Worksop is Victorian red brick and peeling paint, a handsome and forthright town ground down by the action of a vast economic ice sheet, brutally gravelled and piling up in terminal moraines. Pinched like an hourglass, the town narrows to cross the Chesterfield canal on a single lane bridge, the black oily ribbon running anonymously through the town like an alien artery, unknowable and bleak. On the tall windowless rear wall of Yates’s by the town lock, above the scummy and rodent infested chill waters, a sign is hung with tragic optimism; ‘No Bathing’.
On streets slick with dull water, traders hunched their shoulders under inadequate canvas triangles and turned themselves inwards to phone screens and Bensons. The bright burning lights of the pawn shops and gambling emporia diffracted the gloom from the streets and filled my eyes with false electric rainbows. Above the shops, window frames rotted outside tenancies untaken. Worksop was on its arse.
I’d been here before 5 years ago, on what can only really be described as a poorly conceived romantic break, where the highlight was probably narrowly failing to win the meat raffle. It hadn’t been a rich town then, but Christ it had gone downhill, ripped struggling out to sea on a falling tide.
Amazingly, the hotel I’d stayed in on that ill-fated trip, the Station Hotel, was still in business, but was now retreating and withdrawn to the central-most section, Victorian outbuildings with plywood where the windows once were, abandoned sections of bar barricaded off by a wall of tall stools, lights removed from sockets. Other pubs and shops, it was hard to say if they were open or not. Many were, but it wasn’t obvious. Staying afloat had meant not spending a penny more than you had to, and paint was flaking away, lights had failed, signage was weathered unreadable. The town was opaque and hard to read.
Shops didn’t sell much in the way of new goods. There were pawn shops, second-hand, exchange, a whole raft of genuinely local businesses alongside the bottom end of the national names. So much of the residual economy here was not in the sale of new goods, but the incremental redistribution of what they already had. Most of the rest was in escapism and false hope. I found a disused awning out of the rain and loaded the fiddle up for a good scrape.
The Wikipedia page for Worksop notes several times that ‘Unemployment is lower than the national average’ without giving a source or a date. It has the feel of an incongruous line inserted into the page by a different author with a clear political agenda. Certainly, nobody had told the lads outside the pub next to my spot, out in the rain to enjoy a cigarette. They flowed gently across the road to BetFred and back, at 90 degrees to the shopping traffic, a steady stream each way. The lads coming back to the pub would often divert up to my spot and find a coin or two. Gamblers are always generous.
The flow up and down the main street was steady enough, but every other person or so was limping, or using a wheelchair, or hobbling about on crutches. Worksop was the sort of place where people were too ill to afford to get better, and where the current state of the economy and the nature of the work that they’d lost gave you plenty to be ill of. And yet the money piled up in my case. On a wet quiet day in a horribly poor ex mining town, I made £25 in an hour. It was humbling.
Down the street was ‘Fair n Square’, the ultimate low-budget 21st century supermarket, rambling uneven floor space across several joined units filled without shelving with piles of almost out of date crisps and chocolates and a handful of toiletries, all at about 20% market prices. I got 4 cans of Pringles, a Lucozade, and a grab-bag of Monster Munch for £1.80. There were plenty of customers and it’s great that this stuff is being sold instead of wasted, although I doubted they had a branch in Alderley Edge or Witney.
Back on the street, a salesman stopped me;
“Excuse me sir, who is your gas supplier?”
“I don’t have a house.”
And I faded from his view, his eyes lost focus and he looked straight through me. I had become invisible to him, no longer of potential value.
The butcher was shutting up shop for the day. He had a jolly life-size butcher effigy on the street outside his shop, and he stood by it in the gloom for a moment in total grumpy contrast. I took a sneaky photo.
Next day I set up early in the main street again and got stuck in. It was busy, with plenty of footfall. Like Dudley though, most shoppers were searching for a few specific items at the lowest price instead of buying luxuries or stuff on impulse. The market stalls were bare essentials and budget items. I’d crossed the canal, waving at a boat in the town lock, heading down. It was covered in a pretty even mixture of remembrance and Christmas decorations. “Ho, ho, ho, Merry Poppymas” I said quietly to myself as I headed past.
My morning was eventful, if not unpleasant. I had a large number of interruptions which rather prevented many coins building up, but anecdotes are my other currency on these trips, so I didn’t mind. Sometimes you see someone coming down the street and you just know they’re going to have something to say. When I saw the thin white fellow in his 60s with the green dreadlocks, Rastafarian’s hat, and crutches, I knew instinctively he was coming my way. He smelled of alcohol and had a lot to tell me.
“You’d love the reggae stuff, y’know. Have you heard of the Afro-Celts? I’ve got all their records in my camper van.”
He then let off a massive loose fart that drew the attention of the nearby market stall holders before continuing.
“You should come round when you’ve finished playing, I’ve got loads of music. We can listen to it all. I’ve got loads of Dub.”
Was it a proposition? He saw my hesitation;
“Oh it won’t smell, rear end trouble that’s the problem.”
An old fellow turned up and tried to tell me something about violins, and the two of them spoke over each other and at cross purposes for a while whilst I just stood there. The old fellow’s wife then dragged him away, and defeated, my new dreadlocked friend decided he too should move on.
“I’d better go. Drive home. Let me know if you change your mind.”
Half an hour later he was still at the traffic lights 50 yards away, talking to shoppers who were forced to wait for an altogether different green man.
The cadet force was out in numbers today, selling poppies up and down the main street. Little clusters of teenagers in camouflage uniforms every 50 yards. I honoured my decision from Retford and purchased mine with a handful of busking coins. What did the poppy mean to these kids, a century on from the Armistice? It must be hard to contextualise it in an era where the last voices of that war have fallen silent. Does it really feel any different to them than talking about the Battle of Hastings or Agincourt? Living history on the verge of becoming mythology.
As I was considering this, a T-Rex began making its way down the street towards me. It was about 9ft tall, and apart from the legs wearing camouflage trousers, seemed pretty plausible. It had a couple of handlers, and was posing for pictures with people instead of eating them. I waited my turn and got my photo taken too. There wasn’t much further point busking whilst it was around being the centre of attention so I packed up. And not a moment too soon, as the skies opened and soaked the streets again.
I took shelter in the grumpy butchers and got chatting. My original photo, uploaded to the internet, had caused a friend to get in touch to recommend his tomato sausages. Such is the power of social media. I was pleased to find out that he wasn’t grumpy at all and cheerfully sold me half a dozen of the famous sausages. I told him I’d taken a picture that made him look grumpy and he replied that he usually was. We agreed to set up another more positive shot, to even the score.
I took my lunch pie and ate it under the canvas of an unused market stall out of the rain. Better weather was blowing in fast from the West, and soon a huge rainbow appeared, fountaining out of the middle of the main street, framed perfectly by the buildings. A mother and daughter went past and I heard the following exchange;
“Rainbows! There’s bound to be unicorns at the end!”
“We can look for them after I go into Superdrug.”
The rain stopped as quickly as it had started and I found a spot away from the residual drips, opposite the book stall. I asked the lady running it if she minded me playing, and she cheerily replied “Not at all.” This friendliness was worth reciprocating. I had a quick rummage in the boxes and found the autobiography of the snooker player Steve Davis, entitled ‘Interesting’.
“Right, I’ll busk for it until I have enough.”
This proved to be an amusing idea for us both, so I set up and started to play. The first pound coin came quickly, and I started shouting out the running total after each tune. After 15 minutes, I found myself marooned on £3.19. It wouldn’t budge at all. Just at the point where I thought I might have to negotiate, one tune suddenly produced £8 of contributions in three minutes. I shouted triumphantly that I’d raised enough, and she brought me the book over. I asked her about running her market stall. She said she had to raise £60 to cover the cost of putting it on each day. Every book had a profit margin of about 40p.
“Problem is that people who don’t work have an issue with people who do. They’re condescending towards us.” She nodded at the smoker’s zone outside the pub. “Like there’s something wrong with trying to work and make a living. One bloke told me he didn’t like your playing and I said ‘at least he’s trying to do something!'”
Business was declining.
“People are lazy, just clicking or on phones. They’ll lose all these shops and stalls soon because they can’t be bothered to use them. They just drink in pubs, smoke, take drugs, and knock people who try.”
It was a bleak assessment of Worksop. She thought about it a bit and saw the other side of the coin.
“But I love it on a good day. Talking to the old folks, keeping them company. Feels like you’re doing a kind of service.”
On my travels round the world, I’d encountered two kinds of extreme poverty. In China, in the back streets of Pingdingshan, where every back street had a dozen workshops in a single basic trade it was ‘Work as hard as you possibly can and you might just have enough to survive till tomorrow’ and in Eritrea, in the barely developed countryside and under an utterly corrupt government it had been ‘There’s no point trying because no amount of hard work will make your life better.’.
Worksop looked a lot more like it was heading towards the second one to me, to the extent that people openly couldn’t see the point of trying and quite reasonably spent their days in idle escapism. 40p per book in a declining market looked like a tough gig to me. Not much here to encourage someone new into the world of work. How would it make their lives better than not working? The current governmental response of slowly eroding unemployment benefits until not having a job kills you seems to perhaps be coming at the problem from the wrong end.
Before I could start up playing again, some kids arrived on their bikes.
“Hey mister, are you any good?”
“I’m alright, tell you what, I’ll play you a tune and you can decide.”
I launched into some reels, and they responded by dancing around the street.
“Whoah, you’re really good.”, “Awesome!”and finally; “You’re nearly good enough to be a professional!”
They found a shower of change to drop in my case and cycled off. The pattern of generosity was repeated again and again. Gangs of youths, boys showing off to girls by dancing past me, taking the piss, then stopping and returning with coins. One teenage girl found a pound coin, gave it to a boy in the group and ordered he bring it to me. Blushing, he did. People on crutches with serious health problems found change. Unemployed folks, elderly. All generous. I made better money here than nearly anywhere else, and had more conversations per hour.
A lady stopped me and asked if I knew anything Baroque. I didn’t, but found something close enough. She said she studied classical flute in Paris and busked at the top of the steps at Montmartre. “They probably wouldn’t allow that now.” she reminisced. Everybody had a story or a friendly word. Everyone, no matter what their circumstances, could find a coin. Worksop deserved better than it had got. Yet another desperately crap town through no fault of the people who live there.
Quite what the answer is I don’t know, not now it’s got to this point. Rationing the support the state gives the needy might force some back into work, but others will become ill, disillusioned, or lost to society through the escapism of drugs. Many will never go back to work, and for the want of a bit more support up to now will forever be a burden on society. Ripping so much out of the benefits system seems like a false economy when you see the wreckage it leaves behind. A generation lost to useful work for lack of the right support, now destined to cost society, one way or the other, for the rest of their lives. A stitch in time could have saved so many more here, especially when the fabric in question is society. The decisions of recent years have created problems that will not be solved for a generation at best. Perhaps we should refer to it as the ‘Social Debt’, the corollary of the National Debt, where one partner in the social contract, the government, is badly in arrears, with all the knock on effects that being in any other sort of debt would create. The lack of trust, the refusal to do further work for, the taking drastic and reckless action in the hope of forcing a change – populism.
Heavily reducing the system of support is basically telling the unemployed that it’s their fault and their fault alone they haven’t got jobs, and is an abdication of responsibility when it comes to holding up the government’s end of the social contract. Worksop is a mess, not because its citizens collectively chose not to go to work, but because economic forces far beyond its control shaped it so. Yet the prevailing policies of the day imply that each economic misfortune is a personal failing by the recipient. It holds unemployed individuals personally responsible for global economic trends. A suggestion darkly comic when spelled out so plainly. As if the unemployed lads of Liverpool had personally invented containerised shipping one night and consequently had only themselves to blame for the lack of docker’s jobs.
The world may not owe anyone a living, but in my view any reasonable system should owe its citizens the right to try and make one of their own, and support anyone who tries to do so, as well as those who genuinely can’t. All stick and no carrot might thrash a few into self-sufficiency, but too much stick will break many of the others, just as all carrot would breed dependency.
Ultimately, such a breakdown benefits nobody at all. A generation who lose faith in government to hold up its end of the bargain feel they owe nothing back, and have no skin in the game of preserving the good bits. The Social Debt will be recalled, by whatever means are available, and given the chance to vote, they’ll vote for change on principle, irrespective of the nature of that change. They have nothing to lose. By excluding such a large group from the social contract, a nation sows the seeds of destruction of the things it holds dear.
Fixing it should transcend party politics. Whether your viewpoint be based around the moral position of letting a generation go to be wasted in underemployment doing bullshit jobs, or quite simply the ultimate financial cost to everyone else of sustaining a generation prevented from providing for themselves, it benefits nobody at all to make these mistakes, left, right, rich, poor. Any short-term gain for a few will be at the expense of huge long-term problems and political instability for all.
In virtually every town I’ve visited, people have quietly told me that their town has a serious substance abuse problem and it’s getting worse. After 8 months of travelling around, it’s pretty clear that it’s not any one town but the whole country, only nobody has drawn the dots together yet. It’s survival of the privileged out there, those who are lucky enough to have a strong family or good friends with resources to spare to fall back on will survive, for now.
Worksop was a beautiful place in ragged clothes. I’d had nothing but positive engagement and generosity from the town. I thought of the kids on their bikes, unbroken souls yet, and feared for their futures. If they failed to get meaningful work as young adults, a tough ask in a town as destitute as this, the system would treat this as purely their personal failure, instead of working hand in hand – individual and state together – to accept the joint programme of rights and responsibilities that underpins any social contract. Anyone who’s prepared to work for it should be generously supported in doing so. (As should those who simply cannot.) Not only does the current arbitrary system penalise those who fail through no fault of their own, it also stores up long-term problems in the form of Social Debt that will ultimately costs far more to repay than the initial support would have done.
I left Worksop in a bittersweet cloud. It would take some getting over. Back home, the tomato sausages were excellent.
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!