Sincere thanks to all of you who left messages of condolence regarding M’s untimely and tragic death. I have read all of the comments to K, and he appreciates them very much.

Last night, I was more than ready for some great live music, in order to provide a temporary respite from all the sorrow and sadness. And my God, did the Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo Y Gabriela deliver – high-octane flamenco-esque covers of thrash metal tunes being just what the doctor ordered. (Just don’t use the f-word around them, that’s all; they’re a little prickly about it.)

My review for the Nottingham Evening Post can be read here, and the duo’s forthcoming live dates can be found here. They play Exeter tomorrow, Portsmouth on Friday, London on Sunday, Suffolk on July 15th, the Cambridge Folk Festival on July 30th, and the Big Chill festival on August 6th.

Now, I’m not much given to evangelising about music these days – I’ve found it to be a largely fruitless and even counter-productive strategy over the years – but in this case, I’m going to make an exception. Whatever your taste in music, YOU MUST SEE THEM. AND THAT IS AN ORDER! I HAVE SPOKEN!

A sad announcement.

Four weeks ago to the day, K and I attained legal recognition for our partnership. In the evening, we were joined for a celebratory dinner by our two witnesses H and C, as well as three members each from our respective families: my mother, sister and cousin, and K’s mother, father and sister.

Despite having been together as a couple for the past 21 years, this was actually the first time that our two immediate families had been fully brought together. However, as we worked our way slowly through the vast, superb meal, laughing and joking and revelling in the sheer excess of the occasion, none of us were to know that it would also be the last.

Last Saturday morning, as I lay in bed, still shaking off the excesses of the previous night’s revelries in Athens, the phone rang. It was K, sounding shaky and upset. The night before, his sister M had collapsed in a restaurant, and had been rushed to hospital, where it was discovered that – aged just 36 and in seemingly perfect health – she had suffered a massive stroke. Now in a critical condition, the doctors were trying to establish the extent of the damage to her brain. The next 48 hours would be crucial.

It was a disorientating and somewhat numbing experience, watching the Eurovision finals on Saturday night whilst knowing the gravity of the situation back home. The relentless gaiety of the show sat oddly alongside the concern that I was feeling for M, K, and K’s whole family – four of whom were cutting short a holiday in Portugal to be by M’s side. At the sound of the German entry (“I’m never ever gonna leave you to cry on your own…“), I broke down completely. Following this catharsis, the rest of the night became easier to bear. I hooted and hollered and clapped my hands, and got drunk on smuggled vodka at the after-show party, and didn’t get to sleep until well after dawn.

It was an even more disorientating and numbing experience, writing my final piece for Slate magazine on Monday afternoon whilst knowing that, following a dramatic and wholly unexpected turn for the worse that morning, all hope for M’s survival had been extinguished. (Even the doctors and nurses were in tears.) Having to stay in London to finish the piece (it took seven hours), and missing the last train up to Stoke-on-Trent in order to do so, was one of the toughest judgement calls I have ever made.

Against all expectations, M clung on until 4am on Tuesday morning. Her funeral takes place in Macclesfield next Friday. I’ll be delivering a short eulogy; M’s close friend J will be reading a self-composed poem; and M’s gifted, articulate 12-year-old cousin E will be delivering her own personal tribute, which has completely floored the two family members who have been made privy to it. Proceedings will begin with Van Morrison’s “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” (Van Morrison being a favourite of K’s entire family); they will end with an exquisitely appropriate song from Diana Krall, with lyrics co-composed by Elvis Costello, called “Narrow Daylight” – a favourite of M’s, selected by her partner R. All of us are striving to make the ceremony as beautiful as possible, in tribute to M’s remarkable beauty, both inner and outer.

Up until its final week, May 2006 had been one of the happiest times of my life, and I’m only glad that I appreciated my extraordinary good fortune while it lasted. But this isn’t even about me – it’s about K’s family, who live their lives off-blog and who will continue to do so. Next Friday, at around 11:30 am, please spare a thought for them.


Those Eurovision previews in full – LIVE from backstage at the final dress rehearsal.

THIS is how much I love you, my Euro-chicklets. Instead of trouping into the hall to watch the final dress rehearsal, I have decided that it would be a lot more fun and fulfilling to blog it live from the press centre, where it’s being relayed on giant screens around the room. Let’s just hope they turn the sound up.

I was at last night’s dress rehearsal, in the best seats I am ever likely to get at any Eurovision ever, and I loved every minute of it.

So hold very tight please, and off we go.

Firstly… you MUST be in your seats for the opening few minutes, which contain some truly stunning coups de theatre. Much as we may have bitched about some of the poor organisation backstage, THIS is what Greece does best. It’s theatrical, it’s OTT, and it had even the most jaded of hacks ooh-ing and aah-ing in wonder last night. They’ve been keeping this a secret all week. Turns out that we don’t know everything in advance after all.

Another plus point: they’ve seriously pruned all that endless preamble, before the songs start in earnest. It’s now 10 past, and we’re on to the first video postcard.

Your hosts are a nice American lady, who is calm, confident and has a useful knack of ad-libbing her way out of difficulties – and a local superstar stud called Sakis Rouvas, who came third a few years ago. What Sakis lacks in presentational polish, he makes up for in Man Cleavage. Darlings, I was transfixed. However, I have a nasty feeling that Sakis might come seriously unstuck during the voting. Could we be looking at another Toto Cutugno situation? (Legendarily inept Italian co-host from the early 1990s – so inept that Italy pulled out of the whole shindig a couple of years later, never to return.)

Now, I’m afraid that the first part of the draw has its longueurs. Bear with us – things hot up dramatically from Song 8, and Songs 13 to 17 are solid gold.

Switzerland is pretty dire: the usual Ralph Siegel hackwork, partially enlivened by a former member of Alcazar. Drop dead fit, but my God, doesn’t he know it.

Moldova is fronted by Arsenium (or “Arsey” to his mates – I shit you not), who used to be in O-Zone, of “Dragostea Din Tei” fame. You might know it better as the “Numa Numa” song, with the home-made webcam video that was all the rage on the web a couple of years ago. Arsey looks curiously uninvolved in his own performance, and the ending is a right old wash-out. No climax, no points. This will sink like a stone, despite the BRILLIANT GROUNDBREAKING NOVELTY of staging a REVERSE STRIPTEASE.

Israel is the third dud in a row, but things do start getting more interesting after this. Note the white suit – white suits are THE fashion story of Eurovision 2006. Why not add white suits to your drinking games at home?

Oh, Latvia. What were you thinking? This is the accapella group with the most ill-advised gimmick ever: a dinky little low-tech robot. Everybody say aah! The song’s a complete dog. Last night, I challenged my friends to sing even one line of it from memory. We’ve been hearing it all week, but no-one could come even close. Even the group’s vocal warm-up exercises were catchier than this! Still, it’s fun to have a number that is performed entirely without backing tapes – yes, those human beat-box effects are all being produced live. They’re clearly very talented, but what a waste of that talent.

Norway is rapidly emerging as the new dark horse. Folksy-ethnicy Enya-esque numbers often perform well here, and this is the only example of such in tonight’s contest, so it should clean up with the folksy-ethnicy lobby. This was particularly warmly received in the hall last night. I don’t care for it at all, but I respect its craft.

Ooh, proper pop stars! It’s Las Ketchup from Spain, continuing to mine that tomato-based theme with “Un Bloody Mary Por Favor”. The “duty free, duty free, duty free…” refrain is particularly fetching, but the song itself is disappointingly under-par – it should have been faster and feistier than this. Still, at least they’re not wearing white, which makes a nice change.

I’ve got ahead of myself, so let me quickly tell you about last night’s entertainment: a “Mister Gay Mediterranean” beauty pageant, held in an alternative arts theatre in front of a mostly straight audience, with a PA from former 1970s Euro-disco icon Amanda Lear (looking like something out of Eurotrash, knobbly kneed, collagened to buggery, and tottering about in a baby-doll dress which partially revealed her bare arse) – and, get this, a performance of Christopher Marlowe’s “Edward II” thrown in, just for fun. (We arrived late, and missed that bit.) Bizarre in the extreme, and thank God that we blagged it on the guest list (as representatives of the international gay press, which was actually sort of true), or else we’d have been rueing the 35 Euro admission price.

Malta have been more desperate to win Eurovision than any other country – and last year, 98 per cent of the viewing population tuned in to watch the show, so one has to admire their commitment. Fabrizio Faniello has been working the media hard all week, and has been popping up for impromptu PA’s all over the place. As a result, I’m sick to death of his happy little ditty – but if you haven’t heard it before, it’s kinda cute.

First of the big guns! Germany‘s Texas Lightning are much loved among the hack pack, and have been wowing the Greeks with their alternative version of “No No Never”, with an expanded middle section that goes all Zorba The Greek. The lead singer is Australian, and lovely. The URLs for the band’s website on the mike stands are a step too far though, and should have been banned: the thin end of a potentially troublesome wedge. Anyway, I love this song to death, and so should you.

Denmark‘s original staging was rocking a very similar country and western vibe to Germany, so they’ve wisely re-thought their act before coming out to Athens. This is a daft little hen-party of a track, which features another of this year’s Big Stories: break dancing. Another one to add to your drinking game? There’s an absolutely filthy alternative version of the chorus doing the rounds, which I don’t propose to repeat here – but think of words which rhyme with “twist”. Ahum.

It’s the man of Chig‘s dreams next: Russia‘s Dima Bilan, who has consistently grown in confidence since his nervous beginnings a week ago. Much like me, in fact – from nervously clutching my satchel like the new kid at school, to the international media presence that I am today. In fact, it’s fair to say that Dima and I have been on something of a shared journey together this week. We’ve never met, and yet I feel we connect in some way. Oh yeah: keep an eye on that grand piano – this is one of the standout gimmicks of the show.

Sheesh, what’s FYROM doing here? I don’t mean to be snide, but this can only have qualified from Thursday on account of FYROM’s uncommonly large number of “special friends”. This might be good moment to put the kettle on. If you’re struggling to concentrate, then see if you can spot the name-checks for Beyonce and Shakira.

And here’s another former also-ran which is coming up on the inside lane: Romania, with a slice of Ye Olde Ibiza Euro-Trance. In the hall, this is fantastically uplifting, with a concluding upwards key-change par excellence, and as such it gathered roars of approval. But how will it translate on telly? Watch for the rotating chicken-on-a-spit break dancer towards the end, and admire the responsible way that he has donned protective headgear before commencing his stunt.

There’s a brief commercial break (during which BBC viewers can feast themselves upon the Sakis Man Cleavage once again)… and then it’s the Big Five. Get back in your seats, everyone – this is the best sequence of the show, with most of the hot favourites drawn next to each other.

I’ve only spoken to one person all week who dislikes Bosnia‘s classy, beautifully arranged and exquisitely sung ballad. When 18 of us gathered together on Thursday evening to pool our predictions as to which 10 songs would qualify from the semis, this song and Finland’s were the only ones to receive a unanimous thumbs-up. My only worry is that Hata Mata Hari (known back home as “the nightingale of Sarajevo”) will get distracted by the ripples of applause which punctuate his performance, and allow self-congratulation to creep in. Sometimes he does this; sometimes he stays focussed on his performance. It could make a slight but subtle difference to the voting – but surely this is a dead cert for Top Three.

You may detect booing from the humourless Greeks for Lithuania‘s middle managers on a corporate awayday – but pay them no heed. Yes, this is a joke which quickly wears thin – but if you’re fresh to it, then it works a treat. Watch the baldy on the far left spring into life halfway through – and, hey boys, check out the lead singer, who gets my vote as 2006’s Top Eurovision Totty. Middle-aged men in suits! Does it for me!

Now, this is an unfortunate draw, as the United Kingdom is saddled with following one novelty song/performance with another. Will Europe’s chuckle bones hold out? Great staging, though – the video backdrops are well-conceived, and the girls nail their characters to perfection. My favourite bit: the “oooh-shi-ine” section, where everyone comes together at stage front. Keep an eye on the bits of paper which the girls fling from their desks – during rehearsals, including this one, they’re Union Jacks, but Daz has promised a surprise for the actual final.. Just bluster, or are we going to see something else? Earlier in the week I was predicting Top 5 – now I’m not so sure. It’s loved by the Brit hack pack, but hasn’t really crossed over beyond that.

Oh crikey, it’s Anna Vissi for Greece, setting the Diva controls up to max. Not since the days of Alla Pugacheva (Russia 1997, oh come on, of course you remember), has anyone gone quite so OTT as this. However, the adulation which Anna receives does have a negative impact on her performance, as what should be a song of pain and anguish turns instead into a triumphalist lap of honour. Come on Anna! Concentrate! Didn’t your lot coin the term “hubris”?

I’m not going to tell you anything more about Finland, as you need to stop reading this RIGHT NOW, and glue your eyes to the screen for the best staging of the entire night. The little girls behind me on Wednesday night were alternately squealing with fear, and giggling with delight. Another Top Three dead cert?

I don’t care what you lot think of Ukraine‘s Tina Karol, because I LOVE HER LOVE HER LOVE HER. Such a game little trouper! How could you not want all the good things in life to come her way? This is the one with the Cossacks and the skipping rope. If Tina wins this, I shall probably burst into tears. And it won’t be the first time this week, either.

(Aside: when Monaco’s 1971 winner Severine took to the stage as a surprise turn at one of the after-parties, to give us a rendition of her classic “Un Banc, Un Arbre, Un Rue”, I promptly bawled my little eyes out. At the end, I turned to Chig, only to find that he had been doing the same. What sentimental old sausages we are.)

Ooh, ooh, rubber-necking at a car-crash time! France‘s Virginie Pouchain is a TV talent contest winner who lacks experience at this level, and she has apparently been suffering from crippling nerves this week. Word yesterday was that the head of the French delegation had to physically push her onto the stage yesterday afternoon, for positively the worst vocal performance I have ever seen from a professional singer. Last night, she rallied a bit, and managed to hit the occasional right note. I sincerely wish her all the best for tonight – I don’t take pleasure in this kind of humiliation. However, it will take a miracle to stop this heading for “nul points”.

Croatia is Chig’s favourite – the cloth-eared fool! – but you can’t deny that this is top, top entertainment. Severina has modelled herself as closely on Angelina Jolie as teams of top cosmetic experts will allow – and there are some decidedly colourful skeletons in her closet, as well. (Happy Googling, pervs! Chig has seen the evidence, and it ain’t pretty. She says it was an amateur video which got leaked. Well, don’t they all?) There’s also a top Bucks Fizz, whoops-there-goes-my-skirt moment. Put it away love! Does your mother know you’re out dressed like that?

And here’s your man Brian Kennedy for Ireland – a country which is finally taking the contest seriously again after many years in the wilderness. This is my slow grower of the week. It’s cheesy to the max, but there’s an emotional quality to it which Kennedy pulls off, against all the odds. In the hands of a lesser singer, this would have been a disaster – but he’s an old pro, and it shows.

Three to go! Here’s god-bothering Carola for Sweden, complete with her specially imported wind machine – which she has graciously shared with any other act who wants it. I think that’s quite nice of her, don’t you? Opinion divides more sharply over Carola than any other performer this year – but I’m a fence-sitter. Part of me thinks she’s a ghastly, deluded fake, and part of me sees a strangely fragile quality, which she has plastered over with all this born-again nonsense. She’s sort of false and sincere at the same time, and I can never quite get to the bottom of her. As it were. Anyway, this is another hot favourite which should sail into the Top 10.

SHOCK UPDATE! Has Carola LOST HER VOICE? After sounding fabulous on Thursday night and Friday afternoon, an astonishingly all-over-the-place performance last night had us wondering what on earth was was going on. Could this be the reason? She sounded distinctly under-par just now, and at her last press conference a spokesman had to do all her talking for her. All pray for Carola, if you please!

Two to go! It’s Turkey, with the alternative UK entry – as the backing dancers (and Chig’s new best mates) are all British by extract or residency. Singer Sibel wept openly at the qualifier’s press conference on Thursday, and started thanking everyone under the sun. Easy, love! You haven’t won yet!

Last one! Plucky newcomer Armenia surprised everyone by qualifying on Thursday, and no-one really knows quite why. There’s a sort of bondage-meets-maypole-dancing thing going on here, but after 24 songs one gets a little jaded with this sort of caper.

And that’s your lot. The interval act is fun – more camped-up Greek classicism – but first of all, there’s a surprise appearance from a TOTAL GREEK MUSICAL LEGEND. Can you guess who it is?

Much to the relief of all but the most hardcore of stats geeks, the voting will be speeded up considerably this year. The lowest 7 points from each country won’t be read out, but will be displayed on screen instead. Then just the 8 points, 10 points and 12 points will be read out in full. Towards the end of the voting, this will revert to the usual method of reading out all 10 scores in full, just to draw out the tension. Ack, I’ve not explained this very well, but you’ll see soon enough. I think I’ve worn myself out – I’ve been typing literally non-stop for the last hour and fifty minutes, and exhaustion is beginning to kick in. But IT HAS ALL BEEN WORTH IT.

Before I sign off: prediction time.

1. Finland
2. Bosnia & Herzegovina
3. Germany
4. Russia
5. Sweden (if the voice recovers, or else bottom 5)
6. Greece
7. Norway
8. Croatia
9. Lithuania
10. United Kingdom
12. Romania
13. Ireland
14. Turkey
15. Ukraine
16. Malta
17. Armenia
18. Denmark
19. Spain
20. Moldova
22. Latvia
22. Switzerland
23. Israel
24. France

Enjoy tonight’s show. It’s a good ‘un. Over and out!

The third Slate piece is up…

…and it’s here. This is what has been referred to behind the scenes as the “Euroweenies In Athens” section. Can I just re-emphasise the plea in the final paragraph? Freeze-frames at the ready, gang!

The final Slate piece will appear on Monday, and then it’s back to civilian life (and proper food, three times a day).

Mike’s pointless semi-final predictions.

OK, let me nail my colours to the mast. These are the 10 countries who I think will qualify from tonight’s Eurovision semi-finals.

Please bear in mind that I have a hopeless track record in these things.

In order of appearance, they are:

Cyprus – strong impassioned ballad.
FYROM – political reasons! They have many friends…
Russia – the ballerina concealed in the grand piano should swing it, and he’s a comely chap.
Ukraine – oops, forgot to include this yesterday. She’s such a game little trouper, and we all love her dearly.
Finland – Europe’s metal lobby have already been galvanised into action, and Dear LORD those fireworks!
Lithuania – so bad it’s good. There’s always one.
Sweden – I can’t quite see the appeal, but Carola is loved by many.
Estonia – good sturdy Scandi-pop which will unite the Baltic states.
Bosnia – sheer class, but he needs to tone down the self-congratulation.
Iceland – for sheer comedic effort and invention, despite loud boos from the hall this afternoon.

Can I also urge you to tune in early, for the campest opening medley ever. It’s blinking brilliant!

Update: Hey, seven out of ten isn’t too shonky. I must be improving…

Rachel’s Eurovision drinking game.

Rachel From North London has swung by in my comments, to post details of the Eurovision drinking game which she and her friends will be playing on Saturday night. Her uncannily prescient list of “characteristics”, upon whose appearance contestants will be obliged to take a drink, deserves a wider audience.

Wind machine
Gypsy Violins
Inadvertent nipple flashing
Peasant on stage
Flag waving
Bondage/fetish wear
Wet-look hair
Ambivalent sexuality/gender
Random percussion
Guitar solo
Over-use of crotch
Sudeden tempo change ie from ballad to hard rock
High kicks
Formation dancing
Bizarre ‘ethnic’ dancing
Removal of items of clothing (inc. hats). Bonus points for skirts.
Back flips

All I can say is: Rachel, you and your mates will be thoroughly sloshed before the interval act. Enjoy!

Today has been the most stressful day of my life…

…and enough to kill my “wanna be a journalist, IT consultancy is sooo boring!” aspirations for good.

Well, almost enough.

But at least the day had a happy ending. Maybe I’ll tell you about it one day.

Update (1): There were three happy endings. An upgrade in my press accreditation, which has granted me access to the PCs in the press centre…

…a ticket to the Saturday night finals, on the sixth row from the front…

…but most importantly, and following a complete re-write from scratch owing to my laptop finally dying on me, exactly at the moment that I was going online to e-mail it to my editor (memo to self: ALWAYS take a backup)…

my debut article for Slate magazine. I’m really rather pleased with it.

Update (2): Thanks to Luca for unearthing photographic evidence of the UK photo-shoot. I’m on the far left, and Daz Sampson (the UK contestant) is in the middle, wearing yellow. Click on “previous” and “next” for more.

Incidentally, I made my press conference debut later that day, asking Daz about his song’s co-composer: a member of the underground culty indie act called the Cuban Boys, who were big favourites of the late John Peel. He had been in a bit of a grumpy mood up until then, and the question seemed to cheer him up. One tries to do one’s bit.

Day 3 at the open rehearsals.

Another day at the office! It’s a bit like Groundhog Day round here, as today’s schedule of rehearsals and press conferences is more or less identical to yesterday’s. We’ve been running through the 14 countries whose songs have been placed directly into Saturday night’s finals. The remaining 23 countries are obliged to battle it out on Thursday night at the semi-finals, which are also broadcast live around Europe. The 10 countries who receive the most tele-votes from the viewing public on Thursday will then graduate to the finals on Saturday.

In an appalling dereliction of duty, I haven’t actually got around to seeing every country’s rehearsal. Some are on way too early, while I’m still recovering from the previous night’s vodka-and-coke-fuelled revelries at the official Euroclub (it gets going around midnight, and finishes at 3am). Others are on way too late, clashing with the daily round of mid-evening parties that are hosted by the various national delegations. But that’s cool, as most of the best songs are placed in the middle of the day anyway.

So, what delights have I witnessed? Here’s a quick lowdown:

Latvia. Ooh, proper music! Performing without the aid of pre-recorded backing tapes (making them the only country this year to do so), Latvia have fielded a six-piece accapella vocal group, who combine tightly arranged harmonies with human beat-box effects. They’re a talented bunch of singers – but sadly, the song itself is a bit of a dog. It’s over-elaborate, it lacks focus, and it lacks any sort of memorable hook – which is pretty much a pre-requisite for any serious contender. Worse still, the young group’s lack of performance expertise leaves them woefully exposed, and looking rather like the winners of a high school singing contest.

However, the final death knell for Latvia comes in the form of positively the lamest, most ill-advised stage gimmick since… since… well, since about five minutes ago, now I come to think about it. I don’t want to give away any surprises, so I’ll just say: watch the left hand side of the stage towards the end.

Norway. No Eurovision would be complete without at least one gypsy-folksy-ethnic turn, and so it falls to Norway’s Christine Guldbrandsen to channel the spirit of the fjords, with a song which translates as “Elves’ Dance”. There are floaty white dresses, there is a wind machine, and much ethereality prevails. Let’s just say that it’s Not My Thing, and move on.

Spain. Wow, some proper pop stars! It’s the return of Las Ketchup, who scored a massive international hit in 2002 with “Asereje”, more commonly known as The Ketchup Song. Still milking the tomato-based liquid theme, the girls are back with a song called “Un Bloodymary”. (Eww, fancy putting ketchup in your vodka, arf arf.) This isn’t a patch on their mega-hit.

Malta. Fabrizio Faniello is a charming, eager-to-please young man, with a winning smile and plenty of expressive hand movements. He has represented Malta before: in 2001, with “Another Summer Night”, which I’m sure we all remember. This year’s song (“I Do”) is similarly bouncy, catchy and memorable. However, the performance – although much improved since the first couple of rough, messy run-throughs – is still a bit all over the place. Worried brows have been furrowed over this one.

Germany. My favourite, the Retro Bar’s favourite, and one of the biggest floor-fillers at the Euroclub every night – which has to be a favourable portent. Every time it comes on, some Pavlovian response kicks in, obliging me to drop everything, break off conversations in mid-sentence, and hurl myself towards the middle of the dancefloor. As I’ve said before, this is a jaunty country-and-western number: firmly in the middle of the road, but with an endearing quality which I can’t quite pin down. It’s a gimmick-free performance, save for a few strategically placed neon cacti – and the URL of the band’s website, plonked centre stage on a couple of mike stands. This could set a dodgy precedent. Personally, I wouldn’t have allowed it.

Despite some growing misgivings, this remains my prediction for this year’s winner – with the Bosnian ballad in 2nd place, and Finland’s hard-rockers in 3rd place. But I’ve never been right at these things yet – and I wouldn’t want you to go wasting your money down at the bookies.

There are more songs to write up, but I need to eat something before tonight’s run of three parties down at the Euroclub.

One last thing: keep your eyes peeled for some promotional shots of the UK’s Daz Sampson with the British fan contingent, all dressed in school uniforms. I’m towards the left of the shot, semi-crouching, and looking like a right wally. If you find the photos anywhere on the web, then let me know, would you? Much obliged!

I do hope you’re managing to keep up with all of this.

Sorry, my poor long-suffering darlings: am I flooding you with trivial details about a TV programme which you have no intention of watching? Can’t be helped, I’m afraid. This is a time of the year when the readership of this blog does a small shift sideways, as inquisitive followers of the Eurovision Song Contest start popping by for updates, and one simply feels a certain duty to oblige.

Worry not, my loyal regulars: this time in a week, the madness will be over. (In other words, I’ll go back to posting once a week, mainly to apologise for only posting once a week. Every blogger needs a House Style, and this would appear to be mine.)

So, with that little disclaimer out of the way, let’s move onto Day Two, brought to you from the back row of the press conference centre.

Actually, let’s finish off Day One first of all.

Yesterday’s penultimate rehearsal came from Bosnia & Herzegovina, who have fielded a splendid bit of breast-beating Balkan balladry. This is the sort of stuff which I used to loathe – but with repeated exposure over the years, one’s ears become acclimatised.

A class act, this one. No silly costumes, no gimmicks, just a powerful and beautifully arranged song, delivered with sincerity and passion. This alone should make it stand out from the pack.

In stark contrast, Iceland‘s Silvia Night and her crew have piled on every gimmick they can think of, and then a few more besides. If this works on the night, then it will be great. However, the staging is so technically demanding that there is plenty of scope for things to misfire – as they did on several occasions during yesterday’s run-throughs.

In common with other responsible sites, I’m not going to give away any of Silvia’s surprises. Nevertheless, you should pay close attention to the lines which she delivers after her, um, descent. In the recorded version, and all the way through the rehersals, Silvia has been using A Certain Word Beginning With F. However, in the printed lyrics which appear in the official programme, the offending line has been rewritten to excise the word in question.

So, will Silvia dare to say “f**king” on Thursday night? Or will family values prevail? Time alone will tell. Look, I’m trying to ratchet up some tension here.

Silvia’s ensuing press conference was a triumph of Performance Art, which apparently caused some offence amongst the more ironically challenged members of the hack pack. She plays that Diva Bitch role to perfection, at all times, never once breaking out of character – and I, for one, admire her for it.

For our evening meal, Chig and I decided to place our trust in the catering team at the joint Ukrainian/Polish party, which was held in one of the side buildings at the official “Euroclub”. (A strange post-industrial complex, reminiscent of both the Tate Modern and Battersea Power Station. Only a bit diddier.)

What mouth-watering examples of their respective national cuisines would the Ukes and the Poles rustle up? Some tasty bits of sausage? Clever things with beetroot?

Um, not quite. Our supper ended up consisting entirely of tortilla crisps and olive tapenade. And vodka. Lots and lots of FREE vodka. (The portions they dole out are ginormous.)

Frankly darlings, I’m living off dust. Well, dust and fags, if I’m being entirely honest. Still, I should be able to squeeze into my nice new red-white-and-blue Paul Smith cowboy shirt by the end of the week, so it will All Be Worth It.

Bugger it, I’m missing Las Ketchup in the next room. Laters!

Swedish pixie not homophobic after all Shockah!

Straight from the horse’s mouth, 10 minutes ago at her press conference:

“I’m proud to be a Gay Diva.”

Have to say, it looked as she was having her teeth pulled while she was saying it.

Carola then directed us to this video interview, in which she supposedly sets the record straight on That Controversial Gay Question Which Won’t Go Away, Dammit.

Hmm. A tad edited, isn’t it?

“I… [snip) … love … (snip) … gay … (snip) … people.”


Sheesh, there’s barely time to snatch a fast fag in the loading bay.

Estonia‘s entry is, emphatically, My Sort Of Thing: Scandiwegian pop-rock at its finest, once again delivered by a Swedish performer. (They have a history of doing this.) If you liked “Once In A Lifetime” by Ines, or Sahlene’s “Runaway”, then you’ll like this.

But what is she singing in the chorus?

“Looking through my window, what about the subjugation?” That’s what I thought at the Retro Bar on Thursday. Mmm, kinky!

“Looking through my window, what about the Soviet Nation?” An oblique comment on post-Warsaw Pact independence? That would be nice.

Nope, now that I’ve got my official programme, I can confirm that the lyrics are, in fact, “Looking through my window, what about sun you made shine?”. Dropped definite article and all. Well, of course.

The direct lift from Abba’s “Does Your Mother Know” is a nice touch, and is reflected in the Abba-esque outfits: 1975-style mini-dresses and boots. She’s a bit plastic, but that’s only right and proper. Go Estonia, etc etc.

Oh, someone else appears to be doing this live-blogging thing as well…

…only I suspect that the Schlagerboys are doing it from the palatial splendour of the P1-enabled press centre, whereas I’m squatting at the back of the press conferences like a pauper. Not bitter! Not bitter at all!

Anyway, their blog is great, and reading their comments on the same events is like hearing some weird Schlager echo.

Don’t forget the OnEurope Livejournal, either. Scabrously opinionated, which is just the way we like it.

I’ll wear myself out with all this to-ing and fro-ing…

…and they’re fresh out of complementary water bottles, as well. I’m sweating like a hog! But it’s all for YOU, so that’s all right then!

Portugal. Never very strong on yer actual Tunes, are Portugal. This year’s entry makes their most concerted stab in yonks at an Actual Tune, being frothy, boppy, and a leetle bit Motowny. 4 ladies, lots of mini ra-ra skirts, lots of movement, lots of bounce… but, nah. This ain’t gonna break their run of failure, either. How’s about some Fado for next year, huh? I could see Fado going great guns.

The hall was jam-packed for everyone’s favourite homophobic pixie with a wind machine, Sweden‘s Carola: a strong contender, with previous form. Carola brought it home for Sweden in 1991 with “Captured By A Love Storm”, aided by judicious use of a wind-machine – and blow me if the wind machine isn’t back in 2006, now turbo charged to ventilate not just Carola’s rippling blue train, but the ginormous silver flags of her backing dancers. Love her or hate her, this was a rip-roaring, barn-storming performance, and a dead cert to qualify. So she’s a born-again nutter! Deal with it!

I’m getting quite quick at doing this, you know. And the laptop hasn’t played up once. Time to source some fluids. Back later with three Big Ones: Estonia, Bosnia, and – be still my beating heart – Iceland!

I wasn’t really enjoying myself much this morning. Too overwhelming, too much to take on board. Now that I’m actually making myself useful, it feels a whole lot better. Arbeit macht frei!

Gawd, are they still wittering on?

I’ve just nipped out to watch Portugal, and have returned to find the Dutch ladies still blathering on about “this fantastic opportunity”, yadda yadda yadda.

I’ve also spotted the Question Of Doom, which crops up at every press conference. Some well meaning soul will always pop up and ask the act about whether they see Eurovision as a springboard to an international career, and what plans do they have to tour abroad, etc. Tumbleweed, every time, followed by non-committal mumblings. Hey, let’s not kid ourselves here. We’ve all been around the block.

Lithuania performed to the smallest crowd of hacks that I’ve seen thus far. Was it just the post-lunch dip, or were people staying away in droves because “We Are The Winners” is widely regarded as one of the drossiest Eurovision entries ever?

Fools! Fools! OK, so the song is little more than a terrace chant (“We are the winners! Of Eurovision! Vote vote vote vote vote for the winners!”), set to the tune of the children’s refrain “I’m the king of the castle”, over a basic drum pattern. And OK, so the performers look like a bunch of middle-managers getting pissed up at a company Awayday. But, I’m telling you: you’ve got to watch this one. It has a charm all of its own. This is my current Dark Horse.

(There’s also a great bit where it sounds as if the song is about to lurch into Van Halen’s “Jump”. The moment passes quickly, but it’s a thrilling one.)

Excuse me while I hoof it over to everyone’s favourite homophobic pixie with a wind machine: Sweden’s Carola. Busy busy busy!

More on the rehearsals.

If there are any Brits who are looking to spread their loyalties, then Turkey would be a natural choice, as nearly all of their humpy male backing dancers are either British by nationality or residency. (Yes, Chig’s been chatting them up.) They include a former dancer for Bananarama and Crazy Frog (the honour!), and a former member of some Pete Waterman protegés called Pop!, who had a few hits a couple of years ago. It’s the umpteenth lively number in a row, and so might get buried in the rush, but the disco-influenced dance moves are a source of some delight.

I didn’t stay long for Ukraine, but what I did see involved Cossack dancing, and a giant skipping rope. But hey, I don’t want to spoil all of your surprises.

Ah, Finland. Now, this is a one to watch. Think Slipknot fronted by Roy Wood, singing death metal vocals over a 1980s Bon Jovi-esque backing. Most of the band wear scary monster masks, and there’s a dramatic Costume Moment mid-song (involving wings), and there are fireworks. Big, huge, massive f**k-off fireworks. Which I missed, as they weren’t activated until the final run-through.

The guys over at the splendid OnEurope Livejournal are saying: Winner. Me, I can’t be sure – there was something awkwardly static about the performance, pyros or not. Still, the band gave easily the most entertaining press conference thus far, for which much thanks. (It’s been Platitude City, basically.)

The Netherlands press conference is taking place as I type. Deeply honoured to be representing our country, blah blah blah. I might be the new kid at school, but I’m quickly learning the drill. It’s a slight and over-repetitive song, delivered by a cutesome girl trio, with an acoustic guitar and… eek, wah… DRUMS.

Those of you who survived last years DrumFest in Kiev will still no doubt be scarred by the memories. It is therefore my pleasure to report that NO BIG DRUMS AT ALL have crossed the Eurovision Big Drum Embargo this year. Maybe they were all impounded at customs. Nevertheless, the Dutch girls have managed to smuggle in an extensive array of Little Drums. Scattered all over the stage, they are. Bongotastic. I don’t think this one will qualify for Saturday’s finals.

Back later!

First day at school.

So here I am, slightly overwhelmed and bewildered, nervously clutching my complementary satchel and stumbling around the Olympic Indoor Arena, here in sunny Athens. Lots of goodies have been thrust into my hand… shrink-wrapped DVDs which I might never play, press releases, party invites, timetables, etc etc.

Chig (who knows EVERYONE) is being very good, and introducing me to people at the rate of about once every five minutes. I barely recall a single name, but everybody is very nice. It’s interesting how, every time you’re introduced to someone, both of your eyes flicker down to the ginormous laminated passes that hang, medallion-like, somewhere around your navel. Checking each other out: so, where’s he from? Is he P1, P2 or FAN? Subtle hierarchies prevail.

As for me, I’ve been granted P2 accreditation. Full access to the open rehearsals and press conferences, but – alarmingly – NO access to the press centre, with its banks of PCs and modem points. That’s strictly for the higher beings with P1.

So, in order to communicate with the outside world, I am obliged to hunker down in the press conference area, which has a good strong wi-fi signal. It’s manageable, so long as the blessed laptop doesn’t start blue-screening. There’s no rhyme or reason to this: it can work like a dream for hours on end, then it can just start crapping out randomly all over the place. But ever since I uninstalled Norton Antivirus, there has been a marked improvement. Fingers crossed.

What of the rehearsals so far? Today, we’ve got the decidedly stronger second half of the qualifiers, which go out on Thursday night on BBC3.

Russia are represented by a pretty boy called Dima Bilan, with a mullet nouveau and amazing fawn-like eyes. Having (frankly) slobbered all over him in his Gay Times preview, Chig has been informed that his comments have been circulated the length and breadth of Russia, and that they are being taken as a great portent for success on Thursday. So, naturally, he was right down the front for the press conference – and right in place to catch one of Dima’s complementary pillows, branded with his image. Sweet dreams tonight for Mister Chig!

The performance involves rose petals, and a white piano from which a woman’s head mysteriously emerges. At least, I think so. There was a bit of a crush down the front, and my eyes were still adjusting to the gloom.

A word about the arena. It’s not overly huge, so even the folks in the cheap seats should get a decent enough view. The stage is modelled around a classic Greek ampitheatre design, with banks of descending steps that also serve as video screens. I’ve seen fussier stage designs in my time, but this is fairly simple and it works well.

Eek, Lithuania are on in the next room. ‘Scuse me, must dash. Talk to you later.

Snippets from the departure area.

1. Some light perusing of Slate (my new favourite website, for obvious reasons… see next post) has unearthed an excellent article: The Perils Of Poptimism (Does Hating Rock Make You A Music Critic?, by Jody Rosen. Having read an awful lot of over-inflated guff over the years about so-called “rockism”, its adherents and its “popist” opponents, it’s refreshing to find such a sensible, straightforward exposition of the seemingly never-ending row between music geeks of certain hues.

2. The caption competition! I never gave you the results of the caption competition! After careful consideration, the prize of Super Duper Posh Spa Resort Incense Sticks (Sandalwood flavour) goes to…

asta, for the caption which made K and I laugh the hardest and longest:

K: I’m sure I mentioned that getting a dog would be part of the contract.

Congratulations, asta. Your prize will be winging its way to Canada in a couple of weeks’ time.

3. Over in Athens, Iceland’s “kooky” Silvia Night is giving it the full Diva treatment: at the start of her press conference, she expressly forbade anyone to look at her while addressing her. This turned out to be no joke, as a hapless journo who breached the rule ended up being thrown out of the room by her personal security staff. Now, that’s the sort of behaviour we want to encourage. The spirit of tATu lives on, etc. etc.

Boarding in half an hour! Still very excited!


Well, this is a novel sensation.

While still basking in the warm afterglow of a wonderful holiday which ended just five days ago, I’m now feeling the giddy demob-happy anticipation of a second holiday, which starts tomorrow morning…

…when I fly to Athens, to spend eight days in the very epicentre of the mad media circus that is…


This will be my fifth Eurovision, but the first one where I’ll be enjoying the benefits of press accreditation. This comes courtesy of, for whom I’ll be penning four daily dispatches, starting next Thursday.

The purpose of these dispatches will be to introduce and explain the Eurovision phenomenon to a mostly American audience, who know nothing of its manifold delights. This is particularly well-timed, since the NBC network have recently secured the rights to produce a US version of the contest, in which all 50 states will compete against each other. Let’s just hope they manage to preserve something of Eurovision’s essential charm and character.

My mentor for the week will be Chig, who has been representing Gay Times at the contest nearly every year since 1998. I couldn’t ask for a better guide – or indeed flatmate, as we’ll be bunking up together in an apartment for the duration. (I might also press him into certain fact-checking duties; he’s a notorious stickler for detail, and quite right too.)

The big worries right now are:

1. Will my level of accreditation grant me access to the press centre, which I could do with in order to file my copy? They don’t tell you until you get there. It could get ugly!

2. Will my dodgy laptop hold out for the duration? It’s perfectly well-behaved until I switch on the wi-fi, after which it has a nasty habit of blue-screening at random. My latest wheeze has been to disable the Norton Anti-Virus. Miraculously, it appears to be working a treat… so far.

If the wi-fi inside the Arena permits, then I intend to fire off some rough-and-ready hit-and-run blog posts from the rehearsals and press conferences – along with breathless reports of the parties, of course. (“OH MY GOD I stood RIGHT NEXT to the second Croatian backing dancer from the left! My life is SO GLAMOROUS!”) Well, one must be allowed an outlet for one’s untreated fanboy gush, as Slate are really rather highbrow (SHUT THAT DOOR, BELGIUM’S KATE RYAN!), and I shall be obliged to deploy at least some measure of objective detachment. (GO ICELAND! WE LOVE YOU, SILVIA!)

Yesterday, at the Retro Bar’s monthly “Douze Points” shindig, we watched the preview videos of this year’s entries, and cast votes in the traditional Eurovision jury-based manner. (Luca has the full results.) The winners on the night were Germany, who have fielded a sweet and mega-catchy country-and-western hoedown – but easily my favourite video came from Greece’s remarkably well-preserved veteran Anna Vissi, who served up a gripping mini-drama that had me clutching my sides. YOU SHOW ‘EM GRANDMA!

Despite the aforementioned post-holiday glow, it’s been a stressful rollercoaster of a week in many ways. I only had two days in Nottingham to unpack, turn round and re-pack, before spending two days back in Canary Wharf in advance of Athens. The morning after I arrive back at Gatwick, I’ll then be back in Canary Wharf for yet another full working week. I’ve therefore had to pack work clothes, play clothes and party clothes for a full sixteen days away. Why, I can barely lift my suitcase.

This was also the week that I learnt that I’ll be required to spend most of June working in London as well. I’m afraid that, in the heat of the moment, I might have used some unprofessional language. Yes, let’s leave it right there.

Today was a classic Canary Wharf day: lurching from Dear-GOD-this-is-the-toughest-gig-ever, WHY-did-they-hire-me, I’ll-NEVER-get-up-to-speed, my-brain-can’t-absorb-ONE-MORE-SCRAP-of-information, to oh-NOW-I-get-it, wow-I’ve-actually-got-something-WORKING, you-know-this-job-can-be-quite-FUN-in-a-twisted-sort-of-way. And thankfully, in that order.

Bloody Slate Dot Bloody Com, if you please! I am VERY excited. DJ DAZ TO BRING IT BACK HOME FOR BLIGHTY!

What a year, ladies and gentlemen. What a year.