Pip pip hooray: A celebration of the British apple

They inspired Newton, shaped our countryside, and strike at the very core of Britishness. Now, after years of decline, native apples are back in fashion. On the eve of Apple Day, Michael McCarthy salutes the fruit.

Friday 19 October 2007 10:30

No tourists head for Colnbrook; it's a location that has lost its sense of place. Officially it's a village, but a village a mile from the end of the main runway of Heathrow Airport is not the sort of village that gets into a guidebook. These days it's just part of the vast semi-suburban hinterland where Greater London starts to dissolve into the countryside; a straggle of roads whose older buildings are interspersed with modern houses in small estates; even its geographical location is blurred. Originally it was in Buckinghamshire; then it was in Middlesex; now it seems to be in Berkshire, part of Slough.

I am looking for a block of flats called The Lawns, and though I drive up and down the high street several times, I can't find it. I ask in the Post Office and am directed further back towards the airport perimeter, and eventually I spot it, next to the Arora Park Hotel with its its Kathmandu Kitchen restaurant ("Spice Up Your Sunday!"): three storeys of Seventies-anonymous red brick, with an arched entrance into the rear car park. I drive through and get out.

So it was here. Here, where this grey asphalt is portioned off in white lines, here where the notice warns "Wheelclamping In Operation 24 Hours", here where Heathrow's roaring jumbos and Airbuses rise up overhead so abruptly they seem like sea monsters surging from the depths. This is where a minor miracle occurred, and the Cox's orange pippin was born.

It is hard to believe. Then, of course, it was a garden, this dead rectangle dotted with Toyotas. I try to imagine it, the garden of Richard Cox, a wealthy brewer from Bermondsey who in the 1820s retired to the country to pursue his hobby of horticulture. Were there rose beds here? Herbaceous borders? There must have been lawns, wide green lawns. (The Lawns was the name of Cox's substantial Georgian house.) But what certainly graced this ground were apple trees.

Colnbrook was indeed in the countryside then, a proper village bestriding the Bath Road, surrounded by market gardens and, especially, orchards – and there was Richard Cox's particular interest. He knew about apples, and the amazing genetic tricks they play. One day, around 1825, Cox took a noble English apple variety, the Ribston pippin, and pollinated it with another such, the Blenheim orange, planted the pips from the resultant fruit in this garden, today so brutally sealed under asphalt, and sat back to wait.

He waited for about a decade. At length, the trees that grew up here bore fruit themselves, and with one of them, Richard Cox found he had brought about something quite astonishing: apples so delectable they put even their noble progenitors to shame. "When perfectly ripe, [it is] deliciously sweet and enticing, with rich, intense, aromatic flavour," notes Joan Morgan, the great authority on the English apple, describing the Cox in The New Book of Apples. "Spicy, honeyed, nutty, pear-like... subtle blend of great complexity..."

It was the acme of apple. The zenith of apple. The pinnacle of apple. The Bermondsey brewer had produced what was to become, with its flawless balance of sweetness and acidity, one of the most esteemed fruits in the world – certainly, Britain's most popular native fruit, representing half of all the apples grown in the UK.

He did not know he might bring this about. He didn't aim at it, directly. He couldn't. All he could do was plant his pips, cross his fingers, and see.

For apples, or to be more precise, domestic apple varieties, do not " breed true". They do not reproduce themselves. If you munch a Cox down to the core and plant one of the pips, you will not get a tree that produces Coxes. You may get something quite similar; but you're just as likely to get something very different. This is because apple varieties are propagated by grafting, and so, genetically, are clones of each other; and as such they cannot fertilise themselves, but need to be cross-pollinated with pollen from a different apple tree type.

What they then produce, as the two separate genomes mingle, is infinite variety in their offspring, just as male and female human beings produce infinite variety in their children. The "children" of apple trees are not the apples, mind; the apples just are the cradles, and they stay the same. The children are the pips, and genetically, there are as many different apple pips as there are children in the world.

And just as most children, most of us, grow up to be fairly ordinary, but occasionally one will turn out to be Mozart, so it is with apples. Most pips, if planted, turn into trees that are nothing special, but occasionally one grows into a tree bearing fruit that is entirely new, with a wonderful, distinctive, fresh character that gardeners then rush to preserve. With a shout of surprise and joy, no doubt.

This has happened about 7,000 times (and it's still happening) since the wild apple, which originated in the Tien Shan mountains on the borders of what are now Kazakhstan and China, was first domesticated by man, and brought along the Silk Road to Europe. There are thought to be that many named apple varieties in the world, with well over 2,000 in England alone: beauty of Bath, Bramley seedling, Devonshire quarrenden, sweet lark, Lord Lambourne, d'Arcy spice, Sturmer pippin, Peasgood's nonsuch, Egremont russett, Worcester pearmain, Norfolk royal, Cornish gillyflower... how many d'you want? You can eat a different English apple every day for more than six years. Each one tastes different, each one offers a different take on seasonality, on ripening, on colour and shape, on texture, on the acidity/sweetness balance, and on the combinations of all of these.

This scarcely believable variety is the very essence of apples, the reason why for many people they are the pre-eminent fruit. It's the great joy of them. But there's more: because every apple surely originates in an exclamation, as it were, in a yell of delighted amazement at the abrupt discovery of one of those blessed genetic accidents, as happened in Richard Cox's garden, each one has a story. Each apple variety has its own colour and texture and taste, but it also has its own person, its own place; usually both.

Take the Blenheim orange, the enormous, Christmastime eating apple, superb with cheese, prized by some enthusiasts above all others: it was discovered in 1740 growing against the wall of the park of Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, the seat of the Duke of Marlborough, by a local man, a Mr Kempster. He grew a cutting in his own garden and people stopped by to marvel at the tree with its load of striking orange-red fruit – they halted their coaches to gawp at it – but alas for his posthumous fame, when the apple came to be sold commercially, the name of the Big House was thought to be a rather classier label for what until then had been known as Kempster's pippin. "Pound o'Kempster's, please"... not a bad ring to it, really.

The Ribston pippin, the other progenitor of the Cox, also came from a country estate: it was raised at Ribston Hall near Knaresborough in Yorkshire, some time after 1707, by Sir Henry Goodricke, allegedly from a pip he had brought from Rouen in France (and it went on to be the Victorians' favourite table apple, like the muscat of Alexandria was their favourite table grape). The Egremont russet, nutty and delicious despite its rough skin, is thought to have been raised on the estate of Lord Egremont at Petworth in Sussex. But by no means all apple histories begin with toffs. Discovery, with its perfumed, spicy edge (some people detect a hint of strawberries), was raised about 1950 by George Dummer, a fruit-farm worker from Langham, Essex, who planted a seedling from a Worcester pearmain pip in his front garden.

As Mr Dummer had only one arm, his wife tried to help him with the planting, but in doing so she slipped and broke her ankle, and the seedling lay unplanted in the garden for several weeks; yet it survived the frosts and went on to become what is now England's most widely-grown early-season apple. It seems a great shame it's not known as Mrs Dummer, or even Mrs Dummer's ankle (that's certainly what I'd have called it), but perhaps, like Blenheim orange, discovery has a classier ring, in marketing terms. " Pound o'Dummer's ankles"? Maybe not.

Mrs Dummer is not alone in missing out on apple-y commemoration; another famous fruit not named after its originator is the Bramley seedling, the scruffy green cannonball that is our best-known cooking apple. The first tree grew from pips planted by a young girl, Mary Ann Brailsford, in her garden in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, around 1809. Many years later a local butcher, Matthew Bramley, bought the cottage and the garden, and when a local nurseryman took graftings from the tree and began to sell the fruit, he named if after the new owner. "Pound o' Brailsfords"? That's all right.

The stories are endless. The differences are endless. Yet, about 40 years ago, this miraculous variety, the apple's great glory, found in no other fruit, came under siege. Supermarkets arrived, and brought with them a buying power that began to impose a narrow uniformity on the fruit shelves. To take advantage of economies of scale, they needed huge crops of a mere handful of types, many of which came from abroad. As the supermarkets became our greengrocers in the 1970s and 1980s, the Blenheim orange, the Ribston pippin, the beauty of Bath and even the Worcester pearmain, let alone a myriad rarer varieties, vanished completely. In their place came a trio of red, green and yellow things: Mackintosh red from Canada (dry and characterless, I thought it, as a young apple-fancier), Granny Smith from Australia (too sour), and above all, golden delicious from France (bland, insipid. I remember once thinking, the effect of it was to displease in its very attempt to please, like an ingratiating subordinate, not that I had any subordinates.)

These invaders swept through the shelves. By 1981, French golden delicious or Le Crunch, as the marketing men called it (such wit!) reigned supreme: insipid or not, its sales were worth £100m annually in a British apple market worth £235m. English varieties? Well, for a few weeks from late September there were Coxes on sale, and there still were Bramleys, because there weren't any foreign cooking apples worth importing; but that was about it.

It wasn't just a catastrophic loss of taste and tradition; this change brought about immense damage to the countryside and the landscape. For as the traditional varieties of English apples lost their market, farmers began to grub out the orchards that produced them, some of them hundreds of years old. They could get a grant from Europe to do it. The scale of the destruction was vast, especially in the traditional fruit-growing counties: Worcestershire has lost 63 per cent of its traditional orchards since the 1970s, Somerset 60 per cent since the 1960s. Kent lost 92 per cent of its traditional orchards between 1946 and 2003. England as a whole has lost 57 per cent of its orchards since 1950 – about 170,000 acres' worth.

They were – they are – magnificent reservoirs of wildlife, these old tree communities, abounding in insects, wild flowers, mosses and lichens, and birds such as nuthatches, treecreepers and woodpeckers; yet at the same time they produced a crop. They were the perfect blend of the wild and the cultivated, living symbols of how people could exist in harmony with the natural world. They were wonderful places to be. But no one realised it at the time. To hard-pressed farmers, orchards were merely unwanted assets; to nature conservationists, who should have known better, they were commercial fruit trees; they weren't part of nature. They fell through a gap in the conservationists' consciousness; their value was invisible.

It took two women to see it: a wildlife campaigner, Angela King, and a university lecturer in planning and ecology, Sue Clifford. Both environmental activists involved in Friends of the Earth, in the early 1980s they had joined together in an interest nobody else seemed bothered about: the local, and the ordinary; the commonplace, and the everyday.

"The environmental movement at the time was all about the special and the rare," Clifford said. "It was all about firefighting, looking after the rare and the endangered, putting designations around things to protect them – and then the rest could go hang. That seemed completely wrong to us. We wanted to invent a philosophy of wanting to care for everything around you, and create an organisation that would inform and encourage and inspire people to look after their own patches."

They did. With the writer and film-maker Roger Deakin (the man who wrote Waterlog about swimming his way across Britain; he died last year) they started Common Ground, a pressure group with an aim like no other's: the preservation of local distinctiveness. They were the first, really, to see what the Starbucks culture would do, long before Starbucks was known to us: how the spiky distinctiveness and difference of every high street, often centuries-old and cherished by local people even if they could not say why, would be steamrollered flat by globalised business and its universal brands. As would the countryside, regional foods, local dialects, parish customs and a thousand individual ways of doing things.

They were well-established, with a couple of books published about defending your own corner of the world, when orchards crept into their consciousness.

"We produced a manifesto for trees," Clifford said, "and in amongst it all, we found these trees that none of our conservation colleagues could see. You mentioned fruit trees, and orchards, and nobody was interested. They regarded them as commercial crops. But we discovered perry pear trees that were 300 years old, and all these gorgeous orchards that were full of wildlife as well as fruit. We found orchards needed a champion, and we were going to be it." And it was while championing orchards – they commissioned the Devon countryside photographer James Ravilious to photograph the orchards of the South-west as one of their first acts of putting them on the map – that they made their biggest discovery of all.

"We suddenly realised," King said. "that there were all these apple varieties."

That moment, probably some time in 1989, marked the turning point for the native English apple, the moment when a lifebelt was thrown into the water. For Common Ground had found its ultimate emblem: nothing has local distinctiveness in the way apples do. "It was the amazing variety of the fruit, but also the extraordinary richness of symbolism and story attached to it all," said Clifford. "Other fruits have sublime local distinctiveness too – damsons, walnuts – but the apple just kept coming through to the top.

"Like with Friends of the Earth, at the beginning, the whale was going to stand for the world... well, the apple emerged as the thing that was going to stand for the world for us. What we were trying to do was make the link between nature and culture, and we couldn't have thought of anything better."

The result: Apple Day. In a stroke of quite brilliant imagination, King and Clifford took their love of apples, their concern for apples, their wonder at apples' miraculous variety, and brought it to the attention of the whole country. You or I might hire a PR company to do that. They merely inserted it into the calendar.

They chose 21 October 1990, a date when the English apple season is in full swing. That was Apple Day, they said. Who was to gainsay them? Anyway, they proved it. They put up a marquee near the Common Ground office on the piazza of Covent Garden– where London's great fruit market had flourished until 16 years before, a connection they were well aware of – and assembled 100 British apple varieties – 100 – for people to try – people, that is, who had spent two decades chewing their way through the red thing, and the green thing, and the blasted yellow thing.

People were delighted. You could bring your own apples to be identified. You could buy a tree. You could admire Ravilious's orchard photographs. You could try some cider, courtesy of the Campaign for Real Ale. But most of all, you could see what you had been missing since the supermarkets came, and you could smell it too, in a marquee which was filled with the most remarkable aroma, the aroma of 100 different apples, which sounds like the title of a Persian poem. Since then, Apple Day, this completely new " calendar custom", has gone from strength to strength, and is now celebrated annually in thousands of places; it is so widespread that some people believe it to be medieval in origin. Clifford and King merely watch it from a distance, letting local people get on with their own celebrations, although this year they are publishing a quite remarkable book to coincide with it: The Apple Source Book, a sort of all-in-one apple enthusiasts' kit, containing everything from a raft of celebrity apple recipes and hints on cider-making, to a gazetteer of where you can find your Ribston pippin and your Blenheim orange.

Common Ground's highlighting of the value of the apple has done much for the rebirth of English cider-making – "boutique" cider makers are flourishing in the West Country, given a boost by cider's new fashionability thanks to the Magners advertising campaign – and for the preservation of old orchards: in a heartening victory for their long campaign, in August this year, traditional orchards finally became a priority habitat under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

But for English apples themselves, and their miraculous variety, what has Apple Day done? Well, it drew a line at once under their decline; they could no longer all vanish with no one noticing. More than that, it has demonstrated to supermarkets that there is a lively consumer interest in more than the same few standard types, and the supermarkets have responded: there is far more choice than there once was.

The threat, now, is no longer from restriction to two or three foreign and fairly dull varieties; it seems to be from the skill of breeders in other countries who are producing marvellous apples of their own. Braeburn is the great example. Bred in New Zealand in 1952, it is crisp, juicy, sweet, refreshing, and now the king of the apple market in Britain; we eat 100,000 tons of it yearly. Following close behind it is gala, another New Zealand variety, which children enjoy because it is simple and very sweet. Next in the popularity stakes comes Granny Smith, yes, the green thing, followed by golden delicious, yes, the yellow thing, and it is not until we reach the fifth most eaten apple in Britain that we reach a British variety: the Cox's orange pippin.

It must be remembered that this is largely because the other varieties can be imported from all over the world, all the year round – we import more than 70 per cent of our apples – while the Cox has a relatively short growing season, in Britain alone. It does not travel well, the Cox. It isn't really grown abroad. It seems that the genes of the Blenheim orange and the Ribston pippin had long become used to the moist but steady temperate climate of southern England and it is only here that their prodigious child can flourish, But how it flourishes! I've loved it all my life, and although I fully see the attraction of the Braeburn, its fresh appeal is essentially one-dimensional; it doesn't remotely compare with the honeyed, perfumed subtlety of Richard Cox's foundling.

I think of this, standing in the car park of The Lawns. I'm delighted to have found the site, tarmac or no tarmac, but I am cast down that there are no traces of Richard Cox himself. I had read that the remains of his summer house, all that was left of his garden, should be visible, but there seems to be nothing whatsoever. A family emerges from the flats; when I ask them about a summerhouse they look at me as if I am crazy. So I get ready to go, as the jets leaving Heathrow thunder overhead.

And then my eye catches something, One side of the car park, covered in ivy, is not wood-and-concrete fencing like the other two sides; it is brick wall. I approach it, and see that the brick is old. I follow it to its corner, and there, smothered by ivy totally, is a bulge; and I can just glimpse from the base that the bulge is made of stone.

I begin to pull the ivy off, and suddenly, to my amazement, I find wood planking; it is an old wooden door. And then, with even greater surprise, as I scrabble more ivy off, I see that the door has an old brass knob.

My heart starts to beat faster as I turn the knob and gently push. And it pounds faster still when the door begins to open. For an irrational but intense split second I am certain that, like the children in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, I am about to step from the car park under the Heathrow flightpath into a different world. I don't, of course; but I do step into a pitch-dark warm space full of dead ivy stems, and with a sense of wonder, I think, here.

Here it was, maybe, that that he tasted it, when he first took it from the tree; here in this summerhouse he took a bite, on a warm autumn evening; and here it was that he uttered his exclamation, the exclamation of surprise and delight that has surely accompanied every apple discovery, all seven thousand of them, down the centuries: "Upon my soul, this is most uncommon toothsome!" – or words to that effect.

Never mind that the wheelie bin pen maintained by Slough Borough Council is a few feet away. I am back in 1835, filled with the mystery and miracle of apples, filled with their romance.

Let's celebrate them this weekend.

The Apple Source Book, by Sue Clifford and Angela King (£16.99), is published by Hodder. To order a copy for the special price of £15.50 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

The A to Z of apples

Apple Day

First held at London's Covent Garden on 21 October 1990, Apple Day has grown to take in events all over the world, including an international " longest peel" competition. Last year's winner, Justin Pachebat, produced an unbroken peel that was 662cm (22ft) long at an event in Ely, Cambridgeshire.


The tart ingredient of all good apple crumbles should in fact bear the name Brailsford, for it was Mary Ann Brailsford who, in 1910, planted the first pip in a Nottinghamshire garden. Local nurseryman Henry Merryweather spotted the resulting fruit and asked the landowner, Mr Bramley, for permission to take cuttings. Today, more than 500 UK growers sell 100,000 tons of Bramleys, worth over £40m, every year.


Richard Cox, a retired Bermondsey brewer, created what would become Britain's favourite dessert apple while cross-pollinating trees in his Buckinghamshire garden around 1825. Today, the Cox's orange pippin accounts for more than half of UK-grown desert apples and is also thought to be the only fruit with pips that rattle.

Duck's bill

British growers have produced more than 2,300 cultivars of apple, blessing many of them with splendidly curious names. The duck's bill was produced by Sussex gardener Fred Streeter in 1937, while the marriage maker first appeared in Leicester in 1883. The etymology of the cider apples slack-me-girdle (now extinct) and hen's turd remains a mystery.

English apple

In 1929, nurseryman Edward Bunyard said: "No fruit is more to our English taste than the apple. Let the Frenchman have his pear, the Italian his fig, the Jamaican may retain his farinaceous banana, and the Malay his durian, but for us the apple."

Forbidden Fruit

The symbolic forbidden fruit that Eve coaxes Adam to share with her is not identified in Genesis, but is popularly believed to be an apple. The fruit's illicit status is thought to derive from its Latin name, malus, which resembles malum (evil).

Granny Smith

Sussex-born farmer's daughter Maria Ann Sherwood married Thomas Smith, a farm labourer, in 1818. Twenty years later, the Smith family sailed for Australia to begin new lives as orchardists. Maria Smith, who would soon become a granny, cultivated the tart green apple that would bear her name from the remains of Tasmanian crab apples.


The tradition of apple-bobbing, in which contestants race to retrieve apples floating in a barrel using only their mouths, is thought to originate at the Celtic festival of Samhain, which gave rise to Halloween. Apples were traditionally associated with fertility gods and were also thrown at weddings, a tradition echoed in the modern (and safer) throwing of the bouquet.

Iwasaki, Chisato

The Japanese orchardist holds the current world record for the largest apple ever grown. In October 2005, Iwasaki produced an apple at his Hirosaki City farm that weighed in at 1.849kg and was almost the size of a football.

Johnny Appleseed

The legendary American nurseryman, born in 1774, single-handedly introduced the apple to swathes of the American Midwest. Appleseed's grave in Fort Wayne, Indiana, is a national historic landmark and a park there plays host to the annual Johnny Appleseed Festival.


A team of DNA analysts from Oxford University recently traced the origins of the domestic apple, Malus domestica, to the wild Malus sieversii, which still thrives on the slopes of the Tien Shan mountains that straddle north-west China and Kazakhstan. The name of the Kazakh capital, Almaty, means "rich with apple".

Le Crunch

In the 1980s, the Le Crunch campaign, heavily subsidised by the French government, successfully promoted the golden delicious in the UK, forcing many British growers to shut up shop. A new Le Crunch campaign will launch in UK supermarkets this month.


Irish folklore claims that a continuous ribbon thrown behind a woman's shoulder will land in the shape of her future husband's initials. In England, early apple-growers would practise the apple wassail during winter. The first recorded event was at Fordwich, Kent, in 1585, where bread was tied to branches and cider poured over the roots in an effort to bring on a bountiful crop.

Newton, Isaac

The rare Flower of Kentapple tree has stood for more than 300 years outside Woolsthorpe Manor, the 17th-century Lincolnshire manor house in which Isaac Newton was born. The tree and its falling apples are known to have influenced Newton's 1665 law of universal gravitation, but the image of a fruit landing on the physicist's head is thought to be a myth.


Being a combination of woodland, hedgerow and grassland, orchards support a huge variety of wildlife, from bats to butterflies and beetles to badgers. But an estimated 57 per cent of British apple orchards have disappeared since the First World War as cheap imports have priced out domestic growers.


In 2005, at least 55 million tons of apples were produced worldwide, which, if the average fruit weighs 100 grams, equates to half a trillion apples. China accounts for almost half of that output, while UK growers produce a relatively paltry 200,000 tons a year (63 per cent of all UK fruit growing).


From 17 September to 14 October, diners at the St James's, London, restaurant will have the chance to sample some of Britain's lesser-known apple varieties. Head chef Craig James will present "The A-Z of apples", a daily changing menu that will include dishes like spiced parsnip and bloody butcher soup and Woolbrook pippin tart tatin.


During the 1640s, Lord Scudamore's fashionable "apple champagne", based on the famed redstreak cider apple, proved such a hit that John Evelyn remarked: "All Herefordshire has become, in a manner, but one entire orchard." Premium cider has seen a return to favour of late, led by Irish firm Magners.


Supermarkets sell 70 per cent of all apples in the UK, yet, according to a report in 2005 by Friends of the Earth, just 35 per cent of their stock is British-grown. And despite there being more than 2,000 varieties of British apple, supermarkets stocked just 25, compared to 51 in the UK greengrocers surveyed. Some apples sold in supermarkets are shipped from as far afield as New Zealand.


The pink lady was the first variety of apple to be trademarked and may now be cultivated only with the permission of Apple and Pear Australia Ltd.

Urinary stones

Hippocrates, the "father of medicine", swore by the proposed medicinal benefits of eating an apple a day. Advocates claim the fruit can cure ills as varied as indigestion and rheumatism and many cider drinkers believe the beverage can prevent the formation of painful urinary stones (calculi).

Vitamin C

Yorkshire apple the Ripston pippin, thought to be an ancestor of the famous Cox's orange pippin, has one of the highest levels of vitamin C among English apples. The French camille blanc variety contains up to 40 milligrams per 100 grams, equal to the recommended daily intake and more than many oranges.


Apples produce their own protective coating of wax, but this is removed when commercial growers wash the fruit to remove dust and residue from pesticides. To restore the shine, many producers apply shellac, derived from the secretions of lac insects. As many as 300,000 insects are required to produce a kilogram of lac resin.


The xylophagous insect is one of the French apple's greatest nemeses. In Britain, growers use pesticides to combat the biggest threats to UK apples, which include the codling moth and the summer fruit tortrix. In a 2003 survey by Friends of the Earth, 78 per cent of apples tested contained potentially harmful pesticide residues.

York, New

The "Big Apple" nickname was popularised in a 1970s campaign by New York's tourism board, but the moniker's origins remain unclear. According to one of many theories, the term first appeared in the 1909 book, The Wayfarer in New York, by Edward S Martin. In it he wrote that disgruntled Americans not living in New York are "inclined to think the big apple gets a disproportionate share of the national sap".


A trademark of the nursery at the University of Minnesota, the red zestar apple, released in 1999, is described by its producers as "a crunchy, juicy apple with a sweet yet tart taste and hint of brown sugar flavour" .

Simon Usborne

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