AJ Reid

Notes from the Paradise Peninsula

Tag: Love

The Horseman’s Dream: A Tale of Conspiracy, Corruption, Cruelty and Conditioning in Post-Disaster Britain

Fifteen years ago, I had the idea for this book in the waiting room of an MOT garage.  Usually, I move quickly through projects: done and on to the next one.  But not this one.

When I began writing it, I had no idea that the duration of my protagonist’s exile would match the time it would take me to complete the book.  I like to think that I would have carried on regardless had I realised, but fifteen years is a long time.  Happily, I can now stop worrying too much, because it’s finally finished, edited and ready for a printing press.  No doubt there will be some who won’t like it and to those people, I can only apologise, because this is fifteen years of me doing my best to say something that might be worth your time.  It’s about something intangible, yet powerful, like the scent you catch in the air every now and then that makes your heart swell with nostalgia or the child’s smile that brings a tear to your eye.  It’s about something good that still exists in a bad world.  Like the lone snowdrop on the rubbish tip, this beauty will always find a way.   This is the best story I can come up with to frame the notion of a force within all of us that can survive anything: grief, addiction, trauma, enslavement, conditioning and, in near-future Britannia, even a natural disaster and the rise of a terrifying new brand of fascism.

An early map for The Horseman’s Dream, showing how the British Isles have been reduced to a tiny archipelago by a near-extinction level natural disaster.

When I came up with the idea for the story, I had a job working late shifts in a local restaurant and that morning, I could barely face sunlight, I was so tired. I poured a styrofoam cup of scorched coffee from the MOT garage’s grotty percolator and sat down to check out the reading material on the table. Next to the mountain of Heat, Hello, Ok!, Cosmopolitan, Loaded et al sat a pristine hardback of the Holy Bible. The juxtaposition of the literature seemed absurd, even more so when flicking between them. It made me consider how human consciousness might have evolved over two millenia, if at all.

Two years earlier, 9/11 had brought religious fundamentalism into the spotlight with an event that was truly shocking to witness live on TV. It felt unreal, like a waking nightmare. I’d stood on top of one of the buildings a year previously and the memory made me shiver. A toxin was leaking into my bloodstream through the television as I watched these hellish events unfold. It was tough to escape the feeling that somebody had crafted this nightmare for a specific purpose: to alter the consciousness of the world, to upset the balance to serve their own ambitions, whatever they might be. Someone had turned down the dimmer switch for humanity and all its higher virtues, leaving us all suspended in a darkness, not of physical light, but of the spirit.

I set down the literature and drank my coffee, none too keen to wriggle any further down the rabbit-hole without more caffeine. I could feel The Horseman’s Dream rumbling in the distance or so I thought. Turned out to be my car failing its MOT on a knackered exhaust.

I was thinking about my experience at Ground Zero, where it was all no longer just on the TV.  Since I had been booked for label showcases in New York before 9/11, I assumed that they would be cancelled, but I was wrong.  They went ahead anyway in the November.  Getting on a plane became a totally different proposition overnight.  Twitchy faces seemed riveted to their headrests, casting anxious glances at their fellow travellers and security checks both in arrivals and departures took so long that you could see the weariest visibly ageing as they stood in line.  It wasn’t just the time it took or the draining effect of air travel: they had been poisoned like me.  They were afflicted by the same sadness that took control of the veins, arteries, nerves, muscles and ligaments, not just the brain or the heart.  A genuine malaise that saw altruism and other romantic imperatives smeared from the collective consciousness and replaced with a cold objectivism.

An early impression of what the broadcasting corporation’s logo might look like.

Reading the tributes amidst the still-rising smoke and dust at Ground Zero was harrowing.  As a young man, I had been looking forward to writing stuff that would comfort people and encourage them to be kinder to each other, to make the world a more interesting, peaceful place.  It suddenly seemed a most naive, childish ambition, and my motivation to write faltered badly during the following two years.

The Horseman’s Dream was the idea that broke the drought.  My styrofoam coffee cup now empty, I scribbled as many notes as I could fit within the confines of Ben Affleck’s forehead, before I had to move on to Jennifer Aniston’s dress on the next page of the magazine.  I inconspicuously removed the notated pages and stuffed them into my pocket before diving back to the Bible.   Flipping it open randomly landed me in Revelations.

I remembered that feeling of apocalyptic dread as I watched the Twin Towers fall on television. It made me wonder whether the apocalypse would take the form of something so awfully spectacular in the physical world or whether the apocalypse of the soul would be the thing to finish us off. This imperceptible parasite travelling through airwaves and feeding on higher virtue seemed to me to be a grave, real danger and it was clear that we had all been affected by it.  Infected by it.

I still like this idea for a cover. What do you think?

I took the idea of a reality TV mogul rising to power and using media and technology to control and ultimately destroy the minds of a population to achieve complete dominance.  I had always been disturbed by the incredible influence that the media has over people, but post 9/11, it became an assault rather than an influence.  Something wasn’t right. And that pristine passport.  Building 7.  Temperatures required to melt steel beams.  I don’t know if you remember, but people were openly talking about these things in polite company.  I remember when the phrase “conspiracy theory” wasn’t dirty, laced with ridicule or used to undermine alternative opinions and ideas.  The manipulation of that phrase became a source of suspicion in itself.  Conspiracy theories about conspiracy theory.  To the shadowy forces at the helm of this dark vessel cleaving through the waves of the collective consciousness, tampering with crime scenes seemed like more of an afterthought.  Their real quarry seemed to be our very souls and it was jaw-dropping to see truth and logic escape from family and friends as they belched and regurgitated the desired narrative, becoming more exhausted and enraged by cognitive dissonance by the day.

This was the beginning of fake news as we now know it.  The parasite no longer lived only in the airwaves, now it had fibre-optic broadband and the ability to create hate, confusion, polarisation and foster narcissism, cruelty and desensitisation in anyone on the planet in microseconds.

Fortunately for the resistance, short wave radio still works in Britannia.

And it’s still working.  The ego is inextricably entwined with social media in a way that TV, radio and print has never been, creating more profound lacerations to the user’s psyche and generating slow-burning, but dark consequences for our society.  A week ago, a seven-year-old boy was slashed with a knife only a few miles from my home.  I recently received death threats for intervening to prevent a woman being verbally and physically assaulted by four men outside a local bar.  The hunt is still on for the man who thrust a pint glass into someone’s face at the bottom of my road a few weeks ago.  Not far from the supermarket, a running street battle with machetes took place last month, resulting in some horrific injuries.   And in true Ballardian fashion, someone recently smashed up a police mental health support vehicle while the officers were in a nearby house, attending to an emergency call.

And all the while, funding for health and emergency services is being strangled to death.  Or to privatisation, I should say.

I don’t think it takes a genius to see that someone is conducting a symphony of chaos from the wings.

The arrival of dreck like the Jeremy Kyle Show and X-Factor fed the parasite, which had found its natural home online for the reasons outlined above.  These programmes were designed to appeal to the lowest aspects of our humanity: merely an update of the Victorian freak show, so that people could give air to their desperate need to sneer at the pathetic plights and dreams of the poor, vulnerable and mentally-ill.  Like a self-sufficient, perpetual eco-cycle, the circus continues ever apace, gathering more momentum every day under the watch of leaders who care nothing for us and everything for their offshore bank accounts.

And all this before I’ve even mentioned Brexit.

The Horseman’s Dream became a revenge story for the meek and a tale of justice for the abused.  A protest against faceless, psychopathic corporations controlling our governments and our minds.  The perpetrators would see their own cruel weapons turned against them amidst the howl of trumpets from the skies.  I wrote that the horsemen would not come as War, Famine, Pestilence and Death, but in the form of an institutionalised, 16-year-old catatonic.  His weapon would not be a flaming sword or burning bow, but something else altogether more nebulous and abstract.

Years later, when a coiffured tangerine was elected as the most powerful political leader in the world, I knew that The Horseman’s Dream was coming true.  I worried about Alice Grosvenor being a  “pantomime” antagonist until I saw this guy delivering his address from the White House as if he had won an episode of Big Brother (somewhat ironically – George Orwell would have had much to say about this hot mess we live in, I’m sure).

Political Reform: Wheel of Fortune Edition

The polarisation of the public in the UK and the USA continues to worsen, aided by technology and social media to create wider and deeper contamination and control of our people. It’s highly recommended to be a hustler, a playa, a gangsta, an outright narcissist or a gold-digger in our culture: anything else and you’re “weak”.  The sneering attitudes fertilised by reality TV (or reality “programming” could be more apt) have become the norm, while the wretched mantra of the staunch objectivist might as well be tattooed on our foreheads: “I’m alright, Jack.”

As a protest and admonition against that, I wanted to create a shrivelled, cruel near-future where a tipping point has been reached: a world where kindness, honour, loyalty, compassion and altruism would finally be rewarded by a mysterious cosmic power operating outside of the grimy reach of the Establishment. A power that makes their attempts to control others appear quite ridiculous and futile. A power that meets their unkindness with a vengeance a thousand times more powerful than anything they could muster. A power to whom we could all be grateful for liberating us from our slavemasters’ thrall.

When I finally finished the novel last year, I went through a stringent drafting process and reluctantly let go of about 30,000 words, leaving the final draft at 75,000.  In a fit of childish enthusiasm, I offered the manuscript to Will Self after attending one of his lectures in Liverpool and he was gracious enough to accept it.  It was an exciting moment for me until I returned to my car and realised what I had done: I had just given a manuscript to one of the most complex, capable (and acidic) novelists ever for a review.  I never knew I harboured such masochistic tendencies.  What did I expect? What a ludicrous notion that he might even read it.  A novelist of Will Self’s level has much more important stuff to do than read my twaddle.  I blushed even though I was alone and drove home, cursing myself as an idiot for most of the journey.

Alternate Cover

I put the episode out of my mind until a few weeks later when I received an email from Professor Self. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared of opening an email.  I needn’t have worried: he was most polite.  It wasn’t the “kind of thing he usually read”, but he said it was “full of fascinating ideas” and said that he would speak to someone who might be interested.  Although I’ve not heard back since, I’m still relieved that I wasn’t completely eviscerated, at least.  Just having one of the finest novelists of the last century read my work at all gave me a confidence boost, which has since been bolstered again by a few tough beta-readers who have come back to me with enthusiastic reviews.

I’ve been knocking together a few ringbound proofs in anticipation of the next step, which is to print a short run of paperbacks to sell from the website and perhaps the odd art/book fair here and there in a bid to remain as independent as possible.  If you can’t wait and would like a ringbound proof, email me and we’ll work something out.  Readers have bartered beer, guitar strings, homegrown vegetables and cigars so far, all of which I will continue to accept as tender until the paperback is released.

Ringbound proofs with holographic foil covers.

If you have any thoughts on any of the above, feel free to put them in the comments or send me an email.

Misprints feel like such a waste, so I deployed Arthur here as a beta reader.

If you’d like to read a few snippets The Horseman’s Dream (and others) and check out some weird doodles, click here

If you’d like to read the odd sarcastic tweet or see some nice art (I RT a lot of paintings/photography), go here

If you would like to be kept up to date on release dates and special offers, sign up to my mailing list by clicking here 

Lots of love,
AJ

 

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Echo Chamber

Goodnight, my love,
Sleep well in your chamber,
See you in a while,
You’ll be in no danger,
From the voice that dares ask,
Any question at all,
To the strong and the stable,
Of their thirst for our thrall.
Goodnight, my love,
Your skin has grown paler,
Behind the chamber’s glass,
You’ve become your own jailer,
Closing the hatch,
On your reverberant hole,
You settle comfortably into the role,
And a tear of mine drops to the floor,
While stiff regret haunts my jaw.
Enjoy your cocktails of blood,
And the inevitable flood,
Of warmth in your veins,
As you calmly peruse,
Systematic abuse,
As long as no-one complains,
Of secrets and lies,
Where the dead go to live,
When their sympathy dies.
Through the chainmail I hear,
An echo of you,
Through the telegraph wire,
And the turn of the screw,
From the sky up above,
To the sinner below,
A picture is painted,
That he’ll never know.
Goodnight my love,
This is the last time I’ll come,
The chamber’s cold glass,
Has turned my lips numb.
Goodnight, my love,
I will cherish our time,
But I am no longer yours,
And you, no longer mine.
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Who is Dianne Doyle?

I used to work in a department store where there was a manager who ruled with something of a manicured iron fist.  She actually used to get kicks out of reprimanding staff and subverting their relationships, which she would achieve in very subtle ways.  She was a maestro of negativity, conducting us like an orchestra and luring us into making mistakes, just so that she could make a show of whichever poor wretch was on her hitlist that day.

She wasn’t without charm, though, which is why I thought that she would make a great villain.  The longer I worked there, the more rumours I heard and the more I saw with my own eyes, the more intriguing she became.  She used the workplace hierarchy and corporate targets for her own ends, none of which were actually concerned with profit margins.

This, and certain other experiences led me to study psychology in a bid to demystify the motives in any kind of cruelty, whereupon I learnt about psychopathy and its causes/effects.  When writing A Smaller Hell, I took an example of a philanthropist in Joseph Williamson, who built the famous tunnels in Liverpool, and summoned him in the founder of the department store: Commander Clarence Tanner.  The idea was to have Dianne Doyle be a personification of slick and shiny corporate psychopathy in contrast to Tanner’s long-standing philosophy of providing work for the families of the town, giving to charity and generally keeping a fire burning for the community to rally round.

I don’t like the fact that business has become all-consuming and all-important.  It’s made me uncomfortable for a long time and the more I learn about the skulduggery that underpins the corporate world, the more I become convinced that my fears are well-founded.  I find it vulgar – even creepy – when people say “it’s good for the economy” about some morally-dubious initiative that our politicians are undertaking, as if the economy is some kind of god or idol that we should all kneel and worship, even at the expense of our own humanity.

Dianne Doyle is the face that I’ve given to those fears.  She is everything that’s dangerous about money and sex.  She’s also the mischievous authoritarian and cruel hedonist, whose greatest act of manipulation and deception is charted in A Smaller Hell and unfolds to reveal that “the Devil can sometimes do a very gentlemanly thing”, as Robert Louis Stevenson said.

 

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Perseid Promise

Last night, after the captain and crew went to bed, I stuck around on the bow of the Sarinda to catch the Perseid meteor shower.  I wedged my rucksack under my head and kept my eyes fixed on the night sky until bright green lights began streaking across it, leaving vapour trails in their wake.

I didn’t have a wish ready: I had to root around for one, trying to choose something not too selfish and not too far-fetched.  The corner of North Wales looked like it was being attacked from space at one point, making me wonder what would happen if one were to strike the estuary, which is still reported to be full of unexploded bombs from World War Two.

It reminded me of being a child again, when I used to play with my friends down on the shore, discovering and investigating wrecked boats and winding gutters.  We made The Hidey Hole out of a huge concrete pipe that had been discarded in the woods and launched regular water pistol assaults on another gang from there.  There were rope-swings, rope-bridges, fox-holes, tunnels, BMX ramps and even a zipline.

Unauthorised use of our facilities was the most common cause for confrontations, which often escalated to the point of parents getting involved, displeased at their beloved little angels coming home covered in mud and soaking wet, having lost the territory battle.  No-one ever got really hurt.  An older brother threw a brick at me once, hitting me in the leg, but it didn’t do much damage.  I just pretended it did, so that his mum would ground him, taking him out of the equation for a week and leaving his brother fair game for another water-bombing.

More often than not, we all ended up playing together and becoming friends after the initial tribal stand-offs, building yet more jumps, slides and ramps, after which we would go to one another’s houses for the ubiquitous dinner of fish fingers, chips and peas.  We would be careful to mind our manners and remove our shoes if it was “that kind of house” for the benefit of our pals more than anything, so that they would be able to continue to come out to play.

Things changed when one of our gang discovered fire.  He proceeded to blow up The Hidey Hole (literally cracked it in two) with a load of deodorant cans, changed up his Super Soaker water pistol for a can of WD40 and a lighter and set fire to another gang’s BMX tyres.  The police got involved when neighbours from half a mile away heard The Hidey Hole go up.  It was with immediate effect that all of us were banned by our parents from playing down on the marsh anymore.  Sometimes, I would ride my bike down there to see if anyone was around, but no-one dared since our mate was being threatened with juvenile detention.  Everyone was asking each other who had grassed when we could get each other on the phone, but no-one knew, or so they claimed.

Lying on the deck of that historic warship and watching the meteor shower, I realised that I’d left a little piece of my heart in The Hidey Hole when it was blown up.  I never really saw those friends again since that was our last year at primary school and I ended up going to a different secondary from them.  I hated my new school and most of the kids therein, it being largely populated by entitled little bullies, many (but not all) teachers included.  There were times when I felt so alone and worthless that I would stay awake all night in tears, dreading the next day.  Summer would never be the same again.

As another spectacular Perseid meteor blazed across the sky, I thought about all the close friends who have come and gone from my life.  Nothing lasts forever.  Not even the mighty Sarinda, whose copper nails and fixings will eventually disintegrate.  Not even the captain, who seems invulnerable to the stormy seas of life.  Not even the first mate, whose fixings are only 21 years old.  And definitely not me, whose sails just can’t catch the wind at the moment, it seems.

Having not seen another meteor for ten minutes, I picked up my rucksack and checked that the tide had gone out before climbing down into the lethal mud and its unseen gullets that swallow wellies, sometimes people.  As I slopped through the blackness, one last Perseid, bright and green, appeared to fall into Moel Famau across the river, right into the nipple on its peak.

I made my wish before the vapour trail faded out of sight.  That’s the rule, you know.

As I walked along the water’s edge, I could hear a boat engine following behind me in the darkness all the way up to the slipway at the boatyard.

‘Alright, Tone,’ came a voice from the darkness.  It was one of the local fishermen.  ‘See that shooting star fly into Moel Famau?’

‘Yup.  What did you wish for?’

‘Can’t tell you that,’ he said, dragging his dinghy up the slip.  ‘Wouldn’t come true, would it?’

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The Bridge

The M62 won’t be so bad tonight in this sort of weather.  The autumn sunlight lends the Albert Dock an air of melancholy, deepening the pits and furrows in the brickwork.  Tourists still point and shop and take photographs.  Smart office workers negotiate the cobbled walkways with a practised hustle, while art students drift in and out of the gallery like smoke through an open window.

The waitress brings me pizza and a grapefruit juice.  It reminds me of when I was in Rome.  Everything around me was so different – so foreign and ancient – and yet I was the same as I had always been.  I’m suddenly aware that my destination is still 250 miles away across the moors and of how low the sun is.  Still time for The Bridge.  Still time to make it across at dusk.

I pay the bill, tip the waitress and make for the car park, stretching my legs a little before strapping myself in to this crucifix disguised as a car seat.  No matter how I adjust the thing, long journeys always result in some degree of nerve damage to my lower back.  I pop two paracetamol and get in, kidding myself that this time it will be fine.  Sunglasses on, water, money, petrol, debit card, but most importantly, change for The Bridge toll and Blade Runner soundtrack.  I wind down my window and enjoy the sound of Scouse gulls and the crisp air before driving off.

It’s ritualistic, but when much feeling is attached to an occasion, is it not customary for all of us to drape things on it, dress it up, throw flowers and confetti at it and such?

Location: Humber Bridge

Time: Dusk

Music: Blade Runner Blues by Vangelis

 

There were myriad combinations of music and weather before I stumbled upon this one.   Blues in the rain, soul in the snow, rock most other times.   The feeling I get from the music is one of being suspended with the stars, as if anything is possible – your head tingles in the presence of some vague, but powerful beauty.  The bridge itself is an incredible feat of engineering, an accomplishment of man, but there is something else that creates the rush of blood to head.  Being on the road in a tin can on wheels – like everybody else in the chain of brakelights – trusting them not to make too serious an error which might result in an horrific death, is wonderfully absurd, and makes you feel as if you’re part of some illuminated cosmic caravan crawling along under the red sky.

It’s a defiant ritual and who better to give the finger to than our Dr. Tyrell, our maker – the one who so cruelly had us born astride of the grave, as Samuel Beckett described our condition?  We will work together to defy his unreasonable curtailing of our lives.  We’ll travel across colossal man-made bridges and listen to transcendent music.  We’ll eat pizza and drink grapefruit juice.  We’ll comfort one another and we shall share our dreams in the hope of building them together.  We’ll drive from one side of the country to the other for love, and we shall transcend our pain through the union of our bodies.  Nothing will die, even when it dissolves into the tarmac, because the caravan will go on.  Why is immortality so important to us anyway, when we have these attainable glories?

‘Do you want this sodding change or not?’ the surly lurkle sneers at me from his toll booth.

I take it from him and apologise for not paying attention, citing a long drive as an excuse.  I tell him it’s worth every penny and to have a pint on me.  He holds out a wide-knuckled fistful of change and mutters, ‘It’s not bloody pub, ye knur.’

I take the coins and drive forward into the illuminated geometry of The Bridge like an argonaut between the Symplegades, into a sunset laden with wonder and possibility.

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Working in a Department Store

It wasn’t that bad.  My father often tells me about his father’s job as a steeplejack: that sounds bad.  At least I was indoors and not teetering hundreds of feet above the cold, hard ground.

Steeplejack_on_a_chimney_in_1960_arp

At the interview, I didn’t have a panic attack and smash up a waiting room as Tony Black does in A Smaller Hell.  Instead, I was sneered at by a snotty manager for ten minutes before she found out where I went to school and then it was all la-de-da-do-you-know-so-and-so.  I knew a few people and suddenly I was the perfect candidate.  Never once did she mention the exam grades I had sweated over, or the money I’d raised for charity, or my love of Satie, just the fact that it was lovely to have another Old Birkonian on board.  Jolly good show.

I was being welcomed into the inner sanctum of an institution.  The lethal polished floors and automatic doors; the toy guns; the sparkling jewellery displays; the luxurious waft of the perfume counters; the smell of the posh Rombout’s coffee and Welsh Rarebit in the cafe.  I was usually accompanied by my nan, who would take me there on the bus while my parents were at work.

At 6 years old, the Toy department was sacred ground, scented with erasers, bubblegum and gunpowder from the caps for the toy guns.  With the acquisition of a new toy, adventure inevitably followed.  At 10 years old, I became obsessed with writing equipment, and would often be shooed away from peering into the glowing glass cabinets.  By 16, I was Christmas shopping there with my first girlfriend.  We wore scarves and puffer jackets, and I remember her fingers feeling skinny even through her rainbow-coloured wool gloves.  She had long black hair, pale skin and green eyes.  Her fine cheekbones were always rouged by the cold weather and she shivered a lot in her rusty Nissan Micra with no heater, which made her look very fragile and beautiful.

And so at 24, I found myself working in this castle of memories.  And like every good castle, it had a hierarchy within its walls – and like every good hierarchy, it had its tyrants, climbers and victims.  It was very much like returning to school.  Every morning, I would feel the polyester of my tie catch on the callouses of my left hand’s fingertips: a stark reminder that the dizzying heights of yesteryear – with its six-figure record deal offers, hotel rooms in Manhattan, yachts in Marina Del Rey, famous rock lawyers and all the rest of it – were long gone.  Every morning was soundtracked by a lonely drizzle and painted entirely in grey.  I was rather disappointed at how things had turned out, apart from being in love with a girl named after a fruit.

 

The relationship with the fruit girl had deteriorated somewhat since I had returned from America.  The hotshot lawyer had turned down the record deal, confident in offers from Sony, Columbia and Epic that never came.  Having been with me for several years as a broke musician already, she drank a whole bottle of wine one night and hit me with this: “If you were going to make it by now, you would have.”

I was still deeply in love with this girl, even if she wasn’t in love with me.  We’d been together for years and she had been my best friend almost since the day we met.  I already felt as though I’d let everybody down after so much hope had been built up over the American showcases.  It was like being written into some Kafkan nightmare.  She stopped coming to my gigs, stopped calling me and eventually ran off with one of her classmates at uni.  I was heartbroken.

Nevertheless, every day, I tightened my polyester noose and bought my bus ticket.  Every day, The George and Dragon’s warm wafts of stale ale would greet me on the way in and out of work.  Every day, I would get told off for being late back in from my lunch break, even though it would be a matter of seconds.  Every day, I would fantasise about windmilling through the China and Crystal departments like someone on day release, just to see the look on my boss’ face.

 

Every day.

 

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