Moated by a three lane ring road, Stourbridge is a concrete Motte and Bailey on the border of the Black Country. It only takes a couple of minutes to drive round it, clockwise being the permitted direction, but to breach the keep you must drive into the foundations of the towering Tescos, down the ramp to the rubberised floor of the sunken car park, before ascending to the arcade where Tescos has merged with the Victorian red-brick town hall to create a truly metamorphic shopping experience.
Within the ring road are three smaller, older roads, oxbowed and narrow. Stourbridge is therefore now a fixed and calcified layout, piling up against the ring road in waves of redevelopment. The main shopping street runs towards Birmingham, narrow, unpedestrianised, tall sided. I walked up and down, and chose a slight widening outside Wilko’s for my busking pitch. There was a coffee shop called ‘Chemistry’ a few doors down, so I went to fill my mug. A Dutchman saw my fiddle and paid for the coffee, whilst asking me what I was doing. This was, and remains a tough question to answer. ‘Busking my way round England’ is true, but misses the point a little. ‘Discovering my country through street performance’ makes me sound like a pretentious prick. Maybe I am. Anyway, I usually opt for ‘Busking my way round with the view to writing a book’. If I was a better publicist, I’d probably be doing something else instead.
I began to busk outside Wilkinsons, next door to Coral. There was a slight niche in the pavement that set me back enough for people to pass without problem. I soon discovered that it was also the unofficial turning circle for mobility scooters as well. That was fine, there was space for all of us, if the scooters all used the litter bin as a roundabout. I even picked up a few high fives as they came past. A series of expensive cars parked on the road in front of me. I saw a Ferrari, a Lotus, an open top Audi, and an MGB GT all within the nearest few spaces. Each driver went through the same process upon arrival; got out, locked up, began walking away, paused and thought about it, then spun me a quid without making eye contact. Clearly they regarded this as some sort of insurance, or protection money. Fine by me.
Periodically, people came out of Coral for a smoke. They were always generous with my busking collection, each gambler absent-mindedly dropping a clatter of change as they lit up. I wondered, perhaps uncharitably, if the average gambler had a more transient relationship with their money that made it easier to surrender to a busker’s case. I generally try to avoid picking cynical spots, near cash points or such. This felt a little uncomfortable until one young lad got chatting. He really liked the music, and stayed out for an extra ciggy. He was getting married soon, and wondered about hiring me to play at his wedding. He offered me a cigarette, I declined.
“Love the music. Can’t beat the old tunes. So does the missus. She wants me to get married. I’m not sure, but she’s pushing me towards it. Would you be free to play? She loves the old Irish tunes. If it happens, of course.”
I said I could be, if they both wanted, and gave him my card. He headed back in and did not emerge again in the remaining hour and a half I spent on the pitch.
The Dutchman who’d bought me a coffee now returned eagerly with a Ukelele. He was very excited to show it to me. Having done so, he wasn’t sure what to do next. He couldn’t play it, and neither could I, and it existed between us, a comma in search of clauses to split. I said it was a nice Ukelele, and he agreed that it was. Eventually I asked if he’d like another tune, and he said he would, which gave us a dignified end to what had been a difficult conversation.
The money came rolling in to my case. Stourbridge is definitely a well off sort of place, a world apart from Dudley, just 6 miles down the road. It’s extraordinary how utterly the wealth and social class of an area can change from town to town in just a few miles. If you’ve got no money and no car, those 6 miles must seem an ocean. I could have walked to Dudley in two hours, and yet it felt like a different planet here. Artisan coffee shops, brew pubs, every shop a going concern. And far more white faces too.
Suddenly Dan Walsh came past, an acquaintance of mine from the music scene, and a very fine banjo player. He said hello, and asked me what I was doing here, before handing me a pound coin. I took this as an endorsement of my project. Shops began to shut. It was time to pack up. I counted up my takings. In two hours I’d managed £41, 3 Yuan, and 60 Euro Cents.
I was staying with Gren and Julia, good friends of mine. After dinner Gren and I went for a game of snooker. I love snooker clubs. They’re all so very gloriously alike in their utter mediocrity. When I was young, my grandfather told me that being good at snooker was the sign of a misspent youth. He was wrong of course. Despite wasting much of my youth in snooker clubs, I never became any good at all.
Kingswinford snooker club is at the top end of the scale. Yes, it’s still an indeterminate concrete cube on a gone-to-seed trading estate on the outskirts of town, with wall to wall Sky Sports in the bar, but the tables are level, the cushions responsive, and the rests still have all four rubber feet on the end. We settled in for a few frames.
As I missed my shots, the maleness of the place tugged at my attention. There were table after table of blokes, lads out together, father and son, old gaffers never missing the easy ones. But no women, other than the lady running the bar. I wondered, not for the first time, why that might be. Around the room, gent after gent bent down to the table to inadvertently and collectively reveal a nauseating legion of hairy arse cracks. Once a place is gendered like this, it probably can’t change without a concerted effort from all parties. There’s a sort of gender inertia that’s fairly difficult to overcome. I don’t think anyone is trying to preserve snooker clubs as male dominated locations. They just are and that won’t change unless a lot of people make a conscious decision to choose to do so.
After my defeat was assured, we returned to Stourbridge for a pint. The town was pretty much deserted now, a smattering of pubs stacking their many empty chairs and tables early so that the minimum wage staff with no emotional attachment to the business could get away quickly after last orders.
The next day, I resumed my spot, having had success the day before. It was a seriously uninteresting session. The world went by, nobody complained, and nobody stopped to talk much. I was left to my own devices, and slowly accumulated a pile of coins. Gren and Julia appeared with their two small children, who were given coins of their own to place in my case. Wide eyed, they faltered, seeing me, a familiar face in an unfamiliar place, behaving oddly. ‘And he is to be rewarded for this?’ said their expressions.
Later on I walked back through the arcade. The lady selling home improvements needed only one telling glance to filter me invisible from the pool of potential clients. The busker winks out of existence once they pack up, disappearing down side streets or alleyways, anonymous and withdrawn.
Stourbridge cooked in the sun. The industry had gone here too, the glassmaking reduced to a single traditional cone by the canal eking a living from the curious and school groups. Another world-famous industry that was no more. But here, the town still prospered with newer money. On the edge of the Clent hills, escape to the country is easy. The town houses are tall and smart, and money has come in. Black Country Lite. Lattes and Skoda Yetis. The plumbing shop was selling vinyl albums on the side. Anyone wishing to deep-dive the Midlands could use Stourbridge as an acclimatisation station. I was coming the other way, after days spent in West Bromwich, Smethwich, and Dudley. I was ready to surface and head home.
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!