Cover Image: The Splendid and the Vile

The Splendid and the Vile

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Member Reviews

A common reaction to this title is “why in heaven do we need another book about Churchill and the Battle of Britain?”  For me, knowing Larson’s talent for homing in on obscure human stories amid historical events, I could only rush to dive in and see what he picked up on and how it could achieve fresh revelations.  Despite my fairly recent reads of the Manchester/Reid biographical trilogy on Churchill and Korda’s history of the Battle of Britain, “On Wings of Eagles”, I was well satisfied with this tour of the daily life of Churchill’s inner circle and family during his first year as Prime Minister starting in May 1940.  We get a portrait of adaptation and resilience of individuals putting up a last stand of defiance in the face of Hitler’s takeover of most of Europe.  And somehow, despite the horrors of the long bombing campaign by the Luftwaffe, pursuing the simple pleasures of life and love in the intervals they could steal. 

Churchill’s leadership and the adoption by the populace of widespread volunteerism and the attitudes of “soldiering on” go hand in hand, each inspiring the other.  Just what we would wish we could have for the COVID pandemic.  It is fitting that NY Governor Cuomo has effectively shared Churchill quotations for inspiration, including:
"Never was so much owed by so many to so few”—with respect to first responders and health care staff being saviors like the RAF and air defense staff
“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”—with respect to first signs of a plateau in new cases being like a hopeful phase in a war destined to last much longer

Larson forges his own path for explicating Churchill’s personality in relationship to his leadership qualities.  Behind the clever tactician and ambitious wheeler-dealer, we experience his rollercoasters of mood from humor and delight to blackdog despairs and sense of affront when thwarted.  Larson leavens his story with choice examples of Churchill’s episodes of casual nudity, of his child-like breaking out into song or dance, and of sudden tears in response to basic kindness of ordinary people: "The child never left the man."
A key factor in his success was his inspiration of loyalty and trust in a special set of people in his inner circle.  His minister of war production, Max Beaverbook, and scientific advisor and Oxford physicist  Frederick Lindemann, get the most air time in the narrative.  Churchill sanctioned Beaverbrook to wield incredible power to appropriate facilities and supplies for aircraft manufacturing, often at the expense of other wartime industries, making it possible for the RAF to keep up in the war of attrition with the Luftwaffe.  Despite continually submitting resignations in order to leverage getting his way, Churchill always forgave him while giving in.  

Like Beaverbrook, Lindemann (the “Prof”) was disliked by many for a comparable arrogance and irascibility, yet was welcomed as a virtual member of the Churchill household for countless evenings and weekends.  Though his main job was running a department of statistics charged with assessing British and German military capacity, he was given ”license to explore any scientific , technical, or economic matter that might influence the progress of the war”.  Many of the schemes he cooked up captured the childlike imagination of Churchill, who then pressed for investing resources on them.  Dropping bombs by parachute in front of German bombers was one such scheme that proved ineffective.  By contrast, the Prof’s support of a former student’s inferences about the German use of a radar guidance system for night-time bombing, dismissed by the Air Command as impossible, proved to be true, opening paths for countering their system.

The true strength of Larson’s narrative are the portraits he paints of his young personal assistant John Colville (“Jock”), Churchill’s teenaged daughter Mary, and his daughter-in-law, Mary.  New material Larson mines for his narrative include an unpublished memoir by Colville, who was in his early 20s, as well as other personal diaries of ordinary Brits.  The details on their everyday activities, aspirations, and romantic lives helps me understand much better how the Brit’s could sustain the desperate prospects of their nation and daily threats from bombing in this period.  Korda in his account of the Battle of Britain covered how some Brits would keep golfing during an air raid, which was a mystery to me.  Now I comprehend better Mandel’s dictum that “survival is not enough” in her post-apocalyptic tale, “Station Eleven.”  Such understanding is well worth bearing in mind during the current pandemic.

This book was provided by the publisher for review through the Netgalley program.
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I have to begin with this: 

Erik Larson, you did it again.  Another mind blowing historical book .  

The history and storytelling flows beautifully.  I could NOT put it down.  I was engrossed from beginning to end.  Churchill's early time as prime minister was fascinating- dealing with Hitler, War, etc.
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“Never was there such a contrast of natural splendor and human vileness.” (John Colville’s diary entry about the peculiar beauty of watching bombs fall over the city) 

What better time than during a pandemic to read about the unrelenting courage of a people during one of the darkest periods of history? During the Blitz, Londoners endured fifty-seven consecutive nights of bombing. Tens of thousands of people died. How did the people endure such a terrifying ordeal? What was it like living day after day knowing that during the night the bombs would rain down and you might be one of the many who would die?

How did they endure? Churchill’s determination, unrelenting optimism, and eloquent speeches encouraged the people and gave them hope. He emboldened them to realize the part they played in this moment in history. Amid the sheer terror of the relentless bombings, Churchill was an extraordinary leader and a beacon of hope. 

Churchill was a brilliant orator who never wavered in telling the people the hard truth, but always followed with optimism and an unwavering conviction that England would prevail. His courage was inspiring and his is a picture of true leadership. But he was also a man who had his flaws, quirks, and idiosyncrasies. There was opposition to appointing him as Prime Minister, but at this particular moment in history he was the right man for the job and he got it right. 

Covering Winston Churchill’s first year in office, between May 1940 and May 1941, Larson, known for his exhaustive research, used personal journals, archival documents, and intelligence reports. Through these we learn of the everyday lives of ordinary citizens, as well as those of Churchill, his family, and the people closest to him. No family is perfect, including Churchill’s. The stories of his wife Clementine, his daughter Mary (who ended up being one of my favorite characters!) , his son Randall, and daughter-in-law Pamela, provided much of the human interest stories, making this such a readable book. Though the subject is grim, there’s no shortage of humorous personal interest stories.

Plenty of books have been written about WWII and The Blitz, but only Erik Larson can tell it in an original way that makes history come alive. I felt as if I lived this story with these characters. It reads like a thrilling novel, but every word, every conversation, is true, and I wasn’t ready for the book to end. Larson writes history for people who think they don’t like history. 

This is a true gem, don’t miss it!
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This is an enthralling peice of nonfiction that you won't beable to put down. This tells you about Churchill as well as his friends and family. This book is written by an extreamly talented author that brings history to life in the pages. I highly recommend this book to history bluffs. 

I would like to thank Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a copy free of charge. This is my honest and unbiased opinion of it.
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One of my hobbies is genealogy. It initially began as a search for my husband’s roots in Scandinavia and colonial America, but I eventually began to trace my own family history in what is now the United Kingdom. I’ve uncovered where my paternal great-grandfather fought during the Great War but didn’t think there was much on his son – my grandfather – because he wasn’t in the military. It turns out that he was in a reserved occupation – a bit like an essential worker during the current coronavirus pandemic – but he was in the Auxiliary Fire Service in London during World War 2. His older brother, my great uncle, was listed in the 1939 Register as being trained as an Air Raid Warden. Both lived in south London and both survived the war. That got me wondering what life might’ve been like for them and their wives at that time. Erik Larsen’s latest book, although focusing on the British government from 1940 to 1941, has now given me some idea.

The introduction (or prologue) is titled Bleak Expectations, not exactly an optimistic starting point. It reveals that British government officials planned for a worst-case scenario if Germany decided to bomb or invade the country. There is something to be said about this method. Although a bleak picture is painted, we feel better when these expectations don’t come to pass. I only need to look at the case projections for New York during this Coronavirus pandemic and compare it to the actual numbers to experience that, especially in New York. But on another hand, we never seem to learn our lessons regarding preparedness. Whereas now there are discussion points about whether the world was prepared for such a situation, back then there was an acknowledgment of a shortage of planes and anti-aircraft defenses. Things weren’t looking good when Winston Churchill came to power on 10th May 1940, and this is where Larson starts proceedings before looking at events of the Dunkirk evacuation just two weeks later. 

But the Dunkirk evacuation is also where Churchill set the tone for the war and the war effort. The Prime Minister believed in showing confidence and fearlessness and that such attitudes could spread. Churchill didn’t believe in minimizing events, but he portrayed confidence that they could be overcome. This was highlighted in his famous “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech on 4th June 1940. Larson uses primary sources such as personal diaries to show the reaction to that speech and many others.

Personal diaries provide vital clues to life in 1940 and 1941. Reading the entries makes me hope that somewhere down the road, 22nd century historians will be able to reflect on 2020 using similar sources. As well as writings from Churchill family members, private secretaries, and other associates, Larson makes use of entries from Mass-Observation, which relied on volunteers to keep diaries about everyday life. Some entries made me cringe for their frivolity; it seems crazy that so many young people – including Churchill’s youngest daughter – laughed, danced, and drank champagne while so many of their countrymen (and women) were dying either in battle or because of the blitz. There were many occasions when Churchill and company would watch the blitz from the roofs of government buildings. The title of the book comes from a line in Sir Jock Colville’s diary where he described watching bombs falling over London at night as both “splendid” and “vile.” But other entries, described the resilience of the people, how they got on with daily life while the bombs fell over an eight-month period, and how they cheered their Prime Minister when they saw him. Who knows, maybe my grandparents and other relatives were among them. 

The Splendid and the Vile clocks in at over 600 pages, but it didn’t feel like that many. The contents page shows a daunting 101 chapters, plus epilogue. It isn’t all that bad, however. Many of the chapters are short, with some being only one page long. Plus, almost twenty percent of the book is comprised of sources, acknowledgements, and notes. It means that, even if some of the sentences are long with several clauses, it’s a reasonably easy read. I’m a focused reader, so it took me just over one week to read. Because it can be broken down into bite size chunks, it’s a book that can be picked up and put down at will. This was the third of Larson’s books that I’ve read, and it’s probably the one I’ve enjoyed the best. 

Disclaimer: Although I received an electronic uncorrected proof of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, the words and opinions are my own.
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I typically tell people I am not into history books.  All of that changes when I see that Erik Larson has written a book.  I don't even care what the subject matter is because I know he will make it a worthwhile read.  So when I saw this book on Winston Churchill, one of the few individuals from the past that I have a curiosity about, I knew I had to read it.

This book covers a one year time period - May 1940 to May 1941.   Mr. Churchill is the new Prime Minister and the German attack is now hitting home turf.  It's up to Mr. Churchill to rally his homeland and convince the United States to enter the war,  As is typical of Mr. Larson's books, this is filled with interesting facts and entertaining humor.  Not once was I bored.  That alone says a lot for me.

ARC from Crown Publishing and Netgalley.
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This non-fiction narrative details life in England from May 20, 1940, to May 20, 1941, from the time Churchill become Prime Minister through the daily bombings from Germany.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this revelation of history, especially during the time of the pandemic.  It took me a long time to read it.  I began in January or February and just didn't have time to read.  Then I had a setback and couldn't read due to headaches.  When I could finally just sit and absorb this piece of literature, I was astounded at the resiliency of the British people, the quirkiness and absolute confidence of Churchill, and the intelligence of the people who surrounded Churchill charged with quickly accomplishing Churchill's goals.

On the surface, Churchill doesn't appear to be a good leader.  He had little refinement.  He didn't care about his personal dress, including being unclothed in front of many different people.  He cried easily when moved by the beauty of people.  He felt, however, completely capable of guiding England through a terrible war.  The numbers of people killed daily were astounding and he grieved these numbers, but he also knew these horrors would occur and wanted to do the best he could and expected so much of others.  One such person was Beaverbrook, who wasn't necessarily the greatest of men morally.  He loved gossip and knowing secrets about people.  He, however, built up the aircraft production so that they could compete with Germany.  He stepped on toes, he pulled from other people, he did whatever needed to be done to get the materials to build aircraft and to do so quickly.  He got it done.  All people had to work and work quickly.  Churchill expected many "minutes"--these were summaries of what he needed to know from people in charge of intelligence as well as all areas of the government:  say it quickly, succinctly, and accurately.  He would tell someone he needed something at 2 a.m. and was surprised if answers weren't delivered by 8 a.m.  People literally ran about in order to accomplish what he wanted now! Churchill would agonize over every word he wrote or said to get the precise meaning across depending on the audience and the need.  He knew they couldn't win without Roosevelt and the American people supporting them.  He grew impatient with America's slowness as they waited on Congress and battled those who wanted to be isolationists.  Churchill wrote many letters to Roosevelt and spent much time with American representatives to show and express the needs Britain had.  He had many dinners and brought people together to look toward whatever means to survive and win against Hitler.

Another thing I didn't know was about the diarists.  England had trained people to observe and write about their observations.  They were often even given assignments as to what to write about.  In this book, Larson quotes from those diarists and you learn about the average person.  The British were hardy.  As bombs descended, most did not go to bomb shelters.  They usually were in their beds.  The smells after bombing were well known quickly.  Often, people watched the bombings from rooftops.  The sheer numbers of bombs dropped was amazing.  People even partied during bombings.  I always imagined everyone hunkered down, but the well-to-do and those who were young and wanted to dance and date, went out.  People stayed and lived in hotels who were from America and their journals describe what they witnessed as bombs dropped and what London and other cities looked like after the bombings.  People believed in living.  In fact, they didn't believe in faithfulness to spouses or those they were dating.  There was a lot of sleeping around with others.  This behavior also surprised me.  

Two journals frequently quoted are those of Churchill's private secretary and Churchill's daughter.  His private secretary, Colville, wasn't supposed to write about what went on, but he kept a diary and didn't think anything of it.  You see his opinion shift as he gets to know Churchill and as he desires to play a role in the war as a soldier.  Mary, Churchill's daughter, writes of a privileged life.  They have food, many places to stay, parties, and friends with whom she visits and enjoys a good time.  At times she expresses sorrow for the people, but she is young and enjoys life.  For her age, she seems pretty free to me--her parents did not give her many restrictions.  

I highly recommend learning about day to day life in England during this pivotal time as they sustained bombings and the unknown of whether America would help.  Will Hitler arrive on the beaches with his tanks at any day?  If so, England didn't have the tanks to fight back.  They were shocked at how quickly France capitulated and spend a long time uncertain as to who could help but determined to persevere.
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What a read. Erik Larson does it again, making history come alive in a riveting way. Excellent read, highly recommended, best book I've read in a while.
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I love Larson’s work - he somehow is able to make nonfiction read like thrilling fiction, and his attention to detail is superb. This book was on par with his great work!
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Erik Larson does it again. Nothing can top Devil in the White City for me, of course, but I haven't disliked a single book of his. It takes a skilled writer to get me interested in a history book like this one, as it's not my normal genre!
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The Splendid and the Vile is the latest book by the renowned author Erik Larson.  And, once again, Mr Larson has delivered a magnificent book – this time about Great Britain, Winston Churchill, and World War II.  In a style of writing that can only be described as compelling, the story of the grit and determination of a country targeted by Hitler and his Third Reich is a magnificent tale of courage. Winston Churchill, not always well-liked by his fellow countrymen, is a figure of strength and encouragement at a time when there seemed to be little hope for England.

This book is obviously well-researched but the information is intertwined into a readable and fascinating tale, with a variety of characters, interesting dialogue, and descriptions that bring the story to life.  Not only is it entertaining, this book is also informative. While enjoying a well-written book, I also learned a great deal about the early days of WWII and the devastation that the United Kingdom experienced.  It is with pleasure that I highly recommend The Splendid and the Vile.

Many thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review.
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The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson is a book I picked based on author alone. I’ve read his other book The Devil in the White City and I liked it so I thought I’d read this one too. I wouldn’t have picked a history book to read otherwise but I’m glad I did. I really learned a lot. It was quite remarkable how Churchill could maintain composure and lead his country during the war.
It was interesting to learn more about not only Churchill but his family as well. I especially liked the parts about Mary, Churchill’s daughter, probably because she was most relatable to me. She would talk about boys and she loved to go out dancing all night. I love those things too!
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Another great Larson book!  I appreciate all the effort he puts into research and into obtaining details of important pieces of history.  I always recommend Larson books to others, and I'm definitely adding this newest one to the list of recs!
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The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson – Riveting, Interesting, Insightful, Heartbreaking, Thrilling. – If you read only one book this year, The Splendid and the Vile is the one to read.  

When I learned that Erik Larson had released a new book, I could hardly wait to read it and was riveted as I read The Splendid and the Vile, A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.  

The book starts out in May 1940, when Winston Churchill was appointed Prime Minister of Great Britain.  It covers the first year of his leadership, but it was a pivotal year and devastating for the entire nation.  It’s almost incomprehensible to imagine what it was like for Great Britain to endure the relentless and vile bombings they suffered from Nazi Germany.  But Erik Larson has taken what is hard to imagine and helps the reader to learn about this unique and brave leader who inspired a nation and helped Great Britain to endure while suffering great losses and come out victoriously as the great evil of Nazi Germany was defeated.   

When reading this book, God’s providential hand in raising up the right leader for a nation at the right time is evident.  One can only speculate how England would have fared and how WWII would have ended with a different man as Prime Minister.  

Not only do you get to know PM Winston Churchill and his view of the war, but this book really comes to life as you learn about and from the people who surrounded Churchill, what they saw, felt and experienced.  Clementine, Churchill’s wife was every bit his equal and we learn quite a bit about their children, especially their son Randolph and youngest daughter Mary 

Those who surrounded the Prime Minister provide insight into Churchill and how Great Britain prepared and fought the war, including from John Colville, Churchill’s private secretary whose diaries documented behind the scenes happenings, to Frederick Lindermann (The Prof) Churchill’s scientific advisor, to Max Aitken-Lord Beaverbrook the man who Churchill believe would help their country ramp-up aircraft production so they could wage an effective air campaign against the Nazi’s.  

The book also looks at the war through the lens of Nazi leaders including, Hitler, Goring, Goebbels, Hess and flying ace Adolf Galland.  It was both interesting and horrifying to see how they viewed what they were doing and their ultimate goal to defeat Great Britain.  

The Splendid and the Vile is a full-bodied look at Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the people who surrounded him and the people of Great Britain and the suffering they endured.  This is a tremendous book, it’s an interesting, insightful, heartbreaking and thrilling look at history, a strong unique leader and a people who did not crumble when facing great evil unleashed against them.

I highly recommend The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson.  If you read one book this year, this is the one to read.  Especially during this time in our Nation and the world, this book will put into perspective what we are going through compared to what Great Britain and the world endured during WWII.  

I would like to thank Crown Publishing and NetGalley for the opportunity to read The Splendid and the Vile by author Erik Larson.  Mr. Larson is a gifted writer and I look forward to reading more of his work.  I was provided with a free copy of the book but under no obligation to give a favorable review.
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Having read several of Erik Larson’s books, I was delighted to get a reviewer’s copy of The Splendid and the Vile. Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. As Larson writes in the intro, “History is a lively abode, full of surprises.” 
Larson deserves to have his books at the top of the non-fiction charts. His writing is clear, well-researched, factual, organized and personal. The huge volumes of research on Churchill and this time period are distilled into a fascinating story sprinkled with intriguing facts. The story covers both sides of WWII in 1940, focusing mostly on Churchill, his family and colleagues. 
After France fell to the Germans, England braced for invasion. “Sandbags and guns adorned the grounds of Buckingham Palace, where the masses of tulips in the place gardens were…’exactly the color of blood.’ The queen began taking lessons in how to shoot a revolver. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I shall not go down like the others.’” The excellent details never get tedious, a real art in a lengthy historical work.   
Describing the aftermath of an air raid Larson writes, “It was this dust that many Londoners remembered as being one of the most striking phenomena of this attack and of others that followed. As buildings erupted, thunderheads of pulverized brick, stone, plaster, and mortar billowed from eaves and attics, roofs and chimneys, hearths and furnaces – dust from the age of Cromwell, Dickens, and Victoria.”  I so appreciate such crafted writing.  Too often it’s a lost art these days of quick reads. Larson describes the two eternal weapons of Russia as “its sheer size and its winter weather.” Brilliant. The subtlest tidbits of humor and phrases pop up and illuminate.
The London Blitz was a dark time, but it was also a time when the British dug in, helped each other and ‘Carried On.’  “Diana Cooper, wife of Information Minister Duff Cooper, told Churchill that the best thing he had done was to give people courage. He did not agree. ‘I never gave them courage,’ he said. ‘I was able to focus theirs.’”
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Step back in time to Winston Churchill’s first days in office, May 1940, and to the coalition he formed in Britain. With amazing support characters from his family (especially his daughter Mary), US President Roosevelt, and many others they sweep you through Churchill’s  first year as Prime Minister with a closer look at the 57 days of bombing they were subjected to by Hitler. Non fiction written fictionally this book read very factually for me but gave me a greater impression of what really happened at that time. 

Thank you NetGalley,  Erik Larson and Crown (Random House) for this edition and hearing my honest review. Looking forward to reading more with you
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Prior to this I have only read one Larson book: The Devil in the White City. So I vaguely knew what to expect from this one, an engaging and interesting narrative nonfiction. And that’s what I got. Prior to reading this I knew very little about Winston Churchill, but I have a much clearer picture of who he was as a man and a leader now. And I loved that we got snippets of perspective from his daughter throughout the book as well. This book kept me engaged even amidst the Covid-19 craziness so you know it has to be worth a read.
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Erik Larson knocks another one out of the park. I’m not sure there are many writers that do historical works as brilliantly and make them pleasantly readable as Larson. This is yet another work that lives up to the hype. This is an intriguing and informative book about Winston Churchill during the time when he was forced into being a wartime leader. This book gives a perspective of who Churchill was and why he was the type of leader that he was. 
Brilliant book!
Thank you for the early copy. 
#Netgalley #TheSplendidandTheVile #CrownPublishing
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Amazing! Interesting, well-developed, brilliantly executed. Erik Larson never disappoints, and The Splendid and the Vile is no exception to his excellent track record. I learned loads about Winston Churchill and constantly was flagging areas to read aloud to my husband. In fact, I would read entire chapters aloud to him at times (he did not love this, but even he admitted that the book seemed phenomenal) (and in fact, said husband bought the Audible version so he could listen to the entire book, not being read by me.) Highly recommend to anyone interested in history, WW2, Winston Churchill, or in consuming more non-fiction in a fun way.
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I love Erik Larson... he is truly gifted at writing well-researched nonfiction that reads like a novel, which is perfect for my reality-challenged reading tastes.

This book does not disappoint—it’s full of info and follows Churchill, his family and others close to him, and British citizens during his first year as PM during WWII in England. Fascinating and well-written, but it didn’t engage me as much as some of his others.
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