Friday, May 19, 2006

"She was poor, but she was honest. . ."

Experience with a Belgian pick-pocket the other week caused Paul Johnson to meditate on honesty in the May 13 Spectator. (I'm afraid the link requires a subscription for the whole article. But good libraries carry the Spec even in darkest southern California.) No, not another complaint from either him or me about the EU or even the Belgian government itself. Rather a few thoughts on the apparent fact that the poor are, in general, more honest than the powerful illuminated by this wonderful bit of historical ephemera:

Before the second world war, when I was a boy in the Staffordshire Potteries, I never heard of anything being stolen. There was great poverty but there were also the Ten Commandments, and God was around a lot in those days. Indeed, if you lost something in the streets, the person who picked it up would go to a lot of trouble to find out where you lived and return it to you. The really poor were more set against stealing than the rich. I have just been reading a delightful new book by Juliet Nicolson called The Perfect Summer, about the year 1911, and it describes, among other things, the coronation of George V and Queen Mary. The cleaners who swept Westminster Abbey after the ceremony found and handed in three ropes of pearls, 20 brooches, half a dozen bracelets, 20 golden balls which had fallen off the coronets of the nobility, and three quarters of a diamond necklace. The total value of these baubles, safely returned to their owners, was £20,000 (at pre-1914 prices!). Hard to decide which was more extraordinary, the profligate carelessness of the aristocratic ladies, or the touching honesty of the poor old charwomen.


In my experience the less well-to-do are also more generous than the rich. The rich never tip the piper. The agreed upon fee is paid. Those less able to afford it often put something extra into the envelope. Not a complaint; just an observation.