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Sunday, 19 May 2013

Eurovision: you put your best act in, you best act out, in out, in out....

I am unashamed to say, I adore the Eurovision Song Contest. From way back when I was a kid and used to listen in bed to it on my radio, to my adult years watching it on TV, I have only missed a handful of shows over the past 40*cough* years.

Now that Eurovision 2013 has come and gone (number 58 for all you aficionados, so only 2 more years to the Really Big Party Eurovision - can you imagine it!) the inevitable introspective naval gazing has begun in the British media. Oh why do we do so badly, they opine. Last week everyone seemed relatively confident that good old Bonnie Tyler would "do well" and some were even sticking their necks out that she might .... well, come in the top 3 at least.

But no. Bonnie managed what is now being described as a "credible" 19th place with 23 points. I think the media just don't want to rub salt in the wound. The top 3 acts all got over 200 points, and Bonnie came in behind the Armenian entry which was written by Black Sabbath's Tony Iomi. That in itself should tell you something about why the UK hasn't won since we borrowed an American called Katrina back in 1997.

While I wasn't a huge fan of Denmark's winning entry, I can see why it won. The staging took you straight to Les Miserables - one of the biggest films out in the past year, and a smash hit musical, not to mention a classic novel written by Frenchman, Victor Hugo. Add a young blonde girl with a passable voice and a catchy repetitive chorus and Bob's your mother's brother.

Azerbaijan's second place was courtesy of an attractive young chap singing a well-written song (in English, as were many of the higher-placed songs, so the UK can hardly complain that no one understood our lyrics), with interesting staging of a "shadow" man in a glass box and a girl in a red dress. Third place Ukraine I personally thought had a weak song, but they did employ a gimmick of having the female singer carried in by a 7 and a half foot tall guy dressed as an ogre. I have no idea what that had to do with the song, but it seemed to do the trick!

My personal favourite this year, Malta's entry, did really well, and the Norwegian song has been growing on me all week - so much so that I've added it to my Spotify playlist today. My daughter loved the Greek entry, a ska number called "Alcohol Is Free" by a group of guys wearing black kilts, who also finished inside the top 10. That's the beauty of Eurovision.

So, why didn't the UK win? Simple, we don't take it seriously enough. We insist on wheeling out either spoof acts created solely for Eurovision, or has-beens (even nice ones like Bonnie and Blue), with songs that may well be popular with Radio 2 listeners, but do not hit the button with the rest of Europe. The UK really does have some of the most tallented musicians in the world, the best song-writers and the biggest-selling artists winning awards all around the globe and racking up platinum after platinum record sales. But if we want to win Eurovision, we have to stop looking down out noses at it and just sending a token entry to the slaughter.

Look at Hungary's and Malta's entries this year: 2 simple, low key, songs with young male singers who you'd be happy to see any night of the week down at your local pub Open Mike night. Swap either for Ed Sheeran, and we'd have been in the top 10 too. If we need a female singer to belt out a power ballad, look no further than Adele or even Florence West from Florence and the Machine. Hell, swap the Danish girl for Diana Vickers from X Factor and we'd have probably done better than we did last night. Let any of them write their own song, and it could be United Kingdom 12 points all the way.

The political voting was reduced last night, mainly due to some of the usual culprits not getting through the semi-finals. Austria didn't even give Germany 12 points and I can't remember the last time that happened. It's really not because the rest of Europe don't like us: they just don't like what we send to Eurovision. And frankly, neither do we.

The only way for the UK to do better next year is for someone to take a good look at what is popular around Europe in their respective Top 40 charts in around September this year. Then ask a Brit who happens to be doing similar stuff rather well to give it a go. Release the song at the end of March right across Europe so that everyone has already heard it by the time May arrives. Sit back and cross fingers.

If we really do want to do well, that is.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Hot off the wheel

New listing at my Hare's Moon Yarns Etsy shop, Mint Crisp. Click here for more details and to purchase.

Coming soon: Mint Crisp (light) ~ a thinner, softer version of the above yarn.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

There and back again... again

I've just got back from another visit to Texas to see my husband. For anyone contemplating this kind of lifestyle, the stress related to visiting an inmate in a foreign country cannot be overstated. It's certainly not all hearts and flowers and violins playing in the background! More likely, it will be hearts strung out like a piece of elastic, flowers drawn on a handmade card, and the constant background noise of other families trying to visit at the same time as you.

While our visit this weekend was one of our best ~ mainly because the visit room was very quiet on both days, probably because of Cinco de Mayo ~ there seems to always be something that leaves us thinking "Huh?". This time, it was pictures, or rather the lack of them. Most TDCJ units only allow photographs to be taken at the visits of inmates and their visitors on the first weekend of each month. The money made (each photo costs $3) goes to local charities, and the photos are taken by the guards or by volunteers linked to the charity involved. Sometimes, a month will be set aside where photos are available on every weekend in that month. That seems to happen in September for some reason.

I try to arrange our visits so that I am there on a photo weekend. We need those photos to add to my husband's parole packet when the time comes, to show continued support. I may also need them when I decide to try and move to the States. This weekend was the first in May, so naturally we assumed we would be able to have photos. But when I arrived for registration on Saturday there was a sign on the picket door saying "No photos today!". When I asked about it, the guards said that the decision had been made to do photos next weekend instead, because that is Mother's Day in the US.

I didn't make a big deal of it, but I don't understand why they couldn't do the photos on both weekends. In fact, why limit them to once a month in the first place? Questions like this rarely get an answer with TDCJ. It just is.

It was lovely and warm there in Tennessee Colony, cool by TX standards but perfect for me and my pale European skin. My husband's unit has a set of tables outside of the contact visit room, with canopies over them, fenced in within the grass surrounding the building. You would get to them from the contact room. If the door was ever open that is. In the 6 years I've been visiting there, and all the people my husband has asked, no one has ever known those outside tables to be used for visitation. They would be perfect for those bringing young children; the kids could be noisier than in the echoing visit room, and they would be outside in a safe enclosed area. Other units use their outside tables. My husband's unit does not. Those tables are just expensive lawn ornaments.

                                                   image from Rick Mauderer's blog

I try not to tell Texans (or anyone else) that they are wrong. Instead, I try to find the reasons why someone might do a certain thing. But with TDCJ you hit brick wall after brick wall. Often the "reason" appears to be "because we can" or "because we say so", and neither of those answers do anything towards rehabilitation or consideration that an inmate's family are not there to be punished as well. Currently, we don't understand why:

  • TDCJ inmates and visitors are made to sit across wide tables from each other in the contact sections, so wide that to hold hands you have to sit constantly stretched at an awkward angle
  • TDCJ inmates are not permitted to get up or walk around during a visit unless it is to use the bathroom (and even then, they are discouraged from doing so) 
  • Children visiting TDCJ inmates have to remain seated at the table and have no toys or books to help occupy them. Given that visits are usually between 2 and 4 hours long, this rule can only have been made by a man who has never had to spend any time with a squirming toddler. The alternative reason can only be that TDCJ feels children should not be in the visit rooms at all, and imposing a rule like this will discourage many parents and grandparents from bringing children to visit. 
  • The table we were assigned (you can't choose your own at my husband's unit) had not been cleaned from the previous weekend. It still had crumbs from the snacks on the table top. There is only toilet tissue available to wipe tables with. I find this very strange, given that there are numerous inmates capable of wielding a cloth and a spot of detergent on at least one of the week days when visits are not held.
  • Visits are only held on weekends, with the exception of Death Row at the Polunsky unit. Maybe not so much of an issue at units with just 1500 inmates, but when there are more than 4000 inmates and only 60 contact tables, and always several families travelling more than 300 miles and qualifying for a "special" visit of 4 hours on both days, inevitably some people have to wait before they are able to enter the unit. If you arrive after midday, you are unlikely to get a full 4 hours and many have to wait up to 2 hours for their regular visit. Having visitation during the week would help ease the bottleneck at weekends; weekday visits could also be child-free, and possibly a less restricted experience where inmates could earn a weekday visit for good behaviour and be permitted to sit next to their visitors and walk to the vending machines and select their own snacks. They are strip searched in any case, and if the privilege is earned then it is less likely to be squandered.
 The strange thing is, all of the points above are already utilised in other states across America. So why does TDCJ reject these things as a means of rehabilitation, reward for good behaviour, and a way of enforcing its stated commitment to help inmates stay in contact with their friends and families? Because it can.