Mary Wakefield

Is our only choice to be cynics or suckers?

We must keep a sense of trust in a fragmented society full of beggars, egotists, cold callers and scam artists

26 September 2015

8:00 AM

26 September 2015

8:00 AM

It’s all the rage to mistrust the powerful these days, to say politicians are scum, or all bankers are selfish. Journalists are considered particularly disgusting post-Corbyn, which encourages all manner of needling on Twitter: ‘I’m sorry, but if you’re a journalist you should get a better job.’ This from a Corbynite. ‘I’m sorry, but…’ — are there three more irritating words?

All this sticking it to The Man. All this talk of real, kindly people versus the shifty elite. I think it’s bogus. Not because the elite isn’t greedy but because the implication is that we the people have some sort of solidarity; that we’re let down only by our self-interested overlords, when the truth is we don’t trust each other much at all. In cities, where the vast majority of Britons live, in London in particular, trust between ordinary people is as fragile as faith in politicians. We’re cynical, and worse, our cynicism is justified.

Take last Sunday. The sun was out and my guard was down. As I pottered towards my local park a man, 30-odd, approached me looking worried. He said, ‘Excuse me, I need help. Can I ask you a favour?’ I looked at him hard, loth to be a sucker again, but he was reassuringly middle-class in a way that’s hard to fake: smooth skin, clothes, well-cut hair.

‘The thing is, I’ve locked myself out of my flat,’ he said, smiling in a charming, sheepish way, ‘and my keys and wallet are inside. My mate in Brixton has a spare key but I need to get to him somehow. Could you possibly lend me your Oyster card if I top it up and post it back? I could get it back to you this afternoon even?’

As I say, his hair was nice. So I fossicked about in my bag, scooped up every last cent and put it in his hand. ‘I don’t have an Oyster card,’ I said, ‘but here’s £4 — more actually. That should get you to Brixton on the Tube.’ Then I beamed at him, expecting this nice day to be enhanced by the warm glow of do-goodery. No dice. The man closed his fist around the change and sighed crossly. He turned on his heel and walked off without a word, leaving me first confused and then forlorn.

I wasn’t sad because I’d been had — though had I had been. With hindsight my £4 was chump change to that chap because an average Oyster is chock-full of cash. I even admired the cunning of the scam. Though the card’s worth more than any coins you’d give, it seems somehow unsuspicious to ask for it. Even registered Oysters full of commuting fares wouldn’t be reported until the next day, leaving time to extract the dosh.

What depressed me was that this seemed like the final straw. I’d decided to trust a man because he looked affluent, like he wasn’t in need. This in itself is weird. But then — what’s to do? You have a choice in London: be a sucker or a cynic. Neither is much fun.

Should you give to men with ‘hungry and homeless’ signs? If I do, it’s with a tight little smile which says ‘Yes, I know it’s drink you want.’ Outside every London station there’s a man or woman telling the same story: I just need £47 to get back to Liverpool or Manchester. ‘Sorry,’ I say, with that same horrid smile. I suppose it’s a healthy society in which men beg for smack not food, but I worry that the endless suppression of the urge to help takes its toll.

We’re told that this is a high-trust society, that people long to come here because trust means co-operation, and co-operation means prosperity. It’s said that we have social capital, which is what’s missing in Sub-Saharan Africa. Yet every day I actively mistrust almost constantly. ‘Congratulations!’ says the post. ‘Mary Wakefield, you have won!’ Bin job. ‘Alert: this text is from the fraud squad.’ No it isn’t. ‘This is your bank, just wanting to confirm your details…’ Nope. I’ve recently taken some pleasure deleting emails that begin: ‘Important, don’t delete this message!’

Even charities behave like scamsters. Three cold-calls in so many weeks saying they’re from Oxfam, three posh-sounding young voices designed to calm middle-class nerves. They say: ‘Mary, hey, we’ve totted up the money made from things you’ve donated and we just wanted to tell you the total. Is now a good time?’ How could they possibly have calculated the cost of anonymous donations? There’s a rabbit off somewhere, as they say in the North. Rabbits off everywhere.

Twenty years ago Robert Putnam published his famous article about the low levels of trust in civic America. ‘Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital’, it was called. There’d been surveys done which showed trust for the Washington government had ebbed away and though most put it down to top dogs behaving badly — Vietnam, Watergate and all that — Putnam saw a cause in the grass roots.

There’d been a steep decline in Americans joining associations, he said, groups like the Scouts, choral societies and the bowling league. His point was that if you don’t engage with your area, if you don’t muck in, you don’t create the trust that makes for co-operation which leads to prosperity and democracy. Instead you become atomised and resentful. Support groups like AA and book clubs were on the rise, admitted Putnam, but ‘Small groups may not be fostering community as effectively as many of their proponents would like. Some small groups merely provide occasions for individuals to focus on themselves in the presence of others.’

I wonder if this is true of London, of life in Britain’s cities today. I wonder if we’re bowling alone. Perhaps we never had 1950s America’s semi-demented love of clubs, but we’re certainly more detached from our neighbourhoods than ever before. We work, we go home, we watch TV. Yes, I’m speaking for myself. At weekends we see our friends. We try to spend our altruism on the street, and become jaded as a result.

Of course joining the Scouts or Meals on Wheels isn’t going to see off cold-callers. It won’t put an end to scams, but it might even the balance, and take the edge off all this fashionable hate. Mistrust is just as corrosive from the bottom up, says Putnam. Fish rot just as easily from the tail.

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Show comments
  • Tamerlane

    Why don’t you just accept the world is full of @ssholes and move on?

    • 1__1_1

      She needs to learn to say “No”.

    • Ian Beale Steeplecoque

      You are the King of @ssholes. Mr @sshole. How much do the Barclay’s pay you now?

  • 1__1_1

    Should you give to men with ‘hungry and homeless’ signs? The last time I saw someone begging in central London, he was wearing better clothes than I had on.

    There’s a good income to be had from begging.

    This evening I encountered the local regular beggar coming out of the Betting Shop…. good to see all that goodwill being put to good use.

    • Mongo Part II

      All the Romanians have come here and stolen jobs from British beggars!

      it’s an outrage

      • davidofkent

        Or ‘Big Issue’ sellers.

        • 1__1_1

          Plenty of big issue sellers, the same one day after day, month after month. So much for it being a pathway into work.

          The one’s who really irritate me are the guys in the Big Issue red waistcoats asking for spare change, selling the big issue is supposed to be to stop them begging, but these guys use it as a tool to enhance their begging.

          • douglas redmayne

            I never ever give to Big Issue sellers, especially as the owner of it has a vested interest in maintaining poverty, which us why he supported the benefit cap.

          • TrulyDisqusted

            When I was at uni, there was this really aggressive female big issue seller who used to thrust her mags in your face. Not likely, I though as I’d barge around her.

            Years later I saw her picture in the paper, she’d been murdered in her bedsit. She’d also I read been profoundly deaf and dumb.

            Problem is, if she’d placed a sign saying “deaf & dumb, please help” I would have though it was a scam, I like I do when I see people with cardboard “homeless” signs sitting in a puddle in the rain with their hand out because people feel more sorry for homeless people who sit down in puddles when there’s a sheltered doorway of an empty shop 5 foot away?


      • douglas redmayne

        Some of these Romania are scum.

      • Suzy61

        Mongo – I sense this is tongue in cheek – but no less true for it.

        My ‘local’ Big Issue seller was a lad from our city, down on his luck (and judgement) but a likeable character who nobody begrudged a quid.

        Now, replaced by a ‘swarthy’ looking plump lady in a hijab who is dropped of each morning by car and collected again each night.

    • davidofkent

      I imagine we will be seeing a lot more of these ‘little incidents’ in the coming months and years. In Paris, people from a certain, rather unwanted, group have a scam whereby they glue a large denomination coin to the pavement. As you walk by, they say “Look, you’ve dropped some money”. You know what comes next. When it happened to me, I told my wife to keep on walking.

      • sfin

        As a Paris resident, I have my stock phrase prepared (said at least once a week).

        “Est ce que j’ai le mot “con” écrit sur ma tête?…Non?… Dégages alors!”.

        In essence:

        “Do I have the word “idiot” written on my forehead?…No?…then do one!”

        Begging in Paris is so obviously organised it makes it easy to resist – it’s always the same, usually Romanian, on the same metro line. Far more worrying is the increasing threat from gangs of young, again usually Romanians, targeting vulnerable people, usually elderly ladies, using ATMs.

        Western Europe is inexplicably committing suicide.

      • douglas redmayne

        What scum. The Germans were not thorough enough.

    • Caractacus

      Begging is illegal. Never enforced.

  • Ivan Ewan

    “Be as cunning as serpents and as innocent as doves.”

    One of the single most difficult tightropes to walk in the whole moral realm.

  • Sarka

    There have always been masses of con-artists, cut purses etc etc in London – read the Elizabethans on the subject!
    And honestly Mary, you were a sucker. Any one locking self out of flat will apply to neighbour for aid (even if neighbours not much known), for neighbours will know him by sight, and of course know where he lives. Alternatively he might just ask a likely-looking stranger for permission to use telephone, in these mobile days, so as to call a friend for aid.

    It’s not trust, so much as being disastrously well brought up. It feels impolite to express distrust, especially to anyone respectable-looking.

    Reminds me of blackly comic real incident, though.
    Back in the late eighties an acquaintance (a very nicely brought up woman of letters of around fifty) was walking her aged female spaniel, as she usually did, late at night in Notting Hill (a more salubrious part, deserted at night). As usual she let spaniel off leash, so it could potter about somewhere by itself. She was approached by a youngish man – sober, well-dressed – who asked her aid because, he said, his contact lens had fallen out. She politely started to scan the lit pavement with him, but he said – No – I think it was over there, he said, pointing to a darker corner…Insanely – as she later said – she followed him, and he immediately knocked her down and flung himself on her with clear intent to rape. As he would have done had not her aged Spaniel (of whom the assailant was unaware) abandoned lifelong pacifism and rushed out of the darkness to the rescue, sinking her fangs into the man’s leg. He screamed and started struggling to his feet trying to shake off the dog, and my acquaintance heard herself saying , automatically, ludicrously, “Oh dear, it must be my dog. I do apologise…”, before realising how completely idiotic that was…Such is the power of social conditioning!
    The dog remained attached to the man’s leg for thirty yards as he made his escape…The police failed to find and arrest him then, but months later they did arrest him for other offences (it was the notorious Notting Hill rapist).

    • polistra24

      Excellent story. Better than the article. Dogs know how to draw the correct line between trust and mistrust, even when their owners don’t.

    • 1__1_1

      Spaniels are the best most loyal dogs.

      The Notting Hill rapist: is that the one the Met tried to fit up Colin Stagg, leaving the real rapist free to carry on raping?

      • Sarka

        I vaguely remember so. I recall the acquaintance saying that the police told her that the man eventually convicted did turn out to have scar from dog-damage to leg…but they didn’t use the incident that she experienced in in the investigation and trial. Indeed I very vaguely remember her saying that it was amazing that they didn’t seem to try to get him at the time by checking casualty records, as the bite was evidently severe and deep dog bites are always infected and need jabs. It seems he did go to a casualty but no one checked. The whole case was not Plod’s finest hour.

    • Weaver

      Exactly. Locked out? Have the neighbours phone your friend in Brixton, or a locksmith.

      Amazing stupidity.

  • WarriorPrincess111111

    I realised just how much we, the British have changed over the years when I went to the Isle of Man. At one time it would take hours to get to the island, but now there was a fast Catmaran that took just thirty minutes or just over from Liverpool.
    For many years, we had learned never trust anyone, lock your doors and windows, set padlocks on the outbuildings, view any strangers with suspicion and accept no hard luck stories! So, on arriving at the Isle of Man, I was shocked to see that people did not lock their doors, invited strangers in for a drink and even in one case – a woman had left her handbag by a lamp post with her small ineffectual dog! I did point out that the people would have to rethink their trust now access is so easy to get to the Island!

  • douglas redmayne

    There is a lack of trust and it us entirely due to the atomisation if society caused by our late stage capitalism. Politics gas similarly balkanised into self interested groups. As far as I am concerned other people clog the highways, streets and trains and get in my way and the only way I will ever do anything for any of them is if I think I can get something greater in return.

  • aspeckofboggart

    Outside Printemps, Paris 7/8years ago, a few days after Citibank collapsed, a teen dropped a 20-euro note onto a couple with their dog on the sidewalk, and sauntered away before the lucky woman could catch a sight of him.

    A few years later on my way to fetch the car in the night before departing Edinburgh, a young man asked me for change. I had no money, except the last 10pd note in the car. I was happy to see him at the street corner later and waved him over to give him the money. His jaw dropped and he was practically on his knees.

    Clement Attlee spoke quite eloquently of the whims and fancies of givers and how desperate people could find themselves in as his government put in place the NHS. Jeremy Corbyn also implored people not to mind too much about the welfare abusers.

    Ms Wakefield, at the end of the day, most who give gave only a portion of what they can spare.

    • Weaver

      Two words: Moral Hazard. It’s not the absolute amounts that matter. When you give to a scam, or an able-bodied person begging on the street:

      1. You destroy their incentive to work, better and respect themselves.

      2. You reward indolence and possibly fraud. You will get more of it accordingly.

      I’m sure your young man enjoyed the £6.99 bottle of vodka your kindness brought him. Or maybe it was some smack. I’m not sure his parents would be so thrilled at how you “helped” their son. If you must exercise your virtue signalling, give it through a charity like Shelter or the Salvation Army or something. Giving money on the street makes these poor bastards worse off in the medium term. Show some real compassion and self control next time.

      • aspeckofboggart

        Thanks. I worked in banks. Good that you brought up Moral Hazard. Always on the minds of lenders of last resort.

        As for the rest of your comment, I can only say from personal experience things aren’t always so pat in life as you put it.

      • WTF

        Merkel is finding this out to the cost of the German people !

  • Terry Field

    Is our only choice to be cynics or suckers?
    We must keep a sense of trust in a fragmented society full of beggars, egotists, cold callers and scam artists

    No we should not.

    I left the sweaty little island, and all that rubbish is a very faded memory for me.
    The best thing I ever did.

    • Pioneer

      Where did you go?

  • dep

    But there is another side to life in London. I know most of my neighbours in my Central London block and we always chat with each other and help each other when needed. In my previous London homes in South London, where I am from, life was very similar – good relations with the neighbours, chatty and helpful. One of my closest friends, now living in the country was a neighbour.
    My 86 year old father is forever chatting with people on buses and trains – it passes the time.
    Yes, London has changed but there is still a lot of good out there.

    • Mongo Part II

      most of my neighbours now don’t even speak English. Hard to chat with them even if I tried.

  • WTF

    I guess I’m a cynic but based on a life time of experiences and being suckered when I was being too compassionate I feel no remorse what so ever. When banks commit fraud & money laundering but no banker goes to jail or even gets their collar felt, do you blame me for being cynical. When politicians make election promises and can’t deliver, that’s one thing but when they wantonly introduce legislation never even mentioned, I call them a bunch of lying sc**umbags !

    When investment & insurance companies who hide the caveats & gotchas, I call that a scam and having been a victim, I now take extreme caution when dealing with them. When the liberal media distort the truth over the effects of mass immigration and the real costs to our culture, welfare system, the NHS, education and housing, I label them lib**tards for being illiberal despite claiming to be liberal and for being re**tards in failing to grasp the true facts. This is exactly whats happening with the media over those ‘moocher migrants’ trying to get into the EU at this moment in time !

    With big name charities, they can take a hike but if I see what I believe to be genuine poverty like a Spanish man outside a Spanish supermarket begging for a euro or two, I’ll probably help them as there’s still some compassion left in me. As for the Romas I used to see being trucked around town in MPV’s to their begging corners each day, they can p*** off !

    Sadly at 70 years old I am very cynical with virtually ALL big organizations including banking, insurance, pensions, investments, shopping chains, on-line ‘cheap’ offers, car show rooms, the DWP, HMRC and Westminster. I once said to a BUPA rep and other insurance companies like Norwich Union, Aviva, it would be easier if you tell me what you do cover rather than list the exclusions but they refuse to do that. There are a few notable exceptions where the companies concerned are fair and have treated me very well and I’ll list them.

    The companies that needed no training in customer service are – Amazon who I can’t fault as on the rare occasion I’ve flagged a minor problem they were excellent in their prompt response. Virgin Atlantic were superb when it came to arranging and transporting our pet dog to America with us unlike British Airways who were frigging useless at trying to get information over it. A four hour delay prompted their rep to seek us out, assure us she was OK and had been taken for a walk and would come back to tell us she was on board before we took off. 10/10 for both companies.

    Companies that I have ‘trained’ are as follows – Santander now credit me a ‘disruption fee’ when they mess up without me even asking for one. Maybe its because I threatened to withdraw my savings that earn 0% interest. Bank of America similarly refunded a charge when I mistakenly failed to move money from savings to checking account and it went into the read. Again, using the ploy over my savings being taken out works wonders. The Cable company in Florida who tried to hike my monthly charge by 12% reduced it to 2% hike after I had a pleasant conversation with their ‘retention’ department. I give these companies a 7/10 for learning lessons on customer service.

    As for the DWP & HMRC, I’ve locked horns with them many times but its impossible to get any proper response as they are so incompetent and hide behind a wall of bureaucracy and cop outs. I did get 3 emergency EU health cards once from the DWP as a bonanza of incompetence not that it did me any good.

    In summary, my motto is do unto others as they will do into you and if its the usual suspects, do it to them first !

  • MrJones

    “We’re told that this is a high-trust society, that people long to come here because trust means co-operation, and co-operation means prosperity.”

    It used to be – which unfortunately is why it was so easy to destroy from within – and the prosperity that was built on that foundation will gradually seep away.

    Puttnam’s study was correct.

  • A chav asked me for money for a bus to a village once. Just to be mischievous, I offered to take them there in my car. They declined.

  • MrJones

    In game theory a winning strategy is: nice first then tit for tat

    i.e. do the nice thing first by default then if it is reciprocated do it again but if not then don’t.

    So effectively what someone using that strategy is doing in the first step is gambling on the other person being a reciprocater and if they are then you ally with them and both end up benefiting long term but if they’re not you avoid them in future at the cost of losing your initial stake.

    In a society where that kind of reciprocating behaviour had become “normal” it’s tragic to see it breaking down now but using the strategy consciously is the 3rd alternative to cynic or sucker.

    if you use it consciously as a reciprocater finding strategy and then build a network of reciprocaters then you (and they) will win over time – the amount you lose along the way effectively being the price you pay to get non-reciprocaters to show their cards.

    Obviously as it’s a gamble to see someone’s cards you don’t want to risk critical amounts in the early stages, only as much as you can afford to lose.

    Like for example no sane person would stake their country as a first bet.

  • Sean L

    Anyone who asks you for money on the street in London, regardless of the pretext – “I’ve run out of petrol” is one I’ve encountered more than once – is in need of a pipe or a fix. Take it for granted. And if you’ve lived in London for any length of time and aren’t aware of that you must live a very cosseted existence, or be astonishingly naive. Two sides of the same coin I suppose…

    • MrJones

      You seem to have missed the question.

      As this country dies from all the poison that has been pumped into it there are three choices not two. People who take either the cynic or sucker choice will fare worse.

  • ardenjm

    “There’d been a steep decline in Americans joining associations, he said, groups like the Scouts, choral societies and the bowling league.”

    I bet the numbers are still higher in areas where people go to Church.
    And concommitantly lower in areas where people don’t.
    Likewise for donations to charities.

    Church and State might be separated in the USA but the common space they are involved in – society – needs religion as social glue. Japan is often vaunted as even more secularised than the UK. This is nonsense. Everyone goes to Temple at year’s end and Shrine for the New Year. And their japaneses-ness is a quasi religious adherence in any case.

    In “liberating” ourselves from religion we dehumanise ourselves, too. I can’t think of a single aggressively secular state – that tries to muscle in on society’s religious expressions or even just tries to do it down – that turned out well. Albania under Hoxha? North Korea? Cuba?

  • Hello I’ve contacted you on Twitter. I’m technically homeless 😎