London Bridge. Photo © David Secombe, 2002.
From The London Nobody Knows, Geoffrey Fletcher, 1962:
Begging, pure and simple, seems to have almost disappeared from the London streets, even the most impoverished making an attempt to offer some trifle in exchange for a coin. Mayhew’s book on the London poor is one of several books necessary for a study of the city’s pavement life, of which now only fragments remain. Victorian London was full of such harrowing sights as the man I saw years ago, legless and armless, selling ballads, or the festering bundel of rags covering the remains of a woman I saw more recently on the Embankment – a bundle of rags, however, that did not lack vocal abilities. On my starting to draw her, she cursed in language which would have given a bargee the shudders, and so I pushed off.
The dolls in the photograph above were situated in the elevated walkway which links London Bridge with London Bridge Station, and formed part of an elaborate and idiosyncratic beggar’s pitch. The beggar in question had taped dolls holding lit joss sticks to three posts in the walkway, and as commuters hurried past him and his installation he performed a manic, shuffling dance, jerking back and forth violently, lunging at them with his cap. I asked him if he would mind having his photo taken and he declined, although he didn’t object to me picturing the dolls. He was clearly very proud of his pitch, which seemed more suited to White Cube or Flowers East than a begging bowl on London Bridge Station. There is probably some earlier precedent for his particular schtick, but I can find nothing like it in Mayhew, and he may have invented a new form: avant-garde panhandling.
Given time, certain members of London’s homeless communities become landmarks. In his ‘biography’ of London, Peter Ackroyd mentions the lady who appeared to live in a doorway near the shop Forbidden Planet on New Oxford Street for much of the 1990s: as Ackroyd noted, she had sat there day in, day out for so long that her outline was impressed upon the stone behind her. And there was the eccentrically dressed but actually quite beautiful woman who was a fixture in Lincoln’s Inn Fields for many years. I don’t know what became of the doll man, but I rather hope that his fate was less grim than the elderly oriental man who is a current fixture on Hungerford Bridge. He has a kind of toy guitar equipped with one string and a little hammer which he taps on it, feebly hitting the same note over and over again. He is worthy of Mayhew, and Fletcher, in authentic human misery.
… for The London Column.