This article appeared under this title in "Scottish Child" magazine's "In My Life" column in April 1990
The guitar case must be fifteen years old by now. The finish is brown check material that's been rubbed bare in patches against the ground, showing the plywood underneath, and the inside lining is taped on where it's come loose. The hinges are gone, so the lid lifts right off. I tie it up with a long leather belt, a piece of horse harness from a friend's stall in the market where I used to play. The handle's gone too, replaced by a canvas strap tied on, which hurts your hand because the case is so heavy. The top and bottom of the case are parting from the sides, so the edges are carefully reinforced with gaffa tape. I like to think of the whole thing as unpretentious and, you know, functional.
The folding stool is of modern design, tubular steel, canvas seat and shoulder strap. The stool is essential since I play for anything from four to eight hours on a good day. It goes over my left shoulder, along with a canvas backpack which holds a flask of coffee, sandwiches, biscuits (years of learning went into this careful organisation!), a paperback book, and a notebook to record, at one end, how much I make on each date, and at the other end, a diary of each day's work - people I met, work done, ideas, and profound thoughts about the meaning of life and so on. I also pack a large yellow cotton change bag and several small polythene bags for coins, the kind that hold £ 1.00 worth of bronze or £ 5.00 of silver. It's not that good an idea to leave all your money lying in the case over a long day, so I count and bag the coins as I work, and stow them away. At the end of the day I usually go up the road to the pizza shop or to the pub and they take the silver and change it for notes - the perfect end to a perfect day.
In a leather pouch my wife gave me as a birthday present I carry plastic thumbpicks, a set of metal fingerpicks, plectrums, a capo, a chrome steel tube which is slipped over one of the left hand fingers for playing slide guitar, and nail clippers. I play finger-style steel-string acoustic guitar - rags, blues, my own tunes, Irish harp tunes, and standards learnt from written arrangements like Gershwin or Stevie Wonder. All these various kinds of music are popular and road-tested. I try to make it dance, and sometimes it does; sometimes it goes off by itself, the best times. But let us never forget the long cold hard days and nights when nothing was happening except the rain, the cold, the dirt and the noise: burglar alarms and car alarms, lorries making deliveries, pneumatic drills breaking concrete, helicopters, pile-drivers, brass bands and bagpipers - you name it, they did it, and just up the road from where I was playing.
It's fourteen years since I first played in the street. I've always been fascinated by public space and the way we use it . The city streets can be bleak, alienating places, and I thought that music in the street could have a civilising, convivial influence - not dominating or colonising the space, but opening it up and making it safer, no longer empty, a true public space that people could live in for a while, instead of always just passing through. I felt music could give people something to gather round and I set out to try to play music in the street for that reason. And that worked! I saw it happen. A crusade it wasn't - but I had a belief in it and a rationale that was based on more than making money.
Some people see busking as begging (and they don't hesitate to tell you so).
I saw myself as a street musician, trying to build up a self-employed income from playing music. It took me about two years to get my earnings up to National Insurance level; I was so proud to be buying stamps for my own card, I didn't want to part with the card when the time came at the end of the year. And don't start me talking about the difficulties you can get into when you try to be above board about the money you earn, which I did.
I have a photograph of myself in early days, playing in torn denims and an old jersey, but now that looks like carelessness to me. You're presenting yourself to a public. Later I dressed more carefully, in jacket and cords, polished my shoes, combed my hair, and tried to turn myself out in such a way as to reflect what I saw as being a worthwhile and honest way of earning a living.
Quite a lot of people could tell what I was in it for and I was grateful for that. Glasgow is full of philosophers, as you know, and I think I met them all. One such, a lady of mature years, asked me, "Are you in it for the money or the music ?" When I told her, she though it over and said, "Aye, but you need the money to keep the music going." Perfectly put, and I'll stand by that.
And there's a few years left in that guitar case yet, by the way!