Making a big issue of a small contribution

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GIVEN a London flat shared by four working people of no more than average public-spiritedness, and given a nearby Tube station at which polite, well-trained Big Issue vendors wish you a pleasant day after you have made your purchase of the magazine designed to help the homeless, it seems reasonable to assume that we have here a household that subscribes to at least four copies of the Big Issue a week.

But given that these four no-more-than-averagely public-spirited people have to go out every day, but do not think it proper to carry a copy of the Big Issue everywhere they go, and given that there is something a trifle naff about saying 'I've already got it, honest I have,' and given that there are many places in central London where you just cannot slip past the Big Issue vendors without feeling an utter heel, it seems quite probable that there are households which take in two or three copies of the Big Issue per person, households stacked with piles of the thing.

Indeed, I cannot see any theoretical upper limit to the purchases, given human frailty and the fact that it is impossible to put more than a certain amount of information into the single look that passes between you and the average vendor.

I have been experimenting with a single look that is intended to say: 'I agree that the Big Issue is one of Anita Roddick's better ideas, but that does not mean that I also subscribe to the Body Shop's peppermint foot lotion.' That is quite enough implication to pack into a single look.

I have another look that says: 'I know it could seem mean to pause for change from a pounds 1 coin, but I thought the whole idea was that this should be a real transaction, which saved you from the humiliation of begging. Or is this not so? Am I in fact supposed to pay pounds 1 a copy?'

And I have a third look that says: 'Hey, this is very embarrassing because, however enthusiastic I am about the Big Issue, what I can't stand is the thought that you are thinking: 'Oh, he thinks I am one of the deserving poor, he is rewarding me for my enterprise, for getting on my bike'. Or: 'He is the kind of person who thinks that homelessness is caused by indolence, that the unemployed are workshy. He thinks I am pullng myself up by my bootstraps and so he is giving me 50p - 30p after I've paid for the magazine - and though this may not be the same humiliation as begging, if he thinks his 30p is going to repurchase my sense of human dignity he deserves a kick up the backside'.'

The Big Issue saves you from the fear implicit in the confrontation between the homeless and those with a home and job. Some of the vendors may look like bruisers, but they are not carrying knives or clubs or guns, they are offering a simple transaction, and they turn out to be either pleasant or trained to act pleasantly. It is all a great relief, and it distracts you for a while from the other dramas of the street, which tend to involve those who cannot get their act together sufficiently to undergo the Big Issue grooming.

And it is a cheap source of congratulation. If you played the game literal-mindedly, and each household bought one copy of the Big Issue, the weekly contribution to the solution of the homeless problem would be a minuscule proportion of the household's income. If every working member of the household considered it appropriate to buy one copy a week (in the same way that they might all buy copies of the Evening Standard), again the expenditure is minimal. If you took one short taxi ride a week you would probably give more in tips than to the homeless, and if you ate once in a restaurant you certainly would.

Tips are like this. Throughout the world there is a law that decrees that the greatest tips go to those with the least need. And you can see this law in operation among those who work the Strand.

The best tipped must, of course, be the doormen at the Savoy, not because they look like deserving cases for a tip. If they looked like deserving cases they would be sacked immediately. But one stays at the Savoy precisely in order to be the sort of person who tips doormen lavishly. If you did not tip the doorman, it would be a way of pretending that you were not staying at the hotel - which would be pointless.

Across from the Savoy on the other side of the Strand there is a street where some black cabs are always lurking, waiting for airport fares from another hotel. These drivers are what the other black-cab drivers call 'the animals'. They work exclusively on the airport run - they are not interested in anything else - and they depend on the hotel doormen to give them the trade. So they are tipping the doormen in order to get a handsomely tipping fare themselves - sure evidence that worthwhile sums are involved.

Below the 'animals' in the Strand tipping hierarchy come the black-cab drivers who work Charing Cross, and below them there are several vacant levels of the hierarchy before you reach the Big Issue vendors.

They are the privileged, the Savoy doormen of their echelon. Self-evidently, they have a job of sorts. A great part of their income derives from people who have no particular desire to read the Big Issue, but who like this opportunity to help someone without insulting them. A convention is established whereby the appropriate level of help - 30p - is set, and the transaction can be completed with minimum embarrassment.

Below the Big Issue echelon, whose working hours naturally correspond to the working hours of the city itself, come those who begin bedding down in doorways at around five or six in the evening, some of whom (as would seem a natural way of working) seem to make their money from the sympathy of the early evening crowd, then pack up again and move elsewhere.

These early-evening workers seem to be, although in somewhat miserable shape, able-bodied. They have not yet fallen through the floor, as it were, and they might well, with luck, turn into Big Issue vendors. At least they are still capable of earning the tips.

It is the late arrivals, around seven or eight, that seem the most hopeless cases and at the same time the least liable either to ask for or to receive any money. Clearly they are in need of care, and the more in need they seem, the less likely they are to receive any.