Leek, Queen of the Staffordshire Moorlands, as it says on the sign. Home to what was till quite recently the only pub I’d ever been thrown out of, the Wilkes Head. Not on the railway any more, not really on the canal which peters out disappointingly a mile away from town. You can get a bus to Stoke, and occasionally to other towns in the hills.
It was market day. You know you’re in a rich town when that means antiques and artisanal loaves instead of cheap clothes and unbranded electrical equipment. A lady was selling a pair of antlers on her stall. Later, I saw she’d been successful. The bookmakers was missing the ‘C’ from ‘Coral’ in their signage, and the word ‘oral’ hung merrily over the street in giant colourful letters. I made my way downhill and picked a busking spot opposite a motivational pie shop.
My first interactive visitor of the day was a spritely older gentleman who dropped a pound in my case and engaged me in conversation. He held himself tall and straight and was smartly dressed. He said he was a former Morris dancer and musician from Suffolk, but he hadn’t found a side round here. I told him about the local sides I know, including a local ladies side who are looking for musicians.
“Oh no, I don’t play for ladies. My side was white men! You know. The proper stuff.”
He then gave me a short but energetic demonstration of what proper Morris dancing looked like. It was perhaps not the compelling advert for white male supremacy that he was aiming for.
The thing about prejudice is that I’m never ready for it. Given ten minutes warning, I’d be fired up and prepared to take it on, armed with a witty and cutting riposte. But it’s often such a surprise, a casual comment in an otherwise mundane conversation that my first thought is ‘Did I hear that right?’ and by the time I’ve thought about it and decided I really did hear that, the moment has passed. I think I managed to say something lame about there being nothing wrong with women dancing Morris, and he was gone. I felt a bit ashamed at my lack of challenge on the various other problems with his statement, and it stayed with me all morning.
I kept playing. Having spent most of my time far from home, I was used to being an anonymous figure, just some guy with a sun bleached hat and a fiddle. Leek however, was a little too close to home. My childhood babysitter came past and waved with a knowing laugh. Another familiar face came down the street. It was my Grandma down from Macclesfield for the day. She insisted on taking me for lunch and I accepted without argument!
After I returned to my pitch, well stoked up for the afternoon, the encounters kept coming. One gentleman engaged me in animated conversation whilst holding an ice lolly. He kept talking at me about nothing much, and slowly it melted, chunks calving off and dropping to the floor. Eventually, he reached a full stop and looked at his lolly. It had completely gone. “I’d better get another one of those.” He said to himself and headed off towards the ice-cream van, leaving me with a puddle.
The majority of the music I play is English, but I have a few American, Irish, Scottish, and Scandinavian tunes in my repertoire as well. With perfect timing, and not for the first time, as I was playing an Irish jig, a lady stopped me to ask if I could possibly play her an Irish jig. I said of course and immediately resumed the same tune. She was delighted and dropped off a pound coin. Another lady asked for ‘Danny Boy’ and spent the entire tune telling total strangers that she’d requested it.
Leek is a town in the service of the retired. I looked down the main street. It was bald heads and bobs of white hair as far as I could see, the blue rinse being somewhat out of fashion these days. The elderly descend on Leek on market days, and walk or roll the main street from the old market place by the church, down the hill to the new one by the war memorial. The market has been cleverly split in two to ensure that punters walk the length of the main street. On the back streets are antique shops stuffed with oddities that you can’t imagine anyone buying until you find something that feels like it was waiting for you. I narrowly avoided buying a working demonstration model of a two-stroke engine when I realised just in time that I didn’t really actually need one and I was being silly.
Lunchtime in Leek; Tea rooms are full, kerbs are lowered, menus are safe in their predictability. Sandwiches are triangled, cucumbers sliced neatly. It is a nice and entirely unchallenging day out, where those older members of society with a little pension left over can peruse the market, have a cream tea, raid the charity shops, and head home untroubled before the rush hour. It is a town without many of the obvious signs of poverty that so many other places have, and a town where nearly every face is white and nearly every accent English.
Two older ladies came to put money in my case. They stopped at the cusp, suddenly worried they might be doing the wrong thing and asked “Are you English?”. The implications of the question troubled me. If I wasn’t? Presumably the money would not be forthcoming. But why did it matter? The thought of a foreigner on their street was clearly an issue. Leek suddenly felt like a designated safe space for the already safe. On reflection I should have said something like ‘No mate, I’m Sri Lankan’ in my best North West accent to see what happened.
Of course, a couple of sour moments aren’t representative of everyone, but they troubled me. I’d not encountered naked prejudice like this in places where the ethnic mix was much greater. Perhaps that was the point. Perhaps keeping Leek white and English really mattered to some of the people who came here. Perhaps in such a town, they felt safe to express views they wouldn’t express elsewhere.
The town and the customers are symbiotic of course. The shops, the menus, the items for sale, and the people employed to sell them are all a response to demand. It is self-sustaining. The clientele seek a safe, old-fashioned town, selling safe, old-fashioned things. A product not of overt racism, but of the result of a group being drawn to what makes them feel comfortable and market forces doing the rest. How unlike so much of the rest of modern England Leek is.
As the day wore to a close, another old friend turned up. Robbie, a former student of mine, now fully fledged with a career of his own. He had a fiddle on his back. “I heard you were here. Want some help?”
So we turned into a duo for the last hour of the day. It was a real change of gear, playing harmonies and rhythms instead of straight melodies, and attracted a lot more attention. I tried to divvy the pot up between us, but he wouldn’t take any. I decided to take that as repayment for those times he didn’t listen to me in lessons when he was a kid. He’s now off to do a Masters degree at the Sibelius Music Academy in Finland, so not listening to me must have really paid off in the end.
The next day, I was busking outside a closed down bank in the centre of town. It had steps and a ramp leading up to the door. I didn’t use them, staying at street level instead. At lunchtime I went to get some hot Staffordshire oatcakes, the local delicacy, and returned. My spot had a new performer, so I sat to watch him at work whilst I ate my lunch.
He was a young man, maybe late twenties, and he was a preacher. It was fiery stuff. We were all going to Hell unless we accepted Jesus. And Hell was clearly a very literal place, and he spared no detail as to how bad it was. I tucked into my bacon and cheese double. He was sporting a neatly trimmed beard, and wore a set of high quality sandals. ‘Always dress for the job you want’ I thought quietly to myself. He’d used the steps as a pulpit, and stood a little over the street, imploring us to sort it out and accept Jesus. A little old lady came by and responded.
“You’re preaching to the converted here, but for goodness sake, cheer it up a bit!”
“I’m here to deliver the good news!” he replied, before launching into another dire warning of an eternal roasting.
I really wanted to have a conversation with him, but wasn’t sure how to do so. I’m not religious myself and with the best will in the world, couldn’t take his warnings seriously. This would not be good ground to engage him on, with such a mismatch of concern. If I’m right, then it doesn’t make much difference to him in the long run. If he’s right, I’m in an eternity of trouble. It’s hard to have a serious and respectful conversation when perspectives are so different.
He was using a microphone and a battery amp to increase God’s message. I saw an opening.
“Excuse me!” I ventured during a short pause.
“Yes?” He replied with a smile.
“You could really use a pop shield on that microphone.”
“A pop shield?”
“Yes, you know like a black woolly hat for the microphone. It’d remove some of the harshness on the ‘Ps’ and ‘Ts’ and take out the blowing sounds.”
“Thanks, that sounds great.”
I was in. He came over, and we chatted for a bit. His name was Jonathon an he’d had a very religious upbringing and saw the bible as completely literal. Consequently, he felt a responsibility to go out and preach it. He said that he saw Hell to be.. “as real as a burning building, for which you’d shout ‘Fire!'” to warn people. It was a good point. If you did literally believe in Hell and cared about others then you would spend a lot of time worrying about other people. It must be very stressful and I was glad not to be going round carrying such a burden and responsibility.
He said he had a wife and a child, and they were hoping to give up work altogether soon so they could drive in their camper van to Pakistan, preaching all the way. Until then he was working at an outdoors centre to save up money. He’d preach on his lunchtimes and days off. He was a great admirer of John Wesley, and took inspiration from how it had taken him decades of street preaching to get his movement off the ground.
We wished each other well and he resumed his spot. It was a tough gig. Most people ignored him. Some were openly rude. There was an occasional Hallelujah. After a while he packed up and tried further down the street. I wondered how he measured success. Was he happy? Probably, yes. Funny how one person’s cage can be another’s liberty.
Further up the street, two heavily tattooed young men were working out where to hang a smart looking flag outside their newly opened barbers shop. I resumed busking. A lady came out of a shop with a scratch card and worked away at it by my pitch. It became apparent that she hadn’t won, and she glared at her coin in disappointment, before crossly dropping it in my collection with a shake of the head. I didn’t want the unlucky coin, but couldn’t tell which it was. As I packed down, I could hear Jonathon the preacher in the distance, just the plosives and the bass coming off the speaker, the shape of the rhetoric clear, but shorn of the detail.
I left Leek, Queen of the Staffordshire Moorlands, the retiree’s theme park, and headed 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 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!