Coming down the street from somewhere out of sight was the sound of an electric guitar, so I followed it, like a child in a Bisto advert drawn by the scent of a freshly baked pie, carelessly left to air on a windowsill. There, tucked up under an awning was a young lady in mismatched woollen clothing, odd socks and no shoes, knocking out bluesy guitar solos to a loop pedal. She was focussed on the music, and I bought a coffee and sat in to enjoy it. It probably wasn’t the best busking spot, and challenging, moody blues guitar probably isn’t the most effective material, assuming money is actually the goal. But she was good, and something quite different. I gave her a couple of quid and she was delighted.
“Aw bless you.”
It turned out this was her first ever busk, and me her first ever contributor. She said she was called ‘Liv’ and I wished her the very best, wanting to give her encouragement and hoping my enthusiasm for her music wasn’t coming over as creepy. It was nice to hear someone genuinely expressing themselves without too much worry about what the audience thought. Most buskers have an act cynically honed to charm coins from pockets. I find it myself, half the time I’m thinking about what might go down well rather than just playing for my own amusement, and consequently the act becomes hyper-responsive to the street, shifting endlessly to imagined subtle changes in the prevailing mood. A few coins means the tune is a winner, rather than that the right couple of people just happened to be coming down the street. Liv belonged in a darkened music club where a silent audience could hang on to every note. Nobody else seemed to be paying much attention. Musical talent, it seems, is not really the key to busking.
I’d arrived in Brighton by driving down the seafront from Hove. My usual routine is to park about a mile outside the place in question and walk in, getting a feel for the place, but Brighton is heavily restricted for parking from miles outside the centre, so I had to make do with a multi-storey. Brighton is made up out of bits of town, all stuck together. Whenever you think you’ve finished with the city centre, you come round a corner and there’s another hub with a character all of its own. In the lanes I found a shop specialising in selling rubber ducks and bought one on impulse. Between the duck, the parking charge, coffee and Liv, I now needed £25 to get back to zero. I wandered again in search of a good spot.
I busked on the main street outside Ann Summers, by a sign that said ‘Sexy new lines added’, deciding to adopt this as my musical mission statement for the day. A man sat near me on a bench for a short while, appraising my music, before dropping me a pound coin.
“Thank you.” I said, as I always do.
“Well, you’re terrible, but it’s probably not your fault.”
A young couple took the bench, and proceeded to enjoy a punnet of strawberries in the semi-erotic manner of all young lovers with shareable food. They looked like good strawberries too, and I wondered if they might save me one. I attempted to improvise some music for lustful strawberries but the fiddle does not really have the right timbre for this task and I couldn’t win one for myself.
Brighton is home to the largest LGBT community in the UK, a tradition dating back at least 200 years. The pride parade is the largest in the country, but the most obvious thing to me was how wonderfully normal it all seemed. As a straight man, it’s hard to be sure, but my impression was that Brighton is well on the way to becoming a place where one’s sexuality matters a little less than elsewhere. Flamboyance saved for a good night out, rather than a constant and necessary protest against intolerance. Hands were held, and all sexualities seemed pleasingly mundane. I hope this is the truth of it.
The main characteristic of Brighton though is its sheer all round intensity. It’s dense and full of life. Every street has huge numbers of people on foot. The buildings are close together. It’s a much larger city condensed into a smaller one, colourful and compressed, as if a middle aged beer drinker had suddenly chosen to wear their teenage wardrobe for a party. Very much like London, your personal space is squeezed to a minimum but unlike the big city, everyone is chatty and relaxed.
A homeless man sat down the road from me produced a drum and joined in with my tunes. It was slightly frustrating, but I took the view that his case was harder than mine, and I handed him some of my coins when I packed down a little later. He offered me a joint in return, which I politely declined.
Down at the sea front, everyone was giving it a go. There were several buskers, including Liv who’d made a few more coins since I’d last seen her, a classical violinist soloing along to a backing track, and a caricaturist in the mandatory beret. Outside the Royal Pavilion, surely one of England’s strangest and most out of place buildings, an Ethiopian man was singing along to a giant shaky egg that danced from hand to hand with an infectious groove. His songs were all improvised out of lightly disguised metaphors for going to bed with the various women who passed him by. His voice was stunningly melodious, and he’d fill the gaps with the filthiest laugh I’ve ever heard. It was absolutely alarmingly compelling. He asked a couple of passing Asian ladies if they were Chinese, and being Korean, they were immensely offended by this, an offence he could not understand.
Eventually, running out of ladies to sing at, he fixed on me, still dancing his egg with unstoppable rhythm,
“Hey! Where are you from my man?”
“Manchester! Manchester! Wonderful! I love Scotland, so many fish. So many fish.”
And pleased to have such a fertile theme to work with, he sang me a song about Highland Manchester’s wonderful fish. This was definitely worth a few coins.
A few streets above this scene, another busker was working the street, a young lady playing her fiddle. She wasn’t really very good, knowing perhaps half a dozen tunes, whose tempo wavered and tuning was questionable. It was very much an approximation of the tradition we shared. She was nice looking and wore a pretty dress, not details I’d normally record were it not that her case was overflowing with coins. This really then was the truth of street performance, a superficial pursuit. I was cross for a bit, feeling cynical and self pitying. I’m a decent player, hardly the best fiddler out there, but I know I can play a bit, and there I’d been, playing my heart away for a few pounds an hour, and here was a young lady who couldn’t really play racking up heaps because she was better looking, better presented, and frankly, more female than me. I tried to pretend that I was cross for Liv instead, who’d dressed for herself, not an audience, and who was playing quality music that inspired her for just a few coins. But in truth it was jealousy and ugly entitlement on my part.
“Those should be my coins.” I thought to myself as numerous passing men lightened the load on their wallets, finding myself quite unable to enjoy someone else having a good day.
But such an attitude probably says more about me than anyone else. I already know street performance is largely superficial, and I play up to it in my own way, adopting the mantle of the scruffy anonymous drifter as I go round, not that it’s much of a step from who I normally am. I could dress up in a flamboyant way, play tunes people have actually heard before, and I’d certainly make more money. But it would spoil my constructed sense of self as I did it. Anonymity has served me well and I wouldn’t swap what I’ve learned as this character for some more coins. In truth I was just annoyed to see someone doing better than me on my own instrument, and once I realised this, I was embarrassed with myself. I’d have been fine if she’d played something else. If there was anything to feel peeved about, I decided, it should be the blokes who so readily hand a coin over to a pretty face regardless of the music. I wondered if I did that. I probably did, without realising it.
“Do you want the spot?” She asked, noticing my fiddle, a generous gesture further highlighting the delicate fragility of my grumpiness.
“No, it’s fine.” I replied.
Whatever else busking round England has been, the thinking time it affords you has been invaluable, allowing me to think my way round things that I’d either have responded to on an emotional level, or simply just taken for granted. Filling a place in the street for hours on end has the effect of slowly making you a dispassionate bystander, not just to what goes on around you but also to your own feelings.
After another 15 minutes, she judged herself to have made enough coins, and poured them all into a bag with a resounding crescendo. Maybe £50 for an hour’s work, a figure I have not even got half way to on my best days. I gave the same spot a go, and played with all my soul. £3 in half an hour. But as I reminded myself, for me, the busking has always been secondary to the story. I looked up as I played. Across the street on the first floor, the large window had a sign that read ‘Massage Training Centre’ and a lady was dancing and waving merrily at me from there. Having caught my eye, she gave me a big thumbs up and continued to dance on the spot. I imagined she must be in massage training, treading all up and down some poor bloke’s back to my music. He’d never be the same again. A passer by stopped me, asked about the music and took a card, interested in the project.
This is the point of what I do, really. On those rare moments when you catch someone’s interest through the quality of what you do, they really take note, get to know you, and perhaps follow your work from here on. The fiddler who’d had the spot before me would just have been a fleeting moment in someone’s day. A pretty face to brighten up some fellow’s afternoon. It might be a slow grind for me, but slowly I am building up a story and an audience as I go round. Her aims and act were completely removed from mine, and it was only an ugly sense of male entitlement that had made me so jealous. And how else is one to learn other than by doing? Good luck to her. It’s hardly her fault it works so well for her.
In truth, my main impediment to making any money in Brighton was that it was festival time and there were street performers everywhere. A piano here, two guitars there, fire jugglers over there, street artists of all sorts. I had no way of standing out. A homeless man stopped me as I walked along in thought.
“‘Scuse me mate, do you have any change?”
And it was true. I imagined myself at the Pearly gates being interrogated by Saint Peter.
“Why didn’t you give the beggar some change?”
“Because I bought a small rubber duck for £7.99, sir.”
And Saint Peter would reply;
“You idiot.” before pulling the lever that opened the hatch beneath my feet, and not giving me a second thought.
A snapped skateboard was piled in two halves outside Sports Direct. The day was coming to a close. I made my way back to my car. Another homeless man had created vibrant works of art with chalk on the floor around his drab pile of belongings. A far more worthy attempt at entertainment than my own had been today. I’d look for him tomorrow when I had some coins to spare.
I drove to my accommodation in Worthing, where a couple of musicians I’d met at a festival the previous summer and who were following my blog had offered to sort me out with bed and breakfast if I ever came their way. The coastline was busy, every inch of the shore put to some purpose, crazy golf, ship repairs, docks, a fort, dozens of old boats dragged up above the tideline and converted into quirky houses. This part of the South coast is amongst the most intense landscapes in England. Shoreham contains a fort built in 1857 to defend against Napoleon the Third. There’s a cafe next door called ‘Food for Fort’. Worthing appeared quiet and sleepy, but a quick wander through at night and a pint in a small pub isn’t enough to draw many conclusions. Perhaps another day. For now, it was back to Brighton in the morning.
Brighton Palace pier is the last pier standing now. Its near neighbour, the skeletal and collapsing West pier now looks much like that clichéd final sinking hand extending from cinematic quicksand. Brighton itself is bohemian and modern, a cultural world the remaining pier refuses to embrace. It was a saturated morning with thick sheets of rain blowing off the hungry sea, where engorged grey clouds grew fatly from an indistinguishable horizon and hurtled overhead. Abused loudspeakers full of water tried to play ‘It’s not Unusual’ at me as I walked down the boards with my head down against the weather. Each hut along the pier contained a single glum worker in a thick jacket bringing frying oil up to temperature or starting the candy floss machines. A gang of weather-beaten men replaced rotten slats in a taped off section.
Piers are pretty strange, when you think about it. “Let’s build an expensive to maintain, uninsurable, and precarious structure out to the middle of the sea that people can fall through and off and then cover it with terrible things.” They get battered by winter storms and catch fire in the summer. They are invariably packed with low quality refreshments and dismal amusements, the larger examples also boasting fun fairs. They haven’t really altered in my lifetime, when all around them the world has moved on immeasurably. Yet they survive and even thrive when the world that created them is long forgotten.
The gents smelled terrible, mixing all the usual nasal signs of hygienic overload with a striking note of rotten fish. The roller coaster at the far end of the pier played ‘Take a Chance on me’ by ABBA, but a sign said ‘Closed owing to adverse weather conditions’. The man who took the money sat wrapped in his hoodie with head in hands, a self-imposed stasis, programmed only to wake in the event of better weather.
Inside the dome was an amusement arcade, the same as every other amusement arcade, with cheap toy animals forever ungrabbed by cheating cranes, electric racehorses, and the ubiquitous penny machines with their endlessly sliding tiers of coins. I had a few 2ps from the day before, and chose to invest one in an Irish themed penny machine covered in Leprechauns. It was playing the same ten jarring bars of cod-Irish music disjointedly over and over. My lucky coin jammed in the mechanism before even making it to the pushers, bringing an entirely new level of disappointment to proceedings. I was one of the first in for the day, preceded only by the lady at the refreshments hatch, selling instant coffee, kit-kats, and tango. She stared out at her workplace blankly, already wishing the day done. The rain pelted the roof like white noise and the mechanical leprechauns endlessly sang their manic song.
Unwilling to lose many more coins to electric oblivion I returned to the walkways. The sea was heaving and slurping against the cast iron legs of the pier like so many molten zombies furiously trying to grab a hold of the soft human flesh walking above, where humans shouldn’t be.
I loved this pier. I loved that there was nothing new or original about it. Nothing you haven’t seen at a hundred other seaside towns. You’d go to it and perhaps tell relatives; “We went to the pier” but nothing more, because no further description would be needed. In a thousand years, tourists will arrive in space ships, park their hover-boards and go and waste a few coins on the penny machines before taking a ride round the haunted hotel and eating candy floss and cheap sausages. Piers exist, people still come to them in great numbers, so there are no market pressures to change a thing. It’s hard to imagine one put to a different use.
It is the mediocrity that I love, and I mean that in the best possible way. Life is mediocre for the most part. Nearly everything we do, every day is just run of the mill, and if you can’t love that you will struggle to be happy. There are exceptional moments in life, but they are rare and you can’t just wait for them to come along in order to be satisfied. It was much like me, I decided, this pier. I’m not the best fiddle player, but I’m good enough. It doesn’t make a lot of difference how good you are after a certain level. It’s whether you’re on time, friendly, and professional. There are many better players than me, but it’s not improving at the fiddle that would make the difference. Most people wouldn’t tell, any more than I could tell you which was the better gardener between two professional gardeners. Same with busking. Quite simply, can you put a smile on someone’s face? Pretensions to the exceptional aren’t really helpful and only serve to spoil your own experience, as I’d learnt yesterday. Better to be truthful to yourself and enjoy the ride.
This pier was honest. I could almost have written my description before I got onto it, but I loved every minute. It was comfortable and a safe space. In a world of confusing change, it’s good to know that my 2p will always be welcome on the Brighton Palace pier. Perhaps if it were exceptional it would fail. People don’t come to the pier to be challenged. They come for predictable comforts. Maybe we as artists need to remember this, and celebrate the vast suburbs of the human experience. Mediocrity walking amongst mediocrity, I was at home and happy.
I stood on the slats back near where the pier made landfall again, and watched through rain coated glasses as the waves furiously broke their foam on the shingle, like a giant horn of plenty tipped over by the boot of a careless Viking colossus and forever spilling its boozy contents towards Brighton, until a break in the weather threatened to spoil my reverie. Patches of blue sky began to assemble in the distance and head towards the coast. The rain lessened, and the other pier became apparent in the lifting gloom.
West pier closed in 1975, finally falling victim to arson and storm damage in the early years of this century. All that’s left now is the skeletal frame of a theatre half collapsed, surrounded by red navigation buoys marking the extent of the former pier like a chalk outline round a murder victim. It’s wholly out of character with the rest of Brighton, forlorn, peaceful, resigned and declining. Mute.
Where once a theatre entertained thousands, the final rotting strands of metal mark a spot that is collapsing into nature. Where theatres on the land once stood there will be something else, maybe a blue plaque. Here there will be nothing but sea. It’s not coming back. A ruined pier is a peculiar kind of melancholic. Unreachable. Beyond help.
I walked up and down the shore, trying to line up the best image I could of the wreckage so that I had a photo to refer people to when they asked me the question; “How do you see yourself in 15 years?” There was no info board on the land. The traveller is invited to stare at the carcass and draw their own conclusions.
On the land where the entrance would have been, one can go up rather than out. The i360 tower is an observation tower with an ascending pod. It’s the tallest building for miles around and carries paying tourists 530 feet above the ground, promising views of the area, on better days than this, anyway. It doesn’t have a toilet, and those caught short must go in an aluminium bucket behind a curtain. Buskers can’t afford such frivolities, preferring in my case to save their money for nice food and steam train rides. I was happy enough with the view at street level.
The rain had finally stopped and I rushed for a busk before all the other buskers came out from hibernation. My first hour went well but quickly dropped off as the hordes of performers filled the streets. I tried a second pitch on a pedestrianised street, but a clothes shop called ‘Mootoo’ suddenly produced a sweating man who furiously exclaimed that it was so loud he couldn’t speak to his customers. I looked inside. There were no customers. This upset him even more and he foamingly demanded I went away. “I rather liked it.” Said a passing lady. This was too much and he stormed back inside, screaming. Even his mannequins looked angry as I packed up.
It was no great loss. Busking just wasn’t going to work for me here. There were too many others at it, too much competition and I couldn’t stand out, not a middle aged man with a fiddle, who despite my efforts to smarten up overnight had not managed to advance his attire beyond ‘Geography teacher’ in the glamour and sophistication stakes. Best to wander again. I headed inland towards the railway station, down narrow streets filled with quirky shops. Beyond the end of all this was St Barts church, easily my favourite building in Brighton. A truly colossal church, built of red brick as if a celestial engine shed had been lowered down from above, it towers over the area just as the cotton mills tower over the little towns of Lancashire. It felt industrial, lurking on ragged streets away from the bustle of town.
I found a pint of Harvey’s Sussex mild in a back street boozer called ‘The Mitre’. It was my kind of pub. The carpets were ragged and ancient to the point of colourlessness. The upholstery bald and torn. There was horse racing on the telly and a friendly black dog grown fat and sociable on pork scratchings and crisps. The locals were professional drinkers, there for a decent afternoon session. The landlord regarded me with scepticism as I came in, clearly believing that I was a trendy who was most likely lost and would soon leave in bewilderment and for years after regale his friends with stories of how he took a wrong turn and somehow fell 40 years backwards in time. Customers slipped out for cigarettes, usually accompanied by the dog. This was old-fashioned Brighton, hiding in plain sight, just two streets away from the shops that sold crystals and fudge. My pint of mild was poured.
“That’ll be £3.”
I paid in coins, already knowing I’d have another.
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!