Confessions of an Expat – accents and buskers

View from a cliff path in Guernsey. Why did I ever leave this place?

Being an expat doesn’t necessarily mean living somewhere thousands of miles from home – it just means living somewhere else. For a boy from the Channel Islands, a British group off the coast of north-west France, just being on what is known as ‘the mainland’ would do it, and although you’re used to the money and the food, you can still feel like an outsider.

Technically, Guernsey is not part of the UK, although most people (even there) think it is. But really it is a British Crown Dependency. Once when I was living in London and needed a new passport I was told by a member of staff at the passport office in central London that I was not British. This man was wearing a turban, which may be a politically incorrect thing to point out in this day and age, but he was questioning my nationality, so why shouldn’t I question his? A bit of consulting of superiors later, he conceded that he has wrong and I duly got my document.

Droitwich Spa, England. It’s not all like this, but it used to be.

When I lived in the west Midlands for a short time, in the spa town of Droitwich, not far from Birmingham, what I could never get over was the way the local people sounded. Even after several months I would go into town and wonder why everyone was speaking in a Brummie accent. The televisions in the pubs would be showing football matches involving Birmingham City, Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion.

Several years later I landed in Glasgow, a city I felt a certain affinity for, my mother having been evacuated there during the Second World War and my sister having lived there for some 30 years, having met a Scot holidaying in Guernsey and eventually married him.

I found a flat in the heart of the city, an area called Merchant City, full of grand stone buildings now operating as bars and restaurants, and more prosaic ones converted from warehouses and office buildings to residential units. My flat had brackets either side of the door where bars could be slotted in to obstruct intruders.

The streets are narrow and the buildings are tall, and what I didn’t realize was that the area was full of nightclubs, so it was nice and quiet until you went to bed and tried to get to sleep, whereupon the thudding of music would reverberate through the canyons. Then, at some ungodly hour, the chucking-out doors would open and the streets would be swarming with clubbers going home or, in the case of our building with its unreliable automatic street door, wandering in out of the cold and into the lift to have sex, change tampons and urinate, not necessarily in that order.

The day the sun came out in Glasgow’s Merchant City

In the blessed peace of daylight, it was a short stroll through the icy air and drizzle to Argyle Street, where I would buy my morning paper. Disappointment dogged me for weeks as I found the sports pages full of the footballing minutiae of life at Glasgow Rangers and Glasgow Celtic. A regional edition, you see, with a north-of-the-border slant and scant regard for my own interest in English clubs. I complained jokingly to the manager of the newsagent:  “I’m more interested in Chelsea than Celtic”.

“I should bar you for that,” he jested back.

One thing Glasgow has in abundance is buskers, which is quite strange, given the sub-zero temperatures and almost daily rain.

The tune that drifted up Glassford Street was the same every day. I’m not sure what it is called, although it might be For the Wings of a Dove – the classical one, not the Madness song. Whatever, it was cranked out all day by a man who stood in a shop doorway at the end of Argyle Street and played it on a violin with what looked like the horn of a trumpet attached. It seemed to be a homemade attempt to project the sound a bit, but a little investigation on the internet turned up the information that it was a bona fide instrument called a horn violin or trumpet violin. The man playing it looked Eastern European, but the dark-haired variety rather than the short-straight-blond hair that these days means Polish plumber.

Anyway, this guy was there every day and he didn’t have much of a repertoire. Just the one tune, really, presumably working on the theory that his audience was moving and would only catch at most a minute, so why bother to give them the end of one piece and the start of another when you can just keep one going for hours? He was often accompanied by a man on an accordion, although they sometimes seemed to be playing different arrangements or rather, to be brutally frank, they were grotesquely out of tune. I don’t think you can tune an accordion, so could only conclude that it was the master of the weird stringed instrument who must accept responsibility.

More on Glasgow buskers next Tuesday


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