The Scots have a reputation for meanness: who does not know the story of McGregor who, catching his wife with a lover orders her, “Get behind yer lover, faithless oon, so I can shoot you baith with oon bullet”? I have lived for over twenty years in Edinburgh, and all I can say is that I once saw a queue of 3 behind a “Big Issue” man. Big Issue is a magaZine published by and for the homeless, and people selling it are given a fraction of their takings, so basically it is tantamount to alms. But that’s nothing in comparison to the number of Roma beggars on the main streets of Auld Reekie_ or Edinburgh as it is sometimes called. The people of my city give the lie to the belief of Scottish tight-fistedness.

What is well-known is that these beggars do not sit under any ATM machine or supermarket randomly. They are allocated these sites by their Beggar Master, anybody bold enough to challenge that is in for serious trouble. And the operatives must make sure they are in situ early enough to catch the earliest traffic of folks going to work. Rain or shine. One of the rules the Master teaches his charges is that the worse the weather is, the more generous donors become. Stands to reason.

A beggar in Kolkata (author photo)

For years I refused to give any money to those poor creatures on the grounds that they do not even get a fraction of their takings, which often exceeds £50 a day. More often than not, the Master would take the whole lot, but provide shelter (like 5 or 6 sharing a room), food and clothing. A truly generous boss would throw in some pocket money. Sometimes a Master would choose the option of rewarding his charges with a percentage of their takings. Like 10%, but in that case there is no accommodation or food.

It took me some time to arrive at the conclusion that refusing to give alms to beggars was comparable to what right-wing commentators say about foreign aid to poor countries. Conservative newspapers often decry the uselessness of foreign aid. They rightly say that in far too many cases up to 90% of any aid goes into the pocket of ministers. I know for a fact that President Hosni Mubarrak had been negotiating with Bush junior for a huge big loan, and the talks had arrived at an impasse over Egypt’s poor record on human rights. Mubarrak protested that his human rights record was second to none on the continent, and offered to appoint a Minister for Human Rights. The Americans took the bait. My good friend B was thus appointed to the Human Rights portfolio, and he being a man of integrity, started visiting political prisoners in jail. In the meantime, the aid (I believe it was of the order of $400 million) was released, and B got sacked.

When I lived and worked in Zaire (now happily Congo again), Mobutu received billions in aid, but the people still starved whilst he built palaces with gold taps, but he also built a few hospitals_ “The Mama Mobutu Hospital” in Kisangani is an example.

I therefore adopted the position that whilst the Beggar Master would pocket up to 90% of my contribution, those unfortunate men and women shivering under the Edinburgh snow would at least have a roof on their head plus maybe a potato or two.

A Christmas Story: The young girl at the Bus Stop is probably not yet 15. She has a winning smile, and I often give her a two-penny bit. I have watched from a distance and formed the opinion that she must be one of the most profitable workers for her boss. She has a smattering of English, and is not reluctant to talk to me, but always saying, Don’t tell my boss I told you this. She confided to me that her boss took all her takings and gave her 10% . During the Christmas period, I decided to give her a little present on top of the alms, and bought her a packet of Kit Kat for £1.09.

A couple of days later, I saw her drenched and shivering, and began a conversation with her. The poor thing thought that what happened to her was funny. What happened? I asked. If I understood her right, that day her takings had amounted to £48.60, she began. So you ended up with £4.86?

She shook her head. No, she explained. She stupidly told the boss about the chocolate. Well, I hope you ate it and did not hand it o him, I said. No, she assured me, she had eaten all of it.

-“But-“

-“ My boss he said chocolate is £2. So takings become £50.60 … he take 90%, come to £45. 54, so I end up with £3.06”

-“Poor you.” She shook her head.

-“But the chocolate he good.”