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The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by W.H. Davies

It's not often I get to wax hyperbolic about something with an intrinsic worthwhile-ness to it, especially something Welsh. Having under the belt the standard issue years of Welsh Education, comprising vague threats of crippling yearning for home were I ever to leave the country (called for the uninitiated hiraeth), language lessons-by-rote with no attempt by the teacher to instill anything close to understanding, and stealthy practising until I could repeat Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch with sufficient prowess to impress... someone I have yet to meet, the value others, keen to keep our national "brand" alive and if not neck-and-neck with the success of the Irish, at least on the same strip of cinder, placed on Welshness has soured for me the pleasure of simply being from Wales.

However, the fine chaps at Parthian Books, along with some sterling  fellows at The Welsh Books Council, have done something of which I can say makes me proud to be linked, even by the chance serendipity of birth, to the land which produced poet, wanderer and super tramp, W.H. Davies. This endeavour is called the Library of Wales. I'll let you visit the website to find out more, but I can assure you that it is worth your while. But the point of all this introductory spiel is that they have re-published, in this instance in e-book form, the autobiography of the aforementioned vagrant. And I've gone and read it!

You may be familiar, thanks to a TV campaign of some considerable inanity for so-called adventure holidays in the UK, with some of Davies' poetry, although you will probably not know it. Take a look at this:

Not quite as entertaining and the PoetryReincarnations version that I had embedded but rights free if nothing else. 

George Bernard Shaw, in his introduction to Davies' 1908 work, highlights his apparent lack of formal versification, praising the honest craftsmanship of the stanzas, giving the lie to those whose verse stiffens with structure and proper form. He certainly lays out his page plainly and without artifice. Shaw also points out the fact that he himself only stumbled upon Davies' work because the chancer had sent him a bound book of poems with a request that he either send him half a crown or return the book! So before Davies gets the opportunity to introduce himself as one born in a Newport public house, we already know him to be of artistic verisimilitude and modest but enthusiastic about his talents. 

If one were to read Shaw's words as truth, the text that follows could be considered as a straightforward account of a life on the lam (from drudgery, despair and responsibility), but I, being me, could not help but feel that either Shaw's analysis was at fault, or he was deliberate in his mild sarcasm. Davies' tales of tramping through America are entertaining, enlightening and certainly plausible, up to a point, but there is always something of a caricature painter at work, with fully realised stereotypes of drifters, gridlers, grinders and hawkers on every page, complete down to their rather forlornly ridiculous sobriquets - Slim, Tall, Irish, Oklahoma... And that each tramp knows most others in a country the size of America stretches credulity. 

"I was born thirty-five years ago,
in a public house..."
Nonetheless, cynicism to one side Davies sets out what is a thoroughly engrossing romp through the economic hinterland of turn of the century America, where he makes plans, saves money, travels vast distances, spends everything, drinks copiously, succumbs to fits of literary ambition (wherein he sends out his poems and manuscripts, writes letters to beg support and is generally thwarted by the Charitable Society, from whom little charity is ever received), even making it to Canada where he meets some of the most wonderful people he has ever encountered, primarily because he has just lost a foot trying to hop a train. These parts of his story are truly evocative of the hobo life, romance and realism trading blows on every line. But there is always, at the back of my mind, a worry at his reluctance to dwell on his experience of home. When he does make it back to South Wales, he says that he decides not to visit but instead cracks on to Swansea before turning back, and only to draw out his private income that has been building up in his absence. Little mention is made of family other than his grandfather at the outset, and a bemusing passage about his mother and her prescience. Maybe worry is too strong - perhaps it is just stymied curiosity. As Shaw says, if there were more of this to read, I would read it! 

Davies' life story is a Woody Guthrie song, an American classic of the down-and-outs, however predating Guthrie and later contemporaries including Orwell, and sowing the seed of the romantic life of the hobo, marrying danger and delight in simple terms. It is also about the triumph of the will, the modesty of a man just doing what he feels he must in writing of his experiences and pushing them into publication. He bandies about a few throw-away lines about his proof readers writing his poems for him, but this self-deprecation hides nothing, and the man is revealed. If I had no proof other than that everything he says about life riding the rails is repeated in books, films and TV right through the remainder of the 20th century and into this one, then I might say that Davies is the inspiration to a whole literary and cinematic tradition. And best of all, it is immensely readable.

A sincere thank you goes to Parthian and the Welsh Books Council for bringing such literature of note to the attention of the wider public, and saving unduly forgotten books like The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp from the dusty shelf of collective amnesia. I am delighted I've had the chance to read this book, and even if it has not inspired me to read W.H. Davies' poetry (which is, truth to tell, a bit pastoral and static for this boyo) it has certainly reconciled me to the often hidden beauty at the heart of this country.


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