It has always seemed to me that there are four types of people on the streets of London who might ask you for money. Firstly there are your ordinary “got a spare 50p?” sorts. I don’t really mind being accosted by them (even if some seem like they are only begging whilst waiting for the trust-fund to mature.) Most of the time I just give them what they ask for, although there have been periods when I have not had any money myself. At such times a request for spare change can sometimes seem to be the ultimate insult from an uncaring world, and I am instantly transformed from idly wondering if there really is a last tin of baked beans in the cupboard at home into Travis Bickle ready to “wash all the scum off the streets.”
The second type of mild nuisance encountered by the discerning post-modern flaneur comes in the shape of those who shake buckets at you. These are usually respectable older types, often resplendent in uniform. I once had a tin shaken at me by a bright pink anti-smoking bunny (it survived – just.) What can you say about these people? They will always exist, and good luck to them. Standing outside Sainsbury’s in New Cross all day is bound to get you into somewhere very near to paradise eventually.
Thirdly there are Chuggers. Greenwich, for instance, is full of chuggers. Whole groups congregate outside Ottaker’s bookshop with their day-glo clipboards and vests; sporting identikit smiles which somehow scream: “I’m in the second year of a surf science and technology degree at East London university.” Their main tactic seems to be the forlorn hope that middle-aged men will be so enormously glad of the chance to speak to a goofy teenaged girl that before you know it she will have signed us up to a standing order donating £50 a month for life to donkey sanctuaries in Burkina Faso. The only defence against such enthusiastic adolescents is to wave your bags of shopping at them in the hope that they will recognise that you are a local (not , good heavens! a tourist, good lord no! there are jaffa cakes in my bag, look!) Such dark arts do not protect you from them all of the time (although the BBC have some other ideas to keep the brats at bay.)
The fourth group are Big issue sellers. I don’t know about you but I have always found these people to be courteous, kind and helpful. Happy to chat or give directions or even relieve me of the shopping trolley after I have loaded bag after bag of the wife’s purchases into the back of a taxi of a Saturday afternoon.
Homelessness is still a serious problem in the UK. but it is one which has to a large degree been swept under the carpet. In 2001, the Government announced that there where now only 600 sleeping on the streets. But in the same month, the government’s own figures showed that almost 78,000 households were living in temporary accommodation. These people may not be on the streets, but bed and breakfast accommodation is no kind of “home” that I would want to live in. To me the measure of a successful society is in how it treats its most vulnerable members.
This month the Big Issue celebrated it’s 15th birthday with a gig by The Magic Numbers and Natalie Imbruglia (If at this point you are thinking something along the lines of “beggars can’t be choosers” then you will surely burn in hell.) The philosophy of the magazine (which is always an interesting read) is of ‘a hand up, not a hand out’. As the BBC website puts it: Bought by homeless – or ‘vulnerably housed’ – vendors from a distribution point, the papers are then sold at a profit on the street. Some of this money must be re-invested into buying more newspapers, while the rest is kept by the vendor.
In Scotland alone since 1993 , more than £9.6 million has been earned by Big issue vendors, which is surely a good thing, isn’t it?
So come on, there is no excuse for being as Victor Meldrew-ish as myself when out walking the streets. Slap £1.40 in the palm of your local Big Issue seller, and share a word or two with them – you never know what you might learn.
God’s humblest, they!” I muse. Yet why?
They know Earth-secrets that know not I.