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Transcript TitleKirby, Ann (O 2011.6)
IntervieweeAnn Kirby (AK)
InterviewerJanet Holmes (JH) and Geoff Cordingley (GC)
Transcriber byAnn Judge


Hertford Oral History Group

Recording No. O 2011.6

Interviewee: Mrs Ann Kirby

Venue: Molewood End, Molewood Road, Hertford

Date: 07-07-2011

Interviewers:Janet Holmes (JH) and Geoff Cordingley (GC)

Transcribed by: Ann Judge

************** = unclear recording

[discussion] = untranscribed material

JH: This is Geoff Cordingley and Janet Holmes on the 7th July 2011 recording with Ann Kirby of Molewood End

AK: My name is Ann Kirby and I moved to Hertford with my husband and two children in September 1965 having spent 9 months building our house here. Um, and within a year we had another child, so for our first few years here we were fairly busy with, um childcare and so on. But I became involved with Bengeo Nursery School at an early stage. Um, they were um, they were actually trying to set up a Bengeo nursery school and it first took place in the Maltings, in West Street, um, but during that period we were raising funds and eventually we built a little nursery school in the grounds of the, well at that time the infants school, infants and junior in Bengeo*. So that was my first involvement in life in Hertford.

Transcribers Note: This is the school on the corner of The Avenue and Sacombe Road that replaced the one in bengeo Street.

Um, I then became involved in quite a number of things. I was involved with the Oxfam shop when it first started in Hertford. Um, my husband started the Civic Society with a letter in the Mercury, that was the beginning of the Hertford Civic Society. Well, we became involved in many things in the town, um, but I want to talk a bit about the Hertford Town Council.

Well, Hertford was a Borough for many, many centuries. It has wonderful Charters going back a long way, but in 1972, Local government reorganisation resulted in, um, the Borough Council being disbanded, and the Councillors were so disgusted that they almost threw in the towel. Because the powers, the main powers went through to East Herts District Council in 1974 and it all took effect and the successor town council, which they decided at the very last minute to become, they almost missed their chance, but they did decide to become a successor town council. And they were left with things like allotments, the cemeteries and closed churchyards, seats, litter bins and so on. And the ability to comment on planning applications which was quite an important one. But they really were quite disgusted at the loss of powers. The Museum had been overseen by the Borough Council but in the early days of the reorganisation it was taken over by the District Council but it later came back under the wing of the town council.

In the original days, in the good ol’ days you might say, the Town Clerk was a qualified Solicitor, um and Mr Clough the last one was such a man, and they were distinguished people, like Harry Bentley and all these people who, Mr Baker who were the Town Clerks. But under the new regime, um the position was taken by a part time, retiree from Hertfordshire County Council, in the first place Mr Jack Edington and then Mr Oscar, real name Arthur Cunneen. Oscar Cunneen was from the County Treasurers, so he set up the finances of the Town Council extremely well. And he established the Capital Fund for the Museum by insisting on a proper price for the Museum land which is a large part of Bircherley Green. Um, the er District Council were trying to do a deal with the developers, and they were selling off they thought the land very cheaply and Mr Cunneen stuck to them, he involved the Charity Commissioners and he got £125,000 which was a great deal of money in those days and he invested it very wisely, which is the basis of the Museum’s Capital Fund today.

In late 1983, Mr Cunneen was deciding that he’d had enough and wanted to retire so the post of Town clerk was advertised. I was at that time working for Hatfield Polytechnic. I had been the Assistant Examinations Officer and then I was the School Administrator of the School of Business and Social Sciences. And we saw this post advertised and I said to my husband "do you think they’d have a woman" and he said if you don’t apply, you’ll never know. So I applied and I was appointed and took up the post in January 1984.

As I said to you, I’ve never done the same job twice, I’ve an Arts Degree and a Social Science Certificate, and I did personnel work in Metropolitan Vickers in Trafford Park when I first left university. Then I went to Nigeria and worked as an Administrative Officer which is where I met my husband. We came back, got married and I did nine months of childcare in Dudley. Um, then we had children and we moved down here when David came to work for ICI.

When the children were growing a little bit, I did a new Opportunities for Women course at Hatfield Polytechnic, um, that was very interesting. Then I did a one year part time course teaching for graduates and I did a little bit of teaching at Ward Freeman School which I didn’t enjoy, so I gave that up. I kept David’s books in his Architectural practice for a bit, then I decided that perhaps I should take a qualification more in line with that, so I started on a Higher National Certificate in Business Studies at Hatfield Poly and I did the preliminary year, and first year of a 2 years course and then I got a job there as Assistant Exams Officer then at Balls Park as the Schools Administrator of the School of Business and Social Sciences. I then I became what my children came to call Top Cat. (laughter) And it was the best job of my life because it involved everything that I was interested in. It was history, it was the museum, it was finance, it was writing minutes, later on it was Town twinning so I could use my French, and by that time I’d been in the town long enough and involved enough to know lots of people and organisations in the town, and so I had lots of links with all sorts of organisations which worked very well.

The first question they asked me when I started was, "Would I wear a wig?" Well I thought long and hard, well not very long and not very hard , you bet I’d wear a wig because if I didn’t wear a wig, I’d have to wear a hat and so it would involve an enormous expense in hats and competition with certain lady wives of councillors to name Anne Hunter but a few. So a wig would solve it all, just pop the wig on and you’re done, so yes I would wear a wig, though it did feel very strange to begin with, I was a bit embarrassed about it and very early in my career, er they were installing , I forget the correct term, the new vicar at All Saints, David Mowbray it was at that time, and there I was on the front row in my wig, sitting next to the mayor and was horrified to see sitting not very far in front of me, sort of sideways on, Mr David Cheetham who was the um, the sort of legal officer to the diocese. And I carefully averted my eyes from him as I thought he’d think who is this woman, who does she think she is sitting there in a wig. Towards the end of the service I did catch his eye and he gave me the dirtiest wink I’ve ever had, and I could hardly keep my face straight for the rest of the service. Anyway he was nice and I got to know him later.

Um I continued part time, 9 till 1 for quite a while but the work began to expand, each Mayor thought of something new, Peter Ruffles thought of cheerful service and later on the Youth Council. Bob Hodgson thought about the Transport Committee, and I thought of things too like entering Britain in Bloom and so on. So eventually it expanded to full time, and in fact more than full time because the evening meetings, weekends, band concerts, all this sort of thing took a lot of time and various services and so on.

So, er, well the pomp and ceremony of the Town Council, although they’d lost a lot of power, they still had a lot of pomp and ceremony. They still had the 3 sergeants at mace, who carried the honour, the sword and the mace. Um we had a new honour in 1987 because that’s the banner flag, because the old one was getting so badly damaged, being carried about. Um, we had that re-done and we had a special service to dedicate it, and it was touch and go because the firm making it, the man painting it, spilt a pot of paint on it, when it was nearly finished and they had to start all over again. And we’d got all the dates fixed, we'd got Lord Salisbury coming, and our hearts were in our mouths as to whether it was actually going to happen. But they pulled out all the stops and they did it, because it was their fault that this had happened.

So, yes well, Hertford is rather special because only Launceston is the only other town in the country that has all three, the mace, the sword and the honour. Lots of places have one or two and the City of London of course has the whole lot of maces which they carry before the Lord Mayor.

Um, the Town Council also has a lot of treasures. At that time they were worth half a million pounds, so they are probably worth a great deal more than that now. They have cups and, er well the pictures in the Shire Hall belong to the Town Council, and when, er, when the Shire Hall was re-done the County Council said "take your dirty pictures away and get them cleaned up to come back into our nice new building". They did allow us to store them in County Council property, but we had to find somewhere to have them cleaned and er the frames cleaned as well – the frames were cleaned separately. And er, they told us we had a huge picture of William IV on his horse, and I’ve seen other pictures like that but that was absolutely enormous. They had to get a crane to get it out of Shire Hall by an upper window as they couldn’t get it down the stairs. And they said that wouldn’t go back into the new building so we had a good excuse to sell that one. And er, unfortunately we were on holiday when it was sold at Sotheby’s but my daughter went along and she said "Mother, I was willing them to pay lots." We don’t know who bought it, but they gave us £18,000 for it, and that paid for the cleaning of nearly all the other pictures which was great. And we found people who were experts in cleaning, and they took them all away and brought them back gradually. And we were left with one, which is the least good one, which is Queen Caroline, which is not a very good painting anyway. And it looked so awful because that was the only dirty one. We said, well, we have to make a up our minds somehow we’ve got to fund this. And fortunately, the Henry Moore Trust gave us some money towards that. And I think the District Council gave us a bit, and the Town Council put the rest in. But that was the only expense really because that worked out quite well.

Another thing which we had cleaned – you had to be, you had to be an expert in all sorts, or you had to find out how to be an expert. The Town Council has four, no five original Napoleonic period banners from er the regiment, or it was the sort of Home Guard of the time, and I think they’re unique in Hertfordshire, the set. Nobody ever sees them alas, because they in the Seed Warehouse, in a cabinet. They used to be in my office in the Castle, but we started getting those cleaned and I think we got three of them done and they had to go to exciting places like, um, the restoration place at Greenwich, so I had a trip to Greenwich to take one of them there. And we slowly got these three done. The other two are still uncleaned. One of the ones they’ve done is very interesting because it was obviously re-cycled because it’s painted over. It originally said the Tottenham Volunteers, and it’s painted over with the Hertford Volunteers and it’s also got added in, um it’s got er the shamrock added in because of the Act of Union with Ireland in 1801, because it didn’t have a shamrock originally, the shamrock’s added in. So that’s really quite interesting.

Another part of the pomp and ceremony is er the mayor-making ceremony. I don’t know whether you’ve ever been. One of the Town Clerk’s jobs is to read out the Mayor’s Oath, the Mayor’s Oath which is a really, really old oath and a lot of old language. And it finishes off and everybody giggles at the end of it because the Town Clerk reads it and the Mayor just has to say "I do so swear". He or she gets off very lightly. But it finishes off "And that in all things to the Mayor of the said town belonging or appertaining for to be done and executed, you shall well and truly behave yourself and do the same. So help you God". And everybody laughs at that point.

JH: So where does that come from? Do you know when it was …?

AK: No I don’t know exactly but it was obviously very old, but it’s really interesting because, um, it says that if the Mayor discovers that there’s something affecting the rights of the King or Queen, um, they have to er, tell the Queen or if they can’t actually get to her they have to tell somebody who will, who will tell the Queen, um what’s going on to get it sorted out. So it’s really, it’s really great fun. So you might like to look at that.

GC: So you had to read all of that.

AK: Yes, I had to read all that, and the present Town Clerk has to read it too.

Um, so, we had all the pomp and ceremony, but at the other extreme, when we had got going, we got into things like, we’d have bulb planting, planting plants and litter picking. I remember one famous day, litter picking and it was when Bill Hunter was Mayor, and Anne was there helping and this chap threw his cigarette packet down and she said "pick it up" and he said "that’s the Council’s job" and she stuck her chest out with her Mayoress’s badge on and she said, "We are the Council". But we were, we had to turn our hands to everything. We were very small staff so if we had big presentations for Britain in Bloom or something we were there washing up afterwards. It wasn’t all glory.

When I began I had a secretary. There were the two of us. The wonderful Jackie, Jackie Saffield (Saffkil?). She was the most cheerful, obliging, helpful person you could ever hope to meet. And when I was appointed, Jill Geall’s main trouble was that I shouldn’t upset Jackie because they all loved her to death. But I didn’t, we got on famously, we really got on very well, we were a good team. And later on we got a Minute Secretary and we had a couple of Youth Experience girls in the time that I was there. There was the Cemetery Superintendent who lived in the house at the cemetery and he had three grounds men and they cut the grass at the cemetery and dug the graves, and they cut the grass at the closed churchyards and when it rained like mad all summer, they couldn’t keep up and there were complaints in the Mercury. And we had a part time Allotments Secretary and that was it. That was it. The Museum of course was separate.

Um, so among my duties I had to keep accounts, and I kept the accounts for the Town Council and the Museum. I was Clerk to the Trustees of the Museum as well, so I had to do the Minutes and a lot of work for them. And every year we had the District Auditor came round and that was quite daunting to begin with, but I got used to it, and the Auditors seemed to get younger. And one year I remember, I’d struggled and struggled, I was 2p out somewhere, I could not find this 2p. So I thought, well I’m just going to tell him. If he sends me to the Tower, I can’t help it. So I said, well I may as well tell you straight away, I’m 2p out and I can’t find it. So he just laughed and said, well I will find it, or write it off, don’t worry about it. So I got used to the auditors and less worried about them. But I had one very funny time when this very young man, younger than my children probably, came in very seriously at, during the course, they used to set up in the, what was the Mayor’s parlour, on the top floor of the Council, with all the books and things, and he came down, and sat very seriously opposite me. He said, "Mrs Kirby, I don’t know whether you can explain this, but last year your cemetery receipts were down," and I said what am I supposed to do, go out and shoot them? So he said, oh, I didn’t think of it like that, I said I can’t bury them unless they are dead… appear to be buried.

Um, yes, so, yes, well the Museum as well, when I began the roof was being replaced, at the Museum, this had been organised by Mr Cunneen, through the County Architects, they had supervised the work and organised it and it was being finished off, because it had been leaking, and er, you probably didn’t know the top floor of the Museum in those days, that it was full of archaeology, so full that later they discovered that the beams had deflected because there were all these bits of pottery and rocks and stuff, and it was piled up, and piled up and you could just edge between the piles round and round. They had to move it all out; they moved it out to the Seed Warehouse. But Gordon Davis was the Curator at that time who is a very knowledgeable man about Hertford, but he wasn’t terribly welcoming to visitors to the Museum. So I had said to him, we got notice of Area Museums Services meetings and I said "do we go, what’s happening, do we go to these", " oh no we don’t bother to go to those" So I said I think we should, we should see what’s going on, let’s go. So, we went to various of them and I saw that the Area Museums Service was helping museums in the area. So I spoke to the Head of the Area Museums Service, Crispin Payne and I said what can we do about Hertford Museum and he said "it’s next on my list". So, in the meantime, we had organised the re-building of the rear wing, the bit where the offices are, was at that time was a very, it was the outbuilding, really, it was the wash house I think. There was a room above, but it was a sloping roof, and I could stand up just about in the middle. But the sloping bits, nobody could stand up, so it was not a very useful thing. And then there was an annexe which was completely filled with mangles – which was one of Gordon Davis’ collections. So we managed to organise the re-building of the wing. We had it taken down, and built up as a useful space. And thanks to the Area Museums Service we advertised and obtained a new, er, new Curator. Gordon was still Curator, she was Assistant Curator I think, called Sarah Grey, who was a very dynamic lady. I don’t know whether you ever knew her, but she was really a very great asset to the Museum. And in the time that she was there, which was an amazingly short time I discovered, we also re-did the Seed Warehouse which belongs to the Town Council but, as you know, the stores to the museum are there. All the stores were packed up and moved out, and they were stored in a barn somewhere in the area (Brickendon). And the Herts Archaeological Trust whose Director at that time was called Adrian Havercroft, he became involved in this and they said "Oh, we would like the top floor of the building and we will help with the funding of it" and the Town Council took out a big public works loan to do it, and eventually it was all done. And we had a grand re-opening. It should have been Virginia Bottomley that was going to open it, because somebody had a connection to her. But she changed her job about 2 months before the opening, and we had been just about to order the commemorative plaque, we hadn’t quite done it when we discovered she wasn’t coming. And it was Patrick Cormac, who is Sir Patrick Cormac who came and did the honours on that day.

Um, and then we did the Museum garden in 1991 with help from Van Hages and Hatfield House, and Mrs Van Hage came and helped to open it. The children’s room upstairs, we got a grant from the Robert Kiln Trust to do that. And then we got a grant from the County Council to do the Hertfordshire Gallery which has now been re-vamped in the recent changes at the museum. The Reception Desk, to my amusement has been moved back and forth in various places in that time. And eventually Gordon Davis retired early.

Um, and Sarah Grey left, and Diana (Anne?) Rowe who had been involved with the garden and who was a great gardener. She held the fort for a while, then Andrea George came and, um shortly after Andrea came, we had one of the big events at the museum, 1993 Biggles Comes Home to Hertford which was a great year for everybody. Um, we had, er openings, we didn’t realise what a big, big person Biggles was because the Dutch Biggles Club came over to the re-opening, yes. And we had a lunch at the Hertford Rugby Club. Later in the summer we had lunch at the RAF Club in Piccadilly. And it was altogether a big year, that one.

JH: Was that the same year that the plaque was put on, above the shop?

AK: Yes, actually that was his Father’s shop. We could never find out the house. We knew the name of the house, but not where it was. Everybody searched round Hertford, but we could not find the house where W.E. Johns lived. And what was strange was, there was a lady living in the town, she’s died since then, who was a sort of cousin of his and she couldn’t tell us either where it was (Mrs Collins, high even numbers, Ware Road). Perhaps she was a younger cousin, I don’t know. But that was a huge event for the museum.

Talking about big events, we did have a lot of, a lot of exciting and interesting events during my time there. In 1985 Christ’s Hospital left Hertford, um they had been here for some hundreds of years, and the girls departed to join the boys at Horsham. And we had a special dinner at Christ’s Hospital, the councillors and so on, we were all invited to a dinner and, we gave them a beautiful Marigold Austin plate that she had made.

1986 we had 150 years of the Hertford police. That was another ceremony and exciting day. That was the famous occasion when I said to the Chief Superintendent, "Even the Chief Superintendents are getting younger these days."

And so it went on. We had um, we had a Crown Court Service at All Saints in 1988. Mostly the Crown Court Services are held in St Albans, but because the Crown Court was leaving Hertford, Harry Bott was the, um, the High Sheriff that year and he decided it should be held at All Saints. So the Town Council and the Judges all robing in St John’s Hall, so we found out what the Judges wear under their, and they all had their splendid wigs too.

1988 was the Tercentenary of the Royal Anglian Regiment. They had a Freedom march through the town because they, they are the only surviving Freemen, because we can’t make Freemen any more in Hertford. I think Ware tried to do it recently, but it wasn’t……

JH: Why is that?"

AK: Because they lost it with the powers of the Borough Council, they can’t do it. But the Regiment is still Freemen, and so they marched through the town, with bayonets fixed and so on which was quite fun (and Peter Ruffles, Chairman of EHDC, took the salute in a bowler hat at a dais in Fore Street near Sheffield’s Chemists).

Also in 1988 we had the ‘Paper 500’ celebrations which was 500 years before the first paper made in England which was made in Hertford at Sele Mill with John Tate, and the paper makers organisation which usually had their conference in Durham, decided to have it in Hertford at Balls Park that year, so we had celebrations there. And later on, we were invited to dinner at The Guildhall with the paper makers. We also went to an event at the Stationers' Hall but the dinner at the Guildhall was very special. Um, We had to pay of course, we didn’t get it free. I said to the councillors you know we only get a chance to go to the Guildhall for dinner we’ve got to do it, so we had a mini bus and a group of us went including the Mayor, who was Judith Sparks that year, Judith and Adrian, and David and I. The four of us were on the top table, at the Guildhall

JH: With a wig?

AK: No, no not with a wig. I didn’t wear a wig then.

And then we had a lot of fun with Britain in Bloom as well, a lot of work too with all the competitions and judging and so on. And we were in the national finals twice, 1991, and I haven’t found the other date. 1991 we went to the Café Royal for the finals, and I think that was the year we were beaten by, um, we were beaten by a town on the, isle er, on Jersey. So, not much hope there. But it was great fun to go to the Café Royal and the other time we went to the Grosvenor I think for that.

So those were all quite exciting things. And then also there were Town Twinning events. Bill Maxwell, the Head of Sele School, had inaugurated the twinning with Evron in the Mayenne. Um, it’s about 32 years ago now. And, er Evron has a meat festival at the beginning of September so we used, the Mayor, and councillors and us, we used to go there. And a couple of times the Scottish dancers went as well. And there were various bands. And, at the same time that Evron twinned with Hertford, it* also twinned with a town in Germany called Wildeshausen. But it took another 15 years for that link to be the triangle, to be completed. And in fact the twinning with Wildeshausen was concluded after I retired. But we have been very much involved in that also.

* Transcribers note: This was Evron that also twinned with Wildhausen at the same time it twinned with Hertford

I also was involved in the Society of Local Council Clerks, Hertfordshire branch, of which I was the Secretary. And, er, we used to go to conferences and discuss with the other Town clerks and Parish clerks what was going on in the area. And er, later on when I was due to retire at 65, Christine Knapman, who had been the Tourist Information Officer at the Castle was appointed a year before I retired and so she had one year training and she did, what was by then a course for Town Clerks and she did that as well. And she was very keen on tourist information and she brought that into the town Council and she was involved with it for the training year, and then she oversaw it later on.

So, finally, it was time to say goodbye and they were very good to me. We had a party at the Castle and we also, I think most of the councillors and their spouses went to a Medieval banquet at Hatfield House which was quite fun, and on these occasions they always drag somebody out to be ‘honoured’ and they kindly put me forward. And so I had to go up and be dealt with by the Queen Elizabeth as she was. And so that was it, that was just before Christmas 1994. Um. And the new year seemed a bit strange. I was back at home.

So, I’ve gone on a lot, I don’t know whether that’s too much. Whether there’s anything else you’d like to hear.

JH: Very interesting. Did you have any views; you were appointed as the first woman Town Clerk, was that – what sort of impact do you that had on the Council?

AK: Ah, they were very kind to me, they didn’t, er, they didn’t sort of spurn me because I was a woman, in fact I think we all got on very well and it was always interesting when there was an election because you got in a new bunch of people, some of whom you’d never met before and you had to, sort of, get them into the routine and , er, no, I think there was only ever one councillor that was very um, a bit patronising, and sort of treated me as if I didn’t know what I was doing. I will not name him!

JH: You sorted him out did you?

AK: Well, possibly. He was the only one, and I think the others agreed with me more than him, so that was alright.

JH: And since then it’s been women town Clerks.

AK: Not always, no. Christine Napman took over from me, and then she had a nervous breakdown. And then John Marks was the next one and for quite a short time. And then Rosemary Harris who I think also had a nervous breakdown. And now it’s Nina Villa who seems to be doing very well indeed, though now of course they have a huge staff, when you think what a small staff, a Secretary and a Minute Secretary eventually. But now they have a lot of staff, and she isn’t the Clerk to the Trustees of the Museum, she doesn’t do anything really, but they do a lot of things that we didn’t do. Well, we did do band concerts in the summer, but they do a lot more events which we didn’t do. We couldn’t, we couldn’t, we had one Britain in Bloom day which Sylvia Mear and I organised and it rained. Um, but we couldn’t do all the things which they do now. But as I say, they do have a lot more staff now.

GC: You seem very well organised to do all these different activities.

AK: Yes, it could get a bit hairy, and I’d wake up in the night and think, ah, I haven’t done that. But you just had to have lots of lists and keep ticking them off, and that was the only way really.

JH: But it sounds as if it was a really interesting time.

AK: Oh, it was, it was. I really, really enjoyed it. It was, you know, it was hard work, but it was a lot of fun as well. I said it was not so much a job, more a way of life really. That’s what it was.

JH: But you must have seen a lot of changes in Hertford over that, the period that you were Town clerk.

AK: Oh yes, in the time between, um, we moved down to, we moved to Digswell, we were in Birmingham when we were first married, we moved to Digswell, and we were there a couple of years and we found this site and were building a house. In the time  between first coming down we looked in Hertford for a house, because we liked the look of it, but we could find anything that we could afford. Um, but in that time they built the bypass. We weren’t here during the building of the bypass, it was finished by the time we moved here and I think that must have been an enormous change in the town. And then, er, as I say, the Crown Court moved away, Christ's Hospital moved away, Bircherley Green was built. Yes, Bircherley Green was being built while I was at Hatfield, I think, at the Poly, before I was Town clerk, so that was already there. But yes, there a lot of changes in the town. And of course the changes in the Museum in that time have been enormous. Thank goodness, thank goodness. Yes, I feel very attached to the Museum. I’m so glad that we’ve done so well.

JH: You’re very pleased with the …

AK: Oh, I’m thrilled. I’m still a Trustee. Um, in fact we’ve got a meeting this evening. So, yes, and I think it was very good for morale that we were nominated for the long list for the Art Fund Prize.

JH: You couldn’t beat the big boys in the end.

AK: Well, we would have done very well if we’d managed to do that wouldn’t we. Goodness, no that’s really good. And it’s great to see things still going on, everybody working so hard. The outreach of, Eleanor, is wonderful, I think she’s done amazingly. I’m really pleased we’re going to be able to keep her, at least for the time being. I hope we’ll be able to keep her a long time, because she’s done so well.

GC: A new era with a new Curator

AK: Yes, have you met him?

GC: No, not yet

AK: He’s very nice. I think he’ll be good

JH: Very enthusiastic Yes, yes


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