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Tom Hodgkinson: 'Jeremy Clarkson howled with horror and crawled under the table to escape'


Competitions, awards ceremonies and contests of strength have been with us at least since the Ancient Greeks first invented poetry slams in the agora of Athens. We love battles, rituals and spectacles, and we love crowning victors with the laurel or bays. I’m glad that the progressive educationalists who reject competition in the classroom are retreating today. Imagine if they had got their hands on football. “We shouldn’t publish league tables. They damage the teams' self-esteem."

Lists of bad things are popular. When  The Idler launched its Crap Towns book,  we released a list of the country’s “10 worst towns” and the book’s young compilers  found themselves on television debating  with the august Simon Jenkins. The book  sold more than 100,000 copies.

Our latest wheeze, and perhaps a more positive one, is the Ukulele Player of the  Year competition, designed to coincide  with the release of my new book, The  Ukulele Handbook, co-written with my  old friend Gavin Pretor-Pinney.

Gavin and I have long been uke fans. We were both taken by the charms of this little four-stringed guitar in 2006, which is the year that uke evangelist Matthew Reynolds opened The Duke of Uke, his specialist ukulele and banjo shop near Brick Lane, in the East End  of London. I used to go and hang around  there and help sweep the floor.

With a ukulele, you don’t need to spend 14 years at the conservatoire: you can pick it up and be playing three chords within an hour. And instead of mutely worshipping at the shrine of those false gods U2 and Coldplay, you can be a star in your own sitting-room or pub or village hall. The ukulele puts music in the hands of the people. It is also supremely well-suited for playing in convivial groups.  I have long been convinced of the power of merry-making to alleviate depression, and the ukulele cheers you up. It cheers up the people you’re with. It practically forces you to smile.

Most people, that is. Not everyone is captivated by its charms. I remember getting my ukulele out at a dinner party at the Hay literary festival one year and handing out song  sheets for a singalong.

One of the guests was Jeremy Clarkson, and instead of joining in, he howled with horror and crawled under the table to escape the indignity of singing “You Are My Sunshine”  in a group after dessert.

Still, he is in a minority. It is the joyful spirit of the  uke that captivated George Formby and helped him delight a nation in the 1930s and 1940s. Over the course of its 134-year history, it has also found fans as disparate as Robert Louis Stevenson, Nancy Mitford, George Harrison, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Frank Skinner  and Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas.

With the uke, you can sing and play at  the same time. You can experience the  pure unalloyed bliss of singing in a choir.  But it also brings the joyful Hawaiian spirit  of aloha to these grey islands. With a ukulele in your hand, you are no longer a miserable wage slave, but a sexually liberated free spirit by the sea, sitting in Honolua Bay with  your beloved, both wearing leis, gazing at the sunset, with Mai Tais at your elbows. We reckon that the “small guitar” which the Owl plays to the Pussycat in  Edward Lear’s well-known Victorian  escape fantasy was probably a forerunner of the ukulele.

The world of the ukulele, then, is  a friendly, pleasure-loving, egalitarian one. It is all about retreating from the workaday world and quitting the rat race.

But the uke has been, perhaps, a little  too friendly, too floppy. And that is why it seems a good idea to introduce a bit of  competitive edge. So it is with this in mind  that the Ukulele Player of the Year competition will take place at the Idler Academy in London on 20 September.  We are looking for six finalists, who we’ll  have selected from all the entries. If  there are any ukulele players out there, please record a clip of yourself playing  a tune and upload it to YouTube or Vimeo or similar, then  send the link to madeleine.feeny@bloomsbury.com. Aloha!

 Tom Hodgkinson is  editor of ‘The Idler’