The Rugby World Cup’s anthems: from porn to tragedy, and everything in between!

Sergio Parisse, Martin Castrogiovanni and Matias Aguero screaming Italy's national anthem before the playing Wales (stolen from Stu Forster/Getty Images!)

Sergio Parisse, Martin Castrogiovanni and Matias Aguero screaming Italy’s national anthem before playing Wales (stolen from Stu Forster/Getty Images!)

The Rugby World Cup’s been introducing people to some fantastic national anthems. Not least my favourite, Uruguay’s. Wait until the end of this clip to see a huge, 6-foot, 20-odd stone man being brought to tears by singing it.

Or go here to see a man from Fiji showing equal emotion.

The fascinating, politically significant and often hilarious stories behind many of the anthems are all in my book, Republic or Death!, which features chapters on South Africa’s five-language anthem, Japan’s haunting Kimigayo, France’s rousing Marseillaise, Uruguay’s rambunctious anthem, the US’s Star-Spangled Banner and even my very own God Save the Queen.

But for those who’re yet to pick up a copy and just want a quick guide to interesting things they can say in the pub while watching matches, here are some fact’s for you:

Uruguay’s: the man behind this genuinely great song is more famous in his home country for writing a poem called Apology for the Penis that tries to prove the male appendage is better than its female equivalent. As his biographer told me, “His life is a bad example for schoolchildren, but respectability is not a requirement for literary appreciation!” He also used to black-up so he could write “in the jargon of slaves”. Hmm.

France’s: to keep with the smut theme, the author of la Marseillaise found his life so upended after writing that song that he had to write pornographic ditties to make a living. One’s about a couple having sex in a stream. Unsurprisingly, it’s not as widely known today as his anthem!

Japan’s: the country’s anthem was first written by a British soldier, but he got the music so wrong – it went up when a Japanese singer would naturally go down, and vice versa – the Japanese had to overhaul it. The song, Kimigayo, is also easily the most controversial anthem of all time – the chapter about it in my book is filled with so much tragedy and sadness, it’s a real turning point – which explains why the Japanese team have been ignoring it and singing a rap called Japanese Warrior instead!

South Africa’s: Immediately after apartheid South Africa played three songs one after the other as its anthem. It took Nelson Mandela a year to realise he’d made a huge mistake by requiring that – even he was bored by having to stand there for 6 minutes to listen to it all – and order a change. Today’s five-language anthem is the beautiful result.

Wales: We wouldn’t sing national anthems before sports event it wasn’t for the Welsh. In 1905, their rugby team sang Land of My Fathers (Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau) in response to a visiting New Zealand team’s haka and soon the world was copying their example. So the next time you find yourself having to bellow one, blame Wales!

National plagiarism 2: plagiat national!

In a piece for the BBC this week, I wrote about the insane number of national anthems that seem to be plagiarised.

But I stupidly forgot to mention the biggest example of them all: la Marseillaise. The omission was all the more bizarre since I write about it in my book, so sorry about that!

Where did la Marseillaise’s music come from? Below is a piece by the Italian violinist, Giovan Battista Viotti written in 1781 – 11 years before Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle wrote France’s anthem. You only have to listen to it for a moment to hear the resemblance.

Some people claim it wasn’t written by Viotti either, but by Jean-Baptiste Grisons in 1787. That I don’t understand since it’s six years later, but here’s his Oratorio d’Esther anyway.

Yes, it’s the same again.

Did Rouget steal one of these tunes? Here’s a quote from Frédéric Frank-David, former director of the Memorial de la Marseillaise, and the man who should know:

“There is a certain amount of probability that Rouget had been inspired by Viotti’s tune, be it consciously or unconsciously…”

So there you go!

But the problem I have with calling Rouget a plagiarist is it takes away from his achievement. Even if he stole it, “just choosing that melody – knowing that it was the one to inspire – there’s art in that too” (to narcissistically quote my own book!). There’s more art in that than most songs you can name, in fact.

Plus, the rest of Rouget de Lisle’s life was such a disaster, I think he should be given this one thing. Read my book for more on that. It’s a story that’s frankly unbelievable at times, but I promise I haven’t plagiarised it from any novel.

It’s Bastille Day! Grab the pétanque set and sing the Marseillaise!

It’s France’s national day today. I would suggest you all storm the nearest prison in tribute to what happened in Paris on 14 July 1789, but why not sing the country’s amazing national anthem instead with the help of this video?

Sorry to anyone who’s seen it before. I made it last year while travelling across France.

It’s now somehow past 1,000 views (at least 10 of those by people other than my mum). At current  rates, it’ll hit a million views in 664 years, so if you haven’t watched it before, I suggest you do now. I mean, you wouldn’t want to miss out on cinematic history, would you?

Dodging snipers for Eurovision

Tonight is Eurovision! Sweden should win, right?

Or failing him, France?

Great, glad we agree!

In tribute to the world’s greatest song contest, I thought I’d put up a few quotes from an interview I did once with Dino Merlin, Bosnia’s answer to Paul McCartney and a man who’s been to Eurovision three times.

Dino stayed in Bosnia’s capital of Sarajevo during the war of the 90s, when the city was under siege.

He had little electricity or water, Serb mortars were dropping on the streets, but he still got the energy to write both Bosnia’s first national anthem, Jedna si Jedina, and its first Eurovision entry. The Eurovision song was called Sva bol Svijet, All the Pain in the World, which is understandable if somewhat inappropriate for a competition that relies on glitter canons and showgirls.

While chatting to Dino, I asked if he ever managed to escape the siege and he said this: “The first time I went to Eurovision, I had to run across the airport. Have you heard anything about the airport during the war? There were UN soldiers patrolling the runway and if they caught you, they’d dump you back in the city. And from the other side, from the mountain, you had snipers – Serb snipers – shooting anything they saw move.

“So I got there and saw everyone was running one way round. But something told me not to follow them, so I ran straight across. Terrified. Scared. Everything like that. But somehow I did it. I got to Ireland!”

“How was Eurovision?” I asked.

“We came sixteenth,” he replied deadpan, then burst into laughter.

After the contest, Dino immediately returned to Sarajevo – running back across the airport – which either says he was insane at the time or really loved his country.

I don’t think any of this year’s Eurovision entrants will have gone through anything like that, but feel free to make up a hideous backstory about Sweden’s Robin Stjernberg if it’ll help you vote for him!

Give blood: two words that could save the Marseillaise

The Marseillaise, the French national anthem, is hated by a lot of people in France because of one line:

Qu’un sang impur, abreuve nos sillons!

It means ‘let impure blood water our fields’ and it made sense about 200 years ago when the song was written. France was facing war with most of Europe, and wanted any invaders viciously killed.

But it makes much less sense now, especially given well over 10% of France’s population is an ethnic minority who don’t have fond memories of the country’s colonial past.

So, what to do about it? An answer came to me while donating blood this week, sitting there watching my blood pump into a bag (see the beautiful photo above). How about changing the line to this:

Qu’un sang, n’importe quel sang, en faire don à l’hôpital!

Ok, it doesn’t fit the tune and it’s probably appalling French (I’m trying to say, ‘Got blood, any blood, then donate it at the hospital’), but those problems aside, it might just work!

If you’ve got a better suggestion, let me know. And if you want to donate, you can find out where to do so here if you live in the UK, here if you live in France, and here if you’re in the States. If you live elsewhere, use Google!

The Marseillaise sung by the people of France!

What do you get when you convince 16 French people, four Belgian students and a bloke on a bike to sing the French national anthem?

The MOST AMAZING YOUTUBE CLIP EVER (to feature 16 French people, four Belgian students and a bloke on a bike singing the French national anthem)!

I recently made this last while cycling the historical route of the Marseillaise, from Marseille to Paris.

I was interviewing people about the song along the way, and it seemed fun to get them to sing too.

If you want to know the words, click through to the Youtube clip. They’re in English and French in the description box. And for a diary of my trip, including an explanation of why I did it, click here.

Merci, et désolé, à tous les participants!