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Taking A Life For A Walk
Independent On Sunday (April 2003)

In the small control room of the independent radio station Resonance FM on Denmark Street, eighteen-month-old Clement Kraabel prepares for his weekly half hour show with studied nonchalance. Upstairs, his biggest rival – the two year old who plays with the post-crusty folk group Dexter Bentley – is blowing the full spectrum of bloody murder from blue to deepest purple on a tin whistle, but Clement remains impassive, jaded, bored even. He’s been through this routine a million times before.

His mother, meanwhile, is having a minor panic. A 41 year old Californian who moved to London when she was 19 as a “youthful punk tearaway”, Caroline Kraabel spent eight years as a busker, five years playing sax with a “post punk brass band”, and two years leading the 20 strong all-female saxophone ensemble Mass Producers before pregnancy halted her in her tracks. She wanted to carry on performing but couldn’t bear being apart from her newborn son. So she tried to think of a way she could combine the two.

The answer would become Taking A Life For A Walk, a “live broadcast of perambulating performance", which involves Caroline taking Clement for a walk in his pushchair and playing the saxophone at the same time. She started when Clement was four months old, wheeling him around her neighbourhood in Bermondsey and braving the comments of bemused locals, but soon moved to wandering the streets of central London after being picked up by Resonance.

“I’ve always had a thick skin and I’m not easily embarrassed in a performing situation,” explains Caroline. “I am in real life. But that’s the point about Taking A Life For A Walk. It’s about sticking your neck out. I grew up in a silent house. My mother was actually anti-music. So doing this makes me feel good about myself.”

Kraabel relays her playing and the conversations she has with people in the street via a mobile phone clipped to her shoulder. But with a five minutes to go before broadcast, the phone’s not working, hence the panic. Clement, luckily, is busy digesting his risotto lunch and looks likely to drop off any second. “He always falls asleep,” laughs Kraabel. “I met this guy once pushing his daughter in her pushchair and he was looking really tired and he said ‘I know how you feel’. If I was one of those unhappy parents whose children don’t sleep, then I’d have found a really good solution.”

Reaction, Kraabel says, is generally good-natured. “People are much nicer than you think they’re going to be. Having a baby disarms everyone. Even if they think you’re mad, they can see you’ve got a baby so you’re cuddly mad. I’ve only encountered outright hostility once. Millwall football ground is near where I live and a couple of football fans started swearing at me. They were just thinking ‘you weirdo, what are you doing on our patch?’”

Out on the streets of Covent Garden, the public mood is one of wary bemusement, not sure whether to be more disturbed by Kraabel’s saxophone playing or the fact she seems to be talking loudly to herself. As Caroline informs her listeners of weather conditions and her rough location, a fresh faced girl clutching a London street map scurries past, a look of terror on her face. A few others, astonishingly, manage to walk by Caroline without noticing her at all, utterly wrapped up in their lives. For most, though, it’s the typical Londoner’s self-protection strategy: stony faced until they think they’re out of harm’s way then cracking up with hysterics.

“I think what I do touches the closet eccentric inside people who live in England,” says Kraabel. “There’s a big tradition of eccentricity in England, which I feel part of. That’s why I like it here so much.”

It’s not long before you encounter another eccentric on London’s streets, however. Viewed from ten yards respectful distance, it’s a modern day clash of the titans, with saxophones and oversize animals replacing gnarled clubs and armour. One side, a sax playing pram lady. The other, a man with three dogs the size of ponies. Who will win this bout of the ridiculous? Caroline marches onwards, blowing furiously, but the public's attention is momentarily elsewhere. Those hounds are gigantic. She stops and strokes a dog, tacitly acknowledging the victor.

We end up on Waterloo bridge, “because my bus goes from here”. It’s been quite a journey. “Everyone should do this, making music while they go about their everyday lives,” Kraabel concludes. “It would be nice if this started a groundswell of people singing, clapping and dancing as they’re walking about.” One day her dream might just come true. Big dogs willing, of course.

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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