Lost At The BBC: The Buzzcocks Jazz Ribena Sock-Shuffle

Last week I was introduced to the dubious delights of ‘Jazz Ribena’, which I think involves port and know involves dancing to odd Balkan music in your socks. I was at the end-of-series wrap party for Buzzcocks and the delightful oddities on Phill Jupitus’ ipod had everyone dancing like loons. (Though to be honest we all looked pretty sane next to Noel Fielding, cavorting in a sequinned dress.)

At one point mid-boogie, I realised rather sharply that I was on the verge of bladder-explosion and so went in search of a toilet. Everything at the BBC involves an epic search. That place is a maze – you should be given either sat-nav or a sherpa upon entry. Open a broom cupboard and you’ll probably find a forgotten member of The Bay City Rollers who got lost between his dressing room and the Top of The Pops studio in 1973.

I found a toilet. Being able to read, even after numerous Jazz Ribenas, got me that far. However, after a worryingly long wee – a thunderous affair which left me marvelling at my dam-like pelvic floor muscles (tended to, I suppose by a stoic beaver) – I wasn’t so lucky in finding my way back. I think I took a wrong turn as I first stepped out of the door – the first of so many wrong turns – and there began a little adventure in my socks.

I shuffled down empty corridors of unmarked doors, past strangely abandoned printers, the canteen, green-rooms, dressing rooms. I stood in an empty studio all cloaked in shadows, and in its chill could almost hear the echoes of decades of laughter. I heard a noise that was probably just the clanking of a pipe, and hurried out. Back through the eternal curve of that circular behemoth, eyes dawdling on the framed faces of past and present glory, smiles all stopped still in the turgidity of TV make-up. The optical whip of walking in a constant spiral made them appear as though they were moving as soon as I took my eyes off them; dancing away in some other-worldly ball.

I could easily have panicked, alone in secreted round corners of that building and unaided by logic to find my way back, but instead I felt a bit enchanted by its ghostliness. Even in my tipsy haze I couldn’t help but be respectful of my surroundings – the history held in its walls. I thought about the institution it was, the fact it wouldn’t be there for much longer, the many people that had passed through its halls. I was achingly aware that it is all now tinged by the recent awful stories about it. It seemed a bit haunted by itself.

I came across Gordon the Gopher, who was encased in what looked like bullet-proof glass, and I stopped. Here was my childhood, inlaid in a wall. This little fella for years greeted me when I got in from school. I sat cross-legged on the floor watching his puppeteered moosh chatting to Phillip Schofield while I ate my stinky Space Raiders. Here he was, his mouth still, his little fluffy bum unanimated, his eyes an ungleaming black. I wanted to cuddle him but I thought cracking him out might get me arrested. (Though at least getting chucked out of the building would be better than being signed off as permanently missing, like a lost glove.)

The first time I went to the beeb was on a school trip as part of my GCSE Media course back in the mid 90s. Arriving on a coach at the postcode that I had memorised from Blue Peter competitions thrilled me, and going through the revolving doors into the foyer felt like passing into another hallowed dimension. Us girls, high on Cherry Drops and an endless chant of rude-word Ten Green Bottles, all hoped to spot ‘famous people’ (the word ‘celebrities’ wasn’t common in our vocabularies then). We were vaguely disappointed to only catch a glimpse of, yes, Jimmy Savile. He swaggered through like he owned the place, grinning, and we hoped he might just be the dud start to a much more impressive parade of stars. We would never have suspected that he was anything other than a harmless cheesy old duffer with a cigar. I would never have thought that I would be back in the building years later, with everything changed. I would never have thought that that swagger, that grin, that air of ownership about him, would have so dark a source.

I looked at Gordon and I felt anger. Real rage. About the abuse, about the sordid gatherings, about all the things that went on behind some of these doors. About the sullying of innocence and magic, about the trust and starstruck hope that was manipulated for the whims of an abhorrent clique of powerful movers and shakers. Childhoods, all our childhoods, somehow negated as stupid. We were scoffed at, even the lucky ones of us. We were fools; herded, unimportant, worthy of damage. It could have been any of us, and so is all of us.

I felt rage about the casual way in which some people go around affecting people’s lives. It’s one thing to have dodgy proclivities, to have dubious desires and habits – but to deny, underestimate, or (endlessly worse) completely disregard the effect your actions will have on others is truly evil.

Jimmy Savile didn’t just give in to vile urges. He trampled over people’s souls and changed the way they think of humans and the world forever. He gave them a heritage of mistrust, ugly thoughts, and nightmares for the sake of his own snatched subversive jollies. And his clever evasion of it – his defiance and his cynical-playful half-confessional denials, his twisting of the media which at times half-heartedly came for him – proves beyond a doubt that he knew it was all wrong.

He knew what he was doing was wrong.

That is what is beyond cruelty. He knew, and he chose all that over doing the right and kind – the ‘human‘ – thing. (Which was, if he couldn’t have guaranteed that his abusive urges be controlled, to undergo some very expensive psychological treatment, lock himself away from society, or to kill himself.)

Someone once said to me “If I am in your life, it must be as a good thing”, and for a while they weren’t in my life, and now they are again in a new and healthy capacity. I have always valued the consideration that went into saying that. He might have not cared. He could have stuck around and been a bad thing. But he didn’t. He chose not to affect me. He understood on a primary human level that people’s lives, that my life, is important, and that no one has the right to wilfully taint it. We all leave legacies in everything we do. We must always think of what imprints we will leave – on cherished family, on our friends, even on the chap that runs the corner shop.

The BBC has many legacies, for many people. I have been lost in it a good few times, but never, til now, knowing that for some people its legacies are far darker. There have been other things lost in that building, and it’s so so sad that as I found my way back to the party I wondered if it might take demolition to allow the BBC to move on from it all. Crush these hallowed halls and start afresh. Sad.

I carried on dancing, I drank more Jazz Ribena – but it didn’t taste the same.

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Dinner Party: This is us. We did this.

I went to a dinner party last week. A French-themed affair which had my friends and I dressed in stripes and wielding onions. I felt chic for once in red lipstick with a jaunty scarf tied around my neck, but was mainly glad of the excuse to eat white bread after so long of being good. To deny the baguette would have been sacrilege, like weeing up the Eiffel Tower. The night was an homage to total gluttony, and descended into loud swearing around the dinner table and lots of drunken posing for photos while Edith Piaf warbled in our ears. It was like Allo Allo if René had spiked everyone’s drinks with crack.

The next morning, while lying in bed and wishing I was dead, I prodded through my phone with bleary eyes for photographic evidence of our casual disgrace. From out of about a hundred vaguely dodgy blurs could be caught the odd grin, some men kissing, empty bottles, and a lot of pouting.

Prostrate in my Bergundy tomb, I giggled to myself at what nobs we all were. Though none of the photos will see the light of day, I numbly mused how nice it is that I captured something of the night, especially when so much was risked to the extremely likely post-wine amnesia. (The men who kissed would undoubtedly have no recollection of it whatsoever.) I have a habit of turning into the self-elected photographer of the evening. There’s something in the distance from things, the capturing of things which appeals to me, the chance for reflection while in the moment, but occasionally I worry that I miss out on actually ‘being there’.

Squinting at the blurry pouted lips, I realised that we looked a bit like ironic versions of some of the girls I teach, who spend their lives peering up at their own camera with uncomfortably taut mouths which resemble panicked monkeys’ bums more than they do a siren’s invitation to pleasure. I always feel like a total mum when they do it. I want to tell them to stop it, that they’re pretty enough, that they don’t need to force their faces into what they’ve been trained by a dubious media to think is alluring.

Then I get over it and think it’s just girls having fun. That they will look back at those photos and most likely marvel at their cheekbones, or be surprised that their skin was never as bad as they thought it was.

It’s such a strange thing we’ve done; turning everyone into photographers. Thanks to the many apps on smartphones which allow even the most cack-handed of people to look like artists, we are capturing more moments than we ever did before. Photos used to take infinite set-up by a man who then scurried under a black sheet, and then it would take an uncomfortably frozen pose to get the most basic of pictures. People would save their pennies to go to a photographic studio in their Sunday best to get a shot of them looking rather dour against a fake window-frame. Group shots always had everyone looking like they were waiting to die of the pox.

As photography improved and got easier, so people became more at ease. The twentieth century moved on quick; from can-can girls caught in the act, to action shots of war, to the 50s, where everyone was snapped in a swimsuit holding a beach ball; it was the law. Like it is now the law for girls to pout. The journey of a people is all there. We have captured our own ‘liberation’ and we safeguard it by constantly moving onto the next stage. We preserve, and move on. Preserve, and move on. A photo is a metaphor for all this. We say “This is us. We did this.”, then do something else. We’re amazing, unlike anything else in nature. Photography expresses our social evolution. It is our proof we were here.

If we continue to ‘loosen’ up, if we think nothing now of pouting or flashing our knickers or giving the V-sign (the non-Churchill kind) to the camera, or of capturing sex and childbirth, whatever will we be free to do in the future? How will we choose to represent ourselves? Will we run out of freedoms? Will they remain freedoms if they just become ordinary? For while the camera captures us, we also remain the masters of hiding. Our numbing pain, our suppressed dreams, our very real but unrequited loves.

What will we look like to the future? Drunkards free to swear around a table, pouting masks of a femininity which has lost its way, people who build prison walls as soon as they smash down others?

Will it be the truth, or do we by our very nature find new ways to evade it?

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The Angel’s Âme – A Story

A ‘story-script’ written on the theme of ‘Chancing Your Arm’ – performed at Flight of Fancy, part of London Storytelling Festival, Leicester Square Theatre, November 2012.

It is not a truth widely known that Madame Clench’s Salon of the Flesh was the most visited attraction in the London of 1826. There was no Georgian equivalent of Time Out to herald it as a hidden gem. It was hidden for a reason, and that reason was decency. Its patrons were furtive, its joys unbugled, its only souvenirs the impish memories in the minds of all who went, and in the case of Frederick Muldoon one life-ruining instance of the clap. But his is not our evening’s story…

It was, for a long time, just your ordinary whorehouse. Ramshackle, perverse, and full of the stench of sex and waste. But Madame Clench had a fancy to grasp out of the muck and onto the petticoats of finery.

MC Stoke me, if all around me ain’t scrubbers and ‘ores. I know I’m in the business of ‘ores, but by christ don’t I tire of just how whorey it all is. You! You are a whore!

Whore Don’t I know it and ain’t I good at it!

MC Your gaudy but thorough milkings of the butcher get me the fattest geese I’ll give you that, but oh how I yearn for more.

Class. A quality she neither had nor could emulate.

Madam Clench, in another life, might have amounted to something more than a crusty-mouthed madam, but class was a cruel parent, and few get over the savage kick in the extremities it doles out at birth. Yet still she dreamed.

She longed for etiquette, silk and love. What she had was coarseness, customised flour sacks, and the grunting of artless men too cowardly to get their cocks dirty at home with their wives.

Then, one day, Madam Clench spotted a chance and she took it.

It was a bright morn, and she was attempting to sashay like a lady through the flower market. She tried her best at it, but she merely looked like she was kicking away hungry spaniels. Just as she was breathing in the succulent boughs of just-burst lilies, she saw a girl and stopped mid-breath.

The girl was an angel, her golden head like a shining halo in the sunlight, her skin like porcelain might have been had it been made by a deity instead of mere men.

She was drawn to the girl like a bee to the brightest of flowers. She knew not how to approach her and instead stood gawping. Then a chance presented itself. The girl turned light as a lilting breeze and a ribbon fell from her hair. Madam Clench stumbled forward and took it up with a victorious shriek.

MC Aaaooh, girl, your ribbon!

GIRL Pardon?

French!

A chance. The chance, though it remained as ineffable as the unsettling aroma wafting aloft from Gunt Picklebot’s cellar. It pulled at her like the glint of a gem in the mud.

MC Oh, poor wretch, look at the state of you – you look lost in the ways of London. Permit me to escort you back to my humble but consoling abode, where I shall tutor you in how not to Die, for it’s certain that’s what you’ll do here, wafting around in your ridiculous innocence. Come on.

And, without quite knowing why, the girl followed her.

After tripping through the rancid gutter shit of the cheery streets, they arrived at the house that was home to anywhere between 2 and 20 whores, depending on the fluctuations in moods and morality. The best whores are the most fickle in all regards.

MC ‘Ere we go. Sit at the table. I have a table you know! I dragged it from Mrs Smythe’s rooms as she lay dying of the pox. So, dearheart, tell Madam Mumsy Clench what the syphilitic spittoon you’re doing here?

GIRL I came to London…for love.

MC You came from France – spouting tit of Romance – to London – the weeping wart on the face of England – for love?

GIRL …Oui.

MC By Christ. You’ll be dead on a barrow within a week.

The girl looked at her, her eyes filling with great big beautiful French tears, and fell on the stolen table. Madam Clench watched the display and tried to reacquaint herself with emotion. Then she caught sight of the girl’s arms, outstretched in hopelessness.

MC Marie Antoinette’s Knicker-drawer! Those arms!

The girl looked up enquiringly at Madam Clench.

GIRL Arms?

MC Yes. Arms. They’re like the dreams of angels caught in wisp-like form, like ivory butter softened by the sun, like giant pearls forged into the celestial boughs of heaven’s trees… You could make a ruddy fortune as an ‘ore you could.

Just then, a ray of sunshine burst through the window with a rudeness that reminded Madam Clench of the time she lanced Tilly Bristow’s boil. Her shudder was disrupted by Revelation. The girl! This exquisite French idiot was her chance! She was her route out of the tedious dire muck!

It was nearing two weeks later that Madam Clench plonked the girl down behind a curtain and smeared her in lanolin.

MC Gives you a nice sheen in the lamplight.

The other whores stood around with venom in their eyes. How was it that this newcomer, this Parisian prude, was attracting so much attention?

MC BECAUSE SHE’S SODDING CELESTIAL, YOU SODDEN-BLOOMERED BINTS!!

…Was how Madam Clench answered their new-sprung fears.

GIRL Madam Clench? Perhaps zis is after all not a good idea? What will men see in the unplucked obedient blonde virgin from Montmartre? I have none of the charm of zese girls.

MC And none of the venereal woes either. Just trust me, my girl. Trust me. You need not any of their sluttish ways – you have something far more valuable. Place your arm out through the curtain, just one lovely bloody arm, and let mystique do the rest.

She stared into the girl’s eyes, as blue as the river Seine had never been, and she felt a shiver run through her. Those eyes were swimming with trust.

GIRL You know, Madam Clench, in France we ‘ave a word zat sounds like ‘arm’…

MC Oh yes, dear?

GIRL Yes. It means, how you say, ‘soul’.

MC Arm?

GIRL Yes – âme. Soul. Heart.

The whores cackled in the doorway.

WHORE Soul she says! She’ll be scrubbing her soul out of her dress along with the souls of half of London’s gentry.

MC Don’t you pay them any mind. You inspire the thought of eternal bliss in the minds of gentleman, then these scrubbers will tend to whatever the men’s wretched anatomy throws up afterwards. And I’ll collect the coins. Be celestial my dear. Be celestial.

And with that Madam Clench pulled the curtain shut and withdrew from the room. She hastened herself to the parlour to attend the first influx of guests, but something did not feel right in her chest – and it wasn’t the hurriedly gobbled pasty stolen from Will Tyker’s stall.

The men soon gathered – they had been hearing of the Angel’s arm hot on the breath of London throughout the past week and were hungry for a sight of it. Madam Clench corralled them in the parlour until they were giddy with lusty promise. She went to pull the lace across the window for privacy, and when she turned around the assembled men had sprung from the room and were halfway up the stairs, their polished boots heavy on the bowing wood. She ran up after them, squeezing herself through the throng to hold them back from the curtain.

They all stood agog, staring at the arm – the soft-sheened protrusion of a faceless girl. It seemed lit by a light that was not of the room. It seemed not of the room itself, not of this world – it had the aura of a fleeting thing, a paused hummingbird’s wing, or a snowflake frozen in the air.

MEN Who is she? Does she not speak? What is your name, girl?

Madam Clench closed her eyes and bit her lip. Her name. She had never asked. She had never thought to ask. She was just Girl.

MC Tell them.

GIRL My name…is Beatrice.

Madam Clench opened her eyes, and steadied herself against the wall. Beatrice. That was her name. She had always loved her name as a girl – thought it surely the name of a lady – but had not used it since she fell into vice. She was doomed to just be Clench, the unloved woman in a thousand dirty laps.

The men wanted more. They clamoured. They stepped towards the curtain, the arm was not enough. They wanted all of her. The pulsing hand of a disgraced earl thrust out to draw it back.

Then, Madam Clench let out such a cry that the whole city seemed stopped for a moment.

The men all turned, their shock worn like gaudy carnival masks. The girl’s arm quivered, still trusting.

MC No! She’s too good for any of you. She has…soul, and I will not chance it for all my life to come.

Something in her voice spiked shame into the hearts of the men. They left. And the memory of that resplendent arm, that briefly upheld sanctity of something pure, stoppered their lust for a good while to come.

Madam Clench pulled back the curtain, looked at the girl who had her eyes shut tight, and took her hand gently.

MC Come on, cherub. You can help me in the kitchen instead. I never got good at peeling spuds. I always ‘ad me chops around a duke, dear.

And something which could so easily have been lost, was not.

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Four More Years

So, he did it. The cool dude got four more years. He can keep his enamel President badge on his jacket pocket. His fit missus can go ahead with the new Whitehouse carpet, which I like to picture as one big Bill Cosby sweater. His kids can continue to throw jelly at the portraits of stiffs in wigs in the Abraham Lincoln playroom. The morons have receded for a while. It’s all good. Chillax.

Four More Years is the chant that accompanied the Obamas there. It was the thing cried at rallies, at conferences, by people on the street, by people on the campaign wagons, by people watching the footage all around the globe. It was the internal mantra of everyone with a brain who cared about the world: “Please, just, not the Mormon. He looks like George Hamilton and Ted Danson had a fight in a body bag and accidentally morphed. Which would be really cool if he wasn’t a total chump.” The civilised world all squeezed their eyes tight shut and prayed that America would get off the couch and go and vote; to allow their ‘great nation’ to keep moving forwards and not devolve back to the political equivalent of having no opposable thumbs. They did it. They put their Oreos down and went outside, to the polls. Democracy is safe for another fou…

HANG THE EFFING EFF ON!! Obama’s been in power for four years already? Where the Fricklin Delanor Roosevelt did that go? Why are we asking for another four years when the first four aren’t up yet, surely? WHAT IS HAPPENING TO TIME? How casually we flick it off like wooden beads on an abacus into the ether.

I took my nephew Elliot to see Madagascar 3 in the week. In 3D – I’m no skinflint, I want him to call me Cool Auntie Sadie, and I’m not morally above paying for the title. I didn’t pay for 3D glasses though because it just felt wrong. (Bite me, Odeon. Your prices are disgraceful.) Instead we wore 3D glasses that accidentally fell in my bag last time I was there. (It’s very dark in there, isn’t it?) We were about a third of the way through, and I was running a very rumbustious internal monologue about how Dreamworks’ scriptwriters should go to a Pixar seminar on How To Be Good At It, when I heard a rustling next to me. I remembered I was sitting there next to a little person that I was related to, and I saw that he was loving it. I stopped my cerebral rant and looked at the pretty colours.

I turned to secretly watch Elliot for a bit. He was holding up his head so the way-too-big 3D glasses didn’t slip down the heart-wrenching freckles on his nose. His face was lit up by the screen and his smile was as wide as the sea. He roared with laughter, his nose wrinkling and popping the glasses off the end. He reached for them without taking his eyes off the screen and clumsily prodded them back onto his face. He didn’t want to miss a nanosecond of the magic. In that semi-lit moment I saw the man he would be. He is at that age, where the face starts becoming the face it will be. Elliot is 5. In four more years, he will be 9. Four years after that he will be 13. Then 17, then 21. A man. He will hold the keys to the door. He will drink, and make love to someone, and vote. He will shape his life.

I almost did a little sick-up of Nachos flavoured love and panic. I can accept the quick passing of my own life, I almost look forward to the slipper shuffling of my seventies, the blanket-on-knee cantankerousness which I hope will be shared with someone even more cantankerous than myself. But when I thought of Elliot’s time passing that quickly, when I thought of his life being notched off in chunky increments – old phases ushered out and the new ones hurried in, quad-bundles of time being ticked off like inventoried cargo, four more years: check, tick, gone – I almost stood up in the cinema and wailed at everyone to make it stop. Press pause. Don’t let it go too quickly for him. Let the glasses stay magical and not vari-focal. Let him stay young.

Then a lion and a leopard and a hippo danced to Katy Perry’s Firework and it was all over. I was blubbing like a good un. The film finished, the lights came up. Elliot delivered his considered critique (“That was good.”) and chomped the last Butterkist. And we went home for tea, singing.

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Breast Man: Lesbian Wedding

When my friend Mandy asked me to be Breast Man at her wedding, I squealed. Then I stopped, confused. A new term. What does it mean, to be…’Breast Man’? I wouldn’t have to get them out would I? Hang on – DO I LOOK LIKE A DUDE WITH BOOBS STUCK ON?? What does it even mean to be married? I’m not sure, having got it wrong already. In and out of it within a year and wondering how it even got that far. I am no model of matrimonial sagacity, but I am pretty sure, as in all things, that Love helps.

It was one of these nice easy-going weddings where you’re not expected to spend a fortune fitting in with someone’s ‘theme’. It was to take place at Brighton Pavilion, with a low-key reception at something called The Earthship, an eco-joint deep in a nearby country park.

It has always seemed to me that the best weddings are not those which demand things of people, but which inspire them to give something more meaningful; their thought. To me, this was what being Mandy’s Breast Man was; giving thought in the best way I could – nice words. That’s all I had to offer, being so far away during her manic preparations: a speech.

Suddenly, after a year of anticipation, the wedding was upon us and I was bound for Brighton.

The Pavilion glistened in the October sun, and the famous domed turrets seemed like the conical Madonna breasts of a new bride reclining in the grass. I reflected on how amazing it was that we were even here in the first place, celebrating the marriage of two women in love. It’s such a new thing – to have the courage to be openly gay. The culture and vibrancy has been there all the time, but had to be kept secret – or certainly quiet, in corners – and here I was with a bride in a top hat being driven by two glorious homosexuals, one in a chauffeur’s uniform bibbing at traffic and waving like the queen, and one dressed as Baby Spice gone bad. The pavilion was built as a testament to love by a king for his queen, a regency palace of splendour – and here we were squealing outside it really loudly. In fishnets.

The wedding was beautiful. I’ve never seen faces so lit up by love as those of Mandy and Debbie – and naturally those ruddy lesbians made me completely ruin my sodding make-up.

I was bricking it about the speech. I would have read The Owl & The Pussycat or something if the public raping of Edward Lear hadn’t been something I had inwardly screamed at so often at other nuptials. No, I couldn’t maul someone else’s words, I’d have to bleat out my own. And once it was out of the way, and I’d got a high-five from a very straight-speaking drag-queen, I knew I’d done alright. I could relax. The job was done. I could join in the fun going on around me like a saucy carousel.

It’s quite a picture, you know – a lesbian wedding. I’m sure most of the guests this refers to wouldn’t mind me suggesting that they had ’embraced their male side’. That is, the emblematic nods to the traditional male. Short hair, suits, little or no make-up in some cases. This is vaguely misleading, as though there were no lesbians in frocks, or lesbians who didn’t (shock horror) look like lesbians. There were loads of these too, but I find the masculine ones more fascinating.

I was why-curious. Why, if they aren’t attracted to men, are there so many ladies seeking to look like them, in relationships with other ladies who look similar? Is it escape from the perceived weakness of femininity; is it an emulation of power? Is it a revolution against patriarchy by taking ‘maleness’ over and making it their own? Is this, even, just a cultural phase? If open lesbianism is, in terms of freedom, in its infancy – having spent countless centuries as clandestine encounters, love to be ashamed of, only peeking out occasionally from under the covers in permitted sapphic flourishes designed for the titillation of men – are lesbians then just…teething? Chewing on the freedom of it all like a rusk until their adult teeth have formed? Feminists don’t feel the need to wear stiff polo-necks and tut at lipstick anymore. Perhaps lesbians will soften their guard in time too, when it’s all lost that air of brave novelty.

Perhaps I am a naive ignoramus and missing something more subtle. I might have spoken to them about it in more detail had I the nous of a BBC corespondent and not been so rangooned on table wine.

But one thing was clear by the end of the day. That I know what it means to be married. It means whatever you want it to mean. That’s the freedom we have now. Love is free, free is love.

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