It was another unseasonably warm period as I headed into Bradford. I needed the loo and so followed the signs which took me to Bradford Interchange station. The loo here costs 20p and I wasn’t in a mood to argue. You don’t get much for your 20p at Bradford Interchange. The only available stall looked as if the Andrex puppy and a shit-throwing monkey had been locked in together and told that only the winner of a high-speed dance-off would be allowed to walk out alive. I re-appraised the urgency of my need for the facilities and exited. Another man was waiting, saw the devastation and stared daggers at me. A good start. Outside in the concourse there was a public piano. A man was playing ‘Chopsticks’ on it over and over with grim determination.
I found a better facility in the shopping centre and felt ready to start the day properly. I walked round the city centre to get a feel for it. I’ve been to Bradford many times in my life, but never really stopped to explore. My first impression was of a deeply beautiful and condensed city, all yellow sandstone piled into numerous ornate buildings, sloping into the bottom of the valley. The exception, no less beautiful, is the stunning Prudential Assurance building, a masterpiece of terracotta. The town hall is so grand it’s almost preposterous, in isolation, surrounded by the sort of vast open spaces that often flank the great buildings of old Europe, implying that Bradford was once a capital city in waiting. Across the ring road, the Alhambra theatre oozes promise and the media museum looks down impressively from the slopes. Bradford is an architectural delight.
There was a busker already established by the 5 way junction in the pedestrianised streets. His open case had his Instagram handle displayed, (@callummacintyre)and he seemed to know what he was doing. Pleasingly for me, his portable amp was correctly set up so that his vocals were clear and legible. Too many buskers end up boomy or muffled. Callum was clear as a bell. To celebrate this, I got a sausage roll and a coffee and settled in for a bit to watch. He was good. He also had staying power, ultimately holding the pitch for around 5 hours during the day. Impressive. We had a good chat, and he recommended I try down by Specsavers. I thanked him and dropped off a quid.
I took the long route, seeing what else there was. Bradford is all slopes into the bottom of a bowl. Up one big shopping street, an Eastern European woman sat squeezing a hopelessly broken and out of tune accordion, the same simple melody over and over all day. On her knees was a beautiful bright patchwork crocheted blanket I could see as a burst of colour from the other end of the street. I tried chatting but she spoke almost no English. I got that she was a Romanian, but no further. I gave her a quid too, for different reasons. Whatever her story, it couldn’t have been an easy one.
Near her, another Eastern European lady sold squeaking, barking toy dogs. These things walked a few steps, made an electronic bark sound, turned and repeated, endlessly. There were other women selling these elsewhere round the city, and you could never quite get away from the squeaking, passing through interference zones between their pitches. Watch for a few minutes and you realise that each lady has a man stood quietly a few steps behind her, on the phone, letting her do the work. Taking the money. One lady’s dogs hung down from a portable gantry on strings, looking like a surreal and twitching mass execution.
I tried down by Specsavers. Callum was right, it was a good spot, and I made a fiver in no time at all. A lad came by on a bike, maybe 12 or 13 years old. He danced to the music then came over.
“You’re sick at that. I want to learn a violin but I don’t know where to get one.”
He was personable and engaging.
“Does your school do music?” I asked, wanting to help.
“I don’t go to school.”
“Excluded? What did you do?”
“Pulled a knife.”
“Yeah, that’d do it. What’s your name, mate?”
“I’m Tom. Maybe there’s some sort of programme through the council you could apply to.” I was searching for an answer, but perhaps there wasn’t one. He’d done something pretty bad, but who honestly didn’t do stupid stuff at that age? Difference between him and me was that he won’t get a second chance. Middle class boys get a chance to learn from their mistakes. They get to say that “It made me a better person.” It becomes inspirational. Working class boys make a mistake and that’s that. No more life opportunities. Travis was personable, open, great people skills, and I immediately liked him. I’m not condoning what he did, but if my life had been determined entirely by stuff I’d done at that age, things would have been very different.
“Perhaps you could get lessons.” I carried on, lamely.
“Yeah, it’s hard. Very difficult to learn by yourself.”
“Music shops have violins don’t they?”
“Yes.” What did he have in mind?
“Good. See you, thanks!”
I played again, full of thought. A man strode over to me from the cafe, carrying a penny whistle in one hand and a slopping cup of tea in the other. He was white bearded, wore a tweed jacket, and had a “Bradford for Peace” badge attached to his flat cap.
“Do you know a monkey’s spotted in my beer?” he asked, gruffly.
Was this the name of a tune or was he telling me about his day? He sloshed tea around and waited for my answer.
“I’ll play it with you.”
Now I like a good collaboration, but this bloke was too direct, almost aggressive and I didn’t like it. I tried a deflection;
“I’m Tom.” and I offered out a hand. It was not met.
“Tom Kitching?” I continued meekly.
“Who?” He barked. “I thought you might be famous.”
“I’m not famous.”
“Well maybe you’re not famous but maybe you’re a fascist.” His eyes were sparkling now, he’d found a thread and was pulling at it.
“I’m not a fascist either.” I tried, but he wasn’t convinced;
“I’m a lifelong socialist, and if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that everyone lies. You fascist.”
And he walked back to the cafe, sitting outside and banging his mug down. I tried to resume my busk with a tune, but he played his whistle over the top from the other side of the street. I stopped. So did he. I started, so did he. Ok. I packed up my fiddle, sat on my case, and wrote the conversation down.
“What are you doing?” He called angrily across the street.
“Adding you to the list.”
I quickly wandered round town again before the situation could go any further, and picked a new spot on a steep street off the main centre, under a hair replacement clinic sign. It wasn’t ideal, as the gradient demanded concentration from passers-by and therefore I got less engagement. But it was fine, and I started to enjoy playing and was gathering a few coins. Then there was whistling again. He’d found me.
“Do you know Macclesfield fair?”
“Maybe. Are you fraternising with fascists now?”
He played it anyway. It was ‘The Wizard of Alderley Edge’ by Pete Coe. Behind him, by coincidence, or perhaps not, the words ‘It’s a mean old Scene’ (Another Pete Coe song) were graffitied on the wall of a closed down pub. It was a slightly surreal moment and I couldn’t work out if he had any idea of the coincidence.
“Where did you get that tune from?”
“Some old album.”
And he walked off up the hill and out of my life.
Now disconcerted, I made my way back to Specsavers in the hope of a little normality. I busked. Some small Sikh children brought me a box with 4 cookies in it and offered them to me. I said I was ok, but thanks for the thought. As they ran away I heard;
“Whatever shall we do?”
“If he won’t eat them, no-one will.”
A Muslim family came by, and their small son was transfixed by the music, so they all stopped. The lad started jumping to grab the end of the instrument, and I had to repeatedly tilt it out of the way. He was clearly a hard to reach child, and his father was absolutely beaming at the interaction. They were generous and showered my case in silver coins, in fact most people were. I racked up a great deal of silver. Bradford is a friendly and generous place, irrespective of backgrounds.
Another lad came by, and started dropping coins near me, as a challenge. How desperate was I? Would I go and pick them up? I didn’t, and after a minute he walked on, disappointed. An older lady came by, saw a 20p near my case and picked it up. Playing a perfect stereotype of a Yorkshire-woman, she looked up, weighed up how far away it was from my case, decided it was fair game, and pocketed it decisively. I couldn’t help but laugh. What a strange day that coin was having.
I fancied a change of setting, so I moved round to where Callum was now packing up. Higher up the street, a man with a beautiful sunburst electric guitar was playing music that sounded like how I remember every Andy Kershaw programme sounding when I was a child and my Dad recorded it on tapes for long car journeys. This was set to backing tracks. He had a dog that barked merrily along in bursts, slightly out of time with the track, causing the guitarist to botch his rhythm. It made for good entertainment. He didn’t make much money, as most people were scared to approach the dog.
I had a final play in the lengthening sun towards the town hall. A black family all started dancing in the street. Some Asian children joined in, followed by some white children. As their children danced together, parents of all ethnicities shook hands and got to know each other. I thought to myself that if I’d been able to guarantee this sort of result to the arts council before I set off on my project I’d have been arriving here in a solid gold Rolls Royce. But putting cynicism aside, it really was a beautiful, spontaneous moment. I was struck throughout my busking in Bradford by the extent that people of all ages and backgrounds really felt they could just have a dance along. It’s an uninhibited sort of place. My tune finished and they dispersed.
“Jesus loves you” called the black lady, beaming, as she left.
I couldn’t wait to get back and pick it up again.
I arrived early the next day, too early to play really, so I got a coffee and just watched the world go by. Bradford is poor now, desperately so in places, but they live amongst shabby splendour. The wool trade built this fine city, and the German bombs ruined comparatively little of it in the war. Pop up shops, discount centres, and dozens of old fashioned independent stores reside in soft yellow sandstone masterpieces, every archway ornate and carved. There is decorative stonework on nearly every building.
I grabbed the plum busking pitch at 10am and gave it a good go. It went well. Children danced, the sun shone, coins accumulated. One family had dressed their two infant sons in lovely tiny blue suits. They danced to my tunes together for several minutes, and not even the niqab could hide their mother’s smile. It all felt like one happy family of humanity on a perfect spring day.
At lunchtime, I counted up my takings. £46, plus quite inexplicably a 4K7 ohms +/- 1% resistor. It had been a fun morning. A lady had recognised me from a performance at the Topic Folk club, just up the road, handed over a fiver, and sat in at the cafe across the way with her husband for half an hour, occasionally getting up to have a little dance. The acoustics were great, and I felt the instrument really carried. Although I’d made more money elsewhere, Bradford is cheap and that £46 would go a lot further in a city like this. Nearly all of it was silver coins. Not many pounds.
So what to make of Bradford? It’s a truly diverse city. What’s harder to get a handle on is how well integrated it is. Is Bradford a series of non overlapping communities running in parallel or is it more integrated than that? How much does the answer matter? I wandered round wondering how to answer these questions. A pile of new clothes sat in the street, abandoned by a shoplifter, looking like some sort of clothes-eating monster had gorged itself silly in TK Maxx and just barfed them all up. A police car was nearby, officers making notes. Shoplifting was common, I saw three examples in two days. On one of the other main streets, a religious group had set up stall, playing exalting music loudly through a single bin-linered speaker and soliciting for donations and engagements. An older lady in a wheelchair sat in front of them, and a bearded man laid his hand upon her head, with a smile of calm authority. I didn’t detect a miracle occur, but perhaps they are all in the eye of the beholder.
The market in the Kirkgate centre was self segregating. You could read the posters on the stall and know what colour the clientele would be. The nail bars were all Asian, whilst the cafe that sells jam roly-poly and custard was decidedly white. But there was plenty of space for everyone, and Bradford in general retains a great deal of independence with much of the city centre given over to the sorts of shops that have retreated elsewhere. It felt like a throwback to the shopping streets of my youth.
How important is integration anyway, if there’s space for everyone? A friend of mine living in Ashton-Under-Lyne struggles with it. On an individual basis, he has no problem with the Asians who have come to dominate his area, but finds all the pubs and pork butchers shops have shut and the infrastructure of his community is no longer relevant to him. He can no longer have conversations with all his neighbours, as many of them, particularly the women, cannot speak his language, and don’t necessarily feel like they are able to talk to him anyway. And he gets called racist for saying exactly this. Me responding with my liberal viewpoints is met with weary exasperation. “But you live in a white community, and this is out of sight for you. You’ve not had the things you like close down and go away. If you lived here, you’d feel differently.” I have never heard him say a bad word against any individual, but his experience of significant immigration to the community he has lived his whole life in is very negative. Integration is hard. Multiculturalism more successful in some places and communities than others. If different groups of people all want different things, it can be hard for them all to live in the same community, as there will not be enough of each group to sustain all the services that the groups need. Bradford, perhaps, is big enough in the centre that the space feels shared. The suburbs and smaller towns are perhaps less varied.
But people also talk about multiculturalism too much as a one way street, as if it is solely the responsibility of the new group to integrate. Perhaps the indigenous community to which I so obviously and pinkly belonged on this sunny day could have done rather more to hold up our end of the bargain. In a hostile environment, an incoming community will stick together and keep their heads down all the more, binding tighter and heading for the same streets, streets where their neighbours will understand them. Well documented historic council policies of lumping all the immigrants in one otherwise emptying and impoverished area can’t have helped either, forcing high levels of self reliance on these communities. Had we been more welcoming, perhaps this entrenchment would not have occurred. Perhaps rivers of blood are most likely when the white people decide they are likely. Perhaps we are the determining factor.
My feeling is that we, broadly speaking the white people, could have handled integration so much better ourselves, done more to welcome people and make them feel like they too can call it home. Especially as immigration seems largely inevitable, and will only increase as the climate changes. If multiculturalism has its failings, then many of them should be laid at our door rather than the arriving communities. And we should perhaps also remember that some white people have also been on the wrong end of these same failings, left to deal with something that needed a lot more external support than was fair to ask of them, consequently losing their sense of community along the way. But isn’t that just typical of the artist? If we could all get to know each other better, we’d be fine. Is it really as simple as that? Probably not, but experiences in Oldham after the race riots 20 years ago show that it definitely helps. Given the inevitability of immigration, and the fact that existing immigrant communities are here to stay, finding ways of making it work must be better than railing against it. It falls to us to make the next move, not them. They have enough to deal with.
Along the way is the football ground, Valley Parade, one of two enormous sports stadia in the city, the other being the rugby league ground, Odsal, a hole in the ground that once hosted 120,000 for the 1954 cup final replay between Halifax and Warrington, an English crowd record for any sport. Where Odsal is a stadium built in a hole, Valley Parade balances on the landscape like the sort of precarious stack of washing up that might be produced by a student flat. You can see the stands from the city centre, looming over the terraced streets, the effort of producing a flat space on a hillside leading to one stand dug into the hill and the opposite raised up on stilts. It was quiet today, at rest, just a single groundsman tending the perfect turf visible through a gap in the gate. Round by the main entrance, I paid my respects at the memorial to the 56 fans killed in the 1985 fire. Most of the dead were children or pensioners, killed doing what they loved.
The largest stand is colossal, and towers over the area. Back-to-back terraces run along the sides, and turning away from the ground you face the mosque. Across the valley, the chimneys of woollen mills have been reduced, and for each survivor a dome has grown to match it. Some magnificent, but also quite hard to spot, simultaneously glorious and modest, locations chosen to both bring honour to their god and not attract too much attention from the other locals.
Children played in the street, and I suddenly realised what it was about Bradford that was so unusual to me. It wasn’t the diversity or the architecture. It was the number of children. In much of the Western world, families are small, one or two children, for those who choose to have them. Those children that we do have are shepherded from safe space to safe space in cars designed to shield and protect them. They socialise in curated and controlled spaces not routinely open to those of us unblessed with family. In Bradford, families are large and play in the streets. Everywhere you go, there’s the sound of children at play in the big wide world, scabbing knees, having adventures. I found it raising my spirits wherever I went. A world without children is a hollow, colourless world, only made apparent when the colour floods back.
Behind the away stand at Valley Parade and over a wall was a patch of waste land. In it I saw Muslim women in full burqas teaching sons how to play cricket and daughters how to teach their future sons. I’d have loved to wander in and get to know them, but I knew this wasn’t my space and such an encounter could be problematic. Behind me, the football ground, location a legacy of another age, and filled every other weekend by the white people returning on ancestral and secular pilgrimage. Off the same street on a quiet weekday afternoon, the new population of these terraces were playing their preferred sport in altogether less grand surroundings.
I suppose the question I should be asking myself is; ‘Could I live on this street?’ and I really don’t have enough information to answer that, let alone explain my answer. I’m sure I’d get on with everyone, that wouldn’t be the problem, but the things I need culturally, are they here? Maybe not. Now imagine I lived here and couldn’t afford to move anywhere else. You can begin to see why people find it hard.
I was hitting the limitations of my whistle-stop tour of England. Busking is all very well, and does provide many insights, but it is not going to be an automatic window into hard to reach communities. Children all respond the same way, but people from backgrounds other than mine will not always feel they can have a conversation with me. Some doors are still closed, for now at least.
So then, Bradford would remain something of a beautiful mystery to me. I don’t know how to use my fiddle to get to know communities so far removed from my own. I thought of Travis, blissfully unaware of a life up the spout already for a decision made at 12 years of age. I thought of children of all backgrounds dancing together and hoped that was the truest Bradford. We’d shared some wonderfully human moments, me and this city, and I was already deeply fond of it. I took my fiddle home to think some more.
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!