October 31, 2015

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No doubt he knew that this would go down well with the taxpayers to whom he had to appeal, but perhaps it was true, and if so it was laudable. I asked him what he had been in prison for, and he said it was for shoplifting, which is just as I should have guessed, for he didn”€™t have that look of concerted and self-satisfied evil that the worst kind of criminals often have. He was pathetic rather than bad, and I felt sure that if I had asked him his life story it would contain little that was good.

“€œYou took heroin,”€ I said, more a statement than a question.

“€œYes, but I”€™m clean now,”€ he replied. “€œI wouldn”€™t wish it on anyone.”€

I bought yet another feather duster that we did not need, but I did not tell him that we did not need it: I wanted him to think it would really come in useful, as perhaps it will in twenty years”€™ time, when all the others are worn out. I was fully aware, of course, of all the many ways in which this young man might have been cheating me; but the thought of turning away someone who was genuine, and who appeared to be a suffering human being, was many times more painful to me than the thought of being bilked of £9.99.

I was accompanied throughout this transaction by the thought of Doctor Johnson, who never passed a beggar without giving him a penny (though he himself was far from rich). It was not that he did not know in the abstract that subventions could encourage idleness; it was just that he always saw the particular individual, and not an abstract category of individuals, before him.

I think, though I cannot prove, that I needed Doctor Johnson to teach me this: I wouldn”€™t have been generous on my own because I am by nature miserly. In other words, reading can sometimes do some good.


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