JE SUIS CHARLIE

This past week, when terrible, almost unimaginable events have taken place in Paris, and millions of people around the world congregated to show solidarity with those who were murdered for no other reason than they took up a pencil, or happened to be born into a particular faith, my eyes have been opened to the ignorance and intolerance emanating from my own personal circles.

My background: I’m both Jewish, and a satirist. I’ve been one of those things for 30 years, the other for a sight longer.  My experience of the latter has given me a varied CV in theatre and television, in print and in radio, where I was responsible for producing BBC Radio 4’s Week Ending during the first Gulf War, the only satirical show to be aired anywhere in the country during the conflict; broadcasters and networks usually panic at such times, generally preferring to replace anything potentially contentious with re-runs of Friends, so the series drew much interest from the media, and was acclaimed by both the public and the industry alike.  Thus, I like to imagine I have something of an idea of what political satire is and what it’s meant to convey.  Not to mention its importance in a democratic society.

My being Jewish, on the other hand, has afforded me lifelong membership of an exclusive group I never applied to join, closed to most people unless their names were put down before birth.  A society from which it is impossible to resign, the tearing up of my Gold Star of David membership card and cancellation of my subscription are impossible to effect, and I’m on a hiding to nothing when it comes to resisting a strong urge to play the violin.

My politics?  They’re my own, and totally unconnected with my being Jewish.  In fact, largely, they’re the very opposite of what any common or garden anti-Semite would expect them to be. But hey, what does that matter?  Accident of birth is enough to foment depraved hatred.  Apparently.

Naturally, I wasn’t slow in declaring ‘Je Suis Charlie’, in company with millions of others, on social media; quite apart from anything else, I lived in Paris a few decades ago.  But interesting accusations soon ensued…was I aware that satire “mocked people for the sake of mocking them”?  That satirists “went out of their way to make people mad”?   That, as one person put it, although she believed in “everyone’s right to free speech”, she didn’t agree with “how everyone *uses* that right, and [she doesn’t] support Charlie’s goals or modus operandi.”

Hmm.  Tricky one.  Since Charlie Hebdo’s goals and modus operandi are to exercise freedom of speech by publishing a satirical magazine, I’m not entirely sure how these things would come to pass without publishing a satirical magazine to exercise freedom of speech.

A lot more satire-bashing followed, much of it from those who were ‘whole-heartedly behind freedom of expression’, but who also somehow believe that Charlie Hebdo brought this bloody rampage upon itself.  Would I, as a fellow satirist, have published some of the material that appears between its covers?  No, I wouldn’t.  But that’s a difference in style, in sensibility, in choosing to use a hammer to crack a nut, or otherwise.  Though we all write about nuts.

And then, from another left field entirely, probably to the left of the last left field, one of my esteemed Twitter followers (I only have esteemed Twitter followers) chastised me for posting a very short line on the breaking news that a kosher supermarket was under attack.  When I say ‘posting a very short line’, I mean purely a line of information; no humour or jokes or satire involved at all.  So why the rap over the knuckles?  My reporting of this terrorist atrocity was supposedly ‘helping the terrorists’.

Shall we get something straight, here?  The non-reporting of a major atrocity is muzzling the press and diminishing democracy, and is bowing down to those terrorists who seek to abolish freedom of speech, even in countries where freedom of speech is enshrined in law.  And I’d very much like to know how much the violent hatred of others by vicious madmen intent on inflicting the whole world with their repressive, medieval dogma would dissipate by a lack of reporting of breaking news and ongoing incidents.  To the nearest 0%.  (That should be a clue).

And isn’t it their right for citizens to be able to monitor the activities of the police, the military, the security services for which they pay, and which are supposed to keep them safe?  Would it be right to sweep under the carpet the failures of the almost-simultaneous – almost by some 15 minutes – raids on the kosher store and the printing press, which were supposed to be simultaneously simultaneous? Do we trust governments WITH unrestricted reporting of the news, let alone without?

I was once at a talk given by Margaret Thatcher’s chief press secretary, Sir Bernard Ingham, in which he pronounced satire as being “one of five things which has brought the UK to its knees”.  I can’t quite remember what the other four were, such was the steam emanating from my ears, fogging up my brain, but when it was time for questions from the audience, I firstly thanked Sir Bernard for his contribution to my income for the past couple of decades (not sure he got the joke) and then offered to purchase a one-way ticket for him to fly to China or North Korea, where the trade in satire is non-existent, for some reason.

Much of the criticism of satirical material comes, of course, from those who are incapable of understanding it, be it for reasons of their aiming to be first off the mark to be offended by something, or simply their inability to discern irony. But this does not mean satire should be prohibited, just because there are those who don’t appreciate or get it. Do the easy-appeasers of groups who threaten violence against those who dare disagree with them actually care that they are according them the upper hand?  Aren’t they a little too acquiescent, carrying out extremists bidding by passively tossing their pencil sharpeners into the bin?  Or is it the done thing these days to agree with the people carrying the largest weapons?  If so, best acquire an accurate tape measure the next time you venture outside.  If we’ve learned anything during these past horrible days, isn’t it that in the end, la plume est plus puissante que le Kalashnikov?  (And if you don’t believe me, count how many people took to the streets in peaceful protest yesterday).

It’s not enough to live in a society which merely declares it champions freedom of speech, if freedom of speech is not exercised on a regular basis – it’s crucial to the healthy functioning of a democracy. And if you don’t publish something because someone, somewhere, will be offended, you won’t be publishing anything, because jihadists, Neo-Nazis, ayatollahs, Kim Jong-Un, Princes Charles and Andrew, redheads, left-handed people, Leeds supporters, will all feel hard done by at some point. But that’s tough. Somebody asked me if we have the right to offend people.  I’d rather say we have the right to freedom of expression, and that everyone has the right to be offended.

If you still don’t get it, here’s what not to be in 2015 so you don’t upset anyone:-

Jewish, a satirist, a Muslim, a non-Muslim, a Zionist, a non-Zionist…

As for satirists and journalists, I’ve compiled a list of the topics it seems we’re currently permitted to write about:-

CATS

Erm…

Charlie Hebdo, for those who’d never heard of the paper prior to last week, but who are somehow experts on it now, has no time for religion of any flavour.  They lambast all religions with equal fervour.  They are appalled by incitement to hatred and violence, especially by those intent on imposing their own extremely narrow, idiosyncratically intolerant ideas on the rest of the world. Every religious group is lambasted with the same disdain, but they sacked a cartoonist in 2009 for being anti-Semitic. They speak out freely against anyone endeavouring to restrict or abolish the rights of those who reside in a free nation. They campaign on injustice, on poverty, on stupidity.

Pencils are not lethal weapons, and do not inflict mortal wounds.  At least, not in any of the primary schools I attended.  However, I don’t remember many Kalashnikovs being handed out in assembly.

The political framework of France is based on politics outranking religion; religion, of course, is tolerated, but only in a private capacity. French citizens have the right to follow whatever religion they like, but not expect the state to be swayed by the particular beliefs of a faith, especially if they go against the democratic rights prescribed in law for the population at large.

Those unwilling to think about satire, to consider ITS rights, or understand what it is or stands for, are missing the point that satirists are usually the most right-on members of society there are. They’re commenting on inequality, on the oppressed, the violated, the forgotten. Charlie Hebdo, with the plainly powerful weapon of satire, are on the side of the dispossessed, the marginalised, the abandoned dwellers of the banlieues.  They’re standing up for equality, freedom from racism and bigotry.  “They are the solution, not the problem”. (See link below). Yet they are the ones – and not the vile, Right Wing bigots, of which there are more than a few in France – who have paid a price for their socially-inclusive dreams of justice and morality.

Those who are quick off the draw to castigate them (see what I did there?), and what they do, may not realise the irony, but they’re having a laugh.

RIP all who died.  If nothing else, let’s hope your death educates those who are all-too-willing to give up rights they don’t quite understand. *

*****

*  This article will give you an idea of what life becomes without freedom of speech.  Read it while Raif Badawi weeps.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/14/saudi-blogger-lashes-amnesty-international-raif-badawi

*****

And here’s a link to a brilliant piece which contextualises the vile atrocities at Charlie Hebdo along with the other awful events of last week in Paris.

http://blogs.mediapart.fr/blog/olivier-tonneau/110115/charlie-hebdo-letter-my-british-friends

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  1. #1 by TwistedByKnaves on April 24, 2015 - 2:29 pm

    Sorry I missed this at the time, Diane.

    Wow, “Esteemed”!! (Preens modestly.)

    It’s been a very long time since I was last esteemed. Even satyrically. You somehow forgot to mention that the esteemed me had also been nagging for more satyr for months on end. I guess this detail was a casualty of the narrative arc.

    Most of what you say is of course bang on. The way to tackle the vile Charlie Hebdo is by arguing and ridiculing. By counter-satyrising them. Not by killing people. Or by proscribing them.

    But the immediate goal of terrorism is to cause terror. The clue is in the name. They seek attention and fear. There is a lot to be said for simply ignoring them, or treating them as a low level environmental risk, like a high pollen count. (OK, rather lower than that. I’ve been lucky with my allergies so far.)

    Suggested public health warning: “Your risk of being involved in a terrorist incident has risen to .0025% of the chance of being struck by lightning. Please be sure to smile politely at strangers. And at policemen, who are only trying to help”.

    As for satyr: yes please. More of the “four lions” variety, for example. On every possible topic. But there can be no subject where a satyrist expects a free shot at their target. You should always be ready for a robust, even satyrical, defence.

    Would you really want it any other way?

  2. #2 by TwistedByKnaves on April 24, 2015 - 5:08 pm

    PS. Given the subject, perhaps I should have heeded the spell checker. Oh well. #HoofInMouth

  3. #3 by diane messias on April 24, 2015 - 5:18 pm

    You want esteeming? We got esteeming. Though agreement costs extra…

    Not really sure what my paucity of satirical posts has to do with it. If you remember, you were chastising me for giving publicity to the terrorists by my merely reporting the supermarket attack, which is the point I answered above. #confused

    Hard to ignore terrorists when they’re shooting people in the head. And if we do, surely we’re giving them the upper hand with this old freedom of speech thing, even if it is passively. #evenmoreconfused

    P.S. Four lions?

  4. #4 by TwistedByKnaves on April 24, 2015 - 6:19 pm

    Agreement is definitely optional. Why spoil a good argument?

    I wasn’t commenting on the (admittedly shameful) paucity of your output, but rather on the fact that I valued what there was and wanted more. I felt I was being dragooned onto the side of those opposed to satire. Which is the opposite of my position. Perhaps that’s what you meant by left of the last left field?

    But I will persist with the core point. When we allow terrorists to dictate what we say, we are giving them the upper hand. We should neither let them stop us saying the things we want said nor make us say the things they want said.

    If we give special attention to terrorists over other criminals, not only do we help the terrorists: we also help the hawks on our side who are always pushing for increasing control and reduced freedom.Both gain from an escalation of fear and tension.

    This is not to say that we shouldn’t have reported the murders at Charlie Hebdo. But the ensuing coverage of the supermarket felt like part of a feeding frenzy. (How many supermarkets were held up last year? How many criminals on the run took hostages? And the year before? And the year before that?)

    If we could find a way to keep the reporting of this sort of crime in perspective, my guess is that over the course of a generation terrorism would largely disappear. This is a very safe prediction, as all our media also gain from these feeding frenzies, so it’s hard to see how my guess will ever be tested. Still, I’ll keep plugging away.

    Four lions: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1341167/

    Keep up the good work. (nag)

    :0)

    • #5 by diane messias on April 25, 2015 - 12:33 pm

      First of all, thank you for your kind comments on my material; always great to get feedback, especially when it’s appreciative (while it grates to get the other kind, which is not the same thing at all. Compare and contrast.) I will also say that, whilst I love writing political satire, it is time-consuming, and this blog (along with my others – plug) is brought to you by Midnight Oil:

      [CUE SOFT MUSIC] Used by professional writers all over the world, Midnight Oil is readily available at a desk near you, and costs only endless of cups of black coffee, a teeny amount of grumpiness in the morning, and a few dark circles under the eyes. [MUSIC OUT]

      Though of course, if you’d like to just hand over my Oscar now – and/or pay me a monthly salary as befits my experience, disdain for politicians and ability to make people laugh without even running for Parliament – I could cut out the daylight hours of hard slog over my state of the art keyboard in my garret in a leafy part of town, and thus give up the day job. 🙂

      Interesting you use the term ‘feeding frenzy’; with my journalist hat on (it’s purple, lovely feather at the side) I’d say the episode was Big News, seeing as it was the latest in a string of violent terrorist attacks in consecutive days in a country very close to us (let’s not argue now about the media’s ignoring of frequent and equally vile atrocities in lands far away; it is a pertinent discussion, but too complex for this conversation). I wrote one line, informing my reader/s (never pays to be cocky) that the attack was taking place. It was purely meant to be a line of information, as Twitter posts are used by many as prompts to seek out more information elsewhere. And not many supermarket hold-ups feature the shooting in the head at close range dozens of random shoppers, or are motivated by racism.

      Just what should be ‘the perspective’ of people murdered, whilst going about their daily lives, because they happen to be members of a particular racial group? And, as I say in my piece above:

      “I’d very much like to know how much the violent hatred of others by vicious madmen intent on inflicting the whole world with their repressive, medieval dogma would dissipate by a lack of reporting of breaking news and ongoing incidents. To the nearest 0%. (That should be a clue).”

      Terrorism isn’t going away. Nor is the public’s fear of it, or the media (despite the best efforts of the British Government, Lord Leveson and Hugh Grant). Or, for that matter, am I. Unless it’s under a palm tree somewhere lovely with a chilled glass of rose and a 34cm gold statuette on the table next to me. Don’t say I never tell you anything.

  5. #6 by TwistedByKnaves on April 25, 2015 - 10:23 pm

    As luck would have it, I met with my Loan Arranger (to the rollicking strains of the “William, Tell All ” Opening) yesterday. He tells me that all my assets have to go to my wife, in reasonable compensation for putting up with my Little Ways for a quarter of a century. So all I can offer you is my sincere appreciation.

    I concede that the supermarket holdup had unique features which made it newsworthy. (Not least, the fine example of ecumenical courage shown by a Muslim member of staff.) I will further concede that my comment was a hasty gut reaction, not a coolly thought out critique.

    So I do concede that your post may have been a poor choice from a very target rich environment. Sorry.

    And I do agree that ignoring them would in no way dissipate the violent hatred of vicious madmen.

    But it would deprive them of a weapon.

    And not just the vicious madmen. Also the sane leaders who see themselves enmeshed in an asymmetric struggle against an overwhelmingly more powerful foe. They see our tendency to panic as a way to get to our leaders, to goad them to a disproportionate response to convince their countrymen of the justness of their cause. And it’s working.

    There’s a feedback loop in operation here, with the hawks on both sides benefiting from every twitterstorm. All we can do is try to dampen it down.

    In 2012, the UN reported that terrorism accounted for something like 2.5 % of all murders. And almost all of the terrorism was in Africa and the Middle East, getting much less attention. Although this is currently barely significant, I suspect that our panicky over responses are driving this proportion upwards.

    The best memorial to the victims of Paris would be a recognition that this is serious and a matter for sober reflection, not gossip and entertainment. And a steely determination to hold our nerve and not make things any worse.

  6. #7 by diane messias on April 25, 2015 - 11:44 pm

    Thanks for your apology, which of course is warmly accepted.

    I don’t agree that the public are panicking; surely they’re standing strong against these vicious attacks on our democratic freedoms? Football stadia and shopping malls are still packed, and airports can’t keep up with the demand for flying. And remember the show of support in the days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, when people attended marches around the world in their millions? Didn’t that stick a finger up at the deranged murderers, and demonstrate sober reflection en masse?

    You’re on a very slippery slope when you advocate suppressing news in a democracy. And who’s the arbiter in what can and can’t be published? Me? You? The Barclay Brothers? (Oops, too late!)

    As for your comment about ‘gossip and entertainment’, is this what you categorise political satire as being?

    • #8 by TwistedByKnaves on April 26, 2015 - 6:07 am

      If were weren’t panicking, our politicians wouldn’t have a mandate for invading Iraq, the ludicrous security theatre at our airports, the steady erosion of our privacy or drone attacks on friendly states.

      The response to the attacks was defiant and inspiring but, in the end an escalation rather than a damping down of the problem. It paid the aggressors the one compliment they really wanted, that of being taken seriously. Which they do not deserve.

      You are of course quite right about suppressing news, in any form of government. The media are a battleground of narratives, and it matters which narrative wins.

      I am arguing that the present top narrative is that we are engaged in a titanic struggle between mighty forces of good and evil. And that this is wrong. Wrong in that it is untrue. Wrong in the sense that it is unjust. Wrong in the sense that it leads to evil acts. On both sides.

      Also that this is a problem to which we all contribute, and for which we collectively hold the answer. I’m not talking to the government, asking them to step in. I’m asking everyone to recognise what is really going on and flock to a better, truer narrative.

      Before the one we have fulfills itself.

      • #9 by TwistedByKnaves on April 26, 2015 - 6:15 am

        And satire, whilst entertaining, has the vital role of pointing out to the flock that it might be heading in the wrong direction.

      • #10 by diane messias on April 26, 2015 - 11:11 am

        It’s one thing to panic, another to take precautions against madmen trying to create havoc, who kill innocent people whenever the fancy takes them. And yes, although governments are always looking for an excuse to exceed their powers – which they habitually do, whether or not we believe the lies they come up with – their first duty is to keep their citizens safe.

        So what are you advocating? A media blackout when shoppers are dying in their local supermarket? And are evil nutters brandishing Kalashnikovs not to be taken seriously?

        Iraq wasn’t invaded for any reason of panic! It was pure hegemony, to create a foothold in the area, change the balance of power, and access the vast oil deposits. Not to mention to leave a lasting legacy for Messrs Bush and Blair. (And hasn’t it just done the latter?! Along with succeeding in completely changing the balance of power in the entire region, although in an exceedingly dangerous way, and obviously not as originally intended).

        It has always been a war between Good and Evil. The only difference is that technology has changed the way the battle is fought. And yes, BOTH sides do despicable things, and both sides dress them up as being in the name of justice.

        Yes, satire has an important role to play (not least, in exercising that freedom of speech our democratically-elected governments are always telling us they are so proud of, while they’re desperately working behind the scenes to come up with ways to suppress it). Which is why I don’t understand your comment: “The best memorial to the victims of Paris would be a recognition that this is serious and a matter for sober reflection, not gossip and entertainment.”

  7. #11 by TwistedByKnaves on April 26, 2015 - 5:54 pm

    The governments got away with the invasion of Iraq because enough of their voters were convinced that they were seriously threatened and Something Had To Be Done. That is what I mean by panic.If we didn’t buy the line that we are all in imminent, serious danger, it would be difficult to see how getting our soldiers killed buys anyone any votes.

    I agree that there has always been a struggle between good and evil. I would say, and I THINK you would agree, that those who drove the invasion of Iraq were on the side of evil.As are those terrorists who actively seek civilian deaths on both sides to in fuel a major conflagration. In short, the “War Against Terror” is between Evil and Evil.

    If I am honest, I am not at all comfortable with the idea (yes, my idea) that we should just ignore the victims of these crimes, even if that does make the world safer for everyone. But this is not a comfortable situation,, and my comfort level is neither here nor there. And surely, our chief responsibility is to the living? (I think we are agreed on that, though we disagree on ways and means?) And yes, I suppose what I first suggested did amount to ignoring. Which, on further consideration, is not enough.

    So you win.

    Let me modify my position. Do report the horror. But be sure to emphasise that this is only a drop in an unreportably huge ocean of horror, very little of which has anything to do with terrorism. And that the chances of the average Western reader getting hurt are vanishingly small compared to the risks of, say, driving or crossing the road. And (this is where we need your particular superpowers) viciously mock the politicians and apparatchiks who seek to whip up public fear to justify their pet projects.

    Do you accept the terms of my surrender?

    • #12 by diane messias on April 26, 2015 - 9:34 pm

      I think one of us might possibly be on another planet (probably me; knew it was a mistake leaving Venus for oh, so many reasons). Here’s the view from my world:-

      Blair was not mandated by the British public to invade Iraq. In fact, he’d agreed with George W. in secret to provide British troops before even discussing the matter with the Cabinet, and 10,000 troops (believe that to be the number, apologies if it’s not spot on) had already been sent to the Iraq region before any vote was had by Parliament; when it finally occurred, 139 Labour backbenchers opposed Blair’s stance. Hundreds of thousands of people – perhaps as many as 2 million – took to the streets to protest against the invasion. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/2765041.stm Public revulsion at thousands of innocent people being killed in Iraq, along with the numerous services body bags being brought back to the UK was palpable, and made Blair forever a hate figure. I don’t call this ‘getting away with invading Iraq’.

      The media’s job is to report what’s going on in the world, to uncover stories people in power don’t want the public to know. A healthy, well-functioning media leads to a healthy, well-functioning democracy. Which is, of course, why governments and elites and bankers and captains of industry and wealthy people in general try their damnedest to muzzle more members of the media than you can shake a writ at. It is not the job of the media to reassure the public – in the manner of Crimewatch presenters signing off at the end of the programme with whatever comforting platitude they use – that everything’s really lovely and they shouldn’t worry their pretty heads about it all. We’re all (supposedly) grown ups, if people don’t want to hear about scary things, presumably they won’t be watching the news or reading the Sun on pages 1 – 2 and 4 – 36.

      Nanu nanu.

      • #13 by TwistedByKnaves on April 26, 2015 - 10:05 pm

        I take it that’s a “no” then?

        Very well.

        Although many people did indeed protest against going to war, a majority supported it at the time. The decision was supported by Parliament. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see now that it was the wrong decision. Too late.

        A healthy, well functioning democracy. Thanks, Diane – best laugh of the week!

        The signoff at the end of Crimewatch is exemplary. Without it, viewers would get a false impression of the threat to them. Something like that is exactly what is required.

        “If people want…”. But that is exactly the problem. People do want to believe that there is danger. For good evolutionary reasons we err on the side of caution. And we feel that our lives are more meaningful if we position them as part of a great struggle. And we cannot assess the level of risk, so we substitute the vividness of our perception as our measure of how likely the event is.

        For all these reasons, the journalist has to be responsible for giving an assessment of the risk to their audience.

        What happens now is like seeing someone light a cigarette in a crowded theatre and, rather than quietly asking them to put it out, yelling “Fire!” at the top of your voice.

      • #14 by diane messias on April 26, 2015 - 10:58 pm

        How do you know a majority of the public supported going to war? References, please.

        The decision was only supported by Parliament because Parliament discovered it was already a fait accompli, and pulling troops back from the Middle East at that point would have made the British Government look like numpties. (Never!) Is it normal for 139 backbench MPs to vote against their party leader in a crucial vote on foreign policy?

        You’ve missed my point, Will; I didn’t say we have a healthy, well-functioning democracy, because we don’t. Why? Because we don’t have a healthy, well-functioning media. Why? I’m glad you asked.

        1. The powers that be are doing their level best to muzzle it;

        2. The majority of the print media is owned by Right-wing multi-millionaires, who are totally self-interested, have the politicians in their pockets, and control which stories we read and don’t read;

        3. Supersized Injunctions (would you like lies with that?). Not only do the powerful and wealthy resort to taking out injunctions to protect information they don’t want made public, they can now utilise Super Injunctions, where it’s illegal even to report the fact there’s something about which the media can’t report. Hope that’s clear.

        It’s not my job to write about terrorism and end the piece with a virtual hug and a bedtime story. I’m a journalist / commentator (everyone’s a comedian), not an actuary.*

        *An actuary is someone who finds accountancy too exciting.

        The world’s a scary place! If you want to feel better about it, stop listening to the news!

      • #15 by TwistedByKnaves on April 27, 2015 - 12:00 am

        It is the job of the journalist to tell people the truth.

        We know that human beings are not equipped to judge small risks accurately.

        Knowing this, reporting without reporting an assessment of the risks is simply shoddy journalism. It is propagating a lie. Are you seriously defending this propaganda in the name of free speech? This is Orwellian.

      • #16 by diane messias on April 27, 2015 - 12:22 am

        That’s a rather extraordinary comment / insinuation, Will, and since there’s now a serious risk of me banging my head against a brick wall (which I have duly informed you about), I’ll leave the conversation here. Thanks for reading my blog.

      • #17 by TwistedByKnaves on April 27, 2015 - 6:29 am

        Diane,

        In the matter of heads and walls, if in nothing else, we are in complete harmony.

        I’m afraid that in my boyish enthusiasm,I tried to change your opinion. This was foolish and rude of me. I apologise.

        Yours,

        Will

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