RAGS TO RICHES – A BUSKER’S TALE

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by Tom McGhie

Three o’clock in the morning. You’re lying in a sleeping bag under a workbench in a dark room surrounded by tools and sawdust with a ragged blanket warding off the elements that pour in through the window which doesn’t properly close. The nighttime gale weaves its way into the building, embraces your exposed limbs and extremities and you shudder your brain back into the realm of sleep.

9 o’clock in the morning. There’s an aggressive knock on the door which slams you back to consciousness and suddenly you have to control your breathing to make it less audible. The owner of this ‘residency’ has returned and if he finds you sleeping here it’s a police matter. Suddenly the rather pleasant dream you were having has dissolved, leaving you besieged and frightened. You hold tight, and wait until they’ve gone so that you can relax again. There’s no chance of a much needed lie-in. You don’t have time to sleep anyway; the morning is too beautiful to not make use of it. You grab your guitar, open the door, check that no-one’s seen you and slip out onto the streets and towards the city.

Six years ago, classical guitarist and busker Peter Turrell found himself without a home and secretly sleeping in a small room in a public building in Norwich. Having spent the majority of his adult years pursuing academia, a series of tumultuous events pushed his mental health to the brink and he suffered a severe breakdown in late 2012. Without the means to hold down a job, he was left completely broke, depressed and suffering from panic attacks. The next summer he took the decision to move into a simple working space which he had via a verbal agreement. What started off as a temporary escape from the realm of the quotidian in an attempt to find sanctity for his frayed nerves turned into an entire year spent technically homeless. Over the months he would construct guitars in the workspace, something which took his mind from the dark places it was often wont to wonder.

Obviously, it was illegal for me to be sleeping in that building, so I’d just go to sleep under that tree holding my guitar so no one would nick it

‘There was no way in hell I was well enough to hold down a proper job back then’, a well-dressed Turrell explains to me over a coffee in Platform 12. ‘Most nights I’d be on a concrete floor under my workbench, but occasionally I’d have to camp under a tree if the room wasn’t viable. Obviously, it was illegal for me to be sleeping in that building, so I’d just go to sleep under that tree holding my guitar so no one would nick it’.

During the days Turrell would busk in Norwich city centre, which earned him enough money to eat and live. The guitarist speaks fondly of these times. ‘I wouldn’t need to pay rent, so I had more disposable income then I’d ever had before, and I met some really interesting people on the busking circuit’. Turrell gradually became integrated into the community of buskers, and began to forge a new career where he could successfully make a living off music. This change of scenery, so to speak, also helped him through some struggles with his mental health. ‘I was always on the street, so being able to socialise with people regularly helped me take my mind off things. Little things like seeing children dance to the music you’re playing can really help put the day in a new light.’

Things continued like this for a while, and slowly the guitarist managed to establish a reputation as one of the city’s finest classical players. Random encounters with people on the street which led to offers for paid gigs evolved into requests for him to play at people’s weddings. Eventually Turrell was able to put aside enough money to rent a room in the city centre, and by this stage was beginning to host open mic nights in various pubs. The eclectic nights which he curates at Platform 12, the Walnut Tree Shades and the Louis Marchesi are not only fantastic platforms for musicians to hone their material, but are also the breeding ground for friendships and a growing community which I can say first-hand is warm and inclusive.

In the space of a few short years, Turrell has gone from a homeless busker to a man who is at the absolute epicentre of Norwich’s music scene

Not only has the guitarist garnered praise from fellow peers, but has also been attracting attention from local media outlets for a while. The latest in that series was his work alongside Future Radio DJ Rammer, to help put on a night at Open Banking Hall called ‘Busker’s Night In’. Several street musicians took to one of Norwich’s finest stages and performed in front of a loving crowd; Turrell’s involvement in the evening was a poignant nod to his past.

Through his love of music Turrell has managed to steer himself out of a crisis that could so easily have put an end to his life. ‘Sometimes I would just drink and drink myself into a stupor, and yes, there were times when I was suicidal.’ The guitarist occasionally still suffers from bouts of depression and anxiety – there is no absolute, quick and easy fix to mental illness – but his story is one of hope and success. In the space of a few short years, Turrell has gone from a homeless busker to a man who is at the absolute epicentre of Norwich’s music scene, with a variety of different musicians and bands citing him as a reason why they were able to meet each other, or discover opportunities which helped them develop as artists.

In a world where mental illness is at an all time high, music or some form of art is often pointed to as an effective remedy to the waves of horror we are presented with from the media. Whether it’s Brexit, Trump or the hideous echo chamber that is social media, absorption into the realm of creativity is an escape route, be that a temporary or permanent one. Peter Turrell has managed to carve out a career off the back of his talent and sheer depthless passion for music. Regardless of how awful he might be feeling on a given day, Turrell both gigs and hosts events tirelessly; pouring his soul into the cogs of the Norwich music scene. It’s an honour to watch the man play, and an even bigger one to observe first hand the thriving, friendly community he has helped build over the last decade.

Featured image: https://www.facebook.com/turrellguitar/


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