Walking the Black Dog? Put your Wellies on…
I have a problem.
Winter is a time of year I’ve always enjoyed, with its crisp air and wonderful silence. Hiking around the Peak District during the winter was always a particularly fine experience; in Manchester the benefit is chiefly a reduced number of yobs hanging around to hurl abuse and missiles at passing cyclists. Winter, however, is seemingly less keen on me.
Friends and family have commented on dramatic changes in my mood and level of anxiety during the winter, although this was only voiced following something of a breakdown after I moved to Manchester and had to be referred from work to a doctor: apparently I had acquired a pet, a very heavy and constant companion, a black dog. More accurately, as described by Dr. Johnson and Churchill among others, the Black Dog, depression. Ironic, really, as I’m rather more of a cat person.
Today things have improved greatly from the really low times, when the sight of a soap bubble bursting had me in a flood of tears and despair and nothing had any reason, worth or purpose. I no longer take medication and I have become considerably more adept at spotting the warning signs as a depressive front circles and moves in. I still get depressed, however, and I do mean depressed rather than just feeling a bit sad and low. That’s normal; and I’d probably be concerned if I was unshakably, bouncily happy every moment of every day. Depression is not simply feeling down, it’s accompanied by wildly inappropriate and extreme moods, an unshakeable certainty that there is no point doing anything at all (I mean really, with the inevitable heat death of the universe ahead of us why would anyone get started on a thick novel?) and other thoroughly miserable and unreasonable elements. It isn’t fun for me, it certainly isn’t fun for those around me, and the blasted thing is far, far harder to avoid in winter. Christmas is ill-timed in this respect, another blow as I love Christmas.
The Lovely Emma, a remarkable source of strength through difficult times, bought me a ukulele for Christmas. I’d fancied getting one for years, but since I had never got anywhere with halfhearted attempts to learn piano, horn, guitar and harmonica over the years I never bought one, expecting it to exist primarily as ornamentation for the inside of the wardrobe. So far, it has been a very different story.
Quite what makes this diminutive guitar-like instrument so different is hard to pinpoint. It only has four strings, which is a boon for sausage-fingered slowcoaches such as myself, is conveniently small and portable and, for a beginner’s model at least, quite cheap. That fails to cover it, though. There’s something ridiculously cheerful about the thing. The bright sound helps, as does the visual absurdity in a world more used to the relative size of guitars. Perhaps it’s the association with George Formby (here not playing a banjolele for once), Tiny Tim (shopping bag and all) or even Kermit the Frog (note the dazzlingly deft finger-work). Maybe it’s because of Elvis. No no, the other one.
Anyway, whatever the reason I’ve been strumming along every day since I got it and, miraculously, making a degree of progress. Being able to run through a recognisable tune and even to sing along, in my tuneless cement-mixer fashion, is really rather uplifting. Playing the uke is only part of it, however. Getting to grips with the instrument has also rekindled a general love of music dampened during the depressive days and that has led me to explore new tunes and performers. I’ve long been aware that there are bands other than XTC, of course, but Swindon’s finest usually swim to the top when I’m fishing for something to listen to. The ukulele has taken me beyond a cursory familiarity with music hall songs to the discovery that many of them are hugely fun to play and sing; many are also absolutely filthy, which is a cheerful bonus. I’ve found my way to musicians I’d not heard of before, such as Manitoba Hal Brolund, and some I’d encountered in passing but shamefully paid little attention to at the time. In particular, I found The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra.
They weren’t the first ukulele orchestra, nor the first playing popular and seemingly inappropriate tunes on the uke (The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain certainly beat them to it on both counts and there may have been others). They aren’t necessarily the most technically dazzling and they are not, yet, the best known. Listening to the various songs they’ve put out on a series of reassuringly cheap EPs though, there’s a fantastic sense of fun running through so many of them. The Wellies play brilliantly well and manage to convey something missing from some other performers, the sense that they are not only involving the audience but also waving an instrument at them and saying, “Come on, you can do this too!” and if that’s not enough there’s also that bloke from Flight of the Conchords and The Muppets.
Since downloading the first EP they’ve brightened my days enormously.
February is here now and snow is just beginning to hit the window as I type. It’s still dark and bleak, still very cold, still winter. The Black Dog is still around, but he’s outside at the moment, not here in the warm, nowhere near my ukulele. He seems not to like it when I reach for the Wellies.