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Strange, And Stranger Portraits:
Sydney J. Bounds
interviewed by Andrew Darlington
A pale green house, in a terrace of houses... Inside, every available surface is columned with unsteady towers of books and magazines. Venture to remove one, and the rest teeter threateningly. But it's impossible not to. There are such inviting titles, such intriguing periodicals, and piles of them. Sydney J. Bounds (the 'J' is for James) is a writer. And many of these titles, inevitably contain his own stories, under various guises. This one for example, Nebula #8 (April 1954) has his Weather Station, in which a space-pilot battles magnetic storms and invading aliens, until - only in the final paragraph, do you discover that the invaders are from Earth, he originates from Jupiter's red spot. The book-towers frame a nut-brown bakelite radio. There are few other personal effects, beyond books. For this is a writer's lair. Up a steep narrow staircase there are even more. Slightly the worse for dust. With delighted amusement he relates how a very large American book-dealer with a waistline of Jupiter-proportions had difficulty ascending - Syd speculates about what would have happened if he'd fallen halfway up? How to rescue him?
author photo: courtesy of Philip Harbottle,
Cosmos Literary Agency
Sydney J. Bounds is a writer, a bright and welcoming man in a check shirt, busying himself
with coffee. "Nowadays, there are very
few of the original people left down the road," he commentates.
"You get new people coming in all the
time, but they never stay. They move in, stay a few years, sell up and go somewhere else.
So you never get to know any of them." In his story A Complete Collection
(in Frighteners 2, 1976) 'Michael Fox' is also a writer visited by an obsessive fan,
a writer who "wrote under half-a-dozen names in as many fields, and needed to, he was a
professional and that way he stayed solvent." At his fans' persistence he "admitted
he had written westerns and crime novels under different names..."
Eventually, to complete his collection the obsessive fan murders and preserves the writer in a mock-up of his own study. So that "his collection was finally complete, the author and his works." Of course, we don't take it quite that far, but Bounds is writing from his own viewpoint. He considers that, "unlike the young writers at the 'World Fantasy Convention' who specialised, who wrote fantasy only and were like gods in this one tiny field," to him and 'Michael Fox', weird tales are only one aspect of a diverse life-time's fictional output. He also writes for that most neglected of genres - the western, with some 20 prairie-pounding titles currently in print. As well as crime (including contributions to the long-running 'Sexton Blake' series), 'spicy' magazine stories, horror and fantasy. Then there's a profitable parallel line in juvenile fiction too.
In fact - when it comes to fingers in pies, Bounds only seriously loses out in the not-enough-pies for his multi-talented fingers part of the equation. We listen to the weather forecast on the radio. It seems to be important. "People think writing is not work. But it's bloody hard work if you're doing it full-time. I used to wonder why am I sweating blood to get a few pounds, when I could walk into a factory job and have it easy? But of course, it's more interesting. Even though very few people make real money out of it." So which, among his diverse spread of styles, is the most important priority now? SF? "Well, it was when I started," he chortles. "Now, my main interest is surviving until the undertaker calls...!"
There's not much sound in the room when he works. The shuffling of paper, the crunching of failed sheets, the rare hum and grind of cars passing outside, the faint hush of settling piles of books reacting to the inexorable influence of gravity, the slow cultivation of dust. On his table there's a book about Hong Kong. A long strip of paper book-marking it, neatly note-filing items of food, preparations, sauces, colours, aromas, clothes. He's researching a 'china-town' passage for what will probably be his eighth 'Savage' western. He reads a lot, less than he used to, but he reads a lot. But more than that, he takes texts apart, analyses them, examines how they work, how the plot functions. If you ask him why, I doubt he could even tell you. It's become an instinctive thing. So ingrained that it's a reflex action. He writes. That's what he does. At a time when most of his contemporaries fell back on day-jobs to pay the bills, he was a pro. "Oh yes, about half of my working life I was writing full-time (from 1951). "The other half I was in-and-out of little jobs. When it turned bad I'd take another job for a few months, then starve again. Very dodgy!"
What working disciplines does he adopt? What about revision? "I didn't do a lot of revising in those days. I do more now. Of course, the competition is a lot stiffer now. It's always got to be your best work to stand any hope now. Markets are so tight, and there's still plenty of people trying to break in. I have a huge advantage because I was working in the days when there were real editors, and they would cut, cut, cut. They don't get that today. They've got word-processors, which don't take a lot of effort. That's no good. You don't learn to write like that. Mind you, I wouldn't attempt to do that anyway. I have a job with a portable typewriter these days, never mind anything else. My eyesight's not what it was, my fingers aren't as nimble as they were either - I get the letters in the wrong order. Something goes in the brain, y'know. There's a name for it..." a calculated pause, like a punch-line, then "but I forget what it is."
Is the plot always mapped-out before you start? "Well, I try to. A short story, yes. I wouldn't dream of starting a short story until it's all there. But a novel - I mean, I always know the ending before I start. I would never start a story if I didn't know the ending. In fact, quite often, the ending comes first. Some writers go so far as to write the ending first, and then work backwards. I do like to have all the main elements there, so what's left is the development in between, and you have to allow a bit for invention there as you go along. A lot of authors have that problem. They get a good opening, a good ending, and then - what the hell happens now? What are all these words in between? You have to develop the middle. A lot of people don't bother and it just s-a-g-s. But well, in the case of westerns I have to submit an outline to the publisher and get it okayed."
Are there ever unfinished stories, ideas that don't work out, experiments that fail? "As far as I'm concerned, it's discipline and perseverance. If you start something, you finish it. Otherwise you are not a writer. You are not a professional," putting me firmly in my place.
Sydney J. Bounds writes for available markets. I investigate further. Girls Star Stories vol.2 #1 (April 1949) costs 3d and includes the exciting Old Mill's Secret by Susan Shaw. Sydney Bounds is 'Susan Shaw'! Our Boys (October 1962), would set you back a shiny sixpence, it flaunts a dramatic red-and-black 'Indiana Jones' style cover-story Temple Of The Serpent. Uncredited, but Bounds again. Then True Love, undated, possibly 1964, but priced at 1/-, includes the un-credited 'confessions' of Cigarette Girl, by Bounds. There are many more - he's lost track of exactly how many, for colour weekly Boys World, animal stories about bears and wolves but especially snakes. Snakes were popular. "Researchers are always coming up asking for lists of titles, saying 'did you write this?' - and I don't know. You didn't know even then, if you wrote - say, a crime novel, it might come out with a publisher's 'House Name' on it, it might come out with another title on it. You never knew. You rarely even saw a copy. I used to go round the little corner shop that stocked them, and see if I could find one that was mine."
So I guess we are fortunate that so much of his output happened to fall into the SF field. The double-pack of strange tales collected into his double-volume 'Best Of...' is cherry-picked from over half-a-century's production. Although sometimes there are style crossovers slipstreaming from one subgenre to another. Grant In Aid from a 1956 issue of Authentic SF adopts a mean-streets hardboiled gumshoe detective voice, "I had my feet up and a bottle tilted to my lips when the door opened..." The denouement is alien. The plot development pure crime scene investigation.
He relates how he once taught story-craft to students. But isn't that an inborn thing, I suggest, surely it can never be entirely taught? 'Not so', he argues. "People understand drama. If you understand drama, you can write fiction. If you watch TV soaps, you understand plotlines, you understand drama; you can write fiction." He pauses, "I only ever met one person who was totally unable to write. One person". Then he approvingly quotes Jack Trevor Story who claimed that writing was just "words. Putting words in the correct order. That's all writing is."
Social change across the years also instil their own oddities into fiction. Project Starship, a novella from a 1954 Nebula is a fine story set in a subterranean experimental colony on Pluto. And it's unusual for its time in its emphasis on strong character motivation over hard science. Even more unusual for our time is the gender divide, in which male engineers labour on the two-mile-high generation-ship under construction, while the 'Stepford Wives' busy themselves with coffee-mornings, dusting, and fashion. As you read you envisage them in bouffant hair and flared skirts. No Ripley, Lara Croft, or Seven-of-Nine, yet they use feminine wiles and resources of a different order to achieve their ends. When husband Russell Cazalet is unable to force production schedules, neglected wife Katherine gossip-networks pester-power with the other wives to accomplish what he can't. He resents her success. It's only the final crisis that reconciles his injured ego. But essentially it's a human story built around the restrictions of strict 1950s' nuclear family gender-role models. It's not even retro. That's exactly how it was.
Yet from the same year, Portrait Of A Spaceman (in New Worlds) features career-woman Jill Hardie, an investigative reporter deconstructing the 'Right Stuff' myth of the hero of the 'Martian Queen' tragedy. Uncovering the less-than-heroic truth, she allows the myth to stand. While Act Of Courage (from Authentic SF in 1956) more modestly recounts an attempt to climb the lunar Mount Pico with guide Bill Salmon and bickering rich couple Vivian and Alison Pascall. Hard moon landscapes and well-sketched human psychological antagonisms match the expedition's detailed hazards, until its eventual success is found as much in the reconciliation of their marital dilemma as it is in mountain climbing. These are examples of what editor Philip Harbottle calls Bounds' "quiet revolution," to humanise hard-SF towards a more mainstream literary content.
Born on a Thursday, 4th November 1920 in Brighton - "you can't get much further south than that," his family moved to his current location in Kingston-on-Thames, "we came up here just before the war because my father had been out of work, and he got a job at Hawker aircraft when they were gearing up. And I've been here ever since. I started off reading - well, I read Scoops you know, the boy's paper. My father strongly disapproved of that, but my mother supported me. This was before the war; things were a lot different then. Today it's absolutely unbelievable." As a child he read Frank Richards' school-yarns in Magnet, to which he's returned recently, re-reading them in new facsimile editions. Of course, he sees them differently now, yet still recognises the narrative skill, and acknowledges the craftsmanship. Bleak House by Charles Dickens, too, "what an inspiration! ... Then I started reading the old American pulps," making the mind-expanding discovery of imported Amazing, Astounding and Wonder Stories through Woolworth's dump-bins and market stalls to the extent that he joined the 'Science Fiction Association' in time for his 17th birthday.
"Yes, I joined a local club at Teddington, just across the river. There were a few fans there, John Aitken, you've seen his name? And Eric Fleming-Parker, he was another, and one or two others. And I found out these crafty people were selling, not just writing for amateur magazines as I was! And what they could do, I could do. So I had a go. And eventually I sold… one or two, and that got me going." He was soon forging connections and useful contacts with the stars and prime-movers of the era, and could be found most Thursdays at the 'White Horse Tavern' - Mecca of world SF fandom alongside William F. Temple, John (Sam Youd) Christopher, Arthur C. Clarke and a clutch of SF magazine editors, "of course, in those days, before the war and very soon after, it was John Carnell and Walter 'Wally' Gillings," (New Worlds and Fantasy) "and Benson Herbert" about whom, more soon. He remembers watching the great Olaf Stapledon giving a talk about alien-life. Of course, "he considered his work as 'philosophical speculation' - not SF." And space-flight authority Professor A.M. Lowe, who's published work bridged the years from Scoops to Authentic SF.
The first story - Sydney's debut professional sale under his own name (there had been earlier aliases) is from Outlands #1 - the only issue of Leslie J. Johnson's 'Magazine for Adventurous Minds', dated winter 1946. This macabre Strange Portrait uses a 'Dorian Grey' hook in which a 'living' painting acts out the murderous jealousies of artist David Guest. The incentive provided by its publication meant that after the war's interruption, his promising career as an electrical fitter (he'd studied electrical engineering at technical college) seemed less inviting than fiction.
"I was in the RAF during the war (electrician and instrument-repairer for the ground-crew), "and when I came out after five years I wasn't really interested in going back into a factory - which I'd done before, so once I'd sold a story I thought 'I'm gonna have a go'." He estimated that "if I could write and sell just 1,000 words a day" he could become economically viable. So he became 'Brett Diamond' or 'Ricky Madison' for Hank Janson-style gangster novels, churning out flirty 'peppy stories' and very softcore 'snappy stories' titillation, plus early space opera as 'George Duncan', thereby more-or-less achieving his target lifestyle.
"There was a market there, oh yes. All sorts, all sorts. Not highly paid. You needed energy. You needed a lot of energy. The big market then was cheap paperbacks. You've read about the opportunistic 'mushroom' publishers? They were active before paper rationing stopped. They could only get away with fly-by-night publishing while paper rationing was on. They were the people who employed us all. Ted Tubb, Ken (Bulmer), myself, everybody else. When that stopped, things went downhill for most us."
During the late-1950s and 1960s there was a thriving, if low-paid, SF magazine scene, Nebula, New Worlds, Authentic SF and - later, Visions Of Tomorrow, "we shuffled the manuscripts round between them until someone took one. When that ended, of course, that was more or less the end of science fiction in this country. But by then I was doing other things. I came across a line of 'Spicy' magazines put out by Benson Herbert, whom I'd met earlier, in fact he used to write for the old Wonder Stories way back in Gernsback's day. By then I was doing ghost and horror books, and I also had a line on children's books and magazines too. I started writing juveniles after sending an early SF story to Ted Carnell's New Worlds. He returned it, commenting that it was fine, but 'too juvenile', and I took his remark seriously. I sent the story to Junior Digest, a periodical published from Dublin. The editor liked the idea, but said it was too long, so I re-wrote the story as a six-part serial, each part 1,000 words long. They bought this, and then another serial, and another. Then I caught on that I could write - and sell, juveniles. So I wrote more. Tarzan Adventures? Yes, I wrote a series of 'Cliff North' stories - about 14 of them, for Mike Moorcock when he was the editor. So I managed to keep going..."
"If you're writing full-time, for a living - I mean, you've got to belt it out and leave it. I liked what they called the 'thought variant' stories that John Russell Fearn had in F. Orlin Tremaine's Astounding. I liked those. He certainly had lots of ideas and he could write fast. This - after all, was before the war, and at the time he was one of the few professional writers in this country doing science fiction. The trouble with Fearn was that he wrote too fast. Nothing was re-written, everything was straight off, and - of course, you get a lot of careless writing that way. Later, when he did his hardcover crime stuff he took the trouble to revise and there was quite a marked difference. He could do it. And Maurice Huigi - remember him? He was writing a 50,000-word crime novel every week. Now that's going! I could never match that. I once did nearly 30,000 over a weekend, but I only did it once... yet even then, very few people made real money out of it. The only one I knew in those days was Arthur Clarke. He got tough with them. He employed an agent who said he'd not accept anything less than £10 per thousand words, when most of us were scratting to get £1 per thousand. He got away with it."
"In my young days, I knew all the science fiction people in the country," he resumes. "You could count them on two hands. I went to the first science fiction fan meeting in the London area. It must have been 1937. Eric Williams' home was near Catford. And if we had a convention in London (he attended his first convention in 1938) - well, there might be as many as two-dozen people. But that was good because it was all very friendly, none of this backbiting stuff you get with larger groups. And they're all large today. There're so many different science fiction groups. The ones that used to put out fan-mags seem to be almost disappearing. Although I still get a couple from Australia. There's so few people left from those earliest days, I'm thinking about people from before the war. There's not many of those left. I get concerned because I don't die like everybody else does. Who is ] there left? Eric Williams down in Sussex somewhere. Sam Youd's still going. Johnny Burke was one of the early ones. He's still going. And I get letters from Chester Cuthbert; he's in his nineties but still writes a very good letter. As a teenager he wrote two science fiction stories that Hugo Gernsback published in the old Wonder Stories. And he's still going strong. He says 'we're all grateful to Mr Gernsback but, of course... he never paid anyone'. Chester gave up writing and became an insurance salesman. Apparently he did rather well out of that. And Arthur Clarke, of course, he can't move unaided now. He has sticks, and people to help him. But he survived the Sri Lankan tsunami, although he lost some beach-huts."
If there are visionaries and craftsmen, then Bounds is probably the latter. He is a writer who manipulates genre ingredients to his advantage, crossing and mixing them as it suits, to better serve his fiction. "I don't consider myself a novelist at all, rather, I'm basically a short-story writer. In fact the very first time I attempted a novel, I took a book, which I'd bought and read. And I studied it chapter-by-chapter, then I modelled my own story on it chapter-by-chapter, and then I wrote it. And I still do that, in effect, although I don't read quite so much these days. But I still work it out scene-by-scene. Because I know that if I don't do that, I shall never finish it. It's got to be done. As far as I'm concerned, writing a novel, any novel, seems to go on forever."
His novel The Moon Raiders (1955) features an impressively rapid-fire checklist of ingredients, stolen U235, human agents shanghaied to the Moon and complications with alien invaders. A year later The World Wreckers (1956) involves Ralph Savage, an atomic physicist driven insane by being caught up in a hideously disfiguring nuclear accident when Stonehaven - Britain's major atomic plant, goes Chernobyl. Each genre has its image-bank, its paraphernalia of identifying ideas and devices, to be manipulated into variant configurations. Syd's fiction takes full advantage of the available SF repertoire - robotics, nuclear war, deviant science, alien intervention, all wrenched and contorted into the service of fast-paced plot and narrative drive. So 'Ralph Savage' subsequently discovers a lost Inca tribe hidden in an inaccessible Andes valley, which also happens to conceal an ancient Martian spacecraft cram-full of techno-toys and super-gadgetry. Using their "inter-atomic process alien to human thought" his revenge on the world starts with audacious theft. In a 'beauty and the beast' subplot he kidnaps British World Beauty Contest finalist Mary Marshall. Next, he escalates into blowing up cities by placing phase-shifted rocks beneath them, then returning these rocks to normal space-time with calamitous effects. While "the whole world waited for catastrophe" Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Arthur Crispian inaugurates "the most fantastic chase of all time," and wins Mary's heart. The benign Martians - incidentally, are giant ravens. And their Mars has an irrigating canal-network.
Written within the same year, The Robot Brains (1956) is another fast-paced yarn featuring crime-detection elements, carnival novelty, and charismatic hero Captain Arthur Christian who "preferred to take his adventure neat rather than canned" and who needs adventure "the way other men need security." First, Madame Rosita: Fortune Teller reads a hand that is alien, and the future it tells is more terrible than she can imagine. Bounds uses a pared-down no-frills prose that can be so hyper-taut that it's skeletal at times, yet can result in a concise storytelling style that forms an object lesson in construction. As in The World Wrecker there's a baited trap to reveal the adversary. And Christian's investigation into a trail of decapitated scientists leads him to encounter three "grey-clad dwarfs, their bald, dome-like skulls gleaming." They represent a future-species whose mates are nine-foot mind-free females! The elements come together in a "unique invasion of Earth via the time-stream," a war with future evolution at stake, launched from 100,000 years into the desolate 'winter of Earth'. Yet evil is not exclusively alien. Tellingly, at one point Christian admits that humans are "a conquering people. Our history is one of bloodshed... maybe they don't want us to leave Earth?" But for Sydney Bounds, warfare is a theatre of action, the immensity of time - taking Christian to the bleak terminal-phase of the world, is more a setting for daring exploits than philosophical equations. All are basic ingredients to accelerate the plot. Yet that end-of-the-world passage, he reveals now, was "a deliberate attempt at modelling the awe and strange melancholy beauty of the time travellers farthest journey to the dying Earth" in H.G. Wells' visionary novel. "And I read a lot of Wells in my youth," he adds.
So which other writers does he respect? "It varies from time to time. It used to be Agatha Christie. I still think she's marvellous." But, as far as science fiction is concerned, "we were living in the past even then," he smiles wryly. "The fiction of the 1950s was not 'scientific' or even up-to-date with the then-current science 'cos very few of the science fiction writers kept up to date with science. I mean, we were out of date even then." A reflective pause, before adding, "it was obvious even then that no biological life-form could travel faster-than-light. We'll never reach the stars. It's not possible. There very probably are alien life-forms out there, but they'll stay there. And we'll stay here."
So space-travel was a lie? But such a beautiful lie. Science fiction is our future-fix. But nothing has dated quite as fast as that future. To William Gibson "the future has already happened, it just isn't very well distributed." Perhaps that's something to do with overtaking that year-2000 marker, tipping us all over into this post-future? Yet humans are as hardwired with curiosity about the future as they are for nostalgia about the past. So we talk about the future. "If there is a future, despite the best efforts of Bush and Blair," he adds with a smile. And we talk science, "remember Nigel Calder's The Violent Universe (BBC, 1969)? Out there, there are galaxies colliding" - recent images from NASA's Spitzer space-telescope reveal evidence of an jagged ten-light-year hole blasted through the Andromeda galaxy by just such a million-years-old collision. We talk about how Fred Hoyle's 'Steady State' theory was discredited, losing out to the 'Big Bang' - "but it's still only a theory, it could yet turn out to be wrong." He's old enough to have seen other orthodoxies overturned, and science evolves through a continuous reassessment of 'certainties'. Nothing can ever be ultimately or finally resolved. All must be open to enquiry.
Meantime, there were American sales too. The City was sold to editor Ray Palmer for a 1951 Other Worlds Science Stories, following a market tip-off from John Wyndham. It's an extravagant romp through the 'usual suspects' of the period - atomic death, radiation-warped mutants, the 'Hall of the Brain', Earth's last sealed city in its vast translucent dome, the enigmatic stranger who comes "out of the dust-bowl, a tall, gaunt figure in rags, who stood before the energy screen," plus the sexually predatory rebel who desires to bear his child. Yet it's never less than a convincingly entertaining reconfiguration of such stock elements. Until The Circus - built around the urban myth of a travelling freaks' carnival, was adapted by George Romero for US-TV's Tales Of The Darkside (in 1986); one of the few items from which he got regular royalty cheques.
This precarious balance is one he's proved more than capable of maintaining across the years. The Predators (originally available in the 1977 Italian-only Spazio 2000) is a hand-to-claw 'Starship Troopers' extravaganza pared down to relentless action as Lee Sabre fights and kills his way out of the death-arena all the way to hostile alien encounters at the galactic rim; an audaciously accomplished romp. The 1970s saw a shifting market, with fewer SF titles. Simultaneously R. Chetwynd-Hayes' The Fontana Book Of Great Horror Stories was becoming a hugely popular paperback anthology series mixing classic ghost and horror stories, it went into numerous editions and foreign translations. Inevitably, Bounds was soon contributing a number of short sharp precisely targeted shockers. Further examples appeared through the Mary Danby edited Frighteners, and others in her juvenile title The Armada Ghost Book.
Cold Sleep takes the SF idea of a cryogenic 'sleeper' awakening into the future, adding the horror element that they are then butchered for spare-part surgery; and The Hothouse where an elderly plant-enthusiast eventually uses his own body to fertilise his exotic greenhouse growths. Sydney Bounds writes without ever subverting the genre rules, never flaunting weirdness merely for its own sake, never gleefully or capriciously taking an axe to the strictures of his craft. Never challenging or in danger of revolutionising it, yet never selling it short either. Sure, there are familiarities, but extremities too. It's merely that he prefers a direct, rather than a circuitous route to the central nervous system.
Writing is a solitary vocation. How does he deal with that? "You get used to that, as a writer. Since my mother died I've always been on my own. It doesn't worry me." Now, "I've finished number seven in the 'Savage' series of Robert Hale westerns, for the libraries. I'm just trying to work out some kind of outline for number eight. But it's hard going. There are so many thousands of westerns, trying to find anything that remotely looks like something new is a headache. The last one I did used the old 'fantasy quest' theme; I turned one of those into a western. It worked alright. The books go direct into the libraries. They don't pay much, but the point is you get something out of PLR (public lending rights). Plus there's a chance they'll be taken up by large-print editions. I think there's three of my westerns that have gone into large-print so far, and (my agent) Phil Harbottle has started re-selling some of my old 1950s' crime books to large-print. They - of course, go into the library too, and then you get more PLR. Over a period it adds up. It's a useful pension these days. And people are reading them, because when the PLR comes through they provide a list of how many times it's been out, and - what is it? 2.4p each time anyone takes one out of the library. Which adds up."
And the present? "I go to the Vintage Bookfair at Victoria," he tells me. "I see Philip E. High there sometimes, because he comes up from Canterbury - he's still writing at ninety. Ted Tubb used to go too, of course - until he had a heart thing. Also Phil Harbottle, Harry Harrison and Jim Cawthorn. But not only have the second-hand bookshops gone - I know of only one, in Wimbledon, but now the cheap remainder shops are going too. Ray Bradbury's book-burning starts anytime now...!"
During the period of just over a year following our meeting I received a letter from Sydney informing me that he had "been laid low by a bug," and due to his deteriorating health, he was moving from Kingston-upon-Thames to a new address in Telford, Shropshire. He died peacefully in his sleep on the morning of Saturday 24th November 2006, following just one night spent in a hospice after leaving hospital. He had a humanist funeral at Telford Crematorium 6th December. He was 86.
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