A strange natural sodium light fell lengthways across the land from a low sun as I drove early into Nottinghamshire. It dribbled through the windscreen and illuminated my advancing nostril hairs as I regarded my tired, shabby reflection in the rear-view mirror, starkly confirming for me the futility of any further grooming now my 35th birthday has slipped past. I parked up in Retford by a large and long abandoned council estate pub, working class grandeur being torn down piecemeal by sycamore saplings, ribboning the tarmac of the car park and easing their sinews into the masonry.
Papa’s chippy wasn’t open yet, but it already smelled of mushy peas warming up. A tattooed publican was straightening his poppy flags, seasonal hanging-baskets of remembrance. Retford was getting ready for market day.
I got straight to work, setting up for a busk on the main street against a blank shuttered door by the end of the Cashino, a tawdry portmanteau for our times. I hadn’t been playing ten minutes when a man stopped me.
“Excuse me, are you local?”
“I’m afraid not, I’ve come over from Manchester way.”
“You see I run an amateur dramatics group and we’re working on a production of ‘Ladies in Lavender’. Have you heard of it?”
“No..” Where was he going with this?
“Well it was made into a film starring Judi Dench, and it’s about these two sisters who live in a remote fishing community in Cornwall.”
“And one day they find a young man washed up on the beach, and they nurse him to health, and it turns out he’s a Polish violinist.”
“But we can’t find anyone capable of playing a shipwrecked Polish violinist round here and I just wondered..”
Usually I like to go with the flow of events, and take on whatever the street throws at me, but a month’s unpaid work as a washed up violinist was somehow a little too close to home.
“It’s a bit far from Manchester I’m afraid.”
“Oh well. Let me know if you change your mind. You can find us in the little theatre round the corner.”
His hopes crushed, he headed away. A few moments later I was stopped again.
“Excuse me, are you local?”
“I’m from Manchester way.”
“Ah, you see my wife plays violin, but not like you.”
Mistaking this for a compliment I said ‘”Well, thanks.”
“No,” he said wistfully. “She plays difficult, complex pieces.”
He thought about it a bit.
“I wish she’d stop making it so Damn hard for herself and play something easy once in a while.”
And he headed off, can of Dulux matt emulsion in each hand, white handlebar moustache maintaining watch over proceedings. There’s definitely a type of gentleman of a certain age who stops you to tell you something they know about music without asking you anything about yourself, as if knowing they like Mahler is somehow useful information to you. It’s an entitlement I suppose. These conversations always end when they run out of facts about music they know, and without any sort of useful point having been arrived at. A silence descends with me unable to contribute, not having been involved in the monologue so far, and they walk off without leaving a coin, their wisdom surely reward enough. Thank goodness I’m not a woman doing this I sometimes think. I imagine if I were, I’d get twice as much money and four times as many idiots to deal with. There’s certainly a blessed anonymity in being an increasingly middle aged bloke with old clothes and a bald head.
I played on and the conversations kept coming. My next visitor was a tall Chinese lady with a preposterously fluffy white dog. She latched onto me from a distance and arrowed through the street towards my spot, dog trotting alongside.
“Hello, oh I am really enjoying the music. This is my dog, Snowy Pearl Chow Chow, he’s on Instagram! He has hundreds of followers. I love your violin, why are you in Retford? You should go somewhere better! Dead end here, I have a camper van.” She spoke in fast chopping sentences with a strong Chinese accent.
“I’m just here busking for a couple of days. Where are you from?”
“Ah you can see I’m not a local, yes. I’m actually from Hereford, but I know what you are thinking, she does not sound like she is from Hereford! This is because I grew up in Leeds! Haha! You should go to Hong Kong, do you have a degree? You could go on a worker visa, oh they love the violin there, you could play it at night and teach English in the day! Oh it would be so good. My Chow Chow, he’s such a good dog. You can follow him on Instagram. Are you on Instagram? You could follow each other on Instagram!”
She was a phenomenon, a breathless whirlwind of words and barely connected sentences. 6ft tall in flats and looked you in the eye with a true confidence. Had I created her as a fictional character, I’d quite rightly stand accused of copying a stereotype, yet her she was, going full pelt at me like this, needing no encouragement at all. And then she was gone, Snowy Pearl Chow Chow obediently in tow, on to the next person. It suddenly dawned on me that this was a performance rather than a person. I whipped out my notepad and scribbled down as much of the conversation as I could. Like me, she was working the street as well, playing the stereotype, her morning’s work to get some more Instagram followers for her dog. I resumed mine.
An older lady came slowly along, and dropped 60p into my case, before pausing, taking a good look at what was already in there, and remarking regretfully “Oh. You’re doing quite well.”
A little later, a man stopped right in front of my pitch, oblivious, and held a long phone conversation with someone of whom he demanded “Are you peeling onions? ARE YOU PEELING ONIONS?” in an increasingly agitated manner. After a couple of minutes of this, he suddenly hung up and hurried off.
It had been an action packed morning, and I was ready for lunch. I picked up a hot pie and a sandwich from the cavernous ‘A.W. Bacon and sons, est 1938’, a veritable department store of bakery and butchery, and wandered the town.
It was the week before Remembrance Sunday. There were a lot of poppies about, and not just pinned to the lapels of the passing shoppers. Every other shop had a remembrance themed window display. I documented a few of my favourites. The Air Ambulance charity shop offered a poppy covered bookcase full of paperback spy thrillers. Mind UK’s poppy display housed the complete Dad’s army scripts. Not to be outdone, the Edinburgh Woollen Mill had a fashionable display of camouflage trousers amongst their poppies. A decorative metalworker had created large poppies with centres made of melted and deformed vinyl records. I looked closer, and the records he’d chosen to sacrifice were German Hammond-Organ albums. Good though the subversion of this art was, my winner for the day was an independent charity shop whose magnificent poppy window featured ‘The young Hitler I knew’ in hardback as their centrepiece.
Faced with this bewildering series of juxtapositions, I took my pie and sandwich and sat by the inert and ossified Sebastopol cannon (Rated #11 of 18 things to do in Retford on Tripadvisor) to think it over. This Russian cannon, claimed by the British in the Crimean war in 1855 and plinthed two years later, was retrieved to Retford of all places and set up as a monument to the fallen of that particular foreign adventure. Almost melted down for the Second World War effort, it was saved by local dignitaries for whom the Crimean war still held enough personal meaning to make the symbolism worth preserving. Now it feels impossibly lost in history, a random cannon from Russia, meaningless and incongruous, though symbolically it meant much the same to the citizens of Retford in the Victorian era as our war memorials do to us today.
The difficulty with the poppy, it seems to me, is what a nakedly powerful symbol it is, so simple and susceptible to being filled with new meaning. Symbols can sometimes overpower their first given meaning. That straightforward design, the splash of colour so immediately visually distinctive against our dull British Autumnal apparel makes for a symbol clearly full of charge, even if you didn’t yet know what the details were.
In my last blog, Cornwall Part 2, I spent a long time thinking about how the message so often dies with the story teller. The history books, the archives, the secondary sources don’t carry the same sense of personal impact. With the rapid decline in the number of Second World War veterans left among us, the direct connection to the poppy is being lost, and for many is now an openly powerful symbol without an immediate personal connection.
Thus untethered from its foundation, the poppy is now a symbol ripe for new purpose, an increasingly empty vessel awaiting new content. This vacuum is being filled by all sorts of ideas. Some are awful. The widely shared images of people marching with a swastika tattoo on their neck and a poppy on their chest, and the people waving a poppy flag whilst giving a Nazi salute are particularly shocking examples. Most are much more mundane. The window displays I saw were not fascist or wildly offensive. They were simply confused, almost child-like. The poppy reduced to being a vague symbol of past war and present country.
We are as a people, unsure of ourselves. It comes, perhaps, of being the hegemonic power. There is nothing really to rebel against. Our culture and language dominant, World Wars won, subjugated by nobody. There is no greater power in our lives, no dominant force against which to assert our identity.
Brexit fits into this. Where others around us have suffered, it is because their interests have been adversely affected by an outside force, all too often the British, or within that the English. It perhaps therefore follows that if things are not going well, it must be through outside agency, after all, we’re the English. Europe fits that narrative. As the only external organisation capable of effecting meaningful change on our lives, it follows that our problems must stem from this. To blame outside forces is much easier than to grapple with what we ourselves might do better. ‘Change this one thing and it’ll be fixed’ is a compelling idea, particularly if you’re too tired or beaten down to face the prospect of a long and difficult series of complex challenges. It is a simple idea with allure.
Within this narrative, the poppy has suddenly become an available symbol to a population that need to assert something, even if they’re not quite sure exactly what. As the last WW2 veterans slowly slip out of the public discussion, the Second World War, like the first, starts to become distant and impersonal history in much the same way that the Sebastopol cannon attracts merely a ripple of confused interest, despite the deep symbolism it once bore. Words like ‘Glory’ and ‘Remembrance’, reread in a now secular world, lose their very specific Christian neutrality and take on more dramatic, nationalistic overtones. Glory not as the comforting religious sureity that the wasted innocent would be received into heaven, but a Godless and personal triumph in war of the righteous. Something to be nationalistically proud of, not crumbs of comfort in a hopeless mess.
This too rarely challenged sense of pride where once there was only sorrow appeals to an agitated and hurting English population seeking to make sense of a divided society, where the gap between rich and poor grows ever bigger, where the high street is fading away, the only growth area the homeless and hopeless. We wonder if only we could assert our Englishness some more, this could be overcome. The English flag itself is a somewhat debauched and tawdry symbol, immediately associated with football hooliganism. Too cheap for this greater calling. In the poppy, there is a sense of higher purpose and understated nobility that makes it a symbol suitable for those who couldn’t bring themselves to wave the flag. A symbol that appears to offer togetherness in the strained union of the UK and a sense of identity in a shared past. It’s a very English form of patriotism. Simplistic, understated.
People need symbolism and the poppy fulfils that need, and whilst there are some awful images of misappropriation of the poppy available to find, most uses of it just look a wellspring of undefined identity allied to a vacant and potent symbol.
Symbolism by itself though, is a short cut that bypasses the complex realisations of identity, a short cut where the symbol becomes the totem of identity itself, rather than a natural expression of an identity richly arrived at. The poppy here gets us no nearer to an expression of Englishness other than laying bare a clear sense of yearning and need.
That evening, I chewed the thought over with my friend Edwin in the Lord Nelson pub on Sutton on Trent. I told him about the window displays I’d encountered in Retford, and how they seemed to jar with the messages I’d been brought up to understand the poppy stood for, and my own consequent reluctance to wear one. He’d been taught in Berkhamstead school, which with its close links to the military had seen each many pupils go straight from school to slaughter.
“Remembrance is a constant, low level thing. It’s there every day in the memorials on the Chapel Wall, the garden of Remembrance, and the stories attached to some of to the names, like, ‘he was a bit of a shit’ or ‘he was shy but a brilliant mathematician’. It’s a stark reminder when the same names on the awards plaques, cups, team captains, and in the school history books are the same ones as those on the lists of the fallen. Remembrance is about the hope for nobody having to do this, unwillingly or voluntarily, ever again. It shouldn’t be a divisive symbol, but there’s people on many sides trying to make it one: Trying to make it so you’re either for it or against it whatever the current ‘it’ of the day happens to be; but to me it feels like it should be inclusive, not divisive. By making you feel uncomfortable in not wearing one, yet another way of making it a symbol of division, those seeking to divide people have then found yet another way to do so. It’s meant to be your choice. My school felt very strongly that one should not be caught up in the populist upwelling of emotions.”
I couldn’t help but agree, and felt I should get myself a poppy the next day. My reasons for wearing it would be mine and mine alone, and nobody else need read too much into it. I still feared the the direction the poppy might travel in, but perhaps my refusal to wear it might only speed that up. I saw no Glory in it, only sorrows. A lull fell over conversation. The chatter of the pub washed over us. I took a sup of my pint. “Nice drop this, what is it?”
“It’s called ‘Bomber Command'”
Next day I was back in Retford. Yesterday had been market day, although the stalls had only really filled about half the square. There’d been cheap electronics, cheap clothes, a bit of fruit and veg. Nothing too remarkable other than the stall selling ‘Zombie Apocalypse training’, where two strapping young individuals in camouflage clothing holding air rifles had stood meaningfully in front of a screaming pockmarked blue mannequin head, offering the chance to prepare for the coming end times. It seemed entirely reasonable in the circumstances.
Today was different. It was the bric-a-brac market, where the heady world of market trading was thrown open to the amateur and enthusiast as well as the professional. It was infinitely more interesting. Nothing for sale was at all useful or had any genuine value, but there were oddities galore. One stall presented the splendid juxtaposition of second hand model railway equipment and new underpants. They must know their market. Another, brass sextants and a life size model walrus. My favourite was a stall completely buried in crocheted animals, all the work of one lady who was selling them very cheaply. Clearly an obsession where the main requirement of the stall was to clear the living room down a bit and make room for new balls of wool. I asked her if I could photograph the scene, and she said I could if she got out of the picture first. I did so, bought a crocheted bee for 50p and headed towards the busking spot.
It was already in use. A man wrapped in so many coats I couldn’t tell how big he was had set up a small guitar and vocal amp and was singing away. He had a charity bucket for collection. I got a coffee and settled in to watch for a bit. The music was gentle and pleasant. I tuned into the lyrics.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you, but I’m just a jealous guy…”
It didn’t seem to matter, and coins were going into the bucket. I stepped over for a chat. His name was Paul and he busked for Cancer Research. He was a retired teacher, and this was his final busk of the year, as the cold was getting to be too much. He was really interested in what I was up to, and we had a good conversation, made awkward by the fact he’d left his clip on vocal mike turned up, causing his half of the chat to be broadcast loudly to the street.
He was nearly done, having been there an hour and a half already. I was soon set up and got a good session of my own in. It would soon be time to drive the 8 miles to Worksop and see what life was like there.
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!