Flash Says…

Archive for July 2010

I live near to the edge of Epping Forest. During the hot weather fires have been appearing on the Flats – and the Fire Brigade say it’s down to kids. What can we do, and what damage is being caused?

Wanstead Flats is an area on the edge of Epping Forest, at the end of my road. It’s an acid grassland habitat and although it might look like scrub to passers by, it’s actually rather important.

Scorched areas on the common
Burnt areas on Wanstead Flats

This might look like plain grassland but it is actually a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Apparently there has been heathland habitat in this space for over a thousand years. It’s acid grassland which supports a number of insects such as the Bee Wolf Wasp, and there’s a protected area where the Stag Beetles breed. In addition to use by a variety of insects and butterflies, the area is valuable habitat for the Skylark (which nests on the ground) and the pipistrelle bat. Also, one of the Sweet Chestnut trees on my doorstep is thought to be the largest tree in Epping Forest. Wanstead Flats may appear to be a boring grassy area but it is important as a habitat to many different species.

I may be stating the obvious, but it’s dangerous to set fire here. The area is made up of peat, which means the fire can spread underground and pop up somewhere else – so it’s easy to be surrounded by fire unexpectedly. It is also a problem for the firemen as they never know when the fire is truly out, and struggle to extinguish all of the hotspots, leaving areas smouldering for days.

There have been new fires every day for a week, and as I walk my dog I have noticed the blackened area of grassland to be increasing. Firemen told me that it is children setting fires, and their busiest time comes just after the schools kick out each afternoon.

Fires have been an ongoing issue in the area every summer, but that doesn’t make it acceptable. In 2004 the Corporation of London had to remove a layer of ash and topsoil to reduce the nutrient levels and try and reinstate acid grassland. While many of us locals are used to the fires, we don’t enjoy calling the Fire Brigade out every day.

Grassland beginning to recover.
Grassland beginning to recover

As it is children setting fires, what can we do to discourage them? In 2005 there were over 400 fires on the flats, so surely it should  be down to parental supervision? The Fire Brigade advise that ‘Adults should look out for small burns in the carpets, children should not be able to find matches or cigarette lighters’ – but I have a friend who, at age ten, bought lighters claiming ‘the spark on the stove doesn’t work’. They then went and caused fire in a woodland. This was only discovered when their parent visited the same shop and was asked if they’d had their oven fixed yet! So where there is a will there is a way; perhaps we should be working to discourage fires and educate our children about the value of the habitat on their doorstep and the danger of setting fire.

I reported the fires to my local Police Safer Neighbourhood Team, and expressed the opinion of the Fire Brigade that better management of school kicking out time could be the answer to the problem. To be fair, the police then allocated mounted officers to patrol Wanstead Flats throughout the day, and since the horsemen were deployed there have been no more fires. Congratulations to the mounted police who seem to have nipped this issue in the bud.

At last there are green shoots in the dead, blackened patches. Goodness knows how this has happened, as we have been waiting over a month for any substantial rain, so the grass must be trying very hard to find a way to regenerate! The green shoots are a sign of hope and a reminder that many grassland species come back stronger after fire – although the insects and birds cannot be recaptured.

I am delighted that the mounted police have had an effect on the area – and the fires have stopped. With the end of term and the onset of school holidays, hopefully children will be kept occupied and are supervised so that forest fires are over for another year. It seems that the best thing we can do is to persevere with education, and not to give up hope.

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This week, an article in the Lancet was aimed at understanding why people hurt themselves, but stated “why people self-harm is poorly understood”. I disagree with this – I think the reasons can be quite straightforward. My comments are based on my own experience of self-harm but also from supporting friends and understanding where they are coming from.

Taking self-injury in its most obvious sense, and in the experience of both myself and my peers, it is about turning a mental pain into a physical one. Depression leads to agonising internal pain, at best chugging along without truly coping, but at worst tearing yourself apart with torment over every action in life. This of course leads the sufferer to stop coping with life, and from there it is a small step to self-harm or indeed to anything which can offer relief.

If you cut yourself, you are now distracted by the sharpness of the physical pain. It is easy for anyone to comprehend why a wound hurts – your body is torn open, it’s bleeding, and so the pain is understandable. In contrast to this, many people don’t understand why, when your heart is torn open and you are bleeding inside, you may be suffering a huge and intolerable pain, either physical or mental in nature.

Self-harm is also about taking control. By holding the knife, you are responsible for your own pain – when you will feel it and how it will be caused. For victims of abuse this is particularly powerful – including those who didn’t realise that being squashed by other people every day is a form of abuse – but in all cases, self-harm is often about taking control of your own pain and wanting to understand and be in charge of what happens to your body. Somehow it isn’t as bad if you are choosing to inflict it, rather than being an unwilling participant.

Also, once someone has self-harmed for the first time and realises what a focus it was for them – a way that they can take back power while managing the very real pain they are experiencing – then it can become compulsive. I will not say that self-harm is actually appealing as that would not be accurate, but it can seem alluring as a method of regaining control over emotions and experiences which have been dominated by parents or other adults until this point.

There is a final related issue in that self-harm can replace the focus of someone’s attentions, and after the first time people may concern themself with when they will do it again, which implement they will choose, whether the marks would be visible when clothed, or even if wounds need to go somewhere which would not be noticed by a boyfriend, making sure that any cuts were not too deep. This sounds terribly obsessive but it is a safe time – a half hour or so when you are considering this and nothing else, so you do not have to confront the demons in your head. Self-harm is a great distraction.

When I was a very unhappy person in my early twenties, I used to self harm, but always as inconspicuously as possible. I wanted the pain to be an outlet for my mental anguish, without attracting the concerns of those around me. I had a boyfriend who was flummoxed by my distress and unhappiness, but he had another friend who was experiencing similar problems. Therefore, he invited both of us to visit in the hope that we would be comfort for each other. His actions were well meaning, but self-harmers understand each other and within minutes of saying hello for the first time, his friend and I had discussed where in the bathroom we were keeping our tools (part of an essential toiletry bag for a weekend away) and had even offered to share items with each other if necessary. My boyfriend despaired.

How do you stop? Initially I tried to prevent myself from self injury by willpower, because a new squeeze admitted that he didn’t like or understand the scratches on my arm, and I didn’t want to upset him. This man mattered to me, so I tried to ensure that I cut myself as little as possible, but I also felt that if I had to cut, it must be in a hidden area, and I could not be honest about what had happened. There is always the feeling that self harm – which can relieve and be liberating – must be kept hidden.

Things progressed well in our new relationship and I learned to cope and believe in myself, but every time our romance hit a hiccup I reached for a knife – perhaps in the same way that some ex-smokers relapse in times of stress – although I knew my new squeeze didn’t like it. In the end things settled with my partner – now, a decade later, my wonderful husband Mike – and I no longer felt the need to let out pain from my body in that way. I was able to contain and process any mental distress I experienced. Slowly, I moved on without realising that it was happening.

It took me many months to stop self-harming after years of relying upon it, and I think that as time went on I was lucky enough to find myself in a secure environment where I could flourish without needing a crutch to fall back on, and where I could rely on my partner for support. Unfortunately I think that for others, finding a way past their anxiety or depression may be the only way forward, and this may ultimately need counselling or proper psychiatric care for people who rely on self-harming to keep themselves balanced.

I hope everyone else is as fortunate as I was in finding a long term solution – in my case a relationship where I learnt to feel valued and secure. For those who don’t have the support they need to stop self-harming, I hope they find confidence within themselves and manage to reach a point where self-injury is not the only or most obvious coping strategy. Self harm may be easy, and widespread, but that doesn’t mean it is healthy.

Watching Tessa Sanderson on Masterchef this week brought back for me a memory of the 1984 Olympics, when I was seven years old. She and Fatima Whitbread were feted as great athletes, but I was confused. Why was the British flag flying, when they were obviously African?

It’s easy to be mistaken when you are young, but I had no experience of black people so when I saw our athletes on TV I naturally jumped to conclusions. White people could be British, but there must be some mistake about those with darker skin. After all, I’d never seen anyone like that, other than in geography books.

Nowadays I can look back with embarrassment and surprise. It doesn’t matter if I am reminded that times have changed, I am still slightly ashamed at my naive beliefs. I currently live in east London, in a street which has a diverse mix of race and nationality among its 40 households, and I think that the area is all the better for this variety and vibrancy. The primary school at the end of my road is a slightly extreme example, as a majority of the children speak English as their second language, and indeed many tens of different languages are spoken among its pupils, but at least there is no discrimination, deliberate or otherwise. As I walk my dog past the playground I watch children playing together, of all backgrounds and religions. It’s a happy scene and one among which I would much prefer to have been brought up than the closeted environment where everyone was white British.

One of the first albums I bought was “The Youth of Today” by Musical Youth. I was six. Back in 1982 they were the first black artists to be shown on MTV. I didn’t care about any of that – I just liked the song “Pass the Dutchie”. However, I didn’t associate them with myself. I had no idea that we were even from the same country.

Going back even further, my mother tells an awkward but humorous tale. As a family, we stayed on holiday in London at a time when I was an inquisitive toddler. One morning, we encountered a cleaner in the hotel; a very large black lady, wearing a denim overall. I started to say “Mummy…” but she shushed me. My cries grew in urgency “Mummy!” before I could restrain myself no longer and burst out: “Why is that woman all blue?”

Of course coming from such a young child this is an amusing anecdote, but if that child is not ultimately educated in the ways of the world then it becomes embarrassing. When I changed schools at the age of eleven, I encountered a black girl for the first time. I remember touching and pulling at her hair, finding it wiry and waxy. I cringe to remember asking her “is it real?” Of course she didn’t like this attention and tried to stop us girls from tugging her hair, but I was genuinely entranced. I thought it was somehow not real, and was intrigued as I had never felt anything like it before. Nowadays, I feel ashamed of the way I treated her, but by sixth form we were friends and I do hope our early fumbling encounters were forgotten.

I was brought up in Somerset, at a time when there were no black people in the town and the only Asian people present ran the Chinese restaurants. When a Chinese boy joined our primary school all the boys ran up to him saying “Ah! Kung Fu!” but as he spoke no English, these primitative attempts to communicate with familiar concepts may have actually been useful and at least broke the ice. By the time I left the school he was as fluent in English as the rest of us.

When I moved to London as a university student, I was soon immersed in a range of new sights, sounds and experiences. I rented a room in the east end where multiculturalism was all around. It was new to me but I embraced it, enjoying the variety and the influences from a range of different backgrounds. It wasn’t long before I – being naturally fairly unobservant – would describe an acquaintance without mention of their skin colour. I assumed that if I hadn’t noticed, they must be white – which led to several friends being wrongly described, before I realised that I genuinely did not notice this detail anymore and in fact many of my friends were black or mixed race.

Therefore, having absorbed and appreciated everything and everyone around me, I was shocked when my Irish grandmother in law came over for tea. We took her for a walk around a nearby lake in Epping Forest, very popular for boating, fishing and just relaxing. As we passed busy picnic tables, she loudly asked “What are THEY doing here? Are they on holiday?” I glanced around to see several black families having fun and had to explain “No Nan, they live here…” I felt mortified, but I knew my nan-in-law was only asking out of curiousity, not bigotry. She, like me, had been brought up in a very white area.

As I  said earlier, I now live in a cul-de-sac of around 40 households. I’m sure my street is representative of east London as a whole and you could find people of all origins and skin colours there; in fact I know that you can. This is one of my street’s best features –everyone rubs along together well, without even noticing it.

Give me east London any time. When I return to Somerset something feels strange – sooner or later I realise awkwardly that I am white, and so is everyone else I see. I enjoy variety and integration, and believe it can only be for the good of everyone. As a music fan I love world music festivals, enjoying the vibe and working out how different styles have influenced each other. I sometimes feel ashamed by my childhood self, but at the same time I recognise that my behaviour was based only on  experience.

Give me London, give me the world! Let me discover everything in one place, and let me appreciate living here, among such fantastic diversity, and among such kind and generous human beings. It may have taken until my adult years for me to learn and understand equality, but having experienced it I would never want to leave such a vibrant, multicultural and trusting place as the street where I live. This is my home, and I hope it will also be an open and welcoming home for anyone who chooses to come here.

When I look in the mirror I don’t believe the figure smiling back at me. It’s only when caught unawares – such as at a service station toilet with full length mirror opposite the loo – that I am confronted with the fact that I have a spare tyre around my middle. Otherwise I would be blissfully unaware, and still expect to see a thin version of myself in mirrors. Although I’ve been fat for years now, it just doesn’t seem like me.

I know what size I am. I’ve been buying clothes of that size at M&S for years. But still when I unpack them, they seem too big. They fit me, but it always feels wrong.

I haven’t always been overweight. In my sixth form I was depressed and ate so little that my uniform had to be ordered in specially, a size 6. (For the men reading who have no idea what that translates to, think Victoria Beckham.) Through university I was a slightly more healthy 10 to 12. When I discovered eBay I was pleased to find that I was a normal, healthy size and I could fit into a range of gorgeous goth clothing!

Slowly, the weight has crept on. Mostly this came about once I started a full time job and could no longer attend gym classes several times a week. Exercise was on the backburner, but I thought having a full time job would keep me on my toes.

Once I recognised that I was overweight, I tried healthy eating and then even Alli, the weight loss pills that were promoted in every pharmacy when they became available over the counter earlier this year. The name is a misnomer (“friend” or “helper”) as any meal with more than 10-15 grams of fat resulted in what the manufacturers so nicely call “treatment conditions”. Basically if you don’t stick to a very low fat diet, you will end up farting oil – and nobody wants that. I stopped taking Alli, recognising that fat content wasn’t all of the story and that as a vegetarian, fat content in my diet was likely to conflict with Alli’s strict limits when I ate meals which were based around cheese – although it would still fall within the government’s “Eat well” recommendations. It seems that Alli helps you lose weight by terrifying you into not eating any food containing fat at all.


Flash in the mirror at a hotel, during 2010
Flash in the mirror at a hotel, during 2010.

There is an elephant in the room – my disability. I have a condition called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, and when I was diagnosed, the first thing my consultant ever told me was not to go running or swimming. Straight away I wondered how to exercise, but I’d known for years that my knee dislocates easily and other joints behave strangely, so I am very limited unless I have a low-impact programme. Now that my weight has crept up (taking me to a size 18) it is even harder to exercise safely and within my limits, as aerobics teachers are unwilling to support me, not understanding my impairment or unable to suggest safe alternatives to the routines in their class.

I still look in the mirror in disbelief, not knowing how best to dress to disguise my curves and jowl. Size 18 may be just two inches larger than the average British woman, but that doesn’t make it acceptable – it just means that there are lots of fat people out there! However, even though I do want to exercise, I am restricted by my impairment to doing just sit ups and “chairobics” – a form of exercise I have created which lets me stay sitting down. Hopefully it burns calories as much as aerobic exercise, but I have no way of knowing, and I can only manage 20 minutes at a time which is barely enough to get the blood pumping. Still, it’s fun to dance in my wheelchair at parties, and other people will boogie with me, so I must be doing something right! But at home it’s embarrassing – I would hate anyone to see me doing my chairobic “dancing” to Blur and Ian Dury as I try to work out. I set an alarm on my phone each day to remind me to exercise, yet four days out of five I am unable to physically manage it, having to rest my knees when I would rather work off some fat.

Although I am working on my weight, it seems I really need to tackle my self perception – after all I know which dress size I buy, so I should be used to seeing a fat person in the mirror – but I’m not sure how to address this. It seems to be harder than dieting. There may be many recommendations on how to diet and eat well, but I’ve yet to see any suggestions on how to retrain your brain! I still don’t recognise the body staring back at me.

So I’m trying to find a way to shift the kilos, but as I already eat fairly healthily it will be a long process – there are few things I can cut out for instant wins. (I’ve already swapped from sugary to diet drinks, from regular to reduced-fat cheeses and from mayonnaise to natural yoghurt.) To keep my spirits high I simply remember how little I recognise my body when it is undressed – the curves which should not be there – and then I am ready to aim for the figure with which I actually identify, similar to my early university days, while recognising I can never recapture my youth or reverse the progression of my impairment. For starters, perhaps I should be proud that I have stopped the gradual increase in my weight and seem to be slowly reversing the trend.

It may take a long time until I am able to squeeze into smaller dress sizes, perhaps many years, but hopefully over the long term I will be able to lose weight, respect myself for the effort, and move forward. For now, my old dresses are still in storage – but at least I haven’t given up and thrown them away altogether.

There is a saying that the best gifts you can give to your child are roots, and wings. I suppose I am rooted in Somerset, as that’s where I grew up, but I accepted the wings and left for London as soon as I was old enough. I went to university here and haven’t stayed at home since. But wait – why am I saying I haven’t stayed “at home” since then, if London is truly where I belong?

As a teenager I used to save up and visit London on day trips, catching the bus for a four hour ride, half a day in the Big Smoke, and then four hours home again. I’d do it as often as I could, and I always felt as the coach reached the Hammersmith flyover and entered London that somehow I was coming home. When I moved here for university I knew I belonged straight away, and have lived in Waltham Forest, an east London borough located between the inner city and the Essex countryside, for fifteen years. I fell in love with the place, from which the centre of town was just half an hour away yet Epping Forest was practically across the road. It was easy to forget Somerset, a lazy and retrograde place where the buses stopped at 6pm and where it seemed I had few friends but everyone knew me.

Growing up in Somerset was dull. Public transport was minimal (just an hourly bus during office hours) and my friend and I would often end up sitting in a historic high street with pizza and cider. Everything looked pretty while the pace of life dawdled – in fact Taunton is one of only two towns in the UK where more than a third of the population are OAPs. Somerset is more care home than carefree.

In 2006 something happened to throw me off kilter: I honeymooned in Iceland, a country I’d longed to visit. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love.

There’s a lot I shouldn’t like about Iceland – it’s cold, isolated, and there are no trains! However, the weather is both its best and worst feature and I came prepared. Disabled access was pretty good (outside Reykjavik people tend to build out and not up) so I had little to complain about. Scenery was absolutely breathtaking with a waterfall, glacier or mountain around every corner, and for the first time I felt truly safe in the countryside. It seemed to me that this is where I was destined to be – I had finally come home.

Of course, it was only a week before the dream ended and I had to return to my real home but now I was confused. I had Somerset in my background, east London as my current location, but perhaps Iceland was where I should aim for in the future?

It’s hard to compare like with like, because Somerset has half a million people, the London Borough of Waltham Forest has a quarter of a million, while Iceland has just three hundred thousand people in the whole country. In my area, there are 5700 people per square kilometre. In Iceland, there are three.

Each place has its own beauty: Somerset has quaint, historic buildings, and strange village names such as Queen Camel. East London has a more purposeful pace and is wonderfully multicultural (meaning there will always be a shop open on Christmas day when you’ve forgotten the stuffing) and there is a feeling that the world is on your doorstep. Yet Iceland offers northern lights, surreal lava plains, and an astonishingly low crime rate – a recent national headline was “Baby Goats Born at North Iceland Farm”, something which might not even have made the local news in Somerset or Waltham Forest.

However it strikes me that, common to every area, in the best places people know their neighbours and look out for each them in a villagey environment. In the worst of each location there will be areas where people shut their doors on each other and view you with a slightly suspicious and hostile manner. Perhaps contentment depends on finding the best place in your own locality, rather than looking further afield.

I would be happy to forget Somerset, but for the fact that I have family there. I adore Iceland, but don’t yet speak the language, and perhaps the gloss would go if I lived there rather than just visited; the food is awful for vegetarians and there is no such thing as online shopping, instead you have to visit several stores to find everything you need each week. So I suppose I should be content to stay in London for the foreseeable future, which is just as well, because this is where my support network, and my husband’s job, is located. For now Somerset is just a place I visit when I want to see family – and sadly moving to Iceland is still just a pipedream… but I can’t let go of the fantasy.

I’m just back from Glastonbury Festival. We arrived on Wednesday morning and left, exhausted but happy, 5 days later. I present some entries from my Festival diary.

It feels strange returning to Glasto after a year off. Last year I skipped it for the first time in a decade, tired from the constant push to try and get around the site while wondering why exactly I was paying to be there. After a break I felt revitalised and ready to go – the weather forecast was encouraging and I knew Claire (who runs the disabled access side of things) had made excellent provision at the Festival.  So we set off – and hit long queues very early on, even though it was only Wednesday morning. People seem to head to Glasto earlier every year, and although we’d hoped to beat the rush we were stuck in it. But within a few minutes of arriving in the campsite people came to say they missed me last year. In the market area “GlastoGaz” gave me one of his paintings as a present, and another chap I ran into donated me a funky wristband. The Glasto spirit slowly raised its head as I became immersed in Festival.

The disabled campsite has become a venue in its own right, thanks to The Outsiders, a disabled dating agency, who have livened up our wheelchair recharge tent by providing treatments like massage and reiki, entertainment such as live music at lunchtime, story telling and circus skills training, as well facepainting for the kids. (I would have included storytelling in the kids’ bit, but I hear it can get quite racy. Personally I’d feel quite awkward sitting in a circle of strangers as one of them narrated porn!) The Outsiders have done a great job, enabling everyone to celebrate the beauty of their own body in a relaxed and safe environment, and in providing entertainment to those who are less able to leave the campsite and plunge into the Festival. I just have one question: did no one question the wisdom of trying to teach juggling to the most uncoordinated people on site?

Disabled camping
Disabled camping marquee with music and treatments in full flow

Every day when I awaken, I get up to find out what my legs have in store for me. Fortunately, the current “limp of the day” seems to have a jazzy, laid back aspect to it. Hooray – perhaps today’s the day to dance to some blues at West Holts! Sometimes my body comes good. And sometimes I just look like a prat.

One delight of disabled camping is the shower – just warm enough, with no roof so I could look up at the blue sky and clouds as I washed. The sun dried my skin, saving me a task and feeling great in the open air. Never have I been so grateful for a small spout of warm water – I’m feeling guilty for what we have, and glad that part of our ticket price will go to Water Aid.

Watching Florence and the Machine (who did the most awesome cover of “The Chain”) I was really struck by a family behind me. They’d brought a disabled boy, teenage brother, both parents and a baby in pram onto the viewing platform at just the time when stewards were asking for people to please make way for wheelchair users, and we were glaring at them for hogging too much space. But actually what struck me was the father’s bond with his son. He introduced me to his little boy, who couldn’t speak, and later explained when the lad wanted to try honking my horn. The dad picked his son up and carried him all the way through Florence’s set. It was wonderful to see his obvious love for his boy. This meant that I was relatively relaxed when the next day, the son ploughed through our guy ropes in his wheelchair, destroying coveted chunky plastic pegs in the process. I knew his dad wouldn’t be far behind, and sure enough there he was with a ready smile and apologies to make everything better. Love conquers all.

Accessing the net by WAP is so sloooooow, isn’t it? Things have changed. In 1995 I was just starting to use the internet, discovering the value of using newsgroups to do my homework, and one of the first things I did on arrival at Glasto 95 was rush to logon from a solar powered net cafe in the Green Fields. 15 years later and the internet is everywhere – I’ve been spoiled by fast speeds on my broadband and access to the net on my Android phone, but that phone is valuable to me so instead here I am, sitting in a field with a cheap PAYG handset, cursing as it takes minutes to display the live Grand Prix coverage. I am only reloading every 5 laps, but not by choice. If only there was wi-fi on site – and then everyone would spend time in their tents checking for email. On second thoughts, I quite like the lo-fi system. It forces me to get out and see why I came here.

Faithless were great, though it felt strange watching them in daylight. Looking over the beautiful site at sunset across the Levels to Glastonbury Tor was magic. I could see across to the Park viewing tower, to the tipis, to the rows of gleaming parked cars, to the huge fence keeping us in and them out. It is strange how the Festival site takes weeks to be assembled, 5 days to be thoroughly trashed by us visitors, and then they start picking up the pieces straight afterwards to get the farm back operational as soon as possible. It’s Sunday night, but there’s still so much at this Festival that I haven’t yet done, and I wish it could last for a few more weeks.

Glastonbury at night
Looking across the site at night, under a full moon. A beautiful view.

Monday morning brings a gabble of voices as people strike their tents. Mike fetches the car, while I struggle to wake up. A cold shower helps but I still feel like a bag of bones that need to be shaken into place. The assorted beeps from reversing minibuses and wheelchairs slowly drive me mad along with the mutter of people queuing for the bus back to the carpark. Strangers covet our on-site pass which allows us to drive to the campsite to load up and then escape when we are ready. “How did you get one of those?” My answer is smug but simple: “I asked.”

In all, it was a fantastic festival with loads to do – in many ways the sun was the worst feature as it meant I had to shelter each day until the early evening when things cooled down. Despite melting, I’d be there like a shot next year. Roll on 2011!