A new start after 60: I became a busker at 79¾

Laurie Horam never thought of himself as musical. At home, his dad never listened to music, while one of his boarding school teachers labelled him tone deaf. But last month he started to busk. And while he accompanies on harmonica his guitar-playing friend Alan Eaton – and people clap, dance and throw coins into Alan’s guitar case for the local food bank – Horam catches himself thinking: “How, at the age of 79¾, do I come to be playing music to people on the streets of Bradford?”

The question preoccupies him, because, some years ago at a family gathering, one of his children said: “‘You know what, Dad? It can’t be coincidental. We must have got our musical abilities from you.’” He has three sons, two daughters and a stepson from two marriages; between them, they cover a range of instruments and genres from techno to rock. Horam was floored. “I said: ‘There can’t be music in me, because I can’t play!’”

But now Horam has begun to wonder: where did the music come from? “Did they get it from me, or did I get it from them?” He has come to understand that “this is all related to how we help our children to make the most of who they are”, and in a way, that’s a service he performs for himself now, almost as a parent helps a child. In lockdown, he says appreciatively, his playing has “come on tremendously”.

Eight years ago, Horam, a retired civil servant, was driving back from a trip to the Yorkshire coast with his eldest son, Gavin, who was visiting from Canada. “Gavin wanted to stop at a music shop. He walked out and said: ‘Here you are. I bought this for you, Dad. It’s a harmonica. I’ll try to show you how to play a bit.’”

They went to a jam session at their local pub. Gavin played guitar and Laurie sat in the corner with his harmonica, trying to make a sound that no one would hear. After six months, he was invited into the group. Unable to read music, he discovered a talent for improvisation, “responding to a note within a millisecond without batting an eyelid … I don’t play by ear. I play by heart.”

Actually, Horam says: “My harmonica plays me – how I feel, what I am, what I’ve been. I can express myself through music, and do it in a very non-thinking way.” The harmonica has the same range as a saxophone, two and a half octaves; as he learns to “create a broader range of sounds”, he can express “a broader range of emotional response”.

I wonder if he has always been attuned to his feelings. He had long, painful periods of estrangement from his children – and “a very sad start to my life. My mother died when I was four,” he says; he was seven when he understood she had died. “I probably did a lot of crying, though I don’t remember.”

Until a few years ago, he had put all this “into a cupboard and locked the door”. Then his partner suggested counselling. He took a photograph of his mother to a session; it was the start of a relationship with her. “Her picture is on the wall of my living room and most nights when I go to bed I say: ‘Goodnight, Mum.’”

In one precious memory, Horam pictures his mother standing over his cot. At this he starts to sing her words, soft and tuneful: “Wheezy-anna, down where the watermelons grow …” (She sang Wheezy-anna in tribute to his asthma, he thinks.)

So, there was music in his life before he knew it? “Maybe,” he says. He doesn’t know “what moves [him] around the harmonica”, but when he plays something “that’s come from a really strong feeling”, he sees Alan “smile and shake his head a bit, as if to say: ‘That’s so lovely.’”

Music has enriched life with friendship and made Horam feel “part of something much bigger” than himself. “At a time when the scope of life might be shrinking, mine is expanding,” he says. “Maybe we never know completely who we are or what we can do.”