How to heal Colombia’s wounds: rewrite its anthem?

People calling for peace at a rally in Colombia in 2014

Colombians calling for peace. I hope the ink isn’t permanent

In June, Colombia’s government and Farc guerillas signed a deal that may – may! – end the country’s 50-year conflict, which has seen 250,000 people killed and a good six million displaced. “What’s that got to do with bloody national anthems?” I hear you ask. “Isn’t that the point of this blog?”

Well, last week, a “group of young people excited for peace” launched a campaign for a new verse to be added to Colombia’s that speaks of the country’s hopeful future, rather than its horiffic past.

It’d be verse 12, so no one would actually sing it. It’d be a purely symbolic gesture. But if you want an insight into just how desperate Colombians are for peace, you only have to look at some of the entries so far. Although they’re all so filled with frank descriptions of past violence, it makes you wonder if the country will ever heal.

Here’s a typical example:

Kidnappings and massacres lead only to destruction
Let us say no to the guns and violence that covered us
The blood of our race is the purest, a blessing
Fight together, fight united, like the children that God created

And here’s another:

The people dressed in white, the land mourns the past
But the colours of this country have been able to resurface
Gore still lives in memory
Peace and joy today must govern

Surprisingly, the idea hasn’t gone down well with some. It turns out the “young people” all work for two advertising agencies, J Walter Thompson and Sistole, who regularly win government contracts. This apparently means the initiative must be corrupt.

How on earth that’s the case, I’ve yet to work out, but it shows you just how far Colombians have to go before they can trust each other again.

Rest in peace: Qatar’s ‘angry generation’ anthem composer

Abdulaziz Nasser Al Obaidan

National anthem composers are dropping like flies, it’s sad to say.

On Friday, Abdulaziz Nasser Al Obaidan, the composer of Qatar’s, died of “a long illness” (I’ve been unable to find out what) age 64.

This is only weeks after Nepal’s anthem composer died.

I don’t really like Qatar’s anthem, if I’m being honest. Abdulaziz wrote in 1996 and perfunctory would be the word for it.

But many Qataris clearly feel differently. “Today we say goodbye to the one who nurtured us in the romance of one’s country,” tweeted one poetically.

To ensure I don’t give the impression he was an awful musician, head here and listen to his song Rapture, which I’m assuming is patriotic since the video features shots of the Qatari national bank (what better emblem for the country!).

But for a complete contrast, below is a song simply labelled “Abdulaziz, the angry generation musician”. Given there’s never any dissent in Qatar, I’m assuming that doesn’t mean he was running around annoying the country’s elite. But the video is of the Arab Spring, so you never know. It lives up to its angry billing, anyway.

Rest in peace.


An anthemic coup

Has a national anthem ever kickstarted a coup; soldiers singing it for inspiration before jumping into their tanks, as if to say, “This is what we’re doing it for, boys”?

Honestly, I haven’t the faintest idea! But Turkey’s did play a little part in inspiring people to go out on the streets last week to counter the coup against Tayyip Erdoğan, going by posts like this on Twitter:

Turkey coup tweet

Why does Turkey’s anthem, The Independence March, mean so much to people that they would think of it in the middle of a crisis?

Partly, it’s because they can’t escape it – its words are hung in every schoolroom – but it’s also because its lyrics have an intensity you just can’t forget. It’s all about the country’s flag, but features people talking to it as it were a person. “Why the anger? Why the rage?” they ask it at one point, calling on it to smile upon the country instead.

Here are the opening two verses, the ones people sing, to give you a proper feel:

Fear not! For the crimson banner that proudly ripples in this glorious dawn, shall not fade
Until the last fiery hearth that is ablaze in my homeland is extinguished
For the flag is the star of my people, and it will forever shine
It is mine, and solely belongs to my valiant nation

Frown not, I beseech you, oh thou coy crescent
Smile upon my heroic nation. Why the anger? Why the rage?
Our blood that we shed for you shall not be worthy otherwise
For freedom is the absolute right of my God-worshipping nation

This is only the most recent example of Turkey’s anthem playing a part in the country’s politics. In the last election, it bizarrely formed a major part of campaigning. I fully expect Erdoğan to start playing it everywhere soon. After all, he needs to stoke nationalism right now to bolster support for his crackdown on opposition.

The important of the Islamic State’s music – again

Earlier this week, it emerged that the terrorist in Nice, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, had searched online for Islamic State songs “on a near-daily basis” in the fortnight before the attacks. They may have played a part in his radicalisation, prosecutors said.

If you want to learn more about them, read my book, or scan the audio guide here. Yes, this is a controversial topic, but it’s an important one, and increasingly so.

Get on your bike! What to do once your book’s out, advice from a new author

Bike and Clapham Books

My book – an “endlessly enthralling” part-history, part-travelogue about national anthems – came out last August on Random House, but since it’s just emerged in paperback, I thought someone might appreciate this guide of what to do after your book appears. Because I’d have really liked it when mine did!

1) Visit every bookshop you can

Random House did an amazing job of getting my book into Waterstones, the UK’s largest book chain, but I quickly discovered it wasn’t in many independents – the stores I buy books from. And to me, that meant it was like it didn’t exist.

What did I do? I cycled to every independent in London I could find. This took ages – the best part of two weeks – and was at times utterly dispiriting. In one, I asked if I could have 30 seconds of their time and got the reply, “You’ve already wasted more than that, goodbye.” In another, I was asked two questions:

“Is it self published?”

“Has it been reviewed in The Times?”

It was only because I replied, “No,” and “Yes”, that they agreed to take the book’s name.

But other occasions were, frankly, brilliant. The Stoke Newington Bookshop in north London already stocked it and almost instantly booked me for their festival. While Newham Bookshop in east London ordered some and arranged a talk based partly, it seemed, on the fact I “looked alright”.

I dread to think how hard it’d be cycling around shops if you’re a fiction author – “Can I tell you about my book? It’s a modern retelling of Jonah and the Whale”. I also dread to think what it’d be like if you’re self-published.

But I would still recommend doing it above anything else.

Oh, I took a CD of brilliant anthem covers with me to give to shops in an effort to guilt them into stocking the book. I wouldn’t recommend doing that, though. It turns out most shops, like most people, don’t play CDs anymore.

2) Contact every festival and event organiser you can, and do it NOW

Of all the things I’ve done, events have been the most successful in getting the book ‘out there’.

I did a 5-minute reading at the Brixton Book Jam recently and sold out of books immediately afterwards. I’d taken along 15 copies, which I thought was somewhat optimistic; turned out to be the opposite. Saying that, at other events, I only sold a third of that, but that’s still five more I would have otherwise

I would recommend doing as many events as you can, but contact people early. And I mean E A R L Y. Like yesterday.

I didn’t realise that book festivals book a long time in advance – literally six months, a year in some cases. Most of the ones I contacted loved the idea of me doing a talk, but had already filled all their slots, which was, again, quite dispiriting. Your publisher may actually arrange events for you, but mine largely left me to it and it took me too long to realise I needed to act fast.

Be creative too: schools, your local library, universities – all may like you to come in, especially if you’re writing non-fiction. I write that not having done any talks at schools or libraries, but I’m sure it’s true.

3) Practice signing books

I’ve written some utter rubbish in books I’ve signed – “I hope this gets you singing!” being perhaps the worse. Make sure you don’t write anything as bad.

4) Do as much press as you want, but don’t get ripped off

I honestly haven’t got the faintest idea what the best form of press is. I’ve written articles about anthems, listicles, I’ve been on TV talking about them, I’ve popped up on radio shows and done podcasts.

I haven’t checked how many copies my book’s sold after each bit. That might be a mistake as it’d be good to realise what works and what doesn’t, but I long ago decided I didn’t want to know how many copies my book had sold (it’s not good for your mental health, especially after your agent tells you a good non-fiction sells a paltry 1,500 in the UK and not to expect any more).

I admit I might have found it easier getting press than others do. I’m a journalist so am used to pitching to editors (and dealing with the rejection). I also have a very helpful PR person, and I a topic that’s regularly in the news. But do keep plugging away no matter how many editors ignore your calls.

When you are doing press, though, keep in mind it’s always impossible to get across what your book is. Some articles I’ve written have made my book seem like a wacky fact book (it isn’t); others have made it seem like a deathly serious analysis of nationalism (it isn’t). Also, don’t be ripped off. If someone’s asking you to write something that requires original research, ask to be paid. If someone’s asking you to go into a radio studio, always ask for an appearance fee. You may not get any money, but you’ll feel better for asking.

Where have I drawn the line? To be honest, I haven’t turned down much. It’s only really been from US publications who’ve asked me to do work on the basis it’ll be “good exposure”. My book isn’t out in the US and spending several hours on a piece for a one-sentence quote hasn’t seemed like a good use of my time when I could be writing blogs like this instead!

5) Enjoy every minute

The first few weeks after my book came out were such a panic I didn’t do one thing: enjoy the moment. I had a bloody book out! I’d worked on it for years, I was proud of it, and now people were reading it. Some were even enjoying it. That is utterly amazing.

And then I met another author one night who literally said, “You’ve done something thousands want to. Have fun with it.”

I’ve tried to ever since, and it’s led to some of the most amazing experiences – seeing a man buy my book in a shop, making over 500 people laugh at a Book Slam, being interviewed by journalists I admire, meeting Hadley Freeman at a literary festival and having her drag me around like her fake husband…

For all the slog of cycling around every book shop in London, it’s worth it, I promise.

How to write a book proposal (off topic, but hopefully helpful posts #1)

I get asked, bizarrely frequently, how to get a book published. Bizarrely because I’m not J K Rowling; I’m someone who’s written a book on national anthems.

But if I can help, I will, so how did I get a deal?

If I’m being honest, one of the key moments was when an agent approached me after seeing an awful article I’d written for the BBC which dodgily claimed I was writing a book on these songs (I hadn’t written a word; I was more marking territory). They gave me some guidelines explaining how to write a proposal and asked me to get in touch when I’d finished it.

I wish I could simply paste those here, but it’s not my work (stealing is bad, kids!) so instead I’ll just give you the gist. And the gist is a proposal needs to answer five questions:

  • What’s your book about? Obviously
  • What’s new about it? That’s especially important for non-fiction. Think how many books there are about the Second World War
  • Why are you the person to write it?
  • Why’s it time for your book? Anniversaries always help apparently. I think my proposal banged on about the World Cup and Olympics a lot and how anthems are in everyone’s minds every two years
  • Who is your audience and why will they buy it?

The proposal itself should be split into several sections, they suggested:

  • an introduction explaining what the book is and answering everything above
  • a chapter-by-chapter outline
  • a section containing all the boring, but important, details like expected length (75-90,000 words is typical), delivery date, what extras could work for an ebook, and whether you’re going to insist on including lots of pictures or music you don’t have copyright for (I was asked repeatedly about who owns national anthems)
  • A biography to explain who on earth you are and prove that you can sell the book once it’s out. Have you done any public speaking or radio, for instance?

I didn’t actually go with that agent – they simply weren’t right for me – but I did follow their guidelines to the letter, wrote the proposal and a sample chapter and sent them off to another who I knew had dealt with similar books.

He loved the idea, fortunately, but told me it was so bizarre (part-travel, part-history) – and me so unknown – that I needed to write two more chapters before he’d consider taking it on.

That took me ages (I was fitting research into holidays, and writing late at night), but it worked out.

How important was the proposal? Vital. No agent would have taken me on without it. But it was also just personally helpful, as it made me work out exactly what I wanted to do and think about such topics as who my audience was which ultimately improved the writing. It was a lot of work (5,485 words, 19 pages), but I wouldn’t hesitate doing it again. Although saying that, the chapters were what actually got me the deal, especially one on Nepal’s national anthem, through which showed I could take the story of a minute-long song and make it have broad relevance. And that chapter was funny. That really helped. Buy my book if you want to read that and wonder why on earth a publisher liked it!

I’ve heard of people securing agents and deals without a proposal just an idea – and obviously you don’t have to get an agent or publisher at all these days – but if you think it’d help you, I really suggest giving it a go.

Apologies to any regular readers for posting something that wasn’t about national anthems. But so many people helped me with my book, I thought I’d try and help a little back. Over the next few days, I’ll do a couple of other posts featuring advice I wish I’d had when I published. Feel free to share/bear with me [delete as appropriate].