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Fiction and fact: forged from the same DNA

Last year, this Freshly Pressed post described the fear of reality catching up with imagination as I wrote my near-future novel So Long, Shakespeare – a comedy thriller that throws together the worlds of Shakespeare and Star Wars-style space opera.

Well, this week, another couple of news stories emerged which have a weird affinity with events depicted in my novel.

First, it was noted on TheForce.Net that Random House are preparing a Trade Paperback for publication in August which – well, throws together the worlds of Shakespeare and Star Wars. The blurb for Ian Doescher’s William Shakespeare’s Star Wars goes as follows:

“May the verse be with you! Inspired by one of the greatest creative minds in the English language—and William Shakespeare—here is an officially licensed retelling of George Lucas’s epic Star Wars in the style of the immortal Bard of Avon. The saga of a wise (Jedi) knight and an evil (Sith) lord, of a beautiful princess held captive and a young hero coming of age, Star Wars abounds with all the valor and villainy of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Reimagined in glorious iambic pentameter, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars will astound and edify learners and masters alike. Zounds! This is the book you’re looking for.”

Yesterday, meanwhile, there was extensive coverage of developments in DNA storage. As reported in Nature, scientists at the Hinxton European Bioinformatics Institute have succeeded in accurately encoding and storing vast amounts of data in microscopic double-helix form. Among their literary guinea pigs were the Sonnets of one William Shakespeare – leading to the creation of a single speck of DNA which, quite literally, contains every one of Shakespeare’s 154 Sonnets.

An amazing thought, and one which put me in mind of the following passage from Chapter 4 of my novel:

“Though he didn’t understand a single detail of the formula, which just listed a load of different chemical agents and the quantities required, Joe was still wowed by what he was holding. Here, amazingly, was Shakespeare’s genius, reduced to a chemical recipe.”

Of course, neither of the two real-world parallels matches exactly with my story. In the excerpt above, the concoction Joe is about to swallow represents not Shakespeare’s creations but Shakespeare himself; and what he goes on to create is not Star Wars but a vaguely similar kind of space epic. And yet, in an odd way, both these real-life developments are almost truer to the spirit of my novel than the novel itself.

How so? Well, let me put it this way. In developing my story, I found myself exploring two major ‘what ifs’: ‘What if Shakespeare’s genius could be harnessed in DNA-form?’ and ‘What if Shakespeare were to write a Star Wars-style blockbuster?’ And ever since finishing the book, I’ve felt that my answer to those two imponderables – inventing the ‘genetic muse’, thereby enabling Shakespeare’s creativity to be channelled into a sci-fi screenplay – was a fairly obvious, almost literal way of handling things; but equally, the only real means of responding to what were strictly hypothetical questions.

How wrong I was. For not only has reality now successfully given birth to both seemingly impossible scenarios, it’s achieved the feat by taking them even more at face value than I did – trick answers, if you like, to sincere questions. The DNA scientists have addressed the first  by overlooking Shakespeare-the-creator, and taking his ‘genius’ to mean the works themselves; and Ian Doescher has achieved the second by simply re-writing Star Wars in the manner of Shakespeare.

Real life, eh? Not just stranger than fiction but slipperier, too.

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If Shakespeare were alive today…

In my last post on the gestation of So Long, Shakespeare, I recounted the search for a fictitious solution to the seemingly unanswerable Shakespeare authorship conundrum. Inexorably, I arrived at the idea of using Shakespeare’s DNA to bring him back from the dead. Someone, somewhere, would devise a genetic means of transferring one person’s creativity into the body and mind of another. In so doing, they would discover – or at least, so it would seem – that the ‘man from Stratford’ was indeed an impostor.

The question was: who would achieve this world-changing feat, and why?

One option, clearly, was to make the cloning of Shakespeare’s DNA exclusively a question of authorship attribution – something designed to prove the point once and for all. But since my whole conceit was about disruption – shaking up the existing foundations of the authorship debate on all sides – this felt a little obvious. Instead, I wondered what would happen if the DNA resuscitation occurred for other reasons, in a totally different environment, and the associated authorship discovery were made entirely by accident? Wouldn’t that shake things up a treat?

I began thinking who else might want to harness Shakespeare’s talent, if such a thing were possible – and the answers came cascading in. Foremost in my mind was memory of that perennial debate: What would Shakespeare be doing if he were alive today?

The most popular answer is also the one to which I subscribe: namely, that he’d be in Hollywood, or at least big budget TV, writing for the masses, rather than a theatregoing minority. The stage, after all, was the mass culture of Shakespeare’s time. Like the great baroque composers, our latter-day perception of him as belonging to ‘high culture’ is not only precious but anomalous. First and foremost, he wrote not to enlighten but to make a living. The profound, life-enriching power of his plays was secondary to the requirement of entertaining as many people as could be attracted to watch them. Given which, it’s no surprise that many of his dramas explore precisely the same themes as the grandest Hollywood blockbusters – history, family and romance. The affinity, in many ways, is absolute.

But even if I hadn’t agreed with all this, Shakespeare-in-Tinseltown was still an irresistible fit. Here was a setting where talent talks, meaning the demand for his manifestly incomparable services would be automatic and unthinking. Moreover, it was a world where the financial firepower and hubristic imagination required to engineer such extraordinary genetic magic was readily available. In every sense, it was a credible scenario: Hollywood mogul tries to harness Shakespeare’s writing power for profit and artistic gain – only to discover, inadvertently and inconveniently, that Shakespeare didn’t really write the plays. His next step, quite naturally, would be to round up the DNA of the alternative candidates – which would require the assistance, in some form, of the established authorship fraternity. Soon enough, a fascinating mix would be coming to the boil, and we’d be well on our way to changing the flagship face of western culture.

There was just one big choice left to make. What kind of films would my mogul be making – and why would he feel the need to enlist Shakespeare’s help?

It was at that point that the two dominant Hollywood franchises of the time fused in my mind: Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.

Death Star Globe

Hat-tip to Framescourer (framescourer.blogspot.com) for this Episode 7/So Long, Shakespeare-inspired piece of fan-art.

George Lucas’s original trilogy had given me some of the happiest moments of my childhood, and I didn’t think the prequel series was that bad. The design was glorious, the storyline wasn’t bad, and John Williams’s music was as powerful as ever. The problem, purely and simply, was with the prosaic, lifeless and entirely earthbound dialogue. That, and the impact it had on the acting.

Meanwhile, Peter Jackson’s epic re-telling of J R R Tolkien’s Middle Earth saga was ticking every box, dialogue included, such that, by the time Return of the King came around, the popular demand for Oscar recognition was met by precisely that.

So I set to wondering: what if there were a sci-fi auteur, whose films were terrifically successful but who harboured an over-riding yet unfulfilled ambition to have his populist achievements recognised by his establishment peers with victory at the Oscars? And what if the barrier to achieving this wasn’t, in fact, the snobbery of the elite, but the quality of his screenplays’ dialogue? Wouldn’t such a man be more than a little keen for some help with his writing? Wouldn’t he just love to have someone of Shakespeare’s calibre come to his aid, and help him attain his dream?

The answer, quite obviously, was yes – and so, indeed, it was to be.

Bringing Shakespeare back from the dead

In my previous posts on the development of my novel, I described how I arrived at the idea, and also why I was so excited – both in terms of the fictional possibilities, and the light it would shed on the Shakespeare authorship debate.

But now I was facing the very problem that ostensibly plagues the debate in real life – how to prove the true authorship of Shakespeare’s plays and poems, once and for all?

One thing was immediately clear. Whatever I came up with, it needed to be indisputable. Authorship enthusiasts are supremely adept at bending facts to their will, and I needed something which would instantly and convincingly silence protests on all sides of the debate. Something extraordinary, in other words, well beyond the historical discourse and textual study which, with eternal ambiguity, currently dominate the debate. Newly-discovered evidence or cryptographic proof – however seemingly incontrovertible – simply wouldn’t do. I needed something properly scientific.

But what ? How would this proof of proofs reveal itself?

Mathematics offered one potential avenue, and there is indeed a rich seam of real life work being done on mathematical intertextual analysis – both in relation to the authorship question and associated debates. Though still short of being universally accepted, it’s just about possible to imagine such methods one day becoming wholly conclusive. So perhaps that was the key: working up a world in which a new kind of linguistics analysis definitively matched Shakespeare’s plays with the writing of another author?

It was certainly a possibility. But not only was I keen for mathematics to take centre stage in another emerging strand of my plot, there was something about it which sidestepped an important part of the argument. Comparing texts, after all, is only useful when one has, well, a comparator: de Vere’s poems, say, to contrast with the plays we know as Shakespeare’s. In other words, the method can only be used for one of two things: either showing that someone else’s writing doesn’t match the Shakespearean canon; or, as would be the case in my novel, to show it does. The point being that, without a benchmark for the ‘Stratford man’, it’s impossible to determine his role in anything other than an inferential way.

This felt unsatisfactory because it was at odds with the logic flow of sceptics’ arguments. Asserting that Shakespeare himself wasn’t the author is invariably the opening gambit of anti-Stratfordian polemic, so I thought it would be apt to make it the first step in proving the sceptics to be right. And what better way to eke out the hidden tensions on all sides than by making the discovery as gradual as possible?

One way or another, this had to be my modus operandi. First find some way of showing Shakespeare didn’t do it – then use that same mechanism to find out who did.

The challenge was how to prove a negative. Again, any kind of evidential debunking of the ‘Stratford man’ – even, say, the discovery of contemporary testimony declaring that he didn’t do it – would still ultimately be contentious, open to the perennial claims about hoaxes and, even if not, still endlessly contestable.

No. The only option was to somehow bring Shakespeare into my story. Alas, time travel – while the ultimate fantasy for conspiracy theorists – wasn’t quite right, since I wanted my novel to be all about the future, and how the world would change if proof were ever established. By hook or by crook, I needed Shakespeare in the here and now.

I toyed very briefly with summoning a ghost – a Shakespearean conceit, indeed – before realising that nothing could be more untrustworthy and less likely to be universally accepted than a spirit come to admit that his extraordinary legacy had been built on an outrageous falsehood. It would be better to have him resurrected wholesale – perhaps through some feat of DNA cloning – though that, in its way, was every bit as far-fetched as the supernatural option.

Or was it? I thought again, slowly realising that there was something about the idea which chimed with what I was trying to do. Not cloning outright; but rather, harnessing an aspect of his DNA – the creativity, the muse, as it were – and finding some way of transferring it into a living being. Yes, the implications were numerous – I’d basically be suggesting that creativity is a genetic absolute – but this only enthused me further. I’d long-sensed some quality in the authorship debate relating to the self-appropriation of genius – whether belonging to Shakespeare, Bacon, Marlowe or whomever – and was determined to explore this in my novel. What could be better than introducing a plot device whereby creativity became, in its way, an absolute commodity?

This, then, was my solution. Somebody, somewhere, was going to discover the genetic key to artistic greatness and – in so doing – establish beyond doubt the almighty lie of Shakespeare’s authorship.

The question was: where was I going to make this happen – and, more importantly, why?

Shakespeare and the authorship issue: further reading

So Long, ShakespeareAhead of the Christmas break, my novel So Long, Shakespeare is being offered at the super-bargain price of 99p over at Amazon UK. I know I’m biased, but I reckon it’s perfect holiday reading – enough intellectual stimulation to keep your brain ticking over, but also incident, humour and fantastical ideas aplenty. The offer won’t last long, so don’t delay and head over right away.

In associated developments, I’ve just posted a handpicked list of the best Shakespeare authorship websites. There are over 30 in total, categorised by candidate. I figured it would be a useful resource for anyone new to the issue of Shakespeare’s ‘true’ identity, as well as providing useful context for anyone reading – or having read – my novel.

Imagining a world where Shakespeare isn’t Shakespeare

In A New Take on the Authorship Saga, I described my long-standing fascination for the Shakespeare authorship controversy, and how it led me to wonder what might happen if the matter were one day settled in the sceptics’ favour.

The conceit – which became So Long, Shakespeare – was rich with fictional possibilities. How would the news break? What would be the implications for cultures saturated by Shakespeare’s influence? Who would ‘own’ the discovery, and what form would that ownership take? What of the centuries of Shakespeare scholarship? How much would still be relevant, and how much would need discarding in light of the ‘new’ author’s biography? What about the Shakespeare industry – Stratford-upon-Avon, say, or Shakespeare’s Globe in London? Above all, what would happen to the plays and poems? Would they still be as rich, as powerful, as well-loved as before – or might a new author change even the works themselves?

As I say: it was a tale worth telling. But in terms of understanding the authorship debate, what really excited me was that my scenario focused on an imagined future – something which crops up surprisingly little in anti-Stratfordian discourse.

You might argue this is simple pragmatism – why bother thinking beyond the immediate challenge of gathering proof? Well, perhaps. But given the stakes, surely even the most determined realist ought to get carried away occasionally? And since most Shakespeare-sceptics are hardly averse to flights of hypothetical fancy, it’s odd that the debate so rarely runs away with itself: that Baconians aren’t continually dreaming of a world in which Francis Bacon becomes the new Shakespeare; or that Oxfordians aren’t busy re-publishing Shakespeare’s plays with Edward de Vere’s name on the cover. It’s like the debate is so fixated on the ever-malleable past that no-one ever stops to process what it all might mean for the future.

Perhaps that’s just a measure of the perceived unattainability of definitive proof – something which, given the murkiness of history, plus the impossibility of time travel, is so unlikely as to censor all thoughts of a future spent gloating in Stratfordians’ faces. But if the debate is indeed irresolvable, why bother arguing in the first place? What is the point of it all?

This was what gave my conceit potential. Faced with a controversy so resolutely focused on the past, I was going to challenge the debate by giving it a future. A future, specifically, which would deliver the one thing anti-Stratfordians least expect: resolution.

What would they feel then? Would their joy be uninhibited, or would there be sorrow amid the celebration? Would those who were wrong about the true author envy those who were right – or would the ‘rightness’ about Shakespeare overcome all? Might they suddenly see that, deep down, they were quite fond of the ‘Stratford man’ after all?

Absorbing questions. But before I could explore this brave new Shakespeare-less world, I needed to do the very thing that seemed so far-fetched: devise a means by which the true author of Shakespeare’s plays could be established.

It was time to head to the land where the impossible comes true: to Hollywood, and to Joe Solix Chronicles Seabright.

Book review: two reflections on the Shakespeare authorship issue

(NOTE: This review first appeared in the summer 2010 edition of Around the Globe. I am posting it here as a kind of bibliographic addendum to my novel So Long, Shakespeare, which imagines what would happen it the Shakespeare-sceptics had their way, and the man from Stratford was no longer the author of ‘Shakespeare’s’ plays and poems.)

More than ever, the authorship debate has become the elephant in the room of Shakespeare scholarship – an unyielding embodiment of perceived gaps in Shakespeare’s biography, and the theories advanced to fill them. Outside, hammering at the window, a baying mob has swelled to unprecedented proportions: ‘Look! An elephant! How can you not see?!’ Inside, the learned scholars, devoted to the glover’s son from Stratford, scarcely blink. ‘Mere amateurs,’ they scoff. ‘Their historical knowledge is suspect, their research shoddy, their arguments unsound. Even if there was an elephant in this room – which there most certainly is not – we should not be persuaded of it by such dilettantes.’

Mock trials, TV documentaries, international conventions: the modern world, with its love of conspiracy and cover-up, has been kind to the sceptics. At the centre of it all, the internet – and especially Wikipedia – offers a democratised way of spreading the word, unencumbered by prejudice and fuelled by the absence of counter-argument. There is only the odd ‘pro-Stratfordian’ page, but site upon site sets forth arguments for alternative authors – the Earl of Oxford still favourite – all gleefully deflating the myth that someone as unremarkable as the Stratford ‘Shakspeare’ could have written those towering plays.

Given the passions, reputations and even livelihoods involved, it can be hard for both camps to step back and regard the debate as a remarkable thing in itself. Perhaps it is a sign of progress, then, that two sober new additions to the sprawling authorship bibliography, from opposite sides of the divide, seek to do just that, establishing a middle ground in which all may find their attitudes and arguments illuminated.

As well as having co-founded the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition (doubtaboutwill.org), William Leahy is the man behind the pioneering MA in Authorship Studies at Brunel University. Presumably with that in mind, he has edited ‘Shakespeare and His Authors’: a collection of academic essays bearing out his claim that the debate ‘relates to all sorts of notions of identity, power, authority, ownership, cultural superiority and the transmission of conventional, dominant knowledge(s).’

Leahy is a sceptic himself, but his determination to balance the book is successful. Several contributors, like the Globe’s Dominic Dromgoole, aren’t doubters at all, and of those who are, only the historian William Rubinstein fails to resist a descent into anti-Stratfordian polemic. The range is impressive, too. At one end, Andrew Bennett meditates on how Shakespeare’s unknowability is entwined with romantic notions of the author; at the other, social psychologist Sandra Schruijer probes the dynamics of the stand-off between sceptics and scholars. In between, Mark Rylance is compelling on how his acting has been assisted by consideration of different authors, while Graham Holderness engagingly assesses the perils of reading Shakespeare’s plays autobiographically.

This latter idea becomes a dominant trope in James Shapiro’s ‘Contested Will’: an important book, which represents the first time a top scholar – fresh from penning one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated recent biographies – has turned in an entire volume dedicated to the authorship controversy.

Shapiro admits that several fellow Shakespeareans were ‘disheartened’ to hear of his new project, and it is tempting to see ‘Contested Will’ as the point at which Shapiro’s own scholarly patience snapped. But if this book is reactionary, anyone expecting an all-guns-blazing denunciation of authorship crackpottery will be disappointed. Steadfast in his beliefs, Shapiro is nonetheless fascinated by the minds and motives of sceptics, and his courageous clear-sightedness is to be applauded.

Any history of the controversy is bound to be entertaining, and Shapiro turns up numerous fantastic tales of forgery, deception and delusion. Equally arresting, however, is his emphasis that ‘orthodox’ Shakespeareans have, over the years, been as wayward as the doubters themselves. So while it’s all very well to condemn the forgery that prompted the mistaken belief that James Wilmot, the 18th century Warwickshire clergyman, was Francis Bacon’s first champion, one must acknowledge that the precedent had been set by the Stratfordian forgeries of William Henry Ireland and John Payne Collier. Likewise, one should be mindful that before anyone questioned Shakespeare’s authorship, some tried claiming that Shakespeare had written Christopher Marlowe’s plays. Though Stratfordians happen to be right, Shapiro says, nobody’s hands are exactly clean.

Nowhere is this shared guilt thicker than in the anachronistic compulsion to infer the author’s life from his plays – and in so doing project upon the plays, and their imagined author, one’s own preoccupations. It was in succumbing to this fatal urge, Shapiro argues, that Delia Bacon and John Thomas Looney (the first Baconian and Oxfordian respectively, commendable thinkers both) devised their radical theories, and it was for similarly personal reasons that Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud followed suit.

With their origins exposed, these theories – already hopelessly weak – evaporate into insignificance. But though that is good news for Stratfordians, Shapiro reminds us that the original liberty-taker, and thus Bacon and Looney’s ultimate precursor, was no sceptic, but the seminal Shakespearean Edmund Malone. He first resorted to inferential textual readings merely to date the plays, but was soon fleshing out Shakespeare’s life through the prism of the drama itself: a scholarly mischief which continues unchecked in biographies to this day. If academics think they are somehow distinct from the authorship cult, then, they are kidding themselves: not only does the doubt derive from the same intellectual, social and historical forces that shaped their own scholarship, they nurtured the conditions in which the ‘lunatic fringe’ has thrived.

Having revealed these affinities, Shapiro feels at liberty to reel off a litany of facts supporting Shakespeare’s claim which he underlines by explaining how scholars may soon see off the authorship problem for good. It’s a fascinating prospect, and makes you wonder: if the time comes when the questions do stop, and the elephant finally exits the room, will we mourn its passing?

Perhaps it needed a level-headed Stratfordian like Shapiro to show us that we will. For 150 years the controversy has rattled on, but ‘Contested Will’ delights in demonstrating how much it tells us, both about our engagement with Shakespeare’s conventional biography, and the power of his imagination to entrance and entangle our own.

Film review: Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous

(NOTE: This review first appeared in the winter 2011 edition of Around the Globe. I’m including it here as an addendum to my novel, So Long, Shakespeare.)

Alternative theories regarding the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays have a fundamental affinity with high-concept Hollywood blockbusters: both can be pitched in a single sentence – ‘Jaws in space’ for Alien; ‘Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare’s plays’ for Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous – after which, the rest pretty much writes itself. You might have to bandage over the odd plot hole, tweak any awkward historical facts, and pace things judiciously to suspend audience disbelief, but, in the spirit of Dr. Johnson’s critique of Gulliver’s Travels, ‘once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest’.

Yet while Anonymous, coming from the director of Godzilla and Independence Day, is a natural successor to its Oscar-laden forebear, Shakespeare in Love, the film’s appearance also chimes with the recent intensification of the authorship debate. Democratised by the internet, authenticated by two dedicated university courses, and advocated by knowledgeable, high-profile adherents, the controversy has been energised like never before. In this context, Anonymous represents a pivotal moment, dreamt of by some, dreaded by others: an unprecedented opportunity for the issue to leap into the mainstream, possibly even the classroom.

If that sounds overstated, the reaction of the Shakespeare establishment suggests otherwise. Many scholars have traditionally held their tongues on the authorship issue – to defend Shakespeare is to doubt Shakespeare – but the release of Anonymous, and mischievous promotional stunts like the distribution of an educational pack on the subject to US schools, has proved a call to arms. The battle is on for the hearts and minds of the masses.

Spearheading the Shakespearian fightback has been the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, fronted by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells. Their brutal campaign began on 1st September, two months before the film’s release, and unfolded on several fronts. First came a web conference in which sixty luminaries (including the Prince of Wales, Stephen Fry and Roland Emmerich) responded to the film’s tagline ‘Was Shakespeare a Fraud?’. This was followed by an online seminar, e-book and several articles (including one in these pages) refuting the claims of anti-Shakespearians, with a myth-busting essay anthology from Cambridge University Press to follow in 2013. There was even a slightly counter-intuitive prank, just before the film’s release, involving the covering-up of Shakespeare’s name on pub and road signs.

It has been a passionate defence, but what of its impact? Well, media coverage of the film has been rampant, and the Trust’s pre-emptive strike – stealing a march on the enemy in order to shape the tone of reporting – seems to have paid dividends. A quick trawl through Stuart Ian Burns’ excellent @shakespearelogs Twitter aggregator confirms that the majority of mainstream opinion pieces have rejected Emmerich’s historical meddling, while also throwing up little gems like the story of the students who gathered outside a Pasadena cinema to defend Shakespeare’s honour. By contrast, most anti-Shakespearian coverage has emanated from those associated with the film – typically Emmerich himself, Rhys Ifans (who portrays the Earl of Oxford), and screenwriter John Orloff – or dyed-in-the-wool anti-Shakespearians, defending themselves in the comments below pro-Shakespeare web articles.

The saga is, of course, far from over – there’s still the Blu-Ray to come, and Mark Rylance is promising an in-kind riposte to the SBT’s web conference – but Anonymous feels unlikely to prompt a mass defection to the sceptics, and may even reinforce popular sympathy for Shakespeare’s claim. This impression is strengthened by the film faltering on release, with Sony stemming back its American distribution after poorly-received previews, and takings on both sides of the Atlantic well below par. The latter will doubtless prompt rejoicing at the SBT, even if nothing quite undermines the anti-Shakespeare cause as effectively as the film itself.

Beautifully designed, with sumptuous costumes, sets, and tremendous ‘money shots’ of Elizabethan London, Emmerich’s well-acted, potentially entertaining tale of convoluted court intrigue is hamstrung, simply and fatally, by having to make sense of the Oxfordian theory – a flight of high-concept fancy which proves that not all such stories unfurl as easily as Gulliver’s Travels, or indeed the far fleeter-footed Shakespeare in Love. The film does its valiant best, with a fractured chronology, steady drip of far-fetched revelations, and dutiful ticking-off of motivations for every character, but the illusion doesn’t last beyond the end credits. The house of cards imploded as I walked away, drawing attention to the very improbability of the premise. I emerged thinking it would be fun to believe Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays but, even as I fantasised, I felt ever more certain that he didn’t.

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