I, like most people, like to think I am a reasonably good judge of character. My current job, working as a charity fundraiser, is casting some doubt on that assumption. Before I reveal what I mean I should probably explain the mechanics of the job:
I am usually located close to a canal or other waterway with a banner announcing the charity and it’s purpose and a table full of leaflets and paraphernalia. My job is to engage with the general public which turns out to be much more involved than you might expect. It starts with a smile to make the initial eye contact followed by a greeting and a question. The question is usually something along the lines of “have you come across the Canal and River Trust before?” or it may relate to the weather if I deem that to be appropriate. In a surprising percentage of cases irrespective of the question, the response I get is: “No thank you”. So far I have resisted the temptation to ask if they would like twenty grand in used ten pound notes to see if I get the same answer but I’m not sure what I would do if somebody said yes please. Occasionally people pause long enough for me to engage them with a big dollop of charm and some attention grabbing statistic about the charity and we are off. I love this moment, it’s like the opening curtain of a performance or the bell going off for round one of the big fight. Well, maybe not a big fight, that’s probably not the best analogy. But it is definitely a performance. It’s all about establishing early on whether or not my punter has any sympathy with the work of the charity and making a judgement accordingly whether to pursue the conversation or politely let them go and refix the smile ready for the next one. Most of the time it’s pretty straightforward. Most of the time.
Every now and again that thrill of the opening performance is replaced about sixty seconds into the exchange with a cold, slightly disturbing sensation as I realise I have found another lonely oddball who is, in turn, delighted to have found somebody that is prepared to listen to them. What is it about me that attracts them? I seem to get at least one of them every shift. Then, just as they get into their stride explaining to me how the country was doomed from the moment the steam engine was replaced with the internal combustion one, or that one day, and it’s always one day, they are going to buy a an old wreck of a boat, renovate it single handed and get the BBC to make a documentary about it, something really annoying happens. While I nod and smile politely a whole host of people who may as well be wearing sandwich boards bearing the message “I want to become a friend of the Canal and River Trust, where do I sign?” start to pass behind my new found friend. Yesterday it was a chain-saw sculptor who wanted to know what the minimum height restriction was on the entire 2000 mile network. (I didn’t know). He needed to know this because of the trees he would need to keep on top of his boat and, of course, the bee hives. I kid you not. I try not to resort to being rude but try as I might I just don’t seem to be able to shake these characters off. Then there are the drunks.
Last week one of them kindly offered to go and get me a pint from the pub at half past eleven in the morning. I declined of course because I was working but I was already in danger of becoming half cut simply by being engulfed by the alcoholic fug that surrounded him. He was harmless enough but it is so frustrating. I hadn’t seen a soul for the ten minutes before he appeared but now there was a steady stream of towpath walking enthusiasts passing quickly by and trying to avoid me and my drunken accomplice. Yesterday’s drunk was another with a plan to buy a boat. Having explained approximately what was involved in terms of licensing and water safety I gave him a map of the waterways hoping he might want to get home immediately to start planning his odyssey. Not a chance. He spread out the map to explain to me that he was going to sail down to Slough to surprise his daughter and stay with her for a while. I’m sure she can’t wait. The conversation was made a bit tricky by the fact that every now and again he would lose his balance and stagger away from me. Mostly he went toward the pub but there were a couple of dodgy moments when it looked like he might end up in the canal. Eventually he decided it was time to go home and sleep things off but not before assuring me that I was now his everlasting pal and as soon as he got his boat I would be the second man aboard. I think not.
I sometimes wonder when I am trying my opening conversational gambits whether or not I have been understood and I often don’t catch the response I get. In one particular case though two gentlemen decided to stop to talk and we were a couple of minutes into the exchange before we realised we had no common language. They were newly arrived from Czechoslovakia (I think they may have been in denial as to recent history) and their English was limited to say the least. My Czech is pretty rusty and I was struggling to explain what I was doing standing by the canal. The word canal seemed to be understood and I got the distinct impression that they were asking me a question which involved money. I decided that they must be asking what it cost to maintain the waterways and I launched into my eye popping statistic reveal. £250,000 a day I announced with a little dramatic effect. It always gets a reaction but in this case they seemed genuinely shocked. Even horrified. I didn’t want to mislead them so with perseverance and a bit of mime I eventually established that I had just told them it would cost a quarter of a million pounds to hire a narrowboat for a day. They decided not to bother.
I might just go and make a small amendment to my C.V. Experienced charity fundraiser and all round oddball magnet. Good listener.