Phil is Peckham’s number one busker, filling Rye Lane with music after the sun goes down. He grew up in Bournemouth and was married at 18. He quickly became the owner of a house with a mortgage and the father of two kids. By the age of 24 they were divorced. He met a new woman who helped him start setting up a recording studio, however his life took a different turn when he had a breakdown and gave away his equipment for a ticket to Glastonbury.
In 2001 I had a breakdown – my head was completely muddled. I had smoked hash since the age of 16 to 31. I gave up and started again, gave up, started again. Someone put me in touch with NA (narcotics anonymous), but it was the wrong place for someone who smoked hash. I just needed some therapy. While I was there my head was getting progressively worse – the barrier between life and my spiritual beliefs was being broken down. Any thought I had I would argue with, like I had 4 or 5 personalities trying to take control. It was horrible. A guy at NA said heroin sorted his out for him. I didn’t try it straight away. I went through asylums, took the medicinal drugs prescribed, but those drugs didn’t really help, they just shut my thoughts down.
Thinking was like swimming through drying concrete. By that time I was homeless and if you can’t think quick, you can’t survive on the street. One day the thought came to me that I should kill myself. I decided that if I was going to do that, I may as well try heroin. It helped. It shut my head up. But after a few times of using I was addicted. I ended up walking from Bournemouth to Salisbury, Salisbury to Southampton. Here, there, everywhere. It took months, sleeping anywhere. One day I was picked up in a bus shelter, close to hypothermia, by the police who put me in a psychiatric unit in Southampton. If you say you want to leave, they section you. You have to know how to play your way out. So I smoked a lot of hash, took a lot of E’s in the morning, so eventually they got fed up with me and and after a few weeks they kicked me out.
Living in hostels is variable, depending on if it is a wet or dry hostel. It’s a lot easier to give up if you’re in a dry hostel. Even if people are using, it’s not in your face. In some dry houses, the staff are blinkered to drug use. If they kicked out everybody who was using the place would be empty and they have to help people somehow.
Phil is now clean but is still connected to his past. He hasn’t seen his family since 2002. Visiting Bournemouth is a daunting prospect for him as there are so many places in Bournemouth he can’t go because he associates them with previous panic attacks that occurred while he was using.
The visual association with the panic attacks would kick in and I’m afraid I would be dropped back in my old state. There are cases where people have given up heroin for ten years then, when they revisit where they used to use the drug, the associations are so strong that their body puts them into a full on withdrawal. I don’t want that to happen.
When I left Bournemouth I cut my ties. My Mum is a Born Again Christian, the past doesn’t exist for her. My dad killed himself when I was seven. Whenever I tried to ask her about it her favourite phrase to say was ‘you’re giving me a breakdown’. She’d buried all her memories and she couldn’t reach them any more. She’d been forgiven by God and all the devils stuff was locked away. But you can’t live like that. It really messed my head up. I couldn’t go back to my family to gain some strength.
Through a housing association Phil was given a flat in Peckham and has been busking there since 2007.
Peckham has changed since I started busking. Gentrification is not a myth. People are out priced in the rent. The people who define Peckham are disappearing. I live by myself and I really enjoy the independence. In the day time I stay in the house and sleep. Busking in Peckham is brilliant, on the whole. The first time I went out busking, I was playing the chords to Golden Brown. A couple across the road smiled at me and I asked them if they could spare some change. The woman opened her purse, she was going through coins. I started singing. I got halfway through the first verse and she closed her purse. My heart sank. But then she opened up the other compartment of her purse and gave me a twenty pound note. I couldn’t believe it. It was quite a boost. If that experience had gone the other way I probably wouldn’t have busked again.
If you show someone trust they will be more generous. If you touch someone they will be more generous. People coming out of the cinema in couples are way more generous than people coming out separately. I’m grateful regardless of what people give me. It’s the fact that people appreciate what I’m doing. The only thing that fucks me off is when people don’t give money because one person didn’t so they all follow suit and says no. That fucks me off. It’s the “them and us” mentality. They feel united against me.
Phil has completed several courses at college and spends a lot of his time reading and writing music.
My dream job would be in a library, if it weren’t in the music industry. If I’m sitting on a bus, I know it’s a 5 minute journey but I feel like I’m trapped and the bus journey will last forever. It’s such a high anxiety situation. Reading got me through that. I love science fiction. My desert island book would be, well, I’d cheat. I’d take Douglas Addams, the compilation book.
My one line of life advice would be: if it harms none, do what you will.
Click here to hear Phil’s genius – or take to the streets of Peckham for the real deal!
Interview by Bella and Alex
Words by Bella Spencer
Illustrations by Harriet Speed