I don’t know whether the following anecdote has anything to tell us about The Way We Live Now, but it’s been an uneventful week, so I thought I’d report it anyway.
A few evenings ag0 I was hurrying for the tube near Moorgate when a chap approached me and asked me if I had a couple of quid so he could get a taxi to Homerton Hospital, as he’d come off his bike and hurt his arm. Inevitably my first thoughts were that this was a scam of a familiar sort, but he then rolled up his sleeve and revealed a gaping wound the length of his forearm. This wasn’t some feeble scratch, he appeared to have removed most of the top layer of skin. In these situations I tend to do a quick subconscious calculation involving the likelihood that the problem is genuine and the gravity of the consequences if they are telling the truth and I don’t give them the money. Teenager in party clothes in distressed condition late at night near train station gets the full amount. Bloke with can of Diamond White in town centre at midday claiming he needs a fiver to go his granny’s funeral in Arbroath gets 10p.
In this case I was thrown completely. Obviously these requests are usually scams, but if so he must have –
- Been a theatrical make-up artist down on his luck. This didn’t look like the kind of joke shop effort that the Harlequins might use to cheat their way to victory. I didn’t actually ask to stick my fingers in the wound, but it looked genuine.
- Have developed the wound in some other way and decided to make use of it for the purposes of begging.
- Have deliberately inflicted the wound on himself for that purpose.
I have read stories of professional beggars in India who mutilate themselves (or worse, their children) to improve their chances of making a living, but I didn’t realise that had caught on in this country. I’d certainly prefer not to believe that that was the case, and I think the likeliest explanation is that he was telling the truth. And, yes, I did give him the money.
This is one of the things that the Vagrancy Act of 1824 was designed to discourage, criminalising, as it did
“Every person wandering abroad, and endeavouring by the exposure of wounds or deformities to obtain and gather Alms”.
This part of the Act was intended to deal with the “problem” of wounded veterans of the Napoleonic wars who had been unable to obtain employment and had taken to exhibiting their injuries (their severed legs and so on) to solicit contributions. No doubt some of the casualties of our current foreign adventures will find themselves in a similar situation before too long.
The Act was also, incidentally, used by Nottingham Council to prosecute a branch of Virgin Records for selling copies of “Never Mind the Bollocks”, though John Mortimer managed to get them off on that one.
A reasonable excuse, I think, for another tune from Steeleye Span. This is, I think, what we would nowadays call a mashup of two songs. The “verses” are English, the “chorus” from the Irish song on a similar theme “Johnny we hardly knew you”.
“You haven’t an arm, you haven’t a leg, the enemy nearly slew you, you’ll have to go out on the street to beg…”