Written by Ben Van Der Velde
One of the saddest things about living in 21st century Britain is the homogenisation of the high street and the slow killing off of independent traders. Places such as Brighton and York – with vibrant, exciting and successful urban centres – are becoming the exception, rather than the rule. A further development in this baffling attempt to remove any sense of personality or joy from public spaces is Camden Council’s misguided attempt to license busking and enact draconian fines against any musician who dares to busk without a license. The joy of living in the age of inter-connected social media is that you are never far away from an ally.
When I read about this appalling piece of legislation on Facebook, I immediately contacted Jonny Walker, one of the main architects of the response to this law, and told him that as a Camden resident I wanted to help him out. Originally coming from Newcastle, I always saw Camden as my gateway to the rest of London. The first time I arrived in Camden as a skinny 14 year old, with my own cheap guitar strapped to my back, I immediately fell in love with its scuzzy, silly swagger and promise of all sorts of good times.
It was immediately obvious that it was one London borough that had music running through its veins and drains and bricks. Now it seems Camden Council no longer have any pride in this and want to actively discourage music-makers from its streets. Happily, I knew exactly who to call.
I currently work as a stand-up comedian and one of my favourite acts is the political stand-up Mark Thomas. He has been a very funny and effective thorn in the side of political and corporate establishments for over two decades. His activism, and the subsequent shows about it, has exposed tax avoidance by MPs, blocked the building of a hydro-electric dam that would have displaced 78,000 Kurds and unveiled the full hypocrisies of the global arms trade. In his most recent show, 100 Acts of Minor Dissent, Mark has pledged to do exactly what the show title says in one year, or pay the forfeit of a £1000 donation to UKIP. He has already protested against a ban on sports leagues in Hyde Park, by setting up the world’s first Stuck in the Mud League and protested against the supposedly patriotic Daily Express keeping all its money off-shore and away from the British tax system. Clearly, this was a man who could help keep busking on the streets of Camden and away from licensing laws. Not only that, he could help us do it in a fun and inventive way.
I think that this campaign to license busking is another disgraceful step in the attempt to take personality and individualism away from the high street. Buskers are a different breed to many members of the public – a type of freelancer who uses the high street as their office – but the vast majority of them work hard to bring some joy, colour and excitement to the high street.
It will be a sad day when local government manages to legislate the right to play music in public freely. There is already too much repression of self-expression in this country and removing that in one of the most famously musical boroughs in the land would be an appalling mistake. At the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony a whole section of it was, correctly, devoted to our pride in Britain’s staggeringly diverse musical heritage. Licensing busking in this way would stem the flow of potential Lennons and McCartneys, Morrisey’s and Strummers, Bush’s and Winehouse’s and all the other singers, guitarists, flautists, beatboxers and djembe players that want to enrich themselves and their communities. If you want to take a cold, dead- eyed financial look at the situation, licensing busking is potentially depriving future British superstars – revenue makers – from learning their trade in the finest workshop out there: the British High Street. So don’t confiscate our guitars, don’t muffle our horns and don’t unplug our amplifiers. Let buskers in Camden, and the nation over, continue to help the public walk down the high street with a little swing in their step and a bop in their legs.
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