Quentin Crisp: Wikis


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Quentin Crisp

Born 25 December 1908(1908-12-25)
Sutton, Surrey, England, UK
Died 21 November 1999 (aged 90)
Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester, England, UK
Occupation Writer, Illustrator, Actor, Artist's model
Notable work(s) The Naked Civil Servant

Quentin "Cottaging" Crisp (25 December 1908(1908-12-25) – 21 November 1999), born Denis Charles Pratt, was an English writer and raconteur. He became a gay icon in the 1970s after publication of his memoir, The Naked Civil Servant, brought to the attention of the general public his defiant exhibitionism and refusal to remain in the closet.


Early life

Denis Charles Pratt was born in Sutton, Surrey, the fourth child of solicitor Charles Pratt (1871 – 1931) and former governess Frances Pratt (née Phillips) (1873 – 1960); he changed his name to Quentin Crisp in his twenties after leaving home and cultivating his outlandishly effeminate appearance to a standard that both shocked contemporary Londoners and provoked homophobic attacks.

By his own account, Crisp was effeminate in behaviour from an early age and found himself the object of teasing at Kingswood Preparatory School in Epsom, from where he won a scholarship to the independent school Denstone College, near Uttoxeter, in 1922. After leaving school in 1926, Crisp studied journalism at King's College London, but failed to graduate in 1928, going on to take art classes at the Regent Street Polytechnic.

Around this time, Crisp began visiting the cafés of Soho – his favourite being The Black Cat in Old Compton Street – meeting other young gay men and rent-boys, and experimenting with make-up and women's clothes. For six months he worked as a prostitute,[1] looking for love, he said in a 1999 interview, but finding only degradation.

Crisp left home to move to the centre of London at the end of 1930 and, after living in a succession of flats, found a bed-sitting room in Denbigh Street, where he held court with London's brightest and roughest characters. His outlandish appearance – he wore bright make-up, dyed his long hair crimson, painted his fingernails and wore sandals to display his painted toenails – brought admiration and curiosity from some quarters, but generally attracted hostility and violence from strangers passing him in the streets.

Middle years

Crisp attempted to join the army at the outbreak of World War II, but was rejected and declared exempt by the medical board on the grounds that he was "suffering from sexual perversion". He remained in London during the 1941 Blitz, stocked up on cosmetics, purchased five pounds of henna and paraded through the blackout, picking up GIs, whose kindness and open-mindedness inspired his love of all things American.

In 1940 he moved into the bed-sitting room he would occupy for the next 40 years, the first floor apartment at 129 Beaufort Street. Here he stayed until he emigrated to the United States in 1981. In the intervening years he never attempted any housework, saying famously in his memoir that "After the first four years the dirt doesn't get any worse".

He left his job as engineer's tracer in 1942 to become a model in life classes in London and the Home Counties, and continued posing for artists for the next three decades. "It was like being a civil servant," he explained in his autobiography, "except that you were naked." Pamela Green, who went on to be a famous glamour model of the 1950s and '60s, remembers him at St. Martin's School of Art, as “very thin with a skin so white it almost had a greenish tinge”.

Crisp had published three short books by the time he came to write the Naked Civil Servant at the urging of agent Donald Carroll. After the work was completed, Crisp wanted to call it I Reign in Hell, but Carroll insisted on The Naked Civil Servant (an insistence that later gave him pause when he offered the manuscript to Tom Maschler of Jonathan Cape on the same day that Desmond Morris delivered The Naked Ape). The book was published in 1968 to generally good reviews. Subsequently, Crisp was approached by documentary maker Denis Mitchell to be the subject of a short film in which he was expected to talk about his life, voice his opinions and sit around in his flat filing his nails. This broadcast brought enough attention to Crisp and his book that he soon entered talks about a dramatisation.


In 1975 The Naked Civil Servant was broadcast on British and American television and made both actor John Hurt and Crisp himself into stars. This success launched Crisp in a new direction: that of performer and lecturer. He devised a one-man show and began touring the country with it. The first half of the show was an entertaining monologue loosely based on his memoirs, the second half was a question and answer session with Crisp picking the audience's written questions out at random and answering them in an amusing manner.

When his autobiography was reprinted in 1975 on the strength of the success of the television version of The Naked Civil Servant, Gay News commented that the book should have been published posthumously. Quentin said this was a polite way of them telling him to drop dead. Crisp was not sympatheic to the Gay Liberation movement of the time. "What do you want liberation from?" he asked in a 1974 chance encounter with Peter Tatchell. "What is there to be proud of? I don't believe in rights for homosexuals."[2]

By now, Crisp was a theatre-filling raconteur. His one-man show sold out the Duke of York's Theatre in London in 1978. Crisp then took the show to New York. His first stay in the Hotel Chelsea coincided with a fire, a robbery, and the death of Nancy Spungen. Crisp decided to move to New York permanently and set about making arrangements. In 1981 he arrived with few possessions and found a small apartment in Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Quentin Crisp's signature, from a signed copy of How to Become a Virgin

As he had done in London, Crisp allowed his phone number to be listed in the telephone directory and saw it as his duty to converse with anyone who called him. For the first twenty or so years of owning his own telephone he habitually answered calls with the phrase "Yes, Lord?" ("Just in case," he once said.) Later on he changed it to "Oh yes?" in a querulous tone of voice. His openness to strangers extended to accepting dinner invitations from almost anyone. While it was expected that the inviter would pay for dinner, Crisp did his best to "sing for his supper" by regaling his hosts with wonderful stories and yarns much as he did in his theatre performances. Dinner with him was said to be one of the best shows in New York.

He continued to perform his one-man show, published groundbreaking books on the importance of contemporary manners as a means of social inclusivity as opposed to etiquette, which he claimed is socially exclusive, and supported himself by accepting social invitations and writing movie reviews and columns for U.S. and U.K. magazines and newspapers. He said that provided one could exist on peanuts and champagne, one could quite easily live by going to every cocktail party, premiere and first night to which one was invited.

An Evening With Quentin Crisp, Birmingham U.K. 1982

Crisp also acted on television and in films. He made his debut as a film actor in the Royal College of Art's low-budget production of Hamlet (1976). Crisp played Polonius in the 65-minute adaptation of Shakespeare's play, supported by Helen Mirren, who doubled as Ophelia and Gertrude. He appeared in the 1985 film The Bride, which brought him into contact with Sting, who played the lead role of Baron Frankenstein. He appeared on the television show The Equalizer in the 1987 episode "First Light" and as the narrator of director Richard Kwietniowski's short film Ballad of Reading Gaol (1988), based on the poem by Oscar Wilde. Four years later he was cast in a lead role, and got top billing, in the low-budget independent film Topsy and Bunker: The Cat Killers, playing the doorman of a fleabag hotel in a rundown neighborhood quite like the one he lived in. According to director Thomas Massengale, Crisp was a delight to work with.

The 1990s would prove to be his most prolific decade as an actor as more and more directors offered him roles. In 1992, he was persuaded by Sally Potter to play Elizabeth I in the film Orlando. Although he found the role taxing, he won acclaim for a dignified and touching performance. Crisp next had an uncredited cameo in the controversial 1993 AIDS drama Philadelphia. Crisp's last role was in an independent film called American Mod (1999), and his last full-feature movie was HomoHeights (also released as Happy Heights, 1996). He was chosen by Channel 4 to deliver the first "Alternative Christmas Speech", a counterpoint to the Queen's Christmas speech, in 1993.

Last years

Crisp remained fiercely independent and unpredictable into old age. He caused controversy and confusion in the gay community by jokingly calling AIDS "a fad", and homosexuality "a terrible disease".[2] Crisp commented after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales: "She could have been Queen of England [sic] – and she was swanning about Paris with Arabs. What disgraceful behaviour! Going about saying she wanted to be the queen of hearts. The vulgarity of it is so overpowering."[3] He was continually in demand from journalists requiring a sound-bite, and throughout the 1990s his commentary was sought on any number of topics.

In 1996 he was among the many people interviewed for "The Celluloid Closet," a historical documentary on how Hollywood films have depicted homosexuality. In his third volume of memoirs, Resident Alien, published in the same year, Crisp stated that he was close to the end of his life, but in June of that year, he was one of the guest entertainers at the second Pride Scotland festival in Glasgow.

In December 1998, he celebrated his ninetieth birthday performing the opening night of his one-man show, An Evening with Quentin Crisp, at The Intar Theatre on 42nd Street in New York City (produced by John Glines of The Glines organisation). A humorous pact he had made with Penny Arcade to live to one hundred, with ten years off for good behaviour, proved prophetic. In November 1999, Quentin Crisp died, nearly one month before his ninety-first birthday, in Chorlton-cum-Hardy in Manchester, on the eve of a nationwide revival of his one-man show. His body was cremated with a minimum of ceremony as he requested, and his ashes flown back to New York. In a final gesture of generosity he bequeathed all future UK income (but not the copyrights) from his entire literary estate to the two men he considered to have had the greatest influence on his career: Richard Gollner, his longtime agent, and Donald Carroll.

His influence and legacy

Quentin Crisp by Ella Guru

Sting dedicated his song "Englishman in New York" (1987) to Crisp. He had remarked jokingly to the musician "... that he looked forward to receiving his naturalization papers so that he could commit a crime and not be deported." In late 1986 Sting visited Crisp in his apartment and was told over dinner – and the next three days – what life had been like for a homosexual man in the homophobic Great Britain of the 1920s to the 1960s. Sting was both shocked and fascinated and decided to write the song. It includes the lines:

It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile,
Be yourself no matter what they say.

Crisp was the subject of a photographic portrait by Herb Ritts and was also chronicled in Andy Warhol's diaries. At one point, author William S. Burroughs also launched a verbal assault directed at Crisp and his endeavors.

In his 1995 autobiography Take It Like A Man, Boy George discusses how he had felt an affinity towards Crisp during his childhood, as they faced similar problems as young homosexuals living in homophobic surroundings.

Crisp was the subject of a play, Resident Alien, by Tim Fountain and starring his friend Bette Bourne in 1999. The play opened at the Bush Theatre in London and transferred to New York Theatre Workshop in 2001, where it won two Obies (for performance and design). It went on to win a Herald Angel (Best actor) at the Edinburgh Festival in 2002. Subsequent productions have been seen across America and Australia. A film of the same name was released by Greycat Films in 1990.

The song "The Ballad of Jack Eric Williams (and Other Three-Named Composers)" from William Finn's song-cycle Elegies refers to him.

A made-for-television film entitled An Englishman in New York (2009), about Quentin Crisp's later years and starring John Hurt as Quentin Crisp, Denis O'Hare as Phillip Steele (an amalgam character based on Mr. Crisp's friends Phillip Ward and Tom Steele), Jonathan Tucker as artist Patrick Angus, Cynthia Nixon as Penny Arcade, and Swoosie Kurtz as Connie Clausen, was filmed in New York in August 2008 and completed in London in October 2008. The film was directed by British director Richard Laxton, written by Brian Fillis, produced by Amanda Jenks, and made its world premiere at the Berlinale, the Berlin International Film Festival, in early February 2009.


  • Lettering for Brush and Pen, (1936), Quentin Crisp and A.F. Stuart, Frederick Warne Ltd. Manual on advertising fonts.
  • Colour in Display, (1938) Quentin Crisp, 131 pages, The Blandford Press. Manual on the use of colour in window displays.
  • All This And Bevin Too (1943) Quentin Crisp, illustrated by Mervyn Peake, Mervyn Peake Society ISBN 0-9506125-0-2. Parable, in verse, about an unemployed kangaroo.
  • The Naked Civil Servant, (1968) Quentin Crisp, 222 pages, HarperCollins, ISBN 0-00-654044-9. Quentin Crisp's witty and wise account of the first half of his life.
  • Love Made Easy, (1977) Quentin Crisp, 154 pages, Duckworth, ISBN 0-7156-1188-7. Fantastical, semi-autobiographical novel.
  • How to Have a Life Style, (1975), Quentin Crisp, 159 pages, Cecil Woolf Publishing, ISBN 0-900821-83-3. Elegant and insightful essays on charisma and personality.
  • How to Become a Virgin, (1981) Quentin Crisp, 192 pages, HarperCollins, ISBN 0-00-638798-5. Second installment of autobiography, describing the fame his first book and its dramatisation brought.
  • Doing It With Style, (1981) Quentin Crisp, with Donald Carroll, illustrated by Jonathan Hills, 157 pages, Methuen, ISBN 0-413-47490-9. A guide to thoughtful and stylish living.
  • The Wit and Wisdom of Quentin Crisp, (1984) Quentin Crisp, edited by Guy Kettelhack, Harper & Row, 140 pages, ISBN 0-06-091178-6. Compilation of Crisp's essays and quotations.
  • Manners from Heaven: a divine guide to good behaviour, (1984) Quentin Crisp, with John Hofsess, Hutchinson, ISBN 0-09-155810-7. Insightful instructions for compassionate living.
  • How to Go to the Movies (1988) Quentin Crisp, 224 pages, St. Martin's Press, ISBN 0-312-05444-0. Movie reviews and essays on film.
  • The Gay and Lesbian Quotation Book: a literary companion, (1989) edited by Quentin Crisp, Hale, 185 pages ISBN 0-7090-5605-2. Anthology of gay-related quotes.
  • Resident Alien: The New York Diaries (1996) Quentin Crisp, 225 pages, HarperCollins, ISBN 0-00-638717-9. Diaries and recollections from 1990-94.
  • Dusty Answers, (unpublished) edited by Phillip Ward. Quentin Crisp's final collection of writings, which will include his collected poetry and script of his one-man show.


  • The Stately Homo: a celebration of the life of Quentin Crisp, (2000) edited by Paul Bailey, Bantam, 251 pages, ISBN 0-593-04677-3. Collection of interviews and tributes from those who knew Crisp.
  • Quentin Crisp, (2002), Tim Fountain, Absolute Press, 192 pages, ISBN 1-899791-48-5. Biography by dramatist who knew Crisp in the last few years of his life.
  • Quentin and Philip, (2002), Andrew Barrow, Macmillan, 559 pages, ISBN 0-333-78051-5. Dual biography of Crisp and his friend Philip O'Connor.


  • Take It Like A Man, Boy George, Sidgwick & Jackson, 490 pages, ISBN 0-283-99217-4. Autobiography of Boy George.
  • Coming on Strong, Joan Rhodes, Serendipity Books, 2007. Autobiography of strongwoman Joan Rhodes who was an intimate friend of Crisp's for over 50 years.
  • The Krays and Bette Davis, Patrick Newley, AuthorsOnline Books, 2005. Memoir by showbiz writer Patrick Newley who acted as Crisp's PA for some years.


  • Hamlet (1976) .... Polonius
  • The Bride.... Dr. Zalhus
  • The Equalizer .... Ernie Frick (episode, First Light (1987)
  • Ballad of Reading Gaol (short) (1988) .... Narrator
  • Resident Alien (movie) (1990) (autobiography) .... Himself
  • Topsy and Bunker: The Cat Killers (1992) .... Pat the Doorman
  • Orlando (1992) .... Queen Elizabeth I
  • Philadelphia (1993) (uncredited) .... Guest at Party
  • Red Ribbons (1994) (Video) .... Horace Nightingale III
  • Aunt Fannie (1994) (Video) .... Aunt Fannie
  • Natural Born Crazies (1994) .... Narrator
  • To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995) .... New York pageant judge
  • "Taylor Mead Unleashed",(documentary-1996) Himself. Sebastian Piras director
  • Little Red Riding Hood (1997) (voice) .... Narrator
  • Famous Again (1998)
  • Men Under Water (1998) .... Joseph
  • Barriers (1998) .... Nathan
  • Homo Heights (1998) .... Malcolm
  • American Mod (2002) .... Grandma
  • Domestic Strangers (2005) .... Mr. Davis


  • "An Evening with Quentin Crisp" (2008) .... Cherry Red Records (UK) .... Double CD featuring live recordings made at Columbia Recording Studios, New York, on 22 February 1979. Also includes a 35-minute interview with Morgan Fisher, recorded in Quentin's Chelsea flat in June 1980.
  • "Miniatures 1 & 2" (2008) .... Cherry Red Records (UK) .... Double CD of one-minute tracks by many musicians, poets, etc. Produced by Morgan Fisher in 1980 (Pt.1) and 2000 (Pt. 2). Quentin's track is titled "Stop the Music for a Minute." See www.cherryred.co.uk


  1. ^ "Crisp: The naked civil servant", BBC News, 21 November, 1999
  2. ^ a b Peter Tatchell "Quentin Crisp was no gay hero", The Independent 29 December 2009
  3. ^ Atlanta Southern Voice, 1 July 1999

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

An Evening With Quentin Crisp, Birmingham U.K. 1982

Quentin Crisp (December 25, 1908November 21, 1999), born Denis Charles Pratt, was an English writer, artist's model, actor and raconteur who was known for his memorable and insightful witticisms. He became a gay icon in the 1970s after publication of his memoir, The Naked Civil Servant, brought to the attention of the general public his defiant exhibitionism and longstanding refusal to conceal his homosexuality.


  • A pinch of notoriety will do.
    • How to Go to the Movies (1988), part I: The New Hollywood

The Naked Civil Servant (1968)

Quentin Crisp's signature, from a signed copy of How to Become a Virgin
  • Keeping up with the Joneses was a full-time job with my mother and father. It was not until many years later when I lived alone that I realized how much cheaper it was to drag the Joneses down to my level.
    • Ch. 1
  • The rest of the world in which I lived was still stumbling about in search of a weapon with which to exterminate this monster [homosexuality] whose shape and size were not yet known or even guessed at. It was thought to be Greek in origin, smaller than socialism but more deadly, especially to children.
    • Ch. 3
  • Exhibitionism is like a drug. Hooked in adolescence I was now taking doses so massive they would have killed a novice.
    • Ch. 7
  • Sometimes I wore a fringe so deep it obscured the way ahead. This hardly mattered. There were always others to look where I was going.
    • Ch. 7
  • To my disappointment I now realized that to know all is not to forgive all. It is to despise everybody.
    • Ch. 11
  • I started to shed the monstrous aesthetic affectation of my youth so as to make room for the monstrous philistine postures of middle age, but it was some years before I was bold enough to decline an invitation to "Hamlet" on the grounds that I knew who won.
    • Ch. 12
  • I acquiesced in this on the grounds that the most anyone can expect from a holiday is a change of agony.
    • Ch. 12
  • As someone remarked, when told the new atomic bombs would explode without a bang, "they can’t leave anything alone."
    • Ch. 13
  • The distinction between indoors and outdoors, which in England is usually so marked, was temporarily suspended in a hot gauzy haze.
    • Ch. 13
  • The proprietor had hair so red that pigmentation had flowed out into every visible inch of his skin and even into the pinks of his eyes, as the colour of flowering cherry trees stains their leaves.
    • Ch. 13
  • I never saw Portsmouth by day.
    • Ch. 13
  • All liaisons between homosexuals are conducted as though they were between a chorus girl and a bishop. In some cases both parties think they are bishops.
    • Ch. 14
  • I was amazed to receive later a substantial sum for sitting in my room and talking about myself. If only I could get some of the back pay!
    • Ch. 15
  • There was no need to do any housework at all. After four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.
    • Ch. 15
  • The measure of woman’s distaste for any part of her life lies not in the loudness of her lamentations (these are only an attempt to buy a martyr’s crown at a reduced price) but in her persistent pursuit of that occupation of which she never ceases to complain.
    • Ch. 15
  • God, from whose territory I had withdrawn my ambassadors at the age of fourteen. It had become obvious that he was never going to do a thing I said.
    • Ch. 16
  • The consuming desire of most human beings is deliberately to place their entire life in the hands of some other person. For this purpose they frequently choose someone who doesn’t even want the beastly thing.
    • Ch. 16
  • "You'll never be wanted," [a draft board official] said, and thrust at me a smaller piece of paper. This described me as being incapable of being graded in grades A, B, etc., because I suffered from sexual perversion. When the story of my disgrace became one of the contemporary fables of Chelsea, a certain Miss Marshall said, "I don't much care for the expression 'suffering from.' Shouldn't it be 'glorying in'?"
    • Ch. 16
  • When a third wave of poverty overwhelmed me, I knew with even greater certitude than when I lived in Clerkenwell that the only complete solution to my problems was suicide. I never brought it off. I was afraid... Hopelessness was thinly spread like a drizzle over my whole outlook. But, in an emergency, I could not find a puddle of despondency deep enough to drown in.
    • Ch. 16
  • Life was a funny thing that happened to me on the way to the grave.
    • Ch. 18
  • If I have any talent at all, it is not for doing but for being.
    • Ch. 18
  • Posing was the first job I did in which I understood what I was doing.
    • Ch. 19
  • Michelangelo worked from within. He described not the excitements of touching or seeing a man but the excitement of being Man.
    • Ch. 19
  • When stripped, I looked less like "Il David" than a plucked chicken that died of myxomatosis.
    • Ch. 19
  • The young always have the same problem — how to rebel and conform at the same time. They have now solved this problem by defying their elders and copying each other.
    • Ch. 19
  • There are girls who do not like real life... Some of these girls are innocent enough to think that these unreal friendships [with homosexuals] will lead to true love — a kind of sexual intercourse that will happen to them without their having to take too horribly much notice. Even those who are sufficiently sophisticated to know that this will not be so persist in these relationships. They provide an opportunity to lavish emotion on a pseudo-man without paying the price that in heterosexual circumstances would be inevitable.
    • Ch. 19
  • I found that I had become so spinsterish that I was made neurotic not only by my life of domesticity but by the slightest derangement of my room. I would burst into a fit of weeping if the kettle was not facing due east.
    • Ch. 21
  • Health consists of having the same diseases as one’s neighbours.
    • Ch. 21
  • I became one of the stately homos of England.
    • Ch. 23
  • I now know that if you describe things as better as they are, you are considered to be romantic; if you describe things as worse than they are, you are called a realist; and if you describe things exactly as they are, you are called a satirist.
    • Ch. 24
  • The simplest comment on my book came from my ballet teacher. She said, "I wish you hadn’t made every line funny. It’s so depressing."
    • Ch. 24
  • The low dive had set a standard that only middle-aged hooligans could remember and to which they looked back as Mrs Lot at Sodom.
    • Ch. 26
  • Even hooligans marry, though they know that marriage is for a little while. It is alimony that is for ever.
    • Ch. 26
  • Many [hooligans] discover to their shame that they have scruples; they have roots and, greatest disadvantage of all, they have hope. The fathers superior of the order do not try to influence their children in Satan; they merely shake their heads in sorrow. They know that the apostate must work out his own damnation.
    • Ch. 26
  • Another friend began to say, "Well, Quentin has a problem of adjusting himself to society and he..." This sentence was never finished. The ballet teacher expostulated, "I don't agree. Quentin does exactly as he pleases. The rest of us have to adapt ourselves to him."
    • Ch. 27
  • He explained to me that he wanted a simple boy-meets-girl story with lyrics. This I felt was quite beyond my capabilities. I did not know any boys who met girls.
    • Ch. 27
  • I never understood music. It seemed to me to be the maximum amount of noise conveying the minimum amount of information.
    • Ch. 27
  • [To read a novel or see a play was to drink life through a straw — to smoke it through a filter-tip. If we were not afraid of blackening our teeth or riddling our lungs with cancer — if we were a dauntless race of men with strong digestions — we would be able to devour life without the aid of these over-civilized devices.
    • Ch. 27
  • To minimize my guilt at going to the pictures — to call this wanton pursuit of an effete pleasure by another name — I needed movie companions as drunkards need drinking partners. If I entered a cinema alone, God might plunge his arm through the roof of the auditorium booming in a stereophonic voice, "And you, Crisp, what are you doing here?" I would never have dared reply, "I’m just enjoying myself, Lord." I remembered too well what happened to Mr and Mrs Adam. A commissionaire with a flaming sword came and asked them to leave.
    • Ch. 27
  • It would be impossible to get through the kind of life that I have known without accumulating a vast unused stockpile of rage. Retaliation, though, was a luxury I could never afford. On the physical level I was too feeble. On any other I was not rich enough. I never dared to be rude to anyone. I never knew that I might not need him later. Long after fantasies of sexual excess had ceased to torment me, my imagination was inflamed by lurid day-dreams of having my revenge on the world.
    • Ch. 29
  • Mass-murderers are simply people who have had ENOUGH.
    • Ch. 29
  • An autobiography is obituary in serial form with the last installment missing.
    • Ch. 29
  • Even a monotonously undeviating path of self-examination does not necessarily lead to self-knowledge. I stumble towards my grave confused and hurt and hungry.
    • Closing words

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