In January this year, a video of a 15-year-old musician busking on the streets of Doncaster was posted on YouTube. Alfie Sheard’s cover of Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car went viral and led to him performing on the Ellen show in LA.
In his interview with Ellen, Alfie says that he loves busking because he likes to see people smile and that he invests the money he makes busking back into his music, taking the pressure of his mum. His dream is to come home one day and tell her she can stop working because he can now support her with his music.
If the highly controversial new powers sought by Doncaster Council had been in place when Alfie was busking, he would have been committing a criminal offense punishable by a fine of up to £1000 – for “requesting money, donations or goods, including through placing of hats, clothing or containers”.
As Cohen and Greenwood describe in their History of Street Entertainment, street performers have been a near-ubiquitous feature of the everyday life of our towns and cities for centuries. Such performers have always, and rather unfairly, been seen as existing on the margins of polite, or even acceptable, society. During the Middle Ages, minstrels were thought of as "lecherous and irresponsible fly-by-nights”, and we retain today a sense that those who either make their living or their play in public places are somehow disreputable.
Doncaster Council’s proposals would give police and council officials the power to ban people from the town centre if they merely believed them to be likely to cause nuisance or annoyance. Such fear of unregulated public play has a long history in Britain. Historically, concerns about public noise and annoyances came to a head with the street music debates in parliament through 1863-64. These debates reflect two major fears that are still prominent today: the fear of foreigners on British streets, and middle-class annoyance at working-class play.
The fear of street performers is connected to the fear of the poor, the itinerant, and the homeless. Doncaster Council would make it a criminal offense to sleep rough with or without a tent. The council claim that such powers are designed to help vulnerable people engage with services. In fact, they will impose punitive fines and criminal records upon highly vulnerable people with a wide range of complex social needs.
Underlying these laws is a culture of fear that has infected the public and the council officials are responding to baseless fears in a thoughtless manner. The gutter press publishes a stream of scare stories that lead us to believe that our towns and cities have become violent hellholes.
In reality, Britain has seen a steady and dramatic decline in lawbreaking in recent decades. Since 1995, the number of crimes has more than halved, vehicle theft has dropped by 86 per cent, burglary by 71 per cent, violent crime by 66 per cent, and robberies by more 50 per cent. There has been an increase in some crimes in the last year, but those are mostly related to swathing cuts in public services not to street performers or the homeless.
Street performances have always used theatrical danger to draw a crowd. Fire breathing, escapology, tightrope walking, juggling knives, wobbling around on tall unicycles. This theatrical danger is inherently exciting even if it is mostly illusory. Councils like Doncaster, Chester, and Oxford who have sought to introduce ill-considered laws to control public play seem to make the mistake of confusing theatrical danger with real danger. They have, to some extent, fallen for the illusion of danger inherent in many forms of public play.
The preeminent play-theory scholar Brian Sutton-Smith always said that the least understood, yet most important, kind of play is rough-and-tumble play. Play that is often naughty, rude, risky, and annoying. Play that pushes us to take risks, to explore boundaries, and to come home with bumps and scrapes. In an essay reviewing a lifetime devoted to the study of play, he suggests that perhaps his whole career was driven by an attempt to convince his mum that the rough-and-tumble play he and his brothers indulged in was absolutely normal and good for them.
It is worth asking whether our towns and cities can ever be made completely safe without taking away their sense of play. When grown-ups go out to play in the city they aren’t always looking for healthy, clean-living, logical, respectable, sporty activities: they are sometimes looking to challenge themselves, to be surprised and enchanted by the rough edges of the city.
Cities are full of rough-and-tumble play. It is part of their attraction and their romance. To have a rich variety of play in cities we need to design for danger. We can have safe cities or we can have playable cities. We can’t have both.
Stuart Nolan is a research magician and will be speaking on a session on Who Can Play, at the Making the City Playable Conference on Thursday 19 October.