Iceland's Pollapönk: Tolerance is Bliss
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Boom Bang-a-Bang: Eurovision has a fine record for predicting political tensions

Strikingly, Britain’s last victory was in 1997, the year of the electoral apotheosis of Tony Blair and the Irish peace talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement.

It may comfort some, in these tense times, that the entries for the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest include an anthem to international compassion: “Sending out a message up above/Telling all the world to show some love.” Unfortunately for the TV sing-off’s hope of winning the next Nobel Peace Prize, this is the entry from Russia, which should probably expect nul points from the jury in Ukraine, whose song, ominously for those who fear that the dispute between the two countries may preview the Third World War, is called “Tick-Tock”. (Reassuringly, the reference turns out to be not atomic but romantic: “Can you hear me go tick-tock?/My heart is like a clock.”)

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office would doubtless claim to have better things to do than tune in for the final from Copenhagen on 10 May but Eurovision has an impressive record of predicting geopolitical tensions. Last year, the BBC’s Graham Norton noted that Russia and Ukraine had given each other lower marks than usual.

Eurovision’s reliability as a political baro­meter may be explained by its origins: it is a near-twin, in aims and birthdate, of the European Economic Community. The annual battle of poor English badly sung was launched in May 1956, nine months before the Treaty of Rome began moves towards European unity. Post-Second World War and mid-cold war, both institutions had declared aims of cementing stronger European ties, although clearly the projects have had different effects: the EU probably has greater respect in the music industry, while Eurovision has done more to foster peace.

As one of the few occasions on which populations are invited to vote for and against other countries, Eurovision efficiently reflects international sympathies and hostilities. Strikingly, Israel won two contests in a row (1978 and 1979) when perceived as a victim in the years after the Munich Olympics massacre, but since the prominence of the Palestinian issue has recently struggled even to qualify for the final.

In a musical equivalent of the belief that a green passport may save your life in a hijack or hostage situation, Ireland has proved the country least hated by others, winning seven times and having to resort, during the recession, to being represented by Jedward to avoid any risk of winning and having to pay for next year’s contest.

Strikingly, Britain’s last victory was in 1997, the year of the electoral apotheosis of Tony Blair and the Irish peace talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, but subsequently the UK has suffered from an unforeseen consequence of the end of the cold war – nascent nations from the scattered Soviet Union and Yugoslavia forming powerful Eurovision voting blocs – while itself belonging to a political alliance (the EU) increasingly containing enemies.

With Ireland trying not to win, Scandinavian nations, guaranteed high marks from their neighbours and generally thanked for Abba, have become the safety option. Norway, Sweden and Denmark have all won in recent years and the Nordics are among the bookmakers’ favourites again.

The view that Eurovision songs have a limited range is supported by frequent doublings of subject matter. Pyromaniac inspiration unites Austria’s “Rise Like a Phoenix” and Azerbaijan’s “Start a Fire”, while another pair of alphabetical neighbours – the Netherlands and Norway – go nautical with “Calm After the Storm” and “Silent Storm”, respectively. Perhaps reflecting the international impact of The Great British Bake Off, there’s a patisserie theme in Latvia’s “Cake to Bake” and “Cheesecake” from Belarus.

None of these titles, incidentally, is in translation: bad English has become the Esperanto of crap pop. Of this year’s original 37 entries, 32 are sung in Shakespeare’s tongue or at least a variety of it. Many of the songs sound as if the lyricists have been tricked by cruel tourists into believing that strange phrases are common idioms in Britain. “I’m tired of your sweet cheesecake,” croons the Belarusian contestant.

In the style established by Abba, lyrics often feature recognisable English expressions, oddly positioned or stressed. “All the rules well known, they mean nothing,” laments the Finnish singer. And in “Mother”, the Belgian Axel Hirsoux pays tribute to his mum for being “my shoulder, my shelter, my satellite”, a trio of attributes unlikely to feature on many UK Mother’s Day cards.

The British hopeful, Molly, seeks to reverse the 17 years of hurt since the victory of “Love Shine a Light” by Katrina and the Waves with “Children of the Universe”, which, imploring “power to the people”, is one of a number of entries seeking to tap into the mood of voter protest around the world, although there is some ambiguity about whether Greece’s song “Rise Up” refers to elections or erections.

The Icelandic group Pollapönk make the baldest political plea: “Let’s do away with prejudice/Don’t discriminate, tolerance is bliss!” The sentiment is hard to argue with (though not as hard as it must be to sing) but will certainly be ignored by the juries, which, whatever the dreams of the competition’s founders, take pride in prejudice. Voting patterns in Copenhagen will give Cameron and Putin a useful clue to European attitudes towards them.

The 2014 Eurovision Song Contest final is on BBC1 and BBC Radio 2 on 10 May from 8pm

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge