Julian McDonnell makes his living by selling baby kites semi-legally on what is not even the most popular tourists’ bridge in London. It seems like an easy day’s work, but an impossible way to make a living, but Julian confirms that’s wrong on both counts: in fact, it’s hard work, but if you’re good at it, you can get by, as he has, for eight years.
Julian is the first to point out that his trade does not define him; he’s an actor, presenter, clown, filmmaker. He finished university and considered graduate education or professional employment, but Julian is one of those who is driven to do “something… anything…” to try and fit what feels creatively right inside his looming 6’6” frame with whatever forms of expression and ways to make a buck (er, pound) are out there. He’s also one of those blokes who is approaching 40 and has yet to be hired for a “real” job. Stephen Elliott said no one’s going to let him edit a big magazine; similarly, no one’s going to let Julian host the BBC news.
Julian and I spoke about what it takes to sell baby kites, and how he parlayed it into a documentary chronicling the legal tribulations of roving pedlars like himself, who have permits to sell their wares in the UK, but have been banned by individual boroughs all over the country, and are thus constantly caught in a game of cat and mouse with authorities. Entirely self-produced, filmed, edited and presented, the video not only made it into a Parliamentary hearing, it earned Julian an assignment to do another documentary about environmental conservation efforts in the Phoenix Islands, and the means to fulfill his dream with another video following the amazing tale of the mutiny on The Bounty and journey to Pitcairn and other islands in the Pacific.
The Rumpus: Most people wouldn’t believe you basically survive on baby kites – I didn’t, anyway, because at three quid apiece [about $4.50], you have to sell rather a lot in order to afford to live in London. How many do you usually sell in a day?
Julian McDonnell: Well, I usually describe it like a cricket match, but you probably don’t know about cricket so you won’t understand. [Rumpus: Go ahead, anyway.] In cricket, if you score 100 runs in an inning, that’s regarded as very good. If you get 50, a half-century, that’s pretty good as well – you still get applause. But anything under 50 and, well definitely under 40 and you’re pretty upset. So, 100 is a very good day, average in the summer is 60-70, and everything over 50 is good. But could you PLEASE realize, that I’m SUPPOSED to be an AC-tor [using his Lawrence Olivier voice].
Rumpus: Yes of course, but first – let me ask you this – because what you do is semi-legal, and like, you don’t pay taxes…
McDonnell: Yes I DO. I have to fill out a tax return each year.
Rumpus: And you claim your baby kites?
McDonnell: Well, even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have an article written about it in a magazine saying so!
Rumpus: Right, fair enough. But, I’m just wondering.
McDonnell: I daresay I can’t declare every single one, but yeah, I do fill out a tax return, and I do put the earnings on the form. A lot of people don’t realize that. But the thing is, I don’t really make very much money doing it and the threshold is actually quite high before you even have to pay tax.
Rumpus: How is business going?
McDonnell: Well it’s winter, and I’m only going on the weekends these days. I don’t think I’m going to do it in the winter anymore, to be honest. It’s not worth it. At a push I can sell 40 or 45 if the sun’s out. My money goes down a bit in the winter, but hopefully I can save up in the summertime.
Rumpus: So it’s like a lot of businesses that make all their profits during the holiday season.
McDonnell: Yes. My business is also very weather dependent as well. If it’s raining for a week – we are in London, after all – I can’t do anything. If there’s no wind, I can’t sell them. There are quite a few things that can conspire against you – you might just have a day when people simply aren’t buying them. You wonder, “Why? What’s different today than yesterday? How come yesterday everyone wants one but today no one does?”
Rumpus: It’s much the same with creative things – you pitch ideas, audition for things, and it’s impossible to figure out how some people get chosen and some people get passed over, and how that success itself can be so fickle and fleeting.
McDonnell: Yes, exactly. And also, people also seem to think it is really easy. It’s not demanding in the sense that I don’t have to get up and wear a suit and ride the train for an hour and sit in an office all day, but in the summertime, I’ll be there all day, every day, for like three months straight.
People see me out on a sunny day and they think I’m just having a laugh, but it’s not actually an easy thing to do. I’ve asked other people to do it – my mate, Ralph, he tried, and he hardly sold any. He ended up finding it very hard – he couldn’t get the wind right, he didn’t talk to anyone, he gave up.
Rumpus: So, it’s not just as easy as standing there, exchanging kites for money…but you have to make it look like it’s easy, right? I think that’s why people assume it’s easy – you’re very good at the subtle magic of baby kite sales.
McDonnell: Well, there’s a right way to do it, of course. Most people, when they walk by, look at it and think, “Oh! Those are quite cool.” But if you go up to them and ask if they want one, then they scuttle off. But if you make a funny remark and crack a joke, and DON’T try and sell it to them, then they sort of ask you about it.
Rumpus: The NON-sales sell.
McDonnell: Look, people can see what it is, and if they want one, they want one. But if they don’t want one, they don’t, and there’s no actual convincing them of it. Only sometimes what they might do is they might like me, and decide that they want to buy one because I seem like a nice chap. And that’s the magic, I guess – I’m quite good at talking to strangers and making them feel at ease.
Rumpus: And also, in this way, you’re probably able to mostly keep from running afoul of the law. I mean, the cops see you out there all the time, and they could catch you if they wanted, but they don’t.
McDonnell: Right, well, occasionally they stop me and have a word with me, but they’ve got better things to do, really, and they’ve got people selling bigger things – all these illegal Albanian peanut salesmen who’ve got big firey barrels and such – I’m just a bloke selling little kites, and I’m quite nice and well spoken, and when I see them I scarper anyways.
Rumpus: But the entire subject of your documentary film is about how it is your right as an Englishman with a Pedlar’s Certificate to sell your kites. Why don’t you take it upon yourself to educate law enforcement or whoever stops you about this?
McDonnell: Because in a practical sense, it’s like the film “The Matrix.” When Morpheus says to Neo, “One day you won’t have to run from those guys in suits, because you’re The One.” And Neo is saying, “Well look, if I’m really The One, why are we running from all these agents?” One of the other guys says, “Look, I don’t care if you’re The One or not – when you see an agent, you do what we do: you RUN.” And that’s what I do when I see an agent of the law. Even though I might be The One, with my Pedlar’s Certificate, I still run. It’s much easier to run away and come back five minutes later and continue my day of trading then stop, get hassled, have a long conversation, look like a criminal, have all the people look at me as if I’m some sort of dodgy bastard. That damages business, and then I’m sort of stuck there for about an hour. It’s easier for the coppers as well – they don’t really want to be chasing kite sellers anyway – so they come ‘round, I run off and come back a bit later, and everyone has a merry Christmas.
Rumpus: But despite this resilient and mellow perspective, you were still passionate enough to make a documentary about pedlar’s rights.
McDonnell: To be honest, I was at the end of my tether. I’d been going to TV companies and entertainment people saying, “Look, I’m fucking talented in one way or another, just let me do something. I’m not a complete bum, I’ve done plenty of stuff, acting jobs and such.” And no one wanted to know.
So, I sat down and thought, “All right, what would be my ideal job?” And I decided I would be a good TV presenter. And then I said, “Ok, how can I do it?” Ok. Well, no one’s going to give me a job doing it. No one ever helps you if there’s nothing in it for them. You gotta help yourself. So, I said, “I’m gonna make a show and I’m going to present it myself.” So, I made this pedlar’s film, and everyone said it was quite good, and I got free stock from my dealer – he gave me free kites – so I even got paid for it, and it was quite fun doing it, I enjoyed showing it to people, and it even got shown in Parliament, and helped us fight the law.
Then I thought, “I enjoyed that, I need to make another one.” I chose pedlery before because I knew about it, so I said, “What else do I know about that I’m really interested in?” And, I thought: the mutiny on The Bounty. It’s got everything: it’s got mutiny at sea, it’s got beautiful women, it’s got amazing islands, travel, adventure, and it’s about this island in the middle of the bloody ocean, where 50 people live, and you can’t fly there, and I’d never actually seen a documentary about it, so I decided to make one.
Rumpus: But first, you had to make this other documentary that you never intended to, about the Phoenix Islands.
McDonnell: Yes, that was brilliant, although I didn’t actually want to do it, and, and I was quite scared, really. I’m not really someone who goes on small seafaring boats. My intention was to go to Pitcairn and all of these places quite safely on a nice, properly organized trip. But then I looked into how to get there, and the cheapest way was with this guy who did these boat trips, and they were still SO expensive. But he watched my film about pedlars, and he said, “I can take you for free, but only if you make a film about me first.” So I went off to the bloody Phoenix Islands with him, but then it turns out none of them really wanted me there. They were all being kind of unpleasant, because they thought I was just a skivvy to work on the boat, but I thought I was there to make a film – I don’t know anything about boats! I was just terrified most of the time.
Rumpus: You wrote, “It was a terrible trip but a wonderful experience.”
McDonnell: It’s one of those things that you really don’t enjoy at the time, but afterwards you’re really pleased that you did it. These islands are incredibly remote, and the conservation they are trying to do is really quite interesting, and I do feel proud that I made something that is worthwhile, and I did it on my own. I want to say to people, “Look – can you imagine how good this actually would have been if I didn’t actually have to do the whole bloody thing off my own budget and my own crappy little camera?”
Rumpus: Plus, you were able to do the film you really wanted, about the mutiny on The Bounty.
McDonnell: Yes, and for this one, I met a guy who is helping me with it. It’s taking ages, but you won’t have seen anything quite like it, and we’re quite looking forward to it. I’m hoping it’ll be done by this summer.