October 31, 2015
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.
“You took heroin,” I said, more a statement than a question.
“Yes, but I”m clean now,” he replied. “I 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.