On Wednesday 14th March at 11.13am, Jonny Walker died peacefully at Leeds General Infirmary, surrounded by family, aged just 37. Jonny was a professional busker, performing regularly in city streets across the UK. He was a passionate campaigner and founder of the Keep Streets Live Campaign, advocating for freedom of creative expression in public spaces and challenging attempts to regulate busking and criminalise the homeless. He was religious but unfailingly open-minded, holding more carefully thought-through, nuanced philosophical viewpoints on how human beings relate to each other than anyone I’ve ever met. He was someone I looked up to, cherished and respected deeply. He was my friend.
I was on the train home from a long day at work, casually scrolling through Facebook on my phone, when the news appeared so unassumingly on the screen. Only the weekend before, he had been performing one of his regular Leeds night-time busks, streaming live on Facebook. Then, suddenly, gone. It was his last performance.
Hearing these facts while commuting, the most routine of everyday activities, everything seemingly the same as normal – they were difficult to comprehend; didn’t feel real.
In the days since his death, the outpouring of memories and tributes to Jonny has, in many ways, intensified this feeling that he is still present. Particularly videos from his live performances, but also his recorded music, photographs, and more. Our relationship already existed predominantly online, and living in opposite ends of the country I was never faced with the physical reality that Jonny simply isn’t breathing anymore. It was unimaginable.
Like most people whose lives Jonny touched, I can’t say that we knew each other especially well, on a personal level. In total, we only met in person a handful of times. So it can only be a testament to his warmth, and his ability to captivate audiences through his music and dedicated, articulate activism, that I can say I have lost an individual who inspired me more than almost any other in my adult life, since we first met in 2014.
Telling the story of how Jonny and I came to know each other is perhaps the best way I can describe what he meant to me, and how he changed my life.
I was in the second year of my undergraduate degree at Cambridge, and like all Geography students, I had to decide on a topic for my dissertation. I’d been looking online to find any interesting current news topics with geographical themes, and on social media I came across a story that a group called Keep Streets Live was campaigning against Camden Council’s plans to licence busking in what is, famously, one of London’s most creative and culturally diverse boroughs.
As a long-time appreciator of buskers and public art, and with a keen interest in politics, I soon decided that this was the topic I needed to study. More than this, I felt I could get involved in something truly important. Not just for Camden, but for how we make sense of what public space – and our freedom to express ourselves within it – means in our society.
For my research, I needed to interview the full range of stakeholders, including buskers, local councillors, Camden residents, and activists. As both a professional busker who enchanted audiences nationwide, and leader of the Keep Streets Live Campaign opposing Camden Council’s proposed licensing scheme, Jonny was top of my list to interview. But having never approached a single person for a formal academic interview before, let alone conducted one, I didn’t really know what kind of response to expect.
So it’s fair to say I was apprehensive when I first messaged Jonny on Facebook in July 2014.
I needn’t have been, because I couldn’t have wished for a warmer response. He apologised for the (short) delay in replying and told me that he was very happy to help in any way he could. Even with everything that he had achieved as a campaigner and musician, he showed an almost unwarranted level of respect for the research I was doing.
A couple of emails later, I’d agreed to meet him in St. Albans on a Saturday in early August, where he was busking that weekend.
On the day, my train arrived a couple of hours before we were due to meet, so I wandered around the town to get my bearings.
As I strolled down towards the clocktower, the faint, echoing sounds of a guitar reverberated softly through the narrow streets. Then the voice I recognised from internet videos began as I emerged onto the square where he played, his melodies somehow enhanced by the ambience of the street, buoyant on the tides of chatter and traffic that filled the air. In front of the tower are a couple of long, curved wooden benches creating a sort of street-level amphitheatre, which were almost completely occupied by Jonny’s audience when I arrived. I found a spot to sit, and listened to Jonny for the next hour and a half.
Jonny was a ‘professional’ busker – even if that sounds like an oxymoron – because he was just so good (charismatic, skilful, charming are a few adjectives that come to mind) that he could earn a decent living through his performances. Wherever and whenever he busked, he seemed to emit this welcoming aura that passersby would latch onto and want to stay with; often for much longer than they anticipated. And Jonny would talk to them; embracing everyone and hearing their stories, helping them if they needed help, offering signed CDs, and ultimately treating everyone he met with the same level of respect. This is how Jonny made so many friends, and why thousands of people would tune in when he broadcasted his busking sessions on Facebook Live.
He had perfected his style to include a blend of classics, original songs, and other interesting covers. His repertoire was enormous (though of course he had favourites), and he could handle the vast majority of requests that came his way.
In this St. Albans performance in particular, the song that sticks in my mind is a cover he played of The Postal Service’s Such Great Heights. For those who don’t know, it’s an electronic song with a pretty fast tempo – in other words, not exactly the kind of music that Jonny tended to play. But on his guitar, Jonny’s version was slow and gentle, almost a lullaby, and the lyrics took on whole new interpretations in my head. Even as someone who greatly admired the original, Jonny made it something more – and I told him as much when we spoke later on.
After Jonny had finished his performance, we started chatting properly and agreed to eat a meal together. Jonny, as always, had about twenty tons of equipment with him, so we ferried his things a short distance to the neighbouring Zizzi where we sat outside. Jonny went inside to get some menus, and when he returned, told me to order anything I wanted. The manager of the restaurant was so enamoured by his performance – and the customers who’d stopped there to listen – that he’d offered both Jonny and I our meals completely free of charge.
One of the largest high-street Italian restaurant chains, offering both a busker and a mere spectator anything we wanted, no payment necessary. It was pure magic.
Even before the interview had started, I’d received the best possible lesson about what busking means to the communities in which it takes place; its power to transform the atmosphere in public spaces and create the conditions for positive social relations.
The interview itself was extensive and in-depth, going on for a full hour and 45 minutes – and would have gone on longer if I didn’t have to rush off to catch the last train back to Kent. We talked about many subjects, including what constitutes a healthy busking ecology, the state of local democracy, using voluntary codes of conduct for buskers, the regulation of public space, and maintaining cultural freedoms.
When preparing for the interview, I managed to find the legendary deputation that Jonny made at Camden Council before their vote on whether or not to introduce a licensing scheme for buskers.
In his powerful speech, the phrase that has always stuck with me is his evocative depiction of buskers as ‘civic lighthouses’:
“Buskers act as civic lighthouses. We give directions, we break up fights, we call the police when we spot trouble. We talk to the lonely. We create moments of enjoyment between strangers, and contribute to the social and cultural enrichment of shared urban spaces. We are an integral part of the ecology of the street. We care deeply about the well-being of the places where we perform.”
During the interview, I prompted him to expand on this image of busking which had captured my imagination so intensely:
“We are all responsible to each other – we are all our brother’s keepers. I’ve done a lot of evening busking in the past, and the streets at night can be quite a forbidding place – for women on their own, or where there’s groups of marauding drunks around. Buskers change the nature of that space. Their interaction with that space is to create an atmosphere where there’s a human presence. An alleyway with another person there is a safer alley than an empty alley. It’s a disincentive; a sense of community. Would we rather be in a place where people are singing and dancing than fighting, for instance?
In my experience, busking is all about relationality and exchange. You can’t be successful at busking without some degree of being able to relate to people and being able to interact with them in a positive way.”
What struck me most about this vision was how it valued busking way beyond the individual act itself. While for many people busking would just be defined as ‘playing music in the street for money’, for Jonny and Keep Streets Live it was a whole network of relationships formed by interaction and shared presence in public spaces.
But more than this – in fighting for the rights of buskers to perform unregulated, Jonny upheld these positive, pro-social effects that busking can have as conditions to be actively promoted in public spaces everywhere; as the guiding principles of a healthy ecology of the street.
“If spontaneity and informality is preserved as a sort of universal principle, then it would create an ecology, a nexus of cities across the country following the Liverpool [voluntary guidance for buskers] model, which would truly be light-touch regulation because it’s involving the buskers, it’s putting things in place. Then it would remove bottlenecks, it will allow intermingling, it will allow for flourishing. Where busking hasn’t happened before, it might allow the culture to emerge. It has the potential to transform the civic landscape. It’s so important.”
In my favourite quote, which came from the end of the interview, Jonny made the case that it is the responsibility of everyone who currently enjoys these freedoms to protect and extend them, and looked towards the role Keep Streets Live would play in facing up to this challenge worldwide, in the future. I love reading and re-reading these words because, for me, they represent the very best of Jonny’s personality: passionate, intelligent, principled, and hopeful. Overflowing with moral fibre.
“I love this country, actually, and I love the tradition that I think we’ve got – civic freedoms and political freedoms that have been really hard-fought. And we’re incumbent on people who have inherited those freedoms; we’ve been born into a privileged culture. Bearers of privilege have a moral duty to not only defend rights that have been hard-won, but for the traditions of common law freedoms. We have a duty to extend that – to hold our institutions, to hold our corporations, to hold our government to account, and also to hold them to account in the way that they treat other people. And to try and see that this level of freedom is extended to other people, and is not allowed to be eroded. And that’s going to be a constant battle, but I think it’s one that’s really, really, really, really important.
That’s my way of saying that I recognise that buskers are not necessarily the persecuted minority, in the way that people all over the world are facing genuine persecution. But that’s not a reason not to protect what we’ve got now, and to extend it, and then to try and extend it to our brothers in places where you can be killed for public music, or where it’s completely unauthorised. We’re a nation of minstrels and choristers and great, let’s take it to the world. I personally think that Keep Streets Live – once we’ve got a beachhead in the UK that’s proper…there’s all sorts of stuff going on all over the world, and I think some minstrels from the Keep Streets Live Campaign could have some fun! Travelling and building networks…it’s not just about England; not just about the United Kingdom.”
This first research interview demonstrated to me that the events in Camden were just one flashpoint in a much larger battle to keep public spaces open to spontaneous and informal street culture, amidst increasing attempts by officials to regulate any behaviours that could be deemed problematic. Keep Streets Live wasn’t simply reactionary; a Change.org petition that would declare victory or defeat, and then move on. It was a set of philosophical ideals premised on a fundamentally hopeful view of human relations that, when granted the freedom to be creative, to interact freely in public spaces, to embrace the diversity of human characters and behaviours, our streets and the interpersonal relationships that take place in them could truly flourish.
The next time I saw Jonny was in November of the same year. Camden’s busking licence had officially come into force, so Jonny had arranged a protest busk in Camden Town as part of the ‘Church of the Holy Kazoo’.
The story behind this noble faith bears all the hallmarks of the principled, persistent yet light-hearted campaigning that Jonny lived and breathed. It started with the Citizens’ Kazoo Orchestra, which Jonny formed alongside Mark Thomas, Billy Bragg and John Gomm before Camden’s busking policy had been implemented, to ridicule the fact that their proposals singled out wind instruments as worthy of heightened regulation – which would include those as unthreatening as a small, plastic kazoo. Since Camden’s busking policy had come into effect, however, Jonny found another element of the regulations to subvert: an exemption which meant that performances forming part of a religious event did not need a licence from the council to go ahead. So Jonny reasoned that there was room for a new religion in our society, whose only belief was that busking is a sacred act, and whose hymn book consists of every piece of music ever written. And so the Church of the Holy Kazoo was founded.
Church of the Holy Kazoo was Jonny all over. Yes, it was humorous stunt, but Jonny knew it would bring the headlines and big names that the campaign needed to draw attention to what was happening in Camden. And underneath the witty façade, it always asserted the fundamental right to express yourself in public space, and harnessed the interpersonal and even spiritual relationships that busking cultivates in the environments in which it takes place.
Although by this point I was well and truly a signed-up member of Keep Streets Live, attending the protest was still technically ‘research’, so I had a research diary with me and took plenty of photographs I could use as visual data in my dissertation.
During the protest, we encountered a couple of PCSOs and, later, police officers. It was during the first interaction that I captured this photograph of Jonny. As well as forming the front cover of my dissertation, it later appeared in Josie Appleton’s book Officious: Rise of the Busybody State.
It remains one of my favourite photographs I have ever taken, based on how purely it portrays Jonny’s character, both as an entertainer and an activist. In the face of attempts to curtail his freedom, Jonny towering above the uniformed PCSO, turning away and continuing to face his audience, guitar in hand; calm in the face of authority as he asserted his right to play. The light shining on his face endowed an almost angelic quality to his appearance, as he lit up the pavement by Camden Town tube station where he performed.
At the time, Jonny explained to the PSCO in the photograph, in his composed and articulate manner, that his performance was not only exempt from Camden’s licence on religious grounds, but also that he had written confirmation that busking as part of a political protest would be allowed under the licence’s exemption for a ‘protest march or similar event’. Unable to deny Jonny’s reasoning and knowledge of the legal situation, the PCSOs soon wandered off.
The second encounter with officials arose from a rather different situation.
Enter DJ Grandpa, a bizarre act involving a man standing in a Perspex box blasting out piped dance music, pretending to be a disc jockey, while wearing a latex ‘old man’ mask. On the pavement around his box, DJ Grandpa would draw a circle out of chalk and label it the ‘dance floor’.
Exemplifying the absurdity of Camden Council’s licensing scheme, he had been granted one of their special licences for performers using amplifiers. Empowered by his ‘official’ status, he had been seen nearly every afternoon and evening in the same spot by Camden Town tube station since the summer of that year, to the derision of Camden’s busking community. He monopolised the pitch and annoyed pretty much everyone else in the process.
Jonny wasn’t having any of it.
Within minutes of DJ Grandpa setting up, drawing his circle metres away from where Jonny was performing, Jonny moved his equipment and played right in the centre of the ‘dance floor’, to the cheers of the crowd of spectators that had started to gather in numbers.
As a licensee, DJ Grandpa wasn’t happy and rang the police, who he assumed would take the side of the ‘official’ busker.
When they came, Jonny was once again forced to justify his actions in front of officials. But this time I remembered I’d printed out a copy of Camden’s Street Entertainment Policy, circling the relevant passages, which I handed to Jonny as the officers talked to him, surrounded suddenly by an expectant crowd who sensed the significance of what was unfolding. Some of their responses threatened to descend into anti-police sentiment, but Jonny – with his impeccable crowd management skills – explained that the police are just doing their job by responding to the call. It was the policymakers at Camden Council who were at fault for creating the conditions for such a pointless dispute in the first place.
Seeing then that there was no lawful reason why Jonny should have to move, the police left, and DJ Grandpa soon followed, his tail between his legs.
Before I left that evening, Jonny thanked me heartily and, with one hand on my shoulder, produced a Keep Streets Live badge, which he pinned on my coat. “You’ve definitely earned one of these today,” he beamed. It was a triumphant day.
Jonny and the other musicians in attendance played on into the fading autumn night, his portable gas lamp aglow as waves of commuters lapped up and lingered on the pavement outside Camden Town tube station, singing along, dancing. Even in a place with some of the most punitive restrictions on busking in the UK, in one day Jonny had brought joy, laughter, and hope for the future of street culture back to its spiritual home in Camden.
My connection with Jonny, and most other people in my life, went dark for the next 7 months as I spent my days completing my dissertation and eventually my degree in summer 2015.
However that summer, temporarily freed from the shackles of academic work, I was keen to get more actively involved in what Jonny was doing, and contribute more meaningfully towards the goals of Keep Streets Live.
The first opportunity came when Jonny organised a Keep Streets Live ‘Activist Forum’ event in Leeds, which was billed as chance to build community and ask questions about how we can protect street culture, amidst the climate of ever more stifling regulation. I was desperate to go, but living in rural Kent and eating through the remains of my dwindling student loan, I asked Jonny if he could recommend anywhere cheap to stay in Leeds.
Jonny went one better – he offered me his home’s spare room.
I got the coach to Leeds and met him at around 10pm, as he was setting up in his usual pitch on Albion Street that evening. For the first time, I was to experience one of the famed Jonny Walker night-time busks first-hand, serenading the streets of revellers, concert-goers, and passersby into the early hours.
It became clear to me that night-time busking demands a different kind of performance style and awareness, and Jonny was an expert. Sound carries much further at night, so Jonny knew that even if the street in front of you was empty, people would still hear, and often slowly make their way towards the music. At one point, when big crowds of people started walking in our direction, he remembered the artist who was performing at the First Direct Arena that night and sang some of their songs, which immediately led to more dropped coins and notes.
And perhaps most significantly, he showed extraordinary patience with the heavily inebriated, who typically wanted to shout down the microphone, or stumble up to him and start a conversation mid-song.
And, of course, make the timeless request:
To his eternal credit, he managed to play it two or three times before he told people to think of something else. He certainly knew how to keep a crowd happy.
Being tall helped, but it was his composure, his peace-making demeanour, that meant things never got out of hand. Thinking back to the ‘civic lighthouses’ metaphor, it made me wonder how many potentially dangerous, uncomfortable or upsetting situations have been avoided because Jonny’s presence was there when needed. How many good or even bad nights had turned into memorable ones thanks to his desire to share music, stories and smiles with strangers on the street.
Jonny insisted that he could take me back any time that night if I was tired, as he played on into the early hours, but I stayed out for the whole performance. It was a privilege to watch him at work; making momentary connections in the night, watching people getting pulled magnetically towards Jonny’s voice, changing their nights unexpectedly and always for the better. In the end, we drove back to his house together at about 4.30am, I believe.
Jonny and I got about 3 hours of sleep that night.
We woke up at about 7.30 so we could help prepare for the Activist Forum at the Wharf Chambers in the centre of Leeds. It was that morning I met his wife and two young children, boundlessly energetic and endearing as kids that age are, even so early in the day. Jonny offered me breakfast and I was treated to a big, warm bowl of porridge, insisting that I was welcome to stay any time. I was in awe of their generosity despite the circumstances, with Jonny and I rocking up clumsily at stupid o’clock in the morning.
When we arrived at the venue for the event, we set up about 30 chairs in a large circle, which were quickly filled up by a mixture of buskers, non-busking artists, activists, academics, and those simply interested in maintaining spaces for public art. The session was led by a professional workshop leader who did a fantastic job at giving everyone a chance to speak, and it was informative to hear people’s stories of how they came to know about Keep Streets Live, and why busking and freedom of creativity in public spaces was important to them. It was a lively dialogue during which important and, at times, provocative views were aired regarding the work of Keep Streets Live, which only served to emphasise the value of open discussion for both sharing and critiquing different ideas and opinions.
In the afternoon, the attendees split off into smaller groups to discuss the various issues affecting street culture and its regulation, and Jonny chose me to lead a group talking about public space, being the subject I’d studied extensively within Geography. It felt hugely rewarding to be using the knowledge I’d gained through my research in a setting where it felt like it could make a difference, and with people who may not have spent much time considering what we mean when we call a space ‘public’, and why its regulation matters so much. Jonny understood that establishing an effective opposition would benefit from drawing on a wide range of expertise, including musical, political, legal, academic, and technical, and the forum was a valuable opportunity to pool together the knowledge and experience of all who are passionate about creative public expression, to help achieve the aims of Keep Streets Live.
It wasn’t long after the Leeds event – less than a week, in fact – that Jonny and I joined forces again, this time in my home city of Canterbury. I’d recently been shocked to learn that the city council were briefly considering using a PSPO (Public Space Protection Order) to regulate busking in the city centre.
Jonny had already made contact with staff from Canterbury City Council, and arranged a meeting to discuss the subject, to be attended by councillors and licensing officials from Canterbury City Council, a representative of the Canterbury busking community, Canterbury Connected Business Improvement District, the East/South-East Regional Officer of the Musicians’ Union, and Jonny and I from Keep Streets Live.
I met Jonny outside the council offices, and the other stakeholders in the reception area where we walked into the meeting room together. Within minutes, it was clear that everyone in attendance was on the same page. Jonny, who’d already launched a petition gathering over 2000 supporters, set up a Keep Streets Live in Canterbury page, and met with members of the local busking community, had already won the argument. After a few queries and discussion of finer points that affect Canterbury’s specific busking ecology, it was decided that Canterbury City Council were to adopt the same voluntary guidance for busking that Jonny had campaigned for in Liverpool, York, Chester, and Birmingham, with minimal changes.
The beauty of the Guide to Busking approach Jonny established is that it always encourages dialogue between the stakeholders involved in an issue around busking, rather than creating unnecessarily heavy-handed and resource-intensive legal restrictions on buskers, enforced by officials. It says that whenever there is an issue involving a busker, the people affected should always, in the first instance, talk to the busker to explain what the problem is, and attempt to find a solution together without resorting to any kind of enforcement. The guidance recognises that, in the vast majority of cases, problems can be resolved by a simple conversation – which could, for example, lead to a small adjustment of volume or position. If a busker does not engage with the affected stakeholder at this point, the local busking community will get involved to try and address the problem. Only if a busker continually refuses to engage with anyone, while continuing to cause a genuine nuisance, will there be action by the appropriate authorities – by which point the busker’s behaviour is, by definition, antisocial. Ultimately, Jonny had masterminded a code of conduct in which the response always ends up being proportionate to the issue at hand.
With the job done, we ate lunch together in my favourite Chinese restaurant, and then hit the streets. Town was bustling with the usual summer crowds, and within five minutes of walking up the High Street, Jonny had already managed to give money to two different buskers, strike up three conversations within people he’d never met, and have an argument with a fundamentalist Christian preacher.
With his guitar and amp in tow, Jonny found a pitch in the shade by Whitefriars Shopping Centre and started performing a range of gentle, earnest songs for the ambling shoppers. I decided to stay with him for the rest of the afternoon to watch him play (though, of course, this meant I was officially responsible for looking after his equipment when he made trips to the toilet, and to get him some much-needed coffees after his early-morning drive down from Leeds).
As his acoustics sailed on the warm breeze, there was one of those beautiful moments that Jonny specialised in fashioning. Halfway through his set, he dedicated his next song to me.
It was Such Great Heights by The Postal Service.
Over a year without mentioning the song at all, and he remembered.
That is the measure of the kind of man Jonny was. Even for someone who opened his heart to so many, he still found room in that remarkable brain of his to remember something so seemingly insignificant, solely for the purpose of making a friend happy.
I was planning on getting the train home that day but, in typical fashion, Jonny insisted he’d drive me back, right to my front door.
It was a bright, clear evening in late summer, sun sauntering toward the horizon, turning everything golden. We talked about a number of things on that journey home, which appear like amber in my memory – glowing, precious moments yet somehow inaccessible. But the one part that sticks in my mind is when I asked him what plans he had for making more of his own music. He confided that one of the most difficult sacrifices he’d made to pursue his relentless campaigning had been finding time to work on his own material, a project which had largely been put on hold.
I only saw Jonny once more in person, for a brief afternoon busk in Canterbury, before he had to head up to Covent Garden that same evening.
We’d been communicating earlier in the year, however, when for the first time Camden Council had brought charges against unlicensed buskers in Camden. The defendants had been sent a 73-page prosecution dossier consisting of ‘evidence’ being brought against them, including CCTV images and spurious complaints from well-known anti-busking residents. Jonny and I messaged about it, and together we agreed that I’d write a response to the dossier that framed these events within a wider argument about how democracy is being subverted in Camden. I stayed up late that night to finish it in time for the beatboxers’ court appearance the next day, and with a few edits from Jonny he posted it on his Facebook page and the page for Keep Streets Live in Camden the next day. The outrage and disbelief at Camden Council’s attitude towards buskers only grew.
The events that were to transpire over the coming months were even more testing for Jonny: the EU Referendum (for which Jonny had fought wholeheartedly for Remain), the election of Donald Trump, alongside the ever-increasing number of councils proposing to use PSPOs to target buskers and the homeless. Both in the form of physical protest and online activism, Jonny was a tireless campaigner, and spent a huge amount of effort engaging in debate with both acquaintances and strangers on topics he cared about, which were many. Particularly with the snowballing effect of online commenting, it was difficult at times to watch someone who wears their heart on their sleeve, like Jonny did, being harangued by faceless people on the internet who had no idea what kind of person he was. Yet still he persevered, firm in his convictions and willing to engage with conflicting viewpoints and personas to ensure his arguments were heard.
You wouldn’t find anyone in the world who shares exactly the same views that Jonny did – there would always be something you disagree on, and being partial to a debate Jonny was quite good at finding it – but it would never be personal. On this point, I recently rediscovered an interview Jonny did with the Church Times, in which he said “When I’m not angry or wound-up – which I am too often – I have a great love for people.” And it was his compassion for others that was the very attitude driving his movement of bringing different stakeholders together to agree on guidance for buskers.
“I want to live in a culture where if someone’s got a problem, they’re encouraged to engage and relate to each other, and to become involved. Because once people get to know each other – once people see the other person as a person with interests, concerns, with feelings just like theirs, then it makes conflict less likely. So much conflict, so many disagreements, so many arguments are caused by people who don’t see the other person as a person with interests, with needs. It’s dehumanising. When actually you break down that barrier and see a person with vulnerabilities – a human being who’s got needs, wants, desires … I think the more barriers you break down, the more you can see that it’s in people’s common interests to work together.” Jonny Walker, research interview with Jack Lowe
Of late, however, it seemed that he had taken a step back from the front line of activism. It was especially heartening nonetheless to see more social media posts about memorable times spent with his family, particularly his two young children. In light of the circumstances now, that fact seems especially profound.
He had also started a Patreon project, of which I was a patron, to support his work and the production of a new album of original songs.
In my final message to Jonny last July, I was responding to a talk he’d given that evening on his journey to becoming a professional busker and founder of Keep Streets Live, which he’d streamed live on Facebook. I told him how fantastic it was for spreading the word in a relatable and engaging way, and said that I’d love to get more involved in these kinds of events, and Keep Streets Live in general. I also shared with him a piece I’d recently written for the Manifesto Club on busking and the regulation of public space, which in part talks about the work of Keep Streets Live in opposing such measures. I was really proud of it. He didn’t reply, so I never knew if he got around to reading it, but I’d like to think that he’d approve.
As I reflect on the situation now, I can’t help but think of all the loose ends. Half-written songs; activist and community projects never undertaken; performances he had yet to deliver. For me, that’s what hurts the most about Jonny’s passing – how much more he had to give. To those who knew and loved him for the music he made, the movements he led and the inspiring man he was; to the unyielding love he gave his family and friends; and perhaps, most of all, to the strangers he hadn’t met yet. Knowing first-hand how his energy filled up the lives of those who had the pleasure of meeting him, it’s heart-breaking to think of those anonymous others who otherwise would have experienced this warmth, but now cannot.
It was exactly these rare qualities – the ones that could build a whole community around one single person – that made you want to be like him. His passion for everything he cared about, musically and in his campaigns, was infectious. This is how Jonny saved lives, literally in some cases: he radiated an irresistible enthusiasm that inspired people to care.
Now, at least, it will be the ambition of I, and the many others whose lives he touched, to be more like Jonny – to let his example grow within us, to make us who we are, to guide what we do.
Jonny’s light hasn’t gone out – it’s ours to keep burning. And all the time we continue to carry the torch for the causes he championed; his vision of a compassionate, creative, inclusive and, above all, free community in public spaces, the streets will always be (a)live.
If you’ve been moved by this piece, please consider donating towards this fundraiser, which will help to support the causes Jonny was passionate about, including Keep Streets Live, as well as helping to cover funeral costs and other expenses incurred by his family.
Here is a comprehensive and well-written obituary in The Times that gives a deeper insight into his life, and recognises the contribution he made in protecting the rights of street performers.
Read this excellent short piece by the Manifesto Club, remembering Jonny’s tireless efforts in campaigning for civil liberties. It’s much more concise than mine!
A heartfelt and honest account by Nick Broad, co-founder of The Busking Project, of memories shared with Jonny and work they did together.
Jonny’s friend and fellow performer Steven Heath organised this fantastic live-streamed gig in memory of Jonny shortly after he died.
Visit Jonny’s Facebook fan page to find more ways that his life is being remembered.