On the road from Boston I’d picked up a hitchhiker. Called Paul, he delivered cars for a living, and having dropped one off at Boston, had another to pick up at King’s Lynn, a journey that would have taken 3hrs by bus. He was about 60, chirpy, and DJ’d at the weekend for a bit of extra money. He was pleased to have picked up the lift so quickly, and as I dropped him off he illustrated his gratitude by presenting me with a sheet of knock off McDonalds coffee loyalty tokens.
“I get them off the internet. Forty quid for 200 cups, it’s brilliant, here you are! Just make sure you don’t put them on the card in the shop, I got chased out of one in Peterborough doing that. Thought my mug shot would be up all over the country after that. Anyway, cheers!”
I wasn’t sure what to do with them, having no particular affection for McDonalds, but not seeking to actively defraud them either, so I filed them away to consider later.
I arrived in Norwich in time for a late lunch. The anti-car zone starts far out, so I had a 15 minute walk into the centre. After an initial wander around, I selected the medieval lanes as the spot for my first busking pitch, at the bottom of the nicely titled Lower Goat Lane. Before I’d even played a note, I was aware of disquiet in the shop across from me. It was a modern looking shop called ‘Main Source’, and it sold trainers, the expensive sort you definitely wouldn’t do any training in. It was populated, as these shops invariably are, by agitated young gentlemen in t-shirts that falsely claim a laid-back philosophy for their occupants.
“Fuck’s sake” I heard “Get some beats on before he starts.”
Now I have a couple of golden rules on my travels, one of which is that if anybody asks me to move on, no matter how spurious their reasons, I’m not going to argue to toss. I’m not out to upset anyone. However, they hadn’t said anything to me, and I decided that passive-aggressive rap music didn’t count as being asked to stop. It was loud. I decided to play louder. My fiddle can project pretty well, and in the narrow streets I felt I had the edge. With only one door to let the music out, their sound system was not beating me. I let my tunes fit the bass beat of the music, and worked with it.
My refusal to give up made them more irate so they turned it up further. All the customers left the shop, whilst I steadily accumulated about £10. This was a good game. I smiled at them. They came outside and vaped furiously for a bit. Then they turned the music off. I packed up and wandered on.
I tried a few more spots around the city as the afternoon wore on, thinking about the next day, seeing what worked. Norwich has a large centre, with modern high streets and more bohemian areas. There’s the beautiful Royal Arcade, set in delicious green tiles, the market, a vibrant square of colourful beach huts, and the forum, a huge modern building, spacious and considered, home to the BBC, the library, and a bunch of restaurants and council services. It’s a nice place to be, and although I hadn’t made a lot on the busking front, it was a pleasant afternoon.
I walked vaguely in the direction of the CofE cathedral, zigzagging my way to take in as much as possible. Heading along past the friary towards the river, I heard singing, and busking on the bridge itself was a fellow called Chris. He asked me if I wanted the busking pitch, and I said I’d rather he carried on singing. I’d not heard an unaccompanied singer performing traditional songs in a busking pitch before, and he was good. He wasn’t very loud, but his voice was clear and had carried right down the street to me. He told me he was a climate campaigner. He’d been a teacher and was now retired, giving his pensions away to charity and trying to make a living from busking. He’d once gone to the Copenhagen climate summit without using any oil at all, walking or rowing all the way. He was bald, with a thin wispy beard. He wore hi-vis in a manner that suggested he was rarely out of it.
“I’ve got to go now anyway” he said “I’m chairing a meeting of Norfolk against Fracking.”
I swung round past the cathedral and back towards the city centre. I passed one of the homeless of Norwich in the street and handed over a few coins. He was gaunt and twig-like from the winter.
“God bless you”
Poverty is a complex thing. It has many faces that I’ve met as I’ve travelled around. In China, poverty was working every hour of the day so that you made just enough to survive. In Eritrea, it was not bothering to do anything at all because you wouldn’t see any of the benefit if you did, somebody else would just take your work away. Both were awful and equally disheartening. One of the most damaging consequences of severe poverty is the loss of autonomy of choice. Being able to make decisions and choose a path in life is central to us feeling human and alive. When all meaningful choice is lost, one is simply at the mercy of fate, and it is dehumanising. To be human is to make decisions and have control over your life. When a homeless person cannot decide anything for themselves because they have nothing at all, or when an extreme political system removes all meaningful choice through state control, or a mine or factory owner pays in tokens only redeemable at the factory shop, then that is dehumanising. “Oh they’ll only spend it on drugs.” I sometimes hear, with regard to giving coins to the homeless. Some probably do. Perhaps I’d have said it myself once. Increasingly as I work my way round the towns and cities of England, I come to the conclusion that I’d take drugs too. Anything to afford a momentary escape from the despair of being utterly abandoned by your own state, unable to reach the first rung of the ladder. And so I hand the coins over, and hope that in some small way, it gives people at least the freedom to own a decision in their lives, whatever it may be.
Poverty is not just struggling to fill your belly and find shelter. It is the loss of control of the experience of being a human being. A loss of the freedom to shape and direct our lives.
Back in the lanes, a car had crashed into a bollard, clearly pretty hard. The driver was standing outside looking at the mess. He was about 50, smartly dressed with two tie-pins operating at different levels. Not your usual boy-racer. His car was totalled. I bought a pie and chips from the Grosvenor chip shop (Beef dripping!) and sat in the sun by the church. The police arrived and chatted to the unlucky driver, filling in forms. His predicament was catching plenty of attention. A very black man with a very white manbag came by and saw the mess, declaring loudly to all around “Well look at that! How has he crashed that in the city?” He then turned to me and loudly and repeatedly asked me to agree with his diagnosis of what had happened whilst the poor driver looked on. The police car had ‘Our priority is you’ written on the side in friendly letters. I considered the meaninglessness of this and finished my chips, which were excellent.
I ended up at a jam session in the White Horse in Trowse, a couple of miles from the city. Whilst busking that afternoon, a youngish couple had stopped by me, correctly identified the tune I was playing, and invited me to join them for some music that evening. I was aware that one of the risks of my project was to self-select and end up spending time with a lot of people who were already a lot like me, but I’d had some bad news from home, and was grateful for a relaxing night playing music. So long as my experiences were suitably varied on other nights, it was ok once in a while. I was made very welcome, and the music was good.
I was staying with a friend through music, Jess, a songwriter from Norwich. We went for coffee the next morning, walking into the city together. She lived next to a housing development made out of the hospital she had been born in. Norwich was too small in some regards she said. If a relationship went wrong, you could never quite get away from it. The scene just wasn’t quite big enough.
It’s certainly a young city. Youthful types are drawn here, by the work opportunities and the liberalism of the place compared to the rest of Norfolk. There are endless coffee shops, craft shops, vinyl records, and art. Virtually every unit is in use. After coffee, I got to work on the main street. A smart and very upright older gentleman stopped me and informed me that whilst I was pretty good, I would be a lot better if I learned to read music. He’d been in the Royal Marines band as a trumpeter, so I should take it from him. However, he then gave me a pound coin, which seemed a fair price for his opinion.
An very old man gave me an old pound coin. A homeless couple sat cross legged in front of me, drinking Tennent’s super from cans. The sun shone, and they enjoyed the performance, applauding after each number. I wasn’t making much, but it didn’t bother me. I tried an hour in front of the market. It was enormously busy. So much footfall in fact, that people stumbled and jostled, and nobody reached for coins, defending their space, heads down.
I had lunch in a small cafe outside the cathedral, rainbow flags flying. For the first time in my life, I knowingly ordered avocado. It was nice. The cathedral is approached through an arched gatehouse that opens onto a green. I zipped my jacket up to hide my blasphemous heavy-metal t-shirt and entered the holy space. Peregrine falcons nest in the spire of Norwich cathedral. The gift shop offered a tempting book; ‘The Sparkling Wit Of Prince Philip’.
I have a mixed relationship with cathedrals. They are undoubtedly magnificent, full of the highest quality craftsmanship, but I have never warmed to their purpose. I always feel like a trespasser, as if my atheism is a secret to be kept until I leave. To see such resources and skill diverted from where they could provide a material improvement to lives has always jarred with me. But they are hardly the only offender in this regard, and since they are built and complete it would feel wrong to resent them. England’s relationship with religion would be something I’d have to find a way to explore further as I travelled round.
I rounded a corner, and there was a large school group, kneeling in a line towards a member of their class who was dressed in Bishop’s robes and hat, mitre to his side. Their teacher was speaking the words ‘The Bishop’ as I arrived. I immediately and involuntarily replied in a gruff American voice with “The Bishop!”, recalling Monty Python’s sketch of the same name. This was met with a frozen stare. I mumbled “We was too late…” and quickly carried on.
I returned to the lanes for another go at busking. I hadn’t made much and needed something to pay for my food. I got stuck in. After a while, another homeless gentleman came past, stopped in his tracks, and latched onto me. He seemed to have been genuinely moved by the music, and that had caused him to want to open up to me. It was a sad story, but I got no sense of him wanting anything other than someone to talk to.
“Nice music mate. I’m homeless y’know. It’s ok now, but it gets cold later. Lovely music mate. It’s cold later, you get hungry… I’m homeless. They released me after 32 years, 5 months. 18 years after my tariff. I’m Paul by the way. Lovely music. Lovely.”
“I’m Tom, pleased to meet you.”
“32 years and 5 months, and now I’m homeless. I’m 63.” There was a pause.
“I’m a murderer, so I’m sorry about that.” Paul told me. It was so matter of fact. This was his life, and what defined him. Paul the Murderer.
“Nice music, mate, nice music.” He kissed my neck and began to head off from me. He carried a rucksack with a sleeping bag hanging off the side. His front teeth were failing, his head bald and marked. Clothes ill-fitting and ragged. He smelled of alcohol, but his eyes were bright and sharp. He was a wreck. He’d never had a chance when they released him. What possible hope of re-integration did he have? Of course his story was impossible to verify, but he hadn’t been after anything. He just wanted to tell me. I called him back, scooped up a handful of bits from the busking pot and handed them over. He lurched away towards the market.
Norwich was done for the day and so was I. I set off South for Essex and Harwich.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or through the button in the archive – link here.
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!