My ex-husband describes my life as ‘a hyper-real existence’. I’ve certainly had a lot of unusual experiences – some of which I sought out, and some of which arrived at my door. The truth is, I was a very eccentric kid, because I had crazy parents and was ostracised by pretty much everyone, and I think that gave me the courage to think and do the unfamiliar.
You see, there was nothing to lose; there were no friends to impress, or to rein me in. Home was hell, so I wanted to be out of the house as much as possible, and I also had a low boredom threshold and low attention span – which partly explains all the weird and interesting jobs I had in my teens and early twenties.
This post is called ‘What it was really like to busk illegally on the Tube’, because these days it’s legal and regulated with designated pitches, which kind of takes the frisson out of it and makes it less exciting and fun.
I first started busking on the Tube in sixth form, after leaving my summer job at McDonald’s, at the start of the term in which I’d eventually get kicked out of school. I had recently turned 16, and was small and scruffy and angry.
I decided to busk as I’d been forced under threat of violence to play the violin since I was four, enduring hundreds of lessons, taking my exams and reaching Grade 8. I absolutely hated the bloody instrument – it gave me no pleasure whatsoever to play – but as I now had the ability despite detesting the torturous piece of wood, I realised I might as well make some cash out of it.
So, one evening after school in early September 1996, I took my mum’s Travelcard from her black leather handbag when she came home from work, and travelled down on the Metropolitan Line from Pinner to Baker Street.
[I always chose the most dignified poses.]
My mum was teaching Law at university at the time, and when she discovered I was taking her Travelcard each evening, she had a massive go at me: ‘Ariane, this is theft! Travelcards are for the use of one person only. You are depriving the London Underground of revenue. It’s illegal!’
It was all for show though – she wasn’t actually bothered, as she would leave the pale pink ticket sticking out of her bag each night so I could use it. (She wasn’t remotely interested in me though – she still isn’t – so she never asked about my busking.)
Sometimes, if she hadn’t got home from work yet and I wanted to go and busk, I would just use the back entrance to Pinner station, which was open between 7pm and 10pm each evening and had no ticket gate. I wouldn’t bother buying a ticket, because I wouldn’t be getting out at the other end – I would be staying within the Tube network.
I will never forget the first time I tried to busk. It was at Baker Street station, at the bottom of the escalator that leads down to the Jubilee and Bakerloo Line platforms. I nervously took my 3/4 size violin out of the case, put the sticky chalky rosin on my bow, and lifted the violin to my chin, bow poised to play Bach’s Concerto in A Minor.
At that exact moment, an exasperated female voice came over the tannoy: ‘Can the busker at the bottom of the Jubilee Line escalator please note that busking is not permitted on the London Underground!’
I packed up my violin frantically, and fled. I then took the Jubilee Line down to Bond Street, and busked properly for the first time. I played my heart out, playing all the classical pieces I knew, and the commuters responded by filling my violin case with coins. Many gave me curious looks, I guess because you didn’t often see 16-year-old buskers. On average, I would earn £11 an hour by playing the violin – almost three times what I’d earned at McDonald’s.
[Me in a subway. These days I’m more likely to be found in a Subway.]
Then I accidentally left my violin on a train. I was both sad about my busking being curtailed, and very glad to see the back of the wretched instrument. Luckily, my mum owned an acoustic guitar which she never used. It was just gathering dust in the living room, and I thought, ‘If I can play the violin, surely I can learn the guitar?’
As it turned out, I was pretty crap at it, but I worked out all the necessary chords, and then started singing and playing pop songs when busking instead. This was much more my thing – at that time, I wanted to be a singer-songwriter. The general public didn’t think pop songs were worth as much as violin concertos though, probably because more people have the skills to do that – so my earnings dipped to around £7 an hour, though that was still far more than minimum wage.
The more I busked, the braver and shrewder I got, and the more I learned. I discovered the most generous people weren’t white men in suits – they rarely if ever gave you money. No: it was young mums, students and ethnic minorities who were the biggest tippers, probably both because they had more compassion, and because they knew what it was like to not have much cash.
[I guess my flares went with all the 60s songs.]
The best places to busk turned out to be the exact places where London Underground had put ‘No busking’ signs up. My favourite place was the pitch at the end of the Central Line tunnel at Tottenham Court Road. The bottoms of the escalators at Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square were great too, but spots there were pretty much sewn up. I also regularly busked at Bond Street, Green Park and Bank.
Most other buskers were polite. If they asked to busk, it was the done thing to vacate your pitch within 30 minutes. Occasionally, angry male buskers would try to intimidate or threaten you, but I never really got scared by them, because we were in a public place and the British Transport Police were usually fairly nearby.
It was very, very rare for anyone to throw a banknote in the case, but it did happen. Thanks to tourists, foreign coins were also thrown in at times. And occasionally someone would throw food in the case: my favourite offering was a bag of apple rings, but I was also given a peach and a packet of crisps. I found these perfectly acceptable, and ate them.
It was advisable to fill your case with an average smattering of coins when you started busking. Too many coins, and passengers wouldn’t pity you; too few, and it looked as though you were rubbish and unpopular. Coins of all denominations would prove that it was OK to throw in any value, which is what you wanted – passengers would have varying amounts of cash on them, and you wanted to show it was acceptable to give coppers as well as quids.
Speaking of coppers, the British Transport Police would occasionally come round and tell you to move on. They were generally perfectly nice and reasonable, though one grumpy officer once threatened me with arrest (at which point I pretended to be 15, and said incredulously (and inaccurately), ‘You can’t arrest me, I’m only 15!’). Another time, a policeman looked surprised and said, ‘You’re certainly the prettiest busker I’ve ever seen!’ – which was not necessarily the most fulsome compliment, given that most of the other buskers were old men with straggly beards and looked like tramps.
I couldn’t busk for more than three or four hours straight – not through lack of dedication, but because my fingers would start to hurt from the strings, and my throat would get sore and hoarse from all the singing.
One Saturday morning, I busked for four hours at Tottenham Court Road station and made £30. I then left the station (I’d bought a Travelcard that day) and spent it on a pair of silver trousers. Everybody laughed at my trousers the first time I wore them, and so I consigned them to the back of my wardrobe. What a waste of hard-earned cash!
[These are not my silver trousers, but they’re not far off.]
Homeless people could get very aggressive if you were busking where they wanted to beg, which kind of makes sense – they were relying on donations for food and shelter, whereas I was just after extra pocket money for embarrassing clothes.
I would play the same songs over and over again, because it wasn’t as though passengers were a gig audience – they would never hear more than 30 seconds of music before they were out of earshot. I chose songs that were popular and to which I knew all the words (there was no internet back then, at least not for everyday people). Songs I played regularly included The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’, ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ and ‘Nowhere Man’; Oasis’s ‘Wonderwall’ and ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’; Suede’s ‘Trash’ and ‘The Beautiful Ones’; and The Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon’, ‘Dead End Street’ and ‘Days’.
I eventually stopped busking, because I had a few experiences where I kept getting moved on relentlessly by the police, and a few more sessions where I didn’t earn much. Three years after I stopped, the government made busking in Tube stations legal – I think they’d finally cottoned onto the fact that passengers largely enjoyed the music – but by that point I was belly dancing and regularly making £300 a night.
But that, as I often say on this blog, is another story.
This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Peter Weilgony, Ricky Steer, Marc Alexander, Sammy and Jelly, Charlie Brooker, Mary and Tim Fowler, Steve Richards, Alan Brookland, Mark Ormandy, Oliver Vass, Keith Bell, John Fleming, Mark Bailey, Rebekah Bennetch, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Aragorn Strider, Lucy Spencer, Dave Nattriss, MusicalComedyGuide.com, Mark White, Dave Cross, Graham Nunn, David Conrad, Rob Turner, Shane Jarvis, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.