I have a confession to make. I have been snooping round graveyards again. This time at Abney Park in Stoke Newington - where I came face-to-face with this magnificent sleeping lion.
It certainly stands out from the routine headstones, crosses, angels and broken columns. A touch of the exotic in N16!
Frank Bostock started training lions as a teenager and reputedly survived maulings by a lion and a tiger - and indeed had a finger bitten off by an ape. The fullest account of his life is here.
Frank was born into a dynasty of menagerie owners and he had a head for business as well as a way with animals. In the 1890s, he rebased to the United States and spent a decade there, where his travelling menageries were hugely successful.
Bostock died while still in his mid-forties - from the flu, it seems, though other accounts speak of nervous exhaustion and the impact of successive maulings, His funeral was a lavish affair with thirty or more carriages making their way to Abney Park cemetery.
And more than a century after his death, Frank Bostock's grave still captures attention. A showman to the last!
It's taken more than 200 years. But there is now, at last, a monument to Mary Wollstonecraft, feminist pioneer and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Marvellously, it's on Newington Green in north London, within yards of the Unitarian meeting house which she attended (that's the building in a pastel shade of cream - still in use as a Unitarian place of worship).
The design has caused something of a rumpus. It's the work of Maggi Hambling, a distinguished sculptor. And she was, it seems, given free rein.
So we have ended up with a monument which commemorates this remarkable woman which is, well, a touch formless, apart from the fairy at the top of the Christmas tree, a full-frontal naked woman.
This is not a representation of Wollstonecraft, Hambling insists, but an 'everywoman'. And by her representation, without any form of dress, she really is everywoman and not tied to a particular era or culture.
That argument has more force when you see the monument in place rather than in the close-ups of the naked figure that have featured in the press. But it still seems an opportunity lost. This could have been something wonderful - and to be blunt about it, it's not.
The monument has only been in place a few days - the immediate response seems to be a thumbs down.
So, how do you mark such a commanding figure? There are vanishingly few statues and public monuments to non-royal women. If you have a representation that is true to the woman and her times, you end up with billowing clothes which make her seem a period piece rather than a thinker and writer of abiding relevance and importance.
The most famous likeness of Mary Wollstonecraft is the portrait by Sir John Opie in the National Portrait Gallery, which says of the painting:
'Wollstonecraft is portrayed with the utmost simplicity. She wears a high-waisted white cotton gown while her plainly-styled hair is partially covered by a soft hat. She made her views on dress clear in her published work, stating that it should neither distort nor hide the human form but rather "adorn the person and not rival it". This reflected the French Revolutionary emphasis on man's natural rights and honesty; rejecting disguise and ostentation to reveal the 'real' person.'
A point of comparison is with the monument to the suffragist Millicent Fawcett. This is the work of Gillian Wearing and was unveiled in Parliament Square in 2018.
This is a more conventional representation but seeks to show her as an activist. The banner she displays has led critics (feminists among them) to suggest that it looks like she's portrayed putting out the washing.
There is no easy answer. And those behind the Mary on the Green campaign argue that the debate about the merits of Hambling's work have at least brought attention to Wollstonecraft and her legacy.
But I wonder whether this monument will have staying power - whether we will grow to love it or whether it will become something of an awkward embarrassment.
Charles Bradlaugh was the Tony Benn of his era: a radical MP and inveterate campaigner who sometimes courted controversy; an advocate of political reform; an outspoken champion of causes such as atheism and republicanism. And much like Tony Benn, he was lionised by his supporters and detested by his detractors.
When Bradlaugh died in January 1891, hundreds of condolence letters poured in: from local branches of the National Secular Society, which he founded; from India, whose interests he had sought to represent in Parliament; from well-wishers and supporters; and from scores of radical working men's clubs. This deluge of correspondence has, rather wonderfully, been preserved among Bradlaugh's papers at the Bishopsgate Institute - which has very kindly given me permission to post a couple of the letters here.
The letter above came from the Mildmay Radical Club and Institute then at 36 Newington Green Road. It later moved to much grander premises on Newington Green and later still dropped 'Radical' from its name. The Mildmay Club still survives - and I've blogged about it before,
This blog is not so much about Bradlaugh as about the early history of the Mildmay Club - which is, shall we say, a touch opaque.
Among other letters sent to Bradlaugh's daughter at his death is this one, from exactly the same address as that given by the Mildmay Radical Club -
So the Balls Pond Secular Hall Society was also operating from 36 Newington Green Road. Secularism was then a substantial national movement, challenging the power and privilege of organised religion - and while there were competing strands within the secularist movement, Bradlaugh was their best known and best regarded leader.
The 'hall' on Newington Green Road was quite possibly simply a decent size room - perhaps rented for different purposes on different evenings. These small clubs would stage meetings, debates and entertainment - and the drink offered (some clubs were teetotal, but most made their money from alcohol) might simply be beer bought in gallon flaggons.
A web search on 36 Newington Green Road also produced some intriguing new information - from the other side of the world. Virginia Rundle in Sydney has a website devoted to her British forbears (many thanks for her permission to post the handbill below). Her great-grandmother Harriett Fuller is buried in an unmarked pauper's grave at Abney Park cemetery in Stoke Newington. According to her death certificate, she succumbed to typhoid on 29th April 1887 ... at 36 Newington Green Road. Her husband, John Fuller - described as a 'tenor vocalist' - was present at the death.
John Fuller was known as the 'silvery tenor' and performed with the Mohawk Minstrels - Virginia has researched in depth his performing years in London before emigrating to Australia. His children formed a family musical troupe. They not only lived at 36 Newington Green Road - they performed there.
Virginia has John Fuller's scrap book - and it contains the following notice of a performance at the Balls Ponds Radical Club at, as far as can be made out, 36 Newington Green Road. Although someone has written '1886' on the handbill, Virginia believes it dates from 1888. The performers were Fuller's and Ison's Juvenile Black Blossom Minstrels - all apparently youngsters under fourteen. The kids would almost certainly have been in "black face" - a form of entertainment which is now unacceptable but was popular at that time (and let's not forget that the Black and White Minstrel Show ran on BBC prime-time television until as recently as 1978).
This is another sliver of evidence indicating of how the roots of the Mildmay Club lay in the vibrant North London secular movement.
That's confirmed by an article in the Club and Institute Journal in 1951 - based in part on the recollections of a founder member of the Mildmay Club. It states: 'Sixty-two years ago, members of the Balls Pond Secular Club, Newington Green Road, ... saw their club "go on the rocks." While some lamented this catastrophe, others saw in it an opportunity. Sixteen of them subscribed ten shillings each towards the first month's rent, and thus it came about that the Mildmay Radical Club was formed.'
This article also reports that in 1891, the club bought 'an old mansion at 34, Newington Green comprising 12 rooms and with spacious grounds'. Most of this old pile - one imagines - was pulled down to make way for the grand premises built in 1900 which remain the home of the Mildmay Club.
The generally accepted account of the club's early history is given in the listed building entry on the Historic England website. This states:
'The Mildmay Club was founded on 18 August 1888 as the Mildmay Radical Club and was originally located at 36 Newington Green Road, Islington. The club was actively involved in radical politics and social campaigns. In 1894 it moved to new premises at 34 Newington Green, gifted in the will of two local sisters. ... The Mildmay Club was recognised as one of the largest and most politically active of the capital’s working men’s clubs.
On 27 October 1900 the foundation stone was laid for a new clubhouse designed by a member of the club, the architect Alfred Allen. The new building, which may have incorporated fabric from the existing houses on the site, included two halls, a reading room, meeting rooms and a billiard hall. ...'
Quite how the story of the sisters' will fits with the account of the club buying the existing building is not at all clear. Anyone know?
There's another intriguing element to the story, gleaned from the pages of Club Life, a weekly journal 'written by Clubmen for Clubmen'. It started in 1899 but the British Library's copies for that year, and for 1901, are too fragile for consultation. The issues for 1900 are available, and they make clear how prominent and successful the Mildmay Radical Club had become. The journal gives information about the Mildmay's political activities and more so about the entertainment offered there - and it also chronicles the step-by-step rebuilding of the club house.
Another prominent club whose activities are listed is the Bradlaugh Club and Institute at - you've guessed it! - 36 Newington Green Road. So all those years after the Mildmay Club had moved from Newington Green Road, their old premises were still the home of a working men's club, and to judge from the name, in the radical and secular tradition.
This blog started with Charles Bradlaugh - and it ends with the club that took his name. There's more to be discovered. All leads, information and help welcome.
The magical Unitarian meeting house on Newington Green describes itself as 'London's non-religious church'. The building dates back more than 300 years - though the frontage is Victorian - and has just been renovated with help from the National Heritage Lottery Fund.
There are no services at the moment - for obvious reasons - but today I had the privilege of a peek inside, indeed a tour of the building, courtesy of Amy Todd, the historian who is now the community and learning manager at New Unity (as the Newington Green gathering is now known).
Unitarians were dissenters - Christians, but non-conformists who rejected the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Ghost) and encouraged intellectual freethinking which attracted the radical and heterodox. As Unitarianism has developed, not all adherents now see themselves as Christians - indeed not all believe in God. Services are fairly traditional and include a sermon and hymns - but the hymns sung would not normally refer to God. The minister at New Unity, I was told, is an atheist.
This is what the Unitarians' website says:
We welcome anyone with an open mind who shares our tolerant and inclusive views, who embraces the freedom of being in a faith community that doesn’t impose creeds or specific beliefs, and who bases their approach not on dogma but on reason.
... Among Unitarians you will find people who have Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Humanist, Buddhist, Pagan and Atheist perspectives – as reflected in our varied and diverse congregations.
So it's about faith not religion - values rather than dogma.
Prior to the pandemic, the Newington Green meeting house would attract eighty or more people to its Sunday gatherings. It's one of seven Unitarian congregations in London, and there are more than a hundred across the country. About half of congregants are from Unitarian families, one of the regular attenders said, and half have come to the movement themselves.
Mary Wollstonecraft is the most renowned former member of the congregation, and her box pew survives - indeed it's something of a place of pilgrimage for feminists and others who revere Wollstonecraft's memory.
There are also plaques to two other famous writers and radical intellectuals who attended services here, Richard Price and Anna Laetitia Barbauld.
Lottery funding will enable displays about the history of the meeting house and the development of the space for the community and for meetings and performances. The church's archives, held at Hackney Archives, will also be posted online. That's going to be quite something!
The wonderful Old Church on Stoke Newington Church Street was the venue over the weekend for a book launch - part of the Stoke Newington Literary Festival. The volume is about a son of Stoke Newington, the novelist Alexander Baron, best known for his D-Day novel From the City, From the Plough and his cult classic of post-war Hackney, The Lowlife.
Six Baron enthusiasts have come together in So We Live: the novels of Alexander Baron to examine aspects of his life and writing. We were joined by Muriel Walker, who is 92 and worked alongside Baron in the late 1940s on the journal 'New Theatre'. She read from a letter Baron had sent her in 1949 when she was in Italy - where Baron had served during the war.
The launch was a great success with a hundred or so people packing the church pews. And lots of books were sold.
So We Live is published by Five Leaves - and they have also just published four of Baron's novels, three of them republications and in one case, The War Baby, the first publication of a powerful novel set amid the International Brigades fighting Franco during the Spanish Civil War.
Just off Stoke Newington Road in North London, there's a wonderfully evocative entrance arch to a block of social housing: Coronation Avenue. It's on Victorian Road, though the coronation it marked is that of Queen Victoria's son and successor, Edward VII.
Coronation Avenue and the adjoining Imperial Avenue were built by the 4% Industrial Dwellings Company and opened in 1903. It has almost 300 flats, most one-bed and bedsit, and is still run by the Industrial Dwellings Society.
This was the site of one of the most profound civilian tragedies to beset London during the Second World War - a loss of life on a scale akin to that of the terrible Bethnal Green tube disaster of 1943.
On 13th October 1940, during the German aerial Blitz of London, a high explosive bomb landed on Coronation Avenue. The writer Alexander Baron alluded to the event in his locally set novel With Hope, Farewell: 'The parish church had been burned down and several neighbouring streets demolished. A mile away, along the Stoke Newington Road, a parachute-mine had caused an entire block of flats to collapse into the communal shelter underneath, killing hundreds of people.'
That was why the number of casualties was so exceptionally high. The bomb managed to penetrate into a shelter beneath the building where many of the residents had sought refuge during the night-time air raid.
The BBC has posted the testimony of a youngster who survived the bomb explosion:
"Coronation Avenue buildings consists of a terrace of about 15 shops with five storeys of flats above. The shelter was beneath three of the shops. The back exit was in the yard between Coronation Avenue and another block of buildings, called Imperial Avenue. We went over the road to the shelter whenever there was a raid, and when the 'all clear' sounded in the morning, we would go back over the road, half asleep and very cold, and try to go back to sleep in a very cold bed.
"The shelter consisted of three rooms. The front entrance was in the first room, the rear entrance was in the third room, which had bunk beds along one wall. The rooms were jam packed with people, sitting on narrow slatted benches. I would sit on a bench and fall asleep, and wake every now and then, and would find myself snuggled up to my mother and sister. My father had the use of one of the bunk beds, because the men were given priority, as they had to go to work
"On 13 October 1940, the shelter received a direct hit. We had settled down as usual, when there was a dull thud, a sound of falling masonry, and total darkness.
"Somebody lit a torch - the entrance to the next room was completely full of rubble, as if it had been stacked by hand. Very little rubble had come into our room. Suddenly I felt my feet getting very cold, and I realised that water was covering my shoes. We were at the end of the room farthest from the exit. I noticed my father trying to wake the man in the bunk above him, but without success - a reinforcing steel beam in the ceiling had fallen down and was lying on him.
"The water was rising, and I started to make my way to the far end, where the emergency exit was situated. Everybody seemed very calm - with no shouting or screaming. By the time I got to the far end, the water was almost up to my waist, and there was a small crowd clambering up a steel ladder in a very orderly manner. Being a little more athletic than some of them, and very scared, I clambered up the back of the ladder to the top, swung over, and came out into the open."
In Abney Park cemetery nearby, the Borough of Stoke Newington - the area was then a borough in its own right, becoming part of the London Borough of Hackney in 1965 - built a memorial to those who died at Corporation Avenue and in other wartime enemy bombing raids. It lists - by my count - 88 people who died that night in Coronation Avenue:
It's a mute testament to the impact of war on civilians and communities. Altogether 17,500 Londoners were killed in Second World War bombing raids. I'd like to say that this memorial is well maintained - but at least some people visit, reflect and remember.
Lest we forget!
At Stoke Newington's Abney Park cemetery at the weekend, I chanced across this remarkable grave - of a London police constable killed in the line of duty. The centrepiece of the memorial is a representation of the slain police constable's helmet and uniform - a very moving touch.
The inscription hints at quite a story but doesn't spell it out. So let me fill in the gaps ...
P.C. William Frederick Tyler died in what was known at the time as the Tottenham "outrage", a notorious incident which shocked Londoners and created a backwash of ill-feeling against Jewish political refugees who were responsible for the violence.
As the robbers/revolutionaries fled, they opened fire on the increasing numbers in their pursuit. A ten-year-old boy, Ralph Joscelyne, was shot and killed. At Tottenham marshes, PC Tyler was able to take a shortcut and get in front of the robbers - they shot him dead.
At one point, the two Latvians commandeered a tram as they sought to get away from their pursuers. One of them, realising that he was trapped, shot himself; the other managed to barricade himself in a room in a cottage in Walsthamstow where he was shot dead. The chase lasted two hours and covered six miles ... it's estimated that the two robbers fired 400 rounds of ammunition at their pursuers ... and at the end, four people were dead. You can see why this was called the Tottenham outrage.
The events in Tottenham and Walthamstow bear a striking similarity to the still more notorious Siege of Sidney Street in the East End two years later, when Winston Churchill accompanied a detachment of Scots Guards to flush out another gang of revolutionary Jewish robbers.
The grave and memorial for PC Tyler was paid for by the Metropolitan Police - it's now Grade II listed. Ralph Joscelyne, I discover, is buried nearby in Abney Park cemetery - next time I go I'll tried to find his gravestone.
UPDATED IN NOVEMBER 2020: Carl Houslop has been in touch - he found among his parents' papers a memorial card for Constable Tyler and Ralph Joscelyne. With his kind permission, the card is posted below. You will get a sense in the wording of the anti-immigrant sentiment stirred up by the incident. It's not the sort of wording that would be remotely acceptable today - but it's part of the story of those killings and the public response to them. Many thanks to Carl for sharing this very striking memorial card.
So, you don't know where Haggerston is? Neither did I! But it has a station - on the Highbury and Islington to West Croydon route, if you are wondering - so what better place as a starting point for some New Year psycho-geography.
It's in Hackney - sandwiched between Hoxton and Dalston. E8 is the postal area. Haggerston station was rebuilt and reopened six years ago, and in the bright winter sun looks rather fetching - as does the adjoining Stonebridge Gardens.
The whole point of these rambles it to discover the unexpected - and just three minutes stroll from the station is the delightful Albion Square, with a wonderful, almost tropical-looking, garden.
Adjoining the square, on Albion Drive, is the home of Iain Sinclair - psychogeographer extraordinary and author of Hackney, that Rose-Red Empire. And plumb in the middle of the gardens, deservedly listed as a local landmark, is a splendid granite drinking fountain
Venturing on, the real surprise of the ramble came - as so often - on a back street. This 'Gothic Revival spectacle', in Sinclair's judgement, was built as the Hamburg Lutheran Church, its foundation stone laid by the Duke of Cambridge in 1875. Apparently, its minister in the late 1930s was a Hitler sympathiser, and on the outbreak of war he headed back sharpish to Germany. The building is now used by a Pentecostal group, the Faith Tabernacle Church of God.
Still more delightful is the array of adjoining buildings, tucked away from view - these are, or were, the German Hospital.
The hospital was established nearby in the 1840s. These buildings date from 1864. Although intended for local Germans of all religions, the hospital also provided care for anyone who needed it.
By the 1930s, the hospital had almost two-hundred beds. But in 1940 the German staff were arrested and interned on the Isle of Man as enemy aliens.
It became part of the NHS as a general hospital in 1948 later became a specialist psychiatric and psycho-geriatric hospital and eventually closed in 1987. The older, listed buildings now provide affordable housing.
The hospital into which this one was subsumed offered the only modern architecture of note (Haggerston Station apart) encountered in E8. Here's part of Homerton University Hospital - a splash of bue among the rose red:
On Shacklewell Lane, there were two memorable moments - a wonderful old dairy frontage ... and an old public wash house now done up as flats.
I had this vague sense as I promenaded along Shacklewell Lane that I was heading out, out, out - that Newham could well be next stop. Then I hit Stoke Newington Road. So I was about as wrong as could be. But taking to some of the back streets of good old Stokey, I still found some new places to ponder over.
On Walford Road, just two or three minutes from the main road, is a back street synagogue - and independent orthodox synagogue, according to its website, which dates back to the inter-war years, initially serving I imagine those Jews who moved out of the East End for a more comfortable life. Architecturally, it's distinctly drab - but nice that it survives, and as a place of worship too.
Zig-zagging to the south side of Abney Park, I chanced across Aden Terrace, which follows what was once the course of the New River, the ancient waterway which once provided drinking water to the capital. And delightfully, where the river once ran there are now allotments. How could I have never spotted this before?
The course of the New River crosses Green Lanes on its way south and then once ran in the middle of Petherton Road, now grassed over and a long green snake of a dog walk. And on the one-time shopfronts facing the road, one last surprise -
A fashionable restaurant has made a virtue of being located in a former garage - to the extent of keeping the old, fading signboard, complete with the three letter area code.
This is CAN for Canonbury. CAN do!
A rare privilege this week, to see inside the Mildmay Club on Newington Green. A big barn of a building which has seen better days, but seems to be slowly, slowly bouncing back from the prospect of oblivion.
The Mildmay and a raft of other local radical clubs were in the second tier. Hardly any are still going. This club has had a chequered history, and only moved into its current home after the heyday of late-Victorian radicalism, but it's still hanging in there. Just. And there was something both sad and wondrous about looking round this time-locked sarcophagus of a club - thinking back to what it once was, and ahead to what it could become.
Hackney's appraisal of the Newington Green (North) conservation area - which focusses on such fine buildings as the nearby Unitarian Chapel established in 1708 - offers a potted history of the club (and I've nicked the photo from there as well):
The renaming of the club was a clear statement that it had abandoned its radical pedigree. But in earlier years, the Radical in the club's title meant just that. A local vicar complained of the club's 'pernicious influence' - radicalism at that time often went hand-in-hand with freethought. And Tommy Jackson, later a leading Communist, recalled with gratitude help from the club when an anti-Boer War street meeting at Highbury Corner came under attack. Barry Burke and Ken Worpole take up the story:
The Tories resolved to smash the meeting up: the Radicals took the precaution of mobilising the gymnasium class of the Mildmay Radical Club (Newington Green) to act as ‘stewards’. Quite a pretty battle was in progress when the issue was decided by the local S.D.F., who, when the fight started, were pitched nearby. Abandoning their own meeting, the Socialists, led by their Chairman, a useful middle-weight of local fame, fell upon the Tories and routed them ‘with great slaughter’
Walking round the club, it's cavernous - on every floor. A snooker room, dark, slightly spooky, with a dozen or so tables ... a bar that's bigger than most pubs ... a big hall with stage, festooned as if for a 1960s talent night, which could easily take a couple of hundred ... a smaller hall in itself the size of many working men's clubs ... and at the top of the building, three (now empty) one-bed flats. There are city states, UN member nations indeed, smaller than this!
Once the Mildmay Club had a membership to match. Outside the hall, there's a large varnished wooden board listing the club's wartime casualties (at least, we think that's what it is - the top of the board has been obscured by a rather hamfisted renovation). There are close to four-hundred names.
And in the Conservation Area appraisal, there's a couple of grainy old black-and-white photos dating (it says) from about 1905, one of the theatre/hall and the other of the snooker room. Take a look:
It strikes me that, more than a century later, the snooker room may still have the same lino. If not, it's a close lookalike.
And the snooker hall - they should film Sherlock Holmes in here, and ghost movies, Edwardian thrillers ... it's eery, with a Martian-style greenish light intensified by the lime coloured walls.
There are still gas light fittings, adding to the spectral feel and looking sinisterly like secret police torture equipment.
Then the most macabre aspect of the room - the walls are lined with snooker cues in their cases, some locked into position. Dozens and dozens of them. In a snooker hall, where on Thursday night, just two of the tables were in use. Some have names and numbers inscribed in a style resonant of a bygone era. I am fairly sure quite a few must once have been wielded by players now seeking out record breaks in the greater snooker Valhalla in the sky.
And the bar? Well to judge by the meagre attendance last Thursday, if they sell twenty pints on a weekday evening they are doing well. Which makes you wonder whether this sign really is necessary ...
And I mentioned the tentative bounce back in the club's fortunes. Well, it's not going to be sold off for development - details here - and the club committee, whose orders are of course the last word, has had an infusion of new blood. Whether there's new signage to follow, well, I'll let you know.
The UnLondon festival at Stoke Newington old church yesterday was a rip-roaring success. Great, cosy, historic venue, with very well attended talks and readings in the afternoon - including the inspiring Bernard Kops, and Ken Worpole talking about Stoke Newington's own Alexander Baron, author of The Lowlife (and yes, 'London Fictions' was there too).
And in the evening the guys who had organised the free event took to the stage. They are The Unfortunates, named after a B.S. Johnson novel, the one where the pages are sheets in a box and, apart from the first and last, can be read in any order. They play well, really well, sort of skiffle-meets-punk (I may have got that wrong, but that's how it struck me). And there they are above doing their encore, not their own number but Robyn Hitchcock's Trams of Old London - a song I didn't know, but a great choice, and yes those are the lyrics of the chorus on the blackboard. And here they are in full:
Trams of old London,
Taking my baby into the past in it.
Trams of old London blow my mind.
Ludgate, Fenchurch, Highgate Hill;
Rolling slowly up there still, uh-huh.
Waterloo and Clerkenwell,
Out to Aldgate East as well, uh-huh.
On a clear night you can see
Where the rails used to be.
Oh, it seems like ancient myth
They once ran to Hammersmith.
Trams of old London,
Taking my baby into the past in it.
Trams of old London blow my mind.
Through Electric Avenue,
Brixton, down in southwest too, uh-huh.
Teddington and Kennington,
Twickenham and Paddington, uh-huh.
In the blitz they never closed
Though they blew up half the roads.
Oh, it hurts me just to see 'em
Going dead in a museum.
Trams of old London,
Taking my baby into the past in it.
Trams of old London blow my mind.
Trams of old London,
Taking my baby into the past in it.
Trams of old London blow my mind.
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