So when I saw that one episode from the second series of Conor Woodman’s Scam City on National Geographic was going to feature London, I was rubbing my hands in anticipation. It is always gratifying to have one’s negative opinions about something vindicated, and this promised to administer a suitable shoeing to London’s reputation. I couldn’t wait.
But the curious thing about the programme was that not only was it more to do with petty crime than ‘scams’ per se – at least, according to what I understand by that word, namely a fraudulent scheme or a swindle – it ended up giving the impression that London was an awful lot less dodgy than you might think.
First up, Woodman made a point of sitting on the terrace of a coffee shop in Hoxton and leaving his iPhone on the table in front of him when - hurrah! - someone snatched it, which is what Woodman hoped with all his heart would happen. True, some random fellow engaged him in conversation to ‘distract’ him (and was subsequently quite happy to hang around, shoot the breeze with Conor, and deny his involvement), but it wasn’t really a swindle per se.
Duly de-iPhoned, he then proceeded to Oxford Street, and focused on those ‘closing down sale’ stalls that sell perfume to unwary tourists (and, of course, never actually close down). I actually think they’re invisible to locals unless you stare very, very hard at them… Anyway, Woodman ‘discovered’ that the stall’s proprietors apparently plant people in the audience to act as enthusiastic and interested customers to encourage other people to buy. Woodman later revealed that the goods weren’t what the vendors had claimed them to be, but was pretty vague on the details: a pity, really, as that would have qualified this case as a genuine scam. But the evidence was dangled before us and swiftly discarded like… well, like a bottle of cheap perfume that you didn’t really want.
In his unswerving quest for victimhood, and, one guesses, suitably fragrant for his next labour, Woodman then proceeded to ride London’s foetid Tube system for hours on end, praying to have his pockets picked… and then had to admit that it didn’t happen (I hear the Eastern European ladies on the buses that ply up and down Park Lane would have been better bets… anecdotal evidence of one, though, I admit). So no crime or scam even to speak of: where’s Fagin when you need him? But it ought to be said that, while travelling around all day on London’s trains, he missed one of the biggest out-and-out scams of all to afflict Londoners day-in-day-out: I refer to the eye-watering fares that London commuters are forced to pay in exchange for the right to use a filthily bacterial, constantly delayed or suspended, unreliable, uncomfortable public transport system. But on that subject, not a word.
Last of all was what Woodman called the ‘false friend’ scam. Briefly stated, he handed over about 80 quid to a wild-eyed, excitable and patently untrustworthy individual on a council estate somewhere in East London, on the promise of getting some booze in return at some later, unspecified time that evening. We’ll notch that up as a genuine scam: ‘Give me money, I will get you booze, be back in 5, my friend’, no alcohol is forthcoming, your oppo disappears. Duly scammed.
The problem with all of this was that there was an irritating assumption behind the crimes depicted that the viewers of the show - as well as the inhabitants of and tourist vistors to London - are utterly guileless and lacking in common sense, and need to be protected.
But that’s nonsense. That you might get your iPhone nicked in a big city if you leave it lying around on a table is obvious to anyone with an iota of street-sense (that is to say: anyone who has spent more than 5 minutes in a big city).
Asking the shop-keepers of Ilford if they’ve fenced his stolen phone? Amazingly, they won’t admit to buying stolen goods to a middle-class white guy who looks for all the world like an undercover copper.
The perfume place? Conor seemed particularly vexed at the way random Eastern Europeans had been planted in the crowd to drum up interest: but whatever happened to caveat emptor? Or the entirely correct saying that ‘If it seems too good to be true, it probably is’?
The Chinese massage one was particularly ridiculous. Even here in squeaky-clean Singapore, it appears to be common knowledge that the plentiful ‘spas’ and ‘health centres’ and ‘traditional massage’ places will offer you a ‘happy ending’ as a minimum for an additional fee. I mean, of course, the ones in the ageing, down-at-heel decades-old mall-soleums that are scattered around town – the malodorous places that suffer from what I can only describe as BO (Building Odour) – a lingering, clinging stink of Asian food, cigarette smoke, dust, sweat, spiders, ants, bleach, cockroaches, deadness and, well, oldness: places like Pearl's Centre, Fortune Centre, Orchard Towers, Park Lane Mall, Peace Centre etc. etc. It’s a matter of (kindergarten-level) street-smarts again. And as far as I can make out, every single one of the girls was entirely unabashed when Woodman turned down their sexually generous offer – he wasn’t threatened, he didn’t have to pay extra, and he went on his way unmolested… So again, where’s the scam? How has Woodman been swindled?
I’ve gone on a bit here: I suppose it’s true that man alone is born crying, lives complaining and dies disappointed. Then it occurred to me: perhaps it’s all an in-joke. Maybe the biggest ‘scam’ is that Conor is the one conning us, and really his mission is to convince us that we’ve got a lot less to worry about than we think in the Big City. And I’m sure he drops a few gentle clues and big winks for the viewer that we shouldn’t take any of this too seriously.
Which is a shame, really. It ought to be difficult to pretend to expose the darker side of tourism in London and then end up presenting the place in a positive light… But as a Londonophobe, I would quote Dr. Johnson again: Difficult? I wish it had been impossible.
If you agree or disagree with what I said, why not leave a comment? It would be great to hear from you!