The Cambridge Busker: An Interview

04/05/2012 17:29 BST | Updated 04/07/2012 10:12 BST

This week the Cambridge Union is hosting a forum on Homelessness that is open to the general public and to mark the occasion, second year History student Tom Belger spoke to Banjo Nick, a street musician, Cambridge graduate and former rough sleeper about Homelessness in Cambridge and his personal experience:.


Banjo Nick

Tom: Hi Nick. Could you say a bit about your own experiences of homelessness?

Banjo Nick: I was technically homeless from 1997 to December 2007. I checked into Jimmy's Nightshelter in Cambridge after rat-infestation drove me from my precarious free mooring on Eel Pie Island on the Thames.

Tom: What was it that helped you to break out of the cycle?

Banjo Nick: A mental health assessment of 'trauma' led to higher priority on the housing list.

Tom: You are a Cambridge graduate and have traveled widely; how have your own life experiences influenced your view of and relationship with people currently sleeping rough?

Banjo Nick: I was always homeless as a boatman, poet, musician - fledgling troubadour. 'Banjo Nick' came of age when I was cycling across the Australian Nullarbor Plain in 2004 - busking the roadhouses every two days, with the remainder hard cycling into prevailing cross- and head- winds between stops.

I have slept rough in all sorts of situations - always seeking out a safe and dry place, keeping out of trouble, avoiding violent types - the crazy types...I have never begged, so I don't know much about the begging life. Nor am I an alcoholic or a junkie - transformations can happen to all these classes of homelessness.

I am an advocate of the creative/art-therapeutic path. Simple provisions for homeless people - an art cupboard and a cuppa - can do wonders for smashed self-worth. I read Samuel Johnson as an undergraduate mentored by the philosopher Dr Michael Tanner: 'The inevitable consequence of poverty is dependence', for instance, Johnston wrote in his Lives of the Poets.

Tom: Are there any qualities that you developed when living on the street that you are grateful for?

Banjo Nick: Number one is mindfulness - watchfulness and invisibility are part of that. As a boy I was taught how to wash with a cup of water by my Antarctic explorer Grandfather - on my mother's side - and many of the survival tips he gave me on camping trips were well-remembered. The trick is not to look homeless if you are living as an artist, spiritual seeker, low-budget traveller, without benefits - strange as that might sound. No need to wash hair - it is self-cleaning if you give it a break from all that damaging shampooing. Shock, horror!

Tom: Recently there have been some pretty sickening reports of brutality towards rough sleepers in Cambridge, and you once told me you weren't too keen on the council - are there are challenges specific to homeless people in the city?

Banjo Nick: To say nothing, Tom, of the pouring of acid on the unsuspecting Charlie Cavey, the famous bin-man busker of Cambridge, by Corpus undergraduates this February, who also detonated a stink bomb in Charlie's bin-cave. Cruelty worthy of Titus Andronicus. Torture and a chemical attack on a busker here in Cambridge - and the offending students get a caution. Was that what happened? Or do I have my facts wrong?

I have nothing against the council -I steer clear of it and its officers. However, I do think that there could be a 100 per cent increase in job-sharing in the civil service - and I loathe pointless box-ticking, health-and-safety types. Highly-paid Council Arts admin-types get right up my nose. Take the 'Buskers' Festival': it is, in fact, anti-mobility legislation dressed up as 'free' music. Are those guys 'busking' once a year the real deal? Are they traveling? Are they homeless? Troubadours don't get a look in with 'tagging' legislation because they can't tick the 'home address' box. They should just call it a street music festival. Bad politics dressed up as anti-terrorism when you look beneath the surface. Is that controversial?

Police bullies should be kicked out of the force, pronto.

Tom: If you could give one piece of advice to a homeless person what would it be?

Banjo Nick: Sleep well, eat well - be helpful.

Tom: If you were elected Prime Minister tomorrow, what would you do to improve the situations of homeless people?

Banjo Nick: Provide self-build, 'temporary' accommodation in new green communities - growing fruit and veg, and powered by 100% renewables. This would provide the hub for the green revolution - productive and energetic. Profitable and far-sighted in both country and city. Fun too. Party time!

Go green, in a nutshell.

'Banjo Nick', is a street musician, painter and poet. He graduated from Corpus Christi, Cambridge in 1984, won the 1988 George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright and has worked as a boatman. He was 'technically homeless' from 1997-2007. Some of his work is available on his blog,