Oh, Vienna…

Brace yourselves. It’s here again. Like many of you, I can hardly contain my excitement. Eurovision is back. Back! BACK! There will be glitter, there will be dry ice, there will be whimpering behind a cushion until the scary parts have finished (you think the Weeping Angels are scary? They have nothing on Ukraine’s 2007 entry, which looks like what would happen if Rosa Klebb found herself at the epicentre of a silver lamé explosion), and since the show is being staged in Austria there will probably be dirndls. There will be Graham Norton muttering in the background, there will be a weird interval act, and there will almost certainly, before this is over, be multiple snarkgasms.

I’m ready for the cheese – I have crackers, I have a cushion, and I am only about twelve feet from the nearest bathroom. As ever, I am not watching this live – since I don’t drink and therefore can’t use Margaritas to dull the pain, I need to be able to resort to the fast-forward button in the event of it all getting too much, which usually happens less than twenty minutes into the show. Also, really, who has the patience to sit through the more-than-an-hour-long voting process? I certainly don’t. I mean, I could use the time constructively and read a book or something, but by the time the voting begins, on past form, my IQ will have temporarily dropped by about forty-five points. Best to just get it over as quickly as possible.

No, I did not watch the semi-finals. There is a point at which pain stops being pleasurable; if I’d watched the semi-finals, that point would likely have arrived at about 8.25pm on Tuesday, and we wouldn’t be here now. Judge for yourselves whether or not that would be a bad thing. I have – by dint of very selective viewing of Facebook and Twitter for the past three hours – managed to remain relatively spoiler-free, so that’s nice. I only have to sit through this once… unless there’s something really ghastly, in which case I reserve the right to pause, rewind, and watch it over and over about twenty times until my brain finally implodes in disgust at what I’m forcing it to witness.

ANYway. So. Thanks to the victory last year of the faaaaaaabulous Conchita Wurst, we are in Vienna this year. I like Vienna. A long time ago, as an undergraduate, I sang in both the Karlskirche and the Stephansdom as part of a tour of Eastern Europe with my college’s chapel choir. I think it’s a reasonably safe bet that nothing we hear this evening will much resemble the programme of English choral music we performed on that trip. Of course, on that trip I also saw The Phantom of the Opera at the (very beautiful) Raimund Theater – in German, so I didn’t have to suffer the English lyrics. I may flirt with the highbrow from time to time, but it seems I usually end up back wallowing in the cheese.

I spoke too soon. We’re beginning with the Vienna Philharmonic getting their Mozart on in the grounds of the Schonbrunn palace. Have I mentioned that Vienna is a gorgeous city? Don’t worry, the sequence only lasted two minutes. That’s the last natural beauty you’re going to be seeing tonight.

And heeeeeeere’s Conchita! Mr. Norton is telling us we can go online and download a scorecard – or at least, you could if you were a) watching it live and b) gave a shit about the scoring.

Now we’re seeing lots of happy Austrians standing in a circle and releasing balloons. No idea why. Inside the arena, the first thing we see is a giant glittery ball – not a glitterball, that wouldn’t be classy enough – dropping from the ceiling to a solo violinist, backed by a full orchestra, giving us the melody of Conchita Wurst’s ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’. And guess how Ms. Wurst enters?

(I’ll give you a clue, it involved a trapdoor and a lift. Geddit?)

The opening number is called ‘Building Bridges’, because of course this entire event is supposed to be some kind of celebration of international cooperation and peace and love and mutual understanding and all that crap. Conchita is flying on a wire above the audience while the orchestra plays a generic slab of Europop. If you were watching anything else, you’d think it couldn’t possibly get any more kitsch, but this is Eurovision. Sure enough, they immediately wheel on a choir of children.

The opening number passed without anyone letting off any fireworks, though, which is disappointing. Maybe there’ll be some later.

(“Maybe”? Yeah, right.)

Now all the contestants are parading into the arena. It looks like a cross between a Primark fashion show and the entrance of the athletes in an Olympic opening ceremony, if the entrance of the athletes in an Olympic opening ceremony was staged in a gay nightclub in Benidorm.

I’ve forgotten what this year’s British entry looks like. I’ve forgotten what it sounds like too, which is possibly no bad thing. Our recent form in this competition is not good.

And just in case we missed the point, everybody’s singing a slowed-down reprise of ‘Building Bridges’. You can just feel the love, can’t you?

Never mind.

Our Austrian presenters are welcoming this year’s special anniversary contestants – Australia, because why should anyone expect any of this to make sense? – and telling us a little more about the theme of building bridges “between countries, cultures, musical styles” and so on blah blah blah. Film montage of people around the world backed by a Russian power ballad about people coming together as one. Sweet.

The Austrian presenters are Not Very Good, and I think I missed most of their names. One of them might be called Arabella, and all of them might be robots. We are told, once more, that you can’t vote until all contestants have performed – this is a recent-ish innovation – but you CAN, this year, vote via an app, assuming you can be arsed to download an app in order to vote in Eurovision. Since the whole thing is over now because I’m not watching live, it’s a moot point.

So, entry number one. Slovenia. Maraaya, with a song called “Here For You”. She’s wearing enormous noise-cancelling headphones, possibly so she can’t hear herself. The song is hipsterish pop, she sounds like the love-child of Duffy and Basil Brush, and a black-clad dancer with white Christmas tree baubles sewn onto her jumpsuit is playing air violin next to her. It’s bizarre, but not bizarre enough. The lyrics are completely incomprehensible, but it’s got a catchy chorus. It won’t win, but it’s a decent start.

Two. France. Lisa Angell, “N’Oubliez Pas” Black-clad woman with smudged eyeshadow singing a prettily doomy ballad while images of an urban wasteland are projected on an enormous LED screen behind her. She has a nice enough voice but no presence, and the song is sludge.

Oh. Now there are four military drummers drumming alongside her. She does at least hit all the notes, and she has a bigger voice than you’d guess, but that wasn’t France’s finest hour.

Three. A screen caption warns us the next performance contains flashing images and strobe effects. Duh, this is Eurovision. Israel, Nadav Guedj, “Golden Boy”. Not, sadly, by Charles Strouse. He’s apparently 16, but could easily pass for 40. It’s basically a slightly Middle-Eastern boyband song – he’s got three backing singers/dancers behind him – and it’s good, energetic, clean fun. And there are fireworks. See? I told you there’d be fireworks. We only had to wait until the third number to get them. At Eurovision, that’s what passes for delayed gratification.

Four. Estonia. Elina Born & Stig Rasta (there’s some kind of accent over the first A in his surname but I can’t be frigged to look up the ASCII character), “Goodbye to Yesterday”. Moody Johnny-Cash-meets-rockabilly, beautifully staged with spectacular projected shadows behind the two performers. They’re sexy, they can both sing – her better than him – and it’s quite a good song. Once again, though, the sound system is obliterating the lyrics. They probably aren’t very good, but that’s not quite the point – the sound is so bad that if I didn’t know these people were singing in English, I possibly wouldn’t guess.

Five. Us. The UK. Electro Velvet, “Still In Love With You”. Now I remember. Fun slab of electronic swing music, nicely performed, staged like a 21st-Century Art Deco hallucination. There’s black lighting AND their costumes actually light up. It’s not remotely subtle, but it’s also not remotely embarrassing, which puts it several steps above about half our last dozen entries. It won’t win, but it’s got as good a shot as anything we’ve entered in a while.

Six. Armenia. Genealogy, “Face the Shadow”. There are six singers, and they’re all smiling like they’ve drunk a little bit too much Robitussin. I have no idea what they’re singing about because the miking, once again, is crap, but it all seems to be terribly meaningful. And they’re using the wind machine, and it’s building to an overwrought climax. It ends with fireballs shooting into the air behind the singers, because Eurovision.

According to Mr. Norton, we have now, having seen the Armenian entry, plumbed the depths of tonight’s contest. That, apparently, is as low as we go.


Seven. Lithuania. Their singer has apparently attempted to enter Eurovision several times before, so of course the pre-song introductory film shows the poor woman doing a bungee jump. Monika Linkyt & Vaidas Baumila (which sounds like something you’d put on a cold sore), with “This Time”. It’s one of those very, very peppy, enthusiastic acoustic guitar-driven pop songs that leave you thinking nobody could possibly be so high on life. The melody is absolutely forgettable, the staging is big and bright and colourful – there’s a projected deco sunburst behind them – and as the song progresses, it gradually starts to dawn on you that their fake smiles might actually be sincere, which is frightening.

Eight. Serbia. Another warning about flashing images and strobe lights. Bojana Stamenov, “Beauty Never Lies”. Silver ballgown, sequinned cape, glittery hair, four white-clad masked figures behind her waving flags. It’s All Very Dramatic, and a minute into the song the masked figures whip their masks and overalls off to reveal contemporary party clothes. Ms. Stamenov has a hell of a high belt, the lighting is completely bonkers, it’s camper than a whole stack of Canvas Holidays brochures, and it’s probably the most genuinely entertaining entry so far.

Nine. Norway. Morland & Debrah Scarlett, “A Monster Like Me”. This time you can hear the lyrics. Unfortunately the first lyrics you hear are “I’m telling the truth/I did something terrible/In my early youth”. His vocals are upsettingly Chris Martin-esque; she looks a bit like a young Bernadette Peters and sounds like a backed-up drain. It’s one of those songs that’s probably going to end with some kind of suicide pact involving either both singers or the entire audience.

Oh no, we’re still here. That was a bit traumatic, wasn’t it? Let the healing begin.

Ten. Sweden. The favourite, apparently. Mans Zelmerlow, “Heroes”. Very clever staging which has the singer interacting with stick-figure projections behind him. It’s a decent song, he can sing, and the staging is a knockout. It’s not the kind of compelling, charismatic turn that won it for Conchita Wurst last year, but it’s head and shoulders above anything we’ve seen so far.

Eleven. Cyprus. John Karayiannis, “One Thing I Should Have Done”. A sincere, rather lovely ballad, presented relatively simply until the demented lighting effects cut in at the dramatic part of the song’s bridge. Unfortunately for Mr. Karayiannis, this is Eurovision. Sincerity doesn’t play well here. He’s very likeable, but he won’t win.

Twelve. Australia. Guy Sebastian, apparently a big star Down Under, with “Tonight Again”. It’s a very slick, polished performance, but it’s also the sort of thing that makes you long for the playful wit and emotional depth of, say, Justin Timberlake. It’s bouncy, energetic, and completely forgettable. Moving on…

Thirteen. Belgium. More flashing images and strobe effects. Loic Nottet, “Rhythm Inside”. He’s walking slightly robotically, and so are his five white-clad backing singers. It’s a bit like Depeche Mode circa 1984 with better harmonies and slick choreography. It’s endearingly strange, they perform it with absolute conviction, and it hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of winning.

Fourteen. Austria. The Makemakes, “I Am Yours”. Also known as the please-God-don’t-let-us-win-this-year entry (the winning country gets saddled with the bill for staging next year’s event). Slightly Lennon-and-McCartneyish piano-and-guitar pop, “sung” by a long-haired hipster who might have learned his vocal style from being waterboarded. Halfway through the second verse, the piano catches fire. Unfortunately it doesn’t take out the band, and they get to finish the song. Damn.

Little intermission. Conchita takes us into the Green Room. What’s the Wurst that could happen? Well, one of the plastic presenters could try to be funny, and the joke could land like a concrete Sachertorte.

The joke involved a reference to Ms. Wurst’s long hair and beard and the 2008 French entry, whose backing singers all sported conspicuously fake flowing wigs and long beards. Laugh? I thought my pants would never dry.

And we’re back to the songs. Fifteen, Greece, Maria Elena Kyriakou, “One Last Breath”. Flowing blonde hair, low-cut glittery evening dress, tinkly piano, wind machine, drums coming in at the keychange into the second chorus. We’re in cut-price Céline territory here – there’s always at least one. It’s a lousy song, and she doesn’t quite have the power to really sock the climax home, although she hits all the notes. Not one of the evening’s highlights, either for the right or the wrong reasons.

Sixteen. Montenegro, Knez, with “Adio”. A violinist playing a folksy melody, drum machine underneath, people striking weirdly dramatic poses, and a slightly seedy man with glittery lapels on his black jacket trying to sound sincere in a language 98% of the people watching this don’t speak. It’s less interesting than I’m making it sound. Fast-forward time.

Seventeen. Germany. Ann Sophie with “Black Smoke”. The guy who won the selection process in Germany dropped out, so we’re getting this instead. Aren’t we lucky? The song is a bit Bond Theme-y, and Adele wants her (borrowed) vocal stylings back. Or she might, if Ann Sophie could sing half as well as she can. Ms. Sophie borrowed her (low-cut) black belted jumpsuit from 1968, and her right earring possibly doubles as a feather duster. That’s not a bun on her head, either – when she’s done singing, or whatever it is she thinks she’s doing, she’s going to use it to cosh people who don’t vote for her. I think that’s going to keep her quite busy later on.

Not Germany’s best effort, this one. Better luck next time.

Eighteen. Poland. Monika Kuszynska, “In The Name of Love”. Ms. Kuszynska has, we are told, overcome considerable personal adversity (a serious car accident which left her in a wheelchair) in order to be here. The song is a pretty middle-of-the-road midtempo ballad, and she sings it very prettily, although the backing singers drown her out a bit. She’s lovely – but, again, sweet sincerity is not necessarily what works at Eurovision.

Nineteen. Latvia. By now I’m not even noticing the warnings about strobe lights. Aminata, “Love Injected”, a title which mostly just serves to remind us all that we’re dealing with this without the aid of pharmaceuticals. Plinky plonky intro, she’s singing a weird un-melody and wearing what looks like an inverted tulip. Then she strikes a pose and shreiks. Her dress has apparently rendered her immobile from the shoulders down; wondering whether she walked onstage herself or had to be wheeled into place is more interesting than actually listening to her song. Oh thank God it’s over. That was quick, or maybe I zoned out.

Twenty. Romania. Voltaj, “De La Capat”. Voltaj have apparently been big stars on their home turf for about twenty years. They’re a Proper Group, with instruments and everything. The sound system is rendering the Romanian lyrics far more clearly than it’s managed with anything sung in English this evening. Too bad I don’t speak Romanian. The song is a bit Gary Barlow-ish – pleasantly inoffensive, with a Great Big Chorus which isn’t quite as memorable as they’d like it to be. It’s an enjoyable performance, but I think not a winning one.

Twenty-one. Spain. She’s dating a Man Utd player, apparently. I’ve never heard of her. I’ve never heard of him either. Edurne, with “Amanecer”. She begins by kneeling on a comatose man’s torso while wearing what look like red sequinned terry-cloth widow’s weeds. In the second verse, the comatose man gets up and holds her train, then yanks it – and the red sequinned terry-cloth thing – off as she goes into the chorus, revealing a glittery silvery somewhat see-through dress which is cut so high you can see her knickers. All of this is more interesting than the song she’s singing. There’s some kind of desert landscape projected behind her, and then the half-naked male dancer comes back and lifts her up. And then he’s gone again, possibly blown away by the wind machine which cuts in for the final chorus. I’m sure it all made sense to somebody when they started rehearsals.

What am I saying? No I’m not, this is Eurovision.

Twenty-two. Hungary, Boggie, “Wars for Nothing”. Earnest young woman in burgundy polyester singing about Whirled Peas. Four other singers are classically attired in blue and white polyester (blue suits and white shirts for the men, blue skirts and white blouses for the women, all looking like they were bought for £8.99 at ASDA), and behind them the screen is showing a projection of a tree made out of machine guns. It’s very low-key and a bit tuneless, but they have lovely voices. The last verse, which they sing in harmony, is quite nice, but it isn’t going to set anyone’s pulse racing.

Twenty-three. Georgia. Vampira McScary, or rather Nina Sublatti, with “Warrior”. She looks like a teenage goth throwing a tantrum – she’s obviously been practicing her grimace in the bathroom mirror for, ooh, minutes – and the pointy feathered shoulders on her outfit could take someone’s eye out. She’s got a dagger-like headpiece in her centre parting, her hair is even limper than the week-old celery in my fridge, and behind her there’s all the dry ice in the world. She can sing, but the performance is all posturing. It’s a bit like watching Katharine McPhee trying to play Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Ms. Sublatti has possibly spent a little bit too long watching reruns of “Dark Shadows” and “Xena, Warrior Princess”. The song is instantly forgettable Europop, which rather works against the sneering attitude she’s trying to strike as she sings it.

Twenty-four. Azerbaijan. Elnur Huseynov, “Hour of the Wolf”. Pleasant pop ballad sung (quite well) by a blandly good-looking young man as a pair of writhing dancers – one of whom is bare-chested – perform what appears to be a carefully-choreographed mashup of a wrestling match and a bilious attack around him. They all get through the song without giggling, which is more than I can manage.

Twenty-five. Russia. Apparently one of the favourites. It’d be fun if the campest international television event on the planet ended up being staged next year in a country which last year passed into law some of the most repressive anti-gay legislation on the books anywhere in the developed world, wouldn’t it? Perhaps Putin could host. Without his shirt. While wrestling a bear.

No, not that kind of bear.

Polina Gagarina, “A Million Voices”. All about love and tolerance, according to Mr. Norton – values that Russia’s current political leaders so clearly espouse. At least, they reeeeeaaaaallly love Crimea and the eastern part of Ukraine. But let us not speak of The Unpleasantness. Ms. Gagarina is about to sing. It’s a big power ballad, the above-the-waist part of her dress is apparently a couple of bits of kitchen roll and a piece of string, she’s got a big voice, and her roots need doing. It’s got a huge singalong chorus, and – all snarking about her ridiculous President’s appalling record aside – is actually pretty good in a you’ll-hate-yourself-later-for-enjoying-this sort of way. Dull presentation, though. The visuals do count for something – the contest, these days, is about acts rather than songs.

Twenty-six. Albania. Elhaida Dani, “I’m Alive”. That’s nice for her; after having been watching this for a couple of hours now, I’m not sure I am. It’s low-key, it’s classy, it’s boring as shit, and her vocal “style” appears to involve going off-pitch a lot. Fast-forward time. Bye bye, Elhaida.

Oh, crap. I didn’t quite miss her big shreik at the end. Bummer.

Twenty-seven. The last one. Italy. Il Volo, “Grande Amore”. They’ve toured as Streisand’s opening act, apparently. Three cheesily, generically handsome men with improbably vertical hair and slightly operatic voices singing Sarah Brightman-esque crossover pop. They can sing, they have remarkably mobile eyebrows, and I really really really REALLY hate this kind of music. They do it very well indeed, and it stinks.

So. We’ve seen it all. Conchita wants us to applaud because everyone was AMAZING. The presenters have changed their dresses and I still can’t remember their names; they’ve got to talk for a bit while the stage is cleared for the interval act, and I can fast-forward through the recap of all the acts which they always do when voting begins.

One of the three nameless presenters – Miriam? – just sang a snatch of ‘The Hills Are Alive’ really badly. Thank God they didn’t hold the show in Salzburg, it would have been wall-to-wall dirndls.

Ohhhhkay. Martin Grubinger and the Percussive Planet Ensemble with ‘Speeding Up The Images’ and ‘All Is In A State Of Flux. It begins with a big dramatic chord and a lot of people playing percussion instruments like they’re on meth withdrawal, and I’ve a feeling I may not be watching this all the way through.


Oh dear.

It’s never a good sign if, two minutes into watching something, you start to think you’d rather be watching “Riverdance”.

(Yes, I have seen “Riverdance”, and not just their Eurovision intermission act from years ago.)

Now there’s a quiet bit with French horns. I may not have to go and stick my head in the freezer after all.

Everybody in the green room is holding a pose. I think they’re supposed to be heart shapes.

And now a choir of very classy musicians are singing something generically modern/classical and almost, nearly maintaining straight faces as they do so. This is deeply silly, and not in a good way. Flags of all nations (well, all the nations that are here in the arena) are waving all around them. Like a lot of things this evening, it’s obviously supposed to be Very Very Meaningful, but it isn’t.

And we’re back with the crazy percussion people. I’m fast-forwarding.

Apparently that was all based on themes by famous Austrian composers. I’m sure their music is super, but thank God it’s over.

And here’s another recap of all the acts. Fast-forward time.

Second interval act: Conchita Wurst with two new songs, reminding us she’s a more compelling, more exciting performer than anyone else we’ve seen all night, even though several of the acts we’ve seen feature better singers. The songs aren’t very good, but Ms. Wurst is one of those people who can hold a stage just by standing there and striking a pose – which doesn’t mean they don’t bring out a gaggle of flamboyantly weird dancers and the full weight of the show’s weapons-grade lighting rig for the second number.

Unfortunately, the performance is followed by a painfully stilted scripted chat with one of the presenters-whose-name-I-can’t-remember in which they repeatedly plug Ms. Wurst’s new album. Even by the standards of everything else we’ve seen tonight, this is cringe-inducing.

Now we’re introduced to Vincenzo Cantiello, winner of last year’s Junior Eurovision. Holy crap, that kid is loud. His neighbours must be either very understanding or profoundly deaf.

And NOW, one of the presenters is describing the trophy as “a real piece of art”. It looks like it came from a pound shop.

We see a montage of past winners, and it’s almost time for the points to be announced. But first, a word from Jon Ola Sand, the ESC’s executive supervisor… like I give a shit. Fast-forward time.

Un-fast-forward. The Romanian presenter appears to be standing in front of a backdrop of smog. 10 points to Russia, so hopefully they won’t invade.

Just kidding.

Judging by the Moldovan presenter, the Jaclyn Smith look is still big over there.

Azerbaijan give douze points to Russia. They don’t want to be invaded either. We picked up a point somewhere, I don’t know where from.

Latvia’s presenter is powered by Duracell, and his hair is made out of styrofoam and taped into place.

Early on, it looks like it’s between Russia, Italy, and Sweden.

Awww. France gives Belgium douze points. Bless. It’s more of a race than it’s been the last couple of years.

Germany’s presenter seems to be wearing some kind of pizza cutter. We’ve picked up another point from somewhere, aren’t we lucky?

Electro Velvet are now third from bottom, Germany and Austria still have nul points. Somewhere, an Austrian network executive is breathing a heavy sigh of relief.

Hungary gives Belgium twelve points, and we all need a moment to recover from the sight of an Eastern Bloc country NOT giving their highest score to another Eastern Bloc country.

The UK’s points are being presented by Nigella, who sadly doesn’t whip up a sumptuous pasta dish as she announces the results of our phone-in vote. She does, however, speak flawless German, Italian and French. We gave ten points to Australia, and I’m losing the will to live. Douze points à la Suède. We’re still third from bottom.

San Marino gave us three points. They’re the 35th counrtry to announce their results, and their three points more than doubles our score. I think Electro Velvet are probably going to be down the dumper quite soon.

The Norwegian presenter has had someone embroider licorice allsorts into the shoulders of her frock. Oh, those wacky Norwegians.

(No, they really are. Let us not forget, Norway is the country that sent both Jahn Tiegen and Benedicte Adrian to Eurovision. Obviously there’s some kind of strange national sense of humour there that the rest of the world will never quite be able to understand.)

We’re now fourth from the bottom, not third. Yay us.

And it’s all over bar the shouting. We’re fourth from bottom, Austria and Germany both have nul points, and Sweden – deservedly – wins by a fairly clear margin. Can I put in an early vote for them to bring back Petra Mede as presenter next year?

Here’s the winning entry, and we should all get some kind of group hug for having made it through to the end of the show:

And there wasn’t a dirndl in sight. I want a refund.

Down the block there’s a riot…

So, yeah. I narrowly avoided getting caught up in the worst rioting Manchester has seen in decades. How was your day?

That’s a little melodramatic, actually. I was lucky, I saw very little and was never in any danger, although it turns out I was closer to danger than I thought at the time. I went into Manchester this afternoon intending to do some work in the library. Knowing what has been happening over the last few days elsewhere, I kept my eyes open and my BlackBerry switched on so that I could keep checking various news sites. I was later than I’d usually be; it was well after 4pm when I arrived in the city centre (the library is open until 8pm). As I walked through the Royal Exchange arcade, heading towards Deansgate, a security guard was telling the staff of one of the shops that they should close up and pull down the blinds, and several of the shops (including a couple of very expensive jewellery stores) were closed. I decided that this was not a direction I wanted to be walking in, and headed towards Albert Square. Albert Square was quiet, with no sign of anything out of the ordinary; I got a coffee from Starbucks, and sat down on a bench to check news sites on my phone and figure out whether I should head straight home. I know, I know, but at that point there really wasn’t any sign at all of any disturbance in that part of the city centre.

And then…

I’d more or less finished my coffee when suddenly a procession of half-a-dozen police tactical aid unit vans plus various other police cars and vans came hurtling into Albert Square from Bootle Street (where the police station is), sirens blaring. Not a good sign. A couple of minutes later, a woman approached me and asked if she could talk to me. She was a plain-clothes police officer, and she suggested very strongly that I leave the city centre quickly because “it’s kicking off on Deansgate”. Even at this point, there still wasn’t anything strikingly unusual visible from where I was sitting, but when a police officer tells you to leave an area, you leave the area.

How to leave posed an interesting conundrum, in that my usual routes home (train from Victoria station or bus from Oldham Street) would both have meant walking past the Arndale Centre, and footage of looting elsewhere in Britain over the last couple of nights means that I didn’t think heading that way would be a very good idea (correctly, as it turned out). The police officer told me that Oxford Road was clear and quiet; that’s where I headed, to take a rather circuitous route home (train from Oxford Road to Stalybridge, then two buses, changing to a bus that runs near home in a village rather than in Oldham or Ashton town centre). As I crossed Portland Street, traffic heading towards Piccadilly Gardens was absolutely gridlocked; Piccadilly Gardens, it turned out, was one of the city centre flashpoints. Bus and metro service into and out of the city centre shut down around that time, although I didn’t know that until later. There was no sign of any disturbance in Oxford Road, Oxford Road station was relatively quiet, Stalybridge station was eerily quiet, there was no problem on the buses home. Thanks to the plain-clothes police officer, I had a very, very easy time of it. I talked to people on the train who hadn’t been nearly so lucky, including a lady in a wheelchair who had spent some time cowering, along with other customers and staff, in a locked Pizza Hut while youths smashed windows in the shops opposite. I’m glad I missed that. I’d walked past that particular restaurant only a little over an hour before that happened.

Given the news that’s been pouring in since – looting, arson, pitched battles between police and rioting youths, children roaming the city centre and breaking into shops and restaurants, smashed windows and all the rest of it, the absolutely startling thing, in retrospect, is how little I saw. The city centre, apparently, went from zero to mayhem in the space of about half an hour.

What’s absolutely sickening, of course, is that all of this is so pointless. It started with a police shooting in Tottenham, yes, but Tottenham is 200 miles south of here. The “protesters” in Manchester weren’t outside the police station, or the civil justice building, or the town hall. They were looting shoe shops and electronics stores and clothes shops and engaging in a series of acts of nihilistic destruction, simply because they could. That’s a crime spree, not a protest, and the fact that so many people – young people – apparently see smashing windows, setting fires and stealing stuff as a viable form of entertainment says something fairly unpleasant about our society.

As I said, I was lucky. I went into the city, got coffee, got told to leave, and got out before anything really bad happened. But I got out just before anything really bad happened, and I was, it turned out, far closer than I’d thought to scenes of absolute mayhem. The experience wasn’t at all frightening, but if I’d been 40 minutes later, or chosen to turn left instead of right when I left Albert Square, things could have been very different.

And I’m really not OK with sitting outside a Starbucks minding my own business and being told that I should leave the area because I’m not safe. That’s simply unacceptable.

Credit, crunched – or, the bill that keeps on billing.

I think I’ve found the mail order company of the damned.

I’m not going to name them. I’m also not going to use them again. All I wanted to do was to buy a couple of shirts. Shopping for clothes is not something I enjoy, so I looked online, found some shirts I liked on special offer (3 for the price of 2), and tried to buy them.

Foolish, foolish man.

I chose three shirts (two denim, one corduroy – we can discuss my absolute lack of anything resembling fashion sense later), added them to the cart, and tried to check out. This is where the fun began. I entered all the details I was asked for – not, at this point, including any kind of bank card information – and clicked ‘confirm’. The next screen told me that a credit account for the merchant had been opened for me, with a spending limit of £150 and an APR of you-don’t-want-to-know; I could, however, bypass the credit account by clicking on a particular button and paying by debit card. This I did.

Does anybody else see what’s wrong with this picture? We’ve had, over the past couple of years, an endless stream of news stories about, basically, individuals/corporations/governments who have got themselves into severe financial difficulties by using too much credit, and now here’s this company effectively telling me that the only means of purchasing their goods is to open a credit account – a process which, moreover, required me to give them precisely no information about my finances, just my date of birth, address and postcode. That’s irresponsible batshit insane. I assume they checked my name, date of birth and postcode against a credit register; I didn’t agree to that, I didn’t need that to be done, and I’d never in a million years have undertaken any kind of credit agreement at the kind of APR these people offer (a whopping 39.9%).

Fast forward a few days, and the parcel arrived. Given that it was only supposed to contain three shirts, it was surprisingly large. I found out why when I opened it. Six shirts, four denim, two corduroy, three charged to my debit card and three charged to this unwanted credit account. Cynics among you may not be astonished to learn that this delightful organisation’s customer service line is an 0871 number (= 10p/minute, not covered by any kind of inclusive billing plan). The call took 35 minutes, 20 of which were spent on hold listening to the kind of muzak that makes Frank Wildhorn sound like Tchaikovsky, with periodic interruptions from a recorded voice that told me the company cared about my call. It took conversations with three different people to arrange a returns label to send the unwanted shirts back and get the billing straightened out so that they would be refunded against the credit account. I sent them back, I heard nothing more, I forgot about it.

Fast forward another couple of weeks, to yesterday, and a bill plops into the mat for this credit account, for three of these shirts. I go online, log into this credit account that I’d never asked to open… and see that, yes, they’ve received the returned shirts and refunded them to my debit card. The result – another lengthy call to the 0871 number to check that the payment had been applied correctly and get the account closed down. In the end, my attempt to avoid spending 20 minutes in Debenhams by ordering online took far longer than I’d have spent just going into town. And, really, 39.9%? That’s not an APR, it’s a stick-up. At least I like the shirts.