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Random Thoughts on Crosswords Cryptic and Concise + Recherché Times Crossword Clues Considered
Last Monday I joined Peter Biddlecombe at Beckenham Crematorium to bid a final farewell to Roy Dean, the first Times Crossword Champion and one of the few people to have beaten the great John Sykes. This pleasing celebration of his life opened with his Ceremonial March, Betjemania, which he composed in honour of the former poet laureate's centenary, followed by a eulogy in which his three sons each described a part of his life and times. The proceedings ended with a recording of Dooley Wilson performing As Time Goes By (one of my favourite songs, and from my absolutely favourite film), which somehow seemed just right.

As those who have read his obituary in The Times or his books Mainly in Fun and Words and Music, a late harvest will know, his interests ranged widely, though words always seemed to play a major part. He had a fascinating career as a diplomat, meeting Arthur C. Clarke, Aldous Huxley and Clement Attlee among others during his time in Ceylon (as it was then), and being granted a personal audience with Indira Gandhi, a fellow Times crossword enthusiast, during a trip to India accompanying the then trade secretary Peter Shore.

Mainly in Fun is a delight, containing sections headed WORDPLAY, PARODIES, SPOOFS, TRANSLATIONS (mainly from French, but also from Latin and German), BALLADES, LIGHT VERSE, CROSSWORDS, LYRIC WRITERS, and SONGS. I can't resist quoting this parody of his on A. E. Housman in case anyone hasn't come across it before.
A SHROPSHIRE LASS

In spring the hawthorn scatters
Its snow along the hedge,
And thoughts of country matters
Run strong on Wenlock Edge.

So fared I, loose and feckless,
And met a maiden fair;
She wore an amber necklace,
To match her tawny hair.

Her mouth was soft and willing,
Her eyes were like the sea;
I offered her a shilling
If she would lie with me.

At that she blushed so sweetly,
And cast her fine eyes down;
Then, whispering discreetly,
Suggested half-a-crown.
I competed against Roy a number of times over the years, including the first championship in 1970, when I was actually ahead of him for a brief moment - he made his one mistake in the third puzzle, whereas I made my first four mistakes in the fourth puzzle and then went downhill from there! Part of the prize was a trophy, which he got to keep, consisting of a pedestal surmounted by a cube whose sides were 15x15 crossword grids with the lights represented by silver strips against a black background. Roy's sons told us how they were assigned the extremely fiddly task of polishing the silver strips.

I had intended to write about the 1979 final, in which Roy scored his second Championship win by beating the formidable John Sykes, but I find I've already done so here. He was, though, arguably lucky to make it to the final in the first place. One of the clues at the London A regional final was:
Feeding expert tells artist to drop dead (9)    {D‑E‑I‑I‑N}    [DIETITIAN]
(select between the curly brackets for checked letters, and between the square brackets for the answer)
and Roy chose to spell the answer with a C rather than a T as its sixth letter. Fortunately for him, Edmund Akenhead, the then Times crossword editor, allowed this alternative spelling since he felt "tells" was enough to indicate "sounds like". However, James Atkins pointed out to me that for "sounds like" to really work, the answer should have had three syllables rather than four. I wasn't entirely convinced, but in any case we decided not to take the matter any further. Perhaps it was our reluctance to question the umpire's decision (probably a hangover from our schooldays) or perhaps we didn't fancy facing each other in a play-off for first place. But I think in the end it would have just seemed a bit captious to complain, and so Roy went on to claim a deserved victory in the final.

Roy is still acknowledged in the Guinness book of Records as the fastest solver of the Times Crossword (in 3 minutes 45 seconds). Although others may have solved Times crosswords faster, they have yet to do so under test conditions ratified by the adjudicators. And although this record may eventually be broken, he will forever remain the first Times Crossword Champion - truly (as his name implies) the king and doyen of crossword solvers, and a wonderfully witty man. May he rest in peace.

Postscript
I understand that Tom Stubbs - son of Hugh Stubbs, another fine solver from the early days of the Championship - has asked how many people who competed in the first Championsip are still competing today. As far as I know, the only other person apart from me is Chris Brougham. If you are, or know of, someone else, please let me know.

Current Location: Ealing
Current Mood: nostalgic nostalgic
Current Music: Roy Dean: Betjemania

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Here are the results of the final of the 2018 Times Crossword Championship. The figures in parentheses are competitors' scores out of 90, where 1 point was awarded for each of the 90 clues solved correctly.

1 Roger Crabtree (90)
2 Matthew Marcus (90)
3 John McCabe (90)
4 David Howell (90)
5 Simon Chillingworth (90)
6 Helen Ougham (90)
7 Gerard McHugh (90)
8 Mark Goodliffe (89)
9 Alan Smith (89)
10 Simon Townley (89)
11 Chris Williams (88)
12= Paul Facey-Hunter (88)
12= Mike Davis (88)
14 Shane Shabankareh (87)
15 Colin Thomas (86)
16 Guy Haslam (82)
17 Allan Saldanha (81)
18 Alan Dorn (80)
19 Ian Clark (78)
20 David Webb (77)
21 Charles Wood (76)
22= James Davis (72)
22= Phil Jordan (72)
24 Toby Brereton (71)

Many congratulations to Roger Crabtree, the first new champion since Peter Biddlecombe's first win in 2000. Congratulations also to Matthew Marcus for his first appearance in the top 10. Commiserations of course to Mark Goodliffe, who for once made an unforced error by inventing a word. His magnificent run of ten consecutive championship wins is unlikely to be beaten for some time, if ever.

Commiserations also (and for the second year running) to Neil Talbott, who I understand made a careless mistake in the first puzzle in the second preliminary round. I'm not entirely sure what it was (I wanted to do the puzzles myself when I got home, so asked not to be told), but I think I can guess as there's only one word that anyone as good as he is could conceivably have got wrong. At least he has the consolation that even if he'd reached the final, Roger Crabtree would still have beaten him on speed.

My nerves get worse as the years roll by, as evinced by the effect it has on my writing (I really ought to apologise to the markers), as well as by the deterioration in my speed. However, although I was 36th to hand in my solutions, so many people made mistakes that I finished 18th in the first preliminary and so (being in the first 25) won't have to qualify next year. The fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth to hand in their solutions (David Meek, Sue Prout, Richard Grafen and Neil Robinson, all former finalists) made the same careless error, but I offer my particular commiserations to Neil Robinson who finished 26th. Neil would have done pretty well in the final too, since he knocked off the puzzles correctly in a significantly faster time than I did.

As one who's finished 13th in a preliminary in the past, and thus just missed the cut (the top 12 in each preliminary go through to the final), I have particular sympathy for Tim Hall and Anne Lickert (especially as it would have been her first final) and wish them both better luck next year.

Although this year's final puzzles seemed more difficult than last year's, I managed to avoid making a stupid mistake and finished them correctly in the allotted hour, though with only seconds to spare - so at least I achieved one of my two objectives (to qualify for the final and solve all the puzzles correctly). Over the years I've beaten almost all those I've competed against at least once (that even includes John Sykes - though he was in even poorer health than usual that year - and Mark Goodliffe - in the days before he became almost invincible), notable exceptions being John Brightley (a very fine solver, who sadly vanished from the scene before I came into my own) and Alan Dorn. Would I have beaten Alan if I'd reached the final today, I wonder? [Amendment, 17 February 2019: While checking up how many times I'd competed against Roy Dean (the answer turns out to be 14), I've discovered that I beat someone called A. Dorn in the London regional final in 1996, when I tied with M.A. Trollope for first place and he came 141st (with four mistakes). Although he must have been a raw beginner in those days, I'm still counting this as a win for me. Woohoo! :-)]

Once again it was good to see old friends whom I've competed against over the years. And I'm still hoping to be around in two years' time for the 50th anniversary of the first championship.

Current Location: Ealing
Current Mood: better than last year :-)

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Here are the results of the final of the 2017 Times Crossword Championship. The figures in parentheses are competitors' scores out of 90, where 1 point was awarded for each of the 90 clues solved correctly.

1 Mark Goodliffe (90)
2 John McCabe (90)
3 David Howell (90)
4 Toby Brereton (90)
5 Simon Chillingworth (90)
6 Mike Davis (90)
7 Richard Grafen (90)
8 Shane Shabankareh (90)
9 Roger Crabtree (90)
10 Colin Thomas (89)
11 Alan Dorn (89)
12 Peter King (89)
13 Philip A Smith (89)
14 Helen Ougham (89)
15 Keith Long (89)
16 Jim Roberts (89)
17 Chris Price (89)
18 Guy Haslam (89)
19 Gerard McHugh (88)
20 Paul Facey-Hunter (88)
21 Nick Petty (88)
22 Alexis Johansen (87)
23 Jonathan Carter (87)
24 Sue Prout (86)

Congratulations once again to Mark Goodliffe, who claimed his 11th championship win, thus overtaking John Sykes. Congratulations also: to John McCabe, Toby Brereton, Mike Davis, Richard Grafen and Shane Shabankareh for their highest finishing places to date; and to Colin Thomas, Philip A Smith and Alexis Johansen who all reached the final for the first time. (Apologies to anyone I've missed.)

Commiserations to Neil Talbott, who would have scraped into the final had not Mark Goodliffe decided to switch from the first to the second preliminary round, thereby consigning Neil to the unlucky 13th place (and letting in Shane Shabankareh, who would otherwise have been 13th in the first preliminary).

Sadly I was off the pace in my preliminary (the second), though I did at least manage to solve all the puzzles correctly and finished high enough not to have to qualify next year. Having just solved the puzzles from the first preliminary, I'm not entirely sure that I'd have been as successful there. There was one very easy puzzle, one that wasn't too bad, and one that contained a heffalump trap which caught Michael Wareham, the 1986 champion, among others. I fell into it, and took an alarmingly long time to scramble out.

The final puzzles seemed easier than last year's, but tiredness was getting to me by the end (I'd had an exhausting week) and I made an incredibly stupid mistake. Nevertheless it was good to see old friends whom I've competed against over the years, and I'm hoping to still be around in three years' time for the 50th anniversary of the first championship.

Current Mood: disappointed disappointed

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For ease of handling during checking and updating, and to ensure a fair draw, all entries are cut about 1mm outside the grid/address panel perimeter (or rectangular equivalent if an irregular shape).
This statement, taken from an addendum to the Listener Crossword checker's statistics for 2001, should make it clear to both solvers and setters what the boundaries of a puzzle solution are. However, Listener Crossword No. 4422, Buried Treasure by Poat, expected solvers to highlight four consecutive letters in the preamble below the grid/address panel.

I can appreciate that the Listener crossword editors had a problem here. Poat must have put an awful lot of work into this puzzle, and they would have been loath to simply refuse to accept it. But surely they could have tweaked the wording to make it clear that the solution required solvers to think, quite literally, outside the box. Or they could have tweaked the wording another way to make it clear which of the possible solutions figuratively outside the box, but literally inside it, they preferred.

The checker has sent those who wrote to him about this puzzle a breakdown of all the different solutions submitted. Less than a third of the solvers who submitted entries came up with the expected solution, and of course that doesn't take into account solvers who simply failed to think of any solution at all. But while some of the other solutions would, I think, be hard to defend, at least two are in my opinion hard to deny, given that some thinking outside the box (either literally or figuratively) is required.

The essence of my own solution is elegantly illustrated by Dave Hennings here, the only significant difference being that my letters were upright. (For those of you not familiar with Listen With Others, it's worth going there each week to see the latest example of Dave H's artistry.) The checker's reasons for rejecting this solution are: "Uncalled-for letter repositioning, the ER pair thus not side by side. Drawing a line is not really highlighting." However: 1) there's nothing to say that letters have to be in the centre of their cells, especially when thinking outside the box is called for; 2) the first definition of "side by side" in Chambers is "close together" (you'd have thought the checker would have bothered to look that up before raising such an obviously bogus objection!); and 3) although the checker illustrated this particular solution with a line through the letters, the highlighting in my solution (and I suspect Dave H's) completely surrounded the letters. The checker grudgingly adds that "This is the only solution that might be considered to be 'in' the SEARCH AREA string of letters in the grid." (But see below.)

The second hard-to-deny solution is slightly further outside the box (figuratively speaking), but is so wonderfully inventive that anyone with a heart would have to accept it. If you look again at Dave H's illustration, you will see that the word LIFT appears vertically in column 8 (at the start of 19dn) with the L splitting the word HARE in row 5. What several solvers did was to cut out LIFT (except for a hinge at the top or bottom), so that obeying that instruction not only made the letters of HARE consecutive but also added a new branch to the SEARCH AREA, which now included this HARE. I'm slightly annoyed that I didn't spot this delightful solution myself. I must have come tantalisingly close because I was certainly looking for some way of excluding the offending L. If I had, it's just possible that I'd have chosen that solution instead of the one I did; but perhaps it's just as well I didn't, since the checker suggested that those who did might be guilty of collusion. (Does he have any evidence for this, I wonder, or is it pure speculation? I'm reluctant to go grubbing round the murkier parts of the Web myself, but if anyone does have any hard evidence of collusion relating to this or any other solutions - including the expected one - I'd be interested to hear it.)

The checker also posits collusion when attempting to deal with the question of the boundaries of a puzzle solution:
Frequently mentioned in pre- and post-solution comments were the requests in the annual statistics concerning preferred submission presentation. These, which only reach about one third of all of any year's solvers, are not rules. The heading on the appropriate section states 'It saves the checker much time if ...'. Were the requests regarded as rules, the weekly error rate would be in the order of 90%. That this was indeed so often mentioned again suggests it may have derived from comments in chatrooms.
This is simply disingenuous. The preferred submission presentation makes it quite obvious (as if common sense wasn't enough) what the boundaries of a puzzle solution are, and the paragraph from the addendum to the 2001 statistics cited at the top of this posting confirms it. Since this is the main objection to the expected solution, it is hardly surprising that it was frequently mentioned.

The checker's addendum to the 2001 statistics concludes with a brief section on "alternative answers":
These are very rarely allowed, whatever the arguments in their favour. Decisions are always made well in advance of solution publication, with which it would be hoped to indicate accepted alternatives, but this cannot be guaranteed.

Appeals are therefore futile.
I don't know about you, but there's something about this I find disquieting. To me it feels mean-spirited, and somehow not very British. OK, so it's only a crossword, but there is such a thing as "fair play", which ought to include the right of appeal, particularly when the arguments being put forward are as misconceived as the checker's. Anyway I'm not going to be cowed into suppressing this rebuttal of the checker's arguments, if only to give the setter and editors the chance to consider the possibility that they may have been wrong.

Current Location: Ealing
Current Mood: worried worried

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Here are the results of the final of the 2016 Times Crossword Championship. The figures in parentheses are competitors' scores out of 90, where 1 point was awarded for each of the 90 clues solved correctly.

1 Mark Goodliffe (90)
2 Simon Chillingworth (90)
3 Roger Crabtree (90)
4 Neil Robinson (90)
5 Alan Dorn (90)
6 Peter Steggle (90)
7 Michael Wareham (90)
8 David Howell (89)
9 Helen Ougham (89)
10 John McCabe (89)
11 Toby Brereton (89)
12 Guy Haslam (89)
13 Chris Price (89)
14 Peter King (88)
15 Nick Petty (88)
16 Matthew Marcus (87)
17 Richard Jacks (87)
18 Tom Stubbs (86)
19= Phil Jordan (79)
19= Mike Davis (79)
21 Marcos Fernandes (77)
22 Jonathan Carter (75)
23 Angus Walker (67)
24 Sue Prout (65)

Congratulations once again to Mark Goodliffe, who claimed his 10th championship win, equalling John Sykes's record. Congratulations also: to Simon Chillingsworth, Roger Crabtree and Neil Robinson for their highest finishing places to date; and to Peter Steggle, Chris Price, Angus Walker and Sue Prout who all reached the final for the first time.

The generally low scores support the claim that these were probably the hardest set of final puzzles since the Championship reappeared in its new form in 2006. It's very likely that there would have been more all-correct solutions had not Neil Talbott and Simon Hanson, who have both twice finished second to Mark Goodliffe, not made mistakes in the preliminary rounds. (I don't know about Simon's, but Neil's was a slip of the pen which he didn't spot when checking.) David Howell and Helen Ougham slipped up similarly in the final, but they had both chosen to forgo checking in favour of speed.

For the second year running I failed to achieve my target of reaching the final and solving all the puzzles correctly. This time I got badly stuck in one corner of the third puzzle in my preliminary and finishing 16th. I did, however, solve all three final puzzles correctly in the allotted hour as a member of the audience, but with just 12 seconds to spare!

Current Location: Ealing
Current Mood: Disappointed (again)

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I expect some Times crossword solvers will remember this clue from No. 25,525 (12 July 2013):
Hostess about to pull out of business (7)
because the checked letters C‑M‑E‑E lured some solvers into biffing COMPERE. One TftT correspondent confessed that he thought "Aha! Female setter" and plumped for what he took to be a unisex answer; however, unfortunately for him the wordplay led straightforwardly to COMMERE (COMMERCE with the second C removed).

My thanks to jerrywh for pointing out that the acronym BIFD (Bunged In From Definition) appears to have been coined almost a year ago by grestyman, since when it and its homophone "biffed" and the resulting back-formation "biff" have come into regular use in the TftT blog and the TCC forums. Last week this sparked a rather sour comment from a TCC member who apparently disliked the idea of biffing and indeed the whole idea of solving at speed. But as a competitive solver who (by way of practice) solves almost all crosswords (apart from the Listener) against the clock, I suspect there's hardly a day goes by when I don't biff at least one answer and quite often several; and I would guess that most other successful competitive solvers of cryptics are inveterate biffers too. I should perhaps add - for the benefit of those who disapprove of competitive solving - that once I've finished, I always go back over the clues again to check that I really have understood them, and to savour their finer points. Another TCC member didn't like the word "biff" because he felt it smacked of Jennings and Darbyshire, but for me "biffing" is what Brigadier Ritchie-Hook in Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy encouraged his men to do to the enemy.

Of course I sometimes biff wrong answers, but probably not more than one a year on average. An obvious rule of thumb is that the longer the answer, the safer the biff; so the shorter the answer the more care you need to take. Apart from that, experience is the most important factor, and I can think of a few words I'm particularly wary of because I've biffed them unsuccessfully in the past. (However, I'm not going to tell you what they are. They might come up again in a future Championship :-).

Current Location: Ealing (still north)
Current Mood: optimistic optimistic

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Here are the results of the final of the 2015 Times Crossword Championship. The figures in parentheses are competitors' scores out of 90, where 1 point was awarded for each of the 90 clues solved correctly.

1 Mark Goodliffe (90)
2 Neil Talbott (90)
3 David Howell (90)
4 Chris Williams (90)
5 John McCabe (90)
6 Helen Ougham (90)
7 Richard Jacks (90)
8 Mike Davis (90)
9 Richard Grafen (90)
10 Simon Hanson (90)
11 Alan Dorn (90)
12 Roger Crabtree (90)
13 Toby Brereton (90)
14 Matthew Marcus (90)
15 Michael Wareham (89)
16 Peter Brooksbank (89)
17 Shane Shabankareh (89)
18 Marcos Fernandes (89)
19 Tony Sever (89)
20= Simon Chillingworth (89)
20= David Webb (89)
22 Nick Petty (88)
23 Tony Thorpe (87)
24 Jonathan Carter (85)

Congratulations go - as usual - to Mark Goodliffe, who finished in under half an hour, and (I believe) a good six minutes ahead of Neil Talbott (who had won the first preliminary, with Mark winning the second). This was Mark's eighth consecutive Times Crossword Championship title, a feat now officially recognised as a Guinness World Record. Congratulations also to Marcos Fernandes, the only first-time finalist this year.

After the comparatively easy set of puzzles we were faced with last year, this year's were generally agreed to be harder again - as befits a Championship final. For my part, I felt fortunate to reach the final at all as I was (and am) feeling stressed out from loss of sleep - the result of continuing efforts to move house - and was not in a good crossword-solving frame of mind. Not for the first time, I had to rely on others' mistakes, as I finished only 15th fastest in the first preliminary but with four of those ahead of me getting at least one answer wrong.

Exhaustion took its toll in the final, and at one point I was feeling so out of sorts that I feared I was going to finish with only about half the clues solved. However, I kept plodding away and eventually even had enough time at the end to spend a couple of minutes trying to fathom a pair of particularly dodgy homophones. Unfortunately, about half an hour in, when I was at my lowest ebb, I'd bif'd what I thought was the correct spelling of a word but which turned out to be quite wrong! I've still no idea why I ever thought it was right, and since my solution clearly didn't match the annoyingly simple wordplay, this was a particularly galling unforced error. As a result, I not only failed to achieve my usual target of reaching the final AND solving all the puzzles correctly, but I also wrecked what was becoming quite a decent run of all-corrects, since the last time I made a mistake in the Championship was in 1995. (Deep sigh!)

Current Location: Ealing (still north)
Current Mood: disappointed disappointed

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This coming Saturday brings the 40th Times Crossword Championship, 45 years after the first one back in 1970 - the discrepancy caused by gaps in 1982 and from 2001 to 2005 inclusive. I suspect I may be the only solver who's competed in all the previous 39, but I'd be interested to know if anyone else from 1970 turns up.

I'm hoping that name badges may be provided this year (as requested in this post and others), but I shall bring my own just in case.

Good luck to you all. See you there.

Current Location: Ealing (still north)
Current Mood: apprehensive

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Janet and I were hoping to exchange contracts for house sale and purchase by the end of August, but after a week of increasingly exhausting phone calls, I'm sorry to report that we've failed. Perhaps that put me in a bad mood for crossword solving, and it's certainly true that by the end of last week I was feeling pretty exhausted. Nevertheless I feel strongly enough about a clue from Friday's Times cryptic (No. 26,189) to break my silence and put hands to keyboard. This is the clue:
Colour shown by maiden, perhaps, with fever (9) [OVERSTATE]
(select between the square brackets for the answer, or read on)
I thought - and still think - that this is a very poor clue. It seems to be following the tendency of some Times setters to scour the outer reaches of the thesaurus for the meanings of the words they use. Here we have two examples: "colour" as the definition of OVERSTATE; and "fever" meaning STATE as part of the wordplay. Even if you can resist the temptation to bung in OVERSHADE - using the more obvious "colour" = SHADE - and come up with OVERSTATE as a word that would at least fit the checked letters, you are (or at any rate I was) still left wondering whether there might not be a less obscure solution.

I've a fairly strong suspicion that a clue like this would not have appeared in a Times crossword until quite recently, and I think it would be better if similar far-fetched meanings were outlawed in the future, at least in the daily Times cryptic. I'm obviously something of a dinosaur when it comes to crosswords, so I'd be interested to know if there's anyone out there who's prepared to defend this kind of thing. I appreciate that there's pleasure to be had from solving a difficult clue, but even though I eventually plumped for the correct answer in this case, it gave me no satisfaction.

Footnote
I found 25ac in Saturday's crossword (No. 26,190) very similar: a far-fetched clue spoiling an otherwise interesting and original puzzle.

Current Location: Ealing
Current Mood: exhausted exhausted

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In case you were wondering where I'd got to, a good part of my day is currently taken up with the business of moving house. After nearly 37 years in our present home in North Ealing, Janet and I are moving to be nearer Janet's twin sister in West Ealing, and in 37 years we seem to have accumulated an awful lot of memorabilia - or junk, depending on which way you look at it. Janet is much better at parting with things than I am, but I'm steeling myself to the task, and we've at least managed to rid ourselves of enough to make house (and garden) look presentable. All this has left me with a backlog of crosswords to be tackled, but we've reached the point where we've had an offer for the house we're selling and have made an offer for the house we want to buy, so I hope to catch up a little in the period before we exchange contracts. Nevertheless, with all the other things that have had to take a back seat in the last few weeks, it still doesn't really leave enough time to write about crosswords, so that will have to wait until we're firmly settled in our new home.

Wish us luck.

Current Location: Ealing (north)
Current Mood: exhausted exhausted

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