Walking the Black Dog? Put your Wellies on…

Not a photograph of the actual band.

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.

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  1. Carl Mynott (@Locomountaineer)
    February 9, 2012 at 21:41

    Is it permitted to send the Black Dog to the animal shelter for rehoming?

    Last year I bought a cheap penny whistle, and then loved it so much I bought a really nice one. I can play a few basic tunes and have fun doing so. I also play on my daughter’s tiny little electric keyboard, when no one is looking. What fun it is to make tunes!

    I have rush-read this post a bit so I didn’t click on the links, but you have me considering a Ukelele now! – Why not?

    Cheers Jon

    • February 10, 2012 at 07:26

      The best I ever managed on the penny whistle was a stumbling rendition of “Portsmouth” 🙂 Highly recommend trying a uke, they’re great fun and very simple to get started with, not least due to the conveniently large number of three chord songs out there. A Makala Dolphin uke and set of Aquila strings (an essential upgrade) will set you back less than £35 on eBay, delivered. With all of the online tutorials, timers and song tabs freely available that’s all you need to get going. There are ukuleles around for half that, but the Dolphin is remarkably good for the money… and small enough to take camping 😉

  2. Kev Brown
    February 11, 2012 at 19:08

    Hello lovely people. Wow what a blog, well done!!
    I too was given the nudge, a rather good push, to take up the four stringed wonder. Friend Ray encouraged me to the hilt then offered to purchase one, not anyone “you must get a good one kev.”
    We spoke about price and i put a ceiling in of $150 NZ. A month latter I got the text from him, ” got you a uke, a makala concert equiped with Aquila strings, a Kala clip on tuner and a soft case, $145.00″ I was excited. He said he was coming to New Plymouth for WOMAD in a couple of weeks and would drop in home with it. That day came and wow what a buzz, he made that pretty uke sing like a collective band of many strings. I was in love, in love with my ukulele.
    From that day in March 2011, Maxzine ( a name I just plucked out the cosmos right now!!) has become my closest trusted companion.As little as 10 minutes at any given time of day sets me free from any stress, duress, low mood or even de-ellevates a too higher mood.Maxzine you are amazing.
    Here am I a young fifty something bipolar man who has just discovered the bestest tool to wellness ever. I still take the meds, but the feel and sounds of my all original music lights up my life with a flame I have never expierenced. I struggled with rythum and learning other peoples contempary songs.I didn’t give up, I learnt that I could just play around with Maxzine, plucking, twanging, fumbling through her frets until I discovered the simplicity of music. its not something to strive for but came naturally as I carresed and became in tune with the sounds, the sounds of freedom, the sounds, that set my captivity from Mental Illness, FREE.
    She has travelled to Perth Australia with me, my wife turned downed the offer to come, Maxzine never lets brings or lets me down. She brings me up and tunes me in to who I am. She has lead through a journey of self discovery, a discovery of passion I have always held for music at last I have found my path to creat sounds. I enjoy writting and now have the key to putting a song or two together.
    Thankyou sooo much Maxzine you have truelly bold me over and sweep me off my feet into a wurlwind of love that I have never ever experienced. Wow!!!

    • February 13, 2012 at 14:40

      Kev, thank you so much for that comment. Very inspiring ; and it’s wonderful to hear from someone who not only shares an enthusiasm but has also found a benefit in it when it comes to dealing with difficult matters. I was away at the weekend, out in the lovely (but frozen!) Derbyshire countryside, and I was sure to pack my ukulele when I went. Lovely to play a few tunes and just generally noodle around with it and relax.

  1. June 22, 2012 at 11:24

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