Redcar was wet through and blown, slick to the pavement, mizzle drifting, lifted up on sudden gusts, filling hollows from below. The main street is one back from the sea-front, pedestrianised, wide, bleak. It was too wet to play, so I got a coffee and walked for a while, letting my feet get the measure of this close-packed seaside industrial town. The drizzle was floating in fog again. Half of my experiences in the North East had been like this, street after street revealing themselves to me under sufferance, soft and pillowed, wet and running on red brick and flagstone. On the North edge of town, the blast furnace still stood, extinguished and cold, a dragon slain, pile of gold looted and gone.
By lunchtime the drizzle had stopped falling, hanging loose in the cloud instead. I got playing. Coins rolled in, the people of Redcar were very generous. A man went past in a Middlesbrough football shirt, camouflage-pattern shorts, and a policeman’s helmet with a skull where the badge would be. In London, he’d be a fashion leader and on the cover of magazines.
I was sharing the street space with three representatives of ‘Octopus Energy’, who were out to attempt to sell the citizens of Redcar a new energy deal. I’ve always regarded the presence of salespeople to be detrimental to the potential of the busking pitch, but being here to meet the place, I had a chat with them and set up where I could watch. It was theatre. “Hello sir/madam, do you pay your energy bills by direct debit?” Most ignored them, some got drawn into conversations, a few reacted passionately. One man shouted a violent torrent of abuse at the floor as he stormed through without making eye contact.
“Have a good day, Sir” came the reply, smile never slipping. Minutes later, they trapped a shopper and their small dog into conversation. The sale was a success. As the paperwork was filled in, the dog became more and more agitated, barking constantly. “It’s a trap, don’t do it!”
Astonishingly, I made £31 in 1hr 20 minutes, and took myself to the independent bakers for a belated lunch. The North East is a paradise for bakers shops, of which Gregg’s as the breakout brand is merely the most famous. How was life on the main street in Redcar, now the steelworks has gone?
“Shops are closing, we’ve lost quite a few. We’re barely hanging on ourselves.”
I ordered a custard tart and Americano chaser on principle.
“My son worked in the Steelworks. He was lucky, got a job across the way in the other plant.”
But maybe the corner had turned. There was a new shop two doors down. I wished them the best and went for another walk. The rain was back. A group of young kids latched onto me.
“Will you be my new Dad? Dad’s left us.”
It was a joke statement, bold before the other kids, for their benefit. They were seeing what reaction the strange man with the fiddle would come up with. I was disarmingly polite. How did they like Redcar?
“Nothing to do. It’s dead.”
We chatted a bit more and I headed back to the centre via the railway station. The large and ornate Victorian station building was closed and boarded up, eyes closed to the diminution of the railway’s place in society. Tickets today were dispensed from the small cabin on the other side of the tracks.
On the seafront is the vertical pier. Seven stories high, it has the external appearance of a helter-skelter, all bright colours in swirls round a cone. Inside, a man was making the best of mopping a sodden steel chequerboard floor. He faltered as I entered, a disturbance to the hermit-like peace of his winter shift, before retiring quickly to a staffroom through a fobbed door. I ascended. Each floor had a glass-sided room off the path, overlooking the sea. Most were empty. One held the local radio station, deserted right now, but alert, waiting, two computers in screensaver mode, scrolling marquee charting the faceless and inhumane procession of time. The 5th floor was a small wedding venue. The empty chairs were set up for a ceremony. Two chairs faced me through the internal sheet window, whilst two thin rows faced back to the open side against the unbounded North sea crashing in, brown and septic through the murk. There was no decoration to the room at all. The light was pallid yellow, the side walls plain grey fabric panels. The door was locked, but gloom oozed through the key hole. Fittingly, the top floor was abandoned, whilst the viewing gantry was closed for bad weather. I consulted Trip Advisor. “A good idea in theory.” read the first review. I descended. Redcar needs a lot more than an experimental tourist attraction to turn itself round.
I resumed my pitch in the failing drizzle, bow done up tight to overcome the overwhelming dampness. A small child went past, almost buried by their burden of a 24 pack of Quavers. The kids I’d been chatting with came back through town on their bikes. They each gave me a few small coins. I was genuinely moved and thanked them from the heart. This was to be the way of things here. Even the toughest of characters regularly proved kind and warm to the music.
A couple of gents turned up in my doorway and took the opportunity to light up cigarettes in the shelter. One was a busker himself and praised my music. He said he was about to busk his way around Italy. I suggested he might be lost. He laughed and flipped me a coin before thanking me for not using an amp.
It was damp and the wet was pervasive. The shopping day was drawing to a close. I let my focus on the world slip away and just played for myself, letting the fiddle ring. The cold and damp had sapped the bite out of the bow, so I drew notes out in rounded curves, shaping them until they were complete and full, before letting each go like soft arrows, seeing how they hit the frontages and rolled away down the street. It was a deeply personal time and I don’t know how long it lasted, and I felt as close to my instrument as I ever have. Eyes open again, I’d gained a few watchers, stopped in their shopping, water settling on shoulders. They all came over and thanked me in clumsy words, and embarrassed, I felt more of a musician than I’d ever felt before.
The day set like a dismal jelly, leached of colour, so I gathered my coins and sought my lodgings. I passed a lawyers where the billboard proclaimed ‘The fastest growing legal brand in the UK’. It was boarded up. The chippie had a tropical theme, with clownfish decorating the walls.
I made it to my lodgings, left my instrument out to dry, hit the streets again incognito. The world is a different place with and without an instrument. With it, you’re defined by it, “Mate! Give us a tune!”, without it, you’re just a bald man in his thirties with bad dress-sense and too many coins in his pockets. There’s nothing to latch on to. I dined in an Italian restaurant, paid in 50ps and £1s. Re-read my J.B. Priestley’s English Journey. He didn’t make it to Redcar, but then, few do. My Great-Great-Grandfather did though, in the first world war. He was seconded for war work, although we don’t know what. It’s unlikely he had Carbonara with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, paid for from the busking hat. I wondered if we’d have got on.
At the Cleveland Hotel, it was all happening. A big hotel on the edge of town, both Champions League quarter finals were showing and it was pool night. The A and B pool teams were both at home, and the two tables were surrounded by serious men and occasional women, deep in thought. I bought a pint of their own home-brewed ale and chatted to the landlord. I asked how much the closure of the steelworks had hurt the town.
“They’re not steelworks lads these. Those were the cushy jobs, closed shop. Big houses on the other edge of town. No, these lads could never get a job there. It was the I.C.I. plant going that killed this town, but that didn’t make the news because it’s not iconic like Steel. All those steel sods got jobs elsewhere.”
The pool mattered. You could see it. I’ve played league pool and it’s never trivial, but every player here was deeply bought into it. The home teams fell to defeat and the table became open for play. I stuck my 50p down and waited. In due course I found myself against the local champion. He broke, nothing went down. I potted a yellow, only to see the white ricochet into another pocket. I did not get back to the table. The standard here was too good. You find meaning in what you can. They’ve taken our jobs away? I’ll be the best pool player in Redcar. The Cleveland was home to a community. I drank up and left them to it.
Back at my lodgings I wrote up notes and watched the Rugby League highlights on my tiny T.V. It was then that the food poisoning hit me like a train. In ten minutes I went from happy with the world to curled up round the toilet bowl wishing for sweet oblivion. For hours it went on.
There’s little in the world quite so awful as food poisoning, far from home, in a hotel room. I’d had this happen once before, in a Travelodge in Guildford, the day I’d heard my Grandma had died. For all the joys of touring life, these moments do make you question whether it’s worth it.
Check out was at 10am the next morning. Not having slept, but having at least stopped the worst of it, I packed my stuff and crawled into my car, moving out of the parking restrictions and stopping again, to sleep in the driver’s seat. Hours passed. Around 2.30pm, nausea gave way to ache and hunger. I picked up my fiddle and walked to town. I managed a fruit smoothie. I couldn’t possibly drive, so perversely and obstinately I opted to play instead. The weather was dry, the wind was down, so I picked a spot up the street, away from the relentless tentacles of Octopus Energy.
A mother gave coins to her three children to drop in my case. The middle one steadfastly refused, making the entirely reasonable case that I was no good, pocketing the coin for better investment elsewhere. This spurred me to improve. A loutish youngster gave me an earful as he passed, before rounding his bicycle, making a second pass and dropping 50p in. This was progress. I gave it what I could.
Cold and sore, I finally felt just about well enough to get some solids in. This was 4:30pm. In an hour and a half, feeling like death, I’d made an astonishing £42.
The Octopus crew were reaching the end of their day too. We met up and chatted. They worked out of Newcastle and took on a different town each week. The leader of the gang, at least on an unofficial level was called Lucy. She asked if I’d met the busker Stevie D.
“He always sings one for me. He says; “This one’s for you, Lucy” and then he sings whatever he’s going to sing anyway. He’s a legend. Have you met him yet?”
I said I had, in Darlington. Had they gone well today? Yes, they’d signed plenty up. On commission, this meant a good week for the team. Like the coal miners who depended on their marras to ensure the wages stayed up, this was a team who depended on one another to succeed. I promised Lucy she’d get a mention in dispatches. She said she loved the work. Let the abuse of a few roll off her back, sign the next one up.
“We’re helping them save money on their bills. We’re helping people out. It’s good work.”
They told me Middlesbrough would be worth a few tunes. I said I’d give it a go. Tired of faking wellness, it was time to leave town. I waited at the level crossing for a Class 66 from Skinningrove to come through with a train full of naked iron oblongs. It danced heavily and without grace on the rail joints. The final bogie came through and departed with a tick-tock……tick tock……tick tock…. and a flashing red light behind. Redcar had been good to me in the street, and bad to me overnight. I felt I wasn’t quite done here, and vowed to come back for a third day in the future, to make up what I’d lost.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. My ‘Busk England’ project is entirely funded by what I make as I travel round. If you’ve enjoyed it, and would like to support me as I do this, please consider making a paypal tip to my account
Treat it as you would a busker — a few coins in the hat all add up. Everything I get from this will be put back into the project. Ta!