Eurovision (Burning Bridges)


In the recent British general election, much of the result was attributed to the lexical splendour that is the shy Tory swing. This has nothing to do with an underground sex dungeon more a proportion of the electorate who were less than forthcoming about their voting intentions in opinion polls prior to the election or, as I understand it, overtly reticent in their support afterwards. What this means is that there are a lot of people who are seemingly ashamed about revealing their political allegiance. The reasons could be varied. But it goes without saying that somewhere in there is shame, guilt or that terribly British ailment of awkwardness.

In Austria – and Vienna – there is much the same elective inscrutability with the right wing Freedom Party (the FPÖ, strangely silent at the moment). Many people will openly talk about the issues close to the Freedom Party bosom – immigration, the EU, free market economics – but rarely if ever candidly admit voting for them. That said, deduction is easy. They have a clear antipathy towards the Greens and roll their eyes when anyone mentions the more dominant Socialist party and incumbent mayor, Michael “needs to verk on ze English accent” Häupl.

The Freedom Party are similar to the UKIP in “conservative” Britain. Yet students of political ideology should be aware that there are three clear differences. The first is that the FPÖ have better teeth. Secondly, the head of the party – Heinz Christian – definitely not gay – Strache would never have a German girlfriend let alone wife (unpatriotic). And thirdly, they are bigger arsewipes.

Nevertheless, with a Vienna election looming they are predicted to grab anything between quarter and a third of the vote in the city. And remember, there is none of this antiquated “first past the post” malarkey as in Britain. Thirty per cent will mean roughly thirty per cent of the power, although this would be neutralised, more or less, if the current Red-Green government can again command a combined majority in the Viennese parliament. Of course, this would mean that the FPÖ would once more sit on the sidelines. And a lot of people, like me as a seventeen year old desperate for love, meaning and stability, will remain impatient and shy (and very frustrated).

The bashfulness of the reticent FPÖ voter is a little bit like the local reaction to Eurovision. You remember the pan-European contest established in 1956 to bring Europe closer together in cultural and vocal harmony? Pre-dating the signing of the 1957 Treaty of Rome and the formation of the real European Economic Community (the forerunner to the EU)? Well, the ESC (Eurovision Song Contest) juggernaut has finally hit town – I know you knew that – and the reaction, Viennese to the core, has been wild with expectation. I think. I say that because I am not always sure if there is broad support or not. There is clearly a lot of interest but equally palpable indifference (which may or may not be fake, like the “shy” voter effect.) No one wants to admit being a fan and for some under normal circumstances it is clearly social suicide to do so. Of course, I have no such fears. I am paid to talk to people and will adopt any political, cultural or philosophical position if it helps me through day and a step nearer to a bottle of Stiegl. In other words, I will tweak my position to suit the audience and I am masterly in such Francis Underwood jockeying. “Eurovision? Love it!” “Eurovision? Pile of crap!”

Yet the ESC is the biggest event to hit the alpine republic since the European Football Championships it co-hosted with the devious Swiss in 2008. And you would assume that this might be a cause for some degree of celebration given the opportunities to present Vienna (and Austria) as a heinous hotbed of tolerance, freedom and diversity (probably why the FPÖ have been so muted recently).

However, where there is the politics of progression, waiting in the wings on a specially built taxpayer funded stage is the usual chorus of dissent. Talk of “festival” overkill coming on the back of last week’s Summer Night’s Concert, the yearly Life Ball and the up and coming Wiener Festwochen. Or the cost of staging the event itself. Not to mention the sudden concentration of shimmery outfits, backing singers and fake tans, upsetting the intricate balance of the Viennese habitual forbearance and compelling lexicographers of all the world’s languages to seek an urgent redefining of kitsch.

But, and I think more important than the clinquant, fulgent performances of some truly desperate acts, is that some of the sideswiping has centred on the key themes of the diversity and tolerance which the event clearly champions. Vienna and the city government may indeed espouse these causes and they are beautiful sentiments in every respect (although imputed in any discussion about Germans). But it would be fair to say that although the de facto face of this crusade comes from a small town in the countryside (we are speaking of Conchita) one does not have to travel far from the notional walls of Vienna to meet the evil twins of conservatism and suspicion (often orchestrated by a church stuck in the middle ages). Not that I am unduly affected by the influence of the Catholic faith. And it is not their fault that they indoctrinated in me, from an early age, the importance of sin, incessant guilt and the likelihood of burning in hell if I stole another biscuit.

In any case, what we need, rather than some ideological brainwashing from men in dresses, is facts and figures. Here is what we know:

  1. It is the 60th year of the contest and the first time in Austria in 48 years. Local consensus seems to suggest waiting another 48 years to host it again would be about two years too soon.
  2. 1700 journalists, 40 nations, 1500 delegates. This is a lot of hairspray and glitter.
  3. Cost of staging the event – €25 million paid from the budget of Austrian state broadcaster, ÖRF. (€10 million recouped from ticket sales, entry fees and outrageously over-priced Pretzels.)
  4. Cost of rebuilding and refitting the Wiener Stadthalle home of the event – €9 million.
  5. Badly attended Eurovision Village in front of the town hall – €750 thousand.
  6. Tourism campaign linked to Eurovision – €850 thousand.
  7. City branding – €1 million.
  8. Creation of 550 jobs (sewing sequins, professional flag-wavers, freaks).
  9. 700 volunteers in and around the Stadthalle (prerequisite: no friends).
  10. Extra hotel nights – 30 thousand – from assorted guests, media and screaming, clapping, swooning entourages.
  11. Estimated marketing worth to Austria and Vienna – a cool €100 million.

Source: Stadt Wien, ÖRF

So you make up your own mind. But before you do let us finish with a reminder of the event slogan: “Building Bridges”. In the words of the city, the strapline is primarily about uniting Europe with music. But allied to this is history. Lots of history. Something Vienna never mentions.

“It is the 200th anniversary of the Congress of Vienna and the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. In this context, Austria continues to play its central role as bridge between east and west when European countries reach out to each other and join hands on occasion of the Song Contest.”

Which is commendable, as long as you can endure the usual canticles from the Eurovision hymn sheet. Of course, it is a little known secret that building bridges is actually a cruel in-joke at the expense of Vienna’s many knuckleheaded motorists. This is due to the current re-construction of several parts of the cross-city expressway – the joyless Tangente – specifically the Erdburgbrücke (Erdburg Bridge) which continues to cause misery (totally justified) to the thousands of poor bastards who have to use it daily to get to work and back. The traffic jams are savage where freedom and tolerance are as likely to be found as a smiling face and the serenity of a Shaolin monk. Naturally, my sympathies stretch to the sound of the world’s smallest violin playing its mournful strains, although this being Vienna it would a quartet of tiny violins, played in a Palais with only the music of Mozart. Having said that, I fear the popularity of Wolfgang is on the cusp of irrelevance. My son visited the Mozart house in Vienna this week. “How was it?” I asked. “Null Punkte,” came the reply. You see. Eurovision. You cannot escape it.

© RJ Barratt 2015

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