Peter Hitchens: An Old Testament Prophet. Part I.

Peter Hitchens, the conservative author and broadcaster, was born in 1951 in Malta, where his father, Eric Hitchens was stationed as a career naval officer attached to the then Mediterranean Fleet of the Royal Navy. Commander Hitchens served during the 1939-45 war in the northern convoys, delivering materiel under extreme conditions to the USSR. Following the Suez crisis of 1956, and the rapid dismantlement of the Royal Navy-along with the four hundred year-old maritime economy which supported it-Commander Hitchens retired on a minimal pension and became a  school bursar-as did many officers from Britain’s armed forces. Peter records that his father was never quite sure who won the world wars of the early twentieth century.

Peter and his elder brother, Christopher, held their father in high esteem. Born into a long line of West country sailors, and with a Baptist background,  the Commander-as he was known by the boys-was a man of few words. He married Yvonne, née Hickman, who hailed  from Liverpool. Christopher has described her lovingly in his autobiography Hitch 22,  as  a fun-loving lady, of Jewish extraction, who served during the war in the Wrens, and put a brave face on life during the post-war years of enforced austerity, She eventually ran away with a defrocked clergyman, Timothy Bryan, and the two committed suicide in Athens in October 1973.

Early years.

Peter Hitchens was brought up, he writes, in a loving family. The country of his boyhood days was  still essentially Victorian, shaped by the Industrial Revolution, “full of soot and steam,” and living off their greatest achievement-the creation of  a peaceful social order. As Gertrude Himmelfarb, the eminent American political theorist wrote, that social order  “owed far more to Sunday schools and moral values than to any other factor”.[1]Hitchen’s teachers taught a Christianity, steeped in the poetry and music of sixteenth century England, and livened by the language of Archbishop Cranmers’s Prayerbook, with its stirring references to sin, repentance and salvation. Home and  school,-at the Leys School in Cambridge and the City of Oxford College-were also  steeped in naval history: he records the August 1960 day when he witnessed HMS Vanguard, the last British battleship, taken to the breakers yard; and he can remember his school dormitories, named after the great warriors of the past-Blake, Hawke, Benbow, Rodney, Grenville, Frobisher.

The dominant theme in his schooling, though, was not religion so much as patriotism, dressed as a “strange and vulnerable counterfeit”-a “pseudo-religious” veneration of the war of 1939-45. The war was everywhere, in the comics and books he read, in the naval and military ranks which his teachers retained, and in the potent belief in the essential goodness of the war. The Saviour was Churchill, about whom more was known than the story of the Good Samaritan.

At the age of 12, Hitchens informed his teacher that he was an unbeliever; he placed his faith in science, no longer in Christianity, and became  wholly convinced that evolution by natural selection fully explained the progress of humanity. At the age of 15, he burnt his Bible on his school’s  playing fields in Cambridge; then witnessed Winston Churchill’s funeral. That day in January 1965, Hitchens realized that he had been brought up in a world that no longer existed.

Marxism provided a welcoming  home. His brother, provided by his teacher with a copy of the  Communist Manifesto, introduced him at the age of 17 to the International Socialists- forerunners of the modern Socialist Worker’s Party. It adherents believed in the iron law of class war;  in the inevitable creation of a heaven on earth, in the natural goodness of man, and the urgent need to create society anew. As self-proclaimed Trotskyites, they could have the best of both worlds in confessing a militant socialist creed while rejecting the Soviet Union.

His Trotskyite years lasted until 1975. Two years later, he   joined the Labour party, but soon realized that the party was flush with Marxists of varying stripes. During the 1980s, he became attracted to Thatcher’s policies, and joined the Conservative party in 1997, challenged  Michael Portillo for the Kensington and Chelsea seat in 1999, and in 2003 resigned from his party membership in disgust. The Conservative party, he came to consider, was the principal barrier to a conservative revival in the UK. All it did was ape New Labour, which under Tony  Blair’s leadership implemented far reaching reforms that subverted Britain’s inherited constitution, and liberties.

Reporter and Author.

By profession, Hitchens is a journalist and author. He started out writing for the Swindon Evening Advertiser, then the Coventry Telegraph, whence he joined the  Daily Express in 1977  initially as a reporter specialising in education and industrial and labour affairs, then as a political reporter, and subsequently as deputy political editor.  Over time, he moved to cover defence and diplomatic affairs, and reported on the decline and collapse of communist regimes in several Warsaw Pact countries. This culminated in a period as Moscow correspondent, whence he reported on the final months of the Soviet Union, and the early years of the Russian Federation. He also travelled to Japan and Germany and reported  from the USA, Japan, and South Korea as part of the group of reporters accompanying Margaret Thatcher. After his Moscow stint, he was briefly based in London during which time he reported from South Africa during the last days of apartheid and also from Somalia at the time of the UN intervention in the civil war there. In September 1993 he became the Daily Express resident Washington correspondent and, during the next two years, he reported from many of the 50 American states, as well as from Canada, Haiti and Cuba, returning  to Britain in 1995.

In 2000, the Daily Express was taken over by Richard Desmond-an owner with a dodgy cv, including ownership of adult titles, rumoured as linked to the New York Gambino family, and with a trail of litigation behind him. Hitchens resigned on  the grounds that working for Desmond would represent a moral conflict of interest. Hitchens joined The Mail on Sunday, where he has a weekly column and weblog in which he debates directly with readers. He also continued reporting from around the world, including Russia, Turkey, and Gaza. Following the 2003 Iraq invasion, he reported from Iran, China and North Korea.

Before joining the Express, he authored his first of eight books, entitled The Abolition of Britain: from Lady Chatterley to Tony Blair, Quartet Books, 1999. The four other books which I will review and comment, include The Abolition of Liberty: The Decline of Order and Justice in England, Atlantic, 2003;The Rage Against God, Continuum, 2010;The Cameron Delusion, Continuum, 2010; and The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion, I.B.Tauris, 2018. The latter is dedicated to his father, Commander Eric Hitchens, RN, (1909-1987).

Conservative ideas.

Hitchens is a Burkean conservative, for whom “society is a partnership of the dead, the living and the unborn.” The people of Britain, he writes,  “knew there was no perfect solution to earthly problems”. Over the centuries, they created a polity where different traditions and opinions learnt to live side by side in a climate of freedom. “The British system did not only enshrine habeas corpus, trial by jury, common law and parliamentary democracy. It demanded freedom of speech and thought, protected inheritance and secured property. It gave every citizen a private life, every family its small kingdom. It made each police officer the embodiment of the citizens’ will, rather than a gendarme from above. It made liberty the property of the subject, to be lent to government between elections. It even made the monarchy a subtle constraint on the power of the executive. It decreed that everything was permitted, unless specifically prohibited. It honoured dissent, loved eccentricity and despised conformity. It refused to make windows into men’s souls, punishing them for what they did not for what they were, let alone for what they thought or said. Above all it relied upon its laws being written in the hearts of the British people, who both respected authority and guarded liberty…”.[2]

This British inheritance, he implies, is unique. Its law is predicated on precedent, and its politics on the adversarial system. “In the English Common Law tradition, quite distinct from those of our Continental neighbours, it is the state that is answerable to us. We are presumed innocent…sovereign of ourselves, left alone to live our private lives as we wish…”. [3]That tradition is over one thousand years old, as is the country’s adversarial politics. “I do not know whether this contest had its roots in the ancient hostility between Norman and Saxon, or in the English Civil War, or in the British class system.” What is certain is that the best form of education known to man is argument with an opponent.  [4]  “And in debates about the ordering of society, two rival ideas of goodness, loved by their adherents as much as they are loathed by their opponents, have contended for centuries. One is based on a belief in Original Sin, the other on a belief in the perfectibility of man. Out of this battle have come many civilized and unsatisfactory compromises-which for all their grubbiness have been hugely preferable to the bloody, world-reforming zeal unleashed on less happy lands”.

Britain’s uniqueness, he writes, is dying in a prolonged agony that began to in First World War. The older law was based on a combination of common sense and Christian morals. But the Christian churches were powerfully damaged by becoming too closely identified with love of country and the making of great wars. “In fact I think it safe to say that the two great victorious wars of the 20thcentury did more damage to Christianity in the UK  than any other single force. The churches were full before 1914; half empty after 1919; and 3/4s empty after 1945”. [5]The so called “Good War” of 1939-1945 kept the old morality afloat for a decade or so after its end, but the loss of confidence associated  with the Suez crisis of 1956 revealed it as  decaying from within, and unable to resist the onslaught of the 1960s cultural wars. Into the vacuum rushed “a cheap and tawdry morality and culture”,[6]a new conformism far more intolerant than anything known in the British isles since the Reformation of the sixteenth century.

The common law, adversarial politics and Christianity form a trinity at the core of the old ways of doing things. Each one of his books sheds light on one or other of the multiple implications of what Hitchens considers to have been a far more complete cultural revolution in the UK than anything Mao Tse Tung could have dreamed to have imposed on China. . Peter Kellner, one of the Orwell Prize judges,  was not far off the mark when he wrote that Hitchen’s writing is “as firm, polished and potentially lethal as a Guardsman’s boot”.(https://www.nouse.co.uk/2010/05/25/university-of-york-graduate-peter-hitchens-wins-orwell-prize-for-foreign-correspondence/)

I start with his book on World War II, then go on to review The Abolition of Britain, The Abolition of Liberty, The Rage Against God, and The Cameron Delusion. I shall allow Hitchens to speak first, and then make my comments, or those of others.

The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion.

His theme is encapsulated in the following comment towards the end of the book: “the 1939-45 war was morally far more compromised than …I had been allowed to believe”. [7]The result is a relentless questioning of the war’s conduct from beginning to end. He starts with the British government’s guarantee of protection to Poland in March 1939. Hitler, he writes, was quite correct to think we would not fight for Poland, and as Churchill pointed out at the time, there was no way that Great Britain could make good its commitment.  Hitchens argues, borrowing from Simon Newman’s book, March 1939: The British Guarantee to Poland,[8]that Chamberlain and Halifax had decided to seek confrontation with Germany without thinking through the consequences. Those consequences were rushing to the United States as a penniless supplicant for support; acceptance of draconian conditions; precipitation of a European war; the fall of France; the retreat from Dunkirk, followed by the disaster of Singapore’s conquest by Japan, and then submission to the war aims of the USA, the effective dissolution of Empire and the stripping of the country’s accumulated wealth.

The UK did not go to war on behalf of international Jewry, he writes. Britain, America, and other European countries had closed their doors to Jewish immigration. Furthermore, the UK went to war in support of “plucky little”, anti-semitic  Poland. He recounts the story of how the Polish exile leader General Wladyslaw Sikorski in January 1942 asked the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, if something could perhaps be done to find room for Poland’s Jews elsewhere. “It is quite impossible…for Poland to continue to maintain 3.5 million Jews after the war”, he is reported as saying. Hitchens points out that little did he know that the Jewish presence in Poland was being solved at the time much more brutally. Had the UK negotiated a peace with Hitler, the treatment of the Jews in the Channel islands-they were handed over to the SS-does not instill much confidence in how a marginalized Britain would have behaved in a continent united under National Socialist Germany.

During and after Britain’s Good War, the dominant theme was that the British Conservatives were appeasers. These were the Guilty Menof Left Book Club fame. The book overlooked entirely the long history of Labour’s pacificism in facing the dictators in the 1930s. The stigma that the Conservatives were prepared to compromise with Hitler has remained in popular opinion, and shaped scholarly thinking about the 1930s, until A.J.P. Taylor’s influential and controversial book, The Origins of the Second World War, which argued that appeasement was a rational policy, which took into consideration Britain’s straightened post-1918 economic circumstances; the repugnance of the population at the prospect of a blood-letting on the scale of the 1914-18 war; the chance that Hitler could be discouraged from going to war; avoidance of becoming dependent on the USA; and buying time to rearm, particularly in the air.  The Conservatives’ failing, writes Hitchens, was to have over-estimated French power, and under-estimated the cynicism of both Hitler and Stalin to make their famous pact in 1939.   Both dictators devoured Poland, regardless of the British government’s paper guarantee.

The European war sent Britain cap in hand to the US. An Anglophobe Congress voted Lend Lease-the supply of 50 decrepit World War I destroyers in return for British territories on the western Atlantic, and the handing over of British assets, gold and securities to the US-only when Britain was bankrupt and begging.. Roosevelt wanted Churchill to send the Royal Navy to safe havens in the western hemisphere in the event of a German invasion of the British Isles. Churchill declined, but six weeks later, gave the order for the British Mediterranean fleet to sink the French fleet harboured at Mers-El-Kebir. Hitchens writes that Churchill wanted to demonstrate thereby that Britain was committed to war at all costs. Hitler, by contrast, was angling for a deal with Great Britain, using the threat of invasion as a means to persuade a battered British public to press their leaders to give in. For Churchill, the threat was a means to boost morale at home. On September 17, 1940, Hitler dropped plans for Sea Lion and turned to his real objective in the war, which was conquest of Lebensraum in the East.

Hitchens writes that the United States was no friend of Britain. The Washington Naval Conference of 1922 in effect snuffed British naval supremacy and scuttled the Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902, which had ensured Japan’s pro-allied stance during the war of 1914-1918. The Atlantic Charter of 1941 held disadvantages for all anti-Hitler allies except for the United States; it was in effect a manifesto for an end to European empires. In January 1942, Singapore fell to Japanese forces-an event that signalled the impending disappearance of the British Empire, just as Dunkirk had confirmed German hegemony on the European continent. Attaching greater importance to the European theatre, Churchill had undersupplied the defence of Singapore by sending troops to North Africa.

Unable to effectively retaliate in Europe, Churchill sought to appease his ally Stalin by bombing German cities, at tremendous cost to the bomber crews flying over enemy controlled territories.  Similarly, at the Potsdam conference, in July-August 1945, the Big Three agreed that the transfer of ethnic Germans from central eastern Europe and beyond, should proceed “ in an orderly and humane manner”. The transfer involved the movement of 12 to 14 million people, men, women and children, under the most horrendous conditions. In effect, the Big Three were condoning what later came to be called “ethnic cleansing”. The sufferings of the German population from the bombings or the forced migrations were later excused by the British pro-Moscow Left, while the Cold War establishment crowed its policies had preserved liberty and prosperity in western Europe, at the expense of deliving the east of the continent into tyranny and slavery. At Bretton Woods, the UK agreed to a new economic regime that was entirely based on the needs of the USA.

“It is my suspicion that the moral shrivelling of Britain since 1945, writes Hitchens, the increased violence and delinquency, the readiness to accept the abortion massacre, the general coarsening of culture and the growth of callousness have at least something to do with our willingness to shrug off-or even defend-Arthur Harris’ de-housing of German civilians.”[9]And in his conclusion, he cites  a Hitler Youth Song:

Wir wollen keine Christen sein

Weil Christus war ein Judenschwein.

Und seine Mutter, welch ein Hohn,

Die heisst Marie, gebor’ne Kohn“.

Had he written his book The Rage Against God, before The Phoney War,  he could have elaborated on this militantly pagan, anti-Christian and anti-semitic ditty. The post-war secularists of Britain, he might have argued,  were implementing Hitler’s own anti-Judeo-Christian policies more effectively than the Führer could ever have imagined in his wildest dreams. His conclusion: the second world war is morally much more ambiguous than the fable of “the Good War” allows for.

(On hostility to the Judeo-Christian tradition in the UK, see my review of Melanie Philips Guardian Angel: My Story on this blog: https://storybookreview.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=1065&action=edit)

The Abolition of Britain: From Lady Chatterley to Tony Blair.

This is the first of Hitchens books, and it is about New Labour’s “slow motion coup d’état” against everything that was inherited. “I am a modern man, he cites Tony Blair as saying. “I am part of the rock and roll generation”. Hitchens’ thesis is that New Labour’s purpose is to effect a deep shift in the way that the British people view themselves, their past and their future, so as to break up the UK and incorporate its provinces in a United States of Europe. The policy is predicated on an extensive state employed middle class; an anti-family culture; an intelligentsia that despises patriotism; the collapse of British confidence following the Suez crisis of 1956, and the emergence of a new intolerant culture which presents itself as “liberal”, but is in fact highly conformist;  the influence of American culture, and following that the collapse of American puritanism , under the blows of the Kinsey Report, the pill, Hollywood, pop music, and American feminism; the failure of the Thatcher revolution, and the entrenchment of a monstrous, unionised, ever expanding state sector, dependent on banks of voters dependent for their livelihood on a plethora of “benefits”, and sustained by government dependent acolytes in the BBC, the universities and the artistic élite. Not least, the defeat of the USSR cleared the ground for a new war versus German domination of an EU armed with the weapons of supranational statism.

The key years for the spread of the new culture were between the year of Churchill’s burial and the burial of Princess Diana in 1997. The revolution did not come from below, but rather was inflicted on the electorate from above.  The first port of call for Britain’ cultural revolutionaries was education: the new culture was to be pacifist, anti-national, and pro-world governance by experts through international institutions. This entailed the re-writing of the history taught in schools; the promotion of multi-culturalism; the condemnation of Hitler’s national socialism, and a strong bias in favour of forgiving communists for their shortcomings. The result is a nation without heroes, without pride in its past, or knowledge of past triumphs and disasters.

Another port of call was the Church. “Hell was abolished around the same time that abortion was legalized and the death penalty was done away with”. Parliament repealed the Infernal Regions Act, and abandoned its supervision of the state church, the Church of England. Henceforth, the Church was governed through a synod , dominated by the Church nomenklatura, itself embarrassed by the faith of the lay people. The new tone of official Anglicanism was set by John Robinson, the bishop of Woolwich who opined in the court case over the publication of D.H.Lawrence’ foul-mouthed novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, that taking Holy Communion was like having sexual intercourse. Reforming activists breezily reformed the liturgy, re-wrote the Prayer Book, dropped the customary prayers for the Royal Family, and became obsessed about women priests and sexual mores-all without the say-so of the faithful. The watchword was “modernisation”-Blair’s favourite catch-all noun deployed to justify any vandalism that caught the imagination of the Prime Minister.

The culture wars came to be conducted through the media and the schools. The very successful grammar schools were dismantled in order to socially engineer class equality; the opposite was achieved as the middle classes fled to the private school sector. Television, rather than being a vehicle for public education, became a vehicle for the promotion of violence, pornography, and of hostility to religion. The new fad of scepticism swept threatre, screen , television and radio with such shows as “The Life of Brian”, “Beyond the Fringe”, or “That was the Week that Was”, which established a tradition of anti-establishment comedy.

By 1979, writes Hitchens, the Left had won control of broadcasting, of the schools, of the universities, the church, and the artistic, musical and architectural establishment. So how come the Right kept winning: the Left’s answer, for Hitchens, is that the Right was no longer made up of chinless aristocrats, but was a semi-fascist dictatorship hacking away at the NHS, at the welfare state, while waging aggressive wars and enriching themselves. In short, “Thatcherism”.

The sexual revolution was not just about the pill: in fact it preceded the pill. The stigma against children born from unmarried mothers was lifted in 1959; in 1967, special tax allowance for divorced parents was extended to unmarried mothers; by 1979, the Law Commission was recommending that the law should not take illegitimacy into account. As a result, one parent families multiplied. Liberal judges promoted “divorce on demand”. Birth control devices came to be distributed free to children, who became the targets of the UK’s expanding sex-ed industry. The more sex-ed that children received, the more single motherhood figures grew. These provide  the outstanding indicator for the rise in poverty, crime and underachievement in society.

The architect of this cultural revolution was Roy Jenkins. Among his many reforms, Jenkins repealed the death penalty. “The abolitionists were rooted, writes Hitchens, in a post-Christian humanism which sought to perfect life on earth, rather than to govern a community of miserable sinners”. [10]“The argument between Christianity and liberalism had been quietly lost during the First World War, and particularly in the mud-pits of Passchaendale and the Somme, when men from the educated classes had seen so much death and so little mercy that they had come to hate killing of any sort, and had ceased for ever to believe in the certainties of the world before 1914. In the lingering afterglow of Christian belief, the old guard had been able to preserve some remnants of punishment and retribution. But in general the ruling élite could not justify such cruelties to themselves, and had come to despise the masses for clinging to their belief in the power of the noose. Until December 1964, they had never dared impose their own doubts and uncertainties upon the people who had elected them. The decision was a mighty victory of the élite over the people and of humanism over Christianity. With the shadow of the gallows removed, the new liberal cross-party majority had altered the whole purpose and nature of the penal system, and inaugurated a new era of loving the sinner, while not caring that much about the sin”. [11]

The scene was thus set for the arrival of Antony Blair in 10 Downing Street. The pattern of what would transpire was clear, writes Hitchens, when Peter Mandelson, the Prime Minister’s confidant, mused that an era of representative democracy might be coming to a close. The country was now  fair game for top-down constitutional and cultural revolution. “The British had been separated from their traditions, by the weakening of family ties, by the disruption of schools, by the virtual abolition of national history and literature, by the subsidisation of teenage independence of parents through the universities, by the sexual revolution. So Mr Blair and his advisers felt free to take a bulldozer to the constitution. In a few short months they had held referendums in Scotland, Wales and London, establishing new tiers of government that were portrayed as devolution though their main effect was to take more power from parliament and place it in the hand of the Labour party. What was far more important was that because the changes were approved by referendum, Parliament could not repeal them. Another principle of the British constitution that no one government could commit its successors, was destroyed. “

Hitchens ends his book on this note: “I ask the Left to begin to reconsider its own record, especially in damaging the family, ruining the schools and making Britain a land fit for pornographers. If the decay of obligation, duty and morality continues, danger and misery will soon be hammering at the front doors of all of us…The longer we leave it, the more illiberal, costly and nasty the ultimate solution will have to be”. [12]

[1] Gertrude Himmelfarb, The De-Moralisation of Society, From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values, Vintage 1996.

[2]The Abolition of Britain: From Lady Chatterley to Tony Blair, Quartet Books, 1999. p.318.

[3]The Abolition of Liberty: The Decline of Order and Justice in England, Atlantic Books, 2004(2ndedition) p.29.

[4]The Cameron Delusion, Continuum, 2010. pp.196-197.

[5]The Rage Against God. p.56.

[6]The  Rage Against God, p.22.

[7]The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion, I.B.Taurus, 2018. Phoney War, p.219.

[8]Simon Newman, March 1939: The British Guarantee to Poland, OUP, 1976.

[9]The Phoney Victory, p.203.

[10]Abolition of Britain, p. 291.

[11]Abolition of Britain. P. 296.

[12]Abolition of Britain. p.350.

About Jonathan Story, Professor Emeritus, INSEAD

Jonathan Story is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at INSEAD. Prior to joining INSEAD in 1974, he worked in Brussels and Washington, where he obtained his PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has held the Marusi Chair of Global Business at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and is currently Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Graduate Schoold of Business, Fordham University, New York. He is preparing a monograph on China’s impact on the world political economy, and another on a proposal for a contextual approach to business studies. He has a chapter forthcoming on the Euro crisis. His latest book is China UnCovered: What you need to know to do business in China, (FT/ Pearson’s, 2010) (www.chinauncovered.net) His previous books include “China: The Race to Market” (FT/Pearsons, 2003), The Frontiers of Fortune, (Pitman’s, 1999); and The Political Economy of Financial Integration in Europe : The Battle of the Systems,(MIT Press, 1998) on monetary union and financial markets in the EU, and co-authored with Ingo Walter of NYU. His books have been translated into French, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Arabic. He is also a co-author in the Oxford Handbook on Business and Government(2010), and has contributed numerous chapters in books and articles in professional journals. He is a regular contributor to newspapers, and has been four times winner of the European Case Clearing House “Best Case of the Year” award. His latest cases detail hotel investments in Egypt and Argentina, as well as a women’s garment manufacturer in Sri Lanka and a Chinese auto parts producer. He teaches courses on international business and the global political economy. At the INSEAD campus, in Fontainebleau and Singapore, he has taught European and world politics, markets, and business in the MBA, and PhD programs. He has taught on INSEAD’s flagship Advanced Management Programme for the last three decades, as well as on other Executive Development and Company Specific courses. Jonathan Story works with governments, international organisations and multinational corporations. He is married with four children, and, now, thirteen grandchildren. Besides English, he is fluent in French, German, Spanish, Italian, reads Portuguese and is learning Russian. He has a bass voice, and gives concerts, including Afro-American spirituals, Russian folk, classical opera and oratorio.
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