Monday, January 5, 2015

The Demise of the Country Pub, and Other New Year Ruminations

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Last week I greeted the New Year in a pub that is walking/cycling distance from my house - a circumstance that is becoming increasingly uncommon around these parts. It used to be that the countryside in Northern Ireland was littered with public houses. Every tiny village and hamlet had at least one. Today, you can still see their remains along country roads - boarded up, or in various states of dilapidation. Others have been torn down, the land beneath them now sprouting housing developments, and only the memories and direction-giving habits of older locals keeping them alive in spirit. "Take a left at the Oasis," one might say, even though no such place has existed for decades.

Those country pubs that do remain in operation are fast becoming an endangered species. Passing them even on Friday and Saturday nights, one cannot help but notice the empty car parks and the lack of patrons inside. Through the brightly lit windows, it is not uncommon to see only one slumped-over silhouette at the bar, or perhaps even none at all. "They'll be shut in less than a year at this rate," a local will say, with a sigh and a shake of their head. And they'll not be far off the mark.

One early cause of the pubs' diminishing numbers, was their tendency to serve as popular targets of sectarian terrorist attacks during the Northern Ireland conflict. In rural areas, pubs that were bombed seem seldom to have been rebuilt - in part for financial reasons, and in part because residents of the small communities tended to become pub-shy after such incidents. But while the Troubles mostly ended by the late 1990s, the country pubs have only continued to vanish at ever increasing rates. What might account for that?

Local friends' thoughts on this are unanimous: Unlike in the good old days, few people today will drive drunk - thanks to a decade-long police crackdown on driving under the influence. And how else would you get home from the pub in a remote area? Sure, you could order a taxi or go out in a group with a designated driver, but that sort of thing is reserved for special nights out - not for the relaxed and habitual practice that going to the local pub is meant to be. Plus, if you're going to go through the hassle of organising a group and a taxi, you might as well head into town - where you can dance, sample sophisticated drinks, and meet new people. And so, on weekends the bars in the towns get all the business and on weekdays folks who drink, drink at home. Meanwhile, the local pubs languish.

When put this way, the demise of the country pub seems like a regrettable, yet understandable - and even necessary - sacrifice for making our roads safe from drunk drivers. If the country pub, nostalgic for it as we may be, has to go, then that is the price we must pay for Being Safe. For our children being safe.

But even as the heads nod with gravitas, there is a sense in these conversations of an undercurrent of absurdity that everyone can sense, in a vague sort of way, but no one can (or will) articulate. Until one day, I, the newcomer that I am, finally tried to:

"So what did they do before cars?"

"Hm?"

"How did they get home from the pub before there were cars? I mean, some of these pubs have been around forever, and private car ownership was not widespread here until, what, the 1950s? Maybe later? Not to mention that rural housing estates didn't exist until a couple of decades ago, so homes around these parts were more spread out than they are now. How on earth did rural folks get to the pubs?"

After some thought, answers are brought forth. Horse and cart. Bicycle. Walking. This is promptly followed by...

"But you couldn't do that today like!"

(An interesting thing to say, considering most of my friends are cyclists.)

Innocently, I ask why not and several answers are offered, with various degrees of conviction. People were hardier back then. Now that there's television, no one can be bothered. And, my favourite: The roads are less safe today.

But the real answer - the one everyone is thinking of - is that it's just not the done thing. It was the done thing back in the day, so that's what everyone did. But today the done thing is to drive everywhere, even if you're visiting your neighbor two doors down. And if you can't drive, you don't go. It would just be too weird.

And so while we might sigh with sadness over the numbered days of the local country pub and talk of wishing it were preventable, we will not go so far as to cycle, or even walk to it along a country road, because it is not culturally acceptable to do so.

Where am I going with all this (other than perhaps to the pub, while it's still standing)? Good question! Sometimes a theme will suggest itself, rather insistently, and then good luck trying to figure out what you're support to do with it... But I've been thinking about the country pub thing over the holidays, as I kept passing my local one (rumored to close soon) on my bike every day, and the absurdity of the situation just kept nagging at me in the midst of the many conversations I've had about new year resolutions, health, and transportation options over the past couple of weeks. We humans tend to underestimate the extent to which we are creatures of habit and followers of cultural trends. We hardly notice when self-undermining behaviour creeps into our daily routine, constraining our freedoms and diminishing our quality of life. I did not have a New Year's resolution this year. Instead, I took it easy, ate, rode my bike, took some photos, spent time with family, attended two wakes and a funeral, and simply felt happy in the freedom to cycle for fun, sport and transportation.

39 comments:

  1. Nice post here. And sad about the pubs. Happy New Year to you and yours!

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  2. "But you couldn't do that today like!"

    You can (because options exist) but you won't. You became too lazy. Cars made us lazy. It's so easy (and expected) to drive everywhere that people stopped thinking about alternatives. You want to go out Friday night and you may want to walk or ride bike there but then you think "Oh, it's uphill and upwind, may start to rain, ... I think I take the car".

    Simply put, back then people have no choice, there were no cars and the only entertainment in the village was the local pub, so they did whatever possible to get there. Now there is choice but because we want everything the easy way, the easiest thing is to not go anywhere, stay home and watch TV (or sit at the computer).

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  3. Ah pubs... a topic dear to my heart! The closure of pubs isn't just a rural occurrence, it is also happening in urban locations across the UK and Ireland. There don't tend to be the same issues with transport in urban locations as plenty of these pubs are easily accessible by walking, cycling or public transport, but they are still closing. One reason is a lot of them aren't actually very good. Clientele can be old blokes nursing a single pint for the entire evening, or morose alcoholics drinking far too much for the entire evening and creating the sort of atmosphere that doesn't really appeal to many other people. In the past landlords may have been able to sustain a business from these sorts of punters, but not any more.

    So there has been a trend for the gentrification and "gastronomisation" of pubs and one obvious reason is to appeal to women. So a more varied selection of drinks and good food rather than a pint of stout and Tayto Cheese and Onion crisps that were enough to keep the old blokes happy.

    There may be some nostalgie de la boue for the old shebeen style pubs but personally I think somewhere with a mix of sexes and ages and the option to have some decent food as well as a drink is far more enjoyable. And if it is a really good pub, I think people WILL make the effort to go there, from far and wide.

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    1. "Nostalgie de la boue" – I had to look that one up. What an excellent and useful term!

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  4. Thanks, some important thoughts about our culture here. Let's make cycling the done thing again!

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  5. I'm in a Canadian rural area and I find that things are slowly changing in this regard. People thought my wife and I were crazy for walking ten minutes to the local watering hole or cycling to restaurants and pubs in nearby towns. But after several years people are starting to do the same, realizing it is not a herculean effort; that it is a fun activity and a great way to make up for the calories you'll consume.

    There are still people who will warm up their pickup for 10 minutes just to drive a distance that's only 5 minutes walk, but they are fewer and fewer.

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    1. Also Canadian, and one unsaid thing in this thread so far, is whether it would be legal to ride a bike. It isn't where I live. A bike is a vehicle here, and despite the obvious, we can't drive imperceptibly drunk either. There are jurisdictions where the degree of alcohol that puts you in jail is well below any impairment level, but they are "just being safe". Now combine that with a bicycle, where is the real harm, but it is still illegal.

      In the south, one reason why rural pubs were on the outs was that they were being bought up, and moved to the city, the license that is. This was much cheaper than getting a new pub license, but maybe that is over at this point if city pubs are on the outs. Sad day for the culture, but I don't drink or smoke so I never really fit in.

      Another thing that was pervasive when I was young was walking up hills. One would see men walking up the longest hills pushing the bike, while dressed in a suit.. Modern gears have pushed that aside, but one result is you perspire enough to have to dress in very technical gear that costs a fortune and makes one look like a clown. Just as with the fact of helmets, it renders impractical, and weird, the whole cycling thing for outsiders. People look at cycling, and unless they have swallowed the Kool-aid, they don't want to be part of it as a natural every day thing.

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  6. The New York Times wrote about the demise of the neighborhood pub in the UK not long ago, so your post is indeed timely. I believe similar trends have been noted in the U.S. By contrast, microbreweries are going gangbusters through much of the country. My city, Billings, Montana, is home to seven brew pubs that are producing excellent products and have a loyal following. State law severely curtails the hours of operation for these establishments. As a result, it's not uncommon to see a line out the door as patrons queue up for a pint or a growler fill. The Local Beer movement is alive and kicking.

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    1. This is something that I was wondering, if the emergence of microbreweries was as widely popular outside of the US. I could easily see them as a cultural replacement for the neighborhood pub.

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    2. Microbreweries have arrived in England too. According to friends of mine who live in south London, there is a pub devoted to microbrews from just three post codes in south London!

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  7. Sort of reminds me of how the Horsey People back home in Texas bemoan the fact that young people aren't as into Horses these days because they so often lose interest in Equestrianism and get sucked into other pursuits before they can get a DRIVERS LICENSE and get involved. It's not considered "safe" to just ride a Horse around as any sort of transportation anymore for grown-ups let alone young people. So Horse Folks either ride around in whatever size circles their place allows or trailer to "Events" that often are just riding around in whatever size circles the arena allows. Even a hundred years ago when I was in High School my sister was sort of an oddity in that she rode her Cutting Horse the 3 miles to the Fairgrounds for the local Roping Meets and Rodeo instead of loading it into a Trailer and pulling there behind a 300 H.P. Longbed Dually. We could just about keep that horse in shoes and feed without depriving ourselves of shoes or feed but she and that horse had a great time going all over the place on the back roads within a few miles of home.

    If people in a Dumbass little Oilfield Pipetown in Texas are willing to give up their HORSES(!) for "safety's" sake than I guess it's conceivable that Ireland might give up her Pubs.

    Spindizzy

    P.S. We're all still armed to the teeth down there though, helps us sleep better at night. Safer you know.

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  8. A great post! thanks very much for that. Is this on the Dublin road to Kilcoo, where the Hilltown road goes to the left? I spend quite a lot of time in this rural area (im from Germany) and i do not use my bike as the roads are generally not in a good state and i find it to be too dangerous to use the bike. With regards to the motorisation process in the last decades and the impact that was mentioned above in the blog post - many highly motorised countries such as Germany or Japan - do not see similar developments. In other words if a high level of motorisation inevitably positively correlated with a high every day usage of cars - we would only see car users in Germany. The opposite is the case. I believe the problem of low bicycle use in NI and ROI is much more societally manifold and concerns many different aspects. By implication an attempt to challenge the low bicycle use in NI and ROI must consider all these different aspects, unfortunately generally this is slightly more difficult. but fortunately some changes have already taken place.

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  9. "homes around these parts were more spread out than they are now"

    Yes and no. It's probably got less to do with specific reliance on cars and more to do with population dynamics. Reliance on the car has accelerated the process but the rural population throughout has been in terminal decline for 170 years and rural settlement patterns have changed drastically in the last 50. In living memory for many people the population density in the countryside was of such a level that local services could be maintained. At the moment you'd have to think there is little or no economic viability left in these places but they still come into their own during core social occasions. Sadly too infrequently.

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  10. It's not done b/c it's a marker of a lower socio-economic class, that's why. Cycling is much less popular here in this time of economic boom and cheap oil. Predictable, yet mildly interesting.

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  11. The demise of the local pub, similar to the demise of the local shop - as consumers we drive them to extinction and then bemoan their passing - we supported the chain stores and now line up to pay for inferior products and impersonal service. KFC, McDonalds - the thin edge of the wedge of the great American dream - pure commercialism, instant gratification, that stomps over anything of substance - so now, if local pubs, small stores, bicycle transport are to survive, they must be 'trendified', a concept that provides some personal status as a reward for patronage. Commercialism drives to the heart of the ego wherever it can be exploited - a vast market as it can never be satisfied.

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  12. In the good old days these thoughts would be shared in a pub over a pint. Now they're shared via the internet. There are many nuanced and sad things about this changing dynamic….

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  13. Another reason is the smoking ban. Why pay pub prices to stand outside with your pint in UK weather? Pubs used to be key social centres. Perhaps part of the decline is more alternatives for entertainment and mobile phones and computers to find out what is happening rather than going down the pub.

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  14. There is about 12p (0.15 euro) a pint gross profit in beer, if you don't serve food so people are willing to travel to your establishment you will go under in a rural locale

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  15. In Paul Kingsnorth’s "Real England – The battle against the bland" he goes into great depth in explaining the demise of the classic British pub. It's called Pub Inc., and like Tescos that destroys village and small town businesses, Pub Inc uses its muscle to destroy an English classic that began in Roman times. Strongly recommend you get a copy of the book and read it.

    What would happen if a local pub teamed up with local bike enthusiasts who sourced a dozen or so loaner bikes so that pub patrons could borrow a bike to ride home? Then become bike-friendly, which means a bike-shed and heated spiced beer for those days when it is cold and wet? (In the old days, the British drank small beer, which had virtually no alcohol, but was exceptionally healthy and flavourful; pity you can't find it nowadays).

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  16. One of my cycling pleasures are bike rides to country pubs, usually in summer months as the days are longer. A leisurely ride to the pub with friends, eat, have a few (or more) drinks and depending on the time and location (and if it was more than a few...), cycle back, cycle to a train station to get back or stay the night.

    This may start a debate about cycling "under the influence", but I'm only likely to kill or injure myself and it is a risk I'm prepared to take (like not wearing a helmet all the time... but that's too much controversy for now!)

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    1. Actually, one could potentially cause an accident due to alcoholic impairment, and could harm someone else as a result.
      Anyway, I like V's overall ruminations, but cycling home drunk from a pub is hardly better than driving drunk. Maybe 'back in the day' it was safer without cars on the road, but today - bad idea...Riding to a cafe (aka coffeeneuring) makes more sense, is popular with cyclists, and is lots of fun!

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    2. I don't drink so I may have my head in the clouds, but what is "drunk" today at the low end, is in many places a theoretical impairment. There is a heck of a difference between theoretical impairment while driving and texting in 6000 pounds, and driving un-impaired or even impaired on an abandoned sidewalk. Where I live, even sleeping it off in a car brings down the full weight of the law. Is walking a bicycle while impaired drunk driving in such places?

      Someone has to be present to catch you regardless, and one could simply remove the penalty for cycling, and make the persecution for an actual appearance of disorder. But anyway, the pubs are gone and not coming back, so it doesn't mater.

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  17. In our parents generation ladies would not have been allowed in the pub. As a girl I remember waiting outside to give Daddy a message, I did not dare come in!

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  18. Pardon the ignorant question, but since you bring up pubs as targets of sectarian attacks: Can you tell Catholic pubs apart from Protestant pubs, or does it not matter anymore? As a visitor, can you walk into any pub or should you do some advanced research?

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    1. ... being slightly flippant, check what sports are playing on the TV ;) If it is a Celtic or a Rangers or a GAA game, that is a a clue but not if it is Man U v Chelsea.

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    2. This is a complicated question that would take a book to answer fully, but I'll try for the cliff notes version...

      Speaking solely of the area where I live (as opposed to, say, urban Belfast, which I have no experience with): As a foreign visitor you do not need to worry about this. You can walk into any pub and the locals will be nice to you.

      That said, my impression is that most of the pubs around here continue to have at least loose and implicit loyalist/republican affiliation. How do you know which? There are ways to tell, but unless you're local and used to that whole game of symbols and signs, it's way too complicated to explain. So if you're not from around here, just don't worry about it. Leave your union jack or tricolour t-shirt at home, and you'll be fine.

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    3. How 'bout my Red Hand of Ulster forehead tat?

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    4. Can't imagine that being a problem.

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  19. Not sure if it was like this in Europe, but in the 18th and 19th century US, when the first 'roads' were being built for horse-drawn carriages, taverns would be built along them. Since travel took so long by horse and buggy, travelers needed convenient places between towns for food (and booze) and the taverns met that need. But once the automobile took over, travel became faster and there was no more need for the roadside tavern. It was easy and quick enough to get from one town to the other, so the taverns in the middle of nowhere languished, and eventually disappeared. In the US, it had nothing to do with safety, and everything to do with the advent of speedy travel.

    I'm actually in the process of researching the old taverns of the Catskills, and plan to put together a bicycle tour that hits locations of long-lost taverns.

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    1. I get the sense that the reverse is happening, at least in some parts of the U.S., as bicycle tourism picks up steam. Small pubs are coming back to life.

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  20. Ray Bradbury somewhere wrote a story about a terrible bike accident at night in Ireland, going home from the pub as I recall. (Post-Google: here is a link to a passage: http://kentsbike.blogspot.com/2012/06/rip-ray-bradbury.html)

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  21. Fock'n roight. People have lost the notion of cycling, walking or rather, of not using a car. I'm sure that the reason's are complex, but just as sure that they're largely all about money. Let's keep on with the silent revolution.

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  22. OH OH! Maybe what we need here is a Pub Specific Bike!

    Create a whole 'nother category of cool new bikes, get someone from inside the "Movement" to document the phenomenon and CREATE A CHAMPIONSHIP! It doesn't have to make sense as long as it's either fun or better yet, edgy and extreme in a nonchalant but deadly serious, self referential way.

    Let's see, we'll need disc brakes for sure, probably some Pub specific tires of some sort, super stable handling(no low trail here, maybe self steering?), no bottle cages as no liquids will be consumed on the actual bicycle itself, fixed gear, definitely fixed gear... I know of hundreds of frustrated 'cross riders training pretty diligently for this already so a discipline combining mediocre bike handling skills with fantastically adroit pint glass handling should instantly enjoy full fields of riders! Organize a series of events at various pubs 4 or 5 nights every week for 11 months, crown local champions and send them to bigger regional comps with a pro division made up of the most committed participants(almost said "riders") and watch as we pack the pubs with a whole new demographic.

    Problem solved.

    Spindizzy

    Of course no one who goes to the pubs now will ever want to set foot inside one again but it's not about them, it's about saving the pub, right?

    Oh yeah, one more thing, who the hell won the poetry crash/slam! Money is riding on this...

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  23. Lovely post.

    Terrible shame alright.

    I moved to Ireland some 20 years ago after having my wedding here a few years before. After
    my first visit to Ireland I was happy to make the move here to raise our family - a much saner environment than America.

    We are about 1 mile out of our local town (pop circa 2000 and apx 60 km to Dublin) and people were out walking into town all the time but with the boom cars became more frequent and bigger (rare to see German cars 25 years ago) and faster making walking and cycling more hazardous. I still get out and walk on our road but not as often The roads are just too narrow, motor vehicle drivers generally go too fast for the conditions and Garda are a rare sight. This along with the tighter
    drink driving laws and smoking ban have all contributed to the decline.

    Smart publicans however can help rescue the situation. They could offer transport either on their own or in a cooperative fashion with other businesses. They can also make their venues cyclist friendly. For example, in our town there is not one place in the central town for a cyclist to lock up their bike. So the smart publican seeing dozens of people standing at the bus stop might wisely install a bicycle park.

    The Irish Pub is not the only institution to suffer over the past 25 years - the whole culture of the country (ROI) has changed imo. People in general are not as open and friendly as they once were. Here I blame bad planning causing the demise of town centres (and a decline in human interaction) making a car a necessity and the plantation of foreign trading companies staffed by stoic non nationals. Greed, speed, and penny pinching seem to be the order of the day. Ireland is still a great little country but it is in danger of losing its soul.

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  24. http://boingboing.net/2014/12/30/gathering.html
    "The long, slow death of our watering holes"

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  25. If you want people back in the pubs here's what you do: House the rural population in cold damp crofts. Cramped smoky cottages. When the only bright warm fire in the village is the publican's fire the publican will have plenty of patrons.

    I know more about Chicago. We used to have a good proper tavern on every corner. Back then the building code was a theoretical proposition. Landlords gave heat in winter if and only if they were princes. Landlords are not known for princely gestures. The tavern was always cozy warm. In the summer almost no one had air conditioning before the 80s. Maybe late 80s. The tavern was icy cold. Lots more people than you would imagine did not have home phones. You could see and talk to anyone you wanted to talk to at the corner bar. And the bartender took phone messages. Tip your bartender and you had an office manager/social secretary. A good one.

    The bar was the place to shoot pool, get a job, find a tradesman, find an apartment, place a bet (ponies, football, numbers), watch a fight, get pharmacy, join the community. Only the parish competed with the bar as a community anchor. These taverns are now entirely gone. A few holdouts serve drinks to elderly sentinels. Chicago even has a good handful of jazz clubs with secure tenure; the corner bars are gone.

    If you want to know what a bar was like you'll have to watch movies. Try Marcel Carne's Les Enfants du Paradis. The Cock Robin is not cinema fantasy, it's reportage. Every good bar was like that. Lacenaire is in Gitmo. We have no underworld anymore, we have no demi-monde.

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  26. "Las week I greeted the New Year in a pub that is walking/cycling distance from my house - "

    The first word in the first line. Other than that it is a wonderfully written piece.

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  27. There's also the bit about the inability to smoke; my coworkers dad lives in Ireland & had been going out for a fag & a pint almost nightly for decades, but once he could no longer smoke, his visits slowly started to drop off to the point that now he rarely goes!

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  28. Though I agree with most of your points but I think that if this culture is on decline then why cases of drunk or drugged driving are on increase? Shouldn’t they reduce too? I asked same question from my brother as he works with a Los Angeles DUI lawyer and he told me that at times truth is not what we expect!

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