The Angela Lambert Interview: I'm Mike, I'm a beggar, and this is my life: This dignified man used to stand in a London tube station and ask complete strangers for money. Now he sells them magazines

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THROUGHOUT the winter and this last wet and chilly spring, Mike Newman was a figure to evoke pity. He sat on a pallet in the Underground station through which I pass daily on my way to work, wrapped in a blanket or duvet against the cold, inhaling dust and grime, gazing at the grubby tiles and the litter on the floor, watching people's passing feet. He was bearded, long-haired, shaggy. Yet he always behaved with a certain dignity and decorum, which made me curious to know his history.

Many of those who beg on the Tube and in doorways are all too obviously social outcasts. Sozzled with drink, glazed with drugs or roaring their uncontrollable delusions, they are the utterly unemployable, unable to look after themselves and with no hope of finding a job. Mike Newman never seemed such a man.

When I asked if he would tell me his story, he thought about it for a couple of days, and then agreed. He has not given me his real name, though it is, he says, the name by which he is generally known. Certain questions he refused to answer. When I asked if he had any savings, he smiled wryly, looked sidelong at me and said: 'The answer to that would have to be no, wouldn't it?' At times I wondered if he was inventing; yet a chance remark later on would nearly always bear out the truth of what he had said earlier. On the whole, allowing for some unavoidable gaps in the narrative - he has, he admits, had a chequered life - I believed what he told me, and he dispelled a lot of preconceptions about beggars.

Mike Newman is 38 (he says), a slim, fine-featured Irishman with olive-green eyes and a stunning smile. For the past 10 months he has begged; for the past six weeks he has sold the Big Issue, the magazine for the homeless that now sells some 100,000 copies a week in six British cities. Selling it has given him a bit more self-respect, but what made him beg in the first place? Can he pinpoint a decisive moment, or was it random misfortune?

He reflects. 'If I was being honest, no, because I could probably do a lot better. Or could I? Let me think.' He grins and shifts and looks at me sidelong. Charm is part of his stock-in- trade, and Mike Newman has plenty.

'It's a sort of catch-22, because after my wife died I couldn't work because I was looking after my son by myself. I was determined to look after him very well, in case they tried to take him away from me. That left a break of four or five years in my life during which I hadn't had a job and after that it was very hard to get started again. I came across sexual discrimination, because if it were a woman it wouldn't matter - she could say she'd been looking after her child - but with a bloke it doesn't cut any ice.

'She died of breast cancer. That wasn't the most difficult stage in my life, but it was the saddest.'

Born in Belfast, the older of two children, into a stable and united family, he still goes back a couple of times a year to visit his father (his mother died of a heart attack eight years ago) and his younger sister. They all get on well. Do they know what he does? 'They know I work in London, but I don't go into any great detail.'

He was baptised, but no longer believes in God. He was taught by (he says the words with deep irony) Christian brothers. Although he was clever enough to avoid most of the beatings and get several O-levels and three A- levels, he hated school. 'I was too frightened to do anything wrong. But they were brutal . . . looking back now, they must have got some sort of perverted, sadistic pleasure out of it and if as a grown-up, I see them, my skin still crawls. But it was all right for them, because they're men of the cloth.' It is the only time he speaks with real bitterness. Otherwise, he is remarkably free of self-pity.

'In spite of them, Belfast was a lovely place to grow up in. I had a secure childhood - whatever that is. By the time school was coming to an end I fancied being a sales rep, probably because I was articulate and hated the idea of having to work in an office all day. I wanted to be my own boss. So that's how I started; and you name it, I've sold it.

'I left Belfast when the war heated up, when I was 19, in 1972; came to London and trained as a nurse. First I got my RMN (registered mental nurse) and then SRN (state registered nurse), but as soon as I qualified I left, because by then I wanted to do computer programming. I met my girlfriend, later wife, while I was nursing. We were together for about 12 years before she died.' For several years Mike and his wife lived a perfectly settled domestic and working life.

'We had one child, a boy, who's now living in Northern Ireland with my sister. He'd have been there anyway, irrespective of my, um, social standing, because the schools over there are much better.' When I asked him about his relationship with his son he avoided discussing it.

Mike could pass (and later, in a City restaurant over lunch, did pass) for a salaried office worker. Nowadays he is beardless and looks clean and well-dressed in a navy blazer and grey trousers. 'Lots of people comment on how much smarter I look,' he says. His brown brogues have a hole in them, but I didn't notice until he pointed out that it let the rain in.

He is not ashamed of what he does, nor does he attempt to deny it. 'I wouldn't imagine calling it anything else but begging. Any cabinet minister's job is easier than what I do, standing there for 12 hours a day.' What does he think about? 'When I'm standing there I'm not really there. My mind's somewhere else. I just let it roam.' Does the time pass slowly? 'It's just like any other job . . . some days it goes quickly, some days slowly. The colder it is, the slower time goes.'

Does he know most of the commuters by sight? 'After 10 months on the one station I recognise so many of the people who come through that I can look at someone and say, he's a stranger. But I've no idea what jobs people do - it doesn't interest me - I don't really wonder about people much. By the time I get home I'm so tired, I just hit the sack till six o'clock next morning, when I get up.' Home is a bed-sitter in Ilford: temporary accommodation paid for by the DSS. He might be claiming income support, but not necessarily.

'It's quite a nice room and I can cook for myself there. I like cooking.'

The only time he becomes angry is when I ask how he feels about mothers with babies begging in the Underground. 'It's disgusting] There's no need for it] I wouldn't give a penny to people sitting there with a child. It didn't ask to come into the world; they should at least treat it with some decency. Those children ought to be taken into care, not trailed through Underground stations.'

Whose fault does he think it is that thousands of people live and beg on the streets of our big cities?

'It's the fault of the Government, but the Government is the fault of society, which put it there. It's funny, but it's terribly hard to meet someone who admits to voting Tory. People are individually very generous and compassionate; I suppose they're only doing what the Government should be doing - of course welfare should come from the Government. Standing down there, I find society pleasingly generous and a hell of a lot more caring. What I do has, if anything, improved my faith in human nature.

'People have been very decent to me, so the least I can do is treat them with some respect. It amazes me when people apologise for not being able to give and some beggar swears at them. People aren't obliged to give you anything; they're not obliged to give you the time of day.'

Despite, or perhaps because of, his upbringing in a religious framework, Mike Newman says that now he doesn't believe in anything. 'As far as an afterlife is concerned, I'm willing to be convinced, though I know I never will be till I'm dead and find out for myself. I've never given it much thought, and all my pondering won't make much difference one way or another, will it?' Does he have any belief in human goodness?

'I do believe in a set of moral values - oh God, yes] I believe I must respect other people as they respect me. On the whole I would say most people are a hell of a lot nicer than you would imagine. It's amazed me, since I've been doing this, that people are so kind. Kinder than I would ever have given them credit for. They're friendly and they'll stop and have a chat, and their generosity is also quite amazing.'

Who gives the most - are there any general rules, or is generosity spontaneous and unpredictable? He pauses, smiles again, and says:

'I hate to say it, because I don't even like to acknowledge a class system, but - I would say that people's empathy is directly proportionate to their standing in society. The higher they are, the more sympathetic.' Couldn't this simply be because working-class people have less money to spare? 'No, definitely not. And there's no excuse for not keeping a civil tongue in your head, even if you haven't got a penny in your pocket. But there again, very few people are actually rude.'

Is it a dangerous way of life? Thinking of the drunks who roam the Underground in the evenings and at weekends.

'I don't get hassled much, no, not even late at night. Most people don't go picking fights and I don't give anyone reason to. I think if I've not cracked up by now, I'm not going to.'

What about friends? He had told me earlier of the occasion when an ambulance man refused to take a friend who was seriously ill with meningitis into hospital. Mike, who says he once was an ambulance driver, intervened and forced them to take the man. I assumed from this story that he had a network of supportive friends. He says not. 'I know lots of people, but I'm not silly enough to make the mistake of thinking acquaintances are friends. I would say that in 20 years of living in England the only friend I had was my wife. I'm not a loner, but to me a friend's more than just somebody you go out for a drink with.'

He is a passionate reader. 'I read all the time - about three paperbacks a week. I've just finished the latest Gerald Seymour book, Journeyman Tailor; I'd love to be able to read all the time, but it would look a bit odd when I'm selling the Big Issue.'

Does he expect to marry again? 'Probably not. Not out of any misplaced sense of loyalty to my wife, but you're always bound to compare and I don't think I'd ever meet somebody quite as nice again.' If she were alive today, would he . . .? 'I know what you're going to say: 'would I be doing this?' No. She held me together.'

For the past two months, despite the fact that he claims to earn more money from straightforward begging, Mike has been selling the Big Issue for 10 or 12 hours a day. With a few copies in his outstretched hand, he says patiently, over and over again: 'Buy the Big Issue. Help the homeless. Buy the Big Issue.' It looks, and he assures me it is, hard work.

'It's not a bad magazine, but I can see that you're playing on people's social conscience when you're selling it. I don't mind capitalising on that. There's a bit more self-respect, obviously. You get 60 per cent of the 50p cover price - 30p.

'You start by going along to Victoria and saying you want to become a vendor. They chat to you for three- quarters of an hour, then tell you the code of conduct which you have to agree to uphold, though unfortunately not everybody does. They explain the workings of the magazine: what you must do for them and what they can do for you. You can earn a decent sum selling it if you work really hard, like a 16-hour day.

'Quite a few people comment favourably on the magazine. I read it, but I don't write for it; I spend too much time selling it.'

Is he happy? There is a long pause for thought. 'That's impossible to answer, you know. Like, I'm happy enough now, sitting here.' What does he think he'll be doing in, say, two years' time? 'I don't honestly know. I can say what I won't be doing. I won't be standing down the Underground selling the Big Issue. It's not the sort of thing careers are made of.'

Would he, if it were offered - perhaps as a result of this interview - take a 'proper' job? 'As long as I'm offered a fair wage and a decent job, I'd take it, obviously. It'd be absolutely brilliant if it happened.'

And finally, how does he feel, here and now, about his situation? 'Good God, it's dished up to me. I have to accept it. I don't think it's in my power to change anything and I don't think the vote is worth pulling the chain on. It's been proven time and time again that the only way for great social reform, the only thing governments do understand, is violence. No individual has the power to change anything in this country.'

(Photograph omitted)

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