Saturday, 8 May 2010

Kings of the Road

I am surprised that I miss the passing of the traditional British tramp, for whom alcohol was a rare treat, not the prime reason for their homelessness.

I suppose they were - like the Red Squirrel by the Grey - driven to near extinction by the abhorrent 'Crusties' of the 1980's, and then just died out, one by one, in an environment made even more hostile by the dreadlocked, dog-owning junkies who milked the system remorselessly and traveled from place to place in un-taxed, un-insured and un-roadworthy buses and campers.

Being some sort of social or mental misfit was not the prerequisite of the old fashioned tramp as it is today with the homeless itinerants who are not addicted to drugs or alcohol, and it is no coincidence that the disappearance of the 'men of the road' also came at a time when the concept of 'care in the community' was first foisted upon us by a cynical government who were reluctant to spend public money on the improvement of healthcare. 'Care in the Community' quickly translated into 'Scare in the Community', as desperate people who would otherwise have been nursed back into as good health as the institutions could provide, were turned out unceremoniously into the street - the urban street.

The tramps of my childhood were almost always scary, but only because they had beards, overcoats tied with string, etc. and tended to pop out of the undergrowth in the countryside when you were least expecting it. In fact, the honorable ones had their own, highly complex codes of practice which never involved theft and sometimes included legitimate ways of earning their own living, like the seasonal, forest-dwelling charcoal burners of the South of England and France, or the knife-sharpers, etc.

The others - who depended on the kindness of strangers - would often chalk cryptic signs on the garden walls of large houses, denoting whether or not the kitchen staff or owner was sympathetic or generous, or if there was a ferocious dog on the premises and would usually tramp a wide circuit over a period of a year, arriving back at the same place, at the same time each season, so as not to outstay their welcome.

In the late 1960s, I knew one such man of the road, though his circuit was between Farnham and Godalming, a distance short enough to be traversed by bicycle. It was not just any old bicycle though - his had been modified to achieve break-neck speeds by the addition of large, lightweight panniers and aerofoils made from discarded polystyrene sheet and he used them to great effect by riding in the slip-stream of large lorries which happened to be going in his direction.

Many a time I would stand back in the highway to get out of the draught of a huge lorry speeding past and notice as it went by, the old man pedaling like a possessed demon about 3 feet behind the truck, his long white hair and beard streaming out behind him and his ragged coat flapping in the 50 mile-per-hour wind like a bundle of tethered bats, as he sped up the A3 to Farnham.

I once bought him breakfast in Godalming and he was only let into the cafe because I was with him and obviously about to spend some money. What became apparent when talking to him (actually, him, talking at me) was that these professional wanderers did not come from one particular social background, they just looked like they did. It was obvious that he was highly educated and he spoke with the booming voice of a Shakespearian actor.

Having wolfed the breakfast (Donald Wolfitt?), he reached into his pocket and produced a shabby and crumpled piece of paper. He was, he informed me - as payment for the food - going to read me one of his own poems. My heart sank, but it was, in the event, a touching and emotional experience and, despite the tragical nature of the subject, not without humour.

The poem was all to do with the fact that his grown-up daughter - being so embarrassed about the depths that her father had sunk to - refused to see or speak to him, and he bellowed it out loudly in the crowded cafe with tears streaming down his weather-beaten face.

As soon as he finished, he dried his eyes and carried on as if nothing had happened, eventually thanking me for the breakfast and making his way out into the street. He needed no consolation that I could discern.

How were we to know that these benign but feared creatures would - when later compared to the junkies and drunkards that succeeded them - be so sorely missed? They inspired a sort of secret, romantic envy which very few people admitted to at the time, though - during one severe bout of financial and domestic crisis - my father did, when we passed one on the road as we drove along in an old car. My father's preferred job-title at the time was 'commercial traveler', but in reality he was a debt-collector.

Have a listen to this song (recorded by Gavin Bryers) on You Tube, of an old tramp singing in the 70's and later given a little help from Tom Waits and an orchestra. If you can listen to it with a dry eye, then you have a heart of stone!


  1. I only know of ONE now. He lives under a sheet of transparent plastic in St Nicholas' churchyard, Brighton. Again he is an educated man, and extremely proud. People always leave books (and whisky) by his meagre camp. The last time I saw him, his feet were in the most dreadful state.

  2. Did you like the song? They looked for the old man (the tramp, not Tom Waits) to give him royalties, but never found him again. He came and he went.

    Tom Waits for no man.

  3. Thank you for sharing that post, Tom. Buying that old man his breakfast brought to mind for me - one word - 'Inasmuch!' I clicked on the Youtube and listened to that old man - I loved his song and the pictures too.

  4. Hello Molly - yes, that song is a wonder, isn't it? And thankfully given good treatment by the people who re-discovered it. I don't know quite what you mean by 'Inasmuch', though! Do you mean the same as 'Therebutfor'?

  5. Yes, it's a powerful song. A little too much treacle for my own taste, but very emotional. I hope the royalties have been put-by; just in case he's found.

  6. Fabulous post, fabulous song.

  7. Great post. My grandfather was a train hoppin' bum for awhile, and my grandmother later used to never refuse a bum any food when they came to her door.

  8. He must be long dead by now, Cro - maybe they gave the dosh to some other tramp? Would be nice to think so. Maybe it's Jesus-flavoured treacle that you can't stomach...

    Thanks Serge and Amy. The illustration I put on the top actually comes from a chronicle about the history of the Catskill Mountains! There is another picture which goes with it, showing a load of American hobos riding in a freight car, and the caption reads something like "A comparison in modes of transport between British tramps and their American equivalent. Obviously, the Brit is walking, but I suppose Britain is a much smaller place.

    It would be good to do something on the Catskills on it's own - all those hotels full of Jewish holiday makers, being entertained by Jewish comedians - how did that come about? Jackie Mason was one of the last (I love him), and now they are deserted and look like the set from 'The Shining', or worse.

  9. Tramps-r-us benevolent fund maybe? You're probably right about the Jesus connection. It's all subconscious nowadays.