Diary Of A Busker Day 118 Monday June 20th Winchester High Street (opposite WH Smiths, Time: 12:08-12:13pm, 12:33-3:50pm.)
On passing under the Westgate I can usually tell if there’s anyone playing at The Buttercross, especially any military ensemble, as there’ll be alot of the same colour (uniforms) in one small area. And so it is today – spots of red and glints of metal, revealing on closer inspection a very smartly (red) jacketed military brass band. There was one of these here the other day, embarrassing themselves with a “clever” arrangement of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Stick with the Marches, I say, just like this lot are doing – blasting it out. There are many people watching in an arc in front of them. I walk through and head down to the other end of the High Street – there’s no chance of playing/being heard on this half. However, just as the military are getting out of earshot, another sound is creeping in – Irish “fiddle-de-de” music, as Frank the accordion man calls it. I come to the source – three of them, two guys and a girl in their 20s, with uniform of black trousers, waistcoat, white shirt and black top hat. A guitar, violin (or fiddle – as this is “Oirish”) and one of those drum things that looks like a giant tambourine without the little cymbals on the side. This is one of Guy’s folk offshoots/ensembles. The problem is that they have all their instruments “amped” up, making it impossible for anyone else to play anywhere along this end of the street. And it’s not necessary here in the High Street which, being narrow with buildings on either side, has it’s own natural reverberation, especially here, where they are set up, just inside the alleyway. They’re not on a big stage at some enormous outdoor summer festival.
I walk down to the King Alfred statue, where I could just about play without being bothered too much by them but there’s no one here. I go back and sit a few yards behind the noisesome threesome on some stone steps and wait…till the guitar guy breaks a string. I go up, “Hello, when did you start and how long will you be?” They’re not from here (must be Portsmouth – that’s where Guy, their leader’s from), they’ve only been at it an hour, they’ll be here the whole day – as I suspected, as they’ve got a whole band “set up”, with PA and amplifiers, all the rest of it.
I walk back up the High Street and chat to two girls (ukelele and flute) who had just played The Beatles’ 1965 song Michelle. I feel sorry for them – I could barely hear them, even standing right in front, what with the military at one end and the pseudo-Irish trio down the other. Good luck, “goils”. Back up at The Buttercross the military have stopped playing. They’re still there, but they’ve put down their instruments and are talking amongst themselves. I take a chance and quickly set up and start playing and occasionally look to my left to see if any of them have picked up their instruments. They haven’t but some of them are looking my way and I’m sure are talking about me – some are definately looking at me. I reckon I might be up for Field Punishment Number 1*. But why bother with that when they can just blast me to smithereens, which is what they do as I’m halfway through the sedate Mr. Sandman. Sod this (for a game of soldiers), they’re an immovable object with distinctly bullyish traits. I leave my stuff, walk up to one of them (in a green uniform – there are a few standing near) who isn’t playing and ask when they’re leaving. He doesn’t know, he just follows them. I should really do what people do to me – start a conversation while I’m in the middle of a song, but I’m polite.
I walk back down the road, by which time another busker has appeared (with an unamplified guitar) near the two girls, trying to be heard and you can’t hear any of them. I have a brief chat with him and say he might as well set up at The Buttercross, whenever the army move out. He says he doesn’t care where he plays – he’s not a “turf warrior”. Well, I am and my “turf” is this town and I’m being stopped from playing. I carry on down (again) to The Guildhall, near the statue and the military band are here! They’re not playing so I go to one of the red jackets, “Hello, when are you leaving?” He doesn’t know, he says I should ask someone else standing just over there – the one in the gold collar – he’s the boss, he’ll know. No, YOU ask him, I say. He follows my order! Like a good soldier. He comes back, apparently they are due to march (what else) up the High Street and on to the Great Hall – where they keep that famous dinner table of King Alfred’s that looks like a huge dart board. OK, good, thanks. I head back up to the other end, set up and get started – but not before my regular, Anthony suddenly appears to bombard me with loads of questions about playing the guitar – when he plays the chords, does he just play the fretted notes, or all of them? All of them.
I finally get into the playing…a portly, somewhat Pickwickian (bald, waistcoat) man smoking a pipe gives me a pound. I see him around alot but he doesn’t usually give me anything. “I’m a pipe smoker, too. Mainly in the evenings, with a bottle of wine.” I say. “Are you really? I do in the mornings, with a cup of tea, and any other time I can possibly find.”
Later on I put some blatant opportunism into play – a teenage boy stands behind the bench across the way. His mother? sits on the bench. He is wearing a Led Zeppelin T-shirt. I’m wondering if this is the same person I saw recently – then I was sensitive and feared embarrassment should any opportunistic action be ignored. Today, after being frustrated by events I have no control over, I don’t give a damn. Anyway, I sacrificed my teenage years learning this rubbish, damned if I’m not going to get something out of it. So, in the space of no more than 10 seconds, I let rip 5 well known Led Zeppelin riffs in this order; Back Dog (“All riiight!” I hear from the bench), Whole Lotta Love, Heartbreaker, the first 8 notes of Stairway To Heaven and Rock And Roll. It pays off – he comes over and gives me a pound. “Oh, you don’t have to do that.” I say, most insincerely.
The lady who’s daughter’s wedding I’m to play at turns up, this time with said daughter. She wants to know what sort of things I’ll play, “Any Spanish guitar?” “Oh yes – not this thing I’m playing now (Black Mountain Rag), not unless you’re having a “Hillbilly” wedding.” “Do you know Blackbird – Beatles?” I prove I do indeed – by playing a few bits – and whilst doing so, decide to put this in my busking set, as a kind of interlude between the “proper” guitar arrangements. She (daughter) likes that. I play a few bits from some others – I don’t bother with The James Bond Theme. She seems happy I’m the right man for the job. Good, I’ll be there at 4 o’clock next Friday.
* Being tied to a gun wheel, usually arms outstretched, legs tied together – “crucifiction style” for a few hours everyday, from 3 to 21 days. Used by the British Army until the end of The First World War.