There is nothing like an academic review of your book

Yes, my book came out ages ago, but no, that doesn’t mean it’s stopped being reviewed. This month, Nations & Nationalism – the world’s leading journal of nationalism studies – has featured it and, amazingly, they like it:

“An entertaining read that will aid nationalism scholars in considering how myths of everyday nationhood are received and felt of as significant”

Blimey! I thought academics would annihilate it, so the review’s incredibly pleasing to read. That’s only one line of the 800-word review, which also talks a lot about my “innovative research method” (talking to the composers and poets behind anthems), and situates my book in an more academic context making it sound incredibly intellectual!

Huge thanks to Eviane Leidig from Oslo University’s Centre for Research on Extremism for reviewing it.

If any academics read this and want me to come in and chat with their students, get in touch.

What should London’s anthem be?

If it goes independent, obviously. And who knows post-Brexit?!?

London Calling?

West End Girls?

Dizzee Rascal’s Fix Up, Look Sharp?

“Er… What?” I hear you say. Yes, Dizzee would be a strange choice. But he’s mine, and for a good reason, which you can learn by listening to Adrian Lacey’s great London Podcast at his site, via iTunes or here if you’re using Android.

I’ve never been asked the question before, which is surprising given so many cities, at least in the US, have anthems.

Adrian gave me one of the best podcast experiences I’ve had, taking me back to my childhood school in the London suburbs to stand in pouring rain (that wasn’t his fault) and explain where my love of music came from, doing a full, fascinating interview about the book, and even getting me to do a reading.

In the episode, he also goes out on London’s streets to ask people what their anthem would be. And he tells a brilliant story about his (white, lower-middle class, British) parents trying to write Nigeria’s anthem when it became independent.

It’s a real fun and interesting listen. And few podcast presenters go to such efforts, so, seriously, head here to hear it.

Adrian’s done some amazing other podcasts on everything from the Fire of London to Bob Marley’s London home, so check out other episodes if you can. Huge thanks to him if he’s reading.

Meet Lačni Franz, the only rock band to give a country its national anthem

The lead singer of Lačni Franz at a concert in Yugoslavia in 1981. Check out those haircuts!

Lačni Franz’ lead singer at a concert in Yugoslavia in 1981. Look at those perms. LOOK AT THOSE PERMS!

There are dozens of famous rock covers of anthems: think of Hendrix’s Star-Spangled Banner or Gainsbourg’s Aux Armes et caetera.

But there’s only one rock act who’s given a country its anthem: a Slovenian band called Lačni Franz – a bizarre fact I learned this week while reading an incredibly academic book called Identity and Nationalism in the Balkans.

Before picking that up, I already knew Slovenia’s anthem had an insane story. Its original author was France Prešeren, a 19th century alcoholic who spent most of his life infatuated with a woman who didn’t love him back no matter how many poems he dedicated to her.

In 1844, he wrote one of those, a drinking song called A Toast (Zdravljica). There’s no doubt it was meant for getting drunk to. Prešeren wrote the verses so they looked like a wine glass, while its very first lines are, “Friends! Again the vines bore well / Let sweet wine liven our veins.”

But mixed in among the calls to drink were bouts of national sentiment like this: “God, let your Slovene girls bloom…There are no maidens more comely than ours.” Ok, bad example, but you get what I mean.

Were those lines enough to make it the natural choice to become Slovenia’s anthem following the Soviet Union’s demise? Apparently not. Instead, the reason A Toast became the anthem is apparently entirely down to Lačni Franz.

In 1987, the band recorded a parody of the song that repopularised the poem across the country and practically forced its adoption as the anthem two years later. God knows if that’s true, but this clip certainly shows people loving it. Dance Slovenes, dance!

Slovenia’s politicians disappointingly ignored all the drinking verses when they made it the anthem and went for this one instead:

Long live all folk everywhere
Who long to see the day
When wherever sun may roam
Strife holds none under its sway
Then all people, everywhere
Will be free
Not enemies, but dear neighbours

Yes, it’s an odd choice given it makes no reference to Slovenia, to that country’s landscape or its people. There’s nothing nationalist about it at all really. It’s like a country decided to take Michael Jackson’s Heal the World for its anthem.

Personally, I think it’s great for that, but if you want to read the political reasons behind that move, pick up ‘Identity and Nationalism in the Balkans’ (or order it at your local university library). The reasoning is just as bizarre as anything above.

Anyway, I should shut up – this post is already far too long! Here’s some more Lačni Franz for you.

Time for Corsica to change its tune

Corsican flag celebrations

During France’s regional elections earlier this month, one fact seemed to get missed amid the noise around Marine Le Pen and her Front Nacional: that in Corsica, the vote was won by a party that actually wants independence from France.

Yes, you read that right: independence.

The ‘For Corsica’ party won over 35% of the vote, which explains why their leader, Gilles Simeoni, looks so happy in the picture at the top of this post.

So should the people of the Mediterranean island stay part of the motherland or seize the day and go it alone?

Well, this blog believes there’s only one way to decide a matter of such importance: by looking at whose national anthem is better! And sorry, Corsicans, but your ‘anthem’ is not a shade on la Marseillaise. In fact, it’s bloody awful.

Here, for those who don’t know it [everyone outside Corsica], is Dio vi salvi Regina:

If will hopefully take you all of about 5 seconds of listening to that to realise it’s a monastic hymn and an ancient one at that.

It was written in 1675 by a young Italian, Francis of Geronimo, and is meant as a love letter to the Virgin Mary. Here’s its first verse:

God bless you, Queen
And universal mother
By which one rises
Until paradise

What’s that got to do with Corsica? Absolutely bugger all! But there were a lot of Corsicans in Naples back then and they one day turned it into a bizarrely religious and solemn cry for independence – most likely due to its final verse which asks the Virgin to “give us victory over our enemies”.

So yes, it has been inspiring people for several hundred years. Gilles Simeoni even sung it to celebrate his win. But that doesn’t mean it’s worth keeping. It doesn’t have the excitement of la Marseillaise. It doesn’t have that anthem’s great melody either. It doesn’t even have its gore or its blood. There is no contest. Corsicans, find a new one quick!

For Benedict Anderson

Benedict Anderson

One of the big dogs of nationalism – the academic who came up with the term ‘imagined communities’ – died this month.

You should read his most famous book, now over 30 years old. It’ll make you think differently about your country; every country in fact. Here’s its main segment on national anthems – oddly, one of the book’s few paragraphs that is undeniably positive:

In an age when it is so common for progressive, cosmopolitan intellectuals (particularly in Europe?) to insist on the near-pathological character of nationalism, its roots in fear and hatred of the Other, and its affinities with racism, it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love. The cultural products of nationalism – poetry, prose fiction, music, plastic arts – show this love very clearly in thousands of different forms and styles.

On the other hand, how truly rare it is to find analogous nationalist products expressing fear and loathing. Can the reader think immediately of even three Hymns of Hate [national anthems]?

Even in the case of colonised peoples, who have every reason to feel hatred for their imperialist rulers, it is astonishing how insignificant the element of hatred is in these expressions of national feeling.

Clearly he wasn’t as obsessed with anthems as I am. I can easily think of more than three hateful hymns. Take Algeria’s, which features lines like, “O France, your day of reckoning is at hand”, or read the final chapter of my book and learn about any of South America’s and just why they’ve stopped singing multiple verses.

But, yes, clearly if he had been as obsessed, he wouldn’t have written such a groundbreaking, thought-provoking work.

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!

Hello, Kitty! Meet Japan’s right-wing nationalists

I’ve just been in Japan, as this photo conclusively proves:

Hello Kitty dolls in Kiddy Land, Tokyo

Ok, perhaps not. Is this any better?

Right-wingers at Yasukuni Shrine, Tokyo, being completely ignored by everyone else who just wants to see the cherry blossom

The reason I went was to research Japan’s national anthem, Kimigayo – a song people have been arguing about for almost 70 years. Some say it should be scrapped as a relic of Japan’s militarist past; others that it should be worshipped.

I’d like to write here everything I did during the trip, from trying to convince far-right groups to drive me around Tokyo blasting the anthem from their sound trucks, to investigating a suicide that is a key part of the anthem’s history.

But I think I’m contractually obliged to save all that for my book. So instead, I’ll write about the one person I unfortunately didn’t get to meet.

His name’s Shintaro Ishihara. He’s in his eighties. And he’s an intellectual figurehead in Japan, the author of numerous bestselling books and a former governor of Tokyo.

He also happens to be a bit of a nationalist. In 2012, for instance, he announced he was going to buy the Senkaku islands, which Japan and China both claim – a move that achieved nothing apart from monumentally annoying Beijing.

The fact his Wikipedia page contains a section entitled “other controversial statements” says a lot.

I wanted to talk to him about why, when he was governor of Tokyo, he passed laws forcing teachers to stand for Kimigayo and suspending any who refused. And I especially wanted to talk to him about that because he doesn’t like the song himself. Just as I arrived in Japan, he gave an interview to a literary magazine where they asked him about Japan’s royal family. This was his response:

Actually, I’m not interested in them very much. I do not sing the national anthem and when I do, I change the words and use my own. I sing about ‘my Japan’ not the emperor’s. When I sing it like that, everybody looks at me.

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about Japanese politics from that statement. Hopefully I’ll get to meet him – and get the full explanation – soon!