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

Goodbye Mike – one year further on.

This being the week – in 2020 – when Mike went into coma and died, I can do little else but try to celebrate his life and achievements.

The Guardian: Other lives

Michael Kay obituary

Michael Kay (Bongo Mike)
Michael Kay (Bongo Mike) in a promotional image for When The Sun Shines On Wigton, his 1979 exhibition of visual poems. Photograph: Frank Williams

Jeremy HelmThu 13 Aug 2020 17.41 BST

Bongo Mike (Michael Kay), who has died aged 76, was for almost 50 years my close friend and associate, and co-activist in the long-running campaign to get a better deal for buskers – the role in which he became best known to the public.

Born in the East End of London, he spent his early life in Edgware, the adopted son of Joe Kay and his wife, Celia (nee Adler). Joe and Celia were at that time managing a hardware store in Leather Lane, though Joe had earlier been a professional drummer, briefly leading his own dance band.

Michael, introduced to jazz by his father, became a talked-about young drummer on the early 1960s club scene, and a confidant of other young musicians who went on to fame and fortune – though he himself preferred to pursue a more individualistic cultural identity.

In 1972 there appeared on the streets of London and elsewhere a certain Bongo Mike the Street Poet, distributing illustrated broadsheets of his poems for 10 pence each, and further mounting a succession of exhibitions of larger works he called “visual poems” at such venues as Camden Lock and the Art Meeting Place in Covent Garden.

This phenomenon, by the 80s, had mutated into Bongo Mike and Extremely Frank Jeremy (as I was by then known), the militant buskers, fighting through the courts as far as the European court of human rights for better treatment of street musicians. We did not gain any meaningful concessions in Europe, but nevertheless won, in Westminster county court in July 1988, what became known as the Twenty Pence Case (in ironic recognition of the damages we were awarded by the court for a false imprisonment by the British Transport Police).

In the 90s we were joined by other buskers, notably the London Public Entertainers Collective, and Michael was successful in winning support for the cause from the emerging cyberculture, being generously offered by James Stevens of the Backspace Cyberlounge the chance to set up the campaigning website Buskaction. After some two decades of consistent pressure, and the frequent highlighting – through the media – of the busker’s plight, there was achieved the partial, at least, decriminalisation of busking that exists in the UK today.

Retiring from busking in 2010, Michael secured shortly afterwards, with the 33Jazz record label, the release of an album of our own contemporary folk songs, Away from Tube Trains.

Michael was ill for almost a decade with the effects of a stroke and vascular dementia.

He is survived by a half-brother, Ronnie.

One of Bongo Mike’s songs, co-written and co-performed by your Blog host. (The website, referred to in this podcast of 2014, can no longer be reached.)

And to round off this presentation, one of the finest of Mike’s many Visual Poems (as he described this style of work), from the exhibition collectively titled “From A Poet’s Travels”

The material presented on this post is copyright protected

You Can’t Get A Lather On Your Shaving Brush When There’s Toothpaste On Your Face

Free Enterprise in old Yugoslavia

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 – and felt, justifiably therefore, 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/alternative art wilted before a flurry of Thatcherism – market forces, the threat from Russia and the Special Patrol Group, most notably – Bongo Mike and I stayed afloat, meeting 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”, as one put it. 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”.

As the 80’s progressed, as western economic strength seemed to be vanquishing the threat from Russia, and academics were confidently welcoming “the end of history” (though 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 anyway our decision to disengage our own concerns from the conventional political arena.

Nomads (1)-Beginnings.

Our friends at the train station, seeing us off on our journey

It was 1978. Mike had been in Turkey the previous Autumn, recovering from a bad attack of what he called Tube Train Sickness (more about that in some future post), and where he had – as he informed me on his return – felt the call to visit India at some point in the future. Back in London, in late Winter, it fell to me to inform him that the Street Poetry enterprise – which had been going since 1972 – was fast approaching the end of its life-cycle.

We put our minds to finding some alternative. Mike had always had his musicianship and song-writing (and occasional busking) as a second string to his bow, alongside his poetry; and as for me, I had in my younger days sung and played the guitar, and indeed even done a bit of summer holiday busking a couple of years running, as a kid…

And so it came to pass, that in the Spring of 1978 a new busking act appeared on the streets of London (see earlier post “The Professor of the University of the Street”); and almost simultaneously, the two buskers in question suffered the loss of their home in London, of five years standing, through eviction by the house-owners (the Roman Catholic Church), it having been only a squat.

So with a new job, which it looked like we could take with us wherever we chose to go but which was landing us in trouble with the Police in UK, and further with homelessness staring us in the face in our native London, we did what many British buskers used to do in those days – packed up and took ourselves across to the Continent!

Well, although considerably less risky in most European locations than it was in Britain, the life of a street musician was not entirely trouble-free over there either. After a month in Belgium playing to cafe terraces in Antwerp and sleeping in a disused old railway station at the edge of town, we caught the attention of a family living nearby our temporary home, and got run in by the local police (squatting strictly forbidden apparently), who advised us that if we signed a statement they had drawn up for us, saying that we had not been able to find accommodation in the local hotels, but were anyway now just on our way to Holland, they would let us go without any further repercussions. (We weren’t on our way to Holland, but don’t tell anybody…)

Or again, in Switzerland, where we were actually going, we arrived in the city of Winterthur, by coincidence at exactly the same time as their local festival, the 3rd Winterthurer Muzikwoche. Local publicity about this had, as we found out later, proclaimed that “the music should be on the streets“. But not ours apparently – after playing successfully to a moderately-sized audience for maybe half an hour, we were whisked off to the local Police Station, fined a percentage of our takings, and informed that the show was over! Though not especially publicity-hungry in those days, we did actually make the acquaintance of a local journalist called Arthur Shappi, who wrote an article about the incident, pointing out the obvious irony of the situation.

By the middle of September we were on our way again, crossing northern Italy without event and arriving in Yugoslavia; and our trip across that country that year, together with our involvement with the Hotel Shar in the city of Skopje, has been described in an earlier post (Song For Bayram).

Leaving Skopje by hitch-hike – our preferred method of travel in those days – we got a lift from a local who was driving to Bitola, a town near the Greek border. He spoke some English (we had not by then absorbed more than a few words of any of the Yugoslavian languages), and upon hearing that we wanted to go to Greece, he said that he would be happy to take us over the border himself, because he wanted to prove to us that there were people living over there who spoke Macedonian! We could not, at such an early stage of our acquaintance with the region, understand why this was so important to him, but anyway from the point of view of our journey it was one step further in the right direction, so who were we to refuse.

Anyway he did have the satisfaction of speaking to some random person in the street in Macedonian – or so it seemed, I must admit I wasn’t really an expert in those days – and celebrated the event by treating us to some food in a snack bar before saying goodbye. Thereafter we were, as so often in our nomadic years, left standing by the roadside at the edge of town in the fading early evening light, hoping for another lift before nightfall. We found over the years that Greece was never an easy place to get a lift, but I can no longer remember if on that occasion we got to Thessaloniki that night, or if we had to wait till morning. Nights were quite warm anyway, at that time of year.

Once in Thessaloniki we put up for a couple of nights in a hotel near the railway station called the Hotel Atlantis – which we would have a much fuller involvement with many years later – organized the Cholera jab which was required for entrance to Turkey that year, and set off again, next stop Kavala, a touristic town on the Aegean coast where we did our last bit of cafe-terrace performing for that Summer, and on again, arriving in Istanbul in the first week of October.

To be continued…

Nomads (2)-Maden Daği

Among my dog-eared souvenirs

In our travels we would occasionally meet people who, once they had ascertained that we were actually English, would delight in impressing us with their own versions of famous speeches from William Shakespeare et al… One of these was an elderly gentleman who was the principal receptionist at the hotel where we stayed, in Istanbul, this first year of our joint travels – the Hotel Sumer in Gedik Paşa.

Gedik Paşa is an area of the city not far from the famed hippy-haunt of Sultanahmet, and close by the equally well-known Grand Bazaar – or Kapali Çarsi, to give it its Turkish name.

“Aah, ‘To be or not to be – to be, to be true'”, this gentleman would intone each time we passed his desk on entering or leaving the hotel. As we would find again years later with another acquaintance, who inflicted a different but similarly grievous act of sabotage on the same quote – attempts at correction were futile.

“No, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question!'”, we would say with increasing desperation as the days went by. “Yes meester, thank you. Aah, ‘To be or not to be – to be, to be true'” would come the reply.

But the memory from Turkey that has lingered longest, is the music – broadcast continuously on long-distance coaches as you are carried from one city to the next, spilling out from shop doorways, orchestrated or simply sung… an outpouring of the soul of a people, a whole new world of sound to the western ear.

On one early morning walk in the vicinity of the Hotel Sumer, we were making some enquiries in a workshop where there was a printing machine, being operated by a young man who was singing a plaintive song to himself. Long before the days of the ubiquitous mobile phone, we nevertheless had with us a miniature dictaphone, and were able to make the following impromptu recording of voice and accompanying printing press:

Travelling further east from Istanbul we arrived, after a two day coach trip, at the city of Erzurum, in the north east of Turkey, over towards the Iranian border. It was the late afternoon, daylight was fading, and just as we entered an interesting, slightly gloomy-looking waiting-room/cafeteria, attached to the concourse of Erzurum bus station, the lights suddenly went out! Assured as we were by all and sundry that it was only a temporary power failure, nothing to worry about, still we decided – after some ten minutes had passed – to try our luck in the town itself which, sitting not so very far off, could be seen basking in the light denied us at the bus-station!

In the town we soon ran into an office which was a sort of provincial out-post of the tourist industry that had, as it seemed, sprung up to service the needs of the India-by-land devotees who for many years (it was by now already 1978) had been passing across Turkey, en route to those glittering destinations of Kabul and Kathmandu.

Sensing a rather cynical attitude to us, we made our own way through the narrow streets in the twilight, finding eventually an invitingly unpretentious small hotel of the type we always looked for, catering to the nomadic workforce of a still largely pre-industrial economy, and clearly not aimed at the tourist trade.

As the evening wore on, a drama developed around a rather rough-looking countryman who it seemed was not welcome to stay at the hotel – whether because he couldn’t afford a bed for the night, or for some other more obscure reason, we never discovered. He was ejected, and walked away, but some time later returned to the street, and through an open window from the lane outside serenaded those of us inside with a song. He seemed to melt the hearts of the management, and of another guest in particular, because he soon resumed his place in the small room which served as a foyer, and continued his song, alternating his vocal with periodic bursts on an improvised comb-and-tissue-paper instrument – eventually retiring to the room that had been given to him for the night.

The song had a striking and memorable chorus, “Deloy loy, deloy loy..”, which lodged itself somewhere in our heads. A few years later, on another stay in Turkey, we happened to make friends with the owner of a music shop selling cassettes of Turkish popular music, in the night-club area of Istanbul called Beyoğlu. On an impulse Mike chanted “Deloy loy, Deloy loy….”, and asked our new friend if he recognized that snatch of music. “You mean Maden daği!” he said triumphantly, and produced a vinyl single from one of the racks, which he then played for us. It was the same song.

Cassette of traditional songs by Izzet Altinmeşe,, from the same period as his first recording of Maden Daği

Having only the one disc left, he ran us off a copy of the song on a spare cassette, and also sold us a different cassette from the same singer, Izzet Altinmeşe. Time and wear over the years have rendered these cassettes unplayable, but by a miracle of the modern world, many of the same recordings can be heard today on YouTube – not, sadly, the original version of Maden Daği, but a much later, more upmarket rendition sung again by the same Izzet Altinmeşe (albeit rather older now, but still with the same spirit, I think).

Does the autobus still drive two days and nights along those partially unmade roads from Istanbul to Erzurum? And does the bus driver’s son still come round with little glasses of Turkish tea for the assembled passengers, at one of the periodic refreshment breaks? Or has that fascinating world disappeared forever? I’m not sure I really want to know.

Meanwhile Back In The Present

Stop press! I’ve started performing in the street again

(Dear reader, we will transport you back to Turkey in 1978 shortly,
but things are happening in London 2021, which are claiming our attention.)

This is me performing by myself outside Earls Court Station.

So where is Bongo Mike? Well I’m recording this in September 2021, and the sad fact is that Bongo Mike passed away in June last year 2020.

It’s taken me this long to get used to it, but you get over these things because you have to. Of course, a friendship and artistic partnership of the best part of fifty years doesn’t just vanish from your mind overnight; but now I’ve started busking again, I’m by myself, and I’ve had to work out a new act. I’m accustomed to having percussion going on with me as I’m playing the guitar, so I arrived at the conclusion that I should now provide it myself with a bass drum and foot-pedal, turning myself for the purpose of street playing into a one man band.

When I first came to London in the 70’s there were several one man bands operating in the street. I think it was the success of Don Partridge, who genuinely started his career as a busker and had a couple of hit records in the late 60’s as a one man band, that inspired others in London to try it as well. I knew Scotty and Herman the German, and there were others.

I’ve taken a slightly different approach from these others I’ve just mentioned, in that they all strapped their drum on their back and played guitar while standing, whereas I’m sitting with the drum in front of me – more in the way a drummer would. Don’t suppose it alters the sound much, but it’s a different theatrical effect. And playing music in the street is of course partly theatre.

As you can see below, I’m also starting to perform with harpist Mal Collins, whom I met at “The Grand Gathering”, hosted by Maggie and others in West Wales. . You might call us “One Man Band + One”

And you may have noticed that I’m a fan of Buddy Holly, who performed both these two songs. They seem to work well in the street.

But finally…. this below is another song Mal has joined me on, Singing The Blues. Three singers had hits with it in late 1956/57, Marty Robbins, Guy Mitchell and Tommy Steele – a little before my time, but it was one of the songs Mike liked to play in our early years of busking together, so I made its acquaintance then.

The Ever-Loving Light

This is Earls Court. Just outside the tube station. I’m singing a song called Midnight Special. It’s a song about being released from prison. I see it as quite a religious song. When Bongo Mike and I started busking in London, this was one of the first pitches we found – playing almost where I’m playing now. But the trouble was, in those days you could only last for about twenty minutes (or maybe slightly longer if you were lucky), before the police would come along. They would say, “Oh hello boys, just moving on were we”, or some friendly greeting like that. After a while we found it very difficult to co-exist with all that, and so we went over to the continent – I’m talking about 1978 – and for the next thirty years we spent a large part of our time over there, in exile as we saw it. But we used to come back of course, and while we were back here we used to try and fight against the situation in any ways that we could. We took quite a lot of court cases and got quite a lot of publicity for them, and in the end what we did actually started to have some effect – though it was probably more the publicity than the court cases, because it was rather bad publicity for the set up here. And round the turn of the century a lot of changes started to happen. Now change can be for the good and it can be for the bad. Where it was for the bad was that you got all these awful licensing schemes coming in – on the tube, and lots of towns, and boroughs in London – which wasn’t too good. But the good thing was that it was taken out of the hands of the police, and the way it was going to be handled was put in the hands of local governments, and since time has passed the attitude has started to mellow quite a lot, and busking in the street is in many ways a thing that you can do now without too many of those type of problems. So I sing this song now with a sense of triumph really, because….. we got out of prison.

It Don’t Mean A Thing, If It Aint Got That Swing

This is the S Bahn in Dusseldorf – a video made by one of the passengers on a train we were playing on, in 1996. We did briefly get a licence to perform on these trains. As you can see they were a great audience, and it was a very enjoyable time we spent there. We did manage to play on the trains in and around London as well. We tried Liverpool and Newcastle, but we lasted about a couple of hours in each before we were stopped by the Transport Police. Glasgow, the only other city in the UK with a metro system, wasn’t possible to even get started in, because there was a security guard in every compartment. I’ve always thought that if the idea were promoted rather than criminalized, it might actually enliven these places. Of course, it’s difficult in the circumstances to do a hugely virtuoso musical performance – I think a touch of comedy works well in these situations. That’s what we used to call it – Situation Art. It’s about knowing the right kind of performance to do in a particular situation

Nomads (3)-At The Border


The next step after Erzurum was to be a relatively short coach ride to the town of Dogubayazit – last stop before the Iranian border, lying in the shadow of Mount Ararat….. the legendary landing place, as everyone kept reminding us, of Noah’s ark.

Mount Ararat, as seen from Dogubeyazit Photo:Sabri76

Perhaps fittingly, it was pouring with rain when we arrived; and since we didn’t much like the look of the hotel by the bus station where it was assumed we would want to stay, we were receptive to the suggestion of an Iranian student who had also been on the bus, that we should all three of us share a taxi to the border, which he assured us was not far away. Once across that hurdle we would, apparently, find ourselves immediately in the town of Maku, right next to the frontier on the Iranian side, where we would definitely find a better hotel to stay in than the one we had been shown in Dogubayazit .

Our student friend’s information was not the most accurate: Dogubayazit was still thirty kilometers from the border; the Turkish border was already closed for the night; and Maku was another thirty kilometers from the Iranian border on the other side – but we are racing ahead of ourselves.

Stepping out of the taxi into the pouring rain, we looked around and saw the border post nearby, but it immediately appeared that there was something wrong. Our student walked over to what seemed to be the office – there was a short conversation – after which he returned to us with the news that because of the trouble in Iran, the Turkish border was these days closed from early evening till the following morning.


Trouble in Iran! Yes, as far back as Istanbul we had been hearing stories about an Iranian cleric who was living in exile in Paris, and who was the figurehead of a growing protest movement within Iran against the rule of the Shah. But, preoccupied as we were with our own grievances concerning the plight Europe-wide of street culture in general, and street musicians in particular, we had not been paying much attention to the newspapers, as they frequently seemed to be just another arm of the force that oppressed us anyway.

We found a derelict building which offered partial shelter from the rain, had a slight grumble at the Iranian student, and settled down to an uncomfortable night’s wait.

Suddenly two large Range-Rovers with Teheran number plates arrived out of nowhere, the driver of one of them greeted us in American-English, and we told him the border was closed. “We’ll see about that”, he said, marching over to the office. He knocked loudly on the door, produced a 100 Deutschmark note from his pocket, and waved it slowly backwards and forwards across the window pane. The response was electric. The light in the office went on, we saw the guard straightening his cap, jumping to attention, opening the window and having a quiet word with his important visitor – who then walked back to us: “OK guys, it’s all fixed. 50 Deutschmarks each, and we can all go through.”

Mike and I were not so impressed with this deal as was the Iranian student, who immediately jumped in with one of the drivers. But as for us, with no clear idea of how we would be earning any further money for the foreseeable future (street busking in India and other countries of the sub-continent not having been recommended to us as a very profitable activity) … well, frankly, 100 Deutschmarks between the two of us looked like quite a high price to pay simply to cross a border a few hours earlier than otherwise we would anyway. We therefore declined the offer. The Range Rovers roared off with the Iranian student, and we settled back into our temporary shelter.

After about 5 minutes the Turkish border guard walked over to us. “Sen Turist?” (Are you a tourist?), he addressed me . “Tamam” (Yes) I replied. “Gitmek. Parasiz” (Go. No money) he announced, and motioned us across the border.

We had left Europe behind.


We walked slowly across the hundred yards or so that divided the two borders. On the Iranian side the lights were all on, and two guards stood waiting to question these two strange-looking travellers, carrying a large bag, a guitar and a set of bongo drums between them, who had managed to filter across from Turkey despite the border being closed.

“Aah, British”, they said on examining the passports, as if that explained everything. “Where are you going?” “We’re going to find a hotel in the town here”, we replied. “The next town is thirty kilometers away, over that hill”, said one of them, pointing in the distance. “First bus in the morning.”

We stood where we were, running out of ideas for managing the ever-deteriorating situation. “What is this?”, one of them asked, pointing at the guitar. I told him. “So you are musicians. Maybe you can sleep here, if you play us some songs.”

Opening song from our first album “Exile in Balkan”

Taken into the office, we were shown where we would sleep…underneath the desk of an official who would not appear until the morning. We then took out our instruments, to satisfy our side of the bargain, and would have started off with – I feel certain, though my memory does fail me – our version of “Candyman”, one of those songs any self-respecting folky could reel off in those days, maybe followed by Mike’s song “Kilburn Station”, and probably rounded off with our perennial favourite “It’s a Crime to Play Music in the Streets”…

And so we slept peacefully, under the above-mentioned desk, but suffered a rude awakening early in the morning – a kick up the backside announcing the arrival of the desk’s daytime incumbent. We walked out in the drizzle, and stuck our thumbs out once again.

Nomads(4)-“You Must Taking Bus; You Must Going To The Tehran!”(sic)

Standing by the roadside in the early morning, a short distance from the Turkey/Iran border post, attempting to avoid the intermittent rain which had followed us across the border, we were joined after some time by an Israeli hitchhiker who had just crossed from Turkey, following the opening of the border in the morning. (The border was closed at night – see Nomads 3) After what seemed like a long wait, a German VW camper pulled up and offered us all a lift to Tehran.

Their van unfortunately broke down just after the first town, and the couple driving reluctantly decided to abandon their journey – although the journey we then had to Tehran, as a result, was probably the more eventful for that.

English language newspaper from late October 1978

While trying to get a lift further on from that very same spot where we had been dropped, we soon attracted a largish crowd of young children who would shriek with delight and immediately surround any car that was brave enough to stop for us, whereupon the driver would race off again before we could even speak to them. Eventually one stopped with two young men in it who seemed to be made of sterner stuff, because they ordered the children away and waited for us to come to the window, and did indeed pick us up.

They were soldiers, going on holiday to the Caspian Sea, who spoke quite good English, which was lucky, because Mike and I had nothing to offer but a smattering of Turkish. They took us to Tabriz, the first big city on our route – and the centre, apparently, of the Persian carpet business – where they bought us dinner and paid for us to stay the night at a local hotel. Such kindness from complete strangers has often been a feature of our lives as wandering musicians.

And on the other side of the coin – a little further down the road we got a lift from two men describing themselves as businessmen. A friendly enough rapport seemed to have developed, but things took a turn for the worse when we got out. Attempting to retrieve our bags and instruments from the boot where they had been stowed, we found the boot-lid difficult to open, and were met by a series of gestures from the chaps, who were saying what sounded like “pull”.

As the lid still refused to open, it slowly dawned on us that it was in fact locked, and that our erstwhile friends were demanding money from us to open it! Their devilish scheme was however thwarted by a taxi driver parked nearby, who noticed what was going on and made some threat which resulted in them opening the boot-lid and giving us back our bags in a hurry! (Many years later, I made the remarkable discovery that what they actually must have been saying was “pul”, an Azerbajani word meaning “money”.)

A poem by Bongo Mike, written in the Street Poetry style, but never published

Then there was the meeting with an enthusiastic young boy in one village situated en route, who introduced himself like this, “Heart, I am Iran. Mother Turkish. Understand English!”, and then proceeded to show us round the village. As we walked down a narrow path, we passed what our friend told us was a school; we were carrying our instruments with us and as we walked by, another boy came running out of the school, saying to our friend, apparently, that the teachers, who it seemed had observed us on the pathway, wanted to know where we were from, and if we would play some music for the children.

We agreed, and as we walked through the school gate into the playground the children came bursting out of their classrooms, milling – or rather swarming – round, before settling down into a large circle around us on benches which the teachers brought out, listening with rapt attention to our song “I am the Professor of the University of the Street”, and some few others. When we were finished the teachers spoke for some time with us, and gave us some money. (Our second impromptu gig, following the brief concert at the border post.)

Our young guide in fact spoke rather little English, but we understood him, even if more by the context than the words he used; a couple of times, for example, politely holding a door open for us to walk through, he would say, “Please Mister, take my seat”. He took us to a park where an old man was sitting by a pond, reading a story to some small children. As we left the park some other children in the distance, larger and rather aggressive, threw stones at us: “from next village”, he told us. “You must taking bus; you must going to the Tehran”, he added, “boys village, fifteen hundred good, fifteen hundred bad”.

A postcard from my father, from Tehran in the 1960’s. He was abroad much of the year with his work, which took him to many of the same places that I later visited as a wandering street musician

We took his advice, and arrived in a Tehran which seemed relatively peaceful, if a little tense. The most memorable first impression was the double-decker Leyland buses, which seemed to have been exported from UK minus the safety warning about no standing-passengers on the upper deck! An attempt at busking in a park in the centre of town drew a large crowd round us, which was then dispersed by truncheon-wielding police, who contented themselves with kicking our guitar case when they saw that the centre of attraction was only two hippies playing some music. (The more things change… we really felt quite at home!)

An artisan at work in Isfahan in a more peaceful time

News about the political situation did of course filter through to us, and our initial reaction, after a week or two of familiarizing ourselves with the city, was to proceed through to Pakistan before things got too hot! We took a coach to Isfahan, but the atmosphere in that city, beautiful though it would clearly have been in other circumstances, was very disturbing. We felt vulnerable walking round the streets with our instruments and bags, not understanding the language and sensing hostility to strangers, and felt greatly relieved when a young man approached us and asked if we were looking for a hotel. Answering in the affirmative, we followed him and found ourselves in the Mihan Tour Inn, a small hotel run by a bus company of the same name – Mihan Tours.

We got a safe bed for the night, and a chance to weigh up the pro’s and con’s of our situation.

If we carried on our journey now, we might well get through to safety; the route, as people told us, was straightforward by coach – Kerman, Zahedan, Pakistan.

But there was a distinct possibility that the return journey by land would be anything but straightforward, by the time we were ready to make it, given the signs of civil unrest we had already witnessed. And we didn’t have the resources – as others might – simply to take a plane back to London from wherever we ended up.

We weren’t, after all, sponsored adventurers, but travelling musicians who had got caught up, rather late in the day, in the “India by land” trip; and furthermore, we had our own dispute with authority – in the UK and to a lesser extent in much of western Europe – which we were arguably running away from by immersing ourselves in the fashionable, collective adventure of the times.

So in the end there was only one sensible decision we could make….. Back to Tehran. With Mihan Tours. And then back to our own war in the West.

The song “Goodbye Winepress Street”, though not of course about Iran, does perhaps reflect the same spirit as that in which we made our exit from Iran back in 1978 – being a statement of our feeling that as artists there was no real satisfaction in following any pursuit but that of our own artistic calling.