A Trickster Vote

Tuesday 8th November 2016. One of the woollen blankets in my room has a label which must date it to wartime. ‘National Price Controlled Blanket No. 620. Selling Price to Public incl. P. tax 43/10.’

***

I’m reading about gender when an 80s computer joke suggests itself.

‘I’m not on a gender spectrum. I’m on a gender BBC Micro. Slightly less fun; does lots of homework.’

‘And the buttons are more fun to press’ adds @celestialweasal on Twitter.

It’s true about the keyboard buttons on the ZX Spectrum. They were horrible, rubbery little things, betraying the computer’s main image as a games console rather than a creative tool. BBC Micros looked more like typewriters, and tended to be associated with schools.

***

Evening: I watch the US election result come in, and despair. I’m convinced there’s a large amount of voters whose sole attitude is along the lines of ‘Tee hee! What am I like?’

A trickster vote.  A Dark Knight vote: ‘Some people just want to watch the world burn’

A message from T in New York:

I am somewhere between numbness and pure terror. I’m reminded of 2000 and 2004 except I was really too young then to truly understand. Not so now. In retrospect Bush looks almost like a bumbling racist grandpa that you tolerate.

The next day, he goes to his job as a teacher:

My students were crying. I cried.

A few days after this, I get an equally distressed letter from S in Pittsburgh. She wants to mark her feelings on paper, as this is history:

I remember the night Obama won in 2008I heard a roar outside and looked out of my window to see a flood of young people pouring into the streets and racing towards the campus… So much joy. How could the same country elect Donald Trump? … If the worse should happen, on behalf of America, Dickon, I’m sorry.

It’s partly written on the back of a voting card, with the ‘I VOTED’ sticker attached.

I think about the difference in voting over here. The English don’t do ‘I VOTED’ stickers, perhaps because they have the hint of a child surviving a trip to the dentist’s (‘I AM A GOOD PATIENT’).

Then there’s that phrase one only sees on US election materials: ‘PAID FOR BY…’ It seems to jump out all the more, given the winner was a man whose chief qualification for the job was that he can just pay his way out of trouble, and into success. Mr Trump glitters, from his golden hair to his golden elevators. His voters are thought to be mostly the poor and disenfranchised. They see Midas, but forget about how the story ended.

I try to be optimistic. Perhaps this will expose the folly of present thinking. Perhaps people will finally stop regarding the super-rich as gods, and start questioning the role of wealth in the first place. There has to be a point when even Republicans accept that capitalism can go too far. Perhaps this will be it. I hope so.

***

Wednesday 9th November 2016. Reading Mr Trump’s messages on Twitter. On top of everything else, he is a man who uses unnecessary exclamation marks. That’s never a good sign.

***

Friday 11th November 2016. Leonard Cohen dies, as if by way of reaction to it all. Tributes are soon reported everywhere as ‘flooding in’, a cliché that sets my teeth on edge. Do tributes ever do anything else? It seems all the more of an insult when reporting the death of a wordsmith.

I read some of the Cohen articles, and wince at the use of ‘famously’ in all of them. It’s a natural enough word to use in conversation, but it can weaken a piece of prose. Fame is subjective, so ‘famously’ is ultimately redundant. In print, it risks the author coming across as too eager to please.

‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, though; that’s how to do it.

As it is, the only famous thing many people know about Mr Cohen is ‘Hallelujah’. Its success is really down to John Cale’s version, which in turn inspired Jeff Buckley’s take. A sparse arrangement, letting the words breathe. Cohen’s original is virtually unlistenable through its bland over-production, like many of his 80s recordings. If you cover ‘Hallelujah’, you are almost certainly improving on the original.

Tonight I walk through Trafalgar Square at night. A busker is singing ‘Hallelujah’. He’s over-emoting it – the X-Factor factor. But by the time I cross to the other side of the square, I’m close to tears.

***

Evening: to Vout’s for the launch of Rising 67, the long-running punkish poetry fanzine. Still an A5 paper object, still seemingly untouched by the iPhone era. Though some of the poets reading tonight use their phones to read their work. Rising is now collected as a full run in the British Library. Its editor, Tim Wells, illustrates the poems with images from old magazines, sometimes rather risqué ones. On the back of the new issue is a 1970s public information advert for syphilis. It refers to bell-bottoms.

***

Saturday 12th November 2016. Evening: to the Tate Modern for The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection. One way of escaping the ubiquity of photograph-taking is to visit a whole exhibition of the things: photography by visitors is banned. However, one wonders just how many selfies made into three-dimensional objects, whether mounted in a family album, or as in this case, printed and framed and hung on a rock star’s bedroom wall. In the accompanying audio guide – recommended in this instance – Sir Elton tells how he became a collector shortly after coming out of rehab in the early 1990s. A damaging habit was replaced by a healthier one: collecting innovative 1920s and 1930s prints. His tastes are for the glamorous and sensual world of Man Ray and Edward Weston, along with the homoerotic tableaux of George Platt Lynes and Carl Van Vechten. I’m surprised there’s nothing by Herbert List.

Sir Elton is also drawn to Dorothea Lange’s portraits of people in the Depression. Lange’s subjects seem ready for magazine covers, so photogenic they are, despite or perhaps because of their grim backdrops. These are still works of art as much as historical documents. The boy in ‘One of the Homeless Wandering Boys’ (1934) resembles a teenage pin up. On the audio guide Sir Elton highlights the handsomeness of Floyd Burroughs, a cotton sharecropper in Alabama.

I think about how the tube currently displays posters for the film A Street Cat Named Bob, with the titular feline alongside the good-looking actor Luke Treadaway. A latterday ‘wandering boy’. It would be useful to compare the Bob film with Ken Loach’s rather less prettified I, Daniel Blake. The same tension between raising awareness and making art.

Sir Elton admits that when he bought Man Ray’s Glass Tears (1932), it was one of the highest prices paid for a photographic print. His friends didn’t understand why he wasn’t buying the negative. Today, I look at Glass Tears and realise how it’s responsible for the entire output of Pierre and Gilles.

***

Tuesday 15th November 2016. Leaf through the new book of essays on Alan Hollinghurst, Writing Under the Influence. Pleased that one of them is titled ‘Ostentatiously Discreet: Bisexual Camp in The Stranger’s Child’.

***

Wednesday 16th November 2016. Evening: to the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley, for Alan Bennett’s Diaries Live. The evening consists of a new full-length documentary, simply titled Alan Bennett’s Diaries, followed by a live Q&A with the writer himself, held at his local library in Primrose Hill. TV and cinema have started to switch roles. The shows on Netflix are not so much broadcast as unleashed in great fistfuls of content; whole seasons at one time.  To me it’s never clear how you’re meant to watch them, other that in snatched gulps of time. Meanwhile cinemas have seized more upon the idea of broadcasting, with exclusive live transmissions like this Alan Bennett event. It’s TV, but for cinemas only. The notion of ‘live’ may be compromised by the act of still looking at a screen, but the addition of a specific time in a purpose-built place makes the experience all the more special. And crucially, undownloadable.

Before the event I try to work out which is the largest London screen to host the film, amused as I am by the thought of seeing this reserved Englishman usurping the usual CGI Hollywood fare. Most of the showings seem to be in smaller screens in multiplexes. I plump for the Phoenix, with its 250-seater. It sells out. But there’s no IMAX or 3D version, alas.

The film is superb; one of the best arts documentary I’ve seen for a while. Lots of footage of his village in Yorkshire, looking almost cartoonishly picturesque. Much more about his personal life than I’d expected. Much about his lack of a computer: for a professional (and successful) writer, this still surprises. But it’s very aesthetically pleasing, of course. Writing on paper is itself original content. There’s glimpses of a something else one doesn’t see much: a box of physical wedding photos as opposed to a Facebook page of them. Bennett and his partner Rupert. The box is marked with a sticker saying ‘YES!’

The film is produced by the BBC, so will doubtless turn up in the schedules soon.

In the live Q&A, Bennett comments on Trump: ‘The best thing you can say about him is he’s unreliable. But you still don’t want an unreliable person in that job. The only reaction is fear, really.’

***

Thursday 17th November 2016. Classes at Birkbeck in Russell Square. A seminar on DeLillo’s White Noise, followed by a lecture on Frederic Jameson and postmodernism. What with the US election, White Noise feels the most contemporary of all the texts this term, yet it came out thirty years ago.

***

Friday 18th November 2016. Reading David Collard’s About A Girl, the first book-length study of an MA set text, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (2013). Collard declares his position on McBride in no uncertain terms: ‘I knew after a dozen pages that I was in the company of a great writer’. I find myself bristling, as it makes me feel bad for not being quite as bowled over.  It’s like going an exhibition and not being able to see the paintings properly, because the louder, more zealous fans are hogging the view. Enthusiasm, like knowledge, needs to be lightly worn.

***

Saturday 19th November 2016. 9.30am: to the main Birkbeck building in Torrington Square for Transitions 7, an academic symposium on comics studies.  It’s the first time that I’ve attended such an event, at least all the way through. I’m told the terms ‘conference’ and ‘symposium’ are more or less interchangeable these days, though ‘symposium’ somehow sounds more attractive. There are usually ‘calls for papers’ a few months before the date, inviting people to submit essays on a particular theme. The successful applicants read out their work at panels throughout the day, usually with discussions to follow. On top of this there’s often a ‘keynote speaker’, usually a bit of a name, whose speech tends to set the tone of the whole event. I’m told that keynote speakers are more likely to be paid for their trouble, whereas the more lowly ‘papers’ people are expected to do it gratis, or even pay a fee (thoughts of Tom Sawyer again). Thankfully Transitions is free for all, and there’s even free wine at the end.

There’s usually two or three panels taking place at the same time, so one has to pick and choose, rather like a music festival. I attend a panel on US comic histories, which includes a paper by Guy Lawley on the dot matrices used in US colour comics. Later on, Mr Lawley says he recognises me: ‘We sat together at an Alan Bennett gig’. I also go to one on gender, which includes papers on Wonder Woman, non-binary characters and female supervillains. After lunch I choose a workshop on comics that touch on magical realism and mental illness – very much my sort of thing – by the author Stef Link; the workshop element being writing based rather than drawing based, thank God. Finally, I attend a panel on national identity, and watch my MA classmate Craig Thomson give his debut paper. He discusses the traditions behind the comic American Vampire.

There’s no keynote speaker, but there is a closing ‘plenary’ panel of ‘respondents’ to the day’s talks. This comprises Paul Gravett, who pretty much is UK comics studies, along with Roger Sabin and Julia Round, whose books and journals I’ve read, and Maggie Gray, a comics lecturer whose PHD thesis was on the work of Alan Moore.

Afterwards: more wine at a pub in Store Street, with some of the speakers and tutors. Some drunken arguments on my part over definitions of modernism, but then I always imagined that sort of thing was de rigueur in Bloomsbury pubs.  One of the Birkbeck tutors is a young woman from South Carolina. She says her parents both voted for Trump.

‘So you voted for Hillary?’

‘God, no. I couldn’t have that on my conscience either. I spoiled my ballot’.


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You Are The Flashback

Wednesday 2nd March 2016. I listen to a Radio 4 documentary in the Archive on 4 slot: Skill, Stamina and Luck. It’s an account of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks of the 80s, and of the wider history of interactive fiction before and after them.

Pure nostalgic bliss for me, as I was an avid fan of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, 1982) and the many books that followed it, all published by Puffin Books. As the documentary points out, the books sold in huge amounts at the time, often beating Roald Dahl in the children’s bestseller charts.

In 1982, aged ten, I already knew that the ‘go to page 142’ format existed, what with the Choose Your Own Adventure series and others like it. I think the first one I encountered was a picture-based game book for small children, inspired by the maze scene in Jerome’s Three Men in A Boat, titled Three Men In A Maze (by Stephen Leslie, Transworld Publishers, 1977 – I have a copy today).

The Fighting Fantasy series was the first to add a proper gaming element, though, with dice to throw, battles to win, and SKILL, STAMINA and LUCK scores to maintain, each of these crucial words always in upper case. I wasn’t so keen on the battle side (and so never graduated to a Warhammer phase), and I was useless at painting Citadel Miniatures. But I loved making annotated paper maps of the little worlds in each of the books, with notes on how to solve them – ‘walkthroughs’ these would be called now. I was so proud of my map for Steve Jackson’s House of Hell (1984) that I sold copies of it to school friends.

One specific memory is queuing up at a Puffin Show at Chelsea Town Hall, April 1985, to get a signed copy of the latest title, Ian Livingstone’s Temple of Terror. They would always be called something like that: The Alliteration of Awfulness, The Preposition of Scary Noun, The Place of Stuff. I must have been first in the signing queue (such was my ardour), because I can distinctly remember Mr Livingstone telling me that Temple of Terror was not yet published, so I was getting the very first copy sold. I don’t think Temple of Terror was one of the classic titles, but if I’m ever called upon to reveal my Secret Geek Credentials, that’s my main card.

The Radio 4 documentary also revealed that there’s been a recent book on the history of Fighting Fantasy: You Are The Hero, by Jonathan Green. Part-funded by Kickstarter, naturellement. I’ve just treated myself to a copy, and am getting all kinds of Proustian rushes. ‘If you want to eat the madeleine cake, go to 24…’

* * *

Thursday 3rd March 2016. Evening: MA class at Gordon Square. This week’s novel is Erasure by Percival Everett. Quite hard to get hold of. The last UK edition from 2004 seems to be already out of print. Rather ironic, considering it’s a satire on literary ambition. In Everett’s story, a struggling black academic, raging in frustration at the absurdities of the world, deliberately writes a lurid, stereotypical ‘ghetto’ novel. This accidentally becomes a hit, forcing him to adopt a pseudonymous ex-convict persona in order to satisfy the public’s desire for the ‘real thing’ – as in their perception of ‘real’ blackness. Quite a timely week to do this book, given the controversy over the Oscars. Plenty of arguments with no easy conclusions, other than Everett’s book is impressive, and uproariously funny at times. He certainly deserves to be better known over here.

* * *

Friday 4th March 2016. To the ICA to see Hail Caesar! It’s the new Coen brothers film: one of their lighter, quirkier comedies in the style of Burn After Reading, as opposed to the darker likes of Fargo or No Country For Old Men. This one is set in the world of early 50s Hollywood, the era captured in That’s Entertainment, when actors’ whole lives were owned by studios, when fears of Communist threats were rife, and when mainstream films were at their most colourful and escapist. There’s extended clips from loving pastiches of such films, such as Esther Williams’s aquatic ballets, or Gene Kelly’s song-and-dance routines in sailor suits, or westerns that were really excuses for rodeo stunts and singing cowboys. George Clooney spends the whole film in his Roman centurion costume, having been kidnapped from the set of the title film, a lavish Biblical epic in the vein of The Robe.

Ralph Fiennes proves, again, that he really should do more comedy, while Tilda Swinton does her ice queen bit yet again, this time as a pair of identical twins turned rival gossip journalists. The plot is all very unlikely, and it does feel that it needs a rewrite to give it more of a sense of direction. But it also feels that to do so would mean cutting out so many enjoyable set pieces. In that sense, the film is a piece of indulgence, albeit made with the suspicion that the audience will be fine with such indulgence. Because it’s done as gleefully as this. I certainly enjoyed it.

* * *

Saturday 5th March 2016. To the House of Illustration in King’s Cross, for the exhibition Comix Creatrix: 100 Women Making Comics. It’s billed as ‘the UK’s largest ever exhibition of the work of pioneering female comics artists’. The House of Illlustration’s main exhibition space comprises just three gallery rooms plus a video screening room, so expectations of ‘large’ do not initially spring to mind. But as is often the case with the HoI shows, each room is so crammed with comic art, with lots of shelves of graphic novels to pick up and browse, that the time needed to take it all in can’t be so different to a blockbuster Tate show.

The message of the exhibition is simple: women have made comics too, and there’s more female creators than one might think. But the show also posits the theory that all female creators contribute to a distinct role in culture, like Mother Earth: the ‘Creatrix’. What’s certainly true is that the show proves how women have drawn every possible genre of comics and sequential art, often with their gender kept quiet or even deliberately hidden (in that JK Rowling way of a girl’s name being thought to put off boy readers). Until today I hadn’t realised that the Victorian character Ally Sloper was co-created by a woman, Marie Duval.

Some favourites in the show: an account from the US Saturday Evening Post in 1960, describing the working day of Dalia ‘Dale’ Messick, creator of the 1940s strip Brenda Star – Reporter. ‘The hi–fi is on full blast… if the music is appropriate, she jumps up and does a rumba. In meditative periods, she chews gum with popping sound effects.’

I also enjoy the exhibits by Tove Jansson (pencils for a Moomins strip), Posy Simmonds (an original page for Tamara Drewe), a strip by Kate Beaton, and one by Laura Howell, a contributor to Viz. Ms Howell’s strip is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read in any medium: ‘Benjamin Britten and his Embittered Bitten’.

The only shortcoming is that other people seem to have finally found out about the HoI, so the rooms are much more crowded than they were at my last visit. Oh, the dilemma of wanting to tell the world about a favourite place, while hoping that not too many people actually listen to you and go there.

I once heard of a Time Out restaurant critic who said that a handful of really nice restaurants in London never made it into the magazine. The rumour went that the staff deliberately kept these heavenly places quiet, so that they could still secure a table. It’s like the way Jehovah’s Witnesses advertise a version of paradise that nevertheless only comes in a limited edition.

Thinking about it, Time Out is now like The Watchtower in another respect. Another free handout of suspicious provenance, one of the many unasked-for concoctions of staples and hope, thrust ceaselessly into the faces of commuters each evening, as they rush to catch the Tube to eternal damnation. Or Euston, as it’s currently known.


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Graphic and Novel

Though I’ve yet to visit it, I find out that the new King’s Cross concourse does have at least one unique shop: the first European branch of Watermark Books, an Australian chain. They are exploiting the fact they’re right next to the Harry Potter platform, and rightly so. What stops stations losing their individuality and becoming ‘non-places’  is hanging on to unique associations like this. Paddington has its little bear statue, St Pancras its Betjeman statue. It’s a shame these are often tucked away within the stations, but I like that they give people something unique to look for.

***

It’s only March, but I’ve finished attending lectures for the first year of my course at Birkbeck. Next up is four weeks of the Easter break, then there’s a final two seminars in late April. After that the only remaining sessions are workshops in which to prepare for the first exam, and a few introductory lectures about the modules in the second year. I still have to deliver two essays by early May and revise for the exam taken shortly after that, but the regular lectures are over.

It’s been an experience without a single regret. I still don’t feel like an academic, and I still view MA and PHD students as lofty creatures living on a higher intellectual plane (never mind the professors), but the degree now feels do-able, as opposed to something that other people can do, not me. That’s the big difference. It involves work, of course, and putting in the hours, but this is work that I feel happy about doing, which I even look forward to.

We’ve just been given our optional module choices for the second year. Each of the four years is made up of three modules (modules being different subjects, effectively). The first year has comprised three compulsory modules: London in literature, how to study poetry, and an introduction to literary theory. Next year we have do two compulsory modules: one on ‘The Novel’, and one on medieval and Renaissance texts. The third we get to choose ourselves, from an attractively diverse list.

I’ve already handed in my form for this. My first choice is a creative writing module, specially designed for Eng Lit students, but I’ve since been told I probably won’t get to do it in the  Second Year. Third Year students take priority over Second, there’s only fifteen places, and it’s such a notoriously popular subject. Everyone seems to want to do creative writing.

My alternative module choices are, in order, ‘Fin De Siecle’ (Wilde’s Dorian Gray, HG Wells, Dracula), ‘Queer Fiction’ (recent novels by Sarah Waters, Alan Hollinghurst etc), and ‘Narratives Of The Body’ (Angela Carter, Woolf’s Orlando, some films, even some modern dance pieces).

A few of the set texts are particularly interesting choices for literary study:

– The Dark Knight (2008), as in the second Batman film by Christopher Nolan, for a module on US culture since 1900. To be studied alongside F Scott Fitzgerald and Sylvia Plath.
– Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2009), for the same.
– the films Blade Runner and Aliens, both for the module on The Body.
Persepolis (2000) by Marjane Satrapi; the Iranian graphic novel. For the compulsory ‘The Novel’ module.
Fun Home (2006) by Alison Bechdel. Another graphic novel, for the Queer Fiction module.
Tangles (2011) by Sarah Leavitt. A graphic novel I’ve not heard of, for the same module. So new that the Guardian only reviewed it a few weeks ago.

It’s interesting that all three graphic novels are autobiographical. In terms of proper graphic fiction, we’ve just been studying It’s Dark In London (1996) as the final text in the compulsory 1st year module about London In Literature. It’s an anthology of graphic short stories inspired by the city, edited by Oscar Zarate and including such names as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Iain Sinclair, Dave McKean, Stella Duffy, and Alexei Sayle. It’s just been republished with extra material and a rather beautiful new cover.

Being closer in format to the genre of underground comics, as opposed to the Marvel or DC-style comics, the book is in black and white throughout. The Alan Moore contribution, I Keep Coming Back, is a companion story to From Hell, which we’ve also looked at – particularly the mythical London tour of Chapter 4. The Moore story in the anthology includes a large close-up panel of an East End pub stripper’s pubic hair, comparing it, rather unforgettably, to an exclamation mark.

I overhear two older ladies in the lecture room, fellow mature students, talking about the collection. It is the first graphic novel they’ve ever read.

Lady 1: “This ‘graphic novel’… (she sighs) I wish it wasn’t quite so graphic.”

Lady 2: “Well… I just kept wanting to colour it in.”


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Pride & Prejudice & Superheroes

Monday: meet Dad as he returns from the Caption convention in Oxford. Because his train gets into Paddington, I do what all Londoners should do at that station when meeting out-of-towners. I show him the statue of Paddington Bear. Along with the character’s merchandise stall, covered in books, soft toys and toddler-sized duffel coats.

We go to the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury, only to discover it’s closed on Mondays. I get a sense of deja vu from this time last year, when I was in New York and traipsed across most of Central Park in order to visit the Met. It was a Monday, and the Met – despite being the size of a football stadium – was closed that day.

I’m off to New York again this Thursday coming, for seven days. This time, I’ll ensure my museum stints avoid the first day of the working week.

***

In Gosh Comics, I pick up Issue 5 of Pride & Prejudice. It’s not a parody or homage but an entirely straight – and beautifully drawn – comic strip adaptation of the Jane Austen book. What really delights me is that it’s published by Marvel as a proper serialised A5 colour comic, and that it’s displayed alongside the latest issue of Spider-Man, X-Men, the Hulk and so on. So a novel that famously enticed readers despite a lack of any real heroes or villains is now translated into the one medium most accustomed to them. The Austen effect still triumphs: the staff at Gosh tell me it’s been flying off the shelf.

***

Walking along Royal College Street today, I pass a couple of elderly Irish men sitting outside a pub. As I approach, one calls out at me.

‘Walk straight!’

And then, after I’ve passed by:

‘Can I shag you?’

In the evening I recount this to Ms L, who works behind the bar at the Boogaloo. I do so hoping she’ll be amused. In fact, she takes a physical step back and stares at me, unnerved.

I’m reminded of Ms D telling me about someone she met recently.

‘This person asked me, “Do you know Dickon Edwards? I’m his nemesis.” And they weren’t smiling.’

I found this incredibly funny. But Ms D was appalled, verging on upset.

‘I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone’s nemesis before,’ she said. ‘I wondered if I should call the police.’

(‘Are you Jesus?’ I had at Latitude from two young men in the woods, when I was walking around in my white suit. ‘I forgive you,’ I shouted back.)

I suppose I do attract a certain… oddness from some people – as opposed to odd people per se  – from time to time. But they soon tire of me: I’m too busy stalking myself inside my own head, trying to nail my thoughts down, preoccupied with controlling my own madness, never mind anyone else’s.  There’s always an angle, a tilt, which part of me is at and which the rest is not; and it’s never by the same degree for more than a moment. So this predicament is a two-way barrier, for better or worse. I’ve said it before, but one ambition of mine is to have a syndrome named after me.

To act weirdly around an already weird person isn’t stalking, after all: it’s tautology.


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