W H Davies: The Autobiography of a Super Tramp

May 15, 2021

     Here’s a book written well over a century ago; it’s been in my library since 1985, apparently unread (though I actually have a vague recollection of having read it at some point). It’s an autobiography – well, a partial one – an interesting slice of life which sustains the reader’s interest because it’s so far from the norm, the story of younger years spent on the road, by a man of humble enough beginnings, but with a clear literary bent. Davies is basically fortunate, having been bequeathed a legacy of ten shillings a week, which was actually plenty enough to live on at the end of the nineteenth century…

He ends up in the USA, where he learns the skills and science of being a man on the road, hustling and begging successfully; he recounts several years of adventures bumming around the country, working for a while and then blowing the wages on a spree with his mates, spending time with a whole crowd of varied and interesting characters. Davies is clear, from his experiences, about the friendliness and camaraderie between the down-and-outs, the way they share and look out for each other, and provide companionship for weeks at a time before moving on. It struck me that in a sense these men were the gig economy of their day.

His observations on, and experiences of the racial divide in the Deep South are scary: he witnesses at least one lynching.

Home – England – calls eventually, and although he has not touched it for five years, he acknowledges that the pension he has serves to make him lazy and fritter time away pointlessly, not that he ever comes across as feeling too guilty about this. Home again, he is unable to settle, and heads back over the Atlantic, and the Klondyke goldfields. Suddenly an accident – he falls from a moving train he has attempted to board, and loses a foot – changes everything. He writes of many kindnesses from total strangers in Canada, and then heads back to England to try and make a life as a writer, but cannot manage this, and reverts to a hand-to-mouth existence, which is evidently harder to sustain on this side of the Atlantic. His accounts of all the different ways it’s possible to scrape a living are fascinating, and I am sure that some of the inspiration for George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London must have come from reading this book, which was helped to eventual success by impressing George Bernard Shaw, who contributed the preface. A good, easy and eye-opening read.

2 Responses to “W H Davies: The Autobiography of a Super Tramp”


  1. This was one of the first books I remember as a class reading book in secondary school. I enjoyed it (age 12 or 13) and then there was Silas Marner which I also liked. Jane Austin (later, age 17) was my only blind spot!

    Like

    • litgaz Says:

      I had no idea this had been a reading book in schools, despite 30 years as an English teacher! But my ageing second-hand copy did have some quite basic, school-type pencil notes in some of the margins.

      Like


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