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!

An utterly essential interview in The Atlantic you must read now!

The Atlantic feature cover

Yes, it’s with me, and it is about my book on national anthems! But it’s easily the best I’ve done to promote it.

It covers everything from the importance of these songs, to the similarities between the composer of la Marseillaise and Kanye West, to why theories of banal nationalism have got it wrong on anthems (yes, that’s one for the academics among you). I really think it gets across the importance and excitement of these songs.

Head here and read it now!

Massive thanks to The Atlantic’s foreign desk for liking my book so much they wanted to write about it even though it’s not actually out in the States, and for such intelligent, thought-provoking questions.

And if you’re a US book publisher who saw it and liked the sound of the book, feel free to get in touch!

In other US news: to any Americans who heard me on the BBC earlier. Yes, the impeachment comment was silly, my apologies. When I said it I wondered what the hell had just come out of my mouth. I stand by the assassination one though!

Vive le vélo! Cycling the Marseillaise tour diary part I

A couple of weeks ago, I tried to cycle the route of the Marseillaise – 800 kilometres from Marseille to Paris.

In 1792, 600 soldiers marched the route to defend the French revolution. They bizarrely spent the whole, month-long journey singing the song that was to become the French national anthem, which is why it’s called the Marseillaise.

Cycling their route seemed like a good idea since I’m writing a book on anthems. It stayed a good idea for – gosh – about three days!

MARSEILLE!

This is what Marseille looks like when you walk out of the city’s train station, covered in oil having just tried to put a bike together. It’s pretty stunning.

But enough sights! My only real stop in Marseille was a trip to the Mémorial de la Marseillaise, a great museum dedicated to the anthem, slap bang on the road where the song was first sung.

There I met Frédéric Frank-David, the museum’s director, to learn about the marchers. They were recruited by the town’s mayor, who simply put a notice out for ‘men who can read, write and kill’, telling them they had to go north and stop the French king from taking power back from the people.

“Do you know they marched at night?” Frédéric said at one point. “I mean, you’d have to be an idiot to try it in the daytime, in this heat.” Ten minutes later, I left and cycled 40 kilometers up a hill. Frédéric was right.

AIX-EN-PROVENCE!

When the soldiers arrived in Aix at 7am on their second day of marching, they demanded all the food and drink the town had to offer, got drunk and started a massive fight. Because of that, most of France started praying they didn’t turn up in their town.

I didn’t manage to start a fight in Aix – it’d be hard to, it’s a pleasant university town filled with cheese markets – but I did manage to get some girls in a bakery to sing me the Marseillaise.

They had to read the words first.

AVIGNON!

The route from Aix-en-Provence to Avignon is like entering a Disneyland version of France: all vineyards and orchards and lonely houses sitting at the end of tree-lined driveways.

Cycling through it made me realise just how unsurprising it is the soldiers left a huge impression on France. Imagine what it would have been like for people sleeping in those houses when one night 600 men marched past shouting the Marseillaise, flaming torches in hand.

It’d have been terrifying, like a Napoleonic version of The Wicker Man.

Most people in Provence wouldn’t have spoken French at the time, so wouldn’t have even known what the soldiers were singing about. Although that was probably for the best given the bloodthirsty lyrics.

What else did I learn on the way to Avignon? That if a road looks too good to be true, chances are it is, it’s a motorway.

Avignon is a nice stop for a day, the former home of the Popes (they lived here after a Frenchman was elected Pope and refused to move to Rome). The picture above was taken in the papal palace.

Today, the town’s filled with German exchange students getting drunk in vodka bars. I’m sure the Catholic church would approve!

Part II of this diary, where everything goes wrong, is here!

The secrets behind national anthems in 1,000 words…

…and a poor joke about Coldplay.

A piece I’ve done for the BBC went online today (above’s a picture of it on the front page).

I’ve somehow crammed 18 countries into it. Although apologies to anyone from Oman or Zimbabwe, who I seem to insult!

If you know of any secrets it doesn’t mention, please let me know.