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.

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