A few days ago I got stuck in a tunnel clogged with people.
Me and about a million others were changing from the Bakerloo line to the Central Line at Oxford Circus. If you’ve ever done it, you’ll know the interchange: there’s a looooong foot tunnel. We were jammed into that, shoulder to shoulder. We were moving at a shuffling pace.
Nobody really seemed to mind that much. Every so often, someone would hold their phone over their heads and take a picture of our predicament.
Then, into earshot, came a busker. He was way up ahead. (There's one of those TfL 'official busker points' in this particular tunnel. There was guitar strumming.
And what happened next was fascinating. We (and by ‘we’ I mean the group of commuters who all heard the busker at the same time as me) had almost identical reactions at almost exactly the same time:
- A tiny ‘ha!’ in response to the situational comedy of the moment
Here we are, a huge, slow-moving, captive audience, and him a busker. The chap next to me even said to his friend ‘good day to be a busker, eh?’
- Relief that he actually sounded quite good.
We couldn’t actually tell what he was singing yet, but his voice was deep and mellifluous. He was playing some interesting-sounding jazzy chords. Thank God. There is, after all, nothing more excruciating for the English than trying to ignore someone doing something you don’t like in a confined space.
- A sort of bemused WTF-barely-perceptible-shake-of-the-head.
This was the moment when something awful happened. This was the moment when we worked out what song he was singing:
I see trees of green, red roses too.
I see them bloom, for me and you.
And I think to myself — what a wonderful world.
Oh no. Oh dear. What’s this? Oh this is awkward! How has this happened? Suddenly we’re all becoming painfully aware of how not-at-all-wonderful this is — despite the fact that just a few seconds ago we were actually doing just fine. Perhaps it’s some kind of satire? No. He’s being really sincere. His eyes are closed.
The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky.
Are also on the faces, of people going by…
Seriously? Are you ACTUALLY KIDDING? Are you even on the same planet? Our faces are not rainbows. Our faces are the cold-eyed monochrome of the walking dead. And you have made this painful truth completely inescapable. There are clearly no rainbows here AS YOU SHOULD BE ABLE TO TELL! We are now embarrassed and ashamed. Oh, Mr Busker, we thought a moment ago that we were all in this together, but we were mistaken. You are not one of us. We shufflers are in this together. You are a clueless fool.
Like I say, all that was expressed through the smallest head movement it’s possible for the human body to make while still counting as a tut/eye-roll/shake.
By the time we passed the busker, he was utterly dead to us. Nobody looked at him. Nobody gave him money. We refused to acknowledge his existence. He had managed to embarrass and humiliate us and make it impossible somehow for us to acknowledge his skill and talent without betraying our tribe, the shuffling commuter tribe. We were separated by an impossible gulf.
If he’d have said something, anything, to even nod towards the irony of singing that song, at that time, in that place, I’m convinced he would have cleaned up. If he’d have started playing, oh I dunno, ‘Trapped’ by Bruce Springsteen, or REM’s ‘Can’t Get There From Here’, it’s possible we’d have buried him under a mountain of pound coins, such was the initial goodwill towards him.
Perhaps he was relishing his own bloody-mindedness. Perhaps he went home cursing what a stingy thankless bunch today’s crowd were.
Perhaps I’m wrong about all of it, and this was only how it appeared to my over-active imagination.
I don’t think so though. I think we were a well-disposed audience, and by not realising we were giving off subtle feedback vibes, he inadvertently shut us out.
The lessons here for everyone who creates work for clients or audiences of any kind are obvious. You don’t need me to spell em out.