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.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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