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Pirates of Fleet Street Chapters 5 and 6


CHAPTER 5 

More Cheese 

Strike Week 2 Friday March 14 

In a corner of the front bar unemployed and unemployable Fleet Street veteran drunk Dicky Dix sat in his habitual corner talking into a small reel-to-reel tape-recorder. With bugger-all else to do he hoped to sell a blow-by-blow account of the biggest postal strike of all-time to the British Library. 

“By the second week strikers were getting sweet f.a. from the union and some found income elsewhere; casual work mostly. Even better, some were lucky enough to use the high-level skills developed with the Royal Mail,” he intoned. 

“Yeah, you got that right, Dick,” said Vincent X. “What you drinkin’? Scotch I s’pose? Give ’im one Les. 

“We ’ad two of ’em do their first run yesterday. Two big sacks of letters, stamped and posted in France an’ back in time for tea. 

“Very efficient, British postmen.” 

“Except at picketin’,” added Les from behind the bar, passing the glass to Dickie, who emptied it in one gulp. 

“Blimey,” said Vince. “That didn’t go far did it? You’re like my old grandad, only it was with pints. Asked him once why he downed a pint so fast. ‘In case someone knocks it over,’ he said.” 

He turned back to Les. 

“Anyway, they’re not pickets, strictly speakin’, if they ain’t actually picketin’ are they?” 

Les looked bemused. 

“And even better, if they go at the weekend, when we don’t open the office anyway – well, there’s nobody ’round ’ere is there? Even this pub’s shut, right? No point them picketin’ a shut-up office. So, no problem. An’ they need the money, fiver each, free ride on the ’ovvercraft.” 

In the corner Dickie Dix was repeating Vince’s words into his tape- recorder. 

“That poor bloody union is skint,” said Vincent. 

Les said: “You know your trouble, don’t you Vince? You’re all ’eart.” 

Les left that one hanging over the postal entrepreneur and moved off to serve another customer. 

“I must say, Vincent, it is nice to get a lunch-break for a change,” said Cheryl, who arrived looking positively perky. 

“Just a shandy, please Les, when you’ve got time,” she called. “Does seem a bit funny though, leavin’ pickets mindin’ the office. Do you fink they’re alright, you know, ’onest?” 

“Elfie ’n’ Len? Course they are,” said Vincent, digging into his cash- bag again. 

“Wouldn’t you be grateful, gettin’ a little bit on the side when you’re getting’ next to no strike money? Anyway, easy enough to check up; just count the letters.” 

Len and Elfie were known to their brothers in the post office union as Laurel and Hardy; or ‘a right pair of clowns’. This showed up the paucity of cultural sophistication imbued in the average post office union worker, because Len was the tall, skinny lugubrious one of the pair; Elfie was a short, dumpling-shaped person. They were much more akin to Abbott and Costello. 

“I’m not so sure. That Elfie don’t seem all there to me. I was tellin’ ’im about takin’ enough to cover the stamps, an’ then to add the money for the transport, ’an ’e looked a bit glassy-eyed.” 

“Yeah, well Len is definitely the brains of that pair. I’ve told ’im to do all the dealin’ wiv the customers and mostly keep Elfie outside in the picket’s chair.” 

Les planted a thin, Paris goblet of shandy in front of them. This was in deference to Cheryl’s being of the female persuasion. Blokes would only qualify for a mug, especially if they were drinking something adulterated with lemonade. 

“Thanks, Les,” said Vincent. “Cheers Cher, don’t know what I’d do without yer.” 

She sipped and sniffed. Cheryl was still uneasy. 

“I don’t think either one of ’em really understands money, either, Vincent. When I told them about the prices for stamps in France, Len kept saying’ ‘that’s like four bob, Elf’; and Elfie says ‘another four bob to post a letter?’ An’ I ’ad to explain that’s for the transport, not the stamps. 

“An’ then ’e looked sort of glassy-eyed again.” 

“Well, they’re union men ain’t they? Not used to private enterprise an’ ’aving to think too much. You just make sure the money’s right, near enough, and don’t worry too much. If this new contract comes off, them letters won’t matter much anyway. 

“Just icin’ on the cake, they’ll be.” 

Les, overhearing Vincent’s words, as good barmen do, asked: “What, another racket?” 

“No mate, same one, just expandin’ain’t we? Deliverin’newspapers.” 

Les was understandably incredulous. Dickie Dix was all ears too. He sidled over from his corner. 

“Do me a favour,” said Les. “This from the genius who says there’s no money in deliverin’ letters in this country? You gonna get a paper- round? Well, I suppose you’re in the right area for it. 

“Does Beaverbrook know you’re movin’ in on ’im?” 

“Yeah, very funny Les,” said Vincent. “Excep’ for the fact that Beaverbrook turned ’is toes up about ’undred years ago.” 

“Yeah, but what are you on about, Vince?” asked Cheryl. “I don‘t suppose it has anyfing to do with them two layabout pickets upstairs?” 

“Exactly ... well nearly, my dear. One of those two layabouts, as you charmin’ly call ’em, ’as a drivin’ licence. An’ if my new deal comes off, we’ll be needing a driver.” 

“To deliver the newspapers? What is it, the Sun, Mirror? I think you’ll find they already ’ave a very good delivery system,” said Les. 

Dickie Dix nodded in agreement. Always a good move to agree with people; they might shout you another scotch. Cheryl, who had intimate family knowledge of the ‘Spanish practices’ that ruled the national newspapers and their delivery systems offered an aside to Dickie. 

“It’s a great delivery system when they ain’t on strike.” “Or on a ghost run,” agreed Dickie. 

All cockneys knew how Fleet Street worked, or to be precise, avoided working. Ghost runs were infamous. Rail strikes, or breakdowns, were regular occurrences of the times and gleefully welcomed in the Street. Extra lorries would be needed to move the papers all across the country, and the unions stated that each needed three of their members aboard. This was cobblers, and management knew it. But the cost of a lost edition was enormous compared to paying several dozen layabouts for not showing up. It was always a big night in the south Lundn pubs when the railmen struck, with blokes who should have been unloading bundles of newspapers in Exeter or Cardiff or other far-flung towns knocking out their overtime bonuses across the bar. 

“They hardly need any moonlightin’ postmen,” suggested Les. 

“Alright, you all laugh,” said Vincent. “But as we speak Big Smiffy is lunchin’ wiv a very influential foreign media personality.” 

“Smiffy! The snapper?” Les and Cheryl were in stunned unison. “Used to be on No Fear?”asked Dickie.
They all shuddered. 

“Yes, that Big Smiffy. An’ ’e’s not a snapper now. Got a job on the desk at the Press Association, learned a bit of tact. ’ousetrained, sort of. 

“He scrubs up alright, nice blue suit, plenty of old chat ...” he hesitated, “an’ ’e’s big.” 

“What’s ‘big’ got to do with it?” asked Les.
“Well, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this woman …” 

“Woman?” said Cheryl sharply. “Who’s this one?” “Yeah, a Miss Rabbia.” 

“What’s her problem?” asked Dickie. “Never heard of her in the street.” 

“No, office is up the hill, in the City. But she could be a bit dodgy, you know ... Italian/American ... well our unions are bad enough over ’ere ... but they’ve got the Mafia as well ...” 

Cheryl laughed. 

“Mafia!” 

“Yeah, well you never know. So I don’t want ’er finkin’ we’re a pushover, you know, so I asked Smiffy to represent us.” 

“Yes, well ... but Smiffy, though? He is a nice fella’ ’n’ all that but he’s not exactly what you’d call the ‘management type’ is ’e?” 

Dicky Dix was back on his tape machine. 

‘Most Fleet Street photographers were morons, in the opinion of reporters,’ he dictated. ‘That’s why they were called snappers, or later, monkeys. The monkey moniker was coined in the provinces of Inglnd after a photographer stood too close to a cage at the zoo. A chimp snatched a camera from him and managed to take a few good shots. When they were developed and published, the picture editor told his staff, that’s it; a monkey can do your job. 

Only difference between a Fleet Street snapper and your average poor bloody general public was the size of their Brownies. Best thing a reporter could say about a photographer was he’s a big strong boy who can carry his own camera bag.’ 

“Alright, Mr X, so now you’re in partnership with the Mafia?” said Les. “What’s this Yankee paper then?” 

“The Game.” 

Everyone looked blank. 

“That’s what she calls it, Miss Rabbia. Masthead is US Sport and Games.” 

“New to me,” said Dicky. 

“An’ me,” admitted Vincent. “But it’s very important, she says. Yanks livin’ all over Yoorup read it, see? ‘Deprived of their culture’ they are. So she says anyway.” 

“How would you fancy working there?” asked Dicky. “Telling people ‘I’m on the Game’!” 

“Culture, that’s a joke,” scoffed Les. “You seen the way they get wrapped up to play football? Right bunch of pansies they must be, needin’ all that armour for a game of football!” 

“And they don’t understand proper sports like cricket, either,” added Dicky. 

“Right,” agreed Les. “Rounders they play, call it baseball. A girls’ game, that is.” 

“I don’t give a monkey’s,” said Vincent “but if they’re flying hundreds of papers over here, three times a week, they must know what they’re doin’.” 

“Wait a minute, Vincent,” said Cheryl. “Why would they fly ’undreds of copies to London every week?” 

“Because, she says, it’s cheaper to send the lot in bulk ...”
“An’ then this Miss Rabbia ... posts ’em to Yoorup?” asked Cheryl. 

“Exackly! Workin’ wiv me ’as definitely sharpened up your brain, Cher. There’s about two weeks backlog pilin’ up out at the airport, getting’ more ’n’ more out of date every day. 

“So Miss Rabbia sees our ad in the Standard, phones to see if we can ’elp shift ’em.” 

“I ’spect she was worried about getting an ’orse’s ’ead in the post,” said Les with a snigger. “Ah, no; there’s a strike on of course!” 

Doggedly Vincent battled on. 

“Course I asked why they didn’t just post ’em in Amurika, to Yoorup like. She says they thought that by the time they got that sorted out our strike will probably be all over. But now it’s draggin’ on, I’m pleased to say, an’ there’s still the back-log to clear, like. So I sent our transport manager to see ’er, make the final arrangements.” 

“And that’s Big Smiffy,” said Cheryl. 

“Yeah, Smiffy. It’s ’is day off from PA. I promised ’im if Miss Rabbia signs us up ’e could go on the first run wiv Len ’n’ Elfie, all at the expense of the LPS.” 

“Like I said before, you’re all ’eart,” put in Les. “LPS?” asked Cheryl
“Yeah, our company name – London Postal Service.” “But you don’t deliver in London,” said Les. 

“And I thought LPS was our photography name, London Picture Service?” 

“Right, Cher, but fortunately it just says ‘LPS’ on the notepaper – so we can use that for the mail business. Looks more business-like, like.” 

Enter Colin Smith, Big Smiffy. He’s overweight, over six-feet tall and wearing a very bright-blue, shiny two-piece suit. Above that was an amiable grin and a bit of dark curly hair, already receding. He had no trouble elbowing his way through the bar crowd. 

“Oh, ’ere’s the transport manager!” said Cheryl. 

“Nice suit, Colin,” added Les. 

“Nearly blinded me,” Cheryl joined in. 

“Fanks Les, got it for me ’olidays. Only thirty quid, down East Lane ...” 

“They saw you comin’,” said Cheryl. 

“Well, they definitely would now ...” 

Cheryl and Les giggled. 

“Never mind ’is bloody suit! Give ’im a drink, Les ... Colin, ’ow d’ it go mate? Are we on, or what?” 

“Nuffink to it, all set to start as soon as you like, Vince. As a matter of fact, I fink she fancies me.” 

“Must be the suit,” said Cheryl. 


CHAPTER 6 

Striking for Yoorup 

Pre-strike Flashback January 1975 

It would have been a truly remarkable coincidence – some might term it unbelievable – if the first-ever nationwide postal strike across the Dis-United Kingdom of Great Britain occurred at precisely the same time that the government planned to bring in decimal currency. 

It’s obvious that no sensible administrator, half-way competent manager, or even the stupidest politician would choose such a time to dump good old traditional pounds, shillings and pence in favour of some kind of dollar substitute, in the form of an unimpressive, puny-looking new pound note worth just 100 ‘new pence’. 

Everyone loved the pound. Given half a chance everyone would like many, many more of them. 

It would be unthinkable to even dream of making such a momentous change, to rock an historic pillar of British tradition, while the nation was panicking at the breakdown of industrial relations. 

In the D-UK of the 1970s a postal strike could so easily infect other unions, close down vital industries, affect exports, devalue the pound. 

Ah, yes; the pound. The pound had to be defended at all costs; and isn’t attack the best form of defence? 

So the concurrence of a postal strike and decimalisation was no coincidence. The D-UK government engineered the strike specifically to blindside the population while they surreptitiously decimalised the pound. 

REGINALD Smattering’s habitual air of bewilderment came as no surprise to Postmaster-General Straith Trewth. The boy’s grasp on reality was feeble at best, which was all one could expect of the progeny of Sir Sydney Smattering. Reggie’s greatest asset as far as Straith was concerned was his malleability. Straith had taken an unpromising twerp and moulded him into a perfect puppet. 

Reggie’s part in the ballot-rigging that had helped ease Inglnd into the Yoorupian Economic Community was minor, but vital. A perfectly-timed 24-hour stoppage at the Mount Nice sorting office in Lundn diverted the vital ballot papers to Gouts, where Straith and Jacob Lossit juggled the results to produce the required Yes verdict. 

That was two years ago. The new strike that Straith had now organised with Reggie’s help was nationwide and just as vital. Reggie had complied with the orders of his ‘godfather’ of course, as he had in the everyday running of the Post Workers Union since Straith had shoehorned him into the job. But he struggled to understand why the government wanted their own postal system thrown into chaos. 

“It’s all for the good of the nation, Reggie,” Straith explained patiently, keeping the message simple so that even his protégé might be able to remember some of it. 

“It involves Yoorup, and the pound ... that’s our currency, Reggie, not how you weigh spuds ... and public confidence. 

“Alright, got that? More tea?” 

He poured the mildly aromatic beverage and contemplated this progeny of the aristocracy, who instinctively stuck out his little finger while raising the cup. Straith always struggled to reconcile Reggie’s hereditary, upper-class affectations with the vile accent and vocabulary the lad had acquired at Higgins’ Academy in Oxford. 

Reginald Cholmondeley Smattering was the latest offering of a bloodline that should have petered out generations ago, and would have done so but for the valiant efforts of ambitious women who overlooked the inadequacies of the Smattering heirs and endeavoured, in vain, to produce cognisant offspring capable of restoring the family’s credibility. The limp specimen before him, draped across his armchair and balancing a saucer and teacup with ease, was still infuriatingly aristocratic, despite the lack of anything approaching a functioning mind, thought Straith Trewth. 

The pair couldn’t have been less alike. While Reggie’s brain bounced idly around his skull in search of meaning, the PMG’s was a hard- wired unit working at full capacity at all times, even while he indulged himself in a strictly limited four hours nightly sleep. The wiry old Skoot’s prodigious brain was housed behind a chiselled visage and set atop a short, fit frame that defied his 60-plus years. Two-thirds of Trewth’s life had been devoted to politics and the pursuit of power. His was the brightest mind of the ruling Hang ’em and Flog ’em party – not that the competition was intense – and the veteran’s ambitions remained boundless. 

The PMG had shamelessly glossed over young Smattering’s educational records when, during the Yoorup ballot swindle, he put him up for Gouts membership and intimated that the chap was an ‘old Etonian’. Eton was actually one of several superior establishments that had declined the Smattering’s application, partly because their gentile poverty was fairly common knowledge, and partly because Sir Sydney actually had attended Eton. That was decades earlier, when the Smatterings still had some financial credibility. Such a family connection with the school should have been advantageous, but in this instance it was a case of ‘once bitten, twice shy’. 

It was late January and the pair were taking their Earl Grey in Straith’s Whitehall rooms, with a view down to the Horse Guards Parade. Reggie’s regular briefings with his mentor usually occurred here. Straith made no secret of their meetings. In fact, the government press office proudly trumpeted the ongoing co-operation between a government minister and the General-Secretary of the PWU as a triumph of democracy and sound government. It was a model of co- operative management envied by other jurisdictions, they boasted. 

In fact, the briefings simply entailed Reggie being told what to do and say that week. Most weeks it was inconsequential stuff, enough to keep the Gen-Sec’s head above water and conceal from his union colleagues that he was paddling like mad below the surface to avoid drowning in ignorance. 

The January briefing was different. 

“But ... ’ow does gettin’ all the workers out ’elp all that, the pound, an’ Yoorup an’ everyfing, Straith,” asked Reggie plaintively. 

His tortured expression hinted at turmoil within. Then, a rare thought made a daring break-and-enter into the Gen-Sec’s tiny mind. 

“It says in the papers that we get on great wiv the gov’ment. Wot do I tell ’em up the NEC abaht why we gotta ’ave a strike?” 

Straith patiently explained the message, point by point, that the Gen-Sec should take to his union brothers on the National Executive Council. 

‘The workers had been exploited by the PMG and the government for too long. The basic wage paid to post office workers was abysmal. 

Reggie had endeavoured to persuade the PMG of the unfairness of the situation for months. 

Now the time had come for action. 

The only way to convince the PMG and the government that the PWU was serious was to get tough. 

So Reggie had given notice that very day that the whole union would come out on strike on the first day of March unless their very reasonable wage claim was met.’ 

“Which it won’t be, of course,” explained Straith. “Don’t worry Reggie; I know it’s a lot to remember, so I’ve typed it all up for you.” 

He passed a single sheet of A4 across the tea-table. 

“Now put that away in your briefcase before you lose it. That’s right, close that lock thingy; well done. Off you go then, my boy. I look forward to reading all about the union’s tough and determined stance in tomorrow’s papers. 

“Get one of your typists to knock up a press release on union notepaper and then send it over. I’ll have my press people check the spelling for you.” 

Straith had considered explaining to Reggie that the government desperately needed the strike to cloak the launching of the new decimal currency, but he struggled to find terms Reggie might understand. Perhaps a drawing would do it? He might use some nice coloured crayons, or shiny beads, he thought. But the Gen-Sec would never really get it, so why confuse him further? 

Straith had faced a similar dilemma when he’d revealed the strategy to his cabinet colleagues a month earlier, carefully timing the news for their last meeting of the year. 

The shrewd old Skoot wasn’t surprised when the politicians struggled with the concept. The Chancellor of the Exchequer understood it, a bit; and the Prime Minister nodded and pretended he was following .That’s what he was good at, looking like he understood and sympathised with you. That’s why the party made him PM. 

The civil service bureaucrats really got it though. They were with him all the way and that was Straith’s most important achievement. They knew, as he did, that if Inglnd was to dominate Yoorup as planned, the currency had to change. 

He was modestly proud (but didn’t reveal it by the slightest flicker of emotion) when his PPS told him that down in the Secretary’s lounge and bar Straith was considered the most able of all government ministers. They all said he might have made an outstanding civil servant had he not gone over to the dark side of public service; politics. 

“Maintaining the confidence of our Yoorupian partners is vitally important,” he explained to the Cabinet, assembled in Downing Street for the final, pre-Christmas meeting of 1974. This was a very clever time to slip dodgy moves past Cabinet. Nobody wanted drawn-out debates when breaking-up parties were jumping all over Lundn. They were just like schoolkids, thought the PMG. 

“Strikes frighten the Yoorupians. That’s one of the reasons we need this postal strike, just so we can settle it. 

“We’ll tell them it was a national emergency but we sorted it out. We’ll show Yoorup we know how to handle trouble.” 

His colleagues looked dubious and shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. But the PM nodded, so that meant it was alright, and they settled again. 

Then Straith dropped the bombshell. 

“The strike will start in March. While it’s on and the great unwashed are looking the other way, we go decimal. 

“It’s a double-whammy.” 

It wasn’t a term he liked; anathema to an Edinburgh University man. But he knew his colleagues, almost all of them ill-educated oiks who watched far too much Amurikan television than was healthy. So he continued in simple terms they might understand. 

“Look, we’ll say we can do two things at once! We know how to handle troublemakers; and what’s more we’ve brought in decimal currency. That will make the Yoorupians even happier. They’re too thick to understand our money. Never could understand pounds, shillings and pence. 

“We know damn well they want to have one common currency across Yoorup one day. So Britain must get ready and decimalise.” 

The Cabinet gawped.
“Yes, I know what you’re thinking.”
No harm in flattery, he decided, even though I know, and they know 

I know, that they’ve never yet had an original thought between them. The PMG pressed on.
“We all know Brits will never give up the pound. Quite right, it’s unthinkable.” 

Muted hear-hears proved some of the Cabinet were still awake. 

“Our task is to ensure the pound is poised to become the common currency all across Yoorup. Fact is, it doesn’t matter what you call it. It’s just a common currency. If we decimalise the pound, that’s it, there’ll be no barrier, you see?” explained Straith helpfully. 

The PM nodded. 

“I see, I see, Straith,” he beamed. “We’ll be leading Yoorup, won’t we?” 

“Quite, Prime Minister; well done!” 

My God, thought Straith Trewth, it’s just like talking to Reggie Smattering. 

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Shane Niglet, piped up next. This was supposed to be his area of expertise after all, so he felt obliged to say something vaguely relevant. 

“Oh yes, PM, we’ll lead them by the nose! 

“Easy to convert 100 new pence into that monopoly money, liars or frankish or koronas – or is that one of their disgusting, fizzy beers? Anyway, whatever they call ’em. Do you know, some of those benighted countries still have coins with holes in them? So they can hang them round their necks on a string, I suppose! 

“It’s obvious; they must see the sense of trading in all that dark ages rubbish for good old reliable pound notes, eh?” 

The Cabinet guffawed. A few of them began thumping the table. The Christmas spirit, which had been impatiently held in check, burst into the room. 

“Three cheers for the Postmaster-General,” shouted the Minister for Sport and Rabble-Rousing, and as the PM nodded, singing filled the Cabinet room. 

The nation’s policy-makers filed out of Cabinet in a rowdy conga line. Slapping on coloured paper hats and pulling crackers they headed for the tax-payer-funded limousines waiting outside in Downing Street to whisk them off to a choice of freebie knees-ups across Lundn. 

The Chancellor of the Exchequer held back, tugging at Straith’s sleeve. 

“Er, just a quiet word, Straith?” asked the Chancellor, taking his arm. 

They slipped into a small, empty waiting room off the entrance hall and the Chancellor closed the door behind them. 

Keeping his voice low – who knew what bugs the secret service had in the place? – he started to pose the question the PMG had anticipated. 

“Well, old chap, not to put too fine a point on it ...” 

“What’s in it for us?” Straith whispered back at him. “Apart from the good of the nation, Britain leading Yoorup, then the world ...” 

“Yes, all that of course, but what I’m getting at ...” 

“I know, Chancellor, no need to spell it out.” 

Straith pointed at the waiting room wall, then tugged at his ears, one at a time. 

“Shall we continue this policy debate in your car?” asked the PMG. “Perhaps you could have your chauffeur drop me at Gouts, then I can give my chap the night off. Spirit of Christmas and all that!” 

The Austin Princess glided out into Whitehall and Straith Trewth gestured towards the government chauffeur, who was separated from his passengers by a glass screen. 

“Can this fellow be trusted, Chancellor?” he said quietly. 

The Chancellor leaned forward and rapped on the glass, which slid noiselessly down into the back of the seat. 

“Ear-plugs in please, Smith,” he said. “Headphones on as well. Listen to some Wagner or something. 

“Can’t be too careful, eh Straith,” he added as the thick glass screen ascended. 

“Now, on the sensitive topic of what’s in it for you and me ...” 

“Right now, nothing Chancellor,” replied the PMG. 

“What? Surely you’re having me on Straith. Come on, stop joking.” He laughed, nervously. 

“No, quite serious. Nothing now; but when that common currency is set up ...” 

“Oh good; right. I see. No, I don’t. 

“Tell the truth I’m a bit out of my depth with all this money talk.” 

He wriggled uncomfortably on the leather upholstery and tugged at his collar. His pink, festive paper hat split and fell down the back of the Chancellor’s neck. 

Straith smiled. 

“I’m not 100 per cent on the details myself, old chap, but as I understand it chaps in the know will be able to do a bit of money buying and selling, you see? 

“Not really sure how all that works, gambling on exchange rates and so on. We’ll leave it to the boffins at Treasury. They’ll probably get some work-experience kids on the job. Probably use one of those computer things. 

“But apart from that, I have a couple of other schemes to explore as well. One way or another, trust me, we’ll make some money out of it. The important thing is to slip this decimal business past the public first.” 

CHAPTERS 7 AND 8




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