Saturday, May 18, 2013

Eurovision 2013 : Prediction for Saturday's final

It's become traditional at this time of year for me to say "oooh, this is a tough one", but actually I don't think it is this time, at least in terms of guessing the winner. I don't really get the hoo-ha over Denmark (admittedly the staging is very effective), but sometimes a consensus is just so overwhelming that you have to accept it's probably right. This is, after all, a popularity contest. So I suspect Eurovision is heading back to Copenhagen, which offers us a neat symmetry given that Denmark were also the winners the last time the contest was held in Sweden.

But who will finish second? That's much more problematical. The bookies suggest it will be a close fight between Ukraine and Norway, but the more I've thought about it, the more I've come to the conclusion that the Ukrainian song is slightly overrated (I still expect it to be in the top six or seven). Until about an hour ago, I was firmly of the view that the true contenders for the runner-up spot were Russia and Norway. Both had points in their favour - the Russian song is perhaps more televoter-friendly and has the inbuilt advantage of the ex-Soviet bloc vote, while Norway has the better draw and is more jury-friendly (ie. it's the best song left in the contest in my opinion). On balance, I reckoned that favoured Russia slightly.

But now I've seen the German dress rehearsal and I'm totally confused again. If that performance beguiles the audience in the way I think it might, in a sense it kills both Russia and Norway - it kills Russia because it's the very next song in the running-order, and it kills Norway because it's a similar type of music. On the other hand, I still can't help thinking back to all those occasions when strong dance tracks have fallen flat on their face at Eurovision (that was the main reason I was sceptical that Loreen would win last year). Another possibility is that the vote could be evenly split between Germany and Norway, allowing Russia to come through the middle. Who knows, so I'll just have to make a wild guess.

The Netherlands is one of those entries that is pretty much guaranteed a very strong 'niche' vote that will fall short of outright victory - my guess is it'll slot in somewhere between about fourth and seventh. The wildcard this year is of course Finland, replete with its wedding dress, lesbian kiss, and lyrics that are so un-feminist that James Mackenzie deleted them to enhance the debate. There was a time, not so long ago (2002, in fact) when gimmicks like that would have been more than sufficient to win the contest. I think we've moved on from those days, but time will tell.

So here's what I've got...

Winners - Denmark (Only Teardrops - Emmelie de Forest)
2nd - Russia (What If - Dina Garipova)
3rd - Norway (I Feed You My Love - Margaret Berger)
4th - Germany (Glorious - Cascada)
5th - Netherlands (Birds - Anouk)

Possible dark horses - Iceland, Finland, Ireland

As for me, I'll be sticking to my non-English language rule and voting for Iceland (or possibly Estonia, which I slightly regretted not voting for in the first semi), but my heart will be with Norway all the way. This is the third year in a row that I won't particularly be cheering on the UK, mainly because the internal selection means that I don't really feel I have any stake in the entry. Weirdly, Fraser Nelson has a lengthy piece in the Spectator on that very subject, in which he makes a number of points that I've made before myself - for example that Jonathan King, for all that he is a thoroughly objectionable human being, was the last person who actually had a well-thought-through plan for finding the right UK entry. I think Nelson takes his argument to an extreme, though - it's not as if an internal selection process is in some way 'un-Eurovision'. (The great French ballads of the early 2000s were internally selected, for instance.) And I think passing the contest onto ITV or Sky would be a terrible idea - say what you like about the BBC, but at least they faithfully broadcast both semi-finals every year, which I'm not sure ITV or Sky could be trusted to do.

The real step forward would of course be for Scotland to have its own entry. Hopefully only three more years to go...

Friday, May 17, 2013

Farage à trois

Earlier today I was asked by the International Business Times to put together a quick piece about the Farage incident. You can read it HERE.

Sturgeon wins first setpiece TV independence debate

I think pretty much every independence supporter who watched tonight's STV debate will have come away feeling considerably more confident. It has to be remembered that TV coverage of the campaign proper will resemble this debate much more closely than the phoney TV war we've seen up to now, which has typically consisted of a pro-independence spokesperson being outnumbered two-to-one, three-to-one, or even four-to-one if you count the occasions when a 'neutral moderator' like David Dimbleby joins in with the unionist sneerfest. With the two sides of the argument having a scrupulously equal chance to put their case tonight, it was very noticeably the No side that found itself on the ropes most often. Perhaps that can be explained away by the fact that Nicola Sturgeon is simply a more able debater than Michael Moore, but if so that begs another question - where exactly is the match-up that is going to favour the No campaign? Alex Salmond v David Cameron? Blair Jenkins v Blair McDougall? Nicola Sturgeon v Alistair Darling? Dennis Canavan v Johann Lamont? Tommy Sheridan v Nigel Farage? Each and every one of those looks to favour Yes, and by quite a distance in some cases.

The most worrying sign for Moore and co was surely when Sturgeon scored a hit by pointing out that Moore had castigated the UK economy under the stewardship of Labour, while Alistair Darling had castigated the UK economy under the stewardship of the Tories and Lib Dems. How are the No campaign going to square this circle? Are they only going to present a united front in defending the UK in terms of very dry constitutional structures? Or are they seriously going to try to present a united front in defending the UK in respect of weightier matters like economic performance and welfare policy? If so, the likes of Nicola Sturgeon are going to continue having enormous fun pointing out their hopeless lack of credibility. It's a particular problem for Labour, of course, who tell us that the Tories are ghastly and we must get shot of them, but who simultaneously work with the Tories in a campaign that seeks to uphold a constitutional system that guarantees the Tories will continue to rule over us most of the time.

The other direct hit that Sturgeon scored was when she countered Michael Moore's scaremongering on the currency question by pointing out that the Liberal Democrats had proposed joining the euro as recently as their 2010 general election manifesto. Moore's rueful smile at that point was perhaps his most eloquent contribution of the whole evening!

Here's how I scored it -

Nicola Sturgeon (Yes campaign) 8/10
Michael Moore (No campaign) 6/10

And don't take my word for it - both of STV's pundits, including the venerable Mr Ponsonby, declared that Sturgeon had finished ahead on points.

* * *

I did reasonably well with my prediction for tonight's second Eurovision semi-final (eight out of ten correct), but unfortunately one of the two I wrongly picked out was San Marino, my favourite song in the whole contest. I haven't been so disappointed by a song's non-qualification since Kate Ryan's Belgian entry failed to make the cut in 2006. I'm not entirely sure what went wrong - the staging was maybe a little bit uninspired, and it had the handicap of being in the notorious second spot in the running-order, but nevertheless when you look at what it was up against it should still have qualified with ease.

Ah well, I'll just have to cheer on my second favourite Norway on Saturday night (and I might sneakily admire their oil fund while I'm at it).

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Eurovision 2013 : Prediction for Thursday's semi-final

I got seven out of ten right on Tuesday, which is probably roughly par, given that no-one in their right mind would have predicted Lithuania's success. I can just about understand how Belgium made it through, but Belarus remains a mystery. Perhaps it was the big silver egg hatching open to reveal a half-naked woman that did the trick? Who knows. But I was delighted to see that my fears about Ryan Dolan's live performance were totally unfounded, which means Ireland must now be in with a great chance of a top ten finish on Saturday night.

Watching Russia and Ukraine perform back-to-back brought home to me that not only is Russia the better of the two songs, it also has a greater impact as a performance. A simple catchy tune, a massive key-change, lyrics about world peace...yes, I think the Russians have bought the manual. So while the bookies may yet be proved right about Denmark being the likely winners, I have a feeling they may have the wrong country in second place.

If I'd been voting 'honestly', I probably would have plumped for either Russia or Ireland (it would have been a close call), but as I've mentioned in previous years I have a personal rule of only voting for entries sung entirely in a language other than English. So that left me scratching my head about whether to vote for Estonia, Moldova or Cyprus. In the end I went for Moldova on the somewhat illogical grounds that they were the same performers who last year brought us the insane genius of "you have never been to my show, you haven't seen before how looks the trumpet".

As you'd expect, Swedish television produced a much slicker show than some of their counterparts have managed in recent years. It was a great idea to have just one presenter and therefore dispense with the customary scripted flirting, although I'm not sure Petra Mede was the ideal choice as sole host. Her English diction is undeniably exemplary, but surely there's more to life than diction? All in all, though, I enjoyed the show far more than I expected to, partly because my expectations were fairly low. A number of the songs seemed better than I remembered somehow.

Here's hoping for more of the same tonight. These are the ten countries that I think will go through -

Iceland (Ég á Líf - Eythor Ingi)
Azerbaijan (Hold Me - Farid Mammadov)
San Marino (Crisalide - Valentina Monetta)
Norway (I Feed You My Love - Margaret Berger)
Georgia (Waterfall - Nodi Tatishvili and Sophie Gelovani)
Finland (Marry Me - Krista Siegfrids)
Greece (Alcohol is Free - Koza Mostra featuring Agathon Iakovidis)
Armenia (Lonely Planet - Dorians)
Malta (Tomorrow - Gianluca Bezzina)
Switzerland (You and Me - Takasa)

I hope I'm wrong and that Israel make it through at the expense of one of the above ten (well, except Norway or San Marino), but I have a feeling it may be too uncompromisingly intense an entry.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Can 'freedom and democracy' cope with independence?

I have a new article at the International Business Times, which attempts to put the significance of the independence referendum in some kind of international historical context. You can read it HERE.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Eurovision 2013 : Prediction for Tuesday's semi-final

'Fraid so - it's that time of year again. Without wanting to put you off before we even get started, I don't think this is a vintage year by any means in terms of musical quality. As far as I can see, there are only really two class entries in the field - Norway's Margaret Berger with I Feed You My Love, and San Marino's Valentina Monetta with Crisalide (Vola). If there was such a thing as a 'most improved entrant' competition there could only be one winner, because - astonishingly - the superb San Marinese song is brought to us by the same combination of singer and composer that was responsible for last year's cringe-inducingly awful novelty entry The Social Network Song (Oh Oh - Uh - Oh Oh), which failed to qualify for the final after limping to 14th place in the first semi. Incidentally, if by any chance San Marino win it would be the first victory for a micro-nation since Severine won for Monaco in 1971 - a result that led to Edinburgh staging the 1972 contest after Monaco passed up the chance.

But cream rarely rises to the very top at Eurovision, so you won't be surprised to hear that neither Norway nor San Marino are tipped to win. Instead the bookies are favouring Denmark and Ukraine, very much in that order. I can just about see the appeal of the Ukrainian song, but I must admit Denmark is leaving me cold (which is a reversal of last year, when I thought Denmark deserved a far better result than they got, or ever seemed likely to get).

There are a number of other songs that are very pleasant to listen to, for example Iceland and Russia. I've got a particularly soft spot for Only Love Survives by Ryan Dolan, which I managed to vote for in the Irish national final. However, if that final is anything to go by, the live performance may prove to be something of a problem for Ryan. There's also the slightly peculiar Dutch entry, which isn't my cup of tea, but could easily have been a 1960s James Bond theme song if it had been written fifty years ago.

One huge positive about this year's contest is that almost half of the entries (17 out of 39) are sung in a language other than English. The fact that this has happened without any change in the rules, and without there having been a non-English winning song since 2007, is pretty remarkable.

Down to business, then. In no particular order, here are the ten entries that I think will qualify from Tuesday's first semi-final -

Croatia (Mižerja - Klapa s Mora)
Netherlands (Birds - Anouk)
Estonia (Et Uus Saaks Alguse - Birgit Õigemeel)
Ireland (Only Love Survives - Ryan Dolan)
Ukraine (Gravity - Zlata Ognevich)
Cyprus (An Me Thimasai - Despina Olympiou)
Serbia (Ljubav Je Svuda - Moje 3)
Russia (What If - Dina Garipova)
Denmark (Only Teardrops - Emmelie de Forest)
Moldova (O Mie - Aliona Moon)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Hello, I am Robert MacDonald, guest poster. As an experiment, James has kindly allowed me space on his blog. It's Sunday morning, so I thought I'd dip my toes in the pop-water with a couple of parables. Can you spot the allegories?

The Parable of the Pig Farmer
There was a pig farmer who worked hard on his farm. He fed and mucked out the pigs, went to market, and helped suckle the piglets. He was around pigs every day.

One day he went to a dance in the local town. The people held their noses as he walked by. He did not understand why. Finally a woman approached him. "You smell of pig shit," she said.

"Do I?" he said. "I work hard to give you your bacon."

But the people didn't like the smell of the pig farmer, so they told him to leave.

The Parable of the Oak Tree
One day an acorn fell and took seed. It started to grow. Next to it was a larger oak. "It's stormy up here," said the large oak. "Let me shelter you. You can grow in my shade." The young oak agreed. It was glad to be protected from the winds. But the large oak also took most of the sunshine. Birds and other creatures preferred the large oak. People carved their names on its side. It was hard for the young oak to grow very well. But it didn't complain. It was only a tree.

One day a great storm came and the large oak fell. And all the small oaks it was sheltering flourished.

The Parable of the Crabs
The Kingdom of Scotland is like this. A fisherman caught some crabs to sell, and put them in a creel. One tried to climb out, but the rest dragged him back inside. Some of the crabs realised if they painted their shells red, they could climb out the creel together, and the other crabs wouldn't stop them. So that is what they did.

When the fisherman returned to sell the crabs, the red ones had gone.

The Parable of the Surfers
One day the surfers gathered to talk about a problem. They liked surfing, but they didn't like all the sewage in the sea. It made their life unpleasant and dangerous. It was not just bad for the surfers - it was bad for every creature in the sea.

"What shall we do?" said one of the surfers.

"We can't stop the sewage being pumped into the sea ourselves," said another.

The surfers decided they would shout as loudly as they could about the sewage in the sea, and hope it would shame the polluters into taking some action.

Nobody had cared about the sewage before the surfers started shouting. But when the people heard, they decided it was time to do something about it. And the days of the polluters were over.

The Parable of the Caravan
A caravan of camels was crossing the desert. They got lost, and the leader led them into quicksand. They started to sink and get into difficulty. "I don't think we should carry on!" shouted a man at the back. But the leader wouldn't listen. She decided to continue on.

The man at the back was worried. He wanted to stay with his friends, but he was scared of the quicksand. He decided to stop and think about what to do. The rest of the caravan carried on.

A sandstorm blew up. The man couldn't see his friends. He was scared and lonely. When the sandstorm died down, his friends had gone.

He couldn't tell if they had sunk into the quicksand, or if they had safely reached the other side. But he knew one thing. Whatever had happened to them, he was safe.

The Parable of the Guard Dog
One day the Smiths needed a new guard dog. The dog breeder assured them that he had a new dog with all the good features of their old one. The Smiths took it and were happy. He attacked some strangers without provocation. One of the Smith children was upset, but Mr and Mrs Smith didn't care, so long as the dog was still guarding their family.

Then Mr Smith discovered one night that the dog was letting in burglars to steal the family's food, and covering up the evidence. The Smiths were angry, and arranged to have the dog put down.

The Smiths got themselves a new guard dog, but it was no better than the previous one. They wondered if they even needed a guard dog at all.