Category Archives: Toys

Ireland’s Small House Tradition

Once, Ireland had Big Houses. Before they were set to the flame in the name of civilisation (or fell over for want of Big Incomes) every Big House contained a Small House. A Georgian mansion, fully furnished by minuscule furniture craftsmen.

Every little girl in Ireland wanted one of those Dolls’ Houses.

Eventually, those little girls became mothers to little girls of their own and were intent on making those dreams come true. Until they discovered (a) there is a reason Dolls’ Houses were found in Big Houses. They are fucking enormous. And (b) they cost all the money there is in the universe. It is possible Dolls’ Houses caused the fall of the Ascendancy classes, like front hinged Easter Island heads.

The solution: The Cardboard Dolls’ House.

Doll House Box

Doll House Box

Folds away flat, it assures us. Check out those All Mod Cons decorative choices. Check out the grammatically mysterious promise; “A Charming House Any Child Will Wish To Own”.

Check out, above all, the gender neutral Child:

Dungarees are for everyone

Dungarees are for everyone

The problem with replacing boring old wood with thrusting and modern laminated cardboard is that… well, let’s just say that entropy increases.

Cardboard Doll's House from the Front

One Careful Owner.

The once verdant foliage has bleached to a cold and eerie blue. The roof, held in place with slots and tabs, sits askew on the building, speaking of a thousand indoor storms.  Even the upstairs windows are weeping at what time has wrought. But there is worse to come. There is the interior view.

Interior Cardboard House

The Old Murder DollsHouse

Oh Lord. This is where two generations’ dreams have gone to die.

(by Simon McGarr)


The Last of the Nippers

Late last week, I received a thrilling package from Maxol HQ. The generous sender told me that he had “literally…raided the safe” for said package’s contents. And oh, what glories were contained therein. So glorious that I now feel kind of bad for previously referring to the Nipper-enslaving Maxol executives of the 1980s as “cigar-chomping, fat cat, petroleum-bastards”.

Anyway, see for yourselves (click to embiggen).

A few things worth noting…

1) My (on loan) nipper came cocooned in “his” own vintage plastic bag (which describes him, matter-of-factly, as a “COLOURFUL HANDPUPPET WITH SOUNDS”). Had he been hibernating in there since 1985? Waiting for (and dreaming of) a liberation that never came? The nipper completists among you may wish to know that the distributor of these colourful-handpuppets-with-sounds was “HIRA (Ireland) Ltd” (whoever/whatever that is/was).

2) The tag on his arse describes him as a “Mattey Product”. Can anyone shed any light on who/what Mattey was/were?

3) If you choke a nipper the results are simultaneously hilarious and disturbing.

4) The tiny (and very fragile) watches came in yellow and pink (with subtle differences in design on each face). Makers were “OMAC UK”.

5) On the “FREE A NIPPER!” stickers Brendan Grace looks like a cross between Peter Sutcliffe and Giant Haystacks…in a schoolboy costume. This may well be the most terrifying look ever cultivated by anyone.

I could go on, but think it best to let the creature itself self-describe. Over to you, my little pink friend.

(by fústar)

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Great Lolo Balls of Fire!

Of all the crazes that swept our bored little nation back in the eighties, the Lolo Ball was probably one of the most unsafe, unstable, unsteady and unbelievably fun ways to spend your time as a child. I don’t remember exactly how it started…all I know is that I wanted in. And fast. During my primary school years, I was the proud owner of two Lolo Balls. The first was a blue ring around a fat yellow ball (not the original brand, but it was all they had in Quinnsworth at the time), the second looked just like the one in the picture below. I have to admit, I got a twang of nostalgia when I saw that pop up on my screen…along with a pain in my gum but that’s for a later part of the story.

The chief source of most major dental work on eighties kids.

For those unfortunate enough to have been born after this awesomely ridiculous hobby exploded onto the scene, here’s how it worked. It was about the size of a football, and looked like the illegitimate love-child of soccer and Frisbee. Here’s how you use it:

1: Lay it on the ground, placing your foot flat on the plastic ring.

2: Then in some sort of upward jumping motion that would make a Russian gymnast gasp in admiration, leap into the air while simultaneously placing your other foot on the other side of the plastic ring.

3: While airborne, use your two feet to grip the ball tighter than Kim Kardashian clings to fame.

4: Bounce like a grinning idiot for hours to prove to your parents that this is something you are seriously committed to after breaking their balls to buy you one.

Of course, it was called something different in America – Pogo Bal. I don’t know why they left out the other ‘l’..or why we called it ‘Lolo Ball’ instead. But anyway.

This is the first time I’ve seen that ad. What blatantly false advertising. Where are the countless split lips, the missing teeth, the stitches on foreheads?? We must have been doing it wrong. However, we forgot one very important difference between us and the Yanks with regard to Lolo Ball Best Practice policies…the weather.

You know it’s a cool craze when the schools start putting an embargo on it. I’m pretty sure I was the reason St. Nessan’s N.S. in Mungret issued a blanket ban on all things Lolo Ball-related circa 1986. To be fair though, I was too young to be aware of such things as the laws of physics and how water affects smooth surfaces. If I had known, for example, that when a round, bouncing, spinning disc/sphere of plastic comes into contact with wet indoor floors on rainy school days, it becomes less of a fun hobby and more of a Flying Ball O’ Death, then I may have reconsidered my actions. However, I was blinded by ambition.

The lure of being an Ultimate Lolo Ball Stunt Girl was too much for my fragile ego. The Ball came out, and off I went, to bounce towards immortality. My plan was to hop along the corridor, up the two steps that lead us to our classroom and finish with a turn and a flourish to face my cheering classmates, who would no doubt write many lines about it in their ‘My News’ copybooks the next day. What I wanted, and what I got, however, were two very different things:

As I sat in the staffroom with a manky facecloth held to my mouth soaking up the blood from my battered front tooth, I took a moment to consider what might have gone wrong. Those steps got bigger overnight, obviously. That sideboard came out of nowhere. Maybe I wanted to kiss the floor at high speed, did you ever think of THAT, Mom?? But I digress…

After my painful run-in with the Funky Ball of Doom, my bouncing days soon ended. But the craze lasted for quite a while. It got to the point where you chose your Lolo Ball colours with the same precision of a wannabe gang member in South Central Los Angeles. Through trial and error, you learned what shoes worked best..and, in a completely unrelated move, what plasters stayed on longest. Part of me still longs for one more shot at those steps in Mungret school, so these days I keep my cravings at bay by indulging in Roller Derby. Out of the frying pan, rolling at high speed into the fire. Maybe one day I’ll arm myself in my safety gear, find a Lolo Ball lying around, and hop my way to greatness. Although this time, I’ll wear a gum shield.

I can but dream…

(by JayRow)

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Spinning Class

[Today’s guest post is by Lisa Carey. Lisa explains things for a living, mostly to humans. When not writing about stuff, she plays clarinet and keyboards with zombie noiseniks The Jimmy Cake and tweets nonsense at @msleedy].

Ah, to be in primary school in early 80’s Ireland, where some sort of pre-internet mind meld meant that every so often, suddenly everyone was “into” the latest vaguely pointless craze. Fancy paper. Tying patterned shoelaces round your head in the manner of a proto-Axl Rose. “Illuminous” socks. Deely boppers. “Doing Buck’s Fizz”. Watching That’s Life after you’d done your homework on Sunday in the hope that there’d be a talking dog and not just an exposé of Guar Gum. And, of course, Coca-Cola Spinners.

A Spinner was, basically, a yo-yo, blinged out with Fanta or Coca-Cola colours and logos. Like this:

Of course, I know now that they were called Spinners rather than yo-yos for legal reasons – yo-yo was a trademarked term here in 1981, so they were marketed as Russell Spinners instead. But at the time it made them seem like an exotic new toy, not a boring old yo-yo.

Not only did they have a shiny name and shiny covetable colours just like their namesake minerals, they also had a further secret weapon of coolness: the professional Spinner experts. One afternoon in school we were all marshalled outside the prefabs to watch a group of hyped-up cola representatives demonstrate Amazing Feats Of Spinning. Beverage-themed plastic yo-yos “walked the dog”, hovered in mid-air, defied gravity, formed cat’s cradle patterns, always whipping back into the operative’s hand with a satisfying “thunk”. There was talk of competitions, giveaways, special prize Spinners. The Spinner experts were on the Late Late. Suddenly being able to do yo-yo tricks had instant cachet.

Soon like every other child that summer, I got my Spinner, purchased in the local newsagents. I went for the red Professional one, not because I particularly cared about weight and handling (apparently the clear-edged Professionals were slightly heavier than the opaque-edged Supers) but because I liked the colour. I was that serious about my yo-yoing career.

I can still remember the plasticky smell of the thing, the glowing boiled-sweet beauty of the translucent red bits (bear with me, it was the 80s), and the brisk whizz as it whirled its way down the string. And, well, stayed there. But no matter! I was going to be like the Coca-Cola Spinners team. I would do tricks! I would amaze my friends!

One major problem with this plan was that I was possibly the least coordinated child in Ireland. I was the kid at tennis in school who wasn’t given a ball. No, I just had to stand beside the gym and practice “making shapes like a banana” with my tennis racquet. My haplessness in all feats of physical dexterity was such that I have no idea why I became convinced that I could become a yo-yo expert.

First, of course, I would work on “back up”. Whizz. Nothing. Roll it back up. Whizz. Nothing. Roll it back up. This went on for some time. I became convinced that there was something wrong with my Spinner and handed it to a more dextrous friend, who promptly whirled it into something resembling an Escher painting, still spinning, then snapped it back up into her hand. Back to the drawing board.

Of course, with persistence, even the most cack-handed child can figure out how to operate a yo-yo, and for some reason I persevered with the Spinner for longer than I had with, say, the tennis racquet. Finally I mastered the flick of the wrist needed to propel the thing down the string with such force that it shot back up again, and was able to move on to other vital life skills such as clicking my fingers (eventually mastered in a Gaeltacht céilí aged 14) and drinking.  And I’m proud to say, it’s like riding a bike – to this day, I can make a yo-yo go back up the string. Still need to work on “walking the dog”….

(Before writing this I hadn’t realized there were multiple Coca-Cola Spinner campaigns – there was a second, much-documented campaign in 1989, when I was in college and only interested in Fanta if it had gin in it. As far as I can remember, “my” Spinner mania took place in 1981.)

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Playing War

As a child I loved playing war so much that it affected my religious education. When I was about ten, Father Doyle would come once a week to Scoil Bhríde primary school, Athgarvan to teach us the finer point of Catholic doctrine.

“Thou shalt not kill,” he said, which seemed a bit extreme.

“What if there’s a terrorist holding hostages in a cable car and he’s got his finger on a detonator and the only way to stop him setting the bomb off is to shoot him in the head?” I asked (I really did ask this).

“That’s probably okay,” he said, “but you’d have to go to confession afterwards.”

“What if there were three enemy soldiers shooting at you and you could technically disarm them by shooting them in the legs but it would be safer for innocent bystanders to just shoot them in the head?” I asked.

“You should shoot them in the legs,” he said.

“What if you have a murderer at your mercy because he’s surrendered but you suspect he will escape and kill again?” I asked. “Couldn’t you just kill him?”

“That would be right out,” said Father Doyle firmly.

I was very disappointed. I wanted to be able to kill people without going to hell. Not all people. Just bad people. Like the Germans and the Japanese and possibly the Russians (depending on the war).

My knowledge of geopolitics and the rules of engagement came primarily from British comics like Warlord, Victor and Battle which, for the most part, depicted war as a straightforward fight between goodies and baddies (there were some nuanced exceptions like “Charley’s War” by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun, but as a child the subtleties went over my head). These were ripping yarns of derring-do, sacrifice and bravery.

I would enact stories influenced by these comics with a huge box filled with plastic soldiers modelled on World War II battalions. These were strangely relatively lifelike plastic figures frozen in action – there was “man running with bayonet” for example, and “chap kneeling while firing a rifle” and “man with moustache, pointing” (don’t get me started on the ennui-inducing “fellow waving”).

The scenarios I enacted typically involved sadistic Jerries fighting a squad of grizzled old rookies, naïve new recruits, wise-cracking jokers, snooty officers and comedy Scotsmen called “Jock”. I’d start with a squad of ten (usually Matchbox’s WWII British infantry) who would be whittled down one by one, culminating in the shocking death of one of my favourites (usually “guy throwing a grenade”). I’d give “guy throwing a grenade” a heartrending death scene which culminated with his best chum (“fellow wielding a Bren gun”) saying “NOOO!” Then spurred on by “fellow wielding a Bren gun’s” hunger for revenge, the tide would turn and good would triumph.

“Guy throwing a grenade” never died in vain.

Playing war with human children was more complicated. Because my dad was in the actual army we had access to cool gear (the above picture is me aged four, used subsequently on the cover of my first band’s single). Decked out in real old army helmets, canteens, pouches and canvas bags, we looked the part (except for the fact we were ten and were holding  brightly coloured plastic guns) but the games would almost always descend into chaotic arguments about whether someone had been shot or not.

There would also disagreements about our chosen scenarios. My cousin always wanted us to be the Americans fighting the Russians. The game once descended into a shouting match when I suggested, based on a Battle story called “Johnny Red”, that sometimes the Russians were goodies. “THEY’RE COMMIE RATS!” he yelled tearfully, when I presented a challenging passage about a kindly Russian soldier sharing his rations with Johnny.

Playing war was more straightforward when we played with older boys. They always wanted to play a variation called “Prisoners of War.” The rules of “Prisoners of War” were simple. Five to ten younger boys would be given a head start and would run out across the Curragh Plains to hide. Then we would be hunted down one by one, lightly beaten and tied to a tree. “This is like real war,” I thought appreciatively, watching from a gorse bush as two teenage thugs repeatedly thumped my best friend. Painful and sadistic “Prisoners of War” might have been, but I liked the fact that there were clear cut rules.

As I got older I still wanted to play war, but it was getting less and less acceptable to be seen hunkered in a corner with plastic toys. For a while I sought legitimacy by developing a complex rule-based system for playing toy soldiers. Then I got temporarily diverted into role-playing games before playing the violent computer game Doom for a year (the eventual cure for “playing war”, I realise in retrospect, was “knowing the touch of a woman”).

All and all, playing war is a very strange thing to do. Nobody, as far as I know, ever plays pestilence or famine. I think deep down, whether it’s encultured or primal, many of us think that being in a war would be great fun altogether. It probably wouldn’t be though, now that I think about it.

(by Patrick Freyne)

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Donegal, Where They Make Their Own

Donegal was a county I knew well as a young lad, on account of my mother being from there and most years I’d spend several weeks at my granny’s in Falcarragh, three to four of those in the summer. It always struck me as a county oddly different from what I knew of the rest of Ireland — it was effectively the next county to the north of Sligo but the distance to my granny’s was about as far as it was to Dublin; people there supported Celtic rather than English football teams (indeed, north Donegal was unusual in being a part of rural Ireland where the locals cared far more passionately for soccer than GAA). A popular newspaper was the Scottish Sunday Post, a “good, clean tabloid” as my father used to call it,  which was probably unavailable anywhere else in the 26 counties. Despite being the second biggest county on the island, it had no railways — the various lines that served it had all closed by 1957.

It was only later when I crossed the border for the first time that I realised this difference was because Donegal was isolated. It was culturally closer to Northern Ireland — both its Nationalist and Unionist elements — than to the ‘south’ and unlike Monaghan and Cavan, most of the county bordered none of the other three provinces. The partition of Ireland in 1920 had cut Donegal off from its neighbours  like a schoolboy who has been kept back a year misses his friends. Donegal was, in a way, the Alaska of the Free State. Most Donegal people, in my childhood at least, rarely thought of the border as anything other than a man-made imposition, viewing it much as the Comanche think of the US-Mexico frontier that cuts through their ancestral lands. And though the overwhelming majority of Tyrconnell folk were enthusiastic for the young republic, Dublin was awfully far away.

I’m not sure if partition had anything to do with a strange industrial subculture that existed in Donegal but there sure was a lot of shit in the shops in Donegal you couldn’t easily get ‘down south’. It probably all started with the Crolly Doll. Made in the village of Crolly since 1939, the dolls were a sort of Hibernian proto-Cabbage Patch Kid, except they had that icy, glazed, all-seeing demeanour of traditional marionettes. They were often clothed in variants of the peasant dress that was rapidly dying out at the time. In a foreshadowing of globalisation, cheaper competition from East Asia killed off the Crolly Doll in the late 1970s and the factory closed but not before my auntie Bríd worked there for a while — something, which, you will understand, represented untold glamour for us as children. A smaller, more ’boutique’ factory was resurrected in the early 90s, and started making more specialised dolls, including ones with porcelain heads (which surely upped the creepy quotient no end), but it appears to have run aground once again.

Image from Wikipedia

Admittedly, the Crolly Doll was available outside of Donegal, and quite famous internationally it was too, if specialist internet doll forums are anything to go by. The fact though that the doll emanated from what was little more than a hamlet in a far-flung corner of the county was strange enough. And it was far from the only star of light industry Donegal could boast. One of the landmarks we always passed on our journeys north was the Oatfield’s factory in Letterkenny, a building that looked strangely more like a convent school than a confectionery wonderland and the company’s motto – ‘the sweet’s that are pure’ – is rather telling. Oatfield’s made old-school sweets, which only came in those larger, more expensive bags that usually hung behind the counter in a sweet shop, so eating them was synonymous with visiting grown-up relatives. The list of Oatfield’s products reads like a demented Séamus Heaney poem: Butter Mints, Sherbet Fruit, Orange Chocolate, Glucose Barley, Eskimo Mints, Colleen Irish assortment. But the crowning achievement was the flagship sweet — the Emerald.

John Byrne, of this parish, has written eloquently of Oatfield’s but I think he does the Emerald an injustice. This coconut caramel with a casing of dark chocolate so thin it might have been painted on, was a toffee of the perfect chewability for my young jaws. It was not fudgey enough to deprive you of your money’s worth nor was it too resilient so as to wedge your teeth together in a masticatory morass. It even had classic packaging (which has now, alas, given way to generic computer-generated design): a portrait of an old biddy encased in a sepia oval, who, uniquely, looked very like the person likely to be holding the bag out to you, urging you to “take two, they’re small.” I have met Eastern Europeans who grew up under communism, who speak fondly of the low-rent sweets of their childhood, which were later bought up by Danone or Nestlé and cast aside as embarrassing relics of the planned economy. Thankfully the Emerald has met no such fate and is still with us — it’s a sweet that symbolised a brave new nation, a sweet that held its own. There was even Arabic writing on the packet, for God’s sake — it was that well regarded!

Another post-lunch staple of those summer holidays was McDaid’s Football Special, made in Ramelton in east Donegal. No doubt the fortuitous result, like Worcestershire Sauce or penicillin, of some crazy stab in the dark at something else entirely, Football Special tasted like no other soft drink. It made Irn Bru seem as recherché as buttermilk; it turned your mouth pink without tasting like gentian violet. It also had football in its name, which made it the best drink ever. I imagined it was the stuff that victorious football teams drank from the cup but later when I started appearing on such teams myself I was shocked to learn there was no McDaid’s Football Special outside Donegal. We had to make do with red lemonade, which was tantamount to imposing Babycham on Formula 1 champions. Last year, Football Special was launched on the unsuspecting  masses south of Bundoran as a sort of Irish Pabst Blue Ribbon in the hope of becoming a hipster favourite. Well, I was drinking it long before any of the rest of them.

Over in Gweedore, they made crisps. This was Sam Spudz, a country cousin to Tayto and King but which nonetheless had a grittier, urban image, with its logo pilfered off Dick Tracy, a ‘z’ where a more pedestrian brand would have an ‘s’, and its avowed specialisation in “thicker crinkled crisps”, which was heralded in gumshoe-steeped radio ads. Sam Spudz probably didn’t invent the crinkled crisp but it was certainly the first to market it in Ireland, long before Hunky Dory’s (whose owner Largo Foods later swallowed up both it and Tayto) or McCoy’s. It also did a line in corn snacks that looked and tasted irredeemably cheap, and, if memory serves me right, outdid the thicker crinkled crisp in popularity in the lower 25. There may have been several but the only ones I can recall are Onion Rings and Burger Bites, each of which bore the same resemblance to their models as Blackpool Tower does to Gustave Eiffel’s effort. In all, the collective output of Oatfield’s, McDaid’s and Sam Spudz means Donegal was probably responsible for me cultivating a fearsome paunch long before I had figured out how to get served in pubs.

I’m still not sure why local industry thrived in Donegal throughout a century that was mostly dismal in Ireland from an economic point of view. You could say it was a pop-culture realisation of de Valera’s dreams of Irish self-sufficiency.  Other parts of the country had their star local brands but few had as high a concentration as Donegal. Even in adulthood I kept discovering them. When I moved to Paris ten years ago, I worked in a bar, whose cranberry juice, in those days before Ocean Spray became available in France, was made by Mulrine’s in Ballybofey – “the juice production experts”, as their website says. One of the owners of the bar was from Gweedore, of course…

(by Oliver Farry)

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Vive la Liberté!

Reader Susan Cullen sends us this slightly moth-eaten, but still surviving (goddammit), nipper.

Carrot devoured years ago, alas. Speaking of which, those mangy Velcro-covered paws are giving me the shivers and the fear. Now have visions of my own (abandoned) nipper dragging himself across the floor, into the bed, and then, um, causing me minor skin irritation with some frantic paw-rubbing.

Any others? Send ’em on.

(by fústar)


Only Gorgeous: Maxol, Bottler, and the Liberation of the Nippers

Ireland, in 1985, was, of course, a giddy and utopian place. Where endless streams of laughter flowed through a sun-dappled wonderland of enchantment. The movings at Ballinspittle? Oooh! The foundings of the Progressive Democrats? Yay! But Marian apparitions and super-sexy Desmond O’Malley were not the only things setting young hearts racing.

Forget Mandela. Forget “The Birmingham Six”. Half a decade earlier, beings of a very different order were crying out for justice and liberation. Small and boggle-eyed beings. Fluffy and cheap-looking beings. Nippers.

Cruelly enslaved by their cigar-chomping, fat cat, petroleum-bastard masters their plaintive squeaks for release captivated a nation. Here’s their first appearance:

There was something so frazzled and anxious and sad about the nippers (not to mention Brendan Grace). They were simultaneously desirable collectible objects, and tragic entities who needed us to lead them out of bondage. And we did. In our thousands. Here’s Tom Noonan, Chief Executive of The Maxol Group (Boo!):

The promotional campaign was launched in late 1985 and was timed to take advantage of the build up to Christmas in that year. The advertisements were an instant success. The campaign unashamedly targeted the children of motorists, who subsequently begged, bothered and cajoled their parents into collecting the nipper stamps at Maxol stations. Approximately 400,000 nippers were freed by the end of the campaign and a star was born.

Nippers, like many living things denied their dignity and freedom, took refuge in stimulants. In their case, 7-UP.

Note the loose use of the term “treasure” there. Rugs, cutlery, photo albums. Even for mid-80s Ireland this was a bit on the shit-biscuits side. Having said that, there are some gems that I would happily beat a nipper to death for.

Digital nipper watches.

Analogue nipper t-shirts.

While Brendan Grace is still a findable object (if you’re so inclined), these wonders have long since disappeared into a promotional ephemera black hole. Just to clarify, Brendan Grace can still be viewed, touched (probably) and held (ooer), but nipper watches and t-shirts now exist only as glorious memories…and pixellated JPEGs. Life sucks balls.

And what of the nippers themselves? As Maxol’s ad campaign developed, an extraterrestrial point of origin was hinted at.

Hang on. So…they were coming to Earth, in hijacked NASA Space Shuttles, and willingly allowing Maxol (and their stooge, Bottler) to hold them captive? Then carrying placards begging us to release them from this “torment”? I liberated a nipper. Most of my friends liberated nippers. We were passionate about the cause. On mature reflection, I think we were had (our best instincts cynically exploited). If I still had my nipper I’d punch it hard in its manipulative little leporine face.

We’re left with questions. Does anyone still have a nipper? Does anyone have one of those impossibly groovy nipper T-shirts (or, even, a comfy Maxol rug)? Did anyone ever go to see the (genuinely not made up) “Bottler in Nipperland” panto? What ever became of almost half a million freed nippers? Where did they go?

(by fústar)

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