Category Archives: culture vulture

A winning plan for Europe

So, I watched the Eurovision Song Contest last night. Surely, of all the things that America misses out on by not being Europe (long history, great architecture, pedestrianised city centers, affordable universal health care) this one has to be the greatest loss.

In Eurovision, a whole continent, plus honorary members Israel, come together to cheer and jeer a range of ridonculous pop monstrosities. From the positively suicidal dirge of unrequited love from a Russian group wearing moth eaten sweaters, to the somewhat surreal Spanish entry with dancing toys, to the epilepsy inducing Turkish strobe-laden entry complete with a self-harming robotknight to the straightforward catchy pop song of winners Germany it’s a wild collection of all that is cheesy in Europe.

But despite being pop behemoths and key sponsors of the televised event (meaning an automatic place in the finals), the UK has consistently done badly in recent years. And last night was no exception. A forgettable Josh D-something-or-other delivered a poor song in lack-lustre style.

A lot of countries want to win and a lot of countries put a lot of effort into it. Azerbaijan (linked above) brought in Brittney Spears choreographer and had a light up dress and a light up set of stairs and commissioned a song from a chart topper and yet still failed to crack the top 5. But the UK brought in a pop svengali Pete Waterman and used the tried and tested Idol style elimination competition to choose the singer. And while it wasn’t quite as shameful as nil points efforts of the past the UK finished DEAD LAST.

So here’s my plan for a winning UK entry:

1. Further devolution

The UK’s constituent countries, Norther Ireland, Wales and Scotland now enjoy their own assemblies or parliaments and so should have their own Eurovision entries. Upon splitting Yugoslavia has done much better in Eurovision – Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and FYR Macedonia have all done well in recent years – some even producing winners. Yeah, sure they’ve paid a heavy price for Eurovision glory, but I’m not suggesting civil war – just multiple entries. And England – the largest and only country without its own parliament and the biggest financial contributor via BBC television license fees would get the automatic pass to the final.

The benefits are that the English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish could all vote for each other and through diversity a cool song might emerge. If they all have different International football teams, why not different International song contest entrants?

2. Pick a decent entrant

This second option could be deployed alone or in combination with the first plan. The BBC’s desperately sad Song for Europe competition hasn’t produced a winner yet. So why not take someone who’s been honed by the really tough competition and proven hit generator – The X Factor. But don’t pick the winner, pick the runner up, and then have the competition be related to the song. On one night only viewers could watch the nearly-had-it perform three different songs by proven, recent UK song-crafters and the voting public would choose the song they liked best. This year we would have had the lovable bouncy Olly Murs, last year we would have had the charismatic boy band JLS, and the year before we would have had the extremely odd Rhydian – well, it’s not a perfect plan. But surely it would save the UK from complete Eurovision shame.

Eurovision heats

What with Balkanisation and accession and the fall of communism and other forms of proliferation, there are just too darn many countries in the Eurovision Song Contest these days.  There are two qualifying heats, shown in hinterlands of the BBC’s digital channel offerings in advance of the big Saturday night finale.

And I had to watch it, and of course, Tweet about it:

  • Moldovans kicking off the Eurovision qualifying heats on BBC 3 – spinning fiddle player, 80s pop feel- I like it
  • Husband: Why can’t we vote in the Eurovision qualifiers? It’s only for loser countries?
  • OMG Russian #eurovision entry makes me want to neck some vodka and throw myself into the Volga
  • @paulhenderson is that a velvet smoking jacket that Estonian is wearing? #eurovision – that is some dire pop
  • Slovakian forest death maidens – I love me some Eastern European turbo folk pop #eurovision
  • C’mon the Finns! a pearlescent accordion is a brave choice. I like Finnish folk and it’s got the boy bouncing along.#eurovision
  • Latvian girl in the bathrobe and gladiator sandals needs to keep her day job. Pitchy to say the least #eurovision
  • Holy Hoppin’ Serbian in a pixie haircut. Is he sayin “Polka, polka, polka c’mon”? #eurovision
  • Bosnia knows how to run a fog machine but not a rock band #eurovision
  • Screaming and chomping on apples and headlocks in ballet folklorico dresses, What’s not to love about the Poland#eurovision entry?
  • Wow. Belgium gives a stripped back honest pop ballad from a presentable young man. It’s good. Disqualify immediately. #eurovision
  • Just the sentence “He came second in the Flemish X Factor” has made me LOL #eurovision
  • Malta’s ingenue with her wavy dress is washing over me like drier lint #eurovision
  • Now we know where all the surplus 70s Star Trek Klingon outfits went: Albania #eurovision
  • Opa! be-hoodied greek dancing and a front man that’s a holiday romance you can’t retsina away #Greece#eurovision
  • Portugal’s #eurovison entry so boring I can’t summon the snark. Nice hair, almost.
  • Wise choice FYR Macedonia, you need some strippers to liven this one up #eurovision
  • Iceland, je ne sais quois, wearing an interpretation of volcanic eruption in chiffon – standard pop fare#eurovision

…and I missed tweeting on the Belarus entry, a forgettable song, but impressive butterfly costumes.

During the phone in and tabulation I tweeted:

  • I’m supporting Finland, Slovakia, Albania, Greece and Poland just to gawp at the pop assault again#eurovision

But my choices were largely not those of the European voters, alas Finland, Slovakia and Poland did not make the cut.

The winners of the first heat of the Eurovision qualifiers were:

Bosnia & Herzegovnia

Facebook fail

Facebook is a great way of promoting your town’s events.  The State of Tennessee has a great Facebook page to promote tourism.  But this question on my hometown’s Facebook fan page is just a little too Jeff Foxworthy and immediately draws some close to the bone humor.  Was this quite the effect they were hoping for?

Well, it’s Lawrenceburg, so you really never can tell.

(You may be a redneck if you, too, become a fan of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee)

If a body catch a body

J.D. Salinger is dead. I just saw someone Tweet that they had powerful memories of the first time they read Catcher in the Rye.

I remember my second time better than my first time.  The first time I think I stayed up quite late reading it – couldn’t sleep til I finished it.  I believe it was some time in the summer between my Junior and Senior year.  Maybe it was the year before.  Doesn’t matter.

I vividly remember the second time I read it or sorta read it.

Senior Year AP English our last assignment was to read and review some book of our choice.  We’d had plenty of notice.  The choice of books was long, two columns on a page if I recall correctly.  I chose Heart of Darkness because of all the great literary works on the list it had the fewest number of pages.  But it turns out it wasn’t a very fun read.  Who could have predicted?  By that point I’d done my SATs, been accepted to the college of my choice, and I no longer had much patience for the trivial demands of secondary education.

The night before the assignment was due I panicked. I did need to graduate.  And I probably also needed a reasonable grade in AP English or else I wouldn’t have been able to comp out of Freshman English in college (although I don’t think that occurred to me at the time).  I couldn’t face Heart of Darkness. Couldn’t have finished it and written up the report in twelve remaining hours either.

To make matters worse, I received a panicked phone call from my friend Keli.  She hadn’t read her book either.

Although neither of us still had the list of books in our possession, I remembered Catcher in the Rye was on the list and I had read that a year or two before (see at the beginning of the term I was still scholarly, elsewise I’d have picked something I’d already read from the start).  I resolved that we would write our book reports together.

I no longer even had a copy of the book – and since I grew up in a town without a bookstore and in an age without Internet or e-readers – this was a problem.  I called around and found someone with a copy. (Thank you John!)

We sat at Kentucky Friend Chicken and wrote the report paragraph by paragraph.  Or rather, I wrote both reports – varying them only slightly.

We handed them in in the nick of time the next morning.

Of course, we were seriously chancing our luck turning in nearly identical papers.  And to make matters worse, it turns out that Catcher in the Rye was not one of the books on the list.


It was a phony list anyway.

Sacred made real

I’ve been meaning to go see the Sacred Made Real exhibit at the National Gallery for quite some time, but couldn’t quite convince anyone to go with me.  I knew that it was an exhibit of creepy Spanish religious art, but I fully underestimated the level of torturous hyper-realistic portrayal of the suffering surrounding the Passion of the Christ or the fanatical (?) religious devotion of saints like our friend Francis Borgia below.

Click on the pic to see other images from the exhibition  courtesy of The Guardian

I’ve long been a fan of one of the principle artists in the exhibition Francisco Zurbaran whose masterly painting of saints demonstrate a sense of drama as well as realism.  We even have a reproduction of his Santa Margarita above our fireplace.  (She was a saint often called on by women to provide help in childbirth, but despite holding a position of honor in our house it didn’t work for me.)   I knew I would kick myself if I didn’t take the chance to see some his work that I hadn’t seen before.

And I wasn’t disappointed.  But I hadn’t realised that the point of the exhibition was about how Spanish polychrome wooden sculpture influence painters like Zurbaran.  But it’s an influence that we don’t often recognize because these scultptures – astonishing works of art – aren’t recognised as art in the same way that paintings or other sculpture are. And that is because many of these are still used in religious processions and are part of the sacred decorations of churches in Spain today.

The realism of the sculptures is amazing.  The muscles and windpipe in the neck of the severed head of John the Baptist.  The scourge marks, bruises and blood on the back of Jesus.  The unwashed body of a Dead Christ.  The detail of all this so painstakingly captured.  The curator of the exhibit described them as so perfectly rendered as to become beautiful, but I’m not sure I’d go quite that far.  It was fascinating for certain – a glimpse into religious grotesquery like a Flannery O’Connor novel.  But yet it was also oddly stripped of its religious significance within the exhibit space of the National Gallery.

There isn’t much time left to see this exhibit, it closes on the 24th of January.  It was creepy, but brilliant.  And very popular with the ecclesiastical set.  As I was leaving tonight, I saw more dog collars than I’ve seen in some time.  Clearly a hot ticket for vicars and the morbid like me.

Tlaxcala and other traitors

Fabled myth of the return of Quetzalcoatl or not, Cortes and his band of followers had some major cojones in taking on one of the most vicious and violently expansionist empires of the New World with a scant few men and no chance of backup.  In  Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler – a special exhibition at the British Museum, there’s an attempt to portray and humanise Montezuma, the last real ruler of Aztecs.    (Why Moctezuma?  Well, scholars can’t agree on the original Mexica/Aztex spelling and pronunciation so they’ve decided to veer from the one we all know to create maximum confusion and sense of ignorance in the regular museum going public)

My dad and I went to see this yesterday.  Pretty good.  Excellent curation of Mexican and Spanish (and British) holdings from the period of Montezuma’s brief reign.  But I didn’t really feel I got to know much more about Montezuma the man.  Why did he capitulate so easily?  Was he some kind of fragile freak (according to Wikipedia some of the rules surrounding his sacred person – no one could see him eat, no touching, etc) were at the inception of Montezuma himself and not a feature of royal Aztec personhood.   Did he really believe that Cortes was ordained to bring an end to the rule of the Aztecs (modern historians say no?)

Whatever, you have to hand it to Cortes – even if he did get help from the State of Tlaxcala – an independent island in a sea of Aztec client states.  The Tlaxcaltecans get a bad rap sometimes for helping the Spanish, but since they were being preyed upon by the Aztecs for sacrificial victims and could see the end of their state down the line, you can’t blame them too much for taking a punt on the Spanish.  Not sure it helped them out much in the end, though.

The Royal Academy did a more generalized exhibit on the Aztecs a few years ago which I remember as larger and more comprehensive but certainly not focused on an individual. (It was so good I bought the exhibit catalogue)   Interestingly, the a series of nearly contemporaneous Spanish oil on wood paintings inlaid with shell and mother of pearl depicting the end of the empire were perhaps the most striking thing for me.   It was in a style that I’d never seen before.

I was asked for a report on this exhbit.   If you went to the Royal Academy exhibit a few years ago…don’t bother. (Tickets are fairly scarce anyway)  But if you haven’t seen a big blockbuster Aztecs exhibit, I’d say this was well worth visiting.


Of recent years, one of the things I’ve enjoyed at the British museum is going upstairs to see the etchings.   They have a space for temporary exhibits of prints and drawings, often associated with (though not always) the major exhibition.   This time it was Revolution on Paper – Mexican print works from the radical set.  This includes some of the famous Mexican muralists and a lot of other great works.   I really like this period of Mexican art and so I really enjoyed this one….except for one thing.

Many of these artists were communists.  Fine.  The content of their print work was avowedly Marxist, sometimes revolutionary.  OK.

The laughter of the people - away with your nonsense, José Chávez Morado, 1939, lithograph © DACS 2009

But I wasn’t quite as happy with some of the commentary.  There was a fabulous poster print of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – condemning the US prosecution and execution of the pair for treason and claiming they were victimised because they “loved and believed in peace.”  Well, actually – it’s because they passed secrets to the Ruskies.  The exhibition notes implied that they were caught up in a McCarthy witchhunt.   But no mention of their guilt (corroborated from Soviet sources) or that they were in fact genuine communists.    Though fair enough questions still remain about the depth of Ethel’s guilt or why this pair were executed for their crimes when others who’d passed more harmful secrets received far lighter sentences.

And in another poster a greedy company owner was eating coinage which the commentary said was foreign money – American dollars – because of foreign investors skimming away profits from Mexico.  Although, if you actually looked at the money – it was clearly Mexican pesos.

Shame British museum for introducing your own (flawed) political commentary instead of letting the art speak for itself.


OK, no traitor link on this one…as far as we know.  But the British museum is currently exhibiting about a dozen pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard – and amazing collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and metal working  This was discovered only in July of this year and after going on a brief display at the Birmingham Art Museum (which I wasn’t able to catch, but really wanted to) it’s been removed from display and I guess is being studied now and offered up to various museums after its valuation.

The few pieces that I saw were indeed pretty cool – fine gold work (a bit smushed by time and the weight of the soil) and garnet inlay.   But I was disappointed to see that they were dirty.  Still covered from the soil they were buried in for so many centuries.

I couldn’t help remarking to my dad that it was still dirty.

“What do you expect, they only found it in July!” exclaimed a British patron. “You are just incredibly lucky to see it.  What do you expect?”

1. Not to be personally accosted at museums

2. 10 seconds under the tap wouldn’t have gone amiss.