Around five years ago I was approached in a local supermarket by an apparent stranger who asked me if I used to be in a band; I told him I was once, ‘a long time ago’. It turned out he already knew this, for he’d been in the band with me. As I took a closer look, I recognised somebody I’d jammed alongside and played onstage with, albeit somebody I hadn’t met since 1989. Actually, it wasn’t the first time our paths had crossed since then; I realised he’d been busking outside said supermarket for a few days; I just hadn’t noticed the identity of the busker because I hadn’t been looking.
Apologising for my accidental rudeness, I then got into a long chat with him and asked how his life had panned-out in the intervening twenty-odd years; it was an interesting and unexpected catch-up. Like many of those capable of producing a tune from a stringed instrument, he regularly busks to add a little to his limited income and he periodically returns to the same spot armed with his banjo, not making enough to live on, but enough to buy him a few bargain basement food items to see him through the next couple of days. He doesn’t live on the streets, but the musical talent that couldn’t provide him with a rock star lifestyle nevertheless comes to his rescue and saves him from the streets.
The busker is a beggar in clown’s clothing – and I don’t mean that in a nasty way; but the fact is that the principle is the same; it is only the method of ‘crowd-funding’ that differs. People will generally toss a few coins in the hat if they feel they their money is rewarding an effort to entertain them, whereas a hunched figure sat on the pavement doesn’t appear to be even trying. There is a mindset that sees giving money to a stranger as something that should amount to an exchange; it’s not unlike the Python sketch where the can-rattling Terry Jones tries to prise a donation to charity from John Cleese’s businessman, whose bemused attitude to the alien concept of receiving no financial incentive is ‘What’s in it for me?’
There’s one theory that reckons street beggars, whether the genuine homeless or the terminally helpless, exist as an example to the rest of us, much as the ominous spectre of the workhouse or debtor’s gaol did in the nineteenth century – a visual warning of the fate that awaits should we neglect to pull our socks up and contribute towards society in the accepted fashion, presumably by spending all our free time and money in the shops outside which the beggar begs and thus boosting the economy. To hand a fiver to the beggar instead of spending it on some useless piece of mass-produced tat is therefore an act of consumerist treason.
Then again, there’s another theory that beggars are vermin that need to be excised from our streets as though they were little more than unsightly graffiti. This appears to have gathered pace in recent years, with certain local authorities in London erecting ‘sloping’ park benches to dissuade the homeless from viewing them as impromptu beds and installing spikes in shop doorways to prevent the space being occupied when business closes for the evening. Down in Bath and Southampton, this punitive approach has been taken to another level altogether.
Southampton City Council has implemented what it calls Public Space Protection Orders, which ban begging from five city locations; a £100 fine is the penalty for breaking the PSPO, with failure to pay up within a fortnight guaranteeing a court appearance and a possible criminal record. Chelmsford City Council had tried a similar scheme before an online campaign persuaded them to drop such penalties for the destitute and amended their begging ban so that it only applied to ‘aggressive begging’. I’ve never been ‘aggressively begged’, but I have been aggressively set upon by unnaturally upbeat Greenpeace recruiters, giving me no choice but to cross the road to avoid them and to avoid verbally expressing my annoyance at them being in my face via colourful language.
In Bath, a homeless woman called Jenny Dinmore was last year sentenced to eight weeks in prison for begging on the streets, an activity from which she had been banned on account of ‘repeat offending’. Interestingly, when those ‘pretend coppers’ known as Police Community Support Officers grassed her up to a proper copper after apparently overhearing her asking passers-by for change, the professional woodentop asked Ms Dinmore if she was singing or whistling (which could be interpreted as busking); Ms Dinmore replied in the negative and was promptly arrested. If only she’d had a banjo on hand.
Jenny Dinmore had experienced severe drug problems in the past, but denied this was the motivation for begging; she would certainly have required more than the measly few pence she could expect from begging were she hoping to score a wrap of rocks. The drug aspect of her criminal history neatly fits the stereotype of the homeless beggar as a crack-head charlatan, but smack, crack or alcopops aren’t necessarily to blame for all the mental disturbances that many street-dwellers suffer from.
A small handful of shelters and centres staffed by volunteers and financed either by charities, the church or a limited number of local authorities do their bit, but the State has effectively absolved itself of intervention as the austerity axe has fallen on so many social services whilst simultaneously funding the far higher cost of court appearances and prison sentences. For some, the humiliating indignity of begging is the sole solution and the current approach doesn’t seem to be offering an alternative.
The fact that I had walked past a former band-mate busking on several occasions perhaps shows how conditioned society has become to acquiring a blind-spot where the visible needy are concerned; but at least I know the banjo-man isn’t in so deep a hole that he is forced to trade in his instrument in order that he can eat. He’s luckier than some.
© The Editor