Book and CD Review | Scratching Shed Publications/Talking Cat Recordings | Review by Graham Smout
Well-known English folk fiddler, Tom Kitching of the band Pilgrims’ Way, has published his first book, Seasons of Change. It’s an engaging and well-written account of his Busking England project resulting from 18 months visiting English towns, cities and villages simply to busk and write an account of his experiences. As such it must be completely unique, in that it gives a comprehensive picture of modern English town and community life from a very unusual perspective.
Tom takes his fiddle, case and collecting hat to a random town or village, sets up in the high street or other suitable pitch and busks. The size of the place or its importance in our landscape, culture or economy is not relevant to its inclusion in the project, but the sheer diversity of the locations visited adds immensely to the appeal of the book. He starts the account in the far North in Berwick Upon Tweed, which can’t make up its mind if it is in England or Scotland and finishes up in Hull, visiting London, Brighton, Cirencester, Dudley, Runcorn, Cromer, Easington, Worksop, Whitehaven – an astonishing total over 40 towns and cities visited in the course of the project. His objective was to make enough money from busking to cover his travel, accommodation and sustenance costs for the duration of his stay. After each visit he quickly wrote down his experiences and published them on-line as a web-blog. Thus there is certain freshness in all his writing. The web blog attracted a lot of attention through social media from his many friends and connections in the folk world. Feedback from readers encouraged Tom to turn the blog into a proper book. With support from the Arts Council, The English Folk Dance and Song Society, (specifically the Alan James Creative Bursary Fund for the CD recording), Tom has been able to publish the book and the accompanying CD. The recording is a reference to some of tunes he played whilst busking and has been released at the same time as the book.
The book is a modern masterpiece of observational writing. In his role as a street busker Tom was in a unique position to stimulate random responses from the passers-by. Some are welcome, some not so much, but he makes enough money in contributions to get by, even if sometimes he has to compromise a little on comfort. His time in Cornwall being one such example, where he had no option but to sleep in his car overnight. He takes time to explore each town, noting the many unique, unusual, sometimes funny, sometimes downright weird, sad or disturbing sights events and inhabitants. Everywhere he visits is described with reference to the history and character of the area. The way he recounts his experiences is both interesting and entertaining and many will raise a smile. His comments are only judgemental in that whenever he perceives unfairness or injustice this is commented upon very clearly revealing his natural social conscience.
Tom interacts with the people he meets, from the ordinary man, woman, child or dog in the street, and also the homeless, the beggars, those who are down on their luck. He often finds it’s those who have the least that are most generous in making contributions to his busking fund. These contributions are not always monetary either and are an endless source of wonder to him, especially the occurrence of the occasional sausage roll in the collecting hat. Overall the majority of the people that he meets have redeeming features and many open up to him with tales of their life, which is perhaps one of the unexpected and most interesting of outcomes.
There are other well-known published accounts of life from an outsider’s point of view, but this book is so very up-to-date having been compiled just as the unfortunate Brexit saga unfolded , and only a short while before the current COVID-19 crisis. Tom has commented subsequently that he may have unknowingly documented a lost way of life in England. Some of it good, some of it truly inexcusable.
I urge you to buy the book & the CD direct from Tom’s website. I can almost guarantee that you will read the book avidly from cover to cover. Perhaps you won’t learn a great deal that you think you didn’t already know, but the special quality of this book comes from the ability of the author to tease out the unexpected, the bizarre, the strange, the everyday seemingly mundane events in English towns and cities which we normally do not stop and take any notice of, but are part of our lives, or were until the coronavirus crisis hit us. There is undoubted warmth in Tom’s writing. For instance, he sees the goodness in the hearts of people of Bradford, who with their young families spontaneously begin dancing in the street to his tunes, while in the next paragraph he recounts the pathetic struggle of homeless people dragging themselves from one shop doorway to another to avoid the attention of the police.
The accompanying 11 track CD of the same title as the book is characterised by Tom’s energetic & lively fiddle playing. It’s the kind of English dance music he so enjoys playing while busking, or with his ceilidh bands. He is accompanied by Marit Falt on Nordic mandola and cittern and also by Jude Rees on English Border Bagpipes. The album is infectiously foot tapping, being the kind of music that can grab the attention of those passing by in the street and includes a selection of traditional tunes as well as some written by Tom and other collaborators. It was recorded in an old Methodist chapel in the Peak District, which gives it a very distinctive bright and live feel.
Book: Seasons of Change. Busking England. Tom Kitching. Scratching Shed Publishing Ltd. £13.99 +p&p
CD: Seasons of Change. Tom Kitching. Talking Cat Recordings £12.00 + p&p
Available at: www.tomkitching.co.uk
Choice Track: Tom Tolley’s Hornpipe/Pidge (NSV 500)