CHAPTER 4: Dulcimers in the British Isles since 1800 > Dulcimers in London

Busking in London today

Since busking has played a part in the lives of so many dulcimer-players, I felt it important that my field work should include at least an attempt to find out something about this aspect of life at first-hand.

My first experience came one Summer Sunday afternoon in 1973, when, heart in mouth, I sat in a shop doorway just off Piccadilly; within moments a crowd gathered, and stayed for perhaps 20 minutes, at the end of which time an officer in blue very politely suggested that my audience of 30 or 40 was not only obstructing the pavement but also flowing into the road and creating a hazard both to themselves and to the traffic.

Somewhat unnerved I tried the Marble Arch subway, only to find that it was being thoroughly worked by a three-man syndicate who, little concerned about the musical side of the undertaking, managed to ensure that no-one passed through without coming within a few inches of a money-bag.

In Oxford Street the word was that things were tightening up and that even the old-time regulars were being picked up without warning and fined more than they were earning.

At the British Museum and Leicester Square the professionals - old and young alike - were obviously prepared to take steps to ensure that they maintained their closed shop; only Meg was helpful, that celebrated lady who has been at Leicester Square for as long as anyone can remember, and earns her living singing her only song, Danny Boy.

The closed-circuit TV cameras of the Underground could be seen to be used to bring retribution with Orwellian promptitude, and in four days my only real success was with a coach-load of German tourists outside a deserted Royal Festival Hall, who stopped for a few minutes, and between them tossed into my hat half the cost of the single train fare home.

Neither did I discover any trace of another dulcimer-player, for everyone - other buskers, newspaper-vendors, street-sellers - seemed agreed that the busking days were virtually gone, that the Police and the magistrates between them had just about wrapped it all up.

A few days later I departed with a fiddler-friend for Scandinavia, where busking not only supported us for the initial six weeks, and then numerous return visits, but also led to radio and TV appearances, and ultimately even the offer of a University lecturing post: a prophet in his own land ...?