What the Dickens! I’m not such a Charlie to fall for that trick

July 28, 2000

SCRIPTURES can be used as blackmail. I opened a begging letter this morning which entreated me to remember the proverb of Solomon: ‘‘Charity saves from death.’’

If I send the £10,000 which this writer is demanding with spiritual menaces, will I secure my own immortality? Is that the meaning of Solomon’s wisdom?

Or will my charity save another soul from death? The writer drops barely veiled hints: ‘‘Don’t know how I’ll be able to carry on if you turn your back on me, Mr Geller . . . how my wife would struggle to manage our four children if I was not here, I shudder to imagine.’’

The tale is layered in tragedy, each slab of bad luck glued to the next by the thinnest smear of false hope.

A business venture with his brother was booming —until his brother lost half their holdings in a Rotherham casino and absconded with the other half. (A good touch, Rotherham — but I wonder if there is really a casino there).

The writer’s first marriage collapsed with the business, but he bravely threw his heart and his credit rating back in the ring by marrying an older woman (with a disabled child) and joining a mini-cab firm.

The marriage prospered, with twins and then another child — a little girl, by the way, sickly but adorable.

And the taxi work was going well, until the girl required a lengthy course of hospital treatment. The writer is not afraid to spell out the word ‘cancer’. Eleven times. You will be relieved to know the disease is in remission —though it could come back at any time.

This devoted father spent far too much time at the girl’s bedside, neglecting his duty to the cab-hailers of Sheffield and to the finance company. His cab was repossessed — and without £10,000 to buy a new Ford, he will lose his home too.

There is one last chink of hope — the spoon he bent during one of my TV performances. That paranormal event convinced him I was genuine, perhaps even an emissary of God.

He has followed my career with awe ever since. Now he has but one request, a bagatelle for a man of my wealth — the loan of that £10,000.

Not a gift. The writer would die before he asked for a gift. Just a loan, to be paid off at £100 a month. With interest, if I wish.

And you, the reader, are wondering that I can be heartless enough to mock.

But it was the quote from proverbs which tipped me off. I’d read that before, in a begging letter, because it had sent me to the Tanach.

And it happens that many of my begging letters are filed — yes, here it is! The same letter, almost word for word, and the same name.

Even the ages are the same, and the sum needed for a new minicab. But the address has changed: Two years ago, the writer was in Sheffield.

Perhaps last time I sent back a note of regret, or encouragement — just enough to make the writer mark down my name for a second attempt.

Because begging letters are a business. Criminals have made their living from hard-luck epistles since the birth of the postal service — Charles Dickens called them ‘‘public robbers’’ and noted wryly that ‘‘what will not content a begging-letter writer for a week would educate a score of children for a year’’.

I have been keeping the best of mine for several years, with an idea of cataloguing them online.

That at least would make the fraud harder to commit, since victims could compare every letter with the internet archive. A duplicated letter is certainly a lying letter — no honest beggar sends out the same plea to everyone.

My favourites are the outrageously greedy, like the New York woman claiming to be a Hebrew and Yiddish interpreter in the courts. She needs plane tickets to get her children and grandchildren over from Israel — perhaps I could use my influence with El Al.

And she dreams of a three-bedroomed condominium, with car-parking, which could be hers for £265,000. It would be worth it, just to get her away from her awful neighbours (they’re Italian, and you know what that means!).

Plus, her teeth are playing her up, and because of her allergies she needs ivory falsies. She knows it’s a lot to ask, but if I want to call her and discuss it, she’ll be happy to talk to me in Hebrew (perhaps she has read that I miss Israel).

The practised conmen will always barter. One Indian ‘businessman’ demanded $200,000 earlier this year. We’ve been haggling, and I have worn him down to $10,000.

He has sent me a business plan, which is just a barrelful of jargon with no punctuation — I suspect I was not supposed to read it, just accept it as proof that he was serious about investing my $200,000 or $10,000 in a viable economic venture.

There’s no emotional blackmail in this plea, but a subtler professional kind (I won’t change his words): ‘‘If you tell me that u don’t have sufficient money, i will really be in a doubtful condition about the skills i thought you had. Really tears are rolling in my eyes writing to you, I swear on God.’’

I am grateful to that counterfeit cab-driver for pointing me to Solomon’s Proverbs (10:2) — for in my version of the Tanach, it is not exactly ‘charity’ which conquers mortality: ‘‘Ill-gotten wealth is of no avail, but righteousness saves from death.’’

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