By Luke Lewin Davies

Palgrave Macmillan. 344 pages. £99.99. ISBN 978-3-030-73431-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns

At the bottom of the street where I lived in the 1940s was the main road heading south out of the town.  I have fading recollections of occasionally seeing a shabbily-dressed, and often elderly man, carrying a bundle or hold-all of some sort, moving slowly along the pavement and being given a wide berth by passers-by. “A tramp,” my father, who’d had his share of walking miles looking for work,   would say, and he wasn’t averse to slipping a coin into the man’s hand if he asked for something.

I think I was perhaps seeing the last of a breed of people pushed onto the road by the circumstances of the 1930s, hidden by the war years, and mostly out-of-place in the post-1945 period. You never hear the word “tramp” these days, at least not in relation to anyone wandering from place to place either in search of work or trying to avoid it.  While it may be true that a tramp was a homeless man or woman, it’s not necessarily true that the contemporary homeless are tramps. The individuals found sleeping in shop doorways in our towns and cities rarely wander far from their locations. They probably don’t have the inclinations to do so, and in any case they can sometimes find casual work, if it’s available, beg when they can avoid attention from the police in the streets, or take advantage of social care provisions like night shelters, unsatisfactory though they may be.

It’s obviously not desirable that the situation should now become of a nature that forces people back onto the road. But there is a history of “tramping” in Britain, and Luke Lewin Davies’s well-researched book endeavours to draw attention to it through its portrayal in both factual and fictional forms. It will become clear that it’s not always easy to determine where a neat dividing line exists. Not every supposedly factual account is devoid of fictional colouring, nor does every fictional narrative in the realistic tradition offer factual clarity. Exaggeration may be found in both forms.

The idea of the “vagrant” can be traced back beyond 1850, which is where Davies aims to start his account, and he provides a certain amount of information about how, for example, the “sturdy beggars” of sixteenth century England were viewed. “Wyly wanderers” was just one term applied to them. The threat of social disorder was a constant preoccupation, and “the growing desire of governments to control their subjects” led to various laws being enacted to enable the authorities, both local and national, to restrict the activities of the “masterless” class of men, i.e. those without regular employment in a fixed location: “The masterless man represented mutability when those in power longed for stability”.

Davies moves through the years, sketching in how attitudes towards differing forms of vagrancy, homelessness, and avoidance of work, changed. When  he arrives in the nineteenth century and the 1824 Vagrancy Act, making it an offence to sleep outdoors, followed by the Poor Law in 1834, it becomes obvious that the authorities were increasingly concerned about the numbers of people not gainfully employed and having no fixed abodes. The cost of relief provided for the poor was rising. The effects of increasing industrialisation, new Corn Laws pushing up the price of bread, Irish emigration to Britain, and other factors, are all mentioned by Davies as contributing to a steep rise in homelessness and more people being pushed onto the road.

It’s around this time that the word “tramp” appears to have come into common usage to describe those who would have previously been referred to as vagrants. And it may be that along with it came what might be called a “theory” of tramping as a means of expressing discontent with the rise in regimentation which was an inevitable product of the rapidly developing capitalist industrial system. For some people the prospect of working in a cotton mill, mine, or any other highly-organised situation, was enough to make them take a chance with life on the road. And for a minority of those a consciously “radical anti-productivist” stance might have been established. We’re in a difficult area here, because we have to depend on written records by a handful of tramps who turned to writing of one kind or another and sometimes became professional authors. They may not have been typical of the mass of their contemporaries.

It’s noteworthy that Davies briefly refers to bohemianism as a similar activity in terms of seeming to present a challenge to “work oriented capitalist culture”. Davies quotes Mary Gluck to the effect that, in fact, bohemianism really offered “a conservative repudiation of the modern world”. While I’m a great reader of the literature of bohemia – novels, stories, poems, memoirs, histories – it often does occur to me to recall the words of Arsène Houssaye: “I don’t believe in the good faith of the literary Bohemian. His disordered life is only a journey in search of sensations, of the documents and observations he needs to produce his work. The real Bohemian is the one who has no communication with the public. He leads a vagabond existence for himself alone, not for any readers or spectators”. I should add that Houssaye was writing at a time, the 1850s or so, when bohemianism meant more than the lives of writers and artists. (See Daumier’s 1840s series, The Bohemians of Paris). But the parallel with tramp writers is, I think, significant.

It’s worth noting, too, that Davies mentions the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) and their link to the “anti-productivist” position. If it existed it was most likely in the minds of a number of activists. Most rank-and-file members were more concerned with the usual bread-and-butter issues of wages and conditions. And the major IWW activities in terms of the number of workers involved were largely concentrated in the East among the mills of New England and Massachusetts where people looked for permanent, better-paid employment. The romantic idea of the “Rambling Kid” (as Charles Ashleigh called his autobiographical novel, Faber, 1930) related to the wheat fields and other seasonal occupations of the mid and far-West.  Even there I would guess that most members were more interested in immediate gains than long-term utopian theories. As it says in The Harvest War Song : “Here goes for better wages, and the hours must come down”.

Davies says that as the nineteenth century developed so did “a newly emergent disciplinary era in which attempts to regulate and control human behaviour were increasingly justified in terms of ‘the welfare of the population’ and ’the increase of its wealth’ “. The first book to make extensive use of the word “tramp” was James Dawson Burn’s The Autobiography of a Beggar Boy, published in 1856.  Burn came from what we would now describe as a “broken home” and went on the road, working as a navvy and then becoming a hatter. He later became a leading light in the hatter’s union in Glasgow and was involved in the Chartist movement. As an example of working-class literature, his book has value, though Davies suggests that its “repentance narrative traditions limit its subversive potential”.  The “repentance” aspect was evident in more than one tramp memoir and was presumably insisted on by publishers knowing that potential readers were from a class that wanted assurance that their settled lives were best, and going on the tramp was never likely to lead to contentment. The tramp had to be shown to have come to an awareness of the error of his ways.

The use of tramp as descriptive of certain writers sometimes comes into question, as when Davies discusses the life and work of George Atkins Brine, author of The King of the Beggars: The Life and Adventures of George Atkins Brine. He seems to have had a respectable early upbringing, but went on the road after succumbing to “mischief and drink” and spending time in prison. If his account is true “he tried many dodges, from that of the travelling parson, ‘high-flyer’, quack doctor, schoolmaster, and other professions”. He had relationships with any number of women, and wasn’t against turning to thieving when necessary. Was he a tramp in the true sense of the word? Davies thinks he fits more easily into the “earlier rogue and picaresque traditions”. His subversiveness, which included ridiculing authority, was personal rather than political in intent. 

It could be that the subversive angle, which Davies is usually keen to find, did come more to the fore in the period between the two World Wars. A wider awareness of radical ideas permeated society in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the rise of Communism, and the deepening effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s. But the tramping experiences that were documented by John Brown (I Was A Tramp, 1934) and Matt Marshall (The Travels of Tramp-Royal, 1932) were not those of the mass of anonymous tramps, though descriptions of some of them may be found in the books concerned. Brown was “an active campaigner for the Labour Party” and “would go on to become a journalist, a novelist, and a travel writer”. Marshall “was a poet and journalist for the Glasgow Times”. Going on the road was presumably a way of finding material to write about.

The range of Davies’s reading is impressive, and he mentions and analyses a number of now-forgotten memoirs that are about tramp experiences. Not all of them show the narrator as being permanently on the road. It was sometimes a short-term measure brought about by circumstances. Some years ago I came across a copy of an obscure novel, Tom Hanlin’s Once In Every Lifetime (Wells, Gardner Darton & Co., 1945) in a second-hand bookshop. The narrator works in the pits in  Scotland when there is work to be had, and at some point, despairing of “the poverty and the hopelessness”, he goes on the tramp: “There wasn’t much money on the go, but I was never hungry. I could always get food and no bother. At the latter end I cadged everything I ate, keeping the dole money for beer and beds”.  But he does eventually return to his home town and a regular job. It’s noticeable that there are no overt expressions of subversion from him or the people he meets.  What Davies, when focusing on the writing of W.H. Davies (The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp,  1908), refers to as “the transgressiveness of the tramp lifestyle” isn’t a factor in Hanlin’s book. Tramping is, for his narrator, simply a part of the overall working-class experience of the time. In thIs, I would suggest, it is more realistic than many other accounts.

I have to admit that some aspects of Davies’s book were not to my taste. Its basis is clearly a Ph.D thesis and it shows when he parades the academic compulsion (or requirement to keep up appearances?) for theoretical displays. References to Foucault, Slavoj Žižek, and Marcuse crop up, along with sentences like the following:

”If this turns out to be the case and we end up having to categorise the genre as a whole alongside the non-radical identity-oriented anti-productivist bodies of work described above (such as bohemian literature and nature writing) – the obvious point to observe will be the coincidence that each of the non-radical anti-productivist texts included in this category would then be united in being identity-oriented, in turn implying that the Foucaldian reverse discourse identity-oriented model of resistance struggles to produce radical perspectives in a Badiouian sense – possibly for the reason that narrowing the focus on the interest and outlooks of a single minority group hinders the potential for engaging in totalising speculations”.

To balance my dislike of that sort of writing, I can’t stress too much how, when he gets down to the actual texts, Davies’s book is valuable from the point of view of the number of novels and memoirs he considers in his fascinating and wide-ranging survey of tramp literature. Most of us will never get the opportunity to read the books, and perhaps wouldn’t be keen to do so. They were not all masterpieces. But he makes each book seem relevant within his chosen framework and provides a great deal of information about them and their writers in good, direct prose.