The musician, campaigner and devoted dad who fought for buskers' rights to play
JONNY Walker, the Liverpool-born street entertainer and campaigner who took the city council to the High Court over the rights of buskers to play, has died. He was 37.
His family made the announcement on the performer’s Facebook page, sparking an outpouring of condolences from across the world. The focus: a man people never thought they would have to consider in this way.
“It is with great sorrow but immense thankfulness for a passionately lived life, that after three days in the Critical Care Unit at Leeds General Infirmary, Jonny died peacefully, at 11:13am today, surrounded by family.
“During the coming days, his family ask that you allow them time to grieve.
“Details of opportunities to celebrate and remember Jonny’s life will follow in due time.”
Jonathan Walker was the son of an Anglican vicar, the Rev John Walker, and spent the first two years of his life in Everton, at the parish of St John Chrysostom, before the family moved to Yorkshire.
I love my work. I’ve met some of the greatest people in life through music
After Durham University he became a trainee barrister, but it wasn’t long before he eschewed the robes, wigs and a lucrative future for the cloth cap, floral shirts and semi-acoustic guitar that became his trademarks. His courtrooms were the pavements of the land, his income collected from the guitar case at his feet, open all hours and to all elements.
Describing his job as “wandering minstrel” he would explain: “I love my work. I’ve met some of the greatest people in life through music.”
And a great many people too. There are 26,000 followers on that Facebook page, remarkable for a musician who had rarely, if ever, performed on TV and had never had a record deal, let alone a hit.
Nevertheless, his was an instantly recognisable figure on the streets of Liverpool city centre and towns and cities across Britain.
I first encountered Jonny Walker in 2008 when he was playing at the bottom of Church Street. Two police officers had confronted him, taking issue with a display of CDs he had made of his music. Selling goods on the streets was against the law, they told him. Jonny stood his ground, smiled and politely but firmly told them the CDs were free. Yes he was giving them away, but if people wanted to leave a tip…
The cops reluctantly gave up pretty soon after that and we laughed (I later learned that he laughed easily). I was with my two, then very young, boys and told them there was a lesson there in how to adopt a charm offensive if ever cornered by the long arm of the law. A decade on they still remember the moment.
Fast forward to 2012 and Liverpool City Council, in conjunction with the Liverpool Business Improvement District, announced its intention to implement a raft of prohibitive measures against buskers including compulsory license schemes, trespass prosecutions, age restrictions and some ludicrous rules about pitches. There was also the “Simon Cowell” clause which would allow the police to move a street entertainer on if they didn’t feel their performance was good enough.
Liverpool was the only city in the UK proposing all this and Liverpool Confidential duly reported it. Nobody doubted it would happen for, despite the noise buskers make, the handful here didn’t have a voice between them.
Then an articulate young man called Jonathan got in touch, from Leeds. He was going to mobilise Liverpool’s street performers to fight the plans. He was going to start a petition, oh, and a campaigning group, Keep Streets Live. Did we want to run a story? Yes we did. In fact we ended up running several.
Mello Mello was the HQ, meetings were held, strategies formed and the fight was on. People got involved indoors, outdoors and online and, in Jonny”s words, “a real sense of community” was born. Once again he saw dialogue as the way forward, and proposed the formation of a consulting group, with people from the council, BID, the Musicians Union and the performers, to come up with what he saw as a fairer way.
But the ears of The Man were deaf to the idea and a month later the scheme was rolled out.
Jonny, who had devised his own laminated script for “street artists”, should they be challenged, continued to travel here, performing, chatting to passers-by. By no means was he alone. The story had gathered national attention and there was a dramatic rise in the number of buskers, of varying ability, heading to perform in the city every day.
”This is all your doing!” he would shout to me across the outdoor cacophony, all grin and cheekbones.
“All your fault,” I would reply.
However he wasn’t done yet. One late afternoon he dropped into Mello Mello and joined us for a drink. The group included a member of The Picasso Sisters, a Liverpool band from 30 years ago who performed on the streets and who were frequently arrested and prosecuted for vagrancy, obstruction and more. It is said that one courtroom battle, in which they were found not guilty of begging, ultimately led to more lenient policing towards buskers.
So, asked the friend, how come Jonny hadn't turned this fight into a legal fight? His eyes lit up. Now that was an idea.
And he made it happen, enlisting Wirral lawyer Peter Kirwan to work on a pro bono basis. In September, the campaigners successfully applied for a High Court injunction, barring the enforcement of the scheme, saying it was unlawful, unreasonable and irrational.
A short time later Liverpool Council scrapped the whole idea and, instead, worked with Jonny and associates to publish a 12-page guideline for street entertainers, the first of its kind in the UK. But it didn’t stop other English authorities from having their own go at ridding the streets. Never far behind was the resolute Jonny, notably scoring victories in Chester and, with comedian Mark Thomas, in Camden.
He became a father, twice, in the intervening five years, and no observer could fail to be warmed by the evident devotion, love and joy radiating from family snaps. The new chapter suited him.
Thousands of tributes have been left online since his untimely, sudden death this week, from the legions of fans and friends he effortlessly gathered. They all mention the same qualities, any one of which we might be glad to possess, in this one man band of passion, energy, eloquence and kindness.
Although he was as sharp as a tack - and too genuine for the career in politics or law which he would have winged - those who knew him well may have detected a hint of vulnerability beneath his blushing, boyish demeanour.
Always smiling the smile of a winner and always a stickler for doing the right thing, the free spirit that was Jonny Walker brought light to the streets of Britain. They will be a little darker in his absence.
* Jonny is survived by parents John and Michelle, brother and sister Michael and Sarah and children Joseph and Avalon.
* Jonathan Walker, born 23rd July 1980 - died 14th March 2018.