“One of the most musically brave – or stupid – things I’ve ever heard in my life”

Before I had the meltdown

Mid-way through the meltdown

That quote’s from Tom Service, one of the UK’s best music journalists, and is worryingly about me.

Tom’s, right now, behind a great BBC radio show and podcast called The Listening Service where he explores how music works.

Here’s an amazing episode on repetition; here’s another on musical beginnings; and here’s one on noise. You should listen to them all.

But this week’s is all about national anthems – pieces, as he says, that have “been made to carry more bloodshed, hope, victory, despair, arrogance, humility and even cynicism than any other melodies before or since.” See, it’s not just me who’s obsessed with these songs.

I’m on the episode quite a bit and you can listen to the whole thing here, but I thought I’d put up a couple of excerpts up in case you haven’t got half-an-hour to waste.

Firstly, here’s Tom on Stockhausen’s Hymnen – the great German composer’s attempt at a world anthem – since I don’t actually mention it in the book.

But secondly, here’s that brave/stupid thing.

When we were recording the show, Tom asked me to tell a story about the time I sung the Star-Spangled Banner at a song contest in Nashville. And he found it so funny, he then begged me for the recording.

The story’s in my book, but if you want to hear the sound of a man basically having a nervous breakdown in a baseball stadium, listen below. Dear God!

Any Listening Service fans who stumble across this, read this from BBC Music Magazine for a lot of information on famous composers and anthems. It has everyone from Verdi to Haydn – your every classical need met!

Dope sounds

Just in case you think I only write about national anthems, below are a few things I’ve done recently that couldn’t be more different.

Here’s a piece on my trip to the world’s first government-owned cannabis farm in Uruguay done for the BBC’s amazing From Our Own Correspondent programme:

And here for The Guardian is an interview with the man growing that dope, the CEO of the brilliantly-named Internal Cannabis Corp. It’s a more fun read than it sounds.

“How about some music?” I don’t hear you ask. Well here for the New York Times is a piece on the British musicians who’re remaking the world’s oldest instruments. It contains some amazing sound clips of a 30,000-year-old vulture bone flute and a carnyx, and I highly recommend you click through.

And here, again for The Guardian, is a somewhat odd piece on Radiohead’s business empire, for which the band wouldn’t comment. Which says it all, doesn’t it kids? [“No, it doesn’t. Stop insinuating things about my favourite bands tax affairs”].

There will be some other pieces appearing soon, including one I did on my trip to Antarctica for British Airways’ High Life magazine (how appropriate a name given the cannabis pieces). I’ll try to remember to post those when they appear.

True soul music

Soul Music

The BBC’s brilliant Soul Music programme recently profiled Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika – the great anti-apartheid hymn that’s now part of South Africa’s national anthem; undeniably one of the most important songs ever written.

I, er, very stupidly managed to talk myself out of being part of the programme when they were researching it this summer, so it’s nice to hear they still made a fantastic programme without me – although I do disagree with the view that Enoch Sontonga stole the tune from a Welsh hymn!

I really recommend you head here now to listen, then pick up my book to learn even more about it, especially its somewhat contentious meaning today.

Things you shouldn’t do while giving a talk on BBC radio

  1. Start by basically saying, “Hello ladeez!”
  2. Make a joke about the IRA
  3. Sing
  4. Simplify the Ukraine-Russia conflict to such a point it makes it seem like you’re taking Russia’s side
  5. Sing some more
  6. Offend everyone in Cornwall
  7. Announce you have a pasty chest

With all that in mind, here’s a talk I did about nationalism that’s just been broadcast as part of Radio 4’s excellent Four Thought programme.

It’s a bit different from my usual book chat, but if you’d like some of that instead I was also on Monocle magazine’s Weekly show this week and you can listen here.

It features lots of really great questions about foreign policy, which is nice and they also say some lovely things about my book, which is even nicer!

I’m on from 13 minutes and straight afterwards is an amazing interview with the founder of Mubi, and there’s also a brilliant one about hip-hop and fashion to round things off. Basically, listen to it all, and then subscribe as, like Four Thought, it’s always an amazing listen.

Finally, yesterday, I did my first ever book talk! A proper one. Like for an hour and everything. It was a lot of fun, even the bits when I seemed to end up DJing national anthems, and seemed to go down really well so drop me a line if you’d like me to do one for you too. Call the Newham Bookshop (who booked it) or the Wanstead Tap (who hosted it) if you want an objective review!

I’m next at Birmingham Waterstones on 26 November, 7pm, in case any of you are nearby. Come! Singing not obligatory!

Today and Tonight!

This morning I appeared on the BBC’s Today programme to talk about my book. If you don’t know what a big deal Today is, this is the sort of text that arrives from family members when you appear on it:

photo

It’s normally home to prime ministers being made to squirm so getting on it is pretty amazing.

I have no idea if the segment is any good as I was in the shower when it was broadcast, but you can listen again here.

And if you’d prefer to see me talk about national anthems, I’ll be on the BBC’s Meet the Author programme tonight – 7:45pm on the News Channel – which will be available here online soon afterwards.

Update: Having listened to it, a big thanks to the BBC’s Nick Higham for having me on, liking the book and making it sound really interesting. I hope it makes thousands of people want to buy it!

Dumbwalking in Tokyo

Using a smart phone at Shibuya Crossing

Dumbwalking is what you do when you’re staring at a smartphone and end up falling over someone’s bag and knocking your teeth out. It’s also the number one threat to Japanese society as we know it!

Here’s a piece about it I recently recorded for the BBC’s excellent From Our Own Correspondent programme.

You can also read about it on the BBC’s website.

I basically spent a night trying to trip people up at the Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo. Yes, I’m surprised I got paid for it too.

Sorry this has got nothing to do with national anthems – the point of this blog – but I made this on a recent trip to Japan to research the country’s anthem so it’s, sort of, relevant!

One fact I forgot to mention in the piece is that Japanese newspapers publish “death by smartphone” statistics giving running counts of how many people have been run over while updating their Facebook status. Seriously. I’m sure newspapers in other countries will be doing the same soon.

The woman in the photo is NOT a dumbwalker, by the way. She’s just a very nice person I met at Shibuya and was happy to pretend to be one for me!

Bad ways to learn you need a haircut, part one

Alex Marshall on BBC news

Watching yourself on the news!

I was on BBC World News yesterday talking about Switzerland’s ongoing national anthem contest, among other things (over 200 entries received, one oddly in Portuguese, winner to be announced next year).

You can watch it again here if the above photo isn’t enough for you.

Thanks to Philippa for the nice chat, although I wish the hair and make-up department had offered me a restyle as well as putting a lot of foundation on my face!