Asian Journey (3)-At The Border

(Resuming the Journey)


The next step after Erzurum was to be a relatively short coach ride to the town of Dogubayazit – last stop before the Iranian border, lying in the shadow of Mount Ararat….. and the legendary landing place, as everyone kept reminding us, of Noah’s ark.

Perhaps fittingly, it was pouring with rain when we arrived; and since we didn’t much like the look of the hotel by the bus station where it was assumed we would want to stay, we were receptive to the suggestion of an Iranian student who had also been on the bus, that we should all three of us share a taxi to the border, which he assured us was not far away. Once across that hurdle we would, apparently, find ourselves immediately in the town of Maku, right next to the frontier on the Iranian side, where we would definitely find a better hotel to stay in than the one we had been shown in Dogubayazit .

Our student friend’s information was not the most accurate: Dogubayazit was still thirty kilometers from the border; the Turkish border was already closed for the night; and Maku was another thirty kilometers from the Iranian border on the other side – but we are racing ahead of ourselves.

Stepping out of the taxi into the pouring rain, we looked around and saw the border post nearby, but it immediately appeared that there was something wrong. Our student walked over to what seemed to be the office – there was a short conversation – after which he returned to us with the news that because of the trouble in Iran, the Turkish border was these days closed from early evening till the following morning.


Trouble in Iran! Yes, as far back as Istanbul we had been hearing stories about an Iranian cleric who was living in exile in Paris, and who was the figurehead of a growing protest movement within Iran against the rule of the Shah. But, pre-occupied as we were with our own grievances concerning the plight Europe-wide of street-culture in general, and street musicians in particular, we had not been paying much attention to the newspapers, as they frequently seemed to be just another wing of the force that oppressed us anyway.

We found a derelict building which offered partial shelter from the rain, had a slight grumble at the Iranian student, and settled down to an uncomfortable night’s wait.

Suddenly two large Range-Rovers with Teheran number plates arrived out of nowhere, the driver of one of them greeted us in American-English, and we told him the border was closed. “We’ll see about that”, he said, marching over to the office. He knocked loudly on the door, produced a 100 Deutschmark note from his pocket, and waved it slowly backwards and forwards across the window pane. The response was electric. The light in the office went on, we saw the guard straightening his cap, jumping to attention, opening the window and having a quiet word with his important visitor – who then walked back to us: “OK guys, it’s all fixed. 50 Deutschmarks each, and we can all go through.”

Mike and I were not so impressed with this deal as was the Iranian student, who immediately jumped in with one of the drivers. But as for us, with no likelihood of actually earning any further money for the foreseeable future (street busking in India and other countries of the sub-continent not having been recommended to us as a very profitable activity) – well, frankly, 100 Deutschmarks between us looked like quite a high price to pay simply to cross a border a few hours earlier than otherwise we would anyway. We therefore declined the offer. The Range Rovers roared off with the Iranian student, and we settled back into our temporary shelter.

After about 5 minutes the Turkish border guard walked over to us. “Sen Turist?” (Are you a tourist?) . “Tamam” (Yes) I replied. “Gitmek. Parasiz” (Go. No money) he announced, and motioned us across the border.

We had left Europe.


We walked slowly across the hundred yards or so that divided the two borders. On the Iranian side the lights were all on, and two guards stood waiting to question these two strange-looking travellers, carrying a large bag, a guitar and a set of bongo drums between them, who had managed to filter across from Turkey despite the border being closed.

“Aah, British”, they said on examining the passports, as if that explained everything. “Where are you going?” “We’re going to find a hotel in the town here”, we replied. “The next town is thirty kilometers away, over that hill”, said one of them, pointing in the distance. “First bus in the morning.”

We stood where we were, running out of ideas for managing the ever-deteriorating situation. “What is this?”, one of them asked, pointing at the guitar. I told him. “So you are musicians. Maybe you can sleep here, if you play us some songs.”

Taken into the office, we were shown where we would sleep…underneath the desk of an official who would not appear until the morning. We then took out our instruments, to satisfy our side of the bargain, and would have started off with – I feel certain, though my memory does fail me – our version of “Candyman”, one of those songs any self-respecting folky could reel off back in the day, maybe followed with Mike’s song “Kilburn Station”, and probably rounded off with “Family of Freaks and Schizophrenics” – a song which has since undergone several transformations, and ended up on our second album under the title “Families Can Kill But Lonely Men Can Live Forever”…

And so we slept peacefully, under the above-mentioned desk, but suffered a rude awakening early in the morning – a kick up the backside announcing the arrival of the desk’s daytime incumbent. We walked out in the drizzle, and stuck our thumbs out once again.

Train Busking

This is the S Bahn in Dusseldorf – a video made by one of the passengers on a train we were playing on, in 1996. We did briefly get a licence to perform on these trains. As you can see they were a great audience, and it was a very enjoyable time we spent there. We did manage to play on the trains in and around London as well. We tried Liverpool and Newcastle, but we lasted about a couple of hours in each before we were stopped by the Transport Police. Glasgow, the only other city in the UK with a metro system, wasn’t possible to even get started in, because there was a security guard in every compartment. I’ve always thought that if the idea were promoted rather than criminalized, it might actually enliven these places. Of course, it’s difficult in the circumstances to do a hugely virtuoso musical performance – I think a touch of comedy works well in these situations. That’s what we used to call it – Situation Art. It’s about knowing the right kind of performance to do in a particular situation

The Ever-Loving Light

This is Earls Court. Just outside the tube station. I’m singing a song called Midnight Special. It’s a song about being released from prison. I see it as quite a religious song. When Bongo Mike and I started busking in London, this was one of the first pitches we found – playing almost where I’m playing now. But the trouble was, in those days you could only last for about twenty minutes (or maybe slightly longer if you were lucky), before the police would come along. They would say, “Oh hello boys, just moving on were we”, or some friendly greeting like that. After a while we found it very difficult to co-exist with all that, and so we went over to the continent – I’m talking about 1978 – and for the next thirty years we spent a large part of our time over there, in exile as we saw it. But we used to come back of course, and while we were back here we used to try and fight against the situation in any ways that we could. We took quite a lot of court cases and got quite a lot of publicity for them, and in the end what we did actually started to have some effect – though it was probably more the publicity than the court cases, because it was rather bad publicity for the set up here. And round the turn of the century a lot of changes started to happen. Now change can be for the good and it can be for the bad. Where it was for the bad was that you got all these awful licensing schemes coming in – on the tube, and lots of towns, and boroughs in London – which wasn’t too good. But the good thing was that it was taken out of the hands of the police, and the way it was going to be handled was put in the hands of local governments, and since time has passed the attitude has started to mellow quite a lot, and busking in the street is in many ways a thing that you can do now without too many of those type of problems. So I sing this song now with a sense of triumph really, because….. we got out of prison.

Meanwhile Back In The Present

A note on visual presentation of a busking act

Extremely Frank Jeremy goes it alone

(Dear reader, we will transport you back to 1978 and the Iranian border shortly, but things are happening in London 2021, which are claiming our attention.)

That’s me, Extremely Frank Jeremy, playing in a street market in London. I’m actually playing the guitar sitting down, and I’ve got a bass drum, played with a foot pedal, as you can probably hear, although you can’t actually see it. But take my word for it, it’s there.

And so where’s Bongo Mike? Well unfortunately, I’m recording this in September 2021, and the fact is that Bongo Mike passed away in June last year 2020.

It’s taken me this long to get used to it, but you get over these things because you have to. And now I’ve started busking again by myself. So I’ve had to work out a new act. The reason why I say that is because, when you’re busking, it’s not just a question of – as a friend of mine in Yugoslavia used to say – “It’s easy, just take guitar and play”. I mean, that’s quite an interesting way of putting it, but it’s not quite as simple as that really.

If you’re actually going to do something that is going to work, in the situation where you’re playing, you need to think about a number of things. Sure, the sound – if it’s a musical act, that’s the basis of it – but you need a visual dimension as well. When I used to play with Mike it was quite a striking thing – there was Mike sitting on his stool, playing the bongos, I was standing playing the guitar next to him, and it had a visual integrity to it.

Asian Journey (2)-Maden Daği

Among my dog-eared souvenirs

In our travels we would occasionally meet people who, once they had ascertained that we were actually English, would delight in impressing us with their own versions of famous speeches from William Shakespeare et al… One of these was an elderly gentleman who was the principal receptionist at the hotel where we stayed, in Istanbul, this first year of our joint travels – the Hotel Sumer in Gedik Paşa.

Gedik Paşa is an area of the city not far from the famed hippy-haunt of Sultanahmet, and close by the equally well-known Grand Bazaar – or Kapali Çarsi, to give it its Turkish name.

“Aah, ‘To be or not to be – to be, to be true'”, this gentleman would intone each time we passed his desk on entering or leaving the hotel. As we would find again years later with another acquaintance, who inflicted a different but similarly grievous act of sabotage on the same quote – attempts at correction were futile.

“No, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question!'”, we would say with increasing desperation as the days went by. “Yes meester, thank you. Aah, ‘To be or not to be – to be, to be true'” would come the reply.

But the memory from Turkey that has lingered longest, is the music – broadcast continuously on long-distance coaches as you are carried from one city to the next, spilling out from shop doorways, orchestrated or simply sung… an outpouring of the soul of a people, a whole new world of sound to the western ear.

On one early morning walk in the vicinity of the Hotel Sumer, we were making some enquiries in a workshop where there was a printing machine, being operated by a young man who was singing a plaintive song to himself. Long before the days of the ubiquitous mobile phone, we nevertheless had with us a miniature dictaphone, and were able to make the following impromptu recording of voice and accompanying printing press:

Travelling further east from Istanbul we arrived, after a two day coach trip, at the city of Erzurum, in the north east of Turkey, over towards the Iranian border. It was the late afternoon, daylight was fading, and just as we entered an interesting, slightly gloomy-looking waiting-room/cafeteria, attached to the concourse of Erzurum bus station, the lights suddenly went out! Assured as we were by all and sundry that it was only a temporary power failure, nothing to worry about, still we decided – after some ten minutes had passed – to try our luck in the town itself which, sitting not so very far off, could be seen basking in the light denied us at the bus-station!

In the town we soon ran into an office which was a sort of provincial out-post of the tourist industry that had, as it seemed, sprung up to service the needs of the India-by-land devotees who for many years (it was by now already 1978) had been passing across Turkey, en route to those glittering destinations of Kabul and Kathmandu.

Sensing a rather cynical attitude to us, we made our own way through the narrow streets in the twilight, finding eventually an invitingly unpretentious small hotel of the type we always looked for, catering to the nomadic workforce of a still largely pre-industrial economy, and clearly not aimed at the tourist trade.

As the evening wore on, a drama developed around a rather rough-looking countryman who it seemed was not welcome to stay at the hotel – whether because he couldn’t afford a bed for the night, or for some other more obscure reason, we never discovered. He was ejected, and walked away, but some time later returned to the street, and through an open window- from the lane outside – serenaded those of us inside with a song. He seemed to melt the hearts of the management, and of another guest in particular, because he soon resumed his place in the small room which served as a foyer, and continued his song, alternating his vocal with periodic bursts on an improvised comb-and-tissue-paper instrument – eventually retiring to the room that had been given to him for the night.

The song had a striking and memorable chorus, “Deloy loy, deloy loy..”, which lodged itself somewhere in our heads. A few years later, on another stay in Turkey, we happened to make friends with the owner of a music shop selling cassettes of Turkish popular music, in the night-club area of Istanbul called Beyoğlu. On an impulse Mike chanted “Deloy loy, Deloy loy….”, and asked our new friend if he recognized that snatch of music. “You mean Maden daği!” he said triumphantly, and produced a vinyl single from one of the racks, which he then played for us. It was the same song.

Cassette of traditional songs by Izzet Altinmeşe,, from the same period as his first recording of Maden Daği

Having only the one disc left, he ran us off a copy of the song on a spare cassette, and also sold us a different cassette from the same singer, Izzet Altinmeşe. Time and wear over the years have rendered these cassettes unplayable, but by a miracle of the modern world, the same recordings can be heard today on YouTube – as can a later, more upmarket version of Maden Daği , sung again by the same Izzet Altinmeşe (unsurprisingly, a little older now).

Does the autobus still drive two days and nights along those partially unmade roads from Istanbul to Erzurum? And does the bus driver’s son still come round with little glasses of Turkish tea for the assembled passengers, at one of the periodic refreshment breaks? Or has that fascinating world disappeared forever? I’m not sure I really want to know.

Asian Journey (1)-beginnings.

Our friends at the train station, seeing us off on our journey

It was 1978. Mike had been in Turkey the previous Autumn, recovering from a bad attack of what he called Tube Train Sickness (more about that in some future post), and where he had – as he informed me on his return – felt the call to visit India at some point in the future. Back in London, in late Winter, it fell to me to inform him that the Street Poetry enterprise – which had been going since 1972 – was fast approaching the end of its life-cycle.

We put our minds to finding some alternative. Mike had always had his musicianship and song-writing (and occasional busking) as a second string to his bow, alongside his poetry; and as for me, I had in my younger days sung and played the guitar, and indeed even done a bit of summer holiday busking a couple of years running, as a kid…

And so it came to pass, that in the Spring of 1978 a new busking act appeared on the streets of London (see earlier post “The Professor of the University of the Street”); and almost simultaneously, the two buskers in question suffered the loss of their home in London, of five years standing, through eviction by the house-owners (the Roman Catholic Church), it having been only a squat.

So with a new job, which it looked like we could take with us wherever we chose to go but which was landing us in trouble with the Police in UK, and further with homelessness staring us in the face in our native London, we did what many British buskers used to do in those days – packed up and took ourselves across to the Continent!

Well, although considerably less risky in most European locations than it was in Britain, the life of a street musician was not entirely trouble-free over there either. After a month in Belgium playing to cafe terraces in Antwerp and sleeping in a disused old railway station at the edge of town, we caught the attention of a family living nearby our temporary home, and got run in by the local police (squatting strictly forbidden apparently), who advised us that if we signed a statement they had drawn up for us, saying that we had not been able to find accommodation in the local hotels, but were anyway now just on our way to Holland, they would let us go without any further repercussions. (We weren’t, but don’t tell anybody…)

Or again, in Switzerland, where we were actually going, we arrived in the city of Winterthur, by coincidence at exactly the same time as their local festival, the 3rd Winterthurer Muzikwoche. Local publicity about this had, as we found out later, proclaimed that “the music should be on the streets“. But not ours apparently – after playing successfully to a moderately-sized audience for maybe half an hour, we were whisked off to the local Police Station, fined a percentage of our takings, and informed that the show was over! Though not especially publicity-hungry in those days, we did actually make the acquaintance of a local journalist called Arthur Shappi, who wrote an article about the incident, pointing out the obvious irony of the situation.

By the middle of September we were on our way again, stopping off for ten days in Skopje, Yugoslavia (a city which we would get to know almost as a second home in later years) quickly crossing northern Greece, and arriving in Istanbul in the first week of October.

To be continued…

“It’s a Crime to Play Music in the Streets”, our protest song about the situation of buskers in London, performed in streets all over Continental Europe

You Can’t Get A Lather On Your Shaving Brush When There’s Toothpaste On Your Face

Free Enterprise in old Yugoslavia

Photograph by Michael Kay 1986

When I first met, in 1973, the personage known at that time as Bongo Mike the Street Poet, and started working with him selling poems in the street, one of the things I was most impressed by was the fact that he made a living from it, and was thus not existing off hand-outs from a society he self-identified as living outside of; he felt free to criticize it or not, as an artistic decision. I am aware that this could be seen as an over-simplification of complex matters; but there was a straightforwardness about Mike’s point of view, an easily-graspable immediacy which captured my imagination. There have been others I have heard about over the years who have described themselves as street poets, but I am not convinced that the designation had, in every case, the authenticity, or should I call it authority, that it had when Mike used the term – he having paid his dues with a period in his young life of homelessness and virtual destitution, and then having managed to survive from the proceeds of selling his poems to people in the street for the best part of a decade. With Mike you always got “exactly what it said on the tin”.

At the end of the 1970’s and into the 1980’s, as the period of state-sponsored experimental art wound down in a flurry of Thatcherism – “market forces”, “the threat from Russia” and the Special Patrol Group – Bongo Mike and I met the challenges of the time by switching from poetry to music, a more easily “marketable” commodity, joining the ranks of the buskers we had worked alongside for so long. It came to our attention that the street theatre groups and progressive art venues we had been familiar with were getting thinner on the ground, starved of their Arts Council sponsorship. This was not something we were happy about, but still we couldn’t help feeling that our insistence on being always self-sufficient was perhaps more realistic than we had at times been given credit for.

The publicity generated by our campaign for the decriminalisation of busking, which gathered momentum through the 80’s, was to a certain extent underpinned by a perception amongst some in the media that we had found a refreshing way to stand the Thatcher argument on its head. The Independent chose to make our campaign the subject of a leading article in November 1987 (accompanying a front-page article about us in the same issue), beginning their opinion piece with the slightly bizarre assertion: “Bongo Mike and Extremely Frank Jeremy are small businessmen”.

During this period of history, when monetarism seemed to be vanquishing the “threat from Russia”, and American academics were confidently welcoming “the end of history” (it has more recently fought back, one might think), Bongo Mike and myself were frequent visitors to Yugoslavia, and witnessed the slow, painful transition from the communist economic system to the capitalist one, which convulsed the whole of eastern Europe at that time.

A song of ours which encapsulated our farewell to the departing regime was entitled “You Can’t get a Lather On Your Shaving Brush, When There’s Toothpaste On Your Face”.

However, several years further down the line, as the breakaway state of Macedonia – which we were particularly involved with – struggled with some of the contradictions of embracing free market capitalism, we felt a need to update the lyric of our song, which was then re-named “Two Religions”, to reflect – perhaps – our eventual conversion to the idea of the mixed economy, and along with that our decision to disengage our own concerns from the conventional political arena.

One final image I wish to share is my memory of a meeting in Skopje, in the early nineties, with an American gentleman who was making a pitch to represent the interests of the “small, small business”. How small? Oh, operations with even as few as twenty employees! (See photo at top.)

Goodbye Mike – one year further on.

This being the week – in 2020 – when Mike went into coma and died, I can do little else but try to celebrate his life and achievements.

The Guardian: Other lives

Michael Kay obituary

Michael Kay (Bongo Mike)
Michael Kay (Bongo Mike) in a promotional image for When The Sun Shines On Wigton, his 1979 exhibition of visual poems. Photograph: Frank Williams

Jeremy HelmThu 13 Aug 2020 17.41 BST

Bongo Mike (Michael Kay), who has died aged 76, was for almost 50 years my close friend and associate, and co-activist in the long-running campaign to get a better deal for buskers – the role in which he became best known to the public.

Born in the East End of London, he spent his early life in Edgware, the adopted son of Joe Kay and his wife, Celia (nee Adler). Joe and Celia were at that time managing a hardware store in Leather Lane, though Joe had earlier been a professional drummer, briefly leading his own dance band.

Michael, introduced to jazz by his father, became a talked-about young drummer on the early 1960s club scene, and a confidant of other young musicians who went on to fame and fortune – though he himself preferred to pursue a more individualistic cultural identity.Advertisement

In 1972 there appeared on the streets of London and elsewhere a certain Bongo Mike the Street Poet, distributing illustrated broadsheets of his poems for 10 pence each, and further mounting a succession of exhibitions of larger works he called “visual poems” at such venues as Camden Lock and the Art Meeting Place in Covent Garden.

This phenomenon, by the 80s, had mutated into Bongo Mike and Extremely Frank Jeremy (as I was by then known), the militant buskers, fighting through the courts as far as the European court of human rights for better treatment of street musicians. We did not gain any meaningful concessions in Europe, but nevertheless won, in Westminster county court in July 1988, what became known as the Twenty Pence Case (in ironic recognition of the damages we were awarded by the court for a false imprisonment by the British Transport Police).

In the 90s we were joined by other buskers, notably the London Public Entertainers Collective, and Michael was successful in winning support for the cause from the emerging cyberculture, being generously offered by James Stevens of the Backspace Cyberlounge the chance to set up the campaigning website Buskaction. After some two decades of consistent pressure, and the frequent highlighting – through the media – of the busker’s plight, there was achieved the partial, at least, decriminalisation of busking that exists in the UK today.

Retiring from busking in 2010, Michael secured shortly afterwards, with the 33Jazz record label, the release of an album of our own contemporary folk songs, Away from Tube Trains.

Michael was ill for almost a decade with the effects of a stroke and vascular dementia.

He is survived by a half-brother, Ronnie.

One of Bongo Mike’s songs, co-written and co-performed by your Blog host. (The website, referred to in this podcast of 2014, can no longer be reached.)

And to round off this presentation, one of the finest of Mike’s many Visual Poems (as he described this style of work), from the exhibition collectively titled “From A Poet’s Travels”

The material presented on this post is copyright protected

An Artistic Disturbance of the Peace

This is a phrase we came up with many years ago, not long after we had started our campaign to bring about a better deal for us buskers. We had been interviewed in Belgium – where we were generally seen in a more favourable light than in UK – for a student newspaper published by Leuven University, called “Veto”. On reading the article that eventually appeared, and seeing that it was in fact a serious presentation of the ideas we had spoken about to the journalist, Wim Verhelst, we were encouraged to write a rather longer pamphlet ourselves, called “An Artistic Disturbance of the Peace”, which would deal with the same range of topics as the “Veto” article, and which we hoped might serve us as a calling card to the cultural establishment back in London.

Tony Samstag, the journalist on The Times who first broke the story about us and our campaign, was intrigued by our pamphlet, and got a feature about it published in The Times in Jan. 1984. Though grateful for the publicity, and for the clearly sympathetic approach of Mr Samstag’s piece (it’s always nice to have friends), we were nonetheless apprehensive that we were back where we started, as far as the ‘being taken seriously’ thing was concerned. To quote the Times article: “I have known them for a year now, and I still have no idea whether they are entirely serious or whether their occasional pomposity and studied idiosyncrasy are really an elaborate send-up of the conventional world they have so uproariously rejected.”

Yes…I mean, they were an elaborate send-up, in part. As were the songs we were writing in that era – “I am a Professor of the University of the Street”, “If You Can’t Have a Shave in a Toilet, Where Can You Have a Shave” et al. But the Police Stations, the court appearances, the public insults and the ritual humiliations were all real.

Even if my life as a busker and “street person” is only a memory now, I still feel the hatred and contempt from the official world, and that particular sense of being ‘outside’ that goes with the state of homelessness.

But to look at the matter from a slightly different angle: the (rightly)much-praised book by Peter Brook “The Empty Space”, which I have read in recent years, begins Chapter One with this: “I can take an empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” Good. Great, in fact. Then look at a sentence from our “Artistic Disturbance of the Peace”, drawn from our own journeyings in exile: “Most of the activities nowadays ennobled by the description “art” or “entertainment” are rooted in spontaneous creations and performances at the grass roots of society; there is in fact no break in the series of links between the underground platform and the stage.” These two trains of thought seem to me to be mirror images of each other, the one emanating from the progressive professional’s study, the other from the busker’s crash-pad. Progressive professionals get proper recognition; we got six months! (So to speak. If we were able to avoid serious confrontation with the law, as Strasbourg complained when dismissing our case, it was not for want of trying by the authorities, but simply the result of our being battle-trained in fighting prosecutions.)

Both Mike and I were continually, over the years, writing down thoughts on scraps of paper, thinking that one day we’d assemble these thoughts into a book that would explain just what we had been trying to achieve with our court cases and our weird songs. It grieves me that Mike died before it was possible to do this, but I am trying now to take on the challenge by myself.

One of the principal obstacles we faced, the nearer we got to achieving any practical result, was the infiltration, into our presentation of the wrongs being suffered by buskers, of the concept of a “buskers licence” as being the answer.

When a busking performance is successful, one of the main features of that success is that the busker is just there. No other form of entertainment achieves this, so far as I know, and in a city such as London, a hothouse of massive plans and ambitions, both collective and individual, it is like a flower that can grow out of concrete. Licensing essentially kills off this unique aspect of busking, and like some cheap three card trick substitutes for it an underlayer of the regular music and entertainment business.

We finally addressed this issue in our third application to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, but got no nearer the hearts of the judges than we had on previous occasions.

I want to include as a postscript to this entry a cartoon drawn nearly 300 years ago by an artist called William Hogarth, which doesn’t really need any comment.

The Enraged Musician. William Hogarth 1741

And as a second postscript: while travelling today, May 24th 2021, on the District Line on London’s tube system, I heard the following announcement over the Public Address system of the train I was on, “Beggars and buskers are operating on this train. Please do not encourage these activities by supporting them.”

This is a demonstration recording of a recent song.

The Casebook Of Bongo Mike and Extremely Frank Jeremy (2)

“Listen Chaps, You’ve Won. It’s Only A Question Of How Much!”

It was 1984. Our second application to the European Court of Human Rights had joined our first one in the dustbin of history. And a visit we had made to the United Nations Commission in Geneva had borne similarly little fruit. It’s not my remit to belittle the work of these organisations – simply to point out how remote their authority seemed to be from the concerns of two buskers, guitar and bongos and collapsible stool in hand, who managed to fall foul of the authorities – in one way or another – in virtually every country they worked in.

The iconic 90 meter water fountain in Geneva

Anyway, it being early July, there was a bit more busking to be done before the café terraces of Western Europe became populated entirely with summer tourists (who never paid), and then we would be disappearing to a cheaper part of the continent to give our voices a rest for a month or two, before taking on the London tubes and trains in the Autumn.

1984’s summer break was an interesting one, which I’ll probably talk about in some later post, but the storyline I’m following here skips the rest of the summer, taking us back to UK in early October, and up the M1/M6 to Chorley in Lancashire, to visit our friends Stefan Sierzant and Barry Pamplin, two radical lawyers who had successfully sued the Kensington Police on our behalf over an illegal body search, and who were interested in our campaign against the abuse of buskers on the London Tube.

At our conference with Barry we showed him a copy of the London Transport bye laws, and pointed out the two that related to busking, viz, 22(1) which forbade the playing of music to the annoyance of any other person, and 22(2)(c) which forbade unlicensed soliciting for alms, reward or employment. We described a typical sort of incident, where a train guard or platform attendant would hear our music as we were performing on a train carriage, would board the train and summarily order us off.

Photographs by Seamus McGarvey

Barry thought for a moment: “Ok”, he said, “next time you get one of these interruptions, ask if anyone is annoyed by the music. If no-one says they are annoyed, then it seems to me that you haven’t committed an offence, so there would be no reason for the staff to demand that you leave the train.”

Not so long after that we did run into another interruption by a train guard, who heard our performance on a District Line Tube train and ordered us off. The passengers, when asked, didn’t say they were annoyed, so we refused to get off. The guard, and the platform staff who had come over to support him, eventually gave up arguing with us, and sent the train away – but four stations down the line the police were waiting. They dragged us off the train, marched us to an office where they held us for half an hour, then let us go. We had, however, got two witnesses from among the passengers, one of whom actually got off the train with us and stayed around until we were released.

We wrote out a statement and sent it off, together with the witnesses’ details, to Barry in Chorley. And after some to-ing and fro-ing of paperwork, Sierzants issued a writ in our name against the two Police officers in question, who belonged to the British Transport Police. The writ was for wrongful arrest and false imprisonment. (It seems it’s a peculiarity of the law that, if you start an action, you don’t always end up suing the people who’ve actually caused you the problem.)

But it was a scary moment. The possibility of being run off the transport system, losing our income and having to flea abroad again was ever-present in our minds. People we spoke to advised us to give it up, repeating the mantra, “You can’t fight the police”.

For a number of reasons the case was delayed coming to court, but on July 4th, 5th and 6th 1988 we had our moment. The judge was not very sympathetic to our case, seeming to be himself annoyed about the fact that there were so many journalists there to report on it. And in fact it didn’t seem to be going very well for us, despite the evidence of a Mr Christopher Wintle – then Head of Music at Goldsmiths College – who although not present on the day of the incident under discussion, gave a glowing account of a performance of ours that he had witnessed on a train on a different day.

It was when our barrister Mr Nigel Ley was cross-examining the last witness in the case, one of the policemen, that things changed. The constable’s memory of the incident differed from ours in several respects, but it was a point about which he actually agreed with us – that he hadn’t arrested us – that seemed to cause a problem for London Underground.

It’s curious how everything can turn on one momentary slip. Because, with the PC being so sure that they hadn’t arrested us, by which power then had they held us in the office? The whole atmosphere in the court changed in a second – though Mike and I, not being lawyers ourselves, had to wait till later to properly understand why. Mr Ley spoke to us afterwards, pronouncing those unforgettable words, “Listen chaps, you’ve won. It’s only a question of how much!”

It certainly was. We got a sense of the way the wind was blowing as Judge Harris, in his summing up (which was subsequently adjudged by the Court of Appeal to have been defective), advised the Jury that they were at liberty to award minimal damages, since the imprisonment had been purely “technical” – as he saw it. The jury duly awarded us twenty pence.

There was a slightly bizarre postscript to the story. A considerable time – maybe 15 years – later, Mike and I had just finished performing our act on a British Railways train from Waterloo to Wimbledon, and were making a brief collection from the passengers. It had been quite popular, and one man spoke to Mike as he put a pound coin in the upturned bongos:

“That’s more than I gave you last time” he said mysteriously.

“Oh, how much was it that time?” asked Mike, “have you seen us before, then?”

“I sure have”, he replied, “I gave you twenty pence last time. I was on the jury at Westminster County Court that day!”.

“Oh”, said Mike, a bit taken aback, “did you know, we were quite upset about that.”

“Yes, I heard all about it”, he said, “I saw you on the news that night, on the telly. But you got us wrong. We weren’t against you. It’s just we reckoned you two was having a laugh, so we thought we’d have one as well. That’s all it was!”

So, thanks to Judge Harris’s summing up, and a jury’s sense of humour, we had all ended up looking a bit ridiculous; but in news terms, the week had been ours. Mike and I felt already that London Underground would eventually have to back down; and after another group of buskers some years later took up a case of their own, which generated further publicity for the issue, the die was definitely cast. But the idea that any new regime brought in by the said London Underground would be operated in such a way as to genuinely liberate buskers as artists – well that was just a dream too far.

This is a studio recording of the song we used to sing on trains, accompanied by a film improvised in a friend’s toilet. The lyric immortalises – if that’s the word for it – a real life altercation with an angry toilet attendant.