Sunday, 8 June 2014

On Literature, Charity and Giving

A couple of rather strange threads come together for this post.  I have recently started reading The Red Knight, by Miles Cameron, a fantasy novel that I picked up in a charity shop whilst on honeymoon last week.  One of the comments on the back cover describes it as ‘gritty, and at times brutal’, and so I assumed that it was a fantasy in the style of Joe Abercrombie or George RR Martin, both of whose books I very much enjoy.  However, I was mistaken.  In the latter two authors’ books, the majority of people are scheming, violent and treacherous, and violence is very rarely far from any given page.  Good characters exist, but they are very much the exception, and often end up being manipulated or destroyed by their more devious and amoral peers.

By contrast, The Red Knight is mostly filled with good, decent, honest people, and it is the evil, scheming and treacherously violent that are the exception.  Even the wealthy merchant, usually a staple of underhanded nastiness, is an honest and upstanding person.  Not that the characters don’t have flaws, but they are genuinely good people, struggling to get by in what is an undeniably violent world.

If I had to choose which I believe this world to be, I would have to say that I believe it to be the latter rather than the former, and that most people are essentially decent and honest.  Believing the opposite leads to cynicism and misanthropy, and that helps no-one at all, least of all yourself.

So that’s thread one.  Now for part two:

Some time ago, I posted about giving to the homeless.  My conclusion was that while it is indeed best to give to a homeless charity, I would still give directly to the homeless, giving them the benefit of the doubt regarding what they would do with the money.

This week in the Milton Keynes Citizen, the front page story is about Jamie Cooke, a ‘professional’ beggar, pretending to be homeless and using the money he is given to fund a heroin habit.  The article includes a photograph, and I recognised him as someone for whom I’ve bought food in the past, and indeed someone to whom I’ve given money.  He is now under a 5 year antisocial behaviour order preventing him from begging in Milton Keynes.

To quote the article, and in the words of MK Anti Social Behaviour officer PC Dave Goodwin, “Members of the public thought they were helping Jamie by giving cash but in fact they were almost killing him with kindness.  In a funny kind of way, I’m hoping the ASBO will do him a real favour.  I’ve been dealing with Jamie for years, and I know he is obviously a man of intelligence. The fact that he can no longer be a professional beggar could be what he needs to turn his life around.”

So where does this leave me and my high flung idealism?  I really don’t know.  I do worry that this story will harden the hearts of many people, and make them even less inclined to give to the homeless, even through reputable charities.  I certainly don’t feel as though I have been the ‘victim’ of his lying.  If there is a victim at all, I suspect it is him, rather than any of the kind-hearted people who thought they were helping him.  I do believe that eventually he will have to stand before God, and give an account of what he has done, and I genuinely pray that he will be able to repent and accept the forgiveness that is his for the taking, if only he is willing to do so.  When those of us who gave to him stand before the same God, the fact that he was misusing our generosity will not count against us, but the fact that we gave, and gave willingly will count for us, no matter what he then did with it.

I hope that this does indeed help Mr Cooke sort his life out and put it back on some sort of right track.  I hope that he comes to repent of his actions long before he is called to account, for his own sake.  I hope that it won’t stop people from helping those who are so much less fortunate than themselves.

In the meantime, I shall continue to assume that those who ask me for generosity are asking genuinely, and will use that generosity in the best possible way.  This may make me horribly naive, indeed I’m sure it does, and I won’t stop supporting those charities that will make good use of that money, but I refuse to live in a world in which everyone is deceitful, and the good are the rare exceptions.  It may make me blind, it may even (though I hope and pray it does not) make me part of the problem.  It may very well be that life is as it is imagined by Abercrombie and Martin, and that the majority are liars and manipulators.  However, I shall live my life assuming that, like in The Red Knight, the Jamie Cookes are the exception and not the rule, and if I am wrong, then I believe that it will not be held against me, when I am finally called to account.


  1. There is a similar campaign here in Bath around "killing with kindness" aimed at those who would otherwise give money to those begging on the street. The theory behind it is that the funds could be better spent by services who provide a more structured set of support to those that need it. Also, if the income dries up then those who have been resistant to engage with these services, then they might actually start engaging and move on with their life rather than staying in the vicious cycle they are currently in, funded by people trying to help them.

  2. So presumably, you think that I should restrict my giving solely to reputable charities? I'm sure you're correct, but it doesn't stop me from feeling a severe twinge of conscience if I walk away from someone who is right in front of me, and asking for help.

  3. Actually, I think it is entirely your choice what you do with your hard earned money. However, there are consequences to every action and some of them might not be quite what is expected. If you are happy to hand over cash, that is fine, but it might just be that there are "more effective" ways of helping - for example actually buying them food, which I think you said you do, or donating to the local night shelter so that they have somewhere safe, warm and dry to sleep for the night. I look forward to debating this further with you at some point.

    1. It's not that I disagree with you; it's just a subject upon which I have extremely mixed feelings. I have no doubt that there are 'more effective' ways, but it still seems like an implicit insult to assume that they will just blow one's money on drugs or alcohol. On the other hand, as you say, it may stop them searching for more permanent and thorough help.

      Like I say, mixed feelings...