What it was really like to busk illegally on the Tube

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.

Ariane 21.jpg[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.

air[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!

silver-trousers[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.

simon-singh-song

THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

Day 8

Me: 12st 8lbs (total loss in eight days: 6.2lbs).

Hopefully next time I weigh in I’ll have lost half a stone! However, I’m now doing a mini book tour of Chichester (today) and Worthing (tomorrow) so won’t have my scales on me tomorrow morning.

John: 14st 8lbs (total gain in eight days: 0.5lbs).

I’m glad that John’s still checking in each morning. It motivates me to keep on going.

This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters: Ricky Steer, Chris Birkett, John Fleming, Mary Clarke, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Dave Nattriss, Musical Comedy Guide, Mark White, Lucy Spencer, Shane Jarvis, Graham Nunn, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

They receive a whole host of exciting rewards in addition to this credit, including my secret never-published fiction and top secret photos! If you enjoyed this post, please support me on Patreon.

Rewards start from just $1 a month for my weekly Patreon email. It’s like this blog, but I’m even more open in it (if you can imagine that!)

Calling the devil at Radio 4

In 2008, I created the Atheist Bus Campaign – an atheist advertising campaign running on British public transport with the slogan ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ The UK campaign was only meant to raise £5,500 over six months, but such was the strength of feeling among atheists, it raised £100,000 in four days. It then went global, running in 13 countries around the world, from the US to Germany to Australia.

Because of all this, the press wanted to interview me a lot. One of the keenest outlets was BBC Radio 4, home of regular religious morning slot Thought for the Day. As I wasn’t religious, I wasn’t allowed to do a proper Thought for the Day, but gave the first atheist Thought for the Afternoon instead a few months later. Soon after the bus campaign launch, I was also asked to chat to Edward Stourton on the regular Radio 4 weekend programme Sunday.

Ironically, I was very bad at taking public transport at the time, as I had experienced severe claustrophobia since being violently attacked and suffocated during pregnancy in 2005. If I was ever trapped somewhere I felt air was restricted, and I couldn’t escape, I would quickly start hyperventilating and have a full-on panic attack. This happened most often when Tube trains stopped in a tunnel underground, but it also happened in TV and radio studios, which either have no windows, or windows that don’t open.

The interview on Sunday was arranged for late October 2008. It was to take place remotely in a BBC studio in Weston House in Great Portland Street, London. I was shown into the studio and was told to wait there on my own for a phone call from Edward Stourton. I set my bag down, put the headphones on and waited. And then it occurred to me that I was in an airless studio with the door shut.

So I took the headphones off and ran over to the door, expecting to be able to open it easily – but it wouldn’t budge. I tugged it hard, but it was so heavy that my brain decided it was locked. And then I started to panic. I was going to die there with no air. I yelled as loudly as I could, but the security guard who had let me in was gone, and there was no one in sight. Why had they locked the door? Maybe they wanted me to die there. I started screaming and crying and shaking.

Then I called my friend Charlie Brooker, and told him what was happening. ‘I’m locked in a studio and am going to die!’

He was very calm and said ‘You’re not going to die. The BBC is the safest place in the world. Calm down. Slow your breathing down. Breathe with me – in – out. In – out.’

I breathed along with him, and slowly felt myself relax. Then I noticed there was an emergency number by a landline phone on the studio desk. I told Charlie I was going to call for help, and phoned the number on the desk. ‘I’m trapped in the studio!’ I told the man who answered. ‘Please can you come and let me out?’

The security guard came quickly and opened the door. It wasn’t locked, he told me – it was just very heavy and stiff, in order that the room would be soundproof. I asked him if he could come and sit in the studio while I did the interview, so that I would be able to get out afterwards. He agreed, and I relaxed and took part in the interview. Edward Stourton was very nice and reassuring, and was kindly and avuncular towards me, despite being a staunch Catholic.

In fact, except for my claustrophobia and the heaviness of the studio door, there was only one unsettling thing about the whole experience of doing an interview on atheism: the BBC emergency telephone number I’d had to dial in order to get rescued…

It was 666.

 

THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

Apologies in advance for our manky feet. We can’t reach them, you see.

Day 2

Me: 12st 11.6lbs (total loss: 2.6lbs in two days)

IMG_2270

John: 14st 5lbs (total loss: 2.5lbs in two days)

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I am winning by a fraction!

This post has been made possible by my Patreon supporters Chris Birkett, John Fleming, Mary Clarke, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Dave Nattriss, Mark White, Lucy Spencer, Shane Jarvis, Graham Nunn, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

They receive a whole host of exciting rewards in addition to this credit, including my secret never-published fiction and top secret photos! If you enjoyed this post, please support me on Patreon.