I was on a train to London in the middle of the afternoon when an attractive but slightly scruffy honey blonde came through from the next carriage. She placed a packet of facial tissues on the seat in front of me, together with a small printed note that read, “Please help. I have two children. Buying these tissues will help. God bless you.”
She walked the length of the carriage in silence, placing tissues and notes by every occupied seat, then turned and retrieved them on the way back. I gave her some money and she smiled, saying “God bless you” in an East European accent.
Alighting at Elephant and Castle, I noticed her ahead and followed. At the foot of the stairs she stopped to speak to a young brunette in their common language. I noticed they were both carrying similar bulging shoulder bags in which they had the packets of tissues.
The brunette went up to the platform I had just vacated, while the blonde carried on to the cafe in the shopping centre, presumably to tap the customers there. She left me with an unanswered question: was she genuine? It looked like a well thought out plan, smoothly executed. Admirable if both ladies were genuine. But no one likes being conned.
Inevitably I thought of the many money-raising activities attributed to the East European immigrants, from the aggressive windscreen washers (remember those?) to the baby-wielding beggars and the Rumanian prostitutes on Park Lane. I recalled also the young man who regularly addresses passengers on the Orpington train about his homelessness and refuses all help except hard cash.
Those activities have debased the currency of compassion. They do a disservice to those genuinely in need of help, creating a reflex of refusal and a hardening of hearts. Sad, that.