“Ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the Maltese embassy. I’m pleased to be able to welcome you to this special event. Please help yourself to a drink. Lynn will be singing her song shortly.”
The Maltese embassy wasn’t turning out to be the glamorous location I anticipated it would be. I saw no butlers carrying trays piled high with Ferrero Rocher and no-one dressed in full evening wear. There was precious little chintz anywhere either. As far as I could make out looking around this cramped, low-ceillinged sixth floor room with views looking out over Piccadilly Circus, this could one of many offices across London. This wasn’t embassy material. Nowhere near grand enough.
Hardly the auspicious location for the 2003 Maltese Eurovision representative Lynn Chircop to launch her PR assault on the UK media. She was going to have a tough time, I thought. I counted only five other people in the room, no cameras, no recording equipment and no notebooks.
Over in the opposite corner of the room from where I was sheepishly standing alone I observed a suited, rotund middle-aged man was calculating whether the mains lead to the portable stereo he had his hand would reach to the mains socket. “Don’t worry,” he said to a nervous looking Lynn in white leggings and layers of foundation stood next to him, “We’ll dub the track over the top.”
Lynn was the one of the first artists I’d emailed when I’d heard I’d got press accreditation to Eurovision in 2003.
This isn’t a holiday, I’d kept telling myself. I can’t just sit around. I’ll be lonely. I know it. Best fend off the crippling effects of uncontrollable and unwanted self-consciousness by programming a full list of activities whilst I’m there. Latvia – where the Eurovision was being hosted that year – seemed like a far away land. This was my first trip away on my own. This all needed planning and arranging before I went out there.
Hence why I ended up emailing as many people as I possibly could. People who I thought might be interesting. People who could help me understand why Eurovision was important. If indeed it was at all.
Aside from a handful of city councillors in Riga, I didn’t succeed in getting a great many responses. Yet another fan, I’d concluded. Why on earth would they go with someone like me. I must come across like some kind of nutter.
And yet, out of everyone I’d emailed, the Maltese had seemed keen to meet. The fact the email came from singer Lynn Chircop herself gave her even more brownie points. Something addressed to me. Against all the odds, she’d emailed me back. Don’t Eurovision artists have PAs? Or record companies? Or PR people? Is it really that normal for Eurovision artists to interact directly with fans?
And here she was, stood just a few steps away from me. A sort of star. A sort of celebrity. Someone who in only a few weeks time would stand on a stage in front of ten thousand or so people in Riga and sing her song live on TV to millions of viewers across the Europe. A piece of the Eurovision world just over there. Next to the table of wine glasses. Keeping an eye on the suited man stood next to her now looking for a CD to put in the portable stereo.
I admit it. I stared. Probably more than I should have done.
A familiar voice interrupted me staring. “Jon? What are you doing here?”
It was Hussain. Short. Dark haired. Unassuming looking. Possibly cute. I really can’t remember. Undeniable gay. Not overbearingly camp. He seemed like your average guy. Songwriter. Eurovision songwriter. IT support engineer based in Barbican close to where I’d worked and a journalist on a Turkish newspaper published in London. I’d got in contact with him because I’d happened to see his name as a byline on a front page story when I stopped to get some rice in a otherwise rarely frequented local shop in South East London. We went for a drink. We talked for hours about Eurovision songs and Nikki French. He expressed surprise that I wasn’t writing notes while we chatted the first night we met. I said I didn’t need to. And anyway, writing notes when people were talking seemed quite rude. Twenty four hours before I rang Dominic Smith to ask for accreditation. That was Hussain.
He didn’t know it at the time (and probably doesn’t realise it now) but Hussain played a key role. It was during that first meeting that he suggested I should go to Eurovision. Hussain who said that if I was going to write a book about the contest I wouldn’t be taken seriously unless I actually attended one.
Up until I’d met him, the thought hadn’t crossed my mind. 24 hours later I was leaping up and down about the prospect of going to one. Thrilled by the prospect. Fantasising about what it would be like, mixing with all those media types. Researching a book. Carving out a new career path. This man Hussain had been a catalyst and he had no idea.
“I got accreditation,” I said excitedly, “Couldn’t believe it! I was just in time. Thanks so much.”
Hussain appeared not to share my unbridled enthusiasm or surprise. He remained polite nonetheless. “You’re welcome. This,” he said pointing to a youngish man stood next to him, “this is Tom.”
Hussain had told me about Tom when we met the first time around. Tom was a freelance journalist. Did lots of TV. Was developing his career. Entertainment news mainly. GMTV. Living TV. That kind of thing. Oh, and he’s an air steward for British Airways too. It seemed the oddest combination of roles. Journalist and air steward. How did that work day to day? We never got on to the subject.
“And this is Tony,” added Hussain, “Remember I told you about Tony? Tony’s a producer at ITN. He’s doing a lot of Eurovision this year.”
I shook Tony’s hand, quickly trying to recall the last time I’d actually watched ITN. “Hussain has told us all about you,” he smiled, “You and your book. You should come out with us on a shoot we’re doing on Monday. Get to meet some other Eurovision artists. I think it’s Greece and Cyprus on Monday, isn’t it Tom?”
The conversation stopped suddenly. Glances were exchanged. Frosty ones.
That moment lingers more than any other. Potent. Unshakable. Something had been said by someone which hadn’t been received as well as was intended by someone else. And I still don’t fully understand why. Somebody was jealous or threatened or both.
Lynn’s song – To Dream Again – wasn’t the most overwhelming pieces of entertainment. In fairness to her, the location wasn’t necessarily conducive. But more than that the song did seem quite bland. And there was a distinct lack of love in the room. Not because people didn’t like her or the handful of Maltesers there supporting her, but because the idea that in this room on the top floor of the embassy we might see a winning piece of pop seemed unlikely.
And the song was bland. Incredibly bland. It didn’t entertain me at the Maltese embassy and it sure as hell didn’t entertain the crowd come the contest in Riga.
But I felt fearlessly loyal. Lynn had backed my interview request. She’d contacted me directly. And I appreciated that just as I recognised how important Hussain’s unwitting advice had been.
Polite applause spluttered around the room when the room came to an end. People shuffled nervously from foot to foot, some reaching for another glass of free wine.
“It’s Turkey’s year this year,” whispered Hussain in my ear. “Have you seen Sertab yet? It’s amazing.”