True Gripes: By popular demand: Commuters want buskers

Mark Mason
Sunday 22 May 1994 23:02

Do you use the Tube regularly? If so, you'll almost certainly have seen posters recently discouraging you from giving money to buskers. You may also have seen an Underground guard or a policeman moving a busker on. As I am a busker, you'll understand why London Underground's current clampdown is annoying me.

I also know that many commuters share my desire for the Underground's management to stop hounding buskers, who only want to earn themselves a few quid while brightening up other people's days in the process.

Let me give you some evidence. For a start, those posters themselves, which are headed 'buskers' tour cancelled'. I've seen one on which someone has written 'tour back on due to popular demand', and another with 'let's all join the Keep Britain Boring campaign' added to it.

At Green Park station, where one particularly mature member of staff has taken to playing the Thomas the Tank Engine theme tune over the loudspeakers to prevent buskers playing, the public's support for buskers has been shown repeatedly. Many have given me money precisely because they can see how pathetic London Underground are, while one guy who saw me being moved on by a station supervisor told me that he had been enjoying the music, and then told the supervisor he thought he was miserable.

I've even had people throw me money while the police have been taking my name and address.

I'd also like to call as witnesses for the defence the police and guards who let me carry on playing. Some just pretend not to see you, while others have to pacify their superiors to some extent, but let you know that you can come back in ten minutes. It's nice to know that some of them refuse to take on the draconian killjoy mentality of their bosses.

Some of them, though, can be downright nasty. I've got a theory about these 'little Hitlers' which states that their level of maliciousness in moving me on is in inverse proportion to the number of trains cancelled or running late on a particular day. If services are being disrupted, and passengers experience delay and frustration, the guards don't feel the need to hassle buskers too much. Their appetite for delighting in others' suffering is sated by watching the stranded commuters fume. However, give a guard a day free of points failures at Whitechapel and bodies on the line at East Finchley, yours truly gets it in the neck.

Buskers do not want to cause trouble - in fact, it would be detrimental to our own cause to do so. To keep the public's goodwill, and to get their money, it's in our own interests to play music they like, to avoid playing in awkward places, and so on. We can not embarrass the public, as beggars often can, by asking directly for money - if you don't want to give money to a busker, you can just walk straight past. No offence taken on either side.

If London Underground were to introduce some sort of licensing system (as operated by Westminster City Council at Covent Garden) to weed out the very few who just make a racket, the vast majority of buskers would probably co-operate (although some might say that it would detract from the spontaneity and informality which is busking's very nature).

In the meantime, those of us who must can only persevere in going down the Tube, to prevent our incomes doing likewise.

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