They're back. Not the students, the buskers: the familiar, regular, Cambridge buskers who appeared to have melted away during the summer, ceding lucrative pavement space to a cacophonous succession of arrivistes, parvenus and, it would seem, fly-by-night chancers. This year, for the first time in my experience, even the ubiquitous Peruvian pan pipers — who have for years dogged my own travels, and who would by now disappoint me by their absence — made several appearances here on home turf. Perhaps it's final proof that nowhere, now, is different.
Shirking the suspicion of any conspiracy, however, I appreciate the seasonal vaudeville, admittedly some of it only sometimes and certain displays, only in theory. In what is a small and superficially decorous city, at least by daylight, the street life is valuable. It expands Cambridge's familiar tight spaces in unexpected aural and visual directions, generating a counter-complacent pressure and cocking a snook at the impregnable, inscrutable but not, I know, imperturbable college walls.
Come September I was positively relieved first to see — at least, an elbow and guitar head of — then hear the bin busker who has, on and off for half a decade, taken to the stage inside a black, council-owned, hip height cylinder, just outside Corpus. (Yes, that does mean he’s stood in a bin.) His life as an authentic, if cramped, refusenik has withstood both well-documented verbal and chemical abuse, as well as the odd gig at wedding receptions and college balls. His relationship with the Corpus porters is one of mutual tolerance and, at times, necessary co-operation.
Likewise, I feel some sense of relief to see high-rise unicycling and high-end crowd-heckling, incongruous in this flattest of places, give way at the start of the new term to the familiar young man who coaxes magic from his expensive-looking, inlaid hurdy-gurdy with no semblance of performance. He simply sits outside the Guildhall, opposite the market, and plays. Just a few metres away stands Cambridge's favourite octogenarian saw-player, the smile in his rubicund, Hogarth face largely teeth free as he wobbles his rusty saw and generates unearthly, rippling tones.
There's more space in Oxford all round and yet busking is concentrated in Cornmarket, away from the colleges. Oxford buskers are expected to apply for and carry a Buskers' Card proving their adherence to the City Council's Code of Practice. Cambridge buskers, by contrast, are rewarded for sticking to a street performers' code of practice (no capitals, take note) with a Council sponsored Festival, Twitter account and Facebook page.
But Cambridge has nothing to match the spectacle of September's St Giles' Fair, with its flagrant and frantic two-day defenestration of Oxford's other identities. Its incongruity is, I think, still potently conveyed in a description from James Morris's eponymous portrait of the city, Oxford, published in 1965:
"St Giles’s Fair is like a city with its masks torn off, seen with a flushed clarity, and it makes you wonder how such contrasts can ever be reconciled. It is sure to end, you feel, like all the worst dreams, in a scream, a cold sweat or a blackout. Oxford, however, is old, and experienced at the game. By Wednesday morning all those stalls and roundabouts have miraculously disappeared, and the scholars, the charge-hands, the oafs and the parsons are restored to their blurred and unalarming selves."
As they do in plenty of other cities around the globe, the buskers of Oxford and Cambridge persevere in low-level mask-tugging, generating delight, curiosity or distaste. Both cities are, however, crucibles of reinvention and the masks pulled at are many and varied — Morris's scholars, charge-hands, oafs and parsons are all still in evidence, barely evolved, and as easily identifiable here in Cambridge, too — but above all tenacious. Buskers, sonorous or otherwise, are perfectly placed, streetside, to snatch at them, unawares.