It feels like a bit of a come-down, this - to go from writing about Donna Tartt to making the obvious point that we risk being beaten in the Eurovision Song Contest by a gang of babuschkas. But what can I do? The week hasn't exactly been full of cultural highlights. And the things I have read/watched, I'm still in the middle of. Some bitty thoughts, then, on the week's events:
Less than half-way through the Eurovision Song Contest: Of course, there is a lot you can be sneering about in connection with this contest: most of all its package which always appears to be the same, irrespective of host country. There seems to be no way around the moment when two or three presenters holler "Hello Europe!" and then engage in leaden banter in more or less accented English. I always thought the script-writers were the ones at fault, but the blame must be shared by the presenters themselves who, as often as not, read their lines rather than say them and have no sense of timing whatsoever. I could see one of the first jokes in the first semi-final coming from miles off, but I was prepared to chuckle good-naturedly over it. But the exaggerated pause before the punch line and unenthusiastic delivery prevented me from doing even that. "You can see we're in for an evening of hilarity", the Swedish commentator quipped drily. While on the subject of timing, the vote-gathering - which mercifully we only get in the final - tends to be the very worst part of the show. We're in for thirty-six variations of the following dialogue:
HOST: Hello Moscow/Paris/Stockholm/wherever!
COUNTRY PRESENTER [Gushingly, after a pause]: Hello X! Thank you for an amazing show! You guys are marvellous!
HOST [Smiling rigidly]: Thank you. [Somewhat sharply, after another pause] May we have your votes, please?
COUNTRY PRESENTER [A bit put out, because he/she had the votes ready all the time, but was waiting for some kind of cue]: Of course. Here are the results of the Y vote...
I know it must be difficult to keep the voting going smoothly - but surely, after all these years, there must be some kind of trick? And then, these latest years, the contest has started to adopt bewildering "mottos". Last year in Germany it was something about heartbeats. This year it's "Light your fire". Er... wait, you mean we should light our own fires? In front of the telly?
One should go easy on the sneering, though. The songs are often not half-bad, and most importantly, sneerers never prosper in Eurovision. It's one thing I love about this contest. It stands up for what it is, and if you don't like it you don't have to watch, or participate. If you do participate, don't expect people to find an arrogant approach hip and admirable. Almost each year, the Brits complain bitterly about not getting more votes. Well, what do they expect? The British comments on Eurovision I've read tend to be a mixture of vitriol and patronising head-patting, as if they were witnessing a distant tribe's picturesque but faintly disturbing sacrificial rites. My guess is that this has caused them no end of damage over the years - that and the admittedly unfairly high expectations we have of British pop groups. Each year, we hope for the new Beatles to turn up.
The reason I think the Russian little old ladies will beat us, in spite of the song not being great and the ladies not being the world's best singers, is the Granny Factor - it's hard not to go "awww" when one beaming babuschka wields a baking-plate of cookies (or maybe wholesome Russian bread). Importantly, though, the number also has a ring of sincerity. Kooky numbers which are engineered to make fun of the whole show are soon weeded out, but if you are sincere, a certain amount of kookiness goes down well with European voters.
I still hope a really good singer will win, though - we're not picking Europe's cuddliest grannies, after all. What about our Loreen and her soaring refrain, now wouldn't she be a worthy winner? Oh, did I mention that Swedes take Eurovision very, very seriously?
Half-way through The Mystery of Edwin Drood (the TV adaptation): Very promising, this, and much closer to its source than the Great Expectations adaptation was. The worst parts of Rosa's pert speeches have been wisely cut, and Tamzin Merchant who plays her makes her as charming as she can. Not quite charming enough for one to understand the amount of male interest she receives, though, but this is Dickens's fault. It would be more understandable if everyone went off the deep end about Edwin. The arrogant youth is played by Freddie Fox, who is strikingly good-looking. Are luminously pretty Dickens heroes becoming a trend? Pip (Douglas Booth) in Great Expectations was such a looker that some reviewers ungallantly complained he unbalanced the narrative by outshining Estella. I'm not sure I should approve of this trend, villain-lover that I am, but I'm prepared to be magnanimous. After all, a Dickens hero is unlikely ever to be the brainiest person in the book, so maybe some kind of compensation is due.
To return to the Mystery, Matthew Rhys is a convincingly torn Jasper, sometimes reeling around tormentedly, sometimes spinning plots with a hard little smile. I was pleased to see he was quite a match for the feral child Deputy (a bit softened in the adaptation, but still a stranger to Dogderish charm). The series is excellently cast all the way: I was particularly impressed by Rory Kinnear as a Reverend Crisparkle whose ears you really didn't feel any urge to box.
More (hooray!) than half-way through The Son of a Servant: Did you ever feel bereft because you are not the trusted friend of a genius? Read Strindberg and you'll feel better. Continuously borrowing money while bombarding his pals with callow salon-radical "sceptical" ideas, he must have been a trying man to spend much time with. When a friend complains of the peasant girls at a country gathering and hankers after the fine ladies in the city, Strindberg's alter ego finds him appallingly snobbish. When the alter ego himself feels ashamed for having briefly loved a simple country girl, he invents a whole questionable evolutionary theory to prove to himself that his shame is quite natural - he compares himself with a thoroughbred stallion who won't mate with a farm mare. Say what? You can never be sure, of course, when Strindberg's tongue is in his cheek as regards the musings of his younger self, but one thing is clear: it's not often enough. Only 130 pages to go.