Last year the proposals to regulate and license busking received an angry response from the public across social media, and were later dropped following the result of the council’s public consultation. In order to provide better representation for the busking community, experienced busker Dave Southern, perhaps better known as “Mr Peewee- the drumming puppet” is working to set up the Chester Buskers association. In association with the Keep Streets Live campaign headed by busker and campaigner Johnny Walker, and the council a new busking code of conduct is expected later this year.
Dave, who has a wealth of experience as a busker learnt to juggle and ride a unicycle whilst he was still in school in 1978. “It was unheard of to be able to do those things if you weren’t from a circus family.”. He took his show to Covent Garden and later became the resident street entertainer at Liverpool’s Albert Dock. He came to Chester in the late 80s and developed his show in front of Moss Bros on Eastgate street. He has also worked as a community/ youth worker and has managed projects in Lache and Blacon. The popular “Mr Peewee” emerged from the idea of being able to work all year round (people don’t like to stand round and watch a juggler for half an hour in the cold).
Dave says that the aims and objectives of the Association will be to support the Code of Practice and “break down barriers between business and buskers..to promote Chester and the positive role that street art can have in Chester.” He says that he is trying to break down the distinction between “a guy collecting in a hat and the fantastic mystery thing that happened on Good Friday, because its all art in the street.
“Whether its voluntary or paid for is almost academic for me. It’s based on impact. There was a fantastic impact to that event, and no shops are complaining about how long it went on, or where it was. I worry when they do that , its a case of “proper job syndrome..” . He says that critics often attack buskers for not paying taxes and that busking is not seen as a “proper job”.. While Dave is happy to show critics his tax returns or introduce them to his accountant, his main aim is to promote understanding with businesses.
“The associations philosophy will always be one of communication. The streets are public places, they aren’t controlled by the businesses. That’s what came out of last year’s public consultation. there needs to be a communicative relationship. When I’m setting up in a new place I will go into the surrounding shops and introduce myself. I’m not asking for permission because they don’t have the right to give me permission, but if theres any problems we can work something out. The new code encourages this too.
“I see a time in 18 months where a busker will set up outside a shop, if its a little loud, the shopkeeper will come out and ask them to turn it down, And the busker will go “sorry I didn’t realise” or “actually that’s not fair, because I’m not that loud and no one else has complained. ” I don’t want shops to feel that they have to get on the phone to someone to complain.” He accepts that some buskers in Chester do cause problems:
“We need to make it clear they’re not welcome in Chester or we need to support them as to how they could do what they’re doing differently without causing problems. If a busker is asked to turn down , and its a reasonable request, and the busker says no, the trader could ask another business, or another busker for a second opinion, or come and find me . I’m not going to take the side of a busker just because they’re a busker. If its damaging businesses I’ll say so. If they are unwilling to do anything about it, that’s when you go down the enforcement route. The police can apply a community behaviour order , its logged, and if they continue to be unreasonable it can lead to arrest. That’s always been there, that didn’t need a PSPO. ”
“As a juggler I would never attempt to work a race day, but with the puppet its great fun! On a Saturday night between 10 and 12 at the Cross, sometimes I have 60 people dancing, in a massive street party. And the people flyering from Cruise and Rosies are filming it.
“I think Chester has got something so special about it. The balance of architecture and public spaces, but also geographically.. The battle that Chester has with Cheshire Oaks and the Trafford centre is , we want people in the surrounding areas to say “lets go to Chester because there is always something happening.” Theres great shops, great places to eat, and there’s always something happening. Happy shoppers spend more money and good businesses know that. That’s why Cheshire Oaks and places like that employ performers to generate the atmosphere that Chester gets for free. Chester has some great buskers!”
But what about the sand dogs ? Dave says that under the new code of practice a street performer will be defined as someone that “does something in the street for a voluntary contribution”. His personal view is that “thankfully we haven’t got a load of hovering Yodas! Living statues can be quite entertaining but if you go to Leicester square there are 5 hovering Yodas in a row. Its depressing, they’re not performing, they’re not interacting, they’re just sitting there. It’s just engineering!”
Dave says that if buskers want to get involved in the Association they will be able to join for a voluntary donation. “What they get for that is membership, mediation and support if needed, a vote within the organisation and people who can represent them in local issues that concern busking. We will need a chairperson and a treasurer, but its an informal association. I’d like to head it up for for a year, because I have the passion and the network, then go back to being a busker again! Johnny Walker has asked to use what I’ve written as the template association for Keep Street’s live campaign. You don’t need to be a member to work in Chester, its not a closed shop. The issue with the proposed PSPO for buskers was that it might have only served people that could meet the administrative needs, buskers that travel would just skip Chester and you would have had the same 6 buskers every week! It was going to do the exact opposite of what they were trying to do.”
I asked Dave why so many councils across the UK are introducing PSPOs. He replied that “mostly what they are trying to do is cap things that are street behaviour, but not necessarily busking. I’ve spent 30 years trying to distance what I do from begging, and that culture. The PSPO put us right in together and we fought it together. I have seen street performing used as a tool to cap other behaviours. You do get aggressive buskers.. Bath has been overrun with buskers and has become a difficult place to work. Keep Streets Live have come in and things are changing. So many buskers don’t get the concept of the rubber tree. If you go to the rubber tree and cut if with a big knife, you get a load of rubber but the tree dies. You have to get a little bit of rubber at a time. I think that’s what busking is, you do a bit, then move onto a different pitch….
“Boris Johnson has publicly said that he wants to make London the best busking city in the world and I’m challenging that . I want Chester to be it .I want to put back in, into Chester, for the support that we got last year.”