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.)