Friday 24 October 2014

Goodbye summer and hello Eurovision season!

Where has the time gone? It’s been a pretty eventful few months for me. I’ve recently moved to London to take up a new role in communications. London’s an incredibly special place and signal failures on the tube aside, I’m really enjoying it. I’m still keeping up to date with my interests in Ukraine and Estonia, which earlier this month became the first country in the post-Soviet space to pass a law recognising same-sex partnerships. Bravo Eesti! Scotland was very much in my mind too for obvious reasons. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the debates around independence, it’s engaged and empowered people which is fantastic. I hope this spirit spreads to the rest of the UK. Although I have a feeling we might not have seen the end of the Scottish independence question…
The nights are drawing in, winter is coming which means one thing – the Eurovision season is about to begin! Today tickets went on sale for the Swedish extravaganza that is Melodifestivalen. In the coming weeks the various names for national selections will be announced. No doubt the various rumours will start too. I was pleased to see the BBC make an announcement about its plans for Eurovision 2015. The UK can win this thing, we just need to make a concerted effort, with a decent song and perhaps a little luck. Wouldn’t it be great for us Brits to win the 60th contest?
Conchita has been doing the rounds over the summer and more recently made an appearance at the European Parliament in Brussels – she’s a fantastic ambassador for equality and indeed Eurovision. In summer I tend to fall away from Eurovision, even I reach saturation point! However I’m looking forward to the coming season and all the excitement that it’ll no doubt bring!

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Estonian independence still matters

Today, 20 August 2014, marks the 23rd anniversary of the restoration of independence in Estonia. I use the term restoration deliberately since independence was originally declared back in 1918. History of course had other ideas. 

As many people know I have a love for Estonia and all things Estonian. It's a fascinating country with a rich and vibrant history, culture and language (not to mention difficult!) I loved living and studying in the Estonia and was fortunate to hear very personal stories from my Estonian friends who vividly remember those tense times of August 1991. On Facebook this morning I was struck by one post in particular, from Jarmo Siim, who wrote:

"23 years ago today, I was very afraid. I had seen tanks on TV, approaching Tallinn. This was following the events in Latvia and Lithuania months before where hundreds of people were injured or killed. It was a part of the Soviet coup. My family was scared as was the whole nation. 

But the decision had already been made earlier, in the heads of Estonians - there was no way back, it was either freedom or Siberia. Both would do. At 23:03 local time, the parliament re-established the independence of the Republic Of Estonia. We've never looked back. 

Now, Estonia is one of the most free and successful European countries that emerged from the Soviet Union. That is why we stand by with everyone who has not been that fortunate. And hope that one day they will also have the luck to tell a similar story.

Happy second birthday, my dear Estonia!"

My own memories are relatively vague, I remember my teacher at school telling me that the "map of the USSR is going to be out of date soon" and that's about it. Jarmo's status struck a chord with me - it must have been terrifying seeing scenes on TV of protestors being gunned down by an increasingly erratic army, desperate to maintain control. There is also a crucial point to be made - Estonia, and the other Baltic States, were occupied. They did not voluntarily join the Soviet Union. This was never forgotten and was arguably one of the main motivating factors in pushing for full independence that summer. The choice was stark - face a certain bleak future or rejoin the world of nations.

Estonia has made some truly remarkable strides over the past two decades and is evidence that small countries can flourish with independence. Something worth bearing in mind as the independence referendum gets underway in Scotland. Of course there have been tensions and difficulties along the way, and the road ahead may not be smooth, but Estonia is a peaceful European country which unlike others, respects human rights and international law. Whilst in the 1990s there were accusations that Russian speakers in Estonia were being persecuted, many of those people actually supported Estonian independence and have adapted to life after the Soviet Union.

People might laugh at Eurovision but for nations eager to be seen and heard on the world stage, such events are unique opportunities and one which Estonia used well. Estonian independence is an important event to mark, arguably more important now than ever. Estonia, and other countries, are nervously looking over their shoulders at events which are continuing to unfold in Ukraine. The context is different of course, but given the unpredictable and volatile world order of today, I'm sure many Estonians are celebrating the fact that they made a clean break from the past when they did.

In September I'm going on the so-called "Eurovision Cruise" from Helsinki to Tallinn and I'm so looking forward to returning to Estonia, a country which I have taken to my heart. Elagu Eesti - Ma armastan sind! 

 Eurovision 2009: Flying the Estonian flag in Moscow with Natalia from Russia

Time, time changes everything...

Good old Nicki French was so right when she sang that!

Change is ahead for me. I've recently accepted a new job in London starting in September. I'm really looking forward to it. I've loved living in Cardiff for the past three years but it's too good an opportunity to turn down and I think I'll love living in London. 

It's been the usual quiet few months in the land of Eurovision. Austria announced that Vienna will host the 60th Eurovision Song Contest - much to the delight of fans. It seems like the logical (and logistical) choice. Already the autumn seems to be coming (and it's only August) which means that it's not too long until the national final season starts again! 

Next stop: London!

Thursday 24 July 2014

Glasgow's Miles Better

"Glasgow's Miles Better" was the famous slogan from the 1980s campaign to change Glasgow's image from one of industrial decline to that of a vibrant European city. It was also the start of major regeneration which took place across the city and still continues today. Last night saw the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games which took place in Glasgow's Parkhead Stadium, a culmination of years of work and a combination of different excellences.
My family are all from Glasgow and whilst I grew up in England, to a large extent, I consider Glasgow to be my hometown in many ways. Growing up I spent every school holiday there and I lived there for 10 years, it's one of my favourite cities. The current city branding slogan being used is "People Make Glasgow" and that's so true. The opening ceremony was a reflection of that and so much more.
Whilst the huge kilt, dancing teacakes, Karen Dunbar and John Barrowman, weren't to everyone's taste, it was a uniquely Glaswegian performance. Much of it might have seemed alien to those who perhaps had never visited Scotland, or even Glasgow and whilst it was never going to be the same as London 2012 (nor should it be), it had heart and I think it came from a genunine place. Of course there was also a little bit of patriotism (quite right too) with the list of Scottish inventions being reeled off, including the fact that it was a Scot that founded the Bank of England!
Sport events are inherently political and Glasgow didn't shy away from that and saw a same-sex kiss within the opening minutes. The timing of this couldn't be more crucial; there are debates about equality raging within the UK and of the Commonwealth countries competing in Glasgow, 42 criminalise homosexuality. The Scottish Government is proudly flying the rainbow flag to symbolise diversity. There was also a tribute to Nelson Mandela - which was fitting considering that Glasgow gave him the freedom of the city back in 1986, at a time when Margaret Thatcher had denounced him as a terrorist. Glasgow has a long history of fighting inequality and that is something that the city should be extremely proud of.
2014 is a significant year for Scotland and it'll be interesting to watch the impact (if any) that these games have on undecided voters in the upcoming referendum. It was rather amusing to hear such a roar for the Queen at Celtic Park of all places- this is surely the first time in the history that this has happened. It was fantastic to see Team England receive such a welcome during the parade, quashing the rumours set by scaremongers that the English would receive a rough ride.
A particularly poignant moment came when a minute's silence was held for the victims of the MH17 crash. There were over 40,000 people in that stadium and not a sound was heard. This was Glasgow and its people at its best.
Some might scoff at the Commonwealth Games, arguing that they're irrelevant, an opportunity for the UK to somehow feel powerful on the world stage. To a certain extent, I can understand some of those arguments. However the Commonwealth Games are still a mega event, attracting media attention, investment and scrutiny. Over 1 billion people were said to have tuned into Glasgow's ceremony last night, promotion that no city could ever really afford if it had to buy the airtime.
The Glasgow opening ceremony was everything I thought it should be - fun, inclusive, controversial and self-depricating. The fact that the Wellington Statue (with traffic cone) featured so prominently was not only a reflection of Glasgow humour but a testament that Glaswegians do not take themselves too seriously. Well done Glasgow, to use the famous quip, you've done "no bad".

Friday 27 June 2014

Sign along the dotted line, Mr President

Today sees the signing an EU association agreement between three former Soviet republics; Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. This is a milestone in the development of the European Union and is likely to cause tensions with Russia. Viktor Yanukovych famously backed out of signing this very agreement last year, sparking waves of protest. It was essentially the flashpoint which led to the latest Ukrainian revolution. I was in Ukraine in October and never in a million years did I think that things would escalate so quickly and with such tragic consequences.

These EU accession agreements are something to celebrate and provide an opportunity for closer economic cooperation and should in theory, foster stronger, more positive international relations. In Ukraine the story is unfolding on a daily basis. Georgia, an EU-aspirant country, has undergone rapid social and economic transformation over the past decade and the signing of this agreement is an important step on the long road to European integration. (They also make rather nice wine too!) Moldova, apparently the poorest country in Europe, stands to gain a foothold in valuable economic markets. For existing EU members this agreement also provides new opportunities for business, investment and dialogue. To celebrate, here are some of my favourite Eurovision tunes from Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Happy Friday!


Gaitana was a fantastic ambassador for Ukraine in 2012, this anthem of Euro 2012 stood in stark contrast to the allegations of racism which plagued the organisers of the football championship. Gaitana herself faced racist attacks from Ukrainian politicians. She took it all in her stride and belted out her song for Europe.


The Georgians are famous for their hospitality and at Eurovision they are by far, the nicest, most welcoming delegation of all. Relative late-comers to the Eurovision party, debuting in 2007, they've entered something different every year. It's this rich diversity which keeps the contest alive. This song from 2010 is one of my absolutely favourites, Sofia was probably the best singer in the contest that year and I was ready to pack my bags for Tbilisi in 2011. Sadly it wasn't to be, what's another year?

Moldova have a been a bit hit and miss with me. Of their recent offerings I've loved their songs from 2012 and even 2010. Who could resist a bit of 2009's 'hora in Moldova' too? For me though, the classic and still best Moldovan entry was their debut in 2005. The song was catchy, well-performed and of course, the appearance of the drumming granny sealed it's fate as one of the best, most memorable gimmicks of recent times. The group, Zdob şi Zdub, went on to represent the country again in 2011. Rumour has it that the original granny was lined up for the job of riding the unicycle but an unfortunate accident during rehearsals meant that she was replaced by a younger model... 

Good luck to my colleagues Göran and Per who are attending a celebratory event this afternoon at the Ukrainian embassy in Stockholm. Europe's living a celebration!

Thursday 19 June 2014

Going back to school

... well sort of!

It's a great privilege to be teaching two courses at London's City Lit Academy in August. The first course on Saturday 9th August will focus on the global phenomenon that is ABBA! More details here.

The following day, Sunday 10th August, I'll be teaching a day course on Eurovision! More details here.

I'd like to thank the City Lit Academy for this opportunity and look forward to working with them this summer!

Thursday 12 June 2014

Now that the dust has settled...

It's just over a month since the final of the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest took place and since Austria's Conchita Wurst romped home to victory. Austria hadn't won the contest since 1966 and the result this year proves that if at first you don't succeed, try and try again. It'll come as little comfort the UK's Molly of course who hoped to fare better than she did. However, we in the UK must acknowledge that we no longer have a monopoly on this competition, and as Austria showed, nobody really does. 

Conchita's victory was lauded as hugely significant by many, including myself, who saw it as a triumph of freedom of expression. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, Conchita is a drag queen with a beard. Nothing more, nothing less. However in these troubled times, when countries around the world and indeed Europe, are enforcing draconian laws against homosexuality and flouting international legislation concerning human rights, Conchita's victory is significant. I understand that some might not feel comfortable using a bearded drag queen as such a symbol, that's their prerogative. What's interesting is how the result was viewed in other countries. In Russia, unsurprisingly, the government view was one of hostility and dismay. According to Russian politicians, Conchita's victory represented the end of Europe as we know it. There was even talk about them starting their own contest, an Intervision Song Contest with the Russian selection to be held in... Crimea! The results of Eurovision this year showed that people cannot be judged by the actions of their governments; the public in Russia, Ukraine and Georgia all voted for Austria despite their alleged homophobic tendencies. 

Russia and Ukraine were of course one of the main focal points of the contest, which stands as evidence yet again that Eurovision illuminates wider geopolitical debates in Europe today. Austria's victory in the contest was merely the tip of the iceberg. Austria, a country which doesn't really have any voting allies in the contest, won the contest after nearly 50 years. The Netherlands, which have failed to qualify consistently for nearly a decade, came second. Sweden finished in third position making the 2014 contest the first to have an all-western top three since 1999. In the UK four songs from the 2014 contest charted in the top 40, with the Dutch song entering at number 9, the highest placing for a non-winning, non-UK song for nearly 40 years. The myth that the UK is not interested in Eurovision has surely been dispelled by now?

It'll be interesting to watch what Conchita Wurst does in the coming months. She's already appeared on Newsnight and came across as more articulate, intelligent and informed than most of our own politicians. I use the term "she" because Conchita, the character, refers to herself as a she, as do most drag queens. There's no hidden agenda here, something that some UK tabloids should understand. Whilst Conchita's emotionally charged victory speech might be written off as a bit of excitement, I think what she said was hugely significant given all that's happening in Europe just now. It wasn't just aimed at the LGBT community, it applies to any group and as the recent European elections have shown, worryingly there is growing support for those who wish to marginalise others. I salute you Conchita, thank you for the music.  

"This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom. You know who you are. We are unity. And we are unstoppable" - Conchita Wurst


Thursday 29 May 2014

The winner takes it all!

A colleague of mine from the BBC was very busy during Eurovision this year - chasing various artists for a autographs. However, unlike most signed programme booklets, this one is for a very special cause. All proceeds will go towards Oxfam in support of the 100k Trailtrekker (rather them than me!)

The programme booklet has been signed by the majority of artists in the contest this year, including of course the winner, Conchita Wurst! It's a unique item and will be a collectable in years to come. If you want to get your hands on it and support a good cause at the same time you can bid for it here.

Good luck to all the Trailtrekkers and well done to Laurence for arranging this - what a lovely idea!

Monday 12 May 2014

The party's over now...

Wow! What a result. Austria's win at Eurovision was truly remarkable and huge congratulations Conchita Wurst. The victory is good on so many levels and as the singer said when she received her trophy, it was a triumph for freedom. Things didn't go too well for the UK but I don't think we should be too downhearted, it was a close contest and ultimately, if you look at the points, we weren't all that far away from the top ten. Well done to Molly.

The top three were all western countries. Austria stropped off from the contest a few years ago and yet here they are, proving that western countries with few voting allies, can win this contest. The Netherlands came second in another stunning reversal of fortunes. For the first time ever, Azerbaijan failed to make the top 10 - in a year where there was much more transparent voting. Note that Azerbaijan's jurors and public unsurprisingly put Armenia in last position despite it being one of the favourites. Politics in the Eurovision Song Contest?

I'll write a more comprehensive account next week, once I've had the chance to properly review the contest. For now, it's time to finish my final media interviews and catch up on some much-needed sleep!!

Thursday 8 May 2014

The circus has come to town!

Eurovision 2014 is in full swing. The first semi final took place on Tuesday night and threw up some surprises - San Marino qualified! Well done Valentina, proving that if at first you don't succeed... Montenegro also qualified for the first time. Huge cheers for Ukraine and massive boos for Russia when the results were announced. Those girls might be in for a rough ride on Saturday. BBC Three was good fun as always - more tonight!

The second semi final will be on BBC Three this evening - the UK can vote. Ones to watch out for include Israel, Malta, Ireland and Poland - shake what mama gave ya indeed. There's a real buzz about the UK this year - I really hope Molly does well. 

My book is now available for pre-order here or an open access download here

I'm heading to London tomorrow for the final. 

Ciao for now.

Sunday 4 May 2014

We're in the bubble

The Eurovision circus is in full swing now with all delegations present in Copenhagen. Today saw the Big Five (UK, Germany, Italy, France and Spain) rehearse alongside the home team, Denmark. It's going to be a slick set of shows. 

Eurovision is changing. Gone are the lavish opening ceremonies with open invitations, the contest is downsizing and there is a much more frugal approach to the event now. The welcome reception will take place tonight but it's strictly for delegations only. Accredited press can go along to the red carpet to watch delegates arriving and like last year, can watch the party on a screen in the Euroclub. It all smacks a little of "let them eat cake" (cheesecake if you're from Belarus) although it's not entirely surprising given the budget constraints facing national broadcasters. 

Whilst Eurovision can be an expensive business it's still one which countries buy into. Georgia for example, uses Eurovision as a platform for promoting the country, an avenue for nation branding. Of course politics can and does come into Eurovision too. Tijana, the singer from FYR Macedonia performed at the Euroclub last night and expressed regret that Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia Herzegovina were all absent from the contest this year. She then performed a short rendition of the Serbian winner from 2007 "Molitva". It's easy to be cynical but bearing in mind that there was a full scale war going on in the Balkans only two decades ago, it shows how Eurovision really does continue to unite. All eyes will be on Russia and Ukraine in the first semi final on Tuesday. Tijana will be joining Scott Mills (and me!) on the show on BBC Three. 

More tomorrow!

Saturday 3 May 2014

This is Copenhagen calling!

Yesterday I arrived in Copenhagen for the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest. I met the BBC team at Heathrow who were in good spirits. I'm delighted to be appearing on their semi final coverage again on BBC3 with Scott Mills - Tuesday and Thursday, 8pm. The UK can vote in Thursday's show.

The venue this year is, well, interesting. It's an old shipyard, renovated especially for the contest. It doesn't look great from the outside but it's what's inside which counts and it'll look great on TV I'm sure. Rehearsals are continuing today, there's the usual speculation about which countries will make it to the final and which ones will be left out in the cold. Poland is worth watching, the Slavic girls are using their charming beauty. I really like the song but not sure about the presentation - focusing on breasts - is it empowerment or misogyny?  

I've just met the lovely Tinatin Berdzenishvili from Georgian TV, one of the nicest people out of all the Eurovision delegations. Georgia will take part in the second semi final - it's a quirky song, not everyone's cup of tea but it's well performed. Thanks to Tinatin for the interview. More tomorrow!

Wednesday 30 April 2014

This is Canada calling...

Last week I had the great pleasure of recording a podcast with Eurovision Canada alongside my colleague Dr Karen Fricker. We spoke about the politics of Eurovision, how I got into it and what we can expect from Eurovision this year. 

Listen here

Monday 28 April 2014

Tick Tock... Ukraine - the ticking time bomb of Eurovision?

Rehearsals for Eurovision began this morning in Copenhagen. Later today both Russia and Ukraine will take to the stage. Never before have relations between the two countries been so tense or so serious. We are likely to see these tensions spill out onto the Eurovision stage. Whether the EBU like it or not, politics does come into Eurovision.

Over at ESC Insight I've written an article on the current situation - will there be political references in the performance? The voting? How will the Russian entry be received? Ukraine aside, Russia's image among the Eurovision fan community is less than positive. The adoption of the anti-gay laws in Russia last year has meant that the country has become viewed almost as a pariah state. It's likely that the Russian twins, the Tolmachevy Sisters, will face a rough ride from audience, consisting mainly of gay men. However, those girls will be well prepared and resilient, as my Euro pal Monty pointed out, he wouldn't be surprised if they booed back!

I arrive in Copenhagen on Friday, more updates before then though!

Friday 25 April 2014

And... we're off!

It's difficult to believe that the Eurovision season is about to begin again. It seems like barely a few weeks since the 2013 contest! To all traveling to Copenhagen over the coming days, I wish you a safe and pleasant journey. I'll be there from Friday May 2nd but will be returning to the UK on Friday 9th May, suitably enough, on Europe Day!

2014 is shaping up to be an exciting year; it looks like it'll be tense for Russia and Ukraine and with no real runaway winner, it'll hopefully be a close race to the finish line. Danish broadcaster DR look like they're planning a spectacular show! The stage looks very impressive indeed, and with several days to go before rehearsals start, they're also looking super organised!

It'll be a busy one for me, with the publication of my book The Modern Fairy Tale: Nation Branding, national identity and the Eurovision Song Contest in Estonia as well as my on-going punditry work. I'm sure there will be time for dancing (as well as the odd glass of prosecco!) Eurovision 2014 is almost upon us! Join us!

Wednesday 23 April 2014

A marathon weekend

As many of you know, last weekend I ran the London Marathon in support of Leukaemia Care. It was an amazing day - my final time was 03:29:27. It might have been even better if I hadn't gone out and got drunk at EuroFest on the Friday before... Still, I am happy with my time, despite the hot weather. Less than five weeks to go now until the Edinburgh Marathon!

Still smiling at mile 20 - before the cramp set in

With my cousin and aunt after the 2013 London Marathon  

It was a particularly poignant day though, as last year I was cheered on by my aunt who sadly passed away in September. She was a truly remarkable lady and was on my mind throughout the course. A huge thank you to each and every one of you for your sponsorship, encouragement and kind words. I really really appreciate it. I raised over £1700.

My lovely friend Jude Habib came up with the idea of raffling off some old Eurovision CDs and kindly donated a huge pile. Thank you to you all for entering the raffle by donating money on my JustGiving page. I am truly blessed to know some lovely people. I am delighted to announce that the winner of the raffle, selected at random, is....

Drum roll...


Congratulations Sylvia - I'll need to work out how to get these CDs to you now! 

After the marathon I went to the London Eurovision party which was superb as ever. It was great to see Nicki French and Paddy O'Connell strutting their stuff on stage along with so many acts on stage. A particular highlight for me was Ruth Lorenzo's stunning set - she's quite simply the best singer in the contest and I hope Spain are on the left hand side of the scoreboard this year! Molly did the UK proud, as she did in Amsterdam - so looking forward to seeing her again in Copenhagen, lovely girl! A huge congratulations to the organisers of this event, particularly Kabir. It really is such a special event and has a lovely, intimate feel to it. I hope you're all proud of your achievement, it was a night to remember!

Thursday 10 April 2014

When in Rome er... Amsterdam!

It's finally happened - I've lost my virginity! (It's been a long time since I said that!) A huge congratulations to the team behind Eurovision in Concert which I attended for the first time. The event took place in Amsterdam last weekend. 25 acts, thousands of party goers and so much fun! Amsterdam is a great city anyway but it was the perfect choice to host such a huge sell-out concert - a testament to how well-organised it is and how popular Eurovision continues to be despite the detractors.
It was a pleasure to meet some of the acts from 2014 before the concert at a special press event prior to the concert. The highlights for me included two special ladies - Molly from the UK and Ruth Lorenzo from Spain (via X Factor!) Not only were both absolutely gorgeous, they were so nice too. It can't be easy putting up with Eurovisionistas for so long (that's why I drink!) and yet these two were consummate professionals.

The concert itself was great fun - Denmark's winner Emmelie De Forest opened the show with "Only Teardrops" and some scantily clad boys (which unsurprisingly went down well in the hall!) 25 acts is a huge number but it flew by! One of the more serious moments occurred when Aram from Armenia performed to a chorus of booing. There were reports that he had made derogatory comments about Conchita from Austria and was alleged to be homophobic. It might have been taken out of context, who knows, despite his protests and apologies, the crowd were unforgiving.
Apart from that, the atmosphere was brilliant. It was a pleasure to meet Maribelle the night before, who sang my favourite ever Eurovision song, "Ik Hou Van Jou" from 1984. She didn't seem to believe me when I told her how much I loved the song, oh how we laughed! 
It is not easy to arrange such an event and a huge well done to the organisers! Fabulous time was had by all!
All eyes now turn to London and to the London Eurovision Party which has been going strong since 2008! London has a more intimate feel which makes it different to its Dutch sister. This year it's going to be held in a new venue, Cafe De Paris in Leicester Square. It's already sold out and there are over 20 acts performing!! That's not including the lovely Nicki French and her cheeky but adorable counterpart, Paddy O'Connell, who are both always so enthusiastic when it comes to Eurovision and it always shines through. Good luck to one and all!
It'll be there although I don't know how much dancing I'll be doing as I'm running the London Marathon earlier in the day. Hoping to beat my time of 3:38:24 from 2013!
On a serious note, many of you know that I'm running for Leukaemia Care, a small charity based in Worcester. My cousin previously ran for them and they do great work. It's going to be a very emotional run on Sunday as last year I was cheered on by my aunt who sadly passed away last year. I'm going to give it my all and will certainly raise a glass of prosecco or five to her after the race!
Now here's a special treat for you - my lovely friend Jude Habib has kindly donated all of her old Eurovision CDs for auction. All you have to do is go to my JustGiving page and donate a minimum of £5 and you'll be entered into a raffle and all the CDs can be yours! Please leave a note on the page though so that I know the donation is Eurovision-related!
A huge thanks to Jude and to you all for your generosity and support!
Thank you Amsterdam and hello London!!!!!!!

Tuesday 1 April 2014

It's Amazing!

As many of you know, I've had a bit of a love affair with all things Estonian for a number of years. When it comes to Eurovision they're one of my favourite countries and I like the vast majority of their songs. I learned Estonian at university and whilst I'm not fluent, I can understand conversations (usually comes in handy when people think I don't understand!) 

Estonia is a fascinating country with an interesting, often tragic history. Almost a third of Estonia's population are Russian speakers, the majority of which moved to the country after World War II. This coincided with mass deportations of Estonians by the Soviets, resulting in huge demographic shifts in the country. The restoration of independence in the 1990s saw tense times in Estonia as the government underwent a process of nation and state building, ensuring ethnic Estonian dominance whilst at the same time moving the country closer to the EU, which emphasised a more civic approach to nation building. Essentially Estonian political elites walked a tightrope between the two. It wasn't all plain sailing though as the riots in 2007 showed, tensions continue to bubble away under the surface. 

This year Eesti will be represented by Tanja and her song "Amazing". Tanja is different from many Russian speakers in Estonia in that she wasn't born in the country and moved to Eesti from Kaliningrad. It's the first time that an ethnic Russian has represented Estonia (not including the backing group 2XL from 2001). Previous Estonian entrants have included two Swedes and Dave Benton, originally from Aruba. Given these tense times when many countries with large Russian speaking populations are cautiously watching events in Ukraine, it's a positive sign that Estonia will be represented by a Russian who calls Estonia home. 

Initially I wasn't a fan of "Amazing" but it's a striking performance and I wish them well. Elagu Eesti!

Friday 21 March 2014

All's fair in love, war and Eurovision?

As some of you know part of my PhD concentrated on Ukraine and I've spent a considerable amount of time there. The current developments between Ukraine and Russia are worrying to say the least. Some people have asked whether this will impact upon Eurovision this year. I think it almost certainly will. Even though Eurovision is not a political programme per se, politics comes into it from time to time, even though the organisers try not to let this happen. 

2014 will be an interesting one for two reasons - Russia and Ukraine. Given that so many people that attend Eurovision are gay there has been interest in the anti-gay laws introduced in Russia last year. The Sochi Olympics shone a spotlight on LGBT and human rights issues in Russia and I dare say that many attending Eurovision in Copenhagen will voice their opinion on the situation in the country. In a way I almost feel sorry for The Tolmachevy Sisters since rightly or wrongly there is likely to be a backlash against the Russian entry this year. Of course, Russia may continue to do well in the voting, however, the audience might just use it as an opportunity to make their voices heard. 

It'll be interesting to watch the reception that Ukraine gets in Copenhagen too. Will there be a show of solidarity? Will there be any political messages? Ukraine is no stranger to controversy in Eurovision - as their entries from 2005 and 2007 demonstrate. "Russia goodbye" anyone? 

Geopolitics is never black and white. The actions of Putin's regime are worrying and given the developments in Crimea, I can understand why those in Georgia and the Baltic States are watching with deep concern. However the developments in Ukraine itself are cause for alarm - Putin is not wrong when he described some members of the interim government as neo-Nazis. Some of them are. Take the nationalist Svoboda party, whilst standing up for Ukraine in the face of hostility from Russia might be applauded, their far-right, neo-Nazi members intimidate and threaten democracy in the country. Interestingly enough, it was a Svoboda member of parliament that called for Gaitana (who represented Ukraine in Eurovision in 2012) to be disqualified as she "did not represent organic Ukrainian heritage". Basically, she wasn't white enough. Charming! Of course Russia's record on racism and human rights tells its own story too...

Last year Dina Garipova sang about love and peace when she represented Russia at Eurovision. The sentiment expressed in that song couldn't be further from the reality of the situation facing ordinary people in both Russia and Ukraine today.

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Here's Molly!!!

Well after much speculation, rumour-mongering and quite frankly, myth-peddling, it turns out that everyone was wrong! Thankfully no Geri, Rylan, Petula or Cilla. This year the BBC has chosen a new act to represent the UK in Copenhagen. Amen to that. 

What might have worked on paper with Blue, Engelbert and Bonnie did not translate into votes. Of course debates rage on about the quality of songs, the strength of performance or even the age of the singers. Whether or not fans like it, Eurovision, for the BBC, was first and foremost, a TV show. Having those "big" names meant that there was more interest. Simple but genius. Or was it?

The interest in the UK entry this year was phenomenal. The BBC played a blinder and did so well in keeping up the suspense. A friend told me that I was being criticised on one of the fan sites for not revealing the name of the UK act. I never knew who the act was, nor did I claim to know, I just enjoyed the fireworks!

So the UK act, Molly Smitten-Downes, will perform "Children of the Universe" at Eurovision in May. Molly was discovered by BBC Introducing, a way for new artists to break through. I applaud this decision by the BBC; Eurovision is a fantastic platform for launching new talent and boy do we have a lot of it in the UK.

"Children of the Universe" is an anthemic offering, and a rather unusual one at that. For me, the thing which stands out the most, is Molly's voice and stage presence. In her interview she was really positive and has a really healthy attitude, in my opinion, to an event which is surely a dream opportunity for a new star. 

Already the entry is riding high in the betting odds and some are predicting that it will give the UK its best placing for years. I really hope that's true. Win, lose or draw though, we have a singer who will do us all proud.

Good luck Molly!

Wednesday 19 February 2014

UK Eurovision entry 2014

Eurovision season is in full swing now with various national selections taking place across the continent. The BBC are still remaining tight-lipped as to who is representing the UK. Contrary to what some people might think, I don't know who this is. I do know that the name has been chosen though and that an announcement will be made in due course. Watch this space!

Friday 7 February 2014

From Russia... with love?

The Winter Olympics are about to get underway in Sochi. This is a huge moment not only for Russia, which will take centre stage over the coming weeks, but also Putin. The Russian leader has invested heavily in bringing these games to Sochi. Not only has he thrown money at it, as he did for Eurovision in 2009, even visiting the arena during rehearsals, Putin actively wooed the Olympic committee even delivering a speech in (mainly phonetic) English. These are interesting times for Russia, these games are an opportunity for the country to manage its own image on its own terms. However could the long list of controversies which have come to the foreground cast a shadow over the events in Sochi? 

There is an argument that allowing countries with dubious democratic credentials offers legitimacy to regimes. Look at the Olympics in Beijing, Eurovision in Azerbaijan, and of course Sochi. There is a risk that in hosting such media spectacles serious questions concerning human rights and freedom of speech are all to often swept aside in a blizzard of glitter, pomp and ceremony. However, inversely, by hosting large-scale events, governments set themselves up for scrutiny. In the case of Russia, Azerbaijan, China (and many others) this means that a spotlight is shone on the issues in the country. If it wasn't for Eurovision taking place in Baku in 2012 the international community would not have engaged in such a robust dialogue about human rights and the state of democracy in Azerbaijan. Similarly, with Russia hosting the Winter Olympics, questions have been raised about the anti-gay laws which are now being enforced in Russia. Without Sochi those issues might not have come to the global, mainstream media to such an extent.

The issues facing LGBT people in Russia are serious and very alarming. By othering the gay community, linking them to peadophiles, it draws attention away from other issues. Where there's a scapegoat, governments can literally get away with murder, as the cruel hand of history has shown many many times. Many LGBT people in Russia welcome the Winter Olympics, it's opened up a dialogue among the international community on equality and freedom, really for the first time since the collapse of the USSR. Let's not forget that there are other challenges in Russia, and around the world; racism and Islamophobia is rife in the country, legitimised by Putin's crackdown in hotspots such as Chechnya as part of the global "war on terror".

Russia is a complex, fascinating and contradictory country. The laws in Russia, which are essentially fostering and legitimising hate crimes are causing real harm to LGBT people and their friends. Such laws are not befitting of the many wonderful and hospitable people I met in Russia. They're a downright embarrassment. However, there is a strong, albeit increasingly underground movement which is holding the Russian government accountable. There are also vibrant and strong gay scenes in many Russian cities, providing a safe haven for those under threat. In the UK, and other countries, where gay people are equal, in terms of the law, if not in practice, it's all too easy to forget the major struggles and freedoms which were hard won. What can be done? Should the international community boycott Sochi? Russia? I don't think so. Whilst I understand the arguments for this, by staying away, effectively dismissing the country, nothing really changes. In Azerbaijan I met with several human rights activists, who felt it was incredibly important that the international community visit the country to see things for themselves. Several campaigns have gone viral - the Canadian Institute for Diversity and Inclusion for example, as well as Google's rainbow flag colours, these will undoubtedly make Putin and his friends cringe. Good. Let's continue to support people fighting for freedom of equality. Anti-gay laws work by spreading fear and suspicion, let's show people that we aren't any different from anyone else. Let's shine that torch on these issues through the prism of large-scale events such as the Winter Olympics. Let's make them squirm!

Debates concerning homophobia are very much alive in the EU too of course. Recent developments in Ireland show that issues of representation, equality and freedom of speech continue to be a source of consternation. The well-known Dublin drag queen, Panti Bliss, gave a rousing speech last week and raised an point which is very much at the heart of the issue. How many gay people "check" themselves? Either making sure they don't act or look "too gay", or ensure that they don't show affection to partners in public, through fear that they might be hassled or get strange looks? I know I'm guilty of this. Psychologically such compartmentalised behaviour could be potentially damaging. It's oppression in a sense, it might not be the same as other countries, but it's still there. Worth bearing in mind when debates arise concerning the need for Gay Pride, or torrid tales emerge from Russia and other countries. Perhaps we need to think a little more about what's going on around us, and also, perhaps more difficultly, look a little closer to home.