I awoke in my car with the rising of the sun, feeling like a corpse laid out in an open coffin. It would be rude to start moving and startle anyone. It had not been my day, the day before. £25 just hadn’t been enough, not when you have to fuel your car and buy all your food on the go. Sure, you can always get chips, but after a few days you start hallucinating about peas and carrots and a proper diet. I needed a good day, but after my failures in Truro and St Ives, I was not feeling confident as I made my way to Penzance. There was a coffee shack on the junction between the two main streets. Craving a modicum of human company as well as caffeine, I confided my troubles in the Barista, who showed me the local paper which featured an article headlined ‘Hell on Earth’, an exposé of St Ives’ ongoing war with the hated buskers. Another customer said ” I wouldn’t worry too much. It is St Ives after all. It didn’t have far to travel.”
I wasn’t feeling confident as I opened my case to see if Penzance was a better bet. My fiddle had responded to a cold night in the car by slackening off its strings, causing me to wail “Et tu, Brute?” as I attempted to bring it slowly back to pitch.
It was still early. My body clock, having been forcibly adjusted by enforced adherence to daylight hours had seen me up and about by 7am. I’d already walked the streets of Penzance. The main shopping street is Market Jew Street, so named for the prominent Jewish community that lived here till about 1850. This contained the normal town centre shops, the chains, and sloped up from the harbour and railway station to a grand if somewhat austere grey stone market building and small square. Heading off at right angles was Causewayhead, another long shopping street given over almost entirely to local and independent shops. I’d found breakfast in a cafe here, and was looking forward to seeing the street come to life.
I started playing at about 9:30am, too early really because the town wasn’t really fully functioning yet and footfall was low, but I was keen to play if only for myself. The acoustic was nice, and the sun was warm. Grumpy from losing tension, the fiddle was taking time to really ring, but slowly it warmed up too, and I settled in for a good session.
After a while I was aware of being watched. People rarely watch a busker for long. They may enjoy it in passing, but don’t often stop for a period to really take it in. The anonymity serves to take the pressure off the performance. This lady was definitely an audience though, leaning against a wall across the street. She smiled warmly at me and caught off guard, I fluffed a couple of notes.
A homeless man came past and put a flower in my case. It’s perhaps a counter-intuitive thing, but homeless people are almost always generous with what they have. I often get a handful of coppers from them. I’ve come to realise just how important an act this is for people in this situation. Homelessness robs you of so much more than just your home. You lose so many of the autonomies that define the human experience. Most of us consume art of some form on a daily basis, be that TV, computer games, books, music, etc. A few coins or a flower in my collection are a statement of cultural autonomy and an assertion of one’s basic humanity. They are a powerful and moving defiance of circumstance and I always try to return them later, with interest.
About 11:30am, another busker showed up. His name was Frank, and I was ready for a rest, so I gladly handed the spot over to him. He was a gentle soul, and had travelled through Spain and Portugal with his guitar the year before. He told me approximately how long he intended to busk for so I could regain the spot when he finished. I decided to take an early lunch.
The coffee shack was the de-facto centre point of Penzance. It had developed its own breed of barflies who instead of getting gradually more drunk like the pub variety, were getting progressively more wired and exuberant as the day wore on. One was a smallish fellow with a magnificent white beard, glasses, and a giant white ankle length coat, embroidered with hundreds of colourful flowers. He started making requests and paying for them a coin at a time, dancing little jigs as I played. I packed up my second busking session at 2pm. Even though the going was good, I had another destination in mind for the day.
It St Ives yesterday had represented the now of tourist Cornwall, then Geevor represents the then of mining past. Just outside Pendeen, it was the final tin mine to close, in 1990. A closure so abrupt and immediate some miners had already gone on shift out under the Atlantic before they could be told. It’s an astonishing place. Rather than artefacts assembled in retrospect, Geevor is as it was the day the tools were put down. Nothing has been moved.
Nowhere is this more poignant than ‘The Dry’, the miners’ changing room, where the lockers are as they were after the final shift, festooned with dirty pants, muddy overalls, packets of woodbines, hot chocolate mugs, the room still smelling of coal-tar soup and Jeyes fluid. Graffiti is chalked onto walls, some of it obscene. The only change from 1990 is where a miner has since died, and a small photo and plaque has been placed on the top shelf of their locker. A powerful visual representation of real human stories turning into the cold clay of impersonal history. We’re much better at learning from the living. Each shrine is a voice and an experience we can’t hear again. The opportunity for a personal connection to another time and space gone. I’ve been here before, knew what to expect, and still found myself deeply emotional in such a powerful space.
The loss of the personal connection, the direct first-hand account, is a problem we struggle with as a species. No matter how diligent the recording work, how well presented the information, it simply doesn’t carry the same impact and believability of being told things directly, being looked in the eye by someone who saw it, who suffered it. It is so much harder to disregard information told to you directly by someone in the same room, when the wider senses are lit by the touch and the smell of the moment. There is a validation to being told something in person that plays to our egos in a way that simply discovering the information, cold, colourless, and laid out for anyone can’t achieve. We have been chosen to hear this. It must be important.
Look at how the yearly poppy appeal appears on the verge of morphing into a nationalistic fetish symbol now that so few of the survivors of mechanised slaughter are still around to remind us directly of its meaning, to hold our hands, look us in the eyes and tell us what it felt like.
We are evolved to listen to those around us, to take directly communicated warnings more seriously, and attach extra importance to information relayed to us in person. This filter limits the collective horizon of our knowledge to that of the oldest active generation. Anything that falls over that event horizon loses that connection, and fails to be seen as relevant by the majority. This is what leads people to build their houses on active volcanoes or in flood plains or huge geological faults, both literally and metaphorically. Stories that fall outside living memory become historical irrelevancies, of interest to history nuts and weirdos. It couldn’t happen here. It couldn’t happen now. In the absence of the living story, new and different narratives can take over, more compelling only because they’re told by the living.
If we want to avoid making the mistakes of the past again, we need to collectively finding a way of making tales that have fallen off the event horizon as relevant and compelling as the stories that the living can tell us. Each locker that becomes a shrine is one step towards the loss of this story as a living and relevant lesson.
However, there are still plenty of miners left in Geevor for now. Mining is one of those careers that totally saturates the life of many of the people who do it. Retraining is hard, and psychologically you’ll always be a miner doing something else. In common with most ex mining communities, at Geevor you couldn’t find alternative work if you wanted to. Some had left for work abroad. Probably for less money, and whilst starting their life again somewhere unfamiliar, but at least they were mining. Others were left with the choice of both re-training into something they didn’t believe they were and leaving town, or staying around, forever an unemployed miner. One employee told me it killed the town overnight, wiped the pubs and shops out.
Most of the staff of the museum are ex-miners, although that’s only a small percentage of the previous employment figures. They’re not all old men either. The youngest is 48 and was just three months into his apprenticeship when the work stopped.
One of the employees spotted the fiddle case on my back (I don’t like leaving it in the car!) and asked me sort of music I played. He said he was called Marc and played the Melodeon and would I like to play a few tunes? I said I would, and so when the museum closed up for the day we played music together in the winding house, a large concrete and tin building that held the electric motor that raised and lowered the cage to the working levels. The acoustics were good and we knew enough of the same tunes. It felt like a fitting end to the day, looking out across a landscape scraped bare by industry, tumbling down through chimneys and engine houses to the jewelled sea.
I slowly meandered my car round the very tip of Cornwall. Land’s End looked naff. A tourist trap on the basis that there’s nowhere else you can go when you get there. Lamorna Cove was beautiful, but full of signs telling me it was private and I’d need to pay lots of money to enjoy it. In Mousehole, home of Dolly Pentreath who was reputed to be the last native Cornish speaker, (died 1777) it was not possible to park, owing to the tourists and lack of space. This land belongs to the tourist, the passer-by. The locals are the tenant farmers of the towns, the groundskeepers, the caretakers. It’s theirs but not theirs.
I wound up back in Penzance and counted my money. I’d made £85 during the day, and after my museum entry price, lunch, coffee, and a stained glass engine house effigy from the gift shop, I could either have a good meal or somewhere to stay. It was not a difficult choice and I returned to my personal lay-by full of food and content with the world. The sky was black and the Milky Way a nuanced and detailed canvas unspoilt by street lights. I spent a restful night untroubled by courting couples or imaginary badgers.
Next morning, I returned to my now familiar coffee shack. There was an old fellow in the busking spot, looking quite unlike anyone I’d seen before. He was quietly playing some sort of unusual whistle, and was haunched down and folded up like a dehydrated Andean mummy, all bones and angles. The barista explained; “He’s the original busker here. Been here all his life. Used to be a fisherman, then when he got too old for that he took up busking with a piano accordion, then when he got too old for that he took up that whistle instead. When he was young, he was famous for his exploits. They say he once caught 80 conger eels on a 100 hook line, and could fish for congers with his feet too. He once made a sail out of seagulls’ wings and sailed a boat all round the bottom of Cornwall with it.”
He was ancient, with the long ears that belong to the truly old. His wore sandals with rough woollen socks, darned beyond further repair and now broken and gaping. His feet were leathered and smooth like sea brick. Only his hat was new, a woolly beanie in bright colours that added to his oddly Andean vibe. I gave him some coins and sat by him for a while and chatted. His words were weathered to vowels, the rough edges of consonants worn away by time and tide, his speaking soft and untethered. He said he made his own instruments out of what he found in skips. This one was a galvanised pipe he’d modified, drilling holes in what he felt were the right places. Sometimes he got the holes wrong and would tape them up and try again. The mouthpiece was more folded metal, set in a lump of hewn cork, all combined with electrical tape. His foot tapped slowly, out of time with the music.
I didn’t ask him about the sail of seagull wings. Sometimes it’s better to stick with the possibility it might be true than live in a world where it definitely didn’t happen.
After a while, I left him to it and travelled to the top of Causewayhead with a sandwich. On a bench was a full mug of tea in a cup that was printed ‘Lady of the Manor’. I sat at the other end of the bench in the hope that someone would come along and provide me with more interesting conversation. Nobody came. I reach over and touched the mug. It was stone cold.
Marc the melodeon player from Geevor mine suddenly appeared and asked if I fancied a duet, so we set ourselves up by the big building on the market place. It went very well, and we managed £25 in next to no time. Marc was happy with this, because it was his day off and he was meeting friends in the pub and that was his round sorted. I continued solo for a while. A dog delivered a steaming pile of critical appraisal next to my collection, and whilst the embarrassed owner did clear it up, I felt this was a clear sign it was time to try somewhere else.
I finished the day in a busking slot half way up Causewayhead, opposite the cinema. Frank had been there for a few songs, along with another guy who played saxophone to backing tracks.
“Henley, that’s where you want to go mate, at Christmas. They’re fucking loaded. A tenner to them is like a quid to someone here.”
I was part of the buskers union now and we shared a few stories, the three of us sat on the step of an abandoned shopping unit. Some buskers play the same few slots again and again, others never stop travelling. I’d been doing it for long enough to share plenty of tales of my own now. It was a nice moment, and I realised I was falling in love with Penzance.
It’s a great town, Penzance. Not very wealthy. It has substance abuse problems, but frankly so does everywhere I’ve been. People tell me about it in every town like it’s their personal shame rather than an escalating nationwide problem. What Penzance has that I liked so much is a sense of togetherness. Where Truro felt divided between two immiscible communities, and St Ives like a strange theme park with all the stalls and none of the attractions, here all sorts of oddballs had assembled to create a space that felt calm and welcoming. There was a feeling of everyone really wanting to make it work, and not wanting to spoil it for others.
Cornwall is a county where the relics of industry are so old that the countryside would feel incomplete and naked without them. The engine houses crumbling back into the ground they were raised from come from a time far before living memory, and are as aloof and mysterious as standing stones. Dual carriageways have opened the county up, and remote fishing villages have become limbs of the home counties and London, the locals locked in a strange indentured service to their own county. The poorer towns have seen a different incomer. Where the tourists don’t bother, the hippies and drifters open their cafés and seek a simpler life. In the Geevor museum is a gallery of Cornish engine houses around the world, their distinctive shape and architecture transported to every continent by Cornish miners in search of work. Cornwall is a county that things have always left. People, resources, ideas, skills, gift shop tat, frustrations, surfboards.
I busked for a final session on Causewayhead, opposite the cinema. It was getting towards closing up time, and there were few people about. The afternoon was mild and gentle, and I played for myself, revelling in the acoustic, losing myself in the music. The violin had fully recovered from the trauma of the day before and sang out, strings rattling as they hit each other, overflowing with joyful energy. I played with a rare freedom and delight, hitting heights I didn’t know I had. The only audience was a young lady selling confectionary from a hatch in the cinema frontage. She stared blankly across the road at nothing, chin resting resigned on hands waiting for her shift to finish. I didn’t want mine to end. Perhaps I could drift down here and make a go of it? Maybe open a decent coffee shop…
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!