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PART ONE: London in the swinging 60’s
Was it by fortuitous good luck, accident or design that Walt Disney decided to merge the Pamela L Travers character of BERT into a Sweep, one man band BUSKER & pavement artist SCREEVER, for his new 1964 film MARY POPPINS. Of course, Travers had written them as separate characters in her 1934 book.
It was this combination of Musical Busker and Pavement Artist that struck a chord with me; both are born of common ancestry, both street performers, entertaining the public in return for pennies, through their chosen artistry but apparently poles apart in their appearance and attitude; one outgoing, loud and extrovert, the other quiet, hunched over and introvert.
Naturally enough thought, there has always been a great comradeship and mutual respect between the two art forms. A relationship that in London dates back over 300 years; gone are the street potters, harpists, strolling German Bands and Gypsy girl dancers, Irish singers and the Herdy Gerdy man; gone also thankfully, the dancing bears, monkeys, bull baiters and the likes. Through two world wars, the great depression and numerous other upheavals, the Buskers & the Screever survives today more or less intact….more than ‘survives’ if the numerous busking and street painting festivals worldwide are anything to go by.
Earlier this year I was contacted through this blog, by one time London busker ROD WARNER who told me about his screever friend Bob Hanley. This is what Rod had to say:
“I was a busker for many years, starting out in London and graduating to the cinema queues round Leicester Square in the wake of Don Partridge and a couple of other younger buskers who had managed to get a foothold on the scene after some battles with the older generation of street musicians.
Don himself started up busking at the Irving Statue next to the pitch of the resident street artist there who would have been a guy called Bob Hanley, from Northern Ireland, Belfast maybe, can’t remember! But I got to know Bob very well over the next few years.
Bob was very successful and branched out from day to day chalking – he kept his base at the Irving Statue but he had done some pen and ink drawings of London sights, plus when Swinging London hit a bunch of crude cartoons of hippies, CND peace signs – crap really. But he had a squad out on the streets in the West End who sat on pitches and coloured them in/sold them neat, paying a royalty to Bob of course. Then he franchised the cartoons out to plastic bag/poster makers and you saw them everywhere – Carnaby Street especially, Piccadilly, wherever there was a kiosk, it seemed. Of course he made a lot of money…”
Ron continued; “I left London in 1975 and travelled between Dublin and the continent – London had become too crowded plus the fines went up astronomically. But Bob was part of the fabric of the West End for those years. I don’t know when he started out as he was older than the rest of us but Don Partridge knew him from about 1964.”
What Rod was telling me was totally fascinating…I knew about pavement artists who would ‘franchise out’ pitches, this had been going on since the 1800’s, but it had never been described to me in as much detail…I pressed him further on the relationships between BUSKERS & SCREEVERS;
“we were in no conflict and when we were playing the cinema queues in Leicester Square, would book spots at various times which necessitated leaving guitars/instrument cases on the pitch. So there was usually a symbiosis of street rabble! We’d watch theirs and vice versa, between the pub, the cafe and the bookies.”
And what of the franchising out of pitches?
“Bob as far as I remember chalked on his own – but as his outfit grew he employed on a loose arrangement a surprising amount of people who would find a pitch somewhere and sit and colour in the drawings or just display and sell the drawings – copies of course. Bob was the benign godfather who caught on to the idea of FRANCHISE! A Warhol of the streets perhaps”
I was interested in knowing more about the relationship with the law and other aspects of working the London streets as a Busker and Screever;
“The relationship with the police was a complex one but in the main amicable. Buskers used to be fined £2 for Highway obstruction; I would assume that the print sellers would come under the same umbrella, as it were. There were laws against begging but these were more severe – and rarely used by then, I suspect. As a busker in the West End you could expect to get picked up once a month, on rough average. Usually no more than a trip to Bow Street, out fairly quickly, up before the beak next morning, guilty, two quid. Back to work.
What killed off the West End for a while until Covent Garden came along – and that was and is a totally different setup, much more organised – was the number of buskers growing to stupid proportions, the law changing, so that the fine upper end was £50!, which was a lot of money in the early 70s – and cinemas going over to booking rather than queuing. I assume that there were still queues around (I decamped in 1974-5 for more easy busking environments) but nowhere near the scale as before. You could always make money doing street pitches – Soho, Brewer Street/Berwick Street market, Carnaby Street, Portobello Road on Saturdays, Petticoat Lane Sundays etc., the theatre ‘bursts’ – hitting the punters as they came out of the show – but the queues were the gold mines. With a good bottler you could make a fast and lucrative hit.
There were always pitch wars of some description. In my book I describe Don’s experiences – he started out with his friend Alan Young (Catch the film: The London That Nobody Knows’ or check out the clip on the book blog – he’s in it with Jumping Jack/AKA The Earl of Mustard) playing by the Irving Statue, back of the National Gallery, where Bob Hanley used to let them play next to his pitch – probably while they looked after his stuff while he was down the bookies/pub whatever – so that was a symbiotic relationship between pavement artist and busker.
Don Partridge: The King of the Buskers!
But Don got wind very quickly of the opportunities to be had in Leicester Square and Coventry Street down to the Pavilion in Piccadilly. That brought them into conflict with the older buskers – accordion players and other eccentrics – but he cultivated two of them. One was Meg Aikman – the Piccadilly Nightingale, the other Jumping Jack, the tap dancer. He originally got in a fight with Don and they were promptly arrested which brought them together. Jack was a crazy bastard but like a fox. He saw the future and made alliances with the young brigade. I played with him a lot and learned much – to be in his company was a surreal experience. When I started out there were still conflicts between young and old but they were fizzling out. But people were jealous of their pitches. Basically you couldn’t just walk up to a queue and play – usually someone had booked it by leaving an instrument so for the really big films, you could be hanging around for hours just to play to that one queue.
Pavement artists weren’t really a problem. There were never many round the area that I remember anyway. Bob was on his pitch, which he may have shared with others, I can’t remember, but his army of print floggers might set up in the doorway with us before queues as they would watch the gear and we would reciprocate. Some of the bottlers were recruited from their ranks and vice versa so it was a symbiotic friendly relationship in the main.”
I’ll be publishing more on this subject in a future blog, but I’d like to thank Rod Warner for sharing his first-hand account of street life and culture in 1960’s London. I’m totally fascinated by his stories, and if anybody knows what happened to Bob Handley or is related to him in any way, then please get in-touch!
Writted by Philip Battle with additional material supplied by Rod Warner & Pat Keene.