Saturday, May 26, 2007

May the Force be with you...

Where's that bloody droid gone?

Last weekend saw a thirtieth anniversary that many people of a similar age will look at very fondly. The original Star Wars film - then simply titled, now rebranded 'Episode IV - A New Hope' was first released on the 25th of May 1977. Only twenty-five cinemas screened the film on it's day of release. In 2005, Forbes Magazine (see post below) calculated the franchise to be worth over US$20 billion. Famously, creator George Lucas waived his director's fee and took control of the merchandising rights instead (the studio believed they were worthless). Thirty years ago, nobody could forsee the amount of plastic figures, games and other trinkets that would pour forth from the Star Wars stables, making Lucas billions of dollars for himself, and young kids very happy.

I was 9 months old the day the original film was released, so it's no exaggeration to say that I grew up with Star Wars. Boys everywhere are entranced by action, spaceships, aliens, laserbeams and so on - and although some films before and many since have had those things in abundance, it always comes back to Lucas's sci-fi saga. Of course, I was too young to take advantage first time round, and when the second in the series was released I was still only 4. But in 1983 the third (and at that point final) edition, Return of the Jedi, hit the screens. By this time, I was 7 - the prime age for flashy space chases and collecting plastic crap. I can still remember my Dad taking us to the Preston Odeon to see Return of the Jedi, and watching in disbelief at what was going on - I just wanted to climb into the screen and be a part of it.

From that moment on, all the pocket money I could scrape together went on Star Wars stuff. I'm sure George Lucas was impressed with the sales figures dropping on his desk from West Lancashire. The best day of the year, by far, was the last day of the school term. Not only because it was the last day of school - but because that was the day we could bring in toys and games. For practically every year during my junior school days, that day meant one thing - a mass Star Wars battle. The girls brought in Cabbage Patch Dolls or My Little Ponys or whatever, and the boys completely ignored all of them and crazed about on our knees battering small lumps of plastic into eachother.

It wasn't just the character figures, either. We brought in the ships and speeders, tauntauns and AT-AT's. My Dad had to drive to Manchester one Christmas to find one of those for us - but it was absoutely worth it. I still remember the day my friend Jonathan brought in a Millenium Falcon. However, soon afterwards he moved to Israel and I never saw it again. Er, him, again. Predictably, the market for collecting and trading Star Wars stuff is colossal - there are dozens of websites devoted to it, like "If we had only left them in the box!" is often heard ($250 for one of these, which we had), but even unboxed and loose (as ours are, and I imagine most other thirty-something's collections are), they are worth something. $29 for an AT-AT Commander? Didn't we have two of those? $59 for Boba Fett?!? Are they still in the spare room Mum? Blimey.

Recently the franchise has taken a battering - the ill-conceived 'prequels' ruined the precious memories of the first three, for many people. But the next generation of Star Wars fans fell under the spell (co-incidence, Mr Lucas?) and a new lust for all things Ewok, Jawa and droid began. So for that reason alone they were a good thing. Yes, the afficionados hated Jar Jar Binks (just Google it, and look at the links on the first page), but he was the comic character - the latter-day equivalent of R2D2. Although R2 was handy with that spinny-screwdriver thing, he also fell over a lot and made funny plinky noises for us seven year olds. Let them have Jar Jar. The franchise will roll inexorably on - there are rumours that they will be re-released one after the other, in 3-D (since denied by Lucasfilm). I bet in 1977 they can't have imagined how enormous Star Wars would become. As an exasperated Harrison Ford said during filming - "You can type this shit, George, but you sure can't say it."

Star Wars celebrates 30yrs
Official Star Wars Site

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Forbes way

Far higher than 38th on my list...

Everyone loves a list - whether it's your favourite films, Channel Four gamely filling a Friday night schedule, or the recently awarded Strangest Book Title prize (the winner being a field guide to abandoned shopping trolleys). However the undisputed 'Compilation Kings' are Forbes Magazine, the lifestyle bible to upmarket New Yorkers. Founded by an immigrant Scot in 1917, their Fifth Avenue HQ churns out a series of glossy publications based on yuppie advancement, many featuring complex and well-researched lists of current trends. Their most popular are the money-based - the world's billionaires, for example (Bill Gates currently top of the 946 global fat cats, with US$56bn). But they produce many others.

The most expensive private islands in the world should interest some of the billionaires who read Forbes (i.e. all of them). The article states that they can be tough to find though - '"Islands are very scarce, the good ones," says Farhad Vladi of Vladi Private Islands in Hamburg, Germany.' Why? Most are nature reserves, are too remote, or unsuitable for landing Gulfstream jets (I'm assuming that was written tongue in cheek). Also there's always the biggest potential scourge for would-be island owners - mosquitos. For the record, the priciest offshore rock is currently Isla de sa Ferradura near Ibiza, clocking in at a wallet-busting £22.7m. If you only have £17.1m, you could plump for Thailand's Temptation Island, although "the resort needs to have a desalinization plant installed. But it does feature three swimming pools, a helicopter pad and a concrete pier".

In a similar vein, the world's most expensive home is Updown Court in Berkshire, at £75m (it comes with five swimming pools and a heated driveway). Aragawa in Tokyo is the world's most expensive restaurant, where the average meal works out at ¥1,672 (about £160). It doesn't sound crazily expensive to me, but then that's the average price, not a publicity-seeking photo-op. Japan's first steakhouse, Aragawa specialise in Wagyu beef, where the pampered cows are hand-fed and massaged every day. For the ostentatious on the French Riviera, the world's most expensive hotel room is the Penthouse Suite at The Hotel Martinez in Cannes: $37,200 a night. You could make a real splash by arriving in the world's most expensive car, the €1m Bugatti Veyron. Just don't do what this pillock did.

But as this is a travel-based blog for normal folk, and not pompous zillionaires, Forbes produces other lists that aren't as grandiose. The fifty most-visited tourist attractions in the world throws up a few surprises, although the criteria are slightly subjective. They discounted major religious centres of pilgrimmage like Mecca, but included those that are touristy (like Notre Dame Catherdral in Paris). Yet Senso-ji temple in Tokyo (30m visitors in 2005, including yours truly), was not considered. Still, I guess we aren't supposed to take it too seriously. Also not in the running were shopping malls - clearly not tourist attractions - even if the 'Mall of America' in Minnesota welcomed 40m punters over the survery period. I'm guessing a high percentage of them were indeed tourists.

Topping the list is New York's Times Square, with an estimated 35.2m visitors a year (80% of all people who go to NYC end up there at some point), with Washington DC's Memorials up next (which I visited in August last year). Rounding out the top three is my idea of holiday hell, Disney's Magic Kingdom in Florida. The mouse holds spot five as well, with the original Anaheim site sandwiching Trafalgar Square in London. Niagara Falls is up next (14m), one million more people visiting than the 7th placed San Francisco Wharf. Elsewhere in the top ten are the other two Disney sites - Tokyo (8th) and Paris (10th), either side of Notre Dame de Paris. La souris pinches the final top ten spot from the Great Wall of China, in 11th.

This is the major trend, 17 out of the 50 are amusement parks. I have actually been to one of them, Blackpool Pleasure Beach (6.7m thrill seekers; 21st overall) Surprisingly, this is the only list entrant from West Lancashire. I've managed to cross off thirteen of the top fifty on my travels - I think I managed three in one day once (the Sacré-Coeur Basilica [14th], Louvre [15th] and Eiffel Tower [18th]). There are several in London that I've visited, of course. Amazingly, two of the greatest sights on the planet are lingering near the end of the fifty - the Grand Canyon (29th), and Sydney Opera House (38th), both places I would urge anyone to visit while they can. All the theme parks in the world can't match the majesty of the first of these, and if you've read this blog for any length of time, you'll know how I feel about the Opera House.

Forbes Traveller Top 50 Tourist Attractions

Sunday, May 13, 2007

'Nobody wants a ballad from a wee man'

Marija Šerifović and her hairspray-loving friends

Ah, Eurovision. There really is nothing quite like it. The annual festival of kitsch and mullets took place on Saturday night at the Hartwall Arena in Helsinki, Finland. Last year the mighty Lordi dominated the competition with their rubber monster costumes and "On the day of Rockening!" puns. After rolling out a lengthy megapost about their win, I was counting the days until it came round again. Television at it's finest, it's watched by hundreds of millions worldwide, and over 10m in the UK, where commentary at it's pithiest is provided by the legendary Sir Terry Wogan.

For my non-EU friends, it's a song contest involving 24 countries, made up of the 'big four' (France, Germany, the UK, Spain) plus the top ten finishers from the 2006 final, and 10 qualifiers from Thursday's semi final. Yes, some of the worst do get weeded out. The big four are so-called because they give the most money to the European Broadcasting Union, (which was founded in 1950 in a Torquay hotel) so secure automatic qualification. But that is no guarantee of quality - as we shall see. My co-viewees this year consisted of my American flatmate Michelle (back for her second year), and friends Paul, Craig and Ali. My other flatmate Paul, who sat through the entire 2006 contest, had wisely managed to find something else to do. I warn you now, this is a long post...

1. Bosnia & Herzegovina - Marija Šestić with "Rijeka Bez Imena"
Sample lyric - "No-one can touch your soul like I can, eternally"
Heeeere we go, with what Terry calls a "comely Bosnian" called Marija. Her song means 'River without a name', and the frightened-looking backing dancers sway around in floaty dresses. Already we have two Eurovision staples - dry ice and ethnic instruments. fact - "The sixth person on stage was a male player of a guitar-like instrument, who turned out to be the person that Maria is longing for."

2. Spain - D'Nash with "I love you Mi Vida"
Sample lyric - "Come like the scorpio you are, and lash your deadly tail on me"
Spain's first boyband pile out next, all dreadfully spunky and clad in white denim. With a huge amount of eye makeup and haircuts that wouldn't look out of place in a Sunday league pub team, they are agonisingly out of tune. Finishing on their knees, D'Nash set the bar very low for the 'big four'. fact - "The members of D'Nash are Mikel, Basty, Javi and Ony. Basty has travelled accross Spain performing as soloist with his band. He is a pilot and the sportsman in the group."

3. Belarus - Dmitry Koldun with "Work your magic"
Sample lyric - "You've got the magic power, I keep the key to your tower"
This one starts like a Bond Theme - everyone's in black. Dmitry seems to be singing "Work your magic shoe", which his dancers then demonstrate by balancing precariously on a pair of moving sidescreens. There are lots of fireworks, and they all line up and wave hands around, as is tradition. This will do well, I predict. [it doesn't] fact - "Dmitry's mother, the founder of Princess Diana's Belarusian fan-club, had always dreamed of having a daughter who would look like Diana. Amazingly, her dream partly came true."

4. Ireland - Dervish with "You can't stop the Spring"
Sample lyric - "Europe's all one stage, and the archipelagic icicles have melted like the cage"
It's the Irish entry, so I've already written down 'Fiddles, tin whistles and accordians'. This proves eerily prophetic. "Did Ireland have a public vote?" asks Paul. "And they chose this?". Most of their lyrics are about blackbirds, obviously a blatant pitch for the RSPB vote. fact - "Dervish possess one of the tightest and most inventive rhythm sections on the circuit today."

5. Finland - Hannah Pakarinen with "Leave me alone"
Sample lyric - "The day will still come when I see you crying - 'cause you will get yours, just leave me alone"
More black outfits, this one's a power 80's rock ballad. This causes some excitement amongst certain friends of mine, who shall remain nameless. "She's a very angry young lady" says Terry. Quite so, it's no Lordi, that's for sure. fact - "Growing up in Eastern Finland near the Russian border, Hanna started her career by singing in local rock groups by night and driving a forklift truck at a paper mill by day."

6. FYRM - Karolina with "Mojot Svet"
Sample lyric - "Tonight again I am talking to shadows, I have to run away from myself"
Karolina also causes some excitement, as once again FYR Macedonia produce a leggy young lovely. Karolina looks like that one out of Girl's Aloud who married the footballer. There is lots of stroking with the dancers, and we all pay careful attention. There's a wind machine, too, which is always good to see. fact - "Due to her great popularity, Karolina was used in the haircare products manufacturer Head & Shoulders' advertisements, for the ex-Yugoslavian area."

7. Slovenia - Alenka Gotar with "Cvet z juga"
Sample lyric - "Le privid si mi iz daljnih dni"
Black once again, it seems to be the ensemble outfit colour of choice. There's an Opera theme thing going on, and a spooky trick with a glowing hand, which turns out to be a small lightbulb as Alenka reveals her secret. She'll be out of the Slovenian Magician's Guild for that, without doubt. "She must have a car battery in her back pocket!" says Craig. fact - "In 2003, Alenka won the special award from the Klagenfurt Theatre for the best world stage person."

8. Hungary - Magdi Rúzsa with "Unsubstantial Blues"
Sample lyric - "So now that it's over - I'll try and take it sober"
I can safely say that I've never seen a bus stop used in Eurovision before, as Magdi sits on a suitcase pretending to thumb a lift down an imaginary road. There are no key changes in this one, it's actually quite good. This of course means it won't win, but then it wouldn't be Eurovision if the good songs came out on top. fact - "We all wish Magdi good luck and hope that after conquering the Hungarian music lovers, she can show her extreme talent to a European audience."

9. Lithuania - 4FUN with "Love or Leave"
Sample lyric - "Weak and unwise, I betray all fears that I should disguise"
The most poetic lyrics of the night, as the Dana-a-like singer croons away on a bar stool. Behind her a large screen hides the musicians in silhouette. Resisting the temptation to make v-signs and animal shapes, they play some decidedly good music. What is Eurovision coming to? Time for more alcohol, if this is what we're in for. fact - "Lead singer Julija is included in the 2002 catalogue "Who is who in Lithuania" (Lithuanian edition)." [by the way, all these facts really are on the Eurovision website]

10. Greece - Sarbel with "Yassou Maria"
Sample lyric - "Shake it up, shake it up, there you go - oh ohh"
Oh-ohh! Here we go. You can always rely on the Greeks. Sarbel might sound like a grimy fish that odd-looking men try to catch in flooded gravelpits, but he looks (and sounds) like Ricky Martin. Almost. "He's horrible!" says Ali, as he thrusts his way around his dancers. Brilliantly, Sarbel rips off part of their skirts - the holy grail of Eurovision - and they become ribbons he entangles himself in. fact - "Sarbel was brought into this world by a Cypriot father and a Lebanese mother on May 14th, 1981 in London."

11. Georgia - Sopho with "Visionary Dream"
Sample lyric - "Clouds containing lakes - I'm near the haze of pouring light"
Cossacks! Things are indeed looking up (or down, depending on how you look at it). Sopho is staggeringly out of tune, and for Georgia's first ever entry, is really quite awful. She shrieks a lot as the dancers whirl about with their swords clanging. It could get 0 points. fact - "Sopho started singing when she was only 3 years old. She began attending the Music School (Piano and Oboe Department) in Batumi."

12. Sweden - The Ark with "The worrying kind"
Sample lyric - "I'm just a silly old boy with my head in the can, I'm just a mortal with potential of a superman"
The Campometer rockets into orbit as the Swedes amaze with a glam rock T-Rex affair. Their frontman pouts and croons away, as the guitarists do choreographed motions Status Quo would be proud of. He then rips off his silver jacket and lies, naked apart from trousers and a pair of sequined gloves, on a spinning black and white turntable. It's Ali's favourite, and is fantastic. fact - "Everybody in The Ark is really nice, they all like beer, a few are a vegetarians, and one of them secretly likes fermented herring."

13. France - Les Fatals Picards with "L'Amour a la Française"
Sample lyric - "I remember us la Tour Eiffel, so beautiful with your sac Chanel"
Traditionally France don't try in Eurovision, they send a failed hotel bar singer and finish in the bottom five - but not this time. 'The love of a Frenchwoman' is sung by a band even camper than the Swedes, which is almost hard to believe. The pink-clad singer gambols around the stage, as the drummer pounds away, dressed as an angel. "Is he singing 'the sun is hotter than birds?' This doesn't make sense" someone says. [France finish in the bottom five anyway] fact - "The band formed in 2000 by Ivan. He added a few buddies in order to legally keep the notion of a band, and thus benefit from several fiscal advantages, like for example car sharing."

14. Latvia - Bonaparti.LV with "Questa Notte"
Sample lyric - "The perfume of your skin invites me, to discovery what I don't know"
Now there's a chat-up line to remember. In 2006, the Latvian entry assembled a robot onstage. In 2007, they are represented by six Opera singers dressed as Dickens' characters. They have top hats and are holding roses. "They are really good!" "What?" "No - not them. Jelly Babies." fact - "Andris Erglis is the baby of the group. But he has an enigmatic appearance."

15. Russia - Serebro with "Song #1"
Sample lyric - "I've got my bad ass spinning for you"
Another band that sounds like an anagram. But what a band. Three marginal teenage girls in black schoolgirl outfits rocking out about girl power. This will do very well. "You know," says Terry, "there used to be a time when Russian girls had moustaches". fact - "What are my pleasures in life? Stage, sex and cars. Also I like to be a leader and I make a cult of food. [Elena Timnikova, singer]"

16. Germany - Roger Cicero with "Frauen Regier'n Die Welt"
Sample lyric - "When I found out she wanted to save the environment, I sewed "No thanks" on my parka"
The third of the 'big-four' is a German swing band in multicoloured suits. They all have fedora hats on, and switch to English halfway through. The title means 'Women rule the world', yet the song mentions David Beckham. fact - "The song is a deep-seated recognition of women, that only an out-and-out macho does not want to accept. And Roger Cicero is definitively not a macho." [again, these are not made up]

17. Serbia - Marija Šerifović with "Molitva"
Sample lyric - "Days are like wounds, countless and hard to get through"
"Things are looking up!" says either Craig or Paul, as a bookish bespectacled Serbian is surrounded by a bevy of hairspray addicted backing singers. Another Eastern European power ballad, there's a bit of groping, but not as much as Sarbel the Greek. It's not bad, either. fact - "Marija knew that music would be her only occupation. She finished high school and music schools and then studied management."

18. Ukraine - Verka Serduchka with "Dancing Lasha Tumbai"
Sample lyric - "Ukraine - that's cool?! Cool! Ukraine - that's reat?! Reat! The square is dancing!"
Bloody hell. I could fill an entire post about the Ukrainians. The 'orange revolution' seems to have become the 'bacofoil revolution'. The Campometer is off the scale here. Verka looks like Timmy Mallett crossed with Pat Butcher from Eastenders, spraypainted silver. All of them wear mirrored costumes based on German WWII uniforms. Most of their lyrics are numbers, shouted in German. Verka has a giant star on his head. I get a text from my mate Chris saying simply 'Oh that wins'. I secretly use his number to vote for them. fact - "At the beginning of his career Verka performed just the items of the verbal idiomatic genre." [Verka's repertoire has since expanded]

19. United Kingdom - Scooch with "Flying the Flag (for you)"
Sample lyric - "Would you like something to suck on for landing sir?"
Well, we've got the best lyric in the competition, if nothing else. It turns out nothing else is more or less what we get. Our entry is a highly OTT song about being an air steward. "This is horrendous" someone says, as we watch between our fingers. This is the difference between the UK and Europe when it comes to Eurovision. We deliberately send the cheesiest option whilst they take it seriously. But my theory falls down when I remember the Ukrainians. fact - "Last year's winners were a heavy rock band, we want to bring it back to Euro pop where it belongs"

20. Romania - Todomondo with "Liubi, Liubi, I Love You"
Sample lyric - "Everywhere around the world, "io ti amo" è sempre uguale (Hey!)"
Each singer is dressed as a different country. There's one in a beret, one dressed as a Russian sailor. With aching predictability the 'British man' sports a bowler hat. But what are they on about? And why is the Romanian dressed as a jester? fact - "A football fan, Andrei the Romanian hates violence against animals, and wickedness in general." [bless]

21. Bulgaria - Elitsa Todorova and Stoyan Yankoulov with "Water"
Sample lyric - "See this young lass there, eeeeee!"
Only four to go. Although the lyric sounds like it's from Last of the Summer Wine, the Bulgarians are a pair of techno drummers. A wide array of things to wallop are within reach, and Eiltsa and Stoyan do some serious walloping. We're all thrilled to see Stoyan has a corking mullet - the first of the night. At song number 21, that's something of a pity. "This is bonkers!" says Craig. fact - "Stoyan got his high-school education specializing in percussions and his university degree also in percussions, Jazz and Rock Department."

22. Turkey - Kenan Doğulu with "Shake It Up Şekerim"
Sample lyric - "She smiled at me, said: Would you like it sweet and low?"
Good old fashioned Euro-smut. Kenan piles along at a crazy tempo, looking rather smug. But then he is dressed like a circus ringmaster, and surrounded by belly dancers. None of us really know what to think anymore. It's terrible - but is it the right kind of terrible? fact - "Although a famous, popular and appreciated artist in Turkey, Kenan thinks what he has achieved in his musical career is still not sufficient."

23. Armenia - Hayco with "Anytime You Need"
Sample lyric - "I only wanna guard, every beat of your gentle heart"
We had a bus stop before, now a tree appears at Eurovision. What's more, it's covered in streamers of toilet paper. Hayco from Armenia wears a medallion [check!], stares at the camera [check!], misses his high notes [check!], is supported by bongo drums [check!], and seemingly ends up covered in blood [double check!]. Alison sums it up - "Nobody wants a ballad from a wee man." fact - "In 2003 Hayco won at the Armenian National Music Awards for 'The best DVD'."

24. Moldova - Natalia Barbu with "Fight"
Sample lyric - "The onfall's adapting the hearts, itch people will gnaw our wishes, no more"
It was a fight, but we made it. Rounding out the show is yet another black-clad power ballad from the former Eastern bloc. Natalia is wearing the lowest-cut pair of leather trousers any of us has ever seen. Terry is lost for words. Or maybe it's the Bailey's he's been knocking back (allegedly). We have no idea what the song's about. fact - "When Natalia was young, her greatest pleasure was to "make herself beautiful" and to wander from place to place, even to the forest."

So, the music finishes. But the fun is far from over, as the next hour and a half sees the votes rumble in from all over the continent (and beyond, if you look at certain European maps). The hosts - Jaana Pelkonen and Mikko Leppilampi start it off. "Nobody could be famous in the UK with a name like Leppy-lampy" says Sir Michael Terrance Wogan KBE, at his brilliant/drunken best. The interval act - allowing the EBU to count the millions of text votes - features Santa Claus (the most famous Finn?), trapeze artists, soft chello rock, and a man in a bubble. After which, it's time to reveal the winner.

Again, if you're unfamiliar with the procedure, the public from every country that entered can vote (even if their entrant failed to make the final). Their votes are broken down in order, and the most popular song gets 12 points, the next popular 10, then 8, 7, 6, and down to 1pt. You can't vote for your own country, but voting for your neighbours is always a popular option, and one of the most contentious/fantastic parts of Eurovision. It's something that Terry constantly rails about, but the public vote was seen by the EBU as a key change to the old format of stuffy 'critics' from each area handing out points like judges at figure skating. Anyway, how bad can it be?

The very first vote announced is from Montenegro - who's public award 12 to neighbouring Serbia. The crowd are booing already, 45 seconds into the 90 minute voting. "Ahh, the old Balkan foxtrot" says our Tel. He may have a point - the semi final was also decided on a public vote, and all ten of the qualifiers to the final were from the east of the continent. But then maybe they had the best songs. The Belarussian public give 10 to Ukraine and 12 to Russia. "I wouldn't bet on any Western European country getting many points" says Terry. "But if I was worried about being attacked by Russia, I'd give them 12", says Ali.

However, it's not all bad. Amongst the Danish giving the Swedes 12, the Spanish voters decide to give top marks to Romania. It was one of the worst songs, but they did sing a bit of it in Spanish, so why not? Each country's votes are announced to the Finnish hosts by a specially chosen person - the Danish judge flirts outrageously with Messer Leppilampi, who bears a striking resemblance to Barbie's friend Ken. The Greek judge speaks some token Finnish and the crowd go crazy. The Slovenian judge sports a spangly jumper. Ali suggests going on holiday to the winning country.

Bosnia give 12 to Serbia. Booing. Cyprus give 12 to Greece. Booing. The Croatian public vote causes booing even before their spokesperson announces who got the top points, as everyone guesses it's going to a neighbour. It goes to Serbia - who are now well clear of the rest. The UK are last with no points, the Irish only just ahead. "I think we should have a referendum on a Scottish entry!" someone says. The Norwegian judge gets excited - "Finland!!! You Rocked The World And Set Europe Alight!!! [cheering] "Our 12pts goes to...Sweden!!!" [booing]. The Swiss spokesman appears in a deep caramel tan and silver suit. "Swiss men don't look like that!"

Finally, the Irish public give the UK our first points - 7 - moving us up to second last, ahead of...Ireland. Then next up Malta do what they always do and give us 12, launching Scooch to the dizzying heights of 22nd. To be fair, Terry makes a mockery of this as well (until 1964 Malta was a British colony). The Swedish judge makes an indecipherable joke about ice hockey, and then gives Finland top marks. Russia give 10 to Ukraine and 12 to Belarus - "Hands across the Volga!" says Terry. "The Russian jury give 8pts to Russia, 10pts to Russia, and 12pts to Russia," says Craig. The Icelandic spokeswoman looks how most men imagine an Icelandic spokeswoman would look.

The Moldovan judge appars in front of a photograph of what seems to be the New York skyline - "That isn't Chisinau!" says Terry, experienced European traveller that he is. It's the Serbian A-Z he's dusting off, as they are still a country mile ahead of several other assorted East European entrants. The Macedonian spokeswoman is none-other than Elena Risteska, who represented them in the 2006 contest. I'm ashamed to say I know that, even if it's the hotpants I remember. She sings a bit of her entry, but it falls on deaf ears and she meekly reads out the numbers. They give 12 to Sebia too. The UK's scores are presented by Ferne Cotton sitting in front of Sir Norman Fosters Gherkin (as it were).

It's all over. Serbia have won, the UK has come joint second last - the other 'big four' have been forgotten also (Germany 19th, Spain 20th, France 22nd). Ireland get the lowest score, with five points. It was another miracle of television, politics and intrigue. In May 2008, the circus moves to Belgrade - but until then, as ever, the final words lie with Sir Terry Wogan..."It's been a wonderful evening. Not musically, of course. Goodnight.."

Final top three scores - Serbia 268pts, Ukraine 235, Russia 207.

Serbian Ballad wins at Eurovision [bbc]
The Official Eurovision site
Marija Šerifović website

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A Quick Plug

It seems as if I've been nominated for a blogging award - not by myself, I hasten to add. The post I wrote about Spring arriving in Edinburgh has been shortlisted for a prize by and their Rooman's Blog. I'm not really sure who submitted it, but if it gets the most votes I stand to win a $400 hotel voucher to a destination of my choice (Hello Blackpool!). If you've forgotten what that post was about, here it is again. No pressure or anything, but should you wish to give me support, you can do so by going here, and following the instructions. Fingers crossed, eh?

In other news, this Saturday sees one of the blogging highlights of the year, the Eurovision Song Contest. This year it's coming from Helsinki after Finnish costume rockers Lordi won the previous title. You can check out my lengthy post about the 2006 contest here. It should be a corker. I'll try and post it by Sunday, then after that it's back to normal blogging activity, like the special post I'm working on about shrimps. Until Sunday...
Rooman's Blog (I'm entry no.29)

Eurovision Official Site

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Nessie Near Misses

The toad makes a break for it

Exciting news from the Highlands and Islands region this week, as a team of scientists from MIT in Boston almost struck biological gold. One of the most infamous Cryptids out there (large and elusive animals), was again hunted for. The Loch Ness Monster has long puzzled people and inflamed opinions (like those realising you have to pay to visit the 'Nessie Experience', for example). The Beantown Boffins were completing a sonar map of the Loch, all 23 miles of it. Some project, as it contains more fresh water than all that in England and Wales combined. I'm not sure if they were specifically looking for giant marine dinosaurs - but they didn't find any. A 13,000yr old fossilised seabed was a pretty decent result, along with numerous seismic echoes of 'animal remains', and not Nessie, but a toad.

The Common Toad (Bufo bufo) was spotted by the MIT submersible, calmly waddling it's way through the muddy Loch sediment - or it was until the buzzing sub startled it with bright lights. Nothing unusual about that, you might think, as they are found in most European bodies of freshwater. The interesting thing was, this plucky Bufonid happened to be almost 100m (325ft) down in the cold, black water. Toads usually hunt in damp undergrowth or shallow lakes - amphibian experts are baffled as to what it was doing so deep underwater. It was the second "Hang on - that shouldn't be there!" nature story of the week, after the Cornish lobster fishermen who were checking their pots half a mile from Portreath Beach suddenly found a deer swimming past them.

Back in Scotland, Nessie enthusiasts were no doubt disappointed that the MIT expedition failed to find a slippery plesiosaur or two. With the possible exception of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster is the most famous unseen creature in the world. It's certainly one of the oldest - the first alleged sighting was in 565AD by a Saint, no less. Columba (the patron saint of bookbinders), apparently rescued a hapless Pict by the name of Lugne, who was being attacked by a "ferocious monster". However, it seems Columba was a bit of a specialist in battling large creatures - the account of his life written by Adomnán of Iona includes several Herculean battles with massive beasties. He once killed a charging wild boar by shouting at it, apparently. Blessed are the bookbinders.

The 'Ultimate Nessie Site' ( has a list of sightings from 1871 onwards - "Mr D MacKenzie, October, log like object that moved off at speed". Some of them are a bit obtuse - "Gypsy woman, 1890's, place unknown, description unknown", some highly detailed - "Sir Murdoch MacDonald and son and one other observer, 18:00hrs, the 8th of August 1934, two humps, 15ft overall, moving slowly (about 100yds in five minutes)". I bet Sir Murdoch had a story to tell at dinner that evening. "I say chaps, you'll never guess what the boy, one other observer and I saw a few hours ago". The last recorded Nessie spotting event happened in 1998, so maybe the old girl has had enough of showing herself.

She hasn't always though. Monster fever peaked in the 1930's, at about the time a road was constructed around the banks of the loch. Sir Murdoch and others now had direct access to hilly vantage points, and many took advantage. The Daily Mail (in a highly untypical knee-jerk reaction) hired a big game hunter and media celebrity called Marmaduke Wetherell to roam the wilds for the beast. Within a few days, he had found a massive set of prints in the mud. Excitedly sent off to London's Natural History Museum for analysis, the area went crazy, thousands flocked to the small lochside towns. Floodlights were set up so people could search for Nessie at night. However, the experts looked at the tracks, and revealed that they were from a Hippopotamus - most likely the base of an umbrella stand.

The Official Loch Ness Monster site
Visit Loch Ness
Cryptomundo - the search for large animals