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Victor Lewis-Smith column: Wipe out the real spongers.

THERE are certain things in life that I'll never understand.

Why is Challenge TV the least-challenging station in Britain?

What would the BBC do about the Christmas Message if the Queen developed Tourette's Syndrome ("My f***ing husband and I wish all you c***s a happy Xmas")?

And how is it that NASA could put a man on the moon 30 years ago, but they still can't get one on to Ann Widdecombe?

Ms Widdecombe (aka Doris Karloff) jumped inelegantly on to the anti-East European beggars bandwagon this week (it promptly tipped up and did a wheelie for three miles). More worrying, our supposedly liberal Home Secretary, Jack Straw, has been sounding equally intolerant.

Both sides have been using thinly disguised racism to whip the bored populace into a pre-Election frenzy, and their central message seems to be that we don't want foreign beggars on our streets, taking jobs away from our British beggars. Really, the sheer mean-spiritedness of it all beggars belief.

Don't get me wrong. We do have a problem with threatening beggars on the streets of our cities, but they're a home-grown breed, and they've been at it for years.

I'm talking about those yobbos-cum-highwaymen called squeegies, who hang around traffic lights (especially in London) and start cleaning your windscreen with a sponge and some dirty water the moment a red light shows. They do this unasked for a few seconds, then aggressively demand money, and they're very good at their job. Not at the cleaning part (your windscreen usually looks filthier after they've attacked it), but at towering menacingly over drivers and intimidating them into paying for a totally unwanted service.

The last time I was squeegied (despite starting my wipers and emptying the washer fluid reservoir in a futile attempt to protect my windscreen) was a couple of months ago in Paddington. The squeegie in question resembled the "before" picture in a Biactol ad, and he not only hurled abuse, but also gobbed phlegm on to the windscreens of drivers who refused to cough up.

His scam is nothing new, of course. Back in the Fifties, sly garage owners used to wipe an oily rag over the windows while the driver visited the khazi, then offer to clean the windscreen and expect a tip. But over the past decade squeegies have transformed this ruse into a lucrative new profession, based on the twin legacies of Thatcherism - care in the community and the total deregulation of private enterprise.

So if you want to see the third world in action, there's no need to visit Bombay or Rio any more. Just drive down to Vauxhall Cross, a foreign land where the local currency is a can of Special Brew, the native emblem a bit of rubber with a handle, and the major industry extortion masquerading as service.

The antics of the gentleman I encountered in Paddington (shouting obscenities and holding up traffic while he demanded money) were the best argument I've seen in years for the reintroduction of lead into petrol.

Why? Because if all the nation's cars reverted to four-star, and we all revved hard at the traffic lights for a month, I reckon we could finish off squeegies once and for all.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Lewis-Smith, Victor
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Apr 1, 2000
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