Tom Hodgkinson: Bore them round the campfire? You ought to be ashamed of yourselves


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As a hack myself, I ought not to be surprised if I myself become the victim of hackery. But last week I was royally stitched-up and for a moment, I confess, I had a sense of humour failure.

It was over ukuleles. My new book The Ukulele Handbook is coming out and, being a self-promoting media whore who also needs to earn a living, I am keen to publicise this excellent manual (co-written with Gavin Pretor-Pinney, £14.99, Bloomsbury).

Having already written about it here, I emailed the editor of another Sunday supplement about the book. "How fabulous!" she replied. "Would deffo like to do something on this." I was commissioned to write 10 tips and facts about the ukulele. A jolly young woman at the paper was deputised to write a piece to run alongside mine and she emailed me to ask for a couple of contacts. This was all going rather well, I thought.

When the thrilling Sunday of publication arrived, I asked my co-author whether he had seen the piece. I could hardly wait to see it myself. A joyous celebration of the humble ukulele! Yes, he wrote to me in an email. It's out. And he sent me the headline: "Please Make it Stop: it's loved by smug hipsters and twee dads. Has the ukulele become the most irritating instrument ever?"

It got worse. My own top tips box, which I had considered a masterpiece of wit, was graced with the headline: "Bore Them Round the Campfire". And the ukulele, they said, is loved by men going through their midlife crisis. Ouch. I had thought I was just a fun-loving cheerful spreader of joy.

To make matters worse, in the same issue, the mag ran a fawning interview with the rich, vain dress designer Tom Ford, who boasted first that he had not had botox for 18 months and then that he exulted in selling overpriced dresses to the super-wealthy of the world. And he's supposed to be some sort of role model? Jeez. "I bet if I had a multimillion-pound advertising budget like him they wouldn't laugh at me," I reflected.

I went to bed in a rage. How would I take my revenge? "That was a really mean-spirited piece," I would tell them in an email. "You ought to be ashamed of yourselves." Or maybe I should write a letter to the editor. "Sir, your correspondent's article on the ukulele made an effort to be waggish, but succeeded only in embarrassing her and your paper with its witless clichés." No, too pompous. "How does it feel to destroy someone's career and livelihood as a career move?" Too desperate.

The next morning I decided it was best ignored. Who cares, I said to myself, without huge conviction. I felt like Derek Zoolander, who, when stitched up in a cover story for Time magazine with the headline "A Model Idiot", responds to the journalist behind the piece: "Lucky for me that no one reads your little Time magazine, or whatever it's called."

Anyway, if I must write a book about the ukulele, I have to expect some ribbing. Mocking the uke, after all, has been a time-honoured sport since the beginning. PG Wodehouse mocked the uke when he got Bertie Wooster playing one. Jeeves actually quits Bertie's service in protest, and Sir Roderick Glossop fumes: "For weeks, it appears, you have been making life hell for all your neighbours with some hideous musical instrument."

A wag on the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1927: "They say that for many years no one knew who invented the ukulele. At last the offender, conscience-stricken, surrendered himself to the authorities and was duly hanged." In an episode of Roseanne, 1960s uke star Tiny Tim makes a guest appearance and duly has his instrument smashed up by John Goodman. "That happens a lot!" says Tim. Even in 1886, when the uke had only just arrived in Hawaii, it had its enemies: a newspaper columnist in that year described it as a "hideous small Portuguese instrument".

I imagine that a higher-up told the young hack to be snide. She would have agreed as a career move. And anyway, I did something similar when I was young: I wrote a story about comedians at open-mic nights, and interviewed one regular performer. I don't suppose he was very amused when he opened the paper and saw the headline: "Is this Britain's unfunniest comedian?"

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'

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