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Whitchurch, K. (2015): ""Europe Endless"; A/V Woman, 15(20)

A/V Woman; 19th May 2015

HIS month I was honoured to join the now legendary AView contingent at the mighty Eurovision Song Contest.[2] From this year our jury consists of five members, because it takes three people to replace the now sadly missed Ivan Methuselah[3] who finally lost a long-standing tussle against her pet cancer, Margaret, earlier this year on the day after her 70th birthday. Perhaps you came across some of our extensive coverage of Eurovision.[4] I hope it was very entertaining and not in the slightest a self-indulgent mess. I’m a very optimistic person. Anyway, this article is about my month immersed in Europop whimsy and Belgian lager.
     The five of us: the old guard of Evan Paris (music editor) and Chrissie Hammond (general editor), plus Karl Border (technology), Miquita Imran (our new television editor) and myself (fashion; don’t laugh!)[5] convened at our main office on the morning of Wednesday 6th, our bulging suitcases already proving too much for the young urchins employed beneath them. Tearful relations and well-wishers waved us farewell as we boarded the private train that would take us, via the Channel and Gibraltar tunnels to our host nation, Morocco.[6]
     We arrived at our Casablancan sidings on Friday afternoon; there would be no luxury hotel rooms for us but our train is a pretty plush one: The Shoveller[7] is the LNER’s[8] world-beating engine and we had it hooked up to the finest residential carriages ACNC own. The five of us were not the only occupants; we were accompanied by a small diplomatic mission of the company’s ‘A&R’ division: at A/V Woman, a trick is never missed to expand the imperial yoke.
     What do these mysterious salesmen do? Well on the whole they keep themselves to themselves, occasionally bringing back local businessmen and dignitaries to enjoy the splendour of our surroundings and witness a marvel of Danish engineering (that’s Danish as in Doncaster, and that’s a salesman’s joke). I am told that these parasitic tendrils (I mean that in a purely scientific way) may expand the financial clout of our organization by billions of pounds in a single week’s junket. Eurovision is not all schlager and lager.
     Being an Islamic country (particularly in the current climate), Morocco and Eurovision may seem a little incongruous, but history thrives on such meetings of worlds. The state TV company organizing this year’s contest know full well what’s coming, and it wouldn’t be coming if they were minded not to grin and bear the sodomy and insobriety of our western decadent selves. Eurovision thrives in a culture of pansies and piss-heads and if the prospective host can’t accept that (as happened in Russia a few years ago and will not, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) insist with a fervent glint in their collective eye, happen again) then they shouldn’t be entering.
     Why then do so many African and Middle Eastern nations want in? It’s a complicated mix of a desire for tourism, a desire to kick the bottoms of the old Imperial powers, and a desire to simply be seen on the same stage as the first world. In Eurovision, Luxembourg is a more powerful entity than Germany, and, in the same way, Jordan can stick it to Israel without getting its face blown off.
     And so they pay the devil for this privilege. If it means a few thousand alcohol consuming homosexuals swanning into their capital and wiggling their bottoms provocatively at the odd Imam then that’s a sacrifice worth making. Money so often speaks louder than Allah. No, that’s unfair. Money is a means to an end, and the end might well be one of social advancement. Fingers crossed.
     And so it is that Casablanca is turning a blind eye to the antics of the Eurovision char-à-banc, as it has with its tourist trade for pretty much ever. Indeed, let’s be straight about this (straight! ha) Morocco has something of a historical reputation for turning a blind eye (and indeed a receptive bottom) to ‘that sort of thing’. What a man does to another man in her own private pleasure-dome is between the two of them and the ‘all-seeing’. Just don’t brandish it in my face, ta very much (which is, save the occasional pocket, an almost universal truth).
     There is, of course, a certain section of the gay community which is unhappy with this way of doing things, and it has its reasons so to be. There is also, of course, a certain section of the Islamic community which is unhappy with this way of doing things, albeit from a rather different perspective. Both have been making their feelings felt, and it has not all been pretty. It’s a battle that only antagonizes the opponent, such is the fervour felt on each side of the debate. And so exotic rallies for both camps are essentially self-defeating, just pissing off everybody with an ounce of tolerance but little investment. Indeed, in a religious world the cards are rather stacked against the ‘pride’ set, who can never out-argue eternal damnation. The world is best turned through small degrees: come at it with a crowbar and it’s liable to get defensive.
     As aggressively polemic as the protests have been, they have thankfully been handled with the sort of kid gloves that made Morocco a gay paradise a few generations ago. We have not seen a repetition of the scenes in Moscow, for which we must be thankful.
     And so, for the most part, the dance has been a cordial one. Certainly, there’s plenty of booze to go round, which is always important. Of course, there’s also a third wheel of tension at play which has been much more of an elephant in the concert-hall: the war which dare not speak its name.[9] To call the security presence oppressive would be a reasonable over-statement. There’s very much a cordon in operation, beyond which you’re on your own. Access to this bubble of assumed safety requires certain documents: tickets, work papers or proof of residence. It isn’t an especially comfortable arrangement, though the locals seem to tolerate it on the assumption that it will prevent them from being blown up. In fairness it seems to have done the job.
     Anyway, back to the song contest. Or rather, song contests, plural, for there are semi-finals to be considered. The reason we have got here when we have is to be present for that most important of events: the Western Final. The Western Final is somewhat deliberately scheduled on the Saturday before the contest proper and in many of the competing nations, ours increasingly included, it is seen as the contest of most meaning. It was, of course, a concept initially mooted by our very own Methuselah, and he was certainly rather proud to see it finally in operation. For the uninterested among you, the Western Final is a semi-final event consisting of the nations of northern and western Europe; that is to say the nations of the Cold War era song contest. That is to say, before the Eastern Bloc got involved and spoiled it for us. The top eight acts of Old Europe go forth to meet the top eight acts of the Eastern Final, the top four acts of the Southern Final and the hosts, Morocco, in the contest proper. But for many competitors, a win in the local final is cherished enough. Sure, it would be great to win the grand prix itself, but so long as we’re better than France and Germany, that’s kind of what matters. The Western Final, by mimicking the contest of old, replaces it effectively. We can, in fact, have our cake and be thoroughly within our rights to ingest it: we have the Western Final and, if we’re one of the top eight (which the UK tend to be) then we can play the broader game too.
     There is a great deal of attention afforded to the Western Final, as one might expect. It is indisputably abustle. We occupy one of the smaller commentary booths within the auditorium, which is very much fine by us, despite it being a little on the cramped side. Evan still feels that any sort of semi-final is wrong, but that’s something he must deal with. The reality is that there are simply too many nations involved to do it any other way. The rest of us feel that the current system offers the best possible arrangement under the circumstances.
     Our presenting team consists of a young, hip, slightly cheeky boy in a collarless shirt and jacket, and an older, more stately woman in an ethnically flavoured dress, balancing a scarf somewhere near the back of her immaculate hair-do. One could in no way shape or form describe her as veiled; I’ve seen Iberian entries with more head-covering. It is, in a way, a political gesture: an indicator of solidarity with the Islamic world while at the same time an attempt to present a conventional westernized front of the sort that goes down nicely with the tourists. On seeing the look I began to wonder what sort of thing he might wear when not presenting a major international competition of popular song. Perhaps a chadri, as I never did catch a glimpse of her en drab.
     San Marino are first up, with some faintly ethnic hard rock. It is easy to dismiss.  Then it’s the UK’s turn: the cheeky retro Carole and “My Heart Skips a Beat”: a good number with a catchy and temporally interesting chorus but let down somewhat by the poor girl’s inability to hold anything that might legitimately be described as a note. Unsurprising therefore that the UK failed to make the cut. As did the next five acts. This suggests a certain long-term memory problem in Western Europe, because Spain, at least, were pretty interesting (three women throwing themselves about to some hardcore flamenco disco) and most of the rest showed more than a little competence. Still, only eight can go through. Also not in the eight but deserving of it were Germany (with an electro-pop opera), the Netherlands (a pounding gay anthem with more than a smattering of schlagery goodness) and the Vatican (four men doing hymnal goth-metal). Making it through, after some moderately tense voting, were Finland (a creepy anthemic ballad in a minor key), Sweden (god-awful shoe-gazing rock with a cheesy chorus grafted onto it), Monaco (a young woman performing a glitzy dance number), France (a suitably Moroccan entry in an effort to capture the Southern vote), Belgium (an excitingly modern electro-folk groove performed by three women and a man in matching costumes), Luxembourg (a power-ballad), Liechtenstein (a whimsical waltz from a woman in a big dress), and Iceland (a particularly annoying cartoon duet based around a rock’n’roll / charleston synthesis). Of those, our favourites were the Belgians.
     With three days to kill before the next semi: the Eastern round on Tuesday night, we slipped out of the ‘green zone’ and into the real word to experience some genuine Berber culture.
     Morocco, for all its loveliness and apparent tolerance is nonetheless not the nicest place in the world to live, especially if you’re a journalist: the notion of a free press is probably sufficient by itself to get you locked away. But one does have to balance this a little with the reputations of nations south and east. In comparison to a good many African states, Morocco is a liberal paradise. But it has some way to go before it reaches Northern European levels of tolerance and freedom. Let’s be bold about this: you wouldn’t want to live there. Visit, sure, by all means. Live, not if you could help it. As with most things, this is particularly true for women. Western fashions abound and as a non-Islamic tourist I have pretty much the run of the place. But the lot of a Moroccan woman, while being somewhat nicer than in some parts of the world, is still a bit shitty. While laws have tried to bring about a greater sense of equality (particularly on a financial level), they only go so far, and there’s still a sense of second class even here in crazy cosmopolitan Casablanca. This is particularly obvious of an evening, when the vast majority of women you see are tourists: wives have homes and families with which to attend, while daughters are locked away for their own safety and ‘modesty’. The occasional rebellious spirit turns up here and there, but when you’re one of only a handful of women on the town, surrounded by swarthy, sex-starved men, well, either you’re loose or you’re rock hard (more often than not the former). Yes, being a local woman strikes me as not much fun at all.
     Depressed by this thought, and having consumed more couscous than is good for anyone, not to mention a heady quantity of spiced stew and the bitterest teas imaginable, we crawled back to the Eurovision camp where for the next couple of days we latched onto a festival of local music. “In places like this”, Evan explained, “these samplers are always a damn site better than the proper contest”. He’s unsurprisingly right.
     And so arrives Tuesday evening, and the Eastern Final. This we watched on the beach, where a big screen had been erected. Musically, it was the usual jumble of hard rock, club beats, power-ballads and folk. Debuting Kazakhstan went with a menacing, semi-electronic folk-metal onslaught that deserved real credit and was easily the stand-out song of the night. Unsurprising therefore that it failed to make the cut. Slovakia (moody folk), Slovenia (Euro-rock), Ukraine (sexy goth dance), Russia (rousing and oddly Soviet power-ballad), Romania (a pretty, Luxembourgish ballad by a pretty, Luxembourgish woman), Kosovo (thrash metal), Hungary (glam rock) and Macedonia (a besuited gent doing some rather retro chanson) were the eight finalists voted through, which was probably a fair selection, the Kazak entry notwithstanding.
     On Wednesday we made a few video pieces about the place before retiring to the luxury of our train and sampling some of the finer goodies we’d brought with us on our journey.
     And so on to Thursday night: the start of the weekend for many of the entrants in the Southern Final. This is a somewhat depleted group: Palestine and Syria failed to select entrants on account of being too busy fending off the Israelis, while Iraq have stayed away because the contest clashes with its Mass Graves memorial day. Indeed, there was a good deal of speculation as to whether or not Casablanca itself would be up for the gig, given that the final falls on the 12th anniversary of the terrorist bombings of 2003. But Morocco seems to have been keen to ignore any sentimentalization of May 16th; “If we’d abandoned this contest, or even rescheduled it, simply because of the date, it would’ve been another hit for the terrorists, wouldn’t it?” explained a Moroccan TV spokesman. Still, this is a city with a history of terrorist incidents, and the coincidence of the date only served to exacerbate a perhaps not unreasonable fear given the state of things. As it transpired, it was a fear unrealised, though to what extent we owe our lives to the watertight security is unclear. If you were a Moroccan suicide-bomber and Eurovision was in town, wouldn’t you be inclined to blow your party popper there? A number of arrests were certainly made over the course of the fortnight, with some particularly high profile swoops in the weeks before. Whatever the truth of the matter, nothing exploded during our visit that wasn’t meant to explode as part of the show.
     Poor old Israel. Whatever you might think of them as a political entity, as a musical entity Israel have, on the whole, been pretty impressive. But stuck in this Southern group, surrounded by Arab Islamic nations, many of whom fail to recognize Israel at the best of times, it’s going to struggle. In fairness, it has Greece, Cyprus, the Caucasian states and the utterly out-of-place Malta in its potential defence, and since the arrival of the three-semi system in 2012 they have twice edged Israel into a final position (that’s 50% of the time). But when you go embarking upon unpopular wars with your neighbours, you’re likely to lose a good deal of good will, and it’s therefore perhaps unsurprising to see Israel taking nul points this year in spite of the fact that they put in a cracking performance. The other old guard nations of Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and Malta, also fell by the wayside, and there’s an increasing sense of anger coming from these Mediterranean nations: a sense that the Southern Final is unfair: that the Arab states are an impenetrable block and whilever only five or six entries go through from the Southern round the Mediterranean acts have little chance of qualification. Perhaps if there wasn’t so much infighting in the Caucasian and Mediterranean blocks they might stand a chance against the Arabs. In the long term, if the war hots up in the Middle East, we might find the Southern group sufficiently depleted that the Caucasus can join the Eastern Final and the Mediterranean nations the Western Final without much difficulty. Failing that, perhaps some increased partition of North Africa’s expansive nations could bump the Southern group to the same size as its rivals, allowing another nation to pass into the grand final. Neither seem altogether satisfactory solutions to the problem, but it’s clear that, as good as things are for mainland Europe, the Southern Final has some significant problems that need to be addressed.
     Anyway, progressing from Thursday night were the Lebanon (feisty indie rock fronted by a woman), Jordan (up-beat chanson), Algeria (an acid-jazz boy-band), Armenia (dark and ethnically charged dance), and Libya (this year’s only full-on hip-hop finalist).
     Friday night is Eurovision disco night: easily the best night of the week: wall to wall Eurovision classics filling the dance floor from 6pm to 3am. It’s a truly fantastic party and much continental lager is consumed.
     And then it comes to it: the Eurovision Song Contest itself. This time we watch not from the venue, not from the beach, nor from any number of programmed parties about the place; this one we watch from our train. We have a smörgåsbord of international dishes and beverages tailored (slightly) to the acts we are about to see. As nice as the beach was, and the park where we watched the Southern Final on Thursday; and as privileged as
it is to see the thing live from one of the commentary boxes, the fact of the matter is that Eurovision is best viewed among a small group of friends on an insignificant television surrounded by breads, cheeses and beers of various different strengths and hues. It’s just the way of things. To do it in an expensive train three miles away from the actual concert and 1,400 miles from home may seem a bit stupid, but then Eurovision is stupid, so in that respect we are being pretty consistent. We do at least get to breathe in a little of the atmosphere.
     Twenty-two acts (including our first view of the Moroccan number: suitably North African, but with little more than that to its credit), and several bottles later we reach the interval act and the moment at which we, the AView jury, must place our votes. I went as follows: 12pts - Belgium, 10pts - Ukraine, 8pts - Armenia, 7pts - Slovakia, 6pts - Finland, 5pts - Monaco, 4pts - France, 3pts - Libya, 2pts - Russia, 1pt – Hungary. As a collective our points fell slightly differently, but not to any disturbing degree.
     The current voting system in the real world is still a little more controversial than the stuff we get up to in our own private train. The points from the semi-finals are carried over, putting Russia in an immediate lead with the Lebanon second and Libya third. In the final, juries can only vote for songs from outside their semi-final region, the only exception being the Moroccan entry which enters the final on nul points but can be voted for by any of the juries. The juries representing nations knocked out in the semis have their votes presented en masse to save time, the spokesperson being that of the nation with the highest unqualified song. This helped bump Libya up into second place. From then on it is classic 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-10-12 voting all the way: arguably the best bit of the show.
     Since the big shake-up in 2012, national broadcasters make the decision as to how their jury functions. Some countries have persisted with simple juries (especially in the Middle East), others still make use of the phone-vote (Eastern Europe in particular). In the UK, along with much of North-West Europe, broadcast-aligned net-voting is the method of census currently employed, and the UK was one of a number of nations giving Libya the full twelve and easing them into that early second place. As night wore on it became clear that this was going to be a two hare race between Russia’s potent anthem and Libya’s rap grooves. As the final jury, Slovakia (automated telephone tone vote) called in its results, Russia held a nine point lead over its rival. But Slovakia would be unable to vote for Russia. Libya needed at least 10pts from Slovakia, and so by this point those of us who were still conscious were but inches from the screen; cheese smeared across our chins (even I went up close, despite watching proceedings through the internal feed of my robot eye). At eight points there was still no mention... “We give our ten points to... who else but our delightful hosts, Morocco!” So... twelve or nothing... The Slovakian spokesman knows that right now he’s the very centre of the universe, and he makes the most of it. It’s amazing how annoying a spokesman can make himself without even saying anything.
     I’ll spare you the agony, and let’s face it, unless this article has made it to an anthology of my work at some distant point in the future (and if it has, god help me that this article should be considered worthy) the chances are you either know the result of the contest already or you haven’t read this far. For those of you who don’t know, and have read this far, you mythical beasts you (and for the poor, underpaid editor of my anthology; dear child how I love you so; put this one down and publish the one about oral sex instead[10]), Libya won.
     Prizes dished and encores played, the train sets off and we slope away to our sleeper cells for the long journey back home, where complaints and conspiracies await our beady eyes in columns of tabloid outrage. But in a year we’ll be back, just along the coast there, for the second North African Eurovision, and I must say, I’m rather looking forward to the prospect of a Libyan Eurovision Song Contest.


[1] Whitchurch described this article as “the worst piece of shit I’ve ever dared to submit”. When asked to expand on her experiences in Morocco she replied “I’m not a fucking travel writer; sorry.” When asked to write more about the contest itself she said “What did we do the AView report for? I mean, I can copy and paste that if you like, but I doubt the readers will be very interested.” “I don’t like travel,” she once wrote; “I mean, I like exploring new places, but I don’t like the getting from A to B and I don’t like all that stuff that comes afterwards: telling people what you saw.  From someone who makes a living telling people what they saw that might come as a curious statement, I know. But I just think back to people’s holiday photos and how bored I used to get when relatives started going on about what they did on the Tuesday afternoon.” I think there was also an extent to which Whitchurch was frustrated by her inability to properly give an eyewitness account given that her eyes were far from perfect.
[2] Ever since its establishment in 1998, AView had been reviewing Eurovision Song Contests. In 2004 they established a regular jury consisting of Evan Paris, Chrissie Hammond and Ivan Methuselah who in 2009 also went back and reviewed every contest since the inaugural event of 1956. With the introduction of the regional semi-final system in 2012, the AView jury began actually attending the contest, reviewing the Western Final from inside the venue but always insisting on watching the Grand Prix itself on television and surrounded by copious quantities of food and alcohol.
[3] Ivan Methuselah (1944-2014): born in Bath to a Jewish refugee from Danzig and the heiress to a small grocery empire. Entered journalism at the age of 15, moving to Yorkshire at the turn of the 1980s and arriving at AView in 2001 as the magazine’s film and television reviewer. For eleven years he struggled with bouts of ill health brought on by an inoperable but for the most part benign tumour called Margaret. This caused him to concentrate his efforts on television, most notably his celebrated Digi-box Rationbook column which first launched in late 2004.
[4] By this point, AView were providing masses of video and textual on-line material in support of their print output.
[5] Fashion was one of a number of roles Whitchurch assumed as part of the magazine’s small body of London-based staff. In practice her ability to function as a fashion correspondent had been greatly reduced by the loss of her good eye in 2013, but her opinions on the subject were still immensely well respected. Her place on the jury, though, was more down to her standing as a senior journalist at AView than to her fashion brief.
[6] Morocco, whose first entry in the contest had been as early as 1980, secured victory in 2014 with Halima Tazi’s “Salam”.
[7] Named with respect to The Mallard, and making particular reference to the broad, flattened nose of the train, The Shoveller had recently attained the status as the world’s fastest train after a number of demonstration events and ‘diplomatic missions’ for AVW companies during the course of 2015, it was put into service on the East Coast Mainline on 1st January 2016.
[8] Loversall & New Edlington Railways, a deliberate backronym and the name of ACNC’s Doncaster-based rail technology subsidiary. They were founded in 2010.
[9] The United States, operating primarily from Iraq and Afghanistan, had embarked upon a full-scale invasion of Iran in 2013. Meanwhile, following on from its roundly condemned occupation of Palestine in the same year, Israel had made a series of what it described as ‘necessary security incursions for defensive purposes’ on three of its neighbours: Syria, the Lebanon and Jordan. Syria’s infrastructure had been particularly severely hit by the Israeli attacks.
[10] I have searched long and hard for an article about oral sex. Alas, Xenon knows nothing of it.

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