Welwyn Garden City

Making my way through the handsome boulevard of gardens that underpin this experiment in town planning, I remembered reading that this was the place that inspired Milton Keynes. As claims go, this is perhaps on a par to being the band who inspired Coldplay.

The main run of gardens continues almost out of sight, the arterial road split either side of it, and thus diminished and subservient to the green space. Branching off to my left at the point where a grand fountain marks the junction, another run of gardens lead up to the combined shopping centre and railway station. This is the town centre, arrayed loosely around the greenery like a much loved and oversized woolly jumper. I sat on a bench and watched the world go by. A few benches along, a man enjoyed the simple pleasures of slowly releasing rizlas into the gentle wind and watching them float away, one by one. A small boy ran up to a litter bin, regarded it fiercely for a second or two, declared it was “A well laid trap!” and ran off.

This was Welwyn, then, peaceful, gentle, prosperous, uncanny and preposterously hard to place.

The gardens sang with hedge trimmers and leaf blowers. Teams of orange-vested men combed down the rows of plump hedges, overlapping clatters and hums as council issue trimmers rose and fell to the same pitch. There wasn’t much point busking with them at work, so I wandered, quite at peace in gentle sunshine. My notebook and fiddle case drew the attention of a man in a trilby, who announced himself as Justin. He was also writing a book about England, and had caught the train that morning out of London on a whim.  He affected a false serenity, sitting on a bench with a studious calm that merely underlined an inherent restlessness. His was a semi-fictional epic and already 1000 pages without end in sight. It was difficult to watch someone struggling so hard to convince themselves they were relaxed. I wondered to what extent I was looking in a mirror.

“I’m enjoying the journey” he told me, and I believed him. Even a park bench in a foreign town was too much like settling down. He moved on and I never saw him again.

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The garden workers gradually arrived at the end of the final hedge and piled up on the concrete square before the shopping centre as if falling off the end of a conveyor belt, seemingly unsure what to do next. In the new found silence, I went for a busk, picking an odd corner between two walking paths. Welwyn is spacious to the point of being sparse, and you end up playing into the great void if you’re not careful. I learned to face the shops for the acoustic rather than stand in front of them. It went well. School children found change, mothers stopped to introduce youngsters to music. A jogger extended his exertions to perform an astonishing lycra clad sword dance right in front of me, jogging clearly having already rendered him far past the point of self consciousness.

Out of town insurance salesmen worked the street in small gangs, one a father and son combo, using the young lad to draw the attention of polite old ladies. It always looks like a confidence trick to me, even when it isn’t. I’m immediately mistrustful of street sales, and worried about the demographic they seemed to be targeting.

I made a decent £25 in a little over an hour at the end of the day and looked forward to the morning.

At 10am, my chosen spot was already occupied. A good sign, as if the locals played there, that meant I’d judged well. A guitarist called Paul was at work, and he sang with a wonderfully melodious voice that filled the open space. I got a coffee and listened. He was making enough for his train fare and he’d be off. Maybe an hour? No pressure from me. The gardens ask you to amble about, from one semi-formal section to another. Residential roads branch off, with vast hedges square and fat from decades of careful maintenance.

New towns are misjudged places. It’s the newness we hate, when the work is that of a designer, unsmoothed yet by the folk process of a thousand home-owners with different aesthetics, budgets, and priorities. A new new town jars the senses, and induces the same feeling of helplessness and unease that many find in IKEA or as I discovered in the strange village of Portmerion in Wales, where beautiful though it may be, the collision of oddity and conformity left me feeling like I was wandering uninvited through the architect’s mind, afraid to touch for fear of triggering some sort of chain reaction.

A single new house in an old town is immediately part of a warming diversity. A new estate, or whole new town is a great disconcertion, until enough people have lived in it to give it the natural diversity that calmness craves. Here, the formal gardens and plantings have grown imperfect and crooked. Welwyn has bedded in now. No two bits are quite the same any more, and that’s as it should be. In perfect newness, you are the impediment, the unanticipated rogue element detracting from the design ideal. In the diversity of a mature town, your oddness is just one among many, and not so likely to result in questions being asked, curtains twitching, officers of the state just ‘checking’ if everything is quite ok.

The humanising effect of time and countless cumulative little individual choices and acts of God have weathered the planned rigidity of the place and I liked it and felt unjudged. The long boulevard of gardens that split and lesson the roads, rendering them subservient to the walker were bright with birdsong. Catnip and lavender tumbled and bounced with countless excited bees. Roses were tidy and alert, and quietly tucked away, a woman sat sobbing on a bench.

I thought about asking if she was ok, but she’d hidden herself away and whatever her problems, it seemed unlikely to me that a big ginger bloke suddenly rocking up was going to be the answer.

Back in town, a traffic warden was writing a ticket for a BMW parked outside Costa on a double yellow line. A woman came running out;

“I’m sorry, I’m pregnant and I was desperate for the loo. Please don’t give me a ticket!”

And much to my surprise, the traffic warden said;

“Ok, that’s fair enough. Have a lovely day.” And destroyed the ticket.

Everything was just so. Smartly dressed and well scrubbed school children walked past, oblivious to the world, unafraid of any danger, their noses buried in novels. Even a beggar chose to address me formally;

“Excuse me sir, I don’t suppose that there’s any possibility that you could perhaps consider seeing if you could spare…” before arriving at the usual “…any change?”

It was all immaculate. The gardens in full summer bloom, full of pollinating insects, bright flowers, perfect hedges. Each shop a going concern with a decent hum of people. A kind and respectful populace making a good life for each other.

How I longed for a yob, a dickhead, a lager drinking oaf with a foul mouth. A heavily tattooed man in a vest with a volatile dog on a string. How I wanted to round a corner and see a pile of discarded bin bags and broken bottles, and to hear a vulgar, weed smelling car drive by with the windows down and something loudly distasteful on the stereo. But instead, another perfect day slowly unfolded before me.

Welwyn was not a town likely to spawn a musical genre, it seemed to me. I couldn’t feel that sharp edge that demands art be made. I saw no sign of the counter-culture, the unfeedable need to stir and provoke. But people are people, so where was it? I walked down another immaculate residential street and found myself imagining a different Welwyn within those private detached walls, where ever such nice people with perfect lives, successful children, diverse and fruitful pension portfolios, would close the door on another gentle, ripened day, and descend to colossal, perverted sex dungeons to exorcise the demon of self imposed repression. Consenting adults suspended in awful contraptions, hovering at the edge of sexual ecstasy, not quite able to reach the crossword puzzle. This person coming towards me, look at him in his nice jacket, almost certainly a massive pervert.

There must be something, surely? Otherwise what’s it all about? Where’s the spark of human curiosity?

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But as ever in my own wild fantasies, I was missing the point. I have a friend who lives in Milton Keynes. A creative, expressive, artistic friend, who needs her home to be a haven, with birdsong, walks in the trees and peace, so that re-charged, she can get out there and be her vibrant self.

Welwyn is like being on retreat. A mere half hour from London on the fast train, it’s a place of safety where folks can recharge their batteries in peace for another slog at it tomorrow. Where the elderly can retire in comfort and without worry. Where children can grow up safely, well educated, better able to chose where and when to push their boundaries as young adults away at university. The art will come, but perhaps elsewhere, and perhaps more survivably.

I had another busk, lasting nearly three hours till a very late lunch was enforced on me by fat summery drops of rain falling weightily from a humid sky. In that time I made £50 and saw plenty more of life. An old couple stopped by me for a chat. He was blind, having been a concert violinist and forced to give up due to no longer being able to read the page.

“But now I go to a folk group, and we improvise without the music. I’m learning again but I’m back in love with it.”

Were they happy in Welwyn?

“It’s a good place. London is just half an hour. We’re happy here.”

I wished them the best and decided not to ask if they had a sex dungeon.

I paid in my coins at the bank. The young black man behind the counter asked me about my music, and I asked him about life in Welwyn.

“It’s quiet here.” he said, thoughtfully, smiling to think of it.

“Good quiet?”

“Yeah.”

I made my way back to my car. Outside a very expensive townhouse, a young man carrying a picnic hamper and immediately followed by his girlfriend headed towards a top level Jaguar sports car they were surely far too young to be able to afford. Remarkably, both of them somehow managed to look exactly like Jarvis Cocker.

On the edge of the town centre, an old grain factory was completing a transformation into an art and information hub. I left this dreamlike perfection of English good taste in the uncanny valley and headed to my evening commitment. I’d been asked to give an after dinner speech for a business-person’s supper club at Missenden abbey, something of a new departure for me. But that’s a story for another day.


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 tom@tomkitching.co.uk or through the button in the archive – link here.

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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!

Runcorn

I busked on what’s left of the old high street in Runcorn. A man striding by stopped, looked at me frowningly, then looked down at his watch like I was a large and unwelcome wood carving that had emerged from a Swiss clock and refused to go back inside. Three doors down, a ginger and white cat was watching me too. A small boy tried to pick it up, but it slipped through his fingers like liquid. The boy then aimed a kick up its arse, but sensing this, the cat turned and faced him, daring him to kick it in the face. The boy gently lowered his foot and ran off.

Men in high vis jackets began appearing, a few at first, then more until there was a constant stream, coming from the right and departing back again with pasties and bakes. They peaked around midday, food time for people who start early. This is the post-packed-lunch era now.

A bald, smiling man emerged from the furniture shop next door.

“Are you intending to play there all day?” It was a polite question, without edge.

“Well perhaps another half hour before I get some lunch.”

“Ah lovely. I know we all have a living to make.”

“Aye.” There was a moment of silence, as we both took a moment to appreciate the sunshine and the pleasant day.

“It’s just, perhaps after lunch, you could make yours over there.”

And he gestured to the other side of the road. Well fair enough. I did my half hour and had my sandwich.

Runcorn town centre is a shadow of its former self. The main street up to the canal basin is filled with substantial brick and stone built buildings, each with a chunky stone plaque hinting at a grand history. “The Mersey Power Co. Ltd.” or “Camden Buildings – 1810” and now home to a smattering of more modest tenants. Chinese takeaways, gas fitting shops, pizza. There are gaps, and the shrinkage of Runcorn’s centre has left it spacious and slightly incoherent. By the canal basin, the fine old Waterloo Hotel, now without the passing trade has instead become a Buddhist Temple. Down the slope towards the Mersey, rows of brick built terraces have been pulled aside to make way for the feet of the bridges.

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The expressway, the first continuous road link between Widnes and Runcorn, via the Silver Jubilee bridge, cuts through and over the town, carriageway far above, its blocky concrete feet cleanly splitting apart rows of terraces. It’s closed now, for the foreseeable, now the new bridge is open further inland, and there’s a strange sort of silence about the area. An area that grew used to having no sound of its own above the roar of the traffic and hasn’t yet found a new voice to fill the void. An abandoned teddy bear lay face down by a scruffy brick wall, amid the cigarette ends and dust. My ears focused on the few sounds there were. Drips from the closed road above me, and the cooing of the occasional pigeon, the ones who hadn’t died in the netting that ran across the underside of the road. Presumably there to discourage pigeons, it had instead trapped and collected a great many carcases which were now in various stages of decay. Eventually, I suppose, a point must come where each has rotted down enough that it can fall through the net to the ground in a shower of desiccated lumps.

Out over the river on the bridge itself, even the workmen seemed subdued and at peace. Occasionally, the sound of a single percussion tool rang out, as if one workman had offended the gods and been doomed to the Sisyphean task of renewing this great structure alone and for all time.

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Runcorn is a series of funnels to transport that is not there. The ferry long gone, same the transporter bridge, and the Silver Jubilee bridge closed until further notice. Roads lead to open water and closed bridges. The silence elevated the sounds that were present. The singing of metal as an electric train crossed from Widnes, the clunk of track joints you might have heard at one time replaced by the sparking howl of the continuous welded rail, the song of metal under tension.

I looked over the commemorative railings by the ship canal, causing a cormorant to honk and panic. Even going for a quiet walk here seemed like a thoughtless breach of the peace. Runcorn is once again adapting to another shifting in the course of its economic river.

Back in town I stuck my head in a charity shop. On a shelf were three ‘Big Mouth Billy Bass’ plaques in a row, the electronic singing fish that was briefly popular 20 years ago. Three was definitely much more fun than one, but I hadn’t made enough to justify that kind of purchase, and I’d tried to learn my lessons after the rubber duck episode in Brighton. I wondered if they would ever sell them. It seemed optimistic. 15 years ago, I’d have started all three off and run out of the shop quick, but age has reduced my bravado.

I couldn’t find a spot on the other side of the road, and the butcher made it clear he’d rather I didn’t start up near his shop, in the way that only a smiling and terribly polite man in a bloodied pinny holding a large cleaver can do, so I thought it better to explore Runcorn a little more instead. Designated as a new town in the 60s, Runcorn had suddenly doubled in size. The town hall was up the hill and I went to have a look. It looked like a New England colonial governor’s mansion. Round the back was a modern bit covered in ‘No Entry’ signs and a stiff, ceremonial garden.

Even further into the hinterlands is Runcorn Shopping city. The traveler emerges exhausted from the jungle, having hacked their way through dense trees and creepers for weeks, or having followed their satnav off the ring road and down into one of the car parks. Set in a natural bowl in the ground, fully enclosed and surrounded by mature trees, the shopping city has all the feel of a lost fortress in the jungle, perhaps in decline, shabby, but still very much alive and populated. Buses come in and depart on raised roadways, two stories above the ground. They might as well be drawbridges. From inside one of the bus termini, I could see how the natives might mount a successful defence of their city against invaders from Warrington or other vaguely rumoured foreign entities, only to later succumb to a terrible disease to which they had no resistance.

In this concrete tree-top world, the 1970s had not ended, but had instead been allowed to develop and bloom until it reached its natural pinnacle. This was the ultimate shopping centre, the purest expression of the form I have ever seen.

The shops are all on the first floor, above the car parks and delivery bays. You rise up an unmarked escalator to a lobby which has a sign of pure poetry.

This Entrance May Be

Closed Earlier Than

Normal

On Occasions Depending

Upon Circumstances

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The shops are arrayed in a large H formation, with busways at each corner, and elevated walkways leading to other parts of the new town, the police station, the courts, (Now closed) and the council offices. I think we can, after 5 decades, judge the new town of Runcorn to be a success. Old men met and talked, sitting at oversize lawn furniture in the central plaza, the ‘Community Square’. Some shops have been here so long they appear dynastic. Cafes and independents that have seen much come and go, and are rocks of stability to their customers.

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I felt like I had when walking down the main street at Teotihuacan in Mexico, where an archaeological site was alive with people and pop-up shops. We get so bound up in the history that sometimes we miss the contemporary relevance of a place.

Our perception of place is so often linked to a contrived cultural sense of value rather than its actual utility, corporeal or spiritual. If a building is large, spacious and beautiful, we describe it as ‘Cathedralesque’. The Cathedral is our reference point, our number one. But why? Is it the perceived spirituality of the place implying a higher value? Cathedrals today are simplified places, reduced to an uneasy duality of worship and tourism. They are no longer naturally the heart of a community at a human level. This shopping centre could claim a far broader remit of human utility, and was every bit as remarkable a construction, forged as it was in the light of a new day dawning in our history where the aspiration of giving the common person a decent life was the motor that drove the concrete revolution.

Could one find spirituality in Wilkos? Maybe not in the truest sense, but the pursuit of money, and the best means to spend it are as coherent a doctrine for today’s society as the church’s message has been in the past. Here in the heart of the concrete temple, Wilko had a board outside the shop with this month’s suggested gardening activities, from veg, to lawn, to flowers. In the main square, staircases led to offices where security watched us and judged our actions. Those with the fob of admission the priests of our time. At 4.45pm, these high priests travel to the inner sanctum to turn off the WIFI so that the youths go home, their connection to god severed.

The one real problem with all this for me is that I couldn’t busk. The whole property is privately owned, and I have far fewer rights here than on a public street. I am bound by their code of conduct, to behave, keep quiet, and buy stuff. And I must leave at closing time. Of course I could just not come, but as more and more of places we might wish to visit are on land owned like this, that becomes a harder thing to do. I have no right of way here, no right to busk, no right to just hang around if they don’t want me here. Here those rights are left at the door of the temple like shoes. They’re still yours, but you can’t use them just now. The high street is a communal place, and the best of us understand that we should share it. The shopping centre is a monolithic space where we are subjugated by the act of our arrival. We are tolerated here, so long as we conform. The secular society took back rights from religion and handed them to citizens. One by one, we hand them back in return for a free parking space.

I left this concrete cathedral and drove across Runcorn to Weston Point, the residual docklands, where smaller, lesser ships heading up the Manchester ship canal unload their TEUs onto anonymous lorries that fan out across the North West. The Dockside pub was faded, the pub sign reduced by age and budgetary priority to an illegible oblong suspended above the pavement. Thankfully the dereliction and subsequent removal of neighbouring buildings had allowed them to paint ‘DOCKSIDE PUB’ in block letters down the openside wall. I lost my nerve and didn’t go in. I should have done.

Halton doesn’t really make sense. It’s a unitary authority of two towns that feel really very different from one another, and the shifting fortunes of the bridges have currently left rather remote. The new bridge is a masterpiece, confidently spanning the Mersey where it broadens out, not needing to find a pinch point. But it links the broader region together, not the towns. The M56 and M62 are flanked by massive logistics depots where the requirements of the North of England are meted and doled in countless equal HGVs. The new bridge serves them, those trails of diesel-powered worker ants that run from nest to nest and feed and furnish every home. Widnes and Runcorn seem somewhat secondary considerations, having lost their bridge, for now at least. A marriage of convenience living in unconnected wings of an over-large house, perhaps staring occasionally at one another from the distant ends of a preposterously long dining table.

But these are good places to live. There are jobs, friendly people, good shops, and if the culture seems a little lacking, Liverpool and Manchester are just down the road.


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 tom@tomkitching.co.uk or through the button in the archive – link here.

Blog archive

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!

 

Widnes

I walked in to Widnes town centre, passing a skip which contained a fully decorated Christmas tree standing neatly to attention in the middle. A couple of doors down the road, a man was holding an animated phone conversation. He wore no top, in defiance of the cold, rainy morning. In one hand he held what one might term as his conversation phone. Another phone was sitting on top of a low wall loudly playing music through little tinny speakers. His remaining hand held a cigarette, with which he was conducting an imaginary orchestra as he spoke. I lingered beside the festive skip for a moment to enjoy this alternative prom.

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The Widnes accent contains a strong twang of Scouse about it, although the average resident would certainly not consider themselves a Scouser at all, and be quite upset at the suggestion. There really are so many accents here on the M56/M62 corridor, where worlds collide. Scouse, Lancashire, Cheshire, Mancunian, and travel just a few miles over the border and you’re into Welsh speaking territory.  There’s nowhere else in the country where so many profoundly different accents persist in such a geographically confined area. Perhaps it’s because this area was basically empty till just a couple of hundred years ago, a void of just a few little villages in the great medieval emptiness between Macclesfield and Lancaster. Damp marshland, not much use for anything. Until cotton and coal anyway, when the dampness was suddenly perfect for keeping the fragile threads together as they were spun, with the coal of South Lancashire to drive the machines and warm the houses of the countless workers who were drawn here.

From Scotland they came, North Wales, Ireland, and beyond, to tend the machines, empty the ships, and hew the fuel, and their accents colliding together like strangely lumpen asteroids forming in an early solar system, in towns that once founded became immediately insular, too poverty ridden to travel, inwardly focussed. Enough work to survive, no money to move further. The Wigan and England rugby league captain, Sean O’Loughlin, a Wiganer, has to be subtitled when interviewed in Australia because his accent is too impenetrable.

Widnes has a different story though, one of chemicals. Growing on the banks of the already successful Sankey canal, an early attempt to bypass the worst lethal vagaries of the Mersey, and within striking distance by water of Cheshire’s vast salt extractions, it became the natural hub of the chemical industry.

I had a busk. There was one main shopping street with a couple of arcades running off it. Most of the shops were open, and finding the right spot wasn’t easy. Across from me, several cafes had decanted furniture onto the street, and coffee drinkers gave the town a relaxed, homely feel.

A man went past with a very large loudspeaker strapped to his back. He had long, untidy hair and a significant beard, and was lithe and stringy. In one hand he held a can of ‘Relentless’ and in the other he controlled a flawless sleek black-haired lurcher on a lead. His loudspeaker was playing R&B at top volume, and he leant forward in his stride to balance the weight. He was a one man carnival float, and we all stopped our day to watch him as he passed through, apparently oblivious. It is the modern thing to play your favourite music in the street, and today’s devices are much lighter and more accessible than the ghetto blasters of my youth, but a full blown PA marked a new escalation.

I searched for some lunch. A group of older lads stopped me.

“Heard you playing back there. Good stuff.”

It turned out one of them played some traditional music himself and we knew a few of the same people. We chatted about Widnes for a bit. None of them seemed especially proud of it, despite being born and bred. Some towns, local people will defend to the last breath, others, the harshest critics come from within. I wondered what caused the difference.

“What advice do you have for someone coming to Widnes?” I asked them.

“Avoid the women, they’re ugly.” one replied immediately, to laughter.

I didn’t laugh, and their laughter dissolved. They stared at their shoes for a second, before looking at one another.

“Mind you.” He continued thoughtfully. “We’re nothing special ourselves.”

“Tell you what,” said another, as the group rediscovered their confidence, “You need to go and see Eddie Perve and play him a tune. You’ll find him in the Derby pub. He’s fat, bald and has no sense of humour.”

“Yeah, he’d like that.” Said another

Was it a set up? I replied that I’d consider it.

I bought a sandwich and a pie and ate them outside a solicitors that specialised in defending dangerous dog cases. Having no further reason not to, I went to the Derby, just a few doors down from where I’d been busking. It was a large, cavernous, and well attended town pub. I looked through the windows for characters who matched the description I’d been given for Eddie Perve. There were a number of candidates. I imagined myself walking in, considered how I might discover which one was the real Eddie, but none of the approaches seemed a good idea. Maybe it was for the best. I went back to my playing. Rain had emptied the streets somewhat, but the acoustic was good and nobody seemed to mind. They never do in working class towns. There’s less of a sense of personal entitlement over the street.

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Widnes is a town whose story can be told in bridges. These days, its administered as a unitary authority alongside Runcorn, the town on the South flank of the Mersey. Just 2 miles apart as the crow flies, the towns began life as foreign entities, quite unconnected from one another. The railway bridge provided the first link, along with a ferry that was later split into two legs by the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal, forcing passengers to disembark and scale a wall half way across the water. This ferry was then replaced with the Transporter bridge, the largest ever attempted in Europe. The two towns were linked for good by the Silver Jubilee Bridge that finally allowed the continuous flow of traffic when it opened in 1961. Slowly, two towns that had nothing to do with one another were linked together until in 1998 they became the twin centres of Halton, a unitary authority. It’s a strange sort of marriage. A Lancashire town and a Cheshire town with very different histories co-existing across a great estuary.

Down at West Bank in Widnes, you can admire the bridges past and present. Past the chemical museum, ‘Catalyst’, and the re-wilded Spike Island where the chemical industry first seeded, you end up beneath the massive feet of the railway and road bridges, and perhaps on the foundation of the now demolished transporter bridge. These surviving bridges feed in high above on ramps that lead up from the distant town centre, leaving West Bank a strange peninsular where once it had been a destination and transit point. A careworn Greenalls pub, the Mersey, sits forgotten at the end of the road, discharging occasional old men for medicinal cigarettes, waiting for ships, ferries, transporter cars that don’t come any more. In the silence of the place and the moment you’re momentarily able to believe it’s 1959 again, when this pub marked the centre of the hourglass, though which every grain must pass.

I returned the next day to Widnes to carry on my efforts. The main street had a few other actors treading the boards today. One group were a bunch of rough lads aggressively handing out anti-bullying wristbands. Another group were gathered under an awning in the main street, wearing camouflage patterns and metal helmets.

“When was the last time you went paintballing?” They called at me cheerily as I went past. I couldn’t think of a quick answer so I scuttled on. I busked again, outside a chip shop that was still dormant at this early hour. It was a quiet morning, the wet weather dampening off the street and suppressing the characters. A kind man brought me a coffee from across the road, two sugars already stirred in, and then enthusiastically applauded each tune I played. I studied the street, wishing I had the wit of H.M.Bateman to so neatly tease the types out. I decided on 3 new types of non-giver to the busker’s collection to add to my earlier list.

1) The pocket panic-patter: The act of busking is to gently solicit money from those who pass by. For this person, there is no chance of that, but your unwelcome presence causes them to develop a pained look and to suddenly begin patting their body to ensure their wallet is still there,  as if the mere act of playing a tune is enough in itself to dislodge the contents and draw them through the air into your case. “That was a close one, it nearly got out.” they think, as they march away with forced haste, one controlling hand on the fickle money.

2) The false count out: As they walk towards you, they begin counting coins into their hand until they arrive at the amount you would be worth if you were any good. They then make eye contact, frown, and pop the coins back in their pocket as they stride past.

3) The near-miss asteroid: As NASA would undoubtedly tell us, these roaming objects present you with a double challenge. Firstly, you need to spot them, no easy task in the vastness of space, as they hurtle randomly and without reference to the predictable orbits of our familiar neighbours. Even if you spot one, how the heck to you stop it? Some people just have a direct path charted down the road, and the projecting neck of a fiddle isn’t going to cause them to deviate. All that remains to be done is to take avoiding action. Aloof, their trajectory is fixed, and is not negotiable. A busker cannot close their eyes for fear of an extinction event.

But it was overall a good morning, people were friendly, and I’d made £40 by lunchtime.

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Outside the indoor market, the butchers shop had a loudspeaker broadcasting an entertaining monologue about the day’s special offers, so I sat by it for a while, until sausages came round again and it became clear that it was a pre-recorded loop. The meats went round and round until they became familiar and comforting. Sold, I went inside for a pie before heading off to meet an old friend of mine, Kim.

Kim is Widnes through and through. Her ambition is to write a novel for Mills and Boon, a genre of which she has many hundreds of examples at home. We discussed the finer points of this style of writing as we walked round Spike Island, a huge area of post industrial greenness between the Mersey and the first mile of the Sankey canal.  Eventually, the conversation moved on to Widnes, and life in a chemical town.

“I didn’t realise till recently that it wasn’t normal to have chemical drills at school.”

“How did they work?”

“The alarm went off every Friday, and you all had to run inside the building, and shut all the doors and windows. Pretty much the opposite of a fire drill.”

Upon adolescence, one might turn to drinking, whereupon the pint of choice was the ‘Fat Frog’, a Smirnoff Ice mixed with an orange Reef, and topped off with lager, enjoyed at ‘Top of the Town’, a now closed night club whose floors kept a tight hold of a loosely tied shoe. Widnes had calmed down a lot since then. There wasn’t much going on for younger people now.

Kim wanted to show me more of the wider district, and so we drove out to Fiddler’s Ferry, now perhaps better known for the power station, dominating the landscape, reaching the end of its days, coal giving way to other forms of electricity. We drove right by the base of the cooling towers I remember seeing jut out from the Mersey plain like little piscine teeth, when as a youngster I’d push my bike from Macclesfield all the way to the top of Cheshire ridge to freewheel right back to town. They were the limit of my world then, the last marker on the horizon before the world bent and belonged to someone else. Cheshire was my county even then, although I’d never been yet to the other side of it. It’s an accident of history that the transport links are North/South and I had no reason to ever visit Chester or the West of the County. But I knew it was mine, right up to the rising land of Wales and the cooling towers.

At Fiddler’s Ferry, as the name might imply, the Mersey is at its narrowest, and rows of funny little boats are kept up on another small isolated section of the Sankey canal. Without a theme, they’re like a packet of breakfast cereal where there’s one of every flake ever manufactured. The countryside rolls off towards the ridge at Frodsham, lush, alluvial, charming.

“Why does everyone talk Widnes down?” I asked. Nobody had a good word to say about the place. Ask any Widnes resident what they thought about the town, and most would tell you it was crap. But it wasn’t. Perhaps not the most exciting town I’ve ever been to, but the town centre is thriving, the shops are decent, and there’s enough work for everyone to get a job who wants one. Widnes is doing alright.

“Perhaps it’s the smell.” said Kim. “The chemical industry stinks when the wind blows the wrong way.”

“Nothing like as much as it used to.”

“I think we’re just a town with low self esteem. In the 80s we had the best rugby team in the world. We had Martin Offiah and Jonathon Davies. People were proud of it. The industry has slowly declined and the rugby team too. There’s nothing to really be proud of anymore. People have retired on good pensions but nothing new happens.”

“But there’s plenty of jobs, it seems ok?”

“We’ve got employment but does that make it a good town? There’s no culture. The Brindley is the arts centre but that’s in Runcorn.”

It was funny to think of Widnes, the chemical town, becoming Widnes the retirement centre. Eastbourne-upon-Mersey. I couldn’t quite imagine the deckchairs down the riverside just yet.

Perhaps part of the problem is that being a unitary authority, there’s one of everything for efficiency, and half of them are in Runcorn which is suddenly a pretty hard place to get to, now that the Jubilee bridge is shut.

On the outskirts of Widnes, there’s a sign pointing left to ‘Household Waste and Trampoline Park’, and then the route to the newest crossing, the Mersey Gateway bridge.

Widnes (1)

We passed a beauty shop billboard that offered the surprising juxtaposition of ‘Sun Beds and Nails’. It was the end of another day. Widnes had been interesting, but I felt I wouldn’t really understand the area fully without visiting Runcorn, the other half of this arranged marriage.

To be continued..


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 tom@tomkitching.co.uk or through the button in the archive – link here.

Blog archive

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!

Big update!

Book news, tour news, album news, and a special one-off concert.

The next week should be a big one for #BuskEngland. It’s starting to morph into a new phase. I’ve got a meeting on Wednesday with a publisher who has offered me terms on a publishing contract for the book, which is tremendously exciting.

The book and album are scheduled to be released in May. I’ve begun booking tour dates for May and June 2020 with 8 venues so far confirmed, and will try to get to as many of the places I’ve visited as I can. Please contact me if you’d like to put on a show in your area. The show is very flexible, and I’m game for most ideas!

I’m also going to be making a small podcast series to promote the tour, mixing readings from the book with music from the album. For the readings, I’ve booked the Guide Bridge Theatre in Ashton for Friday 27th September 2019 so that they can be recorded with a live audience. I’ve found from the test shows I’ve done so far that people really respond well to readings from the blog, and I believe that working with a live audience brings out the best in me. I’ve been asked by a few people if there could be an audio book version. That’s probably beyond me at this stage, but hopefully the podcast will go some way towards fulfilling this request.

This really will be a special one-off show, and I’d very much appreciate your support for it. You can book tickets here.

Tickets are £10 standard, or £3 if you’re skint. No questions asked. I really want a full room! The money will go to producing the podcast and paying the engineers, with any surplus going towards funding the album. If you’re coming, let me know if you have any favourites you’d like me to perform.

As for the album, I’ll be working again with the incredible Norwegian mandola player, Marit Fält, this time as a duo, creating a series of soundscapes to support the book. There’ll be a lot more on this part of the project later.

I’m also considering a kickstarter, primarily so I can pay the rent whilst I write the manuscript and record the album this autumn. I’m not funded by anyone other than you, the reader, and the generous people who put coins in my case. Other than the obvious things like pre-orders, if you can think of anything you’d like to see included in the kickstarter campaign, let me know.

Finally, there are a couple of chances to see me perform some of this material during the summer.

2nd August near Ashby in Leicestershire

19th August at ‘Pebbles’ in Watchet

As well as the theatre show mentioned above on September 27th.

I’m also doing a couple of private shows, including one as an after dinner speaker for a supper club! This project really has opened up a few new doors. I like dinner.

Although I’m moving more into producing the final product, still have a number of trips left to make. I’ve been to Widnes and Runcorn, and will be posting a blog on that trip very soon. I’ve got plans to busk in Welwyn Garden City and Watchet in next few weeks, and intend to visit Hull, the Potteries, Leicester, and a couple of other places before I finish. It’s not too late to tempt me towards adding another place to that list!

Finally, a big thank you to everyone who has helped make this happen so far. There have been so many people who have offered somewhere to stay, a meal, good local advice, or chipped into the cost of doing it. The sense of being supported by so many people all over the country, many of whom I hardly know, has been invaluable, and has really encouraged me to believe it’s something well worth doing. Thank you.

EF7E2BB2-01AE-41BF-98B6-3887D69ED85D


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 tom@tomkitching.co.uk or through the button in the archive – link here.

Blog archive

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!

 

Brighton

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.

Brighton (2)

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! 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.

Brighton (5)

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?”

“Sorry, no.”

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.

Brighton (3)

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.

Brighton (1)

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.

Brighton (4)

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 tom@tomkitching.co.uk or through the button in the archive – link here.

Blog archive

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!

Prog Rockers of Nottingham

This probably isn’t really a Busk England post, but I wanted to write it anyway. I hope you enjoy it. Back to normal soon!

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It is something of a family trait to be nostalgic for things we didn’t actually experience the first time round. My father will fondly tell me that he remembers “the trolley buses turning round here” as we pass through some epic Northern town in the car. Later I’ll discover they finished the trolley bus service in 1947, a full decade before he was born. His father was the same, a wonderful man who seemed to me to happily inhabit an England that hadn’t existed for a long time. Perhaps I had no choice but to turn out the same. I was an unconventional rebel as a teenager. Where others would discover their own new and vibrant culture, I made it my business to know more about my Dad’s favourite music than he did, arrogantly correcting him across the dinner table with trivial points about exactly what year Jethro Tull first played at the Carnegie Hall, or the precise order the guitarists suffered breakdowns and left Fleetwood Mac. It must have been exasperating for him, and I’m sure he wished I’d got into trance music and cheap cider like a normal teenager. I even grew a pony tail.

Whilst I may have missed this musical era the first time round, the splendid thing about modern medicine is that most of these aging rockers are still going, in some shape or form, perhaps with a limited number of original members, but mostly with an infectious joyfulness that suggests they can’t quite believe it either. Bands that had their heyday over 50 years ago are still there to be found, and I’ve seen a lot of them. Even Edgar Broughton is still going.

So I found myself in Nottingham to see Gong at the Rescue Rooms, a band who formed out of the sticky residue of Canterbury Scene legends Soft Machine and a lot of drugs somewhere between 1967 and 1970. A band who famously were liked too much by too few people, abandoned several times on financial grounds, and then restarted on pure sentiment, like a murderer helplessly drawn back to their crime scene. I’d dressed for the occasion in an electric lilac smoking jacket, silk shirt of many flowers, giant top hat painted with a pastoral scene, and carrying an 8ft stuffed squid. I’d adopted a similar get up a few years ago for the Magic Band, Captain Beefheart’s legendary backing group. My Dad saw them at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1972 with the Captain himself, and the footage I’ve seen of their concerts of this era always show an extraordinary procession of nutters attending with flowing robes, implausible head gear and perhaps accompanied by their favourite standard lamp. I was therefore a little disappointed to find the rest of the audience for the Magic Band dressed like gig goers everywhere. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been. Hippies grew up, married, got jobs, had kids, concert gear became children’s dressing up kit, and then years later they found the wardrobe barren when they were finally free to indulge in a night’s nostalgia. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the audience doesn’t cut quite such a dramatic series of figures these days.

The Magic Band had been great. Led by the singular character of Drumbo, aka John French, who’d for years performed the near impossible task of converting the Captain’s incomprehensible ramblings into something approaching performable music, they were probably tighter than the original band had ever been, now that they no longer needed to deal with the intractably difficult personality of their former leader. He’d retired to the desert to paint in 1982 and died of multiple sclerosis in 2010 without ever performing again. Drumbo had clearly seen it all in his long and extraordinary life, and signed my squid without so much as blinking. Should I ever consider myself to have led a life worth documenting in autobiography, it shall be called ‘Drumbo Signed My Squid’.

The Gong audience were slightly more off the wall. Floral bell bottoms and psychedelic shirts abounded. Even in the pub before the gig, we could all identify one another, kindred spirits who’d never quite put down the torch even as the advance of life had smoothed our edges. A healthy mix of ages too. I’d seen Black Sabbath on their final tour, and enjoyed witnessing how nostalgia renders nearly everything family friendly. This was a band who created moral panic back in the day. Branded as Satanists, despised and boycotted, bound surely to cause the fabric of society to collapse. Their exact same material was now transformed by context into a rousing family sing-along. Grandparents brought grandchildren and sat together, maybe three generations all singing with broad wholesome grins on their faces;

“Satan’s sitting there, he’s smiling
Watches those flames get higher and higher
Oh no, no, please God help me”

It can only be divine or equivalent intervention that has kept Ozzy on the stage all these years, a walking one-man anti-pharmacy. Shambling, incoherent, he hasn’t changed at all, but context renders him a figure of gentle fun. After 50 years of the Prince of Darkness, society hasn’t collapsed, and we’re all rather fond of him.

Gong don’t have any of the original members now. Daevid Allen, the brains behind it, passed away a few years ago, and the band carry it forward in his name. Which rather raises the question, how long can these bands go? If the principle becomes accepted that members can come and go, so long as the entity remains alive, then why not for generations? For me, that’s fine, so long as they are both writing new material and true to their roots. If it’s just the old classics, then really you’ve got a tribute act. To truly be the band, there has to be fresh creative output. Perhaps also this way my faint hopes of getting a gig in Fairport Convention might still be realised.

Gong pass this test with flying colours. They’re touring their new album, ‘The Universe Also Collapses’, a confident work that both fits the rich history of the band, and introduces a harder rock edge than I’ve heard from them before.

Following a superb support slot by Ed Wynne of the Ozric Tentacles, a legendary band in their own right, Gong took to the stage, playing a set I can only really describe as like being in the cab with a singing whale as it steered a juggernaut full of flowers into a supernova. They played for two psychedelic hours, managing maybe as many as 7 songs in that time. Audience members grabbed my squid’s tentacles and waved them slowly around in the air, delighting the band.

My highlight of the gig was the security man at the front, there to deal with the non-existent trouble makers. I’m sure you can picture him, muscular in a tight short-sleeved black shirt, aggressively trimmed hair, curly wire emerging from the back of his head connecting him to the other security guards in the hive mind. He projected a mixture of thorough misery and deep confusion. As waves of psych-prog-jazz crashed over him, he was trapped and hyper alert, like a caged fox. Unable to leave his post, he attempted to play with his phone, but numerous pot head pixies emerged from the screen at him and there was no respite. Even when the band stuck in a bite-size three minute number, it was in 13/8 and his obvious terror merely grew. He scanned around for trouble, hoping for a reckless crowd surfer or a fight, but there was nothing on the horizon, only the worrying possibility of a mass outbreak of peace and free love. Eventually it was too much and he cracked, abandoning his post, feigning a crisis elsewhere, and we were left unsupervised to enjoy the music.

It’s been one of the great themes of my life so far, the chance to enjoy the music of the generation that went before me as well as that of my contemporaries. I’ve seen Jethro Tull, Page and Plant, Warren Zevon, Jefferson Starship, Roxy Music and many others. Sometimes they’re still sensational, sometimes they’re a bit past it but still clearly having a great time. That’s ok too, we can have a good night together, and I feel that by buying a ticket I’m finally giving them back something for the music I’ve inherited and never paid for until now.

The only one I’ve really regretted was seeing Peter Green. He was just such an empty shell. There he was, playing the notes, but the vital spark had gone. His masterpieces were written under the weight of mental health problems that crushed him, and from which he has never truly emerged. I wish I’d just given him £20 and gone home without seeing what he had become. He’s welcome to my money, for everything he’s given me, but it’s clear his music won’t be something we can share together in person any more.

Gong brought their set to a close;

“I love you all!” exclaimed Kavus, the lead singer, before visibly being struck by a confusing thought. “But I love everything.”

We dispersed into the night, happy and free, heading home to put our clothes in storage for the next time and revert to whatever it was we are during the day.


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 tom@tomkitching.co.uk or through the button in the archive – link here.

Blog archive

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!

London, part 3

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 tom@tomkitching.co.uk or through the button in the archive – link here.

Blog archive

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!

Bradford

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.

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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?”

“Travis. You?”

“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.

“Lessons?”

“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 don’t”

“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 who?”

“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.

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“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.

Bradford (3)

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.

Bradford (2)

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 tom@tomkitching.co.uk or through the button in the archive – link here.

Blog archive

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!

Aylesbury

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.

Aylesbury (6)

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.

Aylesbury (5)

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.

https://tkitching.livejournal.com/2014/11/23/

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.

Aylesbury (4)

“Y’know, I was never really into Bowie.”

“Me neither.”

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.

Aylesbury (2)

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.

Aylesbury (3)

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.

Aylesbury (1)

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 tom@tomkitching.co.uk or through the button in the archive – link here.

Blog archive

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!

A return to Easington Colliery

A couple of months ago, I posted the a blog about my trip through the Durham countryside, visiting several of the Category D villages, before heading to Easington Colliery. It was my most read blog by some margin, achieving nearly twice as many readers as previous efforts. However, it began to attract criticism, specifically from residents of Easington Colliery itself.

Once one person found it, they quickly tagged a few more in, and I soon found myself on the end of a minor internet backlash. Well, fair enough. Writing about people and place is always going to be a contested area. I was initially surprised by the strength of feeling about it. After all, reading back, I hadn’t criticised anyone, or blamed the situation on the residents. But when I got into the detail of what had upset people, the majority of the criticism was along the lines that I had failed to present a full picture of Easington Colliery, focussing on what was superficially obviously troubled about the place, not getting to get to know the community and failing to report on the positives and the efforts to improve things, and most importantly, not giving the place enough of a voice of its own. The criticism was sharp, but not abusive. One lady, Heather Wood, made an offer to show me round and introduce me to people if I’d come back. With such strong feeling about the place and what I’d written, I felt I had to go back and take up the offer.

You can read the original piece here for context.

https://buskengland.wordpress.com/2019/01/03/category-d-villages/

I drove up the A1 early one morning, full of nerves. It’s a scary thing to drive across the country to meet a group of strangers who are cross with you, but I’ve tried never to shy away from things like this in life. If you’re upset people, you should front up about it. I was mainly worried that we wouldn’t get on, we wouldn’t agree, and that what I’d write about it wouldn’t make things any better. I wondered what I could do if this was the case, deciding that I’d be best explaining the difference and providing space for a full right of reply.

Afraid of being late, I set off first thing and actually arrived two and a half hours early, giving me time to explore Easington village, the older half of the settlement further up the hill. I parked by the entrance to a new housing estate being built, and wandered for a bit. What had historically been the main street for the village was down to the last few shops, the centre of activity having moved to Easington Colliery half a mile away when it had been built. A foundation block read “This stone was laid by” with the lower two lines of text obliterated by 150 years of dog pee.

Easington (4)

The church stands on the highest ground and overlooks the village. The stained glass windows are covered in rough Perspex sheets to protect them from stones. In the graveyard, an angel had lost its head, trumpet hanging by its side, redundant. Across the road is Seaton Holme rectory, now a municipal building, but once home to Bishops apparently including Nicholas Breakspear who went on to be England’s only pope, operating under the name of Adrian IV. A good story, although there appears to be no solid evidence of his presence here. Outside, a colliery tub had been turned into a decorative planter.

I drove through both halves of Easington and down to the park where the colliery itself had stood. On top of the now landscaped spoil tip, the colliery cage has been placed, as far from the car park across land as it once went down to let the miners out under the sea. Striking in the distance, hard to assign perspective, it cuts a melancholy shape up close up, where the starkness of the riveted sheets of steel is set off by a series of ribbons tied to it. From a distance, it is mysterious and powerful, all incongruous shape. Up close it is lost and confused, a singularly functional object shorn of purpose. “Why am I here?” It asks.

Easington (2)

My meeting was due. Heather had arranged for me to meet a local councillor, and a local business owner in the Welfare. I walked in, wondering how this would go. In the small office off the main reception, they were waiting for me, and found a fourth chair. It seemed that they were as nervous as me. They hadn’t expected me to accept the offer to visit again, and even when I said I would, were still unsure if I would actually show up. People like me don’t normally come back.

“One man came from the Guardian. Walked up and down the main street, went back to London and wrote this horrible piece. Wouldn’t reply to any messages! We have his picture on CCTV if he ever comes back.”

Yikes. But it wasn’t a threat. It was a passionate need to get a voice heard, a voice that they felt was routinely ignored in any appraisal of their village. It was the basic mistake I’d made.

I got out my notepad and starting writing down what they were telling me. The business owner was called Ellin and was particularly direct to explain what had upset her.

“What made me so angry was the lack of meeting people.”

Over the course of an hour I was firmly given the stories I’d missed, the undercurrents, the society. Being naturally genial people, periodically they’d forget they were supposed to be bollocking me and would revert to their natural state of good humoured chat and anecdotes. When the subject moved onto allotments, something County Durham is particularly notable for, the local councillor Steve Fergus recounted being given a bunch of prize carrots from his father’s allotment to take into school for the Harvest festival when he was 8. Being hungry, he’d nibbled the tips off, something that was spotted by the master. Upon being questioned, he’d immediately replied “It must’ve been hungry pit ponies”, an answer quick enough that he’d avoided punishment.

The atmosphere in the room had lifted a great deal. A man with a small an impossibly friendly dog dropped by for a natter and a tail-wag, and the already strong Durham accents became much stronger, almost to the point of impenetrability for me.

We talked about some of the things I’d written about in my first piece. Housing was a hot topic. The majority of the housing in the village was low quality miner’s terraces, some of it unoccupied, and much of it in a poor state of repair. In the view of the room, the dense streets should have all been demolished and replaced by more modern housing, incorporating more open spaces. Instead it had largely been sold to a small number of private absentee landlords. One of these landlords had then done a deal with Durham prison to provide accommodation for families of those imprisoned there, and housing for the recently released. This had placed a huge burden on the community.

Easington

“I’d say people with problems rather than problem people. Our difficulty is that we haven’t also been given the budget to help them integrate.” said Heather. Lots of issues to deal with and no resources.

“We’re being used a social experiment. I’ve even had the ministerial aide tell me to my face.” said Steve. ” The next village got housing co-operatives which weren’t much better, but we got total sell off of the housing to absentee landlords who make millions on contracts with the council. We get a huge influx of people straight out of jail from all over and no budget to support them. They don’t integrate and it leaves the community divided.”

Only one of the prison incomers had made any real effort to integrate into the community.

“That canoe man, who faked his death, John Darwin was it? He ended up here, and he was a character. Used to come down the welfare, great sense of humour!”

What about the school?

“Everyone always goes on about the school. It’s the first thing they see. ”

The old school had closed in 1998, and had stood abandoned ever since.

“Biggest pigeon nest in the North” said Steve

Subsequent efforts to demolish and regenerate the site had failed owing to it also passing into the hands of a property developer and being listed by Historic England, twin inertias that had left it rotting and derelict, a symbol of the village’s inability to force the regeneration it needed. It’s an eyesore and the first thing that visitors see, an immense frustration to the locals.

“So people who come here see that, they see the housing, and all we get is a bad press. But I know how hard people are working to sustain this place. The community raised £30,000 to save the church. The Methodists run ‘Cafe Together’ where you can get a £1 meal.”

“We didn’t lose the strike. We won. We’re still here. We met in the Welfare. We built it with our wages. They took the jobs away but we still have the welfare and the sports grounds.”

“It’s an informal network – who needs what, who can provide a skill when needed? We have benefits champions to help others, winter champions to keep the roads clear.”

“Mining’s not dead. Children are taught about it. We had that problem with Durham university?” A couple of years ago, a Durham student society attracted anger for having a Miner’s strike themed fancy dress event. “Now they’re making their own banner. It’s a big improvement on disengagement.”

The strike was still foremost in the collective minds of the village. It had been the central event in the modern history of Easington colliery, as with so many towns, perhaps even eclipsing the closure of the colliery.  It was where the community had bound tightest and burned brightest.

“We went on strike for jobs, not money or victory.” Said Steve

“After it ended, we didn’t think we were defeated. We asked ‘What’s our learnings?’ So we got elected. Onto councils and unions. We opposed the opencast. When the mine shut, 40% signed up for education the next day. I was kept on at quarter wage for a year when they mothballed the pit.”

I was invited by Ellin to see the business she’d set up beyond the edge of town. A camping venue called ‘The Barn’ which included some luxurious camping pods, a full campsite, and a wedding or events venue. It was the future, as they saw it. The countryside is beautiful in Durham, and over the ridge from the village, you’d not have known of the row of coal mines that once stretched down the coast towards Hartlepool. The beach has been cleared of colliery waste, and the colliery site was being transformed into a nature reserve. Ellin was a film maker who’d moved up here after falling in love with the area.

“It was all fully booked right through the summer.” She told me, pointing across the camp site.

The land sloped down to the sea, folding into the wooded burn. Heather told me that one evening last summer, the sun setting over the ridge had been so spectacular that the event in the barn had spontaneously stopped, with everyone just heading outside to enjoy the moment in peace. It was a lovely spot.

Perhaps the best insight of the day for me came towards the end, as we walked back up towards the farmhouse from the barn. Heather was telling me that every village had its own clear identity, and were constantly scrapping with each other, with clear dividing lines only visible to the locals. As soon as an outsider came, they’d instantly band together and present a united front.

“So they’re your fights to fight.”

“Yes”

And there in a nutshell was the problem with my first article.

Easington Colliery is in a tough place. In some regards the situation here was even worse than I’d first realised, but it’s theirs, they take ownership of it, all of it, and it needs to be their voice that tells the world about it. Me turning up and scribbling about it without that voice misses the point at the most basic level. Easington won’t be helped by outsiders making ill-informed decisions over their heads. It needs support, lots of it, but that support needs to be designed and coordinated by the residents. Good or bad, it’s their story and patronisingly I’d made it mine. I’d taken away the one thing they still had after others had taken away the work and the funding.

The community spirit was clearly key to taking the place forward. How could they pass that spirit onto the next generation, now there wasn’t the industry to bind them together?

“It’s hard, trying to help the youths and I worry about it.” Said Heather. Ellin continued; “But negative press really doesn’t help. I worry about them internalising the outside negative narrative.”

I shook hands with Ellin and Heather. It had been a draining day, probably for all of us. I’d learned a lot. Not least about the power that being a writer, albeit a self-proclaimed one brings. I’d thought of myself as some dude with a fiddle writing a few words in a harmless sort of way. I hadn’t appreciated how significant those words can be, and how wounding and frustrating they can be. My underestimation of the power of my writing had meant I’d failed to consider the responsibility that comes with it.

I’d also failed to appreciate the powerful connection between people and place. If someone came and wrote something negative about my town, I doubt it would bother me much. My relationship with my town is entirely different. Maybe that’s because I left and moved to the city. Maybe it’s because I never had to stand and fight for it. Indeed, when I wrote the first piece, the response from people who’d grown up in County Durham and left was entirely different to those who’d stayed. I need to be much more attuned to how people feel about their place, instead of assuming they’d think like me.

The criticism I’d received was justified. I’ll try to do better. I think Heather deserves particular credit for being brave enough to invite me back. She didn’t have to do that, and it was a generous olive branch. I’m grateful for it, as well as for the time that Steve and Ellin gave me.

As for Easington Colliery. It’s one of the hardest up places I’ve ever been. Having lost its employment, it was left to rot by an uncaring system, ultimately being used as a social experiment by the powers that be. A test bed for a means of dumping crap housing off the public balance sheet, and a handy place to put large numbers of vulnerable people out of the way. Meanwhile, networks of residents, forged together through common industry and struggle are scrapping hard to hold their battered community together and give it a future. When the policy makers look at their experiment and say ‘Huh, it didn’t go too badly’ they’ll think it was because the policy sort of worked, not because a network of people fought like hell to stop it wrecking the place still further. Imagine if this energy and passion were harnessed to taking the community forward rather than last ditch fire-fighting?

Easington Colliery is not a hopeless case, but is in danger of being turned into one through outside abandonment. The Barn points the way for the sort of place it could become, but it will take a significant change in sentiment and political will to give it a decent chance. For myself, I see why the first article was such a problem. For that change to happen, there needs to be a much wider understanding of what goes on under the surface of such a place, and to ignore it as a writer re-enforces the narrative of hopelessness, making it more likely to come true.

“We were always that bit more rebellious here. An academic said we had the strongest women we’d ever met.” Heather reminisced at the end of the day.

I couldn’t argue with that. In a sense, I’m now glad that the first article received the criticism it did. It opened my eyes to a strength of connection between people and place that I hadn’t really understood before.


Normally at this point, I put a little advert for my paypal account and invite people to support what I’m doing with Busk England, but for this blog I’ll be sending any contributions received towards the Women’s Banner Group who are raising funds for a silk banner representing women past and present for the Miner’s Gala, as well as producing education packs for schools, and addressing the fact that no women are commemorated by blue plaques in the whole of County Durham.

You can read more about them here;

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