24 May 2007

Three Pounds Eighty

"Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, I am really sorry to bother you on your journey home after a busy day, but I am currently a rough sleeper and I am trying to raise eight pounds tonight to get into a hostel.

"Normally I do sell the Big Issue for a living, but today there was a problem and I only got a small number to sell so I am £3.80 short tonight. If I can raise that, I will be able to get into the hostel and have a bed for the night and keep warm and dry. If you can spare anything I would be really grateful. God bless you"

I probably hear that speech once a week commuting home on the train. Probably every other late-night commuter in London hears it as well. I wonder how many young men there are (for it is always young men) travelling the late night trains, all with this same patter? They are well rehearsed - much of it is delivered verbatim - and most strikingly it is always precisely in the same tone of voice: a tone of voice that is at the same time apologetic, respectful, slightly embarrassed, self effacing and polite. The whole package is a successful meme, no doubt about it. Where did it come from? Did it evolve naturally by imitation, did someone actually script it?

And why does it work? All the passengers know they are being spun a line; there is no shelter further along the Kingston loop turning away the young homeless for want of £3.80.

We have heard it all before; the performers know we have heard it all before but nevertheless they proceed to deliver it again, straight-faced, and because they deliver it we passengers give them money. All parties all complicit in the shared fiction, a suspension of disbelief, a doublethink: an unspoken - but clearly understood - agreement between strangers to a pretence that makes it easier - less embarrassing perhaps - to give and to receive. I wonder if it happens in the same way in other countries?

But last night something different; the spiel delivered, the hapless supplicant was moving down the carriage collecting money when a second man entered at the other end of the carriage and started the exact same speech. Beggar #1 started guiltily and backed away. Too late; he was noticed, and he turned and ran down the aisle, hotly pursued by beggar #2.

A small window in this world opened to me.

I never give them anything, anyway.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Those beggars came running past me too. I must have been on the same train as you Steve