Need To Know: The mission

Busking in south London brings little reward for Matthew Sweet (until the man in the shellsuit takes pity)
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Indy Lifestyle Online
here was an accordionist in

Manchester (he may well now be dead)

who used to stand outside the Opera House and play every third note from the hit songs of whatever show was running there. And there's an obese pensioner who stands in front of the Oxford branch of Marks & Spencer wearing a green Day-glo wig and tap-dancing to Sinatra hits in the style of Muffin the Mule. In Barcelona, there's a man who jigs up and down on the Marina Port Vell dressed as Charlie Chaplin, and whose act consists of banging random notes on a child's xylophone to the accompaniment of the "1812 Overture". He even has a glamorous assistant, got up as a flamenco dancer, who stands there and smiles her appreciation. Like these men, I have no musical ability whatsoever. But if it doesn't stop them, there's no reason why it should stop me from fulfilling this week's mission, and foisting the world's worst busking on the shoppers of south London.

Finding an instrument simple enough to master in a day proves difficult. The kazoo, I feel, would make me look unprofessional. So I decide on that haunting, lyrical instrument, the Swanee whistle - you know, one of those flutey things with a plunger at one end: the woodwind instrument that supplied the plaintive tones of The Clangers and the comedy stings of the Carry On films. Remember in Carry on Girls when Joan Hickson runs into Sid James's hotel and demands: "Mr Fuddle, Mr Fuddle, get my knickers down at once"? Well, when they cut to the shot of her bloomers flapping on the flagpole, in comes the Swanee whistle to let you know that you should be senseless with laughter. They're available from all distinctly average toyshops.

I seek advice from a friend who used to sing Cornish whaling songs a cappella in the Oxford Covered Market - with the blessing of the city council. "You need a repertoire of at least four tunes, otherwise you'll get terribly bored," she warns. "Do you know "Shenandoah"?" I don't. "Go for things that people know," she recommends. Hours of practice commence.

So, on a bright October morning, I take up my position outside John Menzies in Lewisham with the only hat I own - a Bulgarian docker's cap (don't ask) - gaping open on the pavement in front of me. The location of my pitch means that I have to compete with the market stallholders. But all they have to offer is avocados, and I'm about to hit south London with the full force of the musical muse. Or at least my version of "Annie's Song", into which I put as much emotion as possible, trying to emulate the fluttery eyed appassionato element of the James Galway version. Imagine Tiny Clanger giving his all at La Scala and you'll have the idea.

Despite this, nobody looks as if I'd filled up their senses like a night in the forest. In fact, nobody looks very interested at all. Woodwind players, unlike percussionists and players of stringed instruments, don't have the option of smiling appealingly at their putative benefactors, and I begin to wish I'd copied the man in Barcelona with the Charlie Chaplin costume and the xylophone. (He's not an internationally known act, so no one could have accused me of plagiarism.)

I get through my repertoire more quickly than I'd anticipated: "Bridge Over Troubled Water", "Streets of London", "Blowin' in the Wind" (the Swanee version of which sounds horribly monotonous, I'm afraid). When I gamely attempt a kick-ass rendition of "The Eye of the Tiger", a man in a shellsuit gives me 20p, perhaps because I had transported him back to his younger days on the local bare-knuckle boxing circuit. The theme from Star Wars gets me 17p, but nobody seems very taken with my attempt at "O Mein Papa". Perhaps if I'd had a cute puppy on a hairy string I might have done better. After an hour I've made 55p, and decide to call it a day. "Have you had enough, then?" asks a young woman with a toddler in elastic reins. I tell her that my musical career is over and, unlike the Rolling Stones, I shall not be tempted to emerge from retirement when I know I am past the peak of my powers. "You're probably right," she agrees. So I go over to one of the market stallholders and blow my earnings on avocados