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Lionesses learning how to roar? Events have overtaken my trite blogging!

15 Mar

A few days ago I penned a slight piece about the English women’s soccer team being required, by new coach Phil Neville,  to ‘watch in pain’ as the USA lifted the Shebelieves trophy. The italizised version (see below) appears a silly irrelevance now.

The attempted murders of Sergei Skripal and his daughter have signalled the attendant dangers of a warfare beyond our sight and control. Big power games are being played and we are the powerless majority. The haughty arrogance of the Russian State appears chilling and uncaring of the values to which humans should adhere. Their supremacy – and the unquestioning certainty of it – comes before any other consideration.

The deaths of two household names, Ken Dodd and Stephen Hawking, have provoked eulogising and respect. I never quite ‘got’ Ken Dodd but he’s been around the whole of my life singing Tears and waving a tickling stick. He entertained millions in a classically British fashion. The last of the music hall comedians, they say. Apart from Einstein there is no other scientist whose name trips off the tongue around the world more often than the remarkable Hawking. Compare him with Vladimir Putin. Compare him , for that matter, with anybody. His influence on young and old, his extraordinary spirit, never mind his genius, will live on .. and on. The BBC got it right when they led with the news of his death over and above the shabbiness of Russian dark dealings.

We should turn to the spirit of Hawking at times like this. My daughter and son-in-law have both been seriously ill of late. Now, thankfully in recovery, they owe their health to the skill of doctors and the wonders of science. Compare the consultant who treated my daughter’s  virulent bacterial infection with Vladimir Putin.

The shenanigins  of the superpowers persuade us to hibernate in the warmth of the mundane. The winter Paralympics and the doughty-spirited Brits struggling to justify their funding in sports which are, mostly, alien to our culture; the multi-millionaire Mourinho’s press conferences saying very little about not very much at all; the thrill of Lionel Messi; Six Nations rugby; Dancing on Ice. When I’m down I turn to sport and books. I’m on Martin Amis’s The Rub of Time – a collection of articles and observations on everything from a wonderful observer. Brilliant.

I’m OK with the truth. So many of those to whom the people of the world look up – or are forced to- want to construct their own truth. Stephen Hawking showed us all that the search for truth is everlasting and inexhaustible. That we are all on this planet together and should behave as if we are all part of the same enterprise.

I am not a man of God, nor particularly a member of the St. Paul fan club. However, being the age I am and with my upbringing and career in education, I have read and listened to many a Bible reading  and prayer. One of many texts that comes to mind so easily is Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Often used in prayer – well it used to be – I offer it here.

‘…whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things.’

I apologise for the bathos of what follows.

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The USA women’s soccer team have just won the Shebelieves Cup by beating England in the final game. Well-deserved. Phil Neville, the new Manager-Coach of the Lionesses insisted that his team stayed out on the pitch to watch the cup being presented to the victors. He ‘wanted the team to feel the pain’ ; it would thus make his women more competitive in next year’s World Cup.

Phil didn’t suggest that it was simply good sportsmanship to applaud the USA’s triumph. Good manners, even. The recently accepted common behaviour in soccer and some other male team competitions is for the vanquished to leave the stage to lick wounds; fans of the defeated too. In some cases – recent Ryder Cups for example, the winners have revelled in victory with demeaning relish. Tennis is one of the exceptions  – perhaps the one-on-one gladiatorial nature of it produces a greater respect, an honourable appreciation of the opponent.

Eddie Jones’s dreadful treatment at the hands of inebriated Scottish rugby fans may be a sad sign of the times. Interestingly he pointed out that the intemperate language of partisan media commentators had not helped the cause of commonsense. Gavin Hastings had talked of relishing ‘rubbing English noses’ in defeat. A phrase to excite, indeed but part of the growing hype which surrounds major televised sport. Drama and controversy has to trump playing the game in the right spirit.

Having watched and coached young sportspeople for umpteen years, there is little doubt that I have observed better sportsmanship and respect for referees from women. There are exceptions of course. I, Tonya, the film about the bitter rivalry between American ice skaters, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan shows just how female gamesmanship can get out of hand. And how!

Most males have the instinct for honour but they need to be led by captain, coach, teacher, parent. Somehow women, although just as competitive, see a bigger picture when the fat lady sings.

There were plenty of heroes around when I was growing up and, as readers of my pages will know, I idolised the best of them: Bobby Charlton. These days the honourable leaders are thinner on the ground and being gracious in defeat – and generally – is a commodity in short supply. There is a huge amount of psychological point-scoring in the global game of soccer but there are many mangers and players I still admire. Roy Hodgson for one.

I like Phil Neville and he will do a fine job. ‘Feeling the pain’ may well be a good idea but in the precious moments after a great sporting struggle, disappointment should give way, for a few short minutes, to congratulation and commiseration. Equality in all its fair forms is necessary and right but Lionesses might beware of accepting all male sporting mores.

Roar on Lionesses. Have edge, enjoy the cut and thrust of battle but when you hear the final whistle, do the honourable thing.

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VAR – Virtually Assured Reprobates

19 Jan

A reprobate, as my Shorter Oxford tells me, is a person cast off by God, hardened in sin, of abandoned character, immoral. For my purposes we’ll call him a Premiership footballer, specifically say Mr  Morata or Mr Pedro.

The introduction of Video Assistant Referee to the global game is set to cause mayhem. This isn’t because video replays are a bad thing, it is because premiership soccer players enjoy cheating more than most other sportsmen and women. Add to this that referees in this sport don’t want their authority to be undermined, so they want the final say. Add to this the scepticism of the old guard – Alan Shearer et al – that errors are ‘part and parcel’ of the game. Controversy causes argument and makes hype and headlines.

Video referral systems have been used widely and successfully in many sports – both individual and team. For the most part they have worked well and enhanced the game. After all don’t we want accurate decisions? Isn’t the truth what we are all after?

Take rugby. Has the ego of the best ref in the world, Nigel Owens, taken a knock from having to ask for the video ref’s advice? You’re joking! Ah but do top rugby players seek to deceive, to cheat, to distort in the same way as Messrs Morata and Pedro did for Chelsea? Not a chance.

Simulation is the new word on the block in soccer circles. It means diving, yes cheating. Strange that no such word exists in the lexicon of rugby, hockey, cricket, tennis, American football.. and the other sports which use video-checks.

Klose, the Norwich defender who looked to have brought down Chelsea’s Willian – yet the referee Graham Scott chose not to video-refer had this to say. “VAR would help the referee sometimes in some situations but I’m not a fan of it. Football is all about these situations. We remember Diego Maradona’s Hand of God …etc Football needs these situations, it puts emotions on, you can write about it, the TV stations have something to talk about…”

So there we have it – at least some players and many pundits are sceptical of VAR. They want it to fail because the drama of cheating and getting decisions wrong creates uproar and fulminating punditry. Does soccer really prefer gamesmanship to sportsmanship? Until the great game changes its attitude to the truth it will continue, in my book, to be less than great.

Happy 80th Birthday Sir Bobby. My hero!

11 Oct

I knew from a very young age that the great Bobby Charlton and I shared something special: our birthday. Mid-1950s I developed an infant-school passion for Manchester United and in particular two players: Duncan Edwards and Bobby Charlton. The Munich air crash of February 1958 found this little seven year old lad devastated at the loss of so many young, talented lives. The colossus that was Big Dunc had perished and I clung to the hope that Bobby would play on and that Manchester United would rise, phoenix-like from the ashes. And so they did.

On my tenth birthday my mother brought in the traditional breakfast-in-bed tray, filled with cards to open. A rush before school as I recall. Half now and half later, she had said; but there’s a special one which you should open first. Imagining that it was my parents’ offering, I carelessly tore at the envelope. Steady, she said, you might want to keep this one. Curious, I slowed down and a boysy soccer birthday card was revealed and a handwritten letter fell out.

Dear Paul,

Your mother wrote to me recently telling me that you and I share a birthday and you are a great supporter of Manchester United. Well done! Have a very good birthday as I hope I shall.

With all good wishes,

Bobby Charlton

My excitement knew no bounds. The card and letter sit proudly in my scrapbook 56years on. Now Sir Bobby, my hero, is 80.

I have many sporting and other heroes but Bobby eclipses them all. As I write, a few days before the day, Theresa Maybe’s colleagues are busily deciding whether to stab her in the front or the back. Doubtless there are Cassiuses with lean and hungry looks, envious of the female Caesar. There may be an honorable Brutus in there; intending the best but sticking the knife in anyway. Certainly there will be more than one Mark Antony, playing an insidious longer game for power. It’s all rather unseemly and great but tawdry fodder for the obsessive Laura Kuenssberg and her Westminster media bubblegummers.

Today the media frenzy is feeding on the odious Harvey Weinstein. The BBC have placed this sleazy story above the rumble in Barcelona. Power corrupts, absolute power …etc

How elevating is it, then, to think of the unimpeachable Bobby. His extraordinary record-breaking career was characterised by peerless skill, power, grace, achievement and, crucially, humility. Every championship he and his teams could win in global football, he – and they – did.

Bobby played with a crazy gang of charismatic characters for club and country.  The flawed genius that was George Best; the electric Denis Law; the fiery Nobby Stiles. Then there were the giants of 60s soccer: Johnny Haynes, Jimmy Greaves, Gordon Banks and Bobby Moore. It was a time of heroes. The 1966 World Cup win was followed by Manchester United’s epic European Cup victory over Benfica in 1968. Sir Matt Busby, Bill Foulkes and Bobby, survivors of the crash ten years earlier, had beaten their demons and lifted the trophy that had long been a cherished dream.

This was all fairy-tale stuff for me growing up. Bobby was larger than life – all power, speed and grace – and yet his  combover, his understatement and shyness, his integrity all built a picture of a man humble in his greatness. He was cautioned once in his international career, in the infamous ’66 World Cup game against Argentina. His response to being tackled brutally was ‘…to get a little bit excited.’ England won, of course but perhaps Maradona’s hand of God evened up the score a few years later – in a way that Sir Bobby would never have countenanced.

Today Sir Bobby is 80. I have enjoyed sport all my life and the past 60 years Bobby has been a guiding light, my hero. I could not have wished for better. Thank you Sir and have a wonderful day.

Proper Charlies ……..

4 Aug

My son’s name is Charlie. A few years ago his passport expired and he missed meeting up with me on holiday. He took the consequences on the chin – along with suitable admonishments and savage subtle banter. ‘You d***head’ was my favourite. Lizzie Armistead’s going AWOL when three testers came calling is beyond careless, beyond banter. Her excuses shame her further: ‘…he didn’t do enough to find me.’ she said of her third avoidance.  She shouldn’t be at the Olympics.

Steve Woolfe is a potential UKIP leadership challenger. Not any more. He filed his nomination papers 17 minutes late. An important phone call got in the way, apparently. Another d***head. Now he’s crying foul. I do know some people who would put life on hold for an episode of the Archers but for the leadership of a party, I might prioritise: 1. Give papers to secretary, 2. Go to hotel room for cuppa and iPlayer.

I have been considering nominating my barber Louie for a knighthood. I understand that anyone who has done my hair or been on my side or given me money can get one. So my Mum should have featured by now and I can’t understand why she hasn’t. As she’s dead I remain hopeful of a posthumous award. I suppose all those worthy recipients of years gone by might carp at my indulgent, self-seeking, narcissistic, myopic, pretentious, cronyism but I don’t really give a s**t.

My recent protégé Kevin Roberts, Saatchi and Saatchi’s CEO, has resigned after his ludicrous, appalling remarks about women in the advertising business. He said to that important organ, the Business Insider Website, “Women say ‘Actually guys, I’m way happier than you,'” explaining that some women’s ambition is circular not vertical. Shock, horror, the female right-on mafia went for his jugular! Much like Charles Saatchi had done with Nigella. Gardening leave first followed by honourable hari-kari. He has fallen on his sword, saying “Fail fast, fix fast, learn fast.”

Would that a few other Charlies could follow Kevin’s lead. And he didn’t do much wrong in the first place.

Ali now trending…..even transcending

6 Jun

A weekend to consider sportsmen and push politicians to the corners of our minds. Mohammad Ali’s death brought with it the necessary hyperbole as the world’s media tried to capture the impact of the greatest boxer, probably the greatest sportsman of the twentieth century. He transcended boxing, his influence transcended sport, so we heard. The T word is often used to convey a degree of influence and excellence beyond that of the activity for which someone is paid. Transcendent Ali certainly was- and somewhat transcendental into the bargain. As a teenage growing up during the height of his fame and power, he was simply the greatest sporting show on earth.

Ali’s rejection of the ‘slave’ name by which his fame had first flickered, Cassius Clay, was the first of many publicly honourable and seismic shifts in his life which became world headlines. Embracing Islam; rejecting the draft and suffering nearly 4 years in the boxing wilderness; wit and wisdom to fight with words as well as fists; showmanship of an unparalleled order; extraordinary public exposure of his decline-by-Parkinson’s; and the Parkinson Show, of course. A few marital slips ‘twixt cup and lip but heroes need an Achilles heel,  I suppose.

Now he’s gone; another hero bites the dust. Are we running out of titans who raise the spirits and transcend? Well, I thought Djokovic got close to transcendent when he defeated grunty, grumbly Andy at Roland Garros on Sunday. The sheer elan of the Serbian makes him, along with Federer, a man of some substance. Both of them have sportsmanship writ large in the psyche. Novak was supreme in his graciousness in victory. All four slams in one year. There is something about the man v man, woman v woman gladiatorial thing. The confrontation is raised to a heroic level that team sport can’t quite manage. To be fair to shouty Andy, his magnanimity in defeat was heartwarming and noble. George Foreman talking about his old adversary, Ali, likewise. The Rumble in the Jungle lives on.

Now politicians don’t transcend much do they? This literary technique which I have just employed is bathos – a somewhat ludicrous descent from the exalted to the ordinary. Geddit? The EU back (and front) stabbing debates have been evasive, shabby, vindictive, scaremongering, fictional (mostly), unworthy, divisive, uninformative and unprincipled. This last word – unprincipled – may be the most significant. The rhetoric has rarely risen above the gutter when most of us want to aim for the stars – or something like that. Cameron and Corbyn have been abjectly disappointing. So too, the little minx north of the border. Sturge the scourge is backing both horses, methinks. Principles be hanged.

As for pouty Gove and Boris the Spider – they have reduced the whole thing to an opportunistic roadshow of high-sounding nothings. No wonder the media people were pleased to stop the front pages for Ali this weekend. The footage from the last 60years told a mesmeric tale. His grandstanding was part-circus, part high-principles. As a boxer he was the consummate and brave ringmaster with a smile on his face and a lion in his heart. Boris and the others fall woefully short. Our politicians need to find some honest values from somewhere, stick to them, work hard and behave honourably. Most of them will never find themselves in the position of defying the US government, fighting for the right to eat in a restaurant in their home town or face the biggest, most brutal punchers on the planet. Sadly they are more bovvered by trending, than transcending.

Gordon is no moron..

1 Jul

Gordon Strachan bided his time last Thursday. We were watching South Korea play Belgium. Gordy’s co-pundits were lamenting the poor refereeing which allowed a range of physical assaults to go unpunished while the merest hint of a foot up or the sight of a stud incurred  yellow and red cards held aloft in a ritual of sanctimonious officialdom. When a terrified Korean defender with the same name as all his team mates, rugby tackled a Belgian with a Dutch moniker, the pundit-baying intensified. “It was so outrageous he (the ref) couldn’t make a decision,” opined Lee Dixon. “A clear penalty!” The outrage continued.

At half time the level of consternation reached new heights. The chatter had broadened: Suarez biting; ubiquitous shirt pulling; elbows in faces; Quatar bribing any FIFA official they could lay their hands on; diving…or simulation as the boys in black now love to call it. And so it went on until Gordon cut through the crap.

“You people are talking as if there are rights and wrongs here. Surely it’s obvious that, at this level of soccer, there are no morals.” Wow. He’d said it. And he repeated it. Hallelujah, a sensible, intelligent observation for once amid the clichéd claptrap and time-filling platitudes which I spend hours yawning at. More fool me, you might say. I say that I’m ever hopeful that a Gordon or an Alan or a Clarence or a Robbie will say something truly interesting, thought-provoking. And here it was.

He said more. “It’s the art of what you can get away with. Let’s face it Suarez was a bit (or a bite) unlucky. Or perhaps his value has gone up even more?” This was great stuff. I was on the edge of my seat. Condescending smiles from Chilesey and Lee Dixon- Gordon was being playful, provocative. Not a bit of it. Think about it boys and girls. And I sat at home and thought about it.

Luis Suarez was greeted by thousands of fans and the President of Uruguay on his return to Montevideo. Disgraced? Not a bit of it. Ever more the hero. The greatest ‘foul’of all time, the brilliant head-butt by the genius Zidane, has raised him to cult status. He did what a man had to do. The gamesmanship of players at the highest footballing levels will always exceed the ability of referees, FIFA, UEFA and the FA to keep up. But we don’t want to ‘keep up’ do we? I like waking up to the latest scandal that has hit the soccer world. Today it is the match-fixing by 7 Cameroonians. Well you would wouldn’t you, if a few thousand quid would take you out of a slum and give you running water in a downtown semi in Yaoundé?

And don’t we love the shirt-pulling antics of the penalty area? How dull if the refs started awarding the correct sanction. A penalty each time? You’re kidding – so much fun and punditry outrage to tap into without making the right decision. Isn’t it better to watch overpaid yobbos verbally abuse referees, argue with every single decision – than see them meekly accept the judgement of a (supposedly) unbiased official?

As for technology, what a master-stroke by the Premier League and FIFA to introduce goal-line technology. The least important area of contention is the one-in-a-hundred matches where blind refs and their assistants can’t tell if a sizeable sphere has crossed the rubicon. It’s all Frank Lampard’s fault. If Hawkeye had assisted the hapless officials our glorious boys might not have been put through the German sausage machine four years ago. I don’t think so. But how brilliant of the powers that be to ignore all meaningful forms of technology help (see Rugby, Tennis, Cricket and any other high profile sport with an interest in truth and fairness) and plump for the least helpful, leaving all contentious decisions I the hands of the least able, i.e. on-field officials. It’s a master-stroke of Blatterdom. Sepp’s a canny operator in the world game – his game. It’s Roller-ball and he’s with Gordon. Who dares – or cheats- wins.

Lest my endorsement of Gordon’s wise observations, last Thursday, is taken as too frivolous let’s tackle that lurking moral sticking point. Example. How the top players behave has a trickle down moral effect. Think about this carefully. Think schooldays, schoolteachers, sports coaches, what mums and dads say at mini rugby or on the local tennis courts. Think about the behaviour that is encouraged at grass roots. There may be exceptions but for the most part we’re talking wholesome, happy, respectful  behaviour. Appropriate disapproval of bad language, fouling, gamesmanship. The local park and school match really is, these days, a million miles from the virtual reality of the Suarez bite. The latter is a bubble-wrapped world of media frenzy and gossip-generating scandal. How dull if Suarez didn’t have a Hannibal Lecter fixation. How boring if you couldn’t debag a centre forward in the penalty area and get away with it.

Gordon made me think about the truth of team games. For all the character-building good that school and amateur-level  club matches manage there is an inevitability that, the higher the stakes the greater the cheating. Morality goes out of the window – and we all conspire, in some way, to ensuring that things won’t change too much while the chequebook and Sepp Blatter are Kings of the Castle.

Games, Winning and Education (Or was Stuart Broad right not to ‘walk’?)

16 Jul

Nearly 40 years ago Charles Bailey, Cambridge philosopher, argued that games or sports which pitted one side against another should have no place in the school curriculum. Such activities inevitably provoked questionable behaviour in the pursuit of victory – i.e. cheating, argument, gamesmanship. It seemed, at the time, an armchair examination of the morality of games, without much context – an argument in a vacuum which, bolstered by other sedentary luminaries, was allowed to make headway in primary education, in particular. I remember watching my own children playing non-competitive bean-bag throwing during early years education. I was a daddy in a parallel universe writhing to get back to reality.

The recent breathtaking exploits of the Lions, Andy Murray, Chris Froome and the startling opening of the Ashes series have fanned the flames of ethical controversy which sport is likely to throw up so regularly. It is because all sport is bound by rules and nearly all governing bodies, responsible for codifying the rules include a rule (or law) which enshrines ‘the spirit’ of the game or activity. Players and spectators enjoy wrestling with the boundaries set, whether practical or ethical. We extrapolate to real life where, so often, the example of society’s leaders falls short of the behaviour of sportsmen and sportswomen.

MPs’ expenses; the fixing of the Libor rate; bankers’ bonuses (win or lose); BBC executive payouts; Jimmy Carr and Starbucks and the Duchy of Cornwall avoiding tax…do I need to go on about the cheating (gamesmanship) which abounds in society and is excused, often, by ‘We didn’t break any rules, did we?’  And yet we expect sportsmen to behave in more admirable ways than our politicians and captains of industry. Well, actually, they do.

This brings me on to Stuart Broad. He famously stood his ground last week when the young Aussie bowler, Ashton Agar had him caught at slip. He pretty much middled it to skipper Clarke but umpire Aleem Dar was the only guy at Trent Bridge or in the global TV audience who didn’t see or hear the resounding nick. The Aussies had been profligate with their appeals to the third umpire and his technology and had lost their right to appeal further. Broad knew the rules. He stayed where he was. Not out. There followed the usual plum-accented, MCC stripey-tie harrumphing about the Spirit of Cricket, led, predictably by the otherwise charming Aggers (aka Jonathan Agnew of TMS, cake-eating, armchair-musing, pigeon-fancying, gentlemen’s clubby radio 4 set). He met his match in the plain-speaking, arrogant Yorkshire lad – one Geoffrey Boycott. He put the thing in context. 21st century technology and professional umpires means that decision-making has been delegated away from the players. The rules concerning appeals to technology are clear. The day before Broadgate the supposedly infallible third umpire made two critical errors which cost England far more than the Broad’s retention at the crease. Trott was not out lbw – he hit the ball and Agar, the bravura debutant for Oz was indeed out stumped. He was on 6 and went on to score 98. Aggers, mournfully harked back to an era of gentlemen and players and ‘doing the right thing’. Is it only batsmen who should ‘play the game’? As a fast bowler didn’t Aggers admit to sledging batsmen to unsettle them and appealing for dubious catches or lbws. Has he ever called a batsman back after a dodgy decision in his favour? You can’t have it both ways Aggers – and Sir Geoffrey, in context, put you right. Notice how the Aussies said very little at the end of a hard-fought day, about the mid-afternoon controversy. They knew the score. They play hard but fair – and fair, in this instance meant within the new set of rules provided by the introduction of technology.

Dear old Andy M complained about the gamesmanship of his Polish semi-final adversary at Wimbledon who worked on the umpire to close the centre-court roof. Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell, most recently, have thrown the athletics world into turmoil with positive drug tests. Let’s hope the expected win for Chris Froome isn’t blighted by some further scandal. After the serial deceit of Lance Armstrong cycling can’t take much more. Sport enables moral discussion. We cannot expect sportsman and sportswomen to behave better than others. Money + competition = corruption. Examples of both good and poor behaviour in sport abound. Soccer is full of it – Maradonna’s Hand of God goal against England is a celebrated piece of cheating but at least in sport the truth tends to be revealed instantly, discussed, often condemned, usually dealt with. Other malefactions in wider society grow unseen, like cancer, undermining the fabric of our major institutions. Sub-prime debt., RBS, payment protection insurance, the Hillsborough debacle, sexual abuse perpetrated by ministers of the church. Jimmy Savile.

So Charles Bailey thinks non-competitive bean-bag throwing is the way forward, or rock-climbing or yoga. Anything you can’t cheat at. From where I sit competitive sportsmen and sportswomen do a vey good job of playing within the rules and with a smile on their faces and a deal of respect for eachother. When they’re caught out they are exposed, usually quickly. School and youth sport can and should be used as a vehicle for inculcating moral behaviours, good manners, respect for the opposition and so on. A sporting education with morality at its heart produces sporting adults who recognise injustice and fair play equally. We become more indignant with lapses from a standard in sport than in other walks of life.

One of my fondest memories from school was cheating on a cross-country run round Richmond Park. Phil Newton and I hid on the first circuit round the Isabella Plantation. He had a fag, I had a coke and we rejoined the group, mid-pack, next time round. We didn’t get caught. Were we corrupt? Nah, just lazy. Happy days.

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