I drove into Aylesbury from the north, dropping my things off at my friend’s house, a new build on the edge of town in a massive development called ‘Berryfields’. From here it was half an hour’s walk to the town centre. My stroll to the market square of Aylesbury took me down the Hale Leys shopping arcade. Nearly half the units were shut. In those that remained, glum and golem-like assistants sat deactivated by unrung tills whilst a stream of people poured by without deviation, earphones in, using the arcade as a warm thoroughfare away from the spring winds and showers. The town centre was in better shape with far fewer empty shops, suggesting a possible uncompetitive rent issue with the arcade.
Being early afternoon already, I didn’t want to waste any time before having my first busk. There was a promising spot outside a cafe that had closed for the day after the lunch trade. In truth there wasn’t much other choice. Aylesbury town centre has few suitable pitches, being an unusual shape. The market square is wide open, and shoppers cross it on the diagonal, taking them away from obvious spots. There’s another square, also too open, and a small number of lightly trodden side roads. That leaves the one semi-pedestrianised street, High Street as the only game in town. Here, there was a choice between the cafe and a single empty unit.
The problem for me was that just down from this ideal looking spot, a small, bearded, and gnome-like fellow was sat on a stool with what looked like a bin full of crude violins and bows mounted on a trolley. He seemed like a busker, but he wasn’t actually doing anything. Just watching the world go by, occasionally throwing handfuls of crumbs at passing pigeons. Every so often he’d take a fiddle out of the bin, pluck a few open strings, then softly replace it with the others. I don’t like to tread on toes, so I took another loop round the town. He was still there, still not seemingly performing. Eventually, on the third loop, he was packing up, so I grabbed the opportunity and set up myself. It was 3pm.
The acoustics were good, and the footfall sufficient and I made £33 in the couple of hours before closing time. One thing I’ve learned about busking is that no matter how many times I head out for a busk, I never quite know what’s going to happen. Something new always surprises me. A small girl was given 50p and sent over to drop it in my case. She ran past me and slotted it proudly into the top of a traffic cone.
I packed up at 5pm, and walked around a bit more. Every available piece of street furniture had an A3 laminated sign on it with a pigeon crossed out in a red circle. “Polite notice. Do not feed the pigeons. Unfortunately we have an infestation problem.” There were dozens of them, probably one for every pigeon. A hostile environment.
In the pub they told me that the fellow I’d seen was Luigi. “He’s a bit of a legend. Likes his pigeons.” I wanted to find out more, and hoped we’d meet tomorrow. I slept on an airbed on the living room floor after my friends, Jamie and Sam took an early night. They’re new parents and 10pm has become a distant memory for them. As they always seem to do, the air bed went down after about an hour, pitching me comically onto the floor as I rolled over, so I migrated to the sofa, a three-seater made of firm, independent positions and slept fitfully in sections.
The next morning I walked into town from my friend’s house, feeling somewhat corrugated, hoping to loosen out the muscles. “You really must stop sleeping in your legion of doom pyjamas.” I traversed the rings of the onion, starting in the outer zone of new builds, still sitting on top of the land, houses freshly sown, scattered on machine-ploughed earth, gardens un-established yet, sterile, sometimes Astroturf. A paperboy brought a moment of recognisable humanity to the emptiness as he sat reading and otherwise enjoying the contents of the Sun newspaper. The town was spreading, as with all the others in the commuter belt of London, like cultures on a petri-dish, growing outwards until they meet, overlap, and consume one another.
A red kite floated up from behind a 50s council house. On my right, a trading estate flanked the main road, an everytown of Halfords and Harvester, McDonalds and Topps Tiles. I could have been anywhere in England. The houses on my left grew slowly older, turning into pre-war terraces then Victorian town houses. Finally as I approached the middle I hit the new wave of flats. Our town centres re-populating after the previous generation’s migration to the suburbs. Trendy flats were popping up in spaces no longer needed for commerce, new waves of regeneration pulsing out from the centre.
In the modern Friars Square shopping centre, with its high windowed and airy interior, a child stood in the complementary soft play area, peering vacantly out over the foam walls like a monarch dispassionately watching their kingdom crumble. The shops were mostly all in use, but the building was like an airport departure lounge without the soul. At least the toilets were free.
I bought a coffee from the New York Deli, and had a busk back on High Street. A man hurried down from the market square towards Marks and Spencers. As he passed me, he glanced worriedly across, and made the sign of the cross. After an hour, rain stopped play, and I was forced to wander round in the damp. I passed the Roald Dahl museum, tucked in a secret garden through an archway in the oldest part of the town, towards the church. The shower passed, and I set up again amidst the puddles. A man walked past in a huge ankle-length trench coat to which a heavy cotton union jack had been sewn, covering the entire back and rendering him square, like a patriotic wardrobe. The front had numerous other patches sewn on. I wanted to ask him about it, but he strode into the Entertainment Exchange full of purpose. It was the most remarkable garment, and clearly a personal effort.
Another shower came down with a suddenness that left my violin heavily spotted with rain. I took it back to the toilets in the shopping centre, and dried it with toilet roll, airing my duster and case under the hand-dryer and ignoring the funny looks from the other users of the facility. It was a bitty sort of morning. My preferred pitch was outside a closed down British Heart Foundation, next door to an independent jewellers. People were drawn to its window, and specifically the bottom corner near me. When the assistant came out for a vape, I asked him what it was that was attracting so many people over.
“It’ll be the Rolexes. We’re the only place in town that sells them.”
I looked. There were three Rolex watches on display, the cheapest of which was about the same price as everything I’d made in a year of busking. I found their appeal hard to understand, personally. We all have the time on our phones now, and such an expensive watch really only serves to show off wealth. But then, I’ve bought daft things that nobody else would want, so who am I to judge? We should all be allowed a few pretty things in life. I chided myself. As soon as you criticise anything that’s not strictly functional, you undermine our basic humanity.
It was lunchtime, and Sam joined me, with her baby, Rafa. We went for a pub lunch. She’s a Mexican who married my schoolmate Jamie. I was best man at their wedding in Oaxaca, a duty I performed phonetically in a language I cannot speak. That’s a whole other story, and perhaps worth a read if you have the time.
I asked the barman if Aylesbury saw much night life, now the town centre was filled with new flats. A customer burst out laughing. “Night life? Aylesbury?” The barman had lived here his whole life and loved the place, but conceded that it was quiet and not much ever happened.
“How is Aylesbury for you?” I asked Sam when I returned to the table.
“It is ok.” daughter of a political dynasty, her grandfather a former top civil servant, her mother had been culture minister for Veracruz state, Sam is one of the sharpest and most perceptive minds I know, working as a project co-ordinator for an international telecoms company. But she couldn’t think of much to tell me about her latest home town. “I’m not sure what to tell you about it. It is ok. Not much happens here.”
“But there must be something worth seeing?”
So after lunch, Sam took me to see the David Bowie Statue, under the archway at the bottom of the market place. Bronze, it features two Bowies side by side, one dapper, suited and cool, at rest, the other veined and sinuous, caught mid leap, bright eyed and clutching a microphone. Every hour, theoretically on the hour, speakers set into the walls above play a track from his career at random. At exactly 2:02pm, it came on with ‘I can’t give everything away’, the final track of his final album. We stood respectfully and listened to it, slick pop track, wistful extended playout, the final knowing offering from a unique and much missed talent. People trickled past, pushing prams, on phones, smoking and vaping. Bowie sang to us all, equally. It ended, and the archway fell back into silence for the next 54 minutes.
“Y’know, I was never really into Bowie.”
Sam went back home with little Rafa, and I headed back to busking. The market square had a pair of enormous lions on plinths, apparently a gift to the town from the Rothschilds in the Victorian era. Whilst they were being made in Paris, concerned town elders hurriedly commissioned mock-up lions to test potential locations for the final pieces, plinthing them all over town before selecting the current location. They’re quite something, and I was somewhat alarmed to find myself drawn to their chunky arses, muscular and detailed. ‘Robust’, one might say. The artist had seemingly spent more time round the back than on the more photographed features. Well, you’ve got to get your kicks where you can.
I started to set up for an afternoon busk when Luigi made his way down the street. I was conscious of hogging the good spot, and offered to pack down so he could have a go. I was also eager to have a chat and meet the man, and perhaps see what his act was.
“Oh no, you play!” His accent was sing-song Italian, over the top like a bad pasta sauce advert “I just play to make-a some money and then I feeda the pigeons, but now they try to stoppa me from feeding them.” He gestured at the abundance of laminated notices. I’d never heard anyone use the words ‘Make-a’, ‘Feeda’ and ‘Stoppa’ in any context other than a clumsy parody, yet here he was, in the flesh. Another preposterously unlikely character that I could not dare invent for fear of being thought racist. Years ago, I used to wonder where on earth the great playwright Peter Tinniswood had found inspiration for the remarkable characters he drew. Now I realise he probably went down to any town centre, smoked his pipe and patiently waited until one went past.
“Oh the poor starving birds.” Luigi continued, a voice full of emotion. A series of plump pigeons had congregated around him, well aware of his considerable potential to emit crumbs. “They are so hungry!” One pigeon grew tired of waiting, mounted another pigeon and gave it a comprehensive humping. Luigi and I both watched the performance. It seemed to deflate him.
“But I am not much good. Go, you play today.”
“Are you sure, I really don’t mind?”
I wondered if Luigi was all that he seemed. I allowed myself to imagine that perhaps he was a carpet salesman from Luton who’d just quietly slipped out the door one afternoon, grown a beard, affected a cod Italian accent and returned to the world as Luigi on the streets of Aylesbury.
“It is ok. I hope you come back soon.”
He was a kind and harmless man. England, perhaps, is a place where eccentric old men can feed the birds in defiance of laminated notices. He slipped off, slowly, cart trailing behind him, small clouds of crumbs landing amongst the birds that saw him as king. I wondered what his act actually was, or if he even had one, or if I’d possibly just seen it.
I played till 4pm. It was enough for tired fingers, and traffic was light. I’d made £63 in four truncated hours. Enough to pay my way, but nothing special. I walked down to the Waterside arts centre, where the Aylesbury arm of the Grand Union Canal ends around the back of Waitrose, fittingly terminating without fuss against the setting of a blank brick wall. An Indian family were hurling entire loaves of bread at surprised ducks. “Is it allowed?” They asked me earnestly as I drew nearer.
“I don’t know, but I’d break it up a bit.”
A life-size statue of Ronnie Barker sits quietly on a bench by the theatre, minding his own business, out of the way. Demanding little of you. Modern statuary is coming off the plinth to live amongst us, relaxed and human, and I’m fine with that.
Aylesbury. I still couldn’t really place it. I wandered over to the station, via the 5pm Bowie performance, a Spiders from Mars era track I couldn’t quite identify. The speakers were a bit muffled, cones damp, the reality of the English winter meeting the idealism of the artist.
The station was a monument to efficiency. Ticket barriers and a single machine. Most travellers trading off a single season pass, so little need to staff even such a busy station with ticket windows. The humble platform ticket being a thing of the past, and my unwillingness to spend the peak £5 fare to the nearest station, I watched the rush hour from the pedestrian bridge at the throat of the station. A woman went past with a cat in a specially designed rucksack, rigid and domed, like a glass diving bell for cats wishing to chart dangerous and hostile environments. A ginger tom stared out with big eyes, looking at me as if I were an angler fish or some other nameless horror of the deep. Below, taxis were drawn to the station like crocodiles to a water hole, gathering in groups, silent, engines off, awaiting the herds from across the plains, ready to grab careless ankles and pull them under. Commuter trains from London burst their ripened pods onto the platform, and the weary and suited began the last leg home from offices and meetings. The rain fell again, and I mused on our national refusal to dress for wet weather. Collars were extended, woollen cardigans wrapped too tight, free newspapers draped over balding heads. Strides slightly too quick.
I followed the herd, perhaps like salmon heading upriver, thinning out, splitting up ancestral tributaries, across the ring road, some into the gym, more into the pub, many just going home. Probably not to spawn, not tonight, not Thursday, when the week is heavy on the body and soul and another effort is demanded in the morning.
My journey back was interrupted by a roaming gang of street preachers. Their leader held a tattered bible and was shouting dire warnings at passers-by. Younger than me, his hair was wet with rain, shoes solid but careworn. Coat basic and modest. Beard, and bright, urgent eyes. He looked the part, wearing this contrived hardship as sword and shield. Jesus went to the desert. He went to Aylesbury on a Thursday afternoon, around about tea-time and raged in the street. His assistants handed out pamphlets and said nothing. He directly told a Muslim woman that Allah was a false God and she was going to Hell. This seemed a bit over the top, but where do you begin in situations like this? They genuinely believe people of all sorts are in horrific danger. Conversation between us is basically pointless as there is no common ground to work with. I looked tatty and bedraggled, sat on my fiddle case, perhaps every bit as contrived as him, and they only gave me a pamphlet when they ran out of other people to bother, my soul clearly slightly less worth saving. As I was the only person prepared to sit and watch, the leader eventually came over to talk to me. I didn’t know what to say, as anything that came to mind just felt like I was taking the piss, and the conversation went nowhere. We just both felt desperately sad for one another for reasons the other could not comprehend.
I headed back to my friends’ house via the chippy. Waiting for my order, I smelled of damp coat. It had been a long day.
After another night of limited sleep on the giant ridge-cut crisp sofa, I pushed my aching body out of the door at 7:30am, an unholy time for a professional musician. I wanted to see the departure of the commuter train to London from Aylesbury Vale Parkway. On the final edge of town, where fields and development potential are indistinguishable, a new railway station has germinated. No ticket barrier here, just a vast car-park, as yet largely redundant, and an austere cafe just for selling bitter coffee to the hardened commuter. I made my way to the platform, where the train was ready to leave, and the headphoned engines of economic England hurried along to their seats. The guard encouraged me to board, as he was ready to set off. “Oh no, I’m just here to see you away.” This was not an answer that made any sense to him, but the light turned green, and with a shrug, he locked the doors and the multiple unit drew off without fuss in the chalky morning.
I walked round Berryfields. New houses, 5000 in total, a colossal appendage for any town to absorb. It’s well supplied by playgrounds and little else. Pylons cut a path through the middle, repelling houses from their procession. I walked on, by a window with carved wooden blocks spelling ‘LOVE’. By them, a small dog with haunted eyes stood, howling with uncontained horror at me as I passed. The estate was so new that the paths that people wear in the grass that ultimately supplant the mandated routes hadn’t fully formed yet and it felt like walking round inside a planner’s dream. The cumulative effect of our collective eccentricity takes a long while to engrain itself on new areas.
Here is the deepest level of the commuter experience. Berryfields has figured out the one part of town that is no longer necessary; the town centre. Everything can be delivered, a new car, takeaway, presents, furniture. Fancy cooking yourselves? Ocado will bring the ingredients. Why would you go to a shop? Anything can be delivered. Need a night out? Stay in London and get the later train back. Uber are there for you. Apps have supplanted shops here. The world can be brought to your door or smart locker. Welcome to endless unfocussed suburbia. A string of Audis and 4 by 4s crawled into town, each with a parent driving and a single well-scrubbed and treasured child occupying the back seat like a high court judge commanding the bench.
Aylesbury has history, tons of it, but it’s buried, forgotten in the glare of London, that massive weight and economic powerhouse on the fabric of the home counties, drawing thousands from all over. There are plaques on houses, and statues galore, but the town is there to feed London now, and is jumbled up and diluted. There’s not much of a sense of continuity about it, as if a roaming and displaced people discovered a complete and unused city and just moved in, counting their good luck.
Jamie and Sam are taking a punt like so many others. They can make the money they need right here and now, raise a child in safety and comfort, and get out before they get old. Berryfields is an estate to be passed through, an opportunity that if grasped will liberate your later life. They will work their arses off now, retire to Oaxaca and want for little.
“Come on, let’s get some coffee.”
Jamie had dropped Rafa off at the nursery, education and childcare being the one industry there is seemingly no app based solution for just yet. We drove to the nearby village of Haddenham and had breakfast in the most spectacularly middle class cafe I have ever seen. Called Norsk, it was packed, mostly with women in expensive country clothing. A camera crew were making a documentary and asked if we minded being background characters. I replied that I was born to the task.
The coffee was sensational, the food excellent. Are these my people? They look a lot like me, sound a lot like me, if a little more Southern, but perhaps our lives split at the age of 21 when I decided to be a musician. I’m middle class without the budget to really pull it off properly. The psychological element of class is fascinating. No matter how poor I get, I’m destined to always be middle class. Whereas someone born working class usually remains so, no matter how well they do in life. Class is how you start, not how you finish. If you improve your lot, it’s your children’s class that changes, not yours.
We dropped by the charity shop and Jamie picked up 4 copies of the Ring magazine from 1973 for a fiver. I searched for pint pots with handles, but drew a blank. We headed back to town and I had a final morning’s play on the high street. A young lady approached me with concern.
“Do you need a coffee or something?”
“I’m alright actually, had a couple of coffees already.”
“It’s awfully cold.”
I’m increasingly fat and had hitherto considered it a warm morning.
“Really, I’m ok, but thank you for your consideration.”
She left, but minutes later she was back with a packet of hot sausage rolls for me from Greggs. Some people really just are lovely.
I played on. A beautiful young lady came down the street. Our eyes made contact. I smiled. She smiled back, and carefully put her ear phones in.
A young Moldovan lad stopped me with enthusiasm. “Do you know Paganini?”
“I’m afraid not. I play traditional music. Mostly English.”
“Then I wish to hear your finest piece of English music!”
I played him ‘Lumps of plum pudding and pieces of pie’.
“Yes, that was truly a great piece.” he said, emotional as I finished scraping my way through. “I came here for work. I work in the bus station!”
Then he was gone.
I hoped Luigi might make another appearance, and perhaps I’d finally hear his act, but it was not to be.
I left Aylesbury for a weekend’s work in Milton Keynes. On the edge of town, I passed a reptile boarding house.
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!