Street London

The amazing energy, creativity and drama of London’s street life – entertainers, street artists, protests and even Michael Jackson-themed flashmobs.

Silver shop, Portobello Road

Antique dealers really only started moving to Portobello Road in any numbers when the Caledonian Market was closed in 1948. Its history before that was not very distinguished. For many years, the market was made up mostly of gypsy horse traders and it was in a very run-down part of town. Notting Hill used to be a seriously scruffy place. Portobello market, like the area generally, has made a lot of itself, considering its humble beginnings.

Bell ringer, Canary Wharf

This is a member of a group called the Strange Fruit United Bell-Ringers. Five bell-ringers were up masts like this one. The masts had springs at their bases and the musicians could make them sway around by leaning this way and that. The lighter coloured poles had bells on their tops too. The bell ringers made their masts sway between these poles and, as they got near them, they struck the bells with the hammers that they held. Some of the musicians had small hand-bells too. It was an aerial ballet as well as a musical concert of great charm.

Michael Jackson Tribute Flashmob, the City

Michael Jackson died on 25 June 2009, in the early morning London time. Word began to spread during the day that there was going to be a spontaneous Moonwalk flashmob in his memory that evening at Liverpool Street Station. So many fans turned up that the commuters had trouble getting past them to their trains and the police announced that the flashmob was cancelled. The fans were not having that. They simply moved out into the street. It became a seething mass of people raving away to Michael’s hits relayed over an improvised network of different sound systems that suddenly materialised from nowhere.

Pole acrobat, Covent Garden

This is Reuben Dotdotdot. The pole that he was balancing on was 15 feet high. It was being kept vertical only by the straps that you can see and these were being held by four nervous men dragged out of the audience as “volunteers” by Reuben a short while earlier. He was balancing on one hand and holding his bowler hat in the other. And he was swivelling round, talking as he went into the mini-microphone taped to his cheek. Below him were the cobbles of the Covent Garden piazza. Reuben performed in Cirque du Soleil’s Saltimbanco show.


Put People First demonstration, Victoria Embankment

According to the organisers of “Put People First”, the 2008 global financial meltdown showed that the world had been following the wrong financial model. The economy which it had created was fuelled by ever-increasing levels of debt. They said that the world was faced with poverty, inequality and the threat of climate chaos. Three key things were needed: fair distribution of wealth, decent jobs for all and low carbon emissions. They encouraged Londoners to take to the streets and say all this as loudly as possible and thus to challenge the G20 leaders then meeting in London to “put people first”.

Play Me I’m Yours piano, St. Paul’s

City workers – and, in fact, people in other parts of London – have got used now to seeing pianos in the street carrying notices saying “Play Me, I’m Yours”. There are piano stools and laminated sheet music too, so that there’s nothing to stop any passer-by from sitting down and playing a tune. The pianos are actually an artwork by a UK artist called Luke Jerram. The first of his pianos was installed in 2008. He says that more than 700 of them have now appeared in thirty cities round the world and been played by over two million people.

Buskers in the Tube, Piccadilly

The Tube’s highly successful busking scheme started soon after they managed to get the law changed in 2001 to make licensed busking legal. Any kind of musician is welcome to apply and have to audition to get licences and the panel of judges consists of music industry professionals, people from London’s music scene and TfL staff. In the spring of 2013, there were 37 busking pitches in 25 different stations, and there are around 200 licensed buskers. 

Chinese musician, Covent Garden

The case holding the CDs this musician was selling explained that he was playing an instrument called a Du Xian Qin. The closest English translation would be a one-string zither. The instrument’s one string is plucked with the right hand. The left hand varies the tension on the string by manipulating a flexible rod. Although the notice said that this is traditional Chinese music, it’s thought that the instrument’s origins lie in Vietnam.

Breakdancers, South Bank

These four guys (only one pictured here) might not have been as polished as most of the acts performing on the pitch next to the London Eye but they were cooler than any of them. Their music came from a ghettoblaster they stuck on the ground behind the pitch. The school kids in the crowd were completely awestruck by their acrobatics. 

Acrobats, South Bank

The London Eye is one of our biggest tourist attractions. Street entertainers queue up to put on their acts outside to entertain the visitors – and those in the queue. The showman for this act had spent quite a bit of time attracting a new crowd at the start of show, his voice amplified through a tiny wireless microphone taped to his cheek. He continued his patter for the next half hour while forming part of a human pyramid and going through the rest of his routine.

I Am Here art project, Hackney

Samuel House is on the troubled Haggerston and Kingsland Estate, which had been falling apart since the early 1980s. Many of the flats are boarded up. In 2007, ugly orange boards were fitted over the windows of the empty flats on the estate, but a group of artists stepped in with a wonderful plan, to replace the horrible orange boards with huge photographs of people from the estate. A lot of the people who are featured in the pictures are still living there, although some of them have moved on.

Street art by C215, Rivington Street, Shoreditch

East London is a hotbed for street art, and artists come from all over the world to adorn its walls. This piece, found on Rivington Street near Old Street, is by C215, the name adopted by the celebrated French street artist Christian Guémy. 

© Richard Slater