Ukulele Lockdown: The Numbers

Since we got locked down (locked in, maybe?) in the middle of March, our engagement with the exterior world has radically changed. Out less (not at all if you can help it, or once a day for exercise), not in groups, working from home, or perhaps furloughed. I don’t know about you, but I was online much more – for work, for social interaction, for entertainment, and of course the necessary doomscrolling, where we let the wash of awful envelope us with a relentless swish of the thumb. It’s been a time, and we’re not even out of it yet.

But alongside the well-intentioned physical habits we’ve been encouraged to take up – the daily constitutional or, when that doesn’t manage to happen, running up and down the stairs several times – and the Calvinistic improving ones (in my case, Spanish on Duolingo: going for a 90-day streak tonight!), I picked up an odd one: ukulele videos. It started at Easter weekend, when I decided to share some original songs of mine in an immediate fashion. “Daughters of Etobicoke” was written on Maundy Thursday, “Mercy” on Good Friday, and then “A Passionate Year” which was not written on Easter but name-checks it in the first line (“There’s a lesson we learn every Easter…”)

It was fun, and I fancied I might keep going for a while. I even gave it a hashtag, #UkuleleLockdown, which had been *very* lightly used at that point by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and someone who was learning the instrument during lockdown. It existed, but not in a major way. I learned that you can post a video directly to Twitter so long as it’s 2:20 or fewer (140 seconds, which parallels the number of characters you were originally allowed in a Tweet, in case you’re baffled at the seemingly arbitrary figure). That was a constraint I could work with, which made recording on the ol’ iPad pretty easy. I kept it pretty low-maintenance, so only one or two takes unless I was really struggling, and just a minimum edit, topping and tailing to make it fit and sometimes fading out at 2:19 if the song couldn’t be shoehorned into the time constraint. Even with the slow upload onto Twitter and Facebook, the whole thing could be accomplished inside half an hour.

My studio, during “This New Spark of Life”. Photo by Katie Munnik

Some people – especially those who would not identify as ukulele lovers – asked why: why this instrument, why this vehicle for sharing? Well, I didn’t want to obsess over a high-quality output, because I’ve put studio-quality recordings together that I have spent some time and effort on. This is meant to be free, quick, and easy. Maybe it’s a pick-me-up for someone (the ukulele is famously cheerful), and maybe some friends and family will make a point of tuning in. The smallness of the instrument and the enterprise gave some unity to the project, and it was something I could do every day.

And every day I did, bar one, up until last Thursday. Continue reading

What I’m reading this month – Feb 2020

Cover image of Tristan Hughes's Send My Cold Bones HomeHaving finally got to (and through) Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, my next reading port of call was Tristan Hughes‘s Send My Cold Bones Home. This was my book-shaped Christmas present this year from my wife, and it was a very sensible pick. It’s local in more ways than one: a book about Wales written by a Welsh resident author and published by one of this nation’s stellar small presses, Parthian Books. But Hughes is also a Canadian, born in Atikokan, Ontario (home, as I learned to my joy-chagrin, of the White Otter Inn and no immediately other discernable place for coffee). He left as a young child, just as we have translocated some of our Ontario-born children, and the move most definitely stuck for Hughes, though he travels back often. It makes me wonder what perspective my kids will have on Canada as they age. I read Hughes’s most recent book, Hummingbird, a couple of years ago, set in that vast, underpopulated and overmosquitoed territory of northern Ontario, and he’s just as comfortable there as on Anglesey, Ynys Môn. He’s got a broad palette, and I hope they will, too.

Send My Cold Bones Home is a really good follow to Tokarczuk, instantiating in a more traditional novel form the ideas that she riffed on through glimpses, snatches of story, and psychological musings. Here again we have a character unwilling to stand still – perhaps incapable of it. Jonathan Hall was set on this path, we learn, though his unstable father, abetted by his sadly compliant mother. Jonathon’s father,

having built up a new store of debt and dissatisfaction, would simply up sticks and leave, hurtling us (there was only my mother and I) on towards the next destination, all the while accumulating fresh reserves of failure and bitterness in much the same way tourists accumulate mementoes and keepsakes – until each of our new houses was more densely decorated with misery than the last.

This sounds grim, and indeed it is, but Jonathon’s father seems never happier than when he’s taking his family off to the next place, which because it is unknown is therefore quite possibly the best place, whilst what they leave becomes one more in a litany of what he derides as “shitholes”. Jonathon, as soon as he is able, rejects this pattern and leaves home, but of course he also inhabits it, wandering the earth with no real connection to places or people. His mother’s death and the secret of a family cottage on Ynys Môn give him the chance to experiment with another way of living. Continue reading

What I read this month – Jan 2020

Usually I try to post a blog near the beginning of the month with a look at what I’m reading or planning to read over the month. It’s been an unusual month, however, in that post-Christmas and winding up space, with plenty of projects on the go and marking to be done. So here we are, Burns Night (or St Dwynwyn’s Day, as some of the Welsh luvvies have it… plus Chinese New Year, so gung hay fat choy for your Year of the Rat), and I just finished Olga Tokarczuk’s remarkable book Flights, so I thought I’d briefly write about it here.

cover image of Olga Tokarczuk's Flights Savvy readers (there must be one or two of you out there) will recall that I put this on my to-read list for October, conveniently timed after her Nobel Prize win. We happened to be going to the bookshop anyway so the kids could spend their Granny-gifted book tokens, and there it was. The news so fresh, it didn’t yet have a sticker which the clever Fitzcarraldo people have since added to it – a transparent sticker identifying her Nobel win. It’s a shame, because the gorgeous simplicity of the cover is what drove me to Tokarczuk in the first place, when I spotted Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead last year. This edition did have a sticker on it helpfully telling me it won the Man Booker International Prize for 2018, but I pulled it off and stuck it on an inside page. Why let the prizes that support book sales get in the way of aesthetics?

I did not, however, get to it then. Instead, it’s been my bedside table companion through most of January. And it’s been productive – the general motif of flight and human motion helped me with some other writing I’ve been doing this week, whilst the final narrative we get in the book has me kicking myself for not becoming an expert on ancient Greece instead of contemporary media engagement with Muslims… I doubt anyone will invite me to give lectures on an island-hopping cruise through the Dodecanese when I’m retired, and all I can do now is feel bad about my decisions. Continue reading

Bloody heroes

Michael Munnik showing his bandaged arm after a platelets donation, next to a sign encouraging donations at Christmas timeOne of the reasons my wife and I were happy to emigrate to the UK nine-and-a-half years ago was to enter into a different way of living. We love Canada, but some things about it rub at us, and one of those is the car culture. Investment in public transit is lower than here, and roads proliferate like replicating aliens from a cheesy horror movie. Big, fat ones, too, that force people into large, noisy metal boxes and then devour them. The scale is just wrong. I remember driving down the West Coast after high school from Nanaimo all the way to Ashland, Oregon with a friend. Our return journey coincided with Seattle’s rush hour, and we were jammed on the I-5 when we noticed that the bus and carpool lane was open for vehicles with two more more occupants.

Two.

I need to separate that to emphasise it: that’s how low the bar was. So we two, at the back end of a camping and theatre jolly, sped our merry way, passing all these legitimate commuters in their one-apiece cars, driving out from work to their impossible personal footprints.

I was happy enough to sell my car when we moved over here, and for nine years, we haven’t needed it. Correction: for nine-and-a-half years, we haven’t needed one. Gotten on fine with buses and trains, of course bikes, and hiring a car wen we have a longer trip to take.

But when we visited old neighbours now moved to the north of Italy this summer, part of the deal was to buy their old people-mover and drive it back here. At that point, we’d either keep it or sell it. For the time being, we’ve kept it: it proved useful for getting visiting grannies around, and it did give me some spontaneity and flexibility when seeking a new guitar.

Something else it has done is allowed me to return to a very helpful practice that has actually been an important part of my life for a few years, now. Continue reading

What I’m reading this month – Dec 2019

Reading took a back seat last month to my adventures in guitar buying. Well, I mean, I was still reading, but it didn’t seem the time to write about it.

Cover image of John Lanchester’s The WallAnd it’s not like there weren’t other things to think about besides. Beyond the general Brexit angst that has become our oxygen, we had acute alertness with the election campaign. And bundled in with all of that, I and colleagues not just at Cardiff University but across the land were on strike for eight days.

This is ideal ferment, really, for reading John Lanchester’s new novel, The Wall. It’s not about what we’re in, but it’s certainly about where we’re going. Or where we might be going if we don’t heed the call etc. This is not a new theme for dystopian literature, but the title is drawn from very present-day dystopian concerns. The very word is associated with Donald Trump, though this is set in a not too distant future Britain, with a wall of its own, a rising tide to contend with, and an exceptionally brutal way to deal with immigrants.

All citizens, we learn, serve two years on the wall. Conscription is back, and it is of a most Switzerlandian kind: Britain is not preparing to make war on other territories or come to the aid of those unjustly treated by their neighbours. It is about defending this island with all of its coastline. Two years, twelve hours on and twelve hours off, two weeks on and two weeks resting or training, and then you’re done and never have to look on it or think of it again, citizen. And we mean it – you can trust us. This is also a theme in the book.

Typical of its oeuvre, our narrator will get to experience the full gamut of prescribed scenarios on and off the wall. When you begin to read it, or even when you just read the blurb, you can get a pretty good idea of the narrative that will unfold. Not much in this is surprising. The question we’re meant to think through is “why” – what happened to put these terrible scenarios in place? If you’re paying attention to the headlines, you can make some good guesses here, too. What shocked me most, I think, was the coldness with which the narrator and his generation judge their parents and grandparents, the ones who let this happen. They know their present and future was stolen by selfish inaction not many decades ago. (And if we’re listening to our climate strikers, even this should not surprise.) Continue reading

“Everybody knows it can’t be good/ To spend all your money on what you should”: Guitar weeping, Part III

Michael Munnik's reflection in the glossy finish on a cedar-topped Tanglewood acoustic guitarOk. Having committed to the idea that I need a new guitar, the job is now to find one. A friend from my Nanaimo days, herself a guitar player, used the phrase “condolences and congratulations”, and that’s very much what it feels like. There’s excitement in trying out new guitars and figuring out which one might be the right one, even as it’s tinged with sadness that this is replacing my reliable companion.

My criteria were simple enough to define. I had a budget range – I’ll be discreet here, talking about money, you know, but it had to be in that sweet spot where it’s an improvement on the guitar I’ve already got but doesn’t blow the bank. This is not a purchase we were planning, and I can’t really say I’m using the guitar in such a way that commands the Martin that I’d love to have. For my price tag, I definitely wanted a solid top; some guitar promised all-solid woods, which could be great. And it needed a pickup inbuilt. A mate of mine suggested buying the guitar I wanted and then having one installed, but I didn’t feel confident that such a move wouldn’t inflate the costs. It also felt like the kind of thing I’d want to have a relationship with the shop or the guitar tech to do.

This mate had recently (like, a year and a half ago) done that, and moreover, he’d gotten the guitar second-hand. When you’ve got time and at least one guitar in your arsenal already that you trust, this is a fine option. Plus, he makes his living through music, so both his needs and his awareness are different. I wanted to be able to play the guitar I was going to buy, strum it, finger-pick it, and see how it sounded and felt on the kinds of songs I play. Continue reading

“I feel so gentle that the Lord seeps in”

John Mann of Spirit of the West, playing guitar live in a dark image with red glow in the foreground and blue glow in the background

Photo by Jackie M., from Surrey’s Party for the Planet 2011, found on flickr.com; CC BY-ND 2.0

It was news we knew was coming. John Mann went public with his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease in 2014 and, like Gord Downie and his glioblastoma, we knew there was only one way this was going to end. Also like Downie, he endured with music and performance as long as he could. Fans were grateful, and their courage cheered us. A positive note to a terribly sad song.

It was just as I was clearing up breakfast this morning after everyone had darted off to school that I saw the notes of tribute on Facebook. All my friends from high school sharing videos and memories. Spirit of the West was not my favourite band at the time, but they were cherished and important. We were richer to have heard them and we’re sadder now that John Mann is gone. Continue reading

“…And this scratched up guitar/ We can go far”: Gently weeping, Part II

To say my guitar is a shit guitar is no shame. I always knew it. I described it in the blurb for a poster advertising a showcase at the Ontario Conference of Folk Festivals as “his cheap acoustic guitar … that he used to patch through a distortion pedal and play drop-d punk tunes on in Nanaimo.”

Yet people would say, “for all that, it has a nice tone.” Yes, I would reply. Guitars like being played. And I played that thing every day. Wrote all my songs on it. Gigged on it, with a cheap pickup that slotted in the soundhole. One summer, as a university student in Ottawa, I took some of my tips money and bought a nice Senegalese djembe from the Ottawa Folklore Centre. That night, there was a wicked thunderstorm, and I was awoken from my sleep by a loud noise. Checked in the kitchen but nothing was obviously wrong. Shrugged it off. Next morning, shuffled into the living room, and there was my djembe, gaping open-mouthed at me with the skin head half off. I rushed it back to the shop, where they said, “Whoa – that shouldn’t have happened!” But while they were fixing it up, I did some thinking of my own. I told them to put it back on the floor once they’d repaired it and instead had them install a Fishman pickup in my guitar.Michael Munnik strumming his guitar and singing at the Branch, Kemptville

Now it was superb and useful. Big, bassy sound. No tone or volume controls on the pickup, but it was active. It made the guitar sound better than it had any right to. The action was incredibly high. I just got used to it. I liked to tell people it made me a better player because anything else was like butter in comparison, but I think that was not entirely true.

Who cares? It was my constant companion, my entry to a whole gamut of social circumstances. On the bus coming back from drama festivals. On the BC Ferry, amusing a group of elderly Chinese tourists. At Saturday night parties and Sunday morning church services. Campfires. I will not lie – that guitar, my strumming and my singing were ingredients in getting every girlfriend I ever had, including the one who’s now my wife. (“Play the song called ‘Katie Hay’!” said a visiting friend of hers from high school. I subbed her name into a stupid little song I’d written called “Beavertails”, and she laughed so hard she knocked my lamp over and broke it.) Continue reading

Gently weeping for my guitar, Part I

My guitar is dying.

Michael Munnik playing his original guitar at Zaphod BeeblebroxOkay, that’s drastic. It is ageing. Guitars can run and run for a long time, though even so they need love and attention from experienced and knowledgeable people. Wood is a living thing, moving and changing with heat, moisture, and atmospheric pressure, no to mention the occasional bump against a table or crash on stage when the strap suddenly gives way. By dint of their excellence or their expense, some guitars merit every upgrade and remedial intervention they are confronted with.

The implication of that last sentence is that my guitar doesn’t deserve to be made well. That is not what I’m saying. But you have to know a bit about my guitar to get this quandary in the right context.

I bought my guitar when I was 15, in Nanaimo, BC. My best friend and I had resolved to start a grunge band. He was excited to play bass and I, having become quite nutty about Eric Clapton’s unplugged rendition of “Layla”, wanted to play guitar. We started writing lyrics right away, then got to learning how to play these instruments. Ira’s dad had an old Yamaha acoustic about the house, so Ira could start learning right away while he saved up. I borrowed my minister’s spare acoustic (thanks, Glenn!) and got going as well. Starting, for whatever reason, with C. (I know the reason: it was the first chord they show you in Ernie Ball Teaches Guitar.) Painfully changing from C to G7 to play “Down in the Valley”.

I persevered, and after about five weeks, playing every day for an hour or more, I was able to change chords more or less at speed. Yes, I would go ahead with this. Ira, similarly mastering the fundamentals, got an electric bass and amp. My parents, unlike Ira’s, could not give me a financial boost because my older brother had already declared his own desire to play guitar: for him, the tipping point was Nirvana’s unplugged encore, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Our grandmother in Nova Scotia agreed to ship out Uncle Gary’s old guitar, which wasn’t very good and had a hard time staying in tune. Dan quickly got discouraged or lost interest, but it was still this mighty gorilla houseguest. My parents simply could not buy me a guitar when Dan had the hierarchical claim on a guitar that was in the house. No matter. I delivered newspapers, so I had some income. I continued to save, and by the winter, it was time to buy my own axe. Continue reading

What I’m reading this month – Oct 2019

I’m starting this blog with what I will be reading rather than what I’m currently reading, really  just for the visual imprint of the book cover. I am still working my way through the final of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, about which more in a moment, but the first picture I attach to the post is, typically, the one that gets to show itself on the social media previews. (I suppose I could learn how to control that element better, but I am not that motivated to learn how. I could do many things to amplify the visibility of this blog, like writing about Pizza Express on the day it’s trending on Twitter. But generally, I’m happier letting it find its own audience and then bitterly cursing the medium and the general public when it doesn’t.)

I digress.

My mother in law is visiting, and we took a drive up to the very just-so town of Hay-on-Wye last weekend.  Yes, there were pleasant coffee shops and charity shops and antique shops, but the real reason anyone goes there is the bookshops. We made our pilgrimage, and everybody got something interesting. It was really hard for the elder two children to choose, because of course saying yes to something means saying no to (many) other things. My choice was a bit easier: a very attractively covered copy of On Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin was on the newly arrived shelf, and that seemed the right sort of purchase. I even took its picture to get ready for writing this blog.

Cover of Olga Tokarczuk’s FlightsBut then the Nobel Prize for Literature happened. My wife and I had wondered a little bit ago whether this would be Margaret Atwood’s year. She’s been tipped before – around the time of the publication of The Blind Assassin, I believe – and now there’s all this renewed buzz. I also thought, though, that she shares some features with Kazuo Ishiguro and Alice Munro – not their love-child or anything, but exhibiting qualities from both camps in a way that might make a panel of jurists think “we’ve had that recently”. Continue reading