For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, the London Underground is 150 years old today. I don’t know about you, but I find that pretty amazing – that such a labyrinthian network of underground tunnels and transport was built before the invention of the car. In fact I caught site of the first underground train on TV last night, and was amazed – not the lithe, smooth metal snakes we see sliding in and out of gaping dark mouths, sparks glancing off their wheels, but a steam train – an actual steam train – that looked like it had been grown in a train-egg without enough space to grow properly. Hunched, squat, squashed, but unmistakably a good old fashioned steam train.
I love London. The character of the place, the history that seeps out of every nook and cranny. Turn in to a side street in any part of the centre and after a few twists and turns the noise, dirt, traffic and tourists of the main roads fade away and pockets of life emerge. An ancient pub, a tailor, a square populated by city bankers, couriers, cleaners, performers, newspaper sellers and every walk of life you could imagine. Save for the daft Bluetooth headsets and interesting fashion choices the scene could come out of any decade since the invention of the Tube itself.
I travel there from time to time for my real job, when I’m not pretending to be an author, and sometimes I get lucky with my hotels – which is why, this Monday evening, I was walking across Westminster Bridge under the shadow of Big Ben chiming 9 o’clock, towards my Houses of Parliament-overlooking digs for the night. I like to pace the streets when I visit, taking in the smells of the big city, turning random corners and getting myself lost just to see what I find.
On this occasion, though, something found me. Well, someone actually, as I walked along the river past the white steel monstrous behemoth that is the London Eye (for those uninitiated with the London Eye imagine a big wheel like you see at the fair, but on steroids, and shoved completely inappropriately across the road from one of the most famous, historic buildings in the world with all the intelligent juxtaposition of a child with too many coloured blocks and not enough spatial awareness).
He was asking for help. A man in his forties, carrying a hold-all and wearing a tweed jacket, hunched over and looking distressed. I walked over to him and he clutched hold of my hand, staring at me with red eyes that looked as though they were about to burst in to tears at any minute.
“How do I get to the M1 Motorway from here?” He asked. Now, given that we were in central London and both of us were on foot, I wasn’t too sure how to answer this.
“I think you’re a bit lost mate” was about as helpful as I could get in the spur of the moment. He paused for a few seconds.
“Can you help a poor soldier just out of hospital?” He said. True enough, there was a hospital across the road. Seemed reasonable enough. I asked him what was wrong.
“Can I ask you a question?” He replied (I hate it when people answer a question with a question, but I was inclined to let it slip on this occasion, suspecting war veterans freshly out of hospital were not usually in any kind of disposition to have their grammar corrected). Not waiting for a reply, he carried on:
“What should an SAS soldier do, on his own straight out of hospital, just back from Afghanistan? Who can he talk to, now he’s home and able to talk about what he’s done?”
This seemed rhetorical, so I waited for him to carry on talking. Instead he squeezed my hand (which he was still holding) even harder, and his lip quivered a bit. To break the silence I grinned awkwardly.
“Go to the pub?” I suggested.
He shook his head, and nodded towards his bag – which I could now see contained a 4-pack of lager in a plastic carrier.
“What should an SAS sniper (he seemed to have promoted himself in the brief silence) just out of a war-zone do?” His brows furrowed, he looked to be in no small amount of distress. He seemed to choke back a tear. “I just want to get home.” Bite lip.” Could you, could you help me?” Pensive look off to the side. Nod to bag. “My ID is in there, I just need you to trust me. I’ve got £65,000 in a safe back at my house, I just need you to trust me. I’ll give you £5,000.” Eyes water.
At this point I felt things had gone far enough, and I could break the charade without seeing rude and causing offence.
“Can I just stop you there?” I said politely. “If it’s money you’re after, I can’t help you…” I was about to continue on to ask if there was anything else I could do, just to show willing to the obvious conman, but in the blink of an eye he had already switched character. He let go of my hand, all signs of emotion left his face replaced by a detached annoyance.
“Ah screw you then” he said angrily, turned and walked off – no doubt to try and lure in the next unsuspecting victim.
It was all there – the appeal to my humanity & charity, my opportunity to help one of our soldiers in need (which I of course would do in an instant were he, y’know, actually a soldier), the body contact to establish a bond, the tears to show his frailty, the appeal for me to trust him, the offer of future returns far in excess of the £100 he was probably about to ask for a train ticket. It was, to all intents and purposes, the face to face equivalent of one of those emails you get asking for your bank account details so some African who has discovered a diamond mine can transfer £1 million to you to get it out of the country.
The rest of the night passed without incident. I still love London, and treat it, its dark alleys and the people in it with the health dose of respect and caution they deserve, but I thought I’d share this with you as a friendly little reminder that not all self defense, or personal safety, is about violence and that a little common sense, and a vague notion of where injured troops are sent when they return from war, can go a long way.