Colville Community Forum
By way of context: I’ve lived on Portobello Road or close by for 13years, I have 3 daughters, one of whom is 10yrs old and my flat faces onto the road, close to the junction with Lancaster Road. As such, I’m more than aware of the busking that takes place on Portobello. Indeed, several songs that I used to be fond of have now been banished to the darkest recesses of my record collection on account of their repeated murdering (if that’s possible) by buskers of… how can I put this?... ‘limited talent’. Even as I type, with my windows closed, I can hear REM’s ‘Man on the Moon’ gasping his last (again). But, and this is crucial, I don’t believe restrictions should be made upon the people doing that murdering, at least not without considerable reflection. Here’s why…
During the time I’ve lived in the area it’s become manifest that the road is not the antiques market. It’s not the fruit and veg stalls. It’s not the falafel and burger vendors. It’s not the bars. It’s not the restaurants. It’s not the fashion stores. It’s not the record stalls. It’s not the people peddling bric-a-brac up towards Golborne Road. It’s not the cafés. It’s not the Electric cinema. It’s not the rubbish collectors. It’s not the Blue Door. It’s not the residents. It’s not the street cleaners. It’s not the history. It’s not the tourists. It’s not the Olive Bar. It’s not Rough Trade. And it’s not the buskers.
Portobello Road is an unfathomable, symbiotic, chaotic combination of all of those things.
I’ve lived in Brixton, Camberwell, Stockwell, rural France, the northwest of England, Durham, Bristol and a posh bit of Notting Hill. None of those places comes even close to the magic of living on Portobello Road.
Social anthropologists would argue that it’s impossible to put a price on that magic but I’m not so sure. Portobello Road is a ‘Golden Goose’ for the traders, shopkeepers, bar owners, restauranteurs and the freeholders. And the council. And London. And ‘UK plc.’ Stand outside Notting Hill Gate station on a Saturday morning and you can see the magic metamorphosing into the hard cash of tourist spending.
And so to the busking…
Sure the busking is annoying on occasions but I would contend that it is also a part of the alchemy that makes the magic. Remove or restrict it at your peril.
The fact that crowds of people gather around the buskers on Portobello is testament to their appeal. It can be an inconvenience but that’s like saying that the other 89,999 people watching a football match cheering and yelling at Wembley are an inconvenience to me, the individual supporter.
For the most part the really bad buskers don’t earn enough to make it worth their while - a Darwinian process of natural selection comes to bear – but there are a few regulars whose performances and accompanying behaviours might be thought of as anti-social. What’s the best solution? Is it to drive them off the road? In which case, where to? Are we somehow coming to the conclusion that the people of North Kensington are more deserving of the irritation than those of us in the Colville Ward? If that’s the case, on what grounds?
My interactions with these buskers suggest that they are all troubled in some way or another. From a cost-benefit perspective, would it be more effective to get social services involved in helping them, than introducing what will doubtless be an expensive licensing scheme? As a tax payer, I would like to know.
Looking through the other end of the telescope… In the last few weeks I’ve watched and listened to two buskers of quite extraordinary talent. One called Cam Cole. (Look him up online if you like the Blues interpreted by someone who makes Jack White look a bit mainstream.) And another, whose name I didn’t get, playing the most exquisite jazz on soprano sax at 7.30pm outside the toilets on Talbot Road.
So is licensing and patrolling the answer to ‘Man on the Moon’, ‘Baker Street’ and ‘Wonderwall’ on a loop? Well I guess that depends on what it costs, how else the taxpayers’ money might usefully be deployed and whether it would, in practice, be possible to enforce the restrictions. By way of example: How many people know the difference between a soprano sax and a clarinet? What happens if the player of the former paints their instrument black? Good luck to the enforcement officer that has to make the distinction.
Where would the ‘cleansing’ process stop? Schoenberg is one person’s classic and another’s racket. I abhor the Beatles. If busking were to be confined certain parts of the road, subject to a number of complaints, I might find myself listening to ‘Eleanor Rigby’ instead of Cam Cole. Then I’d start complaining and we’d all descend into an expensive and fractious argument over what constitutes taste and talent.
I guess most people reading this will have come across the book called ‘Portobello Eye’. The portraits and interviews with characters who live and work on the road, from Clinton to Chandra Patel are for the most part heartening but, in each case, there’s an oft-worrying coda evident in their answers to the question: How do you visualise the Portobello Road looking in 10years time? The consensus is pessimistic. A creeping sanitisation of the road lies beneath that pessimism.
I would submit that the subjugation of buskers will hasten the erosion of Portobello’s magic and with that the honk of the ‘Golden Goose’ will turn to a croak.
Quite. Let's preserve some of the shambling magic and not let Portobello be gobbled up by the chains and brands. Portobello and its environs had something of the magic of Bruce Robinson's 'Withnail and I' and various locations around the neighbourhood were used in the film.Spontaneous busking is part of the area's idisyncratic charm. Let's not lose it...