Keep Streets Live in York

Keep Streets Live in York

Like many buskers, I became a street performer on the spur of a moment. Always a keen guitarist and singer, I went out on the streets of Durham impulsively one evening, during fresher’s week in my student days, and sang late into the crisp October night. I had a surprisingly large look of on-lookers for company and a guitar case more full of coins then I might have expected by the time I had finished. I have played on the streets ever since that evening, in towns and cities across the UK and as far away as the US of A. The spontaneity and the informality of the street is hugely attractive to me as a performer, and few streets hold greater appeal than the ancient cobbles of York. As a boy I spent a miserable term at York Minster School for Choirboys. As a man, I have spent countless happier afternoons and evenings serenading shoppers and passersby on Parliament Street and Coney Street in this most ancient of cities. I love York, its history, its atmosphere and its overwhelming beauty. I have spent ten years singing in its public spaces.

Last Wednesday I was stopped mid-song by a council official who accused me of street trading because I had a sign with suggested contributions for my CDs in my case, and called the police in an effort to have me removed. My treatment was heavy-handed to say the least. I posted about this incident on facebook and the story spread like wildfire, that post has now been seen by 1,747,000 people and counting. My buskers permit was ‘suspended’ the next day pending an ‘investigation’.

York City Council have operated a compulsory badge scheme for street performers since 2005. Would-be performers have to apply to the council for a permit and pass an audition as well as signing up to a list of terms and conditions. In recent times it has become harder to get a permit, and many people have been turned away multiple times after being told that ‘York was full’. It seems that the problems I had encountered were not unique. ASAP! campaigns for open public spaces and policies that support street culture. The situation in York has reached a point where the local authority are behaving in an unduly restrictive and arbitrary manner and are stifling street culture rather than supporting it. The legal basis of the permit scheme is very unclear. I have been told that if I busk without a permit, the police will be called to move me on. It is, however, uncertain what powers they would be using to do so, when I will have committed no offence.  ASAP is calling on the Council to forget calling the police and to abandon their busking permit scheme instead, replacing it with a new busking policy that opens up the public spaces of York to spontaneous expressions of grassroots art and culture.

The streets are where life happens. Street performers can bring a unique sense of place to a city. They create a sense of well being and foster the chances of serendipitous encounters. Policies that are unduly restrictive, as York Council’s has become, risk causing damage to street culture, and, by extension, the wider community. When the local authority denies people fluid access to public space it unwittingly reduces the variety of interactions on offer and reduces the potential for transformational encounters. That is why the Keep Streets Live campaign has sprung back into action. During these dark economic times, we need more spontaneity and variety, not less. The Council should be a steward of the public good, not a gatekeeper exercising capricious authority. I, for one, will continue to perform on the streets of York, and I don’t need a badge from the Council in order to sing my songs. See you on Parliament Street, and, until then, Keep Streets Live!

And sign our petition if you haven’t already, 980 signatures and counting…

(http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/york-city-council-keep-streets-live-support-street-culture-don-t-strangle-it)

 

Jonny

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Singer-Songwriter/Professional Street Performer/Campaigner/Wandering Minstrel

5 Comments on "Keep Streets Live in York"

  • * Street Performer Rights

    As a Street Performer all I want is right of access to space to perform and right to freedom from interference. Space is getting more and more restricted and consequently competition is ever more present. Despite this not insignificant structural socio-economic fact many of the obstacles that you do tend to meet on the streets take the form of ‘un-necessary’ hassle. Yes, things do appear to be going backwards, and new potentially repressive legislation with regards policing the public space are on the agenda for the very near future, however for the time being direct relations with police are ok ( and have been relatively ok during the past 2 or 3 years ) the big problem at present being Town Wardens. Some leave you alone but there are those who insist on interfering with you and your job.

    Theres one place in particular that I do refer to ( albeit rather discreetly ha! ha! ha! ) where the Town Hosts ( Town Wardens ) are all predominantly middle-aged white men/women, meaning the male ‘hosts’ in this town, you tend to find are old – school 1970s types approaching retirment age, doing town-hosting as a p/t job and as an Anglo/African male, you can’t help feel they have labelled you a deviant and problem before they even hear you playing ( * Check out a great book by the recently deceased Professor of Sociology Stuart Hall on this subject, its called ‘Policing The Crisis’ and a Cultural Studies classic ). The concrete basis for my thinking here? well I find myself constantly harrassed by these people and thats despite them having no legal jurisdiction over you ( there is a 2003 act that makes street performance an unlicensed activity ) and all busking schemes essentially ‘voluntary’.

    Another major nuisance I must cite as a ‘jobbing’ Street Perfromer, are the street preachers, religious fundamentalists ( in all guises ) and ‘charity’ sales workers out there on the streets ( *following the trend of tele-sales call-centre operations being re-contracted to India I’ve witnessed a proliferation of this kind of activity on the streets, literally over the past 2 years! ). What I pick up from street preachers and the like is their rather inane spreading of what can only be described as ‘medieval’-like superstition, an ‘empty’ mantra from which they simply won’t leave you ( & ‘ordinary’ general public ) alone. Today we have theories about the universe and mankind that simply don’t need recourse to Super Beings ( nor the need for personal relationships with one ). There never has been any convincing evidence for such a being and the modern theories now posited by Science, Biology, Physics and Cosmology are not only more interesting, they’re far more persuasive.

    As for love and Christianity, these are values around well before the advent of ‘theist’ religon and Christianity. In fact all the thiests have done is to take these very human values and then legitemise them through superstition. And its in this context that I find the Street Preachers and the like ironically the most unChristian of people, totally rude and ill-mannered, most unloving in the way they will set-up beside you and start blasting out their nonsense through amplified loud halers, and drown you out. In fact I learned a long time ago that Judeo Christianity far from being the faith of love is in fact the religion of scapegoating . The Charity Sales Workers are the same, no different in their charity, a whole street could be ‘free’ of space but they will insist on standing enmass in front of you, running up and down the street, obstructing you, as they approach and yes harrass ‘would be punters’.

    Besides the street ‘thieves’ whether they be youths, drunks or addicts the other big problem is simply other buskers, the envious, covetous, competitive ones ( esp. those with the more ‘underhand’ methods eg. setting up next to you and drowning you out with a trumpet etc ).

    I had a particular problem with ( got a visit from should I say ) what I can only call ‘street-trolls’ last Summer in Birmingham. I got the word that some guy, a schizophrenic guy doing some kind of crazy video diary was at work taking trash videos of people and downloading them on the internet – a kind of Street Papparazzi. The guy apparantly has some gripe about Schizophrenics being given bad press by the Tabloids ( a local story questioning why a guy suffering from mental illness who had stabbed to death 2 Big Issue Sellers last year had been let out on the streets had been featured in the Bham Mail and Sun – perhaps it was this that had narked him? ).

    Anyway I went out one Sat and carried out my own Muller Liar Test ( pun on Muller Lyer-Illusion ). After an hour or so playing low and behold, like a pair of ‘weeds’ in the gutter, up they popped, our Street Papparazi and went about their dastardly snapping. If you listen to the video they download onto YouTube you can hear them taking great ‘sadistic’ pleasure in catching me from a ‘deliberate’ bad angle, delighting in the anticipation of getting me on YouTube. I knew what they were doing and kinda played up to their antics ( taking the p..s really ) with my bad posture and line mistake. I’m no masochist tho’ and one day ( in fact its already happening! ) these kind of people are going to get their ‘comeuppance’ alright, you see there can be a delight in destroying evil, particularly the petty evil you can get on the streets. Of course nobody has got anything against Schizophrenics nor the mentally ill in general, in fact I’d like to put it to this guy, whats your problem, nobody’s attacking you, whats wrong with you, are you paranoid or something?.

    As for ‘fellow’ competitive buskers it came as no surprise ( I almost expected it! ) that within days of the nasty little video being downloaded onto the internet that someone had libeled me a ‘bully’ in the commentary box. Tony Andre ( I think thats what he calls himself ) had the audacity of accusing me of bullying other buskers in Stratford upon Avon. I’d never seen the guy in Stratford upon Avon before until one day last Summer I turned up to see a girl ( who turned who turned out to be with him ) singing on a spot in the town. I was surprised as there is a singing amplification ban in the town, I went off, to return 10 mins later to find Town Hosts apprehending Tony and the yg woman.

    He’d told me that they’d given him ‘special’ permission to play for 3hrs ( the usual slot is for 2hrs! ) and as I stood behind him listening in on the altercation between him and hosts it became apparent that he’d not only lied, he was intent on initiating a hate campaign against me, claiming that I’d been given special privelage in the town, and how everyone hates me etc ( nonsense of course many buskers do hate me but out of envy because I’m good at what I do, because I enjoy a good audience and do very well. Furthermore as my skill at entertaining with the ‘solo’ guitar increases so does my status ( in the eyes of the ‘general’ public that is ) a ‘social’ fact that those with weaker ‘ontological’ psychological security really can’t handle. But as far as privelage goes I enjoy non whatsoever, I’m forever picked on and harrassed by official and was that veryday. Of course Tony knows this and was in this instance trying to get a game of ‘ Lets Get Together and Do Nigel Over ‘ with the ‘senior’ Town Host who had turned up on the scene ).

    Anyway the police were predictably called, soon turned up, adding to the scenario. They ( Tony and the yg woman ) were allowed to carry on, but were requested rather ‘forcibly’ to turn the amplification turned off, a police command to which Tony and the girl readily complied. I saw both of them leave the town an hour or so later, Tony with his tail between his legs!. It is in this context he labelled me a ‘bully’ on this Troll YouTube video, to cowardly to blame the police or Town Hosts , and not a coincidence it seems, because it was at this time he was also involved in photo-shoots with them, back in Birmingham that is, with another character fresh on the busking scene , a West Midlands Police Officer calling himself The Busking Bobby ( I’ve never worked with him myself, though I know others who have, and apparantly he’s a very thoughtful guy! ). In fact Tony is the only Street Performer I’ve known to be featured in police photo-shoots as both ‘promo’ and ‘nuisance’ busker during the same year ( 3 or 4 months later he’s in a video accused of being a noise nuisance by council officials and police on the German Market at Xmas ).

    ( *Its funny, but I can’t help but reflect on how it was me who was the first busker to get onto the German Market a few years back, depsite all the attempts by the then Birmingham City Centre Management to stop me doing so. I negotiated my way on via the Markets then Head of Security, a great guy, very fair-minded, who on demonstrating to him my list of specially arranged Xmas Tunes, was very eager to get me on ( *Note – mine is a philosophically romantic perspective on Xmas i.e. I take the novelists Charles Dickens line ) I more or less got free reign to play anywhere I chose ( and other buskers followed ) except for one spot, the place where Tony Andre was hauled up by officials Xmas. A very sensitive spot, given the amongst the offices situated directly above is the Belgian Consulate, they run ‘serious’ trade delegation meetings there and as you can imagine are particularly busy at Christmas. I’ve been up there and the noise from buskers on the street underneath can be a nuisance to them. Its a pity that Tony does’nt seem to respond to these kind of considerations because if he’d have played just over the road from where he was he would have faced zero objections. Its also a pity that outfits such as Buskers Unregulated and Jonny Walkers very own ASAP do not take context into consideration as much as they perhaps ought before rushing in, and responding to calls for help from Street Performers the likes of our Tony from Birmingham, even apparantly advising on and supporting street protests in his support. The question is what is most important in such a situation, truth or publicity? .

    Anyway, Its in this context that I believe that the protection of ‘good’ street-performers is paramount and can be best achieved first and foremost through legal right of access to perform ( although under threat a right that exists in most towns and cities of the Uk ) plus good and open communication and own and city management adopting ‘progressive’ street performing policy and ‘liberal’ busking codes i.e. cultural frameworks that ‘free up’ the best, encourage their appearance and allow them to flourish whilst having effective measures in place that deal with ‘real’ problems of nuisance. Of course there is also the rather important matter of City Wardens, Town Hosts, Council Officials and the like behaving in the right spirit regards Street Performing i.e treating Street Performers with respect and dignity rather than behaving like prison guards, factory floor supervisors, or indeed ‘authoritarian’ state police when out on duty and dealing with Buskers.

  • * Please Note Above
    That I use the word ‘The Belgium Consulate’ as an umbrella term referring to The Walloon and Flemish Trade Office, New Street Birmingham.

  • A further point ( & important ‘rhetorical’ question ) is instead of ‘popping’ into Stratford upon Avon ( I’d never seen ‘your’ friend & his busking partner there before ) and causing ‘trouble’ eg. flouting the towns ‘civil’ busking code ( ironically one to which Yorks ‘new’ 2015 busking scheme bears an uncanny semblance! ) and attemping to ‘smear’ & by definition harrass me.

    Why could’nt this so called ‘friend’ of yours Jonny ( an ‘affiliate’ of Streetslive ) have devoted more positive ‘creative’ energy in challenging the then recently introduced ( & still today! ) ‘draconian’ regime, that exists in that leafy green suburb to the south of Birmingham called Solihull?

    Prior to this particular time period, & this Warickshire borough’s fairly dramatic ‘busking’ policy reversal ( interestingly occuring at the same time as the ‘licencing’ debacle began in Camden, London ), Solihull was basically a ‘free’ busking zone ie. Street Performers could play in any location, for any length of time without interference from ‘authorities’.

    It was at more or less the same time as Camden ( & this Stratford upon Avon issue I refer to above ) that Solihull & on the surface, out of the blue, changed its policy towards busking in its town- center & went on to introduce the most ‘restrictive’ busking schemes I’ve come across i.e. one that reduced ( almost ‘overnight’ ) a comparitively ‘open’ scheme to just eg 3 playing spots with 1hr playing times, alternating every 2 weeks.

    I don’t busk in Solihull, I’ve never liked the place for ‘street performing’, but I know others, including your ‘friend’ from Birmingham who did perform publicly in the town yet funnily ( & hypocritically in this context ) have taken no ‘active’ role in challenging the towns ‘regressive’ authorities ( predominantly these days Liberal/Green Councillors & their pretty negative busking solutions ( I’m convinced on reflection that their ‘motives’ were, in pampering to the local zenophobic electorate to do with keeping out Romanian Gypsies etc ).

    As far as recent ‘changes’ in York go, I am glad that the Council have revised their ‘permit’ style policy antics with regards busking in the town, that ‘interested’ parties have been satisfied & that some kind of ‘spot’ sharing solution has been found for Buskers . I recall how I along with others made damned sure that a similar proposal restricting access to the Bancroft Gardens by the River Avon was challenged & did not succeed in Stratford upon Avon. ( As you know Stratford is a ‘busking’ town where a 2hr spot sharing scheme has successfully existed for a few years now ) i.e ‘reason’ & rationality have prevailed to a large extent at the end of the day.

    As a Street Musician & as for me personally ever Busking/Street Performing in York ( & similarly Solihull ) I say regardless of the ‘structural’ busking ‘conditions’ prevailing here, I’ll never step foot in these places. No!, not my favoured mileu, not my cup of tea, just not ‘my’ culture!.

    • * Yes definitely picked up underlying ‘motives’ of zenophobia in association with the ‘moral’ panic about Romanian Gypsies at the time, in connection with Solihull Councils ‘draconian’ revision of busking in its town-centre.

      That plus ‘genuine’ concerns about ‘noise’-nuisance emanating from certain quarters i.e. a few ‘irresponsible’ Street Performers!.

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