Archive for May, 2013

I must have been living inside a bubble these past weeks – either that or it’s a measure of how low the Eurovision Song Contest has sunk in the UK’s collective psyche that I didn’t even know it was on. I caught it by chance on Saturday night with over half the songs already sung and I’d missed the UK’s entry – this year performed by Bonnie Tyler. I was a fan of hers in the 80’s and, at 61 now, I was pleased to see her still singing and still sounding good. I checked the preview out on Youtube and decided we stood a chance of at least ranking among the top ten, so I settled in with wine and crisps for the annual long haul of Eurovision Night.

Here’s Bonnie singing for the UK:

Among the other songs, there was the occasional eccentric entry that made me wonder if they were taking the Mickey, but overall I felt a change in the air this year. The bar had been raised with most entries being of a very high standard, very professional. This was less of your amateur night at the pub and more of an international Eisteddfod. Many countries had thrown their big guns at it, and it showed. Whether we connect with a song or not is entirely a personal thing, but it was soon clear to me the UK was going to struggle in such a strong field, and we did. I liked our entry, love the smokey sound of Bonnie’s voice, but it didn’t raise the hairs on the back of my neck as others did. Out of 26 songs in the final, we came 8th – from the bottom. Bottom ten rather than top.

My only consolation was that the winning Danish entry was among those  I’d tagged as a favourite. The rest of Europe agreed. It stole an early lead during the voting and accelerated into the far distance, uncatchable, taking an easy and well deserved win.  The real surprise for me was Ireland. I really enjoyed their song, tagged that one too for greatness, but it came bottom and must have had the whole of Ireland, as well as me, gurning in disbelief.

Anyway here’s the winning entry from Denmark’s Emile de Forest:

A terrific performance, I thought, and a well deserved win.

But the performance of the night for me was the reappearance of Loreen, during the interval. She was last years winner and delivered once again a stunningly energetic spectacle. It made me wonder if our low ranking was perhaps better deserved than I thought – no disrespect to Bonnie of course – but if we want to beat the likes of Loreen, and Emile, we really need to take this competition more seriously.

Are we really saying there’s not a single professional UK performer/songwriter/producer capable of attaining these heights? Of course not. We produce some of the best music in the world.  So is the problem more perhaps that we hold the competition in such contempt, it’s considered career limiting, or even career suicide, to have anything to do with it?

Sadly, it wasn’t always so. A win at Eurovision was once the launchpad to international fame. Saturday’s spectacular show from Sweden, delivered with a mix of humour, state of the art showmanship and professional polish, was a sign, I think, those days may be returning.

Finally, let me take you back to  Eurovision 1974, and a little known Swedish group who stepped out onto the stage at Brighton’s Dome theatre (UK) and sang this:

Whatever happened to them?

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Who shall comfort me tonight?
Sweet beauty with the sultry eyes,
Shall it be you?
Will you be my prize?
And let me in rapture rest
A  lifetime,
‘Gainst the pillow of your breast?

No, wait.
I see that needful look.
Same as me, I know,
Each of us having mistook
The other for a truth,
When truth,
We neither have been shown.

Come now with me ahead
In time,
And know your share,
Of all those peevish taunts,
When we are each laid bare,
And found barren of the other’s wants.

Better then we part,
At this first flush,
Than become one, with ten thousand generations gone,
Making bold with face and poise,
And that awful fretful noise,
Of sweated love.

Let the simpler truth be known:
The secret of our needs,
That contentment is better grown,
From self-contented seeds.

Let us settle then our heart this way,
Before we meet in tryst again.
‘Till then my love, we’ll rest more deep,
If each of us alone we sleep.

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An Irish Cottage - Helen Allingham - 1840-1926I have found the disintegrating remains of my grandfather’s birth certificate. It tells me he was born in 1875, in County Mayo. This I already knew, but what I did not know is that his father, John, a farmer, was illiterate. He signs with a cross and his name is inked in by the registrar. My grandfather’s mother, Catherine, was from County Sligo. This also I did not know. She signs for herself, is literate, as are all her children.

I searched the Irish census of 1901 and found their names, but the facts gleaned are few; I now have the Gaelic translation of the place they lived: Trian na cailligh; I know both were bilingual – Irish and English; that they lived in a stone-built dwelling consisting of three rooms and a roof that was either thatch or turf; that there were two adult children living with them: the eldest son, John, who would take over the tenancy on the death of his father in 1918, and a daughter, Bridget.  Beyond that, I know nothing of their lives. No photographs survive, if indeed they ever existed. Their story is lost. Time has erased them.

Of course their story is of no interest to anyone but me, and all I can do is imagine them, weave them into myth. But in doing so, in colouring  the blanks this way, I’m aware I’m also colouring in what I perceive to be the blanks in myself. Indeed I believe there’s a danger genealogy feeds a dissatisfaction with the story of our own lives, that through our imagining of the past lives of our ancestors, we are searching for something we might use to frame our own lives differently.

So,… I trace one branch of my ancestry to a three roomed rustic farmhouse in Trian na cailligh, County Mayo. I imagine a thatch roof, imagine my great grandparents, imagine hard lives as landholders in nineteenth century Ireland. I like this image because there’s a romance to it, also an inverse snobbery in flaunting one’s humble origins. But then I imagine their sadness at the leaving of my grandfather for England in the 1890’s and with that sadness comes a sense of their humanness – the first and perhaps the only substantially meaningful connection I can make with them. Then I imagine all the links of fate and love that led from them to me, and I wonder if there’s anything more of them in me than just the traces of our DNA.

I think there is.

I’ve noticed how my children have taken up an interest in things I’ve dallied with in the past myself – yet they do this without encouragement, and sometimes even without the knowledge of my own former passion. Also I note things that fascinated my father are being reborn this way.  So yes, I think there is a passing on of  ideas, of artistry, of curiosity – all the intangible things that define us as human beings,  and which are the more important artifacts of our ancestry, travelling through time to be reborn in our descendants.

As for the more tangible details that await the genealogist,… they tell a different story, and it’s never true because it can never scratch any deeper than the surface. What is my story? My children’s birth certificates do not have their father’s occupation down as writer, so I can see some future genealogist, for whom perhaps I shall be great grandfather, getting me all wrong, because I am a writer first and foremost in my life.

Yet I did not go to London, did not elbow my way into the literary set, did not make my living by the publishing of novels. I found an ordinary job instead and have lived and loved and worked all my life within walking distance of the place where I was born. And the writing? In my middle years, I was to create a cloak of anonymity for it, then cast my words into the clouds for anyone who happened to be passing by – like deliberately leaving my notes on a park bench. My true story, indeed all our stories, are more complex and mysterious than can ever be recorded by the registrar’s pen.

Of course none of this matters. Time will erase all our stories, and we have to be accepting of this if we are ever to frame our own lives accurately. Yet to John and Catherine, imperfectly imagined, living their  lives out in the fields of County Mayo,  I say this: I will never know your real story, just as none who follow me will ever know mine, but I give thanks for your lives all the same.

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