Alex James: The Great Escape

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The Independent Online

Nine months I've been tapping away in my pantry, tout seul, writing my autobiography. How easy it seems to write songs when you're writing a book. How easy it seems to do anything except write books. And how easy and infinitely wonderful it is to do nothing at all.

Since January, when I began writing, I've replied to every e-mail, text, fax, phone call, instant message, letter and casual caller I've had, I've removed thistles and dandelions from various lawns and I've learnt to play the mandolin and the ukulele - the pantry is home to my more obscure instruments. My euphonium-honking skills have also improved.

Ukes and mandolins are the musical equivalent of pedalos. You look a little bit silly when you are using one but once you're actually in there doing it, you can't really go wrong. There's nothing to it and it feels good no matter what anyone might think.

Ukuleles are having something of a renaissance. They're hotter than art in the big houses. It's no use owning a Damien Hirst, or even having seen his willy, if you haven't got a ukulele to talk about. In fact, if I'm coming for dinner I don't want to see your smart-arse contemporary art portfolio, I want to hear you play "When I'm Cleaning Windows".

It's impossible to play a "Hawaiian banjo" without smiling. There are no laments or dirges in any ukulele songs. And with the possible exception of the bass guitar it's the closest anyone has come to making a musical apparatus everyone can master in 20 minutes.

The euphonium is trickier to steer. It's more like manoeuvring a punt. You have to and aim it very carefully. Large brass instruments seem to run in our family, like big ears. There is a stately quality to the sound of a euphonium, which impresses a certain class of lady, but it's highly unstable in a novice's hands and there's always a danger of falling off the groove, crashing into the drums or capsizing into the fundamental, but I digress. As usual.

The most productive environment for writing books would be a cold white box with no windows or euphoniums, an uncomfortable chair and a computer that doesn't connect to the "Funky Junk" website every time I switch it on, but if I'd lived like that, I don't suppose the book would be worth reading.

I laid the final full stop in place at 5am yesterday and whizzed it off to publisher, agent and wife. No one had seen a word of it until then. I'm far too conceited to worry. All conceit starts with a profound sense of art, or maybe it's the other way round, but it's rare to finish anything with no one else being involved. Even records are made by committee, and major works of art have always reflected the tastes of the people who buy them. I suppose a life is the ultimate work of art and it was refreshing to be as self-indulgent with my recollections as I was when I was playing the part.