Graham Higgins Illustration - Literate Graffiti Dept.

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July 29, 2011

29-6-11 Wholly Hollesley

Hollesley 2011
Years ago I had a call from an editor at DC comics in New York to say he’d be out of the office for a few days, visiting friends in Reno. I know nothing about Reno except it sounded like it belonged in a Western and I said as much; American place names very often have a ring of myth about them missing from Cleethorpes, Basingstoke or Runcorn.
He pointed out that when he was touring in the UK he’d find himself asking for directions to towns marked on the map as Little St. Mary’s Under Ditheridge which turned out to be pronounced Lambsditch. That was part of the romance of British geography for an American.
Months ago I was invited to experience the Hollesley Ukulele Jamboree 2011 in Suffolk. I only found after I’d parked the car on site that it’s pronounced Hoseley. I don’t know what my New York colleague would’ve made of nearby Ho’sly Be’ach.
I don’t know either how many have to be gathered together to constitute A Festival. I’m reminded of a Bill Tidy cartoon ‘Oh come on, Ghengis, we only need one more to make a horde’. A couple of hundred in all, enthusiasts plus friends and family?
The HUJ gathers in a holiday camping-site. You can walk easily around it in about five minutes. Step out of the car and you hear ukulele strums near and far like birdsong. Lay out a sheet of music to strum and sing and within minutes you’re likely to be surrounded by wandering uke-ists like sparrers drawn to a bird-table.
As at similar gatherings of scooter-clubs and hot-car modifiers, punctuating the buskathon there are intense show-and-tell discussions between ukuluthiers about the handbuilt variations they’ve assembled and displayed on builders’ online forums.
Clifford has found cunning ways to use laser-cutters and in one experiment has pressed a Citroen hub-cap into service as a resonator cone; Sven has travelled from Sweden with his family and acts as a consulting field-surgeon to a steady trickle of enthusiasts, refining their instruments with a kit including teeny-weeny luthiers’ planes you could use as Monopoly pieces; deals are made over sheets and short planks of Suitable Wood for necks and facias; arcane know-how is exchanged about how unlikely bric-a-brac and salvage can be assembled and coaxed to yield music. Cigar-boxes are pretty routine, oil-cans aren’t unknown.
Electric ukes are a bit marginal in these circles, as electric planks would be at guitar-builders’ conventions; electric instruments share characteristics of the acoustic versions but behave very differently. Their design is more to do with getting the circuitry and the action right than making the wood sing. You can buy off-the-shelf acoustic Flying-V’s and Les Paul cutaway novelty ukes but they’re not known for great sound. There’s a whole area of extravagant whimsy yet to be explored here; my left-handedness has preserved me from several thousand pounds I might have squandered on ooh-shiny boys’ toys flashing their fetching curves and luscious paint-jobs from music-shop racks.
My host for the weekend, Prof Chris, took one description of the banjolele, ‘a drum on a stick’ – George Formby’s instrument of choice curls the lip of hardcore ukistas – and built his Little Hooligan series from hand-drums bought off eBay. I own the second; the third was donated as a prize in the Saturday Raffle and the winner was being offered substantial three-figure sums for it within the hour. He’d advised that if my ticket won I should grab Sven’s svelte sopranino. Since uke-owners rarely stop at just the one, keen eyes are cast over covetable concubines; Rufus keeps a domestic harem of 40 on a wall at home, though he’s been obliged to fit a second picture-rail.
I’d missed the Friday Night open mic session in the marquee but Saturday evening was definitely worth perching on the hay-bale seating for. First up was Simon – it’s all first names here – with a soprano uke arrangement of The Velvet Underground’s ‘Sister Ray’. I first heard the original, a relentless churning 18-minute miasma of garage sleaze taking up most of one side of the White Light White Heat LP, about 40 years ago and revisit it every couple of years. Like vindaloo, it takes a while to forget how deeply unsettling it is and to foolishly imagine that this time you’ve got its measure.
This performance presents a different take on off-kilter, summoning up the spirit of John Otway.
The massed ukulele-power of SOUP – South Ockendon Ukulele Players, or is that Philharmonic? The tiny stage overflows with the pluckers – provided my high-spot of the night with their version of Chas’n’Dave’s ‘London Girls’, a number I’d never heard before but for my money, better than the original.
Top spot by a narrow margin, set beside Yan Yalego – my companion, a connoisseur, leans close to murmur ‘…a *serious* player…’ – and The Re-Entrants, two guys playing classic stadium rock and pop hits on two ukes, with that winning combination of profligate virtuosity and stand-up comedy. After their opening number, Take That’s “Let It Shine”, I thought oh yeah, a covers band. A couple of songs later I was smitten.
They announced from the stage that they’d just got a support-slot for Amy Winehouse. We cheered. I remembered someone’s line that her name was French for ‘Likes The Pub’. I thought they’d be a great counterpoint to her darkening repertoire.
We drove back to our hosts’ place in Woodbridge on Sunday afternoon to be greeted with the news that Amy Winehouse had been found dead. It was one of those rock RIPs that qualifies as a not-unexpected surprise. Some learn wisdom through excess; sometimes the excess gets them first.

  1. Oh, this does look fun! The friendly-enthusiast feel of a traction-engine rally, with more music and less soot. If I didn’t already have Enough Hobbies…

    Comment by Sue Jones — July 30, 2011 @ 8:03 am

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