I drove to Loughborough. The traffic was horrible. I followed a newish Mini at close quarters down a crawling road. Every time it braked, its two rear lights lit up to form the two halves of a Union Jack picked out in red and black. As my radio news relayed the latest failures to get anywhere that any sort of plurality of us might accept with Brexit, this seemed as good a visual metaphor for our current situation as any. The simplest emblem of national identity, distilled from our national flag, that base visual representation of nationhood, but shining from a car built by a company owned in Germany, manufactured according to the ‘just in time’ principle where parts from many countries flow across multiple national boundaries without tariffs or delay on their way to the final production line. As an object, this mini was a marvel of international cooperation. As a symbol, the Union Jack brake lights were another empty assertion of misplaced national confidence. The flag lit up whenever the car wasn’t going anywhere, which I felt was entirely appropriate.
Loughborough had been my home 15 years ago when I was at university. I met my friend Pippa for a few drinks and a catch up. Quite predictably, the evening became a tedious series of my reminiscences. “This was where the burger van was that I ordered a hotdog from after my first night at the Pack Horse folk club.”, “That’s the Poundland where my mate Big Dave, whilst tanked up, veered off course and fell straight through a plate-glass window.”, “That’s my old house where I kept my collection of traffic cones in the cellar. I wonder if they’re still there.” Pippa was patient and let me unload all these memories.
It was cathartic. I needed to get it out of my system so I’d be able to see Loughborough for what it is, rather than my patchy and selective memory of what it was. You don’t really notice the changes when you live somewhere, but when you’re away for years they slowly add up into something big and surprise you when you come back. Return to somewhere after a decade or more and the place takes on the uncanny air of being both terribly familiar and somewhat wrong.
“I knew him when he had hair.” said a voice from behind me. I clearly wasn’t the only one remembering how things were in the distant past. We were in a pub on the edge of the town centre and I turned round to recognise my old boss, Ian, from when I’d worked behind the bar in another pub in town during my student days. He was at the pool table, and it was only natural to lay down a challenge.
Regular readers of my blog will have noted how I invariably lose any pool challenge I enter in to. Tonight was to be different. I was invincible, clearing table after table, defeating all comers. Spooked by my mysterious and unsolicited new powers, I tried to leave, but they insisted that I couldn’t until I was defeated. It turned into a lock-in. Eventually I ran out of challengers and was allowed to exit the building through the back door. It was late.
“I’ve got to see something.” I said, leading Pippa to where there had been a dreadful night club called ‘Echoes’. I wondered if it was still there. It had featured in a memorable cultural exchange in my first year. Being an awkward and deeply uncool individual, two ladies on my corridor in my halls of residence had taken pity on me and suggested an exchange of nights out. I can’t remember their actual names, as they were always known to us all as ‘Pingy and Dingy’, and comprised a formidable double act. I seem to recall one of them studied pornographic pottery, or “pornottery” as she called it. I don’t think I’m making this up. Anyway, the deal was I would take them and some of their friends to an ‘old man’s pub’ and then they would take me clubbing. I’d kicked off the evening with an introduction to real ale in my local, the Swan in the Rushes, where my appearance with several attractive and confidently dressed young ladies was a significant surprise to the other regulars and had caused my stock there to rise for a few weeks. Pingy and Dingy then concluded the evening with a trip to Echoes, home of highly caffeinated alcopops, sticky floors, and strobe lights. To my astonishment, Echoes was still there, closed today, but promising an 80s UV disco on Friday.
There was one ritual left to fulfil before I could put my own personal past Loughborough to bed and start engaging with current Loughborough. I entered the independent takeaway ‘Pizzeria’ on the road heading back to the university. No Friday night was complete during my time in Loughborough without a visit here. My friends would probably have said that no Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, or Sunday night was complete for me either. I told Pippa that they’d probably remember me. She was a little sceptical of this. It was 12 years since I’d left town and I’ve got a lot older and balder. I walked through the door. The serving man looked at me, froze, said ‘Whoah’ and ran into the back. I heard some chatting along the lines of “He has returned!” and the whole staff came out to shake my hand. I tried to order, but they were already making my favourite, pepperoni and pineapple, and quickly sent it into the oven.
Loughborough had been home. I regarded it fondly, but in truth it had been a chaotic time in my life, a string of short and sometimes disastrous relationships, too much drinking, and eventually leaving under something of a cloud. Quite how I got a degree (Politics and Social Policy 2:1) is something of a mystery. But I’d stayed in touch with my department, and three years ago was invited to give a lecture on my old course concerning folk music and nationalism, a moment of particular pride in my life. They always greet me with “You’re looking well!” when I turn up, not so much a compliment as a statement of genuine surprise.
I can’t entirely remember if I was happy here or not. The fun stuff comes back to mind very quickly, the stresses and problems and my own personal failings less so. I like Loughborough a great deal, but separating one’s own personal creation myth from reality is much harder. Hopefully I’d exorcised the past with this night and would be free to see the town with clear eyes in the morning.
The next day, I wandered into town at about 9:30am. It was market day and a steady drizzle was falling. Busking wasn’t possible in the rain, so I just wandered about for a while. Loughborough market is a big one, filling the main street in several rows for hundreds of yards. A couple of Sikhs sold offensive t-shirts on their stall, including “I work harder than an ugly stripper”, “Same twat, different shirt” and “If you’re offended, I’ll help you pack” which was emblazoned above a big Union Jack. I wondered if the sort of person who might want such a shirt would be likely to buy it from a turbaned Sikh.
A shop had cards for sale in the window that said cheery things like “18! Welcome to adulthood, the day that fun dies”. The ubiquitous Cashino had a sign that said “Staff wanted, come and join the winning team”. Despite this candid admission that it’s the house that makes the money, gamblers were still heading in, full of purpose. On a back street, the famous BRUSH Engineering Social club had closed for ever. Perhaps the employees of the enormous factory on the North edge of town no longer wanted to socialise there after work.
The rain let up enough to justify a busk. I set up opposite a group of religious types with their placards and leaflets. Facing a sign that said “Will suffering end?” I got stuck into playing, aiming to provide them with a fresh perspective on their philosophical conundrum. After an hour, they answered their own question by packing up and moving on. Suffering can end, it turns out, but only if you choose to end it. A suitably humanist interpretation, I felt. One member of the group dropped a rather pointed leaflet in my case on the way out; “Will you consider Jesus?”.
A lad of maybe 10 years of age tugged on his grandma’s coat for a coin for the busker. She smiled, found a pound coin and sent him my way. On his journey across to me, I saw as he carefully and dexterously slipped the coin into a pocket and instead produced a single penny which he dropped in my case. “You little shit.” I thought to myself, and they were gone into the crowds, clearly a well rehearsed fraud. A bright future ahead for that one.
A well dressed and well spoken man was handing out leaflets. He was in tweeds, expensive boots, high quality hat, and was probably approaching 70. I wondered what he was promoting. I decided to imagine it was the 80s UV disco night at Echoes.
I bought a lunch pie and a coffee and headed into Queen’s park for my break. I chose a bench facing the magnificent carillon, an extraordinary bell tower and war memorial with no fewer than 47 bells, all cast by John Taylor Bell Foundry on the other side of town. Every Thursday lunchtime the tower performs, and one can eat one’s lunch listening to all manner of music made baffling and unfamiliar by being performed on too many bells. It is a solo instrument. Wikipedia notes that “The combination of carillon and other instruments, while possible, is generally not a happy marriage.”
Loughborough’s carillon was built after the First World War as a homage to their popularity in the towns of Belgium, where there are countless examples. It is a fine thing. As the bells rang and small children played hide and seek with their parents, a sudden drama unfolded. A juvenile sparrowhawk brought down one of the numerous market fattened pigeons with a thump. It ripped away at it, pulling thick clumps of feathers out, but in its inexperience failed to complete the kill. People were watching, some with phones out, some explaining to surprised children what was happening. You don’t get many life and death struggles on CBeebies. The sparrowhawk became distracted and allowed the pigeon to wriggle free. The pigeon flew for its life and the sparrowhawk set after it, but was immediately mobbed by a dozen crows and had to abandon the chase. The drama was over, with just a pile of feathers on the grass to give it away.
I busked on Market Street for the afternoon, by an empty unit and opposite a Turkish restaurant. As the day drew on, a shop next door began piling rubbish bags up against the empty shop front. They kept coming, until a huge mound had been created. The assistant looked at me and said “Sorry.” I replied that it was a fine as it was a suitably metaphorical gesture.
At about 4:15, I called it a day and counted up. I’d made £69 in about 4 hrs 15 minutes of playing. A reasonable return, but I was cold and achey and ready for a break.
I met another friend, Sarah, for a pint that evening. We arranged to meet in front of McDonalds at 7:30pm, which seemed to me most splendidly teenage thing to do. I was early. When she arrived, she’d had the same idea. “This takes me back! It’s been many years since I arranged to meet a young man outside McDonalds!”
We toured a few of the newer bars, places that hadn’t been open when I’d been at University, the Wheeltapper, the Cask Bah, the latter of which was a rockers pub with traditional real ales repackaged as Lemmy’s Legend and Hendrix Experience instead of Bitter and Mild. Young drinkers in black t-shirts were drinking it in vast quantities. I was coincidentally dressed for the occasion, and within minutes the soundtrack of the pub was ‘Clutch’, a band I’d told the landlord I liked whilst he poured our round.
Sarah works on a badly deprived council estate in Leicester. She invited me to come and busk on the shopping arcade there and meet the residents. I said I’d be up for it in the early new year.
The next day was not a market day. Teams of burly men dismantled dozens of empty stalls, and the streets grew broader and quieter. A filthy cold wind whipped up Market street and drew the warmth from my fiddle strings. I busked opposite a large pawn shop managed by a man with a striking resemblance to Paul Bearer, the corpulent late wrestling manager. Coins were slow, hands were frozen in jeans pockets, heads were down. It was a dry day, but the wind was forceful enough to reach into gutters and puddles and whip stagnant droplets along the road. I grew cold, yet persevered. If I made £25, I’d have broken even on the trip, and I’d promised myself I could spend any excess in George Hill’s wine merchants. Pigeons came and went. I looked for one with a prominent bald patch, but yesterday’s survivor was not out and about.
Old friends appeared, my ex-housemate Fiona, various people from the University. Over four cold and windy hours I raised a meagre £45, before consigning the fiddle back to its case when my fingers became too chilled and sore to continue. This at least gave me a reasonable budget to work with in the wine shop.
I headed up Market Street, towards the town hall. There was a Big Issue seller. She’d smiled warmly at me as she’d headed to Greggs for lunch earlier. I went to buy a copy, the Xmas special at £3. I asked her where she was from.
“I am from Mongolia.”
“Which bit, Outer Mongolia or the Chinese inner bit?”
“Oh you would not know it.”
After some back and forth, we established she was from Lindong, part of Bairin Left Banner, Inner Mongolia, China. I’d visited this city twice, the second time in 2005 aged 22 to make contact with a family my father had been in touch with and deliver presents on his behalf. Having been the guest of honour for a meal, I was then driven around town in a bubble car owned by Wei Bing, the son of the household, listening to Chinese rap, to a cyber cafe where in an effort to share my Western culture, I’d loaded a viral animation called ‘Magical Trevor’. Without apparently paying me much attention, every other youth in the room had the same animation on their screen within the next few minutes. It was a memorable sight.
Why was she here? Her English was good and clear, but she didn’t have the biggest vocabulary yet. I established that she’d had a child that her family hadn’t approved of, and having run out of other options had come by land across two continents to Market Street in Loughborough. Her son was five next week, and she was saving up for a present for him. She was currently living in a caravan, and selling the Big Issue was her first serious good break in a while.
My trip to Lindong was a comfortable soft class sleeper car on what had been the last steam hauled express train in the world, in its final weeks or service. Her trip here had been a colossal effort by the cheapest transport through the 2000 mile dusty emptiness of Northern China, across the baked brown and empty countries north of the Himalayas, across the Urals, through Europe, language after language, country after country. Yet she was full of an extraordinary good humanity. She’d seen I’d had a hard day at the busking with not many coins, we’d shared the street, and she double checked that I could really afford a copy, a question that nearly broke my heart. To have such warmth for your fellow human after all she’d been through was astonishing.
“May I know your name?”
“I am Madi.”
She wrote it down in four large and clear letters in my notepad. Another fleeting glimpse at a story far greater than anything I can tell from my own life. Those with the best stories are generally those least able to tell them. If you have a good education, a settled existence, and the right connections, it is also highly unlikely you’ve been through Hell to give your son a chance in life. Madi had a story worth telling. I wonder if it or any like it will ever easily be told, or would hearing it hurt our sense of self too much? Can we cope with knowing our Big Issue seller has overcome near impossible odds to be there? Or is it easier to imagine they sort of bimbled up here one day and need our charity because they are lesser and incapable? I thought about the challenge of getting to Lindong over land on a budget of spare coins, goodwill, and luck and without a British passport or credit card in my pocket and didn’t fancy it at all. We live in a society where remarkable, capable people sometimes live in the streets and wait patiently with a bright, warm smile for their chance to contribute.
I wondered if she felt any nostalgia for the world she’d left behind. Would she be able to return one day and take a big goofy tour round all the places she used to hang out in, or is that door completely closed now? Would she even want to? Was it all going to have been worth the effort for her? But I’d taken enough of her time up already. I took my diminished pocket of coins down the road with my Big Issue Xmas special. A homeless woman called to me;
“Ere. Do you actually read that? Does anyone?”
She was referring to my Big Issue, poking out of my hoodie pocket. She was reading a crime novel and spoke with a strong Essex accent.
“I was planning to. What are you reading?”
We compared notes on novelists for a bit. Her copy had lost its covers but thankfully hadn’t shed as far as losing the end of the text yet. I wondered if this meant the homeless had their own informal lending library. I gave her another handful of my coins, leaving with that shame I always feel when I walk away from someone in such a horrific situation. Should I even buy a bottle of wine when there’s people destitute like this? I walked into George Hills. I had enough coins left for an ‘entry level’ bottle. Whilst in Loughborough I’d chucked some money in what I hoped was the right direction and this bottle represented the totality of my profit for the three days. I hoped that was fair enough in the grand scheme of things.
I went back to my car. The street lamp next to it had a sign that reassuringly read “Police Warning. Car arson is a crime”. Thankfully, this had deterred the casual arsonists and my vehicle was still there. Time to go home, out of my past and back to my present day.
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!