A new thing about London is people begging on public transport: not just outside stations in the traditional way, but actually on trains, materialising in carriages in transit and making their pitch for your spare change like actors in immersive theatre. Their speeches are practised, their manner painfully self-abasing, and yet sometimes their performances are so weirdly bland they could almost be aircraft cabin staff advising passengers about duty free offers they might wish to take advantage of. Their presence is excruciating, producing queasy internal cocktails of embarrassment, resentment, helplessness, guilt and shame. Naturally, most people ignore them. The worst thing about it is that they thank you before going away.
An old thing about London is that appearances can be deceptive, as was confirmed to a woman of my acquaintance on the Overground recently.
She was travelling with a female friend, a fellow holder of an Irish passport. It was a quiet time of day, and only two people were sitting near them. One was a fiercely groomed woman who my friend took to be a City potentate or else a high-flown PA for one. The other was a fat guy wearing a Sinn Fein T-shirt. Then, a stooped and shambling man appeared before them. Did they have any food? Did they have any change? He was homeless and hungry, you see.
He hovered. Time stood still. Then the groomed woman spoke to him. In firm, clear English tones she asked him if he knew of a doctor’s surgery close to a station on the line, where rough sleepers are provided with free housing and welfare advice and can also be helped with any drug or alcohol problems they might have.
Yes, he had heard of it, he said. Will you go there, the groomed woman asked. The man said he would. The woman asked him to promise her that he really, really would. He promised. The woman then reached into her bag and produced a card, which she handed to the begging man. She told him all the details were on it, just in case he had forgotten. “You will go, won’t you?” she said again. Again, he promised that he would. Then he shuffled on down the carriage, seeking others he could solicit for spare change.
It seemed the woman felt she owed her fellow passengers an explanation. “I work for a homeless charity,” she explained. “Never give them money. It almost always goes on drink.”
“I never give them any,” said the man in the Sinn Fein T-shirt. “Especially the Muslims.”
My acquaintance and her Irish friend stole glances at each other, and the Overground carriage fell silent again.
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