Saturday, 14 February 2015

The freedom to busk in Bath

    The very same buskers who try to gag a fellow busker from talking to the broadcast media, claim their human right to freedom of expression on the streets! Busking is on the political agenda!

    What is fascinating listening to John Cleese reminiscing with Eric Idle (2015) is that the bizarre Terry Gilliam animations glued together the totally detached and meaningless Monty Python sketches into one brilliant seamless storyline. Ironically the Room (or was it ministry)for silly walks and the one for Arguments depicts the way our county councils and indeed many other organizations tend to work - disconnected thinking and a failure (or refusal) to deal with the bigger picture! The bigger picture about busking has not been considered. 

     I have for some time lingered in posting a blog about busking in Bath, but since it all went viral last summer about the rector of Bath Abbey having to stop a Sunday service because of a busker and the current pledge by officials to ban amplifiers, I'm going to say my piece. Suffice to say buskers wouldn't be heard above the frenzy of tourists outside the Abbey without a degree of amplification which is the lifeblood of many creative acts. 

   Here is a short video of a radio interview I was asked to do during that media frenzy. It is lighthearted (as the main political story had suddenly run its course) and I guess the slot for me to talk had already been set up so instead I gave a personal view about the freedom of playing guitar in a wide open space such as outside Bath Abbey: 

Addition November 2015: At 2 mins 29 secs in the video above I commented on the 'huge freedom we (in Britain) enjoy' in public spaces with terrorism in my mind as an inevitable occurrence and it happened in Paris where I have also enjoyed the freedom to busk.

    The second thing I'd like to say is that I was asked to speak on behalf of Bath buskers by various media because I look after The Bath Buskers website which its unwell owner asked me to take over a few years ago. The lesson I quickly learned was no good deed goes unpunished. I had previously been voted as a buskers rep and went on to design and formulate The Bath Buskers Guide. Part of my discussions with city officials was persuading them NOT to ban the selling of music CDs by buskers and I pledged my fellow buskers would sell CDs discreetly by putting two or three in a guitar case. Of course the exact opposite happened - most buskers completely negated the new guide (designed by me and 1,000 copies paid for by officials) and buskers blatantly put big signs up - CDs for sale £10, contravening street trading laws. Unbelievable stupidity based on greed 

    The point to this particular anecdote is that a year or so later, out of the blue a couple of buskers invited me to breakfast at a local hotel, handed me a bottle of wine and told me it was time for me to move on as I had been voted out of office (behind my back) as a buskers rep at a meeting. I later (in fact very recently) learned it was the same busker at the centre of the media story who had spread a rumour on the street that I had tried to get CD selling banned. No, I persuaded officials to allow buskers to carry on selling CDs and the deal was to sell them discreetly! Well, the same guy who ousted me, a few months earlier I did a favour for by fixing his guitar! In this next video (inspired by him) the lyrics for the song I composed around the very issue of freedom and noise that now three years later threatens the freedom and diversity busking in my home city!  

 I suppose it is somewhat contradictory that a guy like me - an innovator of furniture design, a person who lightheartedly mocks tradition as a British national treasure holding us back in the world and yet I defend passionately the traditional essence of busking - the travelling minstrel. I quickly realised with the dirty politics on the street that buskers are just like the super rich, it is just a more primitive form of protectionisn. And what we see today is a microcosm of society - a polarity between those who do it as artistic expression and if people give a few coins its a bonus and those professional slick buskers with glossy CDs making a business out of it. Of course they want to hog the pitches and exclude others from just turning up and playing - university students wanting to gain public performance confidence, outsiders and the homeless.

  Well, one Saturday my busking friend Gary phoned me up and asked me if I had heard of a gypsy jazz band called the Jonny Hepbir Trio who were sitting on benches with their guitars. I most certainly had and I told Gary that Jonny Hepbir is top of the British crop of world class gypsy jazz players and get him a pitch as his band were on their way to Bristol to play at a wedding. Well this next video speaks for itself about impromtu street performance which is what I think busking is all about:

    Crumbs, I got to play guitar with a guy who had played with Jimmy Rosenberg and Birelli Lagrene, arguably the two foremost players in the world. What a thrill and unreal because I managed to hold it together!!

    So the spirit of busking is a real treasure and curious how these same guys who tried to gag me from talking to the media (the guy in the Rules to be free video) were claiming their human right to freedom of expression. What is evident is how a minority group can get a voice (in the media) and mess it up for the reasonable majority.  

   Music is a wonderful gift - to be able to play by ear allows you to concentrate on expression. I learned so much as a busker after earning 20p the first time I tried it because I was so bad. I developed a survival technique when I forgot my chords by doing a Les Dawson, smiling and then finding my way back into the song.

   Over the years I have played on the streets of Bath with some real virtuoso musicians, backing them with my guitar such as my young Slovak friends who came back to stay with me one summer as this video shows:

    And yet the past two or three years I have not been able to turn up and play on the streets because all these local buskers stole all the pitches each and every day. I am not alone, others have been excluded but the good news is the gang has largely broken up and moved on from Bath, the bad news is the problems they caused that has upset the harmony of bath busking through their greed. Strangely I am the guy invited to speak by officials on behalf of Bath buskers (because they can't get any other buskers to attend!)  later this month at a public consultation workshop. I will propose a structured permit system I have spent a few months devising (it can be viewed at I don't represent Bath buskers, I represent what the website I am the custodian of states - 'Busking in Bath'. We don't own the streets, but we know them and set the example.

   So, when the local council holds a public consultation to ban amplifiers in three prime tourist areas and the rector of Bath Abbey understandably is fed up with it on his own doorstep, the problem is then shifted to other streets where shopkeepers are already pretty fed up and the council licencing department who are now issuing a daily indeed yearly CD selling licence that will actually encouraging a small number of commercial buskers to hog the streets with more repeat repertoires. Amplification will be dealt with in the room of silly walks.

  The challenge (for me almost as a lone voice) is to persuade linear thinkers 
who (with the media) refer to the 'busking community' in conventional terms when no such thing actually exists, that all the issues are actually connected and that the Room of silly walks is part of a building locked in Argument in a street called Chaos! How can a sledgehammer reactionary policy that actually compounds existing problems be argued when the deaf are leading the blind! There has to be a workable solution that brings harmony back on the streets and yet a 'them and us' attitude prevails when a few buskers including myself tried a few years ago to break down those barriers. Call me traitor to buskers but the stupidity of a few buskers has put the boot in for all.  

     Well I came up with a possible solution a few months ago for a structured permit system that accounts for amplification, the selling of CDs and addresses other issues to make busking fairer for everyone and respecting the church and shopkeepers' need for peace. And it hinges around the way the pitches are booked. Would it be fair if somebody wishing to shop in Bath in the afternoon to have to book a parking place at a set time early in the morning?  The problem is it is immediately rejected by council officials.

    Busking has become a political issue, when the fundamental issue is common sense, co-existence, thinking beyond the self and respect for others. I am no church goer but I am ashamed that a fellow busker who draws his audience from a grand church on whose land he plays does not have the respect that Sunday is a day of worship and rest for some. He is too pre-occupied with his false belief system that everything is about individual rights. Interestingly there is also a human right to peaceful enjoyment. Ah the lawyers are never short of work! 

     Some say nothing will happen, that enforcing laws are not that easy and and others say the protectionism will continue and the chaos comes to a head every hot summer with buskers fighting over pitches like pigeons swooping on food. I cannot understand why the sheer performing talent on the street and generosity of spirit of the music given out does not commute with the current mindset amongst many buskers. So what is this freedom? 

Thanks for reading.