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Tag Archives: busking

Diagon Alley 2021

Went busking in Durham tonight, found a doorway so I was mostly out of the inclement weather, and it was really good fun. First time in about fifteen months. My tone was good, and my lip lasted longer than I thought, but I need to remember more tunes from my repertoire. A list would be good.

The cops passed a couple of times but they were cosy inside their vans so barely glanced at me. The people were very friendly and generous, as they usually are in Durham.

Saddler’s Lane, from my busking doorway.

blue note

The lockdown doesn’t impact on my life as a writer, in fact it gives me more time than I had before, so if there is an impact, it’s positive. But I also play saxophone and, save for one concert, during the brief lockdown interregnum, I haven’t played live for almost a year.

Even my practice room in a local church hall is closed for the duration.

I can’t wait for the chance to play again. I don’t play in bands any more, the noise of cranked guitars was making me deaf, but I love busking in Durham and Newcastle. Plus, per hour, it’s a lot better than minimum wage , so it gives me a bit of spare cash.

Writing is a long-term thing, and the pay-off, if it comes, can be a year or two or even five down the road. Playing street saxophone on the other hand, is live, people react immediately, and while most just ignore you, some sing along or dance, and some stop me for a chat. One girl, a month or two before the lockdown, stood for ages, just listening, then began to cry – I like to think she was enjoying it rather than merely crying in pain. I’ve had musicians, smack-heads, whiskey priests and smart, elderly ladies pay me compliments. Little children sometimes wave from their pushchairs. Though to be fair, the smack-head got annoyed when I wouldn’t share my takings, and some children begin to wail in fear when they hear me.

Whatever, the reaction is instantaneous, and I like it. Even if someone isn’t directly listening to you, there’s a reaction – if you see a romantic couple walking by holding hands and you play the opening notes from The Look of Love, and you can see them squeeze their hands together for a moment, without even thinking, and that’s extremely rewarding from a human point of view. You’re contributing to the atmosphere of the place, which is the role of a musician.

And that’s before I get to the joy I experience just making noise. That joy, when I hit the zone where I’m no longer consciously thinking about what I’m playing, is awesome in its power.

busking, saxophone,

the wooden tongue

Here’s a lockdown story:

The beer-bug curtailed my playing this year, but I thought I’d enquire if I would be allowed to busk over the Christmas holidays – better to check in advance than get an on-the-spot mid-tune fine from some twat in a hi-viz. After four weeks of emails and unanswered phone calls, I finally got a call from a clerk of some sort. Yes, I could play, he said, but I must not cause anyone to pause to listen. No one must approach me. If I caused any sort of reaction or hold-up I must cease playing and go home. Otherwise they would take action to stop me. “You manage it,” he told me, “Or we will.”

Despite my friendly phone manner, the man had a flat tone that did not budge during our three or four minute conversation. There was no smile in his voice. He did not deviate from his message. There was no humanity or warmth in his words. Zero connection. Which is ironic as he is an employee of the ‘community-facing’ branch of the council.

He did not seem to grasp that this was Christmas, that I’d be playing carols on my saxophone for people who might be shopping or visiting the cathedral. I was just a regulation to be adhered to. A rule-set to be enforced.

This is how a Stasi begins. Incrementally, by rigid people who follow orders.

There are many worse examples than this, of the breakdown in trust between ordinary people and the rulingĀ clerisy. He wasn’t unpleasant or dictatorial. He didn’t close down my business or fine me ten thousand pounds or put me in jail for congregating. He wasn’t even irritated. He simply didn’t recognise me as a living, sentient human being. I was merely a task to be completed. A directive to be enforced.

This, also, is how revolutions begin.



in the moment

When I write, I spend a lot of time editing and redrafting, adding and subtracting, tweaking, polishing, erasing. When I busk on my sax, I don’t. If you like a piece of writing you can go back and reread it as often as you like. Playing live is the opposite, it’s immediate and then it’s gone.

Permanent. Transient.

I like ’em both.


Isn’t it always the same, as soon as you make a decision to do a lot more busking, it rains for a month. Either way though, I’m playing in Durham tomorrow, from 6-8pm. Found an ungated door on Silver Street.

Also, when is it appropriate to begin playing carols? I’m thinking early/mid November.


(for busking/rain, substitute your activity/inhibitor of choice)


On the topic of busking in Durham, the people are really nice, but there’s a thin slice of smackheads that hang around too. A while back I was playing and a smackhead couple walked past. The girl gave me a smile and I made the mistake of smiling back. Cue the return of smackhead couple less than two minutes later, with the lad asking me for money for his train fare ‘back to Darlington.’

Then lots of swearing and angry expressions as I turned him down.

Last night was a little easier. I only had one interaction with a denizen of the underclass – I got shoved by a smackhead with face tatts and no legs. He could barely steer his wheelchair and he reached for the bell of my sax, but missed and shoved me leg; he was obviously out of his tree on his drug of choice.

Taken from my ‘spot’ on Diagon Alley/Saddler Street, Durham.

more Diagon

Of the two cities, Newcastle and Durham, I prefer busking in Durham. It’s cosier, the streets are narrower and the people are generally friendlier. Newcastle is a great place to busk but Durham is just better.

Did a couple of hours in DC tonight. Took a couple of pictures too. Saddler Street, the narrow, cobbled lane that winds up toward the Cathedral, is at least a thousand years old, and very Diagon Alley.

Ollivanders is just up the road and on the left. As you can see, it’s still open.


Went into Newcastle this afternoon with my saxophone. There was a guy playing guitar at the Monument, and he was there for a long while. I went to the Tyneside for tea and returned at 6pm.

Played for an hour as evening set in. Got selfied by a bride and her hen-night pals. People seemed to enjoy it. A group of lads passed by, so I played the opened bars of Tequila and they joined in, singing and laughing.

Durham on Sunday, I reckon. 6 til 8.

blue note

After leaving the band I took a month off of playing saxophone but I think I’ll go busking in Durham this evening, even if only for an hour.

I’ll be on the corner of Diagon Alley.

toot sweet

..but while I was busking I did have fun. Made a tiny bit of cash and that paid for the metro and some coffee with a bit left over.

Alto is my least favourite of the three saxes I’ve played (never played baritone) – it goes in this order 1 Soprano, 2 Tenor 3 Alto – but it’s currently my weapon of choice in the form of Miyagi, my battered old Yamaha.


Reasons for Miyagi being my current busking sax are a) that it’s much lighter lighter than a tenor but b) it wails in a way the soprano can’t. If I ever get another soprano, one I can play preferably, then Mags will go in the cupboard, but until then it’s the current weapon of choice.