We cocked an ear at the album of music that accompanies this two-part project of Macclesfield born fiddle player Tom Kitching as he busked his way around England. Read the review here. He’s also a writer! And when Greg Russell and Mike Harding are raving about the book…
I like diaries. Adrian Mole’s may be my favourite. Then there’s Samuel Pepys and the cricketing diaries of Jonathan Agnew (8 Days A Week) and Simon Hughes (A Lot Of Hard Yakka). Travel books also feature prominently on my shelves with Bill Bryson’s adventures, Joe Simpson’s mountain trials and Tim Moore doing his own Tour de France all read, learned, marked and inwardly digested.
The blogs from Tom Kitching’s journey first appeared as an online record as he wound his way around England. Cursing myself for not being on the ball at the time and having dipped into a couple, we simply had to kowtow to Messers Russell and Harding, blag a copy of the book and read the full thing. However, it’s worth pointing out that the book isn’t a simple regurgitation of the blog. If you want the section on the prog rock diversion with Gong, for example, you’ll have to get online.
It’s actually a weighty effort. He refers to reading and possibly aspiring to J.B.Priestley’s English Journey but with the busking. Three hundred pages but as he’s at pains to point out, it’s not just a book about busking. You can get the musical fix from Tom’s album(s). It’s more of an exercise in assessing the state of the nation in the cunning guise of a busker. He’s a well-read and knowledgeable individual – a graduate of Loughborough Uni no less – although it’s refreshing to read that his knowledge of the Coleridge’s classic Rime Of The Ancient Mariner comes from the Iron Maiden song rather than the poem.
There are musical references of course and a number of busking anecdotes and a prolonged period of musical endeavour must certainly sharpen the skills and also offer the occasional transcendental moments where the music takes hold. It might often be in a studio or concert but this time in shop doorways and High Street busking spots. There can’t be many who would refer to busking as a deep experience.
Then there’s plenty of irreverent and easy humour – you’re never more than a few minutes or a page or so from cracking a smile or even a belly laugh. My favourite has to be his experience in the public loos in Bradford that involve 20p spent on a view of what he describes as a scene created by “the Andrex puppy and a shit throwing monkey.” I’m easily pleased and toilet humour always wins in the end.
Avoiding most of the obvious big cities, we are taken through the likes of Smethwick, Bewick and Deal, encountering a wealth of characters and what might loosely be termed ‘things you overhear’ which would make for a book in itself; “Why the f***s he got twenty boxes of washing tablets?“
The journey provides Tom’s perceptive insight in recording a social snapshot of our times; encountering industrial closures, hope (or sometimes lack of it) for the young and a Churchillian determination to stand firm in the face of adversity. Some standing more resiliently than others. “A land of nostalgia” is a term he uses quite early on to describe England. One major finding seems to be that no matter where or when there’s a decent cup of coffee to be found most everywhere.
Inevitably his observations come from the snapshots and impressions of one person on a one or two day visit and are open to criticism. The Durham coalfield episode, first reported in his blog, received something of an impassioned response that a return to Easington Colliery is necessitated to help clarify understanding.
The conclusion is that really, there is no conclusion. When it comes to searching for what is England and what it means to be English, the variety and diversity of the highly individual stop-offs and encounters are what characterise our nation. Those final three pages are the most significant where his trip is rounded off with more questions (and ideas) than answers. It may be class division, it may be the kindness of strangers; it may even be a search for identity. Another year, another fifty places he confesses might bring him no closer. He’ll just have to don one of his Metal t shirts and get back on the road.
And although he pretty much managed to survive on his busking earnings – loading up the fiddle for a good scrape – as evidenced during the first week of being out and about, a word from Tom for his sponsors: “I’m enormously grateful to the EFDSS,” he says, ” for their support in creating the album through their award of an ‘Alan James Creative Bursary’, and to the Arts Council for their support via a lottery grant across the whole project.”
A big clap on the back too, to Leeds publishers Scratching Shed, (‘quality books with a Northern English flavour‘ – we love it!) who “specialise in travel writing with a Northern voice, and rugby league. A match made in heaven!”
Having listened to the CD and read the book, the third part of the Tom Kitching busking holy trinity can be found in the first of four podcasts here