Some people say that charity begins at home. Other people, like me, wish it would stay there. This may seem like a rather controversial opinion to have. But these days it is impossible to walk down a London street without having your journey continuously interrupted by a multitude of curious people wanting to give something to you, wanting you to give something to them, or conducting pointless surveys aimed at determining why you decided to walk down that particular street in the first place. What once used to be a simple procedure has now turned into something along the lines of negotiating landmines in war-torn Iraq, except the landmines are constantly homing in on you like human Space Invaders.
Recently, I embarked on the traditionally simple task of walking from Trafalgar Square to Aldwych by way of The Strand. I refer to it as ‘simple’ because all one has to do is follow a single thoroughfare in a straight line for approximately ten minutes. Such a journey from ‘Point A’ to ‘Point B’ should be relatively easy and free of incident. This was, however, far from the case. Before I had even reached Charing Cross Station I was intercepted by no fewer than four human Space Invaders armed with clipboards, all strategically positioned at various attack points on the path, leaving me no room to engage in an escape manoeuvre. With some expert precision footwork, I managed to negotiate round the first three Space Invaders, but then found myself in direct line with the fourth who was wearing a bright yellow T-shirt with Hopping Mad! printed on it.
The Space Invader was collecting for a charity I had never heard of which had something to do with underprivileged kangaroos in the Australian outback. Why a Londoner such as myself should have any substantial interest in the welfare of kangaroos, I’ll never know. My first mistake was to engage in eye contact with the Space Invader who initiated ‘Intercept Mode’ and refused to let me pass. Apparently, I looked like a ‘kangaroo kind of guy’ and did I know that for every ten thousand domestic kittens born, one kangaroo dies, either by natural or unnatural causes. This lead to my second mistake of engaging in aural communication. I politely replied that I did not understand the connection between kittens and kangaroos other than the letter ‘K’, at which point the Space Invader told me to fill in one of her forms with my bank details and everything would be made clear from as little as £10 per month. I declined her offer and attempted to move off, but she blocked my passage and told me to ‘think of the kangaroos’. I took the blunt approach and replied that I had no interest in kangaroos and was allergic to cats, and walked off to the throng of her voice exclaiming that if it wasn’t the kangaroos today, it would be the kuala bears tomorrow, and what had cats ever done for the planet?
Emotionally exhausted by this encounter, I continued my journey but soon encountered my next obstacle: a man in dark glasses with a white stick collecting for the blind. Call me a cad, but one does have to take advantage of others’ disabilities sometimes, so I made a point of giving the Blind Man a wide berth and walked very quietly past him. I was therefore very surprised when he turned to me and said that there was no need to be so rude and just a polite shake of the head would have sufficed. Naturally, I asked how he knew I’d walked past him and he said that ‘visual impairment’ did not necessarily mean ‘completely sightless’, which is what I was for ignoring someone less fortunate than himself. I apologised politely and said that I did not give to charity on the street but instead supported two major charities close to my family: the Multiple Sclerosis Society and the British Heart Foundation. But he just said ‘big deal’ and boasted that he supported seven charities and managed to do it with blurred vision and a gammy leg. I realised there was nothing I could do to satisfy him, so I just ignored him and carried on towards Aldwych.
Much of my journey along The Strand was uneventful from then on, but in recent months a new menace has begun to invade London’s streets with the launch of not one but two free newspapers: London Lite and The London Paper, and the Street Hawkers employed to distribute them arrive in their thousands at around two o’clock in the afternoon. There is currently a gang war going on between the two papers, with Street Hawkers from each side trying to defeat the other by forcing as many papers as possible into the hands of the innocent general public (or dumping huge bundles into rubbish bins). An encounter with a Street Hawker can be guaranteed every few yards. Resistance is futile; avoidance is impossible. But just lately I have discovered that it is actually possible to contrive a situation where individual Street Hawkers on opposing sides end up eliminating each other, as much of the time you find them occupying the same point on the street in pairs.
I had nearly reached my destination when I came across a pair of opposing Street Hawkers who instantly blocked my path and tried to force their rival papers into my hands like their lives (and mine) depended on it. I paused, looked at each paper thoughtfully, and then asked them whose paper I should choose and why? Immediately, the Hawker holding The London Paper spouted that his paper was more ‘newsworthy’, to which the London Lite Hawker responded that his rival’s news wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on, and his had the better print quality. This riled the Hawker holding The London Paper who began arguing that there was no point in having good print quality when the news that had been printed with it was merely lifted from his paper, but with the addition of thousands of spelling mistakes. And so, satisfied that I had initiated civil war, I continued on with the last leg of my journey to Aldwych, leaving the Street Hawkers to their own destructive devices, and considered that, on the whole, what Londoners really crave for on a daily basis is the urban national newspaper: Metro.