Pattaya Mail turns 12

Vol. XIII No. 41
Friday October 14 - October 20, 2005

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Local Personalities

John Arno – You’re nicked!

by Dr. Iain Corness

Pattaya does manage to turn up some wonderful characters, and John Arno is one of those. He is a man who has been arrested so many times by her Majesty’s British Police Force that he cannot count them all, but this year was invited to Buckingham Palace as her guest. John also plays a mean harmonica, guitar, ukulele, tambourine, cymbals, as well as all the bells and whistles. John Arno is a busker – a street entertainer!

John believes that his chosen profession is actually an extension of his French origins, being descended from the Huguenot refugees which came to the East End of London in the 1700’s. The family name was then “Arnau” but eventually contracted to “Arno”. The Huguenots were wonderfully independent folk, with one ancestor being recorded as an “ostrich feather curler” and John is certainly independent!

His musical ability came from his father, who in addition to being a French polisher, played pianos in pubs to support the family. John’s first musical recollections being standing around Dad’s piano while everyone sang “Knees Up Mother Brown!” John’s scholastic achievements were more artistic than academic, and he left school at 15 years of age, doing a succession of forgettable jobs until he joined the Merchant Navy as a deckhand at 17.

It was in the Merchant Navy that his musical side really came forward. He first started entertaining the other deckhands with his harmonica and then added the guitar. The officers encouraged this behaviour, even though his immediate bosses, the Bo’suns were not so enamoured. I also got the more than sneaking opinion that young John was a bit of a larrikin, once again his Huguenot disregard for authority coming to the fore, such as the time he ‘commandeered’ a beached boat to get back to his ship after the last crew boat had departed. “There were so many adventures,” said John, with a grin.

However, after 15 years at sea he decided to return to land. “It eventually wears a bit thin. After a while it’s just a job, seven days a week and long hours.”

Back on dry land he decided that he would follow his musical star and applied to be an entertainer with Pontin’s Holiday Camps. When asked to give an example of his work, he performed a song he had written about a shipmate called “The Ballad of Shaky Jake” and was given the contract, and the ‘stage’ name of Shaky Jake’s One Man Band!

The progression to a one man band seemed to be a natural consequence. He found he could play any musical instrument, even though he never had any training or tuition. In fact, today he still cannot read music. “All those quavers and stuff – dead boring,” said John. But he could play several instruments at the same time and even made his own oil drum ukulele. “It’s easy,” said John. “I’ve got the harness on my chest with the harmonica, hold the guitar, the drum’s on me back with the tambourine, the cymbals are between me knees, and then there’s the hooters, bells and whistles.”

So after his stint at Pontins, he hit the streets, especially around the famous Tower of London. And to his first run-in with the constabulary. And the scourge of the street entertainer, the Obstruction Laws. It was through the (mis)use of these laws that the police force would move the buskers on. Any resistance and they were “nicked”.

In turn, this strengthened the resolve of the buskers, with many sharing their favourite spot or “pitch”. “There were lots of interesting characters,” said John. “One friend would play till pub opening time at 11, after which I would take over the pitch.” Despite the fact that it sounded a very precarious way to make a living to me, John denied that it was. In fact he did very well out of it, making enough to buy his own house in the UK and live quite nicely, thank you! “It was bloody good money,” said John, “because the police cracked down so much, the number of buskers went down.”

As he progressed through the ranks of the buskers, he even founded the Street Entertainers Association and was picked to represent the buskers of Britain during ‘British Week’ in Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar. He even had a go at running for parliament under the platform of the Reform the Obstruction Laws Party, but was told by the chief constable that his many arrests for “obstruction” would bar him from office, even if he did gain the majority vote.

He was not alone with his one man band, however. He had a partner. A dog, aptly named ‘Busker’, who also had an amazing range of musical tricks, including singing on demand. He and John appeared on a TV talent show and received 45 points out of a possible 50. “The producers told me that I got 20 points and the dog got 25,” said John, laughing.

Then came the invitation to attend Buckingham Palace for a musical reception. John was to represent the buskers of Britain, and after all his arrests, John thought that this was probably the most unlikely event in his life. However, he went, knocked at the Tradesman’s entrance and was told he had to go round to the front, where he joined British musical super-stars such as Cilla Black, Petula Clark, Eric Clapton, Shirley Bassey, the remaining members of Queen and Status Quo. Shaky Jake’s One Man Band at the Palace! Who would have imagined it? Certainly not John Arno!

Eventually John began to feel that the rigours of standing on one leg, clacking away with the cymbals between his knees, playing tunes, avoiding the law and the vagaries of street entertaining were becoming too much and he came to Pattaya for a holiday three years ago. That was the turning point, and he is now retired and resident here.

He remains active, though. He plays the share market!

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