Remembering Jonny Walker

Jonny Walker, busker and defender of civic freedoms, has died tragically at the age of 37.

The Manifesto Club has worked with Jonny for many years, most recently on campaigns against Public Spaces Protection Orders. For us, as for the thousands of people who knew him, he will be greatly missed.

Jonny had an uncommon energy, generosity, and feeling for the essential goodness of people. His belief in civil liberties seemed to come not from formality, from law books, but from something quite instinctive.

He was fiercely intelligent and well read, but at the same time could relate to every grade of human experience. He spurned offices and 9-to-5 jobs for the life of a wandering minstrel, driving from city to city with his guitar and iPhone. The streets of the country were his realm; he was entirely at home wherever he happened to be.

In busking on the streets, he gained insights into the nature of the contemporary state and freedom; and also into the human character, with all its strengths, weaknesses, and common humanity. This is shown his videos – once, when he was issued with a dispersal order in Romford, engaging the police officer in an education in the common law; and another, when he joined a homeless man for an impromptu duet.

As director of Keep Streets Live Campaign, he defended the interests of the British busking community, successfully defeating attempts to regulate busking in several cities. He developed informal codes as a way of dealing with disputes, as an alternative to heavy-handed licensing or bans. He also defeated several PSPOs targeting busking and the homeless.

His busking was live streamed on Facebook, and was watched from all over the world. His audience – real and virtual – was massive, and devoted.

Photo by Jack Lowe

There was something almost messianic about him, a force of belief, such that council officials were no match when it came to negotiations over busking bans or other illiberal regulations. (I remember one photo of him negotiating busking guidelines in a council office; he had his arms spread wide, impressing his conviction upon the room.)

He was daring, prepared to take risks, such as when he took Camden Council to court for its busking licence scheme. Most organisations would balk at the exposure of such a move, let alone an individual without legal protections or financial resources.

He would think nothing of getting in his car and driving across the country to support buskers, or other campaigners, on the other side of the country. On several occasions he came down for Manifesto Club events, most recently to the protest against PSPOs in Hackney, where he spoke and played wonderfully.

What has been lost now, is not just someone who achieved incredible gains for freedom, and for music, but someone who had a character that was very rare: for lack of better words, someone who embodied all that was best about the human spirit.

We will do our best, in the years to come, to carry on the causes he fought for, and the spirit in which he fought.