The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp

Blake Morrison writes:

Unlike others who have written about life on the margins (Mayhew, London, Agee, Orwell), Davies wasn’t gathering material: he tramped because he liked the lifestyle (‘A jar of cider, and my pipe,/In summer, under shady tree’) and he lived in Salvation Army hostels and cheap lodgings because on ten shillings a week (with a thirst for alcohol) he could afford no better. But he did harbour serious literary ambitions, and the latter part of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp recounts his efforts to get his poems into print, first, while he was living in a hostel called the Ark, in the form of 2000 sheets costing threepence each (after a dispiriting day failing to sell them door to door, he burned the lot), then in a privately printed collection called The Soul’s Destroyer, 60 copies of which he posted to literary figures of the day, begging them to send him the cover price. Shaw, receiving his copy from Davies’s address – The Farmhouse, Marshalsea Rd, SE – thought it quaint there should still be farms in Kennington, before discovering the place was a dosshouse. Surprised by the quality of the work, he bought eight copies at half a crown each, on which proceeds Davies lived comfortably for the next three months. He was soon the subject of newspaper articles and with the autobiography he became a minor celebrity. Edwardian London was charmed by his hobohemianism, just as it was two years later by H.G. Wells’s Mr Polly, who turns his back on convention and commerce to become ‘a leisurely and dusty tramp … walking every day for eight or nine hours’. Further editions of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp followed in 1920 and 1923, tapping a market for tales of adventure that didn’t end in death on the Somme. Davies allowed himself the thought that his book might be a work of genius, since it hadn’t made him rich: ‘Genius gives gold and gets no more than pence.’ But he did get a Civil List pension worth £50 a year, which enabled him to move to a flat in Great Russell Street, and exchange the companionship of Australian Red and Philadelphia Slim for that of Sickert, Balfour, Conrad, Epstein, Huxley, Lady Cunard and Augustus John.�

(LRB 30 June 2011)

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