I don’t think I’ve ever stopped for a busker more than about twice in my life. Coming up to midnight on Monday, I was changing to the Northern Line at King’s Cross, when I heard a violin being played really strikingly well. I couldn’t give you a technical analysis of the simplest bar of music. But this- it seemed, to my utterly untutored ear- was a piece of considerable complexity and it was certainly being played with great speed and passion. I noticed other people on the platform turning and listening. The next train for the High Barnet branch was about five minutes away, I noted with disgust- I needed my bed.
The violinist was still playing- again, to my ignorant assessment, very fast but without needless flashiness. I followed the sound: there were three or four people staring through the archway connecting the platforms at the violinist, and an intent young Korean guy squatting a few feet from her. She was wearing combat trousers and a tank top: proper Riot Grrrl stuff; red dyed hair and an oriental-looking tatto on her exposed shoulder. She was thin, I thought. And she was playing with obvious passion. Her every muscle was taut and the amount of effort going into each movement was a little frightening.
She finished the piece and we applauded: you very rarely see this. She straightened up for only a few moments and then launched into what sounded like an even harder piece. A train pulled up on the opposite platform and some passengers, alighting, walked to the escalator then stopped, turned back and listened to her. You never see this.
My train pulled up. I couldn’t leave. People stood and listened, at odd intervals starting forward to drop money in the little cloth bag at her feet. Another train pulled up and more people stopped to listen. A suited young Indian man standing near me walked over, dropped off some coins and came back. The violinist finished the second piece, and said ‘thanks’ and launched straight into a third piece- again, difficult and played with an intensity that was starting to seem desperate.
Riot Grrrl, I’d thought, musing patronisingly on the need of middle-class students to seem street. But I realised I was wrong, looking at her arms: she didn’t have the musculature of a student who went swimming or jogging and ate a lot of salads, or even a student who was short of food and making up for it with caffeine. She was emaciated: it was as if she’d been carved with a stanley knife. And her voice when she thanked us was not just high but frightened, and her face, in the brief moment that she looked up, was more or less devoid of surplus flesh, with black-looking lips above almost gumless gravestone teeth.
The Indian guy next to me said ‘Do you play the violin? Are you associating with her?….I hope the money I’ve given her goes on the right things, but I think maybe it will just go on drugs’. The only change I had was sixty pence, so I dropped that off. Another train arrived. I missed it, thinking I could get a bus if necessary- the Indian guy left. More people leaving the train stayed to listen.
Every time I stand near someone playing a string instrument I am struck by how much hard work it is. Before this, the most memorable example I’d seen had been the Lindsays, a fine string quartet on their farewell tour. This girl was not doing any street-performer dances or grimaces- her face was tucked away and her whole body was working hard.
The music was dominating my thoughts, leaving me literally unable to leave: it stopped. The violinist’s arms suddenly lost their rigidity and fell to her sides, though the violin and bow remained firmly in her hands, and she made a little mewl of pain, staring ahead of her with panic on her face: all this happened with the speed of a cartoon animation. Two policemen were walking down the escalator towards her: one large and bulky, one short and bulky.
This was the first time I’d noticed that she wasn’t playing on one of the ‘approved busker’ spots sponsored by whichever booze company it is. The police strode firmly up, and the large officer took the lead: ‘I’ve told you twice today you can’t busk here, and that is now it.’ Several passengers had been listening and some stayed to watch what happened. I made a loud sound of disgust, directed at the tall policeman. The short cop glared at me, while his mate carried on talking to the girl. A train pulled up.
The big cop was talking in an undertone, and now the girl was answering questions, in an awful, pleading voice. Maybe this was just voyeurism on my part, but I decided if they did pull her in I was going to make a little speech about how she had been doing no harm. Maybe I would have done, or maybe my courage would have failed me. A lot of Met officers look soft, but these British Transport Police seemed tough.
I caught her saying ‘rehab’, and ‘I need the money for-’ and ‘I’ve got a keyworker’. The tall cop gave her a final talking to in an undertone, and she stuffed her hat with its money into her little rucksack, got her violin into its case- all the while thanking him in a high-pitched gabble- and literally ran up the escalator. She had started to cry. The short officer gave me another really good glare, and I got slowly on the train that had just pulled up.
I couldn’t judge her age: it was as if a young woman had been worked on by a skilled makeup artist to give them the face of a forty-year-old. She could be between twenty-five and forty, but her face was lined and her voice was close to cracking. She should be given a spot by the ‘official busking’ people- but no drinks company will market its product with ‘a homeless person with substance issues’. This is somebody who could actually earn her rent money- and her food money, and her drug or booze money- by means other than begging or stealing or selling herself, so obviously she won’t be allowed to.
And she could certainly play. She’d definitely been a music student, perhaps even a professional musician. A favourite cliche of bad thrillers is the person forced to play an instrument, or a game, ‘for their life’. I’ve never seen that and probably never will. But I saw a woman playing a violin as intensely and impressively as she could because she needed, really needed enough cash to pay off a debt and avoid a beating up, or buy another fix, or spend a night in a hostel. I’d opt for the first of those explanations - she was so frightened. It was some of the most passionate music I’ve ever heard, and listening to it was a degrading experience.