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Imagine a pun-filled, clever title about ukuleles for this blog post

June 24, 2013 5 comments
An unwarranted reputation for smallness.

An unwarranted reputation for smallness.

I should get out more.

The sun was shining when The Lovely Emma and I reached Cheltenham, the first time I had been to the town. Staying in a Travelodge over the road from GCHQ might not have screamed glamour, but it was cheap and convenient thanks to excellent (indeed, rather plush) buses. Dumping everything bar our ukuleles we made our way to The Exmouth Arms, which was hosting a large part of the Ukulele Festival of Great Britain on Friday evening and Sunday, with the main event taking place at the town hall throughout Saturday. If you’re going to start a new experience in a strange place then you might as well do it with a decent pint in your hand.

There’s a wonderful effect you can experience at festivals and conventions of this sort, something I’ve also noticed at the UK Games Expo, where complete strangers are immediately friendly due to a shared interest and lack of any reason to be competitive or unpleasant. It was even more noticeable at the ukulele festival, since it was so easy to spot people who were attending by their ukulele cases, leading to friendly waves and hellos from people we’d never met before even when strolling around town, away from the actual events. On Friday this quickly translated into groups strumming away and singing together, with a few frighteningly organised individuals even coming prepared with additional song sheets. I’d taken a couple of Levy Uke Up songbooks, as well as several sheets I’d put together myself such as Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, which works considerably better than you might expect. Since I’d originally misheard the song badly, briefly believing in the finest tradition of mondegreens that one of the lines went “Are all bald Mexicans lucky?”, it actually went rather better than I expected, too. By the time the sun had set and we were improvising with iPhone torches under the marquees I’d pretty much lost all feeling in my strumming hand.

I was too busy playing to take names.

I was too busy playing to take names.

Saturday brought a rainy start, but the main event was set to be in the town hall anyway and so was unlikely to be disrupted. We wandered around town, enjoying the Regency buildings and general airiness of it, and happened to stumble across Kit Williams’ Wishing Fish Clock, which I knew of but hadn’t realised was in Cheltenham.

2013-06-22 10.33.52

Might get one of these for the upstairs landing.

Even more exciting than that, if only for me, was finding a sweet shop selling these:

I'm the only person in the world excited about this.

I’m the only person in the world excited about this.

It’s been years since I had eaten a Zagnut bar, so long in fact that they were made by a different company back then. Almost unknown in England, they were hard enough to find in some parts of America. This was the only one in the shop; I almost cried. Happily, especially given the eye-watering price tag, it was every bit as delicious as I remembered. Anyway, ukuleles…

The festival had a room set aside with various commercial stands, mostly selling instruments although there was a small amount of peripheral material. To be honest this seemed like a missed opportunity. They sold quite a lot of ukuleles over the weekend which, although they may be relatively cheap by musical instrument standards, are expensive items, but there was surprisingly little in the way of impulse purchases. I rather expected to see lots of T-shirts, cards, badges, novelty items and so on, but there was hardly anything of that sort. Somebody could really make a few quid there. The stalls were great, a wonderful opportunity for us both to play a wide selection of ukuleles, particularly handy as Emma is shopping for a new soprano at the moment. Hands on is really the only way to buy an instrument. There were several beautiful, eye-catching ukuleles we tried which sounded quite flat, dead or uninspiring when actually played, along with a few real surprises; you simply cannot judge a musical instrument on looks. The Ohana table was intriguing, although also rather confusing as around half of the ukuleles were not for sale, being prototypes or samples, and it was a little unclear as to what the stand was for. Since I already have an Ohana I just took the opportunity to try out some of their other models and a few sadly not destined for production.

There was a full lineup of acts from about one o’clock until almost eleven, so inevitably we missed a couple. By all accounts Sarah Maisel was fantastic, so it’s a pity that we were off doing other things and didn’t get to hear her. Sam Brown’s International Ukulele Club of Sonning Common started things off in hard-to-follow fashion, more than three dozen musicians, talented and well rehearsed, showing that ukulele clubs can be more than slavishly strumming “I’m a Believer” in unison.

Spot the luchadores.

Spot the luchadores.

At this stage we’re into low light pictures taken with my mobile ‘phone, so I’m afraid that the quality will be a little grainy.

The excellent crew cleared away the chairs and gear in short order, which did leave an unfortunately empty stage for Nicholas Abersold, making him appear rather lost and lonely and not making for the easiest setting for his performance. He might have done better if there’d been a smaller band on before him. Neither myself nor Emma had a clue what to make of Elof & Wamberg from the programme description, some sort of Nordic folk jazz duo apparently, but they were absolutely stunning. You know you’re watching real talent when someone like James Hill (with whom they have toured, it says here) joins them on stage for a number. Emma was particularly impressed with Ukulele Uff and Lonesome Dave, a duo I’d come across on YouTube last year but paid little attention to since. Their set could probably use a little work on pacing, as even when they slow things down they still rattle along at quite a rate, but you’re unlikely to see a more jaw-dropping demonstration of high speed right hand work on any stringed instrument. And Ukulele Uff is a Cliff Edwards fan, so there’s really nothing to be said against them.

Elof & Wamberg with James Hill. Full marks to Nicolaj Wamberg for the best trousers of the festival.

Elof & Wamberg with James Hill. Full marks to Nicolaj Wamberg for the best trousers of the festival.

Phil Doleman and Ian Emmerson, no longer performing as ukulele duo The Re-entrants but instead as a ukulele duo not called The Re-entrants, combined virtuosity with humour and relaxed patter that really made the fairly large hall seem more like an intimate front room gig. Many of the acts made us wish that they had more than half an hour available, certainly true of these two.

Lacking a zoom lens or the Hubble Space Telescope I couldn't even see the tiny uke played by Ian Emmerson here.

Lacking a zoom lens or the Hubble Space Telescope I couldn’t even see the tiny uke played by Ian Emmerson here.

Something very different for the show arrived in the shape of Mr B. the Gentleman Rhymer, whose act has been thoroughly tempered in the fires of clubs, cabarets and Glastonbury. The result was polished, energetic and not all about his banjolele, which might have caught some of the audience by surprise – I’m not entirely certain that jolly songs about crack cocaine and acid trips were quite the standard festival fare – but by the end of it he’d won the hall over, whether they previously knew hip-hop or not. The only pity was that, in a rare misstep by the sound crew, his vocals were a bit muffled at times.

2013-06-22 20.04.49

A little chap-hop history

I’ve skipped over many other acts, some very impressive and others hugely likeable (I wasn’t sure that I’d think much of The Winin’ Boys until frontman Fred took the stage and showed what a difference some personality makes to an act); only one that I saw was not at all to my taste, to the point that I left the hall to escape it, which is pretty good going for a full day of music. The evening ended with the biggest name at the festival, James Hill.

James Hill and Anne Janelle.

James Hill and Anne Janelle.

Accompanied by Anne Janelle, who could very easily have been high on the bill in her own right, James Hill presented such a seemingly effortless display of virtuosity and complete musical understanding that I was torn between being powerfully inspired or deciding to just jack it all in right there and throw my uke in the toilet. A genuine superstar of the ukulele world he not only performed his famous version of “Billie Jean” but also played the ukulele with chopsticks and a comb at one point. His voice sounded even better than on his last album, the songs were beautiful and his playing was quite breathtaking. Annoyingly, he is by all accounts a thoroughly nice chap and a real gent. A Faustian pact is the only possible explanation.

To finish off the night most of the acts returned to the stage for a terrific last song, in which James Hill showed that he can play the bloody violin as well.

Rock? Of course ukuleles can rock.

Rock? Of course ukuleles can rock.

The end of a fantastic day, with the promise of a great Sunday to follow and the Big Busk of all the festival goers playing together in the middle of town. My first music festival, certainly not my last. As a matter of fact I’m about to book tickets for another right now. Hats off to the organisers, attendees and performers at Cheltenham, a thoroughly enjoyable, utterly inspiring weekend.

Pity I forgot to put my hat down at the busk, though… might have made enough to cover lunch…

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Yes Sir, That’s My Baby

June 22, 2012 2 comments

Just in case.

Everyone is playing ukuleles these days, it seems. YouTube has allowed people to share their progress and performances with ease and the Internet generally has given us all instant access to more lessons, songs and inspiration than we could ever possibly hope to use. The little instrument is back in favour on a scale not seen since the fifties, shortly before Rock ‘n’ Roll persuaded everyone that they should be playing a guitar instead.

When I was a wee lad I had a few – a very few – music lessons, including several on the acoustic guitar, but I never made the slightest progress and couldn’t find an instrument for which I felt the slightest warmth or aptitude. Well, the flute seemed promising. At school they would occasionally have people come in with different instruments to encourage us to learn, so I gave the flute a go and was told, rather devastatingly, that my lips were too big. They thought I might be better with the trombone… Okay, not quite the same thing, but I was prepared to give it a try:

“We don’t do trombones,” they said.

Years later I’d seen and heard ukuleles and quite liked them, the sound appealed to me and they had a certain cheerfulness and lack of pomposity I found endearing, but the uke was a toy, a joke… it was Tiny Tim  rather than George Thorogood. The notion of wandering into a music shop (intimidating places at the best of times for the resolutely unmusical) and buying one was laughable. And then the wheel turned, ukes became popular again and people started making good ones in volume, easily available (via the Internet, for those still clinging to the embarrassment associated with displaying their musical ignorance in the shops); and The Lovely Emma bought me a ukulele for Christmas as I mentioned in an earlier post. Although she’s a trained and skilled violinist Em knew as little about ukuleles as I did at the time (perhaps less on the trivia side; certainly a little more as far as her knowledge of music and instruments extends), so she did a little research and in the end found a chap on eBay selling a package of ukulele with a simple case, electronic tuner and chord chart for a good price, branded as an “Hawaii Kai”. I was thrilled, particular when two things happened: firstly, I discovered that the instructions for the tuner were so poorly translated from Chinese that I’d been tuning the thing incorrectly for a week (although it was precisely, consistently incorrect); and secondly I started teasing recognisable tunes from the ukulele… actual music, haltingly played and with many fumbles and mistakes, but by George I was actually making swift progress! This is probably a major reason for the popularity of the ukulele, since virtually anyone can quickly reach a point where it’s clear that they’re getting better.

That eBay uke is made from a laminated wood, dyed to give a deep brown finish, and is fitted with guitar-style geared tuners rather than the friction pegs (much like the ones you’ll see on a violin) traditionally associated with soprano ukuleles. The seller changed the standard strings for a set of Aquila branded ones, which alone boosts the quality of sound dramatically. The result is a completely playable, excellent first instrument, more than adequate for testing the waters and finding out if I was really going to enjoy and continue playing it. Six months, one set of strings, several sore fingers and many hours of practice later I have no illusions that I’m actually any good when it comes to playing the ukulele, but I’m good enough to be enjoying it immensely and catching my first glimpses of what “real” musical types feel when they get lost in the simple delight of making music. I’m also at the stage where I can begin to tell the difference between a fault caused by my playing and one inherent to the particular instrument. The too-frequent “buzz” of the strings, the rough edges on the frets (cause of many a ripped and battered nail), a slight lack of volume and depth to the sound… it was time to think about stepping up to a slightly better instrument.

Compared to many other musical instruments, ukuleles are remarkably reasonably priced. A very good one indeed can be had for the cost of a pretty mediocre guitar, for instance. Taking into account my budget, level of ability (and the level I’m likely to achieve anytime soon) and the sort of music I most enjoy playing I narrowed the choices a little, with a couple of promising frontrunners: the Mainland Red Cedar Soprano and the Ohana SK-38. Clicking those links takes you to YouTube video overviews of the ukuleles; the Mainland video also conveniently discusses the Ohana SK-35, which was probably my third choice to try. The Lovely Emma and I drove out towards Huddersfield and the Eagle Music Shop, as far from the intimidating and unfriendly music stores I’d been into in the past as can be imagined. Seconds after walking in we were offered a cup of tea, so they won me over quite quickly. Eagle are apparently the only UK stockist for Mainland ukuleles, which made their relative proximity to us a stroke of luck. I’d contacted them a while ago asking whether they could get the Mainlands with some of the options offered on the company’s own website, such as friction tuners, and a few weeks later received an email letting me know that they had a red cedar soprano in stock with friction pegs. Unsurprisingly, it had sold by the time we were able to make a visit to the shop, but I knew they had similar models so I’d be able to play a few and get an idea of the sound. Unfortunately, according to their website Eagle didn’t carry the Ohana SK-38, but the SK-35 is similar, so again I was intending to get a feel for the general tone and differences between the ukuleles and then most likely put in an order for my exact choice.

The ukuleles were in a small room, dominated by a wall of banjos (which made an incredible sounding board, bouncing the noise from the ukuleles back as we strummed… bit of an expensive option for the house, perhaps…). There was a nice display of Mainland models, including the wonderful pineapple version of the cedar soprano, but no sign of an Ohana SK-35. There was an SK-38, though. Eagle, it seems, don’t update their website terribly often. As it happens, Southern Ukulele Store, who do update their site frequently, had put a couple of SK-38s onto eBay for £149.99 (plus postage) two days earlier, following months when that model had been out of stock almost everywhere; Eagle were selling the same model for £184.99.

Picking it up the first impression was of remarkable lightness. Instead of the laminated wood of my other uke, the SK-38 is made from sheets of solid wood, incredibly thin pieces of mahogany. Along with the friction tuner pegs it made for an astonishing difference in weight. A quick tune-up, then a strum and… oh my. What a rich, beautiful sound.

It’s an odd instrument in some ways, particularly in the fact that it has a “reliced” finish (which I am fairly sure is a made up word, certainly one I had to check. Turns out it’s not re-liced, which is presumably what happens if your kids get nits for a second time) intended to make it look like an old instrument, specifically a Martin Style 2. I was prepared to be disappointed and dismiss that as a gimmick, but the simple fact is that the SK-38 is a lovely thing in its own right. The wood is gorgeous, imperfect and natural-looking in a way that the laminate can never be. Still, I wanted to take my time and try a few instruments, not make a snap decision. The Mainland surprised me, with a very sharp, somewhat harsh sound. Loud and clear, it nevertheless didn’t feel as friendly as the Ohana; it may well be the superior choice for playing in a group, though, as the softer, mellow tone of the Ohana certainly doesn’t project quite as well (having said that, it’s like a cannon going off when compared to the Hawaii Kai). The rest of the room was crammed with all manner of ukuleles, including a resonator model (originally developed in pre-amplification days to allow guitars to be heard over the sound of a band: it sounded bloody awful to me, though), different sizes of traditional ukes, and a couple of banjo ukuleles, so Em and I played a few and played a few more, then went back and played the first ones again…

In the end nothing spoke to me quite like that Ohana. Only the price was a problem, since I couldn’t justify spending the extra, but didn’t want to walk away from the shop and order online having had such a positive experience with them, and such a beneficial one since it was the first chance I’d had to compare so many models. I mentioned the price… and a few minutes later was told that they’d match the online figure plus postage. And that sound you can hear is the echo of my resolve crumbling. I bought the Ohana.

Not to be outdone, The Lovely Emma bought a case for her Makala Dolphin. She’s been after a protective hard case for a while but was adamant about not spending very much at all. In the end she bought one that cost more than her ukulele did… but it is rather lovely:

The ukulele music I particularly love tends to be popular tunes from the 1920s and 1930s, especially the sort of thing you can hear Cliff Edwards play (try “Night Owl“, a great favourite, then search his name on YouTube for plenty of others. There are some excellent CD compilations available, too), and a great many of the top players back then chose Martin ukuleles. These days, Martin are finding their feet again as a ukulele manufacturer after many years of little or no involvement in the industry, but the old Martins are greatly sought after. For many people, the classic old mahogany Martins are the ukuleles, so it’s no surprise that Ohana chose to make an affordable modern interpretation of one (prices for the originals are, frankly, terrifying). Funnily enough, looking at the Hawaii Kai next to the Ohana it’s obvious that the basic laminate instrument is very much a rough copy of the old Martins too. Without knowing my preference for that sort of look and sound (and to be honest I’m not sure that I was entirely aware of it until recently) The Lovely Emma somehow managed to buy me a ukulele that looked the part, even if the sound couldn’t hope to compare. The Ohana looks a little fancier, but not much at first glance. It’s fairly plain, understated – especially when you look at the prominent rope-style purfling on the Mainland models – and thankfully not “reliced” in a tacky and obvious way. It’s an instrument that begs you to put on a fedora and play it until the sun comes back up, perfect for those classic tunes. Despite that, I couldn’t resist spending much of last night playing “Fat Bottomed Girls” in a chirpy music hall style, because quite honestly I play these things for fun, not from any delusions of authenticity or talent. Sounded damn good, too.

Categories: Cliff Edwards, Ohana, Ukulele

Rock and Roll, without the Boogie

“Book of the Week”… presumably it won’t go off if you read it the week after.

Combine ukuleles and books and there is one inevitable result: the punning title.

Clearly I’m not going to throw stones here, since in this respect I live in the glassiest of glass houses; and anyway, this sort of thing has a very long and noble tradition, going back at least as far as the great May Singhi Breen who liked to push her New Ukulele Method book with the slogan “Uke Can Play the Melody”. Putting out a book with even the most tangential ukulele connection and not rolling out the puns would seem like something of a betrayal.

In the case of this particular book the author has the added advantage of a surname already primed to pun. The result is The Uke of Wallington: One Man and His Ukulele Round Britain, the latest book from Mark Wallington and his first travel book since, I believe, 1996’s Pennine Walkies. Not that he has been idle since then, as Mr Wallington is also well known as a writer for television and of books which have been adapted for television, but I suspect that all of us who had read his travelling tales in the past had assumed that we were not likely to see another. And then Lo! not only does he write a book about a blissfully pointless journey across Britain but it’s got a bloody ukulele in it. Things were looking good.

My copy arrived yesterday afternoon; I finished it later that evening, an indication that I was rather enjoying it and also, perhaps, that I do not exactly pack my weekends with ambitious goals beyond doing a few chores and putting my feet up. A few weeks ago one of these chores was the painful process of deciding which books to send to the local charity shop (not too painful in the case of several Orson Scott Card novels, I might add), when I noticed that for some reason I not only had a copy each of Wallington’s 500 Mile Walkies and Boogie Up the River but also two copies of Pennine Walkies. They all went into the charity shop box: these were the paperbacks and I also have them in hardback copies, which I have kept along with a hardback of his Destination Lapland. At that point I decided to check if Mark Wallington had succumbed to the lure of Twitter, discovering that indeed he had and finding through his Tweets that a new book was on its way soon… and here we are.

The premise is simple: a man in his late fifties gets together with friends to form a rock and roll band they call The Elderly Brothers. Stardom fails to beckon. Stardom, indeed, gives an embarrassed cough and tries not to catch their gaze. The band splits and Our Hero realises, as he has always known, that lacking youth and novelty as well as real musical talent he has missed his chance to make any sort of splash in popular music, so he does what any sane person would do under such circumstances and starts playing the ukulele. This leads to the idea of touring Britain with the uke, playing at a venue and then moving on, in a vaguely northerly direction until reaching Cape Wrath, at which point geography does rather force one to turn around. Clearly an unknown player with a limited repertoire of Chuck Berry numbers at his disposal is never going to be in demand for bookings, so Mr Wallington hops aboard a bus – not a flash tour bus, just a bus – and sets off to find a string of “open mic” nights in pubs and clubs across the country. No pay, no guarantee of being able to play, no guarantee that the venue is even still there and still running an open mic.

Mark Wallington’s earlier travel books set a particular tone, where the writer places himself squarely as Everyman, someone we can relate to, someone who does not seem to outclass the rest of us in his talents and retains an admirable ability to either say the wrong thing to the wrong person or to have his cheerful pleasantries hopelessly misunderstood. In 500 Mile Walkies: One Man and a Dog Versus the South West Peninsular Path he was the woefully under-prepared hiker setting off to walk a coastal path with inadequate boots, borrowed equipment and somebody else’s dog. The sequel, Boogie Up the River: One Man and His Dog to the Source of the Thames, had him rowing an elderly skiff on his quest, despite exhibiting no relevant skills. And so on. It’s an understandable stance, particularly for humorous travel books where nobody is going to find a mother lode of belly laughs in tales of a well-equipped camper who uses all the right gear and his extensive skills to pass several very comfortable nights in the wild, thanks very much. These are also books where the supposed purpose of the journey – reaching Dorset, finding the source of the Thames, cycling to Lapland or whatever – is clearly not the point at all, merely an excuse. The Uke of Wallington continues in this vein, with the journey itself, the locations and people, being the real point.

As you might expect there are amusing encounters with bus-riding pensioners, cheerfully stoic or perpetually grumbling British holidaymakers, deluded performers, eccentric landladies and plenty of people who are perfectly happy that their regular turn at an open mic night is the closest they are ever going to get to celebrity. There are attractive seaside towns and crumbling industrial relics. What there isn’t is anything especially surprising to either a British reader or a reader of previous similar British travel books. As well as Mark Wallington’s own efforts this is quite familiar ground to fans of Bill Bryson and others. Familiarity certainly fails to breed contempt in this case, however, and if you’re after frequent chuckles rather than biting satire, genial observations rather than painful insights, then you’ll find page after page of them here. The book may not break new ground, but it does prove to be a very amiable companion along the way regardless. Less early P.J. O’Rourke and more PJs and an early night.

I used to read an awful lot of travel books, particularly the quirky and personal accounts proliferating throughout the eighties and nineties, and after a short time it became all too obvious that finding a fresh reason to take the trip, a hook for the book, was becoming difficult in a crowded publishing market. No longer could a book about merely walking across Europe hope to easily find an audience. Increasingly the shelves became overloaded with tales of people retracing historical journeys in period costume, riding unicycles across the arctic or crossing oceans in boats made from old copies of National Geographic. The novelty factor became so desperate that it inevitably obscured the reasons why people tended to enjoy such books in the first place. With his first travel book Mr Wallington hit upon an entirely brilliant and possibly wholly unintentional twist, undertaking the walk with a dog. Someone else’s dog. More than that, a thoroughly disreputable and rather unpleasant dog who nevertheless had an overabundance of star quality, the poster dog for dogs who were never likely to appear on posters. The dog was called Boogie and he was all that was needed to lift the story of a long walk up to a higher level of travel writing. It’s probably not a coincidence that the travel books featuring Boogie are still in print, whereas Destination Lapland, which is in many ways the same sort of book but features a journey by bicycle and does not include a dog, is not. The public do love a mutt.

The Uke of Wallington does not feature a dog either. I’m rather glad of that, to be honest. The original Boogie is long gone and his replacement in Pennine Walkies with a different dog smacked just a little of resting on one’s laurels, of trying to do more of the same even though it couldn’t happen, like a band reunion years after an acrimonious breakup followed by the death of several key original members. I wondered if the publisher was behind that decision; maybe they were, I’ve actually no idea. Unfortunately, I do feel that The Uke of Wallington misses a trick slightly, because while we did not need an actual dog here there’s definitely a sense that the role filled by Boogie is left glaringly vacant. The truth is, the ukulele ought to be a character. About all that we know of Mr Wallington’s travelling companion is that it was a gift and is carried in his rucksack with a mitten stuck over the end of it. That’s something at least; and I certainly wouldn’t want page after page devoted to exhaustive detail of the brand, the type of strings used or even the history of the instrument. The trouble is, it’s often almost as though the ukulele isn’t there at all, despite the fact that a lot of the book is about the performances. It has no character, there’s no mention of its particular quirks beyond those common to any ukulele. That does seem a shame and an opportunity missed to add a bit of colour here and there. This isn’t really a double act, but I rather wish it were.

So, after a long, long wait we have another Mark Wallington travel book. It’s a lot like the previous ones, which is no bad thing as far as I’m concerned even though I regret that it isn’t apparently available in hardback. The style hasn’t changed much over the years, although I’m pleased that the running gags, which became a little too contrived in the later Boogie books, are handled more easily and naturally here. Ukulele fans might hope for a bit more ukulele, whereas anyone looking for a good-natured wander across Britain will probably be very satisfied. It may not be Travels with Charley or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas but it is a thoroughly enjoyable read with enough laughs to keep me going through to the end in a single sitting.

The Uke of Wallington: One Man and His Ukulele Round Britain is published in paperback by AA Publishing, priced £8.99.

Walking the Black Dog? Put your Wellies on…

February 4, 2012 5 comments

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.