I hadn’t planned to come to Bolton at this point. I may well have ended up here, in due course, but it wasn’t a town I had specifically aimed for. It was a damp day in February and my house had become a nest of workmen, each vying with the others to see who could do most to prevent me achieving anything productive with the day. The electrician had been winning with periodic power outages until the plumber finally saw off the kitchen and bathroom with a total under-sink clearance and stop valve manoeuvre.
Unable to do anything useful and feeling distinctly in the way, I left early for my evening gig in petulant mood, drove to the nearest town to the venue and got the fiddle out for a few hours. The pay and display was a charity car-park in an otherwise abandoned concrete building. Bolton was in a grim and stormy mood, and a cruel wind found a funnel in the high sided Victorian grandeur of the main street by Marks and Spencers. I set up here for a play, determined to make the best of such an unpromising situation. Having flounced out of the house, I couldn’t renege on a busk, despite the conditions being singularly against it. I was wrapped in my faithful and ancient Barbour jacket and woolly hat and positioned myself in front of the shop’s enormous lingerie poster, testing that old maxim that ‘sex sells’ far beyond its breaking point. Standing before an image of a large and well filled bra, prominent against the gloom of the street, I pressed my bow into the string to stop it being whipped away in the gale, developing an ugly, crunchy sort of tone and did my best.
A woman prepared a few coins for me, but paused and asked;
“Do you really need it?”
This was a new question so I stopped and thought about the answer.
“Well music is my sole income. I’m writing a book about England and this is how I’m paying my way round.”
“My husband’s writing a book too, about the cricketers from Bolton who went on to play test matches for England. It’s terribly interesting. Here you go. At least you’re doing something.” And dropping her coins in my case she gestured round at the homeless, in every other doorway, constantly searching for spaces away from the foul wind where they might still have a chance of a coin; choosing between shelter and the possibility of a meal. As before in Braintree where I’d heard this false equivalence between me busking and rough sleepers in need of money, I was upset by this and wanted to respond, but by the time I’d worked out an answer she was already gone and I was left to play on.
A man had appeared in the doorway to Marks wearing a bright blue fleece. He relaxed against the wall and looked up and down the street. A minute later, a homeless man came bursting out of the shop and fleece man gave chase, tackling the escapee into a doorway across the street. It was an unfair contest, as the homeless man had a limp and was drawn and weak. Chocolate eggs spilled from his bag as he ran, and other homeless people, alert to the raid, grabbed them and scattered. Further store officers arrived from neighbouring shops and concentrated their efforts on the first thief, forcing him roughly into a corner. I wanted to shout back angrily to the woman, “See they are doing something!” but she was out of sight.
Imagine being so desperate, cold, and hungry that you’d nick some chocolate eggs. At least they’d gone for the good ones. “This is not just an egg raid, this is a Peruvian, 100% cocoa Marks and Spencers egg raid”. It was a strange and unworthy thought, amidst my general anger and frustration at the tragedy of the scene. I’d stopped playing. This didn’t seem like the sort of situation that needed a soundtrack. They took the thief away. If he was lucky, he’d be arrested and get a warm night in a cell with a meal. If he was unlucky they’d let him go again. I picked out the coins the lady had given me and dropped them off with the first rough sleeper I saw. I didn’t need to ask if they really needed it.
It had been a dramatic afternoon and I knew I’d need to come back and really spend some time here.
I returned a few days later. The sun was glorious and the wind entirely absent. Bolton is really a rather beautiful town, containing some of the finest architecture in the North West of England. The prosperity that the cotton industry once brought has left a fine legacy of buildings. Home to both Arkwright and Crompton, two of the fathers of the industrial revolution, Bolton once generated a lot of money, at least for the mill owners. The centrepiece of the town hall and adjacent municipal buildings is properly grand, as is the old market hall, now a shopping arcade, all decorative cast iron and light. The top floor smelled invitingly of popcorn and led to a cinema. Amongst these and many other gems, 60s concrete units have muscled in, overlapping in a way that reminded me of Budapest, where European beauty and Soviet brutalism butt up against one another.
I mentioned this to my friend who’d come along for the day, suggesting that perhaps Bolton was the Budapest of the North. She politely replied that she couldn’t see it, herself. She was a little nervous, having never busked before, but the sun was shining and the street had a busy hum to it.
We picked a spot on the pedestrianised street heading down to the bus station. My friend was subdued to begin with, and played within herself, but slowly she found her voice and together we started to enjoy the music in the sunshine. The cake shop next door were clearly enjoying it and came out with free samples, which boosted our confidence no end. One shopper recognised me and said he’d been following the blog. Fame at last!
The market has moved to a new market hall a short walk away from the town centre. We went there to explore and find some lunch. It’s as good a food market as you’ll see, with plenty of everything on sale. One butcher was proudly advertising ‘Beef Trips’. I bought a pork pie and a packet of Uncle Joes Mint Balls.
We took our lunch and wandered back to the main square. One of the big municipal buildings advertised an aquarium, which seemed so unlikely we had to visit it. In the basement about a dozen tanks are set into a room, containing a modest but apparently singularly valuable and rare collection of tropical freshwater fish. A man was carefully hoovering fish-shit from the bottom of a tank into a horrible bucket. He was humming to himself and seemed to be happy with his lot in life. I ate my pie and looked at the rays and catfish. Bright coloured and exotic, from the mountains of New Guinea, the cloud forests of Peru, the heart of Madagascar. I wondered how they felt about living in Bolton. The displays all looked a bit care-worn, although the fish themselves looked well. I was informed that the collection was started in 1941, and they have had notable success getting some of the rarest species to breed.
Back on the street, a man passed us on his phone, moving at speed, giving us just a fragment of his frenetic conversation as he came by;
“Why the fuck’s he got 20 boxes of washing tablets?”
Bolton was changing, adapting. The Old Three Crowns, once a huge town centre pub, has shrunk to half its original size, the other half having become a shop unit, now disused. A small pub sheltering meekly under a huge frontage. The Bolton timeball no longer operates since the shop beneath it closed. Previously, the large golden ball would rise up at 12:55pm, dropping down again at exactly 1pm. Nobody local paid it much thought, but I’d rather liked it, and was sorry to see it a victim of the economy. Some streets were showing the first signs of gentrification, an apologetic coffee shop here, a male grooming parlour there, not quite densely clustered yet to achieve critical mass and attract a breeding population of hipsters.
We busked again under an archway. The acoustics were nice and we had the best music of the day. Bolton is a tough busk, there are simply so many needy people, in every doorway. Some passive, some going from person to person, trying their luck. There were so many that they couldn’t all find a spot at once, and would roam the streets, politely waiting for someone else to move on so they could grab a doorway. There seems to be a code of conduct, respecting each other’s space, but moving on voluntarily every so often so everyone gets a go. Sometimes a police officer will come round the corner, and they’ll desperately gather their few belongings together and stride urgently away with a haunted look in their eyes, the gently pacing officer displacing the homeless 100 yards further up the street like a bow wave coming ahead of a ship. Heartbreaking that those who most need a bit of support from the tools of state instead consider it safer to run from them.
Such an atmosphere of desperation makes it hard to succeed as a busker. Your need is not greater than that of the rough sleepers of whom there are so many. I wondered why Bolton had such a large homeless population. There are rough sleepers in just about every town in England, but Bolton was exceptional. We had a final play on one of the side shopping streets, and a young Asian mother and her toddler came out of the apartment opposite to hear us play. It was a lovely moment.
On my third day in Bolton, a young rock band were setting up for a busk in the main square. I got a coffee and watched from a respectful distance back. I’d already had a busk myself, and made very little. Between the many rough sleepers and the numerous smartly dressed Jehovah’s Witnesses and their free magazines on racks, hands were remaining in pockets, eyes down. My music had seemingly been a magnet for the more aggressive beggars to operate nearby, and I was getting nowhere. The band kicked off with ‘The House of the Rising Sun.’ They were good, the singer was charismatic and sang the classics with a slick sense of purpose and a tremendous Lancashire accent. Sadly, they didn’t seem to be doing much better than me. I gave them what little I’d made earlier.
Bolton has a good few statues, mostly to otherwise forgotten industrialists. “Paid for by public subscription”. One of their most famous modern sons, Fred Dibnah, has a splendid statue by a plinthed mill engine further down the street. There are no women in statue in the town, other than the bare-breasted generic representations of woe on the war memorial. England is full of severe and oversized men looking down in death as they did in life. At least Fred is at street level and seems to be having a laugh.
Still the homeless came past, walking with steady resigned purpose towards nothing in particular, like the remnants of a routed army returning from a lost war to a country they no longer recognised. I got talking to some, handing over a few pounds each time. The stories they told me were all alike. Some would admit to having problems, “A mate was keeping me off the drink, but then he moved on.” Others wouldn’t, but each one of them had been renting from a private landlord who’d sold out. They’d then not been able to get anything else. Bolton is on the edge of the great economic miracle that is Manchester, and rents are rising, properties in demand, renewals and developments common. Unable to get a deposit, a guarantor, unable to find higher rent, a whole cohort of vulnerable people have fallen off the bottom. The supply of council houses utterly inadequate against this need. A rising tide lifts all boats? Not if they’ve got a hole in the hull. Ironically, it may well be Bolton having turned the economic corner that has precipitated this disaster. The money that’s come from the rise of Manchester has left Bolton unaffordable to the weakest.
So why not leave? After a year of travelling round, I know if it happened to me I’d go straight to a provincial market town and try my luck. But that’s easy for me to say. Every man I spoke to only knew Bolton. It’s where they grew up, where they knew the streets. Not only that but if you move you start at the bottom of the list again, which acts as a terrible disincentive to try something else. I know from elsewhere that women and children are prioritised on the waiting lists, and the under supply of accommodation and support is so severe that many of these men will never get to the top. They are trapped in the only town they know, afraid to try anywhere else for fear of it being worse, and losing the only community they had left, each other. The sheer numbers left everyone else poverty blind. I believe almost everyone is fundamentally compassionate, but when a single walk to the shop for a pint of milk presents you with more human suffering than you can ever imagine being able to solve, you are forced to ignore it.
Across the street from the last bloke I spoke to, the Jehovah’s witnesses had their stand. The headline this week was ‘Who is God?’. But they too seemed withdrawn, out on the streets with an obligation to save souls, but unengaged, too much to save.
I finished most conversations with something like “I wish I could do more.” to which they all replied with; “Nah, you’re alright mate.” And they meant it. There was an extraordinary lack of blame or jealousy amongst them. Just a sadness and a will to get through the day in the hope that their luck might change tomorrow, a space in the shelter might open up.
The man in the coffee shop offered a warmer view. An unexpected Cockney voice, he said he’d been here 10 years, having met a Bolton girl, opening his shop 3 years ago.
“I love it up here. It hit rock bottom a few years ago, but it’s coming back nicely now.”
I left, for the first time down on my busking over 3 days. What little I’d made, I’d given it all away and more. A beautiful industrial town that doesn’t have all the answers right now. It’s rapidly becoming a better place if you’re riding the wave, and a worse one if you’re not. The best food market in the North West, lovely architecture and open spaces, Manchester just down the road, plenty of culture, great countryside within easy reach. But the streets are a human tragedy without an obvious end in sight.
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!