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 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 Aloha!

 Tom Hodgkinson is  editor of ‘The Idler’

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Marketing Manager - Central London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Campaigns, Offlin...

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

1st Line Service Desk Analyst

£27000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client who are...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Huxley Associates

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Huxley Associates are currentl...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Norovirus the food poisoning bug that causes violent stomach flu  

A flu pandemic could decide next year’s election

Matthew Norman
J. Jayalalithaa gestures to her party supporters while standing on the balcony of her residence in Chennai. Former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram is one of India's most colourful and controversial politicians  

The jailing of former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram is a drama even Bollywood couldn’t produce

Andrew Buncombe
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style