Get rid of the touts? You gotta be joking

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I SHALL miss the ticket touts. If Westminster Council really does bring in threatened regulations to outlaw them, it will be like losing old friends.

We have grown up together, chewing the cud outside pop concerts, opera houses, football stadiums and tennis matches, though never yet the Royal Shakespeare Company. Their patriotism was always a little dodgy.

Always the same chaps. (I have, oddly, never come across a female ticket tout.) Over nearly two decades I have seen their girths widen and their hairlines recede.

They have chatted about my children, at least until the passing policeman was out of earshot when the real business would begin: sparring and shadow boxing on both sides, indignant laughter, then a sorry shake of the head and shrug of the shoulders. The whole thing could have been choreographed.

Stan Flashman was the most famous, but he was not typical. Too well-dressed, too upfront, too conspicuous. The streetwise tout blends in with his surroundings. He wears a T-shirt and sports a beer belly at a Who comeback concert, but looks like a Harry Enfield opera ponce outside Covent Garden.

Alone in the clubby and often exclusive world of the arts, they have truly catholic tastes. I have heard the same chaps express unparalleled enthusiasm for the most unlikely performers. ' pounds 20? You've gotta be joking. This is Paul McCartney/T Rex/Guns N' Roses/John McEnroe/the Berlin Philharmonic we're talking about.'

Indeed, these guys are the arbiters of taste. The Arts Council could do worse than send an official to follow them around in their last month of freedom. No antennae are so well attuned. From the first they were outside Les Miz but never loitered near Moby Dick. They take their lunch break when a British tennis player is due on court, but spotted Andre Agassi before most of us.

But it is how they act outside the events that most repays study. Touts are often unwilling or unable to produce their tickets, or even talk about them, because of fear of law enforcement, or, of more concern, receiving an offer they can't refuse from disgruntled football fans. As a result they have mastered and practise Orwell's newspeak. Students of linguistics should take their notebooks to the hot-dog stands and observe them before it is too late.

Some hints. 'Anyone got tickets to sell?' means no such thing. It means: anyone want to buy tickets? I'm not officially allowed to sell my batch at above face value so I have to pretend that I'm the one who's buying.

'Best seats, right at the front' does indeed mean the front, but of the balcony. 'All right, I'll tell you what I'll do. As you've got the little boy with you, you can have the two for pounds 50' means: You could have had them for pounds 40, but now I've involved the kid in the negotiations and made it sound to him like I'm doing you a favour, you'll never hear the end of it if you say no. Gotcha]

Even after all these years I still get caught out. 'Do you want the Spurs end or the Arsenal end?' I was asked before the Wembley semi-final. 'The Arsenal end,' I replied, and immediately regretted it as his face clouded over and the price leapt up. Had I said the Spurs end and changed my mind as he brought a sheaf of tickets from his Arsenal pocket, I could have scored one last victory.

But some tricks I have learnt. When desperate, send in your daughter. Even the most hardened touts have soft hearts, and a young girl who has been told by her father to counterfeit tears or else always gets a slightly lower price. Also take heart when a tout starts joking with his fellows about the ludicrously low price you've just offered. That means they've had a bad day and you're in with a chance. If it's really a seller's market, they will just walk away.

I have never quite worked out how these venture capitalists get their tickets in such quantity. Computerised box offices, football registration schemes and Wimbledon committee threats seem to pose no difficulties. Westminster says it will clear them off the streets. Frankly, I doubt it. Certainly the threat to arrest touts with batches of tickets will come to nothing.

Just as royalty never carries money, the best touts never carry tickets. Once a transaction is made they will lead you on a circuitous route to the central ticket point - an inoffensive chap munching a hot-dog, reading a newspaper, and walking slowly away from the stadium.

One reason I have latterly developed an affection for these pavement entrepreneurs is that, perversely, there is something more honest in their shady dealings than in the booking practice recently adopted by West End theatres and pop concert organisers. I refer to box offices charging a fee for telephone credit card bookings, even if tickets are bought direct, and not through a ticket agent. In a number of West End theatres and at Wembley Stadium and Arena, this is now par for the course.

It is not a great problem, the Society of West End Theatre assures me. These booking fees are only charged on telephone bookings. There is no charge if you book at the box office in person. I suppose there are people who wander up and down Shaftesbury Avenue going into box offices in person before grabbing a cab over to the Barbican and then another over to the South Bank, but most of us tend to use the telephone and a credit card.

And that's not the end of it. To add insult to injury the booking fee, sometimes as high as pounds 5, is almost always charged per ticket rather than per booking, even though there is no more administration involved in processing four tickets for a family than one for an individual. And to add further insult, some theatres won't even tell you which seats they have booked you. 'The stalls' is a pretty vague term for those of us who like to differentiate between the middle of the front row and the end seat in row W.

Now that the Society of West End Theatre is rightly making a public fuss about the many unlicensed ticket agencies that fleece tourists in London, and is also encouraging Westminster to take action against my friends of the pavement, I hope the society and Westminster will, in their vigorous campaign on behalf of the consumer, also look a bit more closely at the habits of their own members.

As for my touting chums, if Westminster and the police manage to throw off the myopia of two decades and at last recognise the same faces that I have been seeing for all those years, then there are always new areas of business that these lads can venture into.

Covent Garden announced this week it would be reducing prices for opera and ballet on Saturdays for students, young people and the unemployed. My favourite touts must have teenagers of their own by now. They can start training them young, send them in to buy up the Madam Butterfly concessions and make a killing. Now there's a challenge.

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