The Last Day Of The Holiday
This is an account of two days playing solo gigs for homeless people at temporary centres set up by Crisis UK. Temporary. As I sit here writing this in the comfort of my own home, the many hundreds that Crisis volunteers will have helped in London alone are resuming their lives on the streets of the capital city of the 6th largest economy in the world, and the global centre of finance. How shameful is that? So you don’t have to read this, but if you want to read at first hand how Crisis help people in need, and the variety of people they help, please read on. It’s long, but I don’t really give a shit.
For my small contribution, I played seven 45 minute gigs for Crisis this weekend. Crisis kindly invited all performers to promote their presence at the various centres on social media, but I didn’t really feel comfortable doing that. This isn’t about me or the other performers. It’s about a crisis of homelessness that has been allowed to grow under successive governments and accelerated by this and the last. It is wholly unacceptable.
Battersea to Belfast
After my long drive down from Manchester, I was led into the Food Hall via the shift office and set up my gear by the PA in a separate room. It was lunch time and most people were sat at tables eating and chatting away. The first thing that struck me was that it seemed to be hard to distinguish the volunteers from those who they were supporting. Crisis tries to find ways of giving people options that lead them away from their lives on the streets, and these festive events are one way they achieve that.
After a couple of songs I struck up The Drovers’ Trail and it seemed to grab the attention. One guy started shouting through from the dining room “it’s like Jethro Tull…” and then more bizarrely “…and Marianne Faithful!”. Various shouts of “do you do any Led Zeppelin?” and “do you do Metallica?” later, they finally realised they were just going to have to tolerate me, and the diners came into the gig area to sit and listen and sleep.
There was a contingent of young Polish guys and two or three older men from Glasgow and Northern Ireland, a mix that graced my final performance on the same venue just 28 hours later. There had been so many shouts for different covers I thought I’d better play one, and so picked out Belfast Child (Simple Minds) which went down really well. After the gig one of the Glaswegians came over proudly showing me all his Irish badges because he was actually Belfast born and bred, and thanked me for playing the song. Music is a communicator.
A number of people were curious about my cittern. Nobody had seen or heard one before, so I was able to explain what little I know about the instrument, and it added an extra dimension to some of the later performances. But I didn’t do Metallica. The nearest I got was hammering out a few lines of Wild Thing towards the end of the set.
The Bright Lights of Bermondsey
A bigger, brighter, modern City Academy greeted me after I’d struggled for a street parking space, eventually landing in a “Permit Holder’s Only” space just a few minutes’ walk away. Here there was a properly set up stage with an appreciative audience of about 50 people, with others drifting in and out of the atrium where I played. It was very hot in there, but the gig seemed to go well and the sound guy was excellent. Again the cittern drew curiosity, and I returned to my un-ticketed car (unless they got me via CCTV!).
I arrived in the hall to find a karaoke session delivering its final couple of songs, with this smiley big guy belting out Frank Sinatra numbers in front of a packed early evening crowd. I was starting to feel jaded after my long day, but soon plugged in and started to play. Everything seemed to be going okay until about the fourth number when this diminutive woman walked straight in front of me and told me loudly “Stop it, it’s fucking rubbish!” I told her she wouldn’t have to wait too long before I was off elsewhere, but she continued to stamp and shout for the rest of the gig while volunteers tried to create a diversion, but not before she had somehow appeared behind me in the stage area to thump me between the shoulder blades mid-song!
The only other incursion was when a guy with dreads walked up between songs. I thought he was a volunteer but it transpired not. He asked me to put some more volume into my voice because he wanted to hear my lyrics. I think it might have been the PA because my voice was already straining. He seemed to be listening intently for the remainder of the gig though, which generally went down okay. It was the only venue in the two days which had a slightly unsettling edge but it was then explained to me that it was the penultimate day for the Crisis centre, so people were starting to get a bit down for the last day of their holiday. Well, wouldn’t you?
Live in Leytonstone
The final gig of my marathon day was at a temporary women’s residential centre in Leyton. They had texted me earlier to check I was still intending to perform. For some reason, they had struggled initially to find performers but I never discovered the reason why. I arrived and was able to park on the street, legally this time. This was a secure building with electric gates and an intercom, and I was escorted to and from the stage area.
A combination of that ‘end of day’ feeling plus the ‘holiday’ drawing to a close meant that this final gig was a little subdued, and it felt like it was more to benefit the volunteers than the rest of the women but that was still a privilege. I left there feeling it had been a decent gig with feet tapping to a number of songs, Belfast Child again being picked out as a song they liked, and the cittern drawing attention.
Peace and Quiet in Palmers Green
I eventually arrived at my mate Steve’s place in Palmers Green at about 10:30pm. I was utterly exhausted, losing vision in my right eye and developed severe cramp in my fingers. Back to first world problems for a 60 year old man I guess. Steve hadn’t had a great day so we sat and talked into the early hours. The overriding impact of the day was that much of the time I found it hard to tell the difference between homeless people and volunteers. Some comply with the archetypal image but many have just hit hard times, and for a variety of reasons. When you look around society you see there are those who have everything in life yet lack the dignity that many of these people showed, and I went into a deep 6 hour sleep with that thought.
I was allowed to park in the college principal’s space for this one. No big deal because he/she would be enjoying their Christmas elsewhere while Crisis took over their building. There is an astonishing level or organisation that goes into just one of these centres, and my two days took me to six different locations. So first of all, I am full of admiration for the great work Crisis are doing, and secondly, I join them in hoping that one day their centres will become redundant.
After a two hour drive through Saturday traffic and one diversion due to an accident, I set up again. The holidaymakers had just had their lunch and a number felt sleepy, while others played table tennis or joined in art classes at the back of the room. I started up to shouts of “Can you do a song by The Specials?” and eventually that group of four young-ish guys left the hall, followed by others. While my music may have driven people out, it was explained to me that there is a lot of drifting around because people are trying to get the most out of their short period of respite.
I have always felt that if just one person appreciates or shows interest in my music I feel it’s been worth it, and as I was packing my gear for another gig at a different venue in Bermondsey, a Latvian guy called Janis came over to ask about the cittern, and we had a long conversation about music that led us through the Jethro Tull thing, and into how he grew up with underground music back home at the same time I enjoyed limitless progressive rock and later punk. We talked about illegal radio plays recorded onto x-ray films and a whole range of ingenious methods that he and his friends used to access the music of that time. Then I realised that actually Janis wanted to continue the conversation way beyond my departure for Bermondsey, and it took several goodbye handshakes before I was finally able to make my escape.
Crisis say that a smile, a friendly face, or expressing an interest in the lives of people like Janis outside their homelessness can make a difference. Just like the guy I met in Manchester who inspired my song Wine & Whisky, Janis had bright eyes and an intellect that should not have led him to where he was. He was about the same age as me, 60, and we were able to connect because of our common interest in the music of our youth. There is always a way you can find to connect. You just have to take the time.
Back to Bermondsey
I chose to do the Crisis gigs in the first place because I keeping finding myself feeling intensely angry at the level of rough sleeping, couch surfing, and temporary accommodation that so many of our politicians seem to be prepared to live with. I regularly walk around the city centre of Manchester, and it is impossible not to notice the increasing numbers of doorway sleepers, yet people ignore their fellow human beings. The Tory Party are driving the current agenda, but Her Majesty’s Opposition is not entirely free from guilt because the level of homelessness in this country was also unacceptable before 2010. Initiatives driven by organisations like Crisis, Shelter, and others are given some government funding, but government numbers fail to impress unless there is a clear demonstration that they are also seriously tackling the underlying reasons why people find themselves living on the streets. Making my small contribution for these two days gave me a focus, and helped me to learn more.
One of the things that I find most unacceptable is that many of us DO walk on by, avoiding eye contact with people whose desperation we cannot begin to understand. We don’t care enough. We need to try more. Not enough people are showing the kind of anger on this one subject that might force politicians to significantly improve the level of support they provide, and to make genuine moves to eradicate homelessness. I am not naive. I do understand that eradicating homelessness completely is unlikely to happen, but I cannot accept a situation where in just eight years, the number of people of all ages forced to sleep rough on our country’s streets has increased from 1,768 to 4,751.
This second Bermondsey venue felt really good. It was a full hall (with obligatory table tennis) and an appreciative audience of up to 100. I arrived to find the previous act just finishing off. This guy was singing to a backing track, had the best smile I’ve seen in years, and a voice to die for. Don’t you just love following people like that?!! We had a chat during changeover and it transpired that for several years until 2015 he was living on the streets himself. Now he lives in a warehouse and runs several businesses. I could have talked to him for hours, but he had to move on to his next gig. He absolutely oozed positive attitude. There are many others like him who have not been able to take their opportunities, and that is why Crisis is there to show the way.
This was the nicest of the seven gigs, and being the sixth I was starting to flag again but they say a good audience can carry you through, and it did. I loved every minute, and again had the cittern conversation with a couple of guys at the end, one of whom told me he sold specialist cigarette lighters in places like Chelsea and Putney by way of earning his living. A Portuguese guy joined in the cittern conversation which led so far into the history of string instruments (Guitarras de Portugal) that I was in danger of being late for my final slot back at Battersea.
They Call it Battersea for a Reason!
Being occasionally utterly thick, I hadn’t noticed until I was on approach that my final Battersea gig was at the same location as the first. So this was “Battersea – The Return”, or maybe “Batters he”? Read on. I arrived in the gig area to find a bunch of Polish and Glaswegians having a boisterous rave to music one of the volunteers had on her phone. There was jumping (low false ceiling), somersaulting, and shoving and occasional breakdancing to the ensuing cacophony, and one of the ravers knocked over the mic stand I’d just set up in his (possibly substance fuelled) exuberance.
I decided to switch my set around and play more lively numbers in the early half, even though these guys were supposed to be going for their evening meal. I have never seen anyone dance to The Drovers’ Trail before! It carried on into The Cart when two of the Polish guys invited (or pulled) a couple of young women volunteers on to the dance floor, whereupon all hell broke loose. I played and watched while the (70 year old?) Glaswegian from Belfast who I’d encountered on my previous visit, tried to wrest one of the girls away from the boisterous Polish chappie. After a few handbags at ten paces threats from both sides, the Polish guy shoved the old man across the room and he landed on the floor bashing his head against a chair. He got up and continued the argument. Then others joined and it was hard to work out who was trying to calm the situation and who had become another protagonist. I finished the song and just played my cittern as the whole scene unfolded in front of me, tempers were calmed, and protagonists separated. Oddly, it was possibly the finest piece of instrumental cittern playing I’ve ever achieved. It was calming for me, so hopefully it was contributing to an improving atmosphere.
I slipped a few quieter songs in until bums were back on seats again, declined a Slovakian guy’s request to play tunes on my cittern, and had yet another conversation with someone else about citterns before finishing off with a few more songs, culminating in The Wood, and receiving warm applause from those who had come to listen. I left there bring not entirely sure who had been entertaining who. It transpired that the old Glaswegian from Belfast had not taken his medication and everything seemed calm by the time I left, with everyone shaking hands.