“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.
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.
Below 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.