One point I have often lamented is the fact that I am seemingly always targeted in the street by anyone who wants anything – a petition signed, a subscription to the charity they’re really keen on as of this morning, a new convert to their religion or whatever. Having become fixated on this idea that I definitely want to do this thing, they will often become upset when I tell them that actually, I’m really not interested. Or, as I usually put it, “Sorry, I’m – (points vaguely forward as if to indicate something urgent and self-explanatory)“.
Now, one I find particularly difficult to deal with is your man the beggar. These take various forms, each one more awkward than the last. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that not all beggars are faking it, but let’s just say there are a few who spoil it for the rest. The Big Issue is a pretty good read though, and I do occasionally pick that up (not by mugging the vendor, either, despite some scurrilous rumours ha ha ha!!!!!!1!).
We are told by the Metropolitan Police that it’s not really a good idea to give to individual beggars, as the money is often used to maintain addictions, to fund organised crime or both. Those who are enthusiasts of self-reliance say that genuine beggars become dependent on the generosity of others when they should be working to build a life for themselves. And the newspapers often howl about how beggars come to London and make millions of pounds a day and it’s disgusting. Sorry, being cynical about the media there, force of habit, but it is true that London is rich pickings for the beggar.
All that being said, here’s a field guide to the techniques beggars use (with me, anyway). You may wish to make a game of it.
And before you get all huffy and accuse me of being insensitive (which I am) or exploitative (which I am), there are some links to homeless charities at the bottom of the entry.
The Sob Story
This one often won’t portray themselves as a homeless person, but instead will claim to be a regular person just like you or me who has fallen on hard circumstances. There will be a long story with many exciting twists and turns which ultimately ends with a request for money. For some reason, a common opener is the phrase “Do you speak English?” Because in Central London, English speakers are evidently rare. The stories are never less than interesting – mugging is a common one, particularly if the beggar is female and doing a “damsel in distress” act. There was one chap who told me, twice in the same week, that he had a job interview in Potter’s Bar in two hours’ time. I told him he should stop applying for jobs in Potter’s Bar, and recognition dawned. A particularly memorable one was a fellow in Leicester Square who was on an epic quest to retrace his lost family.
I-Spy for 20 points.
This one will come up to you when you’re doing something else – chatting to friends in the pub, browsing a shop or whatever. A friend of mine, who is much more openly rude than I am, did not take to being interrupted mid-conversation and demanded to know what the beggar would do in exchange.
I-Spy for 10 points.
This is mostly seen among those beggars for whom English is not a first language, or even a second or third. There will be a brief spiel learnt off by heart, often slightly mangled by constant repetition and the speaker’s unfamiliarity with what they’re actually saying. There’s a chap on Southampton Row in the morning whose spiel is the words “Have you 20p?” repeated as often as possible per minute. Always with the exact same intonation. “Have you twen-ty peeeee? Have you twen-ty peeeee? Have you twen-ty peeeee?” As he’s not technically requesting the 20p, I tend to say “yes” and walk on.
I-Spy for 5 points.
The Guilt Trip
This is a thankful rarity, but not unknown in the West End. This is when you’re on a date, and the beggar comes along in the hope of emotionally blackmailing you into giving money because, after all, you wouldn’t want to look like a skinflint in front of the lovely young lady, would you now? Fortunately, the people I date tend to be as flint-hearted as me, so it’s all cool.
I-Spy for 20 points.
But how did you get through the ticket barrier?
This is one exclusive to trains and the Underground. This beggar will come into the carriage and launch into a spiel about how they’re very sorry to interrupt our journeys and they know we’re very busy, but [sob story] and we could find it in our hearts to spare whatever we can they’d be really grateful. Standard procedure among passengers is to pretend that today’s Metro is so interesting that they are totally oblivious to the outside world.
I-Spy for 5 points.
That’s not a tune
Related to the above is the scourge that is the accordionist. Now, I’ve known some very good buskers on the trains, but the accordion, like the bagpipes, is one of those instruments where so many people think that merely by getting more than one sound out of the bastard, they are playing a tune. Correct procedure is to throw the accordionist out of a window. In the days of slam-door trains, you could just chuck them out of the door, which was much easier.
I-Spy for 10 points
The Improvised Busker
I must admit, these guys do tend to be good for a laugh. Basically, this is someone busking using anything found on the street as an instrument. A traffic cone, a bucket or whatever. Whether they get a tune out of it or not is immaterial, the point is they tried, damn you.
I-Spy for 5 points.
Pushing your luck
Sometimes, occasionally, when a beggar is particularly annoying and persistent about their 20p and I can’t get away, but there are too many people around for my favoured ritual slaughter, I do grudgingly reach into my pocket. Having got this, suddenly the amount requested will go up – from 20p to a pound or sometimes higher. At this point, you are within your rights to demand that the beggar get down on their knees.
I-Spy for 15 points
Not even trying
Some beggars just can’t be arsed at all. Whether it’s a total lack of sob story, a poor effort, a self-contradictory tale or just plain rudeness, the great thing about these beggars is that you will never feel guilty or doubtful about holding on to your change. I recall one who was quite openly swigging from a can of Tennants while he explained how he was saving up for a hostel. And one the other day hadn’t figured out that women who have been on the streets six months do not, as a rule, have immaculate makeup.
I-Spy for 15 points.
When you have collected 1000 points, send the book along with a postal order for 20p to the usual address to receive a can of Special Brew!
We’re all bastards, but in a way, isn’t society the biggest bastard of all? Think about it.