Most of you will have spotted Alan Powe ‘the Banjo Man’ on your way to or from Casemates, but how did he come to be such a familiar face within our little community?
Alan can be found frequenting the corner of Fish Market Lane daily, banjo in hand, and smile on his face as he warmly greets everyone who walks by.
It’s all too easy to keep on walking, but have you ever stopped to chat to a busker? They are some of the most interesting people with stories to match – and Alan did not disappoint!
I invited Alan to meet me at Café Solo one morning. “Few people have invited me to breakfast before!” he said, as we tucked in with big grins. Never underestimate the power of small acts of giving.
Before I met Alan, I did some journalistic digging online and was surprised at what I found… On a Nottingham Facebook group, there he was, captured in an old photo playing the instrument that has come to define him with his characteristic grin. People from all over the world had left comments beneath it:
“I left with nothing but a banjo to my name.”
“When Alan was a lad, about 17 years old, he was a Mechanical Engineering apprentice at NCB Babbington Colliery near Nottingham. I remember him being called to the Enginewright’s office for a reprimand. He had not been attending work regularly. He knocked on Charlie Brentnall’s office door, poked his head round, raised his hand in a sort of ‘Flower Power’ salute and exclaimed, ‘How! I’m Powe.’ …Charlie was not impressed!” – Douglas M.
Cheeky anecdotes together with sightings and genuine concerned interest for where Alan – the real-life Where’s Wally – is today flooded the comments section. I had no idea I was about to dine with a celebrity!
Alan grew up in the city of Nottingham. His parents met under strange circumstances. His father Roy, a Devonian and rifleman in the war in late 1939, was captured by the Germans at Calais and subsequently ended up in a concentration camp. Roy narrowly escaped execution after a fight with a guard, when he met a man from Nottingham. Unbeknownst to Roy, this man would be the reason for him eventually meeting Alan’s mother and falling in love.
The man was repatriated back to Nottingham where, after some time, he wrote a letter to the British Army asking whether Roy was still alive. They became fast penfriends, until the man from Nottingham fell ill with tuberculosis, which is when his sister took over the letter writing. Alan’s father was eventually liberated by the Russians in 1945, who handed him over to the Americans, who passed him on to the Brits, who flew him home. (Phew!) Upon reaching Nottingham, Roy met up with this man’s sister…a lady named Irene, who was to become Alan’s mother. And the rest is history, as they say!
“I say, what you’re singing up there, let’s have it down here.”
Alan lived on a cul de sac, playing in the street with all the neighbourhood kids. At aged 9, he was made a prefect at his junior school, before moving to a new school which Alan “didn’t quite get along with”. Alan confesses he wasn’t a good pupil, and was – surprisingly, given his musical abilities today – untalented. “I just couldn’t hack it at school. I was always late with homework, never got good marks, and was always in trouble with my mother and father for it!”
Alan left school at 16, and joined the Merchant Navy. However, he soon learnt that this wasn’t to his taste. Alan went through a series of jobs after that. [Ask him about Stanton Ironworks for a story worthy of its own Netflix show: “I almost bought England to a standstill over a pair of overalls!” Alan chuckles] before ending up in the coal mining industry in late 1969. He developed a cough as a result, which his mother complained persistently about, and so ended Alan’s time in the mines.
After some persuasion, Alan took a year off to attend Basford Hall College aged 17. As is quite common amongst students, he didn’t know what to do following his exams. “I used to hitchhike down to London in the ‘flower power’ era. It was great fun in those days!” Alan grins.
Around this time, Alan fell in love with a woman who was to later become his fiancé – Jennifer. They eventually parted ways, but he still speaks about her with great warmth.
Alan turned his hand to entertainment, working as a Bluecoat in holiday camp Pontins, and as a Redcoat in Butlins. “I got an interview at Pontins, but I wasn’t wanted – I was just a run-of-the-mill guy with no skills! However, my sister Jacqueline was there that day; she was a swimming instructor and they desperately wanted her to work. She went up to them and said ‘If you don’t give my brother a job, I’m not coming’ – and so I was employed!” Alan was sent south, and eventually worked at Butlins for four summer seasons. It was here that Alan picked up a tiny wooden ukulele and a book on how to play it.
“I bought a small banjo from shop in Scarborough for 80p, and later transferred onto a ukulele banjo – the same one I used in Nottingham.” However, this isn’t the banjo we see him use today: “I later adopted a bigger banjo that I enjoyed more because it’s got more breadth. I’ve had a number of instruments in my time… some have been busted, some stolen,” Alan laments.
In the early 1980s, Alan relocated to Birmingham; a move which caused him many difficulties. A private conversation which turned into an argument in a social club, which nobody heard at the time, led to a “dark night of the soul” for Alan. However, out of this dark night some light appeared. He experienced a “spiritual rebirth” and became a born-again Christian. “I thank the Lord for everything that he saw me through, and got me out of.”
Back in Nottingham, Alan took this renewed faith to the streets in the form of gospel song, accompanied by his trusty ukulele-banjo, as it was at that time. He is particularly interested in exegesis – the interpretation of spiritual logos – which he writes into his songs. “It’s like diving into a deep sea of spiritual knowledge and pulling out pearls and precious stones.”
It became a form of therapy for Alan, playing his music for those on the way to town, or home from work, or meeting friends in the city in the late evening…”“The banjo helped me through some dark times. The banjo hides many sorrows. I had a lot of problems, but I thank the people at that time for their communications, and the Lord as well for bringing them.”
From Nottingham, Alan travelled around England, turning each ity street into a worthy stage. Tamworth, Sheffield, Derby, and London all had the pleasure of playing audience to his music. “I then learnt that a very good mate of mine from the coal mines went to South Africa,” Alan explains.
SOUTH AFRICA 1989-1993
Alan’s father, Roy, passed away, and his mother, Irene, fell ill and subsequently their family home had to be sold. With his twin sisters, Jacqueline and Rosemary, looking after her, Alan flew from London to Johannesburg with his ukulele as company. He found himself in Hillbrow, where he frequented a café called Three Sisters. “After a few mornings, a huge man sat next to me, and said: ‘What you got there, son?’ I replied: ‘A banjo, sir.’ ‘Well, can you play it?’”
It turns out this man was the owner of an amusement park called Gold Reef City. Alan was asked to play at the gates, to welcome people as they entered. “Wherever I am, I’m always at the gates – whether that’s to a funfair or the city,” Alan explains, conjuring the familiar image of him playing in his usual spot at the entrance to Casemates.
Eventually, Alan made the return back to Nottingham.
It might surprise you, as it did me, to learn that Alan next found himself in Gibraltar, all those years ago; a time when the Rock was “a totally different place to what it is today”.
Whilst busking outside the cathedral, a kind passerby asked whether Alan had a place to stay. After finding out that he in fact didn’t, he directed Alan to a friend who allowed him to stay on his ship. “It was a big ship: 13 cabins. I stayed in the bow – the room was huge! The owner was doing it up to take it to Holland to sell it, and let me stay on it for about £20 a week.”
Alan did six summers in Gibraltar, returning home in between each stint. During following visits, Alan stayed at a number of places including the Rock Hotel, and the Europa Retreat Centre. “Gibraltar was thriving!” Alan recalls.
He then met someone in Gibraltar who invited him to Calgary, in Canada, to stay at their place, as seems to be Alan’s worldly luck. But he very nearly didn’t make it at all…
“There are people who are born with luck. And people who are born with bad luck, who are survivors. I think I’m the second one.”
“I lost my plane ticket!” Alan exclaims. But luckily it was recovered, and his journey was afoot once more. “I stayed in Calgary for six summers, again, returning to England in between seasons.” The beautiful views right down to the city were juxtaposed against the harsh reality of Canadian winters. “It was an interesting time. I met some people I didn’t like and some people who I did.”
On the 28th April, 2008, Alan packed his bag to leave England for the final time – and he’s not been back since. “I left with nothing but a banjo to my name. No house, no home, no insurance, no relations, no backup money, no sponsor, no dole, no social security, no electrics, no working visa, and I have no bank account nor secret money – I lived on street money only.” In the years that followed, Alan lived busking, attending church, reading scriptures, and writing gospel songs.
What followed was a journey that I regrettably don’t have space for in this issue, but one I am sure would make for a cracking autobiography! “They tell me I’ve circumnavigated the whole Earth, but that has to be proven – I’m not good at geography,” says Alan. Along his journey, Alan reached: Australia New Zealand, Fiji, Hong Kong x3, South Korea x2, Okinawa, Japan mainland, Philippines, Greece, and Malta. “They’ve all had their own character and positive points,” says Alan. “Once you get moving, it becomes just another country…but if I’d have thought about it before I started the journey, I would have done some things totally differently. It became very difficult at times, especially at border crossings and with accommodation.” One more crossing lay in wait for him as he arrived in Spain, and being “economical with the truth”, made his way into Gibraltar on New Year’s Eve, 2020.
“My whole journey has been fraught with difficulties,” Alan tells me. He describes his passage as more of a ‘trudge’. “The only peaceful time I’ve actually had is here – in Gibraltar.” The only issue he finds here is a suitable place to stay (for which he is willing to pay, as is his nature).
How did the recent pandemic affect Alan, who relies solely on the goodwill of strangers to get by? “A very kind woman called Virginia at El Faro took care of me, giving me food and drink. Even now when I go in, she gives me coffee and cakes.” So grateful is Alan, that he wrote Virginia into one of his songs, aptly named “The Gibraltar Stomp” (scroll down to listen!). This dedication was written at the Holiday Inn. “They look after me in there; I sit in a nice quiet space at the back -because I’m not dressed very well – and it’s the perfect spot to write my songs.”
Alan’s true love is writing songs, and there are many he’s yet to sing. He credits ‘spiritual inspiration’ for his work: “It’s his work, not mine,” he says, looking skyward. “I say, what you’re singing up there, let’s have it down here. I’m just a vessel for that. I thank the Lord for his grace, and for everything that’s happened – good and bad.”
“There are people who are born with luck. And people who are born with bad luck, who are survivors. I think I’m the second one.” Alan is full of quotations like this, which he diligently writes into his songs.
Alan admits he has come very close to asking for money along his journey, but never has. “I am against it,” he explains. “At times it’s hard, but I’ve never sent the hat round. I play my music, and if people want to give, they can.”
We finished our 2-hour breakfast, one I suspect I won’t forget in a long while, and made our way back to Alan’s usual spot on the corner of Gauchos and Fish Market Lane.
Alan has no plans to leave as of yet, so if you see him, do stop and say hello – who knows, maybe you can pick up where I left off for the next issue of Gib Mag? And if you’re lucky, you might even receive your own rendition of the Gibraltar Stomp!
Alan is looking for a ukulele banjo (low action). If anyone from the George Formby society hears about a good uke, or if anyone has a room in a flat or boat to let, please contact us. Alan is able to pay within parameters.