Deal is a port without a harbour. A limb of the port of Sandwich, it sits within the economic and administrative world of the Cinque ports, a confederation dating back to Saxon times, responsibilities to the crown traded for freedoms others didn’t have. Freedoms that by the 1780s had degenerated into anarchisms and smuggling without providing the same benefits for the realm in an era of much larger warships and shifting priorities. Pitt the Younger sent men to smash and burn the boats and bring the town to book, posting a cutter offshore to prevent any escape by sea. Thus broken and tamed, the strategic power of the area waned into the gentle seaside resort of today.
A vast sandbank out to sea generates a zone of calm water by the town, where generations of vessels would set anchor to ride out storms. In the modern world, the action is much further out to sea, beyond the sandbank, as LPG tankers and container ships pass through the channel in the distance, the ragged edge of France visible beyond them. On the shingle shore, small vessels sit with their winches, waiting for the right day. Some had signs by them like the one that said “Fishing Boat Club. Three new members wanted.” The three had been crossed out and replaced by a four. Some winch houses, stripped of their original job, had become floral instead, a lump off which to hang baskets and up which to train vines and sunflowers.
A disused fort marks the edge of the town centre, cannons in position, trained on the channel, ends plugged up with stoppers of bright red plastic. Irrelevant now in the strategic situation of what remains the world’s busiest waterway, carrying the planet’s wares to the ports of Western Europe, departing empty or with scrap and German exports for the east. It is the aorta, the critical feed for the economies of the world, opened up catastrophically by floods at the chaotic end of the recent ice age, severing the physical connection between Europe and Britain, a geographic act of separation with continuing psychological consequences.
Between the sea and the land is a broad walkway, almost entirely lined with memorial benches, backs to the land, views trained on the shipping lane the cannons once covered. It is the modern way. In our 21st century England, benches represent an acceptable way of taking the dead from their designated resting places and bringing them back into society. The shore was a long and narrow mausoleum, each bench a personal monument with a small apologetic brass plaque excusing their continued presence among us. “He loved this view.”
In creating this new kind of civic memorial, we have encouraged the dead to escape the graveyard and retake their place among the living. This is not so unusual in societies around the world. I wondered if it were symptomatic of the church’s narrative of death losing traction, no longer one of storage in preparation for the end times, replaced instead by the looser and more personal stories of past, present, and future. In Peru, the mummies of significant leaders were kept in storage for moments of great need and wheeled out into the countryside to encourage rains and good harvests. I’d seen them in the museum in Cusco, darkened with age and skin shrink-wrapped awkwardly onto their own bones. Perhaps the mummified corpses of Atlee and Thatcher should be brought out on a national tour to smooth our journey through Brexit. It seemed as good a plan as any I’d seen so far. I looked at the benches again, stretching into the distance. They seemed to me, then, as a continuation of something very ancient and fundamental. The comfort of having the ancestors amongst us, but in typically understated English manner, perhaps not too close.
I walked onwards into town, thoughts of death and memorial going round my head. I’m not sure I’d want to be turned into a bench when I’ve gone. Perhaps a miscast manhole cover, in a moderately used suburban road, doomed forever to clonk metallically whenever a car drove across.
Deal, like so many seaside towns, concentrates its efforts a couple of streets inland, benefitting from cover on both sides. It was prosperous, and there were no disused units outside which I could stake an untroubled claim. Instead, I plumped for a spot at the end of the long frontage of a chain clothes shop, in front of the zombified headless mannequins. It was a good morning, and coins began to rack up. An old lady walking with a frame made her way towards me with detectable purpose.
“Excuse me, but where did you train?”
This was a new question to me, and it took me a second to understand the implication that she thought I must be a classically trained player.
“Erm, the Harrington arms, near Macclesfield.”
It was her turn to undergo a moment’s confusion. Finally with credentials properly established, we had a good conversation. She’d trained at the RNCM, when it was just the Northern College of Music, (becoming Royal in 1973) studying viola. Remarkably, this was the exact same course and instrument as my girlfriend had taken there, much more recently. She said she was 84 and retired now, having survived cancer, been run over, and managing a bad leg and arthritis. Her family were scattered to the four corners of the world. She kept in touch via video calls on her Ipad. She told me she could no longer play, due to her advancing arthritis. I risked a dangerous but heartfelt question.
“Was music good to you?”
It’s a question I wanted to ask. As a comparatively young man looking at a lifetime of jobbing gigs, working hand to mouth, making ends meet or not, I often wonder how I’ll feel when I’m old. Will it still feel like the right life to have led?
She thought about it carefully, and then answered with a firm certainty.
“Yes, it really was. Not always of course, but some of the students I got to teach were very good indeed. Great talent, and I always loved to help it along. No, I don’t regret it at all.”
She said she’d assumed I must be a classical player from my tone.
“I heard you from a long way away. I looked but couldn’t see you to begin with, I assumed you must be much closer. Your technique is very good indeed.”
This was a fine compliment, and with that she said goodbye and went to join a friend for a coffee, but not before dropping a £2 coin into my case. I was warmed by the conversation and settled in for the morning with growing confidence. A man sat down at the bench near me with a bright red parrot on his shoulder. He smiled and offered a thumbs up. The parrot screamed and honked at me when I played. It was a strange juxtaposition, to be appreciated and heckled from the same seat, but it didn’t bother me. Parrots don’t have money.
A window cleaner appeared, tasked with the windows of the clothes shop. I took this as time for lunch, and loaded up with items from the bakers across the road. The lady in the coffee shop was from Margate, and commuted to Deal daily to sell coffee to people like me. All round the town there were job adverts in windows. It was a competitive market. I wondered if the brain-drain of the recession was biting now the jobs were returning. The young of England have left for the cities and now there’s no one left in the provinces to sell us custard tarts.
I took my lunch to the end of Deal pier, as it seemed to offer the best view of the town. The rain had arrived, little more than a mist wafting around and making everything wet. The pier was stark. A local had told me it was the most recent pier built in England, celebrating its 60th this summer. It was of its time, brutalist and concrete, as if a town had been eroded into the sea leaving only the bus station still standing. The main span had a few sea anglers atrophied awaiting an unlikely moment of action. I asked if they felt the weather might improve.
“No.” answered one, without looking up.
By the entrance to the pier was a chalkboard with “Fish of the month” as its title. Underneath was written “July – no winner”
The end of the pier had a cafe. It was shut and untenanted, apparently awaiting a new gas main. I walked all round it and looked back at the land. Deal was low-rise and white, seemingly endless stretched along England’s shore. The tallest building besides the church bore the timeball, one of a series historically installed along the channel to aid navigation. These days it rises and falls every hour for the benefit of the curious. It’s oddly silent, when you’re next to it, lacking the fanfare or bells that such a performance seems to demand, making it a private, voyeuristic performance for the knowing few.
Walking around the edges of town, I found odd rambling streets that opened into sudden empty squares, white-walled and deserted of people and stories, as if the centre of town had not always been a settled matter. Most back streets had a funny little pub, closed and bolted, not open till 7. A ‘Senior Service’ cigarette vending machine hung derelict outside a long closed shop, weathering like a Gormley statue into a state of decayed unrecognition.
The sea anglers proved to be wrong and it dried up again. I returned to my original pitch for another go. My eye was suddenly drawn left, where a giant seagull was coming fast down the street like a Zero, on a collision course towards the back of a woman, crashing her hard and dislodging a flapjack. The bird used the split second of shocked inertia to gather the prize, before the previous owner swung her handbag whilst shouting something like “You feathery fuck”, but too late, and the gull was on a second story gutter, looking down in mocking triumph, beak full of food. The woman looked around the street in shock and embarrassment. Nobody made eye contact or broke stride. There was nothing she could do but carry on down the road, humiliated and without flapjack. Another unreported crime that left no physical trace.
A parent and small child came past. The child was perhaps 4 years old. He stopped by me, looked up, looked down at the coins, and with the sincere smile of innocence, carefully placed his small plastic umbrella in my case.
“No darling, you can’t give him your umbrella.” said the parent, reaching down for it, before freezing, suddenly aware that the umbrella was now technically mine. “Do you mind?” she asked, “Of course, help yourself.” I replied, and my brief period of umbrella ownership was over.
The rain threatened a return, so I packed up and made my way to an Italian owned coffee shop, well dug in to the end of the street, generations old. I had a teacake and counted my day up. £106 in four and a half hours. A great result that paid my accommodation, food, and travel with some left over. I ordered a second teacake in celebration.
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!