“We are too Rich”

In about 2008 I was busking with the Northumbrian Small Pipes when a man stopped to listen, he listened a lot longer than most people and I began to get suspicious. I cut the melody short to let him decide what to do, either he wanted to talk or he would move on, he came to talk. He was from the Czech Republic and his name was Mira, he was a musician also, and he loved traditional music, and he had never seen the Northumbrian small pipes before. We chatted for a long time, and later on I went round to his flat to have a tea and chat some more, we remained friends and we still keep in contact.

I told him that not many people had stopped to listen like he had done, people just walk by. He said “here in the UK, you are too rich; you do not appreciate what you have, in the Czech Republic this (busking) does not happen”. I know what he meant, as I have lived in many countries where busking does not take place.

Mira, was old enough to be brought up under the Soviet era in Czechoslovensko, they did not have buskers so seeing me was new for him, he liked the possibility that it could happen, and that people were allowed to do it. He saw it as a sign of the “West” of liberation and freedom.

But I think people of the UK do not appreciate what they have. I do not believe they know what they have got until they have lost it. I am not saying that all busking is good, but I am saying, not to see it on the streets is a sign of (British) cultural decay and lack of expression.

There are certain cities in the UK that do not allow street musicians, you need to do an audition or you need to apply for a permit; Carlisle is not one of those cities. Sometimes there is no place to play as there are so many people playing, not all of them are good, but a lot are, and over the years more girls are starting to busk, it is a good way to learn about performing.

In the summer of 2017 I nearly decided to stop busking, for several months I felt “invisible”. People just did not care about folk music, about what I was playing or showed any interest. Over the years, sometimes I have chatted with people more than I have played. There was always someone to talk too, or someone smiling at me, or saying “it sounds lovely” or a facial recognition that showed they liked the music, there was money in the box and I ended the day on a high. But for the past 2 years this has become virtually non-existent. I had finished playing each week and went home without any sort of “feedback” what so ever.

In my mind I have tied to find a reason why this was happening; perhaps it was my music? Perhaps people just could not relate to traditional music any more? Perhaps it was the political situation in the UK why people were down? Perhaps it was Brexit and the changes taking place within the UK were causing them to ingnore what was around them? Or was it the economic situation that made people depressed? Was it the War, bombings, terrorism… did it all have a factor in the mood of the people? The more I tried to find a solution the less I could understand it. I was in a “glass box” invisible and ignored, at the same time the verbal abuse by kids got more potent, the homelessness became more apparent, the atmosphere at Christmas 2016 was as depressive as nothing I had experienced, it was no longer pleasurable to play.

So in August 2017 when I decided to stop playing, I felt depressed; I mean I did not play anything, no pipes or concertina; I did not even practice or record. The mood on the streets had inflected me that I questioned why I was playing music at all, especially folk music. I felt it had no basis in modern society any more, so why do it.

There was 1 problem, I cannot stop playing! For me it is like stopping breathing. It does not happen. So I continued to go busking once a week or sometimes twice a week. I told myself I will just play for myself. I will forget the people, forget the money, and forget everything. I will just play as I like to do it, and I like the traditional melodies and I like to play these melodies and playing in front of people is the best feeling, and I did this week after week just for myself. At first the lack of attention was hard, even though I was playing for myself, but I kept doing it and after while I did not mind any more.

I think what Mira said is wrong, as we are fast becoming a cultural 3rd world, we are not (culturally) rich, we are a society that does not appreciate local live music unless it is packaged and controlled. If you think about how many people do we know who play a musical instrument for a living, there are not many? Music is all around us but it is not live, we are entertained by music but we are not “making music” ourselves and we are not sharing music together, and we not appreciating people who play it.

UK is fast becoming a musical mono-culture. It is getting less and less versatile, we are spoon fed. As long as we can download it or stream it, get it by paying for a ticket, or watching it on TV, it is fine; clinical and without mistakes. And this is where Mira was right, we have become “too rich”, we do not appreciate people enough to appreciate what they are trying to do musically. We ignore them. We walk by without listening. We do not talk and discus and communicate. Buskers are the current “wall paper” ignored and not thought of.

I guess it is the sign of the times; it is inevitable that busking will be a “past” culture. Only appreciated with the older generation and when they have gone it will be gone.

But recently I have began to notice a change, I have started to get recognition once again: a nod, a smile, a quick chat, a thumbs up etc. when someone puts some money in my concertina bag I say thank you, but instead of them walking on they replied, “No, thank YOU”. I have noticed foreigners appreciating the music more: Poles/Czechs, Indians/Pakistanis, Chinese, Africans, Spanish, Portuguese … are some of the people who have given some sort of “communication” of appreciation.

Perhaps because they have not see it on their streets in their countries, or perhaps they are seeing it for the first time also? Perhaps, like Mira, they see Britain as being “too rich”?

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The Battle of the Somme

When I got into town to busk on Saturday I noticed a lot of soldiers collecting money for “Remembrance Sunday/Poppy Day” this year it seems a bigger event than normal; more soldiers, more news items about the human sacrifice, more programmes about the Wars and especially World War 1… more reminders about war and death.

I made my way to my busking area passing homeless people on the streets; one was a young lad who was hugging his sleeping bag with a cup of coffee someone had given him. He was not asking for money he looked too tired.

The weather had gotten colder, the mild air being replaced by a stillness that had a cold edge to the climate. When I got to my place, where I normally busk there was a women packing up her clothes into bags, she was moving somewhere else. I wrapped up warm as I played my concertina, jumpers, hats, fingerless gloves.

With all the army lads and lasses around collecting for the Poppy fund I did not make much money that Saturday. I live off what I earn, it is my job… but it is not a very stable job, my ‘office’ is draughty, and my security is non-existent. I do not think the homeless person was making any money too, but I think the army made lots.

I played a tune called “The Lark in the Clear Air” it is a beautiful Irish melody I heard in the 80s, it is a song melody played on a mouth-organ and I heard it being played on a LP with the same title. I followed that melody with a Highland bagpipe melody called “The Battle of the Somme” a 9/8 melody which was written about the Battle of the Somme in WW1; the melody is a bit tricky on the concertina (especially in a cold wind), but I think that melody was a good one for a day like that Saturday; with the Poppy Day Remembrance Sunday approaching and the presence of the military and remembering what the wars were supposed to be for…

When I finished busking I packed my things away and I noticed my body temperature dropping very fast. I began to shiver and shake, my muscles tensed up and I could not control my teeth chattering. I was ok while I was busking, but when I stopped I began to lose feeling, my hands turned purple and I could not walk straight.

As I walked, trying to warm up I noticed the boy in his sleeping bag, fast asleep on the pavement, his feet nearly blocking the march of the people as they passed by him. I kept walking and shaking, not warming up at all. In town I noticed the army were still collecting money and having a good laugh with their friends. Also lads and lasses wearing t-shirts and tank-tops in temperatures quickly dropping as the winter’s sun had set, getting ready for a night out.

I went to the public toilets and put my purple hands under hot water for a few minutes, then went to have a cup of coffee and I tried to remember what the wars were about…