Vincent O’Sullivan (Photo: Grant Maiden Photography)
Vincent O’Sullivan (Photo: Grant Maiden Photography)

BooksApril 30, 2024

Moe mai rā: Tributes to Vincent O’Sullivan

Vincent O’Sullivan (Photo: Grant Maiden Photography)
Vincent O’Sullivan (Photo: Grant Maiden Photography)

Writer, teacher and academic Vincent O’Sullivan died on Sunday 28 April. Here we gather tributes from friends, colleagues, and students who remember his extraordinary contributions.

I went down to the garage tonight. There was a bird shrieking out in the bush, in the dark, maybe a kākā. Miraculously, through the detritus of decades, I found my undergraduate essays safe in a plastic tub. Discuss the tension between private self and public image in Mrs Dalloway.

I was in Vincent’s 300 level class at VUW in 1995, a course on the contemporary novel. I have such a clear, hard feeling of sitting in that lecture theatre, as though I could swing through the door and step back into the room: Vincent in his customary shirt, no tie, dark suit jacket, his rich voice threading us through, in, around the argument. We read Tess of the D’Ubervilles, Cloudstreet, Mrs. Dalloway. Let The River Stand had been published by then. I read it, discomforted, unequal to it at nineteen. Later, it was the apricots and bees from Being Here that got inside my head, never left.

We knew Vincent was a writer. I had a fledgling’s hunger. Any praise from him meant more. He did encourage, in a measured, precise way, but there was nothing gushy about him. ‘Think harder’, was the gist, always in a way that made you feel warmed, extended, seen.

Down in the garage, under the leaky light, I’m trying to read his tiny, spidery handwriting. Some warm-enough adjectives, and then some emphatic underlining:

Is it quite necessary, though, to be forced into the kind of division most criticism confronts one with doesn’t Woolf’s deliberate method of writing emphasise the flow of experience, the impossibility of rest or conclusion, and so, implicitly, the falsity of any claim that ‘this or that is the case?’  that any life is a process rather than a conclusion, without the stability or essence we normally assume?

Vincent O’Sullivan’s handwriting, his commentary for Kate Duignan.

The next real conversations I had with Vincent might have been over 20 years later, when we were in the Ockhams together: Vincent for the brilliant, never comfortable All This By Chance. We crossed Aotea Square in the bright May sunshine. What was I writing? Had I thought about this opportunity, or this one? I was fledgling all over again.

After the awards, we fell into a bar with the rest of the VUP authors. It was late, there had been disappointments. There was nothing exhausted about Vincent that night: he was all fire, all edge. He was eighty-one that year, and it might have been easy to think Chance would be a last book. There was the Hotere biography, the merciless and glittering Mary’s Boy Jean Jacques, and forthcoming collection Still Is to come. All process, no rest, no conclusion. / Kate Duignan

Vince was a mentor and friend from the day I arrived at Victoria University of Wellington in 2005. Too many conversations, too many memories but now the sadness for his passing is chocking me silent.  

Last time we met and talked was in the lobby of the hotel we stayed for the Auckland Writers Festival in 2022. We checked in at the same time and at the same were asked by staff at reception if it were “just us” checking in… and at the same time we turned and looked behind and around us, and laughed out loud – a pair of lonely loonies they must have thought… 

Now that he has checked out for good, am all the lonelier – and all the loonier. Some years ago, Sydney Shep and I asked Vince to write a poem inspired by Giotto’s painting of St Francis preaching to the Birds. He obliged and wrote this gem: 


Giotto has one late-comer swooping down
From a broccoli tree, another arrives on time
For the morning’s message, the saint’s drab gown

Within brushing inches of his feathered brothers,
Forgetful of pecking order, on song
For the holy fun of flocking at what others

Lined up for in churches – so simple and clear
In their open spaces where grace notes fall
Like grain Francis is gifting the living air,

Amore, the word wings in at his human call. 

Vince’s witty words will wing on, like a Carnival that lasts all year long, translating our mortal life into an everlasting song. St. Francis Preaching to the Birds, 1297 – 1299 – Giotto – / Marco Sonzogni

I’m so grateful to have seen Vincent in action at his Verb Readers & Writers Festival event in 2022, when he was on fine form in conversation with Noelle McCarthy, and so sorry that this encounter turns out to be the last. Others who knew him better will speak to the extraordinary breadth and depth of his scholarship and the range of his creative gifts, which seem to have spanned every genre. In anticipation of more capacious tributes, for now I just want to record his wicked way with the well-crafted anecdote and the critical remark in conversation, which could make you laugh and wince at the same time. A conversation with Vincent was always enlivening and enlarging. I once wrote a launch “speech” for  a book of his poems that used only his poem titles. He was kind enough not to tell me what he thought of that approach, although I don’t doubt he shared his views with others. We just need to read Vincent’s poems to keep hearing that distinctive voice. I imagine him trolling the inhabitants of whatever space he has moved on to with a glint in his eye. Chris Price

Having been devastated by a passage in Vincent’s amazing All this by Chance and knowing he lived in Dunedin, I emailed him and we began meeting for morning tea at his house in Port Chalmers. From the beginning, understanding his eminence, I bought morning tea. Date scones. We drank tea with milk and ate the scones with butter. We talked about our work and what we were reading. Vincent had good gossip and we liked to run down certain key holding twits on the scene. When I left we always shook hands at the front door. Usually I had a book Vincent had lent me. Right now at home I have some CDs of Wiliam Faulkner reading. Faulkner was Vincent’s favourite  He also liked watching rugby and was horrified and intrigued by Trump. He was always smartly dressed and if we sat outside he wore an old peaked hat. The glasses, the slight tremor, the smile in his eyes, the thing he did with his lips just before he unloaded some especially juicy gossip. A truly great New Zealand writer. For me,  our best ever male short story writer. A kind, decent ferociously intelligent man who I will miss.Breton Dukes

Those of us at Katherine Mansfield House & Garden and the wider community of Mansfield readers were saddened to hear this morning of the passing of Sir Vincent O’Sullivan in Ōtepoti Dunedin at the age of 86. As part of his huge contribution to New Zealand literature as a writer and editor, Sir Vincent enriched the understanding and enjoyment of Katherine Mansfield’s life and work through publications such as Katherine Mansfield’s New Zealand, Katherine Mansfield: New Zealand Stories, Katherine Mansfield: Poems and the five volumes of Mansfield’s collected letters co-edited with Margaret Scott. Sir Vincent was the 1994 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellow and at an event at the 2020 WORD Festival in Ōtautahi Christchurch, Vincent was one of five previous Menton Fellows to read a letter they had written to Mansfield. Sir Vincent ended his letter, “At times it is difficult, Katherine, to hear or see you straight out and plain, through the buzzing of the academic hives and the flickers of critical fashion. But one thing which never changes, you made yourself utterly on your own terms and every minute counted.” Our thoughts are with Sir Vincent’s family and friends and the literary community of Aotearoa, who are mourning the loss of a great writer and intellect, someone who also made every minute count through his incredible output as a poet, fiction writer, essayist, biographer, editor and academic. Vale Sir Vincent.Cherie Jacobson, Director, Katherine Mansfield House & Garden

The first Vincent O’Sullivan book I read was his novel Believers to the Bright Coast, a text set for one of my undergraduate English literature papers. The striking cover ­– a fluorescent lime green car set against a stark block of purple – was as unexpected as the novel’s twists and thrills. It became one of my favourite books from that period of study, but more importantly it’s what led me to Vincent’s poetry, his first published form and what I grew to enjoy the most. His gift of storytelling, coupled with a formidable intellect, is what makes each of his poetry collections something to savour and revisit, to see and understand how curiosity is a poet’s most steadfast muse. Our one and only meeting in person took place on the windy Wellington waterfront between Writers and Readers Festival sessions in 2018. It was a brief encounter – a warm handshake and some generous words from Vincent that left me starstruck and filled with confidence as a young writer. Vincent has left us with a staggering body of work spanning forms and genres that will be rightly celebrated, but above all it’s the memories of his kindness and support that many of us will treasure. Chris Tse

Vincent O’Sullivan at Verb Readers & Writers Festival 2022 (Photo: Rebecca McMillan)

Vincent once told me his daughter said he had the looks of an Irish bookie. So true! A bookie, I think, with a touch of the priest. A decorous man who gave off the feeling that at any moment he could rip everything up. At 86, Vincent was ‘still all there’, a cliché he might have used as the title of a poem or story. He relished cliché. So we’re mourning someone whose life touched the past—see his beautiful essay ‘On Longing’ for an astonishing picture of old Auckland — but also someone vividly our contemporary. Someone still full of rage and eloquence and mischief.

Chance meetings were mostly my lot with Vince. There was a tiny Catholic crackle between us maybe. I have the impression that the collar of his winter coat was always turned up. He liked dirty jokes and vicious gossip. A hit and run conversationalist. It was great to bump into him. He was always ready. Quick and gleeful. When he left Wellington to live in Dunedin, he sold a lot of his books to Quilter’s. His name was in them all, a very tight neat hand. Auden, Spender, Eliot. I imagine him dry-eyed tossing the slim volumes into cardboard boxes.

He sort of pretended to be an ordinary person, as if composing libretti was next to panel-beating when they were doing career guidance at Vincent’s school. He feared pretension and spoke of writing as something you just ‘did’. No biggie. His later poems, which came in a remarkable flow, are often made of normal-sounding speech within fractured narratives. It’s as if an ordinary person (albeit with an education in the Classics) is speaking from the bottom of a well in a play about Hell. The poems all have ominous titles like ‘What Do We Do in Summer?’ (There’s a thesis to be written on the O’Sullivan question mark.) You have to listen carefully to work out where the jokes are. Is it okay to also say Vincent wasn’t a very animated or helpful reader of his own work? The laughter from the audience was always tentative. Vincent was usually stony-faced. It could be hilarious, but only in retrospect.

Forgive this next bit of disloyalty too but I always thought his ‘writers aren’t special’ line to be an understandably disingenous survival tactic. It allowed him to pass, even when he had the shameful title of Professor of English. (Jokes about academics were part of Vince’s act.) His aggressive demystifying of writing was answered in work of invigorating difficulty. See his brilliant last novel, All This by Chance. If self-importance was a horror, the testing of the importance of a self was what literature was for. He wanted to set people in motion, whether in the poems, the plays, the novels, or even the scholarship, where he was especially drawn to heroic artistic figures who didn’t say much (Hotere) or who appeared as mysterious (John Mulgan). The biographical approach was to gather the data carefully and, unfashionably, leave the mystery or the question mark in place. The fiction worked similarly. ‘There is no “underlying message” beyond the lives themselves,’ Vincent said in a recent interview about his characters. As a masterful reader himself, he can hardly have been telling us not to pay attention. It would be good if more readers now did enter ‘the lives themselves’ of his capacious imagination. This man who said he wanted writers to be seen as nothing special was, of course, very special.

Years ago I chaired a session with Vincent at the Arts Festival. I tried and tried but in the end he gracefully and wittily deflected anything that he deemed too personal (‘I’m not good enough at fiction to write my autobiography etc’). Fair play. It was good fun. It was all right. And then I went home and read his great  and haunting poem about the impossibility of death, ‘The Child in the Gardens: Winter’, and cried like a baby. Damien Wilkins

When I read Helen’s message about Vincent’s passing early this morning, before it fully dawned on me what had happened, I briefly felt the banal irritation of unfinished business. I had Vincent’s book, Mary’s Boy, Jean-Jacques, and Other Stories, on my bedside table. It contained Vincent’s novella with his take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and I still had some questions that only he could answer. It’s impossible to do justice to Vincent’s scholarly and artistic achievement at this very moment, but I have to tell you briefly how extraordinary he was. Always self-deprecating about his prodigious outputs, Vincent wrote faster than I could read, and he never avoided difficult topics, often focusing on the human capacity for inhumanity, the banality of evil, and the fleetingly fragile moments of grace and beauty which sustain all of us in the end. In Shuriken, All This By Chance, and the John Mulgan biography, he addresses the horrors of war by never forgetting that the traumatic details of individual lives are all we have access to. In July 2016 Vincent went to stay with father in Belgium and together they visited Passendale, Ieper, and the many other memorial World War I sites. They got on like a house on fire, and they met several more times, here in Wellington and in Dunedin.

The first time I heard from Vincent was on 7 April 1990 when he sent me a handwritten welcome letter in his capacity as Head of the English Department at Victoria University. I still have it. He underlined the word ‘collect’ at the end when he urged me to ring him at home if I had any more questions. That generosity characterized my relationship with Vincent: not only did he give me books, his own and those he valued as a scholar, like his copy of Mary Warnock’s Imagination, he also advised me on my own writing, always introducing me to yet another text which might elucidate what I wanted to say. I went over some of his emails this morning, reminding myself of Vincent’s relaxed intelligence, referring to Wallace Stevens’ ‘humanizing earthiness’ despite all the ‘baroque diversions’. And: ‘You can’t ever imagine Milton speaking as a necessary equal to anyone except the Holy Ghost.’ The first book I bought when I got to Wellington in June 1990 was Vincent’s short story collection The Snow in Spain, a book which introduced me to Vincent’s unsparing gaze at pretentious posturing and the trappings of domestic unhappiness. Like Katherine Mansfield, whose work he knew like no other, he invested the smallest detail with the most significance, a technique he used to great effect in his poetry. Responsive to a global range of poets (Akhmatova, Seferis, Kavafy, Rilke), Vincent often grafted a poem on a reading experience. His knowledge of writers was cogent and informed, he was a formidable researcher, even when he made light of the work that went into it. His satirical poems often targeted academic bluster, as in ‘Plane People’ (from The movie may be slightly different) where carbon-spewing literati compare notes on taking topics in the ‘eco-direction’ while planning the next ‘gig’.

But the Vincent I will miss most is the thoughtful, supportive friend. The friend who would stop by in my office at University and tell me about new books he had read, about Oscar Wilde and James Joyce. The friend who would introduce me to colleagues from other departments who became friends in turn. Only last year he drew my attention to Katherine Mansfield’s interest in the Dutch novelist Louis Couperus, encouraging me to write something about it. Vincent’s later poems allow more glimpses of conversations with children, walking the dog, overhearing a conversation on the bus, a phone call about an umbrella, looking at something (Manet’s barmaid), highlighting domestic happiness. He loved flowers. In April 2007, a beautiful autumn weekend, we visited Helen and Vincent when they were living at Henderson House in Alexandra. Our son Dugal, almost five at the time, loved hanging out with Vincent, collecting walnuts, getting the fire going, talking about the number of cats which used to live in the house. He doesn’t remember the visit when I asked him about it today. Seeing my disappointed surprise he said ‘but I do remember taking Norman (the dog) for a walk in Dunedin, and it was just me and Vincent, we had a good talk.’ I bet he did. Vincent would send postcards from overseas, addressed to Dugal, of trains and dogs. He gave him funny little presents, sunglasses with dinosaur holograms, a light-up pen with a skull which he called ‘Mr Bones’. Helen and Vincent’s hospitality was always just right, warm and reassuring. The last couple of years we talked on the phone, not often enough, with occasional emails. Vincent deplored the gradual loss of the humanities subjects in the University, particularly of European languages and literatures. I always thought of him as an extraordinary New Zealander, grounded in his language and culture, but outward looking, embracing the world, warts and all. He and Helen so made me feel at home, and I will miss him very much.Heidi Thomson

The evening of the day Vincent O’Sullivan died, I took all my ‘Vincent books’ from our bookshelves and piled them on the kitchen table. A tower. And I thought, perhaps that’s all that needs to be said about Vincent: a tower. A beacon in the landscape, a point of reference for fellow travellers. But also, I realised, one who tows – a notion that contains the idea of leading the way, carving out a passage, but also conjures a sense of slog, of difficult work, of persistence and determination. I missed Vincent with a pang right then. Wordplay, even terrible puns, was catnip to his conversationalist self; he would have come back immediately with something much better and the game would be on. His was a livewire mind, interested in everything. He was decisive and incisive. He could be derisive. He was also, quietly, a kind and exceptionally generous mentor figure to aspiring writers. Complacency, and literary or intellectual laziness were terrible to him. He wanted people to think and keep on thinking, to grow and keep on growing.

I picked the top book off the top of the Vincent tower. It happened to be his 2011 poetry collection The Movie may be Slightly Different (such a Vincent title!). I opened it, by happenstance to the poem ‘The difference eulogy makes’. And I find I want to tell him this: Actually, in your case Vincent, it is amazing how many tributes spring to mind. How many real tributes, honestly spoken. This lake of grief we’ve all fallen into – it’s no flamingo pond. It’s deep, heavy, complex, nuanced, serious. You will be sorely missed. / Sue Wootton

I first met Vincent when he pulled up outside our house in Huntly one day in the mid-1960s, dressed in black leathers and riding a motorbike. I was a teenager and he had come to see my mother. My memory wants to include the detail that he was wearing a dog collar under his leathers but that may be fanciful; perhaps Lauris told me he was raised a Catholic and had at one time considered going to study in a seminary. Many years later, he surprised me with one of the nicest writing compliments I’ve ever received — praising what he called my ‘love of ordinariness’. But all the well-deserved adulation he is receiving should not obscure the fact that he was, when he felt he needed to be, a hard-knuckle scrapper in literary battles. I know a couple of stories, better not told here, which would still, even now, raise a few eyebrows and more than a few hackles as well. Martin Edmond

I knew Vincent O’Sullivan when he was the Director of the Stout Research Centre at Victoria University in 2000. I was a resident scholar there. Vincent’s support, and that of the centre, made it possible for me to write my first book – Print and Politics (VUP 2001) and thus launch my career as a labour historian.
Eminent scholar and writer though he was, there was nothing pretentious about Vincent. He was not on any academic or literary pedestal. As his friend Graeme Lay put it on Newshub News (29 April), Vincent was a practical person who just got on with it.
The brainchild of its first director, Jock Phillips, the Stout Research Centre was established to provide a congenial home for writers and scholars who worked outside universities. It was largely focused on New Zealand studies in the broadest sense. It provides one 12 month paid fellowship and rooms and resources for residents who are not remunerated.
At the end of 1999, I left my paid employment to write a commissioned history of the printing industry unions in New Zealand. They were among the first trade unions formed here. Their archives going back to the early 1860s were deposited in the Victoria University Library.
I needed a place to work close to these archives. At a labour history seminar in late 1999 about the visit to New Zealand by the great Afro-American singer, actor and communist, Paul Robieson, I met Vincent. I told him about my project and asked about getting a room at the Stout. He was friendly and positive and it came to pass. Like other residents, I got an office (which I shared with Stephen Hamilton who was writing the centennial history of the Victoria University of Wellington Students Association), a computer, access to resources like photocopying and access to the University Library.
Vincent’s leadership of the Stout as director showed his commitment to others working in a wide range of fields in the study of NZ society and culture. His high standing as a scholar and writer brought mana to the Stout Research Centre.
Vincent had a dry sense of humour. I was talking to him one day about a particular writer and asked how he could pay his bills. “It helps to have been gifted a block of flats, Peter,” he said.
As well as being director of the Stout, Vincent was a professor in the university’s English department. He returned to the Stout one day and reported that his colleagues were considering developing their programmes into new fields. It was suggested that the department could teach journalism. “What do we know about journalism?” Vincent enquired.
“We all write book reviews,” was the reply. Those of us present when he told this story fell about laughing. Vincent gave one of his wonderful smiles. / Peter Franks
I rang Vincent up a few years back, a complete cold-call with a question about his play Shuriken set in the Featherston prisoner of war camp. We were on the phone for an hour and he kept in touch with follow-ups. When I first started writing he was incredibly generous, encouraging me in ways that were important and unseen. I know I’m not the only one he did that for. He was great to talk to about the whole thing of being a writer – he refused entirely to glamorize it, but he was very aware of, and sympathetic to, the juggle involved trying to make a living out of writing, as well as trying to make good work. He emailed me when I came into some funding: “I always like to remember Wallace Stevens’ remark that ‘money too is a kind of poetry.’”
He was so kind and so funny and so quick, and he had a mischief in him. I was only thinking of him in Kilmainham Gaol last week – the last time we met we talked about Roger Casement, the doomed revolutionary of 1916, caught by the British on Banna Strand, not far from the O’Sullivan ancestral home in Tralee, trying to smuggle in guns for The Easter Rising. He recited one of Casement’s last speeches to me, verbatim in a Wellington cafe. Vincent wore his scholarship lightly, you forgot sometimes the kind of firepower you were dealing with.
I am so grateful for Vincent’s wisdom and his jokes and his decency, and like all of his readers, for the brilliance and the extraordinary depth and breadth of his work. / Noelle McCarthy
One of the many things that have struck me reading the beautiful tributes to Vincent in various media outlets since his death on the 28th April, and which is a testament to his generous and warm character, is how he made so many people feel truly valued and special. He was a careful listener, a witty raconteur, a writer of immense talent and scope, but fundamentally he was genuinely interested in you as a person, not as a writer necessarily, but who you were, where you came from, what you were thinking, what your experience was. He was a true “gentle” man. 

I met Vincent shortly after moving to Dunedin in 2014 to take up the Burns Fellowship at Otago University, and having many things in common, most particularly Ireland, and Irish literature and history, we hit it off. Over the next ten years he became a loyal and dear friend, a supervisor for my PhD, a mentor and advisor; and when I was unsure of myself or the direction of a particular project, a champion and encourager of my writing. We would meet in the Otago Museum café where nine times out of ten he would order a sausage roll, and it never took much to convince him to share a post-lunch slice as he had quite the sweet tooth. He had a love of what we call in Ireland a bit of “sca,” also known as scandal/news, which encompassed the NZ literary world, family and friends. We often exchanged books, and sometimes he’d even bring along ones he didn’t like to see what I thought of them. I remember one day when I asked him what he was working on, he told me it was a story about Frankenstein’s monster. He chuckled and said something like: ‘ah it’s probably a bit daft,’ but coincidentally Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of my favourite books, and like Vincent, I thought her ending ambiguous and well-disposed for reinvention. Why wouldn’t the monster end up in Fiordland? Typical of his generosity, after he finished Mary’s Boy, Jean-Jacques, he gave me the encyclopaedia on all things Frankenstein that he’d used for research.  

He loved Irish literature – all the big boys of course – Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, Synge but he was also deeply interested in what was going on in contemporary Irish literature, particularly the Irish short story, which, in conjunction with my own short story collection, is what I was doing my doctoral thesis on. He had seen Claire Keegan at Auckland Writers’ Festival in 2011 and greatly admired her work. In fact, her recent short story So Late in the Day was one of the last books he loaned me. 

When he moved to Port Chalmers a few years ago we met up more frequently. He’d come for lunch at ours, or I’d pop into his and wife Helen’s beautiful house overlooking Mount Cargill, on the veranda where, in the warmer months, he liked to muse and write. We’d meet at Carey’s Bay Hotel where I’d always try to reserve a window seat by the fire, so we could watch the changing moods and colours of the bay, and like all good friends, put the world to right. 

Apart from books and writing, he loved rugby, and we watched a couple of Ireland V the All Blacks matches. During one, a friend and I were shouting so loudly for Ireland we had Vincent’s poor dog Walter howling with confusion and fright, something he found greatly amusing. Ireland won on that occasion, but on another, the All Blacks did, and while Vincent was magnanimous in victory or defeat, it was very obvious that his loyalty lay firmly in the New Zealand quarter. 

He loved all kinds of music, and we shared a great appreciation of Mozart. When we met up with another writer friend one time and somehow Mozart’s Requiem came into the conversation, our friend said that they found it a bit overly dramatic. I said I wouldn’t mind having it performed at my funeral, and Vincent said neither would he. While in the end he didn’t choose the much-celebrated Requiem, he chose Mozart’s equally soulful and haunting Laudate Dominum from Vesperae Solennes de Confessore for his beautiful Requiem Mass in Wellington on the 3rd May.

The last time I visited Vincent was at his house before leaving for Ireland in late March. I told him I’d be going to Co. Kerry with my sister for a weekend while there, and he was hugely interested. At his funeral, his daughter Deirdre and son Dominic mentioned his deep and abiding connection to Ireland and Kerry. He once told me he loved to listen to radio Kerry, perhaps the distinctive and melodious cadence of the accent reminded him of his father and other Irish family members in Auckland growing up. I brought him lamingtons for morning tea that day; we ate many over the time we knew each other. Even though he was very frail, as I was leaving, he got up slowly from the couch and walked me a little bit down the corridor, and said: ‘won’t you take the rest of the lamingtons home with you?’ ‘Ah no, you keep them’ I said, knowing how much he loved them. With a smile and twinkle in his eyes he said, ‘Okay then, I might have some more.’  

I will miss you enormously, Vincent. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam. / Majella Cullinane

This page will be updated as more tributes flow in.

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