Mike Quille

Mike Quille

Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and chief editor of Culture Matters.

No Home for You Here: an interview with Adam Theron-Lee Rensch
Wednesday, 04 November 2020 16:54

No Home for You Here: an interview with Adam Theron-Lee Rensch

Published in Cultural Commentary

Mike Quille interviews Adam Theron-Lee Rensch about his new book No Home for You Here: A Memoir of Class and Culture

Q. Can you tell us about why you decided to write the book; what the book is about; and why you chose the ‘memoir’ genre to write it in?

A. I was very resistant to writing a traditional memoir, and the first draft of the book included very little personal narrative. While I’ve written about my life and experiences in essays, I believe the memoir or “creative nonfiction” genre tends to perpetuate neoliberal narratives that eliminate structural critique in favour of emotional identification. Everything becomes about the writer as an individual: their suffering, their triumph, etc. Who cares about the larger set of social relations that make this possible? What matters is what is moving enough to sell copy. So, I knew I didn’t want to play into this.

At the same time, I realized my life was something of a convenient structure onto which I could hang my critique: I was born in 1984, came of age in the post-9/11 landscape, and internalized the liberal obsession with meritocracy. If I was going to make something of myself, I thought, I had to become educated. The middle-class fantasy of managerial creativity was baked into how I saw the world, and how I imagined solutions to its problems. I had to unlearn all of that. I think the “left” more broadly also needs to unlearn this, and I’m hoping that people will find something useful in reading about my own process.

Q. Yes, and one of the ways you are clearly hoping that readers will ‘unlearn’ their political outlook is through a more accurate understanding of their class position, and the importance of class-based politics. Can you tell us about your own journey to a clearer understanding of class, and your thoughts on how the left can achieve a cultural shift towards a greater class consciousness amongst working people?

The biggest obstacle for me in understanding class was, as it is for many, the cultural and aesthetic markers that are often confused for class: education, taste, etc. I grew up in Ohio, surrounded primarily by poor and working-class whites. For a long time, I was ashamed of this fact, and attempted to leave it behind by embracing a stereotypically “cultured” aesthetic. I placed a lopsided emphasis on “ideas,” that elusive resource utilized by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the so-class professional-managerial class. There was something seductive about feeling smart, but at the end of the day it did not change my material conditions. I was still struggling to find reliable work, and was in debt from all that schooling I was certain would bring me success.

A few years after the financial crisis of 2008, I moved back to Ohio. Slowly, and admittedly with some resistance, I began to see that all the stuff I thought mattered was not very important. It was mainly a way for me to rationalize my own position in the hierarchy: I may be poor, but at least I’m not stupid! Sadly, this is still a common reason for many to justify inequality and suffering. I think the first major step in creating class consciousness would be to understand that it has nothing to do with individual beliefs and traits of this sort. You likely belong to the same class as many of your partisan adversaries—the working class—and while it may feel uncomfortable to demand justice for them as well it is nevertheless the only way forward.

What I mean is that a majority of workers receive a wage that barely covers their cost of living. It is enough to cover rising costs in housing, food, and insurance, perhaps a credit card or car payment, but not enough to get ahead. Many are not “lucky enough” to even make this much. These are the conditions that shape the lives of most people. They are material, not cultural, and they unite workers in a way that other categories cannot.

The left’s best chance at organizing a broad movement is to focus on these material conditions that a diverse population has in common. This is of course easier said than done, because cultural divisions are powerful. Resentment is a logical reaction to suffering, and it is easier to blame someone than it is to accept that your pain is simply the result of an indifferent economic logic. But again, I think focusing on material condition is a necessary first step toward creating a political movement that a mass of people find appealing.

Q. Ok so if we need to develop a new culture of class-based politics which will unite the mass of working people, this will mean engaging in so-called ‘culture wars’ against the dominant forces that shape our culture. In this context, what do you think is the responsibility of cultural workers – artists, poets, writers, film-makers, playmakers etc. – to help our class develop and apply a more class conscious approach to social and political campaigns?

This is a good but difficult question, but one I think about a lot given my own position as a writer who values culture objects like novels and films. I am not “influential” in any meaningful sense, at least compared to mainstream writers and filmmakers who reach the general public. Nevertheless, I am conflicted by the role works of culture play. It is something of a cliché to bemoan the fact that art is a commodity, and that works of film or literature, even those with explicitly political commitments, must in some sense appeal to a market for distribution. But acknowledging the cliché doesn’t change that fact. The market’s primary function is to relegate politics to the realm of consumer preference: this film appeals to your political sensibilities, that novel appeals to someone else’s, etc. In my more cynical moments, I often wonder if art is not inherently conservative, even when its aesthetic is outwardly radical.

At the same time, I don’t think being a philistine is a useful position for anyone to take. So, what we’re left with is a tension between market forces and the individual commitments of cultural workers, the latter of whom must court the market for an audience. Their politics, much like the critics handing out prestigious awards, tend to skew liberal. But I would say if there’s one thing cultural workers can do it is challenge the sort of narratives the market finds so appealing, and that justify the neoliberal worldview of individual adversity and triumph. What this would look like, exactly, I’m not sure. Class relations have nothing to do with “the individual” in the narrative sense, or even “lived experience,” to borrow a term used a lot these days. Perhaps the role of cultural workers is simply to find ways to make objects that acknowledge this. I think a film like Parasite comes close: it is a film first and foremost about class, and adopts genre tropes to offer a description of class relations, which is totally smart and useful.

Q. Thank you! There is a lot there to think about, and that resonated with our approach to culture on Culture Matters. Can I now turn to the main political and cultural issue in the United States – the presidential election. In the light of the need for more class-based politics, what’s your take on Trump’s presidency and the class consciousness of different segments of the American people?

Contrary to popular belief, I think class consciousness does exist in America. The problem is that it’s the wrong class. The wealthy have a keen sense of their position, and as our political “spectrum” shows they are willing to put aside differences to make sure they maintain their power. Indeed, bipartisanship is never greater than when workers try to organize or fight back.

There are many obstacles preventing widespread class consciousness among workers, from the shame of admitting one is poor to the atomization characteristic of what I like to call “curated capitalism.” The algorithm has done a lot to fracture any sense of a common or “mainstream” culture that everyone interacts with. Everything can be tweaked and personalized, and soon you find yourself online in communities of people just like you, never needing to interact with anyone outside of it. Add to this our lack of organized labour, our culture wars, and a deep suspicion toward the possibility of change, and you’re left with a country of alienated people who are often too exhausted to do anything except find small comforts in leisurely activities.

Adam head shot

Adam Theron-Lee Rensch

Trump’s presidency has been painted as some sort of populist uprising, but I don’t think that’s quite right. About 110 million people didn’t vote in 2016, mostly those in the lower income brackets. If anything, the absence of working class participation is the real populist revolt, but this fact is never talked about seriously. Instead, we continue to inflate the problem of the “white working class” who of course is described as inherently authoritarian, racist, etc.

Why? Because it justifies the worldview of those who benefit from our class structure, and ensures that the discourse focuses on criticizing individuals (bigots) and not social relations. After all, if you’re a manager or media personality, even one with left-leaning politics, do you really want workers to organize and take away what power and influence you have? It’s not a surprise that during the 2020 primary, Elizabeth Warren’s base was educated professionals who preferred her top-down managerial approach to Bernie’s bottom-up solidarity. They were the ones who’d get to manage the “revolution”!

Q. Thank you. Finally, what is your view on the result of the election, in terms of the need to develop and promote class-based and socialist politics in the U.S.? What does the future hold for the U.S. and the world generally?

The 2020 election was in a lot of ways a missed opportunity for class-based politics in America. Sanders never fully recaptured the insurgency he represented in 2016, and I think his exit was seen by the establishment as an indictment of policies that prioritize the needs of the working class. As a result, the “choice” between Biden and Trump was basically aesthetic: which version of austerity do you prefer?

Moving forward, I think there needs to be a serious conversation about what “the left” represents. The culture wars of the Bush era never really went away, they were just given new descriptions. To be somewhat reductive, the Christian Right was replaced by the Fascist alt-right, and the Latte Left was replaced by the anti-fascist Left. A lot of self-described socialists still reflexively approach working people as incapable of contributing to the movement. They are often seen as too reactionary, or too uneducated, unable to participate in the discourse properly. As someone who has spent too much time in academia, I feel comfortable saying we need to stop taking our cues from intellectual vanguards and prominent media personalities who remain mired in the culture wars. Under this approach, material interests of working people are not always represented within this dynamic. This can make the left’s project alienating and incapable of attracting broad support.

I am not smart enough to offer an easy solution to this problem. What I will say is that we need to focus more on those material interests that impact a massive segment of the population: wages, insurance, housing, and debt. The U.S. economy is not productive in the way it once was, which means the source of exploitation has changed. While industrial capital still exists, much of it has been outsourced and replaced by finance capital. Monopoly rent-seeking has become a critical problem and effectively resurrected feudalism.

In other words, far fewer American workers are being paid to produce goods that other workers buy to realize profits. Rather, profits are realized by charging workers to use services. This is the Silicon Valley model as seen with Netflix, Spotify, and others. Amazon, for example, generates billions each year simply by charging people to host websites. How do these companies remain profitable? They do so by cutting costs, not by hiring more workers to produce more goods. So, focusing our energy on that parasitic model of profit extraction would have the greatest impact in changing the power relations to benefit working people.

Handbook for 2021: The Bread and Roses Poetry Award Anthology 2020
Sunday, 25 October 2020 12:18

Handbook for 2021: The Bread and Roses Poetry Award Anthology 2020

Published in Books

Handbook for 2021 is the judges' selection of 40 entries to the Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2020, including the seven winners. Cover image: Martin Rowson.

The coronavirus pandemic this year has had a devastating human cost. It has also exposed the virulent scourges of growing poverty, inequality and low pay that continue to blight class-divided British society, after a decade of vicious Tory cuts to our vital public services, and sheer incompetence and dishonesty in government.

The poems bear witness to the searing effects of the health crisis, as well as other themes such as the environment, poverty, and the Black Lives Matter
movement. They also carry an expressive power and energy which will bring a much-needed boost to the hearts and minds of whoever reads them, giving us
all an inspiring handbook for 2021.

It is hard to write about the injustices of contemporary society without slipping into easy denunciations, second-hand phrases and borrowed anger. The best political poetry should also be painful to read, interrogating itself and challenging what the reader thinks they know or believe to be true.

The entries to this year’s Bread and Roses competition certainly share a sense of impatient rage and revulsion at the way the world works; but they are also distinguished by intellectual ambition, literary technique and political resilience. And they say what needs to be said about the subjects that matter most —inequality, work, unemployment, solidarity, struggle, homelessness,racism, illegal wars, and environmental disaster.

—Andy Croft, publisher of Smokestack Books

Please use button below to purchase copies.

The cry of the poor from inner-city Dublin: Sacred Symphony
Wednesday, 29 July 2020 12:43

The cry of the poor from inner-city Dublin: Sacred Symphony

Published in Poetry

Sacred Symphony is a new collection of poems on life in inner-city Dublin, by Karl Parkinson, with photographs by Peter O'Doherty. It includes All the Swings are Gone and is introduced by Father Peter McVerry, who concludes with these words:

Those who are economically unproductive are considered a drain on the economy, undeserving of support. Those who are homeless, addicted or long-term unemployed are not just excluded from society, but unwanted by society.

This oppressive ideology has become so embedded in the thinking of many, including our decision makers, that any alternative seems unimaginable. That is why the poems in this book are important. They challenge that ideology, they reflect the anger and feelings of those who are excluded and feel unwanted, who see no future for themselves in our present society.

Some of these poems are dark, despairing and difficult to read. Many are about the use of drugs, the only respite available from a painful and seemingly meaningless existence. Others reflect dreams that will never be fulfilled, or a search for meaning, or for answers to half-articulated questions. And the poems show a resilience that often characterises those who have to struggle hard, on a daily basis, to survive and make sense of their lives.

But these voices, uncomfortable as they may be to many people, have to be heard. They have to be listened to. And they require a response.

Comments on the book so far include:

Here are poems that bear witness. Here are poems that do not look away. Sacred Symphony is, in essence, a holy book for our times – a book that illuminates the vast, oceanic nature of human grief caused by poverty, addiction and violence in inner-city communities and beyond. Parkinson is among the most important poets working in Ireland today. – Annemarie Ní Churreáin, poet, author of Bloodroot (Doire Press)

Karl Parkinson is amongst the most courageous of modern Irish writers. – RTE Lyric FM

Parkinson has set himself up unashamedly and without irony as a singer of the human soul in its contrary states of degradation and exaltation. It's worth listening to him. – The Irish Times

There is a very good interview with Karl on the excellent Island's Edge website.

Sacred Symphony by Karl Parkinson, ISBN: 978-1-912710-33-1Price: 12 euros, plus p. and p:

Or £10 plus p. and p. from Britain:

Sacred Symphony
Wednesday, 29 July 2020 12:22

Sacred Symphony

Published in Books

Sacred Symphony is a new collection of poems on life in inner-city Dublin by Karl Parkinson, with images by Peter O'Doherty, ISBN: 978-1-912710-33-1

It is introduced by Father Peter McVerry, who writes this in the Introduction:

Those who are economically unproductive are considered a drain on the economy, undeserving of support. Those who are homeless, addicted or long-term unemployed are not just excluded from society, but unwanted by society.

This oppressive ideology has become so embedded in the thinking of many, including our decision makers, that any alternative seems unimaginable. That is why the poems in this book are important. They challenge that ideology, they reflect the anger and feelings of those who are excluded and feel unwanted, who see no future for themselves in our present society.

Some of these poems are dark, despairing and difficult to read. Many are about the use of drugs, the only respite available from a painful and seemingly meaningless existence. Others reflect dreams that will never be fulfilled, or a search for meaning, or for answers to half-articulated questions. And the poems show a resilience that often characterises those who have to struggle hard, on a daily basis, to survive and make sense of their lives.

But these voices, uncomfortable as they may be to many people, have to be heard. They have to be listened to. And they require a response.

Comments on the book so far include:

Here are poems that bear witness. Here are poems that do not look away. Sacred Symphony is, in essence, a holy book for our times – a book that illuminates the vast, oceanic nature of human grief caused by poverty, addiction and violence in inner-city communities and beyond. Parkinson is among the most important poets working in Ireland today. – Annemarie Ní Churreáin, poet, author of Bloodroot (Doire Press)

Karl Parkinson is amongst the most courageous of modern Irish writers. – RTE Lyric FM

Parkinson has set himself up unashamedly and without irony as a singer of the human soul in its contrary states of degradation and exaltation. It's worth listening to him. – The Irish Times

Sacred Symphony by Karl Parkinson, ISBN: 978-1-912710-33-1. Price: 12 euros, plus p. and p:

Or £10 plus p. and p. from Britain:

A Kist of Thistles
Monday, 15 June 2020 09:35

A Kist of Thistles

Published in Books

A Kist of Thistles: An anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Scotland, edited by Jim Aitken, with images by Fiona Stewart. 196 pps. ISBN: 978-1-912710-32-4

A Kist of Thistles is a new anthology of radical Scottish poetry. It is edited and introduced by Jim Aitken, an Edinburgh-based writer and lecturer, and illustrated with images by Fiona Stewart.

Most of the 62 poets in A Kist of Thistles would agree with Mary McCabe that Scotland should be engaged in ‘plannin a better nation’. But the poetry is not just about Scottish self-determination. This wonderfully diverse and skilful group of poets is also engaged with international, environmental and broader social issues that affect everyone.

All of Scotland’s languages are represented here and this diversity also shows a culture that is confident about itself as it looks out as much as it looks within, reaching out across the world to all those whose lives have been less than they should be. The poets show their concern for ordinary people, and rail against what Lesley Benzie calls ‘the bloodied carcass of truth’ as their poems seek to cleanse and redeem all the broken lives they encounter.

The voices in this anthology—with some humour, much conviction and plenty of style—look forward not only to a better Scotland, but also to a much fairer and better world for everyone.

A Kist of Thistles: An anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Scotland, edited by Jim Aitken with images by Fiona Stewart, 196 pps, £10. ISBN: 978-1-912710-32-4

Onward / Ymlaen!
Tuesday, 11 February 2020 16:42

Onward / Ymlaen!

Published in Books

Onward / Ymlaen! An anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Wales

170 pps., edited by Mike Jenkins, with a Foreword from Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of PCS, and with images by Gustavius Payne

£5 for ebook, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for details

This new and unique anthology has poetry in both Welsh and English by around 70 Welsh working-class writers. There are women and men, of all generations, including both emerging and established writers. Gustavius Payne, a well-known Welsh artist, has provided stunningly appropriate paintings to accompany some of the poems in the book.

Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union writes this in the Foreword:

The poems collected in “Onward / Ymlaen!” cover a diverse range of political themes and issues including poverty and class inequality, self-determination, internationalism, war, living on a council estate in Swansea, and the death of Jo Cox.

This is a valuable book and will be of interest to many people in Wales and across the UK, at a time when the political landscape is changing so dramatically. These changes have meant that times are hard for many people, but our movement has always had room for poetry and song. As the old radical poem says, “Hearts starve as well as bodies: Give us Bread, but give us Roses.”

Mike Jenkins, editor of Red Poets, says this:

This anthology brings together the finest radical political poetry from contemporary Cymru, reflecting the importance of community, co-operation and commitment to building a better world. There is sharp criticism, sad reflection, heartfelt protest and bitter humour in these poems. But there is also a sense of renewal, of what might develop from grassroots movements and activism. 

The Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland
Saturday, 09 November 2019 14:15

The Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland

Published in Books

The Children of the Nation: 203pps., £9 plus £3 p. and p. or €10 plus €5 p. and p.

  ISBN: 978-1-912710-25-6

This is a unique anthology of poetry in both Irish and English by Irish working-class writers from the thirty-two counties of Ireland. There are sixty-seven contributors, women and men, of all generations, including both emerging and established writers. The common focus is on themes which reflect the texture and preoccupations of working-class life in contemporary Ireland. It has been generously supported by the Irish Trade Union movement.

The ‘children of the nation’ were promised equal treatment in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic of 1916. However, the lived realities of the working class, the unemployed, the precariously employed, the homeless, and other groups have rarely appeared in mainstream published poetry in Ireland and Britain.

This is the first anthology to be published in Ireland which focuses on poetry written by and about working people and their experiences, cares and concerns. As Brian Campfield, past President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, writes in his Foreword:

The anthology is inclusive and egalitarian, and values authenticity, relevance and communicativeness as well as literary skill and inventiveness. It is grounded in individual effort, but has transformed these individual endeavours into a collective expression of the lives, aspirations, concerns and hopes of that class in our society which constantly has to struggle to get its voice heard and valued.

The poems are about life at the margins of society. The themes include class, the treatment of women, work and worklessness, poverty, violence, racism and many other social and political issues. They express suffering, exploitation and abuse, but also hope, solidarity and internationalism.

For orders from Britain, use this button, £9 plus £3 p. and p. 

For orders from Ireland and the rest of Europe, use this button, €10 plus €5 p. and p.

For orders from the U.S. and rest of the world, use this button, $15 plus $10 p. and p.

Please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for bulk orders, trade orders or if you'd prefer to pay another way.

Thursday, 07 November 2019 09:48

Round Up

Published in Round-up

We've started uploading a brilliant series of short films about a range of cultural topics — art, literature, sport, religion, the media etc. They have been made with the support of the Communication Workers Union, for which we're very grateful. Contributors include Selina Todd, Jenny Mitchell, Dennis Broe, Natalie Fenton, James Crossley, Kim Reynolds, Esther Leslie, Deirdre O'Neill and many other well known writers and thinkers. You will find the films on this Home page, and in the relevant sections of the menu above.

 

 

arise! filmpoem
Friday, 01 November 2019 11:25

arise! filmpoem

Published in Films

Culture Matters has produced a short film, made by Carl Joyce, of the poem arise! by Paul Summers, which was sponsored by the Durham Miners' Association. You can watch the film for free on Vimeo here or on Youtube here.

The film invokes the collective and co-operative spirit of past generations of men and women who worked and struggled so hard to survive, to build their union, and to arise, organise, and fight for a better world by forming the Labour Party. It also celebrates the new spirit that has arisen in Corbyn’s Labour Party, and the rise of support for socialist solutions to the country’s growing problems of low wages, poverty, homelessness, and other signs of an unfair and corrupt system designed to benefit the many, not the few. 

Jeremy Corbyn said this about the poem:

It's wonderful to see the proud history of the Durham Miners' Gala represented in this powerful poem. Paul Summers has managed to capture the spirit of the Miners' Gala and its central place in our movement's mission to achieve 'victory for the many, and not the few’.

The film is not just a celebration of the tremendous working-class cultural heritage around mining, as expressed in the banners and the music at the Gala, but also the socialist, co-operative spirit of the women and men from mining communities that is alive and struggling today.

Martyrs of Coal

by Chris Norris

 You martyrs of coal, yours the glory
While there's still a miner alive,
Or singer to bring us the story
In which your proud legends survive.

You masters of coal, hear them calling,
Those martyrs you sent down to die,
Crushed lifeless by pit-rafters falling,
Or drowned as the waters ran high.

You martyrs, cry loud to remind us
That justice can never be done
If class-laws shall fetter and bind us
As long as the waggoners run.

You masters, you bled, starved and beat us,
You worked us to death for your gain,
You called out the troops to defeat us
And told us our strikes were in vain.

You martyrs of coal, stand beside us
As we stand today in your name
To win back the rights long denied us
And put our exploiters to shame.

And you modern masters, now hear us,
You tribe of dot-com millionaires,
Think now of their courage and fear us
When we raise the cry that was theirs.

For it's the same passion that fires us,
The zeal that gave courage its role,
And still their example inspires us,
Those martyrs of conscience and coal.

That martyr spirit has arisen recently in other current trade union struggles like the industrial action at McDonald’s, British Airways, and other employers, and in the outraged reaction to other injustices against the working class like the Grenfell tragedy. So there is footage from other campaigns in the film, showing how they are all part of our struggle for economic and political justice, for socialism in Britain and in the whole world.

And most of all the spirit of the miners has arisen in the modern Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn. Arise, resist, vote Labour, and struggle for a better world!

You can also buy a DVD of the film, which is licensed to be played anywhere. It is available here at £5 plus £1.50 p. and p., and 10% of sales proceeds will go to the Redhills Development Fund. The same applies to the poem, which is available here.

arise! filmpoem
Friday, 01 November 2019 11:11

arise! filmpoem

Published in Books

Culture Matters has produced a short film, made by Carl Joyce, of the poem arise! by Paul Summers, sponsored by the Durham Miners' Association. You can watch the film for free on Vimeo here or on Youtube here

The film invokes the collective and co-operative spirit of past generations of men and women who worked and struggled so hard to survive, to build their union, and to arise, organise, and fight for a better world by forming the Labour Party. It also celebrates the new spirit that has arisen in Corbyn’s Labour Party, and the rise of support for socialist solutions to the country’s growing problems of low wages, poverty, homelessness, and other signs of an unfair and corrupt system designed to benefit the many, not the few.

Jeremy Corbyn said this about the poem:

It's wonderful to see the proud history of the Durham Miners' Gala represented in this powerful poem. Paul Summers has managed to capture the spirit of the Miners' Gala and its central place in our movement's mission to achieve 'victory for the many, and not the few’.

The film is not just a celebration of the tremendous working-class cultural heritage around mining, as expressed in the banners and the music at the Gala, but also the socialist, co-operative spirit of the women and men from mining communities that is alive and struggling today.

That spirit has arisen recently in other current trade union struggles like the industrial action at McDonald’s, British Airways, and other employers, and in the outraged reaction to other injustices against the working class like the Grenfell tragedy. So there is footage from other campaigns in the film, showing how they are all part of our struggle for economic and political justice, for socialism in Britain and in the whole world.

And most of all the spirit of the miners has arisen in the modern Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn. Arise, resist, vote Labour, and struggle for a better world!

The DVD is £5 plus £2 p. and p., and 10% of sales proceeds will go to the Redhills Development Fund. The same applies to the poem, which is available here.

Please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for bulk orders or if you'd prefer to pay another way.

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