove the stigma of degeneracy associated with homosexuality. Subsequent editions only listed Havelock Ellis.
Symonds was certainly not the only poet that Ellis associated with at this time. In 1898, he wrote about his experimentation with psychedelic drugs. He believed the aesthetic experience would be appreciated by W.B. Yeats – so he supplied him with peyote.
Ellis thanked Perrycoste in his preface and included Frank’s research in the appendices. It is also noteworthy that Ellis had appendix on a topic Orwell was to write about in 1933, ‘Homosexuality among Tramps’.
What did Orwell know about all this (considering Studies in the Psychology of Sex was re-published in 1927)? Did he know that Perrycoste and Ellis were friends and corresponded?
Orwell was certainly very aware of Ellis’ work. In 1935, Orwell wrote to his friend, Brenda Salkeld, who collected signed editions:
Thanks for your letter. No, I cannot say that Havelock Ellis’s signature, as I remember it, struck me as being at all like what I expected. I should have expected him to write a very fine hand and use a thinner nib. We bought recently a lot of books with the authors’ signatures in, and some of them containing autograph letters as well, but they were all sold almost at once.
More significantly, the year after the author died, Orwell reviewed My Life: The Autobiography of Havelock Ellis (1939) in his familiar, vastly amused and trenchant style:
“As the surviving writers of the nineteenth century drop away, one has the feeling that they are dying just in time. Ten years more, even five years, and they might recoil in horror from the world they have helped to create. When Havelock Ellis was born, the Origin of Species was a brand-new scandal; when he died, the Germans were in Prague. In between there lay eighty years of “progress” and “enlightenment”, of patient, courageous effort by men like Ellis himself to chip away the bases of Christian civilisation. It had to be done, but the result was totally different from what had been intended. In every line that Havelock Ellis wrote—and for that matter even in the photograph of him that forms the frontispiece of this book—you can see what he was after: a sane, clean, friendly world, without fear and without injustice. What fun it must have been, in those hopeful days back in the ’eighties, working away for the best of all possible causes—and there were so many causes to choose from. Who could have foreseen where it would all end? In his autobiography Havelock Ellis does not say much about his work. He is simply telling the story of his life, a studious, physically unadventurous life…”. The Adelphi (May 1940)
Orwell continues with an amusing trope – familiar to anyone who has read The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) – in this review: “… a time when Socialism, vegetarianism, New Thought, feminism, homespun garments and the wearing of beards were all vaguely interconnected”.
Did Orwell’s aunt, Nellie Limouzin, who also holidayed in Polperro know Frank well – or Ellis? It would seem likely. Writing to her nephew in June 1933, Nellie mentions a book that suggests she and Orwell discussed topics that fascinated Ellis and Perrycoste:
“I am also reading an interesting work on Les Dogmes Sexuels; it is a refutation of the generally accepted ideas on sex as regards the contrast between the male and female and is based on biology of which the first long chapter consists, beginning with the single cell etc. Evidently the authoress is a serious scientist.”
A Love & Knowledge of Nature
“Flowers now in bloom in the garden: polyanthus, aubretia, scilla, grape hyacinth, oxalis, a few narcissi. Many daffodils in the field. These are very° double & evidently not real wild daffodil but bulbs dropped there by accident. Bullaces & plums coming into blossom. Apple trees budding but no blossom yet. Pears in full blossom. Roses sprouting fairly strongly. I note that one of the standards which died is sprouting from the root, so evidently the stock can live when the scion is dead. Peonies sprouting strongly. Crocuses are just over. A few tulips in bud. A few leeks & parsnips in the garden (the latter have survived the winter without covering up & tops are still green), otherwise no vegetables. It appears that owing to severe frosts there are no winter greens locally.
Bats out everywhere. Have not found any birds’ nests yet.
Wildflowers out: violets, primroses, celandine, anemones. A little rhubarb showing. Blackcurrant bushes etc. for the most part have grown very weedy, probably for lack of hoeing round etc. Strawberries have all run & are covered with weeds but look fairly strong.
Sowed cos lettuce.
Leaf mould (beech) put down at end of 1937 is now well rotted down. Found two thrushe’s° eggs under the hedge—no nest, somewhat mysterious, but perhaps left there by a child.”
Orwell, Domestic Diary 12.4.39
Orwell’s enduring love of rambling in the countryside and his surprisingly detailed knowledge of the natural world is scattered through his letters, diaries and published work (and was mentioned by numerous friends, lovers and even students). Geoffrey Stevens, one of the children he taught in the early 1930s, described Orwell as “a great nature lover” who took delight in showing the class “Puss Moth caterpillars eggs on the Black Poplar” and how to “collect marsh gas from some stagnant pond” outside of school hours.
Where did Orwell gain such detailed knowledge?
In his youth he rambled extensively around Ticklerton in Shropshire with his friends, accompanied by knowledgeable adults like Lilian Buddicom. Although never discussed previously, it seems probable that his summers in Cornwall were significant. The Perrycoste family were not only well-educated and scientifically literate but committed to practical, sophisticated research.
In 1920, Frank and his teenage daughter, Honor, co-authored a paper, “Cornish Phenology, 1912-19”, which was published in Science Progress in the Twentieth Century. Based on data collected over a period of eight consecutive years (in association with the Wild Flower Society) they “emphasise the importance of systematised phenological records as indices to what one may perhaps call resultant climate, or to point out that the net effect of temperature, rainfall, latitude, elevation, exposure, etc., is summed up in, e.g., the dates of flowering of plants without any ambiguity or possibility of error”.
A text search through the 1922 supplement to Flora of Cornwall (1909) reveals just how active Maud and Frank were in identifying local species and correcting errors. The name “Perrycoste” appears 183 times in the 200 page supplement.
What impact did the Perrycoste family have on Orwell, who was a well-known lover of flowers? Did his experiences with this family become the genesis of his knowledge of nature, especially botany?
Honor and Eric considered each other to be “cousins”. They were “close when they were young” according to Honor’s granddaughter due to Ida Blair’s relationship with Maud. Honor was awarded a Doctor of Science in Botany from Bristol University.
More On Frank and Maud
“…there is one phrase in it that is as individual as a fingerprint.” Orwell, 11 March, 1940
Perrycoste, descended from Huguenot refugees who were also persecuted in Britain, was eulogised as the “fisherman’s champion”. He was always a progressive thinker and by the end of his life a Labour supporter.
Another view of Frank, and a description of Maud, was provided by Geoffrey Grigson (1905-1985) in The Crest On The Silver: An Autobiography (1950). A poet, magazine editor and naturalist, Grigson worked during WWII in the editorial department of the BBC Monitoring Service and was a talks producer. He knew Orwell at this time but there has also been speculation that Grigson may have played with Orwell, Bernard and Honor in Polperro before the war. Maud, who knew his mother, had encouraged Grigson in his love of plants. Julian Symons described him as:
“…tall, handsome, and enthusiastic, with an attractive blend of sophistication and innocence. The fierceness of his writing was belied by a gentle, sometimes elaborately polite manner. He distrusted all official bodies dealing with the arts, and served on no committees.”
Grigson founded New Verse (1933–9) where his own criticism of his contemporaries was “unsparing and at times ferocious”. He described the journal as a ‘malignant egg‘ and later regretted the “savage use of the billhook” so often on display in his reviews written for The Observer, The Manchester Guardian and The New Statesman.
Grigson made literary enemies with insouciant ease and his jibes towards the “X-Ys” (the un-named Perrycostes) reveals him in full-flight (although he does qualify his commentary). There is some useful information about political associations and personal predilections (some which will make you shiver at the thought of dips in the Cornish waters). Frank appears to be not as popular with the fishermen as his obituary suggests:
“A fairly close friend (“fairly close” is enough because the friendship dwindled during the years) was a woman of intelligence who lived in Polperro. She sketched, and gave oil-sketches of the rocks meeting the rocks to my mother who managed to conceal another bit of the drawing-room wall with them. She was also a botanist, in the commoner sense of one who knew her plants adventures in search of them, and contributed to the country flora. She was small and active, a fluffy red-cheeked little woman, not far from the untidiness into which she fell, who tricycled round the district, a thing, so far as I know, my mother never achieved. She married a strange man, who was a bogey. I must once have touched his velvet coat, which I always disliked. He was à scientist—perhaps a chemist—but either he or his wife came into money enough to build themselves a house, and live, and meditate at Polperro. He was also a rationalist, an atheist, and a Radical Wellsian figure, self-educated to some degree, and uncertainty in command of standard English pronunciation, a fault on which my mother would sharpen her claws.
There was an air of failure about this man, with his long face, his distant manner, his habit of disappearing in his house, his wispy moustache, which I felt. He always pronounced my name wrongly, “Well, Juffrey”, if I came to the house; and then disappeared. He was ungemütlich and a little pompous, and winter and summer he always bathed, nude or with a minimum of triangle, from a rock pool just round from the harbour. Genetics was one of his pursuits. He studied in-breeding in Polperro fishermen. His unreadable books were published privately, but he had friends in the more positive and less amateur world, among them Havelock Ellis; and I was surprised to find a few years ago that he had contributed an appendix to Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex. It was just as well no one knew that in Polperro, or in the vicarage. Polperro did not altogether appreciate him. At election time—he was friendly with the Foots, I believe, as well as being one of their supporters—Tory fishermen would take their trousers down on his doorstep and leave a token of their goodwill to be discovered there in the morning.
I wish now that we had known this family better than we did. There was an earnestness in the household, an activity outside the mere routine of staying alive, and a contact with professional artists and writers and men of science altogether lacking in the vicarage three miles away. But perhaps appearances interfered again. X-Y, hyphened, was not, well, not a gentleman, “and he was plain Y”, said my mother, “when his old father was alive.” My mother had a justifiable scorn for the creation of double-barrelled names as an easy way of assuming gentility and distinction. As children, we always heard criticism of the Polperro household, which the wife’s eccentricities did not diminish; we looked for oddity there and found it, and there was family hostility towards going to parties in the house. My mother was not interested in the husband, in the identification of plants, in tricycling, in bathing, in picnics, and eventually it became the habit in the family, though she was godmother to one of my brothers (in spite of her husband’s atheism) and though my father actually stood sponsor to her son, to speak of my mother’s old friend with contempt. Still that did not prevent kindnesses and encouragement from her, in one instance, for which I suddenly realise I must be grateful. She discovered my interest in plants, lent me floras, and helped me with identifications; and it was through her that I believed at one time I would make my living as a professional botanist or a forester.”
Grigson published many books about flowers, including: Wild Flowers in Britain (1943); Flowers of the Meadow (1950); The Shell Guide to Flowers of the Countryside (1957); The Englishman’s Flora (1958).
Orwell and his family visited Polperro during August and probably into September 1920. One imagines that Orwell, his father and Frank must have discussed a range of issues. This letter to the editor of Science Progress from Perrycoste in October 1920 about “Starvation Pay of Brain-Workers” is an interesting one:
Dear Sir, – I believe that I am correct in stating that a raw youth of about eighteen, if possessing a good physique and a fair character, and if normally “intelligent,” is started, even whilst under training, in the police force at pay of £182 per year; and he may rise to the rank of superintendent at a minimum annual pay of £450 : and every rank in the police force carries a substantial pension. Incidentally, I have seen it stated that the average annual pay of university professors is about £400; and the provision for pensioning them is, I believe, negligible.
It was recently decided that dockers – who, I suppose, are at the lowest level of unskilled physical labour – ought to receive £250 per year ; and a scheme is under consideration for guaranteeing them, whilst unemployed, pay at the rate of £200 per year at the expense of the industry.
Let it be remembered that those who become policemen and dockers have been earning wages – in these days possibly or probably more than their cost of living – since they were fourteen.
Now we will turn to the other side of the picture. In a recent issue of Nature the University of London advertises for two demonstrators in chemistry at a salary each of £200 – equivalent in purchasing power to about £76 in 1913. I presume that such demonstrators will be graduates – i.e. that, instead of having earned their living during seven or eight years previously, they have been kept at school and university at very heavy expense to their parents.
I brush aside at once the myth that only rich men send their sons to the universities. In numberless cases the lads are sent there at the cost of grievous self-denial to the parents, and not even as a good pecuniary investment for the lads themselves.”
Did they discuss any of these issues that summer? Mr and Mrs Blair were certainly considering what their son was going to do post-Eton. Jacintha Buddicom recalled conversations about Oxford University suggesting Mr Blair was against it but Mrs Blair disagreed.
Orwell joined the Indian Imperial Police in 1922 rather than attending university. Frank was long dead but is interesting that Orwell noted twenty years later the experience of seeing one of the quartermasters on the voyage to Burma:
“… scurrying like a rat along the side of the deck-houses, with something partially concealed between his monstrous hands. I had just time to see what it was before he shot past me and vanished into a doorway. It was a pie dish containing a half-eaten baked custard pudding.
At one glance I took in the situation—indeed, the man’s air of guilt made it unmistakable. The pudding was a left-over from one of the passengers’ tables. It had been illicitly given to him by a steward, and he was carrying it off to the seamen’s quarters to devour it at leisure.
Across more than twenty years I can still faintly feel the shock of astonishment that I felt at that moment. It took me some time to see the incident in all its bearings: but do I seem to exaggerate when I say that this sudden revelation of the gap between function and reward—the revelation that a highly-skilled craftsman, who might literally hold all our lives in his hands, was glad to steal scraps of food from our table—taught me more than I could have learned from half a dozen Socialist pamphlets?”
Orwell in Tribune, 3 January, 1947
Frank would have appreciated the anecdote.
It may seem fanciful to suggest that the Perrycoste family was an important formative influence on the young George Orwell. Why are they not mentioned in any of his letters or diaries? Orwell virtually never wrote about his family and there are so few letters to or from his relatives that one senses they were destroyed on purpose – or possibly the itinerant lives of Anglo-Indian families makes for a better explanation.
Significant supporters of his professional life as a writer, such as his Aunt Nellie and his first wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy, are barely discernible in his letters or diaries.
Frank and Maud Perrycoste were extraordinary people by any standard. Their combined talents extended into many fields: literary, artistic, scientific, genealogical, legal and botanical. They were politically engaged in progressive, liberal ideas.
Frank was intellectually engaged with his world, wrote on an incredibly diverse range of topics and one can easily imagine Orwell, who always took “great pleasure in … scraps of useless information” enjoying esoteric essays about insect colours, the salts in natural waters or colour-blindness. Orwell’s eclectic “As I Please” column has many examples of random ruminations about nature. Some Thoughts on the Common Toad is a fitting example:
“I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and – to return to my first instance – toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable…”
Tribune, 12 April 1946
Prior to resigning from his job with the Indian Imperial Police, it seems that Frank Perrycoste, along with the poet Ruth Pitter, were two of the only writers he could have possibly spent any significant amount time besides schoolteachers. Even a cursory read through Perrycoste’s bibliography suggests that his themes and preoccupations were not unknown to Orwell.
At the very least, now that the Perrycoste family’s presence in Orwell’s life has been remembered, it is worthy of further research and consideration.
This piece is very much a rough draft for feedback and discussion.
The Orwell Society hosts expeditions to many sites of interests for those interested in the writer’s life. Jura, Spain, Morocco, Paris & London are some of the highlights and one imagines that some members may well enjoy a trip to Polperro to continue the conversation with local researchers, historians and genealogists.
Thank you to Stephen Buckley who provided the impetus for this research into Orwell’s Cornish holidays and excellent leads about Geoffrey Grigson. David Tovey‘s intellectual generosity has been greatly appreciated as has research conducted by Kathryn Le Gay Brereton. The support of Jeremy Rowett Johns and the Polperro Family History Society has been absolutely invaluable. Carolyn Boon has been very generous with her knowledge. Sincere thanks!
Cecil Bostock, “An Old World Harbour, Polperro”, 1920 (Courtesy of the Art Gallery of NSW)
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