Being hassled in London is a nuisance all of us are familiar with. On any given day it could be someone with a clipboard and a charity sign-up form, making a beeline for you with a face you’d quite like to slap, a Hare Krishna man on Oxford Street, desperate to give you a book, or that bloke outside every train station who always just needs 40p. There’s many different characters, all of them a pain in the arse.
Then there are those who want to force a leaflet upon you, or give you something for free, from newspapers to discount gym membership. The gym discount is lost on me, but conversely, I am a sucker for free food (there’s a definite correlation in there somewhere). I don’t mind at all when that nice lady is at London Bridge station giving out free packs of BelVita*, or when the free samples get put out at Whole Foods (a shop I otherwise despise).
Last week, for absolutely no reason at all, I decided I would accept everything that was offered to me on my daily walk to the office, from Waterloo East to Piccadilly Circus, to see how much crap I could accumulate over one week.
There were some basic rules: I’d only ever take the same thing once, so only one issue of the Metro for example (one being more than enough anyway). I’d also only take things that were being given out for free (sorry Big Issue man near the Royal Festival Hall who I walk by every day. I’ll buy one from you soon, I promise). Lastly, I wouldn’t take any religious paraphernalia (the Waterloo area has lots of Jehovah’s Witnesses handing out those What Does the Bible Really Teach books).
Here’s what happened.
Begrudgingly took a Metro from the box at Waterloo (headline: “Ukraine crisis: All eyes on Putin”). Reluctantly accepted a copy of City A.M. from the man outside the station (headline: “Europe and Russia spar over Ukraine”). The free stuff dried up after that until outside Embankment station, where I was handed a flyer for arts & crafts exhibitions at Oxo Tower and Gabriel's Wharf. Feelings of paranoia that I potentially look like a City wbanker, or someone interested in handicraft.
Overall swag rating: Average.
The journey got off to a great start with a free Onken Muesli pot (Strawberry & Rhubarb) before I’d even left Waterloo. Tried taking more than one, but was met with a nasty look of scorn from the lady giving them out. Outside it was Time Out day, so that went into the bag too (cover star: Jack Whitehall). Rejected offers of a Metro and City A.M. as per the rules (headlines: Metro: “Dear EU, here’s what we think of your bonus cap. Love, HSBC”. City AM: “Markets hit fresh highs”).
Onto Embankment, where I was given a leaflet offering me a discount haircut at a salon that looks to be primarily for women, followed by a Community Support Officer handing me a very different leaflet, this time about how to spot a suspicious object (turns out you have to consider more than whether or not the package is ticking). The bounty continued outside Charing Cross with the offer of a free Specsavers Oyster card wallet with a £5 eye test discount inside. Fleeting thoughts of how a pair of specs would look great with my new lady haircut.
Overall swag rating: Impressive.
The thrills of Tuesday’s haul would be hard to top, and what with this being hump day, the free stuff brigade would need to pull out all the stops to impress me. Predictly, it didn’t. It started with the now routine shunning of the Metro and City A.M. (headlines: Metro: “Hyde Park victims are denied justice”. City A.M: “Tesco retreats”). Outside Waterloo I was offered the same Specsavers Oyster card holder/discount but declined, plus the latest issue of Stylist, which last time I checked was primarily meant to be aimed at women (cover star: Charlotte Church).
Then nothing until Charing Cross, where it finally happened. It had taken three days but I was now face to face with Fitness First man. Free month’s membership! Free bag! Free sweet! I forget the rest of the spiel, but took the leaflet, knowing full well it will never be used. The free sweet? That got eaten straight away. Minutes later I was given a leaflet for yet another gym, which included the slightly creepy slogan "Make love in leisure, get fit in haste".
Later began to get paranoid that I look like a woman, or someone in desperate need of the gym. One of those is definitely correct.
Overall swag rating: Decent, tasty.
Not a good day. After rejecting the Metro and City A.M. (headlines: Metro: “Life for a life” (Lee Rigby verdict). City A.M: “RBS still years from recovery”), the only other thing I was offered was Shortlist (cover stars: Spinal Tap). It was a crushing blow after two days of solid free gear. Began to wonder if these people realise how much of a taste I now have for the freebie, and how I demand a certain amount of goodies each and every day.
Overall swag rating: Hardly worth getting out of bed.
Bad end to the week. Thursday’s drought continued into Friday, where things got so desperate I almost accepted the Metro and City A.M. (headlines: Metro: “The spy who loved me...naked on a webcam”. City A.M: “Scots warned of business exodus”). I didn’t crack though. After that it was a copy of Sport (Cover star: Luis Suárez) and nothing else. Not even the Specsavers man.
Overall swag rating: Total fucking waste of time.
So what can we learn from a week’s worth of free stuff from a set of daily journeys through central London? Not much: There’s still clearly lots of money to be made from selling advertising space in free papers and mags; you can get a slightly cheaper eye test, hair cut and gym membership most days of the week, but only in the first few days. That’s about it.
Meanwhile I’m left with a bunch of offers I won’t use, a certain amount of good feature writing, and a whole heap of sensationalist journalism. Everything ended up in the recycling bin, and will likely be regenerated into more of the same, to be handed out to someone else, possibly on the same journey. Possibly even me again.
I did keep the Specsavers Oyster card wallet (it is related to the Tube after all), but am happy for the discount offer to expire away in the drawer with all the other free Oyster card holders I’ve been given during my years in London. There’s nowt wrong with my peepers anyway. I do have happy memories of the free yoghurt though, and am already hoping the BelVita lady is at London Bridge tomorrow morning.
* Handy tip for fellow gluttons - she’ll let you take as many packs as you want!