We've had a woman who'd just moved in eight doors down and needed cash for the electricity meter for the sake of her bronchial son (we gave her a tenner, then found that the woman next door but one had done the same); a woman who needed to borrow enough money to get to the garage and get fuel for her car (she made her excuses when we revealed that in fact we had a can of petrol she was welcome to); and one who had the good luck to be let in by my small son (and the bad luck to be caught red-handed committing burglary).
We get men, too, but they tend to have less elaborate stories and more obvious psychosis. Andrew, the man who was at the door this time, has a story more elaborate than any other we have so far heard, and no sign for psychosis at all. He'd knocked on our door once before, so we already knew that he was from Zimbabwe and that he'd been one of the 140 or so detained asylum-seekers who'd gone on hunger strike earlier this year.
As a result of the hunger strike, alongside other developments, deportations to Zimbabwe had been temporarily suspended. So, even though his appeals process had come to an unsuccessful end, Andrew is still in Britain. Andrew lives in legal limbo now, along with many hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand other Zimbabweans in this country.
As a failed asylum-seeker, Andrew - who worked as a teacher in Zimbabwe - is not allowed to receive benefits, not allowed to apply for council housing, and not allowed to work. He's also, I'm afraid, not allowed in my house, because he stinks, is flea-ridden and I don't know what my small children would make of it all. He's not allowed in my house, also, because he's a desperate stranger and I can't imagine how I would get rid of him once he was in.
He'd last been round a couple of months before, asking for money to pay for a night at a hostel. I'd given him the bus fare up to the church of St Martin's-in-the-Fields, which runs a free hostel, and wished him luck. Luck, however, had not been forthcoming, and he'd come to the end of the time he was allowed to sleep in the church. This time, I left him snoozing on the doorstep - he walks for miles round London each day seeking help - while I searched the internet for charities that seemed as if they might be able to help him in some way.
Andrew by this time was complaining that he felt really ill. His body was covered in a rash and he seemed to be passing in and out of consciousness. He asked us how to get to the nearest hospital, and we gave him directions and bus fare, along with the list of rather hopeless-seeming addresses from the internet, an A-Z and a sleeping bag. The next morning it became plain that he'd managed to travel only a few yards. He'd slept in a neighbour's garden.
What's this pitiless cruelty against such vulnerable people for? Obviously, to force people like Andrew to conclude that it would be better to face the consequences in Zimbabwe than try to survive in London.
I understand that it is out of step with the general view, in this great democracy of ours, to believe that refugees should be supported and welcomed in Britain. But given the unique legal position of Andrew and his countrymen, wouldn't it be practical to allow these Zimbabweans at least to work in order to provide themselves with some modest shelter each night?
Andrew is unfailingly polite and measured in his dealings with us. He is trying to play by the rules, even though they are stacked so heavily against him. They seem designed to force him not just to beg, but also to steal or worse, just to survive. What a disgrace.
This year's Royal Legion poppy campaign is headed by, among others, Anna and Paygan Aston, above, the widow and daughter of Corporal Russell Aston, who was killed with five of his colleagues while guarding a police station in Iraq. Mrs Aston has pronounced herself proud to be of service, and feels that her young daughter will be proud too, when she looks back one day at the way in which she helped people like her father, who had lost their lives in various wars.
She is right, of course. The Royal British Legion does do marvellous, essential work. Apart from anything else, it is proper that a non-government organisation should be so prominent in the expression of remembrance. In the case of the Iraq war - an unpopular war from the outset which became more unpopular as its justifications proved unfounded - it is extremely important that a charitable organisation, rather than an implicated government, should lead the mourning for the dead.
Yet it is obscene that it is the legion and not the Government that provides the funds for other work. On its website the charity asks, for example, for donations of £800 to provide a severely disabled person and their carer with a much-needed welfare break. Would it be too much to expect for the state to provide such essentials?
Apparently it is too much to expect. The University of York estimates that by the end of 2006 the Iraq war will have cost $260bn, most of it borne by the US - quite rightly. The British have spent $7.5bn on the war, according to the same source. No wonder there's no cash left over for squandering on alleviating the quality of life of its damaged casualties and those who look after them.
The exploited and the exploiters
Makosi Musambasi, one of the contestants on this year's Big Brother, is waiting to see if she will be deported after she violated the visa that allowed her into Britain to train as a nurse. She says that she will be at risk if she returns to Zimbabwe, as the misogynistic sexual culture in the African state condemns the sort of sexual behaviour she displayed on the show.
Meanwhile, Lesley Sanderson reveals that since appearing on the same series she has been viciously attacked by other women in nightclubs, verbally abused, and hassled by men. She now alleges that the way she was portrayed in the show contributed to her alleged rape in a Leeds hotel room.
Please can the programme's makers - not to mention the tabloid gallery they play to - start considering the possibility that their critics may have a point about the exploitative manner in which the format has developed?
* Various commentators have already expressed their disquiet at the idea of Prince Charles, whose personal consumption of goods, services and energy is notably vast, lecturing the rest of us on the coming environmental catastrophe (as I like, breezily, to call it).
Others, though, feel that this does not matter, since the assertions he makes are sound. I, however, am so much more petty than this. I question his right to appear on a public service channel at all, plugging his own line of business. It's about time that Charles wised up to the fact that if he wants to be king then he's going to have to accept that his job is to be a silent, impartial tourist attraction.
If he wants more than this, he should give up his claim to the throne, and become a serious environmental campaigner. Much more useful.Reuse content