West Bromwich is a long thin strip of a place, a straight mile from Victorian clock tower to ring road, town-centre on the move Eastwards. I popped into Wetherspoons to use the facilities. The first table had four ladies sat by their fully loaded and migratory Wilko’s shopping trolley. On the main street, aggressive beggars were being confronted on by the police. Homelessness and begging has many faces, but these gentlemen were getting right up to people and demanding money in a scary sort of way. Definitely a world apart from what I’ve seen elsewhere. Another homeless man’s dog broke free and ran barking furiously down the road. He ran after it in desperation, struggling with a terrible limp, rags flying. West Brom was going to be a tough gig.
Picking the right busking pitch is not always easy. Sometimes there’s just nothing that looks quite right. Perhaps there’s a spot that looks perfect until you notice the pigeons resting above it, ready to offer their unique critical appraisal of your work. I walked up and down the main street. The busiest part was right at the East end. A wide street with market stalls down the middle, flanked by two stories of grotesque 60s concrete. One end had a Cash Generator facing a Cash Converter, both with speakers outside blasting music at each other, like opposing regimes conducting a propaganda war across a demilitarised zone. No chance of busking here. The other end of this section was very crowded, but I picked a spot by a big empty unit and gave it a go.
The street was a colourful jumble of people and culture. This part of the Midlands is amongst the most ethnically diverse communities in the UK. I saw a huge range of clothing and skin colours, from bright African cloth, Jamaican, Muslim, Sikh, Polish, and white English people too. There were many more I couldn’t recognise, and plenty who chose not to give it away in their clothes. I wondered how I’d get on. Would one ethnic group be more or less likely to engage with the busking than another? It would be interesting to see, in a not terribly scientific sort of way. I got stuck into my music.
Almost immediately I was set upon by a great big smiling Asian chap. He thought I was brilliant, and insisted on taking selfies alongside me, and a narrated video. He said he was called Rakka and he couldn’t stop going on about how much he was enjoying it. He gave me an apple.
Slowly coins came my way. There were plenty of contributions but they were mostly small change. It would be an understatement to say the area was not wealthy. I also started to gather more apples. People were leaving me bits of fruit in lieu of having any change. Another fellow came up and introduced himself as Kamal and asked if I’d play a sad one. I racked my brains, and gave him a heartfelt rendition of ‘Nathanial Gow’s lament upon the occasion of the death of his second wife’ which was the most depressing tune to spring quickly to my mind. Kamal was delighted by this and pressed a fiver into my hand, before taking a business card with a view to buying a violin and contacting me for lessons. I haven’t heard from him yet.
By 4.30 the street activity had died back to nearly nothing and I packed down, looking forward to a really good day here tomorrow. The church near my car had a large crucifix outside by which someone had graffitied “God is the cross man” which seemed reasonable.
The next morning I parked at the far end of town and walked the full length of the street, trying to understand the evolution of modern West Bromwich. The Farley clock tower feels like the beginning of town. Erected in 1897, it is now somewhat divorced from the bustle of the market street which is best part of a mile away. However, it was next to the YMCA coffee shop, where I dropped in to recharge my mug. I was served by Paul from Chicago. He’d married a West Brom lady and moved here. He said he liked it in West Brom. It was just as friendly but poorer.
The street slopes gently uphill, and you soon pass the first of half a dozen Polish supermarkets, some of which are very large indeed. There’s probably a greater cubic volume of sausage in the West end of West Bromwich than anywhere else in England. I continued uphill, and although the town hadn’t really got going I was soon in what must once have been the centre, arriving at the town hall, church and the library. Alongside them several large office buildings stood derelict and boarded. Many of the smaller buildings were not just closed as shops, they clearly hadn’t been shops for a generation. The town itself has moved away from the furniture of civic organisation. Next up are the banks, nearer to the action but still isolated, then a few hundred yards later the town really begins. The main street is busy, although the shops present speak to its poverty. Pawnbrokers, pound bakers, independents, charity shops, discounters, news agents pushing the lottery “Get rich quick. Play Lottery Here”, and the market stalls sell fruit and veg, very cheap clothes and shoes, and fabric for those who must make their own. Off this street are two arcades, one, the older of the two, leads to an indoor market with more of the same, as well as a record shop so overflowing with vinyl it was impossible to peruse as the stock was solidly jammed together and immovable on shelf after shelf.
The other arcade was new, and whilst still having far too many abandoned units, still fed into a courtyard with some big high-street names. It was an odd change of gear. In a street with so many ethnicities it suddenly jarred to see huge window adverts featuring white people with the odd black lady thrown in. Past these windows, all the colours of the world walked past, mostly unrepresented, and uncatered for. The main street was theirs, but this arcade was not. The cultural boundary was invisible but stark and tangible at the electric doors. I made my way through the arcade, jostling for position when the route was bottlenecked by a significant outcropping of giant plastic smurfs. West Brom was short of money, but not footfall. The streets were rammed with people buying the barest of essentials with the little they had.
Round the corner was what had been ‘The Public’, a modernistic looking art gallery designed as a new centrepiece to restore prestige to the town centre. It hadn’t lasted long, and was now a 6th form college. It’s all very well intentioned, throwing money at a town’s regeneration, but if the project is too ambitious like this, it’s soon wasted. It had been a great gallery, I went round it before it closed, but utterly in the wrong place to pick up the numbers it needed.
I pieced together the progression of the town. Immigrant families, mostly from India and the West Indies wanted to open up shops but couldn’t afford rents in the main part of town, so they set up towards the East end. Slowly, as these communities grew, that became the thriving part of town, so much so that the new arcades needed to be established there rather than near the old centre. A later wave of Eastern European immigration then took advantage of the now unwanted shops near the town centre to create little Poland around the town hall. It was a curious sight.
It was time to play a few tunes. There were a number of pop-up market stalls today, on top of the regular market. They were joined by a very cross black man with a lectern who had an important message about Jesus. Finding a spot where I wouldn’t get mown down by speeding mobility scooters was very difficult, but I squeezed myself in outside Argos.
Frankly, there were too many people to make much money. When a street is really crowded, people get their heads down, focus on avoiding collisions, become defensive. Add to this an array of street sellers, foisting leaflets, trying to sell you a new electricity supplier, asking you to consider if Hell is real, and you do not have a recipe for getting people to appreciate your music. Well, that was fine, I resolved to have a good play and watch the world go by.
I became aware of another set of actors on the street. Four blokes, heavily muscled, dressed in white vests and shorts were working the space. They had large supermarket bags full of something that looked like small boxes, and were going up to people and trying to sell the contents. It appeared to be perfumes. A saw a few sales made. They weren’t aggressive as such, but they went right up to people and blocked their paths. Big lads too. I thought I’d better not judge without proof. Perhaps these weren’t knock off or stolen goods, perhaps they had street trader licences. A pair of policemen appeared at the far end of the street and they vanished instantly, re-appearing when the coast became clear. I decided it was OK to judge now. Later on, they sold some perfume to the energy contract salespeople, which pleased me for some reason I couldn’t quite put my finger on. They never asked me if I wanted any. Clearly I don’t have the look of a perfume connoisseur.
In the middle of the market street are a number of long benches. Slowly these filled up with old Sikh men, each bringing their own special cushion. Forbidden by their religion from cutting their hair, these aged gentlemen all have a massive white beard and a stick, and are only easily told apart at distance by the bright colours of their Turbans. It felt like a gathering of birds on an overhead wire. I’d look up and the order would have changed. It was clear they came here every day, and filled this space. There wasn’t a huge amount of chat, as they shared their lives and were looking at the same things. It seemed enormously peaceful.
I made a bit of money. There didn’t seem to be any discernible pattern about who would or wouldn’t contribute to the busking. I got coins from every ethnic group I could identify. Nobody was cross or annoyed. People here seemed very good at knowing how to share street space and tolerate what other people would like to do with it, much in contrast to some of the shop owners and employees who’d shouted at me to go away in other towns.
A Muslim gentleman went past in the full white robe, with a brightly dyed orange beard. A small child pretended to shoot me repeatedly with a plastic toy gun. West Brom shirts and turbans, headscarves and camouflage shorts. In what was probably the most architecturally dismal street I’d seen so far, the colour and variety more than made up for it and I was happy to play and watch.
When I stopped for my lunch, I was given the remarkable news that my busking project had been featured in the Daily Mail. I rushed to Tescos to not buy one. It was true. Improbably, I’d been featured in the Horoscope section as something worth taking an interest in. I photographed the article and put the paper back on the stand. This was such an unlikely place to have got national publicity that it made me laugh all afternoon.
My afternoon carried on much as before, too crowded, a few apples, a few pounds. It was time to throw myself deeper into the Black Country.
Mentioned in the Domesday book, Smethwick is even less white than West Bromwich. I hardly saw a white face all day. Race and immigration have pretty much defined the place in living memory. Sir Oswald Mosley represented the town for Labour until he left the party in 1931 to form the British Union of Fascists. White worries about immigration were played to in the 1964 election when the Conservative candidate Peter Griffiths won on the astonishing slogan “If you want a n****r for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour”. (My censoring of the word.)
The town today feels calmer. The Sikh community dominates the area, with Europe’s largest Gurdwara standing prominent by Rolfe Street station. It looked entirely in place and English, concrete facaded, slightly tired and just slightly municipal under its golden dome. Next along was the Tollgate centre, a failed attempt to breathe a bit of life into the town. An arcade running back from the road, the sign outside listed the amenities within, including Tesco. “Proudly serving the local community. The Tollgate Shopping Centre. Now OPEN”. Tescos was long since shut and boarded up. A small number of local shops survived, including an Indian drum shop, packed to the roof with Tablas, but most units were empty. It was dismal.
I wondered if I should play here? This was not my world at all, but I’d come here to see all the different aspects of England, not just the bits that feel like home. The main street was not pedestrianised and had narrow pavements. In true Asian style, the shops spilled out onto the street, the best stock piled up on the pavement, a full palette of bright colours in fruit and veg. Finding a spot wouldn’t be easy. There were bookmakers, mostly filled with elderly Jamaican gentlemen, two banks, and a couple of very tired looking pubs with Asian names on the licence board.
I found a little section set back by a takeaway that wasn’t open yet, right next to one of these mighty green-grocers. I decided to ask the proprietor if he minded me playing next to his shop. He didn’t understand the question. The street is everyone’s to use, why would I even ask, please go ahead.
With a certain nervousness I’d not felt since Berwick, back in early April, I set up and played, my English tunes seeming so out-of-place and almost comical in this setting.
But it worked, and people took an interest. I was clearly unusual. You wouldn’t pick Smethwick for busking under normal circumstances, mainly because it’s simply not very big, and nobody has much money. But people dropped off a few coins, asked questions, danced down the street. It started to feel a lot like normal. One can get too pre-occupied with difference and miss the things that make us so similar. It’s also true that I’m a bit weird by any measure, it’s not like I naturally fit in in other places anyway, so being a bit weird here wasn’t as awkward as it might have been. Cars pulled up with whole families in, father picking up ten bags of onions perhaps destined for a curry shop somewhere. Vast amounts of veg disappeared into the backs of Mercedes. Trade was wholesale as well as domestic. Children would wind the windows down to hear the strange white man playing tunes on their street. Some got out with little coins and smiles. All was well with the world.
Around 3pm, the shutters started to go up behind me as the takeaway opened for the day. I started to pack down, but the owner came out and said he was enjoying it, please carry on. So I did. Eventually I called it a day and went to buy some fruit and vegetables from my neighbours. I try to spend much of what I take back in the communities, always buying food and drink from local shops. I filled a huge bag with all sorts of produce and took it to the owner. He half glanced inside and said “One pound please.” It was a generous gesture.
As I drove home I recalled that this area was alleged to be a ‘no-go zone’ for white people like me, if certain alarmist sections of the press are to be believed. Well, there’s no substitute for experience, and mine had been thoroughly pleasant. That’s not to say that there aren’t problems with integration. It’s a complicated picture, and a few afternoons hanging out on the street are not the same as living in these communities, but some of the hyperbole bears no resemblance to the reality, and I can’t help but feel that if we just all got to know each other with a bit of politeness and kindness, that’d be half the job done on both sides. At the least, we’d be operating from a position of familiarity. I wonder if we might benefit from a town twinning project within England. Twin Smethwick with Fakenham and see what happens. Ashington with Luton. Anyway, it had all been extremely interesting. On the next trip, I planned to take a look at Dudley and Stourbridge.
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!