Street Writing

Colleagues Heronbone and Ommmsound have been selling poetry on the Southbank. Their pitch is beside the Millennium Bridge between Tate Modern and the Globe Theatre - a cultural Ground Zero.

They wouldn't claim to be the progenitors of the idea but, in Ommmsound's words, they're the best.

The pitch is this:
a) Name your subject.
b) Name your price.

In return you get a poem typed there and then. In front of your eyes.

They look the part. Both wear trilby hats. Ommmsound has taken on a very debonair manner - looks rakish in a blazer. Heronbone's beard is another classic bohemian marker. The typewriters exude a retro style.

But equally the hats are pragmatic in the scalding summer heat. The typewriters entirely sensible too - more immediate than a printer - and the resulting typed paper page has the priceless aura of an entirely original object.

Their tango with capital is sly. An accommodating and patronly landowner who owns the strip upon which they are based has given them his blessing to work the spot. They make a decent wage on a good day (while I was with them they absorbed a non-ending stream of customers) - but I also witness them both write poems on a topic for sport (someone got a twofer on "Andy Warhol") and some poems are freely given (to two jocks from Boston).

These are bespoke lines tailored to request (the most common subjects? Love, Friendship, Travel...) but that's where the attempt to ply a trade, to capitalise, ceases. The duo make no effort to take a copy of their own works (me, I'd be tempted to snap a photo of my best efforts) and unless asked they won't sign anything. Words, it seems, are also free.

And sure, it's prosaic. It's busking by any other name, like the gravity-defying BMX-ers, curious human sculptures and music of sometimes varying quality along the length of the Thames. But knowing both of them I'm aware of the cultural background they bring to this project. Heronbone has form as the garlanded, peripatetic naturalist of Grime - he's been a street poet, oblivious of institutions since schooldays. Ommmsound a poet first - but respected musician second. I first met him outside Clapham Common Tube on the hauntological playback tour of London for the release of my Moanad disc in 2010. Fellow outsider-musicians in the street.

Both are keenly aware of, and indifferent to, the knife-edge that separates the notionally significant and insignificant. That's the game. It's an arch conceptual project disguised as frippery - or perhaps vice-versa?


I mention to them Baudelaire's poem "Loss Of a Halo" - cited in Marshall Berman's epochal "All That Is Solid Melts Into Air". The ordinary man meets the poet in "un mauvais lieu", probably a brothel, and is shocked to find this seemingly exalted individual in the same situation as him:
"What! You are here, my friend? you in a place like this? you, the eater of ambrosia, the drinker of quintessences! I'm amazed!"
To which the poet replies:
"My friend, you know how terrified I am horses and vehicles? Well, just now as I was crossing the boulevard in a great hurry, splashing through the mud, in the midst of a moving chaos, with death galloping at me from from every side, I made a sudden move, and my halo slipped off my head and fell into the mire of the macadam. I was much too scared to pick it up. I thought it was less unpleasant to lose my insignia than to get my bones broken. Besides, I said to myself, every cloud has a silver lining. Now I can walk around incognito, do low things, throw myself into every kind of filth, just like ordinary mortals. So here I am, just as you see me, just like yourself!"
The ordinary man then comments:
"But aren't you going to advertise for your halo? or notify the police?"
To which the poet concludes:
"God forbid! I like it here. You're the only one who's recognized me. Besides, dignity bores me. What's more, it's fun to think of some bad poet picking it up and brazenly putting it on."
Unpublished at the time, it's a fantastic meditation upon the condition of modernity, the dubious cultural authority which lesser mortals preoccupy themselves with, on what I used to call the "Avant-Yob" and, yeah, perhaps a call echoing down the ages in support of Heronbone and Ommmsound's latest project.