THE suzi feay COLUMN
I HADN'T been along the Strand for months and was shocked to see how the numbers of the homeless have swelled. The street atmosphere, which used to be almost celebratory with gaggles of drifters talking animatedly and hardly bothering to beg, has soured and chilled with the onset of cold weather. Dark shapes sprawled in doorways exhaling a bitterness so palpable it was practically a fog. I hopped and scuttled round the outstretched legs - got a train to catch, don't need this, guilt sucks - and all in all was glad to get into Charing Cross station and fall into a seat with seconds to spare.

But just as the heavy doors clunked shut, a cheery voice voice burst out: "Evening, ladies and gentlemen!" For God's sake, is there no peace even on a train? Incompetent strains of "Mrs Robinson" drifted insistently down the carriage. It reminded me of Paris where the Metro's full of begging Bosnians, Patagonian pipers and puppeteers. I brought my book closer to my nose. The woman next to me did the same with Tom Jones. But dear God, they were moving down the train towards us.

Finally the unpreposessing trio stood next to us, one strumming and humming, one singing and one joker going round with the cap and banter. They were impossible to ignore. Every time the end of the song rolled into view the singer lurched back into "So here's to you Mrs Robinson", like a stuck record, while his colleague worked the carriage: "Thank you kindly. Keep smilin'. Ta. Ooooh! Cheer up, luv! Any more? Cheers. Have a safe journey." I even thought I heard him say "Gawd bless you, Guv". Incredulously, I peered round the carriage to see how everyone else was taking this patronising drivel. To my amazement, they were smiling, tapping their rolled-up evening papers in time, and returning the cretin's witless bonhomie. Oh sure, there were still some grouches, but they were outnumbered. All around me little bright eyes were bravely flashing, "bit of a larff, innit?" and "brightens up the journey, dunnit?"

I cannot believe that anyone feels unmixed delight at being serenaded late in the evening with unnaturally prolonged Simon & Garfunkel numbers, let alone being expected to pay for it. What has happened to the constitutionally stolid British commuter? You could get raped on the train floor and your fellow passengers would simply raise their Standards in unison, but get a chirpy geezer to touch his forelock and matily observe that it might never 'appen, and horny thumbs are stealing into pockets for loose change before you can say Central Casting.

It's the same on the streets. Big Issue sellers have clearly been trained not to say "Buy it or else, scumbag," but that would surely be preferable to the chorus of homespun wisdom that now goes for a sales pitch. I remember the rapping Scot with his preternaturally cheerful rhymes about the "Beg Ishoo - just give it a try - it doesn't bite - and neither do I". Once I saw a bearded Holy Joe yelling "Reap what you sow!" as non-buyers slunk past him. Fair enough, but I wondered what the hell he'd sown to be in such a state?

All this noise was particularly maddening as I really did want to get back to my book, The Decay of Lying by Oscar Wilde, the latest in the Syrens series from Penguin. A dialogue between aesthete Vivian and his hearty chum Cyril, it brilliantly illustrates Oscar's dictum that Life imitates Art. It contains his famous observation that Wordsworth "left in stones the sermons he had already hidden there", points out that fin- de-siecle climactic changes were entirely due to the Impressionists, that the 19th century was largely the invention of Balzac and that Hamlet invented pessimism: "The world has become sad because a puppet was once melancholy."

As always, Oscar got it right. When but after Dickens did beggars get so, well, Dickensian? On further reflection I think we can safely blame Hanif Kureishi. He once quipped about having to go round London with alms for the poor in his pocket, just as he would in Bombay or Karachi. It wasn't remotely true at the time, but by writing it he made it true. All those people lying around the Strand must once have been Granta subscribers.