The man with the can conned me and he knew I knew it

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The Independent Online
IF YOU live in north London you may already have encountered him, and for aIl I know he may exist elsewhere. I met him a few months ago. Several friends have come across him since. He is the man whose car has run out of petrol; can you help?

Well, maybe, but where's the car? My man said: "It's down on the Archway Road with the wife and kids inside. We're trying to get home to Dunstable. A gallon would do it, or a couple to be on the safe side. I'm sorry to ask, it's very embarrassing, but I don't know what else to do." He was carrying an empty lubricant can and was well enough dressed, and we were standing in one of Highgate's quiet avenues (no houses here for under a quarter of a million), which somehow conferred a kind of credibility on both him and his request. I could imagine the car: an old Allegro, perhaps. I could imagine the family: kids crying, the windows steaming up (it was raining), the mother doing her bit with tissues and feeding bottles. I could imagine the Archway Road filled with stinking traffic and bereft as usual of pedestrians.

I imagined all this and gave him pounds 1, which, translated into petrol, would have got him to somewhere like Finchley, which is nowhere at all in relation to Dunstable. I didn't believe him. He knew that I didn't believe him. A sense of mutual shame accompanied the handing over of the coin. I noticed that he didn't complain, and of course it was a scam. Another man appeared in our own street last week with the same story: car out of sight, kids in car, and a similarly unextravagant destination, Luton, which is believable in direction and nicely judged in cost. Far enough away to be worth the spiel, but not too far ("We've got to be in Thurso by midnight - a hundred quid should do it") to meet absolute rejection and help on how to find the nearest Citizens Advice Bureau.

IN Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell points out that beggars hate rather than bless their benefactors. This may be true - there is a touch of that sometimes bogus thing, writerly perception, about it - but I bet they don't hate their benefactors half as much as their non- benefactors, the people who walk resolutely on or say "f*** off". I said this recently to a couple of boys under a blanket in Tottenham Court Road. It was shaming and irrational. They asked for money, I said sorry, and they said something about the pointlessness of my being sorry, and for a couple of seconds I hated them - hated the fact, I suppose, that they had talked back. It seems that beggars, in my sub-conscious, need to be meek. The fact is that I could have given them money. But like most of us I pick and choose - yes to her, no to him, please go away to the ones who hang around the Tube ticket machines.

Why? At the shopping centre near the flat where I once lived in Delhi, a couple of amputee lepers used to skate around on their little wooden boards. One day I gave them a rupee, then worth about 7p. An Indian friend was shocked. I had given them five or 10 times the normal tariff; now they would never leave me alone. This proved true. Whenever I appeared they would speed towards me with cheery grins. I began to dislike the fuss and (to my mind) indignity of it all, and I stopped giving.

Beggary was then a relatively new experience for me. It hardly existed in Britain outside the old chaps you might meet outside railway termini who said they had fought with the Black Watch and needed a cup of tea. In India it was an ancient tradition - the religious mendicant - which had been swollen by ranks of secular professionals. I began to ask Indians what was the proper, moral thing to do. Some said they gave and some said they didn't. Both sides could mount a moral argument for their behaviour. To give was good: you had money and they did not. To give was bad: it encouraged a racket and a social nuisance. But then both sides also had exceptions. The non-givers would give to the old, the blind and the lame who sat silently with their little tin bowls. The givers would refuse the mutilated children who screeched at you outside grand hotels.

It began to dawn on me then that giving or not giving is not in the end a moral question - in India, and now here, you can meet thoughtful, kind and generous people in both camps - but rather a haphazard and entirely selfish reaction to the particular beggar, determined by circumstance and how you feel at the time. The next time I meet a man whose car has run out of petrol on the way to Bedfordshire I probably won't give him money, because I don't like being lied to. But this primness on my part will not help anybody, neither a man poor and desperate enough to invent such a lie, nor a man who one day may be telling the truth.

LAST WEEK in a BBC documentary about Robert Burns I saw and heard my good friend, the writer Andrew O'Hagan, describe the poet as a "punk". This year marks the bicentenary of Burns's death, and during the celebrations we'll no doubt hear him described in many other ways; during last week's Burns Suppers I imagine he was proclaimed as a socialist, a nationalist, an internationalist, a simple ploughman, or - the revisionist view - not quite any of these things. I used to cover Burns Suppers for a local weekly in Lanarkshire and once heard a speech at a golf club which toasted him as a golfer, or perhaps the kind of golfer he would have been, had he played golf. At school we had an English teacher, an Ayrshire man and a great Burns fan who was also a Rechabite and teetotaller. The problem for him was the overwhelming evidence that Burns drank a great deal. The answer for him was denial, "Boys, boys," he used to say, "as you go through life you will hear that Scotland's greatest poet was always at the bottle, but Burns was a poor farmer, and I ask you, how could he have been a drunkard on pounds 40 a year?" So we had Burns the total abstainer.

The Burns cult now is to attack the Burns cult, if you see what I mean, and the Burns Supper, a Victorian invention often given over to drinking, is taking its share of stick. My experience as a reporter certainly did not endear me to them. They were hardly poetic events. I hope, though, that the Barrhead Burns Club still exists and is telling its annual joke. Barrhead, a small town south of Glasgow, had as its principal industry the manufacture of lavatories by the great firm of Shanks. Before the haggis made its musical entry on Burns night, the club chairman would stand up and say: "And now, gentlemen, the haggis. It will be piped in by the Reverend Angus McShuggle and later piped out by Shanks." A joke, though my old English teacher would not agree, in the finest Burns tradition.