Vagrancy: Reinventing the Spiel

You won’t remember, but John Major once got into terrible trouble for suggesting that “most people” found begging offensive. He couldn’t be serious could he? Begging offensive? No friend of mine has ever done anything but welcome it. In fact, often, when out in a group, I’m humbled when one of our number breaks off to approach a man urinating in a doorway and offer him a day’s wages.

I confess I made that up, but even as you read the words you suspected as much didn’t you? Major was trumpeting an ugly truth; our awful, unspoken lack of compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves. In fact there’s a sort of social contract that exists between beggar and citizen. Both agree to have unmitigated contempt for the other, allowing resentment and hostility to ferment nicely, while understanding the utilitarian dimension to their relationship. The beggar needs the citizen to provide an income and the citizen needs the beggar to remind them that full participation in our market economy is essential if they’re to enjoy the trappings that they associate with being human. Absolute poverty is just one of capitalism’s lieutenants, it keeps the majority in line.

No one likes to be reminded that they hate the poor, but they do and they’d feel much better if they just got together and said so, perhaps in a support group, something like the middle class perhaps? The great Conservative Prime Minister Francis Urquhart, hardly mentioned these days, was lauded as a fine leader but his Vagrancy Act, criminalising begging, shocked the nation. Urquhart hated the poor and so do you.

I’ll admit to it, would that make it easier for you? It’s not the condition of being destitute I hate, you understand, I feel a great deal for those who live on very little (at least in the abstract), it’s the poverty of imagination.

My local area is home to a man I call Ten Pence None the Richer, a homeless twenty something, who with a good family and an expensive education, might have been a member of the band Supergrass. For years he’s worked the area from Charlton to Charing Cross and you’ll find him at all the stations and surrounding areas in between. His routine, never changing, is to approach you with a sob story about needing to get further up the line, usually to visit a sick relative. He’s just shy of the right amount you see, and he’s trying to make up the shortfall in ten penny increments, not an easy task with these year on year inflation busting price rises.

It doesn’t matter to him that both parties know they’re actors in a playlette, he’s made a calculation about his adversary. Go in low, a mere ten pence, and he’s more likely to get it. Tell them it’s for travel, which is value neutral, and he sidesteps any prejudices about drug and alcohol use. There’s nothing to separate this patter from the bullshit you listen to every day from salesman and charity muggers; it’s all cold calculation and soft manipulation. That’s not my problem. My problem is that the frigoid never remembers me.

If I sound familiar with this man it’s because he’s approached me over a period of several years, some ten to fifteen times, and yet he never remembers my face and consequently never suspects that I know his spiel by rote. Often I’ve wanted to take him aside and ask why he targets me. Indeed, they always target me. It is because I have a kind face I wonder? No, I don’t, so that can’t be it. Do I look soft, or pliable, or naive perhaps? Who knows, but it’s hard not to take it personally when you’re targeted so frequently that you suspect Shelter have issued your face on a card that’s freely available at railway stations and restaurants.

On one occasion, it might have been number five, he clocked me from a hundred feet away, on the other side of the street and actually started to cross it to accost me for that silver coin. Not being in the mood, I interrupted, before he could get the words out and collapse the distance, shouting “I have no money on me, you prick”, met with a changed face and a yell of “fuck off, you fucking cunt!”, and to think I once helped him cross the border into Zone 4!

Had he remembered me he might have known that I was a duff choice, sympathetic in the abstract, irritated in reality and wedded to my little pocket of change as though it were a vital artery that he was asking me to cut, but he didn’t and one imagines he was both embarrassed and confused, brooding for minutes afterwards on how I’d seen through his cheerful opener so easily. It might have ruined his mood and I have to live with that.

Sometimes, not often, I don’t care remember, I sit and wonder how I’d extract cash from the public were I in a comparable bind. I’d like to think I’d be creative in my approach, better exploiting my position as an unknown and perhaps frightening quantity, thereby enjoying greater success. This for me, is where begging falls down. It’s so one dimensional and half-hearted. “Spare any change?”, “Excuse me, I’m being polite, I imagine you’ll respect that, though you don’t. Have you got fifty pence, though more would be preferable, for a cup of tea and some food?” and so on. It’s always the same isn’t it?

What, I considered this afternoon, could I do to help these people? Sure, I could contribute to a charity or become a volunteer, but that might take time and altruism and I have neither. Then it hit me. I could devise alternative strategies for getting the public to part with their waste pounds and pence. You’ll find them listed below. I invite you to print them off and hand them to the next homeless person you see. The mind cures all social ills and this situation is no exception.

If you’re homeless, hungry and need money, try these…

(i) Chant nonsensical toss as you approach a table full of diners. When they notice you, cry “from hell’s mouth!” and press a coin to the head of one person, preferably a woman. A high proportion of the public are superstitious. This may range from low level stupidity, like horoscopes, to an outright belief in supernatural forces. Regardless, you can now tap into this irrational hysteria. Their trust in a hidden layer of existence with no root in fact is about to pay dividends. You now say that you have cursed your “victim”. If they’re still listening, and many will be, you deliver the following speech. ‘I have infected you with the spirit of the Gynulm-Kill, a demon from hell’s guts. You will, in just a few months, fall victim to disease. You’ll be dead in a year. Your children will then age prematurely, becoming infertile and depressed. They will die alone. I can lift this curse with an incantation, but I won’t unless I leave this table with not less than five hundred pounds. You have thirty seconds to decide.’ They may not have that much but they’ll now be giving you what they do have and putting pressure, hysterical pressure, on their friends or work colleagues to make up the shortfall.

(ii) You saunter up to a member of the public, casual as you like. You must keep your voice calm. Never deviate from a low level monotone. You now say this. ‘In the building across the street I have a friend waiting with a gun. This gun is trained on you. Right now you have a minute to live. You’re going to give me everything you’ve got. Pounds, Euros, it doesn’t matter. I want cash only. Once he sees me take it from you he’ll make his weapon safe. Don’t speak, do it now.’ It’s important that you don’t look at them. You must appear cold and impersonal, that’s crucial. The public associate beggars with the criminal class. Though rationally they’ll suspect you’re talking bullshit, part of them, the part that won’t go out alone at night, will have no trouble believing that you could know someone with access to a firearm and your demeanour will reinforce the impression that you lack empathy, an essential prerequisite for a killer. Do it now and you’ll be eating hot food within the hour.

(iii) This is known as The Time Traveller and is particularly sweet as HG Wells hated your kind. This approach takes full advantage of your dishevelled appearance. You stagger up to a member of the public. ‘What day is this? What year?’ They’ll be confused but you have their attention. Now to ram home your advantage. ‘Please, I’ve just returned from a journey through five epochs of human history. I’ve seen the future. Oh God, the future. I must get to Edinburgh immediately and tell the institute what I’ve seen, the fate of the species depends on it! They must perform tests and verify my claim. Please, you must give me the fare. What year is this? 2011? Thank God, then it’s not too late. I need £100. Quick, we must get to a cash point! I must get on that train! Christ, the lives of your children and their children depend on it. Everything depends on it!’

Go on, give them a whirl. Don’t make me beg.

Published in: on June 15, 2011 at 15:54  Leave a Comment  
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