It was one of those humid days when you didn’t want to be in London on a train, even an over-ground from Stoke Newington to Liverpool Street station. The Bank holiday was over. It had not been particularly warm over the weekend and now cruelly the weather had turned hot just when you would be stuck in the office.
The train was pulling out of Cambridge Heath when a young man appeared, pale, thin and exhausted, and began moving down the carriage. The atmosphere in the carriage congealed with guilt and embarrassment. But you had to hand it to the beggar, he had a strong story. He was a “released prisoner”, “let down by the probation services”. He needed “£7 for a bed for the night” or he’d have to sleep “under the arches”. Who could tell if this was true?
A black Londoner sitting across the aisle, and in his early thirties, got out his wallet and gave the beggar a gleaming five-pound note. My wife, white haired and travelling on her Freedom Pass, said to the charitable giver – who turned out to have Nigerian origins and a 100% ordinary London accent: “How very kind and generous of you”. “Well”, he replied, “I’ve never forgotten being a child on Baker Street station with no money. I asked a lady for my fare and she gave me more than I asked for. You can’t tell about beggars, what they’ll do with the money. You just have to take the risk and give”. My wife answered: “When I came to live in London, I was so upset by the homeless people on the streets, as it’s often not helpful to give direct to the people who ask, I took out a standing order to a homeless charity”.
The solemn, frozen and embarrassed silence of the compartment had broken down. A middle-aged white man sitting opposite joined the conversation. He worked on Liverpool Street station. “A bit ago a man came to the girls on the information desk and asked for £3.75 to make up his train fare. One of them got out her hand-bag and gave him the money.” Two days later the man came back and re-paid her.” “You really don’t know, you can’t tell”, said the black Londoner in a reflective tone.
The train pulled into Liverpool Street station. Everyone stepped onto the concourse and went their different ways. “I do it for God”, said the black Londoner before he went through the barrier.
That’s London for you.