I left my Manchester home again to begin on London. London would be a project within a project, a city where busking is often strictly licensed rather than a right, a metropolis of bewildering diversity. Stockport station was damp and over-crowded. The fragmented remains of a tropical storm had caused delays on the route, and my train was one of the few that hadn’t been cancelled. I was a day late setting off myself, owing to an upset stomach. The announcement that I would be ‘delayed by wind’ summed my week up.
There were not enough seats for all the extra passengers, so I sat myself down on my fiddle case in the vestibule. I’ve always had a re-enforced case for exactly this reason.
The tannoy went off,
“As you can see we’re now doing 50mph due to the emergency speed restriction. This is it all the way in now. If you get bored, you can play I-spy out of the window. It’s going slow enough. Alternatively, you can join me in the shop which is located in coach C, buy a few beers and we can get tanked up.”
Our train manager was clearly already resigned to a depressing journey. We picked up further passengers at Macclesfield and the overcrowding became such that he had to take emergency action. At the press of a button, the train became declassified, seat reservations evaporated from the mini-screens and first class was dissolved entirely. We were now all equals in a classless society. A river of migrant commuters set off for what had been the first class end, anxious to make the most of their revolutionary potential and loot the free newspapers. At Stoke, we picked up even more comrades and the corridors became too crowded for much further upwards mobility.
Our Socialist revolution quickly passed through the stages. By Lichfield, the first class buffet service had been abandoned, undersupplied and without incentive to serve those who might not have paid. By Rugby, passengers were darkly complaining that it wasn’t fair that some had made it to first class when others were stuck down here. “I had a look in there and I couldn’t tell between those who were actual first class and those who had moved in!”. Animal Train continued slowly south. The standard class buffet car ran out of enthusiasm and closed, no prospect of a restocking at Milton Keynes, where previously eager passengers saw our progress towards utopia and chose to stay on the platform rather than join us.
Finally, nearly two hours late, we pulled into Euston and the revolution had fizzled out into apathy, class distinctions reasserting as suddenly and surely as the during the appearance of the naval officer at the end of ‘Lord of the Flies’, compounded by an announcement explaining how bona-fide first class travellers could claim reimbursement for having to share their journey with plebs who’d eaten all their freebies. Our experiment with a fairer society had failed and only really succeeded in causing both buffet cars to abandon service, making us all worse off. Maybe we hadn’t tried hard enough, didn’t believe in the revolution fervently enough. Perhaps we should have compelled them to continue service for the greater good of all and the glory of the people.
I escaped the platform and engaged in the first activity that any Northerner does upon alighting in London, gathered round the tube map with all the other Northerners to make light-hearted comments about how big it is. There are so many possibilities, so many sub-divisions, many I’d never heard of at all, each the size of one of the small market towns I’d been slowly making my way round over the past 9 months. Somebody must know them all, some polymath, but would they know the communities that lived there? What they felt like? This was just a reconnaissance trip though. I’d be back in the new year for a much longer look.
I travelled up to Bruce Grove to drop my bag off. I was staying with my friend Oscar who writes horoscopes for the Daily Mail amongst other publications, a job that makes my life seem fairly normal. He made me a coffee and I asked if he had any advice for me. He began dismantling a recalcitrant fitted cupboard with an electric screwdriver and considered my request.
“Jupiter, the planet of adventure and opportunity has just returned to Sagittarius for the first time in 12 years. This bodes well for long journeys and quests. Jupiter is the planet of luck and growth, but also of excess, too much.”
This was pleasingly vague, good advice in any situation, have a laugh, don’t get too pissed. I set out again with just my fiddle on my back, determined to get stuck into this quest, and hoping I’d recognise missteps into excess before the authorities did. My train took me back in, to Liverpool street. The wind blew, carrying drizzle and bits of paper, and it was clear I couldn’t busk today. I was still glad to have my fiddle with me though. With it, I’m a musician, without it just some guy with a notepad with nowhere to go. The world talks to you in a different more open voice when you carry an instrument. I skirted the edge of the City of London, the square mile of traded value that powers the national ship like an unseen screw, deep beneath the hull, control room locked and anonymous to the passengers. I walked by vast premises whose entire ground floors were glass sided, blank and granite faced, featureless to give nothing away, the world traded in bytes fleetingly within. The pubs were achingly generic as I headed across the south edge of Islington into Camden, all sense of history here gone, each street renovated or built over again and again with feverish regularity.
A man came down the street shouting loudly. The modern trend towards mobile tech and hands free communication means that when someone heads towards you hollering and gesticulating wildly, it is no longer possible to tell if they’re a nutter or merely on a phone call.
I wrote this thought down in my notepad, and felt a sudden wave of depressing self-awareness. Here I was, just another struggling and aspiring artist in London. What a cliché. So much more fun to be that in Dudley or Ashington. In a world of brain-drains from the provinces, I’m the slug that prefers to come up the plug hole instead.
A man in hi-vis in front of me checked his watch, stopped, pulled out a prayer mat, used an app to identify the direction of Mecca and got on with prayer. It occurred to me that there must logically be a single point on earth where every direction is equally far to Mecca, and consequently no need to orient oneself. This didn’t seem a revelation worth sharing, so I carried on.
In Exmouth market, a saxophonist and an accordionist argued bitterly over a busking pitch in a language I couldn’t identify. London contains little that’s in itself unusual, but the sheer quantity of what it does contain and the speed at which things happen make it a fast-forward kaleidoscope for all the senses. I do not fit here. My shoulders tense up, my hands rest on my pockets, fearful of robbery, my eyes flit from left to right. It is overwhelming, and I understood why the Londoner retreats inside their own head, a thousand bodies pressed up close on the tube but not somehow overlapping. The eyes are open, but they do not see, other than to guide the journey. To live London day by day, in full sensual experience is too much, and untrained and over stimulated I needed to stop, a country boy submitting and repentant before the sensory circus.
Below St Paul’s Cathedral, that great grey mass which in the dusk and drizzle seemed like a vast beached whale, dead and hopeless, and around which the evening tide of mankind was falling, the millennium bridge crosses to the South bank of the Thames. Between the two, in the wide open walkway a figure was begging to man and God. On her front, resting on her knees and lying forward on her few possessions, covered in foreign clothing, the shape of her projecting backside giving the clue as to her likely gender, she was face down, motionless, and holding a cardboard cup up in a single outstretched hand. Probably Syrian? Come from God knows where on a journey I could not imagine, for reasons I could never fully understand, to die here of poverty, surrounded by one of the greatest concentrations of wealth ever known. Perhaps she was already dead and set in this terrible form. I’d watched for several minutes and she hadn’t moved in her posture of complete supplication. Rush hour approaching, the suited and power dressed came by and went past this appalling traffic island, her ragged despair made only more heartbreaking by the clean good order she was set within. A perfectly swept space, every flag equally set, granite and marble, Portland stone. The finest contemporary artist could not have designed such flawless wretchedness. But in the emotional whirlwind of London, you do not, cannot engage unless you have chosen to before you set out.
In one small town I know, the first rough sleeper was met with astonishment. Clothes were provided, food, councillors were rung, accommodation was found. More came, the astonishment faded, and they became street furniture. Shock is hard to sustain. Compassion an easier constant, but in a time of hurt, rationed for our own sanities. The first rule of charity is don’t make yourself a charity case, physically or mentally. I sat on my fiddle case, a suitable distance back and watched.
A moment of clarity came. In putting aside other things to do what I’m doing, I’d chosen to make it my job to sit here in the rain and watch, to try to understand. Watching, trying to understand, then hating the situations you find is an expensive use of emotions and thought. I can only afford to sit here being judgemental and angry because I’ve chosen, perhaps selfishly, to abandon other work. The tapestry of people moving past were finishing another difficult day in a difficult job, and London leaves you little capacity for unknown others. Senses are blunted and a universe of problems is far too much to demand individual attentions.
One kind man found some coins, and she moved a little, a thank you of sorts. I’d seen enough. I shook out my remaining change, the scraps left from Carlisle, and dropped them off too. She said something I took as thanks, but we had no language to share. Her story must go unwritten, although it was undoubtedly better than mine, the second poorest person in the street. I thought of the critiques one might receive for perceiving her so. “She’s playing a part.” “She’s fooled you.” “You soft bugger.” I looked closely. Her fingernails were stained. Her skin, even on those slender bones was wrinkled and old, devastated by time and distance. Her possessions, few and wrapped in wasted scraps of plastic. This is unfakeable, the difference between the ‘stressed’ jeans one sees in shops and the filth wreckage of clothes worn into bitter poverty.
The hopelessness of her cause was colossal. The wealth that surrounded us in such contemptuous grandeur was not worldly. It could not be ripped off the walls, emptied from the vaults and redistributed, only destroyed. Offices here were bare to the point of Spartanism. The wealth that flows through the City of London, almost limitless, inconceivable to mortals like me, unprintable in cash, would evaporate like a cruel trickster’s punch line the moment the revolutionaries entered the room. For wealth here is digital, in futures, derivatives, stocks, its engines the particular intelligences and educations of the custodians, its corpus the electrons flowing through machines. It has no physical manifestation. Ephemeral, it was quite unredistributable. Nobody is ever going to walk past a beggar and drop 0.1% of Samsung’s shares into their chewed and failing Subway coffee cup.
Physical currency is a leveller. Maybe you had it, maybe you didn’t, but we all shared the same one, with hopes of getting some in the future, a continuum on which they could still be found. In a digital world, this is no longer the case. In money as confidence, digital transactions, electrical memory, we have created an underclass who not only have no money, but who cannot ever hope to have any. They cannot touch that which does not manifest as a physical token, for to hold modern money, you must first own the digital interlocutor. The cashless society won’t just knacker my chances of making a living busking, it will literally kill the poor. Drop below the threshold of digital citizen and you can never come back. This wretched soul had picked the wrong place to ask for coins, few here used them. The beggars and buskers will concentrate themselves in the poorest towns where physical currency lasts longest. It will get ugly.
If we cock this country up, there will be no physical treasury to pawn to smooth the transition. The wealth will drain from this square mile more surely and swiftly than if the fixtures and fittings of a great country home had been removed and taken away on the bailiff’s wagon. The City of London is a confidence trick played by us all on each other. The whole lot could leave down a drainpipe like Super Mario and appear in another zone altogether in seconds.
On the tube it was packed tight. Bodies sullen braced against the ebb and flow of travel, heads unmoving, eyes unfocused. I looked all round, still apparently incapable of acting like a Londoner. One beautiful young lady broke ranks and flashed a smile at me and I allowed myself the briefest of fantasies, imagining a classified advert in tomorrow’s Evening Standard; “Looking for the fat, ginger, bald, badly dressed, prematurely aged man on the Victoria line with the worry lines and likely gout, I was the tall black woman in the red coat…”
I met an old friend, Jess, for dinner. and we caught our lives up. She delighted in reminding me of a time, years ago when I received in my busking collection a detailed and exquisite hand-drawn map showing me the way to the job centre. She had just started in pupilage at a major law firm and was relishing every minute of it, having returned from a year in America working on the defence of capital cases. A painfully sharp character with a good heart, I was glad to see her doing so well. London is such a tough place to be and it gave me a positivity to carry into the next day. We dined at an excellent pizza place run by an Italian family and it was queuing out the door on a Wednesday. Here was the best of London exemplified in opportunity, both for my friend and the proprietors of the restaurant, just as I’d seen the worst earlier. It is not superior or inferior, just richer and denser in every way. Greater opportunities, deeper holes to fall into.
To be continued…
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!