Seasons of sighs and mournful wistfulness

The autumn colours are starting to shade the trees as if some unseen painter’s brush was choosing a change of palette. The chestnut in the garden pot is already a mixture of yellows and russet brown while the hawthorn leaves in the country hedges are still green with bright red berries. In the streets, a thin layer of brown leaves is accumulating, with little mounds in corners where the colder winds have swept them.

Autumn brings in for me a swathe of mixed emotions: thankfulness for the summer past and the autumn bounty of fruits, nuts and gathered harvest, but is tinged with sadness for the dying year and the inevitable disappointments of unachieved hopes. Acknowledging autumn has arrived means accepting that we are in the twilight of the year and that we have to prepare for winter and wait for spring.

Reacting to autumn varies so much from year to year, and often we are looking to nature to reflect our feelings. In a year when the world has been paralysed by Covid and our everyday lives not only restricted but changed in many ways, some irrevocable, it is perhaps natural to focus on autumn as a period of decay and dying. People who have lost a parent or a partner in autumn often feel sad and depressed every year in autumn due to the close association between autumn and loss.

This year, reading some of the many accounts of the difficulties faced by young people, I wonder how they will look back on this autumn. Those leaving school and starting at university have suffered on several fronts: loss of their last term of school, the exam fiasco and anxiety about entrance to university. Now they  have made it to university many are in self-isolation and all are living under conditions they had not expected . Over 50 universities have confirmed coronavirus cases, the latest with multiple cases being Northumbria University and Edinburgh University.

Students have expressed feelings of being not cared for, resentment at having to pay accommodation fees and frustration that they are missing out on a once in a lifetime experience. While meeting together in large groups to dance and drink is not sensible in terms of the potential spread of Covid, it is  understandable that young people away from home for the first time want to meet other people and enjoy themselves. It is part of the process of settling into a new environment. Many students complain that they have been “cheated”, with teaching online and being confined to their flats.  If they had known what it was going to be like they would have stayed at home and saved the money for accommodation. In addition, the nature of much university accommodation is shared flats, and kitchen facilities shared between 6 and 10 students; students rightly worry that their chances of catching Covid are increased by this. All this has been exacerbated in some universities by poor planning in terms of ensuring food and laundry provision.

Autumn: a time for reflection. Photo credit: Harrison Haines (Pexels)

Equally there are autumnal woes for those in the 16–24 age group seeking employment. While furlough has certainly helped, there have been redundancies throughout the furlough period and across a variety of sectors. This is likely to accelerate sharply despite the Jobs Support Scheme, which is reported to be both complicated and not generous. The forecasts for employment are not good and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has warned that without drastic government action there will be a tsunami of unemployment. Unemployment has crept up from 3.8 to 4.1%; there are 5 million people registered as being “temporarily away from work with 2.7 million of them claiming benefits (Universal Credit).  The UK government has introduced a KickStart scheme to encourage employers to take on 16–24 year olds ) but at the same time there are reports circulating that the government expect a figure of around 4 million people unemployed because of the Covid crisis. Grim news indeed.

So, are there reasons to look on the positive side? For those not struggling, either financially or mentally, this year has been a fruitful one, both at home in the garden and out in the countryside. With more time on their hands many people have found a new affinity with nature, a keener observation of the turning seasons and a sharper observation of the natural world surrounding us. There has been a simple but satisfying joy in the succession of fruits and vegetables in the garden. Aided by an unusually balmy Scottish summer, our own vegetable patch has yielded broad beans, potatoes, courgettes, runner beans and beetroot, with leeks and parsnips still to come. We have even been able to grow tomatoes successfully outdoors. The plentiful supply of plums and apples have been used for deserts and turned into chutneys. Perhaps most satisfying of all are the small pleasures: picking strawberries or blueberries in the morning to go with breakfast cereals or gathering blackberries from hedgerows during our walks, for blackberry and apple crumble.

All this has reminded us strongly of two things. The first is the natural seasonality of food, often obscured by the ability to buying strawberries and other fruit from the supermarket all year round. The second is that growing vegetables gives an appreciation of nature’s bounty as a crop comes to maturity. Even being at home and unable for several months to travel anywhere, at times we were overwhelmed by the peaks of ripening, particularly for the runner beans and the plums. However, the advantages of freezer preservation have not been spurned and plums in syrup await enjoyment in winter (I can remember my mother having to salt green vegetables for the winter). 

The gifts of autumn have been expressed wonderfully for us by Keats in his poem “To Autumn”, written in 1819 at the age of 23 and just two years before his death:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
(For full poem follow link)

Walks in parks and the countryside have helped to keep a “feel good factor” going in lockdown despite gloomy worldwide news. While we have not managed to walk every day, our frequency of walking has increased dramatically and with it our enjoyment of the trees and flowers. For example, whilst visiting grandchildren for the first time since February, we admired the plentiful figs and walnuts on the trees in the neighbour’s garden. I have made a few  additions to our walks: the first to take a camera with me,  the second to use online apps for identification of trees, flowers, insects and birds and the third to use the NHS Active 10 app to monitor how much brisk walking we have been doing (the downside is that scrolling back can bring a guilty feeling for those blank gaps!).

However, it is the watching of the turning of the seasons that has been the greatest benefit. Over the summer we saw the cygnets growing and developing and enjoyed the hedgerow and meadow flowers, but more recently it has been the signs of autumn in the hedgerows and the abundance of different berries like  rosehip, blackberries and sloes. The hawthorn we saw flowering in May has now set red berries while the holly berries are slowly turning from orange to red.

Traditionally the autumn bounty has been celebrated in Harvest Festivals all over the world. As a child attending church in the UK this was always a fun occasion, with sheaves of wheat, vegetables and large, decorated loaves piled up at the front of the church. The hymns tended to be the same year after year such as “We plough the fields and scatter”, “All things bright and beautiful” and “All creatures of our God and King”. After the service, the food was distributed in the parish.

This tradition continues within and outside churches and the need to help others has increased since the start of the Covid pandemic. The Trussell Trust in the UK reports that 2 in 5 households  need to access food banks and  forecasts needing to give out 6 emergency food parcels very minute this winter. Just in the UK it is estimated a further 670,000 people will be destitute by the end of the year. Globally, hunger has been an issue for many years, with charities like Action against Hunger, Bread for the World, Freedom from Hunger and the Hunger Project battling to alleviate hunger worldwide.

Amidst the autumn bounty there is also undernourishment. In 2000, the United Nations and world leaders committed to achieving to meet eight goals by 2015: the first of which was “to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger”. In 2015 a new set of Sustainable Development Goals were developed, including  one to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” by 2030.These are lofty international aims but we all have the opportunity to contribute by supporting the work of specific charities and caring for others.

In considering the ups and downs of autumns, one image has caught my imagination: at the centre of each cluster of the decaying leaves of the chestnut tree , a small sticky brown bud has formed and is lying  dormant just waiting for  spring to come again.

September 30th -October 3rd

Addendum.

To any reader who has followed me, I offer sincere apologies for the long gap between blogs. In one of my early blogs “Destinations and paths” I wrote about mazes. Well I certainly got stuck in a dead end for some time and my energies got diverted. Hopefully I will learn from that lesson.

Stones and the passage of time

Innate in our psyche and strengthened by experience is a strong association with stone: the houses we live in, castles, stately homes and churches we have visited and trips we have made abroad to see sights such as the Alhambra, the great Wall of China, the Coliseum, and the church of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, to name a few I have been fortunate to experience.

Interior Sagrada Familia
Exterior Familia Sagrada

The seven wonders of the ancient world (ref) around the Mediterranean were all architectural structures, even the hanging Gardens of Babylon. These gardens were reputed to be a wonderful combination of trees, shrubs and flowers with statues and columns, the whole area engineered in an ascending series of tiered gardens and with a remarkable irrigation system. Their location has never been ascertained; one theory is that they were built not in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar II but in Nineveh by the Assyrian King Sennaccherib.

Of these only the Pyramids at Giza remain. Four, the Colossus of Rhodes, the lighthouse at Alexandria, the statue of Zeus and the mausoleum at Halicarnassus were wholly or partially destroyed by earthquakes; one the temple of Artemis was destroyed purposely by fire after being rebuilt three times.

So what are the thoughts and dreams these stone structures evoke: fondness for times past and particular periods of our lives, admiration of their beauty and the art of their construction, shared homage to an eminent person, deity or empire or for the qualities and the longevity of the stone.

Malmesbury Abbey Credit Bruce Ward
Old Bell Inn

My first association with stone was from living in the Cotswolds with its wonderful mellow soft stone used for houses, churches and walls. Cotswold stone has a warmth on which J.B. Priestly remarked “when the sun is obscured and the light is cold, these walls are still faintly warm and luminous, as if they knew the trick of keeping the lost sunlight of centuries glimmering about them.”  The region is rich in small villages such as Bibury, Lacock, Castle Combe and Bourton-on-the Water that are big tourist attractions but many others have a distinct charm.  Returning to this area evokes warm memories of a happy childhood and gentle pastimes, the rougher trials of childhood swallowed up in a mist of forgetfulness that seems to occur naturally in most of us.

By contrast the school I attended in Salisbury was a tall redbrick building, built in the late Victorian era and in recent photos it looks much the same as I remembered it over sixty years ago. Not a building of great beauty.

Salisbury cathedral

By contrast looking from the upper floors of the school one could see the imposing spire of Salisbury cathedral, which never lost it’s attraction, despite being an everyday sight. The sports grounds of our great rivals, the Cathedral School were located in the lee of the cathedral and especially in the summer this was a wonderful venue for cricket matches, which we appreciated despite our generally philistine outlook. Over the years we visited the cathedral a number of times and learnt to appreciate the qualities that have led it to be described as possibly the leading example of Early English architecture with a unity of vision. The latter stemmed from the fact it was built in a period of just 38 years between 1220 and 1258, truly astonishing. The stone used was a combination of Chilmark stone ( from the latter part of the Jurassic period, around 145 million years ago) and Purbeck marble, a crystalline limestone, quarried in Corfe Castle, Dorset. In recent times the Chilmark stone needed for repairs has been obtained from the Chicksgrove Quarry nearby.  The dark, slender columns of Purbeck marble create here a quite fabulous sense of space and height. It has been used primarily in the column shafts of the nave and aisles, and in the vault ribs. The same use of contrasting colours for columns has been used with great effect for the interior of the Sagrada Familia (see photo above)

The cathedral also possesses one of the four extant copies of Magna Carta, the charter signed between King John, the fourth son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and the barons at Runnymede on June 15, 1215. This document did not lay down the principles of democratic government but was a crucial predecessor. It established the rights of the classes possessing land and established that even the King was not above the “supreme law” ( Winston Churchill – the Island Race), The charter was brought to Salisbury by William Longespee, half-brother of King John, who is buried in the Cathedral.  

During my time in Salisbury we were taken to several important stately homes, such as Longleat and Wilton that were even then open to the public. Longleat, built of Bath stone (1568-1580), was an enormous venture ; the house has 128 rooms and cost £31 million in today’s terms; Wilton House, the home of the Earls of Pembroke for over 400 years was built as a Tudor House in 1551 and then redesigned by De Caus and Inigo Jones between 1632-1647. The gardens and park covering 21 acres provide a magnificent setting with the small  Palladio bridge across the river and the large stone Whispering seat.

 As an adult both these houses are interesting and impressive.  However, as a child of under ten, the open areas around the city and in particular the ruins of Old Sarum were more appealing. Perhaps if the safari park at Longleat opened in 1966 had been there or I had attended the Wessex Country Fair at Wilton, my memories would have been different.

Aerial view Old Sarum – Courtesy Mark Edwards

Old Sarum lies just a couple of miles north of the present city of Salisbury and as it’s name implies was the site of the original city. It started off as an iron age hill fort (400 BCE) with impressive ramparts and then in Norman times a castle was built by William the Conqueror in 1070. Five years later construction on a cathedral was begun nearby, beneath the raised ground of the castle (motte). Disagreements between the churchmen of the cathedral and the soldiers of the castle led to the decision to build a new cathedral to the south. The cathedral was dismantled over a period of years and today only the outline of the foundations can be seen. The castle lasted until about 1514 but the area was sold off by Henry VIII, who in his bid to raise revenues sold off and destroyed many castles, churches, cathedrals and monasteries. The peak period for the dissolution of the monasteries was 1536-1541 but kingly patronage and largesse was more easily dispensed if revenues were gained by confiscation).  The clear outline of the motte-and bailey castle construction can still be seen, which was exciting for a  young boy bought up on “1066 and all that”.

Whilst the beauty and history of these stone constructions is clear, sadly their longevity varies widely.  Both nature and man have played a part. Often stone is reused as in the construction of Salisbury cathedral from the cathedral at Old Sarum. Earthquakes and fires have destroyed many buildings, the fire at Notre Dame in being a notable example. Greed caused the destruction of many monasteries and warfare settled the fate of many castles such as the old Coventry cathedral,  Corfe castle, Tintagel and Dunstanburgh.

Yet amazingly many have survived.

Before the iron age fort was formed at Old Sarum, the hill top site was a Neolithic settlement. Another famous neolithic site not far from Old Sarum is Stonehenge. Journeying from north Wiltshire south to Salisbury, we could cross the barren stretches of Salisbury plain, used then and now as an army training area through Potterne, Market Lavington, Tilshead, and Shrewton. Crossing the A303 near Amesbury, the stones of Stonehenge came into view standing alone in the wide open spaces. In those days the site was open with no fencing and very few visitors. Since 1986 it has been a UNESCO World heritage site and no wonder.

So it deserves a separate article when I can write about my fascination with the  Neolithic stone structures at Stonehenge, Callanish and other Scottish and Irish neolithic sites.

Written 27-30th June

Emergence

Visiting the caves at Lascaux is a memorable experience. From a sunny exterior you go into dark passageways dimly lit and then into the darker caves, where the prehistoric paintings are briefly lit up and the images of bison, deer and mammoths takes one back about 20,000 years to the age of prehistoric man in the Upper Paleolithic/Late Stone Age era. At this time the surrounding region was periglacial and large herds of herbivorous animals roamed across the land as they searched for vegetation to graze on. No matter that the caves we were looking at were not  the original ones, when one emerged again into the bright sunlight there was a dizziness from a combination of still thinking about this ancient  world, brought to life so well in the cave setting, and the readjustment to sunlight and modernity.

Hall of the bulls – Lascaux ( Patrick Aventurier/ Getty Images)

Life for these people was tough with severe winters confining them largely to their caves and when they emerged they need to take advantage of the short summer to gather roots and to hunt animals. They were well aware of the dangers on the outside and needed to balance risk and reward just as we do.

For those of us who have been in isolation for many weeks  and are slowly emerging into activities long in abeyance there is a bit of the same disjointed feeling. The situations is further complicated by the fact that the lifting of restrictions in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are occurring under different plans and different rates. The plan in Scotland has 4 phases and we are still in Phase 1:  restricted to a 5 mile radius, allowed to socialise with one other household outdoors and allowed to play golf but with some restrictions. Phase 2 is likely to be introduced on 18th June.

As mentioned in the previous blog “White swans and black birds”, we have had more time to both observe and think about nature. Alongside that, those of us in the vulnerable age bracket are often thinking back to our youth and enjoying revisiting and relearning. My wife still has Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s book, first published in 1944, which was a childhood present. The book uses the device of a twice monthly walk, where the children are accompanied by their Uncle Merry and observe the successive emergence of animals and flowers through the seasons. At the back are 3 glossaries of flowers, trees and birds with black and white illustrations. There is even a monthly poem by the likes of Robert Browning, William Wordsworth and John Keats. That for June is “High Summer” by Matthew Arnold.

Soon will the high midsummer pumps come on,

Soon will the Musk carnations break and swell,

Soon shall we have gold-dusted snapdragon,

Sweet-William with his homely cottage-smell,

And stocks in fragrant blow;

Roses that down the alleys shine afar,

And open, jasmine-muffled lattices,

And groups under the dreaming garden-trees

And the full moon, and the white evening-star

Blyton has been a much attacked author: criticised for mediocre material, limited plots and considered offensive for reasons of racism, nationalism and sexism, though her books were hugely popular and read at the time by millions of children in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Indeed in 2008 Enid Blyton was named the best-loved author of all time.

This nature book contains a lot of useful information. Together with the old Observer Pocket Series of nature books, some modern books on flower and tree identification and some apps for plant identification we have been having fun relearning and identifying plants on our walks.

Part of the enjoyment is that common names are not always the same in different regions: yarrow/milfoil, cuckoo-pint/lords and ladies, jack-by-the hedge/garlic mustard to name but three.

Lords and Ladies flower and berries. Jack by the hedge

Walks over this period have also allowed us to observe bird activity week by week. Young birds have a significant and often life-deciding decision on when to leave the nest. Fledging too early when the wing muscles are too weak is dangerous as they may be unable to fly properly; fledging too late means their nests may be discovered by predators such as crows and magpies. Songbirds that experience higher daily rates of predation tend to fledge relatively early.

Every day birds have to make the decision whether to go foraging for food and expend energy or to remain in their roost. With their high metabolic rate flying is expensive in energy terms. Added into this is the risk of predation and the availability of food in connected patches.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The warm weather of April and early May in Scotland has been superceded by two weeks of rainy weather and snails and slugs have been more evident in the garden. The humble terrestrial snail has to decide, literally, when to come out of its shell in order to seek food such as green plants. It can only do so easily when the environment is moist; this facilitates production of mucus and allows the snail to glide along surfaces. Snails usually come out at night or in the very early morning. This reduces their chances of predation by birds and rodents; the less time spent in the open and outside the shell, the less the risk.

For us deciding when and how to come out of isolation and emerging into the wider world is a complex decision and not just a matter of following different governments’ advice as restrictions are lifted in  phases. For most, the economic necessity of going to work (if available) is the driving force but all of us have to consider the risks to our health both of working and of socialising. The risk factors of age, ethnicity, underlying health conditions and location are a lot clearer than they were three months ago and can be taken into account, but a lot depends on the behaviour and sense of  responsibility of those around us. The impact of the recent frenzied rush to the seaside and to beauty spots around the UK has yet to be assessed but there is no doubt that social distancing in these cases was insufficient for safety. It also reminds us that without a quick and reliable method of testing and contact tracing we are ignorant of the covid-status of those we met outside our immediate environment – and indeed of ourselves.

Written July 15th-18th

White swans and black birds

The situation in Scotland is changing rapidly as the first phase of lifting restrictions has started. The noise level in neighbour’s gardens and the amount of traffic in the streets around have both increased. There has been the smoke of barbecues in the air, laughter and singing from the nearby park and the occasional burst of music as a car passes by.

This all contrasts with the previous two to three months, when at times the streets have been eerily quiet and the sound of the birds in the garden have sounded almost deafening. So,  it seems a good point to reflect on some of the benefits of lockdown. As I wrote in a previous blog “Phases of the Moon” lockdown has provided the opportunity to enjoy nature more, to observe the unfurling of spring and to watch the behaviour of birds and animals from day to day. What was just a fleeting glance can become a series of observations that give us more insight into the wildlife in our cities and parks.

The area where I live is quite rich in birdlife: a series of adjacent back gardens, plenty of trees lining the canal and several parks within a short flying distance. Like most cities there are a large population of gulls, who enjoy the rooftops. Many Edinburgh buildings are three or four stories high and still have chimney pots, a leftover from the coal mining days, when each room would have a fireplace. Nowadays the city is a smokeless zone, so only approved coal can be burnt and many of the chimneys have become a good nesting site for jackdaws. The gulls also like the canal as they can compete for the bread (despite recommendations to feed maize or other more suitable food)  thrown by children, who come to feed the ducks.

We have quite a few black birds in the neighbourhood: jackdaws, crows, coal tits and blackbirds. The blackbird we so enjoy in the UK is the Old World/Eurasian blackbird. It is certainly the most numerous breeding bird here and probably also, the best loved bird. Its beautiful mellow, liquid song brings joy to the listener. This is encapsulated in the poem by the Victorian poet, William Ernest Henley.

The blackbird.

The nightingale has a lyre of gold;

The lark’s is a clarion call,

And the blackbird plays but a box-wood flute,

But I love him best of all.

For his song is all of the joy of life,

And we in the mad, spring weather,

We too have listened till he sang

Our hearts and lips together.

It has been fortunate that we have been able to hear this wonderful song, morning and evening,  for many weeks, in what is the peak period for their singing. The one in our garden is full of energy and gusto, marking his territory as he moves round his circuit of favourite trees. The other evening, we sat outside in the garden with a friend over a glass of wine for the first time for ages as the first phase of lifting lockdown restrictions in Scotland has just started.  After weeks of unusually sunny weather the forecast rain arrived. We moved to shelter but our blackbird continued singing lustily through out even when he was flying across the garden.

Another solace over the last few weeks has been the chance to explore new walks in the area. With Arthurs seat, the Pentland and Braid Hills amongst others we have a good choice of uphill walks and equally in the lower areas where the streams and parks are abundant we have the Water of Leith, Inverleith Park, Princes Street Gardens, The Meadows and many more. Recently we have been exploring the walks in the area around Craiglockhart and Craighouse. The nature reserve at Easter Craiglockhart covers 35 acres with a long pond by the sports centre and pleasant, mainly deciduous, woodland, not far from the Observatory, Braid Hills and its golf courses and adjacent to Craighouse estate, with it’s chequered history.  The woods offer a shady stroll with a good variety of trees and plants, including campion, bluebells, long leaf avens and wild garlic

Craighouse mansion was built in 1565. In recent times it has been a hospital, part of Napier University and is now being developed with 145 units of modern housing, despite considerable local opposition.

Craiglockhart pond was built as a curling pond in 1878. During the First World War when the nearby Craiglockhart Campus building was used as a hydropathic hospital. Wilfred Owen built boats for sailing on the pond ( Wilfred Owen by Guy Cuthbertson, 2014) .

Pond at Easter Craiglockhart

Today it is part of the nature reserve, frequented by  Canada geese, tufted ducks, coots, moorhens, herring gulls and black headed gulls.  However, pride of place on the pond goes to the beautiful pair of white mute swans. This year they have had a clutch of nine cygnets, an unusually large number (normally 4-7) born in early May, We were lucky to see them when they were just a week old and to see the contrast between the large sleek icy white adults and the small grey-brown fluffy cygnets with their stubby black beaks.

Swans and cygnets – photo credit Bruce Ward

Over a hundred years ago, incidentally  close to the time when Wilfred Owen came to Craiglockhart, William Yeats sought solace in Coole Park in County Galway, Ireland, (then home to Lady Gregory, a co-founder of the Abbey Theatre and now also  a nature reserve) and wrote his poem the Wild Swans at Coole , the last three stanzas  from which are shown below:

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,

And now my heart is sore.

All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,

The first time on this shore,

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,

Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,

They paddle in the cold

Companionable streams or climb the air;

Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,

Mysterious, beautiful;

Among what rushes will they build,

By what lake’s edge or pool

Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day

To find they have flown away?

The poem expresses for us the admiration in which we hold these magnificent birds. For Yeats the sight of the fifty nine wild swans elicited deep reflections on his life. For all of us,  nature can be a source of both inspiration and reflection.

These two birds have given me a lot of joy in different ways over this difficult period: the cheerful little blackbird, protecting his home patch from which he never wanders far with his robust singing and  boundless energy; the graceful, regal  large white swans, elegant and tranquil on the water, majestic in flight.

Swans on Easter Craiglockhart

Over March, April and May we have had pleasure in watching spring unfurl. While the human world has been in pain and turmoil, the natural world has gone through its normal seasonal progression. For birds territories have been established, nests built and young reared. Plants have responded to the sun and spring flowers appeared in their normal succession: daffodils, bluebells, wild garlic, campion and many more.

As we strive to put our world together again, I hope that we will remember to be grateful for the environment around us and have the strength and vigour to protect it too.

The two faces of politics

The trouble with politics is that it all depends on your point of view. The current brouhaha over the recent behaviour of Dominic Cummings, the UK Prime Minister’s specialist adviser is a case in point. The facts are fairly simple and have been widely reported in the mainstream media.

Mr Cummings drove his wife and four-year-old child 260 miles to his parents’ Durham farm on March 27th, because he believed his wife was suffering from coronavirus; he started suffering symptoms of coronavirus the next day, when he self-isolated. This was less than a week after the Prime Minister had declared “a national emergency” on March 23, when he initiated the coronavirus lockdown and people were advised to “stay at home, support the NHS and save lives ”. In his TV address to the nation he explicitly stated “ people will only be allowed to leave their home for the following very limited purposes” and went on to say “these are the only reasons you should leave your home.”

Almost two months later (May 25th), in a rare public statement from the rose garden of No 10 Downing Street Mr Cummings defended his actions, the main argument being that he was seeking care for his child. He also said that “he did not regret what he did” and believed he had acted “reasonably” and within the law. [Unlike non-political adviser such as Professor Neil Ferguson and Scotland’s chief medical officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood, who both resigned after being challenged for breaking lockdown rules, he is currently still in post.]

However the UK public think differently as shown by two YouGov polls (1 and 2). 68% of people thought he broke the restriction rules and 59% thought he should resign.

Unfortunately, any political controversy sparks off a stream of claims and counter claims, justifications and criticisms that tend to deflect from the main issues that should be considered. In this specific case there has been support for Dominic Cummings from fellow Ministers such as Michael Gove and criticism from the opposition parties and from journalists such as Piers Morgan, many of whom have been on the receiving end of rude remarks from Mr Cummings. . Interestingly there have also been calls for his removal from 44 Conservative MPs, a not inconsiderable number.The Prime Minister stated that Mr Cummings did not flout the lockdown because he had been “travelling to find the right kind of childcare, at the moment when both he and his wife were about to be incapacitated by coronavirus.”

The crux of the matter is that the British public have found the behaviour of Dominic Cummings offensive and many people feel that they, ordinary members of the public, have made large personal sacrifices to comply with coronavirus restrictions. By contrast Mr Cummings, a key member of the group that laid down the lockdown rules is seen to be above the law.

People’s anger over the actions of Mr Cummings, his lack of repentance or apology and the defence of his behaviour by the Prime Minister and other Government ministers have been reflected in several ways. There has been a flood of message on social media, petitions for his resignation have gathered and a startling drop in opinion ratings for the Prime Minister and his Government.  During the first month of lockdown approval ratings were stable at c. 40% but fell from 19% to -1% over the past few days over the Dominic Cummings affair. It is ironic that if it were not for lockdown there might have been demonstrations and marches to protest.

The fact that this effect has been so seismic, is perhaps a reflection both on the power and influence of chief advisers within Government but also the concern of the public about this. Governments have always used specialist advisers in many fields such as health and agriculture so that technical advice from people with acknowledged expertise in a specific area can be given to guide the Government of the day. The members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and other committees advising on epidemiology and on hospital Covid-19 infection are examples. these people are independent non-political advisers.

 However, specialist advisers, who assist Government ministers, are political appointees and act in a personal and party-orientated capacity. First introduced by Harold Wilson in the labour Government of 1964, their number and influence has increased steadily. Whilst often not household names some have been well known either because of their influence or because of their involvement in specific crises. Alistair Campbell, the Press Secretary (spin doctor) for Tony Blair crucially involved in making responses to the media during the Iraq war.

At present there are 109 special advisers in government of whom 44 work for Boris Johnson. In February 2020, Sajid Javid, newly appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer felt the brunt of adviser power when he was asked to replace his team of aides with personnel chosen by No 10. He refused and resigned.

All this begs the question of whether the current political structure is healthy or needs redesigning. The much-vaunted British parliamentary system, which evolved over centuries, was based on a parliament, (answerable to the electorate only at elections) with an impartial civil service providing the information on which decisions were based. However this  system has been in considerable jeopardy for at least two decades due to the concentration of control within a narrow circle of ministers, thereby diminishing the importance of parliament and the increasing importance of the third tier of political advisers, who are not accountable to the public.

Good Government depends on trust, the trust of the public. This need for Government to have the backing of the public is magnified enormously in the current situation, when people are being asked to act selflessly in many ways (staying away from dying loved ones, obeying the restriction rules, cooperating with track and trace  system etc.). Cooperation is vital in the efforts of the whole country to help contain further spread of the coronavirus. Effective government on a world stage, which we will need in coming times, also depends on how those outside our country view the actions of our government.

Whether you agree or disagree with the behaviour of Dominic Cummings will depend on your point of view. However, we should seek a better system of using specialist advisers, so that the powers they have are balanced by making them more accountable, not just to their individual bosses.

When the bushfire of the current scandal has burnt out and we are sifting through the ashes, should we not at least consider whether our current system has the right checks and balances and also learn how the rest of the world views us.

Written 26-28 May 2020

Touching distance

Touching hands. Courtesy IANS

Touch is important from the very first moment of our lives. All round the world babies are  placed in their mothers’ arms as soon as they are born, and so the process of bonding begins. This initial contact can be a life-changing moment and often women who did not feel particularly maternal in pregnancy suddenly feel a rush of love and a fierce protectiveness. Touch is one of the five fundamental senses but our modern society has problems in balancing the benefits of humans touching each other with the prevention of inappropriate touching that crosses accepted lines.

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

During the coronavirus lockdown the fact that we have had to conduct our lives almost without touch has led to an appreciation of its value in relation to seeing and hearing. In video chats with grandchildren we can see and hear them but a virtual hug is scant consolation for the reward of reading a story with the child nestled in close to you or a hug to celebrate some new achievement. On two occasions during recent months my wife and I have taken the precaution of sleeping in different rooms. The first was a week before lock down in the UK when I had a dry persistent cough albeit with no temperature, which at that time were the two major indicators of possible Covid-19 infection.

With the data gathered through the King’s College, London symptom survey led by Professor Tim Spector ( https://covid.joinzoe.com/), the list of symptoms associated with coronavirus infection have increased and include loss or taste or smell ( added to the NHS coronavirus symptom list on 18 May). But the sensible course was to stay part until we knew that the infection was non-covid. During this period neither my wife nor I slept well and we missed the reassuring and calming small touches that mean so much.

Our individual attitudes to touching and the general view of society change over time. Growing up in the 1950’s, my parents kept to the customs and attitudes of their peers. This meant my father greeted me with a formal handshake not a hug, whereas my wife’s family came from an environment where touching was an important demonstration of affection and belonging. Over the last 20 years it has become the norm for men to greet female friends with a kiss on two cheeks. My children have grown up in a world where hugging between men is normal and in team sporting events there is a mass clasping of bodies in mutual congratulation on scoring a goal etc. The 2005 series of Ashes tests (cricket matches between England and Australia) have recently been made available to view again. At key moments, the players rush to congratulate a teammate who has made a telling contribution, smothering him in hugs and pats, so he is submerged from view. Not something we are likely to see again for a long while.

Celebration during the Ashes 2005series (Daily Mail)

In fact, handshake greetings have become so habitual, that when the advice to stop greeting came to be part of official coronavirus guidance in February, people including politicians and royalty found it difficult to break the habit. Stopping kissing, hugging and handshakes was implemented in Europe, well before lock down started (UK 23 March). It was ironic that at an early White House press conference, announced with much fanfare, on how the US was going to tackle the coronavirus President Trump shook the hands of several of the participants.

Trump handshake in Rose Garden – March 13th (Getty Images)

Touching distance for two adults is roughly 1.5m, within the 2m social distancing we are recommended at present in the UK. The exact safe distance is still being debated with WHO suggesting 1m is safe but all recommendations are based on studies of other coronavirus particles in air and the risk of aerosol transmission. Professor Werner Bischoff, from Wake Forest, North Carolina, speaking on BBC Radio 4 on May 19 (link) explained that large expelled droplets (larger than 5 microns) travelled less than a metre. Small droplets travel further but have a lighter viral load and so pose less risk. However, the time of exposure is also important and as argued below it is probably the overall dose of virus particles that is the important factor.

An interesting post by Dr Erin Bromage discusses the relative spread of virus particles through air as a result of breathing, coughing , sneezing and singing (link). Whilst the large number of particles released by coughing is well known, Bromage cites two examples from the scientific literature where low levels of virus excreted over a prolonged period of time indoors caused high rates of infection. The article emphasised the role of asymptomatic carriers and argued that the accumulative dose was the key factor in aerosol spread. One consequence of this argument is that social distancing measures, based on short exposure times are insufficient for indoor situations, particularly where airflow such as air conditioning is transmitting virus particles to neighbours.

With regard to touching, the rapid transmission of bacteria and viruses between humans has been known for many years. In undergraduate teaching classes a simple experiment where a harmless bacterium was put on one person’s hands and then passed onto the next person by shaking hands was used to show that a small dose can be transferred effectively through a number of different people successively being in contact with each other. Similar experiments using harmless tracer viruses, carried out at the University of Arizona, showed that virus particles could be transferred from one object such as a door knob to other objects such as computer keyboards, toilet handles and table tops. Within 2-4 hours the virus was detected on 40-60% of such surfaces and human workers were contaminated.  

As we touch our faces frequently, the possibility of transmission of Covid-19 from hands to face and then entering the body through the nose and mouth is obvious. Hence the advice of frequent hand washing with soap or wiping with alcohol, both of which kill the virus by disrupting the viral coat.

The social consequences of all this is that the comfort and assurance that we are used to receiving daily through touching is disrupted in many ways such as meeting and greeting friends and relations. While meeting in person has been replaced partially by video chats through systems, such as ZOOM and Skype,. that allow “virtual meetings”, the element of touch is still missing.

In the Netherlands one care home has introduced the use of glass cabins where relations can see their elderly relatives and talk to them using speakers though separated by a glass partition (link). This system works for patients with dementia who could not cope with video chats.

The moist poignant need for touch right now is when a person is in hospital, infected with Covid-19 and close to dying. Both the ill person and those close to them want to be at their bedside at this pivotal moment for mutual comfort. For many this has been impossible and doctors used to witnessing deaths have been affected  by these cases of patients dying, literally in isolation. In a moving programme on Radio 4 (diaries of the NHS workers – cronavirus behind the mask) doctors and nurses related some of the difficulties they face every day.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000j22z

One commented that it was hard to watch people say good bye, especially if they are doing so remotely from Facebook or on Face time. At the Royal London Hospital, in an act of courage and humanity, Dr Rupert Pierce decided to offer relatives the chance of saying goodbye in person, protected by PPE. For medical staff and relatives alike this was a big decision; demonstrating how to put on and take off PPE safely and knowing that these people would be taking a risk.

Hands bringing comfort – photo courtesy IANS

Being in touching distance was important enough to take the risk.

Written May 20th 2020

Phases of the moon

During the lock down the weather in Scotland has been exceptional. None of those dank, dreich grey days with grey scudding clouds or days when the sky presses down like a heavy blanket and the relentless rain dampens body and soul. There has been a long period of sunny weather and we have been able to watch spring unfurl. From bare branches to a profusion of leaves, from bud to blossom and leaf, we have had time and opportunity to watch and enjoy the trees, the flowers and the busy flights of birds and insects as they react to springtime.

A bonus of the fine weather has been clear skies at night and a chance to observe the stars. With no necessity to hurry and scurry through life there has been the opportunity to look around, to look up instead of straight ahead and to appreciate the environment around us.

Crescent moon in the west over the trees with Venus above

About ten days ago I noticed a new crescent moon in the west over the trees and a bright star above it. The brightness of the star and its rapid rate of movement suggested this was not a star but the planet Venus, confirmed by looking at one of the interactive night sky maps for my location available on the web.

Since then I have looked at the moon most evenings. In Scotland we are sufficiently far north to get short winter days (7h on Dec 21st) and long summer days (>17h on June 21st), so even between this new and full moon the daylength has increased by 1h. Last night was the full moon, known traditionally as the Flower Moon (May).

Crescent moon end of April W
Full “Flower” moon ESE in same cycle

The phases of the moon was an important interest in ancient times with each month roughly equivalent to a lunar cycle described by some as a “calendar in the sky”. Alexander Marshack, a journalist, writing in the 1960’s believed that cave drawings provide evidence that paleolithic man used the moon as a calendar. This idea was incorporated within “The Land of Painted Caves”, a book in the fascinating Earth’s Children series by Jean Auel about the lives, culture and beliefs of paleolithic man in Europe. During her training to become a spiritual leader, Ayla spends time studying the phases of the moon and the passage of the moon across the sky.

The Sumerian civilisation used a lunar calendar , which was adopted by the Babylonian empire in the 18th century BC. The lunar cycle is 29.5 days, so the Sumerians, who lived in what is now southern Iraq, had to reconcile the lunar year of 354 days with the solar year of c. 365 days. They did this by add an intercalating month and their New Years Day was around the spring equinox, when the day and night lengths are the same.

For centuries afterwards many civilisations used a lunisolar calendar with the months based on the lunar cyle and the year on the solar cycle. Different civilisations made the correction in different ways but there were also revisions necessary as the estimation of the solar year became more precise. The Julian calendar, formulated in the time of Julius Caesar was the forerunner of the Gregorian calendar devised in 1582. .

Many ancient civilisations were interested in the study of the sun, moon and stars and had considerable knowledge about their movements, though it was not until Pope Gregorys time that the theory of the earth moving round the sun was proposed by Copernicus. There is evidence of this in the structures found in Orkney: the burial mound at Maeshowe, and the nearby monolith, the Barnhouse Stone, constructed by Neolithic man c 2,800 BC. On the day of the winter solstice, the sun sets over the top of the Barnhouse Stone and the last rays of the sun travel through the entrance passage to illuminate Maeshowe’s inner chamber.

Despite the modern calendar being solar-based, the moon still has its place in most diaries and calendars with tables of the phases of the moon. We have a rich lexicon of words to describe the four main phases (first quarter, full moon, last quarter and new moon): crescent, gibbous, waxing, waning etc. and despite our more urban existence we have reverted to naming the full moons for each month, by their traditional names, which mainly reflected the yearly agricultural cycle. It is remarkable that over different cultures and in widely different locations many of the names were basically the same.

The snow moon in February, the cold moon in December reflect the weather. The pink moon in April, flower moon in May and strawberry moon in June are named for the flowers that bloom in these months, while over the harvest period the moon in September is synonymous with harvesting: the corn moon , the barley moon or the harvest moon and the October moon is the Hunter’s moon.  Every three years the Harvest moon occurs in October because this moon is confusingly set as the one closest to the solar equinox on September 21st-22nd.

Unsurprisingly the moon is associated with many myths and legends and has inspired a rich array of poems, music and art over a long period of time. A famous poem written by Zhang Ruoxu, a Chinese writer of the early Tang dynasty, is called “Spring River in the Flower Moon Night”. It describes the moonlit Yangtze river in spring and his reflections on life and our passage through it. The poet reflected that the moon has been there for millennia and that each generation of people come into the world and look at the same moon as their predecessors and their successors.  The moon has a constancy and a longevity that people from different times and locations can appreciate and can form an inspiration for art.

This blog started with my looking up quietly at the moon in the sky and taking time to enjoy it. The #ramblingthreads that followed have led me into a fascinating plethora of history, myths, poems and music that have enriched my experience. I end with three poems which I came across in this rambling and I hope they may stimulate you too.

1. Death and the Moon by Carol Ann Duffy.

The moon is nearer than where death took you

at the end of the old year. Cold as cash

in the sky’s dark pocket, its hard old face

is gold as a mask tonight. I break the ice

over the fish in my frozen pond, look up

as the ghosts of my wordless breath reach

for the stars. If I stood on the tip of my toes

and stretched, I could touch the edge of the moon.

I stooped at the lip of your open grave

to gather a fistful of earth, hard rain,

tough confetti, and tossed it down. It stuttered

like morse on the wood over your eyes, your tongue,

your soundless ears. Then as I slept my living sleep

the ground gulped you, swallowed you whole,

and though I was there when you died,

in the red cave of your widow’s unbearable cry,

and measured the space between last words

and silence, I cannot say where you are. Unreachable

by prayer, even if poems are prayers. Unseeable

in the air, even if souls are stars. I turn

to the house, its windows tender with light, the moon,

surely, only as far again as the roof. The goldfish

are tongues in the water’s mouth. The black night

is huge, mute, and you are further forever than that.


2.  The Moon was but a Chin of Gold by Emily Dickinson.

The Moon was but a Chin of Gold

A Night or two ago—

And now she turns Her perfect Face

Upon the World below—

Her Forehead is of Amplest Blonde—

Her Cheek—a Beryl hewn—

Her Eye unto the Summer Dew

The likest I have known—

Her Lips of Amber never part—

But what must be the smile

Upon Her Friend she could confer

Were such Her Silver Will—

And what a privilege to be

But the remotest Star—

For Certainty She take Her Way

Beside Your Palace Door—

Her Bonnet is the Firmament—

The Universe—Her Shoe—

The Stars—the Trinkets at Her Belt—

Her Dimities—of Blue—


3. Blue moon light by Jason Louis Gaydos

In the quiet calm of night, we walk hand in hand.

Down the path, across the sand.

Looking into your eyes, I feel the time is right.

Standing together, beneath the blue moon light.

The wind starts to blow, trees shake.

The ocean waves begin to break.

Holding you close, I feel the time is right

Holding one another, beneath the blue moon light.

The tide rises slowly, our feet in the surf.

A star falls from heaven, on its way towards the earth.

Making a wish, I feel the time is right.

Wishing together, beneath the blue moon light.

Our time has come, we must say good-bye.

Night has fallen in the November sky.

No need to cry, for this time was right.

To fall in love, beneath the blue moon light.


When the current restrictions on movement are lifted again, I will be able to visit  the beaches and cliffs of the Scottish coast, only a few miles away from here and see the pull and push  of the moon as the tides change. Meanwhile there are some myths and legends to read.

Written May 8th 2020

Paths and destinations

We went most summers to Devon when I was a child. My uncle owned a farm with land extending from inland pasture right to the edge of the cliffs overlooking the sea. I remember in sharp detail the walk from the farmyard to the beach. At the start the path was bordered by stone walls higher than me and then broadened out as it reached the open grass on the clifftop. Compensation for tired legs was the view along the coastline and the endless ocean stretching to the horizon. On a good day you could see right across to the Eddystone Lighthouse and, depending on the tide, the sharp needles of the rocks sticking into the sea like outstretched fingers.

Photo: Flete Estate

The view came with a promise and a certainty. Just round the corner there was a beach, with sand to play on and rock pools to explore. With renewed energy we would all start running down. From the top of the cliff a zigzag path, hidden behind the curve of the slope, led down to the beach. Initially the seashore was hidden completely from view but as we hurried down, more and more of the cove was revealed. Finally, the large old boathouse, constructed of big unhewn boulders with a corrugated iron roof came into sight.

With a few more jumps down the steps we had arrived, an afternoon of simple pleasures ahead. One of these was swimming out to the large rock in the middle of the bay that at low tide afforded a hollowed-out cavity to sit in. It took some years before I was a strong enough swimmer to reach it and the sense of achievement made it a favourite destination, despite the sharpness of the rocks.

Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.com

Journeys with a safe starting point, along a familiar path to reach a pleasurable destination are rare in life. More often journeys are like traveling through a maze. My interest in mazes started with a crayon, scribbling messily in a holiday drawing book, to find the path to the centre of the maze. As a child the other strong association with uncertain paths stemmed from rainy days, curled up on a sofa reading the Greek myths.

A favourite was the legend of Theseus, who was sent as part of the yearly tribute of young people to King Minos on Crete. Theseus succeeded in slaying the minotaur in the labyrinth below the palace at Knossos and helped by the gift of a thread from Ariadne he found his path back out of the maze. The story is a compelling one with a powerful story line, a mixture of triumph and tragedy, promises and betrayals that is known and liked by most of us. The strengths and frailties of the central characters grip our attention.

Perhaps subconsciously whenever we enter a maze, though we enjoy the excitement of finding the way through and the challenge of solving the puzzle, we also are pitting ourselves against the hand of fate. The more difficult the maze, the more pleasure we derive from reaching our goal. The modern attraction of mazes is borne out by the popularity of garden mazes, many built by the Victorians, and restored post 1945. The maze at Traquair House in the Scottish borders is nearby but there are many intriguing mazes throughout the UK. What is striking is that the effort to design, build and maintain a maze of several thousand beech, yew or cypress trees is high, yet we probably only spend part of an afternoon in good weather exploring. One possible reason for the current popularity of mazes (and for their enduring appeal over many centuries) is that they answer a hidden and recurrent need in all of us.

At present most of us not occupied in essential jobs have more time to reflect on the paths and directions we have taken. We can rue the blind alleys we entered and ponder the direction to take in the future. Although superficially we are all isolated in similar cells and the restriction on our movements are the same, our circumstances both physical and mental vary enormously.

The physical pressures on families living close together in a limited space are different from couples with a large house and garden. The situation for those having lost jobs contrasts starkly with those enjoying the luxury of a steady pension. Being isolated at home has difficulties but they are nothing compared to the hazards facing those working in hospitals. Plenty of advice has been published on getting through the coronavirus pandemic. Mostly, it seems, we are adapting well and creating a new way of life with support from neighbours and the resources from the virtual world of the internet.

Yet we have entered a new maze, complex and multidimensional, that shifts with time and circumstance. Each of us has to find our own way through it, like a traveller along the pilgrim’s path. We need to confront the issues in front of us whether guilt about not contributing, worry for friends and family, fear for the future or difficulty in coping with isolation. We may not be able to see round the next corner but we do have the time and opportunity to consider our route, to cut ourselves a stave for the journey and to decide what to put in our backpack and what to leave out.

Written 15th April 2020

Caribbean escape

After over two weeks of lockdown we are all getting into a routine of sorts and adjusting to this strange, isolated existence. Apart from one neighbour, who kindly brings round a loaf of bread and a carton of milk when required , the only person I have seen in the flesh is the guy at the “Click and Collect” , who brought out our plastic baskets of food and left them at a safe distance. True,  from our back windows we can see the occasional walker or jogger along the canal path and from our upstairs window there are a few  people on the pavement, particularly mothers taking children for some fresh air and a break from being constantly in the house but overall, as in the rest of the country, it is quiet on the streets. Even the occasional bus trundling by carries only a few well-spaced passengers.

Superficially, if one avoids the temptation to be glued to the news from the outside world, all is quiet and peaceful. This appearance has been reinforced by the unusually long spell of reasonably sunny weather, a welcome feature in what can be a windy part of Scotland. I can also count myself lucky as having a partner to share my thoughts, a companion over a glass of wine and a friend with whom to chat; throw in the luxury of a garden in which to enjoy the sunshine or to immerse in physical toil without thinking too much, there is little to complain about. Yet we find ourselves doing small things that show that deeper down there is an insecurity, based partly on the inability for us, as humans, to socialise in small groups face to face during the lockdown and partly as a result of our fears for our friends and family and for the future. 

Like many others we are using the time to start jobs that have been put off for far too long by the hurly-burly of life. In our case that is redecorating the bathroom. A while ago we decided to remove the wallpaper, curling at the edges in places from the damp, and paint the walls in blue to complement the large grey Italian tiles. The choice has narrowed down to three:  Caribbean Escape, Sail the Seas and Paradise Sky, the names redolent of escapism.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As I painted A4 sheets of paper in each of these shades I wondered how much the current times have increased our need to find some quiet, safe mental space – to provide a temporary exit pathway from the present. Many years ago, when my wife had meningitis,  we had a few weeks of being on our own and found doing jigsaws and playing card games like cribbage relaxing as we had no television! Working on a 1500 butterfly jigsaw last week provided the same enjoyment and the same break from overthinking.

At times of stress we subconsciously move back to behavioural patterns that are comforting, whether reading a Dick Francis or Georgette Heyer novel or watching something uncomplicated on television.  The series “Death in Paradise” offers that in abundance- each episode revolving about solving a murder against the background of an idyllic island with palm beaches, crystal clear water and the bustle of life in the Caribbean. The fact that the formula is the same and that the frequency of murders rivals that of Midsomer Norton matters not a jot.

So when the bathroom is redecorated and I am sitting in the bath surrounded by a Caribbean sky, will I need to add mentally a background of some palm trees and physically a cocktail on the side or just dream faraway thoughts in a steamy atmosphere? The answer will probably depend on what unrecognised currents  in my subconscious are driving me to feel tense or relaxed. There is always more going on underwater than on the surface. 

Written 8th April 2020

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