Walk on by

Andrew O’Hagan goes begging

George Baroli and I were soaked to the skin. We sat on a wooden bench in the rain, a green bottle of sherry sat between us. George stared straight ahead most of the time, tilting the bottle up to his mouth with both hands, getting it into position, holding it there, and breathing through his nose. I tried to roll him a cigarette inside my jacket while he spoke of Newcastle, of how he thought he’d never leave it, and then telling me stories of his life now, as a beggar in London. He tapped my arm: ‘Times’s bad,’ he said, ‘but good times is just around the corner.’

George talked a lot about time; mainly he spoke of how it went too slow. He was 70, sleeping most nights at the Bondway emergency night-shelter in Vauxhall. When he turned to me, I noticed how mottled the irises of his eyes were, how patches of white and light grey jostled for space on them in such a way as to give him a look of shock and bewilderment. He wore one of the longest coats I’ve ever seen; it went all the way down, ending on top of a yellowish pair of sandshoes. His face was full of crevices and shelves, shallow nicks and lines of confusion, and his lips were dark and scorched-looking. He said he was schizophrenic, that years ago, in Newcastle, he’d had injections, but that that had all stopped. He said he needed medicine, tablets, something other than what he was given now and again for ‘bowel-opening’. Lunchers marched across the gardens, crouched under umbrellas, eating bananas. He puffed at my damp roll-up.

‘Do ye believe Christ is the Son of God?’ he asked casually.

‘Sometimes,’ I said, wiping the bottle. He then did something which is quite unusual between beggars: he asked me for money. I gave him some change and the rest of the Golden Virginia. He stood up, nodded, slid his arms into the long coat and walked off. An attendant, patrolling the path, strode up and told me to get rid of the bottle. And he hoped I wasn’t begging: ‘this isn’t the place.’ I pulled my hood up and made off, slipping between the charging umbrellas, thinking to find a decent spot over the Thames.

The railway bridge by Charing Cross, I thought, might make a good begging pitch what with all those mauve scarves and coats making their way over to the South Bank Centre. I found a plastic bread-board, and placing it upside-down, sat on it at the top of the stairs on the Embankment side. I stared at the ground, soaking dirt covered with fag stubs and tickets, lifting my head just occasionally to see who was looking. Then I’d ask them for money. I’d put a hand out and ask for spare change.

This matter of sitting on the ground begging was as far from my normal point of view as any I can properly imagine. It wasn’t my life and, previous to this, I knew nothing of it. Yet as soon as I folded my legs on that bridge, the moment I looked up to address some stranger with my bogus little request, I felt I was no longer part of the places I knew. I felt I’d been here for years; already I burned with resentments that normally take time to kindle. I had never been among the walkers-past, I was sure – though, in fact, I had never been anywhere but among them. Without quite knowing why, I forgot all about the conditions of journalism and the vantage points of my own life and felt, at once, that I was genuinely and irrevocably under someone else’s feet. In this frame of mind, you begin to notice things about passers-by that you would never, when following your normal routines, notice about yourself.

Searching for signs of pity, I see only embarrassment. In the seconds of eye contact, some people evidently wish the ground would swallow them up. Others, newly-elevated, puffed-up and tight, looked as if they wished the ground would swallow me. In my new way of thinking, I began to detect contempt and fear in the faces of most who passed. I obviously looked – and the thought made me uneasy – like I’d meant to look; people responded in the ways I knew they’d respond; in the ways I responded myself when passing a lone, wet beggar on a bridge. There were signs of sadness and disappointment in some faces; as if the promise of a pleasant evening was somehow blighted at the sight of me. There are those who tell you to get a job, to piss off or to leave them alone. And others – with their ‘sorry mate’’s, ‘no change pal’’s or ‘I’m in the same boat’ patter – return you to yourself a bit, speaking to you in ways you’d thought suspended by the rules of the game. But perhaps not, perhaps they’re just the kind of people who can return a glance with a glance of their own, and who prefer to speak when spoken to.

People say that they hate the way beggars publicly expose themselves, expose their need and their need to expose their need. The walkers-past, on the other hand, with their maddened eyes and embarrassed shoes, their twitches and blushes and grunts, expose just about everything a beggar would wish to know about who they are. In waves of the hand and the words they choose to spit, in haughty tut-tutting and superior giggling, a great number of those who pass by express their dislike of beggars and their general scorn of any sort of in-your-face poverty. Or that’s how it looked from where I sat.

The money I was given that afternoon I got in different ways. Usually, it arrived in my lap after falling through four feet of air. I’d chase coins from the flying givers all but into the Thames itself; a few coins bounced beside me and leapt through the bars of the railing, vanishing into the water. The trains might rattle in and out behind me for an hour without my gaining a penny. Then someone would appear at the top of the stairs – usually a woman – and over she’d come with a disquieted expression, a look of concern. She’d ask was I okay, hungry? ‘You look very tired ... I’m sorry,’ she’d say. She’d hand over a pound or 50 pence and leave with a glance backwards. I’d wonder who she was. A beggar’s relationship with strangers (i.e. anyone who isn’t a policeman or another beggar) is always the same: a request made and usually ignored though occasionally met. I tried begging at different spots along the bridge and was glared at by beggars who had their own territory marked out with bin-liners, cardboard and sleeping-bags. With the light fading and the tourists elsewhere, I leant against the railing and looked at my hand, separating the coins to count what I’d made. It came to £2.86.

In the last ten years, street-begging has become visible, in this country, in ways that it had not been since the early 19th century. This has coincided, of course, with the years in which the idea of society as a non-thing, as a fruitless misnomer, has come into its own; with the time it has taken the word ‘dispossession’ to become wholly familiar to anyone who dwelt anywhere near the wrong side of the tracks. To many, the large-scale return of begging – like rises in unemployment, house repossessions and the closure of hospitals – was a sure sign that things were not going well. But the most powerful mediators in this non-society have chosen to prove it a sign of something else: that the chosen profession of scroungers and lay-abouts, of wasters and filthy idlers, is on the move. Such voices boom loudly these days. It’s not about economic ruin, they say, it’s about idleness; it’s not to be called poverty, it’s to be called sponging.

‘Beggars were once a rare sight on Britain’s streets and provoked more sympathy than disgust. But all that has changed over the last few years as the streets of our major cities have become hunting grounds – not for penniless unfortunates, but for a new breed of professional beggars. Many of them are not in need at all.’ This, from a July report in the Daily Express, was headlined ‘Scandal of the Bogus Beggars’. Two months earlier the Mail on Sunday had spoken of ‘a sinister and violent new phenomenon which threatens to engulf the capital and, if police fears prove correct, could break out into open warfare as the tourist season reaches its peak: aggravated begging.’ It went on: ‘more and more respectable people are having to run the gauntlet of intimidating beggars, blocking their path, being abusive, spitting and threatening to infect them with Aids.’ According to which report you read, beggars are making so much (‘Benefit cheats who gang up on victims net £1000 a week,’ roared the Daily Mail) that jewellers, brickies and bankers are giving up their jobs in favour of begging. ‘Scruffy Dave Naylor,’ according to the Daily Star, ‘has got it made. He can earn up to £85 a day – doing nothing. He just haunts a tube station looking pathetic, and people drop their hard-earned cash into his plastic cup. For dirty, greasy-haired Dave, 19, is king of the hard-faced professional beggars working Central London.’

These reports – with their penny-dreadful conflation of begging with theft, social security fraud and gang-violence – have taken their toll in public wariness. People are increasingly suspicious of anyone who’s asking for money. London Underground has pasted up thousands of posters warning customers not to give; warning them to avoid being exploited by the increasing number of ‘professional’ beggars. Opposition comes from unexpected as well as extremely predictable places. Churches, once the final and surest refuge of the needy, are turning people away; some have their own poster campaigns. Father Ken Hewitt, of St Augustine’s Church in South Kensington, thinks beggars are, in the main, liars and cheats: ‘They’re all professionals, they know what they’re doing. They’ve actually got homes, most of them ... I’m not aware of any part of the Gospel which suggests that Jesus casually gave money away to anyone who asked.’ Hewitt claims to know of a family of beggars seen wheeling a supermarket trolley full of alcohol. He earns £12,000 a year and reckons some beggars must make around £200 a week.

Intolerance of this kind may be striking, but it is not new. Unlike, say, dramatists, beggars have never had a break from being one of the sub-groups of the great British underclass. With bards, vagabonds, rhymers, minstrels, fencers, wastrels, robbers, cripples, rioters, barrators, ribalds, sloths, rag-and-bone-men, COs, gypsies, dole-scroungers, poll-tax dodgers and Avon ladies, they are more or less permanent fixtures on the mythical list of great British degenerates. Whatever was happening in British history, you can be sure that there or thereabouts was some supposed counterfeiting hedge-creeper, lying by the road with his clack-dish.

In 1362, Langland was writing about the ‘loller’s way of life’; about beggars ‘filling their bags and stomachs by lies, sitting by night over a hot fire, where they untie their legs, which have been bound up in the daytime, and lying at ease, roasting themselves over the coals, and turning their back to the heat, drinking gallantly and deep, after which they then draw to bed, and rise when they are in the humour ... and contrive to live in idleness, and ease, by the labours of other men’. Acts and proclamations sprouted over time, sympathetic to the idea that beggary was in most cases the favoured trade of the impotent lush and thieving bawd. Henry VIII’s statute against vagrancy proclaimed that ‘vacabundes and Beggers have of longe tyme increased – dayly do increase’ and allowed that justices of the peace should provide the true poor with limited licences to beg; beggars begging outside these limits would be set in stocks; beggars without a licence caught begging would be stripped and whipped; compulsive beggars-without-a-licence would be whipped, pilloried and have an ear cut off for each of their two subsequent offences. The idea of ‘licensed’ begging caught on. Holinshed’s chronicles tell of a proclamation of the City of London which demanded ‘that all vagabondes depart the city within five days.’ Some beggars, deemed truly to be in need, were given badges to wear so that they might beg legally and be allowed to buy from grocers.

Today’s equivalent of these licences are the cards given to the homeless vendors of the Big Issue. Launched in September 1991, the magazine’s stated objective is ‘to help the homeless help themselves’. With money from the Body Shop organisation, the magazine is now a weekly publication with sales of around 90,000 an issue. There are over three thousand people registered to sell the magazine, which is available in Manchester and Brighton as well as in London. A separate edition is published in Scotland – launched last June – with weekly sales of 60,000. The licencees buy copies from the Big Issue’s distributor for 20 pence and then sell them at the cover price of 50 pence. Most of the regular vendors I spoke to shifted around thirty copies a day. Charismatic, friendly showmen sold a lot more; those who drank or looked dirty sold fewer. An old vendor I spoke to at Oxford Circus said the secret was to ‘smile a bit more than usual’.

The Big Issue seems a very Nineties way of making begging a little more respectable; with its entrepreneurial benevolence, its ‘feel goodishness’, it can at times look like the acceptable face of destitution. (In the same way the Youth Opportunities Scheme and the Jobclub were intended to make unemployment more respectable while keeping the figures down.) There’s a lot of suitable talk about giving people confidence, adding to their self-esteem, helping them to ‘reintegrate’, to raise their heads from the ground-staring position. Someone involved with the magazine told me that selling the paper taught the vendors how to become, she said, ‘like tele-sales people’. It’s an independent thing, though, and it shouldn’t be blamed for doing what it can (and can’t). So long as homelessness and poverty are not the big issue, the Big Issue will provide a small-earning option for those who can’t make the money anywhere else. The real difficulty is for those who, for one reason or another, do not sell the magazine. For, in line with historical precedent, the benefits accruing to the licensed are simultaneously deemed undeserved by the unlicensed, the illegitimates. People think they’re a fraud.

Londoners have always been worried about being exploited by those posing as needy. A writer to the Gentleman’s Magazine for December 1796:

In my late walks about London and its environs, I have observed with some concern the multiplied swarms of beggars of every description ... Impressed with the idea that more of these miserable objects are beggars by choice than by necessity, I leave them with the wish that our laws, or magistrates, would at least endeavour to lessen their numbers, or by some badge or other enable kind-hearted Christians to discern their proper objects.

Visitors to the Spitalfields Benevolent Society in 1802 were exhorted to take note of the Society’s newly-adopted maxim: ‘that street-beggars are, with very few exceptions, so utterly worthless and incorrigible, as to be undeserving the attention of such a Society.’ The general fear was that London workhouses were attracting scroungers from all over the country. J.C. Ribton Turner, a 19th-century beggarologist, recorded the graffiti on the walls of the vagrant wards of various workhouses and relayed it to a Victorian public eager for confirmation of their views on the great unwashed: ‘Private notice – Saucy Harry and his moll will be at Chester to eat their Christmas dinner, when they hope Sarcer and the rest of the fraternity will meet them at the union – 14 Nov. 1865’; ‘Wild Scoty, the celebrated king of the cadgers, is in Newgate, in London, going to be hanged by the kneck till he is dead, this is a great fact – written by his mate.’

Sellers of brass rings, rotten cotton and fake Windsor soap, ballad singers, china-menders, smashers (who dealt in counterfeit money), mushroom fakers (umbrella-repairers), fraters (licensed beggars who preyed on women) and begging-letter writers vied for the attentions of a London public increasingly ambivalent about the Christian duty of giving. Lurid tales of advanced conmanship filled the papers: ‘Many beggars,’ Francis Grose reported, ‘extort charities by practising Faquir-like voluntary austerities and cruelties on themselves’; and, in London Labour and the London Poor, Mayhew offered a chart of ‘prices of articles in the begging line’:

Loan of child, without grub0s 9d.
Two ditto1s 2d.
Ditto, with grub and Godfreys Cordial1s 9d.
If out after twelve at night for each child, extra0s 2d.
For a school of children, say half a dozen2s 6d.
Loan of any garment, per day0s 6d.
Going as a pal to vindicate any statement1s 0d.

Extortion stories, tales of self-mutilation and child-hiring, serial dramas of beggars hiding vast quantities of money, growing rich and sailing for Jamaica; some running gangs, stashing hundreds, and throwing colossal, gin-sodden orgies for all their begging pals and their molls: it was all part of the smoggy legend of Victorian London. And that smog, long-since vanished from other quarters, has never quite unfurled from around the ankles of the British beggar.

I sat on a bleached-out walkway near London Bridge, staring into a gigantic billboard: ‘Pepsi Max: Max the Taste, Axe the Sugar.’ The concrete walkway sloped down from a modern block of offices labelled Colechurch House. It was the middle of the morning, cold, with hardly anyone around. I sat cross-legged with a torn piece of cardboard in front of me covered with loose change. Passers-by caught sight of me as they came round the bend; most would cross over to the other side of the slope, aiming to give me a wide berth. After an hour or so of being avoided, an elderly man came near. When I asked him if he had any spare change he fixed me with a look of boiling contempt. Almost everything he had on was tan-coloured. His shoes, his jacket, his scarf – all tan. He came right up to me. ‘You should do something about this,’ he said, digging a hand into trousers that were slightly darker than the rest. He pulled out three coins, tutted, and threw them on the card. ‘Sitting there!’, he muttered as he walked away, ‘sitting there like that!’

The tan man’s 42 pence was what I made all morning. I was, by that time, stiff with sitting, so I walked over London Bridge, stopping here and there to look into the river. It was choppy, the air was choppy, with sirens and horns going off everywhere. I was about to start begging when I noticed a guy sitting on the other side. He looked over: this was clearly his pitch. It turned out that he was 17, from Leeds, and had begged around town every other day for a month. Today was bad, he was saying, only 60 pence the whole morning. When I said 42, he laughed. He’d come to London looking for family he’d never seen and now couldn’t find. He was a bag of nerves; and wearing a T-shirt without a jacket, clearly very cold: he’d left some clothes with someone somewhere and, he insisted, would get them soon.

I walked into the City and begged through lunch-time outside a building on the corner of Cannon Street and Friday Street, in the shadow of St Paul’s. A lot of suits went past, a lot of bad looks, seemingly hundreds of them, perhaps thousands of shoes, all clicking, all nipping off somewhere. None of them gave. Tourist buses kept stopping at the lights across from me. I felt their eyes. I laughed, imagining the guy in the bus with the microphone, the tour operator, pointing to Sir Christopher Wren’s construction, on the left, and on the right, pointing to me, Baroness Thatcher’s. I felt edgy at that corner though; it was too open; I was getting a lot of looks and the City is notoriously tight with beggars, indeed with everyone. I pulled my hood up and waited. It came at about 2.40. A lone policeman carrying a raincoat.

‘Are you begging, sir?’ he asked.

‘No, just looking,’ I said, pulling the zip up further.

‘I must ask you to move on ... on you go, go on.’ I went back across the bridge, noticing that the guy from Leeds had moved on too, though he’d left his cardboard behind.

There are around thirty-five drop-in centres for the homeless in London, several in every borough. Mostly run by volunteers, they each have their own target groups and range of facilities. They aim to serve not only those living on the streets (not all beggars are homeless, just as not all homeless are beggars) but those living in unstable, temporary accommodation such as night-shelters, hostels and DSS-funded Bed – Breakfast places. Almost every beggar you speak to has just come from or is just on his way to one of these places. Day-centres, soup-runs and night-shelters give some structure to the average vagrant’s day: a simple version of the structure (morning mail, breakfast, car, office, phone, lunch, shopping, dinner, date, telly, bed) those with possessions take for granted, even on days when nothing’s going on.

Over the 11 years of its existence, The Passage, a day-centre for over-25s in Carlisle Place, near Victoria, has provided hundreds of (mainly) vagrant men – many with alcohol or mental health problems – with access to food, toilets, showers, washing tubs and driers. Other in-house services include specialist advice on DSS and housing matters as well as the offer of help from detox and drug rehabilitation projects. The London Connection, in Westminster, tries to attract young people between 16 and 26; it has television, a pool table, provides free razors and lunch at 15 pence. The Kaleidoscope Project, in Kingston upon Thames, aims to serve heroin-users in need of treatment. They house a medical team who run a methadone programme and needle exchange. A few of the existing drop-in centres grew out of Victorian soup-kitchens or Christian missions of the Thirties, but most sprang up in the Eighties to meet a sudden need.

I stood for a bit outside the Southwark drop-in centre, in Paradise Street. There were Christian posters on day-glo paper behind the windows, behind wire. It looked like the youth clubs I remembered from Ayrshire, like free-standing public toilets or an old-style dole office stranded at the end of a street full of small houses. It was one of the poorer centres: really just a charity-hall run by a few people who believed in God. It wasn’t full of driers and free condoms like some of the others. I walked in, returning the nods of some men playing dominoes at a folding table by the door. A man with red hair beckoned me over to a table in the corner, behind which he stood fixing sandwiches and sorting mugs. A giant tea-urn sat on the table, drips falling rapidly from the nozzle. A bucket on the floor caught them as they dropped; the milk had been added in the urn and there was about three inches of milky – almost white – tea quivering in the bucket. I took a mug and sat down.

The sandwich-maker came over and started telling me about the mission, how it was used by a lot of unemployed people just looking for somewhere to sit down. They do two meals a week, on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, just simple things. The tea was as sweet as it was white. While we talked, a guy over by the window – a skinhead wearing a hooded sweater, with a bangle on his wrist – kept looking up as if he wanted to come into the conversation. I asked the boss if they say prayers. ‘There are services,’ he said, ‘but only for those who want it.’ Then the skinhead got up. ‘You from Glasgow?’ he asked, with a Glaswegian accent. ‘I thought that as soon as I heard you talking.’ He sat across from me and went on about how he used to live on the street. Homeless, but not a beggar, he insisted: ‘No, I could never hack that. If you’re hungry later, there’s this place in New Cross that gives out dinners, sandwiches and that, from the stuff the supermarkets don’t sell. I still go up there myself sometimes, sling a few in a carrier bag, you know, does me a couple of days.’

He’d been resettled, as they say, out of Spur House, an all-male DSS hostel in Lewisham. He’d been there six months when he was given a local authority flat. He said it was great at Spur, ‘brilliant ... a magic laugh ... bevvying, smoking hash and fucking about. It was a party.’ I asked him what it was like having his own place. ‘Shite,’ he said, ‘the rent’s only two quid a week, cause I’m on the broo, but I don’t even pay that. To me it’s just a squat. It’s a right fuckin’ dump.’ He tells me to go to Spur House: ‘You’ll get in there, no sweat.’ The boss goes back to tend the sandwiches and the dripping urn.

On my way out I stopped to talk to a guy with a radio held to his ear; there was shouting and booing coming out of it. He asked for a cigarette, placing the radio on the step. We squatted down.

‘Some mess,’ he said. The booing had crackled into a report: ‘Leaders of the main political parties joined forces today in denouncing last night’s victory’ – it was the day after the Isle of Dogs by-election – ‘Derek Beackon won the council seat, opponents say, by appealing to outrage among the local, white community over the allocation of council ... Dr George Carey, the Archbish ... ’ The owner of the radio was shaking his head, twisting the aerial. ‘This’ll be the start of it,’ he said, ‘they’ll all be at each other’s throats.’ We sat smoking, listening to the reaction of the Archbishop and the news of how Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, ‘deplores the event’.

The tube to Victoria cost more than double what I had made all day. There was a girl at the top of the stairs when I got there. The place was packed: it was a good spot. After talking to me warily a while, she told me she’d made a tenner begging over the last three hours. She looked very pale. From Bradford, she’d come to London with nothing but a pair of tights, some knickers, and a couple of CDs in a polythene bag that she hoped to sell. She was pregnant to a guy she hated; her parents hated her and she them. She was five months gone. ‘I’ve been here five weeks and still no dole money,’ she said. Sleeping in a Bed – Breakfast in Holborn – rent paid by the DSS – she had to be out by 9.30 in the morning. She had started begging ‘to pass the time’.

Victoria is full of police; blue shirts flitting past on every side. I stood with a group of dossers outside the station, at a bus-stop across from the theatre where the musical Starlight Express plays. The group was constantly separating and coming together, splitting and gathering, like a flock of pigeons, each man going off to beg and returning, moments later, with nothing in the expression to indicate success or failure. We sat on a low wall, two cans of Special Brew circulating. Some kept hold of their own; drinking, as it were, privately. One of them – younger than the rest – was drunk and agitated and kept spinning around and hassling passers-by in a loud voice. A couple of coppers walked up to him. They began to argue. As it hotted up, the others got up off the wall, pointing and shouting. I stepped around them, at this point, switching on the tape-recorder in my pocket. ‘Don’t start all that,’ says one of the cops to the jumpy one, who’s trying to pull away from his grasp.

‘I’ve been here longer than you, mate, I live around here. Piss off.’

They got on either side of him and pushed him towards a police van parked outside the station. They then came back, moving quickly through the group, prodding and shouting. ‘Beat it. Move on. Get.’ A very fat woman, her face painfully red and bloated with drink, sat on the ground beside the wall bawling. She’d no socks or shoes on and the soles of her feet were filthy. She held onto a can of lager, crying her head off, while everyone around her dispersed. One of the cops flicked her arm, trying to get her attention. ‘On your feet, on your feet,’ he tells her over and over again. Her face stays crumpled and red, she’s gripping the can, she doesn’t move.

I walked towards Vincent’s Square, speaking, on the way, to a girl at the corner, selling copies of the Big Issue. She’d sold 20 copies all day; it was late afternoon. ‘Everybody’s in such a big rush, you know. I haven’t had any lunch,’ she said. In London for four months, she’d come from Canada and just couldn’t get back. ‘I’m here now,’ she said, ‘and I’ve been trying to get a regular job. Sometimes I sleep in a hostel and other times I just crash down somewhere or with people I meet. I don’t do very well. Some of them selling this are, like, experienced hustlers but I’m not that good.’

Round the corner, on a door of Westminster Cathedral, someone had put up a poster warning people not to give to beggars: ‘If you want to give, please donate to a recognised charity.’ A security guard has been taken on to keep beggars away. I folded my jacket over my arm, flattened down my hair, and walked in. The smell of incense and candlewax hit me immediately, making me feel sick. I could hear the sound of a communion bell, a bell I used to ring myself, coming from an altar at the far end of the church. I almost swooned. I swiped a copy of the Catholic Herald and made back for the door; I dipped my hand in the holy water font and looked out at the square. A man was lying, full-stretch, beside a bench where a number of drinkers had gathered. I stepped out with the stolen paper and unfolded it in the square, glad to have stolen something, and vaguely wondering if there would be a queue for the confessionals. On the front page there was an article headlined ‘Cardinal attacks Western values’. It was a report on Cardinal Hume’s address to a Prague symposium entitled ‘Living the Gospel in Liberty and Solidarity’. The Cardinal warned against ‘the consumer culture’ of Europe and suggested that ‘the key tasks facing the Church are the need for economic justice, the moral imperative to help migrants and refugees, and the importance of combating nationalist pressures.’ I dried the remaining moisture in my fingers mussing up my hair.

Laurie McGlone lay in a doorway in Victoria Street, next to Oddbins the wine shop. His face was coarse as sack-cloth and his eyes were puffy and wet, blinking eagerly over the passing crowds like a pair of old salmon struggling to shoot the rapids. The bristles on his face were grey and around his hairline ran an angry red rash. He spoke with a strong but soft Irish accent: ‘I make very, very little money, just enough for a ... ’ He nods to the wine-shop. ‘How long have you been from Scotland, then ... all your life you say, all your life. Well it’s a wild, wild life.’ I asked him if they gave him dole money.

If I puts roots down, but I don’t, you see, I just keep going from place to place. I’ve been on the trawlers now, I’ve been in Iceland, and in Germany, all over the fuckin’ world. I’m very, very bad. I just drift from place to place. You see, I’ve got a drink problem, and sometimes I get nothing for a drink. Now, I’ve worked with Gypsies and everything ... One day a tall, a very tall man comes walking down here – down Victoria Street there – and hit me right on the head with an umbrella. He got me right here, cut me, and called me a bastard, a lazy-fuckin’-bastard-cunt. This is a dangerous, dangerous job.

He had tattoos all the way up his arm which he’d got, he said, in Trieste in 1946.

I worked with me brother, we worked with horses. We ran them and we took bets. I did that, and then I drank. A wee girl in The Passage, from Roscommon, she said if I wanted to get off the drink she’d put me in a place, a house in Clapham for drinkers. If I came back tomorrow she’d help me. She was talking to me just like you’re talking to me now. What did I do? I met a guy from Liverpool round the back of the church, the cathedral there, and he gave me a couple of cans. So I was fucked, I couldn’t go to her.

Two women came past wearing fancy hats like they were going to a wedding. Laurie grinned: ‘Which one’s yours?’ We laughed.

‘Where will you sleep tonight?’ I asked.

‘I couldn’t care less, Jock. I really couldn’t care less.’

Begging is a criminal offence in Britain. Ears are no longer cut off for it: the usual penalty is a £50 fine or three days’ imprisonment. In the Charing Cross area of London, between January and June this year, 708 people were arrested for suspected begging offences. Over the same period last year, 487 were arrested. Of those arrested this year, 205 were charged and 477 were let off with a caution. In 1991 there was an energetic campaign, known as Operation Taurus, to rid the area of beggars. PC Brent Hyatt, a member of the Homeless Unit based at Charing Cross Police Station, seems pretty certain that the younger beggars, at least, often live on the street by choice; that arresting beggars stops them from reoffending.

A beggar I met in Leicester Square told of being arrested three times. Twice he’d been fined. Each time, he said, he had spent a few days begging in order to make up the fine. In one month this year (May) the number of begging arrests tripled. The protestations of those who oppose begging, those – including many churches, newspapers and charity organisations – who believe it has nothing to do with poverty and the ways of the economy, have had an extremely significant effect on the public perception of begging as a criminal activity. Most of those arrested in Charing Cross were between 17 and 29. Many more under-sixteens are arrested than over-sixties. A majority of the younger ones, say the police, have come from ‘a bad background’: from borstals, split families, ‘abuse situations’ or some form of council care. On arrest, this year, the largest proportion of beggars (210) in the Charing Cross area had between one and five pounds on them; 160 carried between ten and fifty pounds; 130 had between five and ten; 95 had less than 99 pence; and only ten had more than fifty pounds. In other words, a substantial majority had less than ten pounds.

A man with an acoustic guitar kept climbing on top of the parapet on Westminster Bridge the morning I went down there to beg. As I walked up, I could hear him strumming and singing the Stones song ‘Start Me Up’. He strummed on as a pleasure-boat, the Chevering, passed underneath him, going downriver. The people on the boat looked up, many through their cameras. The high-wire guitarist was coloured red; he looked like a well-weathered Highlander or someone who’d just finished buzzing a bag of glue. He looked mad and indignant. I closed in just as two coppers did the same. ‘It’s beautiful the water,’ he said to one of the cops, while shaking his head, refusing to hand over the guitar or be helped down. Someone took a picture as the police brought him down and booked him.

I stood at the opposite end of the bridge, beside St Thomas’s Hospital, asking for money. Almost right away, even before the crowd had fully dispersed from around the minstrel-jumper, a man in a red anorak gave me £1.20. He stuck his hand in his pocket, laughed as he handed the coins over; sniggered, shuffled and whispered ‘good luck’. I tried the technique of walking up to people and moving along with them, asking-on-the-trot. They seemed to hate that, to be more than usually offended. I made another 70 pence before the clock struck one, then I headed off towards Waterloo.

I got 20 pence off a couple holding hands on a bench down the South Bank. They sat near a slab of grey paving onto which were engraved Wordsworth’s lines about the Thames:

   O Glide, fair stream, forever so,
Thy quiet soul on all bestowing,
   Till all our minds forever flow
As thy deep waters now are flowing.

Further on, along the side of the Royal Festival Hall, I was moved on; not by the police this time, but by a burly beggar twice my height who owned the pitch, or so he said. I sat down on one of the concrete connecting paths on the way to Waterloo Underground Station, and put a handkerchief on the ground covered with coppers. People passed by. I pulled my hood up and leaned back against the wall. Battalions of suits became like one suit – the skin of an armoured multipede slithering past. I tried to imagine the levels of anxiety involved in having to beg like this almost every day. The handkerchief, for the longest hour, remained undisturbed. Then I got two pound coins in quick succession.

St Martin-in-the Fields Day-Centre, at Trafalgar Square, was due to open at 6.30 the evening I went. I arrived there just after five and already there were two dozen people waiting around outside. An elderly man in a grey coat, with white hair and beard and no teeth, argued furiously with a stocky woman in front of the church. They pushed each other and swore like mad; each of them looking like they were just about to start throwing punches. Beside me was a teenage guy with a pony-tail, his head pulled down so his chin touched his chest; his arms were on the inside of his jacket, the sleeves hanging baggy and empty. Eventually he tapped me for a cigarette. The waiting crowd continued to swell; old ladies wearing numerous coats stood beside women less than a third their age. A boy dropped a puppy and the stocky woman got angry again, saying he wasn’t taking good enough care of it. The centre was in the church crypt and by now there was a fat queue of people all the way down to the door.

They opened up at twenty past six. The crowd burst through, some chatting in groups, others very much by themselves. Once inside, we took our places on plastic seats lining the walls of a long corridor with a concrete floor. There was something about that subterranean corridor that made it seem very familiar, as if I’d been there many times before, with the same sort of crowd, not in life but in novels – novels written eighty or ninety years ago. I wondered about the modern journey that brought these people here; the rites of passage from the world of carpets, central-heating and pedal-bins – of families and furniture and everything-you-know – to the familiarity of this damp, Victorian chamber filled with ugliness and dismay and unknowable sadness.

A volunteer came around with cloakroom tickets, talking briskly with those he recognised. He started down the other end with the first ticket. I was number 76. We stood up and formed a queue down the middle of the corridor. The air was filled with the noises of scraping chair-legs and shouting voices. I got to the door, handed over my ticket and gave my name as requested. Once inside, we were offered mugs of tea and a couple of biscuits: quick sugar for those who needed it. When I walked into the main room the first thing I noticed was how the place stank of piss. It was a cavernous space filled with rows of burst armchairs, most of which had people in them, eating soup or steak pie with boiled carrots. A few of them sat on a table at the back, shouting to an old geezer at the front to turn the telly over. Some were shouting for football and others for a Harrison Ford movie. The telly gave out most of the light in the room.

In the toilet, a blethering Mancunian with no socks tried to wash his feet in the sink next to me as I shaved with a razor and soap given to me by the ticket-collector at the door. Other people had showers and some tried to wash out some clothes. I asked one of the volunteers if he knew of a place I could get into for the night. He told me to go up St Martin’s Lane, down a certain alley, and to knock on the only blue door. I stepped out of the crypt, passing a dozen or so people on the steps: one of them was allowed in as I got out.

There was a scuffle going on in front of the blue door. The stocky woman from before was now fighting with a guy she said stole a fiver from her. ‘It was all I had,’ she said, ‘you don’t steal from your own kind. It’s not right.’ I followed her inside and sat by a table, across from a guy who was pulling on a pair of trousers that were way too small. The woman told me she slept on the Strand, had done for ten months, and was constantly trying to avoid plainclothes policemen, who were always, she said, picking on beggars. She said she could not get money from the dole because she had no address. Without missing a beat, she told me she was a lesbian who’d been raped five times before she was 18. ‘The Jesus Army always get you,’ she said, ‘and I say “I’m a lesbian, how about it?” and they say, “No, God doesn’t like that,” and I say: “God doesn’t like that? Well, God liked for me to be raped five times and abused as a kid so fuck Him!” ’

A social worker came and took me to a tiny room with two chairs and a small desk that tooked like a police interview cell, except for the mysterious presence of a step-ladder and an oil painting in a gold frame. She told me what to do to get income support, if I was begging; and how to see a housing officer, if homeless. I could speak to the DSS about short-term accommodation. But tonight would be difficult. She gave me a map of how to get to an emergency night-shelter in Camden and brought me out of the room. Through an open door down the hall I could see an old man propped against the wall. He was in the middle of asking someone for gloves and ‘maybe a jacket’.

Over the last ten years, three thousand psychiatric beds have been lost in Britain. The former patients, now decanted into ‘the community’, can be seen on the streets every day in a state of profound confusion, often despair; left like the members of some schizophrenic tribe to wander aimlessly about, without treatment or support. In the first 28 days after discharge from hospital mentally ill men are 213 times as likely to commit suicide as the ordinary population.

At Bondway’s night-shelter in Vauxhall 50 per cent of the residents are alcoholic and 20 percent have psychiatric problems. The dormitories I was shown around were crammed with mattresses and sleeping bags, on which men – all of them seemingly over fifty-five – lay sleeping or coughing or just staring into space. Many such people, ejected from Bed – Breakfast accommodation first thing in the morning, will eventually just drop out of sight. Having no connections, no family, and no medical support or supervision, they will simply amble into the stew of the great urban unknown.

On Friday, 2 July this year, a man walking down Cheyne Walk, beside Chelsea Yacht Harbour, noticed something bobbing in the water. The dead man was 30; 5 feet 8 inches tall, slightly built, with brown eyes and dark-brown collar-length hair. He was cleanshaven, with irregular teeth which were otherwise in fairly good nick. He had no tattoos. His face and upper body were discoloured and bloated, but he was nowhere near the point at which he would have been difficult to recognise by those who had known him. An odontologist at the Department of Forensic Medicine, Guy’s Hospital, prepared a report on the special features of the teeth, for comparison with the dental records of missing persons. When found, he was wearing a navy anorak with a zipper front and distinctive purple buttons, a black T-shirt, blue jeans and black trainers. He wore odd socks. The trainers had the words ‘Royal Mail’ stamped on them in red, surrounded by a miniature Union Jack. He had no money, cards or means of identification on him whatsoever. His pockets contained only one thing: a tiny book of Biblical quotes, two inches by one, entitled Golden Words.

Without a name, the dead man is referred to by Wapping River Police as ‘DB23’. He was the 23rd dead body pulled from the Thames this year. Drawings are made of him, posters put up, newspaper reports and advertisements are published. The Post Office records are trawled to check if a pair of company shoes were ever issued to such a man. Yet nothing: nobody seems to know of him, nobody comes forward. Thought to have been a vagrant, a travelling pauper of unstable personality and no fixed address, he remains unidentified. In the end, if no one who knows this man can be traced, he will be buried at the expense of the local council, and laid in an unmarked grave. As if he’d never been here.

A woman was recovered from the river near Embankment in September; on her middle finger she wore a gold ring with three white stones set in the centre. The tide had probably carried her downriver, since bruising on the body suggested she’d bumped against bollards and bridges before being found. She was DB30. Seventy-two missing persons matched her description and, as he talked to me about her, the identification officer began to feel that she might turn out to be a young woman who went missing after being discharged from a psychiatric ward at University College Hospital. I left him in his office at Wapping, surrounded by paper and photographs and dead people’s clothes, looking for the name of an attractive, 30-year-old woman who nobody seemed to know. There are certain kinds of vanishing which will never attract much interest; disappearances unlikely to stimulate much in the way of shock or curiosity; the by-products of a society not a society, of a time not of its time, of a country spinning hellishly backwards.

Ray Dickinson does a Salvation Army soup-run twice a week. I met him after dark, at the Regent Hall in Oxford Street, on a drizzly Thursday in September. He was stocking the van with soup, hot drinks and sandwiches. Also in the van was Allan, an ex-homeless guy who helps out from time to time. While Ray was sorting out the hot water, Allan talked of the trouble he was having finding a job. He had worked, years ago, in catering, and he regularly went round to the Jobcentre in Mortimer Street (which specialises in kitchen work) to see what there was. ‘They sent me down for an interview to a place in Cannon Street,’ he said. ‘I went into this kitchen, a right mess it was, and the guy tells me to start right away. So I gutted the place, scrubbed the floor, washed up and got the place looking immaculate. Then the guy, he says I don’t think there’s much more to do, why don’t you go home. And I says, well, when should I come back? The guy says, look mate, don’t bother coming back, there’s no job for you here.’ He said he was used to it, that it happened all the time.

We stopped at the Canadian Muffin Co in Soho, who regularly give the soup-run stock that they can’t sell. The rain was coming down fairly hard when we stopped in some narrow streets by Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where a few people lay in doorways and in alcoves by the road. We brought them soup and sandwiches and cakes, whatever we had that they fancied. They were mostly covered in blankets or cardboard and didn’t seem to me far in enough to be out of the rain. We drove on. An Indian woman appeared when we stopped in the square, asking for tea and soup and orange juice if we had it. Further up the road an old man was sipping at empty cups and sorting through wet rubbish lying in the road. He pulled his head down as we came near, putting one hand over his eyes and waving us away with the other.

After a conversation about the various strengths of tea, I asked two guys – one very young, one very old – if they begged during the day. They were lying with blankets under the arches of the Royal Courts of Justice. The older one said there wasn’t much in it, it wasn’t too safe, but when you had nothing else it sometimes did the trick. They both laughed telling the story of how, one night, as they lay here, the TV games-show host Henry Kelly jumped out of a taxi and gave them a tenner. We left some muffins in case they could eat them in the morning and drove round to Waterloo Bridge. Three men and a woman lay on a raised platform under the bridge. They had sleeping bags, and cardboard boxes for around their heads. A lamp attached to one of the pillars lit up the area where they lay as well as a fair strip of the river beside them.

On the Strand, an old woman with whiskers came up. She called herself Mel and slept sometimes on the steps of the Adelphi Theatre. I asked her where she came from. ‘Oh, the East End, I think,’ she said, ‘I’ve got asthma, it’s the damp.’

‘Couldn’t you get into a hostel somewhere?’

‘I tried being in a place. I just couldn’t get on with it.’ While we spoke, a youngish woman with long, straight hair drank cup after cup of hot chocolate. She had tears running down her face and screamed intermittently into the middle-distance – something hard to make out about husbands and communists.

There are many soup-vans in Central London. In some places, like the Strand, they very nearly queue up to serve people. But the need is astonishing and people depend on them. Everyone I saw needed what they were given, and most needed more than that. I recognised many beggars I’d spoken to, some of whom I’d sat beside in the street, but none of them recognised me. Or none of them let on. I left Ray and Allan in the rain at Euston Station. It was 2.30 a.m. and they were nearing the end of the run. I turned round before I got to the corner, and saw Ray walking down a darkened slope clutching a cup of hot something or other.

The night I left the advice-centre with the mystery stepladder and the oil painting in a gold frame, I went to Camden as the woman had suggested. The night-shelter is secreted on St Pancras Way, across the road from the Tropical Diseases Hospital. It was cloudy and inky-dark as I walked up the road. The pavement was thick with dust, as if there’d been drilling going on nearby. Nine men stood outside the shelter, all very different-looking, most of them familiar to each other. The building is three stories tall; a light flickered erratically on the second floor.

Pablo, the Talker, was telling the others about his day and laying out his plans for the future. I’d noticed it before: in groups like this there’s always a stable collection of types: the avid Talker, the eager Listener, the Contradictor (who’s sometimes the Talker), the Loner and the Oldie (who’s sometimes the Loner). Pablo was the Talker. The Listener was keen to hear the details of some fruit-picking work the Talker had heard of in Kent. ‘Thirty quid a day plus food; no bed, just sleeping bags on the kitchen floor. I have blankets – many, many blankets – every time you see the Salvation Army, it’s blankets. You’ll be okay for blankets if you’re coming with the fruit.’ The Listener’s eyebrows were knitted.

‘How do you get on it?’ he asked.

‘They have a list at The Passage,’ said Pablo. There’s much talk of dole money: its coming, its going or its being refused. The Loner’s never had a Giro. A couple of the others say they can’t get by on it. The Oldie sniggers. Someone, the Talker, says that Friday’s the best day to beg if you can do it. If you can do it, you can make a couple of quid. The Contradictor draws his mouth into a frown. ‘That depends,’ he says.

The door is opened – we are now about fifteen strong. The two men on duty try, not altogether successfully, to be kind. The one standing in the door holds a clipboard. Those who were in last night get in first. You’re allowed to stay for three consecutive nights. About ten men go through the door. The guy with the clipboard then closes it and we wait another fifteen minutes. The Oldie – who’s obviously been a bit of a Talker in his time – introduces some disquiet by wondering aloud how likely we are to be let in. The clipboard opens the door and asks for those who’ve never stayed before to step up. Four of us file in. We are asked to wait in the corridor so that he can speak to us. The second guy on duty comes out of his office and joins the clipboard at the door to help explain to the old man why he’s not getting in. It’s clear that it’s not a matter of space but of some not-forgotten incident. There’s a second’s disputation in the corridor about whether someone should intervene on the Oldie’s behalf. No one moves. The door is closed on the old man and we hear the rules: ‘No drinking or using drugs ... leave at 8 a.m. ... be back by 10 p.m. tomorrow night ... must complete a Housing Benefit Form ... go on downstairs and have some soup and toast and tea if you want it.’

Down in the kitchen, there is a non-drip tea-urn, plenty of bread to make toast with and a pot of lime-green soup. The chairs round the tables are the same colour as the soup. The room smells of over-boiled veg and Domestos. Except for the Talker, few talk. Most, like the guy sat next to me, quietly eat the soup in great, heaped spoonfuls. Rolling cigarettes and staring at the table, a couple of the first-timers speak of the ‘liberty’ taken with the Oldie. Back upstairs, I completed the Housing Benefit Form. The clipboard told me that – at 25 – I was on the border age-wise, so could I show him ID? No, well I should bring it next time. They then assigned bed numbers. I was 5B.

When I got up to the dormitory 5A was already in bed. The room had two beds, was semi-partitioned, with a small closet beside each bed. There wasn’t much to it. A massive lamp attached to the wall, like something used to light the pitch in a football stadium, flooded the room. I took my shoes off and lay on the bed’s plastic undersheet, listening to the noise of taxis and sirens outside. It was 11.20. You couldn’t put the light out: it was controlled, I guessed, by the clipboard. The room felt damp. The other guy was snoring and coughing, sometimes together. I stared at the ceiling and wondered where the taxis were going. Everything went quiet. I turned to face the wall and, just there, written in shaky block letters, was the single word ‘GHOSTS’.

I left the night-shelter at eight in the morning, nearly tripping over ten loaves and ten pints of milk sat on the doorstep. I got the tube to Bank and lost myself in the station’s connecting tunnels. I carried a card on which I’d written ‘Hungry, please help’. I squatted in one of the tunnels with my hood up and the sign balanced on my knees. People immediately started turning their heads, in seeming astonishment. Some stop a few feet from me and stare – I can’t tell whether their faces show pity or the dull stirrings of verbal abuse. I sat for an hour, and made around £3.50. Then two Underground employees came up – twin flashes of blue trousers and orange bibs – telling me to beat it. I went to Moorgate and pitched myself at the bottom of some stairs leading to the platforms. The air was cool and the ground hard and cold. Hordes of clacking shoes went by, birling and squeaking on the newly-renovated floor.

At Moorgate, at least on the day I sat there, two distinct types of givers revealed themselves. One is a giver-despite-himself; he’d Federal Express the coins if he could. The other more often than not is a woman; glad to be of help, and happy to give coins and food and advice. She thinks there’s something wrong with a society that keeps people like this; we’re losing our way; she’s concerned at the way we seem to be going. She will often give a pound or more.

‘How long have you been like this?’ a woman asked me with a pained expression on her face. I quickly made up a figure. ‘I wish I could do more,’ she said, giving me a pound and some coppers and an apple from her bag. A red-faced man with gold-rimmed glasses gave me a banana from his briefcase; a beautiful girl gave me a cheese sandwich in a plastic wrapper and some change; a sick-looking man with liver-warts on his hands and face rubbed my head and told me I was young, then he gave me 70 pence. Thousands of people must have passed over the hours I was there. Most of them, as usual, would ignore me or curse or snigger. But it wasn’t a bad pitch at all: the hours of asking and waiting had brought £18.86, an apple, a banana and a sandwich. That was the first day I’d made more than five. And it was my last day.

As I waited for the train that would take me away from there, I remembered being told by a coroner’s officer at Kings Cross that eighty people this year, in London alone, have died by throwing themselves in front of trains. I waited for my return passage to a world of CDs and aquarium fish and beers in the fridge. The other kind of beggar, the real kind, goes for days without money or proper food. Many are mentally ill and alone in the definitive sense; out of touch with family, social services and the network of names and phone numbers that keeps us going. A tribe of the needy and bewildered, they march – now and then stopping to make a few quid – aimless and unhelped, toward some vanishing point real or imagined.

For me, the surprise at the end of all this was my lack of surprise. Whatever the situation thirty years ago, I’d always felt – sniffling toward adulthood in the Eighties – that my time was one in which the sight of a few people eating out of bins, and begging in the street, was acceptable. It was something that happened. And it never gave pause with us the way it did with parents or others who spoke of a time when things were not this way. Two weeks after that last day at Moorgate, I stopped outside Warren Street Station to buy a paper. A beggar under a blue blanket reclined against McDonald’s window. While we talked, about Scotland and about Wales, he said that he knew me, or used to know me. I joked about the unlikelihood and, itching to be in some other place, found a way to say that I’d never seen him before in my life. I was back among the passers-by.