Everything that was wrong about 2016 on a plate… or not

There’s a broad consensus, that 2016 has not been a great year. Perhaps it’s not been so bad for those who consider themselves ‘winners’ having voted for the UK to leave the EU or for Donald Trump to be Barack Obama’s successor, but the seemingly endless roll-call of celebrity deaths – many far short of average life expectancy – has put a bit of a dampener on things.

While social media has been awash with outpourings of public grief, many have been calling for some perspective, and for more consideration to be given to the refuges of Syria. It’ hard to argue that such a bewilderingly vast humanitarian crisis warrants more compassion than a few dead pop stars and whatnot, but I also understand the way losing a childhood hero or figure one deeply admires and whose work has had a significant cultural impact and has touched the lives of many has a sad resonance. It’s easier to feel something for someone with whom you’ve connected in some way through their music or moves than for large numbers of people of whom you know nothing. I’m not defending it. But by the same token, mourning the loss of an icon does not necessarily mean one feels nothing for the plight of those whose lives have been devastated by war. It’s not a binary question.

But while everyone has their own perspective on what’s made 2016 stand out as one of the (supposedly) worst years in living memory, what the equations of dead celebrities vs the suffering of millions of real people, leave vs remain, Trump vs Clinton (all of which tipped to the wrong side) reveal is a social division which is binary in the absolute.

Things have been heading this way for a fair while now: a vast mainstream culture is countered by an equally vast buy infinitely fragmented array of non-mainstream cultures. Big business is now the dominant force in politics: the role of ‘the people’ and the value placed on them by government has diminished to the point of being negligible. The idea that Brexit was in some way a ‘people-powered’ two-fingered salute to the establishment elite was a myth perpetuated by a bunch of establishment elite looking to con the malcontent in order to achieve their own ends. And while the numbers dependent on food banks continues to soar, so ‘the other half’ are comfortable with iPads for all the family and trips to Disneyland at half term.

Amidst all the shit, daily life goes on, and it’s also shit on a microcosmic scale. My experience today seemed to somehow encapsulate all that was wrong about 2016. Having been to Durham to visit the in-laws, we decided to treat ourselves with a detour toward Whitby to catch the sunset by the coast. The smoke rising from a fire on the moors partially obscured the setting sun, and so we stopped at a pub for food. It was 3:45pm. The doors were open, the lights on but in fact they were closed: the barman, sitting by the bar, was simply waiting for some of the residents to arrive. That’s rural pubs on a bank holiday in 2016, though. They simply can’t sustain opening all hours in the face of rising costs and big-business competition in more ‘key’ locations.

And so we found ourselves at Cross Butts Stables Restaurant. It looked homely enough, boasting locally-sourced produce and ‘proper’ food, cooked to order. It is, as I would later learn from their website, the place ‘Where town really does meet country’. Agh, shit.

We took our seats – well, a seat and a bench with an array of well-stuffed cushions, with squirrels, pheasants, a larger-than-life fox and various other wildlife carved into the towering uprights at the back – at the table hewn from an entire oak tree, not far from the roaring wood-burner and watched twilight’s last gleamings through the windows of the barn-sized conservatory building. Being vegetarian, I wasn’t too concerned by the lack of steak pies, but it might have helped if they’d mentioned that they’d run out before Mrs N ordered one rather than five minutes later.

The Great Yorkshire Brewing Company Lager I ordered had to be substituted too, as it ‘wasn’t pouring properly’. I went for a GYBC Cider instead: on arrival, it was the most lagery cider I’ve ever tasted, to the extent I was suspicious the contents of my glass corresponded with the Coors Light glass it arrived in. To be fair, my brie wellington was great, but the fact the meals were served on chopping boards was not. But 2016 in a single sentence: a portion of chips served in a plant-pot on top of a chopping board.

The game is over. The wheel has been reinvented. And a burger andchips on a rough-hewn chopping board with 3” terracotta pot on top costs £14.

Why does this infuriate me so? Because it’s pointless. It’s beyond frivolous. It’s hyping and pimping stuff and charging over the odds in the name of – what, exactly? It says ‘we’re doing this because we’re so cool’. It’s like Pulp’s ‘Common People’ has been put in the blender and rendered a compote by hipsters who think that charging double for the experience of being poor is the apogee of entrepreneurialism. It’s the celebration of the idea of quality produce, the dignity of labour, saving the planet by cutting air-miles, recreating the spirit of a golden age of simpler times in the cuntiest way imaginable.

2017 will see Trump step into his new role and, in all likelihood, the Tories will invoke article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and lead the UK out of the EU. 2016 was not Armageddon, but merely the beginning of the end. Might as well enjoy the artisanal, thrice-cooked chips now before things get really bad….

 

cross-butts-hotel-and

Image from TripAdvisor

The Blind Lead the Blind, Pig: Craft Brewers vs Crafty Brewers

Today, a colleague of mine presented me with a bottle-shaped wrap of newspaper. On inspection, the newsprint looked to be slightly yellowed and aged, and the stories similarly ancient, with headlines about flappers, jazz and the like.

PigWrapped

It looked better when I received it than on arrival home

Within the clandestine-looking wrap (which was rather torn and tatty-looking by the time I’d carted it home in my messenger bag, which was full of CDs and my Asus notebook) was a bottle of cider. He’d received a crate of Blind Pig cider for Christmas from the boyfriend of one of his daughters: he happens to be involved in the brewing industry in some kind of sales capacity. My colleague seemed to think he was in fact employed by Carlsberg or a similar major, but he was intrigued by the cider, which appeared to be an entirely independent venture. He wanted my opinion, knowing me to be something of an enthusiast and not entirely lacking in knowledge or expertise where alcoholic beverages are concerned.

Wrapper

Fake newspaper wrapping, and all that jazz

Indeed, the information on the elegantly-shaped and vintage-looking bottle, with its suitably retro labels gave precious little away, and the same is true of their website. Pretty much all on-line coverage is devoted to rave reviews of its pop-up prohibition-themed launch event. Moreover, inspecting what I had brought home and which now sat on my kitchen table all looked distinctly prohibition-era US: the bottle’s capacity, 16.9 US fl oz, and the alcohol content, 8 per cent proof. there’s no question that they’ve gone all out for cultivating a strong image and a brand that’s all about cult cred.

But here’s where they’ve slipped. Anyone with any real knowledge wouldn’t need to look at the rear label, which confirmed the brew was produced ‘in the EU’ and that its alcohol content was 4% ABV. All these bullshitters who try to look hard and / or cool by referring to drinks – spirits in particular – by their ‘proof’ strength are only airing their ignorance in public. Wow, you’re drinking a whisky or vodka that’s 80% proof? Must be tough… oh, no, wait, it’s only a regular 40% ABV. It won’t turn you blind, sunshine. And the nicely-shaped bottle is of course 500ml in capacity, 68ml short of a proper pint thanks for the metricisation of, well, everything.

Bottle

Nice bottle neck

So, what’s pitched as a ‘premium’ cider for ‘connoisseurs’ and therefore ‘superior’ and ‘edgy’, with its unusual flavour (Blind Pig Cider comes in threw flavours: whiskey, honey and apple; rum and poached pair; bourbon and blueberry, with a bottle of the whiskey, honey and apple perched on my decidedly post-millennium IKEA pine folding table), is starting to look very like another exercise on kitsch marketing of something ultimately mainstream trendy, namely fruit-flavoured ciders.

Label

Neat label

So how is this different from, say, Dark Fruits Strongbow? Well, I’d question just how much it is. It’s light, it’s fizzy and however hard you chill it’s, it’s incredibly sweet. The flavour isn’t unpleasant, and there is a smoky, peaty tang, a hint of charcoal that hints at single malt and bourbon. And yes, bourbon is sweet in comparison to the majority of single malts (the raisin and honey hints of something like Jura excepted) but even accepting that we’re talking about whiskey and not whisky, this isn’t that kind of sweetness. Actually’ let’s unpack that flavour set again: whiskey, honey and apple. The honey speaks for itself, and you’d expect sweetness from it, but again, honey beers like Waggledance aren’t as cloying as this, and as for apple… wait,apple flavoured cider? that’s beyond audacious. What next, grape flavoured wine? Gin flavoured gin? Milk flavoured mikshakes? The point is, unless it’s a ‘flavoured’ cider, it should be apple flavoured, no? Well, actually, no: cider should taste of fermented apples and have a crisp tartness, whereas this has that claggy, artificial apple sweetness. It’s simply not refreshing.

Pint

Sorry, favourite festival glass

While they’ve done a good job of creating a mystique around the product and hiding any major brewery connections, it feels like a huge con, another example of the mainstream hijacking burgeoning trends, specifically the craft brewing fad that’s all the rage right now. A real ‘craft’ cider wouldn’t use spirit flavourings, of that I’m certain: this hasn’t been near a drop of whisky, or an apple as far as I can tell.

Sipping this syrupy fizz, I’m reminded of both Kopparberg and the deceptive marketing of Blue Moon beer, which despite its independent ‘handcrafted’ appearance, is produced and marketed by MillerCoors, and its cloudiness isn’t a natural unfiltered haze but the result of a ‘clouding agent’ being added. In turn, it’s no different from a major record label creating a subsidiary that’s pitched to all intents and purposes as being ‘independent’ as a vehicle for pushing ‘alternative’ band signings that present a sanitised, mass-market version of the underground scene. it’s the way of the world, and the way of capitalist markets: most innovations and revolutions rise from the underground, from the zero-budget, and as soon as there’s a sustained groundswell, the big corporations come sniffing around wanting a piece of the action.

While I expect the origins (and the source of its bankrolling) will be revealed one way or another in due course, the bottom line is that Blind Pig Cider ain’t what it presents itself as being (c’mon, real newsprint would be cooler and more environmentally sound than ersatz repro newspaper wrappings, as real apples would be more appealing than a syrupy synthetic shot of flavour) and nor is it especially good: I have a very real need to cleanse my palette with a can of Scrumpy Jack.

 

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Pill-Popping and Apoplexy

Prone as I am to venting my spleen to friends, family and via my blogs, I’m not generally the sort to make formal complaints to companies. Having spent a number of years dealing with customer complaints in a corporate / financial environment, I’m all too aware that complaining is pretty much futile, and moreover, if I’m enraged enough to complain about something, then the response I’m likely to get will only increase that anger tenfold. Yes, despite being a placid individual in person, and not the sort to become embroiled in heated discussion on-line either, I’m an angry fucker. As a rule, however, I focus that anger constructively, into my writing.

Sometimes, though, I get grumpier and angrier than usual, and those times often occur when I’m not feeling well. And, not feeling well last week while under the cosh of a heavy cold, I decided to use my lunch break to pick up a few off-the-shelf pharmaceuticals to alleviate my suffering when purchasing some foodstuffs including a jar of organic strawberry jam, and a couple of beers for the evening (it would have been rude to pass on bottles of Shepherd Neame’s Spitfire and Marston’s Pedigree at £1 a bottle, after all).

Suffering from blocked sinuses, a headache and uncomfortable back, and aware that restrictions exist regarding the sale of paracetamol, I thought better of filling my basket with enough drugs to anaesthetize an elephant and only went for the essentials. Even that proved to be a problem, though, prompting me to fire off a stern email to the supermarket concerned….

In the York Monks Cross store today during my lunch hour I attempted to purchase 1 x 16 Ibuprofen, 1 x 16 Paracetamol and 1 x Max Strength Congestion relief but was told by the cashier, Tina, I could only purchase 2 units and had to nominate one of the products to leave. This is absurd.

I understand the law limits the sale of paracetamol to 32, but I should therefore still be able to purchase 32 Paracetamol and up to 32 Ibuprofen as these are not of the same ‘family’ of drugs.

Even assuming the limit of 32 tablets of ANY painkillers is justifiable, given that the decongestants I wanted to purchase contain neither ibuprofen nor paracatamol, but phenylephrine hydrochloride, this product should not have counted toward the 32 tablet / 2 unit limit. These 3 different products would clearly not constitute an overdose hazard.

The NHS website states: “GSL medicines can be sold by a wide range of shops, such as newsagents, supermarkets and petrol stations. Often, only a small pack size or low strength of the medicine may be sold. For example: the largest pack size of paracetamol that shops can sell is 16 tablets but pharmacies can sell packs of 32 tablets. the highest strength of ibuprofen tablets that shops can sell is 200mg but pharmacies can sell tablets at 400mg strength.”

Because the 3 products were required for different purposes, it was then necessary for me to extend my lunch break in order to purchase the third product – a box of 16 200mg ibuprofen – elsewhere. Not only was this extremely frustrating and inconvenient, but also wholly unnecessary, and all due to a complete misapplication of the law. I would strongly recommend you ensure all your staff are given clear training on the sale of certain products.

The reply I received a couple of days later proved to be kind of dismissive bollocks I should have expected, penned in a style that veered between the informal and the businesslike, but maintained a suitably patronising tone throughout:

Thanks for your email. I’m sorry you were unable to buy all the over the counter medication you recently wanted to while in our Monks Cross store. I can understand this would have been disappointing as you then had to extend your lunch break to ensure you could purchase all three.

As a reputable retailer, we take our responsibilities very seriously. There is a limit on the number of paracetamol based products our colleagues can sell through the checkouts. There is a limit in place of 32 tablets in total, this can consist of 16 paracetamol and 16 ibuprofen for example.

We train all our colleagues to take this responsible selling approach very seriously. I can appreciate this may have seemed slightly over zealous on this occasion, however my colleague was following their training.

There are pharmacies available in our stores were customers can purchase larger quantities of medications should the need arise. Please don’t ever hesitate to speak with the local pharmacist should you need to.

We’re grateful you’ve taken the time to contact us with this feedback and we look forward to seeing you in store again soon.

Kind regards

So, while acknowledging the limit for paracetamol tablets is 32, it would appear that Sainsbury’s have decided rather than risk breaking the law on medications, to dumb it down to the dumbest point imaginable and then take it a step further by reinterpreting the limit of 32 tablets of paracetamol at a non-pharmacy counter as 32 tablets of anything… unless – as this email could also be taken to mean – they believe ibuprofen is a paracetamol-based product. Which it clearly isn’t.

Assuming it’s simply the case that they’re enforcing a strict limit of 32 tablets of any type at regular checkouts (and while I could have got to the pharmacy counter, it seems needlessly obtuse to make customers queue at two separate counters to purchase items they can, by law, purchase at just the one), then I’ll concede that it wasn’t the cashier being (apparently) ‘overzealous’, but the store itself.

And this really the crux of my issue: the laws concerning the sale of paracetamol products are not being applied with any common sense. Am I to take it from the email that I couldn’t buy, say, ibuprofen for my headache, antihistamine for my hayfever and fibre tabs for my blocked-up bowel in one transaction if the 3 products in combination exceeded 32 tablets despite the fact that none of them contains paracetamol and there are no laws concerning the sale of either?

Anyway, a couple of days later I found myself back in the same store (working in an office on the edge of an out of town shopping park doesn’t give much scope for a diverse range of activities and if I don’t get out of the office I’m likely to crack up). I had no pharmaceuticals in my basket this time, but was once again short on time and short on patience.

There’s a reason I dislike supermarkets – and shops in general, and most public places for that matter, and that’s because Sartre was right: hell is other people. I was reminded of this as I waited for what felt like an eternity to buy my booze and bananas and cheese, thanks to the two overweight, mutton-dressed as lamb middle-aged hags in front of me who were too busy gassing and cackling to pack their shopping into bags as it came through the checkout. Although they were together, they were shopping separately, and the one who had been served was busy clucking and tearing open a bag of mints she’d bought. Offering one to her lard-arsed mate, she proclaimed enthusiastically, “Ooh, they’re really minty!”. Of course they are : they’re fucking mints.

On the final item being rung through, the minty binty dropped her card and flapped a coupon around before realising her shop was 23p short of qualifying for the extra Nectar points offered on the coupon, prompting a call of “Sweets! Do you have any sweets on the end? No, wait, I need new potatoes!” and proceeded to wobble off to pick up some spuds to take her shop over £50 so she’d get her 200 extra Nectar points. The cashier then failed to scan said spuds, and the drippy tart bunged them in her bag. On realising the error, the cashier asked for the potatoes back. “Oooh, you’d better scan ‘em, I don’t want to be settin’ off the beepers!” the chubby dumbass clucked – as if they put alarm tags on £1 bags of fucking new potatoes!

As I seethed in silence, I had ample time to read and reread a new notice which had been tacked beside the checkout regarding the sale of 12 certificate games and films, notifying customers that. to purchase these products, they’ll need to provide proof of age. Acceptable forms of ID are a current passport or driving licence. Ok. But if the age limit is 12, then a 13-year old could legally purchase said items… but what 13 year old carries their passport or has a driving licence?

A lot of people just tell me to chill out and let it all go, but I can’t. It’s years of people doing precisely that which have brought us to this ridiculous situation. The trouble is, I don’t know what’s worse: retailers, local governments, etc., and the countless others who consider themselves to have a ‘social responsibility’ taking it upon themselves to dictate what we can buy, do, say, etc., etc., by effectively rewriting the law under the guise of ‘responsibility’ and ‘protection’, or a population stupid enough to believe potatoes might be security tagged and actually need those decisions making for them…

 

busy-supermarket

Stock photo of sheep in a supermarket, happy to provide ID in order to purchase a bar of soap (limited to 1 per customer in case someone eats it).

The Worker pt 6: Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting), or, Living for the Weekend

He woke around 10. Didn’t feel too bad. Probably still drunk. But he was home and in his own bed. Beat the sofa, or, worse, the gutter or a police cell. Would’ve been nice to have been someone else’s bed, he thought, but waking up next to some eight-pint hound wouldn’t’ve been good. The pungent aroma of the previous night’s smoke which clung to his clothes, hair and skin, mingled with the sickly-sweet tartness of stale sweat made his stomach lurch, but he observed with relieve that his bed was free of puke and he’d not pissed or shat himself either.

He moaned and gingerly winched himself out of bed. Went to the bathroom, pissed like a horse for a good couple of minutes. Bliss! He ambled into the kitchen and tossed some stale bread in the toaster. Checked the clock: force of habit. He buttered the hot toast on ejection from the machine and took a couple of bites. The hangover was starting to kick in. His head’s pounding and his guts are churning. He takes a heavy beershit, then gets dressed.

A trip to the supermarket takes a decent chunk out of his day. He hates going to the supermarket, but needs must, and sometimes there are some fine fillies out and about. He once pulled a bird in the supermarket. Just sidled on up to her in the cereal aisle, like in the Cornflakes ad, only smoother of course. Went out for a couple of weeks. She’d been alright to look at, but a major pain in the arse, wanted a relationship and all that shit. He wasn’t up for all that, he was the free and single, wild oats type. As he’s just been paid, he treats himself to a couple of frozen pizzas, stocks up on the microwave meals, a crate of Carling on special, bread, milk, bacon for a fry-up tomorrow. Throws in a pack of puddings – sundae type things – and some Smirnoff Ice, too. He might have a couple of those while warming up for tonight.

Decisions, decisions! The shorter checkout queue, or the checkout with the tasty piece serving? No contest! He threw in some smooth lines while the cute bit of fluff scanned his goods. Never mind his goods, he was checking out hers!

Once home, he flicks on the television, watches the football. Necks a couple of the cans of Carling. Throws a pizza in the oven for an early tea before it’s time to start getting ready. Going out tonight, going out tonight… While the pizza was heating through, he fired up the PC and surfed for porn. A quick flog of the hog, and then, while munching on the pizza, he flitted around on Facebook and downed a couple more tins.

Turning off the computer, he docked his i-Pod and scanned for the Hard-Fi album. Cranked it up while he took a shower. Squirted a large dollop of shampoo onto his head, worked to a lather. Rinse and repeat. As seen on TV. Stepped out of the shower, towelled dry, starting with a jaunty flossing. Pumped the volume up even higher when ‘Living for the Weekend’ came on as he doused himself in deodorant and doused himself in aftershave. So rarely did a song sum up his life so completely. Yes, this song was his life. He fucking loved it.

Started off in Wetherspoon’s, then on to Yates’s. After that, a quick stop in Varsity. Ok, Varsity’s not everyone’s first choice, but it’s a place to go to meet people. And, as Andy points out, there are some tidy birds in there, especially on a Saturday night.

Busy Bar

A typical busy bar on a Saturday night

 

The round is pulled and they get stuck in, it’s onto the next in under 10 minutes. The dollybirds from the local offices, and the shop-workers too – there were some particularly tasty checkout girls in some of the supermarkets, not to mention the chicks in the clothing stores, even River Island and Top Man – would be tottering in wearing their high heels, short skirts and low cut tops before long. He felt like trying his hand for some action tonight. He’d not had his end away in months now, and he was getting tired of the hand-shandies. He was feeling lucky, but needed to build his courage first. The totty began rolling up, right on cue and before long it was wall-to-wall flange, there for the taking. Andy got the next round in, and as the beers really start to flow, he’s on his way….

 

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No Win in Winter: Taking Leave of the Compulsory Festive Fun

Being the kind of writer who doesn’t sell enough books or writing to cover the bills, I find myself forced to take on regular work in order to stay afloat. Sometimes I’m fortunate enough to find work that utilizes my literary and / or academic skills, but not always. Sometimes, I find myself juggling multiple posts, because, well, needs must.

One feature of office work around this time of year is the inaugural Christmas party. More often than not, that’s parties, with departmental nights out, team nights out, and any half-arsed excuse for people to hit the boozer at lunchtime or immediately after knocking off early.

I’ve always avoided these events like the plague. I have attended one or two during the course of my working life, and have usually felt compelled to make my excuses and leave just as things are warming up, i.e. before someone punches me in the face, makes a serious tit of themselves, gets us kicked out or pukes over their – or my – shoes. As a consequence, the worst I’ve had to endure on my return to work is mild abuse for being a killjoy or a lightweight, and while I’m most certainly no lightweight (I simply happen to know my limit and stick to it rather than letting things get out of hand), I guess I’m happy to wear the ‘killjoy’ hat if by ‘killjoy’ it’s meant ‘person who gets out before it gets too crazy’. In fact, leaving the rest of them to have their fun at whatever cost to themselves rather than nagging them not to behave like imbeciles is surely the opposite of killjoyism, but I digress.

So it was that on Friday I found myself on the bus back into town in the company of a friend of mine and some of his colleagues. They were going out for a meal, but before that, some drinks. It was 4pm. I, on the other hand, was going to pick up some milk, go home, cook for my family and get down to some writing and various other pressing things.

Disembarking, we parted ways and bid one another farewell, and I was momentarily resentful of my fiend’s active social life and the fact he has connections with enough social and work-related groupings to see him out doing Christmas-related socialising at least two nights a week throughout the whole month of December, in contrast to me, who declined the one crappy offer I did get, because, well, it would have been hell. So what’s my problem? Well, for starters, just because I don’t want to spend insane amounts of cash on crap nights out in loud bars in the company of tossers who can’t handle their drink or their emotions, it doesn’t mean I don’t want to participate in the faux revelry and put-on camaraderie – but I would like to socialise with the people I likie in places I like. The trouble is, all of my friends are busy, for the most part spending insane amounts of cash on crap nights out in loud bars in the company of tossers who can’t handle their drink or their emotions. So, if you can’t beat ‘em… No, fuck it, even if I was invited, I wouldn’t join ‘em. So call me bitter and awkward if you like and see if I care.

As I carved my way through the crowded city centre, packed with Christmas-shopping tourists, gaggles of students not long out of school or college, and early doors workers descending on the hostelries and eateries to begin their merrymaking, I felt the tension rising within me. I could barely move it was so crowded, and while I’m no agoraphobe, I do find crowded places – other than gigs – stressful environments.

It didn’t take long to dawn on me that while I enjoy socialising and would broadly jump at the opportunity to sample the range of seasonal ales on offer, I can only enjoy myself in the right environment and in the right company. Works nights out invariably mean being pressed into close proximity with the crets you work with and despise all day every day: why the hell would anyone want to prolong the experience? Add to that the fact the setting are always lowest-common-denominator mass-market pubs and chain restaurants that offer group discounts on cheap and cheerful (microwaved) food, and my resentment of my friend dissipated rapidly.

It wouldn’t be me with a raging hangover and gaping hole in my finances the following morning, even if he did succeed in avoiding any of the kind of embarrassing situations that would see him all over Facebook and publicly humiliated by half the globe before he’d even woken up, and subsequently derided mercilessly for the next three months by all and sundry. Yeah, I’m happy to stay in, sup a few bottles of homebrew and enjoy a quieter night in. The pubs can wait until January, when I can go and sit on my own with a pint and read a book in peace. Ahh… cheers!

 

Christmas Night Out

Above: some people having a blast at a Christmas meal. Don’t you wish you were them? Image courtesy of the Internet.

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