Steve Rosenberg, the BBC’s Russia correspondent, came on Radio 4’s Today programme last week to show off his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Eurovision Song Contest. I picked the clip up on Sunday’s Pick of the Week. Nick Robinson asked him on the spot to reproduce various obscure competition entries, as requested by listeners, over the past sixty seven years. An accomplished tickler of the ivories, Rosenberg never hesitated for a moment. All that banality was, literally, at his fingertips. By way of explanation he said that he had been obsessed with Eurovision since the age of six. I was completely overawed. I can well understand how somebody could memorise, say, the 32 piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven, but Eurovision? I ask you. It was like watching a trapeze artist juggle seven balls while simultaneously performing a triple somersault, without a safety net. Or perhaps more like reciting the phonebook from memory. One is not so much stunned by the act itself, as by the fact that it should ever have been thought worthwhile to undertake. Incidentally I can quite see why the music industry is worried that Artificial Intelligence may become the main composer of new music. It would surprise me if it has not already happened.
I didn’t tune into Eurovision, but I feel confident the best song heard on the evening would have been You’ll Never Walk Alone. It has become, via Liverpool FC, a Liverpool anthem. Originally it was a Rodgers and Hammerstein song from the musical Carousel. Then, with the arrival of the Mersey Beat in the swinging sixties, Gerry and the Pacemakers covered it, in their own inimitable fashion.
Gerry and the Pacemakers kept going until 2018. I guess latterly the name of the band might have assumed a medical connotation.
If You’ll Never Walk Alone belongs to Liverpool, are there other songs similarly the exclusive property of other cities? Of course. Maybe It’s because I’m a Londoner, Wonderful Wonderful Copenhagen, New York New York, it’s a helluva town (subtle that, it’s not merely a repetition of NY for its own sake, it’s NY the city and NY the state), I left my Heart in San Francisco, and nearer to home, The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen, and I belong to Glasgow. Kirk Douglas once sang I belong to Glasgow in the Alhambra, or maybe the Metropole. That was courageous. People die in Glasgow. I’m ambivalent about I belong to Glasgow. It’s a song about drunkenness.
I belong to Glasgow, dear old Glasgow toon,
There’s something the matter wi’ Glasgow for it’s goin’ roon ‘n roon…
I’m only a common old working chap, as anyone here can see, but
When I get a couple of drinks on a Saturday
Glasgow belongs tae me!
(To be sung maestoso. Or maybe lachrymoso.)
I thought of I belong to Glasgow the last time I heard the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in concert, an occasion I have previously described in this blog. In Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall they played a programme they were taking on tour to Europe, and indeed, they were to play Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto (with Leif Ove Andsnes) and Shostakovich’s 10th symphony in Vienna’s Musikverein. They also took an encore. It was a medley of reels beautifully orchestrated by the orchestra’s former principal horn. I suppose it would have gone down well. I could well imagine the staid audience of Vienna clapping along, much as they clap along to the Radetzky March on New Year’s Day. But I don’t much care for these depictions of drunken ceilidhs. Malcolm Arnold indulged in one in his Scottish Dances. Peter Maxwell Davies did the same in his Orkney Wedding with Sunrise. I find these musical excursions painful. And remarkably tin-eared. But then there are lots of people who are quite happy that we remain in a condition of pliant intoxication. I would much rather they just brought out a lone piper to play a lament for the Highland Clearances. On BBC Radio 3’s Private Passions on Sunday the anthropologist Mary-Ann Ochota pointed out just how abnormal is the landscape of the highlands. It is thought of as an untouched wilderness but, were it so, it would be forested, as is Canada at the same latitude. In fact it was cleared of human habitation, the land being given over to sheep and, for the benefit of the aristocracy, deer. Mary-Ann Ochota called the events of 1746 “cultural genocide”. The music she chose to accompany this tragedy was a Gaelic lament in a setting by Sir James MacMillan.
It seems extraordinary to think that Kenneth McKellar once represented us in Eurovision. Different world. I believe this time round the UK came second last, and only succeeded in beating Germany. That may be a source of some amusement at the Goethe Institut this coming Thursday. Großbritannien 24 Punkte zu Deutschland 18 Punkte. Boombangabang.