Now here’s a story. Back in 1905 a woman pitches up in Paris and gets famous as a performer of Asian-inspired dances. Give it a few years and she’s touring all over Europe, telling some tale of how she was born in a sacred Indian temple and taught ancient dances by a priestess who gave her the name Mata Hari - “eye of the day” in Malay.
The problem is that it was all bollocks. In truth Mata Hari was born in a little town in northern Holland in 1876, and her actual name was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle. She’d acquired her pretty superficial knowledge of Indian dances when she lived for a few years in Malaysia with her former husband, who was a Scot in the Dutch colonial army. As such, if anything, she was a pretty much a small-town girl in a big arcade (who got addicted to a losing game etc).
Nevertheless, she packed dance halls and opera houses across Europe, and became something of a courtesan in the process - so when World War I kicked off her rolodex of lovers included some pretty high-ranking military officers of various European nationalities. Sadly that meant that in February 1917, the French authorities arrested her for espionage and imprisoned her at St. Lazare Prison in Paris.
In a military trial conducted that July, she was accused of revealing details of the allies’ new superweapon - something called a “tank” - and was convicted and sentenced to death, and then shot by a firing squad at Vincennes.
Was she guilty? Who knows. There’s some evidence that she acted as a German spy, and as a double agent for the French, but Germany had written her off as an ineffective agent whose intel wasn’t of much value. And it won’t surprise you to learn that given her gender and career, her military trial was dogged by bias and circumstantial evidence, and it is likely that French authorities said she was “the greatest woman spy of the century” as a dead-cat distraction for the losses its army was suffering on the western front.
Now for some reason the Eurovision Song Contest has a weird obsession with Mata Hari.
Anne-Karine Strøm spent much of the 1970s trying to be Norway’s entrant, finally cracking it in 1976 with a song both about and entitled “Mata Hari”. It went in as something of a favourite, but despite the headband and the jumpsuit, on the night in the Hague it only managed to scrape seven points (four from Portugal and three from host nation The Netherlands) and Anne-Karine disappeared off into obscurity.
Then in 2006, top balkan balladeer Željko Joksimović from Serbia was on the look out for a group that could perform his sure fire hit “Leija”- and he found one called Hari Mata Hari, a big Bosnian and Herzegovinian rock outfit that managed to tone it down just enough to nail third place in Athens, which was the first one I went to live (and so obviously it’s all been downhill from there).
Anyway I raise all this because for some reason, “Mata Hari” is back again. Last year the Azerbis were the top bidders for an absolutely preposterous pre-written banger about queen of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt Cleopatra, and now this year they’ve effectively entered exactly the same song only with a bit more of a link to both Europe generally and the Netherlands specifically - about Mata Hari.
Singer (Samira) Efendi(yeva) has been trying to get into Eurovision for years - she first pitched up on Azerbaijan’s face-punch awful covers contest “Boyuk Sehne” where for some reason she was pipped to the post by a woman who mispronounced every word of Shirley Bassey’s History Repeating in a pretend kitchen. Since then she’s been on the Voice, got into the charts with an overwrought ballad, opened a cake shop in Baku, released a racy club banger and now finds herself representing the world’s most polluted country with a song about a sex-spy.
I absolutely adore the song. You can see in its “take it quite seriously” preview video form, the “take it more seriously” slow version on a beach in Baku form, and even the “nipped to B&Q to get some tungsten tip screws and a new doorbell” daytime TV form where she seems to be taking it roughly as seriously as the whole utterly preposterous thing deserves to be.
The contamination of the Caspian Sea from oil drilling in Baku has been a problem since the 19th century, when the Russian Empire took control of the region and began to rapidly exploit its oil reserves. Although oil production waned during the Soviet period, petroleum waste was routinely dumped into the Caspian. It also suffers from the discharge of untreated sewage, and pollution has depleted the sea’s stocks of sturgeon.
But who cares! “Drinking my poisonous water and you’re under my spell” she sings, and she’s absolutely right.