Jack Straw’s Beggars

The British Home Secretary, Jack Straw, is pursuing a vigorous campaign to stop people giving money to beggars.

The latest statement by the Government emphasises that it is wrong to give money to beggars as they will only spend the money on alcohol and drugs.

In an article in the Observer newspaper (12 Nov 2000) Richard Ingrams, a former editor of the satirical magazine Private Eye, points out that an identical argument was put to the most famous Londoner of all, Dr. Samuel Johnson. Johnson was famous for giving all the loose change in his pockets to beggars who used to hang about waiting for him to come out of his house and walk to the tavern for dinner.

“What signifies,” said someone, “giving a half pence to common beggars? They only lay it out on gin and tobacco”.

“And why should they be denied such sweeteners of their existence?” was Johnson’s reply – a question that, as Ingrams remarks, “would be unlikely to evoke a very sympathetic response from Mr Jack Straw and his colleagues at the Home Office”

Johnson’s reply reminded me of the many jokes about beggars to be found in Freud’s Jokes and their relation to the unconscious (1905), and the interpretations he makes of them.

An echo to Johnson’s remark is the joke about the man who’s deafness was caused by drinking too much brandy. The doctor meets him on the street and remonstrates with him. “You’re right doctor” says the man, “I have been drinking again, and I’ll tell you why. So long as I didn’t drink I was able to hear. But nothing I heard was as good as the brandy”. Even Freud admits that you have to be a good storyteller to raise a laugh with this one, “but in the background lies the sad question: may not the man have been right in his choice?”

Other examples go more directly to questions of ethics and morality.

“A poor man borrowed 25 florins from a rich aquaintance, with many asservations of his necessitous circumstances. The very same day his benefactor met him again in a restaurant with a plate of salmon mayonnaise in front of him. ‘What? You borrow money from me and then order yourself salmon mayonnaise? Is that what you’ve used my money for?”

“I don’t understand you” replied the poor man: “If I haven’t any money I can’t eat salmon mayonnaise, and if I have some money I mustn’t eat salmon mayonnaise. Well, then, when am I to eat salmon mayonnaise?”

Freud’s gloss on the joke reveals the profound truth it contains. “What these jokes whisper may be said aloud: that the wishes and desires of men have a right to make themselves acceptable alongside of exacting and ruthless morality. And in our days it has been said in forceful and stirring sentences that this morality is only a selfish regulation laid down by the few who are rich and powerful and who can satisfy their wishes at any time..”

A similar set of jokes is more closely connected to religious rather than political morality. They are the Jewish ‘Schnorrer’ [beggar] jokes, each containing a Baron and a Schnorrer as central figures.

“The Schnorrer begged the Baron for some money for a journey to Ostend; his doctor had recommended sea-bathing for his troubles. The Baron thought Ostend was a particularly expensive resort; a cheaper one would do equally well. The Schnorrer, however, rejected the proposal: “Herr Baron, I consider nothing too expensive for my health”.

We laugh at the impertinence of the beggar’s demand. But Freud says: “The truth that lies behind is that the Schnorrer, who in his thoughts treats the rich man’s money as his own, has actually, according to the sacred ordinances of the Jews, almost a right to make this confusion. … The ordinary, middle class view of charity is in conflict here with the religious one…”

Perhaps the government would like to make explicit their ‘ordinary middle class view of charity’ and whether, indeed, they have a religious one as well.

But Freud does not close the chapter on Schnorrer jokes without providing one suitable for Jack Straw. It is the one about the Baron who, deeply moved by a Schnorrer’s tale of woe, rang for his servants: “Throw him out!” said the Baron, “He’s breaking my heart”

Leave a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *