More “incorrigible rogues”

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 –

  1. 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.
  2. Have developed the wound in some other way and decided to make use of it for the purposes of begging.
  3. 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…”





4 thoughts on “More “incorrigible rogues”

  1. Wow, you put an awful lot of thought into whether or not to help out. A little more heart and a little less analysis would go a long way. I’ve lived in big cities all over the world, so I’m hardly a rube. Paranoia is much worse than vagrancy.

  2. This has obviously come out the wrong way. Giving the man the money took about 5 seconds. The analysis came afterwards. I was really just wondering whether people have taken to injuring themselves to ask for money.

    I’m not in favour of the 1824 Vagrancy Act.

  3. I remember this sort of thing happening a lot in London and one does have to exercise discrimination. Late one night on Earls Court road I was approached by a very distressed young man with a huge chunk hanging off his face where he’d fallen on some glass. I made the decision to take him to hospital myself and spent the rest of the night there to make sure he got proper care. I suspect that he’s probably dead by now but sometimes the smallest gesture of kindness can have extraordinary repercussions of which we know nothing.

    Just for interest, have a read of Affer’s comments on my post about Volunteering. I think he voices the fears that many people have about charity.

    That Steeleye Span track is fabulous – I’ve never heard it before. The verse is the tune to the hymn ‘To be a pilgrim’ incidentally. Have you hear The Imagined Village – ‘Cold, haily, rainy night’? I think you’d like that.

  4. Yes, I did read Affer’s comments. It is all very complex, isn’t it? I must admit I often give money to people on the street, knowing that the “bus fare to Ruislip” or whatever is going to go on Special Brew or smack, in the same way, I suppose, that I donate to appeals for Haiti et al. knowing that some of it is going towards a new Kalashnikov for the local warlord.

    It isn’t entirely rational, but I think there is a danger in thinking that if you can’t solve all the world’s problems (and I’m not sure that I have the answer to them) then there’s no point doing anything, and, as you very rightly say, the effects of one’s actions can be very unpredictable. And I very much agree with you about getting involved on a local level.

    The S. Span song’s long been a favourite of mine – it’s from Rocket Cottage (which also has a stunning version of The Brown Girl on it). I haven’t heard the IV record, no, though I’ve read about it. I’ve got some unspent HMV vouchers left over from Christmas, so perhaps I’ll investigate it with those!

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