Darlington

Originally published April 9th 2018.

I walked towards the middle of this handsome market town, through the park, past five consecutive mobile phone shops, the splendidly named Fatso’s cafe, and along the raised main street, elegant banks and municipal buildings to my right, and the slope running down to the ornate Victorian market hall on my left. Like Berwick, the market had a significant tower, marking the centre of town both physically and spiritually.

The weather was sunny and warm, and already I regretted my choice of thermals. There seemed a number of places I could choose for my busking pitch today, and I settled for outside Barclays, half way down the main street. It was a slow start. Footfall was high, but coins were not plentiful. No matter. I’d vowed not to obsess too much on the amount of money I was making, but instead use the time to practice, compose, and think about the places I was visiting. The sun was warm, the day was pleasant, I had a coffee and a great view over the town.

After half an hour, a figure suddenly appeared by the benches across from me. A white-haired man of indeterminate age, wearing Elton John glasses, and a bright white t-shirt several sizes too big for him that read “Stevie D” and “I love music” where the “love” was symbolised by a heart. Below these lines was a stave made out of colourful rainbows and unicorns. People flowed round him without seeming to see him. Was he real? He watched carefully for several minutes before giving me a thumbs up. I glanced away and he’d vanished. Coins starting appearing in my case. I was doing well! As the morning wore on and my takings grew, I came to believe that I’d been visited by a member of the fairy folk, and having passed their audition, been rewarded with good luck.

A small child came by and placed a single Haribo in my case. ‘From each according to their means’ I thought, and shouted “Thank you, comrade!”. Lunchtime was approaching, my stomach rumbled. Just like that, Stevie D was back. He wanted to know when I was finishing, as he was having no luck round the corner. I said I was stopping for lunch now anyway, and he was welcome to the spot. I grabbed a sandwich and a pie, and sat a discreet distance away. Stevie D was bringing his equipment over to my old pitch. It took several runs. First came a number of ‘Guitar Hero’ plastic guitar toys, then a considerable pile of maracas and tambourines, then the collection box, an empty ukulele case, and finally a large battery powered speaker. Having completed his setup, he came over to me.

“It’s been a terrible morning. My microphone won’t work, every time I turn it on, it cuts my backing track off. And they won’t smile, they just won’t smile today. No.”

I commiserated with him, and he went back to his pitch, ready to give it another go. The backing tracks played, mostly classic 60s pop songs, and he sang along, shaking his tambourine vigorously. With no microphone, I couldn’t hear a word of what he was saying, but he made up for this by dancing all around the pavement and adding actions to the song. I’d still seen no evidence that anyone other than me could see him, and the shoppers poured like liquid around his gyrating frame without eye contact or acknowledgment. Suddenly a bunch of kids ran over and picked up the plastic guitars and maracas and I realised that only kids and other buskers could see him.

Now there was quite a scene. Children running around shaking maracas, waving guitars, whilst Stevie D danced and sang and drew their combined energy together into a magical spell that compelled adults to open their wallets and place coins in his case, their eyes blank and movements dreamlike. With the children’s power drawn and focused, the walls between the worlds were made thin, and he could finally exert influence on the shiny coins going past him. A small boy picked up a colourful maraca and ran grimly and directly away down the high street, never to return. I hoped maracas were plentiful and cheap in whatever world Stevie D came from. Maybe they grew as the fruit of some strange plant. An old lady on the bench next to me joined in with ‘Sweet Caroline’ whilst staring with empty eyes at the featureless wall across the way, her cigarette burning slowly away in her hand.

I finished my lunch and left him to it. Down in the square, the army recruiters were at work, allowing the children who came to their stand to handle the replica guns. This initially shocked me, but I conceded that it was at least honest, and better that than toys and sweets. To my surprise, I was still young enough to join, being under 35. I noted down the financial incentives. £300 on signing up, £1000 on completion of phase 1, another grand on completion of phase 2, annual bonuses, sports and cultural organisations within the army. A tempting offer to a young person in a job hungry ex-industrial town. No wonder the army has such a strong presence around the North East.

The soldier running one of the stalls was happy to chat to me, and proud of his service. Said he’d joined up from school and seen the world. He also told me that the 32nd Signals had a band that met on Tuesday evenings and I’d be welcome to go along. I took some details and said I’d love to join them for a night.

I was curious about the poppies I was seeing in this town. Many people were sporting them now, in early April, far from Remembrance Sunday. They were on lapels, on zips as toggles, attached to mobility scooters, and also to be found more generally in the artwork around town. Here, the poppy was morphing into a general support symbol of the military. I made a mental note to ask the soldiers I was going to meet how they felt about this.

At about 4pm, Stevie D packed away his plastic guitars and his surviving maracas and went back to whatever Elven reality he’d slipped in from, and I did a last hour of playing on the main street. The weather was still warm and sunny. A small girl threw Wotsits aggressively at pigeons, her choice of projectile ensuring a pleasingly target rich environment. The hour went well, and I later found I’d made a total of £66 across a little over 4 hrs during the day. This got me ahead of the game and bought me time to really explore the place the next day.

The sun was still shining as I made my way back into Darlington the following morning. The Lady in the coffee shop where I’d had my breakfast had been so taken with my project, she’d returned my tip to me with a story of how she planned to travel to Turkey by land. The mood felt good, and I resolved to busk for a couple of hours before lunch and then explore more widely in the town. I didn’t do as well as the day before, but I raised £20 before going to the railway museum.

Darlington is a serious railway town. The Stockton and Darlington railway is in many important regards the first proper railway in the world, built for transporting coal from the nearby mines to industry and the river for export. The town developed a large industrial and engineering base, with a good number of significant companies across several fields. My own personal interest in the museum was the locomotive ‘Derwent’, constructed in 1845 by William and Alfred Kitching, distant ancestors of mine. It stands next to the globally famous ‘Locomotion’, and it seemed right to me that it should be there, playing the support act to the main attraction, very much as my musical career has gone to date. I felt we understood each other.

The museum employs a few people, and we got chatting in the entrance hall. The older fellow felt that the town had lost a great deal over the years, stuff that couldn’t be brought back. Works were closed, and much of the industry had gone. The youngsters had never known it any other way, and didn’t share the same sense of loss. I tried to bring up Brexit, but there was no appetite to discuss it. As a topic, it seemed taboo, and everyone was keen to move on from it with a “Well nobody knows how it’s going to work out.”

I had a lead left to pursue. In Berwick, a lady called Veronica had encouraged me to go to the snooker club and ask for Peter. I climbed the stairs inside the red door on Corporation Street and did just that. Darlington Snooker Club is a fine spacious upstairs room just outside the town centre. I got a pint of mild and tried to get a feel for it. The tables were nearly all in use.

“Oh. Veronica emailed to say you’d be coming. Have a seat.”

There were a few of us in the bar. I gently probed a few questions about the area and employment.

“There’s apprentices, shift workers, charity workers.” he said gesturing to the tables, “People work all sorts of hours. There’s still Cummins engines and Cleveland bridge builders here. But the biggest employer is EE.”

The man behind the bar told me he wasn’t proper Darlington as he’d lived out of the town from 2-5 months of age. He felt confident Darlington would re-invent itself again. Anyone who needed work before then would need to move for it. He didn’t offer an opinion on whether this was a good thing or not, but he seemed a sunny sort of optimist.

There are jobs in Darlington though. As well as the remaining engineering firms, the student loans company is based here, but the biggest employer is EE with 2500 employees. The have a large edge-of-town complex on land no longer needed by Cummins engineering. I decided to go and have a look.

The EE complex is on a huge industrial estate on the East edge of town. There are a series of smaller buildings alongside one huge one. This is their main call centre. Its a giant oblong of silver metal, with no windows. Its one of those buildings that lacks features to give it scale. The reception was in one of the peripheral buildings, so I went over to see what they had to say. The man on reception did not know what to do with me, having never had a visitor who wasn’t there for work before. I explained why I was there, and he took on a worried expression. He directed me to a website with job application details on it, but I told him I really didn’t need a job and was just here to see the place. This was new territory for him. I asked him how many people worked here. He told me he couldn’t answer for “Data protection reasons.” This amused me so I asked lots of other questions that all received the same answer. Clearly he wanted me to go away, so I got chatting to the security guard instead, who was much happier to talk. He said they were a good company to work for and he enjoyed it, having moved up from London to take the job. Darlington was a good place to be, and he felt the town benefited from EE being there. They handled personal accounts and corporate stuff there too. I thanked him and strolled up to the main building. One side was mostly glass, but not transparent from the outside. The other sides were all dull grey metal. The area around the buildings was red brick and blue tiles in a semi formed landscape, as if a municipal swimming pool had been buried for millions of years and metamorphosed, before being gradually exposed, cool, twisted and congealed.

This was a factory, just like the mills, mines, and forges that were closed and demolished. Staff on shift work, never leaving the phones unattended. An employer of vast numbers of people. But this one didn’t leave a mark on the landscape in the same way. Data doesn’t leave spoil tips or slag heaps or cause subsidence. This building could come down in a few short days and there’d be no trace it was ever there.

When the automation takes these jobs, what will the modern Luddites be able to do? You can’t smash a digital robot. The information will have disappeared down a cable before anyone realises they’re even at risk. All they’ll have is a redundancy notice and an empty shell of a building, already stripped of value without having removed a single item.

Considering all this, and with the blank, massive building in front of me, I sat outside with my fiddle and wrote a tune. I’d rather expected security to take an interest in me at this point, but I was left to it. The sky turned grey, and the building became as one with it. I packed up and left town.

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