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 street musicians. 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 who interviewed us, Wim Verhelst, we were encouraged to write a rather longer pamphlet ourselves. We gave it the name “An Artistic Disturbance of the Peace”. It was to deal with the same range of topics as the “Veto” article, though written in English rather than Flemish, and would – we hoped – serve 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.

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 artistic work, and written without reference to Peter Brook: “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”(An idea that used to come to me when sitting on the District Line westbound platform at Victoria Station, watching the Eastbound platform slowly fill up with people entering from the stairs and the wings at the side).

These two trains of thought seem to me now 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! (Metaphorically, of course. Insofar as we were able to avoid serious confrontation with the law, a point Strasbourg had held against us when dismissing our case, it was not for the want of trying by the authorities, but simply the result of our being battle-trained in fighting off 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, and similar attempts at organization, essentially kill off this unique aspect of busking, and like some cheap three card trick substitute 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 state here that I don’t like the word “busker”. I object to it because it seems, to me at least, to be a designation that perpetuates an outdated, criminalized vision of what we do, and contains an implied suggestion of second-rate artistry. If I use it, it is simply because the terms “situation artist”, or “public place performer”, are too unwieldy, and “street musician” doesn’t always work when talking about forms of the art that don’t take place on the street. I live in hope that a better word will come along one day.

And as a 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.” Oh, wait a minute, aren’t London Underground the busker’s friend these days? Sorry, I’m confused.

An autobiographical song about the life of a nomadic street musician

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