Desire Lines Book Launch
*Speakers: Karen Viggers (K), Felicity Volk (F)
*Location: National Library of Australia
K: Hello, I’m Karen Viggers, I’m a local Canberra author of contemporary fiction and I’m here this afternoon in extraordinary times with the COVID-19 virus about on the cusp of taking off across Australia. I’m here at the National Library of Australia with Felicity Volk to help launch and celebrate and discuss her wonderful new book, Desire Lines. It’s a difficult time for authors trying to launch books here in Australia and around the world so we felt it was very important to get together to talk books here at the National Library today.
Before we get started I just wanted to begin with an acknowledgement of country and to acknowledge the indigenous people of this land that we’re meeting on today and acknowledge their elders past, present and emerging for they hold the hopes, the dreams, the memories and the stories of indigenous Australians and their voices are so important in society and also in literature and I wanted to acknowledge their contributions to this society and also to the past and the building of Australia.
But here we are, Felicity and I, to chat to you here today about her wonderful new book, Desire Lines, which is an incredible book that she’s going to tell us a little about today. But, Felicity, the opening line of her novel is just so very arresting. I remember opening the book and reading that line, are you still a liar? It’s a really great hook, it draws the reader in and immediately you’re wondering who is lying. So, can you just first tell us a little about the story, the outline of the story and then about the history behind that comment and whether that came to you initially or was something that developed as the novel evolved.
F: Well thanks so much, Karen, and also thank you to you for being prepared to come here for this event and to the National Library of Australia. I was going to be here with 200 guests tonight to launch the book and hopefully this way I’ll be launching with over 1,000 people tuning in to see this presentation. But to your question, are you still a liar? Yes, that was the starting point of the book but in fact I didn’t write the first line as my very first line of the novel. There was three key seeds in the origins of this novel. The first which relates to the love story theme of the novel was that I indeed myself had a quite complicated relationship several years ago which ended painfully. The motif of truth and lies wound its way through that relationship and so when I started writing the novel quite some time ago, just a few thousand words, I was probably in a fairly grief-stricken place about the end of the relationship, there was a bit of anger there, probably the sort of anger that manifested in that first line, are you still a liar? But that was not the line that I began the novel with back that number of years ago.
For a variety of reasons, I ended up not proceeding with the novel, I came back to it several years down the track. I was very busy at work then I was fortunate to have a grant from the Australia Council and from Arts ACT to have a dedicated year of writing this novel and consequently I came back to it many years down the track and I was in a very different place towards my own sense of the love story itself. I was in a far more compassionate place, a place of forgiveness and wanting more to look at human foible and why we make the decisions we make that may impact negatively on people around us and wanting to tell a story of tenderness and compassion and grace and forgiveness rather than a story of anger and bitterness. That was the first seed.
The second seed is to do with truth and lies –
K: A central theme of the novel.
F: A very central theme of the novel and I had an incident that’s one of my earliest childhood recollections and I was five years old. I was being babysat fairly regularly by my grandmother and on one particular evening when I was being picked up from her house, I was in the kitchen by myself, I saw on the kitchen bench a plastic bag that had a $5 note in it. I knew it was going to be put out for the milkman, not the milkwoman ‘cause we didn’t have milkwomen, it was for the milkman, it was the weekly payment of the cost of the milk money. I thought it would be a great joke to take that money so I pocketed it and I took it home and I thought no-one will know where it is, it’s going to be this fantastic practical joke, put it in my sock drawer at home. The following morning my grandmother called my parents and said did anyone see the milk money? I was asked, I said no, I didn’t see it, let me continue this great practical joke.
The following Saturday morning there were socks put into my sock drawer after the family wash and the money was found and I was spanked for both stealing and lying and that is the scene that wove its way into the very early story of Evie, my female protagonist, because that sense of the way we navigate truth and lies and what we characterise as truth and lies shaped me from the age of five and has definitely been a theme in my own life and something that I’ve been interested in exploring.
Third seed and the last one that I want to refer to is the nature of seeds themselves. At the end of my first novel, Lightning, my protagonist in it, their journey close to Uluru. They’re sitting under a hakea bush; fires have gone through the national park. There’s a sense of complete devastation but also the regeneration that bushfire brings to the Australian native species. In that particular scene you can hear the hakea seeds sprouting, the banksia pods popping as a result of fire and there’s that sense of fire’s regenerative, restorative qualities.
When I was researching that scene and looking at different plant species I happened to come across a reference to the global seed vault in the Arctic Circle in Norway and the idea of seeds being put on ice in the middle of a mountain, a global seed vault where we store our seed stock to preserve species against catastrophe, whether manmade or natural. I was fascinated by the idea of putting seeds on ice to preserve our future as an insurance policy against catastrophe.
So while I didn’t think about it at the time I now, with that reverse engineering that we do with many aspect of our life, I look back and I feel like a baton was passed from that last chapter of my first novel to the first chapter of my new novel and so it began in the Article Circle. But I did not write that first chapter until I’d started writing the 1952 second chapter of the story.
K: Because this is a novel that takes place over quite a vast stretch of years, almost 60 years, isn’t it?
K: So, I want you to just elaborate a little for us the narrative thread ‘cause there’s two main protagonists and we follow each of their stories in parallel and for a while we’re wondering how they’re going to come together. So perhaps you could tell us a little bit more just to set the scene for the rest of the discussion about those two characters and also you don’t have to give the whole narrative arc away but just a little idea of where the story heads.
F: Sure. So, after the first chapter that is set in Arctic Circle in 2012 with Evie in her 60s, landscape architect, making a deposit of Australian seed stock into the seed vault the novel at chapter 2 flashes back to 1952. It’s London, we meet Paddy, my male protagonist, at the age of about six, turning seven. He’s growing up in a dysfunctional family, the father is a philanderer, he’s abusive, he’s an alcoholic, he’s an ice deliverer around central London. There’s a particular scene that occurs that triggers a whole sequence of events for Paddy and has him end up in a Nazareth House run by Catholic nuns for a few months, effectively as an orphan, abandoned by his family. Then he is sent out to Australia as a child migrant, one of the former child migrants whose oral histories are held in the National Library of Australia and I did some fantastic research here listening to their stories.
But Paddy comes out to Australia in early 1953, he’s on a cruise ship along with other children going to the Fairbridge Farm schools around Australia. His final destination is the Molong Farm School and he skirts the edge of institutional abuse there, has a very difficult childhood but he’s very gifted and he ends up being awarded a scholarship to go to the Blue Mountains Grammar School then to Sydney University to study architecture. So, he sets his professional desire line as an architect and that eventually finds him in Canberra working on the construction of the High Court of Australia.
My female protagonist, Evie, we meet her in the next chapter after Paddy’s first introduction and we meet her at the age of around six and she’s growing up in an upper middleclass family in Australia, her father’s the Assistant Crown Solicitor, her mother is a Chaucer lover and teaching English at a grammar school here. So, Evie grows up in a quite idyllic childhood with a particularly fond relationship with her grandmother who is herself a horticulturalist of sorts. Her grandfather, who is deceased, was a planter of trees, a horticulturalist in Canberra responsible for the early planting of Canberra and so she’s inherited both this genetic memory of what it’s like to work with plants and she’s seen her grandmother working with plants and so this is her first love and this also sets her desire line professionally to become a landscape architect and to work on the High Court of Australia’s landscape architecture and the planning of all of the land around the Parliamentary Triangle.
So, Evie and Paddy meet in the Blue Mountains at the age of 16, it’s their first love, it’s passionate, it’s compelling and it also sets another desire line for them in terms of their love story and it’s a story that weaves together and apart. Because Paddy is characterised by the need to hide things, to compartmentalise, to tell lies, to keep things secret, Evie’s driven by a need for truth and authenticity and these two modus operandi keep butting heads against each other and make it both an impossible love but also an utterly compelling love that sees them coming together frequently over a very long period of time, 50 years in their love affair.
K: Yes look, it really is a novel of parallels and contrasts, isn’t it? As you said Paddy’s had a very difficult journey through his childhood in particular and in comparison, Evie has such a sheltered and protected and privileged life. He deals with poverty and domestic violence and rejection and quite a lot of other violence as well, psychological violence and yet Evie is so loved. It seems like you’re really trying to show us how important our backgrounds are to the choices we make and the people we become and identities. Do you want to talk a little bit more about that and how Paddy’s past shapes him versus how Evie’s past shapes her?
F: Sure. So, I think the reason that I framed the novel using that sort of device of starting at adulthood for Evie, giving the reader – perhaps tantalising them with this opening line, are you still a liar? So that they knew that there was a whole back story to where Evie is when we first meet her in her 60s.
I was telling a story where I knew what the endpoint would be and I wanted to understand how my characters got there and I actually didn’t know a lot about how they got to where they were and what did shape them and what caused them to make the decisions that they did, often decisions that came at great cost or caused great pain. So for me as much as it is for the reader, it was a journey or discovery about what it was that shaped both of them in their very early years and continued to shape them throughout those very formative years through to their mid-20s that caused them to be the people they were to make those decisions that they did.
So I was discovering a lot about Evie and Paddy as I was doing the writing and where that first chapter finishes with Evie trapped in a glacial ice cave and almost herself put on ice like the seeds that she’s put into the cave in the global seed vault, I felt as if Evie was trapped in the cave that I’d created for her and that I was interrogating her in that cave, gently, I hope, but asking her about why it was that she made these decisions and why her love for Paddy was so compelling and why she made the compromises she did over many years. By the same token I found myself having those same conversations with Paddy on the way through the writing. Why is it that you shape your life around lies? Why is it that you need to protect so much? Why is it that you are so driven by ambivalence? Why can you not make strong decisions and be courageous?
I wanted to get to a place where I felt like I could forgive Paddy for what he did and forgive Evie for the decisions that she made as well that I think came at cost to people around her. So, I wanted to set both myself and the reader up to approach each of these flawed characters with compassion and understanding and a sense of tenderness by the end of the novel and hopefulness for them. So, it was a bit of a case of reverse engineering possibly.
K: It’s so important, isn’t it, that characters are flawed and do have difficulties ‘cause we all do and I think that’s what helps us to relate to both of these characters so strongly, is their fallibility and their ability to assess themselves perhaps as well, and their own identities in trying to understand that. It’s a life’s journey, isn’t it, to do that. So, this is also a novel about the identify of Australia and especially of Canberra as well. The novel tracks some of the very important moments in history and important decisions made in Canberra and I guess it also discusses some of the dishonesty around public discourse and perhaps you could speak a bit more to that and how you saw that fitting with the narrative.
F: Thanks, yeah. It actually became a really interesting strand of the novel for me because when I first started writing it, I hadn’t intended to take the novel in the direction of that sort of exploration of the way we navigate truth and lies on the national stage and in our national discourse. But what I found, by virtue of the fact that I was covering a 60-year period in Australia’s history and a 50-year period in the story of my two characters coming together I needed to give a sense of the way time moved and society was shifting to create that authentic sense of time and of place.
So as I was researching on the way through and looking for some milestone events to become the markers of this passage of time I realised that all of these milestone markers also had within them key messages about the way we have a very uneasy relationship with truth-telling on the national stage and also a difficulty with finding our way through truth and lies to have a clearer sense of our national identity. That for example is in relation to our treatment of society’s most vulnerable people, our indigenous relations, children who are in institutional care so there’s been a lot of work in the most recent decade or so to find a way to tell truth and to apologise for the lies and the damage that have been done on the national stage and in our national life.
But it’s taken us a long time to get to the point where we’re capable of doing that. In the same way I saw that journey being part of the journey of my characters because it takes them a long time to make peace with the past to come to a point where they can recognise exactly what they’ve been involved in and to move forward in a clean and much more healed capacity to the extent any of us can be healed. I think there we carry scars and certainly my characters do and certainly Australia does, but I felt that those key markers were a really useful backdrop to initiate exploration of truth and lies in a personal relationship.
K: Yeah look, I think you did that really well, Felicity. It certainly brought Canberra to life in a way that people might not necessarily consider because place is very important in this novel and Canberra is a place where we live, it’s also the home of the National Library of Australia. There’s a lot of important history there but then that’s talking about the political place, but the physical and geographical sense of place is really important in your novel as well and it starts in Svalbard in northern Norway. How do you pronounce – Longyearbyen or –
F: I’m going to get this wrong and if there are any Norwegian speakers please forgive me, but Longyearbyen is the way I understand it’s pronounced. I think I may not have the accent in exactly the right place. Longyearbyen.
K: So, the novel begins in Longyearbyen and it includes London, Molong, the Blue Mountains and also Canberra. One of the things that I really enjoyed when I read the novel was evocative way that you created a sense of place ‘cause place is important to me in my writing as well and creating that sense of being there. I particularly remember a love scene in the Blue Mountains where you could hear the insects in the trees and you could hear the birdsong and smell the air so I want you to talk a little more about the importance of place in this novel and in your writing.
F: Similarly, to your writing a sense of my place from my point of view, it’s crucial because I think it helps to anchor the reader in the narrative if they can actually feel like they’re part of the physical location. They’re not just seeing it but also smelling it and hearing it and understanding the way life plays on different landscapes and so on. So, to take the example perhaps of the very first chapter in the Artic Circle, the reason I decided not to write that chapter as my first attempt at the novel was because I wanted to travel there before I wrote it. Then because I had that beautiful luxury of the support from the Australia Council and Arts ACT, I was able to do the research in place for different parts of the novel including that time in the Arctic Circle.
So, I flew there in February at the exact time that Australia’s actual first deposits of seeds was made into the seed vault which occurred at the end of the polar winter. There’s 100 days of polar winter at the end of which the sun appears over the horizon for the first time, but you don’t actually see the sun, you just see the blush of light on the tops of these mountains that surround Longyearbyen. It’s beautiful and magical and so I went there, and I had experiences and I met people and gained a sense of place that was crucial to the writing of that first chapter and the last chapters which finish back there.
I wanted to give the reader a sense of what the ice smells like and what it’s like to be in a place in polar night in polar winter with this strange blue light and the sound of the snow and the quiet of the place. So, it was very useful to have been there to be able to do that but also to have experiences like going into a glacial cave. I had organised a tour where I was part of a group of people who did this trip into a glacial cave, so we hiked up a glacier and then you go down around 40m into the cave.
I was in my early 50s at the time and very unfit and in this group of about 10 tourists. We had two guides with us because there are polar bears around there. As soon as you leave the central township of 2,000 people you have to have a rifle within your party in case you come across polar bears.
So, I was straggling behind this group and as the straggler and the one who would have been picked off by the polar bear should one have been in the vicinity, always go for the weak and the infirm, one of the guides stayed with me. He was remarkably kind and patient with me, indeed stopped me – similar to a scene that appears in that first chapter – and my eyelashes were just frozen ‘cause my eyes were weeping copiously and they would freeze ‘cause it was minus 18 degrees. He held a hand over my eyes to melt my eyelashes for me and it was just this beautifully kind gesture. So, it’s those little vignettes that then weave their way into a narrative and then give a sense of authenticity and give a reader a sense of being really physically located in the narrative and really feeling with the characters everything that goes on for them. So yeah, across the board sense of place is a critical starting point for any writing.
K: Look, I think you did that so very elegantly and having a novel commence in the Arctic. I myself have spent time down in the Antarctic and so I know the importance of the light and that sense of cold. It can be very difficult to put words to but I think you’ve done it with great elegance and the silence, the great silences of the ice and the sound of the wind and all those sorts of things, done so beautifully and it really did make me feel like I was back there again and I knew you must have visited that place.
It’s interesting talking about the ice caves down in Longyearbyen. I won’t get it quite right. As you said those caves are there to store these seeds forever and yet in this modern age, we’re facing the irony of the fact that with global warming and climate change the security of those caves is potentially in question in the longer term. That brought me to thinking about the theme of love and passion in this novel and impermanence which also seems to be a very strong thread. I know it’s described as a love story and it’s interesting, I didn’t think of it even though it centres around this great love, there’s so much more to the novel but to me it is just one of the threads of the novel but it’s an important thread. So, I wanted to ask you what is love and how does it differ from passion and how you’ve tried to illustrate it in this novel?
F: First of all thank you for that prelude comment about it being much more than a love story because also from my point of view while the love story is the narrative arc to some degree I do think that there is a lot more to the novel and there was certainly a lot more that I wanted to bring out through the narrative. But yes, the love story is one of the desire lines that weaves its way through the novel.
Listen, I’m not prescriptive about what love is. It shifts over time, we all experience that, that very first flush of love that Evie and Paddy experience as teenagers is definitely such a compelling experience for them and changes them so irrevocably that that then does set their course for this very difficult love that they follow over many decades.
There are elements of their love that don’t change. I think for them passion remained, probably because they came together and apart so frequently. I think it’s harder to sustain passion if you are in a relationship permanently. But I think there are wisdoms that we all acquire over the course of a life and the course of a love and the key wisdom that I see my characters discovering is the wisdom of finding compassion for self and compassion for other and being able to look past anger and grief about not being treated the way you would prefer or not being treated with respect and being lied to. But coming to a point where you realise that people mostly are not malicious and malevolent, they do the best they can, and they do the best they can with these seeds that are planted in them right from very early years.
So as time goes on and you are more distanced from difficulty and conflict I think you have the capacity to look back at the past and to look at the people that you love with that compassion and that grace and that is the arc for these two characters.
K: And that journey of seed and germination and growth and development. I just wanted to finish with just talking a little bit about design in this book because it’s a central part of the novel as well, isn’t it? Like design with architecture and horticulture and garden design and the design of Canberra and the lines, I suppose. That’s how I saw that as part of the desire lines as well, was that theme of design and architecture and I wondered if you could chat a bit more about that.
F: Yeah so, I had the title for the novel even before I began writing any of it. For me the titles of my work, I see them like DNA and from that DNA grow the whole body of the work and so the flesh and bones form around that DNA. So that concept of desire lines for me was a critical motif or metaphor that underpins the entire novel. In both architecture and also in landscape architecture in urban planning desire lines are – there’s a school of thought that rather than concreting in paths around new edifice or concreting in paths through a park that you wait to see the way people use the land around a building or the way they use the land through a park and those are the desire lines.
They’re not necessarily a shortcut but they’re something of particular appeal that draws us in a certain direction, and I love that idea that whatever path is laid before us it’s not necessarily the one we’ll take. The heart has reasons of which reason knows nothing kind of thing, that we will end up following where our heart leads us. So that happens in my characters’ professional lives both as architect and landscape architect, it happens in their personal lives, in their love lives so it was always that key theme that was going to set the whole course of the novel.
K: Well the novel certainly is a very beautiful journey that takes us to many places of the heart and of character and of difficulty and of struggle, of honesty and of wisdom. I found all of those things definitely threaded into the novel, but I’d like you perhaps to finish by sharing a little of the voices of each of these characters with us so that we can feel perhaps a little closer to both Evie and Paddy. Yeah, I think that would be a nice thing to do.
F: Thanks. So, I’d like to read just a little from one of Paddy’s very early chapters where he’s on the cruise ship, he’s in the charge of his carer, Charlie, and Charlie’s wife, Lilian. These are carers who’ve looked after the group of children who are heading in the direction of the Fairbridge Farm schools and they’re just arriving into Sydney, it’s 1953 and there’s a group of them on the top deck.
Paddy and his cabin mates were on the top deck of The Oronsay with their carers when they rounded the headlands, sailed past an old fort and entered Sydney Harbour. A sleepy light fell over the city but already dawn’s vague haze was dissolving into a cloudless summer day. Everywhere blue and gold and silver and the dull gleam of a bridge that spanned the harbour. In its shadow a garish moon phase set between two towers that Charlie explained was the entrance to an amusement park.
Standing at the rails in front of Charlie, Paddy fought back the howl welling inside him. It was so beautiful and so sad, the light, the blue, the show-off city that Mammy would never get to see. The man against whom he leaned solid and yet soft, the smell of him fresh-showered and the familiar tangy scent. He rested his cheek against the man’s bearded skin and swallowed a sob. Told you you’d love it, Charlie said, told you. Several decks below their four suitcases were stacked side by side on the floor of the cabin. They collected them on the way to their disembarkation point. Close to the bottom of the gangway a suited man was waiting with a handwritten sign that said Fairbridge Society.
Even from a distance he was an imposing figure, a head taller than the surrounding throng. Squinting, the man watched for the group of children with their uniform luggage and matching clothing. He took a white handkerchief from inside his suit coat and mopped his perspiring forehead, his florid cheeks, the skin that hung beneath his skin like the kangaroo’s pouch Lilian had identified in a pictorial.
“Paddy”. Charlie motioned him away from the others. He stood clutching his suitcase four times as wide as him, half as tall, a barricade between him and his carer. Around them departing passengers jostled. It was like being in the sea, washed back and forth, swept close to a life buoy and away again. Charlie reached for him and pulled him towards the wall where the crowds had thinned. Paddy didn’t want to look at him. It was hard enough to keep himself in check, but the man kneeled in front of him bringing them face to face.
“You’ll be alright, Paddy, I promise”. How could he promise? How could anyone promise such a thing? But he forgave Charlie his wishful thinking and threw his arms around his neck and held tight to the well intentioned lie and tighter still to his tears because he didn’t want the big man on the wharf to think he was a cry-baby and once he was there in Charlie’s arms holding on he found he couldn’t let go.
K: That’s a really beautiful passage and it just shows that despite all the suffering that Paddy’s experienced even with his own family and in London in the orphanage that he is still a vulnerable and innocent soul –
F: Very much.
K: But there’s more hardship ahead.
F: Yes, sadly. Then I thought I’d just read a little bit from one of Evie’s chapters. It harks back to that question that you asked about what we learn about love as we go through it and the wisdoms that we acquire with age.
So, this is Evie, it’s just after her father has died and she’s at his wake and she’s there with her ex-husband, Rod, who she left because of her love for Paddy. So, I’ll just read a section about their interaction at that wake.
She had loved two men, only two. That was probably enough. More than enough in the view of some at the time, her parents, Rod, her children. And she loved them still. It was not wrath but indifference that killed love, that was the canker and for a while there had been indifference with Rod. Pushing him away however had brought a form of love back like a pruning. He had never been the compulsion that Paddy was. Her heart’s conviction that it had found its home but her affection for him was a calm comfort.
“Could you do me a favour while I get started on the dishes?” She asked. “Sure”. “Would you set a fire in the living room? I’m cold.” He chose Geoff’s best bottle of red from the cellar and opened it to breathe while they finished returning the house to order. In the living room the fire crackled cheerily, its warmth floated through the house. Logs snapped, resin exploded, a slight smokiness. Her father hadn’t had the flue swept in recent years; Evie supposed. Add it to that list, she said to herself.
When there was nothing more to do that night, she threw scatter cushions from the sofa onto the floor beside the hearth. Propped on the carpet they toasted the departed with his wine. The alcohol, the heat ran through them. “So, what’s going on?” She ventured. Rod would know she was asking after Zenovia. “We’re having a bit of a break”. He didn’t appear to be ready to expand on this. Evie lay down and returned her gaze to the fire. She was sad about her father, but it was not the deep sorrow she would have felt if she’d been in the mountains rather than Canberra at the seed meeting.
Unable to get to him before he slipped into whatever quiet place had been his waiting room before he left altogether. Lasts were important, she thought. Last conversations, last declarations of love, last making of it, love. Of course, there always was a last, you just didn’t always know you had had it, not until later, often not until too much time had passed to safeguard the memory, embalming its body for the regular resurrections’ nostalgia would require of it.
K: Thank you. Thank you, that was really beautiful, both excellent readings that really reflect the characters and the journey of the narrative and it really is a very wonderful book that Felicity’s written and I really hope it goes out into this difficult world at a time where people are needing to do lots of reading. It’s a positive and beautiful story that me – when I say meanders, it’s a forward-moving meander, it’s not a slow book in any way. The journeys of the characters are so rich and so engaging and look, I’d really highly recommend that you read it, beautiful women, rich with metaphor and with symbolism and motif and very lovely literary work that I can highly recommend.
It would also be lovely for you supporters of the National Library of Australia to know that this book is for sale in the National Library bookshop and can be bought online. Even though we’re not able to be out and about as much as usual it can be bought on the National Library bookshop. There’s currently a 10% discount on the books and there is a limited number of signed copies ‘cause unfortunately we’re not allowed to do signings and things at the moment as well. So if you would like to order a copy of Desire Lines, and apparently my books are in the National Library too, then you need to go to the bookshop website and when you are trying to do the order you have to enter the code Desire Lines in capital letters. So that 10% discount is for just a limited time.
But just to finish I’d like to thank the National Library of Australia for running this event to support authors who are trying to launch their works in this very difficult time. It’s great to have that support and both Felicity and I appreciate that and acknowledge it and hope that the Australian public will continue to support Australian authors so thank you.
F: Thanks very much, Karen, and thanks a lot to the Library as well and to viewers.
K: Thank you.
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