Begging your pardon

Begging is a lonely, brutal business and different cities require diffe rent tactics.Stewart Hennessey perfected his skills on the streets of London, E dinburgh and Cardiff
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The Independent Culture
London - I dress down for this job more carefully than I dress up for others. The old jeans haven't seen the inside of a washing machine for a fortnight. The trainers are cheap and nasty, and the woollen jumper has holes testifying to its seven-ye ar vintage. The olive jacket is fairly new, but two warm washes fade the colour; I look the part.

I make for the Embankment walkway over the Thames at 3.30pm on a dismal Thursday. I've noticed it's often lined with beggars. As soon as I place my "Hungry and Homeless" scrap of paper on the ground, I realise why. The bridge is narrow, less than two metres, so people cannot give you a wide berth.

Faces pass, all trying to avoid my gaze, many looking mildly irritated and a few faintly guilty. I'm bored and cold within 10 minutes. Resentment sets in: "They look like prosperous people, why don't they give me a penny?"

At one end of the bridge is a gangly twentysomething with a matted beard. He crouches by a puddle with a card declaring his hunger. Judging from the (roughly) £2 he takes during rush hour, he will remain hungry.

Farther along is a clean-shaven Big Issue seller who smiles a lot. He is making three times as much as the twentysomething. Farther along is me. I get 42p in 20 minutes; a week's dole money, on a 40-hour basis.

There is one piece of friendly interaction. Two Japanese students ask me to take their picture. We start chatting. "We are only here for a week," says one. "Where are good places to go?" We talk about London and one asks: "What do you do?" I say I'm a beggar. They ask: "What is that?" I give them a demonstration on a passing artsy type, who says he is skint. My new friends walk off.

I decide to single out a victim, a young City type in a camelhair overcoat. I walk up to him, look him in the eye and speak clearly. "Excuse me, sorry to bother you, but could you possibly spare some change for some food?" Nervously, he utters the refrain I am to hear all day: "No, sorry." He quickens his step.

A thin woman in fawn jodpurs and a lurid top is indignant. "No, I haven't," she snaps.

Third time: a man in his forties with a Michelin-size beer gut responds affably. "Oh, I suppose so," he says and hands me a pound coin (beggars and buskers still bless the day they were minted). Within the hour I've made £7.

This is the way to do it; make contact, get in the way. But it's harassment. People's discomfort is palpable - you feel like you're mugging them. Worse, your victims are everyday, ordinary. Rule of thumb: the rich don't give.

As it gets darker, begging gets tougher. People feel threatened by a face emerging from the shadows to ask for money. It also gets colder. That is what begging is about. The above is edited highlights. Begging is about standing around, numb with boredom,while your selfesteem withers. In three hours I get £22.79.

Edinburgh - Outside St James' Shopping Centre at the end of Princes Street at 3pm on a Saturday. I'm getting immune to guilt and ruthless about harassing people. Their discomfort means nothing. Only one thing counts: are they going to give? When I have begged £8, I buy a carry-out and get drunk. It's so cold.

I share the cans with Andy, 23, another beggar. Andy sleeps rough. He has a frenetic manner, especially when explaining that it's unusual for beggars to befriend each other. He says feelings of shame keep beggars apart: they don't want a mirror image of their desperate lives. A sense of community is not possible, since nobody wants to be in this community.

Andy left school at 15 when his stepfather kicked him out the house in Liverpool. He has been done for assault twice. "But the homeless aren't violent," he says. "They'll beg, maybe nick when they can, but they aren't into mugging. They're all scared. I've got a bad temper - and a record - so I can't get a job.

Edinburgh is a city with a bohemian ethic and arty traditions (sometimes I beg from people more badly dressed than myself), but it's hard work getting that £8, two hours with a one-in-eight strike rate, and three "F--- offs" along the way - including onefrom a guy with an Aids ribbon.

However, the "Hungry" card fares well, taking £2.25 in 45 minutes. A middle-aged woman with a Highland accent stops, gives me 50p and asks how I came to be begging. I spin a yarn based on another beggar's story: abused (the case with many homeless, especially women) and brought up in a children's home. She asks me which home. She used to work in children's homes and she gives to beggars because she knows a lot of those kids end up on the streets. I'm damned if I can remember the name. The words "St Chri stopher's Boys Home" roll off my tongue from nowhere. "I haven't heard of that." "It's in St Albans." "Your accent is very Scottish." "Well, I try to fit in." She smiles awkwardly.

Again you are reading edited highlights Mostly, I got cold and bored. In three hours I got £13.37 in Edinburgh.

Cardiff - Queen Street on a calm Wednesday at 1pm. It's a crystal clear day and as warm as it ever is in December.

By now I am completely mercenary. I don't care. The object is to make money. I hover about the cash dispensers. People seem to feel more guilty about not giving if they suspect you have just seen them withdraw money. I wander between Barclay's and Midland for an hour and collect £16.

My first victim is an elderly man with a stiff-upper-lip manner. He asks where I am from, how I come to be here, what were my plans for the future. It felt like a job interview. Then he says: "It's wrong to beg. Do you know you're a nuisance?" Then he gives me a record-breaking £l.50.

Cardiff is friendlier than London or Edinburgh. Smaller, more sedate - people even seem to move more slowly. The precinct is quiet and people stand around talking. I feel more relaxed.

On her way into Marks & Spencer a woman in her early thirties, dressed like a woman in her late fifties, stops to talk. Her friend once knew a man who became homeless: "I know it can happen to people who are good," she says. "He had a lot of debts. But Iread in the papers that homeless people end up drinking and involved in crime."

I tell her that begging is a way to avoid crime and that I too am leaving bad debts behind after losing my job in a factory. She gives me 74p.

Strange but true: if someone engages in conversation, they will inevitably give some money. The pathetic fact is begging is so boring you are sometimes grateful for the conversation.

There aren't many beggars in Cardiff, despite one young man's sad comment about the town being overrun with them. Here it still feels slightly novel.

The takings are as good as the weather. I can think of no better way to get through the last hour than a carry-out. For me, drink and begging seem to go together. Maybe homelessness not only catches but creates alcoholics. Feels like it - in my three hours I've got £35.41 and I just want to blow every penny on booze to blot out the last three days.