Letterpress to litho (1946-1998) (2012)

Location : London, Norfolk

I
started work [as a teenager] just after the end of the Second World War: I think it was some time
in 1946. I must say, at that time like so many of my contemporaries I had no
real idea of what I wanted to do in terms of work and I suppose the upset of
the Second World War that we went through added to the uncertainty of
everything.

Learning the printing trade
in London

Anyway
it so happened that an uncle of mine, who was very interested in my future
suggested that perhaps printing might be a good job to do. In those days, I
have to say, one couldn't just apply for a job in the printing industry, one
had to be as it were put forward by someone. It's not a process that I believe
in but that's how it was. My uncle's immediate superior was very friendly with
the then Head of the Daily Telegraph Reading Department; he in turn said ‘we've
no vacancies here' but he then contacted a friend of his who was Head Reader at
a commercial printing company in London and as a result of that I was given an
interview and, in fact, given a job, not in the Reading Room but in the
production department of that company.

There
were various changes there and it so happened that I was then transferred to
the City office, which also incorporated a stationer's shop and so that was
really my start. I worked under a very nice gentleman who was extremely kind to
me I must say and I kept in touch with him right through after his retirement
and indeed attended his funeral at the end. I have very fond memories of him. He
was one of the many people who attended the first football Cup Final at
Wembley. They said it wouldn't be necessary to issue tickets but the place was
so overcrowded that many people were injured and this man sustained two broken
ribs. But that's an aside.

I
progressed there as a teenager and one of the things I do remember is that in
this shop they sold account books which were made in the factory at Waterloo in
South East London. They were lined up in the display cabinets either bound in
pigskin or calf. Pigskin was always red and shiny and calf was rough and buff
coloured. They were gold blocked by hand on the spine ‘Cash Book' or ‘Ledger',
something like that. They sold quite a lot of those, that's way back and old
hat now but they were beautifully done.

Also
too, another recollection of mine was of the first biros that came out, biro
pens. Some people of course in the City wanted to be right up to date with
these things and so there was quite a rush to buy one of these pens. They
looked very much like the biros of today, a bit fatter I suppose, and black. But
when the refill ran out – the ink ran out – customers had to bring the pens
back to us. We took the pens over to, I remember, the Miles Martin Pen Company
somewhere in St. James in London. They took them behind the scenes and fitted a
new refill – it was always very secret – and then the pen came back and was
handed back to the customer after a day or two, so it was quite cumbersome
really.

Did it cost them much,
do you remember how much it cost?

No,
I don't. I'm sorry I just don't remember, I expect it was relatively expensive.
Relatively, because it was a new thing.

I should think the
actual pens were quite expensive weren't they?

Yes,
I think they were and sadly I really don't remember but as I say my guess was
it was the in thing and that was the thing to do and therefore I daresay it was
reflected in the price. I remember one irate customer came in one day with this
pen which had leaked and ruined all his shirt there was ink all over, terrible
state of affairs. But those were the early days of biros and they've come a
long way since then.

Another
recollection of mine is that one day I was asked to make an urgent delivery to
one of the stockbrokers in the City. That would have been about a quarter of a
mile away I suppose from where we were situated and the item in question was a quart
bottle of red ink; this was for a large staff of office people. I took this
bottle round and somebody nudged into me, it was my fault I'm sure, and I
dropped the bottle! That was right in front of the Mansion House and I do mean
right in front of the Mansion House and this red ink was all over the shop and
I just can't describe how awful I felt, I had to answer for this one when I
went back, you know.

Did they deduct that off
your wages?

No,
they didn't. Again it comes back to this Manager I mentioned earlier who was
very kind and very understanding.

You had to walk there
did you?

Yes,
oh yes. But the thing is those days in the City of London there were still
horses, quite a few horses, and so there were a number of Council workmen who
used to go round with long handled shovels to clear up after the horses (if you
understand me). And they all gathered round and I really don't know – I suppose
I was in a daze at the time – but they cleared all this up in no time at all. I
don't know what they used, very much to my relief but I still had to go back
and confess. But I did and got over it and survived but I probably have the dubious
claim of being the only person who's dropped a quart bottle of red ink right in
front of the Mansion House.

Did they make you go
back with a replacement bottle?

Oh
yes I took another bottle and I managed to get that there alright. So that was
done.

Another
recollection of mine was that being in the City, this was close to the Stock
Exchange and therefore there were a lot of stockbrokers around there. And some
of the older stockbrokers actually still would go round, from the office to the
Stock Exchange and back, in top hats and I'm sure they don't do that now. Not
all of them, some of them did, it was going through from the old days to more
modern times and wars of course always change a lot of things and the Second
World War was no exception.

Can I just ask, did you
receive any training for your work at the printers?

No,
no formal training other than being under the watchful eye of this manager who
taught me a lot. Later as I explained I did go to the London School of Printing
and learnt a lot about costing and estimating, etc. I wasn't a factory hand. I
didn't work on the machines, I was always in the office. I have operated
printing machines but I'm not what we would call in the trade a machine minder.

So
I was conscripted into the Royal Air Force and served just under two years, in
fact, and when I came out went back to the firm.

How old were you when
you were conscripted?

Eighteen,
that's right, came out when I was 20.

By
that time they had closed this City office so I was then drafted into the
Production Department in the factory at Waterloo, South East London. Then at that
time I went to the London School of Printing which was then situated just round
the corner from the factory, it was quite convenient though it later moved to
the Elephant and Castle area in London.
So I did several courses, but a lot of it was really hands on learning from
experience and other people. And that was a really happy time, very good firm
to work for, employed about 400 people and really, really busy. There were
problems in getting paper at that time, it was in rather short supply, but of
course you do realise that all industry was just gearing up after the war.

That was as a result of
the Second World War?

That's
right. Interestingly too at that time so many of the customers did not ask for
a price, they wanted the product, book whatever it was by a certain time and
they were concerned that they would get it on time but they weren't concerned
about price. For many, many years now it has become practice for virtually
everybody to ask the price for everything and I don't blame them, I'm all for
that. But that's how it was then, it was about getting the work done. The factory
was really busy and there was a lot of overtime available and I know a couple
of chaps in particular who worked on a proofing press and they worked not only
during the week but every weekend, every weekend, so goodness knows what they
were paid. The printing industry has always reckoned to be quite well paid
although it does depend very much on where you are, in the newspaper side they
were extremely well paid, many years back now I remember the chaps on the
newspapers were working four nights a week and getting paid over £400 then. You
must remember too that the unions were very strong in those days.

Were you a member of one
of the unions?

I
wasn't at that time because the arrangement where I worked was you had to be a
union member to get a job in the factory but in the office it was optional. The
union representative in the office after a while spoke to me and as a result of
that I did join the union. There were a number of trade unions then, nowadays I
think so many of them have merged, I don't know exactly what the situation is
now there may be one or two for all I know, but there were so many then.

Did you have regular
meetings?

They
held regular meetings. I attended one or two I think and then something
happened as a result of which the union started bullying and that I found
intolerable. I went round to their office in Blackfriars and we had a real
showdown as a result of which I left the union. I'm not anti-union at all but as
so often seen in society, any group of people if they get power they tend to
abuse it. You see that with bankers nowadays in a different sphere. So I left
the union. I think probably there might have been a quarter or third of the
office staff were members, the others were not. Some people had very strong
views one way or the other about this.

Your working conditions,
they sound like they looked after you in the office?

Yes,
they looked after us but by golly we had to work. I mean it really was frantic.

Did you get sufficient
breaks?

No,
you had a cup of coffee or a cup of tea in the morning, while you were working,
you didn't have a break as such, but you had a lunch break and they had their
own canteen.

Did you get long for
that?

An
hour, you got one hour. You didn't have to go to the canteen, you could go out
and do whatever you wanted. The firm was extremely busy and we had to work very
quickly, and, of course, things had to be done correctly. The standards I must
say were very high there, so it was a good training ground in that sense. There
were some very good people there and I enjoyed working. In our job we weren't
paid for any overtime we did, so that was sort of discretionary on our part, it
was left to us to decide whether we felt we ought to stay a bit later and do
things.

[…]

They wouldn't even pay
you your normal rate, you didn't get paid at all?

No,
not for that but it worked both ways you understand. We were well looked after
in other respects. We had a bonus at the end of the year and the relationship
was good.

The tennis connection

As
things came to pass I was then put in charge of work that a particular director
brought in. He'd been a Davis Cup tennis player just before the war and he had
many friends in the tennis world and I remember he was particularly friendly
with one of the three notable French stars of the day, they were known as the
three musketeers. One of them was Jean Barotra, who had been a leading tennis
player and our director would often phone Barotra in his office in Paris.

A
lot of work was brought in because of our director's contacts and a lot of it
was company work, – report and accounts for companies. We did them for the
likes of Taylor Woodrow and Gossard, Furness Withy the shipping people, and
Rockwell Glass and many other companies as well. Sometimes we would have twelve
or more of these on the go. This was only part of the company's work of course
at the time and I was responsible for this. And it could be quite hair-raising
at times because there has always been a legal commitment to send out annual
reports to shareholders 21 days before the actual meeting. So we had to conform
and what I did when the job started, was to prepare a production schedule in
conjunction with the customer of course. They didn't always keep to it I have
to say, but we were never late and so jobs went out on time.

We
also at that time printed the Queen's Club Tournament programmes. And in those
days there were no e-mails or anything like that so during the Tournament we
would print the basic programme, in other words the parts that didn't change,
and then every evening we would send a messenger over to the Queen's Club who
would then wait until play had finished to get the results of that day and he'd
bring them back. We always worked a night shift at this firm and they would
typeset the results and print that part of it and it was bound overnight and
delivered back by 10 o'clock the next morning.

[…]

I
don't know how it originally came to be called the Queen's Club but it's a very
important place in the tennis world. Not as important as Wimbledon.

Is it more central to London than Wimbledon?

Well
Wimbledon is South West, SW16 I think; Queen's Club I don't think was that far
away, I can't be sure exactly where it was but I have been there myself several
times.

Did you meet the French
gentleman?

No,
I didn't meet any of them but I saw them at Queen's and also at Wimbledon
because this Director would give me tickets so I went there often, it was quite
interesting.

I
was going to say that just before Christmas one year, before I was married, I
was living with my widowed mother and I came home from work and she said ‘I
don't know what this is about, but there is a big crate here for you,' she said.
‘It's addressed to you.' It had come from a firm called Dolamores who were a
leading wine merchants in London. So I opened this crate and in it, forgive me
I can't remember the exact number of bottles but there were about eight or ten
in there, if not more. There were two bottles of whisky, two bottles of gin,
two bottles of champagne and four bottles of wine, I think. And in it also was
a card, and this was the most important thing. It had come from this Director and
it was addressed to me and his words were ‘With grateful thanks for all that
you do for me.' For looking after his work, making sure it was all done on time
and to the customer's satisfaction, and I would have been quite happy just to
have had the card really. It was a nice gesture, perhaps indicative in some
ways of the relationship that existed in those days, or typically did anyway.

Letterpress to litho

So
that was very nice and sadly things deteriorated after a time. I think in part
perhaps in large part, due to the fact that the technology was changing and
from one basic process of printing called letterpress. That had changed into
another called lithography, or litho. They were different processes calling for
different skills and different machines.

Can you explain them
please?

Yes,
I'll try. It's difficult without seeing or knowing anything. Letterpress was a
very old process and was the commercial process of the day. If you can imagine
someone would bring some copy, and we would typeset it; and you would finish up
with letters that were little pieces of metal with the letter engraved at the
top and that was about an inch in depth. So you'd set up all this type in
various ways – which is a story in itself – and then all these were put
together by people called compositors. They put everything together so that it
read correctly, and then the whole page was locked up in a metal frame which
was called a chase, which was rather like a picture frame if you like. And
everything was locked up in there tight and then when it was put on the machine
(I'm simplifying what I'm explaining here) the inked roller would go over the
top of it and of course it was only that that was proud, in other words the
letters that were in relief were actually inked and printed. The whole thing was
very heavy of course because the type was made out of an alloy of tin, antimony
and lead so it was very heavy stuff to move around. And that, as I say, was
then superseded as a commercial process and still exists in some parts, though
there can't be much letterpress being done in this country now.

Lithography
was quite different, actually based on the antipathy of grease and water. You
use for that a thin metal plate. […] So instead of having something really
heavy that you had to lug around, a printing plate – even one the size of this
table – you could hold up between your thumb and forefinger, it was quite
light. So of course, storage, everything was much simpler. And that is now and
has been for many years, the leading process. It wasn't new, it wasn't invented
in the years after the Second World War, it went back I think to the 18th
century where it was known as a process, but it never became a commercial
process. In fact, when they were experimenting more with it, this is after the Second
World War and in the 50's and 60's, the blacks I always remember were always
sort of grey, you could never get a really nice black. But they got over these
things and letterpress gradually went out of the window. But it meant that a
lot of firms did not adapt and indeed a lot of individuals who had their
particular skills in letterpress, did not adapt, so there were big, big changes
and it meant that some firms went to the wall and were superceded by other new
firms that started off with that process. And it meant a lot of re-investment
in machines and all sorts of equipment. And this firm sadly went down, it was
acquired by the infamous Robert Maxwell. He became boss, he ran the Daily
Mirror and all sorts of other publication interests. And it went to the wall. At
that time I could see what was happening and many of my other colleagues did
too, and I left. I was sad.

So what year would that
have been, the 80's?

Oh
gosh, that would have been, no, before that, 1960 something I guess that would
have been. Of course the factory then closed, not because I left but it did
eventually close which again was sad because we never thought that that would
happen. You know, from a thriving company and a good company at that, to
nothing. It's incredible but there we are.

So
I joined this other company and worked then in Greenwich, South East London, but
that wasn't such a good company at all.

Was that printing as
well?

Oh
yes, all printing, and they also printed the local newspaper there.

They had changed to the
new method, had they there?

Yes,
they were in the process of changing to that but they were still also printing
by letterpress as well. Also too, I remember one of the big publications they
did was the Grocer. As I say they were in the throes of changing but their whole
approach to business was very different. It was a family run business and the
father as it were, he was really quite dictatorial. […] But they were
acquired by a big group in London called the Westminster Press Group and the
man at the head of that was no less than the Duke of Westminster who was then
reputedly the richest man in the country. They were good and their office was
situated in Great New Street which is just off Fleet Street in London, so I
worked there for quite a time.

Did you like it, were
they like your first company or were they, did they treat you well?

Yes
they did, they were very good people and the men at the top were, what do they
call them ….gentlemen. […] That worked out quite well but I was commuting up
to London you see every day from Kent and I started to get this feeling in my
mind that I could perhaps be doing that until I retired, which was quite a few
years off at that point. This feeling grew and I thought I really need to do
something, I'd like to make a change because I had this fear, that I'd get to
65, my last day at work, and I'd think gosh
here I am, what a shame I didn't try this or try that but it's too late now.
I had this feeling, it may seem strange but that's how it was at the time so I
decided to do something. I spoke to my wife about it and we wanted to move
away, I didn't really want to be commuting up to London, because it really wasn't much fun, it
was quite expensive.

Did you go by train?

By
train, every day and of course there were a lot of ‘go slows' and ‘work to
rules' and in the bad weather train services were affected and it made a long
day. It was about three quarters of an hour I think the run up to London and of
course you had to get to the station, and to the office at the other end, and
then the reverse of that process at night. You get a lovely day perhaps in the
summer and by the time you got home, it might have been about half past seven
and the day is virtually gone. And quite tiring as well in itself.

The house in Norfolk – and
setting up a company 500 years after Caxton

So
we looked around in various parts of the country in fact and we ended up in
Norfolk.

What drew you to Norfolk?

Well,
we just looked around, we wanted a place with some ground, some land, with it,
preferably an old place. That was at the time when it was really a seller's
market and people were being gazumped left, right and centre – as we were, on
several occasions, pretty awful really. So we came unstuck on several places
that we'd hoped to get and in fact I must say we'd got to the stage where we'd
almost given up. But I had a chappy up here who said, ‘Well I'll keep an eye
open for you if you like, you know, any places that I see.' And he found us
one, one day, as I say after we had almost given up the idea of moving.

I'd
still got my job of course in London and that was as far as anyone could tell,
a secure job let me say, I didn't feel I was going to be made redundant or
anything like that. Anyway this fellow phoned up, we were going to take the
children (who were quite young then) to the zoo or somewhere. So they were
disappointed to hear that we were going to shoot up to Norfolk and of course the road system was not
as good in those days. You had to go through a lot of villages and what not, so
it took quite a time to get up here. We looked at this place and it was quite,
we thought, a joke at first. It was an old thatched place, a 16th century
farmhouse and it was in pretty poor condition. It had four and a half acres of
land and beautifully sited I must say. And we went home and without going into
all the detail we were thinking ‘oh gosh, is this any good?' By the time we got
home my wife and I had been chatting about it and we thought, ‘well it's got
possibilities', and from that we pursued it. We managed to get the property in
the end and so we moved up here.

Now
of course that was all very well, what about a job? Before we moved I had to go
into all that and it so happened that someone I had worked with previously had
become a sales rep to a company at Thetford here. So I thought, ‘Well I'll try
him and see.' I hadn't been in touch with him for some time. I also went for an
interview for another printing company at Fakenham and in fact, to cut a long
story short, I was offered both jobs. But I stress in those days things were
very different from what they are now. Hundreds of people seem to go after one
job, but it was very different then. So I chose this one at Thetford and I was
with the company for about four years. We moved up here in 1972 and I was with
them until 1976. And in that time I met up and got friendly with a freelance
graphic designer and we seemed to hit it off well and we had a number of
discussions and decided that we'd start our own firm. And that's what we did,
in 1976 which so happened to be I think almost 500 years since William Caxton
set up in 1476. Well that's a coincidence!

Was it hard work trying
to set up?

Oh,
yes, not for the fainthearted and I wouldn't say you have to be exceptionally
good, I think you have to be exceptionally mad to do it. A particular kind of
nut because it's quite risky. I always likened it to wanting to jump over a
stream and you get close but you're still safe, but at some point you've
actually got to jump and when you jump you've committed yourself.

Did you get help, not
like grants that you get now to help you start up, did you get advice?

We
did. We would go around speaking to people, getting advice that way. We were
also helped somewhat then by what I call the old style of bank manager then who
put us in touch with people who enabled us to acquire a unit on an industrial
site, but actually we started in one of the barns where I lived, in the
grounds. We started there and at first it was the two of us, we were the firm,
the two of us with our wives helping in the background. That was before we
started employing people. At one time I was seeing customers during the day and
working one of the machines at night and so it was tough going for a while, but
you have to be prepared to do these things.

We
progressed and then we moved into Dereham to an industrial unit there and started
employing people. We did quite well for many years but then there was a
depression, not as bad as things are now. A recession should I say. Things
became very tough. You see, when you're running a firm you're really governed
by market forces in as much as you have to give credit to customers. In other
words you do the work and then you wait for the payment in essence, and of
course you're exposed then. We did a lot of work for Jeyes here, at the time and
The University of East Anglia and Crane Fruehauf and a number of London
companies from my past. […] So if you want money with the order then you
won't have any bad debts but you won't get much work either so you're governed
by these things. You have to be as careful as you can and in some instances you
would ask for money up front.

I suppose you felt safe
enough did you, because they were big well known companies?

That's
right, I mean they varied, they weren't all big companies so we had this
recession I call it, and things weren't too good and a number of companies went
down and we were owed in the region of £30,000 totally, and in practice what
happens is that you're likely to get nothing or at best perhaps a penny or
tuppence in the pound. So that was not good so we went through a tough time but
in that period, just about then, when things were nationally not too good, we
had out of the blue a call from the BBC one day. At that time Noel Edmonds was
running a series. I don't think it was Candid Camera but something along those
lines, a jokey TV programme. I said, ‘This is about Noel Edmonds is it?' ‘No,
this is about Panorama.' They picked four companies (and I don't know to this
day how we were picked), four companies in this area – I think there was a
Thetford company and another company, at Fakenham somewhere, another one at
Norwich. […] The theme was that the recession at that point had not really
hit East Anglia. That was the gist of what they were saying. So they wanted to
come up, and they did, they were there for about two hours, taking sound
recordings and I know I said to my partner then, ‘Do you want to do the
speaking bit?' And he said ‘No, I'd rather you do it.' We did it in one take:
in all honesty I don't think it was very good but it went through anyway and it
was rather interesting to hear David Dimbleby announce my name on television. We
were on the programme I think for a couple of minutes, that was all. But it was
a quite interesting exercise and we were paid £50.

Was that on the radio or
the TV?

Television.
And thereafter we were hoping to get our own series but it never happened!

What year was that?

That
would have been somewhere in the 1980's I suppose. Some time after that my
partner left so I became in sole charge and we became a limited company and I
carried on until I eventually retired in 1998, at the age of 68 which by
coincidence was the same age that my father retired. But unfortunately he died in
the same year so he didn't have really much retirement at all. That was just
about the end of my working life, though I seem to have been very busy since
then in fact I often thought I should find a job to give myself time to do
things.

I
don't know what else I can tell you.

Leisure activities and a
busy retirement in Dereham

What did you do in your
leisure time? I know you said there was the tennis at the beginning wasn't
there?

In
the earlier days table tennis was really my game and I used to go down to the
local YMCA, this was as a teenager I mean.

Is this in Kent?

Yes,
there was a Dartford YMCA which has long since gone. I used to go down on
Saturdays with two friends of mine. The table tennis room was open all day, I
think from about 10 o clock in the morning to 10 o clock at night and we were
there, we'd stay there all day. There was only one table and we had to share
with other people, but they tended to not come in until later on Saturday and
so the three of us were pretty well playing there all day.

Did they charge you so
much to use the table?

No,
I'm really not sure, I think we perhaps paid a subscription to belong and then
it was free. But it worked out very well and we entered various tournaments, we
were I suppose decent club players. I did once beat the Kent junior champion but I don't
know whether he was trying or not, I'm not sure. Now I probably couldn't get
the ball on the table. But it was quite good fun.

Then
things moved on and I was very busy at the time with work and that went by the
board, my friends went various places and we all sort of split up, you know and
that was the end of that. But I have always been quite keen on football and I
used to commonly go to see professional matches, well I've been to most of the
London grounds anyway to see the teams play and I've always been interested in
following the sport.

Then
when I retired, my wife had been a secretary of the local WEA branch which is
the Workers Educational Association with branches nationally. It's a non-political,
non-religious organisation that really sets up lecture groups for people and
she had been the secretary for a while. So I got caught up with that and then
the Chairman was standing down and they wanted me to be Chairman so I was
Chairman of the local branch for about twelve years I think it was. I am still involved
and my wife is still secretary, I might say. She's been doing this for over
twenty years, she's still going strong even though she is disabled but she's
one of those very determined people and she does really well.

Also
we got involved with the Dereham Antiquarian Society, which was formed in 1953,
with local people then who were interested in history and collation of old
items. That's how the museum which is called the Bishop Bonner's Cottage Museum
at Dereham came to be opened, ten years after the formation of the Society. So it
was opened in 1963 in this old building dating from 1502. It was three one-up
one-down cottages originally and one part of it became vacant, so that was
opened as a little museum and eventually the other parts were vacated as well
so it finished up the whole building became a museum and remains a museum. I
say the whole building, but it's only six small rooms in actual fact. You can't
enlarge it, but it's still run on that basis. I was the Chairman of the Society
I think for some six years but I stood down last year; I thought it was about
time I gave way to somebody else, younger.

Is it haunted?

We
don't know. I have not seen or heard any evidence of that, maybe it is, you
know some people who are more susceptible and sensitive to these things than
others I'm not quite sure what to make of that subject. I'm not sure that it
is. It was called Bishop Bonner's Cottage because a man called Edmund Bonner
was Rector of Dereham in 1534 and he became quite famous [as Bishop of London],
he was involved with Henry VIII and went over to negotiate with the Pope on
behalf of the King when Henry was wanting to arrange a divorce from Catherine
of Aragon and so Bonner was very much involved then. He was a staunch Catholic
which got him into trouble when Edward VI came to the throne, that was Henry's
son, Edward was a protestant and so Bonner found himself out of favour – in
fact finished up in prison at the time.

When
Edward was succeeded by Mary I, Mary was herself a Catholic so Bonner came back
into favour but was said to be involved, in some cases hands on, with the
torture of Protestants and killing of Protestants that occurred in those days.
Many of them were burnt at the stake and that was not very nice to say the
least. Mary was on the throne for five years and succeeded by her half sister
Elizabeth I in 1558 and Elizabeth herself was a Protestant so again things
weren't so good for Bonner. In the following year he was put in prison then
spent the last nine or ten years in prison where he died. So it was a roller
coaster life really for him and he was quite a prominent figure at one time.

So
as I say he was Rector, but I'm sure he never lived in these particular
cottages but they were owned by the church, and very close to the church too.

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