Bewitched by the muse
 by Anil Prasad
 © Copyright 2001 by Anil Prasad. All rights reserved.
       In the pantheon of folk fiddlers, Dave Swarbrick's name towers high 
      above. "Swarb," as he's known by friends and fans alike, is renowned 
      worldwide for his high-energy, virtuoso antics. The Coventry-based 
      musician's whirlwind of violin, mandolin and throaty vocals has thrilled 
      crowds for more than five decades. His reputation for "having a good time, 
      all the time" also precedes him.
      Born in Surrey in 1941, Swarb began his career at 16, backing pianist 
      Beryl Marriott. He went on to perform with Ewan MacColl and the Ian 
      Campbell Folk Group before hooking up with legendary singer and guitarist 
      Martin Carthy in 1965. The duo's kinetic chemistry proved magical and 
      they've worked together off-and-on since. Although firmly rooted in 
      British Isles folk traditions, the two were unafraid to explore songs, 
      arrangements and energies previously unknown in folk circuits.
      In 1969, Swarb first performed with Fairport Convention as a session 
      musician for the group's Unhalfbricking release. Impressed by the band's 
      open-minded attitudes and caliber of musicianship, he soon joined as a 
      full-time member. Swarb played a key role in the group's transformation 
      from its American pop leanings into a pioneering unit that seamlessly 
      meshed traditional British Isles music and rock. Fairport also saw the 
      debut of his famed electric fiddle sound that found him reinventing the 
      instrument to match the profile and volume of the band's other boisterous 
      With a revolving line-up featuring the likes of Sandy Denny, Ashley 
      Hutchings, Dave Pegg, Richard Thompson, and many others, Fairport 
      continued into the early '80s with Swarb, releasing more than a dozen 
      albums. After briefly breaking up, the band reformed without him, although 
      he continues performing with it during the yearly Cropredy Festival 
      reunion, as well as in the occasional guest appearance.
      While Swarb's Fairport activities shone the spotlight on his electric 
      fiddle work, solo albums released during the '70s and '80s—including 
      Swarbrick, Lift the Lid and Listen, and Smiddyburn—reminded listeners of 
      his fierce acoustic prowess. In fact, most of Swarb's post-Fairport 
      pursuits have been in the unplugged realm with groups including 
      Whippersnapper and the Band of Hope, as well as in duos with Kevin Dempsey 
      and Simon Nicol.
      Recent years have seen a slowdown in Swarb's musical output. Between 
      February and May 1999, he was hospitalized with a bronchial condition, 
      resulting in a tracheotomy. A truly odd turn of events accompanied the 
      ordeal. A reporter at Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper somehow became 
      convinced Swarb had shuffled off this mortal coil. A lengthy obituary was 
      published in the paper on April 29th. After realizing Swarb was far from 
      deceased, an apology was printed. "It's not the first time I've died in 
      Coventry," he quipped after the incident. The black comedy of errors ended 
      up making global headlines in Reuters, the Associated Press, CNN and 
      countless other media outlets.
      Unfortunately, Swarb had a relapse of his bronchial condition and required 
      intensive medical care once more during March 2000. Thankfully, further 
      obituaries didn't accompany the bout. "They are going to make sure of my 
      demise the next time 'round," he said. 
      Swarb spoke to Innerviews in his first in-depth interview in more than 20 
      years. "I reckon most interviews have nothing to do with a real interest 
      in myself or the music I play," said Swarb of his disinterest in 
      communicating with the press. "A typical interviewer would ask me what 
      it's like to be in Steeleye Span." In contrast, Innerviews began by 
      discussing his current projects, including recent duo releases with 
      Australian singer-songwriter Alistair Hulett.

       What are you up to at the moment?
      I am playing this year with three friends. First, with Kevin Dempsey, then 
      with Alistair Hulett, and finally with Martin Carthy. With each of these 
      pals, I work as a duo. The difference between them musically keeps me on 
      my toes and is very rewarding. Alistair and myself are part way through 
      recording our next CD. Actually, I have a small home studio and we are 
      recording it there. The trouble with that of course is that with one's own 
      studio you don't have to worry about cost and therefore you can take years 
      if you like to try and get it as close to what you wish it to be as 
      possible. It's going well though and will be out at the end of this year. 
      Kevin and I are also recording. We have some live stuff recorded that we 
      are hoping to do something with later this year too. Beryl Marriott will 
      be recording here too. I shall be engineering and producing her next solo 
      CD. I've also just formed a new group featuring Kevin, Beryl and Martin 
      Allcock which I think will be fun. On top of all that, there's Cropredy 
      and trying to rest and pace myself. Then there is my lovely wife and two 
      daughters. They certainly make time fly.
      Tell me how the pairing with Alistair Hulett came about and why it's 
      special for you.
      In the summer of '94 I moved to Australia. I lived in the Blue Mountains 
      and consider it a privilege to have done so. It's an extremely interesting 
      and colorful area with a rich past. It's world famous for its wildlife and 
      sandstone cliffs. I lived amongst parrots, cockatoos, kookaburras, snakes 
      and lizards and loved every moment. Now and again I would leave the 
      mountains and play a club gig or a concert somewhere or other in that vast 
      country. One of the gigs I played was at the Governor Hindmarsh hotel in 
      Adelaide. It sounds kind of posh, but it isn't. It's one of the better 
      folk clubs and it's huge. After the show, I went back to the club 
      organizer's place to give him my opinion of his wine cellar. While I was 
      there, he played me a track of Alistair's from his then just released CD. 
      The song is called "The Swaggies Have All Waltzed Matilda Away." I thought 
      it a terrific song. I mentioned to Rob—the club's organizer—that I would 
      love to work with Alistair.
      After I left, Rob phoned up Alistair who later in the week phoned me up. 
      And Bob's your uncle, here we are working together. I think he is a 
      tremendously important writer on the scene and very likely the best 
      too—along with Richard [Thompson]. When I was starting out in the '60s, 
      there were a few songwriters who wrote, for want of a better title, what 
      were then called protest songs. Now, there aren't many and I feel that's a 
      shame. Nobody I know writes with such anger of man's inhumanity to man or 
      of the strength of the working class except Alistair. On top of all that, 
      Alistair uses as a vehicle for the most part music based on the tradition 
      of the Northeast of Scotland. When I was in the Ian Campbell Folk Group, 
      we were all steeped in that music. So, for me, working with Alistair is a 
      chance to go back to those days and inject all I have learned in the 
      meantime into the music.

       You’ve been involved in many duos over the years. What attracts you to 
      the duo format and what are its advantages over larger group formats?
      Yes, I have been in a lot of duos. I think that all of them have begun 
      from a mutual desire of the two of us to make music together. There is a 
      freedom in a duo that's hard to find in other formats. There is a huge 
      amount of musical trust and freedom too. Most of my partners—but not 
      all—have been guitarists. And most—but not all—have been singers. I 
      suppose that one wants to give as broad a show as is possible. A show 
      containing instrumentals and songs with perhaps an instrument change may 
      reflect a great deal of variety. Some of the duos I have been involved 
      with have been like that. But I've also been a member of a duo that has 
      had a more specialized agenda. I'm referring of course to the work I have 
      done with Beryl Marriott. Neither one of us sung. We simply played for a 
      short time. I also worked with Savourna Stevenson and that was 
      interesting. As of late, there's the stuff I've been doing with Alistair. 
      In that duo, I am an accompanist. Then there's my work with Kevin. With 
      Kevin, the palette is wide and full-on. He is a spectacular player. We try 
      to stretch each other to the limit with as few rules as possible whilst 
      trying to stay on the right side of good taste. Simon Nicol and myself 
      were a duo for ages and that was a lot of fun as well as being very 
      satisfying musically. Simon's a great backer of reels and jigs, and 
      capable of adding a dimension or two. Finally, there is my work with 
      Martin Carthy. We have been playing music together all over the world for 
      nearly 40 years—it doesn't seem possible, but it's true.
      You recently performed at Carthy’s 60th birthday concert. What goes 
      through your mind when you think about that partnership?
      What a night that was. It was the most fun I've had in a long time. It was 
      great to see a pile of my old buddies and all at one time. Peggy ensured I 
      had a good dressing room close to the stage. The entire cast at one time 
      or another popped in for a laugh. It was a magical night. My wife Jill 
      thought it the best concert she had been to. My daughters Emmie and Issy 
      were there too, as was my sister Pat. Martin was, as usual, terrific. 
      Everybody was on form I thought. I don't really take much notice of the 
      years we have been playing together. We didn't do anything out of the 
      ordinary that helped to give us longevity. We just survived for one reason 
      or another. I am pleased that we did though. It's a pleasure to watch 
      one's friends mellowing alongside yourself. Beliefs perhaps remain the 
      same, but hang-ups and cares mellow with time I think.
      Are you considering doing another album with Carthy?
      No. Martin is very tied up with present commitments which seem to escalate 
      by the day. And I have no desire at all to ever record for a proper 
      company again. I feel so badly served by record labels that from now on I 
      will only record for myself and those I trust. I wouldn't want to go into 
      any details in case I find myself in court, but suffice it to say that I 
      think they're all a bunch of unscrupulous, cloth-eared bastards.

       All of your work comes out through your own label Atrax these days. What 
      can you tell me about it?
      Atrax isn't really a record company. It exists for me to release what I 
      can of my stuff myself. It's a mail order company really. A businessman I 
      am not. I don't have the sense of memory to be that. I only release my 
      stuff and I don't sell many copies. I don't know how to really. I have no 
      distribution. None of what I do on Atrax is in the shops. It's only 
      available from me. I personally have contact with every single CD that 
      leaves the house. And it's my wife's spit on the stamps.
      You coordinated the production of Both Ears and the Tail, an archival 
      Carthy/Swarbrick live CD. What are your thoughts about its release?
      I think it's a fun album brimming with atmosphere and good music and a joy 
      to have done. It was 1966 when we played the club, although sometimes it 
      feels like it was 1066. I was pleased that I was able to release it myself 
      and I hope that over the next few years it sells well. I enjoy producing 
      and mucking about in the studio, so long as it's all under my control and 
      I can pack up when I want to. The studio is next door to my bedroom at 
      home. It's all very convenient for me. I can get up, have a bath and 
      record a track, all without going downstairs. I am registered disabled 
      now, so all that kind of stuff is important.
      Why are you wearing mining gear in the CD booklet photo?
      A-ha! A good question. Martin and I had played a folk club in Derbyshire 
      and we were invited to go potholing the next day. We both turned up to do 
      it, but a hundred feet or so inside the opening, Martin decided to return 
      to the surface. I continued downwards to the very end. At the bottom of 
      the shaft was my reward and reason for my bravery: Blue John. Blue John is 
      a gemstone only found in Derbyshire and to this day, I wake up screaming 
      "A pick! Someone give me a pick!" I went all that way down there and it 
      was seriously scary with no tools to mine the stuff. I remember the helmet 
      kept falling over my eyes which didn't help me with the dark. I also 
      recall the contortions you had to put your body into, coupled with a 
      ceiling height of no more than two feet. There was also the dampness and 
      running water. I was glad to get out and when I did, Martin was there with 
      the handshake.
      Compare the '60s folk scene to how things stand today.
      I can't see that things have changed much at all. Of course, when I began 
      [in the early '60s], there weren't any clubs. Dances were the most popular 
      evenings out if you liked folk music. Half-way through the night, there 
      would be a break for refreshments and either a singer or a Morris side 
      would perform. Pretty soon, clubs emerged and they're much the same as 
      now. The songs have changed. A lot of the songs I heard then I've not 
      heard since and the standard of playing has improved too.

       Lots of youngsters are playing now and many are the sons and daughters of 
      those early pioneers. Singers are not so good now I feel. Sure, there's 
      one or two wonderful singers, but there were heaps of them back then. 
      Singer-songwriters were plentiful. There's not so many now. The atmosphere 
      has changed. Now, traditional music is accepted and for the most part, I 
      don't think it was then. It took a long time before the music press and 
      organizations like the M.U. [Musicians' Union] came on board. Finally, in 
      1966, there were a lot more clubs than there are now. A few of them were 
      enormous. Nowadays, this is more than made up for with the advent of art 
      centers. There's more professional performers now, and though I am 
      reluctant to swear so, I think there's probably more gigs too.
      Are you surprised by the renaissance of interest in people like Martin 
      Carthy and Bert Jansch?
      No, not at all. I have been close to the career of Martin and been 
      surprised that he wasn't better known. Even among musicians, he has been 
      strangely unknown. Happily, those days are over. Nobody deserves 
      recognition more. He has traipsed 'round the country dispensing his own 
      brand of folk for many moons. He's also a wonderful musician and a 
      compelling singer. As for Bert, he is another example of a unique musician 
      who warrants, in my opinion, mass recognition. He swings like the 
      proverbial clappers. They both do.
      Do you feel you’ve received your fair due in comparison?
      Oh, I think so. Especially when you consider that most of the time I go 
      out of my way to avoid the spotlight. I hardly ever give interviews and I 
      run away from publicity and promotion as much as I can. I like to think I 
      can play, and I like to think I have the respect of my fellow musicians. 
      That's enough.
      Describe your relationship to the violin today.
      I am as smitten with the violin as I ever was. It's a truly magical 
      instrument in every way like no other. Its range and power of expression 
      are unique. Apart from some modernization, it remains virtually the same 
      instrument that was in vogue over 400 years ago. It's a sobering thought 
      for any player. The sheer magnitude of possibilities one is capable of 
      executing leaves me wanting to start all over again. Can you imagine over 
      the decades how many wonderful players throughout the world have spent 
      entire lifetimes like me bewitched by the thing? I have searched all my 
      life for that one instrument that was meant for me and me only. I haven't 
      as yet found it. I haven't stopped looking though. I still buy violins in 
      the hope of finding that elusive monster and consequently I always have a 
      few to sell should anyone be interested. As for playing, I was for a time 
      unable to play and I didn't think I was going to be able to play again. 
      Thankfully, that wasn't the case. The experience has left me wanting to 
      improve my technique, to record more and to play, play, play.

        What are your priorities and philosophies as a musician today?
      My priorities are as ever to work at improving my style and to hone it 
      down so the most can be obtained from the least effort. The most meaning 
      the fattest sound and the most accessible runs, trills etcetera. The least 
      effort meaning trying to do that as simply and as economically as is 
      possible—to continue to be as expressive as I can and to not hold back, as 
      well as not going over the top either. I would like to continue to expand 
      my repertoire and do it all with integrity and the occasional whiskey. 
      From a personal point of view, I would like to be there for the people I 
      love—my family and friends—and to learn to take myself less seriously. I 
      believe that I am the most content when I am doing what I do the best to 
      the best of my ability.
      Are you still attracted to the idea of doing electric folk music?
      Yes. The sheer scope and excitement of playing electric still attracts me. 
      Mind you, that doesn't include jigs and reels etcetera. They were always 
      more amplified than electric. The bloody horrible sound that is common 
      with electric set-ups are not a patch on playing them acoustically. But 
      the gadgets that you can use to enhance a song or rip a solo out are 
      wonderful. Wah-wah—why on Earth don't more electric players use it? 
      Octivider, chorus, delay—you can even get digital delays now almost as 
      good as the old Copycat and Echoplex. Of course, to fully exploit all that 
      stuff to its maximum, you also need a few other things. A good band with a 
      powerful rhythm section and great songs help.
      Have your hearing difficulties subsided enough to allow that to occur?
      No, alas, probably not. I have a regime that I follow which includes 
      seeing my specialist roughly twice a year. Provided I stick to it, I'm 
      fine. However, that doesn't include sustained periods of electric music. 
      Short sessions are fine so long as I take care . But I can never hang 
      around those monitors like I used to.
      When did your hearing difficulties first emerge and how did you deal with 
      As a child, I was constantly in pain with earaches. I saw loads of 
      doctors. Unhappily, I never had a correct diagnosis. It transpired that I 
      had a mastoid in my left ear, and it was recognized as such when I was in 
      my mid-20s. I had an operation described as life-saving at the time and 
      most of my ear was removed. Since then, I have had some seven or eight ear 
      operations. As testimony to the adroitness of the surgeon—Mr. Groves, who 
      was also a fiddler— the ear that had most of the workings removed is 
      currently my good one. During my stint with Fairport, the volume affected 
      and damaged what was left and I was advised to put down the electric 
      fiddle and play the acoustic one. The best advice I can give musicians is 
      to never have your ears syringed. Always have them professionally cleaned 
      by a specialist. And remember, there is no cure for damaged ears. Seek a 
      second opinion if you have a problem. Tinnitus is easily got and it's for 
      life—I know.

        What’s your take on what Fairport and Richard Thompson are up to these 
      I like just about everything Richard's ever done. He bestrides our scene 
      like the colossus he is. Fairport still means the world to me. I care 
      enormously how they are progressing and developing. I think they are just 
      coming to terms with the current line-up. They are just beginning to 
      exploit the chemistry. I predict that they will surprise their critics. 
      While I am on that note, it's a shame that people insist on comparing one 
      line-up with another. It's inevitable, but it certainly doesn't help one's 
      confidence when you're up there to be always compared to another. I feel 
      that the current line-up is coming into its own in a big way.
      You once said you’d like to rejoin Fairport if they’d have you. How do you 
      think your presence would enhance their current output?
      That was a while ago I said that. But yes, there have been many times when 
      I was sorry to have left. There have also been many times when I would 
      have signed up again. The years I spent in Fairport are the happiest years 
      I have spent on the planet. We were all each other's best pals. We were 
      creating wonderful music. And none of us took any prisoners when it came 
      to having a good time. A bloke would have to be unconscious not to say yes 
      to another helping. As to what would I add to the current line-up? More of 
      the same I suspect, plus a few more traditional songs maybe.
      Why didn't you take part when Fairport reunited on an ongoing basis in the 
      Well, there wasn't just one reason. There were a million reasons. I was 
      disenchanted with the whole business of playing and had been for awhile. 
      Also, I had just made Smiddyburn and it sold about 100 copies worldwide. 
      Living in Scotland had turned me into a bit of a recluse too, so I dropped 
      Has the opportunity to rejoin Fairport presented itself since?
      No. And given the state of my present health, it wouldn't be possible now. 
      I was never asked if I would like to rejoin and I didn't ask to rejoin 
      either. Sometimes it's better and wiser to just leave things as they are. 
      I like to think, however, that yes, I have a few ideas still. We are all 
      very compatible—musically and otherwise. Peggy and myself are brothers. 
      His cares are mine. He is family to me.

       What are your thoughts about the unofficial release of the Fairport Manor 
      I don't know where they fall in the Fairport oeuvre, but probably outside 
      it. You should treat them kindly though, for without them—and incidentally 
      Gottle O'Geer—there would probably not now be a Fairport. Gottle O'Geer, I 
      would like to say once and for all was not ever supposed to be a Fairport 
      album. It was to be my solo album, and I wish, along with most other 
      people, that it had remained that way. Chris Blackwell, who to my mind is 
      the richest, clueless, most unscrupulous pillock it was ever my misfortune 
      to meet, had other ideas.
      The Manor sessions were fraught with worry. It was a time of consolidation 
      for Peggy and myself. We were the only members left and it was up to us to 
      either jack it in or continue. We discussed throwing the towel in and 
      perhaps forming a new group together. We decided to continue. Personally, 
      I would have preferred for the tapes to have never surfaced. I get upset 
      at the thought that one is now unable to have any control at all over 
      one's past output—that the decision to publish is not the artist's 
      anymore. It seems now to be up to a marauding band of well-meaning fans to 
      make those decisions. That can't be right can it? No-one ever contacted 
      me, Peggy or any other band member before releasing the Manor tapes. Most 
      alarming of all, where did whoever it was that released them get them 
      from? It disturbs me that it's possible they came from my own 
      collection—that someone I trusted stole them. I don’t think so, but until 
      I know for sure that they came from another source, and I can't believe 
      that there were more than a couple of us who had copies, I do wonder.
      What do you make of the two books released on Sandy Denny last year?
      I haven't read them and don't think I will ever be able to.
      How do you look back at the obituary incident two years later?
      I was in hospital, out of intensive care and recovering in a general ward 
      when it happened. I was very weak and unable to do much for myself, so 
      when I heard Jill's voice coming from the nurses' section at 8.30 a.m., I 
      was surprised. She was keen to tell me I was dead before anyone else did. 
      She then read it out to me. I was unable to hold or read it myself and 
      although my first reaction was to laugh, I soon realized how much 
      everybody was upset. Jill went on to field questions and answer a 
      constantly ringing telephone, as did Peggy.

       The tabloid press camped outside my home and on the hospital grounds. It 
      was, I must say, an absolute nightmare from start to finish for Jill as 
      you can imagine. I told the hospital administration that I didn't wish to 
      speak to the press and tried to let it blow itself out. It was a good 
      review though—flattering. To tell you the truth, a bit of a relief too in 
      that it only contained what seemed like good bits. I get a funny feeling 
      reading it though and can recommend the experience to constipation 
      sufferers. Now, I look back on the whole thing with affection. My attitude 
      hasn't actually changed much. I still find it funny. I am pleased that 
      someone would say nice things about me when I die. I am pleased I was able 
      to read them. Incidentally, I have been selling copies of it at gigs, but 
      The Daily Telegraph warned me not to continue to on the grounds of 
      copyright infringement. Now, that's chutzpah.
      Did you ever determine how that incident occurred?
      No, I didn't inquire. The Daily Telegraph didn't give me an explanation 
      either. A very meager apology was printed in the paper the next day and 
      Jill received a similar apology from their legal department. I did think 
      of suing, but it was such a good obituary that my lawyer thought it could 
      be argued that it had actually furthered my career. At the time, I didn't 
      care that much as I was ill. Now, I would like to read the next one and 
      see what they say. It's unlikely that I will I suppose. They are going to 
      make sure of my demise the next time 'round.
      What do you think about the irony involved in that it resulted in the most 
      media coverage you’ve received in decades?
      Yes, it was the most press I've had for years, but really, I don't give a 
      toss. It's all so silly, don't you think? None of all that cobblers has 
      got anything to do with music. In the old days, the record company would 
      employ a publicist and he or she would spend their time trying to get you 
      in the papers. You can see the reasoning I suppose—the more the public 
      knows your name, the more likely they are to buy your records. I thought 
      then, and still do, that that's bollocks. However, we all like unusual 
      stories and the tabloids exist on them. My story was not only unusual, but 
      it was made delicious for them. They all hate The Daily Telegraph and by 
      printing the story, they were having a go at them as well. But like I say, 
      none of it really matters.
      Did the incident make you reflect on your own mortality?
      No, I don't think it did. I had already spent quite enough time thinking 
      about my mortality and I had somehow moved on. It was funny and 
      educational. I had wondered if I would get an obit and now I know—a good 
      one too. But it didn't provoke any particularly deep musings on my part. I 
      had been ill for a while and crossed that bridge already.

       My understanding is you’re still suffering from a bronchial condition. 
      Describe what you’ve been going through and how you're doing overall.
      I was sedated for two lengthy periods on a cocktail of morphine and other 
      substances. I emerged with what is called "intensive care psychosis." I am 
      still trying to understand all of that. Suffice it to say, that my lungs 
      collapsed and that I have what is now fashionably called "C.O.P.D." In 
      fact, it's emphysema. I have had two lengthy spells in hospital. With 
      each, I had a tracheotomy. Now, I need oxygen most of the time. But then 
      we all do.
      The rumor is you still enjoy a pint and a fag despite your condition.
      That's wrong I am afraid to say. It would be wonderfully carefree and 
      frivolous too if that was the case. But I want to live as long as I 
      possibly can. I have many reasons not to give up yet. It is a fact that 
      one ciggy could kill me. Believe me when I say it's easy to give up under 
      those circumstances. Sadly, I can't drink beer anymore, but copious 
      amounts of wine and the odd vat of whiskey do not seem to be beyond my 
      You’re well known for your wit. How important is it to have a sense of 
      humor in this business?
      It used to be said that criminals and musicians were the funniest people. 
      In my experience, having known both, that's true. I think that if you're 
      in a line of work that is full of disappointments—breaks that never 
      happened, checks that didn't arrive—it's a good defense. Most of the 
      musicians I know are funny. I had the pleasure some 30 years ago of 
      meeting Spike Milligan. In the course of conversation, I congratulated him 
      on "Puckoon." He replied that the only people to have congratulated him 
      were musicians. I think that wit is important. I laugh a lot. I am 
      flattered that I have a reputation such as you mention.
      Is it true you were once fined by Transatlantic Records for performing 
      your own music without their permission?
      Yes, it's true. I was fined by Nat Joseph [founder of Transatlantic] for 
      playing on Martin Carthy's first album without his permission. I suppose 
      he wanted a credit on Martin's album—"Dave Swarbrick appears by kind 
      permission of etcetera." Perhaps he got it. I'm not sure. Amazing isn't 
      it? And you ask if it's necessary to have a sense of humor?

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