I first became interested in W.H. Davies (1871-1940), the author of The Autobiography of a Supertramp, when I was writing a blog entry on his poem which begins, “What is this life if, full of care,we have no time to stand and stare?”. You can read this most relaxed of poems and the blog entry here.
While scratching around to find some information about the man behind the poem, I was interested enough by what I read of his personality and life to want to read his autobiography. Even the title of it sounds quite modern and inviting to a twenty-first century reader, despite being written in the very early years of the twentieth century. Interestingly, much of the book also reads like something written more recently.
Throughout his life, particularly the first half of it, Davies very much lived out the sentiments of the poem, being the embodiment of someone who wants to do little more than “stand and stare”. He was brought up in a pub by his grandparents who loved and cared for him, encouraging him to do well in life. But from the start Davies seems to have wanted to live life the easy way, and he is honest about the way he led other boys astray when he was at school, encouraging them to join him as a thief and shoplifter. He did well academically, was a good football player and had supportive friends, but he still chose not to build upon his talents and apply himself to making a success of his life. The only benefit of his education that seems to have stayed with him even in his darkest times is his love of reading and writing.
I’ve always assumed that most tramps slowly adopt that lifestyle because of a chain of circumstances. Davies, on the other hand, seems to have chosen it as an inviting way to achieve his aim of doing nothing in life. What follows then is an account of his life as a tramp both in England and America, living mainly by begging, but from time to time resorting to some casual labouring. He provides useful insights into the life of a beggar in the last years of the nineteenth century, a lifestyle seemingly particularly easy in the States where tramps were often treated with real generosity:
We could no longer stand the sultry heat of New York, where we had been for several days, during which time we had been groaning and gasping for air. So I and Brum started out of the City, on the way towards Hartford, Connecticut, with the intention of walking no more than six miles a day along the seacoast. What a glorious time we had; the people catered for us as though we were the only tramps in the whole world, and as if they considered it providential that we should call at their houses for assistance. The usual order of things changed considerably. Cake-which we had hitherto considered as a luxury-became at this time our common food, and we were at last compelled to install plain bread and butter as the luxury, preferring it before the finest sponge cake flavoured with spices and eggs. Fresh water springs were numerous, gushing joyously out of the rocks, or lying quiet in shady nooks; and there was many a tramp’s camp, with tin cans ready to hand, where we could make our coffee and consume the contents of paper bags.
Davies describes vividly the many colourful characters he met, befriended and tramped with along the way. There were some hairy moments and some times of hardship, especially during the winter months, but it sounds like most of the time his life was relatively comfortable – and usually very carefree. Here are a couple of samples:
The truth of the matter is that all cattlemen are thieves, and the one who complains of going ashore without his razor, often has in his possession another’s knife, comb or soap. On the second day out I missed my pocket-knife and, without loss of time, boldly accused Cockney More to his face, telling him that however much I admired his dexterity in other people’s pockets I had not the least suspicion that he would be guilty of such a trick on an old pal. ‘No more have I,’ said he. ‘What kind of knife was it?’ On being told, he advised me to say no more about it, and that he would endeavour to find it. He succeeded in doing so, and the next day Donovan was shouting indignantly-‘Who has been to my bunk and stolen a knife?’ After this I lost my soap, but did not think it worth while mentioning such a petty loss. On approaching Cockney More for the loan of his, he, giving me strict injunctions to return it at once and not leave it exposed to the eyes of thieves, lent me my own soap.
We had been here some fifteen minutes, when we saw the marshal coming down the road leading to the station, the bright star of his authority being seen distinctly on his breast. ‘Now,’ said Brum, ‘let me be the spokesman, and I will arrange for a month’s comfort.’ By this time the marshal stood before us. ‘Boys,’ he began, ‘cold weather for travelling, eh?’ ‘We don’t feel the cold,’ was Brum’s reply. ‘You will though,’ said the marshal, ‘this is but the beginning, and there is a long and severe winter before you, without a break. You would certainly be better off in jail. Sixty days in our jail, which is considered one of the best, if not the best, in Michigan, would do you no harm, I assure you.’ ‘As for that,’ said Brum, ‘we might take thirty days each, providing of course, that you made it worth while. What about tobacco and a drink or two of whiskey?’ ‘That’ll be al right,’ said the marshal, ‘here’s half a dollar for a drink, and the sheriff will supply your tobacco.’ ‘No, no,’ objected Brum, ‘give us a dollar and three cakes of tobacco, and we will take thirty days, and remember, not a day over.’. The marshal produced the three cakes of tobacco, seeming to be well prepared for these demands, and giving us a paper dollar, requested us to go to Donovan’s saloon, which we would find in the main street, where he would see us later in the day; ‘when of course,’ he added, winking, ‘you will be supposed to be just a bit merry.’.
‘What is the meaning of all this?’ I asked Brum, as we went our way to Mr. Donovan’s saloon. ‘It simply means this,’ he said, ‘that the marshal gets a dollar each for every arrest he makes-in our case three dollars; the judge receives three or four dollars for every conviction, and the sheriff of the jail is paid a dollar a day for boarding each prisoner under his charge; we benefit by a good rest, warmth, good food and plenty of sleep, and the innocent citizens have to pay for it all’.
In America the tramps regularly covered long distances by boarding already moving trains to hitch free rides. It was during one of these leaps aboard a moving train that a gruesome accident befell Davies and he lost a leg. Undaunted, he continued life on the open road and some of his peers even seemed jealous that Davies’ misfortune may have gifted him with greater begging power.
This first volume of Davies’s autobiography ends when he is thirty-five years old, ready to settle down and live a more respectable life in Britain, earning money from his poems. It’s very accessible, fascinating and even quite amusing in parts – a unique read if you like some variety in your reading material.
A second far less popular volume of Davies’s autobiography exists, describing his entry into the creative community where he befriended other poets and artists such as George Bernard Shaw, Edward Thomas, Augustus John, the Sitwells and Jacob Epstein. He was awarded an honorary degree and, in later life, enjoyed a contented marriage to Matilda Payne, a woman much younger than him. So, first a thieving tramp and then a successful literary figure – truly a life lived in two halves!