“What came first, the chicken or the egg?” has puzzled humans for generations, but even more puzzling is finding yourself, on a Wednesday afternoon on King’s Parade, asking a man who has just stepped out of a trash can after you’ve frantically waved at him through a tiny slot: “What came first, the busking or the bin?”
Charlie Cavey has become an iconic figure to the Cambridge community for years – yet he remains relatively unknown. Unlatching the bin from the inside to climb out, Cavey reveals himself as a sunburnt man in a pink Hawaiian shirt. He tells me he was going to get a coffee and returns with a domestic-style pink china mug. It seems that this randomness is integral to his character. “This must be about my twenty-first or twenty-second summer, and it all started because I was working for myself, punting on the quayside. I was on the quayside touting, and a bin lorry pulled up next to us, and he (the driver) went over to the bin. He reached in and opened it up and took the bin out and was emptying it in his lorry. I looked at this empty bin and thought ‘I think I could fit in there,’ and that’s pretty much what happened. He put the bin back, shut the bin and I said to my friend ‘watch this’ and reached in, found the latch and opened it. I couldn’t play the guitar at the time. I learnt it the following winter and so the following summer when we all got back and started punting again, I showed my friend a few songs and he said ‘why don’t you try and do that in your bin?’ I said it was logistically impossible, and he said ’no feed the neck of the guitar through the hole, and hey presto that’s it twenty years later.”
“I looked at this empty bin and thought ’I think I could fit in there”
A fixture well documented on social media and frequented by celebrities – Tyson Fury was seen singing along to Oasis with him last summer – he explains that “people walk along, they hear the music, they look around confused and then they see the arms sticking out the bin and think ‘What?’ and then they take pictures.” But it’s not all plain sailing. The University hasn’t taken kindly to him in the past. A Tab article in 2016 called him ‘the worst thing about Cambridge’ and in 2012, students were reprimanded by colleges for an incident involving stink bombs and bleach being thrown into the bin. Interestingly, Cavey seems to be one of the only buskers in central Cambridge that isn’t using an amplifier. I ask cautiously about his opinion of the university students, rightly expecting a negative response, but Cavey tells me “nine-nine point nine percent of it has been absolutely positive. If a busker played the same thirty or so songs outside my bedroom window, and it’s not just a bedroom, it’s like their flat, it’s their bedsit – for a year, I would understand, I can completely empathise with their annoyance. Sadly their reactions have let them down, but it’s only a handful. And it’s really only going to be these guys who live here. And it’s alright, it happens, it’s merely a lack of ability to communicate on their part.”
I ask him what’s changed over the years, if reactions and song choices have evolved, but he is most frustrated about the evolution of bin design. He used to busk by on Bridge Street and pick which one to play in at random, “I used to use them all along that street, it didn’t matter, it depended on how I felt that day. Then one day I turned up and they were moving them all. They were replacing them, I don’t know how long you’ve been here but before they were aluminium they were fibreglass and so I had to buy my own.”
The last twenty years have witnessed a series of bins and music, but Cavey’s career does not consist of just busking: “for the last four years before lockdown I ran a kids music club called Mr Baboon’s Dancing Tunes and I’ve managed to find a proper job Monday to Friday now at the school where my kids attend.” Cavey seems incredibly content with his lifestyle; he’s not interested in releasing music or changing careers anytime soon. “I started to realise how much fun it really is, because I’m forty-two and just through wisdom and having lots of other jobs I’ve kind of realised that this is one of the nicest ways to live, the money might be less but the lifestyle is better. Because I get out of bed when I want, I start when I want…I don’t answer to anybody and I get to play music and make people happy which is pretty ideal for me.”
“I’ve kind of realised that this is one of the nicest ways to live, the money might be less but the lifestyle is better”
I ask if this lifestyle is a heavily communal one, if there is camaraderie or competition between the buskers. He’s not massively involved: “because I’ve got two children of my own, I come into town, busk and go home. I know a few of them, though having seen them and liked what they’d done and gone over and introduced myself. But maybe three or four, there probably is a nice community and there are a lot, you’ll see a lot more a lot closer to summer.”
His laid back attitude is admirable, and a career in busking seems to never afford a dull moment. In fact, he’s met Bob Geldof, Carol Vorderman, Gregory Porter. Crowds of people take an interest in his unusual busking format and remember him for summers to come, partly because of the unusual format of the bin, but also because it is clear that this is someone who does what they love, however eccentric. Love him or hate him, he’ll never know anyway, in his continual unflappable way he tells me,“I turned the news off eight or nine years ago. I hear everything from mouth, it makes it a much nicer world.”
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