Category Archives: Location


For Swedes, unlike in the UK, Eurovision is not a complete joke

We have a 25-year-old childminder. She’s young and hip (unlike me since I still use the word ‘hip’). But when I asked what she was doing for her birthday, I was surprised by her answer: “Oh it’s super cool, my boyfriend got us tickets for Melodifestivalen!!“

Melodifestivalen is the Swedish qualifying competition for Eurovision. It takes place over multiple Saturday nights, is a fixture for families on primetime TV, and it culminates in a live final with an enormous studio audience (pictured above) in a tumult of excitement over who will be chosen as the Swedish entry.

If you’re from the UK, you might want to read that last paragraph again. Yes, I’m talking about the Eurovision qualifiers here…

The most famous aspect of Eurovision in the UK is the phrase ’nul points’ – meaning ‘no points’ – which refers to Jemini (2003). Her appearance was pointless in every sense. The British entry has only scored nul points once, but that doesn’t mean there has been a lot of success – the UK has finished outside the top ten for six years in a row.

This does not jive with the British sense of victorious entitlement. Finishing outside the top ten – or, indeed, outside the top one – triggers accusations of bloc voting among the ex-Soviets and rank disloyalty among the former colonies.

But having failed to beat them, the UK also refuses to join them. Instead we send decreasingly serious entrants to the competition. This year’s contenders, Joe & Jake, met on a second-rate TV talent show. Jake didn’t even make the live finals of the show.

This truly is a bad sign. Joe & Jake were described by The Telegraph as “two-fifths of an alternate universe One Direction. This may yet turn out to have been a terrible decision by the British public”. But, the paper continues, “it could so easily have been worse. They’re no Scooch, Daz Sampson or Jemini. And they’re much better than last year’s Electro Velvet.”

At least the UK is taking a year’s break from reanimating the corpses of aged popstars such as Bonnie Tyler* (2013, finished 19th) and Engelbert Humperdinck (2002, finished 25th).

Compare this with Sweden. The Melodifestivalen finale featured several of Sweden’s top popstars, artists with a real track record who have attempted over and over to win a coveted place in the main Eurovision event. It might be hard to beat this year’s Swedish entrant, Frans, who looks like an ugly Bieber but does sound a bit like him if you close your eyes for long enough.

The Eurovision final takes place tomorrow (16 May) here in Stockholm. Yesterday we went to one of the semi-finals. I hadn’t quite realised that this would be a contest between the smaller nations who need to qualify for the final. Sadly we missed Minus One from Cyprus and Jüri Pootsman from Estonia, but we were treated to Donny Montell from Lithuania and Ivan from Belarus, who was joined on stage by… himself, stark naked and singing to a wolf. It was absurd but also absurdly fun.

Two years ago, my wife and I went to an outrageous birthday party in Paris. A tall, striking, and bearded Parsien dressed as Conchita Wurst stopped the party and sang the 2014 winner’s song ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’ with backing vocals from six fellow Frenchmen in spectacular drag. I can only hope that this year’s Eurovision winner lives up to that.


* I’m being a little disloyal here. Bonnie Tyler was actually amazing back in 1983: Total Eclipse Of The Heart (studio vocals only) / Bonus: Literal video description version

The Prodigal Sun

What spring means in Sweden

The arrival of spring wreaks a strange change in this post-pagan land. One glimpse of sunshine wakes the icy giant, and the entire country comes out of hibernation.

Real giants are slow to wake. They snork and snuffle and rub their sleepy eyes before stirring their limbs. For Swedes the process is barely a process at all – rather, it is a rapid and electrifying event, as though a wild roommate has dipped the sleeper’s fingers in left-over schnapps and jammed them into the plug socket. Last week it snowed. But this week, spring has suddenly sprung!

It has been a long wait. There have been desperate sunbathers along the waterfront every sunny day for two months. The picture above was taken in early March – the water was still covered in ice, and most sunbathers were wearing winter coats.

But now the almighty sun streams down into the worshipping city. It is greeted by a Swedish hug lasting several months. A Swedish hug lasting more than a few seconds is a bone-crushing experience. No-one will go in until September. After locking themselves indoors through the winter, now they lock themselves out.

Pallid Vikings swarm the streets and riverside cafes. Young maidens and even aged hags begin to blossom. The local Boulebar reopens. The broad streets are narrowed by bustling tables – who cares if you still need a coat, at least your bum won’t be frozen to the seat.

Fast-forward a few months, and the world has turned again. Spring is gone, long live sweet summer! We arrived here in late August. Bronzed skin, blonde hair, long limbs and easy smiles were everywhere.

But something in this sun-kissed paradise was not quite right. In the background, very faintly… what was that? Can you hear it? Tick, tock, tick, tock… the seasons’ clock. The countdown to winter begins on the day the sun arrives.

So time is short. Already the prudent country-dwellers were gathering food and firewood for the hard winter ahead. But the city Swedes pump up the volume and drown out the clock.

When we first landed, in a blaze of sunshine and summery sweat, the only hint that we hadn’t redirected to Los Angeles was in the eyes. A very slight dilation of the pupils, or a stare that lasts just a little too long… there is a mania that grips the Swede when summer arrives. He knows this is his chance. He will retire to his summer palace in the archipelago and toast himself like a salamander on a rock.

Swedish residents are advised to take vitamin D throughout the year. The sun’s true goodness is squeezed into a short period, so when it does arrive it must be taken in highly-concentrated doses. Now the nights are shortening, the sky is bright, and water sparkles in the sunlight. The mania will soon descend.


Picnics in the rain

In Oman you can wait 6+ months for rain.

So when it does rain, people jump out of their cars to take photographs, students beg for class to be cancelled, and families picnic under the downpour.

Seems mad to me, living in the UK. In London it rains on 44% of days. Everything is seen differently by different people.

A friend’s dad told him:

Son, not everyone’s going to like you – that’s just how it is. Everyone sees you differently.

I found out last week that my friend had died. So this one’s for him.

Rest in peace mate x


Links: Rain stats, Oman blog and photo.

Initial idea came from From Our Own Correspondent, but I can’t recall which episode.

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Leaving West Ealing

Balcony view over Drayton Green… *sigh*…

The bare-chested hooligan next to me threw a water bottle filled with suspiciously yellow fluid towards the stage, so I decided to squeeze away from him. Oasis, live at Wembley Stadium, 22 July 2010.

The next day I was at the Ealing Blues Festival. Elderly patrons bopped behind us while families picnicked and middle-aged rockers nodded sagely to the beat. Less than ten miles away in the same city, but the two gigs were a world apart.

Ealing is a village surrounded by a city. London keeps its distance. Since moving here four years ago, my wife and I have settled happily into life in West Ealing, and now that we’re moving out we have created a lengthy Bucket List of places to revisit: Santa Maria, The Red Lion, Crispins, Mamas, Brent Lodge Park (where we got engaged, at the heart of the maze), The Village Inn, the canal walk and the Osterley Locks. If the list looks a little pub-heavy… well, that’s because we made it at The Drayton Court, our second living room.

Now we’re moving up to Hertfordshire, driven out (like so many young couples) by the British urge to buy and the difficulty of finding somewhere affordably spacious in Ealing. We always knew that we wouldn’t be able to buy here, yet we stayed because we fell in love with the community feeling we sensed on that July day back in 2010. We’ve been fortunate to make local friends, and through them we’ve developed a sense of belonging that most people miss when they move to London after finishing university. I’ve spent many years living in west London; Ealing is the first place I’ve ever bumped into someone I know in the street.

Now it’s time to buy, and it’s time to go. To some friends it seems that the south-east is divided into two halves: there’s London, and there’s outside London – so it’s a big thing when we tell them we’re going to move out. But for us, we left London four years ago. Ealing is a village surrounded by a city. And we can’t wait for this year’s Blues Festival.


This post originally appeared in Ealing Today.

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Data mapping for the ancient world

Dr. David Kilcullen makes really useful maps.

He and his team have worked with communities around the world, using Google Maps to help improve lives. One map made by a group of Libyan schoolgirls pinpointed local sniper positions to help their classmates navigate a route to school.

Last week’s Fast Company article about Kilcullen really intrigued me.

At its core it’s about how simple, free, online tools can be used to bring disparate data sets together and make them available for everyone to access. And it’s about making that data visual, enabling us to see patterns that are hard to see when looking at a list or a block of text.

These core ideas can be applied to any subject matter.

So last night I made the map at the start of this post – a map showing the birthplaces of the Later Roman emperors from Diocletian (r.284-305) to Valentinian III (r.424-455).

Google Maps launched in February 2005, while I was studying for my Masters in Ancient History. I wish I had realised its potential back then!

Maps like this would have been incredibly helpful – this one shows very clearly that there was a concentration of emperors’ births in the central European provinces, especially in the region that is now Serbia. That’s largely because in this period most emperors were either raised up by the army or came from military families, and this region was home to some of the strongest army units of the age.

And note that only one emperor in that entire period was born in Rome.

There’s a cool Roman mapping project called Orbis, which calculates how fast and at what cost one could travel around the Roman Empire. Example: travelling from Verulamium (now St Albans, my home town) to Rome in July in c.200AD would take 51 days and cost 1,553 denarii per passenger.

And I can think of about 20 other maps that would be super-useful for Roman history students of today, and for which the data is available on Wikipedia:

  • Roman provincial capitals
  • Emperors’ accession places
  • Emperors’ death places
  • Emperors’ burial places
  • Empresses’ birth / death / burial places
  • The borders of the Empire
  • Imperial mints
  • Roman aqueducts
  • Imperially-named cities
  • Provinces, dioceses, praetorian prefectures
  • Finds of Chinese / Russian / etc coinage within the Empire
  • Battles
  • Triumphal arches
  • Ancient monuments in Rome / Constantinople / etc
  • Roman villas in England / etc
  • Public baths
  • Canals
  • Dams and reservoirs
  • Victory monuments
  • Domes

Some of these maps exist in paper form, but they cost an awful lot to produce and are usually buried in books that are either expensive, inaccessible, or both. I think Wikipedia has shown that there’s no need for basic knowledge like this to be hidden, and that collaboration can open up arcane information. And data visualisation is revealing patterns that would otherwise not be apparent.

Using tools like Google Maps to solve these problems would be helpful, close to free, and (if created collaboratively) should improve over time + stay up to date with the latest finds.

Nor is any of this restricted to Roman history. Exactly the same approach would work for other historical periods, in other places – all you need is the data and people willing to make the maps.

You could also make particularly good use of the annotation functions in Google Maps – each pin can be tagged with links to relevant info and links to articles / photos / video / other maps.

I’m thinking of putting together a simple site for a handful of Roman maps, in order to gauge the level of interest. This could be a fun project. Give me a shout (details on the About page) if you want to get involved.



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Ronald Reagan and the year(s) of mobile

Facebook declared 2011 their year of mobile. More importantly (for me), my girlfriend tells me that one of the big trends in marketing for 2012 will be mobile.

I discovered the other day – much to my surprise – that we have former US President Ronald Reagan to thank for GPS, the technology powering all this mobile stuff.

In 1983, Korean Airlines Flight 007 was shot down by the Soviets over the Sea of Japan. It was en route from New York to Seoul when it accidentally strayed into prohibited Soviet airspace.

Reagan ordered the US military to make GPS available for civilian use. 29 years later, here we are!

Ronald Reagan on location (bom-bom!)