Why Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Verdi, Mozart, Sibelius, Dvořák and Britten all failed to write a national anthem

BBC Music Magazine March 2016 cover

If you’ve read my book, you may have noticed that it contains a chapter on the links between national anthems and fame. You may also have noticed that most of classical music’s great nationalists – like Sibelius, Verdi and Dvořák – are conspicuous in their absence from it!

Why’s that the case? Pick up the new issue of BBC Music Magazine to find out. There’s a three-page feature by me inside that answers everything!

Hello Japan! Hello India!

Republic or Death! Japanese edition

Amazing news #1! Someone in Japan’s translated the chapter of my book all about their controversial national anthem and is passing it around the country’s teachers – who refuse to stand for the song – as I type.

Amazing news #2! My book’s reached India. Here’s an insanely good Times of India review.

“Hilarious”? “Unforgettable”? “Will inspire deep thought over the meaning, construction and symbols of patriotism and national identity”? My book is apparently all of those and more! Thanks very much to the reviewer who I probably should send some rupees to now!

Literary festivals – I am available!

Alex Marshall, author of Republic or Death, at the National Maritime Museum's Book Slam event

An utterly shameless post – but here’s a photo someone took of me speaking last Friday at the great Book Slam event at the National Maritime Museum. There were 500 people there amazingly (Will Self was headlining) and it was so much fun.

Any literary festivals or event organisers stumbling past here, I am available and I am – of course! – amazing (see here for the most 21st century of reviews or contact Book Slam for proof)!

Canada – don’t let your women down!

A Canadian woman with a flag. What's not to like?!?

I’ve written a lot on here about the many Canadians who’ve been trying to change their anthem so it mentions the country’s women as well as its men.

Well, the great news is it finally looks like a change might happen thanks to an MP called Mauril Bélanger. Here’s a piece I wrote about it for The Guardian this week.

I also suggest you go here to see a clip of Bélanger introducing the bill. Why? Because Bélanger has ALS and can hardly speak anymore. He introduced it using an iPad speech app and it’s pretty wonderful.

Memories of a revolution that failed: the fifth anniversary of Tahrir Square

Tahrir protests

The Tahrir Square protests in 2011 with Egypt’s flag. Samia Jaheen is in there somewhere!

A year ago, I was in Egypt doing research for my book on the stories behind national anthems. While there, I met Samia Jaheen – one of the main revolutionaries who filled Tahrir Square in 2011 to call for the resignation of the country’s then military ruler, Hosni Mubarak.

It was one of the most emotional interviews I did in all my research.

Since today’s the fifth anniversary of the start of those protests, I thought I’d put up the section of my book about Samia. Please read it to the end.

 

Samia Jaheen, bulgingly pregnant, is propped up on a sofa in her Cairo flat. She’s the daughter of Salah Jaheen, one of Egypt’s greatest ever songwriters, and she’s been chatting animatedly for the past half-hour about Egypt’s anthems past and present. But for the last few moments she’s drifted into melancholy, staring into the middle distance like I’m no longer there, as if she’s picturing somewhere else entirely. ‘Sorry,’ she says, ‘I can get lost thinking about it – remembering that there was a moment when we were just sitting in Tahrir, not afraid of what would happen, just singing, chanting. How happy everyone was. It feels like it was another lifetime.’

It’s 28 February 2015, the fourth anniversary of Egypt’s most recent revolution – the day the Arab Spring succeeded here, when protestors in Tahrir Square brought down Hosni Mubarak, the general who’d ruled the country since Anwar Sadat’s death in 1981. It was on that day that Egypt’s anthem ‘Bilady, Bilady’ was sung in celebration louder than ever before, including by Samia who was one of the most vocal figures there (there were dozens of ‘songs of the revolution’, but everyone agrees the anthem was in the top handful). But, as Samia says, that day now seems like very long ago. During the last four years, Egypt has experienced government under the Muslim Brotherhood, a military coup, the election of the man who ran that coup (Abdel Fattah al-Sisi), and then a severe crackdown on all opposition, including multiple death sentences (Samia, who now works as a human rights activist, says she’s been threatened with prison many times, her father’s name the only reason she hasn’t been locked up).

Cairo today doesn’t exactly feel like a place of celebration as it was back then. The huge teardrop-shaped Tahrir Square is now surrounded by coils of barbed wire, ready to be pulled across the roads if needed; tanks sit outside the Egyptian Museum on its northern side, ready to roll into action, almost daring tourists to try to take a photo of them; while newspapers are filled with warnings about extremists and the ‘foreign forces’ behind them (that explains why people think I’m a spy). You only have to be in this city for a few moments to realise everything the Arab Spring hoped to achieve has failed.

It’s because of that fact that Samia drops into a reverie whenever I ask her about Tahrir – even when I just ask if she sang ‘Bilady, Bilady’ while protesting there. ‘Of course we sang it then. Every day. Many times,’ she says. ‘And when we sang it, it actually meant something, for the first time I think. I used to sing it all the time in school and it never meant anything, but singing it then when people were sacrificing their lives for the country – getting killed by the police – it felt different.’

‘Didn’t you feel like you were singing the anthem of the very government you were protesting against?’ I ask.

‘Yes, of course,’ she says. ‘But we were singing it to re-own it – to say “This is our country; not yours.” We didn’t sing it the gentle way they sing it. We sang it like “BILADY, BILADY, BILADY”.’ She shouts every word at me. ‘We were taking it to a different place. Sometimes it felt like my heart was going to pop out of my chest when I heard everyone sing it, or my father’s songs. But that’s all another time now; that’s the sad part.’

I ask how she feels about the anthem today. ‘When it comes on the radio, we turn it off. Not just the anthem; all the songs we sang at Tahrir. We don’t want to listen to them. That’s how bad things have got.’ She takes a deep breath as if to steady herself. ‘This is not my country any more and this is not my anthem. Maybe you’ve caught me on a bad day, but I don’t feel romantic about it now. I’m too hurt to feel that way.’

Samia Jaheen / Samia Jahin

Samia Jaheen – yes, I should have taken one without her smiling!

Samia knows that the majority of people don’t feel as she does – about the country, or the anthem – even those who have every right to share her views. Earlier this morning, I’d got talking with the young owner of a washing machine shop, his gigantic beard and the deep prayer bruise on his forehead indicating he was a devout Muslim. He would have once been the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood’s target audience. ‘Things have changed since 2011,’ he said. ‘We’ – he pointed at his beard – ‘are looked on differently now. We’re not to be trusted. But whatever happens, I’ll love my country. I can’t stop doing so. You want me to give you reasons, like ‘one, two, three, four, five’? I can’t explain it like that. I’ll always love Sayed Darwish’s songs too,’ he added. ‘His music was about the normal people like me.’

A photo of grafitti put up in Tahrir Square during the protests and showing some of the protestors killed

A photo of grafitti put up in Tahrir Square during the protests and featuring Sheik Emad, who was murdered and who Samia knew. She has this in her living room

I tell Samia about this man, but she just says that for her things have become ‘too personal’ to think like him. I ask how many of her friends were killed during the revolution. She stares off into the middle distance again. ‘These weren’t close friends,’ she says, ‘just people I got to know, that I respected.’ She takes another deep breath.

‘There’s Mena, Ahmed . . .’ a slight smile comes across her face as if she’s just recalled something funny one of them did, ‘. . . Karika, Ali . . .’ I look down and suddenly realise she’s counting each person off on her fingers. ‘… Sheik Emad – that’s his picture over there, they graffitied him on to one of the walls around the Square . . .’ I can’t look away from her hands. ‘. . . Mohammed, the son of a friend of mine . . .’

The list goes on.

Labour desperation and the migrant crisis: the real reasons parliament’s debating an English anthem?

I'm not entirely sure Wayne would sing an English anthem with any more gusto

England’s Brave John Terry and less brave Wayne not singing an English anthem

Yesterday in the UK parliament, MPs debated that most important of issues: whether England should get its own national anthem so people stop singing God Save the Queen at sporting events.

Well, I say they debated it. What actually happened was Toby Perkins, the Labour MP for Chesterfield, introduced the bill and then Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg gave a surprisingly funny 10-minute speech against, in which he warned that an English anthem would destroy the United Kingdom and likely upset Jesus. That sentence will make more sense if you watch the speeches!

A full debate featuring God knows now many MPs will now happen on 3 March.

I spent much of yesterday talking to various TV and radio stations about it – and wrote some quick things for the Telegraph and Guardian too – but about lunchtime a question suddenly hit me: why is this issue getting so much attention now?

The idea of an English anthem has been floated repeatedly since 2006, with most people calling for William Blake’s great Jerusalem, others weirdly for Land of Hope and Glory despite it asking for Britain to re-colonise the world. But those calls have never got as much traction as Perkins’ effort is. Is that simply because we now have Twitter which means even something as bizarre as this gets attention? Is it because people are fed up discussing it and want a solution?

Perhaps, but I think it’s actually got more to do with the recent Scottish independence referendum, discussions over UK membership of the EU and even the migrant crisis – all issues that make many people in England wonder about their national identity and fear it’s being lost.

It’s also, probably, got a teeny bit to do with the disastrous state of the Labour Party under the leadership of the supposedly unpatriotic Jeremy Corbyn (that man who refused to sing God Save the Queen last year). Of the MPs sponsoring the English National Anthem Bill, seven are Labour, four are Conservatives and one’s a Lib Dem.

Is the Labour bias a sign that this is actually a desperate bid by the party to win back some working class support? Toby Perkins would scoff at the idea, of course!

Time for Corsica to change its tune

Corsican flag celebrations

During France’s regional elections earlier this month, one fact seemed to get missed amid the noise around Marine Le Pen and her Front Nacional: that in Corsica, the vote was won by a party that actually wants independence from France.

Yes, you read that right: independence.

The ‘For Corsica’ party won over 35% of the vote, which explains why their leader, Gilles Simeoni, looks so happy in the picture at the top of this post.

So should the people of the Mediterranean island stay part of the motherland or seize the day and go it alone?

Well, this blog believes there’s only one way to decide a matter of such importance: by looking at whose national anthem is better! And sorry, Corsicans, but your ‘anthem’ is not a shade on la Marseillaise. In fact, it’s bloody awful.

Here, for those who don’t know it [everyone outside Corsica], is Dio vi salvi Regina:

If will hopefully take you all of about 5 seconds of listening to that to realise it’s a monastic hymn and an ancient one at that.

It was written in 1675 by a young Italian, Francis of Geronimo, and is meant as a love letter to the Virgin Mary. Here’s its first verse:

God bless you, Queen
And universal mother
By which one rises
Until paradise

What’s that got to do with Corsica? Absolutely bugger all! But there were a lot of Corsicans in Naples back then and they one day turned it into a bizarrely religious and solemn cry for independence – most likely due to its final verse which asks the Virgin to “give us victory over our enemies”.

So yes, it has been inspiring people for several hundred years. Gilles Simeoni even sung it to celebrate his win. But that doesn’t mean it’s worth keeping. It doesn’t have the excitement of la Marseillaise. It doesn’t have that anthem’s great melody either. It doesn’t even have its gore or its blood. There is no contest. Corsicans, find a new one quick!