the supertramp - W.H.Davies - proseClick image for Davies home



IN spite of these occasional successes with Long John and others, I was often at my wits' ends to procure food and shelter. This always happened when I travelled alone. I was now heartily sick of this wandering from town to town, and every day seemed to get more unfortunate; until the first day in December, when, forced by extreme want, I resolved to enter the city at once, knowing that a pound was already there waiting my pleasure. That night I was back in the Farmhouse; and what a genial spirit seemed to animate the old coke fire! Not at all like the death dealer, the waster of time, who robbed a human being of his energy and a kitten of its play. Oh no; for this one night we were the best of friends, and sunny smiles passed between us until bed time.

I had been away five months, and would still have to suffer owing to this early return; knowing that I would not have courage to sell in the streets of London, and that I would be compelled to eke out a living on five shillings a week, until the beginning of the new year-this being a half crown for lodgings, and the same for food.

I was very well satisfied with myself at this time, with the prospect of the new year before me; and at once began to get my work ready for the press. When all original composition was done, and it was necessary to make ready a copy for the printer, even at this time I was confronted with a foolish hindrance. One library in Lambeth, which at one time had a table with pens, ink and blotting pads for the convenience of visitors, had had these things removed; but seeing no sign to the contrary, I still thought I would be allowed to take possession of a corner of this table and write, providing I supplied my own material. So, this library was chosen for my week's writing, but I was warned off at the commencement. Thoroughly incensed at this fresh and paltry hindrance, I sought a library where I knew my work could be continued without interference, even if the writing of it took some years. This library was not so convenient as the other, being some distance away, but there I at last succeeded in performing my task.

Now came the new year when, independent of others, I would be enabled to assist myself. If I failed in making success, the disappointment would be mine only, and if I succeeded, there would be none other to thank but myself On receiving this money, in the first week in January, I lost no time in seeing the printer and arranging for an edition of two hundred and fifty copies, the cost to be nineteen pounds. This amount certainly did not cover expenses, and here began the series of kindnesses which, after a few more disappointments, were to follow. This printer placed the MS. in the hands of a good reader, and that gentleman was put to considerable trouble, being baffled and interested in turns. The last two lines of a poem entitled 'The hill side park' are entirely his, both in thought and expression. I mention this because two or three correspondents liked the poem in question, and one thought the last two lines the best; so, I take this opportunity to clear my conscience. There was nothing to complain of, both printer and reader being at great pains and patience to make the work better than it was. Naturally, I thought if there was any interest shown, it would not be in the author's personality, but in the work itself, and for this reason, gave the Farmhouse, a common lodging house, as my address. I was under the impression that people would uninterestedly think the Farmhouse to be a small printing establishment, or a small publishing concern of which they had not heard; to which they would forward their orders, and business would be transacted without their being any the wiser. In the first week in March I received my first printed copy.

The printer had sent thirty copies or more to the various papers, and I was now waiting the result, which at last came in the shape of two very slim reviews from the North; a Yorkshire paper saying that the work had rhymes that were neither intricate nor original, and a Scotch paper saying that the work was perfect in craftsmanship rather than inspired. This was very disappointing, more so to know that others, who were powerless to assist me, were interesting themselves on my behalf. Although I still had confidence that the work contained some good things, I began to think that there must be some glaring faults which made the book, as a whole, impossible to review. This first thought became my first belief when other notices did not follow.

Weeks and weeks went by and, having now started to drink, and losing control of my will in this disappointment, I had come down to my last ten shillings, and had a good seven months to go before my money was again due. First of all I had serious thoughts of destroying this work-the whole two hundred and odd copies, which were under lock and key in my room, and to then set to work carefully on new matter, and, when my income was again due, to again mortgage it in another attempt. Being very impulsive, this no doubt would have been there and then commenced, had I not been confronted with the difficulty of doing so. There was only one way of doing this properly, and that was by fire, which would require privacy. My room was the only place where I could do this without being seen, but that contained neither stove nor grate; and, even if it had, two hundred books would take a number of sleepless nights to render into ashes. I thought with some bitterness of having to go on tramp again, and it was in one of these bitter moments that I swore a great oath that these copies, good or bad, should maintain me until the end of the year. For I would distribute the books here and there, sending them to successful people, and they would probably pay for their copies, perhaps not so much for what merit they might think the work contained, as for the sake of circumstances. This idea no sooner possessed me than I began preparing for its execution. For this purpose I obtained stamps and envelopes, and six copies were at once posted. The result was seen in a couple of days-three letters, two containing the price of the book, and the third from the Charity Organisation, the latter writing on behalf of a gentleman who had become interested, and would like to come to my assistance. Remembering these people in the past, through my former experience with them, I had no great hopes at the present time, in spite of the kind hearted interest of the gentleman in question. However, I called on them the next morning, and after the usual long wait in a side room-which, I believe is not through any great stress of business, but so as to bring one's heart down to the freezing point of abject misery, and to extinguish one by one his many hopes-after this weary waiting, I received an interview. There is not sufficient venom in my disposition to allow me to describe this meeting in words fit and bitter for its need. This life is too short to enable me to recover from my astonishment, which will fill me for a good many years to come. The questions and answers which had passed between us on our former interview-two years previous, were now before them. But they questioned again in the same strain, and my answers corresponded with those of the past, for I told no lies. Apparently they had no chance here, so they came at once to the business in hand. 'You have written to a gentleman, asking for his assistance?' Not liking this way of explaining my conduct, I said-'No, not exactly that, but have been trying to sell him some work that I had done.' It seemed that they knew nothing of this work-or that it better suited their purpose to appear ignorant-so it was necessary to give them the full particulars. 'Was not the book a success?' they asked. Not caring to admit failure, and still thinking the work worthy of a little success, I answered-'Not yet, but it is too early to judge it as a failure.' Then I gave it in confidence that a gentleman, well known in Southwark, and who often wrote articles on literary subjects, had promised to review it in one of the evening papers, which might lead to other notices. 'What is the name of this gentleman?' The name was at once mentioned, for there was no reason that I knew of, to withhold it. But instead of this name doing me good, as I then expected, it probably made this case of mine more unfavourable; for I have been told since that this gentleman had more than once attacked the ways and methods of this Organisation, both on the public platform and through the press. Not knowing this, at that time, I thought it extremely fortunate to be enabled to mention the favour of such a well known local man. All went smoothly for a while-although I could plainly see that these people did not recognise the writing of books as work, and were plainly disgusted at the folly of sacrificing an income to that end. Their next question confirmed this opinion-'Do you ever do anything for a living?' I mentioned that I had tramped the country as a hawker, during the previous summer, but had suffered through want of courage, could not make anything like a living, and was often in want and without shelter. There was a rather long pause, and the Charity Organisation rose slowly to their feet, and said, 'Mr. Davies, do you really expect this gentleman, who has written to us, to maintain you? Is there anything the matter with you?' What was the matter with me did not seem to escape many people, and it was most certainly noted by the smallest toddler that played in the street, but the Charity Organisation did not think proper to recognise any other than an able man, strong in the use of all his limbs. 'No,' said these people, 'you must do the same as you did last summer'; which, in other words was-go on tramp, starve, and be shelterless as you were before. And then in the deep silence which followed, for I was speechless with indignation, a voice soft and low, but emphatic and significant, said-'We strongly advise you to do this, but you really must not write any more begging letters. Mr. Davies, we do not consider ourselves justified in putting your case before the committee.' That ended the interview, and 1 left them with the one sarcastic remark, which I could not keep un-said, 'that I had not come there with any great hopes of receiving benefit, and that I was not leaving greatly disappointed at this result.' These people passed judgment in a few minutes, and were so confident that they did not think it worth while to call at the Farmhouse for the opinion of a man who had known me for a considerable time. No doubt they had made another mistake. For, some time before this, an old pensioner, an old lodger of the Farmhouse, had interviewed these people, telling them a story of poverty, and of starving wife and children. The story was a fabrication from beginning to end, yet they assisted this man on his bare word to the extent often shillings, so as to enable him to lie about the Farmhouse drunk for several days. Then, some days after this, the Charity Organisation called at the Farmhouse to see the manager, and to make enquiries of this man whom they had so mysteriously befriended. 'What,' cried that gentleman, 'you have assisted this drunken fellow on his bare word, and when I send cases to you, that I know are deserving, you sternly refuse to entertain them.' Perhaps it was this instance, fresh in their minds, which gave them an idea that no good could come out of the Farmhouse. Yet, as far as my experience goes, the object of these people was not so much to do good, but to prevent good from being done; for here, for the second time, they stepped between me and one who might have rendered me some aid. What I found the most distasteful part of their system was the way in which they conceal the name of a would-be benefactor. I had sent six books, three to men and three to women. One man had replied with a kind encouraging letter and the price of the book enclosed, and one of the two others had written to the Organisation, but, on no account, would they mention his name. Now, when these people answer a letter of enquiry, they have no other option than to say one of two things-either that the applicant is an impostor, and deserves no notice, or that the case is genuine and deserving consideration. They, of course, answered in the former strain, withholding the gentleman's name, so as to leave no opportunity to vindicate one's character.

The interference of these people put me on my mettle, and I was determined not to follow their advice and tramp through another hard winter. I had something like three shillings, at the rime of this interview; so, buying two shillings' worth of stamps, I posted a dozen books that very night, being still warm with resentment. The result of these were four kind letters, each contaming the price of the book. Only one or two were returned to me, whether purchased or not, which was done at my own wish. Before I again became penniless, off went another dozen. In this way I disposed of some sixty copies, with more or less success; some of these well known people receiving the book as an unacknowledged gift, and others quickly forwarding the price of the same. The strangest part of this experience was this: that people, from whom I expected sympathy, having seen their names so often mentioned as champions of unfortunate cases, received the book as a gift; whilst others, from whom I had less hope, because they appeared sarcastic and unfeeling in their writings, returned the price of the work. The Manager was astonished at my receiving no answer from two or three well known people whom he had recommended. At last, after disposing of sixty copies in this way, two well known writers corresponded with me, one of whom I saw personally, and they both promised to do something through the press. Relying on these promises, I sent away no more copies, being enabled to wait a week or two owing to the kindness of a playwriter, an Irishman, as to whose mental qualification the world is divided, but whose heart is unquestionably great. Private recognition was certainly not long forthcoming, which was soon followed by a notice in a leading daily paper, and in a literary paper of the same week. These led to others, to interviews and a kindness that more than made amends for past indifference. It was all like a dream. In my most conceited moments I had not expected such an amount of praise, and they gathered in favour as they came, until one wave came stronger than the others and threw me breathless of all conceit, for I felt myself unworthy of it, and of the wonderful sea on which I had embarked. Sleep was out of the question, and new work was impossible. What surprised me agreeably was the reticence of my fellow lodgers, who all knew, but mentioned nothing in my hearing that was in any way disconcerting. They were, perhaps, a little less familiar, but showed not the least disrespect in their reserve, as would most certainly have been the case if I had succeeded to a peerage or an immense fortune. The lines on Irish Tim, which were several times quoted, were a continual worry to me, thinking some of the more waggish lodgers would bring them to his notice. Poor Tim, no doubt, would have sulked, resenting this publicity, but, if the truth were known, I would as soon do Tim a good turn as any other man in the Farmhouse. Boozy Bob, I suppose, had been shown his name in print; but Bob thought it a great honour to be called Boozy; so, when he stood drunk before me, with his face beaming with smiles of gratitude for making use of his name, at the same time saying-'Good evening, Mr. Davies, how are you?'-I at once understood the meaning of this unusual civility, and we both fell a-laughing, but nothing more was said. What a lot of decent honest fellows these were: 'You must not be surprised,' said a gentleman to me, at that time, 'to meet less sincere men than these in other walks of life.' I shall consider myself fortunate in not doing so.