Little Britain: How the rest of the world sees us
Britain was once a great power. Are we now best known for oil spills, airline strikes and Simon Cowell? The Independent's foreign correspondents reveal how the rest of the world really sees us
Saturday 07 August 2010
How the French see us
By John Lichfield, in Paris
We spend a lot of time staring over the Channel at our neighbours. The French much less so. They have other irritating, fascinating neighbours to the north, east and south. All the same, our compulsive prejudices, and anxieties, about the French are mirrored by compulsive French prejudices, and anxieties, about the British.
The French look down on us because, they assume, we are badly dressed/under America's thumb/uninterested in food/awkward about sex. They are also a little unnerved by us because, they fear, we are more enterprising than they are, more innovative and less hung-up by tradition.
The French are ambivalent about their public services. They are convinced, however, that the Thatcher/Blair experiment with the dismantling of the British state has been a calamity. To some French people, especially on the Left, it is axiomatic that in Britain one train in two crashes and that "outre-manche" (across the Channel) there's a two-year hospital waiting list to have a baby.
On the French Right, Britain was grudgingly admired, until just a couple of years ago, for having embraced a more open, entrepreneurial and global economy. Now, even part of the French Right, even President Nicolas Sarkozy, declares that the British have taken a disastrous turning away from enterprise and manufacture towards internet gambling on a heroic scale.
The French political classes, both Left and Right, believe that Britain is foolish to tie itself so closely to America. They wish Britain would become less ideologically europhobic and more distrustfully European, like France. Then Paris would have an alternative to its uneasy alliance with Berlin.
In both countries, lazy, old preconceptions overlap with lazy, new preconceptions. We still see them as dishonest, histrionic and arrogant; they still see us as devious, phlegmatic and arrogant. But the French now also view us as a schizophrenic nation. Seen from across the Channel, we are either frigidly conventional or wildly eccentric; emotionally retarded or callously violent.
The typical British man, according to French stereotypes, either wears a bowler hat or has purple hair; he either carries an umbrella or carries knuckle-dusters. While the typical British woman either wears a dull sensible skirt, or has green hair and ripped jeans and gets drunk before breakfast.
In a recent French movie called LOL (2008), about a mother-daughter conflict, the teenage daughter and her friends go on a school exchange to a drab town just outside London. It never stops raining. The streets are populated by middle-aged women in dowdy, floral dresses carrying garish umbrellas. For dinner, the French teenagers are served white bread, marmalade and pasta – on the same plate.
Why, then, one might ask, are there 300,000, mostly young, French people living in Britain, mostly in the London area? This is the biggest south-to-north, cross-Channel invasion since the Huguenots in the 17th century.
All those young French people are in Britain because jobs are easier to find; small companies are easier to set up; and promotion under 40 is not something unusual. They also find London more lively socially than Paris. The vast majority of them are determined, all the same, to return one day to France.
How the Russians see us
By Shaun Walker, in Moscow
Russians have a complex relationship with Britain, or as they insist on calling our country, "Foggy Albion". London, they will assure me, is frequently so foggy that life comes to a standstill, and no amount of persuasion that, unless you live in a tent on Exmoor, Britain is no foggier than the average Moscow autumn day, will suffice.
Along with the fog comes the standard roll-call of stereotypes – endless tea drinking, stiff-upper-lippery, and emotional retardation. (While most Russians actually knock back far more tea than any Brit I've ever met, anyone who has seen the inscription on a Russian birthday card, or heard a Russian give a toast at a drinking session, would agree that compared to them, we do tend to keep our emotions under wraps.)
Alongside the inevitable national stereotypes comes a huge amount of genuine knowledge. With America considered Enemy Number One, much of Soviet schooling, when it touched on the English-speaking world, revolved around British culture and literature. There's hardly a Russian alive who isn't a fan of "Sherlok Kholms", and they also love to get stuck into weightier classics. I was once chatting up a girl at a bar, and it was all going swimmingly until she started pontificating about The Forsyte Saga. "Well, it's about four million pages long and pretty dull; I never got very far with it," I admitted. She looked at me as if I was an illiterate peasant.
In the methodical rote-learning that Russian schooling provides, there also seems to be a great deal of focus on London and its sights. A 12-year-old who'd never been abroad once revealed to me the top 10 artefacts he wanted to see at the British Museum, in ascending order.
During the Soviet times, only a handful of lucky diplomats or KGB spooks could see London for themselves, but for wealthier Russians today, much of this knowledge comes first hand. Around a dozen flights a day between Moscow and London are packed with businessmen and tourists en route to Britain. Relations between the two countries at a top political level have never recovered from the Litvinenko murder, wrangling over TNK-BP, and various other scandals, but while politically Russian leaders feel they can ignore the human rights carping of the British elite as insignificant, economically, London remains one of the most important destinations on the planet for Russian companies.
For the super-rich, of course, there's a special affinity with London. Any minigarch worth his salt has to have a pad in the heart of the Foggy Albion (Kensington, preferably), and those even further up the ladder might also pick up a football club. Many oligarchs educated their children in Britain, a trend that is now trickling down to the wealthier segments of the new middle-class, too. One friend of mine makes a small fortune training the brattish offspring of the well-heeled to pass entrance exams for top English boarding schools.
Often when I talk to Russians about their "invasion" of London over the past decade, there are mixed feelings. Russians are troubled patriots, and while there's a proud swagger at the fact that "We came, we saw, we conquered," there's also a grudging admission that they love London because it offers them so much that Moscow can't.
How the Germans see us
By Tony Paterson, in Berlin
Germany versus England in the World Cup: an opportunity for German soccer fans to show how well-behaved and decent they are compared to Britain's notoriously unruly football yobs? Not a bit of it, if the huge German crowd on Berlin's fan mile earlier this summer was anything to go by.
Images of the England team on the mile's public viewing screens instantly produced a mass demonstration of the so-called "Stinkefinger" – the German equivalent of Britain's V sign. That evening, as Germany systematically thrashed England 4-1, the crowd sang in unison, "Who's fucking England?".
It was only the Germans exacting a bit of revenge for seeing their teams portrayed for decades by the Second World War-obsessed British tabloids as strutting, jackbooted Nazis. Such "German-baiting" used to upset German ambassadors to Britain and once caused a German Foreign Minister to issue a complaint.
Now Anglo-German soccer relations appear to have normalised, and mercifully the Germans have become as good at laughing at the Brits as the Brits are at laughing at the Germans. German-British relations as a whole, it could be argued, have never had it so good. That said, the Germans haven't forgiven Margaret Thatcher for her vehement opposition to German reunification. Nor did they much like Tony Blair's unequivocal backing for the US invasion of Iraq. But Britain's new Conservative-Liberal coalition Government has earnt unprecedented praise in Germany, a country which has relied on coalitions since the Second World War. "It works" trumpeted Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung earlier this month. "Britain has what Germany lacks – a harmonious and functioning coalition government," it added.
One of the most popular criticisms of the British heard in Germany is that they are a nation of "Inselaffen" (Island monkeys), meaning a species ridiculously paranoid about Europe, the European Union and the euro. But speaking German with an English accent or speaking no German at all is hardly a problem in big cities such as Berlin, Hamburg and Munich, where English is heard all of the time. Most Germans speak fluent English anyway.
Yet German perceptions of Britain can be absurdly romantic. One hugely popular TV series is comprised almost entirely of television versions of Rosamunde Pilcher novels. German actors cast as upper-class Englishmen and women dress immaculately in waxed jackets and Burberry scarves and play out dramas about jilted lovers in the country houses of Devon, Cornwall and Wiltshire. The coastal scenery is magnificent and there is never a council house in sight. What's more, everyone drives a large and expensive-looking German car.
Such programmes feed popular German fantasies about Britain and help to explain the country's obsession with English "country" labels such as Laura Ashley and Barbour, and Hamburg tailors that offer bespoke Harris Tweed jackets.
It's an image of Britain crassly at odds with the reality of what more than a few German children experience on exchange visits to Britain. One German 12-year-old who went to spend a term at a school in Wales didn't understand what was happening when he was introduced to classmates who thrust their arms into the Nazi salute and greeted him with the words: "Heil Hitler!". But that was more than a decade ago. The former schoolboy is now grown up and his story about Welsh "Heil Hitlers" is his favourite party piece.
How the Americans see us
By David Usborne, in New York
Specific things tend to pop into the heads of Americans when you first reveal you are from the UK – assuming they haven't got that from your accent. They might have served at a base in Upper-Somewhere and want to know if you know Someone who lives there. Or they grin and utter the name Benny Hill.
In my case, the conversation with almost every other American I meet begins this way: "Are you related to Ozzy?". Never mind the different spelling. He is a Brit, though I wonder if they know that. If I then proceed to reveal that I am a journalist, something nearly always follows: "Ooh, the BBC?".
Thus, I am a disappointment to almost everyone on every score. I have no incredibly rich, slightly addled, former rock star brother and I am not from a famous broadcasting organisation. However, even after a protracted stint in America, I do still have that accent. Heaven forfend, that I should ever lose it.
Why speaking the way I do should be so charming to so many Americans is a mystery, but there it is. I was midway through booking a rental car by phone with a lady I will never meet, when she could no longer contain herself. "Where y'all from? I could listen to you talk all day." There is still this notion that having a British accent equals intelligence. Strange, but true.
Something like the usual routine occurred at a political event in a school gym in South Carolina. Joanna on my left gushed about the way I talked. I was ambushed on my left by the deputy headmaster, Bob. Did I want to hear his cell phone ring tone? (Bagpipes.) Did I know where he was the week before? (The Scottish Games and Highland Festival in nearby Greenville. And Prince Edward had been there.)
Nearly all these things happen while on the road or on the phone to somewhere else. Being British holds little fascination for people in New York or Washington DC, where we are two-a-penny. Then recently in the South, I found myself saying "No" to a very new question: "You must be from BP".
Reports of generalised hostility to Britain in recent weeks because of the Gulf oil spill are entirely exaggerated. That said, there has been some popular (and certainly political) hostility to BP, which was deeper than it would have been had it been an American company. The romance with Britain only goes so far, therefore. Tony Hayward, the departing CEO, has a sort of presentational limpness Americans do not get, unless it's in a re-run of Are You Being Served?. They like their oil-men square-jawed.
For better or worse, Mr Hayward has done his part to help sink the old stereotypes of Britain that many Americans once had. It is no longer just the place David Niven came from, or even Alistair Cooke, who for years introduced an hour of mostly British drama on Sunday nights on Public Service television called Masterpiece Theatre. The broadcast still exists, but edgier Alan Cumming introduces it nowadays.
You might argue we are most famous in America now for crassness, rudeness and meanness. Younger Americans are not watching Mrs Bucket or One Foot in the Grave, but rather Little Britain, Russell Brand and Simon Cowell. Cowell is arguably the most successful Brit in America these days. The Cowell effect is sorry news for those whose job it is to promote Britain in America. But hard on his heels is another British talent-show judge who may be about to inherit the Larry King show on CNN. He is Piers Morgan. Old tabloid hack he may be, but Piers surely has more Niven than Cowell in him.
No one will ask if I am related to Morgan, but I will be able to boast we went to the same school.
How the Indians see us
By Andrew Buncombe, in Delhi
It's been more than six decades since India secured independence from Britain, and for the younger generation of Indians at least, the role of the colonial power as some sort of cultural reference point further diminishes every year. Forget about boring, rainy old Britain, if the new, booming India is looking anywhere for ideas it is to the US, where the American Dream has provided newly-wealthy Indians with inspiration for their own dreams, complete with all the mods and cons of the consumer lifestyle.
That is not to say that Britain is not important. In the field of higher education, for instance, the UK remains in the top three of preferred destinations for Indian students, and bilateral trade and investment remains crucial. But in terms of fashion, music, television and cinema, for India – as for much of the world – America leads the pack. The Indian middle-class was transfixed by the election of Barack Obama, yet even after his recent trip there, most would probably not even recognise David Cameron.
Indeed, often when you talk to younger, educated Indians they sound almost sorry for you when they learn you're "a Britisher". They seem concerned about the weather, the cost of living, the high divorce rate and the absence of the "extended family home", complete with grandfathers, siblings and in-laws. More recently, they point to the financial crisis, polite enough not to mention India's 10 per cent growth. They blanch when you mention the price of a single journey on the London Underground. They look horrified when you explain that should they ever go to London and travel on the Underground, they must not, under any circumstances, talk to anyone.
By and large, Indians are very friendly and forgiving of foreigners, overlooking what they must consider eccentricities. Beyond this, there are – I delude myself – a few areas where being British in particular is still a good thing. Strike up a conversation on the train and you'll be reminded that the British built the railways; raise a peg of whiskey in a bar and you'll be told it was the British who brought whiskey-drinking to the sub-continent; and during any Test match, expressing one's love of cricket puts you in front of any American or mainland European. Many Indians have friends or family who emigrated to the UK.
There are other examples where Britain's traditions linger. At any garrison town you'll find Indian army officers more stereotypically British than any British soldier could ever be. (I was recently refused entry to a military-run private club in the hill station of Kasauli until I had tucked my shirt in. "We have to keep up the discipline," explained the club secretary, a uniformed officer with a very proper accent.) And in places such as Shimla, the former summer capital of the Empire, you'll encounter Anglophile Indians in three-piece tweed suits taking an evening walk.
What you rarely hear is people complaining about the British Empire, which, given the 250 years of exploitation, starvation and neglect that ensued, I always find surprising. Occasionally, an Indian will tell you that things were better under British rule, though that is a conversation I never wish to pursue.
Yet such people are rare; as a nation, India is more confident than it has ever been. People are aware that the country faces a myriad of problems – corruption, poverty, malnutrition – but they are confident India will be able to tackle them. They are not looking to Britain, or anywhere else, for help.
How the Middle East sees us
By Robert Fisk, in Beirut
The middle east can be a dodgy place for a Brit. In the old days, you could own up to being a citizen of Her Majesty's and be met with only the harmless: "Mr Balfour!". "Yes, yes," I would say, "of course. I'm sorry." Then it was all smiles. The long-dead Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs who offered support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine – and doomed the Palestinians – would be forgotten.
But it was best to let the Arab immigration officer sort nationality out for himself. Almost invariably, the poor man would read English, like Arabic, from right to left. And, mercifully, the golden legend on the front of our passports announces: "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland". So the man would pick on the last word. "Irish?" he would ask. "Irish!" I would exclaim, smiling – but without preceding this assertion with the simple lie: "I am".
While he was scribbling "Irlanda" in Arabic, I would receive a familiar refrain. "IRA very good! Bobby Sands." This was always a tough one. Since my dad once spent a few First World War months in British army uniform trying to shoot the men he called "Sinners" (Sinn Fein) in Cork, I would say, mystifyingly, "Michael Collins!", which seemed a good deal better that hollering "Up the Provies!". But there was always a big question mark in my mind. Since the discovery of being a Brit often also evoked "Manchester United" or "Liverpool", the immigration man may have thought the IRA was a football team and Bobby Sands its centre forward, its new Manager a certain Michael Collins.
In non-Arab Iran, you couldn't play this game. There is a Bobby Sands Street next to the British Embassy in Tehran and the much smarter Iranians would know that I belonged to the Little Satan before I could utter my all-purpose nationality reply of "European". The odd thing was that, however wicked our various prime ministers were perceived to be – Thatcher was a bad time, Blair worse, Gordon Brown much easier, because many Muslims (like many Brits) had no idea who he was – we never got personally blamed. A transliteration problem means that Cameron is often written "Cameroon", which always leads me to mutter "Scotland" under my breath.
Of course, the Arabs and Iranians and Afghans and Pakistanis – despite the racist attitude of our own political poltroons and jolly generals – have a pretty good idea of what the Brits are up to. Not surprising, since we've been enthusiastically occupying them in various forms for more than a century. The Pakistanis remember our 1948 betrayal of Kashmir, the Iranians our participation in the 1951 overthrow of the democratically-elected Mossadegh (we wanted "regime change", of course – so did the CIA), the Arabs, Palestine, etc. Yet it can be very moving how often – once the Balfour bit has been got over with – a Brit will be welcomed to the humblest dwelling for tea, a five-course meal and hours of serious political conversation. Muslims in the West (I include the UK) were not treated quite so generously after 9/11.
Once, of course, we Brits confronted Arab nationalism and communism and could talk enthusiastically about "socialism". Now – after Hamas and Hizbollah and Al-Qa'ida and Islamic Jihad and all the other Islamist outfits – "socialism" is the one thing a Brit doesn't discuss. Most recently, the Arab question tends to be: "Mr Robert, the Israelis steal your British passports – so why does Mr Cameroon say he is a Friend of Israel?" Unanswerable, of course. Cameron should realise that most Brits do not subscribe to this nonsense. Which is pretty much my reply.
There's still a certain amount of cricket-Tower-of-London-Queen-Churchill stuff among the Arabs – which is better than Manchester United, since I loathe all football – but usually the Brits in the Middle East are treated with a kind of mysterious awe. We were better than the French (true). We were smarter than the Americans (absolutely true). "So why are you supporting Bush and Blair and Obama?" Yipes! "We do not blame the British people," I've heard a thousand times. Of course, of course. "But you are a democracy, yes? So why do you elect this Bush and Blair?"
From there, it's heads down. Yes, another helping of couscous/shawarma/hummus. Yes, I'd love another tea. Black with no sugar. Yes, just like you!
How the Kenyans see us
By Daniel Howden, in Nairobi
If you're looking for signs of Britain's fading influence in Kenya, then the Karen provision store is a good starting point. A relic from a bygone era in the famous southern suburb of Nairobi, it offers forgotten delicacies like tinned oysters to a largely middle-aged white clientele whose care-worn Land Rovers are parked outside. Its quaint noticeboards are filled with colonial cottages for rent and pedigree puppies for sale.
Once the hub of Karen commerce, it's now a curiosity effectively sitting in the car park of the new Kenya that has grown up around it. Its neighbour is a behemoth of a modern supermarket surrounded by fast food joints and filling stations. This "plaza paradise" which breathes aspiration is the future.
The Karen landmark's gradual disappearance from view is symptomatic of the declining importance of the particular brand of musty and reserved Britishness that lingers in Kenya.
The next generation of Kenyan leaders have grown up watching African-American television, listening to stateside R&B stars and graduating from Ivy League universities. A white face in Nairobi is more likely to be greeted with the assumption that you are from America rather than Britain.
The slide has become more pronounced in the past decade, as the government has replaced a proportion of foreign aid with an expanded tax base and looked to Beijing rather than London for investment. China now offers the hard power that once flowed from the Foreign Office, while Britain's soft power has been largely superseded by US cultural exports.
For an older generation of Kenyans, Britain remains a powerful brand. Former president and dictator, Daniel arap Moi, still favours his Savile Row suits and the senior civil servants look to the manners and etiquette of 1960s Whitehall as a model. The bar of the Karen Country Club is propped up by a generation of Kikuyu landed gentry who took over from their English counterparts and who wander from their armchairs to the golf course and back again in the style of a country squire.
The political elite of the Moi and Kenyatta families continue to play polo at the weekends and spend their considerable fortunes on racing cars and horses, but the new middle-class is less bound by colonial habits and inherited privilege.
Meanwhile, areas of traditional British dominance, like education, have been lost to more feisty challengers. Private primary and secondary schools continue to try and ape their imagined British counterparts with institutions like the sprawling and expensive Brookside in Nairobi, presumably inspired by Harry Potter castles. But at the university level, the shift is pronounced. Entrance to the likes of Oxford and Cambridge Universities is perceived as arcane and complicated, while the Ivy League schools actively recruit Kenya's best and brightest on full scholarships. The result has been a new centre of gravity among opinion leaders and trend-setters who look to America for everything from accents to music.
The level of interest in the US elections was indicative of this shift, as Kenyan-descended Barack Obama stayed on the front pages and the top of the radio and television bulletins. Britain's electoral cliffhanger earlier this year was buried in the foreign pages of the dailies.
One mighty cultural export that has bucked this trend is the English Premier League, which dominates screens and conversations like nothing else. However, while most Kenyans will claim allegiance to one of Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal or Liverpool, it's arguable after the World Cup debacle just how English the hyped league is.
The British Council soldiers on trying to show that it's down with the kids, sponsoring a monthly open-air hip-hop and graffiti festival known as Wapi. The scores of local rappers and street artists who perform next door to the High Commission may be on British sovereign soil, but their style and aspirations now belong firmly to America.
How the Japanese see us
By David McNeill, in Tokyo
For some reason, many Britons view Japan as an exotic, odd little place on the other side of the planet. They ignore obvious similarities: both are island nations and ancient constitutional monarchies, with a history of imperial venality and naval bullying. Both have reputations among their neighbours for being buttoned-down, stuck-up and, sometimes, a bit hard to like.
The commonalities hardly end there. Japan's slow economic decline and its decision, for better or worse, to hitch its foreign policy wagon to Washington, should cause a painful stab of recognition in the hearts of most sons and daughters of Albion. Not for nothing has Japan been dubbed the Britain of Asia – with the emotionally florid, hyper-sensitive Koreans doomed to play the role of the Irish.
Not surprisingly, Japan's rulers have long been enamoured of their island cousin in Europe. Japan and Britain are officially celebrating 150 years of friendly relations (2008 was the 150th anniversary of the Anglo-Japan Treaty of Amity and Commerce), skipping with a polite, embarrassed cough over the Second World War and Tokyo's alliance with fascist Germany and Italy.
But British influence has long been in decline here. For obvious reasons – including the enduring impact of the post-war US occupation – America looms much larger in the average Japanese imagination. Japan was long ago pulled into the orbit of America's enormous economy, its political ties are deeper, the military alliance, increasingly troublesome though it may be for many Japanese, has yet to unravel. Culturally, America years ago elbowed the UK and the rest of Europe off its perch.
Perhaps for that reason, UK cultural symbols in Japan have a frozen-in-amber feel. A thousand ersatz pubs and shops trade in dog-eared Brit paraphernalia: Union Jacks (before rehabilitation by Oasis or even the Jam), red phone boxes, bulldogs, poker-faced Queen's guards, Princess Diana, the Beatles. British food is fish and chips, shepherd's pie and cream scones. Tourist brochures advertise Big Ben, Harrods, Oxford Street shopping, tartan scarfs and butter biscuits. Add a fresh sprinkling of newer popular imports – Mr Bean, Radiohead, Harry Potter, Coldplay and Oasis – and you begin to exhaust the store of reference points in the average Japanese mind: London is still foggy, bobbies are still friendly and British food is still inedible.
The more enduring area of British influence in Japan is, of course, the English language. Indeed, one of the most important points of contact between the two nations has been the thousands of young people who have come here to teach in Japanese classrooms, either in their gap year or just after college graduation.
But while some Japanese employers specifically ask for what's called "British-English" (complete with its troublesome spelling), British accents carry little weight in Japan. Most Japanese can barely register the difference in inflection between someone from London and New York, let alone Liverpool and Manchester. Some Japanese have even been known to ask British ex-pats if they speak English in England too.
Fifty years of fading influence?
by Holly Williams
The shrinking Empire
Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made his famous 'Winds of Change' speech, about African emancipation and the end of Empire. Nigeria gained independence that year, while South Africa became a republic in 1961.
France was the most popular destination for newly-invented package holidays, with Spain another favourite. A fortnight in Costa Brava cost about £35 per person.
BP, known as the British Petroleum Company, were searching – and finding – resources right around the world, including natural gas in the British Channel in 1964.
British brands and manufacturing
Iconic British brands such as Cadbury's, HP sauce and the Mini were all made in the Midlands.
More than a million Brits took advantage of the £10 passage to Australia between 1945 and 1962.
The phrase 'football hooliganism' gained currency, but violence was worse in other European nations.
The shrinking Empire
The Queen is still head of state of: Antigua, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, St Kitts & Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent & the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, UK.
Spain and France are still the most popular destinations: in 2009, they accounted for 21.3 million of a total of 58.6 million trips abroad. A budget fortnight in Spain costs £350 each.
BP (they ditched the 'British' in 1998) now face share price collapse, profit loss of $17 billion, clean-up costs of $32.2bn and a payout of $1million to blundering ex-chief executive Tony Hayward.
British brands and manufacturing
Cadbury's was bought by the US food giant Kraft in January; the HP factory moved to Holland in 2007; Minis are still made in the Midlands but owned by the German BMW.
Around 5.6 million Brits now live abroad – and Australia is still the top destination, home to over a million ex-pats. France and Spain are next in popularity.
UK Government bans meant that 3,200 offenders were unable to travel to this year's World Cup finals.
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