“I wrote this one for Jools Holland 15 years ago,” Fal said, smiling and scooping up his trusty acoustic guitar. “Well — he still doesn’t know it yet!”
Fal — short for Falcon deLacy, a stage name he is ‘still getting used to’ — is not the most prolific busker in Cambridge. On two occasions he informed me incredulously that a reggae artist nearer the centre made 20 quid in one hour. “One hour! Sometimes I can get up to £4.98 by like 1 o’clock, and I’ll be praying that someone just drops in a couple of pence so I can wrap up and go home. And this guy gets 20–20! — quid!” But because his confusion is coupled with a trademark wheezy chuckle, a disarming wink and a distinct lack of malice, it’s hard to do anything but warm to him.
Fal plays with a flamboyant disregard for precision. Individual notes, much like his curiously undefined voice, are consumed entirely by the rhythm — a rhythm of bouncing, chugging, twisting and twirling bluegrass. He croons and he wails, he pleads and he soothes, but it all plays second fiddle to the pulse. I’d hazard a guess that Fal’s slicked back hair and leather jacket had been completing his look since his heady days as a musical titan in Preston.
“I’m not homeless anymore. I did that for a bit. For a year or so. I ‘overwintered’ in a quiet field in Girton for 11 months, which was always the plan, but… stuff happened and I ended up here for a long time.” He trailed off and took a sip of his coffee. “I’ve got a house now though, so all’s good.”
Fal’s guitar case was resting on a chair next to us, covered in change. Most of it looked like coppers. I asked him if playing guitar for money had always been the plan.
“Not always, no. I grew up in Preston. I was a pretty good student, but I used to get bored and sneak out of lessons to put chemicals in the duck pond. I blew stuff up, messed with it, turned it different colours. I actually wanted to be a pilot, or an astronaut, or in the army.
“I didn’t find the guitar until I was a bit older. If I’d started playing at 11, I’d actually be able to play right now!” The joke was well-worn, but I laughed anyway. “Once I started playing, that was it. I knew there was nothing else I wanted to do. I couldn’t deal with the enforced structure of the army, or academic subjects, or what you’d have to give up to work in those jobs. Looking at it now, there’s nothing else I can do. Love it or hate it, I’m a rocker. I’ve gotta just go with it.”
Fal fiddled with some rizla and stirred his coffee. “I did well in Preston. I was a 19 year old kid in front of a band, and we playing to house parties that were packed. People were streaming out of the different floors of the house trying to get in. It might’ve taken me a while to lose my virginity, but, you know, I did alright after that.” He winked that wink of his again. I was lost, transfixed, wrapped up in the moment. I think I winked back. He continued with the story. “And then I moved around a bit. Ended up in York, running an agency there. But after a while the same thing happened. I wanted to break free. I took a backpack and a tent and came on down here to escape.”
I wondered what that freedom would actually look like. How does life in a tent work? How do you wash? Clean your clothes? Use the toilet?
“I actually had a good system going. What happened was that they put a load of pylons in the next field over, and they left a portaloo there. I asked them and they said they were fine with me using it if I cleaned it afterwards. So I’d head over there in the morning to wash and do my business. Then I’d go to public lockers in the centre of town where I kept a suit, get changed, and go about my day. Have a night out of whatever. People had no idea that my bed was in between a load of pans in a tent in Girton.”
And to eat? “You could get litre bottles of water for 17p from some of the supermarkets and I’d always have a couple of those to use to drink, wash, cook with. I was resourceful. When it got really bad when I was overwintering,” Fal said, half proud, half sheepishly, “I’d hold onto those bottles, and boil my piss to use as a hot water bottle.” He looked up to check my reaction. “But that only happened a couple of times.”
It’s hard not to have a degree of respect for somebody stubborn enough to plough ahead with a plan on the basis of pure idealism. And it was encouraging to see someone whose choices had been intentional — here was a man who’d succumbed not to the horrors of drugs, or drink, but simply the refusal to be placed into an economic box. Given the nature of the story, however, all had not gone to plan.
“The problem was that I wasn’t really prepared for winter. I went away for a couple of nights and came back and someone had slashed my flysheet on the tent. I ignored it for as long as I could, but for three nights when it was raining heavily I woke up in a puddle. The only thing dry was my midriff.” Fal pointed to a bit on his T-shirt that was probably two hands in width. “Everything else was soaked. Sleeping back, pans, stove.
“After the third day I’d stopped shivering so I knew things were getting bad. I went into town without a plan. The truth is that I would’ve died if something hadn’t changed. I remember having enough money so I went to the Regal (the town’s Wetherspoons) for a drink. I was freezing, I stank, I had nothing.
“And then I had the moment that really turned my life around. A woman and her daughter took pity on me and took me into their house for a wash. I was dealing with this whole shame thing, of being taken in to be looked after by someone, and when I came out of the bathroom the daughter asked me something that’s stayed with me to this day:
“What’s the difference between you and any other homeless bum?”
Fal leaned back and let it sink in. “She asked me the question that I didn’ want to be asked. What was the difference between me and any other homeless bum? There I was, clean but helpless, and she was right. There wasn’t anything different. That was what pushed me really, that was when I looked into the support networks in the city properly.
“So I went to Jimmy’s shelter. I can’t praise them enough. It’s just so nice to relax and to take the weight of worrying about your survival off your shoulders and to let someone else deal with it. While I was there I had to learn how to deal with the shame of asking for help. It’s awful, it’s disgusting, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, it’s easy. I didn’t want to die and asking for help was the only way I was going to stay alive.
“Losing my self pride was hard to swallow, but once you’re there you can see how some people just go with it and take full advantage. In a shelter like 222s you get housing benefit, free clothes, free shoes, free food from the foodbank, free accommodation. Lots of people go homeless for the summer and stay in the shelter.
“I’ve never made as much money as I could’ve if I’d taken advantage of the opportunities available to me when I was in the shelter.”
It’s certainly a contested point, and an argument that I’ve come up against repeatedly when talking to people about homelessness in Cambridge. Rightly or wrongly, here was a voice from the inside dropping in his two cents. “It’s not that hard to get onto the move on house programme, but many people would rather stay in the shelter system. You have somebody to look after you if you do that. It’s a bit like the prison mentality — you get used to what you’ve been given. Once you’ve lost your shame, it’s easy to rely on others.”
Fal was clearly pleased with his earnings for the day, which, to be generous, probably totalled around 10 pounds. I wondered if that was enough to pay for food and rent. “Well, no. There’s a charity called Riverside that helps you get social housing, and I worked with them after 222s to go into a move-on house. From there, I had to wait for a year and a half or so to move up the priority lists to band A, but then I was told that I could move into a house straight away.”
But for Fal, economic independence was as important as physical independence. I asked him if he’d not rather just say goodbye to playing guitar every day get a regular, 9–5 job — after all, he was relying on housing benefit to pay for his accommodation. And plenty of people do jobs they hate, I suggested, just so they can indulge their interests i their spare time. Fal shook his head softly. “I hate alarm clocks. I wanna wake up when I want to wake up. I want to control myself. Yes, I’m lucky now that the council pays for my housing. But I support myself in the other ways that I can. I want to be free. And I’m going to keep playing until I drop.”
I’m not sure exactly how truthful Fal’s tales about being surrounded by legions of adoring fans ‘to rival the Beatles’ during his heyday as Preston’s rock god are, but to a large extent, it doesn’t matter. That power — the agency that music gave him — had returned, thanks to the helping hand of a network of council houses and homeless shelters. Whether Fal’s particularly buoyant and pulsing brand of guitar playing carries him to the stardom he craves is not for me to say. But it’s clear that the dominating story of his life had ceased to be survival, or a guarded justification for living in a tent, and had instead become dreams of the future centred around his twin loves: independence and rock ‘n’ roll.