How it all Began …

A cello, on a bicycle trailer
The Highway Cello Bicycle Trailer

A few months ago, never having done it before, I tried a little busking. Why?

I was trying to learn to play the cello without the music in front of me, without seizing up and forgetting what came next. Without just dying of fright. I thought if I practised on an audience that wasn’t really a real one, a Schrodinger’s cat kind of audience, that was at the same time there and not there, it might help. Not of course that buskers don’t have real audiences, or that if you’re walking along the street you’re not really listening. But the audience is transitory. And it hasn’t paid up front, so it doesn’t feel quite so entitled. An audience without teeth, or something like that.

It didn’t work. But I found I really enjoyed the busking. I like watching the passing parade, and all the different reactions. I love the way children stop and stare – and sometimes dance, totally disrupting the family progress. I love the way they put coins in the open cello case, not quite sure how to do it, and the challenge of thanking them without losing the music.

It’s wonderful how the outside tables at the café across the way all stop and applaud together.

I’d never noticed before how many women above a certain age do their shopping with a bag over one arm, and a purse held aloft in front of them as though they’re just about to take a note out of it (which they never do), or as though they’re inviting a robbery so they can have a faint and create a scene.

I smile at the people who pointedly ignore me – they should take acting lessons, they’re so transparent. And I’m still bemused by those who actually don’t notice me – I’m not a shy retiring violet when I’m on the street – and sometimes almost walk into me.

And the people who tell me how lovely it is, and is that a cello, and they used to play the cello, and do I give lessons, and can I play Elgar’s cello concerto for them, or the Jaws theme tune, or something I’ve never heard of, or they haven’t got any cash but could they buy me a coffee? And the boys on their bikes doing wheelies in front of me, pretending to show off because they’re not sure it’s cool to be listening to a cello or whatever it is. I love it.

But I live in a remote place, and Penrith’s half an hour away, and any other towns are too far, and soon Penrith – if it isn’t already – will be busked out with cello. I need to go further afield.

Further afield is a big place. So, in idle moments, I’ve been thinking about how to get there – further afield, that is. Maybe I should travel around Europe with my cello – and play in squares, and outside cafés, in the sunshine? Go by train. Maybe I should make my way East, go to India, maybe not come back. There’s sunshine there, too.

Cumbria is – there’s no doubt about it – the best place to live a settled life. But if there was just a bit more sunshine … Just a bit more sunshine.

Then of course I thought of all the practical problems. The cello’s heavy. She won’t go out in the sun. If she gets wet it’s worse than pneumonia. You can’t easily lug her across town from one station to the next. Etc., etc.

And then suddenly, one Saturday morning in late September, driving to Gateshead on the A69, for an undeserved and life-changing appointment with the Royal Northern Sinfonia, making sure the needle didn’t too often pass sixty, the solution. Everything fell into place with a single thought. All those problems resolved. Dissolved. Suddenly it was obvious.

Go on a bicycle.

That’s how it all began.

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