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Busking in Britain


Earnings to date: £90.83

Arriving by train in the small village of Harlington in Bedfordshire, I realised I’d seen the last of the golden weather. Sure, the last week in London may have been colder than the South Pacific but at least the sun was shining and it was dry, crisp and clear. Here, it was a different story. It was like pea soup: cold, damp and heavy. Choosing the next town to busk in took meticulous planning; i.e. throwing a dart at a map of the UK.

Harlington: where the fog hung low and old brick houses, hundreds of years old, looked good enough to eat, like they were made of candy and featured in Hansel and Gretel. Immaculate gardens and narrow, winding roads circled their way around the village.

Unfortunately, none of this physical beauty washed over the fact that I had to knock on doors and ask for rejections. Nerves were always present at the start of the day and today was no different. The only way to get around it was to jump in the pool and not worry about how cold it was. In a way it was exciting; I wonder what people I will meet on the doorstep today? In other ways, terrifying; will today be the day I run into trouble?
My mammoth day in London had definitely given me confidence, but as I said before, they were all Kiwis, they knew I bore gifts and knew I wasn’t a freak. To the people of Harlington, however, I was a weirdo in a duffel coat who may use that guitar as a weapon. Now, considering just two days ago I complained about lack of funds, today I had a new problem, albeit a rather luxurious one: being weighed down by 3000 coins but not having the freedom to spend them is a curse. Of course, I could actually do what I bloody well liked with them, but then there’d be no flight.

Today was also my birthday. I considered carrying my passport door to door and singing myself ‘Happy Birthday’. Maybe people would feel sorry for me? It’s easily one of the more bizarre birthdays I’ve ever experienced. I couldn’t help but wonder, whatever happened to simply sitting around a table with friends, eating lollies till you were sick, playing pass the parcel and sleeping for a week?

Here I was in an unknown village with a wet instrument, lost and cold, wondering how many exotic ways there were to be told to fuck off.
I can’t do this today.
I can’t walk up to these houses.
I can’t be a door-to-door busker.
Where are my presents?
I need Don Partridge. His advice would have to get me through:

Don’t drink before a gig.
Always keep a song on the boil.
Keep your body in good nick.

I’d been told where the vicar of the village lived. This made me feel more at ease, a man of the cloth wouldn’t tell me to bugger off, surely. Chickens and ducks waddled around on dead leaves outside the church. The old boy offered no response, just like the next six houses in the village. The next three at least opened the door but wanted nothing to do with me.

The next abode sported a brand new yellow convertible in the driveway. Great, I thought, at least they’ve got a sense of humour! I comforted myself by thinking they’d be bright, perky and good-natured, just like their car. I bet they also have loads of money, especially for buskers.

I knocked on the clear leadlight door and heard someone thump down the stairs. To be honest, this is when I shit myself. What sort of person is it going to be? Should I use my guitar as a weapon?

I saw a woman through the glass. I knew she was watching me. Does she not think I can see her? She sprinted to the next room. I waited a couple of minutes. How long should I wait? She’s obviously gone. She’s shit scared. She won’t be coming back. What could a man in a long black coat possibly offer her that she can’t find in a public park late on a Friday night?

I wouldn’t have answered either.

Dejected and hurt, I moped off like a lion that failed to catch the antelope. She’d be watching through the lounge curtains. She’d see me try nextdoor and the next door and the next door. Who is that strange man, she’d think. I’d just try to keep my chin up and hope my guitar strings didn’t burst due to the cold.

A man with teeth bigger than his dog’s answered the next door. Even though he seemed to have a friendly disposition, it was all just a cover; as was the owner’s.

‘Hi, how are you, sir?’ I asked.
‘If you’re anything to do with entertainment the answer’s no! I’m in the thick of something and can’t stop,’ he said.
‘You’d even say no to a door-to-door busker?’
I had a feeling I could twist his arm. Surely he couldn’t say no. After all, it was my birthday and I hadn’t made any money today. I tried patting the dog as a tactic.
‘Have you ever seen a door-to-door busker?’ I asked.
‘No, but I’m really in the thick of something and it’s not a good time. Anything entertainment, the answer’s no.’
I’m sure his dog was sniggering as he walked into the warm house with his master. In a world full of war and despair it made me wonder, what’s this man got against entertainment?

Maybe the woman hiding behind the curtains was still watching me. It wouldn’t surprise me. She’d be having a right old laugh at the fool with the guitar who couldn’t get anyone to listen. Better than a soap even, this is real life, right in front of your eyes. The next door would have pleased her as well if that was the case: ‘No, no, no, I don’t want a song.’
And the next one where a burly security guard peered through a gap in the door.
‘What?’ he grunted.
‘Hi, I’m from New Zealand and I’m a door-to-door busker. Would you like to hear a song?’
Slam! Lock. Rattle.

My fingers were now goddamn blue. I had been walking around Harlington, a quaint little village where you’d expect to find relaxed out-of-London folk, for over half an hour. I was cold, hungry and my guitar had gone out of tune for the eighth time today. Happy birthday to me.

Even the coins in my pocket couldn’t cheer me up. You’re only as good as your last performance and they were from yesterday’s. I wondered how far I could get for œ90. Maybe I could jump on one of those cargo ships that take three months to get anywhere? Or maybe I could fly to Spain? Busk, drink cervezas, hit the beach and nibble on tapas. One problem – no Espanol.

Oh, come on, surely all Poms weren’t this inhospitable. This was getting ridiculous. Here I was on my birthday, wandering around a strange town starting to lose my marbles.

An old man revived my faith in the human race at the next house. Dick handed me 50p and listened at the door. His sick wife lay in the lounge with a smile on her face. This gave me a huge boost. Thanks, Dick, you’re nearly 90 and you haven’t become so set in your ways that you won’t open the door to a desperate Kiwi. Respect, old boy. I hope I have half your courage when I’m that old. Who knows, I might still be here!

It may have only been 50p but often that’s all it takes when you’re desperate for human interaction. Dick had quite possibly saved me from a certain white coat and pink padded room. I was happy. Well, at least happier. In the grand scheme of things I was still up shit creek but I had earned my first coin in Harlington. Dick must have sent some good karma next-door as I hit it lucky once more.

An Essex girl with big teeth and curly hair asked me what I was up to. When I mumbled my way through my opening line, stopping only to shiver and teeth chatter her face lit up. She was speechless, then yelled, ‘Well, I’ll be. Kids, you’d better come and see this!’

I hoped they weren’t expecting the Elephant Man or the Hunchback of Harlington. I also hoped my limited repertoire wouldn’t disappoint them. I was just happy not to get a negative response. I didn’t even care that people didn’t give money; a smile and a gold watch would be fine. Just getting someone not slamming the door in your face does wonders for your confidence. Course, I wouldn’t object to a ham and cheese sandwich and a cuppa by the fire, but I thought that might be pushing it.

The kids enjoyed the song and laughed in all the right places. Hanging onto one of Mum’s legs and hiding behind the other was a sight I was getting used to.

‘How come you’re friendlier than the rest of the people around here? Everyone else slammed the door in my face.’

‘I’m not from round here. I’m from Essex, that’s why I’m so kind,’ she laughed. ‘You haven’t exactly timed it that well either. Santa comes past every night, collecting for charity.’

‘Bloody charities, eh? What about the poor door-to-door busker? What the hell does Santa do anyway? Does he dance? Does he sing? No, he just dresses up in a dodgy costume and harasses kids. Maybe I should say I’m collecting for charity?’

‘No, I don’t think so,’ she said, handing me a shiny £1 coin.
Look at that, a 200 per cent increase in a matter of minutes. How many businesses can boast that? I must say, though, I was now starting to get extremely cold. Purple fingers, cold toes and a constant dripping nose signified I would have to call it quits before I made a spectacle of myself. Collapsing in a village 12,000 miles from home wearing nothing but a second-hand duffel coat and hand-me-down long johns would not be a good look.

I spotted an old man tidying his garage. This was always a good sign; somehow yelling out to someone who’s already outside is a lot easier than standing at the door and interrupting their morning routine.

‘Go on then, I’ll meet you at the front door,’ he said after I’d told him what I was doing.

He must have been mid-seventies, his piercing blue eyes burned straight through me. He found a gold coin in his pocket and passed it to me.
‘Don’t you want a song?’ I asked.
‘Oh, go on then, but hurry up,’ he said, looking at his watch.

I wanted to say, ‘You’re old! Don’t worry about the garage. No disrespect, but the garage can wait. What have you got planned tomorrow afternoon and the one after that? Will it matter what day you clean the sodding garage? Talk to Dick over the road, with the sick wife and the open mind. You have a door-to-door busker, a fucking freezing one at that, at your beck and call! Have you ever seen a door-to-door busker? Make the most of him. Ask him to sing, dance or clean. Just don’t be in a hurry, old boy. The garage is going nowhere.’

‘Well, you gonna sing or what?’ he asked.
Was I just thinking that?
The guitar was now so far out of tune it resembled a pregnant seagull. The notes weren’t just flat, they were below sea level. My nose was a grade two rapid and my toes no longer felt they were part of my body. Ol’ Blue Eyes continued to look at his watch and fidget. He wasn’t enjoying the song at all; I could tell by the fact that halfway through the second verse (right about when the seagull was finally giving birth), he slowly closed the door, saying, ‘Lovely, all the best, boy.’

Poor bugger. That was quite possibly the worst rendition of any song I’d ever heard. I’m surprised farmers didn’t shoot me from afar, mistaking me for some stray marsupial stuck in a fence.
I’m just glad I got the money upfront.

You’re only as good as your last performance, and as my last performance was a bunch of arse I decided to duck into the local. The Carpenters Arms was warm, inviting and although not entirely pumping, i.e. just the barman and myself, it had a good feel to it. Eventually workers skived in to have a beer in their lunch break. It was Monday, 11 a.m. Half of them dragged mud through the floor on their work boots. Others proudly paraded holes in their socks your nana would get excited just looking at.

I ordered a Guinness and sat down, thanking my lucky stars I was still alive. The three workers at the bar said nothing, just sipped occasionally. There was no music to speak of, the only warblings coming from the live snooker being played on the TV next to a pre-nineteenth-century photo of Harlington. Unfortunately, in order to pay for the Guinness and the next one, I had to delve into busking funds; I hadn’t learnt my lesson.
The £93.33 had now become £88.33, but damn it was a good drop.

An old guy had found his way to the bar and while waiting for the snooker to start up again, enquired about my guitar. After the normal, edited version of this stupid escapade I was on, I also told him I would be anticipating some trouble from carol singers in the near future. After all, Christmas was only weeks away.

‘Carolers? Oh well, you’ll just have to beat them up. Most of them are only kids anyway.’
I liked this man. What a life, watching snooker in the pub at lunchtime.
I asked, ‘How come people don’t get pissed at the snooker like they do at the darts?’
‘I’m always pissed at the snooker,’ he said.

Just as the busy workers at the bar ordered another beer, a big float came past the window. This must have been what the lady from Essex was talking about. I could hear a Cliff Richard song screeching from the speakers on the roof. A grubby old man dressed as Santa waved from the top. He was throwing a bucket around, doing his best to attract attention to himself. Bugger off, Santa, this is my patch, you try doing it without the truck. And don’t think people will give money just because you’ve got a pillow shoved down your gut. We can all see past you, Santa. It’s all mirrors and smokescreens from here, fatso.

God, I hate buskers.

‘Never mind carol singers, boy. There’s your competition,’ my new snooker buddy said.
‘Tell me about it.’
I changed the subject back to the snooker. It wasn’t as stressful as watching a fraud collect money off innocent people. My mate didn’t seem to mind; he was hooked on the game.
‘You know, my mother watched snooker on a black and white TV for years,’ he said. ‘She finally got a colour TV but had no idea what the hell was going on.’
‘I reckon that’s why dogs don’t play snooker,’ the older man at the bar offered.
‘Well, they’re colourblind aren’t they?’
I could have sat with these guys all day.

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