We spent an evening with Alan the ethical busker
A lesson in music, friendliness and international affairs
If you've wandered through campus late at night, it's likely you've come across an enigmatic gentleman dressed in a Seagulls' shirt, perched in front of a piano playing delicate harmonies – otherwise known as Alan the ethical busker.
Located by the train station on the edge of Sussex university most evenings, the biting cold doesn't stop him from providing music to those who pass through – mostly in the form of national anthems, played expertly on a keyboard which he ferries around on a makeshift trolley / piano stand.
As his many makeshift signs explain, he is an ethical busker, in that he plays quietly, so as not to disrupt the flow of students and staff pegging it for their bus or train. However, if you do have time to stop, you can partake in his national anthem quiz, and be in with a chance of winning ten whole pounds (but more on that later).
Although an almost permanent feature of campus, Alan is often viewed as a man of great mystery and intrigue – especially for those too timid to approach him, or maybe just too cold to stop for a chat in the freezing underpass.
The Sussex Tab decided to investigate Alan and his ethical busking, aiming to get some answers to the questions you might be too scared to ask, and uncovering the ethics that have made him so renowned as Brighton's ethical busker.
Who is your musical inspiration?
We kick things off with an easy question, whilst Alan is setting up (which involves putting out various cardboard signs and piling his piano stool high with cushions).
"I've been a professional organist for the last sixty years… I've been taught by many organists; one of them played at the chapel here [at Sussex]. His name was John Birch, he died a couple of years ago, but he was the organist at Chichester Cathedral for many years, and for a long while at the Meeting House. So he's definitely one of my heroes. He used to teach me to play on Chichester Cathedral organ"
What would you say to people who are too shy to talk to you?
"I would say look at the notice" he points to one of his signs.
How long have you been ethically busking here?
"Since October 2015. When I started here I thought people might like the idea of appearing in a book, but most people here are horrified by the idea… they won't even wave or smile. So obviously, it hasn't worked in the way it was intended to work. It's unfortunate"
How is your book-writing going?
"I keep a daily diary – you'll be in my diary today. I have five years worth of day-to-day diary entries. The substance of the book will be the diaries"
Do many people win the quiz?
If you don't know, Alan's legendary quiz involves guessing the origin country of national anthems played on his keyboard. He has an extensive (alphabetised) list of all the possible answers handwritten on cardboard signs.
"Twelve people, or groups of people, have won the quiz in the history of it, which means that I have spent a total of £60 on prize money … If you haven't done the quiz before, you win ten pounds [if you have, you win five]."
Apparently, nobody has won the quiz first time as of yet.
As he expands, he divulges the changes he has seen since he began busking five years ago:
"Most of the prizes came out in the first couple of years. It's a different demographic here now, very different people in Stanmer Court, different people coming through the tunnel. It hasn't changed for the better from my point of view – from a busking point of view, the nature of the clientele has declined drastically over the period. It used to be a cult thing – people used to come down from Stanmer court all hours of the day and night, they became my friends. Now, there's hardly any response from Stanmer court."
Alan's response is slightly saddening – he evidently no longer has the same level of rapport with Sussex residents that he originally set out to create. It is difficult not to sympathise with him – what once may have been an original and exciting feature of campus is now in danger of becoming one solitary man playing piano in a tunnel.
Nevertheless, his attitude is still remarkably positive. As we keep talking, he reveals his strategies of staying relevant, and maintaining the affinity with students essential to busking on campus.
"Of course, different people are living there [campus], lots of them can't speak English – you can't do this [quiz] unless you have some smattering of English. I offer free English lessons – a lot of Chinese students take me up on them. If they're interested in the quiz but their English is poor I nurse them through the process … it's very worthwhile"
What's your favourite joke?
"I don't have a favourite joke. Do people have favourite jokes? … They come spontaneously to me whilst I'm doing the quiz. I'm very very joke-y, tonight there will be a lot of jokes"
At this point he still hasn't told us a joke. To move things along, I tell him my favourite joke (it's about a Geordie and a kangaroo) – he deems it 'okay'.
He picks up a plastic pig from his mat of various objects. Some of the items are symbolic of Chinese New Year – an effort to welcome Chinese students into the community, as well as to stay culturally relevant. He also has a rat hat.
"It's the year of the rat now. It was year of the pig before [picking up the pig] he was a bit disgruntled about that". An excellent pig-based pun.
With all of our questions spent, it seems rude not to take part in Alan's notorious quiz. Unsurprisingly, we don't win.
We manage to guess a solid four out of five anthems, but only because Alan provides heavy clues throughout. In doing so, he takes us on a crash course of geography, politics and international relations – from elections in Ireland to football in Paraguay. His global knowledge is staggering to say the least.
Most certainly an evening well spent, I am almost disappointed that I haven't spoken with Alan before. If you have the time, stopping even just for a chat is a must. You'll learn, and most definitely laugh a lot. Those who want to can even brush up on their English skills.
Alan's ethical busking is not only quiet and respectful, it's educational, politically informative, and one of the most wholesome experiences you'll have in an underpass. He is truly the face of friendliness in an era of hostility and conceit; his efforts to stay relevant in such a fleeting and unstable age are admirable, as is his perseverance in the frosty sub-zero temperatures.
Although not ten pounds richer, we have certainly learned a lot. As we walk away, my only regret is not having brought a coat.