Skip to main content

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.


How's about that then?

A Death In The Family: My Struggle Volume 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I sit here, wearing my limited edition Knausgaard t-shirt, immensely grateful to the kind people at Vintage Books for their surprising gift of the first four novels (and aforementioned t-shirt) simply as a result of being able to post a comment on their YouTube Vlog. There may have been a hidden agenda, considering I'm a book blogger (What, interrobang, a book blogger, interrobang and so on...) but I prefer to believe they picked me at random. Because I'm ace. 
Nonetheless, I had no idea what to expect of these books. I did do a little reading, and found lots of very interesting articles about Karl Ove Knausgaard, including this entertaining one in the Wall Street Journal. But in all honesty, nothing prepared me for reading them, and I can see why they cause controversy and consternation wherever they are translated (which is pretty much everywhere).
First off, being intelligent and perspicacious readers as I trust you all to be, you will no doubt have spotted the whole Godwin&#…

A Bright Moon For Fools by Jasper Gibson

Ah, what would be a review penned by yours truly without some sort of grovelling apology at the outset? A better review no doubt, but that aside I can't help but continue the tiresome tradition with an apology. Sorry to my regular robotic readers (hi bots!) but I have been very neglectful of the blog of late, having been tied up with my pursuit of a broader spectrum of dilettantism; I've been taking part in a number of MOOCs offered by various HEIs on the FutureLearn platform. Worth checking out if you ask me.

(Subtle enough plug, you think?)
Anyway, the break afforded by a foray into further education has proved something of a test for Jasper Gibson and his fiction. In truth, it took me a little while to remember what exactly the novel was about, who was in it, and how I felt about the whole thing. Instant alarm bells. Of course, having had a break, I'd had a good crack at filling my head with a whole bunch of other things worth remembering, so maybe it all just got squeeze…

Open Door by Iosi Havilio

*Shame Klaxon*
I am ashamed to admit it but I know next to nothing about Borges. I know the names of his books. I know he crops up almost without fail when conversations include literature from South America. I know his words book-end so many novels that I have that habitual proving-my-bold-assertion-mind-blankness which means my brain knows it to be true and won't humour your scepticism with an example*. And I know it's likely the biggest single lacuna in my entire reading history**.
So you may imagine my lack of surprise, on finishing this novel and reading the afterword by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, lecturer at Birkbeck College, London, and author of works on the history and politics of Latin America, that Borges pops up, within three lines of text. Three lines! He wastes no time does Oscar. Of course, my shame bristled and I was ready to adopt the usual casual hostility to something of which I was ignorant. But straight away, I understood what he was saying. I have often consid…

UnAmerican Activities by James Miller

I don't think I was asked to honour the old convention that a freebie necessitates an honest if gently favourable review (at least I can find no written proof). I will however, name-check the generous (and possibly over-optimistic) @TheWorkshyFop, editorial director of the independent British publisher, Dodo Ink, from whose proof boxes of new November lead titles this one arrived. Thank you, sir!
I recall James Miller, specifically Lost Boys, from the dim and distant past. It may have been a commission for Waterstones Books Quarterly, or perhaps I was doing a solid for the Little, Brown sales rep. Regardless, I remember nothing about the book except being underwhelmed. From reading old reviews, it seems it had the coat-tails of the contemporaneous zeitgeist in its teeth, but one slightly savage Guardian review* points out it was pretty badly done. This might explain why I remember very little, perhaps proving Auden's assertion that, "some books are undeservedly forgotten; …