Martyn McLaughlin: Take a tip from Slobbering Bob and make use of the grifters

IN THE city of romance, even the rogue elements obey the rules of sentiment. Such was the splendour of our surroundings, my girlfriend and I took little notice of the well-heeled young Parisian walking towards us as we meandered along the Quai d'Orsay.

To our right, the Eiffel Tower's pyramid of iron rose from a light carpet of snow, while on the other bank of a peaceful Seine, the pomp and glory of the Grand Palais shone through the January fog. The pavement, therefore, was the last place our eyes were trained.

The young man, however, suggested that was where the greatest treasures lay. As we passed, he pointed to the ground. Stooping down, he picked up a gold band and attempted to slide it over his ring finger, letting out an audible sigh upon discovering his knuckle a stubby barrier to progress.

Gesturing to us, he took my hand and found the ring an effortless fit. "Bonne chance, bonne chance!" he exclaimed with a smile, before turning on his heel and making to walk away. There would, though, be one final thing, monsieur. "Je n'ai pas d'argent, pour manger," he pleaded. Still laughing, I handed him a few euros and returned the band before it stained my finger a lurid shade of green.

The ruse, I later learned, is as old as a bottle of vintage Chateau Margaux. Over the next two hours, we were stopped no fewer than three times by practitioners of the old trick, some more convincing than others (hint to the young lady outside the Louvre: don't be seen to throw the ring on the ground before affecting your surprised expression).

It is a deceit that has doubtless lightened the pockets of many tourists too befuddled with pocket maps, or too damn gullible, to see through it.

Yet the genteel charm of the concept means it is no scam in my eyes. Where else in the world would the machinations of a con artist leave the victim with a warm glow?

Between the late-19th and mid-20th century, our streets were awash with all manner of refined hustlers, men who realised criminality need not be a crude affair. Their sobriquets are all but forgotten: the Limehouse Chappie, Overcoat Kelly and my favourite, Slobbering Bob.

Nowadays we harbour only apathy or suspicion towards any passing stranger wielding nothing more than a smile, while the only artifice we encounter is through spam e-mails from the proprietors of Nigerian gold reserves.

The grifters are overdue a return. Given how fatigued we are of chuggers, perhaps they could work the streets on charities' behalf, keeping the odd coin as reward for their skill and insouciance?

Seems they're thirsty boys up North

THERE are certain routine occurrences in the realm of Scottish politics that send the nibs of the fourth estate into a flurry of disapproval – none more so than the annual list of MSP expenses.

The transparency of the scheme is a joy to journalists, who can quickly harvest major stories, the latest of which involved Bill Butler, the Labour MSP who appeared to try and claim back a 1 charity donation, before claiming it was an oversight.

The categories of expenses cover a spectrum of ordinary costs, such as office rent or stationery bills. Mischievous hacks, however, might choose to closer examine other claims.

Only four MSPs – Jim Mather, Jamie McGrigor, Jamie Stone and David Stewart – recouped money for "exceptional needs refreshments". Does the fact all four represent Highland constituencies prove that old central-belt stereotype that they drink a hell of a lot more up north?

IT IS impossible to second-guess the attitudes of the general public, even less so to rationalise their myriad idiosyncrasies.

This month, Oxfam Scotland has been touring the nation's boltholes in an effort to encourage people to make changes for 2009 that will benefit not only them, but also the environment. Unprompted, some citizens have offered the charity's staff their own mystifying top tips.

One shopper, tired of throwing out unused milk bought for his teabreak, enthused about freezing the white stuff in ice-cube trays. It's admirable, if curious – who wants a cold cuppa?