Thursday, 19 January 2012

Contested territory

It’s a few days before Christmas. Oxford Street has been closed to vehicle traffic between the Circus and the junction of Tottenham Court/Charing Cross Road, leaving it open to colonisation by meandering shoppers and other opportunists, who are readily making use of this suddenly available public space in the centre of London.

Outside the big HMV, opposite Marks & Spencer, a dark green tramcar, plucked from a bygone era, doubles as a stage backdrop for a quartet of young men dressed up in frock coats and stovepipe hats, in the manner of Victorian dandies, as they perform studiously shambolic versions of old music hall numbers on an accordion, a metal washboard, a small guitar and a double bass. Their singer, who is clearly relishing his role as the overly-effete master of ceremonies, announces to the small crowd of onlookers that their next song will be A Proper Cup of Coffee, apparently unaware that trouble is looming on the horizon:

A brass band, marching under an inoffensively-secular, festive standard, consisting of a pair of giant red globes, is advancing at a steady pace from Oxford Circus. As they draw closer the chirpy sounds of vaudeville are gradually drowned-out.  By the time the band have taken up position outside the doors of their sponsor, Marks &  Spencer, the faux Victorian fops have tailed-off in disarray, no longer able to make themselves heard.  

The brass band strikes up Jingle Bells. In a sudden moment of inspiration the four young men rally and begin playing along, their studied lack of professionalism poking a cheeky elbow in the ribs of their note perfect neighbours.

In the aftermath there is an uncomfortable stalemate, with the musicians in the brass band having realised that they have trampled over somebody else’s performance.   

“Christmas,” observes the chief dandy, “is not just about the big red inflatable balls.”

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