The women who fought for 40 years to change one word

Former Canadian Senators Nancy Ruth and Vivienne Poy – instrumental in making O Canada gender neutral. Credit: Neville Poy

This week, Canada changed the English version of its national anthem to include women as well as men.

“About bloody time!” is the correct response – people have been calling for this since 1980.

To get the full story of the women (and one man) who campaigned for the change for so long, head over to the BBC where I’ve written a *longggg* feature on it.

I’m especially pleased to have had a chance to write about Nancy Ruth (pictured above), a former senator who probably put more energy, money and effort into the campaign than anyone else.

Once on holiday I  met one of Nancy Ruth’s Conservative Party colleagues and mentioned her campaign. His reply? “She’s a lesbian, not a Conservative, and we’re never changing the anthem.”

I’ve never forgotten that, obviously, and it’s a shame I couldn’t put it in the piece (no recording) as it says everything about why it took so long.

Super articles by me you should read now!

As many of you know, I don’t just write about national anthems. Thank God, otherwise I’d be broke. So here’s a few recent articles I hope you’ll find as interesting to read as I did researching them:

  1. For The New York Times, a piece on a night I spent in one of the world’s first mental health helplines for musicians, and the music industry’s poor response to its mental health crisis.
  2. Also for The New York Times, a piece on the scientists searching for the universal characteristics of music and the controversy it’s causing. Also contains A QUIZ! Yes, A QUIZ!
  3. And for the BBC an article on the world of A.I. music and why the humans might be winning after all.

Hope you enjoy them, and if any editors stumble across this page, I am available for commissions!

The most important story you’ll ever read about national anthems

Arghhhh!!!! Please save Ron (above) from God Save the Queen! (This is copyright the Hull Daily News/MEN Media. Sorry for stealing)

I’ve been away a while as I’ve been writing articles like this (front page of The New York Times, baby!) and this and this, but it turns out in that time I missed telling you some vital anthem news.

“What could that be?”, I hear you ask. “China extending the jail term for anyone who disrespects its anthem to an insane three years?” Nope! “The Philippines starting to arrest people who don’t stand for its anthem?” Of course not! “More brouhaha in the US?”

Er, it’s actually the story of an 87-year-old from Hull, Ron Goldspink, who’s started aurally hallucinating a male-voice choir singing God Save the Queen 24/7. He hears it 1,700 times a week.

Yes, I did get this from The Daily Mail.

Apparently it’s a real medical condition called musical ear syndrome, although Ron initially mistook it for his patriotic neighbours turning their stereo up too loud.

“I complained about my next door neighbour who I thought was playing music and keeping me awake,” Ron said. “My son complained to the council and when they came down I told them I could hear this music coming through the wall every night.

“They went next door and…said they were not playing anything, and I realised it was just me that could hear it.”

He’d like to meet the Queen so he can tell her about it, he added.

No, I can’t believe I’m posting this either. Good luck, Ron!

Why I became a jihadist poetry critic

Elisabeth Kendall in Yemen. She owns this photo!

Er, not me, but the woman pictured!

Anyone who’s read my book on national anthems will know that I have a deep (i.e. worrying) fascination with jihadi culture, especially the songs that such groups put out and almost gain the status of ‘national’ anthems. You can read a little about that musical world here.

Well, this week I wrote a piece for the BBC extending that interested. It’s a profile of Elisabeth Kendall, an Oxford academic who’s not just interested in jihadists’ music, but their poetry too. You can read about her insane life and learn just why such work is important here (or if you’re Spanish, here).

The piece has been having very nice things said about it by everyone from Peter Frankopan – author of The Silk Roads – to Rukmini Callimachi, the NYT’s terrorism correspondent. Even Tom Holland, the historian, said he liked it.

All of which is very professionally pleasing, but I’m largely putting it below to try and make you read the bloody piece as this stuff’s vital to how we understand the world. Thanks in advance!

“…says Marshall, who is not Jewish.”

Jewish immigrants to Israel after World War Two singing Hatikvah as their boat pulls in

The Jewish Chronicle – Britain’s leading Jewish newspaper – just interviewed me about Israel’s anthem Hatikvah, the song of hope that built a nation.

You can read the piece here. It’s actually a great read, and we talk about everything from the alcoholic poet behind the song, to how it was sung during the Holocaust; the rapper Tupac to what it says about Israel’s future.

The interview was done to promote a talk of mine at Milim, Leeds’ Jewish literary festival. It went great so if any other Jewish organisation or festival fancies having me along to redo it, get in touch!

The Republic of California? The nation of Pacifica? Whatever comes, get Katy Perry to write the anthem

You've got to admit, the proposed flag's really cool! Stolen from Yes, California's Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/YesCalifornia/

You’ve got to admit the proposed flag’s really cool. Stolen from the Yes, California campaign

Since Trump’s election, there’s been a lot of talk of the US splitting up: liberals creating their own countries; the Red States left behind.

California could join with its neighbouring states to form Pacifica. Or go it alone – an independence referendum might insanely happen in 2019, although the fact it’s been pushing by a man who lives in Russia seems to be confusing a lot of people.

There are other independence movements too, everywhere from Hawaii to Texas, even New Hampshire (only 1,691 Facebook likes for that one, so I’m assuming it’s a minor interest). But what all these campaigns seem to be lacking is one thing: a decent anthem to get behind.

Take California’s official state song, I Love You California, which was written by a clothes repairer in 1913:

I love you, California, you’re the greatest state of all
I love you in the winter, summer, spring and in the fall
I love your fertile valleys; your dear mountains I adore
I love your grand old ocean and I love her rugged shore

I know California is a home of positive thinking, but even a spiritual guru would find it hard to be positive about such sweetness.

So what are the options for the coming Californian republic? I imagine some would want California Dreamin’ – “I’d be safe and warm, if I was in L.A” – but you can’t have an anthem written from the perspective of a depressed exile in New York.

Hotel California would be a front-runner too, until people realised it could be misinterpreted as a call for mass immigration (“Plenty of room at the Hotel California…”).

So my vote goes for the a-maz-ing Katy Perry’s a-maz-ing California Gurls.

Ok, not the chorus when she says those girls will “melt your Popsicle”. And not Snoop Dogg’s bit. But it does have a verse that’s got a message any Californian would be proud of:

You could travel the world
But nothing comes close
To the golden coast
Once you party with us
You’ll be falling in love
Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh

I especially like the last line.

How long until the world’s first AI anthem?

If ever a post needed some bad clip art, it was this!

If ever a post needed some bad clip art, it was this!

I just wrote a piece for the New York Times on A.I. music: the companies making it and its potential implications. You can read it here.

It’s a strange area to look into as, every moment, you’re stuck between thinking, ‘It’s so cool people are working on this’, and, ‘What on earth happens if they succeed?’ The questions it raises for music’s future are almost overwhelming.

The dilemma was summed up by these quotes that originally ended the piece (they had to be cut due to space):

“I think people will accept [A.I. music],” said Margaret Schedel, co-director of computer music at Stony Brook University, who has been observing the field for over twenty years. I mean that in all contexts – on the radio, in shops, everything. There’ll be some initial resistance, then it’ll become ubiquitous.”

“The reason I like computer music is hopefully it can go beyond what we as humans can,” she added. “That’s the exciting thing. The sad thing is the potential automation and putting musicians out of work.

“But don’t put that in your article as then the A.I. people will come and get me.”

There is one style of music, though, that I think is ripe for A.I.: national anthems.

Given there are only a couple of hundred of them, and that most share similar a similar musical style and lyrics, surely someone at Google Brain’s Magenta project or DeepMind could quickly knock out a programme to learn from that source material and write one? It might be an improvement.

If you’re a new country looking to get some cheap publicity, it may be worth you contacting some of the companies mentioned in the article!