I headed into London again without much of a clear plan. A last minute gig had come up that had already taken me into the South and I decided to stay on and wing it for a few days. I appealed on social media for somewhere to stay and was offered a space in North London by a Canadian lady called Kaeridwyn who has only met me a couple of times, but was nevertheless happy to turn over her keys and entire house to me whilst she went away for a couple of nights.
“Please treat it like home. Burn my incense, eat my avocados.” She said as she handed me the keys.
Such was the generosity of the offer that it would have felt rude to mention that my northern upbringing hadn’t really taught me what to do with either incense or avocados. I think I know what avocados look like but I’m not sure I’d recognise incense if I saw it. If it looks anything like avocados, I could be in big trouble.
I’d had an incredibly long day before, driving hundreds of miles and performing two gigs, and so I was content to wander for the day without a plan. I set off from Liverpool Street station and headed for the City of London. A large Audi was illegally parked on a crossing. I looked inside and saw that the passenger seat and footwell were filled with half finished packs of Haribo. Last time I’d walked through the square mile of the City of London, seven or so years ago, I’d been stopped by a Japanese news crew shooting vox pops for their article on the UK economy, somehow mistaking me for a banker or politician. I’d given colourful answers, and have always wondered if they went out on air.
I saw the shining green domes and gold ornamentation of the Bank of England, and immediately thought of the mosques in Bradford, raised too in worship to their god. Next door, the Bank of China took up a large if less ornate building, keeping watch, a location chosen to gently remind us of our relative places in the world in the 21st century. It was Sunday, and the city was quiet, with just a few people walking the streets.
The Bank of England building is a fortress in evening dress, no windows at street level, just walls that exude thickness and permanence. The grand old buildings of London from which we’re governed, clustered as tightly as bodies on a rush hour tube train, must encourage a particular kind of conservatism, living and working in architecture that reminds one of who we once were. In contrast to say the Bundestag in Berlin, a modern building set in space whose physical presence makes one think of who we could be.
On London bridge, an open topped cruise ship chugged slowly through, beneath me, speakers pumping out ‘Spice up your Life’ to the smattering of worried looking tourists trapped on the top deck.
On the South Bank, thousands of people were making a day of it in the sunshine. Outside the Tate Modern, a man with a net and a bucket of soapy water was making bubbles for the children to chase. He wasn’t collecting money, so someone must be paying his wage. He wore the sallow, neutral face of a man who was paid by the hour, not by the bubble. I wanted to join in and chase the bubbles down the bank of the river, but sadly, society considers this deviant behaviour for a bald, childless man in his mid thirties so I contented myself with a seat on a nearby bench and just popping the odd straggler that floated my way. A child chasing a particularly large bubble tripped forward onto her face, the bump causing her chewing gum to eject out onto the path before her. She lay there on her front for a second, deciding whether to pick it up and continue with it.
“Don’t you bloody dare.” Shouted her mother.
I walked slowly through the bottlenecks of Westminster bridge, caused by the blocks put in place after the terror attack. A van had mounted the kerb to run people like us over, just because we happened to be there, and because we were in the shadow of this symbol of statehood, the Palace of Westminster, currently reflecting the national mood by being largely covered in scaffolding awaiting an overhaul that could last decades and whose cost is unknowable and disputed.
Despite the overdue addition of Millicent Fawcett, the statues in Parliament square remain a disappointment, as statues so often are. No matter the pose, dramatic or dignified, whether exaggerated in flowing, windswept grandeur above us or cast as humble and human amongst us, each recipient is somewhat reduced in gravitas by pigeon shit and traffic cones, the two universal levellers of status. Busts are no better, and just imply that the budget wasn’t there to do it properly. In the unlikely event of someone ever wishing to immortalise me in this way, I hope they cast something non-committal, like an elbow or a lower leg. Round the corner, George V had a pigeon in place at the summit, enjoying the view, crowning the Feudal pyramid all by himself and cooing gently.
Down Whitehall and past the Cenotaph, a row of red phone boxes was buzzing with groups of tourists taking turns at photographing each other in and alongside them. The red phone box is one of those national symbols that resonate far more with the foreigner than the English themselves. I wondered if they still worked. The first two no longer had a phone in them, but the third did, and I waited for my turn. There was a minimum call charge of 60p, and I rang my parents, who were out. Exiting the booth, there were many eyes on me as I did my walk of shame, the man who made a call from a phone box in 2019, and I felt the red facedness of having committed a terrible faux-pas in full view.
By St James’s Park, Frederick, the Duke of York was atop a huge column. ‘He’s got it right’, I thought to myself, staring up at his distant crotch. If you must turn into a statue when you die, better to be on a column tall enough that nobody can tell if you’re covered in shit.
Back in Clapton, I went out for dinner, choosing a pizza place on the main street. My Grandma has recently got a tablet, and has taken to reading my blog, noting the regularity that I dine on pizza. “Do you eat nothing else?” is her main comment, and I thought of her as I ordered another one, having been seated at the bar to avoid wasting valuable table space on a dubious looking lone diner. She grew up in Hull during the Second World War, and I owed her a busking trip there at some point before I finished. I wonder what the pizza is like in Hull.
This one was excellent, and the service good. The restaurant run by a group of young people doing what many young people have to do to succeed; take a chance on themselves. They were moving fast, that slightly too fast set of movements where you force your limbs to go a bit quicker than is natural in order to get everything done. I remembered it myself from mad nights working behind the bar as a student in Loughborough.
I walked down through North London to Bethnall Green. It took me an hour but there’s always plenty to see. Bethnall Green has London’s only winery, where drinkers sit amidst fermentation barrels. I popped my head in, but I fancied beer, not wine and went instead to a back street boozer where I was given a complimentary pot of donkey sausage with my pint.
The next day I set out for South London proper. I got to Greenwich so early that the street food stalls hadn’t finished their first cook of the day and I had to wait for my breakfast. I tried busking on the last bit of road that leads up to the Cutty Sark, the vast and elegant clipper built to bring tea back from India, now raised into the air on supports and turned into a museum. It’s a spectacular achievement, both the original ship and the new setting. I didn’t make much money, but I liked the space and enjoyed watching the families heading in for the Bank Holiday Monday, bright eyed, smiling parents and well scrubbed children in clean clothes. One fellow gave me a coin, and I thought to myself ‘He looks just like Steve Knightley from ‘Show of Hands” and thought no more of it. About 11am, a trad Jazz trio set up fairly near, and I decided I was no match for a Euphonium. My friend Jon had been to university round here, and suggested I try the Dog and Bell in Deptford for my lunch. It was about a mile away, and I walked out of the cosy centre of Greenwich, into a suburbia of featureless flats built on old docks. On one back road, a docklands pub, signage just about readable as ‘The Thames’ stood boarded and colonised by plants, somehow undemolished. There was little else to hint at the old docklands character.
The Dog and Bell was indeed an excellent pub, whose proprietor took polite, professional interest in my travels. He told me that occasionally Jools Holland comes in, buys everyone a pint, and then plays the piano. There was then some debate at the bar about when this had last happened, and where the piano had been in those days. I finished my pie and walked up Deptford high street. A mile from Greenwich, this is another world. Vastly multicultural, very poor, and largely open and trading on a bank holiday. I busked, mostly to see what would happen. A woman careered over to me on her bike. She was blind drunk. After a while of mumbling and fumbling for coins, she got over to me that her mother had died a year ago to the day. I said I was sorry for her loss. She tried asking me some questions but it didn’t really make much sense, and my attempts to politely reply just felt empty.
“You sound like an advert.” she finished, dismissively, before giving me £1.02 and wobbling off. There are some tough lives on Deptford High street, and although plenty of people would give a coin, they were small coins to match the poverty. A plain white van drew up and two whole sheep carcasses were lumped into the butchers by a round fellow in a shabby white apron who carried them like they were sacks of coal.
I made my way back to Greenwich in the hope of earning enough that I could have a decent dinner. It didn’t go well. The Jazzers were still at it, and the other spots around town just didn’t work for me, being too busy or awkward. The last families were draining from the area, parents now weary and stressed, children stained and tired. Perhaps understandably, nobody was in a generous mood. Around 5:30pm I had made almost no money and was considering a tactical retreat to North London when I got on my phone and noticed that one of my friends was ‘Attending the Show of Hands concert at the Cutty Sark this evening.’ So it must have been Steve Knightley after all. I put a status on facebook saying ‘I think Steve Knightley just put 50p in my busking case.’ and decided to have one more go for the day. Cynically, if 400 Show of Hands fans were heading to the Cutty Sark, I might just stand a chance of making a few quid.
I picked a spot outside the Gypsy Moth pub and got stuck in. It worked, folkies were in town for the gig, and many had come early for a pint and a meal. Coins began to mount. My friend Emma came by heading to the gig and spotted me. “Do you want a sandwich?” she asked. I said that would be nice. She came back from the shop five minutes later with a cheese sandwich, a chicken and bacon sandwich, a giant Scotch egg, an iced bun, and some hand wipes.
“Thank you! That’s very generous.” I said
“It seemed a bit less patronising than putting money in your case. Let me buy you a pint.”
This was turning into a good night. I cheerily continued my evening busk with a pint of nice beer and the warm evening sun. A foreigner gave me five Euros. Coins piled up. Suddenly, Steve Knightley was back, striding towards me with clear purpose and an irked expression.
“You cheeky sod, it was at least a quid!” He tossed a pound coin in to make the point. “Anyway, do you want a ticket to the show?”
Meekly, I said that I did, and he told me he’d put one on the door when he went back. I thanked him and marvelled at my good luck and the powers of social media. At ten to eight, I packed up and headed in. Mr Knightley hadn’t been back yet so I blagged it.
“So I was just busking over there, and that nice Mr Knightley came over and offered me a free ticket for the show, but he’s not back yet. Er, can I come in?”
They looked me up and down, scruffy as I was, and covered in an even dusting of street grime. It felt like I was perpetrating some terrible scam, but after some consulting, they decided it was too unlikely a story to have been made up and they let me in.
I enjoyed the show, under the keel of the great ship. An unlikely but iconic space. They’re a consummate act, choosing and pacing material to perfectly fit the echoey, cathedralesque acoustic. And there’s a thrill to watching a show just a few feet under a ship, a novel space to find oneself, as we all placed our trust in the engineers that raised this hull up into the air. It had not been the day I had expected. It had been a better one.
I sat on the tube train eating my sandwiches, iced bun, and Scotch egg and thinking about it all. A day that at 5pm had seemed like a footnote had blossomed into a series of entertaining incidents and a free concert. London is never dull.
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!