Post by Alex Marshall (Periodical Journalism 2003)
Looking back at my time at City a decade ago – I did a journalism post-grad – there’s one conversation that sticks out. It was a day when my tutor, Harriett Gilbert – probably wearing the biker jacket she normally did, maybe with a cigarette in hand – told me I should write a book.
I’m not sure she meant it – she was starting a creative writing course at the time, and might have just needed students – but it turns out I’ve now done as she advised, as if she was a soothsayer of the highest order.
She also told me to write that book in the first person, and said I shouldn’t be afraid of humour. My book follows that advice too. I’m starting to wish I’d asked her for some more life lessons, or at least what lottery numbers I should choose.
The book in question is the world’s first about national anthems – one telling the fascinating, occasionally bizarre, stories of these songs and the people behind them, showing how in many parts of the world these songs couldn’t me more vital. It also reveals how these songs have been at the centre of some of history’s most important events: everything from the end of apartheid to the Arab Spring.
It’s a book that forced me to use all my City journalism training as it required research in 14 countries, although City didn’t teach me to pretend to be an academic to avoid being arrested, as I had to do several times in Egypt.
It wasn’t clear I’d end up doing this despite Harriet’s comments. The best thing about the City course was it forced us to try every type of journalism: writing for newspapers one day, business magazines the next, even doing bits of radio. For most of my career since, I’ve actually been an environmental journalist, writing about everything from international climate conferences to the frequency of bin collections. Music journalism was just something I did in my spare time.
But one day during the Beijing Olympics, I had the idea to listen to all the world’s anthems and rank them out of 10. The slightly-ludicrous piece I ended up writing about that quest ended up making front-page news in places like Bangladesh and Nepal (“Bangladesh wins silver!” screamed one headline) and because of that I became increasingly obsessed with these songs, why we still have them, who wrote them and what they’ve achieved.
Interestingly, the place where these songs seemed to have the least meaning was here, in Britain, where most people can’t remember the last time they sang God Save the Queen, let alone all the words. Very few people here would say the anthem is integral to their sense of national identity, or claim it’s the piece of music they turn to at moments of crisis or celebration. Most actually seem to think it’s an awful song that says nothing about Britain today, and they’re right.
That explains why, in a way, I’ve been surprised by the furore over Jeremy Corbyn refusing to sing it. I keep on getting asked to talk about it on radio shows, while a piece I wrote about it for the Telegraph somehow got over 1,000 comments, most telling me to emigrate.
It isn’t the topic I’d have predicted to generate publicity for my book – I was expecting that to be a chapter on the Islamic State’s anthem – but then I imagine Harriet probably warned me about this 10 years ago. Once you’ve written a book, it’s out of your hands – you can’t decide how people react to it.
I should really track her down for a drink. Perhaps she’ll have some ideas about what I should write about for the follow-up.
Alex Marshall’s Republic or Death! Travels in Search of National Anthems is out now. His blog about the book, including more anthems than you could ever want to listen to, is at republicordeath.com