Class conscious

I was buying a Tube ticket this week when a quite smartly dressed young woman approached me and said: "Excuse me, do you know the date?" I told her, and she nodded, reflecting on the answer for a while, before asking, "Could you spare me some change for the ticket machines?"

She was a beggar but I noted that she had cleverly framed her request in middle-class terms. The implication of her asking the date was that she was considering some archetypally middle-class act, like renewing a travelcard, or writing a cheque.

This tactic is increasingly common among beggars, and represents an inversion of the normal modus operandi, which is to look deserving. The new type of beggar tries his or her best to look undeserving, having realised that in our society, unpractised as it is in altruism, people with money are more relaxed about giving money to other people with money than to people without any. This is why all you have to do in this country to get a lot of money is to have a lot of money to begin with, then people will want to give you even more.

I know somebody who was approached by a master of this new art: a man clutching a slightly bedraggled airline ticket. "Excuse me," he said, "but I'm catching a flight to New Zealand tonight, and I've just realised I'm a pound short of the Tube fare to the airport . . ." My friend was impressed by the way the man's begging technique operated on two levels: on the one hand, he made a good job of not appearing to be a beggar, thus triggering the generous response described above. At the same time, according to my friend, his mention of the airport "triggered your instinctive desire to get him out of the country". I suppose that the new breed of beggars could refine the art even further, saying: "I'm just a pound short of my upgrade to club class, could you possibly . . .?"

These new beggars have taken to heart John Prescott's dictum that we're all middle class now, so the days of "Spare a pound for a cup of tea, guv?" are numbered. Henceforth it'll be, "Spare the price of a latte and cinnamon danish, guv?"