Food, Shelter, and a Bullshit Story to Tell Are the Homeless our new Storytellers and Bards?

There was once a time when certain individuals would come knocking on hostel doors in the dead of night, or  loudly declare their presence to a full and bawdy tavern, or find themselves summoned to the forum of courts and castles. These men and women would spin tales and tall stories, dancing their way through ballads and legends, moving their captive audiences through merriment, sorrow and hope. When they were done they would be met with great acclaim and be fed and bathed, given a place to rest and often sent away with a small monetary token in their pocket.

Alone, and away from the crowd, they would hone their craft, twisting plots and culling characters, manipulating the bones and meat of their stories, stories that would evolve over time until the perfect form of their telling was realised, and the most emotion and fervour could be drawn from them.

The largest chair by the fire was always reserved for the grandest of storytellers.

On the 142 bus route (the route Manchester claims is the busiest in Europe), there’s a Canadian guy. At least, I think he’s Canadian. He speaks with a Canadian accent and refers to Canada as home, but I can’t be too sure. Roughly once a week he climbs aboard the top deck of a particularly full bus, and with sorrowful eyes wishes God’s blessing on us all. He then recounts his story of how he found himself in hospital due to accident or injury. Sometimes he has bronchitis. Sometimes he’s broken an ankle or lost the sight in one eye. Sometimes he was mugged by persons nowhere near as kind as yourselves, God bless you.

His hospital misfortunes cause him to miss a flight or boat to his homeland, which is of course Canada. Then into the tale comes a fair maiden, a sickly old lady, or a meek and wretched child. Our Canadian friend gives up his bed for the newcomer, and wishes them well. Unfortunately the same can not be said of himself, for he now finds himself with nowhere to sleep, and in desperate need of funds to either get him to the airport in time, transfer him to a different flight, or put him up for the night. Supplicating himself to those travelling on the 142 route (the busiest bus route in Europe, if you didn’t know) he asks for donations to help him on his way, showering God’s blessings on both those who refuse and those who indulge him.

Our unfortunate Canadian fellow never makes it home however, and within a week has broken his ankle, face, coccyx or stride once more, and the poor state of the NHS has once again driven him from his bed. His story is a little different, a little more refined. Less believable elements are now missing and the more compassion-inducing, sympathetic tropes are exaggerated, based on how successful they were the week before.

It seems the most copious spare change is always reserved for the grandest of bullshitters… The homeless, hasslers and beggars are just modern incarnations of the storytellers of old. They have no physical trade, no fixed abode, and they make their gains through convincing narratives and sympathetic aspects.

And it’s not a bad thing.

In fact, it’s a better thing than paying them for work, or paying them for the last of their meagre possessions. Paying for their stories adds value to their voice, and adds meaning to their character and experiences, whether they chose to express them with honesty or with a little embellishment. There seems to be a certain stigma to requesting that the destitute do something for their money, like they’re a performing monkey or the dancing mother from Gypsy’s Tramps and Thieves.

However there’s surely a sense of dejection in throwing coins for no reason, in return for nothing. It’s an action that says the recipient can do nothing of value, that they have nothing to offer but their need, which simply isn’t true.

So yes, I might have some change, but tell me a story first…