Dan Holmes

Dan is a Surrey based writer concerned with local and national politics, environmental issues, animal welfare and sport.

It’s not homeless people that need a one-way ticket

Homelessness is on the increase across the country. It’s been difficult to avoid this fact over the past year or so, especially as figures released from the National Audit Office in 2016 demonstrated a stark rise in the number of rough sleepers on the nation’s streets.

Tragically, homelessness has become a feature of modern life. For some, the sight of a rough sleeper on the morning commute is as routine as the train journey to work itself. We’re all aware of it and each of us, subconsciously or not, have our own attitudes towards it. Some are philanthropic towards the homeless, either in thought or deed, whereas others are sanctimoniously dismissive. For some it’s a case of compassion fatigue. The sight of rough sleepers is so widespread that they find it difficult to adequately express their feelings.

As with many subjects such as this, something will inevitably grab mainstream media attention and bring people’s perceptions of the issue into sharper focus.  There have been a few recent events which demonstrate this in relation to homelessness. One of these incidents occurred when Whole Foods in Stoke Newington were forced to remove signs outside their store encouraging people not to give food or money to the homeless sleeping nearby. The signs, which were also inside the store, linked the giving of money or food to the homeless with “encouraging theft, aggressive behaviour and substance abuse”, before encouraging customers to donate to local charities. Naturally, the response to the signs was one of indignation and Whole Foods were forced to concede that they had been mistaken.

The whole situation was not far removed from the discourse around homelessness that has always existed: what is the best approach to take?

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There are so many contributory factors involved in driving a person to homelessness: debt, marriage breakdown, mental health issues, affordability of tenancies, welfare reform and much else.

Another perhaps even more troubling story to emerge recently was that of councils in England buying homeless people a one-way ticket out of their boroughs. The councils claim they are reconnecting homeless people to their loved ones, but with instances in which people have been offered tickets to places to which they have never been or have any connection, it’s not too difficult to see what is really going on here. Could anything represent a greater admission of failure than council-backed street cleansing of the homeless?

Charlie Carroll’s 2013 book ‘No Fixed Abode’ asserts that, for some, homelessness is simply preferable to the rigours of modern life. George Orwell, in his classic 1933 memoir ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ termed it “going to the dogs.”

It is easy to see how this could provoke the sort of sanctimony and dismissiveness mentioned earlier. There is a tendency for some to become holier-than-thou when discussing such matters to assert their own perceived superiority over those they deem to be beneath them. Surely the most lazy and boring suggestion is that homeless people should simply “get a job”, as though a job is something one can simply “get” whenever they please, irrespective of the many other contributory factors of homelessness.

Shouldn’t we be getting past these attitudes? The modern world is frightfully challenging for some people and not everybody is equipped with the necessary coping mechanisms to negotiate their way through. This should prompt compassion, not derision. Having a job does not make you better than someone who doesn’t and stigmas over causation should be challenged.

Most of us would feel justifiably confident that if we fell on hard times we would have the necessary support around us to cope. For some this is not an option and the road to the streets is much shorter for those who lack the support structures we do.

The mainstream media assault upon welfare claimants has successfully paved the way for punitive government legislation, some of which has contributed to homelessness. It is worth noting that homelessness has increased by at least 130% since 2010. This assault has also been a vehicle for widespread desensitisation toward the plight of those in need.

No single individual can alleviate this crisis, so the best thing we as individuals can do is simply show compassion. It sounds glib and superficial but there’s little else for it. Even if you have no change to give, as is so often the case, try not to take the easy option of avoiding the person, something I’ve previously been guilty of out of embarrassment. Even by simply engaging with them you have at least acknowledged their existence. It seems like nothing at all, but when someone is in that state it can mean an awful lot.

It’s important that we remember that we aren’t above these people and be thankful that our own circumstances are such that we aren’t faced with such crisis. Conversely, we should remember that, in these precarious times, many people are more at risk of homelessness than perhaps they realise.

Many rough sleepers will tell you that, rather than the cold, the lack of food and generally degrading conditions, the worst thing of all is the loss of identity, the fact that nobody asks your name.

It’s not homeless people that need a one-way ticket, rather the callous and abdicative attitudes from some local authorities towards them – a one-way ticket to the dustbin of history.

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Are Corbynistas Ready for a Corbyn Premiership?

Jeremy Corbyn is a politician in the ascendancy. Bolstered by a remarkable and unforeseen performance in last June’s General Election, the 68-year-old MP for Islington North sits unassailable in his position as leader of Labour Party and is poised to become the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Only a year ago, none of this would have seemed plausible. Corbyn, beleaguered and under intense pressure from certain factions within his own party, was fighting to hold off a leadership challenge from Owen Smith, MP for Pontypridd. He would eventually sweep to a resounding victory, securing his position as leader for the second time in a year.

This second victory, by a bigger margin than the first, drove home the point that many within the party were refusing to accept – Corbyn was here to stay.

It’s been a curious thing, Corbyn’s rise to prominence. Rarely has a politician in this country been subjected to such intense scrutiny, often straying into outright opprobrium. As a counterweight to this, however, the veteran Socialist has engaged and mobilised people long since disillusioned with politics.

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Energised by Corbyn’s ideological commitment to traditional Labour values, the party’s membership has soared to levels not seen in decades. At the last election, this increased level of support enabled the resurgent party to acquire its biggest increase in the vote since just after the second World War, exceeding even the most optimistic pre-election predictions.

Thanks in part to the treatment of Corbyn by much of the press – most notably during the General Election, when some of the criticism was nothing short of vicious and hysterical – new party members and activists, fiercely loyal to their leader, have been at times unable to differentiate between baseless slander and reasoned, constructive criticism of their man.

As such, amongst some at least, an atmosphere of immunity has developed around Corbyn. Those keen to shield him from the torrents of abuse to which he has undoubtedly been the subject have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Their vision clouded by media hostility towards Labour’s leader, any criticism, no matter how well-meaning, has been repudiated in the strongest possible terms.

To illustrate this point, one needn’t look any further than when BBC presenter Emma Barnett was heckled on social media after an interview with Corbyn in which she reprimanded him for being unable to immediately provide costings for Labour’s free childcare plans.

Barnett was perhaps guilty of editorialising during the interview, but the abusive, expletive-laden responses by some were unjustifiable and deeply unhelpful for Corbyn, who has repeatedly sought to condemn such attacks. All such episodes serve to do is provide ammunition for those who seek to write off Corbyn’s entire support base as malevolent Trotskyists, risen from the ashes of Militant and intent on party hegemony.

Corbyn doesn’t need or even want any of this. He doesn’t wish to be exempt from criticism. He admitted to having not had the childcare costings to hand in his interview with Barnett, after stating that he would “not tolerate” abuse aimed at Barnett or any other journalist. He simply got caught out in an interview. It happens. Just look at Boris Johnson.

It would be hard to refute the fact that excitement about what Corbyn offers has contributed in part to the culture of no criticism that exists among some Corbynistas, but this enthusiasm need not be dimmed by constructive appraisals of Labour’s plans for government. Robust critiques of what the party intends to implement if in power will be essential if the optimism that currently abounds translates into a Corbyn premiership.

As far as criticism goes, Corbyn’s used to it. He’s been barracked in the Commons by both the opposition and his own side. He’s able to absorb it and never gets into the gutter with anyone. He enjoys talking to people about politics, not engaging in the kind of ad hominem attacks which are so often levelled at him. It’s in fact rather ironic that such an advocate of unity and mass participatory democracy should prove such a polarising figure.

Regardless, if we want to change the current climate in which Corbyn’s critics are loathe to say anything good about him, nor his supporters anything bad, we need to encourage a more balanced approach to critiquing his ideas and what he stands for.

If Corbyn becomes Prime Minister, he and his supporters will need to brace themselves for unprecedented hostility and a barrage of denunciation from the opposing side. It will be relentless, a great deal of it will be unfair and much of it will be brutal. Corbyn is going to be ready for it and he will need his supporters to be equally prepared.

Allowing Corbyn to be criticised does not amount to an ideological compromise, it’s merely part of living in a democratic country. Labour’s grassroots support has been instrumental in his meteoric rise and there is nobody that can refute that. As he gears up for power, he doesn’t need them to protect him from flak, he needs them to take their arguments to people around the country, be open to criticism and ready to respond respectfully and persuasively.

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Orwell, Freedom of Speech and the Meaning of Liberty

In these turbulent political times, what can we learn from the man widely regarded as one of the most important voices of his generation?

Politics feels particularly tribal these days with little room for balance or nuance around today’s main discussion topics. In Britain this polarisation has become glaringly apparent in the aftermath of the last year’s EU referendum and the recent general election.

In the United States, the political earthquake that was Donald Trump’s election to the White House, shortly followed by the “alternative facts” debacle, led to an increased interest in the work of George Orwell. We were living, it seemed, in a post-truth era and Orwell was the man who could offer the literary antidote.

After all, this most prescient of authors had written of this almost seventy years earlier in his dystopian classic 1984. Sales of this book, incidentally, soared in the wake of the alternative facts revelations.

It is tempting to theorise what Orwell would have made of the current political scene, but such an analysis would likely require more than one article.

There is, however, one area in which it is not hard to hypothesise about Orwell’s views and that is the current trend for No Platforming – that is, the banning of those with supposedly ‘unsayable’ views from expressing them in public.

Whilst this always dubious practice has historically been used to suppress those with violent, fascist tendencies, this is no longer always the case. Nowadays, it takes much less to get no platformed, as people like Julie Bindel, Peter Tatchell and even Richard Dawkins can attest. The no platforming of Tatchell, a prominent gay rights activist for many decades, is particularly absurd. An indication of the direction this policy has taken. People are now being made into pariahs for misjudged or ill-advised comments that fall foul of the prevailing liberal orthodoxy.

Another incident, not quite no platforming but along the same lines, came when Katie Hopkins, the notorious shock-jock, was subject to a mass walkout when speaking at Brunel University in 2015. It is necessary to insert a caveat here. Katie Hopkins’ ‘views’ are deeply unpleasant and purposely provocative. But then, isn’t this the point? Would it not be more effective to demonstrate these facts within a debate? Any competent debater could comfortably dismantle and discredit Hopkins’ arguments within a few minutes. No platforming such people validates their views in a way they do not deserve. It gives them the opportunity to accuse opponents of being afraid to debate them.

Take the example of former BNP leader Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time in 2009. Given a platform by the BBC, Griffin proceeded to deliver a flustered and unconvincing performance which prompted criticism from all sides, including his own supporters. Surely this proves that, rather than ignoring such individuals, giving them the opportunity to discredit themselves is preferable? After all, when you’ve just beaten yourself in a debate, who else can you blame?

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Freedom of speech is an essential part of any civilised democracy and no platforming in its current incarnation is becoming a threat to this. Britain’s universities shouldn’t be places where students are shielded from views which might upset them. Instead they should be places in which they are free to rebut, repudiate and counter their opponents. You cannot win a debate by muzzling your adversary.

All of this brings the conversation back to Orwell. What would he have made of the current state of debate in the UK? In attempting to answer this question, perhaps we should turn to one of his best-known utterances, namely: “if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” The beauty of this quote is that it works both ways. People should have the right to tell us what we don’t want to hear, because their right to do so guarantees our right to do the same. This is the foundation of freedom of speech.

If we want to build and live in a fully inclusive society we must be willing to be exposed to views with which we disagree, sometimes even vehemently oppose. Provided people’s opinions do not incite hatred or violence then they must be guaranteed the right to express them. Failure to assure this right is not conducive to inclusive discourse and will inevitably foster resentment, tension and a generation of people who crumble when confronted with views which do not mirror their own: an echo chamber generation. To quote Orwell again: “threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.”

As Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, one of the most divisive political figures in recent years, said during Labour’s recent general election campaign: “everybody we meet knows something we don’t and everybody can teach us something.” Politicians, journalists and everybody else should not be afraid to be proved wrong, to learn and to improve. Admitting we are mistaken is not a demonstration of weakness, but of strength. After all, failure to concede we have been proven wrong does not hide the fact that we have.

Orwell was a fierce opponent of totalitarianism in all its forms and it stands to reason that he would oppose any attempt to shut down debate. He believed in “the power of facing unpleasant facts.” In other words, he wasn’t inhibited by political tribalism and could see things for what they were. If something was wrong, he would say so, regardless of who was responsible. This was a man accustomed to overcoming ingrained prejudice, having spent much time ‘unlearning’ some of the views his upbringing had instilled in him in relation to, among other things, the working class.

We can take much from his example. As the United Kingdom faces up to the reality of Brexit, arguably its biggest challenge since the time of Orwell, a political climate which is as inclusive as possible can only be beneficial. Party rivalry will rightly always exist and we can’t all be friends, but the right to air these differences in a civilised and respectful way must be preserved.

It is interesting and rather apt that over the years both the right and left have made attempts to claim Orwell as one of their own. Regardless of where he would have sat on today’s political spectrum, we can all learn from his honesty and unflinching commitment to democracy and liberty.

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No Cap on Courage for Britain’s Firefighters

Recent events in Britain have brought into sharp focus the role of our public services in daily life. The two main strands of this discussion have centred around their importance to us in times of need and to what degree they should be financially rewarded for this.

Most recently, and in such horrifying circumstances, it has been Britain’s firefighters at the forefront of our minds.

Having been called into action to tackle the macabre blaze at Grenfell Tower last month, the sight of these brave individuals looking so utterly haunted in the aftermath is one that will long reside in the public consciousness. Equally, hearing individual firefighters lament the fact that their ladders did not go high enough to reach the highest floors of Grenfell Tower was intensely difficult.

For many of us, however, the intricacies of a firefighter’s role are something of a mystery. Naturally only firefighters will fully understand what it is they do and how it is they do it, but the revelation that firefighters at Grenfell were required to write their initials on their equipment before entering serves as an eerie symbol of what these people could be called upon to give at any given moment.

The purpose of the initials, of course, was to identify their bodies should they not have made it out that night. As job-related requirements go, it doesn’t get much heavier than that. There were officers at Grenfell witnessing scenes they had never seen before. People like 26 year old April Cachia, who told the Daily Telegraph how she helped terrified residents from the towering inferno having only been in the job for five days:

“The smell of smoke, the sound of crackling, the sound of debris hitting the ground, children screaming, people hand you their phones to speak to their loved ones – these are the things you won’t ever forget.”

The bravery of the firefighter is of course well established almost to the point of cliché, but in view of recent public discourse concerning public sector pay, the question of how to adequately reward firefighters has become particularly relevant.

In response to the defeat of Labour’s amendment to the Queen’s Speech, which proposed to “end the public sector pay cap and give the emergency and public services a fair pay rise”, MPs on the winning side of the vote were heard cheering in the Commons.

Regardless of party politics, such grotesque displays of contempt merely highlight the disconnect that exists between some politicians and the will of the public.

Boris Johnson telling Labour-Assembly leader Andrew Dismore to “get stuffed” in 2014 in response to the question of his office’s cuts to fire services was another unsavoury incident which looks far worse in retrospect.

Firefighters and other public service workers are often lavished with praise but little else. Unfortunately, praise doesn’t make ends meet. Despite this, it was heartening to learn that some of the firefighters who attended Grenfell have been amongst the first to take free holidays donated via the Grenfell Tower Holiday appeal group.

Fire Brigade’s Union General Secretary Matt Wrack has noted that firefighter’s real wages are falling and “our members are struggling to make ends meet.”

Wrack went on to launch a scathing criticism of governmental policy, saying: “it is sickening to hear politicians praising firefighters for the outstanding work they do every day of their working lives only to be told they have to tighten their belts as a result of economic problems caused by bankers.”

With this having been said, political dogma categorically should not take away from the fact that when called upon, Britain’s firefighters step up to the task. Their numbers may be diminished – there are 19% less firefighters than in 2010 –  but their resolve to protect is not.

Blessedly for all of us, there is no cap on the bravery of Britain’s firefighters.

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Hillsborough – victims’ families have triumphed at last

Last week’s news that the Crown Prosecution Service was to bring criminal charges against six people in relation to the Hillsborough tragedy is vindication for a collection of families who refused to be cowed in their fight for justice.

A twenty-eight-year fight for justice is nearing its conclusion with the announcement that six people are to face criminal charges relating to the Hillsborough tragedy, which claimed the lives of 96 people, and its aftermath.

For the families and friends of those that died, this verdict will be bittersweet. As the old saying goes: justice delayed is justice denied, and this verdict has been nothing if not delayed.

Three decades of smears, lies and obfuscation have been swept away amidst thunderous vindication for a set of people who simply were not willing to lie down. Last week’s announcements have indeed been a long time coming, but this merely demonstrates the sheer indefatigability of the campaigners in their quest to overcome a thicket of resistance to justice.

The passage of time can sometimes dilute the magnitude of events; and momentum, followed by hope, can be lost. For the families of the dead, the past 28 years have been a battle against a series of challenges, each of which have required admirable force of will to overcome.

First came the aftermath of the tragedy and the repugnant allegations that the victims were somehow responsible for their own deaths. Just a day after Liverpool’s Sunday Echo referred to the events as “our day of tears”, The Sun newspaper, under its then editor Kelvin McKenzie, ran the infamous headline in which it alleged fans had stolen from the bodies of the dead and urinated on rescue workers. This came to represent one of the darkest days in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Margaret Thatcher’s then Press Secretary, Bernard Ingham, when speaking in relation to the tragedy, was quoted as saying: “I know what I learned on the spot; that there would have been no Hillsborough if a mob, clearly tanked up, had not tried to force their way into the ground.”

Home Secretary Douglas Hurd would later tell the House of Commons that 19 police officers had been assaulted at Hillsborough. No evidence of this would ever be provided to the inquiry.

For families coming to terms with devastating and sudden loss, such smears against their loved ones served only to exacerbate their anguish. For its part, The Sun’s coverage of the story permanently decimated its circulation on Merseyside. To this day, the paper is reviled across the city.

Lord Justice Taylor’s initial inquiry into the disaster found the primary cause of the deaths to be a failure of police control, but the 1991 inquests delivered a verdict of accidental deaths, setting in motion a sequence of events that culminated in last week’s verdicts.

When MP Andy Burnham spoke at Anfield on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, emotions boiled over amongst a crowd of over 30,000. Burnham was heckled from the stands, not for anything he had done on a personal level, but for the government he represented.

The Liverpudlian, to his eternal credit, absorbed the crowd’s anger, later saying: “I’d been thinking in the run-up that, in some way, this could be fate. I was thinking, is there some way I can now open up Hillsborough again?”

Burnham also added: “If I wasn’t the minister, I’d have been one of those shouting at the minister.”

In a Cabinet meeting the very next day, Burnham told Prime Minister Gordon Brown that he wanted Hillsborough back on the agenda.

On an emotional day in April 2016, 27 years after the disaster, the Hillsborough inquests jury ruled that the 96 people who died as a result of the tragedy were unlawfully killed. It was vindication at last. The campaign of vilification against their loved ones had been defeated.

At the end of a two-year inquest, the verdict, which came after the jury were required to answer fourteen questions in relation to the day’s events, was met with jubilation outside the courtroom, with those in attendance crying, hugging and applauding the jury. In perhaps one of the most symbolic scenes in the fight for justice, the families gathered outside the courtroom for a rendition of Liverpool FC’s iconic anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone.

All of this brings us back to last week’s events, what they represent and what they tell us about the people who fought for so long to seem happen.

People like Anne Williams, who lost her son Kevin on that fateful day, tragically did not live to see justice delivered, but the tireless campaigning which saw her labelled ‘The Real Iron Lady’ is emblematic of a group of people who weren’t prepared to acquiesce to injustice.

It seems appropriate to end by once again quoting Bernard Ingham, who, when speaking with the Liverpool Echo in 2013, refused to apologise for saying that Liverpool should “shut up” about Hillsborough.

Clearly the former Press Secretary knew little about the city of which he spoke. The bereaved families never did “shut up” about Hillsborough and they make no apologies for it.

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General Election 2017: how the young took back British Politics

The young people of Britain left their detractors bewildered on June 8th. Turning out on a scale not seen since 1992, they delivered a comprehensive repudiation of a political system that has marginalised them for too long.

It has been a seismic year in British politics. This time twelve months ago, Britain had just voted to leave the European Union after a bitterly contested, divisive and at times toxic referendum campaign. What followed was undoubtedly one of the most remarkable periods in British political history.

At the end of a political epoch which saw the resignation of David Cameron, Theresa May’s appointment as Prime Minister; Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as leader of the Labour Party; Donald Trump taking office and the United Kingdom triggering Article 50, Theresa May called a snap General Election.

It was an opportunistic and cynical move which came despite previous assurances to the contrary. Even against the backdrop of May’s repeated insistence that no General Election would be called until 2020, the sight of Labour floundering in the opinion polls combined with her own personal approval ratings proved too much to resist for May and her advisers, who went for the jugular.

Parliament found itself dissolved after two-thirds of the Commons voted in favour of a motion for an early General Election and Britain was once again going to the polls.

Theresa May banked on the opinion polls proving accurate. A landslide victory was to condemn Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour to electoral oblivion whilst simultaneously handing her an overwhelming mandate to negotiate Brexit unopposed and unchecked. Complacency was rife and understandably so.

After all, many political commentators had already concluded that young people had no right to express their concerns over Brexit as they had supposedly not bothered to get out and vote, so why would it be any different this time?

Initial reports after polling day put the youth turnout at around 36%, leading to widespread attempts to bury young people’s Brexit concerns beneath accusations of political apathy. Later evidence compiled by the London School of Economics suggested youth turnout for the EU referendum was in fact around 64%, vastly higher than originally reported. Still, none of this mattered and would matter even less when Labour and their young supporters were reduced to political non-entities.

As the General Election got into full flow, the Conservatives were beset by calamity. Despite a highly personalised, almost presidential campaign, Theresa May was floundering. Stage-managed public appearances in sterile environments did little to undermine suspicion that the Prime Minister was unwilling to meet the public and unable to engage with voters on the ground.

By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn was undergoing quite the political revival. Since first being elected Labour leader in 2015, the 68-year-old had been portrayed by Conservative MPs, large sections of the British press and even his own back-benchers as nothing short of a political pariah.

However, since the General Election had been called, support for the Islington North MP had been gathering considerable momentum. His backing, particularly among the young, was soaring.

His principled, emotion-driven style of politics stood in direct contrast to Theresa May’s scripted, repetitive and rigid approach.

As Corbyn continued to address large crowds of young people, extraordinary levels of condescending rhetoric emerged from sections of the press and some political commentators.

It was all well and good Jeremy Corbyn speaking to and winning the support of all these young people, but young people didn’t matter. Sure, they’d cheer his name in the streets or in a football stadium, but if it rained on election day he couldn’t count on their vote. Such were the methods used to denigrate and dismiss swathes of young people casting off decades of political apathy to become engaged, energised and inspired by politics for the first time.

The same sneering attitudes were prevalent in dismissing as unreliable the various polls which had Labour closing the gap on the Tories with each passing day. Again, none of this would matter when the youth vote collapsed on polling day.

Eventually, the time for talking was over. Polling day arrived on June 8th and by the time night fell Theresa May’s majority was gone.

Labour’s surge was astonishing. Young voters across the country had mobilised, taken to the streets, knocked on doors and engaged with politics in a way not seen in decades. So much for apathy.

When Jeremy Corbyn addressed a Glastonbury crowd last Saturday as big as any seen in living memory, he stated that “the politics that got out of the box is not going back in that box.”

That is the challenge that lies ahead for young voters – to stay engaged, stay energised and make sure nobody speaks for them without their permission ever again.

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