Wyndham and Kneale

by Harry on June 2, 2008

Youtube is where BBC 4 documentaries go to live, I see. Two lovely documentaries: one on John Wyndham , and another on Nigel Kneale; two of the great creators of British science fiction united by their dependence on utterly sensible and reliable heroes (and in Wyndham’s case, heroines—as the documentary points out, the Midwich Cuckoos aside, he often seems to be a proto-feminist), unmarred by self-absorbed hang-ups and disorderly emotional lives. Kneale founded the British tradition of dark but humane television scinece fiction, with 1984, Quatermass, The Year of the Sex Olympics, and The Stone Tape (which scared me witless as a kid, and which I now realise my mother bought a colour television in order to watch). Many Dr. Who stories are just recycled Kneale stories; I have a special affection for the movie Quatermass and the Pit because I watched it on TV the night of my job interview at Madison.

Wyndham is especially hard to get good information on: he’s almost absent even on the web, so it is great to have an insight into his life, even though a bit too much time is spent on the novels and films. One mystery that is not solved is what happened to all his writings prior to The Day of the Triffids. I’ve managed to get hold of just one of the pre-Triffids books, The Secret People, which is derivative and slow-paced, if readable, but nothing like as good as his 50’s and 60’s novels. (Wyndham fans might want to put pressure on my erstwhile colleague Noel Carroll, who once proposed to write a book about Wyndham’s work, which would be lovely to read if only he’d write it).

{ 55 comments }

1

Nathaniel Tapley 06.02.08 at 7:42 pm

The highlight of my yesterday was finding a copy of “The Outward Urge” in a second-hand bookshop.

2

stuart 06.02.08 at 9:06 pm

One mystery that is not solved is what happened to all his writings prior to The Day of the Triffids

Is the archive at University of Liverpool incomplete then? They suggest they have:

The archive consists of a virtually complete collection of manuscripts and typescripts (including unpublished works) and letters

3

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 06.02.08 at 9:12 pm

The Stone Tape seems like a predecessor of the short-lived The Omega Factor, which was similarly low-budget creepy.

4

Sam 06.02.08 at 9:30 pm

Pardon my confusion, but are you saying that you feel the female characters in The Midwich Cuckoo are not proto-feminist or are you merely pointing out that the main character was a guy? Either case could be true.

In any event, Wyndham was truly a very fine writer and I’m glad you’ve used the site to mention him.

It was a very pleasant surprise to find that The Day of the Triffids is still in print.

5

harry b 06.02.08 at 9:45 pm

Oh, I just meant not solved in the documentary. That’s great that the liverpool archive has all that. I’m curious why so little of his stuff is circulated though (but maybe my comment about the Secret People provides the answer).

sam — I only knew about Triffids, Chocky, the Midwich Cuckoos, and The Chrysalids growing up, and have discovered the others only by soming across them, then searching for them, in used bookstores. But the 4 I mentioned, although they occasionally go out of print in the US, never seem to do so for long. I agree – I love Wyndham as a writer, and he’s one of a very few novelists whose novels I re-read for fun (Jane Austen… and a bunch of children’s authors, that’s it).

On the women in the Midwich Cuckoos — perhaps that was unfair. It is striking, though, that the women who fall pregnant are less capable of seeing the problem with the kids and the ultimate solution than the men.

6

Bob B 06.02.08 at 10:04 pm

“Youtube is where BBC 4 documentaries go to live”

Bang on. I became a fan of John Wyndham’s novels when a lad back in the 1950s but it would be missing an opportunity here and now to overlook other great recent BBC2 documentary series on Youtube.

Try, for example, this enlightening three-part documentary, written and produced by Adam Curtis, about the war on terror under the title: The power of nightmares. Part 1 is at:
http://www.oneplanetonenation.com/ponightmares1.html

The ideological roots of the war on terror are traced back there to Sayeed Kotb, whom some regard as the ultimate ancestor of modern Jihadism, and to Leo Strauss, at the University of Chicago, whom some regard as the ultimate ancestor of what became Neoconservatism.

Another fascinating (and worrying) documentary series produced and written by Adam Curtis is: The century of the self. Part1 is here:
http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=8953172273825999151&q=The+Century+of+the+Self&hl=en

That starts with Freud and goes on to explore the pervasive influence of Edward Bernays, a nephew of Freud who is usually credited with being the founder of the “public relations” profession.

7

Katherine F. 06.02.08 at 10:14 pm

Agreed on the proto-feminism — when I first read The Kraken Wakes (my favourite Wyndham), I kept having to re-check the copyright date. At about the same period when Asimov was giving us housewives in the future, here was Wyndham giving us Phyllis, who works in the same field as her husband and is acknowledged (not least by him) as being better at it than he is. And she takes up bricklaying as a hobby. And is generally smarter and more competent than he is. Delightful.

I thought The Midwich Cuckoos either implied or outright stated that the alien babies were exercising mind control on their mothers? I don’t recall the details. I do recall a scene which seemed to me to strongly imply that one of the women impregnated was a lesbian with a long-term partner, and that everyone in Midwich more or less knew about it. It’s between the lines, not the kind of thing to alert censors, but it’s not presented as odd or wrong. Again, pretty progressive for the 50s.

8

harry b 06.02.08 at 10:16 pm

Katherine — you’re right on both counts, and the recent BBC radio dramatisation picks up very well on the lesbian couple. So, I should not have excluded that novel from the general point.

9

harry b 06.02.08 at 10:18 pm

Bob b — my stepbrother did loads of work on that Adam Curtis documentary, so we have it on tape somewhere.

10

stuart 06.02.08 at 10:22 pm

Bob b, you should probably include The Trap, another Adam Curtis documentary series which pulls together some strands from both the other series and explores some other areas as well: game theory and its (ab)use in economic theories, targets in government and how they ended up being counterproductive, psychology and how a model was developed of the ‘correct’ amount of happiness/sadness/boredom/excitment was defined via computer analysis (which made people behave more like the machines assumed by game theory), the effects of using these models then to try to reform Russia overnight, etc.

While no doubt everyone will question some of his work, conclusion and putative causal links, he always pulls up a lot of interesting material to consider at the least.

11

Bob B 06.02.08 at 10:42 pm

Stuart: “[Adam Curtis] always pulls up a lot of interesting material to consider at the least.”

Anyone coming to Adam Curtis’s BBC2 documentaries afresh can (? often) argue about the interpretation of events or his emphasis, I would expect, but I certainly admit to learning much from the two series at the links I posted at #6 above.

I did know of: The Trap, which was more familiar territory to me with a background in economics and an interest in politics but I suspect viewers without some social science priors might find it tough going in parts. Part 1 of The Trap is here:

12

Katherine F. 06.02.08 at 10:55 pm

The Trap made me reconsider my love for Yes, Minister. Considering how deep and fervent my love for Yes, Minister is, that’s saying something.

13

Bob B 06.02.08 at 11:24 pm

Hi Katherine – There are truly some amazing gems stashed away in Youtube and Google Video archives, ranging from mind-stretching hour-long academic lectures for post-grads through hilarious Rowan Atkinson sketches. The froth that comes to the top in the video menu – like: Britain’s got talent – conceals what is deeply buried but there doesn’t seem to be any very reliable systematic way of uncovering the gems apart from trial and error digging.

14

Lad Litter 06.03.08 at 2:38 am

Go ahead and write it Noel! I read avidly John Wyndham’s books in my early teens and think that Day of the Triffids is ripe for a remake – much more so than Planet of the Apes or King Kong.

I’m also an admirer of Philip K Dick, whose career read uncannily like Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout.

15

mijnheer 06.03.08 at 4:31 am

Speaking of that era, does anyone recall the Quatermass programs? Wikipedia says they were television series, but I’m sure I listened to “Quatermass and the Pit” on BBC radio — or could it be my imagination is playing tricks and I read it in book form?

16

mijnheer 06.03.08 at 4:34 am

Probably it was “Journey into Space” that I heard on BBC radio.

17

Matt McIrvin 06.03.08 at 4:49 am

“Quatermass and the Pit” definitely was a TV serial–I saw it on video a few years ago. It still holds up–great, smart, really scary TV science fiction.

18

SG 06.03.08 at 7:23 am

Wyndham a proto-feminist?!! In the two novels I read, a pathetic weak girl is looked after by a sensible middle-aged academic chap! Not only are they plainly just rewrites of his own dodgy fantasies, but there isn’t a feminist line in them (unless a man writing a science fiction novel with a girl in it was considered feminist at that time). Whatever next? Dr. Who as model of post-feminist gender relations?

19

bad Jim 06.03.08 at 7:44 am

I think the Berkeley public library shelved his books under “Harris”. They were pretty intolerant of aliases; Stenhal got relabled “Beyle”.

“Soon you’ll attain the stability you strive for
in the only way that it’s granted” – words are vastly more memorable with a tune attached, and perhaps more so if Grace Slick’s is the voice in your ear.

20

bad Jim 06.03.08 at 7:51 am

Stendhal of course, and the lyrics are from “Crown of Creation”, for the few readers who aren’t Airplane fans.

21

Chris Bertram 06.03.08 at 8:38 am

I absolutely love Wyndham. The short stories are excellent too. I think The Chrysalids was my first, when I was about 10, and I munched my way through the rest pretty fast after that and then repeated, several times. Come to think of it The Chrysalids may be his very best with its brilliant depiction of a post-apocalyptic fundie world.

22

Bob B 06.03.08 at 10:05 am

Anyone here with credible explanations for the perennial – and verging on universal – appeal of Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951)?

Of course, there are the envisaged “unintended” and horrifying consequences of prescient unexpected scientific advances and technological break-throughs, all originally motivated for what seemed to be compelling but well-intended reasons. But Wyndham’s narrative also fits in the genre of dystopian fiction – like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) – which explore what reversion to a Hobbesian state of nature could entail.

In that, Wyndham implicitly (and plausibly IMO) rejected Rousseau’s benign notion of the noble savage unconstrained by the imperatives and institutions of civil society. For Wyndham, as for Hobbes, life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish and short. His many readers appear to endorse the credibility of that vision. The paradox, perhaps, is that Wyndham nevertheless continues to embody “liberal” values in his leading characters despite pressures for authoritarian solutions to social dislocations.

23

Chris Bertram 06.03.08 at 11:30 am

_In that, Wyndham implicitly (and plausibly IMO) rejected Rousseau’s benign notion of the noble savage unconstrained by the imperatives and institutions of civil society. For Wyndham, as for Hobbes, life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish and short._

Rousseau’s view was plainly that human beings, _as they had developed in society_ would act exactly as Hobbes predicted in the absence of state authority. So Wyndham, telling us that life _for such creatures_ would be nasty etc. can’t be said to be endorsing Hobbes over Rousseau.

24

Bob B 06.03.08 at 11:48 am

Chris, OK I’ll settle for your interpretation of Wyndham but then the observed facts hardly support Rousseau’s vision of what state of nature would prevail among humans without previous experience of the institutions of civil society.

Consider these redent hostile displays in aerial pictures of an isolated tribe in Brazil:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_pictures/7426869.stm

And this report in today’s news:

“Neolithic age men fought over women too, according to a study that provides the most ancient evidence of the lengths men will go to in the hunt for partners. . . “
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/main.jhtml?view=DETAILS&grid=&xml=/earth/2008/06/03/scimen103.xml

For all that, Wyndham clearly took a dystopian view of how most humans would behave absent currently prevailing contraints of civil society. And his popular appeal suggests that his interpretation resonates with many readers..

25

jayann 06.03.08 at 1:29 pm

not all that proto-feminist (link to the text here)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consider_Her_Ways

26

Chris Bertram 06.03.08 at 1:51 pm

Bob, my point is not to defend Rousseau here, but to say that your observation re Wyndham doesn’t support to point about Rousseau you made. As it happens, the links in your latest comment wouldn’t bother Rousseau either. As he writes in the Discourse on Inequality:

_As soon as men began to value one another, and the idea of consideration had got a footing in the mind, every one put in his claim to it, and it became impossible to refuse it to any with impunity. Hence arose the first obligations of civility even among savages; and every intended injury became an affront; because, besides the hurt which might result from it, the party injured was certain to find in it a contempt for his person, which was often more insupportable than the hurt itself. Thus, as every man punished the contempt shown him by others, in proportion to his opinion of himself, revenge became terrible, and men bloody and cruel. This is precisely the state reached by most of the savage nations known to us…._

(This immediately after a passage about the emergence of sexual jealousy etc.)

27

jayann 06.03.08 at 2:03 pm

(That is, not that feminist.)

28

harry b 06.03.08 at 2:21 pm

jayann – I know the story, and it strikes me much more as a(nother) exploration of the nightmare of advanced technology given our inability to control it. In The Chrysalids, men (in a vividly patriarchal society) are to blame for the vicious culture that ensues after some sort of nuclear holocaust. So I don’t think that there’s any sort of anti-feminist side to Consider Her Ways, and, in fact, it is interesting to have a middle aged man in the 1950s imagining an all-female society. The documentary attributes his attitude to women to the schooling he had at Bedales, a famously progressive co-educational school in which girls and boys got the same education. It also talks about his keen awareness of the way that social norms and practices restrict women’s career prospects (made very vivid in The Trouble with Lichen, which is my second favourite, actually, after Chocky). In Chocky, although the focus is on a boy and his father (and his mother is very perturbed), the advanced being who communicates with the boy (Chocky) is clearly authoritative in her own community, and is female.

29

Lad Litter 06.03.08 at 3:10 pm

Digressing just for a bit bad jim, but I love that clip of the Airplane doing Crown of Creation on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. It’s on the DVD doco Fly Jefferson Airplane.

Quatermass And The Pit was filmed as 5000 Miles To Earth and while it’s not that great a film, contains the line that critic John Brosnan used for the chapter on 60’s SF in his seminal book Future Tense:
“WE are the Martians!”

30

Grand Moff Texan 06.03.08 at 3:27 pm

Consider these redent hostile displays in aerial pictures of an isolated tribe in Brazil:

The helicopter demon was not welcome, apparently. They don’t need to be sadists to react defensively to a noisy thing in the sky.

If I were an alien and buzzed New York in my Whatever Ship, I should expect to be shot down, or at least shot at.
.

31

Mike 06.03.08 at 3:47 pm

There are some other great BBC documentaries on JohnLocker.com

32

Mr Bill 06.03.08 at 6:09 pm

Say what you will, the ’60s movie of Day of the Triffids with Howard Keel, a savaging of Wyndham’s plot, and a contrived and silly ending (“Salt water dissolves them!”) was just awful.
The BBC 1981 version was much more faithful to the original.

33

MR Bill 06.03.08 at 6:12 pm

And Brian Aldiss somewhere cited Triffids as an example of ‘cozy catastrophe’ wherein most of humanity perishes, but a few survivors will lead a not too bad existence amid the ruins..

34

Bob B 06.03.08 at 6:23 pm

“The helicopter demon was not welcome, apparently. They don’t need to be sadists to react defensively to a noisy thing in the sky.”

As reported, the intrusion was by a light aircraft but you probably have a point.

Evidently, the indigenous uncontacted natives in Brazil tend to assume that alien invaders necessarily have hostile intent but then we tend to assume UFOs or aliens from outer space are probably malevolent or have colonising intentions.

However, Chris here is probably correct too. If the indigenous natives of Brazil were by some chance aware of distant rumours about the fate of the native indians of north America, their reactions become entirely intelligible and rational.

35

PersonFromPorlock 06.03.08 at 6:26 pm

Don’t overlook Wyndham’s “Out of the Deeps” (AKA “The Kraken Wakes”), another of the impending-doom stories the Brits seemed to have a lock on in the 1950s. John Christopher is another forgotten author of such works, notably his “No Blade of Grass,” and Nevil Shute (Nevil Shute Norway), whose “On the Beach” is surely apocalyptic enough, turns out in retrospect to have been astonishingly science fiction-y in most of his ‘mainstream’ works.

All these books are well populated with doughty Britons.

36

Grand Moff Texan 06.03.08 at 6:37 pm

As reported, the intrusion was by a light aircraft but you probably have a point.

I stand corrected.
.

37

roac 06.03.08 at 7:14 pm

Haven’t read either in decades, but I always got John Wyndham and John Christopher mixed up.

(I see from Wikipedia that Christopher is still alive. That was one of several pseudonyms. Real name, Samuel Youd.)

38

SG 06.03.08 at 8:20 pm

Harry, I think that Wyndham probably was trying to represent in “Consider Her Ways” the idea that men are savage and women civilised/civilising. This is hardly feminist. This view is very clear in “Kraken Wakes” where – Wyndham – ah, I mean, his gentle middle-class middle-aged male protagonist regularly has to teach his younger female sidekick about the “harsh realities” of life because, you know, she’s a weak woman and all that.

I really didn’t get a sense of anything except polite condescension in all his novels – towards women and the “lower orders” (same diff I suppose), i.e. anyone not like Wyndham.

39

Nabakov 06.04.08 at 2:47 am

“Wyndham a proto-feminist?!!”

Check out “Trouble With Lichen”, one of his most overlooked, and funniest, novels.

40

Alex 06.04.08 at 8:49 am

The helicopter demon was not welcome, apparently. They don’t need to be sadists to react defensively to a noisy thing in the sky.

If I were an alien and buzzed New York in my Whatever Ship, I should expect to be shot down, or at least shot at.

This is precisely a point made in The Kraken Wakes about the Lovecraftian sea-aliens’ likely reactions to our exploration of the deep.

WRT “Wyndham: proto-feminist or chauvinist pig?”, it’s a long time since I read TKW, but I seem to recall there are quite a few occasions when Phyllis shows out as considerably smarter than wossisname.

41

jayann 06.04.08 at 1:22 pm

Harry B, I accept that Consider Her Ways is perhaps vaguely feminist for its time; but I don’t think it’s about technology, and I agree with sg that it’s filled with patronising attitudes. (I’ll look at The Trouble With Lichen.)

42

Robert Weaver 06.05.08 at 5:50 am

Did anybody else find the sentiments expressed by the “good guys” at the end of The Chrysalids as creepy as I did? All that, “never mind we let those people suffocate, we’re a superior species” stuff?

I’m not suggesting those are Wyndham’s sentiments, mind. He was probably just depicting his characters in a solidly unsentimental way. “Why, yes, they’re technologically advanced psychics – and, also, Nazis.”

From New Zealand, if memory serves.

43

John Quiggin 06.05.08 at 7:00 am

RW They were from New Zealand and I agree, Wyndham was giving the reader a deliberate shock in making the putative good guys even worse than the bad guys (there’s a hint earlier on: even as regards the telepaths, they only care about Petra, the super-powerful little sister).

44

Bob B 06.05.08 at 12:53 pm

Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951) set off something of a subsequent fashion in English writing for what has been termed post-apocalyptic science fiction. Death of Grass, by John Christopher, in the same genre, followed shortly in 1956:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Death_of_Grass

There have been many since. Plant of the Apes (1963), by Pierre Boule, was another in the succession although it’s certainly arguable that credit for starting – or reviving – the genre really belongs to Albert Camus: La Peste (The Plague), published in 1947.

The development of the genre is manifest testimony to its popular appeal but what motivates this extensive appetite for reading about the consequences of catastrophe?

45

Matt McIrvin 06.05.08 at 2:53 pm

Actually, I think that British SF has been particularly attracted to apocalypse for much longer than that. HG Wells smashed up the world in the first great alien-invasion novel, and wrote a melancholy end for humanity in the first great time-travel novel. Even before that, British SF grew out of cautionary tales like “The Battle of Dorking”. I’ve heard speculations that late 20th century British apocalyptic SF was some sort of response to the Blitz and the loss of empire, but it seems to me that it more likely grew out of Victorian and Edwardian anxieties about holding an empire. I’d expect to see a lot of American apocalyptic/dystopian SF being written now, and in fact people often complain that modern American SF is way too depressing.

46

Clive 06.05.08 at 3:21 pm

The Trouble With Lichen is premised on the idea that only women would want to stay young forever, isn’t it? – ie, be obsessed with beauty. Doesn’t sound very feminist to me.

47

Nabakov 06.05.08 at 4:56 pm

“The Trouble With Lichen is premised on the idea that only women would want to stay young forever, isn’t it?”

No. It turns into a quite a sharp edged social satire when the politically, economically and media connected husbands of the women receiving the treatment start wanting it too and so are prepared to start changing laws and public opinion. Which is exactly what the female protagonist of the story had in mind all along.

48

pisher 06.05.08 at 5:00 pm

I’ve never read Wyndham–I’ve just enjoyed all the fine adaptations of his work, including Village of the Damned (from The Midwich Cuckoos) and a lovely British TV adaptation of Chocky. I want to read him, I just never get around to it. I’ve read Olaf Stapledon, though–now there’s a British SF writer whose work NEVER gets adapted to film or TV.

Kneale is one of my heroes, and someone who could write his own teleplays, with consummate skill. He didn’t like being called a science fiction writer–he had this idea that meant space opera, and scantily clad girls wearing space helmets, being menaced by bug-eyed monsters. He was really writing rationalized ghost stories, influenced by the likes of M.R. James. He didn’t fit into any of the convenient little cubbyholes.

Yes, Doctor Who ripped him off, but acceptably. The real culprits were Yanks like Chris (The X-Files) Carter, who stole from him constantly, without so much as a doff of the cap, figuring nobody would notice. Compare the scene from “X-Files: Fight the Future” where Mulder and Scully find the cornfield with a bee-filled dome in it to the scene in “Quatermass 2” where they find the alien dome. It didn’t begin or end there.

John Carpenter actually tried to acknowledge his debt to Kneale when he credited his screenplay for “Prince of Darkness” to a Martin Quatermass. Kneale reportedly did not appreciate the joke. He didn’t like horror movies any more than he liked science fiction. And he was never compatible with Hollywood’s way of doing things.

His post-Quatermass work wasn’t always as good, but sometimes it was better. And he was uncanny at predicting trends–his “The Year of the Sex Olympics” basically predicts the rise of the reality gameshow. Also mass idiocy, but I guess that didn’t require much of a prophet.

49

Nabakov 06.05.08 at 5:13 pm

“Actually, I think that British SF has been particularly attracted to apocalypse for much longer than that. “

Certainly from Richard Jeffries’ “After London” onwards. A Ballardian novel nearly a hundred years before people started using phrases like ‘Ballardian’.

50

Nabakov 06.05.08 at 5:26 pm

Tis also interesting to note this amazing outpouring of enduring British fantasy/SF?metaphorical writing during the 1940s. Just a short list would include ‘The Gormenghast Trilogy’, ‘Lord of the Rings’, CS Lewis’ Ransome Trilogy and Narnia series, TH White’s ‘The Once And Future King’ and ‘1984′.

Wyndham, Kneale and co were baptised in that river.

51

Righteous Bubba 06.05.08 at 5:26 pm

“Actually, I think that British SF has been particularly attracted to apocalypse for much longer than that. ”

Call me crazy, but I would be interested to read speculation as to why this might be so.

52

Nabakov 06.05.08 at 5:27 pm

Tis also interesting to note this amazing outpouring of enduring British fantasy/SF/metaphorical writing during the 1940s. Just a short list would include ‘The Gormenghast Trilogy’, ‘Lord of the Rings’, CS Lewis’ Ransome Trilogy and Narnia series, TH White’s ‘The Once And Future King’ and ‘1984′.

Wyndham, Kneale and co were certainly baptised in that flood tide.

53

pisher 06.05.08 at 6:05 pm

For sheer breadth of vision, combined with thoughtful melancholy humanism, nobody can top Olaf Stapledon.

Last and First Men is a bit intimidating, but Odd John and Sirius remain warm and accessible.

Sirius in particular is a book no serious dog lover should miss–and by serious, I mean seriously interested in how the world might look to a dog with high-level human intelligence.

I’d assume British SF/Fantasy simply reflected the dominating trends in British literary and academic life at the time. Reflected and affected.

54

pablo 06.05.08 at 8:58 pm

I honestly thought Windham was a woman with a male pen name, like Tiptree.

Trouble With Lichen is hilarious.

55

johnf 06.07.08 at 11:29 am

Richard Jeffries through HG Wells and Olaf Stapledon to Wyndham and Nigel Kneale and going through perhaps into film-makers like Derek Jarman and writers like psychogeographers like Iain Sinclair all have apocalyptic tones but often also deep rural romanticism.

I suspect the post war lot were quite influenced by wartime neo-romanticism.

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