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.

Listen to me on Little Atoms!

This isn't actually the podcast, but click it and you'll be right there!

This isn’t actually the podcast, but click it to be flown right there. The wonder of the internet!

Any of you listen to Little Atoms? What do you mean, “No”?!? You should. It’s, like, the best books podcast in the UK and I’m not just saying that because they’ve got me on it this week.

If you want to hear me talk about my book and national anthems – covering everything from the Olympics to ISIS’s music – head here or subscribe via a site like iTunes. Although you should also just trawl their website, as on it you can listen to everyone from Jon Ronson to Jonathan Meades talk about their amazing books.

Neil Denny, the presenter, interviewed me about 10 minutes after talking to Marcus du Sautoy about his latest book, What We Cannot Know (listen here). He couldn’t find a spare mug for me to drink from, so I used Marcus’. I had a cold for the next week. Make of that what you will.

Oh, look out for Little Atoms’ magazine too since it contains original journalism as well as long extracts from their best interviews. And go and see Neil interview Hadley Freeman in London this September as Hadley is hilarious and you are 110% guaranteed to fall in love with her, even though you know she’s happily married with multiple children.

Get on your bike! What to do once your book’s out, advice from a new author

Bike and Clapham Books

My book – an “endlessly enthralling” part-history, part-travelogue about national anthems – came out last August on Random House, but since it’s just emerged in paperback, I thought someone might appreciate this guide of what to do after your book appears. Because I’d have really liked it when mine did!

1) Visit every bookshop you can

Random House did an amazing job of getting my book into Waterstones, the UK’s largest book chain, but I quickly discovered it wasn’t in many independents – the stores I buy books from. And to me, that meant it was like it didn’t exist.

What did I do? I cycled to every independent in London I could find. This took ages – the best part of two weeks – and was at times utterly dispiriting. In one, I asked if I could have 30 seconds of their time and got the reply, “You’ve already wasted more than that, goodbye.” In another, I was asked two questions:

“Is it self published?”

“Has it been reviewed in The Times?”

It was only because I replied, “No,” and “Yes”, that they agreed to take the book’s name.

But other occasions were, frankly, brilliant. The Stoke Newington Bookshop in north London already stocked it and almost instantly booked me for their festival. While Newham Bookshop in east London ordered some and arranged a talk based partly, it seemed, on the fact I “looked alright”.

I dread to think how hard it’d be cycling around shops if you’re a fiction author – “Can I tell you about my book? It’s a modern retelling of Jonah and the Whale”. I also dread to think what it’d be like if you’re self-published.

But I would still recommend doing it above anything else.

Oh, I took a CD of brilliant anthem covers with me to give to shops in an effort to guilt them into stocking the book. I wouldn’t recommend doing that, though. It turns out most shops, like most people, don’t play CDs anymore.

2) Contact every festival and event organiser you can, and do it NOW

Of all the things I’ve done, events have been the most successful in getting the book ‘out there’.

I did a 5-minute reading at the Brixton Book Jam recently and sold out of books immediately afterwards. I’d taken along 15 copies, which I thought was somewhat optimistic; turned out to be the opposite. Saying that, at other events, I only sold a third of that, but that’s still five more I would have otherwise

I would recommend doing as many events as you can, but contact people early. And I mean E A R L Y. Like yesterday.

I didn’t realise that book festivals book a long time in advance – literally six months, a year in some cases. Most of the ones I contacted loved the idea of me doing a talk, but had already filled all their slots, which was, again, quite dispiriting. Your publisher may actually arrange events for you, but mine largely left me to it and it took me too long to realise I needed to act fast.

Be creative too: schools, your local library, universities – all may like you to come in, especially if you’re writing non-fiction. I write that not having done any talks at schools or libraries, but I’m sure it’s true.

3) Practice signing books

I’ve written some utter rubbish in books I’ve signed – “I hope this gets you singing!” being perhaps the worse. Make sure you don’t write anything as bad.

4) Do as much press as you want, but don’t get ripped off

I honestly haven’t got the faintest idea what the best form of press is. I’ve written articles about anthems, listicles, I’ve been on TV talking about them, I’ve popped up on radio shows and done podcasts.

I haven’t checked how many copies my book’s sold after each bit. That might be a mistake as it’d be good to realise what works and what doesn’t, but I long ago decided I didn’t want to know how many copies my book had sold (it’s not good for your mental health, especially after your agent tells you a good non-fiction sells a paltry 1,500 in the UK and not to expect any more).

I admit I might have found it easier getting press than others do. I’m a journalist so am used to pitching to editors (and dealing with the rejection). I also have a very helpful PR person, and I a topic that’s regularly in the news. But do keep plugging away no matter how many editors ignore your calls.

When you are doing press, though, keep in mind it’s always impossible to get across what your book is. Some articles I’ve written have made my book seem like a wacky fact book (it isn’t); others have made it seem like a deathly serious analysis of nationalism (it isn’t). Also, don’t be ripped off. If someone’s asking you to write something that requires original research, ask to be paid. If someone’s asking you to go into a radio studio, always ask for an appearance fee. You may not get any money, but you’ll feel better for asking.

Where have I drawn the line? To be honest, I haven’t turned down much. It’s only really been from US publications who’ve asked me to do work on the basis it’ll be “good exposure”. My book isn’t out in the US and spending several hours on a piece for a one-sentence quote hasn’t seemed like a good use of my time when I could be writing blogs like this instead!

5) Enjoy every minute

The first few weeks after my book came out were such a panic I didn’t do one thing: enjoy the moment. I had a book out! I’d worked on it for years, I was proud of it, and now people were reading it. Some were even enjoying it. That is utterly amazing.

And then I met another author one night who literally said, “You’ve done something thousands want to. Have fun with it.”

I’ve tried to ever since, and it’s led to some of the most amazing experiences – seeing a man buy my book in a shop, making over 500 people laugh at a Book Slam, being interviewed by journalists I admire, meeting Hadley Freeman at a literary festival and having her drag me around like her fake husband…

For all the slog of cycling around every book shop in London, it’s worth it, I promise.

How to write a book proposal (off topic, but hopefully helpful posts #1)

I get asked, bizarrely frequently, how to get a book published. Bizarrely because I’m not J K Rowling; I’m someone who’s written a book on national anthems.

But if I can help, I will, so how did I get a deal?

If I’m being honest, one of the key moments was when an agent approached me after seeing an awful article I’d written for the BBC which dodgily claimed I was writing a book on these songs (I hadn’t written a word; I was more marking territory). They gave me some guidelines explaining how to write a proposal and asked me to get in touch when I’d finished it.

I wish I could simply paste those here, but it’s not my work (stealing is bad, kids!) so instead I’ll just give you the gist. And the gist is a proposal needs to answer five questions:

  • What’s your book about? Obviously
  • What’s new about it? That’s especially important for non-fiction. Think how many books there are about the Second World War
  • Why are you the person to write it?
  • Why’s it time for your book? Anniversaries always help apparently. I think my proposal banged on about the World Cup and Olympics a lot and how anthems are in everyone’s minds every two years
  • Who is your audience and why will they buy it?

The proposal itself should be split into several sections, they suggested:

  • an introduction explaining what the book is and answering everything above
  • a chapter-by-chapter outline
  • a section containing all the boring, but important, details like expected length (75-90,000 words is typical), delivery date, what extras could work for an ebook, and whether you’re going to insist on including lots of pictures or music you don’t have copyright for (I was asked repeatedly about who owns national anthems)
  • A biography to explain who on earth you are and prove that you can sell the book once it’s out. Have you done any public speaking or radio, for instance?

I didn’t actually go with that agent – they simply weren’t right for me – but I did follow their guidelines to the letter, wrote the proposal and a sample chapter and sent them off to another who I knew had dealt with similar books.

He loved the idea, fortunately, but told me it was so bizarre (part-travel, part-history) – and me so unknown – that I needed to write two more chapters before he’d consider taking it on.

That took me ages (I was fitting research into holidays, and writing late at night), but it worked out.

How important was the proposal? Vital. No agent would have taken me on without it. But it was also just personally helpful, as it made me work out exactly what I wanted to do and think about such topics as who my audience was which ultimately improved the writing. It was a lot of work (5,485 words, 19 pages), but I wouldn’t hesitate doing it again. Although saying that, the chapters were what actually got me the deal, especially one on Nepal’s national anthem, through which showed I could take the story of a minute-long song and make it have broad relevance. And that chapter was funny. That really helped. Buy my book if you want to read that and wonder why on earth a publisher liked it!

I’ve heard of people securing agents and deals without a proposal just an idea – and obviously you don’t have to get an agent or publisher at all these days – but if you think it’d help you, I really suggest giving it a go.

Apologies to any regular readers for posting something that wasn’t about national anthems. But so many people helped me with my book, I thought I’d try and help a little back. Over the next few days, I’ll do a couple of other posts featuring advice I wish I’d had when I published. Feel free to share/bear with me [delete as appropriate].

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


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!

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!

National deficit (or why famous composers don’t write anthems)

BBC Music Magazine March 2016 cover

This feature was originally published in the great BBC Music Magazine‘s March 2016 issue (see above), but now it’s out of the shops I feel happy to put it up. It discusses everyone from Verdi to Sibelius, all of whom I probably should have written about in my book. I hope this makes up for it.


In January 1797, Haydn wrote what was, in one respect, the biggest failure of his career. Austria was at war with France, Napoleon’s cannons were threatening even Vienna and Haydn was commissioned to write a piece to keep them back. He thought of his time in London where he heard God Save the King almost daily, and he thought of la Marseillaise, whose rousing, bloody call to arms seemed to be getting closer by the minute. And then he decided to write Austria their equivalent.

He had been given lyrics to write to – Gott Erhalte Franz den Kaiser, God Save Emperor Francis – and he sat down and penned a melody that he’s meant to have believed could “inflame the hearts of Austrians to new heights of devotion” as well as “incite [them] to combat”. It debuted on 12 February, and was so instantly popular, it was taken out of the theatre and straight into the streets.

But unfortunately for Haydn, it didn’t exactly have the effect he’d hoped for. Within weeks, Napoleon had invaded. Within months, Austria was forced to sign an embarrassing peace treaty. Gott Erhalte… was not Austria’s Marseillaise. But Haydn did achieve one thing with that song: he became the only famous composer to successfully write a national anthem. It is still in use today, albeit across the border in Germany and now known as the Deutschlandlied.

It’s surprising that out of the world’s 200-odd countries, Germany is the only one whose anthem has a star composer attached. It means that none of music’s great nationalists ever managed to give their homelands a song to bellow at football matches or turn to at times of need. Finland’s anthem, for instance, is to the tune of a German drinking song, not anything by Sibelius; the Czech Republic’s is taken from a 19th century comedy, not Dvořák or Smetana. Is it composers’ fault this situation has arisen, or is there just something about anthems that puts everybody off?

Soon, every Soviet composer you can name – Prokofiev, Khachaturian, even Shostakovich – was writing one piece of Communist bombast after another in an effort to conjure the winning tune

It would be wrong to say that Haydn is the only household name to have written an anthem. Several others have tried. In 1942, Stalin decided he needed a new anthem to replace the Internationale, apparently because Winston Churchill was refusing to let that song’s revolutionary message (“Enslaved masses, stand up!”) be played on British radio. Soon, every Soviet composer you can name – Prokofiev, Khachaturian, even Shostakovich – was writing one piece of Communist bombast after another in an effort to conjure the winning tune.

It’s impossible to know if any of them entered with genuine enthusiasm since they had little choice – who turns down Stalin? – but also because they all seem to realise the competition was a money-spinner. Each entry earned 4,000 roubles – ten times the average monthly wage at the time – with bonuses for those that made the competition’s final. Shostakovich made 34,000 roubles for his multiple entries, none of which anyone’s felt good enough to record since. Khachaturian made 30,000, including payment for one composition that went on to become the anthem of Soviet Armenia (it was discarded in 1991).

Stalin’s lyricists were adamant a famous composer should be chosen. It would “be almost unique and raise the profile of the USSR on the world stage,” they wrote. But Stalin ignored their pleas and picked a piece by a man called Alexander Alexandrov instead. He deserved the victory – his anthem, still Russia’s today, is so rousing and filled with threat it could inspire anyone to trudge across the steppe. Although Shostakovich saw it differently. “A national anthem must have bad music, and Stalin didn’t break with tradition,” he says in his disputed memoirs.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Benjamin Britten once tried to write an anthem for Malaysia, a country he had only set foot in once and then only for a few harrowing hours (he spent most of the “really hair raising trip” fearing he was about to be shot by communist guerrillas).

‘A national anthem must have bad music’, wrote Shostakovich, ‘and Stalin didn’t break with tradition.’

In June 1957, the Federation of Malaya was about to become independent from Britain, but its government had somehow failed to find an anthem. As a last throw of the dice, it contacted Britten, William Walton and Gian Carlo Menotti and begged them to have a go. Only Britten took up the offer producing, by his own admission, “a curious and I’m afraid rather unsuccessful job.”

The Malaysian government evidently agreed as a few weeks later they asked him to rewrite it so it sounded actually Malaysian, sending him several records of folk music as inspiration. He rewrote an entire section, but it didn’t help. The government ended up using the anthem of Perak – one of Malaysia’s states – instead; a piece of music better known in Malaysia as a cabaret tune.

There are a few composers whose music has become an anthem without their involvement. In 1990, Boris Yeltsin chose Glinka’s Patriotic Song to be Russia’s anthem despite it having no words, something that made it doomed from the start (Vladimir Putin brought back the Soviet anthem almost as soon as he came to power). Similarly, Sibelius’s Finlandia was Biafra’s anthem for that country’s tragic, three-year existence, rechristened Land of the Rising Sun.

There are also some composers who are wrongly thought to have written anthems. Our own God Save the Queen, for instance, is frequently misattributed to Thomas Arne. Arne is responsible for its first documented performance on 28 September 1745, when he arranged it for London’s Drury Lane Theatre to inspire people heading off to fight Bonnie Prince Charlie. But when Arne was asked if he knew who had composed it, he said he “didn’t have the least knowledge, nor could guess”, an admission that opened the floodgates to the wildest of claims.

John Bull, the great organist, is the likely composer. But the better story is that Jean-Baptiste Lully wrote it in 1688 for some nuns so they could welcome Louis XIV on a visit to their convent (“Grand Dieu, sauvez le Roy!”). A few decades later, Handel’s meant to have visited it too, stumbled across the song and, realising just what a gem it was, rushed it back to England, his own name now attached. The story appears in the memoirs of a French noblewoman and is such fun, it’s almost a shame to learn they are fakes.

The other anthem that’s often misattributed is Austria’s current Land of the Mountains, Land by the River (the country dropped Haydn’s music after World War Two). Many believe Mozart wrote it as part of a cantata for his Masonic lodge, but it doesn’t appear in his original score and even the Austrian government admits it is more likely written by the somewhat less glamorous Johann Holzer.

So why have so few famous composers tackled these songs, instead leaving them to amateurs, everyone from teachers to musically-inclined politicians?

One possible reason is that they are simply incapable of writing them. Coming up with a minute-long song that’s catchy and stirring enough to unite an entire country is a genuinely difficult task, and much harder if you are used to writing symphonies or operas.

‘There can be only one music grateful to the ears of Italians [right now]; the music of the cannon,’ Verdi wrote

Just take Verdi’s experience. In 1848, when Milan threw out its Austrian occupiers, Verdi rushed to the city, but shied away from composing anything to celebrate, writing to one of his librettists: “You speak to me of music? What has gotten into you? There can be only one music grateful to the ears of Italians [right now]; the music of the cannon.” A few months later, he appeared to have a change of heart after being asked by a leading revolutionary to write a hymn so powerful it “might become the Italian Marseillaise…in which the people might forget the composer and the poet.” Verdi produced Suona la Tromba, The Trumpet Sounds, a march so plodding even he seemed to realise it was a failure. “I tried to be as popular and simple as is possible,” he wrote. “Use it however you want. Burn it if you think it is unworthy.”

It got several airings, but it never caught people’s attention, who kept singing the rambunctious Fratelli d’Italia instead – the song that is now Italy’s anthem. Verdi clearly realised that was the better piece of music as he used it to represent Italy in his Inno delle Nazioni (Hymn of Nations), written for the 1862 London Exhibition.

There are a couple of more likely reasons why few famous composers write anthems. The first is that most people – even egotistical composers – believe anthems are immovable. Replacing them is thought impossible, like altering a country’s flag or changing its very soil. It’s untrue, of course – most countries change their anthems so frequently you wonder how people keep up (France has had three besides the Marseillaise) – but it’s a belief that’s unshakable.

Then there is the biggest reason of them all: politics. If you write an anthem, there is a strong chance that the very next day it will be sung by people you don’t like, or in a context you can’t bear. Like all music, as soon as you write an anthem, it is out of your hands forever. When Haydn wrote Gott Erhalte Franz den Kaiser, he wasn’t to know that it would become the anthem of Nazi Germany, a melody Hitler would describe as “holiest to us Germans.” Would he have composed it if he had known? Maybe, but most composers today wouldn’t take the risk.

As a bonus, here’s the five anthem-quoting works, BBC Music Magazine’s staff think you should hear:

Puccini, Madam Butterfly

It’s near the beginning of Puccini’s 1904 opera that we hear the opening of the US anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, shortly before the loathsome Pinkerton launches into his ‘Dovunque al mondo’ aria. The tune becomes his signature throughout the opera.

Schumann, Hermann und Dorothea

The two most famous works to quote la Marseillaise both reveal a dubious command of history. When Tchaikovsky used it to represent Napoleon in his 1812 overture, he was apparently unaware that the French emperor had banned it. And the event portrayed here in Schumann’s Goethe-inspired overture – the arrival of French immigrants at the Rhine in 1743 – predates the anthem’s composition by some 50 years…

Debussy, Hommage à S Pickwick Esq

Those hearing Charles Ives’ 1891 Variations on America for organ may be surprised to hear God Save our Gracious Queen blasting out of the pipes – the tune was, at the time, also widely popular in the US and competed for anthem status. Twenty years later, Debussy also used the tune in a fond dig at British formality in this, the ninth of his Préludes, Book II.

Stockhausen, Hymnen [This is awful – Alex]

Divided into four ‘Regions’, Stockhausen’s lengthy electronic work from 1966-7 consists of recordings of national anthems from around the world, with live performers if so wished. Those whose anthems are featured include Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Russian and a number of African countries.

Elgar, Polonia

In 1915, Elgar was asked to compose a work to support the Polish war effort. The resulting 20-minute orchestral overture was premiered at a concert to raise funds for Polish Victims Relief soon after. Consisting of music from the Polish national anthem, plus themes by the likes of Paderewski, Chopin and Elgar himself, it deserves to be better known today.