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July 27 2012

Bells toll across UK for Martin Creed's Olympic welcome

A cacophony of bells in Edinburgh, 40 strikes of Big Ben and a wakeup call in north London as part of Work No 1197

First came a mass countdown to 8.12am, and then came the most harmonious cacophony: cowbells, bicycle bells, Tibetan prayer bells, reclaimed Georgian doorbells, Cambodian fingerbells, delicate porcelain bells and even kitchen equipment – a cheap steel toast rack struck with a spoon.

Commuters and tourists passing over North Bridge in Edinburgh stopped and stared as the sound of perhaps 300 hand-rung bells echoed across the glass roof of Waverley station and out into the sunlight. Guests in the Scotsman hotel overlooking the bellringers came out to take photographs and watch, grinning, suddenly roused from their breakfast.

Bells were rung at the Houses of Parliament, in Millennium Square in Bristol, at St Albans Cathedral and at hundreds of other churches and community centres up and down the UK.

This was Martin Creed's artwork for the Olympics: Work No 1197, All the Bells in a Country Rung as Quickly and Loudly as Possible for Three Minutes.

Creed's idea was that the whole country should resound with ringing to greet the Olympics; that people should ring on their own, or in groups, wherever they were. Creed had said he would ring his own doorbell.

Big Ben pealed 40 times in the three minutes. It is believed to be the first time the strike of Big Ben has been rung outside its normal schedule since 15 February 1952, when it tolled every minute for 56 strokes for the funeral of King George VI.

The bells at the National Assembly for Wales, Stormont in Northern Ireland and the Scottish parliament all rang out, and other participants included a gang of 40 bellringers on a beach on Unst, in the far north of the Shetland Islands.

Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, narrowly avoided injuring bystanders when a bell he was ringing flew off its handle on the deck of HMS Belfast, moored on the Thames near Tower Bridge.

In Edinburgh, there was a unique double dose of Creed at his first permanent outdoor sculpture, Work 1059, otherwise known as the Scotsman Steps. It was once notorious as a night-time urinal for the city's clubgoers and drunks, but Creed has transformed it into a kaleidoscope of colour. Every one of the 104 steps of the enclosed stone stairway that links the Waverley station valley with North Bridge above has been cased in multiple hues of marble from around the world – greens, ochre, blues and blushing pink.

For three minutes the stone walls and marble of the steps distilled and amplified the sound of 300 bellringers. Mike Pretious, a marketing lecturer, stood vigorously hammering an antique bronze pestle and mortar inherited from his father, a research chemist. Aidan Carey, eight, rang a heavy brass handbell bought from Boots in the 1950s for his great-grandfather who was bedridden with gout. Work 1197 was the first time the bell had left the family home.

Shortly before 8.12am on a leafy, residential street corner in Kentish Town, north London, there was no particular sign that the Olympics were about to be rung in. Then an elderly couple appeared, the lady wielding a large set of wind chimes.

"We've had them for 40 years and I thought they needed an airing," she said. "They've been indoors for years because the neighbours complained about the noise." Looking embarrassed, she added: "I won't give my name, I don't want the neighbours to know I said that."

A woman quietly reading a newspaper produced a handbell from her bag with an inscription claiming it once sat on the captain's table of the Titanic. "I'm so excited!" said Sara Livesey, from Torbay, who was working a shift later on at the Olympic Stadium. "I think the Olympics are the best thing that's happened for donkey's years." The locals assumed a look of polite scepticism.

Kate Frood, headteacher of the local primary school, passed past on a bicycle. "I'm just off to get the school bell," she called. Quite suddenly a crowd had gathered as if from nowhere. Several people pitched up on bicycles, ready with their bike bells. There were children with sleigh bells and cow bells.

Someone had a Tibetan singing bowl, with a wonderful dark-brown rumble. "They use it for healing, and after a long day, it really works," said its owner. Someone else had "a hippie bike bell from India, very Kentish Town".

Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery, who organised the gathering on his road, brought what he described as the "spare cat bell". Chinese state TV turned up, too. The reporter, named Tingting Ai, had set her smartphone to chime.

There was a certain amount of rehearsal before the official start time, and then Nairne started shushing everyone and listened to his radio. At the first stroke of Big Ben, he yelled "Go!" and everyone was tinkling, chiming and dinging.

Frood had a particularly professional two-handed grip on the school bell ("I ring it every morning at 9am," she said). From an upper window of one of the Victorian houses lining the street, a woman gazed out looking furious. The volume rose when a rubbish truck boomed past. Barney Skrentny had gone slightly off script by ringing a large dinner gong, providing a pleasing bass note beneath the shrillness.

When the three minutes were up, everyone cheered. Ruth Grimberg turned up, having had an unexpected alarm call. "I thought what are all these bloody middle-class people doing with bells, on the one day I don't have to get up at 6am. What is it for again? I thought maybe it was some protest about rubbish collection." She headed off good-naturedly in search off coffee, and everyone else melted away too, ears still a-ringing.


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Crowd-free places: My perfect London day out

For calm contemplation during London 2012, the author of Quiet London suggests peaceful galleries, an art bookshop, a life drawing class – and a visit to William Blake's grave

I'd start my perfect day with a bowl of muesli, eaten in my swimming costume, ready for a gentle swim at the Golden Lane leisure centre, a small, quiet pool near the Barbican . Next I'd walk up City Road to two art galleries: the Parasol Unit (parasol-unit.org) and Victoria Miro, (victoria-miro.com) both in beautifully converted old buildings on Wharf Road. I really like the architecture around here – the exterior of Trevor Horne Architects (trevorhorne.com) round the corner on Micawber Street is my idea of heaven in a building. With its huge gabled roof, this would be the blueprint for my own house and studio.

Still eager to see more contemporary art, I'd wander back down to Iniva (iniva.org) the Institute for International Visual Arts), a culturally diverse organisation on Rivington Place which is also an education and research centre. Its exhibitions are thoughtful reminders that quietness and excitement are perfectly compatible. It would be tempting to spend a few hours in its library, too, but I'd probably be hungry by now. I'd walk through leafy Bunhill Fields, the former dissenters' burial ground, passing William Blake's grave, to Carnevale (020 7250 3452, carnevalerestaurant.co.uk). This quiet vegetarian restaurant and deli has a small patio room at the rear and I'd invite a friend to join me for tabouleh and roasted red peppers.

Afterwards, I'd try out an awareness through movement class at the nearby Open Centre (opencentre.com) on Old Street then follow my gentle exertions with a leisurely browse in the fascinating BookArtBookshop (bookartbookshop.com), 10 minutes' walk away on Pitfield Street. It's one of the best places to find limited edition artists' books in London.

My perfect day wouldn't be complete without doing some drawing, however, so I'd quickly walk back down Old St to the Prince's Drawing School, for a life drawing class (princesdrawingschool.org). In addition to drop-in classes, which start from £16 (£5 for young people), this is also a good place to see perceptive, intelligent drawing by current students. After doing a few charcoal sketches I'd treat my husband to a meal at the urbane Searcy's Restaurant in the Barbican (020 7101 0220, searcys.co.uk/barbican-centre). Together we'd watch the sun set over the peaceful, inner city lake.

• Siobhan Wall is an artist and author of Quiet London (Frances Lincoln, £9.99), a guide to London's more peaceful side. To buy a copy for £7.49 go to guardianbookshop.co.uk


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July 26 2012

Favourite pictures from London, You're Beautiful by David Gentleman

With the Olympics under way, the world is considering the look of London. Julian Barnes, David Nicholls, Helen Simpson and Claire Tomalin choose a favourite image from David Gentleman's latest book

Julian Barnes

I've been using the Underground on a regular basis for 55 years. Aged 11, I carried a child's season ticket and made a daily school journey from Northwood (via Metropolitan, Bakerloo, then District/Circle lines) to Blackfriars; now, equipped with my grandiosely-named Freedom Pass, I can go anywhere – even out to Heathrow or London City Airport – for precisely nothing. The old mud-brown, single-compartment rolling-stock that used to ply the Metropolitan line is long gone, parts of the Bakerloo have morphed into the Jubilee, the Circle no longer runs in a continuous circle, the ticketing has been automated, and the old human cry at certain stations of "Mind the step, mind the gap, mi-i-i-ind the doors" (with its own acquired rhythm, like the long-gone evening newsvendor's triplet of "News, Star, Stand-dard") is no longer heard; yet in essence the system is much as it was back in the 1960s. The same stations, tunnel-sizes, more or less the same elegant map, the same ritual journeys to work and play, the same low-level anxiety and occasional panic. To adapt Larkin: "And down the tube the endless, altered people go ..." And the people are visibly altered: nowadays the Underground is as multicultural as it gets. There are other superficial changes: the slew of discarded newspapers as the evening wears on, the aural fuzz of leaking headphones, the slow yielding of book to e-reader, and the frantic need of everyone with a mobile phone to use it as soon as the train surfaces into daylight. Yes, it continues to be hot and crowded down there; children rarely give up their seats for adults as they automatically did fifty years ago; and yet I'd always much rather be in a sweaty carriage than on a stalled bus. People moan, but get on with one another; they know how to move in restricted space, how to give way so that they in turn will be given way to. In this, the Underground is a mirror of the crowded city above: disparate and self-interested, yet good-humoured, and kept ticking over by a necessary civility.

David Nicholls

I've always liked those moments in Dickens when characters casually embark on immense walks; "The weather being pleasant, we strolled from Sadlers Wells to Richmond," that sort of thing. As my cycling anxiety has grown, I've tried to emulate some of those long journeys on foot and have developed something of an obsession for the canals that bisect the city; the Regents Canal of course, but also those eastern stretches, the Lee Navigation and Hertford Union, their names so suggestive of Victorian industry. Apart from brief hiatuses at Islington and Lisson Grove, it's perfectly possible to walk twenty miles or more through the centre of the city without ever crossing a road.

That's not to say these walks are quaint, tranquil or picturesque. The genteel, pretty postcard spots of Primrose Hill and Little Venice soon give way to the massed deep-fat-fryers of Camden Lock, and then a more urban melancholy sets in. The canals can be bleak, boring, lonely, occasionally menacing, and I've sometimes wondered if more might be made of them – perhaps they could be planted and refurbished like the High Line in Manhattan, dotted with bohemian shops and bars like the Canal St Martin, dredged and purified to provide urban swimming spots like the lidos of Zurich. Gentrified, in other words. Or perhaps they're better as they are; under-appreciated, under-explored ribbons of old industry through the heart of the modern city.

Helen Simpson

I like the view from Waterloo Bridge best at night when the river is flanked by all the glamorous lights and promise of London. With luck I'm on my way to see a play at the National, but I always stop to take in this central scene, encompassing as it does the city's two unofficial Thames-divided kingdoms.

"Although as a student I lived south of the river for four years," says David Gentleman in his new book, "my seemingly ineradicable sense of entering unfamiliar territory resurfaces whenever I cross it." North Londoners are invariably distrustful of south London, and vice versa. Plus, such an enormous city takes a good hour (more like two, depending on traffic) to cross from one side to the other, which explains why those who live in Barnet or Hainault so rarely see their friends in Richmond or Catford. When I was seven, flying in the teeth of every accepted prejudice my family moved from the north London suburb of Wealdstone down to deepest south London and beyond – to a greener outback some miles beyond Croydon on the A23. I'm not sure how entitled we still were to call ourselves Londoners but some of us did so anyway; after all, my mother had been born within the sound of Bow Bells.

Nearly all I can remember of my first 40 years was lived in various places south of the river, but somehow they never felt like home. Then the idea dawned that the best thing would be, to think the unthinkable and move to north London; it could be instead of a mid-life crisis, I reasoned. This worked! And for the last transpontine decade I have been regrowing north London roots while continuing to tend south London attachments as best I can.

Claire Tomalin

David Gentleman teaches us to look at London as we travel with him through the book. He shows us, for example, that one of its glories is the mix of buildings and trees in squares, terraces and crescents, and makes this a running theme. I could choose any of these pictures of great planes looming in front of orderly Georgian and Victorian housing – Bloomsbury is especially rich in them – but I settled finally for his double view of the Queen's House and the Naval College at Greenwich, where I lived 50 years ago, and where I often went as I worked on my biography of Samuel Pepys. On one side Gentleman takes his view from the top of the steep hill in Greenwich park, Wren's buildings shadowy and the Canary Wharf towers as backdrop beyond the river. On the other, he is looking from the river and shows Wren's buildings as he meant them to be seen, grandly approached in a royal barge, the finest architectural ensemble in London.

• Illustrations from London, You're Beautiful: An Artist's Year by David Gentleman (Particular Books, £20).


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July 25 2012

July 24 2012

London 2012: Big Ben to chime for three minutes to mark Olympic opening

Bell will toll outside its regular schedule for first time since George VI's funeral in 1952

Big Ben is to chime non-stop for three minutes to help ring in the London 2012 Olympics.

Special permission had to be gained for the hour bell at the Palace of Westminster to toll out of its regular sequence. It will strike more than 42 times between 8.12am and 8.15am on 27 July to herald the beginning of the first day of Games.

It will be the first time Big Ben has been rung outside its regular schedule since 15 February 1952, when it tolled every minute for 56 strokes for the funeral of King George VI.

The Turner-prize-winning artist Martin Creed came up with the idea for the London 2012 festival. He suggested all the bells in the country should be rung as loudly as possible for three minutes.

Bells will be ringing everywhere from Britain's northernmost inhabited house in Skaw in the Shetland Islands to the UK's most westerly church in Tresco in the Scilly Isles. The bells at the Welsh assembly, Stormont in Northern Ireland and the Scottish parliament will also ring, so all four parliaments will be chiming in unison at 8.12am.

The celebration aims to set a world record for the largest number of bells being rung simultaneously and can include anything from children with handbells to people ringing bicycle bells and doorbells to experienced ringing experts of tower bells and church bells.

The House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, said: "It is a sign of how special this summer is when one of the world's most famous bells will ring outside its regular schedule so it can be part of this London 2012 festival commission to ring in the Olympic Games.

"I am delighted we can play our part in this Martin Creed artwork.

"This is primarily a work for every community within the UK to embrace as their own but it is also important for our famous landmarks to be represented when the eyes of the world will be on us."


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London from the rooftops – in pictures

London From The Rooftops is the result of a five-year project by James Burns who has taken thousands of photographs from more than 100 of the city's rooftops, mostly residential tower blocks. An exhibition of 45 of his images opens at theprintspace gallery in east London next week 1-22 August). Here's a sneak preview ...





The World in London exhibition – in pictures

To mark the London Olympics, the Photographers' Gallery commissioned 204 photographers to take pictures of 204 Londoners born in countries competing in the 30th Olympiad





July 23 2012

Diana Athill: the London I remember

To mark Tate Britain's Another London exhibition, the writer and editor remembers her early visits when Kew was exotic, Selfridges vulgar and everyone wore a hat

Everyone has his or her own London, its boundaries defined by the individual's class and income. Mine, in the late 1920s, when I first met it as a child visiting from the country, consisted of the shop in Oxford Street where my shoes came from, which was called Daniel Neal's; the zoo; and Peter Pan's Never Never Land. During the 30s, it expanded rapidly, though Oxford Street remained central to it because of those stately emporia John Lewis, Marshall & Snelgrove and Debenham & Freebody (or was it Frebody? It was not like the modern Debenhams, being the one we shopped at least often because it was so expensive). My mother thought Selfridges vulgar. At that time, Bayswater and Kensington came into existence, but Bloomsbury, Hampstead and Chelsea were hardly even names. The streets in my London were excitingly busy but not uncomfortably so. If you drove along a street and saw a friend walking on the pavement, you could pull over and have a gossip. Everyone going by would be wearing a hat, and the men's hats would often be bowlers.

I began living in London 70 years ago, but my version of it is still quite small, its borders being roughly the Thames to the south, the North Circular to the north, Islington to the east (with a recent bulge to take in Shoreditch) and Hammersmith to the west. Of course, I have set foot in exotic parts such as Richmond and Kew, but not very often; and now I have ventured as far as Highgate, but old age prevents me from exploring the fascinating vistas stretching to the north. The most obvious way in which this version has changed since I first knew it is that it has become much more crowded. When I lived in Chelsea in the late 50s and early 60s, our street was a designated "play street", so the only cars in it were those of our neighbours, which is hardly imaginable nowadays. Waiting in King's Road for a number 11 bus, one naturally saw cars going by, but not in an unbroken stream.

Remembering the shops there, and in Fulham Road, Sloane Street, Brompton Road, and even more in the West End, makes me realise another change: London has lost its claim to elegance. Those parts of it that used to give an impression of elegance now simply look expensive in a way that suggests quite loudly that Expensiveness Is Best. Damien Hirst's diamond-coated skull epitomises this mood.

Before the war, the more prosperous inhabitants of my London took it for granted that a house should be kept spick and span: a front door received three (sometimes more) coats of paint, and the whole facade was probably done over about every three years. The war put an end to that, and when it ended the whole city had become pretty drab, even apart from the bomb damage. By the 60s, it had revived – I remember the pleasure of seeing a young man on a ladder applying real gold leaf, inch by inch, to the wrought iron of a gate into the Regent's Park rose garden. Recently, in spite of the huge amount of new building that sometimes makes it hard to recognise a once-familiar neighbourhood, I have begun to notice drabness creeping back – flaking stucco here, damaged paintwork there – and no doubt "austerity" will soon make it worse, so that our overcrowded, polluted city will become shabby again, except for the parts of it inhabited by those foreigners who can afford to live where natives who are not bankers can't.

But London will continue to be an easy and pleasant city to live in, given that one has a job, because it is so elastic: if people find it impossible to afford to live in one part of it, they shift to another. It has always been like that. And the part they shift to – this is the secret of London's charm – will soon become their village, because it's impossible for a city so vast not to break up into manageable units. There must have been a time a long way back in history when London felt like One Place, but gradually, while still knowing itself to be London, it became a conglomeration of villages, each with its own centre and character. It is not just a matter of where the money is; more, perhaps, of what was there before London swallowed it – buried villages, little towns, sometimes even farms, stubbornly continuing to make their ghostly presences felt.


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Tino Sehgal – review

The Berlin-based artist has created one of the best Turbine Hall commissions in which the viewer becomes the subject in a relationship that explores intimacy, communality and the self

As the crowd moves forward, emerging slowly from the darkness at the rear of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, I stand my ground. They are about 70-strong. As they surge around me, one young woman stops and, standing very close, begins to tell me about a childhood incident and how it has affected her view of life. The crowd leaves us behind. Should I turn and walk with her? She seems so intent.

Another woman tells me about a lost love. Someone else, about how a book changed his life. The stories mostly concern private rites of passage and life-changing events and relationships. Things could get embarrassing, with all these confessions and revelations. These people act as if they know me. Suddenly we're plunged into a relationship. Then they're off again.

These intimate, personal stories, lost words, unasked-for intimacies, heel-to-toe slow shuffles and wild runs up and down the ramp are all part of These Associations, which, their participants tell you, is a piece by Tino Sehgal, dated 2012. I have seen many of his works, from the gallery attendants who burst into song, singing "This is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary" in the German Pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale, to This Variation, in the current Documenta in Kassel, which involves song, dance and mini-lectures to an audience who stumble about in a darkened room.

These Associations is no less complex, affecting and disconcerting. At one point the walk speeds up and I am running to keep up with the story I am being told. Then the crowd whirls like a hive of maddened bees. Now they all seem to be chasing an invisible rabbit. The light keeps changing along with the atmosphere and the performers' routines. At one point the performers loiter and sit, whisper and hiss and sing, coming together as a choir, their words soaring towards the roof. The words themselves – something about the technological age and nature, nature, nature, human nature – get lost in the echoing space.

Within an hour, on the first day, visitors are already joining in. Children run with the pack of performers and snake through Sehgal's milling throng. Soon, I am sure, visitors will be mingling with performers and tell their own stories. We're all participants now. A bystander said: "This is Tino's opera." We're on stage too.

I could barely drag myself away to write this, and I cannot wait to get back. These Associations is a great antidote to the ever more spectacular, large commissions the Unilever Project has produced. It is also a rejoinder to all the brouhaha and corporate fascism and jingoism of the Olympics.

These Associations is one of the best Turbine Hall commissions. There are no objects: we are the subject. It is about communality and intimacy, the self as social being, the group and the individual, belonging and separation. We're in the middle of things. It is marvellous.

Rating: 5/5


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Tino Sehgal fills Tate Modern's Turbine Hall with storytellers

Anglo-German artist's These Associations is first Turbine Hall installation to use personal interaction

A swarm of 70 people is occupying Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. They walk slowly, solemnly, expressionlessly up the great ramp that leads to the west entrance of the museum. Or, if you arrive at another time, you might see them striding purposefully, or sprinting, or playing some mysterious running game as if chasing an invisible ball, or singing.

A young bearded man detaches himself from the group. He looks me in the eye and starts telling a story, about how he lived in Britain for seven years without once returning to his homeland, and when he finally did, and the plane touched down at the airport, he looked out of the window at the baggage handlers and the ground staff and realised with a shock that everyone looked just like him. And then he started to convulse with uncontrollable weeping, so that even all the children on the plane started staring at him. His story of rupture, exile and return is oddly powerful, not least because he does not say where his homeland is.

This is the new work for the Turbine Hall – a vast stage set that has, over the past dozen years, been the scene of Bruce Nauman's soundscapes, Olafur Eliasson's swollen orange sun and Doris Salcedo's chthonic rupture through the concrete floor. But These Associations, by the Anglo-German artist Tino Sehgal, is the first artwork here to use the intangible stuff of stories and personal interaction as its form – rather than sculpture, painting or installation.

London-born Sehgal, 36, who trained in political economy and dance in Berlin, where he is based, declines to make art that has a physical form. Previous works have included This Progress at the ICA, in which the visitor was greeted by a child, then conducted round the building by people of increasing age, while discussing the idea of progress. He also refuses to publish written explanations of his work or allow official photography although, in the age of the smartphone, plenty of informal pictures and films can be found on the internet.

For the millions of visitors who are expected to pass through Tate Modern's doors between Tuesday, when the work opens to the public, and 28 October, when it closes, the experience of being stopped and spoken to by a complete stranger may be uncomfortable. For Chris Dercon, the director of Tate Modern, it is "the most complex, difficult and dangerous project we have ever put into this museum".

According to Sehgal the work is about the relationship between the individual and the mass: "It is about what it means to belong to a group, which is also quite a personal question for me." The Turbine Hall was intriguing, he said, because "it is such an unusual space for a museum, since museums were invented to train visitors in polite behaviour. But the Turbine Hall is different: it is made to make people gather together and puts them in a joyful, bodily, unrestricted space."

Several hundred participants are involved in the project. They were recruited through networks of friends and acquaintances, and rehearsed by Sehgal and his producer, Asad Raza. The stories they tell visitors are based on a set of open-ended questions asked by Sehgal, such as: "When did you feel a sense of belonging?" and "When did you experience a sense of arrival?" The participants work in four-hour shifts, with breaks, and are paid, according to the Tate curator Jessica Morgan, between £8 and £9 per hour. Most are fitting the work at Tate around other professional commitments, from posts at universities to freelance photography.

According to Raza the work "shows London to itself; it is a more accurate picture of London than something that is cooked up by one particular person". On Monday morning though, none of the participants was black: according to Dercon, "we have complete diversity but we didn't select them as if we were casting a sitcom".

The Turbine Hall has a history of causing its visitors to behave in unexpected ways. Already, half an hour into the preview of the work, children were dashing about and imitating the participants' running games. According to Sehgal, "loss of control is something psychologically necessary to me. If it was all coming from me, it wouldn't be satisfactory."


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June 29 2012

The artistic jingoism of the Bomber Command memorial | Jonathan Jones

This architecturally crass pavilion is like the nervously loud voice of someone trying to shout down opposition

As memories fade, the monuments get bigger — and so do the lies. The second world war ended 67 years ago and slips ever further from the reach of living recollection. Yet the memorial to the airmen of Bomber Command that was dedicated in London's Green Park this week is nothing if not imposing. It is a neoclassical pavilion whose grandiose interior houses a bronze figurative statue group of a bomber crew. The scale and ostentatious style of the monument will make it hard to miss. But is this a work of memory or forgetting?

The architectural crassness of Liam O'Connor's pavilion is like the nervously loud voice of someone trying to shout down opposition. The grandeur of the monument was acclaimed by veterans, who may well see its lavish appearance as some kind of belated compensation for a long delay in commemorating their sacrifice. There is no doubting the scale of that sacrifice. As fiercely patriotic reports on the memorial's royal dedication did not fail to point out, British bomber crews through the second world war suffered a more than 50% casualty rate of young men killed and seriously wounded. Yet the real case for a specially grand monument may be the nature of their deaths: no bodies came home from bombers that went down in flames. So this is their marker.

The monument insists, with no room for doubt, that such heroism deserves to be remembered down the ages. Yet the Victorian critic John Ruskin would surely have smelt a rat – not least because he loathed classical porticoes in Portland stone, but also because he believed architecture to be a moral as much as an aesthetic enterprise. Bad aesthetics betray bad morals. The trouble with this memorial goes beyond mere taste. Some people like bronze statues in Regency arcades; others find a minimalist slab more moving. But the strident style of this memorial reveals a fundamental lack of honesty.

No amount of stone and bronze can ever end the ethical debate about Britain's bombing strategy during the second world war. Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris insisted on an explicit and systematic campaign of "area bombing", that is, the carpet bombing of German cities . His policy rejected the idea of precision raids on industrial targets – which, to be fair, did not work well because bomb-aiming with 1940s technology was not accurate enough – and deliberately sought to weaken morale in Germany. In other words, the job was to bomb civilians. This strategy was not accidental or unconscious. It worried Britain's commanders. Churchill went from encouraging it to – eventually, after Dresden – worrying about it. By that time many thousands of civilians had died horrible deaths in firestorms that left terrible relics of shrivelled, blackened victims in the cellars and streets of cities, including Hamburg and Cologne.

Firestorms were not unfortunate mistakes – the RAF knew how to create them by first dropping incendiaries, then high explosives that turned fires into infernos.

If the memorial in Green Park seems strident and hysterical in design, it is because it wants us to forget this other side of the story. Heroic young men gave their lives and their nerves to fight the air war. But it is empty patriotic bluster to pretend, as this monument does, that no doubts have ever been raised about the results of their courage. Those doubts existed at the time and will always exist.

Did massive air raids on German cities help to end the war more quickly? Or was Harris a cruel and dogmatic zealot whose policy failed to achieve his stated target of defeating Germany from the air? I don't have the answers – these are debates. The most unanswerable question of all is how much violence on civilians could be justified by what was obviously the far greater evil of Nazi policies in occupied Europe. Then again, one criticism of Bomber Command was its failure to bomb the death camps.

The heroism of these men deserves to be remembered – but not in a way that denies the complexity of history. It is getting too late in the day to sentimentalise the second world war. The memory of Britain's bravery needs to be tempered with some historical perspective. This monument is a nasty piece of artistic jingoism that trivialises the most terrible war in human history.

• Follow Comment is free on Twitter @commentisfree


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June 26 2012

David Bailey's East End - in pictures

Newham's most famous son returns home with an exhibition of pictures of the East End





Vintage Russian Olympic posters go on display in London

Most of the artwork has never been seen outside Russia despite been designed by some of the best-known artists of the day

A unique exhibition of vintage Russian sporting posters, boasting of the exemplary outdoor prowess of uniformly tanned and muscular Soviet youths, opens this week in London as part of the architecture and design section at the Olympics cultural festival.

Most of the posters have never been seen outside Russia before, and many are rare surviving examples, commissioned from some of the best-known artists of the day. They show an idyllic world of sunlit skiing, horse riding, archery, boating, swimming and cycling, which was far from the reality for millions of Russian citizens through a century of political turmoil and material want. One poster issued by the Tourism and Excursion Department of the All-Union Central Committee of Trade Unions shows a bearded outdoor type, holding a map of Moscow and the surrounding countryside, urging his eager young companions to get active: "On your day off – go out walking!"

The posters, originally intended for display in factories, government offices and public spaces, were seen as one of the most important propaganda tools in promoting sport, and the exhibition includes examples up to the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

The free exhibition is at the offices of the Rossotrudnichestvo, Russian Federal Agency for Humanitarian Co-operation, on Kensington High Street and continues until July 10.


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June 25 2012

The Shard is the perfect metaphor for modern London | Aditya Chakraborrty

Expensive, off-limits and owned by foreign investors – the Shard extends the ways in which London is becoming more unequal

Next Thursday, a giant metaphor will be launched in London. The prime minister of Qatar will fly over especially; his supporting act will be Prince Andrew. Foreign dignitaries will be treated to a lavish dinner; lowly residents of the capital can gawk at a free laser show that threatens to out-do George Lucas.

This is how developers plan to "inaugurate" the Shard, the 72-storey skyscraper that already stalks Londoners everywhere they go. It glowers over your conversations in Peckham; it skulks in your eyeline as you amble along Hampstead Heath. Get up close to Europe's tallest tower, and its 1,017 feet (getting on for twice the height of the Gherkin) render everything around it toylike, laughable.

The money men behind the Shard would like the rest of us to treat it merely as a building. Ideally, you'd marvel at its jutting architecture (the work of Renzo Piano, don't you know); failing that, they'd take you castigating its arrogant flashiness.

But before falling for the predictable Shard-en freude, we should think again. Because what is approaching completion over on London's South Bank is almost the perfect metaphor for how the capital is being transformed – for the worse. The skyscraper both encapsulates and extends the ways in which London is becoming more unequal and dangerously dependent on hot money.

Consider again the story of the Shard. This is a high-rise that has been imposed on London Bridge despite protests from residents, conservation groups and a warning from Unesco that it may compromise the world-heritage status of the nearby Tower of London. What's more, its owners and occupiers will have very little to do with the area, which for all its centrality is also home to some of the worst deprivation and unemployment in the entire city. The building is 95% owned by the government of Qatar and its developer, Irvine Sellar, talks of it as a "virtual town", comprising a five-star hotel and Michelin-starred restaurants.

It will also have 10 flats that are on sale for between £30m to £50m, and from where on a clear day it will be easier to gaze out on to the North Sea, 44 miles away, than at the beetle-sized locals 65 floors down below. "We won't really market these apartments," the PR man cheerily told me. "At this level of the market, there are probably only 25 to 50 possible buyers in the world. The agents will simply phone them up."

So one of London's most identifiable buildings will have almost nothing to do with the city itself. Even the office space rented out at the bottom is intended for hedge funds and financiers wanting more elbow room than they can afford in the City or Mayfair. The only working-class Londoners will presumably bus in at night from the outskirts to clean the bins. Otherwise, to all intents and purposes, this will be the Tower of the 1%.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Shard is that it simply exemplifies a number of trends. First, it merely confirms how far the core of London is becoming, in industrial terms, a one-horse town. Finance, which began in the Square Mile, has now spread to Docklands to the east, to Mayfair in the west and now to the South Bank.

Second, it proves that buildings are no longer merely premises owned by businesses, but are now chips for investment. What's more those chips are increasingly owned by people who barely ever set foot in the country. A study from Cambridge University last year, Who Owns the City?, found that 52% of the City's offices are now in the hands of foreign investors – up from just 8% in 1980. What's more, foreigners are piling into London property at an ever-increasing rate, as they look for relatively safe havens from the global financial turmoil. And yet, as the Cambridge team point out, the giddy combination of overseas cash and heavy borrowing leaves London in a very precarious position. Another credit crunch, or a meltdown elsewhere in the world, would now almost certainly have big knock-on effects in the capital.

The same story applies to London's housing market, too. Earlier this year, the upmarket estate agent's Savills noted that Britons now made just over one in every three property purchases in the posh parts of central London. "The more central the market and the more expensive the property, the more likely it is to be purchased by an overseas buyer or foreign national," their report noted.

London has historically always been the point at which foreign money enters Britain, and disperses in search of a place to invest. But, as Louis Moreno of University College London points out, what's happened over the past 15 years is that an unprecedented amount of foreign money has come into London – and lodged there, in its property. The cash hasn't gone into productive enterprises that will benefit or employ ordinary Londoners. It has sat in plush new flats or office blocks. And now it's setting up its biggest home yet, on the South Bank.

So, the Shard: it's expensive. It's off-limits. It's largely owned by people who don't live here. And it is the perfect metaphor for what our capital is becoming.


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June 23 2012

Art review

Baltic, Gateshead; Serpentine, London

The story is told of a Chinese peasant invited to the emperor's palace to be rewarded for his loyal service. Would he rather be paid in gold or rice? Seeing the emperor at his chessboard, the peasant chooses rice, requesting one grain for the first square, two for the second, four for the third, and so on. Laughing at the man's stupidity, the emperor agrees but is bankrupted by the 64th square as the multiplying reward now totals more than all the rice in China.

Billions of billions – how can one begin to imagine such numbers, in grains of rice or anything else? Mark Wallinger does not flinch from the task. Each work in this marvellous new show attempts to number the numberless, to make visible some unimaginably vast concept all the way from infinity to eternity: and each work makes a piercing metaphor, often humorous, out of failure.

Stretching out before the visitor to the Baltic is an immense checkerboard floor: 65,536 chessboards, to be precise, laid edge to edge. On each square of each board lies a solitary pebble. Grey, cream, the size of a pawn or perhaps a queen, each stone has some visual affinity with the chess set but each is naturally unique; and the same suddenly seems true of each square. No longer just a black or white box, each square becomes a little kingdom for the pebble it contains; and each pebble acquires its own status by the same token. Everything is made to count, separately and together.

The effect from floor level is generalised, a grey miasma stretching into the distance. But from the viewing gallery above, every square has its special graphic distinction. Mathematics is clearly central to the work – from the simple binary opposition of chessboards to the super-perfect numbers involved – but there is a beautiful order in the spectacle itself: the sheer dizzying quantity of it all held in check, piece by piece, a beach contained in a chessboard.

Just beyond, not incidentally, is the sea itself, twinkling and lapping in Wallinger's new film Construction Site, receiving its UK premiere.

Three workmen are building a scaffolding tower on the shingle, a comic proposition in itself. A pole appears from the right, followed ages later by the builder carrying it. A speedboat breezes through as if to mock this slow and Sisyphean labour. There are mishaps and forgotten buckets, and a seagull bursts into the picture just as an ideal symmetry of structure is achieved. Every moment is surprising, a series of sight gags sustained over more than an hour in a masterpiece of comic timing.

This structure looks like a gigantic drawing, or a freestanding frame. It is eventually in such exact alignment with the sea's horizon that the workmen on the top appear to be walking on water. This is not a cinematic trick – transparency is crucial to everything Wallinger makes – just a simple coincidence of different perspectives.

Space swithers between two and three dimensions, the men seem variously giants or midgets, the sea appears flat as a picture; and time becomes mysterious too. No sooner have they finished than the workmen return to dismantle the structure – unless, perhaps, it was the other way round? A palindrome emerges and repeats itself continually, like the tides, transforming boats and buckets into running gags forever.

Construction Site is a most original combination of contemplation piece and absurdist comedy. Every pun – verbal and visual – is deeply intended. Puns, palindromes, mirror images, anagrams and inversions: these are all pivotal to Wallinger's art, succinct devices for multiplying the nuances of meaning.

His work can be extraordinarily condensed, as in the colossal letter "I" adorning the outside of the Baltic on a banner. The simplest expression of the self, I says everything and nothing, describes everyone and no one. It amounts to a universal self-portrait (one sign fits all) while paradoxically denying the possibility of summing oneself up in an image or a word.

Inside, at the opposite extreme, a slideshow is flashing up photographs of the several thousand marks Wallinger has chalked on brick walls all over London in the past few years. "Mark", says the mark, speaking of its maker as well as itself, sending up the narcissism of tagging as well as the futility of trying to leave one's mark upon London. It is the pun simultaneously multiplied and reduced to the absurd.

It would be hard to overstate the subtlety of these two meditations on self-centredness, each stimulating new thoughts long after one leaves the gallery and both achieved with the simplest possible means. No sleight of hand; the separate elements of Wallinger's works are always exposed, one feels, as a matter of principle. That principle may be moral, aesthetic or intellectual but it is generally all three, as in the most powerful piece in this show.

Just outside the central gallery is a vertiginous stairwell that drops 13 landings, a plunge so abrupt you lose all sense of orientation. With the simple addition of a couple of mirrors, one above and one below, Wallinger extends this continuum to infinity. The bottomless hell below reflects the eternal heaven above, on and on in both directions. Which way is up? The viewer stares into this illusion, entirely aware of the mechanics, but overpowered by its vision of an endless fall and the impossible ascent to heaven.

A forest of iron helmets hangs upside down in the antechamber of Yoko Ono's Serpentine Gallery retrospective, conjuring the dead of two world wars. But in their upturned state, they are as reminiscent of cooking pots as dead soldiers; swords may still be beaten into ploughshares.

On either side two films are screening – an eye slowly blinking, a match gradually burning: pause, think, you might prevent disaster in a blink – and on the wall between them is Ono's famous Vietnam poster. "War Is Over" declares the faded headline; "If You Want It" whispers the tiny subtext. Hers may be a voice of perennial hope, but it is not without qualification.

This show breathes the true air of the 60s. It includes the early films of John and Yoko kissing, John breaking into an infectious slo-mo smile, Yoko suffering the clothes to be snipped from her body by strangers in Cut Piece. It has the glass labyrinth in which the wanderer becomes effectively blind and unable to find the way to the dark box at the centre, its hidden message as condensed as a haiku.

With its delicate calligraphy, translucent screens and fragile objects ceremonially presented on plinths, Ono's aesthetic appears strikingly Japanese. But her meanings are, of course, devoutly universal. For some, this will come across as sentimentality, as in her invitation to the public to smile on screen or leave a wish on a tree. But her sincerity is not in doubt.

Ono's gift is for the epigrammatic object or image; the blood-stained letter, the folded coat hanger doubling as forceps (death or birth), her footprints in step with John Lennon's on a sheet of paper, an overwhelming testimony of loss.

But most affecting of all is the remake of Cut Piece from 2003, when Ono was 70. The audience's reverence and obsession are now as much part of the performance as the artist's endurance. With every snip, they get closer to her fame while she remains resolutely dignified. The performance has turned into a life story.


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Bomber Command memorial – review

Green Park, London SW1

That 55,573 men of the RAF's Bomber Command died in the second world war is one of those statistics that leaves you feeling bewildered and hollow. It is, to give some measure of it, almost as many as the total losses of all American forces in the Vietnam war. Still more bewildering is that hundreds of thousands of civilians, both German and of other nationalities, were killed by their actions. If they had been gunned down by infantry it would count as the greatest ever atrocity by the British military but, owing to a convention that still applies, death descending from above is considered less terrible than death that arrives horizontally.

It is a hard subject to memorialise – to recognise at once the courage and loss of airmen, and the awfulness of the thing they were told to do – the more so as the debate will never end as to whether bombing civilian targets was then the best or only available way of speeding the defeat of the Nazis. This is why it has required so many years since the war – and the enthusiastic support of former Tory party treasurer Lord Ashcroft, and the late Bee Gee Robin Gibb – to get a memorial to Bomber Command built.

There is some question as to whether it should have been built at all, given that there are already eloquent air force memorials at Runnymede and on the Victoria Embankment. There is also a statue of Bomber Command's leader, Bomber Harris, erected after much debate in the Strand. If it had to be built, you might hope for some nuance, some recognition of moral complexity, some regret, some invitation to reflection. Unfortunately the memorial, which the Queen will open on Thursday, offers none of those things.

Its tone is defiant and triumphant, using quotations from Churchill and Pericles to justify the bombings. Its location in central London is explained on the debatable grounds that attacking German cities was the best way of sparing London from further bombing. It is big; bigger than, for example, the memorial to the Battle of Britain on the banks of the Thames. Its style is amnesiac classical, with ranks of Doric columns surmounted by a weirdly puny balustrade, a version of historic architecture that never precisely existed, but is also oblivious to anything that might have happened, culturally or technologically, in the last several decades.

Obliviousness, in fact, is its guiding principle – to history, but also to its setting on the edge of the lush, rolling landscape of Green Park, whose informality and lack of pomp is the opposite of the rigid memorial. By all relevant principles of planning it should not have been built here, as the erosion of the city's most important green stuff is, with good reason, usually opposed. If it had to be built, its architect Liam O'Connor should at least have fulfilled the promise he makes on his website: "We are committed to enhancing the contexts of the locations in which we build by sensitive layout and appropriate architecture." There's not much sign of such things here.

It also has trouble with something less lovely than the park: a concrete underpass that descends in front of it. O'Connor has chosen to make the memorial a symmetrical portico, a form that suggests an axial approach that immediately stubs its toe on the transport engineering. As the underpass was here first, a more responsive kind of architecture might have reconsidered its options and thought of something that worked better, but it is in the nature of this kind of classicism that it is not responsive. Rather, like a stubborn marshal, it directs its relentless symmetries into battle regardless of obstacles. It is an inadvertent echo of the fixed thinking that directed the flattening of German cities.

O'Connor is one of a group of classicising architects who blossom in proximity to royal palaces, where they are suddenly fertilised as by a rich humus by the favour of the Prince of Wales, and he is not the worst. His memorial has some kind of simplicity, at least, which compares favourably to the Gilbert and Sullivan additions recently made to Kensington Palace. But it still reeks of the application of special favours, and the suspension of judgment, that gave us the nearby Queen Mother Gates, still laughable 19 years after they were built.

The result is a work of wishing away, of ignoring time, place and moral difficulty. The possibility of achieving something even slightly like the Vietnam memorial in Washington, which also had to recognise heroism applied to a questionable purpose, was ruled out from the start. There, many veterans expressed a wish for something classical, but once Maya Lin's reflective wall of names was installed, few wished it to be otherwise. I don't want to deny old men, who endured more than we can imagine, the ability to remember. But there could have been better ways than this.


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June 22 2012

Anish Kapoor's house in London occupied by protesters

Bread and Circuses group to hold arts event in house owned by artist who designed ArcelorMittal Orbit tower for Olympics

In the first of what could be a summer of protest linked to the Olympics, a group connected to the Occupy movement has taken over an empty Georgian house owned by the Olympic park sculptor Anish Kapoor for a one-day arts event.

The group, calling itself Bread and Circuses, a reference to its argument that the Olympics are a means of distracting people from pressing economic and social issues, said it had "liberated" the part-derelict five-storey house on Lincoln's Inn Fields, one of central London's most picturesque and expensive garden squares and the scene of a rough sleepers' "tent city" in the 1980s.

The group says the house has been left empty since the artist – whose ArcelorMittal Orbit tower, a 115-metre tall sculpture and observation platform, dominates the skyline of the Olympic Park in east London – bought it in 2009. Kapoor is listed as director of a company called 1-2 Lincoln's Inn Fields Ltd, the address of the property, which was formed in 2009. The bulk of the £22.7m cost of the steel sculpture was met by the steel billionaire Lakshmi Mittal.

The building is five stories high with an enormous iron door and covered windows. Inside, there are several enormous rooms on the ground floor with a staircase climbing through the centre. The wallpaper is peeling and wires hang threateningly from the ceiling. It contains no furniture except for a pair of supermarket trolleys.

"This is not about being against the Olympics," said one protester. "This is about what the government is using the Olympics for."

The small group of protesters say they have been in the property for a week.

One said they wanted to find a creative use for what they regard as wasted space. "Just look at it," he said. "We want to use all this empty space."

A homeless man who has joined the group in the property said: "How can someone do this? How can you own a place like this and not even use it when there are people sleeping in the streets?"

From 4pm on Friday the house will host art exhibits, talks and film screenings, with live music after 9pm, the group said. Among those billed to appear are John Hilary, director of the charity War on Want, one of the organisers of the Counter Olympics Network, which seeks to challenge the corporate nature of the event, and Trenton Oldfield, who swam into the path of April's university boat race in a protest against "elitism".

The group sent a statement from a member, Jeniffer Taylor, who described the Olympics as "a smokescreen to take our minds off austerity measures, the global economic crisis and the commodification and privatisation of everything, even art".

In keeping with the media-savvy nature of events connected to the Occupy movement, the one-day protest already has its own Facebook page and Twitter feed. The group sent a message to supporters that read: "New Holborn squatt will b [sic] evicted in saturday. Big event this friday against london politics! BREAD AND CIRCUSES: speaches, music, art, performance, rave and more surprises!"

The wider Occupy movement has not announced plans to disrupt the Olympics with protests, but it seems inevitable that it or other similar groups will use the global attention on London during the event to publicise their causes. This is particularly the case as, given the loosely collective nature of Occupy, more or less anyone can begin a protest under their banner.


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June 18 2012

Yinka Shonibare's ballerina twirls into action above Covent Garden

Artwork commissioned by the Royal Opera House will pirouette above crowds before opera and ballet performances

From this week, and for at least the next five years, if there is an opera or ballet on at Covent Garden, Yinka Shonibare's ballerina on the corner of the building will swirl gracefully into animation, turning slowly on one impossibly long, silk-shod foot, encased in the bubble of her own small world.

"I wanted to make a playful piece, a work that children would like, that would be somehow dreamlike, a figure of fantasy that would draw people into the building," the artist said, smiling up at her in the workshop in south London where his original sketch has been brought to life. "She's also like a lifesize version of those little dancers you get in jewellery boxes."

She may also give spectators an uneasy sense of vertigo. When she is unveiled high above one of the busiest areas of the market, the corner of Russell Street, the vertical wall will become her stage. She will pirouette parallel to the pavement below, and on her shoulders is not the typical dancer's immaculately coiffed head, but a turning Victorian globe of the world.

The Royal Opera House has wanted to commission a piece of contemporary art for the dullest corner of its building since the extension was completed in the 1990s. Shonibare first worked with the Royal Ballet on a film, Odile and Odette, the white and black swans of Swan Lake, and will return at the end of August to curate a weekend festival embracing African culture. He was invited to come up with an idea for the wall after being shown the blank space.

"I had a bit of a panic first about what I could do – and then I saw a photograph of Margot Fonteyn, in this exact pose, and that gave me my idea.

"But I wanted to make her a metaphor for humanity, for inclusiveness, not just a portrait. That is why she has a globe for a head, she is very obviously mixed race, and she wears Indonesian patterned cloth – she has become a universal figure."

Her body is fibreglass but was cast from a sculpture of a real dancer, Melissa Hamilton, a soloist who is regarded as a rising star with the Royal Ballet.

The bubble-like sphere that shelters her was made by a firm in Italy that specialises in aquariums. The company also made the gigantic bottle to hold Shonibare's scale model of Nelson's HMS Victory, which has sailed off the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square and moored permanently – after a major public appeal – at the Maritime Museum in Greenwich. There is now a small memorial to the ship and the artist in a corner of the factory floor, his studio assistant revealed.

A lot will be going on in the streets below Shonibare's serene ballerina, particularly late on Friday and Saturday nights.

"What will she think of the people below her?" he wondered. "I think she will be thinking 'You lot stop fighting. Why can't you be magical like me – and dance?'"


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June 13 2012

Letters: Street politics

The Secret History of our Streets which Lucy Mangan so positively reviews (7 June), while gripping viewing, distorted the facts. My dad, Nicholas Taylor, who Lucy thought should apologise for the demolitions shown in the programme, only agreed to be interviewed as an early and successful champion of saving London's inner-city streets from the bulldozers, which had been unleashed by the LCC development plan of 1952. Instead the programme cut and pasted snippets of conversation taken from hours of interviews and made it look like he was in fact a supporter of this appallingly misconceived urban planning. The demolitions were approved between 1961-64 and had nothing whatsoever to do with my dad. When he became chairman of the planning committee in 1972 he stopped numerous projects, preserving large areas of Deptford. He also wrote a prominent architectual book in 1973 calling for an end to the building of high-rise estates.
Martin Taylor
London


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