PHYSICAL GRAFFITI

OliviaNext year’s Eurovision being staged in Blighty by default isn’t necessarily a unique event; the tradition of one year’s winning nation hosting the following year’s Contest has been disrupted several times in the past, and the UK has stepped in to host proceedings as a substitute more than once, usually when the winning nation has found staging the contest an impossibility, the last time (until 2023) being 1974. Luxembourg had claimed the crown in 1973, but the Grand Duchy’s second consecutive win proved to be a financial bridge too far for the principality and Britain stepped in again, nominating the Brighton Dome as a venue. Of course, a certain four-piece from Sweden eventually captured the headlines with a stomping slice of sub-Glam Rock called ‘Waterloo’, and every other performance that year tends to linger in Abba’s shadow, despite the 1974 Eurovision producing a record number of UK hits. Aside from the celebrated chart-topping winner, the runner-up – Italy’s Gigliola Cinquetti with ‘Si’ – reached No.8; Holland’s third-placed entry, ‘I See a Star’ by Mouth & MacNeal, peaked at the same position; and the UK’s very own ‘Long Live Love’ made the charts at No.11; the singer of that song was Olivia Newton-John.

The sad news that the British-born Aussie siren has passed away following a long on-off battle with cancer at the age of 73 is bound to provoke a bout of melancholic nostalgia in anyone of a certain age, particularly those (like me) whose bedroom walls she provided the first female presence upon. Remember poster magazines? They were regular fixtures on newsagents’ shelves in the 70s; they’d contain text on each page and would then be unfolded to reveal a huge poster of the featured subject on the flipside of the text. Frankenstein’s Monster and King Kong had been the first such poster magazine stars of my own personal childhood gallery until the 1978 movie version of ‘Grease’ came along and ushered in a different era, whereby pop stars replaced fantasy figures on the wall. Olivia Newton-John in the black satin pants she apparently had to be sewn-into for ‘You’re the One That I Want’ decorated said wall for a few months that year, upholding the appeal of the ‘bad girl’ that Suzi Quatro had monopolised with such memorable sensual vitality a few years earlier.

This Olivia was in direct contrast with the sweet girl-next-door version of ‘Sandy’ that constituted the majority of ‘Grease’, providing the movie with a climax that those who were around at the time tend to remember as the most iconic sequence of the film. Like the rest of the cast of the original high-school musical, Olivia Newton-John was more than a decade away from school age when making it (she was pushing 30), but it gave her two of the best-selling singles in UK chart history in 1978, both of which were duets with co-star John Travolta. ‘You’re the One That I Want’ was No.1 for nine weeks, whilst ‘Summer Nights’ managed seven. A couple of years later, ‘Xanadu’ may have been a movie savaged by the critics, yet it still produced another chart-topper in collaboration with the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO’s only No.1); and the following year, Olivia’s star was in the ascendancy on the other side of the Atlantic when she pushed the sexuality of satin pants Sandy into more dubious lyrical territory with ‘Physical’, which topped the Billboard Hot 100 for ten weeks.

It was all a far cry from the wholesome songstress whose first hit was a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘If Not For You’ a decade before, a breakthrough followed by forays into radio-friendly Country Pop like ‘Banks of the Ohio’ and ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’. She’d arrived back in her homeland after spending the majority of her childhood in Australia, making the same return journey as The Bee Gees around the same time. Born in Cambridge in 1948, the daughter of an MI5 officer who’d been on the Bletchley Park Enigma code-cracking team during WWII, she attempted to slot into the showbiz style of the biggest Brit female stars such as Lulu, Sandie Shaw, Cilla Black and Dusty Springfield once she returned to the UK as the winner of an Aussie talent contest. All had progressed from the charts to hosting their own prime-time BBC variety showcases, whereas Olivia quickly found herself effectively adopted by Cliff Richard and The Shadows, appearing regularly on Cliff’s early 70s TV show and becoming romantically involved with Shadows guitarist Bruce Welch; when she ended the relationship, a devastated Welch attempted suicide. Thankfully, the attempt failed and Olivia Newton-John continued to progress along the path established for UK pop ‘dollybirds’ by being selected to represent the nation at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974.

Like Sandie Shaw and Lulu before her, Olivia wasn’t keen on the song the public voted for her to perform at the Eurovision, but she did her duty and gave her all to a plodder that was very much in a staid tradition that Abba blew out of the water overnight. A fourth-placed finish would’ve been hailed as a triumph in more recent years, but in 1974 it was regarded as a bit humiliating. Thereafter, Olivia moved away from the MOR circuit and resumed her flirtation with Country and Western-flavoured sounds; this paid off in the US, where she scored a No.1 hit in 1974 with ‘I Honestly Love You’; the success of this song in the States – and its chart-topping follow-up, ’Have You Never Been Mellow’ – prompted her to relocate there in the mid-70s as her British hits dried up. It was a timely move. Aside from 1977’s ‘Sam’, which reached No.6 in the UK, Olivia didn’t trouble the British charts again until the phenomenal success of all the ‘Grease’ singles in 1978, including her solo ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’, which was kept off the No.1 spot by The Boomtown Rats’ ‘Rat Trap’.

After establishing herself as the predominant female pop star in the US with ‘Physical’, Olivia Newton-John’s stateside star surprisingly faded swiftly thereafter, overtaken by younger upstarts such as Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. After taking time out to marry her long-time boyfriend Matt Lattanzi and become a mother, she returned later in the 80s, but found even younger newcomers like Debbie Gibson and Tiffany occupying the ground she’d previously dominated, and she never regained that ground despite staging various comebacks that carried her into the 90s. However, all of this was placed on ice when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. Despite winning that stage of the battle, the cancer returned both in 2013 and 2017; the latter proved to be a tougher opponent than her previous bouts and it ended up spreading to her bones, causing her so much pain that she turned to cannabis for relief and ended up becoming a vocal advocate for its medicinal use.

Aside from Bruce Welch’s attempted suicide, the most notable incident in Olivia Newton-John’s personal life was the strange disappearance of her post-divorce, on-off boyfriend Patrick McDermott, who mysteriously vanished from a fishing boat off the coast of Los Angeles in 2005; persistent rumours that he faked his own death have been compounded by the fact that his body has never been found. Their relationship had already ended around the time of his disappearance and she married again in 2008, a union that lasted all the way to her death. I guess the announcement that the cancer which had bedevilled her for the best part of 30 years has finally claimed her provides a poignant opportunity to reassess her lengthy career now that there will be no further comebacks.

Although not an ‘artist’ in the vein of a Joni Mitchell or a Kate Bush, Olivia Newton-John nevertheless had a fascinating journey that took her all the way from Australia to BBC light-entertainment and from Hollywood to US pop royalty – and one could say she paved the way for the likes of Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Whatever her legacy, Olivia Newton-John made a mark that, for a brief period, placed her at the top of a showbiz tree that is no mean feat to reach. And the image of her stubbing out her cigarette beneath stilettos is one that will remain a potent snapshot of 20th century pop culture for however long the shadow cast by 20th century pop culture lingers. Right now, it seems like it will linger for a hell of a while.

© The Editor

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SING WHEN YOU’RE WINNING

Eurovision UkraineIt wasn’t exactly the same as the sinister sabotage that prevented Cliff and ‘Congratulations’ from claiming the crown in 1968, though it did seem a tad unfair that a recent tweaking of the Eurovision voting system resulted in the UK’s first win for 25 years being downgraded at the eleventh hour. Having soared ahead on the jury vote – and the jury vote always used to be binding – ‘Space Man’ by the hirsute Sam Ryder topped the board once all the individual nations had had their say. Up until the last five or six years, that would’ve been enough and the embarrassing nul points and relegation zone finishes for virtually the whole of this century were poised to be swept aside by a surreal scenario few viewers in this country thought they’d ever see again. The 2003 invasion of Iraq and (even more so) Brexit hardly made us the most popular nation on the Continent, and our European neighbours seemed to relish inflicting an annual humiliation on us. We’d grown so accustomed to it that once Saturday’s votes began to be announced in the broken English of each country’s equivalent of a ‘One Show’ presenter, we expected the same old punishment.

However, despite the standard Swedish Euro ballad and the nutcracker-tastic posteriors of those three Spanish ladies making a big impact in the Turin arena, it was evident more or less from the off that the British entry had impressed almost all of the individual juries. As the voting progressed, we were even receiving maximum points from countries ordinarily regarded as traditional enemies, i.e. France and Germany. The gate-crashing Aussies couldn’t bring themselves to award us anything, though it turned out the Poms didn’t need ‘em; our new bezzie mates Ukraine gave us twelve points instead (as did seven other nations), and Sam Ryder was odds-on to do what only Sandie Shaw, Lulu, Brotherhood of Man, Bucks Fizz and Katrina and the Waves had done before him. And then it went to that relatively new innovation, the televote – one that wasn’t a fixture last time we were in pole position…a long, long time ago.

On the eve of the Contest, it was more or less a foregone conclusion that Ukraine would walk away with the title without even having to sing a note. The beleaguered nation’s entry could have strolled on stage and simply mooned the audience and they would’ve still won it – if one believed the pre-Contest hype. Yet, the juries weren’t entirely swayed by sentiment on the night and at the end of the jury vote Ukraine were placed fourth on the board with 192 points, behind Spain (231), Sweden (258) and the UK (283). The televote was a different animal, though; widespread sympathy for Ukraine from viewers was manifested as a surge of points – 439, to be precise – and the UK could only manage 183. Any other year and we’d have won it, but this is no ordinary year where Europe is concerned. When combined with their jury votes, Ukraine were undisputed victors.

So unfamiliar was the territory the UK found itself in on Saturday night, chances are Sam Ryder would’ve been knighted by the end of the year had he won it. As it is, he finished with the silver medal, adding to the runner-up spots Brits have now achieved on a record sixteen occasions; but it still made a pleasant change from the usual predictable formula from a British perspective. Even though we’re one of the ‘Big Five’ nations who automatically appear every year due to the financial contributions we make to the European Broadcasting Union, the underwhelming songs and poor receptions of the last couple of decades has made watching a bit like tuning in to the World Cup when England don’t qualify; deprived of patriotic possibilities, UK viewers tend to pick a favourite from one of the other participants; this year, we didn’t have to do that and it made the Contest a much more engaging experience as a consequence.

Despite the disappointment of the UK missing out, few would begrudge Ukraine their symbolic win, even if the song itself will probably be forgotten in less time than it took to perform it. The second of their now-three triumphs this century was six years ago, and that victory was also charged with a political frisson that infuriated the country currently acting as an uninvited guest in Ukraine. ‘1944’ by Jamala dealt with the wartime deportation of Crimean Tatars from the Soviet Union by Stalin – yes, I know, it’s a long way from ‘Jack in the Box’ by Clodagh Rodgers. Anyway, the song was judged by the EBU as not having a relevant political context due to its subject being a historical event – as was the case with the title of a certain winner by Abba in 1974, I guess. But, of course, Crimea was a hot topic at the time due to the annexation of the country by Russia just two years before, and the Russians took umbrage with the number. In the end, they couldn’t prevent the song from being included and could only voice their protest by withdrawing from the Contest the following year, when it was held in Kyiv.

Of course, political elements are nothing new to the Eurovision narrative. From General Franco’s (alleged) intervention to ensure a Spanish victory in 1968 to Greece’s 1976 entry being a song about the Turkish invasion of Cyprus two years earlier – not to mention the always-controversial presence of Israel – politics have routinely bled into the Eurovision as much as they have into sport. The event commands such a massive television audience across the Continent – and beyond it – that many nations with a point to prove naturally see it as an ideal platform to get that point across to a uniquely huge viewing public. Since the map of Eastern Europe was redrawn 30 years ago and former Iron Curtain countries have been allowed to participate, political bias has become a regular feature of the show, especially in the voting – a factor which Terry Wogan wearily criticised as it increased and eventually prompted him to hang up his commentator’s microphone. This year’s programme, for instance, opened with a mass chorus of ‘Give Peace a Chance’, which didn’t really require much in the way of explanation.

The perception of Russia as an international pariah state on a par with North Korea or Iran has been fairly unanimous in the wake of the country’s invasion of Ukraine, and with most major global sports having expelled Russian teams and players from their ranks, the Eurovision was bound to follow suit. And the absence of Russia for only the fourth time since the nation’s debut at the Contest back in 1994 was no greater a surprise than the wave of public sympathy that propelled Ukraine to the winner’s rostrum. Considering the horror stories emerging from Ukraine on a daily basis, it’s only right that Russia was kicked-out this year, not to mention it being something of a minor miracle that Ukraine was able to put together an act to compete at all.

The other day, I read a remarkable story of an escape on foot from the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol by one man and his dog that sounded like a movie waiting to be made; but to dramatise something that remains very much miserable reality for millions of people would seem beyond tasteless at the moment. The portrait painted of the damage done to Ukraine in such a short space of time was more than grim, and one feels it will be one of those conflicts whose gruesome truths will be released to the wider world in dribs and drabs for decades. With such a gory backdrop to something as frivolously camp as the Eurovision Song Contest, it feels fitting that Ukraine won it, however nice a change it would’ve been had the UK finally staged the most unlikely of triumphant comebacks. Right now, I suspect the people of Ukraine will grab at anything that represents even the slimmest glimmer of optimism for their nation – and love it or loathe it, the Eurovision today at least means something to them.

© The Editor

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IDENTITY CRISIS

Dana InternationalWhen Richard Nixon famously proclaimed ‘I am not a crook’ in 1973, I’m pretty sure plenty people must have come to the conclusion that he was simply because he’d felt the need to declare his whiter-than-white credentials. Sure, the then-President of the USA’s standing was threatened by a break-in at a certain building in Washington, so he was keen to place considerable distance between himself and those guilty of trespassing on Democratic Party property; but whenever anybody has to over-emphasise something that should be a given, one cannot help but feel they have something to hide. The 21st century social media trend for adding the likes of ‘Anti-fascist’ to bios – as though the individual profiled would immediately be presumed a fascist unless they categorically stated they weren’t – seems to echo Nixon’s proclamation of innocence. Damning insults that were designed to accurately describe and denounce a particular philosophy have been so casually tossed around on the cultural battlefield in recent years that people are now compelled to declare everything they’re not before actually declaring what they are – though the speed with which they do so inevitably provokes suspicion.

The emphasising of specific racial, sexual and gender inheritances or preferences that are prized as defining characteristics when it comes to the Identity Politics worldview are sold as the ultimate non-prejudicial break with a past that supposedly judged people unfairly by placing them in separate, discriminatory groups – though it doesn’t take much of a genius to discern this is merely rearranging the furniture. The Identity Politics crowd bring their own prejudices to the table, and blackball manufacturers are one of the few booming industries at the moment as the list of cancelled parties is expanding by the day. Straight white men – or just white men in general – have been the demographic it’s okay to slate from day one, and straight women of any colour have become added to the death warrant as the insanity has accelerated courtesy of the ‘trans’ debate; a female student suspended from her course at a university in Soviet Scotland a couple of weeks ago – for the heresy of stating women have vaginas rather than penises – underlines yet again how ovaries are no longer security against cancellation.

Anybody with half-a-brain and a cursory knowledge of how these movements eventually descend into cannibalism saw this coming a long time ago, but those who sold their souls in the hope they’d be spared a visit from the Thought Police are now feeling the heat. The past few weeks have seen the Trojan horse of social justice exposed to a little more light and more of its unpleasant underbelly has been mercifully revealed in the process. The deliciously disastrous weekend tweet by a senior SNP official revelling in the UK’s nul points car-crash at the Eurovision by declaring ‘It’s OK, Europe – we hate the United Kingdom too’ lifted the lid once more on the narrow-minded bigotry at the rotten core of extremist Scottish nationalism, reminding us (as if we needed reminding) that, for all its touchy-feely Woke virtue-signalling, the SNP at its heart is no different from any other nasty nationalist movement.

And if evidence were required of the ‘emperor’s new clothes’ factor at play here, one needs to look no further than the issue of race. Anyone of black or ethnic persuasion who rejects the Identity Politics league table of oppression is guaranteed to incur the wrath of those who have a rigid system of oppressed/oppressor in place and don’t like to see it being undermined. As long as ‘People of Colour’ accept their permanent lowly status beneath the iconic white jackboot and don’t attempt to emancipate themselves, they’re worthy of a pat on the head; dare to challenge this regressive state of affairs and they’re fair game for being subjected to ugly racist insults as bad as anything that can be dreamt up at a KKK dinner party.

Just as the Corbynite wing of the Labour Party wants the workers to remain at the bottom of the pile, forever in need of a helping hand from privately-educated middle-class Marxists because it provides the latter with their raison d’être, the Identity Politics obsession with race gives plenty a purpose that makes getting up on a morning meaningful. It’s also stuck in the 18th century, only able to see black people in chains; residency of the moral high ground is dependent upon the preservation of race in a pre-civil rights amber, and any Person of Colour refusing to go along with that can be legitimately called an Uncle Tom or any other antiquated racist epithet – and it’s perfectly fine for someone white to hurl that insult as long as they’re safely residing on ‘the right side of history’. The hypocrisy is hilarious.

The one racial and ethnic group that the Identity Politics crowd have barely bothered to conceal their prejudicial and bigoted hatred towards all along are the Jews. Not only is it fine for those whose favourite buzzword during Trump’s Presidency was ‘literally Hitler’ to revive every ancient stereotype of the Jewish people, but allying themselves with a pseudo-ISIS band of Radical Islamic fanatics like Hamas is deemed to be perfectly acceptable coz Hamas hate Israel – innit. The current wave of blatant anti-Semitism in the West has included pro-Palestine activists driving through Jewish neighbourhoods of London and using megaphones to advocate ‘F**k the Jews! Rape their daughters!’ as well as open assaults on Jewish bystanders at rallies held by those supposedly passionate about ‘social justice’ in numerous European democracies and across the Anglosphere. And amidst this depressing outbreak of ugliness, skewered Woke logic reached comic proportions when a side-splitting banner unfurled at one of the endless protests against recent Israeli retaliatory strikes against Hamas declared ‘Queers for Palestine’. Ever get the feeling these dipsticks haven’t got a f***ing clue as to whose bed they’re jumping into?

Israel, as with South Africa during the Apartheid era, is a favourite bogeyman for the far-left and is back in fashion every time a new generation acquires an appetite for attending demonstrations. The State of Israel itself routinely plays into the hands of its most vocal critics with its often brutal actions, even if one could argue that self-defence sometimes happens to be at the root of such actions; and overlooking the equally brutal assaults by Hamas whilst condemning Israel is like screaming at the Government for deporting illegal immigrants and then suggesting that the Tory daughter of Ugandan-Asian immigrants who just happens to have become the first-ever ‘BAME’ Home Secretary should herself be deported because…oh, hang on a minute. Yes, placing such intense emphasis on race has really resulted in a fairer, more tolerant society, hasn’t it – one where racism has no place whatsoever. Well, we were getting there; and now we’re heading somewhere else altogether.

The worrying precedent set in Scotland a few weeks ago, whereby a Woke mob surrounded a van carrying illegal immigrants and ‘liberated’ the detainees, ended on a fittingly farcical note in that the immigrants were then escorted by their self-congratulatory liberators to the nearest mosque. Only, they were actually Sikhs, not Muslims; well, brown people – easy mistake to make when you’re an ignorant f**kwit too busy patting your perceived oppressed pets to assess the consequences of your crusade. The climax of that ‘rescue’ to me pretty much summed-up the naive, dangerous stupidity of Identity Politics in action, and how easy it would be for its exploitation by less idealistic parties – and I’m not talking about the far-right, who are just as thick. The real danger comes when these airheads have a degree of power – though I suppose seeing the damage done by them at local government level serves as a warning as to where we’d be if they were in charge at national level. But then I look at the alternative at national level and I give up.

© The Editor

BLING AND A PRAYER

No wonder no one knows where we stand with Europe. Two European club competitions and the finals of both are being contested between English teams – Liverpool Vs Spurs in the Champions League (formerly known as the European Cup) and Arsenal Vs Chelsea in the Europa League (formerly known as the UEFA Cup), the first time four teams from the same nation have filled the two European finals of what those nice people at the BBC and the Grauniad insist we refer to as ‘the men’s game’; and yet none of the four teams in question are our peerless domestic treble victors, Manchester City. On the same day City thrashed Watford 6-0 – registering the largest winning margin in an FA Cup Final for over a century – the man flying the flag for the UK on the Continent crashed and burned all the way to the bottom of the heap in Tel Aviv.

Earlier in the day (maybe as a means of subconscious preparation), I watched the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest in full on YouTube – yes, and I have indeed lived to tell the tale. Held at the Brighton Dome, 1974 was the year four Swedes famously captured the crown; but over-exposure to Abba’s win with ‘Waterloo’ had made me ignorant of other entries that would perhaps have won in any other year, such as the exquisite ‘Si’ by Italy’s Gigliola Cinquetti, up there with ‘L’amour est bleu’ by Vicky Leandros in 1967 as arguably the best Eurovision song never to have won the Eurovision.

1974 was a time when the Eurovision was still an MOR showbiz showcase for all the family, held in theatres in which evening dress appeared to be compulsory, and presented by a middle-aged lady looking like a Home Counties hostess at a W.I. Tory Party fundraiser. But the tournament was very much in transitional mode 45 years ago – trapped between the post-‘Puppet on a String’ oompah formula whilst simultaneously trying to capture the Glam Rock spirit of the moment, falling into a strange limbo with one foot in both camps yet being at home in neither. Despite this uneasy mix, the 1974 contest when viewed in its entirety remains a relentlessly entertaining way to spend a couple of hours.

At some point in the 90s, the Eurovision finally surrendered its last lingering pretensions to be taken seriously, with the rather stiff commentary of David Vine in 1974 superseded by the increasingly arch observations of Terry Wogan. But in losing its terminally unfashionable image, it was gradually reinvented as a camp, kitsch (and rather gay) carnival. The 1998 transgender triumph of Israel’s Dana International, paving the way for the 2014 win of Austria’s ‘bearded lady’ Conchita Wurst, was a landmark example of the event’s repositioning as a celebration of pan-European ‘diversity’. Those whose previous platform could have been the likes of the Alternative Miss World drag-fest or Channel 4’s late-night 90s cult hit, ‘Euro Trash’, now had a near-global outlet in which a style of outré entertainment that had always inhabited the fringes could be belatedly normalised.

Regardless of the contest’s eternal irrelevance in the USA, the huge viewing figures it can command across Europe (and, lest we forget, Australasia) were tempting enough to persuade long-time Dorothy acquaintance Madonna to take part as an interval act last night. Having lost touch with the career of an artist I once kept tabs on for decades, I watched Madonna’s somewhat shaky performance of ‘Like A Prayer’ with interest, and despite the dodgy ‘Sunday Night at the Palladium’ effect of a once-important act reduced to reliving past glories at a glitzy variety show, Madonna actually appeared to have found her natural (rest) home, like Elvis settling in Vegas when the 60s were at their revolutionary height.

The voting section of the programme used to be my favourite part, but the sheer volume of participating nations today has cut short requests for the results of the respective juries; the show seemed to quickly zoom through presenter banter with satellite-linked announcers standing in front of a superimposed capital city backdrop and headed straight onto the outcome of ‘The People’s Vote’. This new innovation saw the pattern of the ‘professional’ juries turned upside down as the viewer’s voting significantly altered the scoreboard when it was added to those votes already counted at the climax of the programme. North Macedonia had built up a good lead that was then completely overturned while the UK’s representative, Michael Rice, stopped hovering hopefully above the relegation zone and sank to rock bottom. At least Lynsey de Paul and Mike Moran finished runners-up with an entry of that name in 1977 rather than 26th out of 26.

One would imagine Europe had learnt not to sanction any form of ‘people’s vote’, as such gifts bestowed by rulers upon ruled have a habit of deviating from the script; but the outcome of Eurovision 2019 was very much decided by ‘The People’ – and they chose the Netherlands for the first time since 1975. Bar the traditional Greece/Cyprus love-in, there didn’t appear to be much of the political bias that has marred the voting procedure in recent years; even Russia received a cheer this time round, but it paid to remember the precise location of this year’s Contest and the contentious issues outside of the Eurovision bubble. Perhaps everyone was more than a little sensitive to these issues to resist using the event for making a point – with the exception of Iceland’s bizarre entry flashing a few Palestinian scarves in the green-room.

Another interesting difference between the Eurovision of 45 years ago and today was the way in which every measly point tossed in the direction of the UK last night was received with somewhat pathetic gratitude. The British entry in 1974 – Olivia Newton-John – finished fourth with the dismally plodding ‘Long Live Love’, yet this result was no doubt greeted at the time as a national humiliation for a country accustomed to at least managing second place (as we have on fifteen separate occasions). In 2019, the ‘plucky Brit’ bollocks that has its roots in Eddie the Eagle means we settle for finishing in last place with a shrug of the shoulders; we expected no better even before the latest ‘X-Factor’ leftover delivered his forgettable ditty like a shy child hoping for relieved parental applause when overcoming nerves to mumble his one line at the school nativity play.

So, we are simultaneously the masters of Europe (in football) and its laughing stock (in pop). There’s a point to be made somewhere in there when it comes to this country’s attitude towards the Continent and Europe’s attitude towards us, but I fear it could be lost in translation; perhaps Massiel, the Spanish entry of 1968 – whose controversial win over Cliff’s ‘Congratulations’ was allegedly aided by General Franco – got it right when she kept it simple. La, la, la…

© The Editor

WHAT PRICE SPORT?

OlympicsWhat became known as ‘The Austerity Olympics’ were held in 1948, with a still Blitz-scarred London the host city; they were they first Olympic Games staged since the notorious Nazi propaganda-fest of Berlin in 1936 and the amateur age of athletics was more evident than ever, with male competitors housed in RAF and Army camps while female competitors made do with ladies’ colleges, and both sexes were restricted to a diet of rations; there was no room for millionaire prima-donnas in 1948. No new venues were built to hold the 19 sport disciplines in the schedule, but the capital could boast the likes of Wembley Stadium, the Empire Pool, Earls Court and various football grounds. Cost-cutting was paramount, though from all accounts it was a successful tournament and a positive return to sporting normality after the war years.

The 1948 London Olympics was the fourteenth modern tournament since the event’s official revival fifty-two years previously, and like many of the great global events that continue to the present day it had relatively humble beginnings. The football World Cup, inaugurated in Uruguay in 1930, was similarly small-scale with many of the leading European nations – including England – failing to participate. One only has to consider the length of time it took to travel from Europe to South America by sea in 1930 to understand the reluctance of the FA to take part in what many regarded as a minor tournament that would probably end up as a quickly-forgotten one-off. Television, let alone satellite technology, was in its experimental infancy, so looking ahead to a future whereby events in every corner of the planet could be beamed into living rooms around the world was pure sci-fi.

The first Eurovision Song Contest was held in Switzerland in 1956, the debut venture into Europe-wide broadcasting attempted at a time when the continent was bitterly divided and lingered in the shadow of the Second World War. Just seven nations participated in what became an annual event rather than the four-year schedule of the Olympics and World Cup, and although the number of competing countries fluctuated for the first thirty years of its existence, the line-up averaged no more than 20-21 nations until the collapse of the Eastern Bloc saw a sudden increase in the amount of participants during the early 1990s.

Like the Olympics and World Cup, the Eurovision Song Contest has swollen way beyond its initial origins and the cost of staging a competition with such a huge worldwide television audience and the need for it now to be held in a massive venue capable of holding thousands rather than the old theatres has presented many host nations with a financial headache. Identical problems on an even bigger scale have afflicted those cities selected to host the Olympics, with Rio the latest host city to find itself confronting difficulties as a result of winning the bidding process.

A serious economic crisis is facing the Brazilian State of Rio de Janeiro, with the Governor declaring a financial emergency at the weekend. Coming at a time when this summer’s Olympics are less than fifty days from opening, the denials that this calamity will affect Rio’s ability to host the contest suggests there has been a good deal of head-burying on Copacabana beach. Coupled with concerns over the Zika virus, the last thing Brazil really needs at this moment is an influx of upwards of 500,000 visitors expecting a grandiose festival of sport when the future of Rio’s public services is balanced on a perilous knife-edge.

There is an argument that an Olympics or a World Cup brings in corporate investment and raises the morale of the nation, but it’s rare for financial benefits to filter down to the masses, and Brazil in particular has long had an infamous problem with poverty that it’s hard to see being solved by hosting its second major sporting event in two years (the World Cup was held there, of course, in 2014). Commercial pressures and the increasing power of sponsorship on the part of multi-national brands marketing each competition with tie-ins and cash-ins that saturate coverage are a long way from the amateur ethos of 1896. Even the money spent on merely the opening ceremony is staggering – an alleged $100 million for Beijing in 2008. In the same way that a so-called musical event like Glastonbury has become just another corporate carnival a long way from the purpose behind its distant founding, the Olympics appear to have little to do with Pierre de Coubertin’s vision anymore.

One has to ask if such major mega-events that have outgrown their original remit are worth the expense and the crippling cost of their aftermath when they last no more than three weeks at the most. Also, considering the recent corruption revelations of football’s world governing body FIFA and not dissimilar accusations being levelled at the Olympics’ equivalent the IOC, the question arises as to whether or not they need to go back to basics and simply start afresh on a more affordable scale than they have gradually acquired, though with the obscene amounts of money invested in them, it’s difficult to envisage that ever happening.

The modern Olympic Games have now reached the ripe old age of 120; the World Cup 86; the Eurovision 60; and even a relative newcomer such as football’s European Championships tournament is 56 years old. It’s horrific to imagine how much bigger they can become, though will anybody even be able to afford staging any of them fifty years from now – and is it really worth it?

© The Editor

THE EUROPA LEAGUE

Eurovision 2016When presented with an ultimatum by Napoleon in 1806, Holy Roman Emperor Francis II not only had to abdicate and accept the dissolution of an entity in the centre of Europe boasting a vintage of eight centuries; he also had to endure a scathing summary of his overstretched Empire’s irrelevance in the continent’s new order. Bonaparte told the humiliated Habsburg that his Empire was akin to an old maidservant who had been raped by every member of the household in which she served. It was time to put her out of her misery.

Although the Holy Roman Empire’s genesis had been in the distant medieval era and it cannot be viewed in the same light as the war-like nations of Europe that were engaged in constant conflict with each other, it had continued as a useful and desirable ally for any competing European power poised to lock horns (whether England, France, Spain or Holland) for the remainder of its existence, mainly due to the sheer scale of the land it covered and the number of troops it could therefore call upon when battle commenced. Largely governed by Germanic rulers, the Empire nevertheless reached as far south as Northern Italy and comprised a complex sequence of sovereign kingdoms, city states, duchies, principalities and hundreds of other sub-divisions that, on paper, maintained a degree of independent sovereignty, though officially owed their allegiance to the Emperor. In retrospect, it’s hard not to view the Holy Roman Empire as a prototype for the European Union.

Perhaps if Boris Johnson had used his evident intelligence to draw parallels with Europe’s previous centralised economic and political powerhouse instead of taking the lazy Livingstone route to Nazi comparisons, maybe his latest gaffe could have been avoided. Both Nazi Germany and Napoleonic France evolved from mere nations into a system of continental conquest and subjugation, one that imposed order on central Europe by invading its sovereign territories and brutally expanding the boundaries of the conquering country in the process. By contrast, the Holy Roman Empire was a bureaucratic brotherhood of nations, part Common Market/part NATO; it even crossed the great divide between Catholicism and Protestantism in its member states. The Emperor usually emanated from an established dynasty of rulers, but was nevertheless an elected monarch, even if his electorate consisted of the elite Prince-Electors rather than the general public. Sound familiar?

The demise of the Holy Roman Empire was made easier by its sprawling size, particularly when Napoleon’s armies could pick off one vulnerable member state after the other before striking at its Austrian heart and forcing the Emperor to surrender his crown and bring the 800-year-old institution to an undignified end. It had become bloated, complacent and effectively irrelevant to the nineteenth century, and all that was required to kill it off was one ruthlessly ambitious demigod who had no respect for its ancient traditions. Unlike Napoleonic France or Nazi Germany, the EU is not a county and neither was the Holy Roman Empire. Boris resorted to crass Napoleonic and Nazi references because he knows these are ones that the British public can relate to in basic black-and-white terms, not to mention ones that will invoke the spirits of Trafalgar or Dunkirk. Utterly meaningless spirits when it comes to this particular debate, but potent ones all the same.

At the same time as Bo-Jo was playing his pound-shop Churchill, Eastern Europe was embroiled in a war of words set to music. Ukraine won Saturday’s Eurovision Song Contest with a number apparently inspired by the singer Jamala’s great-grandmother being forced to leave her Crimean homeland by Stalin in 1944 (the title of the song) during his revenge on Crimean Tatars for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. This effective ethnic cleansing resulted in the deaths of an estimated 100,000 deportees from the Crimean Peninsula to the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in Central Asia. Not exactly the basis for an upbeat entry into a song contest noted for its banal lyrical content, but a highly charged one at this moment in time.

Let’s face it, though, the Eurovision has been a hotbed of political bias ever since the old Eastern Bloc countries were welcomed into the fold over 20 years ago. The blatantly partisan nature of the voting was one of the reasons Terry Wogan gave up his stint at the microphone, and it seems whatever controversial move Putin’s Russia makes is only ever really punished in the incongruous environs of an entertainment event while an impotent EU and UN watch on. I remember lipstick lesbians t.A.T.u. being greeted with a chorus of catcalls and boos during their performance for Russia at the tournament in 2003, so voters opting for a song criticising past Russian activities in a country that has recently been annexed by Putin is no great surprise.

Predictable outrage in Russia itself to Ukraine’s triumph hardly ranks the song’s success alongside one of the Eurovision’s great robberies, such as General Franco allegedly rigging the victory for Spain over Cliff in 1968, but it does show that the continent of Europe, from its western to its eastern tips, is a far-from happy bunny at the moment – something that the approaching deadline of June 23 (and all the hypothetical propaganda surrounding it) probably isn’t helping.

© The Editor