On the streets

When I was a kid, we’d often spend our Saturday afternoon taking a walk through the shops in and around Chester’s famous Rows (or “that crazy double decker shopping mall thing” as one American once described it to me). I never really minded going shopping, to be honest. I’d happily wander around Our Price for hours trying to the agonising choice between the new T’Pau album, or the secondsophomore album by Tanita Tikaram. Heady days, indeed.

As the one of biggest centres for shopping in the North-West, Chester attracted huge throngs of people to its cobbled streets every Saturday. And wherever there are large groups of shoppers with money burning a hole in their pockets, you’re always guaranteed to find one thing – buskers.

The Chester buskers – or street entertainers as I should probably call them, for fear that Americans have some kind of strange name for them – were almost uniformly amazing. None of your run-of-the-mill Pavarotti rip-offs here, but instead twenty minute shows involving anything from magic to acrobatics. One guy in particular always stood out, so much so that I can still remember what he looked like more than ten years after I last saw him perform. He was a juggler, and a very good one at that. And I should know. Anybody who attended my wedding will know that I was – once upon a time – a professional juggler whose talents were in demand across the world. But this guy didn’t just juggle. He juggled clubs of fire. On a unicycle. A unicycle that had a ten foot ladder up to his precarious perch.

Not only did he put on an incredible show, but at the same time he always managed to have enough patter to make sure that the crowd (generally 200 or so people had been attracted by the end of show) paid up, and paid up big.

Now I’m in New York, where you come across a whole different kind of busker. Of course, there’s the usual collection of saxophonists, violinists and average caberet singers – you get them in any city you care to mention. On a couple of occasions I’ve seen a group of four old guys who wander through trains singing 60s classics in close harmony, and they are nothing short of astonishing.

But the buskers who stand out for me in New York are head and shoulders above the rest – and for all the wrong reasons. There seems to be a unique band of percussionists who’ve decided that traditional drums, cymbals and tambourines are too conventional for them – and instead they’ve opted to use a collection of general all-household rubbish to beat the hell out of as a way of expressing their art. This weekend I’ve witnessed a man using drumsticks to play a wide range of upturned buckets and containers. Another had taped an old saucepan lid to his chest, a telephone directory to one knee, and a random piece of plastic to the other, and used his heavily gloved hands to beat out a ‘tune’ that could only have been attractive to the mutant dogs of hell.

The strange thing was that at one point he burst into song, and he had a voice that could have you in tears within seconds. Yet somewhere along the line, he’d clearly had a conversation with a friend who must have said something along the lines of “You know, your singing isn’t getting you anywhere quickly – have you ever thought of strapping your muom’s saucepan lid to your torso and a Yellow Pages to your knee, and seeing what comes of it?”

I’m all for people expressing themselves, but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. And as the old Chinese proverb says, “If you’re including a telephone directory in your caberet act, it’s time to get a proper job.” Now, where did I put those juggling balls?

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