The world’s smallest music scene

Penguins! In Antarctica! This is copyright me, so please ask permission if you're going to steal it

Penguins! In Antarctica! © Me!

Antarctica doesn’t have a national anthem. For somewhat obvious reasons; no one owns the place.

But it is – and always has been – filled with music. Scott took two gramophones there. Shackleton made sure the one thing he saved when his ship was crushed by the ice was a banjo.

While I was there earlier this year, I decided to ask all the scientists I met if they ever played their anthems or any music. The Argentines told me they sung theirs drunk at the top of a mountain. The Ukrainians said they sung theirs whenever someone arrived at the base, and they did so with passion because of all the political troubles in their country. The Americans told me they, er, couldn’t remember having ever sung it. “We have streaming internet, so we just bang on Pandora”

Those, slightly weird, chats did lead me to learn several scientists’ fascinating life stories: from the American whale biologist who spends his days blasting opera out over the oceans, to the Ukrainian who makes instruments in his ice cold lab.

I’ve just turned those tales into a piece for the BBCRead it here.

The reason I went wasn’t actually for music: it was to interview a penguin counter called Ron Naveen for British Airways’ High Life magazine. You can read the feature about him here or download the full issue via the App Store. I’m worryingly pleased with it, which probably means it’s awful (there’s an old journalists’ saying: “Kill your darlings”), but I hope you enjoy it regardless.

Why every dance musician owes a debt to God Save the Queen

The console of Alan Turing's Mark II computer. God knows where the sound came out. Turing's the one standing. Copyright the University of Manchester School of Computer Science

The console of Alan Turing’s Mark II computer. God knows where the sound came out. Turing’s the one on the right. Copyright the University of Manchester School of Computer Science

If someone asked me to guess what the first piece of computer music sounded like, I’d probably go for a four-to-the-floor piece of pounding techno – more out of hope than expectation.

But it turns out it was, er, God Save the Queen.

In 1951, a British computer scientist played the British anthem on Alan Turing’s Mark II computer – one of the world’s first and the unwieldy thing in the picture at the top of this post.

The computer could make clicking sounds to show it had completed tasks and the scientist worked out that these could be turned into notes. Eat that Kraftwerk!

The recording’s just been restored, hence putting it up here. For the full story, go to the British Library’s Sound and Vision blog, because it’s a hell of a lot more complicated than I’ve made it sound!

Everything you should see at this weekend’s Stoke Newington Literary Festival

stokeylitfest

Most importantly, me! On Sunday at 2pm, I’ll be revealing everything you need to know about national anthems just in time for Euro 2016 and the Olympics. I’m even going to shoehorn in the EU referendum, which should please Boris Johnson. Or maybe not. Get tickets here.

But as I’m all about spreading the love, I also seriously recommend:

David Quantick, Saturday at 1pm, who is talking the art of swearing. TicketsIf you can’t get into that, at the same time Thurston Moore, once of Sonic Youth, is talking about free jazz. Afterwards, he will presumably dodge your questions about his ex-wife. Tickets for that are here.

Sarah Perry. She’s written a great sounding book about Essex, where I’m from. She is apparently one of 2016’s most exciting literary voices. That’s all you need to know really, isn’t it? She’s speaking Saturday at 4pm, and it’s free. Details are here.

Hadley Freeman, the hilarious journalist, is being hilarious about ’80s movies Sunday at 5pm. If you’d like to get a ticket, you know what to do.

And finally, at 6pm on Sunday, David Mitchell – DAVID MITCHELL! – is talking all his amazing books. I probably shouldn’t go as I’m a bit obsessed – if you and I were ever to go out, I’d give you a copy of his book Black Swan Green – but you should. Tickets are at that link!

When Eurovision was – literally – a matter of life and death

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Fazla, looking like they’ve stepped out of Miami Vice

In 1993, Bosnia was in the middle of a civil war and its capital, Sarajevo, under siege. No, not ‘under siege’ in the Steven Seagal sense; ‘under siege’ in the ‘no food, no water, being bombed daily’, sense.

In the middle of it all, a musician called Dino Merlin somehow wrote both the country’s national anthem and its first-ever Eurovision entry. I tell his insane story in my book.

But this week, with Eurovision approaching, I suddenly remembered Dino didn’t actually perform his song at Eurovision. It was a band called Fazla. So I called their lead singer to learn his story, and it turned out to be just as fascinating, bizarre and uplifting as Dino’s. Head over to the BBC to read it.

Here are Fazla at that year’s Eurovision:

Douze points!

And here’s this year’s Bosnian entry, which seems to be performed by a man with a plastic face.

Null points!

Update: As you’ll clearly know, Ukraine won this year’s Eurovision with the below slice of brilliant Russia-baiting. What was the first thing singer Jamala did when she got back home? She sung Ukraine’s national anthem, Ukraine’s not Dead Yet, of course! Read this great NY Times article on the political fall-out of her victory.

My paperback’s outtttt – win a copy

Republic or Death paperback

My paperback’s out!

It’s basically the same as the hardback except it’s had the mistakes removed (especially the bit where I said someone was dead when they actually were very much alive – whoops!). The French chapter’s also changed a lot to reflect everyone in Paris singing la Marseillaise following the terror attacks in Paris. Never write a book about a moving subject.

Basically, it’s better all round, although I admit it is less good for hitting people with or for killing spiders.

You can buy it here, but if you’d prefer getting it for free, my publisher’s giving away 20 copies over at Goodreads (COMPETITION CLOSED SORRY) where you can also marvel at its 4.21/5 rating and such reviews as “Who knew national anthems could be so fascinating?” and “I enjoyed this book a lot more than I imagined I would from the title.” Good luck!

Why the Greece-Macedonia naming row will never end

Macedonian women!

For the past 25 years, Greece has been trying to get Macedonia to change its name. It’s suggested everything from the Republic of Skopje to the Republic of Slavo-Albanian Macedonia. It’ll accept anything, basically, except Macedonia alone, since that happens to also be the name of a region of northern Greece, the birthplace of Alexander the Great.

It’s one of the strangest political disputes ever, but it’s been in the news a lot over the past week as both countries have said they want to finally come to a solution next year.

Will they manage it? I’d guess ‘no’ for the simple reason that the name is only the tip of the iceberg. If Macedonia does change it, surely Greece will start objecting to a lot of others things too, not least Macedonia’s national anthem?

Below is that song, Today, Over Macedonia.

And here’s some of its lyrics:

Today over Macedonia, is being born
The new sun of liberty
Macedonians are fighting
Fighting for their rights

Later, it starts banging on about “the forests of Macedonia singing new songs” and also oddly starts telling “dear Macedonian motherland” to stop crying. Basically, it mentions Macedonia a lot.

Does it work if you sing “Today over the Republic of Slavo-Albanian Macedonia” instead? Er, no. This row is going to go on and on and on…!