Braintree, Essex, population 53,000.
I was staying with friends a few miles out of town, and they were kind enough to give me the day off driving, dropping me off in town at 9:30am. Braintree seemed pleasant in a low-key sort of way, a broken crossroads of shopping streets, an arcade, a few supermarkets and pubs. I got my obligatory coffee and tried to figure out the best busking pitch. I chose a spot opposite the British Heart Foundation and fired up. Things were going well when an elderly gentleman with a stick suddenly appeared on the opposite side of the street and started bellowing at me;
“Awful din! Bloody awful! Why don’t you go away and come back when you’ve learned to play! Doing my head in!”
My policy was to move on if someone objected to me being there, but I wasn’t sure if he worked for the shop, was a customer, or something else. A bus came between us and when it had cleared, he was no longer there. I decided to carry on and see what happened, especially as coins were coming. Twenty minutes later, a slight and harassed looking gentleman came over from the British Heart Foundation to explain that the angry apparition I’d encountered was actually a volunteer in his shop and was so enraged about the music that he was tearing the stockroom to bits, and would I mind moving on for his sake at least? I said of course I would, but suggested that if his colleague had been polite and coherent, I’d have gone ages ago.
I moved up town, to outside Iceland and had a productive morning. A man brought me a box of grapes on the basis that I looked like I needed them. He had a point. I paused and went to Boots for some sun cream. The weather was hot and still. By lunchtime, I had a heavy pocket of coins and set off for some food. Passing the pub opposite Tescos, a bunch of lads yelled at me. “Oi! Give us a tune!”
To their surprise, I headed over and obliged. This delighted them, and they sorted me out with lunch and a pint of lager, one of them nipping across the road to Tescos, returning with the three manliest sandwiches on offer, as well as a fiver for my collection. They were enjoying the sun, although the more ginger of the three was suffering a bit in the uncovered street space. A lady joined them for a lunchtime drink between meetings. Conversation was risqué and bawdy. Periodically I’d have to play them another tune. They were delighted to have their own personal troubadour. All four of them were technically at work, and were either supposedly answering emails, taking their lunch hour, or on call. It seemed all was well in their world. I thanked them and headed back for my pitch outside Iceland.
As I played, a woman came up and dropped off a £1 coin, saying “At least you’re doing something. Not like that homeless man down there. He just sits there.”
“Well, I’m very lucky to have this beautiful instrument and a family who gave me the chance to study it. I don’t know his story, but maybe he never had chance to learn a skill like this. Maybe he can’t afford an instrument.”
“But he could do something though? Not just sit there. Maybe he could draw something with chalk.”
This upset me a little. The poor fellow had nothing, and this lady wanted him to draw pictures on the floor before he was worth her charity. I decided the best thing I could do would be to meet and get to the know the homeless person in question. On my next break, I headed down and gave him all my 50ps, saying I hoped my music wasn’t spoiling his afternoon. His name was Robert and he was in a good mood, especially considering his circumstances.
Over the two days we got to know each other. He had a bank account and paid in what he could on good days. On bad days, he had to take it out or not eat. Saving up was hard. This was a good day. He’d had a decent meal. He told me he needed more food and drink on the street because he burned through the calories much quicker. Food was always expensive, because you can’t prepare your own. He had a cheap phone stashed away, useful perhaps to receive a call one day. No prospect of putting any credit on it. He was waiting for the shelter to have a space for him. He kept getting higher up the list but being bumped down again because mothers and children have priority.
I asked him what his plan for getting out was. Get a hostel, sort out benefits, get somewhere to stay, get some clothes, apply for a job, earn his own money. It all seemed so reasonable and possible, laid out step by step. In reality, every step of it was going to be a slog against the odds, with dozens in the queue before him and a wall of bureaucracy to overcome. I wondered if he’d make it.
The weather was perfect, I was the only busker in town, footfall was steady. Today was the day to make up for my poor returns in Norwich and Harwich, so I knuckled down and played and played, knowing that with a fair wind I could cover the week’s expenses here and now. When my friend picked me up at 5:15, I’d made £105 in 5 hrs of playing. This took the pressure off, paid for my food and fuel for the week, and meant I could really get to know Braintree in the morning.
I returned early the next morning and had a really good explore. Braintree is a town of two halves, having merged with Bocking into one entity some years ago. On the Bocking edge of the town, a large and scruffy Victorian municipal building had been turned into an antiques showroom. I say antiques in the loosest possible sense. As they invariably do in these places, things had achieved antique status simply by dint of being old. It was all junk. I wonder if antiques shops exist not so much to resell old items, as to remove archaic rubbish from circulation, in much the same way that bookswaps exist mainly to filter out surplus Jilly Cooper and Dan Brown novels. There was nothing here I’d have wanted even if I’d had any money to spare. There were boxes of Perry Como and Jim Reeves records, a stuffed mongoose, leather flying helmets, cabinets of Toby jugs. Why is there such a market for this stuff? Who buys it? Where does it all go? Are we incapable of making a judgement of what matters, storing up old shite just in case it ends up being valuable and important? How much of the value of this stuff is simply a collective belief that because it’s old, it must be valuable? Antique shops like this are symptomatic of our inability to deal rationally with the past. It’s always portrayed as a golden era where things were better, and this stuff is materially linked to that emotional feeling.
For most people, the golden age was when they were in their youth. They remember the time where they had freedom, fitness, and the world was a host of possibilities before them, and extrapolate out that it must have been the golden era for everyone. My maternal grandma always remembered her childhood as a golden era. She had rickets and then spent 10 weeks in bed with flu, before leaving education at 13 to work in the mill, but it was still her golden era. In the antiques shop, I saw so much evidence of harking back, comfort blankets of pottery and wood. I left empty-handed and confused.
Back on the street I set up for an hour of playing. A youngster came up to me and asked if I’d go into the shop across the way and buy him some cigarettes.
“I’m only 2 months away from 18.”
I said I wouldn’t. He said there were a couple of coppers in it for me. I told him to go away.
After another profitable hour, I got chatting to Michelle, one of the security guards for the town centre. Now on my second day here, I’d become familiar enough that she was happy to tell me a lot more. She said that the centre of town had been massively remodelled. The church in the middle had been removed, the glass factory closed and the lines of many of the old streets lost.
“There’s tunnels right under the town you know. All connected up. I don’t know the way in though. Here, I’ll show you a few things.” She’d bought into what I was about, and was keen to make sure I saw the ‘real’ Braintree.
Upstairs at the vaping shop in the arcade was a significant piece of machinery, a crane and winch made of cast iron. unmovable, blocking out the top floor.
“It’s listed, we can’t move it. It just lives there.” said the owner.
Out the back of the arcade was a closed off section behind a black gate. It was the gravestone store. Ripped up and cleared for the redevelopment, they had clearly not been able or willing to recycle or destroy them, so they were piled up under lock and key.
“Right, if you want, I’ll take you to England’s most haunted autoparts centre.” Said Michelle.
This was definitely what I wanted. We went in. The owners were very happy to talk about it. Their ghosts included a 27 year old woman and a young boy and girl. This matched the gravestones that had been removed from the back years ago, and were now in the gravestone store. One of the customers joined in the conversation in agreement, very matter of fact.
“Thing about this town is you never know where you’re going to find an old bit. Sometimes there’s a Tudor room in what looks like a new building. There’s whole courtyards locked away, you have to work them out from where there’s an obvious gap in the buildings. And there’s tunnels right under the whole place. Council maintains them, on the quiet. They go right through from the White Hart to the Church and there’s a whole network of them.”
I asked if he’d been in. He hadn’t but he had it on good authority that they were there, and very old they were too. He was very matter of fact about the ghost situation. You put stuff down and it moves. Doors bang, there’s steps upstairs when there’s nobody in. Same with the Autoparts people. They were quite convinced that it was haunted, almost to the point of it being mundane. Stuff moved around. “It makes stock taking a nightmare”. That’s how it was, and you just got on with it. It wasn’t controversial, just a statement of fact.
“Sky TV wanted to make a programme in here, but they wanted us to shut for two days so we said no.”
I walked back to town, seeing it in a new light. Everywhere was haunted but this wasn’t a big deal. It was common knowledge there were tunnels connecting it all together, although I didn’t meet anyone who’d actually been in them. Behind houses and shops, Tudor courtyards and piles of forgotten and displaced gravestones rumbled and thumped in the night.
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 email@example.com 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!