Written by Philippa Morgan Walker, ASAP/KeepStreets Live Associate Director and Journalist
On the 24th of October 2013, something unusual happened in North London. A collection of people (some more well-known than others) organised a mass protest busk to oppose a heavy-handed, unimaginative street performance licence scheme that would restrict what can and can’t be done in the borough’s public space. For example, the playing of wind instruments in Camden’s public space would be a punishable offence. In an act of defiance, the humble kazoo recruited justice-loving people with a faint musical ability and formed… The Citizen’s Kazoo Orchestra!!
It’s not every day you witness 150+ people humming/blowing kazoos and generally making merry outside Camden Town tube station in unison; even more surprising is that the collective joy was not spurred on by a tipple or a pint. Musicians, buskers, artists, lovers of culture, Camden residents, disgruntled councillors and police officers fighting back smiles, congregated in the streets in the midst of the ‘consultation’ process for proposals of regulating street performance in Camden Borough. Add star Bill Bailey, activist/comedian Mark Thomas, musician Billy Bragg, the world-leading guitarist Jon Gomm and ASAP’s/Keep Streets Live Jonny Walker to the throng and you’ve got a real buzz and a honeypot for media. From playing the Citizen Kazoo Orchestra’s perfected rendition of the Star Wars ‘Death March’ to off-the-cuff performances from Bill, Billy et al, the two-hour long protest busk highlighted how essential spontaneous street culture is to London’s vibrancy.
The best stories have layers and there’s such a complex interplay of tensions between public space and residents, music lovers and haters, freedom fighters and stiff red tape, police, kazoo songs and political speeches, council officials with a weak grasp on telling the truth to rolling cameras, the slow death of the British high street, council cuts and the basic human right to sing a song on the paving stones of the UK. What a hash! I’m not a political journalist, as is blatantly obvious. I cut my teeth writing catwalk stories for VOGUE.com and discussing shoes with bags and bags with shoes for glossy magazine titles. My concern is for our high street. Up and down the country, the heart of town centres are draining of colour and streets look like clones of one another. The UK’s high streets are rapidly becoming dull and lack-lustre places where you’d rather dash through and then complete one’s shopping online, to avoid the moronic repetition of the same retailers and the craning necks of CCTV. And yet, street performers add vibrancy, value and a much-needed sense of local community to our streets.
A good busker is like a street angel, a beacon of light and a centre of gravity for vulnerable, homeless, lonely people. And then there’s the unexpected joy of hearing a talented musician delight you with their version of ‘Fast Car’ as you whisk through another day. Busking is not begging – it’s an art form with a survival eco-system where the effective performer doesn’t go hungry. There’s a load of smart social history and cultural heritage one could pull up here but for the purpose of time, settle with this: Socrates used the street as a stage. At ASAP/Keep Streets Live we seek to lift the public perception of busking and train performers with First Aid skills, share approaches for helping the homeless and much more.
Of late, the Association of Street Artists and Performers (ASAP) and its campaigning arm, Keep Streets Live, has been hot on the campaign trial to protect the rights of buskers and street entertainers in Camden, London from what would be the UK’s most restrictive and astonishingly harsh busking license scheme that would criminalise busking outside of its barricades and codes of conduct. (Playing a flute in the street would be illegal and punishable by a £1,000 fine. If you don’t pay that fine in 28 days then the council will sell your flute. Slap! slap! Get back in line, people of the machine.) I attended a council meeting on 22nd October, 2013 at Camden Town Hall where I saw a Labour-led council approve a policy, without a genuine consultation process taking place. This policy would change the law, criminalise activities that are basic forms of human rights and make life generally more miserable for the creative community at large.
Hey, Camden Council! A consultation is when you inform, discuss and reshape affected parties, under democratic law, about proposals or changes in law you wish to make so that the just outcome is achieved. This was not the case here. 155 people (that’s right, ONLY ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY FIVE PEOPLE) completed a cleverly-worded questionnaire that aimed to serve the desires of the policy makers. Buskers were framed as being the cause for petty crimes. Evidence for this insulting, naive, ludicrous and stupid claim, please! Street performance was linguistically painted as a nuisance, as antisocial behaviour and as something that police need to ‘deal’ with. The conclusive categories for this consultation lumped ‘all’ with ‘most people’ so that councillors could declare that the results of the quiz fell into favour of the policy.
FAST FORWARD TWO DAYS, Councillor Abdul Hai is quoted on BBC TV stating that 65% of Camden’s residents approve the proposed busking policy. That’s a seriously massaged statistic! I spoke to this man at the Camden Town Hall asking him if he would talk to Keep Streets Live properly and consult over this policy – an empty stutter followed my reasonable question. I watched Councillor Hai roll his eyes and arrogantly dismiss Jonny Walker’s plea for reason in the deputation. With sadness I listened from the gallery at the Town Hall as the policy gained traction amongst the cabinet on twisted points – ‘Camden’s residents cannot sleep because of repetitive nuisance busking’. All reasonable people will agree that residents have rights and that losing sleep due to anti-social behaviour is not acceptable, so pedalling the policy with this point will draw in popular support but this is a clever PR spin. The Association of Street Artists and Performers and Keep Streets Live support residents, buskers and the proper use of community space alike. The truth that isn’t being spoken here is this – there have not been anywhere near the volume of residents disturbed by buskers as the Council will have you believe. 65% of residents DO NOT support this. There have been 108 complaints in an entire year related to busking and a large portion of these ‘complaints’ are more like observations. I quote Jonny Walker in an earlier campaigning blog on the evidence:
I have conducted a through analysis of the 108 complaints received in the entire borough of Camden in the last year relating to busking.
42 separate people made one complaint in the year
5 people complained twice
3 people complained three times
3 people complained four times
1 person complained nine times
1 person complained eleven times
1 person complained fifteen times
This means that means that 56 of the 108 total complaints were made by 9 people in the entire Borough of Camden for an entire year.
Many of these complaints are spurious or seem to be complaining about the fact that a busker is there AT ALL:
Complainant 27 : ‘Busking on Camden Lock’
Complainant 25 : ‘Busking on Camden High Street’
Complainant 55: ‘Busker on Canal Tow Path on Oval Road’
Complainant 37: ‘Reporting Busking near Canal Bridge’
Complainant 17: ‘Busker – has been there a number of times – Camden Lock’
Many of these ‘complaints’ are objecting to the very presence of the busker on the street and could well reflect the prejudice of the person calling in. No account is made in the log as to whether the complaint was valid or what investigation was made. This log constitutes a very flimsy evidence base for the introduction of the policy and leaves it wide open to legal challenge. There may be a small minority of residents who feel very strongly that busking should be strictly controlled or banned altogether but is it the job of the council to mould the culture of Camden around the desires of a small group of people, or rather to keep in mind the common good and act on behalf of all who live, work and visit Camden and make it the wonderful place it is.
Councillor Abdul Hai, please tell the truth. Do not use PR spin to weave politics into the fabric of our society. We care about residents too. 220,000+ people live in Camden. 108 univestigated complaints in 365 days, in one of the busiest, noisiest and most hectic boroughs in London is rather conservative, in my humble opinion. YES, take these complaints seriously but don’t hold a megaphone to the mouthpiece of a minority, without speaking to the majority or even doing any homework on the real issues.
As Bill Bailey puts it, ‘Playing a kazoo in the street will be illegal if this policy goes through. It’s utter madness… Busking is part of Britain’s cultural heritage. It’s about freedom, entertainment and reaching out to community’.
What do I mean by freedom fighting, ASAP/Keep Streets Live followers? Well… If lies are softly spoken, then we will blow our kazoos louder and shout the truth out. This ain’t over until our human rights lawyer sings in the streets…