Book review: Nul Points by Tim Moore



If this was a bottle of wine, it would be a cheap and unprepossessing 2-year-old chardonnay from God-knows-where that grows in splendour right up to the final drop.

Cover

A John-Allison-esque, deliberately amateurish cartoon of Jahn Teigen (subject number one within) doing his infamous air splits under some hand-drawn text. It’s a little low on impact but the understated colours and type make a pleasant change from the rest of the shelf.

The plot

Ever heard the expression “nul points”? It comes from the Eurovision Song Contest, referring, of course, to the lowest possible score available. Given the large number of participating countries and the famously elaborate voting system, it’s a mercifully rare occurrence, but they’re out there, alright. Tim travels the continent of Europe to track down the disgraced dozen and get their stories.

The good

Wow. With a concept like that, how could you go right? And following his latest and feeblest “wandering half-arsedly around London holding a board game” book, too. Yet, as it took me a third of the book to realise, this is streets ahead. Some readers (women especially, I’m guessing) might find it his best book yet, and I think I know why—because it’s about real, complicated people, first and foremost.

Founded with the best of intentions, the Eurovision Song Contest’s original purpose was to unite a fractious cold war Europe beneath the sparkly banner of light entertainment. All songs were to be sung in their native languages, and the judging would take place live from the respective countries via the magic of copper wire. Nowadays, each year half a billion viewers tune in across this dense, colourful clump of countries to witness the majesty of... featherweight pop songs delivered in semi-legible accents by people wearing clothes which would get them banned from Mardi Gras on taste grounds. Yes, it’s all become a bit of a joke in the English-speaking world, which becomes the subtext of this tale, and which is part of what manages to ground an idea so silly and ephemeral as the ESC in very real, very powerful human emotions.

Moore approaches the story the way most of us would, or at least anyone would who’s ever sniggered along with Terry Wogan (or local counterpart) as he takes the piss, indulges in a little light ethnic stereotyping or lets the outfits do the talking (and they’re mighty loquacious, let’s face it). The author drags his dusty old Fender from Norway to Thailand and back for the first three interviews, thinking that he’ll have no problem getting each member of this multicultural mob to run through a lazy duet of their losing song. In short order he discovers that:

  1. The Eurovision song contest looks a lot different from outside a nation of ironists who invented pop music.
  2. If your whole country takes the Eurovision seriously, then it doesn’t matter how seriously YOU take it if you cock up horribly, because they’re all going to think you’re a big fat loser for quite some time.
  3. If your entire country thinks you’re a big fat loser, well, that’s going to suck no matter how well-adjusted you are (musical performers of course being renowned for their stable personalities and accurate self-images).
  4. If some guy shows up asking to discuss in some depth the time you cocked up horribly on the world stage and everyone in your own country hated you or at least thought you were a total joke and it took you years to get your self esteem and some semblance of a career back and now you’re sort of okay to talk about it for the millionth time with a slightly better outlook thanks to years of self-reflection and analysis, then you probably STILL won’t really feel like reprising the song at the core of this huge awkwardly-healed personal chest wound one last time with some dick on an unplugged Fender.

There are tears. There’s hysteria. There’s rage. There’s bitterness, scandal, self loathing and insanity. There are clangers that would make Ricky Gervais wince. Moore walks into this one totally unprepared, not merely for the fragility of the artistic temperament but for the still-chasmic culture gaps between the multitude of European cultures (and how they deal with things like public disgrace and failure), and the way in which the perpetual patronising sneer of the British toward any sort of non-ironic performance is gradually eroding their own ability to come up with culture that other countries want to literally or figuratively buy into.

I won’t go into the performers individually but they really are a fascinating bunch; even the couple of no-shows are quite intriguing. Moore is so fallible and human, both in his process and prose, that he actually approaches the level of interaction created in the British cod-doco TV comedy “People Like Us”, where every week Chris Langham’s behind-camera interviewer would travel to a new workplace and inadvertently manage to lay bare the guts of the situation through a combination of deadly faux pas and well-meaning ineptitude. Moore nearly gets physically assaulted for not buying a decent voice recorder, reduces several people to tears and drinks to excess during interviews on more than one occasion, all the while wanting only the best for his subjects. And that’s what makes it excellent.

The bad

There are some schizophrenic moments during the first half when Moore’s defensive auto-ironising mechanisms keep kicking in whenever he finds himself caring too much about the topic of his own book. Not a problem that, say, Truman Capote encountered. Moore’s journey culminates in his last-chapter admission that it’s great fun and he simply and wholly enjoys it, but if he’d admitted this to himself a little earlier he might have had time to point out that while Eurovision skips ever-further into the land of high camp, millions of his countrypersons who consider it irrelevant and ridiculous are instead glued to utter bollocks like UK Idol, It Takes Two and Popstars, which appear once a week instead of once a year and embody ideals no more complex than encouraging teenagers to thumb their money into a TV company’s coffers.

Most of Moore’s previous work involves travel of one sort or another, and while there is a bit of fun to be had from the scene-setting he provides while travelling to and from each meet, this is, as I keep saying, firstly about people. A sense of place during the interview (and national character, perhaps, which really cannot be gained from an afternoon’s wander in a foreign city) are all that is really required, and, on top of this, Moore already employs a clever chronological framing device by continually rewinding to himself viewing the performance at home in bed or round some rellie’s TV set as a kid, that it seems doubly unnecessary to start talking about airports. This is still well above average but it took me nearly half the book to realise it, and better focus might have fixed that.



In short

Title: Nul Points
Author: Tim Moore
Publisher: Jonathon Cape
ISBN: 0224077805
Year published: 2006
Pages: 320
Genre(s): Humour, Music, Non-fiction

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here