Pierre smiles and nods at me from the place where he works: a black half-circle printed on the floor beneath his feet. An empty guitar case sits beside him. It is sinking in on itself under the weight of a few coins. A stream of blurred faces, shoulders and shoes pass by us. As far as we know, raindrops are still pelting the streets of London outside. But we cannot say for sure. We are standing far below the city’s surface. And Pierre is quietly singing a song.
The trains under London have been running for well over a hundred years. The first one shot off in 1863, around the same time the word “busking” first entered the English language. But the buskers, minstrels, troubadours, organ grinders and those who played without a name, had been performing in the streets of cities for thousands of years before this. The London Underground just gave them a new place to go, a new way to connect. There are more than three million people passing through these tunnels each day and all of them are here for this same reason.
Pierre is from Côte d’Ivoire. He moved to London by way of France around the age of 17. He doesn’t remember how long he’s been coming down here to perform. Only that it’s been years. Many years.
Tonight Pierre is playing at Charing Cross station. He’s 62 now, has a wife and two kids, a faded black guitar case to catch the money that he makes. He’s wearing a black hat with all the colours of the rainbow printed on it; a dark grey shirt with a black pendant strung around his neck; a busking license on the left leg of his black pants; an acoustic guitar with a Venetian cutaway, and a rose burst finish.
He doesn’t waste a word when he speaks. “Music gives me happiness,” he says. “Music is all right for me. When I play I feel happy. Very happy. Music gives me more life.”
Pierre started playing guitar when he was still in France. And though he’d come from the cadence of Africa it was the music of England that moved him. He tells me about the middle sixties and the musicians that inspired him. He smiles with the innocence and enthusiasm of a child when he says the words: “The Beatles,” “The Rolling Stones.” He says “Thank you” when he hears a coin drop into his guitar case, every time.
When I ask him what playing in the tunnels has taught him, Pierre grins and strums his strings a little.
“Standing down here, my god, you learn a lot about people,” he says. “You learn a lot of things. You see people happy. You see people stressed. You see people sick. You see a lot of things. You see everything.” He pauses then tells me this this two more times. “You see everything,” he says. “You see everything.”
“But when you are walking you see nothing.”
Jamie is standing in his spot above the escalators at Oxford Circus. The half-circle here belongs to him for the next two hours. He is wearing a blue and grey flannel shirt, blue jeans and a black jacket. The guitar he is playing has a hole in it, underneath the bridge. To the left of the hole are the remnants of a sticker, greyed and browned by dirt. The wood of the guitar holds a lot of history, a lot of scratches and dents, a lot of stories and lines. It has a curious past and right now it is giving out a sound that is like gold.
Jamie is singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
“Music was always a familial thing for me,” he says between songs. “My grandfather was on the stage. And he was one of those guys who, wherever he was, there was always a laugh, a joke, a fight and a song. I don’t do all of the former. But I enjoy the latter.”
Jamie’s from Birkenhead, in the northwest of England. He started busking when he was young, he says, around 17. When I ask him how old he is now he tells me he’s just passed a landmark age, and then he just smiles and waits politely.
“When you get used to doing something like busking, and the freedom that comes with it,” Jamie says, “the alternative existence begins to seem very remote, and almost impossible to be drawn into.”
He tells me that busking gives him time and space. As he says this he realizes it gives him something more. “Control,” he says. “Control of time and space. We’re restricted in so many ways. By rents and mortgages. By relationships and people. Even by eating. And a full-time job is just one sticking point too many for me.”
Jamie makes his living playing music, but says he’s not critical of the ways others choose to make theirs. “I have my own little purpose,” he says. “So I choose not to be judgmental. There’s something quite comforting about the people that pass by.” To see them all as one lifeless mass, he says, just trudging along and dragging roller bags out into the abyss, would be frivolous, dismissive.
“We all have our own tasks,” he says. “We all have our own purposes.”
When I first spot Will, he is standing in front of a Jack White poster at Bank station. His eyes are hidden under a black cap. His face, under a black beard. He has an acoustic guitar slung across his back and he is playing a harmonica. Bank is a maze of corridors, divided into harshly-lit whites and poorly-lit greys. But when one finds the corner where the harmonica is coming from, the walls of the fortress seem to soften.
Will is from Jamaica, around 50-years-old, he says. He moved to London with his parents when he was young, and he’s been playing in the tunnels for over 10 years now. When he speaks, he speaks slowly, calmly, with a massive heart.
“Survival,” he says. “It’s survival that brings me down here. Music is almost everything to me. I can’t say it’s everything because it’s not life, and life has to be everything. But I think music might be second.”
Will tells me about the time he watched a man strumming a guitar in Jamaica. He can’t remember the man’s name but says the feeling, of being connected to something, never left him. He eventually learned to play the bass. But he now plays many instruments. He tells me about the sound an Irish D whistle makes, but says he prefers to hear the timbre of his guitar, because it sets him free to sing.
When I ask him if he plays for others or for himself, he says he does both. He says music soothes him, but that he plays it because he wants to share that feeling with others. “When you don’t have much money,” he says. “And you don’t have many things. But you still want to give people something … I learned that music was the best thing I could give.”
Will says playing in the tunnels has taught him that things like race and color don’t really matter. Not to him or to others. Not even age matters, he says. “The world is too big. You may be in your thirties. I may be in my fifties. But after we’re gone there will still be 200 years up the road.”
We shake hands and say our goodbyes. A woman in a white jacket moves past us. A man in a black jumper walks the other way. The trains come and go. Will stands still and sings another song.