Posted by: billpurdue | July 31, 2015

On first reading Thomas Hardy

Here’s a confession: I have only just read my first Thomas Hardy novel, which was “Far From the Madding Crowd”. I don’t often read the classics, but I have had an old copy of it on my shelves for years. It belonged to my parents. It’s an edition published by Macmillan in 1933 and is showing its age, the front cover having come apart from the book some time ago, but everything is still there.

 far from

I didn’t read about Thomas Hardy beforehand or even a synopsis of the novel. I just dived in and found it really enjoyable. There’s plenty of ‘lit.crit.’ out there, so I won’t try any criticism myself. If you have never read anything by this author before, be prepared for the West Country colloquialisms and some antiquated expressions and words you no longer come across. I didn’t try to look any words up that I wasn’t sure of as I feared it might spoil my enjoyment and there weren’t that many anyway. I just ‘took it steady’ at first. For those who want to know more about the language, “The Oxford Reader’s Companion to Hardy” edited by Norman Page seems to be a good source of information. This is out of print, but there is an ebook available.

 Oxford reader's comapnion to hardy

As for the novel itself, a film tie in edition to coincide with the release of the 2015 film (the fourth time the book has been filmed) is available.

(Yet) More Travel Writing

In September 2013, I mentioned a book by Ben Zabulis called “Chartered Territory – an Engineer Abroad”. The book tells of the author’s experiences of living, working and travelling  in Nigeria, Japan, Hong Kong, China and even Bhutan. The other week, Ben, who is incidentally a keen railway traveller, contacted me to say that this book is now available from the Oxfam book website. I had no idea that Oxfam sold books online, but if you want to buy a copy from Oxfam, the link is here.

 Chartered Territory

Ben was a local resident in 2013, living in exotic (my word, not his) Kirkby-in-Ashfield, but has now decamped to somewhere 100 times more exotic: Hong Kong. For more about Ben, log on to the online cultural magazine “LeftLion”, which describes Ben as “Nottingham’s most travelled author”. I will look forward to reading more about Ben’s adventures in the far east via the electronic pages of LeftLion, which is also available in print format from certain venues in Nottingham.

More from “Jonathan Strange…”

I’m still reading “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” by Susanna Clarke – it’s taking me a long time, partly because of the sheer length of the book (1000 pages in the TV tie in edition) and because I always have more than one book ‘on the go’ at a time. Throughout the book there are quite a few footnotes, some quite lengthy. Some are little stories in themselves, making the main narrative seem more authentic. Various parts of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire as well as Newcastle, the centre of the territory of the Raven King, John Uskglass, are frequently mentioned, both in the main text and in the footnotes.

If you are reading or about to read this book, don’t neglect to read the footnotes as these are often fascinating and absorbing. In case you wondered, I am still enjoying the book.

Posted by: billpurdue | July 8, 2015

Tonic Sol-fa-ists and Puggarees

Travel writing as a genre doesn’t always excite me, but if it has anything to do with railways, then it’s a bit different. So the title “Three Men and a Bradshaw” attracted me as the name Bradshaw of course refers to the Victorian railway guide publisher, George Bradshaw, which over the past few years, Michael Portillo, in his ‘Great Railway Journeys’ series of TV programmes has got a lot of people excited about.

This book is subtitled “an original Victorian travel journal” and the original writer of the journal is John George Freeman. The book was discovered by Shaun Sewell at an auction and has been edited by Ronnie Scott who has added various notes in the margins to explain some of the language and add a little to the historical information. The journal is a series of accounts of holidays in various parts of Great Britain – beginning with Jersey, followed by North Devon, North Wales, Scotland (mainly Perthshire and Edinburgh) and finally South Wales, these holidays having been taken from 1873 to 1877.

John and his two brothers were in the habit of taking their annual holidays together and presumably planned their routes with reference to Bradshaw’s Guide. The actual text of the journal does not refer to Bradshaw’s and it seems that the travellers often called at the railway station, wherever they happened to be, to ascertain the train times. With one exception, their holiday always begins and ends with a railway journey, although their main method of getting from A to B (as they rarely stayed on one place for long) was walking. The distance travelled on foot in one day was sometimes quite high – in one case it was 24 miles and even the writer states that this distance was exceptional. So much walking, especially during indifferent weather, might seem a toil of pleasure these days.


The reader soon finds out quite a lot about the brothers – they were ardent non-conformists and made a point of attending a service of worship twice on Sundays, whether on holiday or not. They were also keen users of the method of learning music by the Tonic Sol-fa system, which was a method of sight reading music using the syllables ‘do, re, mi etc for the notes. In fact they were very keen choir members and thought nothing of bursting into song during their walks, sometimes to the consternation of the local people within earshot.

Another thing which seems to have amused the local people was the puggaree worn by the brothers to keep off the strong sunshine. If you look up images of puggarees, you will find that this name covers a wide range of hats in all shapes and materials. What the hats all have in common is a kind of wide band around the hat.

Although it contains little to excite the railway fan, I really enjoyed this book: there’s no plot or surprise conclusion, just a thoroughly absorbing insight into the Victorians on holiday.

Posted by: billpurdue | June 19, 2015

Specially for fans of Radio 4

Out of the 365 days in the year, I would think there is only a handful of days when I don’t listen to BBC Radio 4, whether I want the news (the main reason) or a documentary or possibly comedy. I must therefore be one of Radio 4’s devoted fans.

When I came across a new book all about Radio 4, I had to have it. “For the Love of Radio 4 : an unofficial companion” by Caroline Hodgson is the book that attracted my attention and I’m finding it fascinating.


There’s a brief history of Radio 4 (known as the Home Service until 30th Sept. 1967), details about all the popular long running series such as The Archers, Desert Island Discs, I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue, Woman’s Hour and several more. There are potted biographies of well known Home Service/Radio 4 personalities, such as Kenneth Horne (a successful businessman specializing in toughened glass before taking up a career in comedy), Roy Plomley of Desert Island Discs fame and Jenni Murray, presenter of Woman’s Hour, who was born in Barnsley.

There’s lots more, for example: the pips, BBC Radio 4’s relationship with Westminster , religion and ethics, drama and readings and so on, all rounded off with a short chapter devoted to Letter from America. It’s a delightful book to browse through or even read from start to finish. It’s ideal for anyone with any interest in radio. The author has a background in TV production and became hooked on Radio 4 in her twenties.

Magic at the start of the 19th Century


I’m thoroughly enjoying the drama series on BBC1 TV called “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell”. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Susanna Clarke and is all about the state of magic and magicians in 1806. It’s the general opinion at the time that there has been no magic practiced in England for the past 300 years and a certain Mr Norrell from Yorkshire is convinced that he is the only magician left in the country. Enter Jonathan Strange, a totally different type of person all together, but he is also a magician. It’s the feud between these two which is the central theme of the novel, as well as the unintended side effects of some of the spells that they cast.

I read this novel (in hardback) some years ago, but as the drama series began, I wanted to re-read it and bought the ‘TV tie-in’ paperback. It’s long – about 1000 pages – but never dull. I’m about a third of the way through, trying to catch up with the TV series, but I don’t think I will succeed. It has some rather archaic language (‘chuse’ instead of ‘choose’ for example), but for anyone who is looking for a good long read that’s a bit different, this is just the thing. Page turning and terrifying!

New – file under ‘Railways’


Browsing in Waterstone’s Chesterfield today I came across two recent railway titles that might also appeal to the general reader of history titles.

 Belles Whistles

First : “Belles and Whistles: journeys through time on Britain’s trains” by Andrew Martin. According to the publicity the author “recreates five …. famous train journeys by travelling aboard their nearest modern day equivalents. Sometimes their names have survived, even if only as a footnote on a timetable leaflet, but what has usually – if not always – disappeared is the extravagance and luxury. As Martin explains how we got from there to here, evocations of the golden age contrast with the starker modern reality”

 Trains now departed

Second: “The Trains Now Departed: Sixteen Excursions into the Lost Delights of Britain’s Railways” by Michael Williams. The author “tells the stories of some of the most fascinating lost trains of Britain, vividly evoking the glories of a bygone age. In his personal odyssey around Britain, Michael Williams tells the tales of the pioneers who built the tracks, the yarns of the men and women who operated them and the colourful trains that ran on them”. (By the way, if you study the cover illustration and you know Derbyshire, can you see a possible error in the picture?)

If you’re looking for railway books, which are well illustrated with photos and pictures of railways and trains, these are not for you. However, they both look very promising as absorbing reads, so I’m hoping to examine them both in more detail in the near future

Posted by: billpurdue | May 31, 2015

A new book of comments posted on the Guardian website

Have you ever posted a comment online? I’m thinking particularly about comments on articles on newspaper websites. If you have, have you wondered what happens afterwards? Well, for the Guardian website (as I’m sure for most other newspaper websites) there is a moderator whose job it is to check that the comments are on topic, weed out the trolls and so on. Inevitably the moderator comes across some very witty comments and downright weird ones from time to time. A selection of these has been brought together in a book called “I think I can see where you’re going wrong”, edited by Marc Burrows.

 I think I can

In his introduction, Marc Burrows points out that “much of this book is comprised of clever people making excellent jokes”. Here are one or two examples…

On the topic of ethical shopping: ‘What about ethical shoplifting, how’s that doing? Just because I’m too skint to afford food doesn’t mean I don’t have ethics you know’


Or, on pets: ‘As a husband, father of two daughters and servant of a cat, I have a dog to maintain some sense of ego and authority. It’s nice to be admired and adored’


Some might dismiss this as a ‘gift book’, but if anyone wants to give me a copy of this (the one I’ve been reading is a library book), I would certainly thank them. It’s an entertaining browse and something to reassure you that there is genuinely funny humour around.


Susan Hill’s crime hero

 Hill Shadows

The detective in question is Simon Serailler, of Lafferton Police, a man well connected in the town and with a sister, Cat, a GP and doctor at the local hospice.

I’ve read two Serailler novels recently, but I’m not really a great crime fiction fan. The first, “The Shadows in the Street” (first published in 2010) is about the murder of two prostitutes and the disappearance of the Dean’s wife. Has she become just another murdered female or is this completely separate from the main story?

 Betrayal of trust

In the second, “The Betrayal of Trust”, Serailler is asked to solve a historic murder case practically single handed. Following a very heavy rainstorm, a landslip on the moors above Lafferton reveals the body of a girl who went missing 16 years ago. Shortly afterwards, another body of a female is found. Serailler has very little help in solving the murders due to cuts in expenditure. Hospices and assisted dying are two very prevalent themes in this story – Cat recommends to a student doctor that she might like to do some work at a new hospice where she discovers that all is not as it first appears and a woman who is diagnosed with a terminal illness investigates various ways in which to end her own life. How they all come together in the final chapters, you will have to find out by reading the book.

Not being a connoisseur of crime fiction, I can’t give an experienced opinion on these two, but in my humble opinion, they weren’t on a par with novels by Stephen Booth or Steven Dunne. Incidentally, Steven Dunne’s latest, “A Killing Moon”, (the 5th D.I. Damen Brook novel) is due out in mid-August.

… but first, a postscript to my writings about Iris Origo, who wrote the diary of her experiences in Italy in 1943-4, “War in Val d’Orcia”. Browsing through the latest monthly catalogue from Bibliophile Books, the discount book retailer, I found this: “Iris Origo, Marchesa of Val d’Orcia” by Caroline Moorehead. This is a biography of Iris Origo, beginning (according to the description in the catalogue) with her introduction, in 1920, at the age of 18 to an Italian, ten years older than herself, Antonio Origo. The book draws on many unpublished letters and papers and also includes the period when she was writing the diary. It’s available from Bibliophile Books for £3.75.

Iris Origo


 Don't trust

The arrest of 30 Greenpeace protesters in September 2013 by the Russian authorities made headlines all round the world. They were scaling a Russian oil platform in the Arctic waters. The plan was to attach a Greenpeace pod to Gazprom’s platform and launch a peaceful protest against oil being pumped from the icy waters of the Arctic. The ‘Arctic 30’ as they came to be known, were charged with piracy and faced the prospect of fifteen years in a Russian prison. Their story is now available in a book called “Don’t trust, Don’t fear, Don’t beg”. It’s written by Ben Stewart, who led the global campaign to free the group. It’s published by Faber and costs £12.99.

Barbara Pym


A friend recommended that I try reading books by Barbara Pym, so I did – and I really enjoyed my first Barbara Pym novel. The one I chose was “Some Tame Gazelle”. The central characters are sisters Harriet and Belinda Bede. I suppose the surname gives you a kind of clue as to what sort of book it is – Bede reminds me of the Venerable Bede with the inevitable religious connotations. The sisters’ lives revolve around the affairs of the parish, or rather the affairs of those chiefly concerned with the parish church and all that goes with it – the Archdeacon (no mere vicar in this case), the curate, the Archdeacon’s wife and the neighbours. Harriet loves to make a fuss of new curates, whilst her sister, being an old friend of the Archdeacon, is still very fond of him, even though it’s thirty years since they were students together. What’s more he is married, but that doesn’t put her off thinking about what if… Then there are endless streams of eligible bachelors, who seem to think that it’s fine to propose marriage after only one or two meetings.

On one level you could class this novel with the Miss Read type of book, but that would do it an injustice. There’s some very subtle humour here and some fascinating characters. It’s not the kind of book that I normally read, but I really enjoyed it. For a more in depth review, try Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Finally, to railway stations.


I’m talking about the tiniest railway stations, that is. A chap named Dixe Wills (no, not Dixie) has written a book called “Tiny Stations”, which Christian Wolmar has described as “a delightful exploration of the byways of the railway system”. In the book, the author embarks on a very roundabout journey across Britain’s railway system to find some of the smallest stations and discover the reasons for their existence. He begins in the South west, travels up through Wales, then down to London, East Anglia, the NorthWest and finishes at Altnabreac in north east Scotland. The stations visited include Sugar Loaf (Wales), Berney Arms (Norfolk) LlanfairPG (Anglesey) and Dunrobin Castle.

I read a few chapters, but then I began to think “What is the point of this book?” and couldn’t really find an answer. It’s certainly not written from the point of view of a railway enthusiast or even someone interested in railways (there is a difference). So, I gave up reading, but I might keep it out from the library a bit longer and read a bit further just to see if the book improves as it goes along.

Posted by: billpurdue | April 23, 2015

The Second World War in Italy – fact and fiction

A month or two ago I wrote about the book “Villa Triste” by Lucretia Grindle. This is essentially a story of a modern day murder investigation in Italy as well as the story of two sisters at the time of the Nazi occupation of Italy. One sister risks her life helping to smuggle escaped prisoners of war over the border into neutral Switzerland whilst the other devotes her time to the local hospital. The crime being investigated by the detective in modern day Italy has close connections with what happened back during the war.

 War in Val d'Orcia

Following the blog posting another book was recommended to me, this time non-fiction. “War in Val d’Orcia: an Italian War Diary 1943-1944” is by Iris Origo (1902-1988). The author was an Anglo-American who had married an Italian landowner. Her maiden name was Cutting. On her marriage she became Marchesa Iris Origo and she and her husband settled at a country estate called “La Foce” in 1924. This is a 7,000 acre estate, which, according to Wikipedia contained 57 farms at the time the book was written.

The book begins with an introduction by Denis Mack Smith, giving much of the background to the period covered by the diary. This is followed by a preface by Origo herself which explains the conditions under which the diary was kept. She explains that life in the countryside during the war was much easier than in the towns, but life was about to get far more difficult before the whole area was liberated by the allies. The diary begins with the arrival of some refugee children from Genoa and life is fairly quiet. However as the Nazis take control, but allow the bands of facists to do almost as they please, life becomes ever more difficult. They are secretly listening to the BBC for news of advances by the Allies, but their progress seems painfully slow. As the Nazis are forced back, the Val d’Orcia finds itself directly in the line of retreat.

Whilst the author maintains that events in other parts of Italy were far worse, what the Origos and their baby daughter went through seems bad enough. What’s more, in spite of the proximity of the enemy, they continued to help escaped prisoners of war and partisans as much as they could. During all this the diary is written in a matter of fact way and ends when the Allies finally reach them. The drama of the situation builds and builds to a climax – no novel could do better.

Posted by: billpurdue | April 12, 2015

Dennis Skinner – the survivor

Whether or not you agree with the views of Dennis Skinner MP, you have to admire him for his tenacity. Still an MP in his eighties, he has seen many MPs, not to mention Prime Ministers come and go during his time in Parliament. He entered the House of Commons in 1970 after being a local councilor in Derbyshire. Since then he has stuck to his principles through thick and thin.

 D Skinner

Last year his reminiscences, “Sailing Close to the Wind” were published. It’s a book that focuses much more on his political and campaigning activities than his personal life, though the reader gets an insight into his upbringing in Clay Cross (the only council in the country that rebelled against the rent rises imposed by the government of the time). He achieved a scholarship to go to Tupton Hall school, near Chesterfield, but when he got the chance to go on to university, he decided against it and went down the pit like his father before him.

There are some fascinating accounts of events in Parliament and perhaps one of the best of these is his account of how he thwarted Enoch Powell’s private members bill to ban stem cell research. Skinner hit on the idea of moving the writ for the by-election for Brecon and Radnor on the day that Powell’s Bill was to be debated, the seat having become vacant two weeks previously owing to the death of the sitting MP. Skinner studied the relevant section of Erskine May, the ‘bible’ of parliamentary procedure (the 24th revised edition will set you back about £300) to make sure that he would not be ruled out of order. With the help of a few other MPs on both sides of the House, by prolonging the discussion about the relevant constituency, taking care not to deviate from the point, he succeeded.

It’s a good read and although I was glad to get past Chapter 7 (“Socialist till I die”), I really enjoyed it. So now I have to return it to the library as soon as possible as it’s requested. There’s no doubt quite a big waiting list.

“Sailing Close to the Wind” will be out in paperback in the middle of May 2015. If you’d like a selection of Dennis Skinner quotes, got to

Meanwhile for the floating voter….


Biteback Publishing has issued a series of small books in the “Why Vote 2015 Collection”. At about £10 each (or £37.50 plus p&p for all five from the publisher), there is a title for each of the main national parties ie. Labour, Conservative, UKIP, Liberal Democrat and Green.

Posted by: billpurdue | March 29, 2015

Living life over – and over – again

I’m sure there are hundreds of novels which take time travel as their theme, but I’ve never come across one quite like this. In “The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” by Claire North, Harry is born in the ladies’ washroom of a railway station in north east England at the end of 1918. His mother dies in childbirth and he is brought up by a couple who work for the local estate of Hulne Hall. What is unusual is that when Harry dies, he is immediately reborn under the same circumstances at the same date and this happens over and over again, although each of his lives takes a quite different course. What’s more, after the first few years of his life, Harry remembers everything from his past lives and so over time accrues an enormous amount of knowledge about the world and particularly world events.

And then there is the Cronus Club. This is an association for all people, who, like Harry, are always reborn immediately after they die in the very same circumstances. The club is a very discreet organization with branches all over the world.

 Harry August

It is at the end of his 11th life that he receives a message from a little girl that the end of the world is getting faster and it’s up to him to do something about it. As Harry lives through his lives again and again, he finds that things like personal computers are coming on the world scene earlier each time. He eventually discovers who is behind the ‘speeding up’ of developments and scientific discoveries. It is a certain Vincent Rankis, whom he first meets punting on the River Cam, but whom he meets in other lives in various parts of the world. Vincent is trying to build what he calls a quantum mirror, which will unlock all the mysteries of the universe.

In future lives, with some co-operation from the Cronus club, Harry makes it his mission to thwart Vincent in his quest and there’s only one way to do it.


The author, Claire North is actually Catherine Webb, formerly a Carnegie Medal nominated author, who has written a number of young adult novels. She was only 14, when she wrote “Mirror Dreams”. Now a new adult novel, a thriller entitled “Touch” about an ancient entity called Kepler, who has the ability to take over someone’s mind and move from one person to another. Kepler uses its power responsibly, but there are others who are determined to destroy it. It was published last month and will delight the fans and no doubt win more of them. She also writes as Kate Griffin.

For a different point of view, go to the ABC Blog (American Book Centre in the Netherlands).

I’m currently reading Barbara Pym’s “Some Tame Gazelle” – amusing and absorbing.

More in a future posting.

Posted by: billpurdue | March 11, 2015

Harold and Queenie

When Rachel Joyce wrote “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”, it became a bestseller and people began asking her if she planned to write a sequel. She wasn’t – but the plot of a sequel came to her quite suddenly when she was at home one day and so she began writing “The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy”.


For those who have not read the first book, the story concerns Harold Fry, a retired brewery worker living with his wife in Kingsbridge, Devon. One day he receives a letter from one of his former colleagues, Queenie Hennessy , who is now in a hospice in Berwick upon Tweed. The letter merely thanks Harold for his friendship whilst they both worked at the brewery. Harold decides to reply, but instead of posting the letter, he decides to take it all the way to Berwick and to make the journey on foot – all 627 miles of it.

The sequel, or rather the companion volume as the author prefers to call it, describes what is happening meanwhile at Berwick and also how Queenie dictates a letter to Harold, so that he will know the full story of how Queenie came to work at the brewery and of the love she felt for him, but never felt able to tell him about at the time. Though Queenie is no longer able to write legibly, one of the nuns at the hospice, Sister Mary Inconnue offers to type it for her. So, interspersed with descriptions of life at the hospice and some of the other patients who are quite colourful characters themselves, the reader learns about Queenie’s life.

I have to say that I did find the novel a little depressing at the very beginning because I expected all the action to be taking place in the hospice, but I soon got over that feeling. Queenie’s story reveals how she first met Harold and how she met Harold’s son, David, but never told Harold about the friendship. It also reveals how David eventually came to take his own life and why Queenie made the decision to leave her job and get as far away from Kingsbridge as she could, ending up in a beach house just south of Berwick. If you enjoyed “The Unlikely Pilgrimage… ‘ you are bound to enjoy this.

(for the review in The Guardian, click here)


If this type of novel doesn’t appeal, then the book which Rachel Joyce wrote between “Pilgrimage…” and “Love Song..” may be more to your taste. According to Susanna Rustin in The Guardian, “Perfect” is “more ambitious, darker and more honest.” Byron Hemming’s best friend at school told him that two seconds would be added to time (it’s 1972), but he doesn’t understand how this can be. Then one morning, his mother is distracted whilst driving Byron to school and makes a devastating mistake. Definitely one for Rachel Joyce fans.

Posted by: billpurdue | February 16, 2015

Mentioning the war

There’s hardly a day goes by when the First or Second World War isn’t mentioned somewhere in the media. Such is the continuing interest in military history that many novels being published today still have war as their theme. One such novel is “Villa Triste” by Lucretia Grindle, which is a detective novel set in Italy – Florence to be more precise. The motive for the crimes being investigated has its origin in the activities of the partisans after the demise of Mussolini, but before the Allies have reached that part of Italy, after the Nazis have marched south and taken over areas which the Allies have not yet reached. In some ways this was the worst time of the war for Italians, since the former supporters of Mussolini got a boost from the occupying German forces.


The book begins in 1943 and focuses on two sisters, Isabella and Caterina Cammacio. Isabella joins the partisans and helps to smuggle escaped prisoners of the Nazis over the border, whilst Caterina, engaged to Ludovicio, a naval medic away in North Africa, prefers to become a nurse at the local hospital, plans for the wedding being put on hold.


The scene is set in 1943-4 in part one of the novel, but then in chapter 2 we jump to 2006, when Inspector Palliotti is called on to investigate three murders of men who had recently been honoured in a national ceremony for their part in helping the partisans. In the first two cases they had been shot at close range and their mouths had been stuffed with salt.


The book has a complicated plot: although the action is now in the 21st century, Palliotti discovers a diary belonging to Caterina in the house of one of the murdered men. Palliotti’s progress in the case is punctuated by quite lengthy excerpts from the diary, all of which help him to solve the case. The blurb on the cover quotes a review from the Daily Express which says that it is a “complex, enthralling thriller..” That is indeed true – you don’t have to make notes, but do pay attention! I did have to re-read some sections to make sure I knew who was who and what had happened. That’s not to say that it isn’t a page turner.


Lucretia Grindle has three other books to her name – “The Nightspinners”, a murder mystery, “The Faces of Angels”, a murder mystery set in Florence and her latest book “The Lost Daughter’. The new book is also set in Florence and also features Inspector Allessandro Palliotti and his deputy Enzo Saenz. The latter plays a bigger part in this novel, but the plot, as far as I can understand it from the blurb, is as complicated as ever.


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