Skip to main content

The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by W.H. Davies

It's not often I get to wax hyperbolic about something with an intrinsic worthwhile-ness to it, especially something Welsh. Having under the belt the standard issue years of Welsh Education, comprising vague threats of crippling yearning for home were I ever to leave the country (called for the uninitiated hiraeth), language lessons-by-rote with no attempt by the teacher to instill anything close to understanding, and stealthy practising until I could repeat Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch with sufficient prowess to impress... someone I have yet to meet, the value others, keen to keep our national "brand" alive and if not neck-and-neck with the success of the Irish, at least on the same strip of cinder, placed on Welshness has soured for me the pleasure of simply being from Wales.

However, the fine chaps at Parthian Books, along with some sterling  fellows at The Welsh Books Council, have done something of which I can say makes me proud to be linked, even by the chance serendipity of birth, to the land which produced poet, wanderer and super tramp, W.H. Davies. This endeavour is called the Library of Wales. I'll let you visit the website to find out more, but I can assure you that it is worth your while. But the point of all this introductory spiel is that they have re-published, in this instance in e-book form, the autobiography of the aforementioned vagrant. And I've gone and read it!

You may be familiar, thanks to a TV campaign of some considerable inanity for so-called adventure holidays in the UK, with some of Davies' poetry, although you will probably not know it. Take a look at this:



Not quite as entertaining and the PoetryReincarnations version that I had embedded but rights free if nothing else. 

George Bernard Shaw, in his introduction to Davies' 1908 work, highlights his apparent lack of formal versification, praising the honest craftsmanship of the stanzas, giving the lie to those whose verse stiffens with structure and proper form. He certainly lays out his page plainly and without artifice. Shaw also points out the fact that he himself only stumbled upon Davies' work because the chancer had sent him a bound book of poems with a request that he either send him half a crown or return the book! So before Davies gets the opportunity to introduce himself as one born in a Newport public house, we already know him to be of artistic verisimilitude and modest but enthusiastic about his talents. 

If one were to read Shaw's words as truth, the text that follows could be considered as a straightforward account of a life on the lam (from drudgery, despair and responsibility), but I, being me, could not help but feel that either Shaw's analysis was at fault, or he was deliberate in his mild sarcasm. Davies' tales of tramping through America are entertaining, enlightening and certainly plausible, up to a point, but there is always something of a caricature painter at work, with fully realised stereotypes of drifters, gridlers, grinders and hawkers on every page, complete down to their rather forlornly ridiculous sobriquets - Slim, Tall, Irish, Oklahoma... And that each tramp knows most others in a country the size of America stretches credulity. 

"I was born thirty-five years ago,
in a public house..."
Nonetheless, cynicism to one side Davies sets out what is a thoroughly engrossing romp through the economic hinterland of turn of the century America, where he makes plans, saves money, travels vast distances, spends everything, drinks copiously, succumbs to fits of literary ambition (wherein he sends out his poems and manuscripts, writes letters to beg support and is generally thwarted by the Charitable Society, from whom little charity is ever received), even making it to Canada where he meets some of the most wonderful people he has ever encountered, primarily because he has just lost a foot trying to hop a train. These parts of his story are truly evocative of the hobo life, romance and realism trading blows on every line. But there is always, at the back of my mind, a worry at his reluctance to dwell on his experience of home. When he does make it back to South Wales, he says that he decides not to visit but instead cracks on to Swansea before turning back, and only to draw out his private income that has been building up in his absence. Little mention is made of family other than his grandfather at the outset, and a bemusing passage about his mother and her prescience. Maybe worry is too strong - perhaps it is just stymied curiosity. As Shaw says, if there were more of this to read, I would read it! 

Davies' life story is a Woody Guthrie song, an American classic of the down-and-outs, however predating Guthrie and later contemporaries including Orwell, and sowing the seed of the romantic life of the hobo, marrying danger and delight in simple terms. It is also about the triumph of the will, the modesty of a man just doing what he feels he must in writing of his experiences and pushing them into publication. He bandies about a few throw-away lines about his proof readers writing his poems for him, but this self-deprecation hides nothing, and the man is revealed. If I had no proof other than that everything he says about life riding the rails is repeated in books, films and TV right through the remainder of the 20th century and into this one, then I might say that Davies is the inspiration to a whole literary and cinematic tradition. And best of all, it is immensely readable.

A sincere thank you goes to Parthian and the Welsh Books Council for bringing such literature of note to the attention of the wider public, and saving unduly forgotten books like The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp from the dusty shelf of collective amnesia. I am delighted I've had the chance to read this book, and even if it has not inspired me to read W.H. Davies' poetry (which is, truth to tell, a bit pastoral and static for this boyo) it has certainly reconciled me to the often hidden beauty at the heart of this country.

Comments

How's about that then?

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Argh, Neil Gaiman blah blah, waffle waffle, and so on.
There, that’s out of the way.
I can’t help but equate the resurgence in popularity of the Norse mythos, Icelandic sagas, and Skaldic and Eddic poetry in all their new televisual, literal and figurative forms, to the similarly resurgent popularity of comic-book- and super-heroes. In fact, they’re two sides of the same interrogative coin: one asks, “How did we get here?” whereas the other asks, “Who can save us?” for the world needs heroes, and people to blame.
I will leave it up to you to project your own personal Them into the nice Them-shaped gap that leaves behind.
You may think it very necessary and timely to have brought out such a book. Alternatively, you may be suffering from hero-fatigue and see it as all a bit unnecessary. Or you may have been seduced by the big hammer on the cover and the lovely tactile matt-finish cover. In any case and in my own humble opinion, other than talk William Warder Norton into springing for a lov…

High-Rise by J.G. Ballard

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

I can hold nothing against or up to either Neil Gaiman or the late Terry Pratchett. In respect of their fans and their work, my problems are mine and mine alone. In general, both are of the highest standard. In context however, I can only judge Pratchett’s early work, such as TruckersThe Carpet People (currently reading to my four-and-nine-tenths year old who is loving it) and The Light Fantastic etc. (all of which I enjoyed as a very young teenager). Post-Carpe Jugulum I have read exactly diddly squat, and the stage plays and TV adaptations have passed me by without so much as a flicker of interest. Whereas Gaiman continues to intrigue, chipping away at my natural scepticism with his charm and wit and style and great children’s books, and I did enjoy Stardust the movie, for the most part because of Robert De Niro, and also in spite of Ricky Gervais. Of course, were they to collaborate on a novel (not De Niro and Gervais; that would be one to avoid), then I would expect the world to…

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

Before you start, read this disclaimer:
Fans of Neil Gaiman beware – I don’t tolerate you very well, despite counting myself amongst you. It’s nothing personal (about you – it’s very personal to me), and I believe it’s Neil’s own fault for being such a very good writer. Please read on through the fan-bashing to the bit about the book. Thank you.

Neil Gaiman is an annoyance to me. I really (REALLY) liked American Gods but found that as soon as I mentioned this fact to anyone, I got one of two responses: nose-turned-up snobbery of the most scornful sort, or sickeningly gushing über-fanaticism, if that isn’t tautological. I don’t know which is worse. The snobs I can dismiss as most will be operating within the conceit that Gaiman is fantasy and therefore unworthy of further study or consideration – they are very unlikely to have ready anything by the author. The fans, though, start dribbling on and on about the time they met him in Bath Waterstone’s or how much better he is than the Latin …