“Where should I busk?” I asked Oscar over a coffee and bagel the next morning.
“Maybe give Stoke Newington a go? It’s pretty middle class and away from the licensed districts. You might do well there.”
I got an early (by musician’s standards) train down there. Between Hackney and Tottenham, Stoke Newington is a thickening of one of those endless main roads that lead into London from every corner of England. I passed the Orthodox Jewish butchers, four young men worked inside, black net trilbies over perfect sprung curls. As the road moved on the shops became more Eastern European, each cafe with a small elderly woman in a head dress sitting on a low stool in a booth by the window furiously pounding endless flatbreads into great mounds. I wasn’t ready to play yet, so I walked on and the road got poorer and even more diverse. After a mile or so I made it to Dalston Kingsland and the Ridley Road Market.
Here in the working class reality of North London, all the corners of the world collide. Sometimes I feel like I stand out, like in the street in Smethwick, a white face and ginger beard in a Sikh town, but here there were a huge variety of different ethnicities, mine just one of many. It was impossible for anyone to stand out, no matter where they’d come from. The smell of the cooking of a hundred cultures, each with their own subtle spices and flavours, mixed in the air to create the culinary and aromatic equivalent of when all the shades of paint are mixed together to create the universal definitive brown. It was a metaphor for London itself. The breadth and depth of culture and experience here is too overwhelming to take in as a whole, but must be broken down and experienced bit by bit.
Within twenty yards, I could buy goat meat, Mediterranean fish, hair care products, soap, an incredible variety of clothes, fruit and veg, from Caribbean folks, Cockneys, Muslims and probably at least one person who could claim to be all three. Half way along was the ‘Harmer Ridley Road Shopping Centre’, the most desolate shopping arcade I have ever seen. The tiny handful of remaining functional units mostly sold Reggae music or clothing repairs. A sign on the walls said ‘Respect your neighbours. Please be quiet. (No shouting).’ At the end of the market proper, a sort of shanty market had grown, business set up in welded together shipping containers, all run by black women, the street lighting on wooden pylons made out of bits of packing crates. One was a haircare business called ‘Linda the Magnificent’. In the next container, a lady sewed wedding dresses under a fluorescent tube.
It’s one thing to have equality in the law, but most of this market exists because equality is about more than just the legal side. Perhaps you need ethnic specific hair care products, tights that suit your skin colour, food that fits your diet, all things you won’t find much of in a supermarket. The British high street is still seriously white when it comes to the products it sells. Shopping remains ghettoised for many, and it’s hard to see it changing much when so many small communities all need representing. The sheer variety of different things on sale wouldn’t fit in even the largest supermarket.
My presence was making people uncomfortable. Men watched me from a container that had ‘NO URINATE’ scrawled on it in paint. A lady from the general supplies container came out and stared me. The atmosphere began to feel tense. I didn’t belong here and I knew I didn’t have the words to explain my presence.
Back in the main market I noted down details. A single mannequin leg in a puddle. A giant heap of trotters. The spongy yellowness of tripe. Butchery was anatomical, rough hewn pieces of animal divided into mounds of similar parts, in contrast to the neat and disembodied cuts the white English prefer. Trotters, heads, haunches, organs, all just a few stitches and a bolt of lightning away from a serious problem for Hackney council.
As I bimbled around aimlessly, a dawning realisation came upon me. I was stage shy. Two days in London and I hadn’t actually busked yet. The overwhelming totality of London, the sensory overload had left me shy and mute. My fiddle was upon my back, case unopened, frustrated and humming with untapped energy. I walked back to Stoke Newington and steeled myself. It would hardly be ‘Busk England’ if I just stood and looked at stuff. Besides, I was skint.
Iceland was next to a building sheathed in scaffolding which created a natural busker’s hollow on the busy main road. After an obligatory wee in the Wetherspoons across the way, I finally took my fiddle out and started to play. A man on the pedestrian crossing, having decided to run across on a red man, dropped his phone, and had a split second choice between phone and life. He opted to rescue his phone, causing a cacophony of squealing breaks and horns, and he escaped without injury, a survival that would have given Darwin pause for thought.
Despite my fears, coins began to accumulate. Middle aged black women were particularly generous, often walking past before turning with a smile and a coin for me. This is always the most rewarding, when you win over someone who wasn’t thinking about making a contribution, but who on hearing your music is compelled to find something. Things were going well, and I warmed my fiddle up to full volume. A man approached me with the sort of pseudo-confident walk that always spells trouble. He had a rainproof hi-vis jacket and a tabard that said, generically ‘Security’.
“You need to stop.”
“You can’t do that here.”
“It’s against the law.”
I’d done my research on this before I set off. Some areas of London are regulated. This bit was not. A website done in conjunction with the Mayor of London’s office set the rules out clearly. I knew I was in the clear.
“It’s not. Some areas of London are regulated, but this isn’t.”
He gestured at my open case.
“That’s begging. You’re in breach of the vagrancy act.”
This was bullshit. Case law in the 1980s found that the Vagrancy act did not forbid busking, so long as you don’t actively ask for money. If he’d just said he didn’t like it and it was annoying him, I’d have moved. But I hate bullshitters, and I particularly hate that breed of minor authoritarian who seem get off on the exercise of petty power. I stood my ground and told him that he’d have to come back with a police officer if he wanted me gone.
“You’re causing a disturbance for the employees.” he gestured into Iceland. This was also bullshit. He’d come from the other end of the road, not in there, and with an unamplified fiddle and double glazing, I doubted they’d heard a note. Oh how I hated him now, generic minor authority figure, natural controlling nature given false legitimacy by his ‘Security’ tabard. Who was he anyway? Who was he even securing? He was just another street performer like me, I decided, and I was here first.
“How many people have specifically complained?”
He couldn’t answer this and just glared for a bit. I continued.
“I’m doing nothing wrong. There’s a website on this, sponsored by the mayor of London. Read it.”
I’d called his bluff. He left in a huff of vague threats and empty frustrations. Being 6’3” and fairly mean looking has some benefits. I was not exhilarated by this successful rebuttal, but upset and I found myself shaky and distracted. I hate confrontation, and will only do it if I have to. My next few tunes were rubbish and I made nothing. I got a grip of myself and saved the slot. A Deliveroo driver went out of his way to tell me that he’d heard me play whilst stuck in traffic and had enjoyed it. After two hours and ten minutes I had £43 to show. It felt like a good effort in the circumstances.
That night I played a house concert in Hackney. I’d been booked by a couple who’d seen my previous house concert in Hastings. I made my way over in the early evening and walked around to get to know it. The area suddenly seemed familiar. I knew these streets. I’d been here years before, to meet up with a young lady. I’d drunk too much, been ill, and not been in any fit state to manage the trip to Brighton we’d planned the next day. To this day I’ve not been to Brighton and I have never seen her again. My personal shame at ‘never having visited Brighton’ has remained for years a symbol of the excess Oscar had warned me about. Maybe I’d lay part of that particular ghost to rest a little later in my adventures with a trip to Brighton. Maybe not. The whole reminiscence put me in a strange and melancholic mood.
My hosts could not have been kinder. They sorted me out with dinner, a glass of wine, and set the living room up for the concert ahead. In rows across the back wall was the largest and most interesting record collection I have ever seen. They put on a mood-setter, a doom laden and atmospheric CD soundtrack to a 1968 film about Joan of Arc, played on a single pump organ in 58 unbroken arrhythmic and intense minutes.
Guests arrived and were each dulled into emotional submission by the harrowing emissions of the pump organ. The other housemate, a novelist, had clearly lived there long enough to become immune to this and was soon telling me excitedly about his previous night out, in a squat full of psycho-geographers who called themselves ‘The Invisible League’ and played ‘Urban Poker’, where a discarded playing card, found anywhere in the world, must be picked up and duly catalogued, noting the time and place, the number and suit, and the ethnography of the collection point. These cards are then taken to meets, and discussed in earnest detail. Sometimes years can pass between a pick up, but the focus never wavers.
It’s a long way from Manchester to Hackney. I was amongst a very different social circle now, and felt a little adrift, far from home, meat pies, Bovril, and Rugby League. I’d rather have been the audience than the act tonight, would have loved to be able to sit at the back with a bottle of wine in the low lighting and watch someone else do all the work. But at 8pm a smiling and earnest audience was before me. There were pots of crunchy quinoa roof tiles and bottles of organic Rioja to enjoy. I played my show, tunes from the corners of England I’ve come to know, stories I’ve written up. The economic devastation of Worksop, a wet day in Redcar. My jokes didn’t get laughs and I worried I wasn’t going down well and relied on professionalism to get me to half time. But it was going well. My audience were a serious crowd, hanging on to the stories, and they asked more questions as the night drew on, genuinely intrigued.
I dropped all pretensions of performance, stopped trying to tell jokes, and just spoke and played from the heart. Here in the last quarter of my concert, they were truly with me. I should have got here much sooner, but it’s a lesson learnt. Read your audience and adapt!
After the concert we all talked the weighty talk of the politically frustrated classes. After a few glasses of wine I somehow ended up saying “True tradition lies on the fulcrum between past and future” altogether too loudly during a sudden lull in other conversation, and embarrassed, was forced to follow it with; “Well that’s the wankiest thing I’ve ever said.” which produced my best laugh of the night.
Oscar had come along to the concert too, and seeing my intellectual floundering sensibly extracted me from further humiliation soon after, taking me home via the 24hr bagel shop. I was done in, worn out from an intense day.
London seemed far less condensed on Saturday as I went back to Euston for my train home. Perhaps I’d hardened up, perhaps the city was sleeping. A busker occupied one of the official spots in the underground station, and I remembered that I was supposedly here to research a future trip. I dropped him a quid.
“I’m thinking of applying for a spot like this. Is it worth it?”
“Yeah, they only audition a few times a year, but it’s great, you go for it.”
The train home was relaxed compared to the way down. The quiet coach was peaceful, save the endless bonging of the tannoy;
“We have all kinds of hot drinks, tea, coffee, hot chocolate, sandwiches, beers, snacks. They’re all available here in the buffet car in coach C. We take card or cash.”
Just as I tucked back into my book, it bonged again.
“I’m afraid that I simply cannot open the tea cupboard. It’s jammed solid. Until further notice, we have no tea. Repeat, no tea.”
An urgent murmur grew. No tea? This was a threat to civilisation far great than the collapse of the class system had been on the way down. Ten minutes later, we were saved.
“I have found a superhero and now we have tea… Lots of it.”
At Stoke we picked up new passengers. A small child told me about the films of his hero “Arnold Swatcheniser”. A young lady with her friends and a crate of alcopops, heading for a big day out in Manchester held a loud phone conversation in the seat behind me. Eventually in the course of conversation she asked her fellow travellers “What coach are we in?” and I shouted “The quiet one!” which got my best laugh of the week. I was nearly home.
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!