Sunday, October 12, 2008

Review: An Exhibition of Great London Street Entertainers at the New Players Theatre, Thursday October 9th, 2008... and a Reunion...


































Up to town for An Exhibition of Great
London Street Entertainers
at the New Players Theatre in Villiers Street, researched and organised by John Kelly. I had also arranged to meet up with a group of street musicians at the Porcupine on Charing Cross Road, where my involvement with busking started in the sixties... Alan, Patrick, Don, Phil and Roger, along with John Kelly, the curator of the show. We sat outside to accommodate the smokers on one of the few decent days we have had recently, as the sun shone down on this motley crew. A funny, moving experience... Many ghosts wandering round – and further summoned by anecdote... Some of us have not met for many years, so there was much catching up to be done, over liquid refreshment. I retired from playing on the streets some years back now (go in different musical directions these days although hopefully with the same questing spirit) but a couple of these guys are still active – Roger/Chucklefoot and Don Partridge. Alan is still playing regularly and I'm sure that Pat drags his guitar down to a few sessions in the West Country. Great to be part of the old verbal cut and thrust again as egos collided in good-natured banter. Luckily the beer fights that used to part of the old Porcupine gatherings were not resurrected...

Don, as 'The King of the Buskers,' was apparently opening the exhibition, which was situated in the bar of the New Players theatre – underneath the Arches, an historic place as a pitch back in the old days. This was the first place I ever played in the West End, accompanying the old street singer, Megan Aitken, the Piccadilly Nightingale. Almost unrecognisable now, with shops, bars and the early evening bustle, from the grim brick tunnel of bygone years which had also traditionally been a place where the homeless found a kip for the night. We wandered in to the theatre bar, a plush joint, and checked out John Kelly's handiwork - a selection of photos, drawings and engravings with brief descriptions of London street performers from Shakespearean times – Marocco and Banks – to those I knew when I was involved in the game – Ronnie Ross, The Earl of Mustard and Don Partridge. Also: Jim 'Tiger' Norman, the Road Stars, William Reed with his broom, among others – a small group of snapshots into the underground /outlaw world of street entertainment down the centuries. And a measure perhaps of the distance busking has travelled, from wilder times to the almost respectable contemporary scene where permits are applied for, demarcation lines drawn, the whole no doubt monitored on the ever-present cctv cameras of Brown's Britain. Although – given the way the economic crash is progressing, maybe we will soon be back to a rerun of those depression days in the 1930s when many of the old guys I knew in the sixties had started out, when performing on the streets was perhaps born of financial desperation more than an outlaw choice. The whole event was very informal – which suited the subject matter and its characters, some (all?) of whom would have found it amusing to be enshrined in such a setting – and would have worked out ways to 'bottle' (collect money from) the punters, no doubt... The evening morphed into an impromptu session as Don's guitar was passed among us, which the gathering theatre crowd wandering through seemed to enjoy. Alan Young ended on the old standard 'Gypsy in my soul,' a fitting climax to this celebration of anarchic spirits past and present. The tradition scattered out from London in the fifties and sixties as travel became cheaper and easier and we have all at various times busked our ways round many countries in Europe and beyond. Yet I am sure that we are all conscious of the heritage and the lines that lead from these earlier pioneers. In understated rather than self-consciously pretentious ways - the street would soon smack down any pomposity.

So, if you are in the area of Villiers Street/Charing Cross in the next few weeks (it runs from now to December), it's well worth a look. Free entrance but contributions go to St Mungos. Good stuff, John – more, please...

There's something calling me, from way out yonder...








5 comments:

Happy In Bag said...

I don't know anything about this scene, (I live in Kansas, for cryin' out loud) but I'm inspired by this beautiful post.

Rod Warner said...

Thanks for kind words! Actually, I'm in the process of writing a book about the street music scene in London, Paris and beyond during the sixties with two of the guys in the blogpost... London especially was a fascinating place to be apart from all the swinging london crap - you had the emergence of the Brit avant-garde in jazz and the acoustic folk scene bursting out of the confines of the revivalists dead hand - apart from the burgeoning rock scene. All of these interacted in various ways - which I am trying to work my way through!
Being a street musician/busker was the underground of the underground in a way...

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Dave Harris said...

Hi Rod, Roger Butler sent me your way. Love the post! I'm writing a book on one man bands and I'm hoping you'll let me use a couple photos from this blog for it? I assume the fellow with cap is Alan Young? I have The Buskers book and much info from Roger and others. Can you let me know at slimchance@shaw.ca Thanks a lot! Cheers, Dave

Dave Harris said...

Hi Rod, Roger Butler sent me your way. Love the post! I'm writing a book on one man bands and I'm hoping you'll let me use a couple photos from this blog for it? I assume the fellow with cap is Alan Young? I have The Buskers book and much info from Roger and others. Can you let me know at slimchance@shaw.ca Thanks a lot! Cheers, Dave