It all began with our flat in London, in April 2002. We’d spent the day moving our furniture to the centre of the rooms, so that the builders could install double-glazing for the windows and some radiators for the new central heating, and then we’d camped out in the sitting room to get some sleep. But disaster was waiting to strike.
Getting up energetically the next morning, from a makeshift bed on the floor of the sitting room, Mike slipped a disc. And then there could be no more Bongo Mike for a couple of months.
THE SINGING PASSENGER
But you will be familiar with how “necessity” is often credited with being “the mother of invention”? Our chief vocalist and percussionist could not perform on bongos on the train, because the getting up and down continually from his stool, not to mention the bodily movements involved in playing the bongos themselves, were too painful….well, ok, but he could still sing couldn’t he?
A trial run through of “If you can’t have a shave….”(albeit in our kitchen this time)
Yes, it seemed he could.
And so was born “The Singing Passenger” – as we called the act that we went on to perform for some two months, while Mike recovered from his injury. We appeared in our usual locations – although preferring tube trains to suburban mainline trains – but minus the bongos.
Despite our initial reservations it was quite successful. Artistically, at least. Our volume was lower, and frequently insufficient to reach much of the carriage, given this rather noisy setting we were accustomed to performing in; but the effect on those in our immediate vicinity was electric. Dressed for the occasion in white shirt and bow-tie, maybe hanging onto an overhead strap, and not obviously connected with me standing nearby, Michael would suddenly burst into song, as I hoisted up my guitar and launched into our introductory rendition of “This Train”.
And so it was that, after a couple of weeks of this, two or three members of a rock group with their manager heard us singing, in the train carriage they were travelling on, and gave us a phone number to ring re: playing as a support act at a concert they would be giving a couple of months later, at the Astoria Theatre in London.
Not the type of booking we usually got, as our solicitor friend pointed out!
This is a film of our section of the concert, as provided to us by the management of the group My Vitriol.
And after a certain interval, in December 2016, as works were in progress to demolish the Astoria theatre to make way for alterations to Tottenham Court Road tube station, a telling sign appeared on the hoarding by the side of the road. It struck me as a possibility that some Westminster bureaucrat was thinking they’d really scored a triple whammy this time: no busking on trains since London Underground had brought in the limited licensing scheme at some tube stations; no busking now in the street outside the Astoria; and in case one were getting any big ideas, no more Astoria either!
But knocking down stone walls does not kill an idea…. as William Blake might have said.
It must have been Mike (Bongo Mike, my former musical partner, now sadly deceased) who first coined the term “Situation Art”.
It was at a time when we were living mostly on the continent, busking gypsy-style from cafe to cafe in the winter, and from terrace to terrace in the summer. In Britain in those days near enough any form of busking was against the law – though of course that didn’t mean that you couldn’t get away with it, it just meant that you were looking over your shoulder the whole time, or employing someone else to be a look-out for you, so that you knew when the police were coming. This way of life was apparently tolerable to some, but Mike and I – being perhaps travelers by nature – preferred the inconveniences of a nomadic existence abroad to the unpleasantness of regular visits to Police stations and Magistrates Courts in our home country.
We were based for some years in a Belgian town called Leuven, best-known in some circles for its old University, and in others for the Stella Artois brewery. Sitting one day in a student cafe on the Tiensestraat, Mike suddenly announced, in a loud voice, which he would use when he wanted others besides just me to hear what he was saying, “What we are doing is Situation Art”.
This was, I would say, the starting point of a journey that would last for many years, until we could play together no more, because of ill-health.
There we were, busking outside “The London Experience” in Coventry Street, London’s West End, with our friend David Benn on the tin-whistle (or flageolet as it is sometimes called). The year was 1978, and we were finding out what it was like to be hunted criminals, regularly hauled up in court for “obstructing the free passage along the highway”. Two songs that were to become permanent fixtures in our repertoire were composed on this very spot: “It’s a Crime to Play Music in the Streets” and “I am the Professor of the University of the Street”.
Our acoustic performance of “Professor” became the mainstay of our busking act on the continent, during what we called our exile period; but back in London ten years later, we recorded an electric version of the song, which we decided to make into a vinyl single. We called our electric act “Disco Justice” (more on that name another time), and released the record of “Professor” b/w “Away from Tube Trains” on our own independent label, Newspaper Records.
It so happened we’d used some pictures of Skopje – a town in Yugoslavia we often used to visit in those days – for the artwork of the single. We took along some copies next time we went down there, and our friend Vladimir Mandecevski – who owned a record shop in Skopje called Bagi Shop – started playing it on his program on the local Studentsko Radio. It became quite popular with local kids who were enthusiastic listeners to Indie music from the UK and USA.
Vladimir was known to everybody in Skopje as Mande. As well as playing our record quite a lot, Mande would interview us when we were there, and used to say nice things about us…….which was always welcome, considering how much we were up against things at home.
The song lasts an epic 5 mins 20 secs, featuring towards the end a surprise verdict and punishment meted out by the Magistrate.
Walking out in the early morning from the tiny, terraced house in Leuven which we had made our base on the continent – it being some time in the early 1980’s, and the day being Tuesday, our day for traveling to Aachen (just over the border in Germany) – we were happy simply to be alive, and following our chosen occupation.
It was a short walk from our street to the railway station – we would probably have had a coffee as usual in the Café Oud Leuven on the way, bought international tickets in the station, and had a joke with our friends in the ticket office to pass the time, since we were usually early for the train.
On our way out to the platforms on this occasion, we noticed that Padé was also at the ticket office, asking in a loud voice for a ticket to Tienen (although he called it Tierlemont- the French name). Padé was a Belgian gypsy. So far as we knew, he lived with his family in a caravan, somewhere on the edge of town. He supported his family by busking round Belgium, rather as we did, only we did not have a family. We ran into him – or perhaps I should say he ran into us – the very first day we showed up in Leuven. We were having a drink in the student café known as Alma 1, on the main road which led from the station into the centre, when in walked a remarkable-looking personage with a guitar, about as dishevelled as we were, with black hair, heavily lined, swarthy face, and a thick moustache. He started immediately to play the guitar in a distinctive rhythmic manner for a minute or so, before hurrying round the tables to make his collection.
We found out later that he was well-known in Leuven, in fact people would say that you knew summer had arrived when you saw Padé! Despite the affection people had for him though, it seemed he was not accepted as a proper musician – but I always thought that he had a perfectly natural and expressive way of making his guitar sound, and in addition he was completely professional in his relationship with the audience, no matter how informal the situation. Unfortunately, it was extremely difficult – in fact almost impossible – to get into conversation with him.
Anyway, our train came in, and Padé got on the same train, because Tienen lay in the same direction from Leuven as did the German border. We saw Padé head straight for the buffet car and order a glass of Loburg, in French, again in a loud voice – and once again I experienced a fleeting sense of admiration for his style! Although we weren’t stopping off at Tienen ourselves that day, it was in fact a town where we frequently did play, though normally on Sundays. There was an interesting collection of cafés and restaurants that we used to sing in, in the evening, but our real joy on the visit would come from sitting through the Sunday afternoon in the strangely atmospheric railway station ticket hall, waiting as it gradually filled up every half hour with people making the journey into Brussels; then ten minutes or so before the train was due, we would give a performance of one or two old country-blues numbers and make a collection, winding up just as the carriages chugged in alongside platform 1. They were magical moments that never failed. We sometimes thought we saw the station master watching us through his little window, but he didn’t say a word.
The train proceeded eastwards from Tienen; through Landen, where a disused train car standing near the station had been converted into a quaint little restaurant, and on to the city of Liège, where we would often have to change trains. Liège was our Friday pitch. That is to say, we would sit the whole of Friday afternoon in the station cafeteria with our instruments at the ready, every now and then playing a few songs suitable to the party atmosphere that usually prevailed, and making a collection. The waiters generally liked it, in fact on one occasion one of them did an impromptu dance on an empty table; it was the toilet attendants who disapproved, finding us – I think – a bit too cavalier on occasions when we surreptitiously unplugged the juke-box to enable the customers to hear our performance!
And so past Verviers, where sits the Cour de Cassation – the highest court in the Belgian legal system – then through the northernmost fringes of the beautiful Forest of Arden, past the border town of Welkenraedt, and on to the German border itself – which, for those entering by train, is situated in Aachen Station.
Now this could go quite smoothly, or it could go wildly wrong. It just depended on your luck on any particular day. In any event you would have your passport checked, and always our names would be spelled out into a border guard’s walkie-talkie: “Heinrich – Emil – Ludwig – Martha; Kaufmann – Anton – Ypsilon” (that’s our surnames, Helm and Kay, in German police language). But on a bad day there would be a reception committee waiting on the platform of Aachen Hauptbahnhof, we would be marched along to the police office, and ordered to strip off all our clothes…. So, despite the fact that Aachen – when you actually got there – was a most attractive, surprisingly bohemian city, the problems we had entering Germany at that border do mean that this otherwise fascinating train journey is unlikely to take first place in our eventual rankings; although, in fairness, it should be conceded that the Aachen border was not the only one to offer this unconventional type of welcome – our strip-tease act was quite well-known all over the continent, and closer to home in Britain, too.
(Since the implementation of the Schengen agreement in 1995, you can now sail through Aachen station without so much as an “Ausweis bitte!” to disturb your day; although Covid restrictions, in these strange times, can still lead to the temporary re-introduction of border controls.)
So You Think You Can Make It to the Station Alone?
And so to some music. This song – I think of it as a wiser Bongo Mike addressing his impatient younger self – was recorded acoustically, and released as the ‘B’ Side of the first single from our own label, Newspaper Records.
On the night of November 30th 1966 occurred an event which was to change Michael’s life forever. He had spent some hours that evening in a pub called The Ship, in Wardour Street, which was then one of several Soho pubs frequented by the music business; but he had left after an impassioned argument with music manager Tony Stratton-Smith.
Feeling rather disturbed by this argument (of which maybe more another time), he took a train to Finchley Road, where he visited some friends; then, realizing he had missed the last bus home, he hitched a lift which took him as far as Mill Hill, from where he intended to walk the rest of the way. Always as much a poet as a musician, Michael used to enjoy rambling around the deserted streets of suburban areas of London at night, finding inspiration there – and, with much on his mind after the events of earlier that evening, as he slowly made his way homeward, he wandered up a narrow tree-lined turning, deep in thought and talking to himself. When he re-emerged a few minutes later, he was suddenly grabbed from behind and thrown to the ground by a person who turned out to be a police officer, claiming to have seen him attempting to burgle a house!
To cut a long story short, he was taken to a police station where, despite his denials, he was charged with “being a suspected person, found loitering with intent to commit a felony” (the notorious, and now repealed, “Sus” law), and subsequently found guilty of this offence in the local magistrates court and fined accordingly.
But Michael was a person who wanted to believe in society and its institutions, rather than engage in slick cynicism, and against the advice of many who told him to just forget about it and get on with his life, he set out to appeal. The enforced activity of applying before a High Court judge for legal aid, finding a barrister and solicitor to represent him, and preparing his case for the appeal, acted as a kind of therapy which enabled him to keep his sanity; and, as the newspaper cutting shows, the appeal was successful, even if Mike was not so happy to be warned by the Judge (Mr Richard Vick) that for his own good he should not in future go out wandering late at night….
Fortunately for us he took little notice of this warning, and some of his best songs have come from the times when he would hang around in empty night-time or early morning streets. But the whole episode, occurring when he was in his early 20’s, had a huge effect on his later life.
Not forgetting the “Poem For A Loiterer” – one of some 80 different broadsheets of Mike’s, that he and I, working together, would print multiple copies of, and sell on the streets of London and many other towns and cities around the UK, in the 1970’s.
On September 15th 1978 we entered Jugoslavia from Italy. Bongo Mike and Extremely Frank Jeremy. And after waiting at the border for a couple of hours we thumbed a lift to Ljubljana, regional capital of Slovenia (now of course an independent country). It was late afternoon. We walked around the city for a while and came upon a large square in front of a shopping centre, surrounded by neighbouring buildings, and possessed of a raised section at one end which it was impossible for us, being street musicians, not to see as a natural stage.
We unpacked our instruments and started to play, and over the next half hour or so the square gradually filled with young people, who reacted to us as if we were the first street musicians they had ever seen. When we finished we were treated to resounding applause and showered with Jugoslavian dinars, I was button-holed by a couple of young girls, while Mike got us fixed up with a place to crash… So far so good.
But our hearts were set on a longer journey. The following morning we hit the road again, and two and a half days later were in the southernmost Jugoslavian republic of Macedonia, standing on the Boulevard 26th July, at the edge of Bit Pazaar – otherwise known as the Turkish Market – in the centre of Skopje old town.
We walked into the market area and soon were surrounded by a crowd of children, amused by the sudden appearance of two long-haired musicians complete with instruments and large travelling bag. Having made it clear that we wanted to find something to eat, we were escorted by our young entourage to a restaurant with a small terrace out front, called Restoran Turist. People were friendly, and eventually the conversation came round to where we would sleep that night. Someone said they knew of a hotel just round the corner, and would find out for us if there were any rooms. It seemed there were, and it seemed they were quite cheap – in fact, by our instant calculation, easily affordable even for two buskers. And so we were introduced to the Hotel Shar, Skopje – a place which was for many years, until we found our own home in Belgium, the only fixed point in our nomadic life on this planet Earth.
The staff of the Shar all seemed to have been hand-picked for their distinctive personality as much as anything else – each one was a genuine original. Of course, we didn’t get to know them all immediately; this first encounter with the Shar lasted only ten days. But we returned year after year until 1989, accumulating during that time unforgettable impressions, of the milieu, of the people who worked there and gravitated round it..
Adjoining the hotel there was a restaurant, also called Shar, which could be thought of as a sister-enterprise (private business was allowed in Jugoslavia, provided the total number of employees did not exceed fifteen), and I’m going to tell the story of Bayram, a deaf-and-dumb Roma, among whose responsibilities was the care of the restaurant toilet. This was situated to one side of the beautiful little courtyard lying within the hotel walls, where the restaurant’s clientele would sit, drink and eat their meals during the summer months.
We would see Bayram around, but had no direct dealings with him in the early days, because initially we never used to eat or drink in the restaurant or use its toilet, having our own washroom next to the bedroom that always seemed to be allocated to us; so he was just another regular face, but not someone we had made friends with.
Now, sometimes when we woke up in the morning (life started quite early at the Shar) we would hear a strange gurgling noise, which we assumed – without giving the matter much thought – to be the song, or cry, of some particular type of bird native to that environment. But imagine our surprise, a few visits further down the line, when we observed a blazing row between Bayram and a customer of the restaurant (who had apparently used the toilet, and failed to leave the courtesy ten dinars in the receptacle provided), and heard issuing from Bayram’s mouth the precise noise, only many times louder, that we were used to hearing in the mornings from what we thought was some Macedonian variant of the crow family.
It was an amazing revelation, and one which actually led to a deep-seated friendship between us and Bayram. I’m not sure exactly what the basis for this was, but the following idea has occurred to me (I think it’s a reasonable analysis, though some people might consider it too fanciful): thus, it could be argued that a part of the alienation which buskers typically feel in so many situations, is connected with the denial of their voice as a “proper”, legitimate artistic medium; and this could in turn have been the unconscious basis for the bonding between Bayram – the man who could only croak strange noises – and Mike and myself.
Be that as it may, Bayram soon appointed himself as our sponsor/guardian angel in the situation. Remember we were buskers, and even though from a respected country, nevertheless renegades without official recognition from that country – or indeed official invitation from the Ministry of Culture in Skopje. And so we found our standing to be at times a little insecure – as on the occasion when, having been caught busking in town and then marched back to the hotel by the local police to have our passports checked, we became the butt of humorous remarks and asides for a period of several days. Bayram alone remained loyal, offering me as consolation a pair of second-hand shoes he had picked up in the Bit Pazaar.
Or again – on Friday afternoons there used to be a gathering of ethnic folk musicians at the tables in the courtyard, and we began to notice a certain cynicism on their part towards us, as being merely “gypsies” who used music to scrape up a few shillings for the next meal (and not even proper gypsies, either). But Bayram wasn’t going to let his new friends be treated in that way. One Friday, as we were walking through the courtyard with our instruments to go out somewhere in town, Bayram suddenly appeared and forestalled any of the usual derogatory banter by insisting loudly that we should play a song right there, and prove our worth as entertainers (of course with his vocal impairment he couldn’t say all that, and we wouldn’t have understood it if he could have, because our Macedonian in those days was very limited, but it was obvious what he meant). I think we played Sweet Georgia Brown and I’m Confessing, with Mike on kazoo and vocals, and me on guitar and backing vocals – and though it probably wouldn’t have passed muster at the Cotton Club, we felt, as we often did, that the street players of the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band from New Orleans might have been watching over us approvingly. Anyway, it was good enough to silence our critics at that moment, and Bayram was overjoyed at our triumph!
A bit later still, to celebrate our friendship with Bayram, we put a photo of him, standing with me near the hotel, on the cover of our second single “Professor of the Street”, and showed a copy of it to him next time we were in Skopje. But tragedy was to strike – a few days after showing him the picture, we heard that he had been knocked over by a motor car as he was walking home, and killed. We were haunted by the thought that maybe it had been our fault in some way, and to expiate our feeling of guilt – be it real or imaginary – we wrote a song, called simply “Song For Bayram”. Below is a link to a video of it on YouTube, shot in and around Shuto Orisari (known locally as “Shutka”), a village just outside Skopje where many Roma people live. Some of the visual sequences were filmed with permission at a gypsy wedding there.
Still photography: private collection of Mike Kay.
Towards the end of the era of the “India By Land” hippy trail-makers, Mike and I often used to hang around the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul – where most western long-hairs would end up at some point – and make a bit of money busking in cafes and restaurants round about. There were two pudding shops, both very popular, one known just as “The Pudding Shop”, and the other one, a few doors away, called “Can [pronounced Jan] Shop”, or simply Can’s. The Pudding Shop itself, with its history of appearing in the film Midnight Express (although not a favourite film with Turkish people), had gone rather bigtime, and didn’t encourage buskers, but the Can Shop was a different story.
Can was the name of its owner, and he was always very friendly, encouraging us to play as much as we wanted, when he was there; but on days when his son was left in charge we weren’t welcome at all. However, a little bit further up the road (Divanyolu Caddesi) the roles were reversed. There, there was a hotel called Hotel Pirlanta, which had its own restaurant on the ground floor: and it was the boss of the hotel – the father – who didn’t like us; but his son Mehmet, running the restaurant, used to welcome us to come in and play to his customers.
A bit further up the street still was the Hotel Sultanahmet, probably the cheapest in the area, where the proprietor had once let Mike live free of charge in return for some English lessons. And it was while staying there, in a small room with walls painted a rather garish greeny-blue colour, that I had the idea one evening for a song that would start with the line, “Sometimes son is better than father, sometimes father better than son”….
We did nothing with the song for a long time, but many years later we were in Skopje, Macedonia, in the music studio of a friend of ours called Eroll Jakupi – a well-known singer of Albanian language pop songs in those days – who had said, could we find a song of ours for him? Well, we let him listen to a few we were currently working on, without getting much reaction (which didn’t surprise me, in fact, because it’s a very different musical culture down there), when I just thought to myself, “Oh well, why not try him with ‘Sometimes son…etc.’ ” and after I’d played a couple of lines Eroll stopped me. “That’s the one “, he said.
So, Mike did some magic with the lyrics, which we’d never properly finished, and which then of course had to be translated into Albanian; Eroll set Xheni (pronounced Jeni), his arranger at the time, to work; and in the end the version that seemed to come out the best was one that featured all of us weighing in with the vocals, but didn’t actually use the original line that had inspired the song – so it ended up being called “Mushti Rushti Balkan Families”. Don’t ask me what that means exactly, ’cause I haven’t a clue, but it’s got to be the only Balkan folk song that was written by two British buskers!
You can listen to it here if you like.
Myself, Bongo Mike, and Eroll Jakupi, on a bright but cold Winter’s day.
We had played some songs to a café terrace in Leuven, and got into conversation with a young professional type of guy who was interested in our tale of woe about being arrested for busking the whole time in our own country, but not having a proper right to work or reside anywhere else.. Tricky situation. It meant that to keep ourselves legit in Belgium, for example, we had to make sure we left and re-entered the country every eight days – that way we could remain permanent tourists.
The person we were conversing with was a Belgian lawyer called Raf Gerard. He started talking about the European Convention of Human Rights, which he said most European countries had signed up to, and the Court of Human Rights, which the citizens of participating countries could appeal to.
Well that was the first we’d heard of it. But it seemed that it was a remedy we could only apply to one half of our illness, so to speak, because the individual only had the right to complain about their own country – so we could fight about the performing difficulties in Britain, but not about the residence difficulties on the continent. Ok, we could live with that.
Being the type of simpletons that we were, we decided on the direct approach. We hitch-hiked down to Strasbourg from our place in Leuven, having slept out one night on the way in some sort of building site just outside Metz. In Strasbourg we met some French students who befriended us and offered to put us up for a couple of nights. And so the assault on the bastions of justice began.
Turned out it wasn’t the actual Court we wanted – or at least, not at first. You had to start with the Council of Europe, and if they thought you had an arguable case they would represent you against your government at the Court.
So we go into the Council of Europe building, and someone explains that we will need to see the British rapporteur. We’re shown into a room, and a few minutes later in walks a glamorous young person announced as Madame Dollé, who turns out to be English. She’s quite matey with us, and says something along the lines of “Nice try lads, but I’m afraid you’ve got no chance!”
Well we hadn’t come all this way to be shown the door quite that quickly, so patiently we set out to demonstrate that this wasn’t just something we’d dreamed up for a laugh after a few drinks in the pub one night but was actually quite a serious issue, and eventually her face lightened up, as she said, “Yes, yes it’s about time we had a freedom of expression case here.” She gave us some forms to fill in then and there, and said we should find a lawyer to help us prepare our claim in detail. That was March 1983. Quite hopeful, after a tricky start.
Meanwhile back in England the Times and the Evening Standard had started following developments, which was a great asset, because getting publicity about the issue was half the battle – I mean, most people back home in those days didn’t even know that you couldn’t play music in a public place in London without being arrested.
We actually thought we had quite a good case. With, for example, Government publications like this one making use of images of buskers (THE HAPPY WANDERERS, a group of buskers from the 1950’s) to represent the character of Britain to people abroad, while at the same time British police were playing a nasty, dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with real-life buskers every day of the week – well, looked at in that way, the whole argument seemed cut and dried.
We had a lot to learn. The Commission Of Human Rights issued their report in October, turning down our application.
First off, they wouldn’t even commit themselves as to whether “the practice of street entertainment for gain falls within the scope of freedom of expression”.
Second, the fact that it was against the law apparently didn’t matter because “the applicants would be able to exercise their profession by virtue of an apparent official tolerance of buskers” (not something that we’d ever noticed).
And third, “The applicants have not substantiated their claim that they are outlawed, having managed to avoid serious confrontation with the police and prosecution for some years by their mobility” – so we’d weakened our case against the British Government by going abroad to avoid getting nicked, and our government had behaved very decently by allowing us to leave!
Two subsequent attempts, one in 1984 and one in 1995, also failed, and for the same reasons.
On one of our visits to Strasbourg in the eighties we stayed a night with an interesting guy we had got talking to – a soixante-huitard (or “sixty-eighter” in English), i.e. veteran of the 1968 riots and strikes in Paris. We discussed with him what we were trying to do. “Don’t worry”, he said, “the lawyers and judges will be sitting tonight in the finest restaurants in town, laughing about your case over a glass of champagne”.
If I look back, I can see two or three chance happenings in my early years that defined the course my life was to take. A meeting with Lionel Took when I was thirteen was the first.
So who was he, and what happened?
Well, I’d been trying for a while to get somewhere with playing a rather odd, junior-size guitar that my parents had given me for my eleventh birthday. My elder brother Martin played also, with friends of his, but though he was always quite encouraging in a general sense, there wasn’t really a role for me in their group, so I had rather a lone struggle.
Lionel Took was a friend of Martin’s, who lived nearby. One day in the Autumn of 1964, he just happened to come round to our house, but Martin was out – although his guitar must have been leaning against a chair in the living room. Lionel was interested in folk music and, for whatever reason, he just decided to fill in the time as he waited for Martin by showing me a few things on his guitar – like how to play finger style, and how to play the introduction to The Animals’ version of “House of the Rising Sun”, (a sort of all-purpose beginners package, back in the day). And if Martin hadn’t been out that afternoon, or had come back earlier…..the whole story might never have happened.
As it was, I never looked back. I pestered my mother until they got me a proper guitar for Christmas (well, Christmas and birthday combined, in fact, because it stretched the budget a bit, but I got the guitar at Christmas anyway), my grandparents chipped in with a harmonica as their contribution, I made a harness – so that I could play the two at the same time – out of a converted wire coat-hanger, and I was away, with a song about a fox and a goose, if my memory serves me. It seems that at some point during the years that followed I conceived the idea, without telling anybody else or even letting my conscious mind fully in on the plan, to live my life as a sort of amalgam of “The Autobiography of a Supertramp” and “Bound For Glory” (autobiographies respectively of the Welsh poet W.H.Davies and the American folk singer Woody Guthrie). And after I’d paid my dues to the grand old British Education System, some eight years later, I went off and just did it.
If there was a problem at school, it was that the type of pupil I was, i.e. rather conservative, earnest and hard-working, didn’t fit so well with the type of musician I was trying to be, i.e. into contemporary folk and pop-rock. My teachers were mostly very friendly and helpful to me, but I would have to say that the chief impetus was concerned with getting my arse up the M11 to Cambridge rather than getting myself a career as a busker-songwriter.
And when I did get to Cambridge, I would again have to say that I never really settled in. Considering that I was, as far as I knew at the time, the first person in my family to get to Cambridge; and then understanding how proud they all were of me, and how encouraging they had always been along the way… well, the truth was I couldn’t lightly walk away from it all. And of course, the knowledge that I had successfully competed for my place did give me something to be proud of, even if my music was going nowhere. So it was easier to just immerse myself in the whole collective experience, on the vague assumption that something would work out at some point, rather than admit that I had lost my way, and get out of the gilded cage while there was still time.
Photographs by Matt Moon
I approach my years at Cambridge with a little more humility these days than before – time alters one’s perspective. It was clearly a golden opportunity for a young person to set themselves up for life. It’s just that I wasn’t that person. And I couldn’t see any way to fit in with, nor usefully contribute to, the situation I was in – nor indeed could I even get out of it, as I have already explained. Retrospectively, I’m sorry it all went so wrong – though I hope anybody that I upset back then has recovered from it by now! A lot of water has passed under the bridge in the meantime, and today it seems to me that the years of chronic indecision, wasted though I used to consider them, were all but inevitable.
And so I want to conclude by recording that, at some point after I had started working with Bongo Mike, who was one of the most committed opponents of elitism and snobbery in art that you could ever hope to meet, he said to me that one of the reasons why he had been interested to get me to join with him in distributing poems in the street, and later playing music as well, was that when we had first met, in a squat in Belsize Park in 1973, when I was completely destitute, I told him that I had been to Cambridge University. That’s how hard it is to escape the whole thing – I even got my job as a busker because I’d been to Cambridge!
And as a footnote: I actually became acquainted with “The Autobiography of a Supertramp” because an English teacher at school read it to us in its entirety. I find myself wondering, these days, if it ever crossed his mind that any of us would be inspired to emulate the author.
“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 – in Geneva, Lausanne and a few other places – before the café terraces of Western Europe became populated entirely with summer tourists (who seldom 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 to him the two regulations 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. Oh, and try to get a witness to what happens.”
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 for wrongful arrest and false imprisonment against the two Police officers in question, who belonged to the British Transport Police. (It seems it’s a peculiarity of legal disputes, that you don’t always end up suing the people who actually started the trouble.)
But it was a scary moment. The possibility of being run off the transport system, losing our income and having to flee 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 following further pressure from us with a renewed application to Strasbourg and the setting up of a campaigning web-site, and after another group of buskers some years later took up a case of their own, which generated further publicity even though they lost the case, the die was definitely cast. But the idea that any new regime brought in by the said London Underground (as they would do eventually in 2003) would be operated in such a way as to genuinely liberate buskers as artists, and busking as an art form in its own right – Situation Art, as we called it ….. well that was just a dream too far.
Anyway, this is a film of an act that we used to perform on trains in and around London.