A Busk of What I Used to Be

RUPERT CABBELL MANNERS investigates the wacky world of Cambridge busking.

angry wasp bike man busker in bin busking Cambridge doppler effect enid blyton gypsies Music rupert cabbell-manners the tab walter reginald farr

Sumer is icumen in/ Lhude sing cuccu. And so too, feeding off the sweet nectar of Cambridge’s Merrie Englande credentials, swollen by the migratory coppers of tourists, the buskers shall come. And they shall also sing. And they shall also sing under your college window, brazenly violating the local council’s “30 metre” rule.

Did you know they’re supposedly limited to 30 metres of amplification? That they have to move at least 50 metres off their spot after an hour? That they have to stay at least 50 metres off the patch of one of their brethren? Council pamphlets make rewarding reading material.

The bin busker: a Cambridge Institution

Ominously, this little blue PDF features a nearly barren stave at the head of the page: the musical notes scatter themselves in gleeful diaspora, wrinkling between spreads of rustic men with red cravats and hippy wenches with fiddles. My parents reminded me on the phone that buskers were ‘fun.’ But that ‘fun’, from small-talk to paintings, is habitually the kiss of death, a willingness to stand in the street for half a minute on a warm day, perhaps when drugged and sticky with ice-cream. It will simply never be a rigorous test of artistry.

Sometimes as a child I too enjoyed busking: you just have to pull yourself together.

The pamphlet claims local residents turned down a proposal in 2006 to licence street artists. Possibly they carried it off with fondness for Walter Reginald ‘Snowy’ Farr, MBE: the enormous legend, memorialised in the jelly-bean-like-statue between Market Square and Lion Yard which managed to confuse bemused shoppers for nearly forty years.

In any case, it’s moot whether Cambridge still believes spontaneous buskers bring ‘attractiveness and colour’ to the city centre, as the pamphlet spiel goes. I’m working, here.

The bizarre Snowy Farr sculpture

This is not a Homerton problem, I understand that. But the many problems of Homerton and Churchill do not vitiate the time-honoured rights of students who happen to have enormous rooms in the town centre to expect everything else to go their way. The buskers are as pressing a concern to them as the photographers blocking off Orgasm Bridge, or the guilt-tripping Big Issue salesman lingering outside Sainsbury’s. It was with a high sense of duty that I decided to speak to the buskers direct.

My prime target was the bald man who bikes in a loop, recognised by the Doppler effect of his heavy metal, though often you only get to see him biking away, back low and mysterious Iceland bags swinging from his handlebars. Rumour has it he’s been biking for years. Unfortunately, like all celebrities, he disdains a paparazzo.

He had somewhere to be (again); his craft beamed past me, waving, to the distance of King’s Parade.

Otherwise known as the Angry Wasp Bike Man

Selecting a static target, I settled on the fiddler outside Heffers, my personal bête noir. I imagined this would be cathartic. I dropped a pound in the guitar case and lingered by him. A sign in front advertised CDs. When he came to a close, I asked him if he had a moment spare for some questions; yep, he’d like a cigarette break.

He’d been busking since 1989, in Cambridge on weekends since 1992, but he busks all over: London, Scotland, Dublin, a tour in California, Belgium, Manchester, Antwerp Norwich. His base was Norwich, near where I come from. Had I heard of Ferrell Mouth? Kilamanjango?

Hailing from distant lands

It surprised me how many different jobs he did: the CDs, the busking, leading bands, recording for a ‘music bank’ which sells snatches to advertisers, iTunes (he mentioned that one twice). No, the recession improved things. People seemed to notice, appreciate more. A quid’s a quid, right? He’d gone out with a girl at Magdalene who’d had loads of job offers. Very anxious, it was like ‘anxiety-anxiety-whoomph.’ I laughed. He inspected his cigarette. He’d been Grade 8 at 12, but that was too late. We shook hands and I scuttled off down Green Street.

Now I’d met my enemy I felt, naturally, mean enough for joking with friends about scope angles, closed curtains and possible trajectories. I hastily transferred this guilt to the Council’s pamphlet: the idea of buskers as ‘fun’ and ‘colour’, after all, lumps them in the same category as Morris Dancers or Enid Blyton gypsies, people faintly absurd, hopelessly old-fashioned and basically not employed.

Anyway, the heavy-metal bike man went past in the street as soon as I got back up into my room to type this. FML. If anyone knows where he goes, please post below.

Cambridge deserves to know.