Melanie Branton reviews ‘Zebra’ by Robert Garnham

I have been thoroughly enjoying Robert Garnham’s Zebra (I know this sounds like one of Robert’s own comedy innuendoes).

Robert, of course, does funny so terribly well and there is vast amounts of crowdpleasing funny here, whether it’s his surreal imagination (a national craze for snogging zebras, a badger who thinks he’s on Eastenders, an evening spent loading the dishwasher with Montserrat Caballe), his unerring ability to observe all-too-true detail (the straight men’s pub that has a porcelain vase with chisels in on the windowsill, the gig in a remote part of the Amazon basin which is recognizably every poet’s worst gig ever, the comparison of noisy neighbours’ orgasm to the noise made by a flatulent elephant trying to squeeze the last drop out of a washing-up liquid bottle), his witty parodies of The Old Woman Who Swallowed A Fly and Titanic, or his audacious Byronic rhymes:

e.g. “Wiped your sweating brow with a serviette.
My friends think I’m pervy, yet
I’m not.”

“Seeing yesterday’s sandwich
in the bin
with a sense of malaise.
It’s chicken mayonnaise.”

But the serious undercurrents that were there in Nice, the tears-of-a-clown preoccupations with death, loneliness, fear of failure and inadequacy, existential angst, gay politics, are foregrounded here and at times take on a more overtly serious form, but with Robert’s trademark diffident understatement making them all the more poignant. Autobiographical poems about trying to date a girl in his teens, the horrible experience of being at secondary school, the disturbing experience of witnessing a sudden death, and an extended sequence of poems where the Arctic cold is used as a metaphor for the repression faced by gay men in a homophobic and closeted society have a massive emotional punch precisely because of the precision and economy of his storytelling and his elimination of any hint of self-pity or attention-seeking.

It’s even outer and prouder than Nice, with poems like Straight Pub and Flamboyant skewering the patronising, insulting heteronormativity of those who’re “not homophobic” but who would reduce gay men to exotic background colour or sitcom jokes, powerfully political poems like The Doors and Steadfast reminding of the external and internal repression, discrimination and persecution that gay people still face globally, and poems about Tom Daley, a beautiful shoplifter, shirtless roofers and ex-boyfriends unashamedly celebrating the beauty of the male form.

This wide-ranging,mature, screamingly funny, but also heartbreakingly serious book ought to be on everyone’s Christmas list.

Zebra can be bought here http://robertgarnham.bigcartel.com/product/zebra
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Zebra

My new book Zebra is out now! I’m hugely proud of it. I believe that it contains some of my best writing, and I can’t wait for other people to read it and let me know what they think.

Zebra is a book several years in the making. Not only does it contain more of my comedy poems including some old classics as well as newer pieces, but it also contains my more serious work as well as material from my two Edinburgh shows, Static and Juicy. It’s a layered, textured book, which really gets a grip on life and what it means to be alive. There are one or two deeply autobiographical pieces, dealing with growing up in the suburbs of Surrey, first love, school, as well as a poem written five minutes after learning of the death of David Bowie. There’s also plenty of merrymaking and whimsy, of course, playfulness and poetry.

So why is it called Zebra? There are several reasons, not least that it’s named after a poem of mine which I used to perform while sharing stage with a cardboard Zebra. At the Barnstaple Fringe a few years ago the cardboard Zebra started getting a bit ragged so a friend and and I went round the art and craft shops of Barnstaple to find some gaffer tape to fix it. On the way home from Barnstaple my friend’s car had its sump guard fall off, and the zebra gaffer tape saved the day! He used it to stick the sump guard back on. The other reason is that it’s a nod to one of my favourite groups, Yello, who had an album called Zebra. Everything I used to write at the time was done to that cd. I must have been about nineteen.

I’m enormously proud of Zebra!

You can purchase your copy wherever you see me, or here http://robertgarnham.bigcartel.com/product/zebra

Noel Harley

Yesterday being Remembrance Sunday, I was thinking of my Great Uncle Noel, about whom I knew very little except that he died during the Second World War. Ever since I was a kid, I’d seen his name on the war memorial next to Virginia Water Station, without really knowing much about him.

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By chance I was scrolling through a Facebook group for the area in Surrey where I grew up, only to see someone had mentioned him in a posting about Remembrance Day services. I got in touch with the person who had made the post comment to discover that she is a relative on my mothers side. We chatted online about my Great Uncle, who was also her Uncle.

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Noel was 22 when he died, in 1943. He was stationed in North Africa, working on clearing mines in advance of an assault, an operation which took place in pitch black on a night in which there was no moon. Added to this there was fog and also significant dust thrown into the air by the movement of the tanks, and the lorry in which Noel was travelling collided with a stationary tank. He was buried at the Al Alamein Military Cemetery in Egypt.

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I’d never known any of the details. His death was just one of millions and there are now very few people alive who would have known him. My distant cousin was kind enough to email me some documents and photographs about Noel. And this is when something very strange occurred.

It’s long been a spooky fact that I share my birthday not only with my dad, but also my uncle and my grandfather, Noel’s brother Alfred. And while my uncle and my dad are twins and come from the other side of my family, it’s always been a little odd that three generations of us have the same birth date. I opened the email from my cousin to find a scan of Noels birth certificate, only to see, remarkably, that he was also born on January the second.

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This strange fact, this weird coincidence, had been hidden for all of these last few years, and only my late Grandfather would probably have known this. Every time he celebrated his birthday, he would have remembered his younger brother Noel, who died when he would have been about thirty years old.

It certainly makes me think about fate, if such a thing exists, but also about the life that he, and many others, did not have.

Static : The Script

Hello,

Here’s the script of my first solo show, Static. It hasn’t got the poems in it, but I thought people might like to read the in between material.

It was performed on several occasions throughout 2016 and on one occasion in 2017 in Torquay, Exeter, Bristol, Edinburgh, Guldford and Totnes.

It was all a bit wobbly but I had great fun with it, and it was the mist autobiographical thing I’ve written.

STATIC
Robert Garnham

Robert is in the performance space with a small battery radio tuned loudly to static.

Poem : ‘Static / Wind’

I tell you what, it gives you the willies. 

Thinks about things for a while. Opens performance book.

Poem: ‘The Increasing Physical Dexterity of Justin Bieber’

2009.
Feeling so damn unique. There’s nobody like me in the world! That sensation of circumstance, geography and time being in just the right alignment to create me, and me alone. And there’s poetry in my chest, it’s beating away, pounding out strange rhythms with the absolute promise of being such an individual, that I might one say change society and make a real difference to the world!

Putting pen to paper. Oh, you brave poet! Your words will echo like an aftershock, an earthquake as time itself bends in on you with your uniqueness, like Lord Byron with a megaphone, Wordsworth with an attitude, Ted Huges on the ten o clock news shaking his fists at convention.

2016
Seven years of writing poetry and discovering that there’s nothing really unique about me after all.

Seven years of writing poetry about minor trips out to the dentist, mild personal discomfort and vacuum cleaners. Seven years of looking in the mirror every morning and saying, Yeah, that’ll do. Seven years of my work being compared to that of John Betjeman, usually by people who say things like, ‘His work is not as good as that of John Betjeman’.

Seven years static. A life spent going nowhere.

(Sit)

I want this show to be one of those worthy shoes, you know, where you learn all about me as a person and all of my shortcomings. I suppose my first shortcoming is that I was born in Surrey, a county so bland and so irrelevant that absolutely nothing newsworthy or interesting has ever happened there. And that’s a fact. Look it up in the history books, if you like. Nothing interesting has ever happened in Surrey. My birth there in 1974 coincided with the resurfacing of the Guildford bypass, whereas here in the same year you of course had the Olympics. Oh, and later that year my aunt saw a badger.

I was brought up with this sense of low expectations and the absolute blandness of existence. Even my name is boring. Robert Garnham. I sound like an estate agent. I like to think that I was named after my dad’s favourite singer, Bob Dylan, who is of course, Robert Zimmerman, and this at least makes me a little bit excited about being called Robert. But at the time I was born my aunt worked in the factory making Robert’s Radios in Molesey. I can imagine the decision-making process that led to my parents choosing such a boring name.

(Improvised family conversation involving Robert’s Radios).

Robert sits in the chair as his own mother while feeding a baby, presumably Robert. He stands to indicate when his father is speaking.

I suppose I got off lightly. My Uncle worked for a fork lift truck company called Lansing Bagnall.

Robert builds a theremin on the table out of a corn flakes packet, two Wellington boots, a tape machine. He plays the theremin.

Let’s try and . . .

The tape machine interrupts him. Improvised silliness with the tape machine.

School was hell.

Poem : ‘2 Abbey 1’

(Stand)

I grew up in a house on a hill. Three generations, six of us in a two-up, two-down cottage surrounded by woods in the hills of Surrey. From the back bedroom window at night I could see the whole of West London. In the evenings I’d tune my radio through the static to the jazz stations, sit there for hours in the heat and the humidity of the sticky forest Surrey summer, and gaze at the neon and the road signs and the motorway lights.

Poem: ‘The Prince of Belgium’

Apart from being gay, that was.

(Sit).

And oh, mamma! I was very gay. I was probably the gayest thirteen year old that Surrey had ever seen. Yet my whole suburban mindset dictated that I should stay in the closet and not tell anyone because this was Surrey and people didn’t really want to know about such things, they were too busy buying bowler hats and going to wife swapping parties and voting for weird Conservatives and because of that I thought there was something wrong, a strange error in the system which just affected me. I knew that everything had to change but the time was never right.

It took a few years, and I came out to my friends first. They were surprisingly supportive, but at the same time they were incredibly surprised. Even though I’d been the gayest thirteen year old that Surrey had ever seen. You see, by the time I was twenty, I was a completely different person.

In fact, it still comes as a complete surprise when people discover that I’m one of those gay people that you hear about. I think, personally, it’s because I’m so macho, and manly, and tough, and masculine, and something of a hard nut. I think, basically, it’s because I’m a stud.

(Stand).

Though to be honest, I’ve always felt like a gay man trapped in the body of a bus driver.

I always wonder what my friends thought about that whole gay thing.

Poem : ‘Not Flamboyant’

I was set up on a blind date suggested by mutual friends and we hit it off immediately. At the time I was a part time shop assistant, and he was a trampoline salesman. Looking back now I see that he was incredibly patient with me. In fact he even said that it was what inside that counts, and that to him looks weren’t . . .

Hmmm.
Come to think of it, he charged me twenty quid.

Poem : ‘The First Time’

So I came out. And I had oodles of sex. And I masturbated a hell of a lot. It’s hard to believe looking at me now but when I was 18 to 20 I was a very attractive young slip of a thing with a trendy haircut and a face lit up with the evident joys of life. I always wondered what my first partner would be like and I would daydream about the usual ones, bearing in mind that this was the early 1990s. Peter Davison from Doctor Who, or Chesney Hawkes, or for some weird reason, foreign secretary Douglas Hurd. My first proper partner was a young man called Jamie, a slightly taller, thinner version of Lance from Neighbours. He invited me back to his place ostensibly to show me his collection of Star Trek memorabilia. I knew it was about to get really interesting when he took me up to his bedroom to let me see his collection of phasers.

Poem : ‘Jamie’.

Oh, when I look back on it now it’s like I was doing it all the time. But as I’ve got older, I’ve shown less and less interest in these matters. Things have slowed down. I’ve slowed down. I’ve become static.

I feel like there’s this sense that my life is going nowhere. I’m now officially middle aged and there’s a huge list of things that I’ve never done.

(The list is written on cards. Robert dances and improvises as he unveils them).

I’ve never bought a house.
Learned to drive.
Fallen in love.
Had a promotion.
Earned the respect of my contemporaries.
Had a jacket dry cleaned.
Hosted a barbecue.
Owned a sofa.
Walked a dog.
Got married and had kids.
Bought a round in a pub.
Used a power drill.
Been arrested.
Paid a bribe to council bin men.
Used an axe.
Slapped a yak.

When I look at my life I’m tempted to think that I haven’t done much with it. I don’t have a fancy job or a nice big house or a big throbbing monster of a car. In fact all of the things that seem to drive successful people seem to have passed me by.

And I’m ok with this.

It lets me concentrate on the important aspects of living, like sleeping and biscuits and buying hair gel.

Here’s a diagram to illustrate my thinking on this.

(Improvised diagram and flip chart section).

I’m about as camp as an oak tree. I’m about as flamboyant as Ryvita.

(Look left and right as if imparting a secret).

Yet I see wonder and amazement everywhere. I watched a documentary once in which it was pointed out that the echoes and shockwaves from the Big Bang which created existence itself can still be heard as static on a radio receiver. The idea of this has always interested me immensely. I may be just a poet, but I’ve always wanted to probe the origins of life and existence and make my own little mark on the world. The work of the large hadron collider, I believe, will ultimately shed new light on the mysteries of the universe, and I try to muck in and help where I can.

So for you, ladies and gentlemen, and for science in general, and for deeper understanding, I’m going to construct a large hadron collider right now, right here, on stage.

Robert takes a length of garden hose, a camera, a biscuit on a plate, and attempts to create a black hole by smashing atoms together in the garden hose. He finishes by holding up photos on his ipad of the resulting smashed atoms.

Of course, I would need a proper scientist to tell me what this all means.

It’s all connected. Everything is connected. Time and memory, light and shade, and all those atoms spinning around, radio signals from the original Big Bang, and me, me as a young man with all that wonder and amazement, I’m still that person only I’ve channelled it all elsewhere, the parts of it that haven’t been ground down by the finer detail of living, every now.

Yet I’m also aware that the world I live in is freer and more open and accepting than other parts of the world, and that’s what this next poem is about.

Poem: ‘The Doors’
Poem: ‘Badger in the Garden’

Robert performs the performance piece ‘Static’ which starts with the radio being switched on again.

The whole piece is delivered with the radio on. At the end of the piece, Robert packs away all of the paraphernalia and sits on the chair with the radio in his lap. He turns it off.

How Sultry the Night that is Ours

I was coming back from a gig in Taunton last night and I had to change trains at Newton Abbot, with a  half hour wait. So I decided to set up my camera and film this, the poem I’d spent two weeks learning. I didn’t realise that the waiting room was next to the station office with staff still in there, but hey, I’m sure they enjoyed it!
https://youtu.be/9k72hubbjRg

‘Hearth’, by Rose Cook, A Review.

One of my favourite performers of poetry is Rose Cook. Listening to her perform her poems – for indeed, she performs, rather than reads – one is lulled almost to a state of trance, her mesmerising delivery soft, insistent, almost plaintive. Every single syllable becomes a perfect moment, each word carefully chosen, I have seen rooms filled with people silent in rapt attention.

Rose has a new book out. Hearth is published by Cultured Llama, who also published one of her previous collections, Notes from a Bright Field. As ever the themes range from nature to the family to those everyday matters which affect us all, living, breathing, and indeed, dying. Yet they are done so with assuredly and often with humour. In one poem she muses on the steep incline of the local high street, pondering on whether to get a donkey, ‘She can have the shed . .’. Another poem, ‘A Situation Arising from a Complete Inability to Master Any Language but her Own’, hilariously works on the scenario of the title.

The family is at the core of this collection. Many of the poems are meditations on her relationship with her mother, or the shock of a life-threatening injury to her own son. At such points there is real emotion, though never overblown or overwrought. Rose has the most deft of touches and can, with a very simple or honest phrase, provoke real emotion and universal sentiments.

‘When I was a child, my mother would say,
if you get lost, don’t go looking for me.
Stay put. Stay there and I will find you.
She’s gone now.’

There are also remarkable descriptions of nature and the natural environment, from opening a pomegranate, to meditations on elephants and whales. Rose is an astute and inventive observer of the world around her, a talent used in those poems which describe paintings and photographs, or listening to a conversation on a train about an injured crow and imagining it in a cardboard box.

The world is a better place with Rose in it, from the turns which bring truth to the fore throughout her poems, to the humour she brings to the everyday. And if, like me, you’ve been lucky enough to hear her perform, her voice will stay with you throughout this wonderful collection.

Duck fight.

The other day I came through the park
And there was a duck fight,
Two male ducks going at it,
Quacking in the most boisterous manner
And flapping their wings.
Duck fight.

When people are insulted and they don’t care,
It’s said to be water off a duck’s back.
When ducks are insulted they
Are less inclined to be poetically philosophical.
They don’t take it lying down.
They don’t lie down.
I stood at the pond and I pointed and laughed
At the fighting ducks.

One duck was up for it.
The other was a well ‘ard mallard.
One duck showed a lack of respect.
He was pecked
By the other duck.
It was like watching Daffy arguing with Bugs
Only it was two Daffies
And nobody had a carrot.

A woman walked past and I said,
Duck fight!
She looked at me weird
And quickened her pace.

Peck flap quack flap peck flap quack.
Quack peck flap flap peck peck flap.
Flappity flappity peckerty perkerty
Quackety quackerty quack.
Peck flap quack flap peck flap quack.
Moo.
There was a cow nearby.

It made the pond
Awfully turbulent.
It was all kicking off.
I expect at the end of the fight
They would’ve both been cream quackered.

Wait for laughter.

I wondered what had started it.
Perhaps a transaction gone wrong,
A dispute with the bill.
Perhaps they were playing snooker
And one of them did a fowl shot.
Perhaps one of them said quack,
And the other replied,
I was going to say that.
Perhaps they were fighting over a chick.
Perhaps someone threw a frisbee
And shouted, duck!
But instead of ducking the ducks looked up
Because they were both ducks.
Perhaps it was none of these things.
Perhaps one of them
Made a wise quack.

I wanted to stop it.
I wanted to stop the duck fight.
But it’s never a good idea
Just to wade in.

I wrote in my diary that night,
I wrote,
And they’ve info the firmament of my rigid
Imagination,
Forgoing all but the sweetest dreams
Of nature divine and the privilege of
Which I have been thankfully prone,
Did I espy, in the park,
A duck fight.
Also, I went to Lidl and bought some fish fingers.

In the eighties I invented an
Alternative to My Little Pony.
It was called
My Little Duck
It was a My Little Pony
With the nose sawn off and a beak
Welded on.
It had too many legs.
Which gave it stability but was
Anatomically incorrect.

The park ranger put
His hand on my shoulder and said,
Just let them get on with it, son,
Let them sort it out between them,
And I said,
Why have you got your hand
On my shoulder?
And he said,
Why don’t you come back to my shed
And watch some duck fight DVDs with me?
And I said,
Ok.

On learning poetry from memory.

I’ve spent the last week learning a new poem. This might not seem like the most startling revelation from a spoken word artist, it’s what they do. I know lots of my poems from memory, especially the short ones or the ones which rhyme, a process I started when I got an eye problem and had difficulty in reading the book on dark stages. What makes this one different is that it’s a brand new poem which I haven’t yet performed.

I have a shocking memory for learning material. A long while ago I was in a play at the Northcott Theatre in Exeter, it was a production of Sarah Kane’s Crave, and it felt almost impossible to learn because none of the lines made any logical sense compared to the line before it. I can’t remember how I managed to do it in the end.

The reason I’ve learned a new poem is that I’m taking part in a theatre writing showcase in London tomorrow and the director wants the poem to be performed from memory. So I’ve spent the last two weeks learning it, and using all kinds of techniques to make sure that the lines go in. So what I’ve been doing is making crazy associations between the end of one line and the start of the next.

For example:

. . .when he gets distracted by the cricket results.

So we’re walking on the beach, me and Brandon . .

I visualised cricket on the beach.

For ‘butt blocks in the rigging,
Man the head!’

I visualised someone getting their head caught in the rigging of a ship.

And for ‘whales both hump back and sperm,
First mate officers . .’,

I visualised . .
Well, someone would really have to be your mate to do anything with them and sperm.

I’ve also been practising the poem all the time, in the shower, at the gym, in the sauna, and while walking through town. I must have looked like something of a loony, walking along and mouthing words to myself, but it’s working. The poem is currently locked in place and I’m feeling rather pleased.

So the next step, of course, is to memorise a whole hour show. A three minute poem took two weeks, so a sixty minute show should take . . . Well, it should be ready by 2018!

Here’s the poem:

Poem

It must be hot,
My mars bar’s turned to mush,
The sound of melting tarmac
In the late night hush.
Bread in the packet has already turned to toast,
My neighbours pet chicken is now a Sunday roast.
Now I don’t like to boast,
Because I’ve got Brandon, oooo, Brandon
Basking on my bed in his boxers,
Both of us pining for something fresh
Other than the obvious
Like the steering freeze of truth,
The cool, cool wash of contentment,
Or a vanilla ice cream.

Bung a flake in it, good fellow.
Bung a flake in that thing!
Grab it, twist it, thrust it in,
Now how much do I owe you?

We’re making our way through this
Seaside town now, me and Brandon,
He’s promised something hot and long and sticky
The moment we get back.
It’s been years since I had a kebab.
Past shop clad shutters and graffiti denouncing
Tracey as a slag,
To the neon buzz moth hub
Of the prom prom prom
Tiddly om Pom Pom
Last night in bed he said
It isn’t  very long
Tiddly om Pom Pom
And it’s very limp.

And I said,
It’s seen a lot of tourists over the years
And it’s prone to erosion
And longshore drift.
Half of it was swept away
By a giant squid.

The rash on the side of my neck
Is caused by Brandon’s stubble as if scrapes
Sandpaper scrapey sprapey scrape
When he gets distracted by
The cricket results.

And now we’re walking next to the beach and his face is
Lit up like that of a cartoon ferret on a box of cheap own brand
Rice Krispie knock offs
The spoon filled with ricey goodness
Hovering inches from his cavernous gob 

And the salt air late night sea breeze
Caresses our manly frames
Imbuing in us all kinds of nautical hi jinx
Naval seriousness, merry little frigates,
Dolphin blowholes, bottom feeding mullets,
Whales both humpback and sperm,
First mate officers, salty sea dogs,
Able bodied seamen, bow thrusters,
Butt blocks in the rigging, man the head,
Bump head gurnards and bottle nosed lumpsuckers.
And chub.

Do you see the ice cream van?
Do you see the ice cream van?
An oblong of light spilled out on the
Sand flecked concrete,
It’s refrigeration generator
Throbbing the sir with a sudden intensity,
Chugga chugga chugga
Do you feel it throbbing away there?
Chugga chugga chugga
Window stickers advertising all kinds
Of things to lick and nibble and crunch down on
Cool and ever so creamy.

The moon beams on high like someone from Dorset.
In the glow of it’s madness we dance.
Oh, Brandon, I want to do things
To certain bits of you
For most of the night,
Though I’m conscious you’ve got an early shift
At the Lady Remington Smooth N Silky
Cordless Rechargeable Hair Removal Facility factory
And the ice cream man,
Oh,
The ice cream man,
Did I mention he’s also a magician?
A sparkle in his eye,
He starts waving his magic wand at us, and

Poof!

All is gone.
The ice cream man is gone.
The ice cream van is gone.
The neon and the stats are gone.
And Brandon is gone.
None of them ever existed.
It’s just me, and the prom
On a sultry night in a sleepy coastal town,
And the kebab shop is closed,
And the rash on my neck
Is just a fungal infection
And Tracey is still a slag, apparently,
And I walk sadly home,
I walk sadly home.

We’re sending our thoughts and our prayers.

Hey there Mister President, it’s happened again,
What shall we tell our tax payers?
We could jump into action, but action costs money,
Let’s send out our thoughts and our prayers.

Guess what, Mister President, a hideous happening,
World leaders and other big players
Have pledged their assistant, so I guess that means
We can just send our thought and our prayers.

Omg Mister President, you’ll never guess what’s
Been committed by some mad doomsayers,
We could be brave. Or perhaps just cave
In and send our thoughts and our prayers.

An island community hit by a hurricane
Melting ice and sea level layers
We could put a stop or just contribute
But let’s just send our thoughts and our prayers

The vocal minority is righteous and loud
And they foam and they spit, they’re such bayers,
For mercy for those who think that they know
So let’s just send our thoughts and our prayers

When the obvious is called for and various choices
Deep thinkers and other conveyors
Can make such great changes and go with their hearts
So we’ll send them our thoughts and our prayers

It’s hard to seem righteous when appearing so wrong
It’s hard to seem like a soothsayer
But acting with solemnity and a smidgen of balls
And the tiniest amount of knowing bravado
And the minimum amount of presidential clout
And not even sending out thoughts
And not even sending out prayers
But just the expression,
‘We’re sending our thoughts and our prayers’
At least makes it look like all of the above.

You’ve got a golf match
At two o clock, by the way.

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