"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

11 Jan 2018

Criminalising Autism

I have never discussed autism on this site before, either in connection with my writing on tramps and cynics or more generally. Ever since I retired as head of an adult social services department some 6 years ago, following a lifetime working in and managing mental health and learning disability services, I have devoted a big chunk of my time to campaigning about the way that some autistic people are misunderstood, neglected, even abused, by the very public bodies who are supposed to protect and safeguard them. Paradoxically, those most at risk are often the ones at the higher functioning end of the autistic spectrum. This is precisely because they may outwardly pass, and often want to pass, as non-autistic. These folk are more likely to have their behaviours perceived and misrepresented as anti-social rather than autistic, precisely because they spend a good part of their day out in the community, away from the family home or care system. The stories of Bradley Grimes and Marcus Potter below well illustrate the phenomena of the invisible ‘disability’.

The autistic person is vulnerable and encounters problems with everyday living usually, as they tell me, when they to come into contact with ‘neurotypical’ people. Left to themselves, and in the absence of those troublesome necessities of the modern world like managing bank accounts, a tenancy, or going through a job recruitment process (even though many can, and do), they can be entirely fulfilled and contented. But it is increasingly difficult to navigate the world outside of the all consuming powers and surveillance of state run and commercial bureaucracies.

To refer then to autism as a ‘disability’ should be turned on its head, in as much as it is the rest of the human herd that fails to understand or tolerate those who think and communicate differently from themselves. There are of course striking examples of where the potential of the autistic mind has been recognised and harnessed with significant benefits, both for those involved and wider society, most notably Silicon Valley in California where to be autistic is pretty much the norm. Then there is an entire unit of the Israeli army made up of autistic recruits engaged in high level intelligence work tracking computer generated satellite images (I make no further comment on the Israeli army’s wider contribution to a kinder, more tolerant world). Many arts and sciences university campuses are also likely to be autism friendly environments. Yet such examples as these do nothing to enhance the lives of the majority of people on the autistic spectrum who continue to be disabled by the neurotypical world’s ignorance and discrimination of the autistic brain.

But this post is not meant as an exposition on autism, there are dozens of scholarly texts already published for those who want to read up on all aspects of this misunderstood but fascinating human condition. Most notable among these are Olga Bogdashina’s books on proprioception, ‘theory of mind’ and other sensory perceptual issues that characterise the autistic brain. But in my view, the most important books on autism are written by those who, like Temple Grandin, are themselves are autistic. Most recent of these is Hamja Ahsan’s Shy Radicals (2017). Shy Radicals is a tragi-comic parody of a political manifesto for an imaginary state named Aspergistan. A natural sanctuary for the shy, the introverted and the autistic, away from the tyranny of the noisy extraverts who dominate and create misery for autistic folk across the globe (not that autistic people do not sometimes present as extrovert). The book opens with a draft constitution, examples of which are presented below in true Cynic style (I use the term cynic here in its positive definition as a personal strategy for surviving in a hostile world):

ARTICLE 8: Mainstream life has no place in Aspergistan. All politics will remain underground.

ARTICLE 9: Civic privilege will only be granted to the voice of the unheard.

ARTICLE 11: Any declarations, resolutions and motions made on a stage or raised platform will be seen not to represent the people.

ARTICLE 18: No one shall be required to attend or perform at social gatherings.

ARTICLE 21: The Shy Radical state declares the following a charade and part of Extrovert Supremacist ideology from which Aspergistanis seek emancipation: Patriotic public ceremonies; Military parades; … Shallow mythologising of historical conflicts and tragedies; Street parties and flashing fireworks displays.

ARTICLE 22: The flag of Aspergistan consist of a black flag punctuated [with ellipsis] … The flag will never be publicly hoisted. The flag may be used only by citizens wishing to silently indicate their request for quiet, solitude and personal space. …

ARTICLE 23: For sporting or cultural fixtures abroad, opposing or host countries will be required to listen to our national anthem using seashells. Aspergistan shall ensure the provision of a fit supply supply of seashells to the opposing team …

ARTICLE 27: Aspergistan will boycott any sporting or cultural event that does not ensure Autism-friendly facilities, or show respect to the rights of Autistic Spectrum people.

ARTICLE 30: Abolition of private viewings, opening ceremonies, launch parties and all other suffocating crowd gathering forms of the celebration of new cultural products, film seasons and exhibitions. …

ARTICLE 39: Abolition of strobe lighting, flashing lights, neon lighting and advertisement billboards from all public space ensuring the clearest possible view of the constellations. 

ARTICLE 60: Entry is guaranteed for all those seeking escape from the assault of mass distraction, triviality and frivolity.

Hamja is another reluctant activist. He only took to campaigning about autism after his brother, the award winning poet Talha Ahsan, was arrested in 2006 following a request from the US Government to have him extradited. Talha was detained in Britain without charges or trial for over 6 years before eventually being extradited to the United States—one of the longest such detentions without trial in British history. Unlike the similar case of Garry McKinnon (both involved internet activity, and McKinnon's of a more serious nature), whose extradition to the US was blocked by the UK Government on the basis of his autism and potential risk of suicide if sent to the US, Talha (same diagnosis, same risks) was extradited to the US and held in solitary confinement for nearly two years awaiting trial. Both cases are widely reported and readers can come to their own conclusions why McKinnon received different treatment from Ahsan.

I now want to have a personal beef that most of the publicity and campaigning around autism is targeted, not around vulnerable adults with autism, but around cute though troubled children like Joe in the recent BBC series The A Word. Many autism charities focus on children, campaigning for greater awareness in schools and colleges, forgetting that autism is for life and that without support and understanding—not to mention major changes in society—cute but troubled autistic kids may grow up to be less cute and very troubled autistic adults. This post is about what can, and does, happen to some of these autistic adults when they grow up and move beyond the controls and protection of parents and schools.

I will return to the cynic and tramping themes of my blog later, but I strongly suspect that many of my vagabond heroes, those who exiled themselves from the hostile world of mainstream society, may also have been on the autistic spectrum. James Boswell wrote in his Life of Samuel Johnson that, "A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.” Many others have revived versions of this truism, including American President Jimmy Carter when he stated that, “The measure of a society is found in how they treat their weakest and most helpless citizens [not that I wish to characterise autistic people thus]” If we accept such maxims at face value, then both Britain and the USA—both currently obsessed with closing their borders to those they regard as ‘foreign’, as well as scapegoating those within their borders who are the victims rather than the beneficiaries of the capitalist dream—are fast descending into a very uncivilised period of their history indeed.

But neither is this post a polemic on capitalism. I want to shine a light here on one of the most misunderstood and discriminated against groups of people in society today. And I want to emphasise here again that I am talking about a group of people—figures of one in every hundred of the general population is likely significantly underestimated—whose main disability is that the neurotypical world fails to understand or communicate with them. Recent news items about the criminalisation of autistic young people in Britain has spurred me to comment on just the kind of societal pressures that probably forced many into a life of exile in the past and is today a damning indictment on the bankrupt state of Western civilisation. The UK press has been full of headlines in recent years such as, “Seven police officers 'pinned down and handcuffed severely autistic teenage boy who jumped in swimming pool on school trip’ ” (2011); handcuffs and a spit-hood were also used on the 11 year old autistic girl who, “referred to as Child H, was detained for over 60 hours without an appropriate adult by Sussex police in 2012. She was arrested three times and was twice held overnight in police cells, without a parent, guardian or social worker present to support her”, then there was the incident of an autistic man was accused of sexual assault after hugging a girl on a college trip in 2015. “The man was handcuffed while being transported to the station and detained in a cell for six hours, despite telling officers he had Asperger’s Syndrome and showing them his autism alert card. The charges were eventually dropped and he received an out-of-court five-figure settlement.” There was also the case last year where, “Police handcuff autistic boy, 12, leaving him ‘distressed and sobbing’ after fight with brother at school.”

Here I focus in a bit more detail on three stories involving other young people criminalised simply for being autistic, the first took place in 2014, the other two in 2017:

Adam’s Story 

23-year-old Adam Nasralla was diagnosed with autism aged nine. Up until the age of 15 he managed, and was happy, in mainstream schools with additional support. Adam’s behaviour became more challenging with the onset of adolescence and by the age of 18 he was detained under the Mental Health Act. There then followed a series of disastrous admissions to specialist hospitals where staff do not seem to have had any training or understanding of autism. Adam was frequently physically restrained by as many as nine hospital staff for up to 11 hours at a time. He was also so heavily medicated that he was unable to speak. 

In 2014, during his ‘treatment’ at the private Wast Hills Hospital in Birmingham, a doctor decided to ‘remove’ Adam’s diagnosis of autism in order that hospital staff could criminalise his behaviour (claiming that he now had capacity and was therefore was criminally responsible for his behaviours). Staff then called the police to restrain Adam and when they arrived, Adam was handcuffed, placed in a spit hood, restrained with a belt, and taken into police custody where he continued to be restrained without the presence of a solicitor or appropriate adult. 

Adam’s legal team, Hodge, Jones and Allen, report on their website that ‘when Adam’s parents finally got to visit their son after his arrest, he was clearly extremely disturbed and could not stop crying. He continues to suffer trauma as a result of his arrest and police detention.’ Adam was subsequently treated in a caring environment where his diagnosis was reinstated and his medication significantly reduced. A civil law claim for negligence, assault, breach of human rights and wrongful arrest was settled out of court by both Wast Hills Hospital and West Mercia Police.

Bradley’s Story 

23 year old Bradley Grimes had been in the care system since the age of seven. When he left care with no support, aged 17, he became homeless and ended up surviving by begging and sleeping rough. Between that time and the most recent incident, Bradley has been locked up in cells countless times for breaching Anti-social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), that is, he was banned from bedding down for the night in shop doorways in Middlesborough. "I can't even sit on a public bench without being locked up. I have to keep moving. … I was in [prison] pretty much all weekend, near enough every weekend.” 

As well as being autistic, it is claimed that Bradley has an inoperable brain tumour “brought on by years of neglect”. He also suffers with epilepsy and a heart murmur. When he appeared in court last October for breaching a a four-month suspended jail sentence, he pleaded with the judge to invoke his sentence and send him to prison so that at least he could be warm and fed on his birthday. Bradley felt that jail was a better option than staying outside and continually being arrested. On the outside, “it’s impossible for me to cope on my own, because I'm bad with things like budget and money.” Something the judge clearly agreed with when he commented, "If I were to let you go today the chances are that you would be sitting on a seat or sleeping in a shop doorway and you will be locked up again.”

Marcus’ Story

Marcus Potter was diagnosed with autism aged three. Now aged 20, Marcus has an obsession with filming the police, something that has led to numerous appearances in court on charges of harassment and bail conditions being applied for repeated ‘offences’. On November 16 last year, on his way to a Job Centre appointment, on passing the Bethel Street police station in Norwich, Adam reportedly stuck two fingers up at the police. He was arrested at his home the next day for allegedly breaching bail conditions and remains in prison awaiting trial. Once again, the police are unable to distinguish between anti-social behaviour and autistic behaviour, claiming that Marcus’ behaviour represented a threat to the public and himself. 

It is hard to see what threat Marcus poses to the public, but the threat to Marcus is real: police criminalised him for being autistic and locked him up. If the following spokesperson for the National Police Autism Association can't get it right when they commented, “Having autism is not an excuse for criminal or anti-social behaviour”, then there is little hope given that the majority of police officers don't even know what autism is, or care much less if they do. In most cases autistic behaviour is NOT criminal behaviour, it is only perceived and treated as such because of ignorance. That is the stupidity in the police’s logic; repetitive and compulsive autistic behaviours, of which the individual is often unaware is offending other people, should be contextualised and understood, not criminalised. People understand Tourettes and other neurological behaviours that may be perceived as ‘odd’, why do they refuse to understand autism; and why should odd behaviour be perceived as criminal?

The actor Richard Mylanwhose BBC documentary Richard and Jaco: Life With Autism was broadcast last year—is also part of the campaign to free Marcus and was right to express concern about his 11 year old son's own preoccupation with filming in this recent BBC news item.

Watch this video also that Marcus took of himself being arrested as an illustration that, although the police clearly find Marcus' behaviour provocative, they only have themselves to blame given their over-the-top, embarrassingly heavy handed response to a close encounter of the autistic kind. One thing that seems to characterise all the police officers in Marcus' many videos of them, is a distinct lack of a sense of humour, never mind a lack of humanity. If they simply gave Marcus a friendly nod or wave and went on their way, he would soon get bored with filming them and turn his attentions elsewhere. Better still, help him find work where he could put his skills and boundless energy to good use. Note that the Police & Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) requires all other available responses to be considered before resorting to arrest!*

* PACE Code G concerns the Police's power to arrest:
  1. 1.1 "The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful for police officers to discriminate against, harass or victimise any person on the grounds of the ‘protected characteristics’ of age, disability, [etc.] autism is a 'protected characteristic' under PACE

    1.2 The exercise of the power of arrest represents an obvious and significant interference with the Right to Liberty and Security under Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights set out in Part I of Schedule 1 to the Human Rights Act 1998.

  2. 1.3  The use of the power must be fully justified and officers exercising the power should consider if the necessary objectives can be met by other, less intrusive means. Absence of justification for exercising the power of arrest may lead to challenges should the case proceed to court. It could also lead to civil claims against police for unlawful arrest and false imprisonment. When the power of arrest is exercised it is essential that it is exercised in a non-discriminatory and proportionate manner which is compatible with the Right to Liberty under Article 5. 
Marcus continues to be held in Norwich Prison until a hearing set for 19th January 2018. He is only allowed three visits per month and last saw his family on Christmas Eve. A petition launched, titled "Free Marcus Potter—Autism is not a criminal offence", has received 7,000 signatures to date. 

The police frequently complain in the press that pressures on NHS budgets means that, by default, they have become a frontline mental health service. But that is no excuse for behaving in the barbaric way they sometimes do. They have clear statutory and other guidelines to follow, such as the Bradley Report’s recommendations on diversion away from arrest and custody to clinical services when the person has either declared or its obvious that they are suffering some kind of mental health problem. Yet it is obvious from the stories above that even where someone produces an autism alert card or is displaying signs of distress or sensory overload, the full force of the law—restraint, arrest, detention—automatically kicks in with all of the human misery and waste of public money that results. Why do police still not bother to request an ‘Appropriate Adult’ when presented with someone who clearly has a prescribed ‘protected characteristic’? PACE requires them to do this by law but as is clear from the stories above, the police often fail in this most basic of rights. The internet is awash with safeguarding policies and guidelines, including those published by the police themselves, as well as those endorsed by the police such as the National Autistic Society’s, Autism: a guide for criminal justice professionals and Autism: a guide for police officers and staff. That 'safeguarding' as a word has now entered even the police's lexicon but the average police officer still does not have a clue what safeguarding means, never mind how to practice it, is typical of the bankrupt currency of modern rhetoricif we repeat it often enough people will believe we understand and practice it. 

Criminal justice system and statutory health & social services continue to operate in two entirely separate universes of discourse. More often than not its the first refusing to have a dialogue with the second because they are too pumped up to stop and realise that the ‘criminal’ they think they’ve been called out to restrain may actually be a victim in need of safeguarding and support—the unacceptable numbers of deaths in custody of people with a diagnosis of mental illness in the UK already testifies to this. A recent report debated in Parliament shows that suicide rates among autistic people is nine times that of the general population and puts the risks and vulnerability of being autistic in today’s world into further focus.

But to return to the case of Bradley Grimes, there was a time in the world when tramping, homelessness and begging were recognised and honourable professions, not least in the birthplace of Western civilisation, Athens. Diogenes the Cynic used to beg alms of a statue to practice the art of being refused and his prowess as a beggar philosopher even impressed Alexander the Great. Jesus of Nazareth (man or myth is not the issue here), the icon of Western civilisation and to whom, paradoxically, cathedral palaces have been and are still being erected around the globe, was a tramp and beggar par excellence. In my post The Right to Tramp, I refer to Jack Kerouac’s warnings as long ago as the 1950’s of the increasing intolerance towards people begging and sleeping rough. In an essay he wrote in the 1950s, The Vanishing American Hobo, he noted that the aggressive implementation of vagrancy laws, backed up by intensive police surveillance, including the use of helicopters, meant that ‘you cant even be alone anymore in the primitive wilderness’:

In America camping is considered a healthy sport for Boy Scouts but a crime for mature men who have made it their vocation. — Poverty is considered a virtue among the monks of civilized nations—in America you spend a night in the calaboose if youre caught short without your vagrancy change. […] They pick on lovers on the beach even. They just dont know what to do with themselves in those five thousand dollar police cars with the two-way Dick Tracy radios except pick on anything that moves in the night and in the daytime on anything that seems to be moving independently of gasoline …

Of course, unlike Diogenes and Jesus, for most people on the autistic spectrum, begging and homelessness are not lifestyle choices, they are the harsh realities those like Bradley Grimes encounter of being autistic in a non-autistic world. But if this rant about society’s neglect and abuse of autistic people sounds overly pessimistic, I’m more than happy to propose a solution: 

The Discrimination of Autism

50 years ago, homosexual behaviour in Britain was finally de-criminalised and de-pathologised, even though the open discrimination of LGBT people and medical intervention to change people’s sexual orientation continued. And while that discrimination may still exist today, there are strict penalties against those who publicly express it. In spite of the Autism Act 2009 (the Welsh Government continues to resist implementing such an Act) the criminalising and pathologising of autistic behaviour remains one of the last areas of discrimination in the UK not to be vigorously outlawed. Statutory services such as local authorities, the NHS and the police, are still able to discriminate against autistic people without challenge.

For years, mental health services were described as the ‘cinderella service’ of the NHS, receiving proportionally the least resources—and to some extent still do. But compared to dedicated autism services (only now slowly emerging on a piecemeal and tokenistic basis), mental health services are a well protected, statutory mainstream provision. The same goes for national policy and strategy documents. Autism is often only referred to briefly as an afterthought or add-on to mainstream documents written for other disability groups such as the mentally ill or people with learning disabilities—whose clinical practitioners are often woefully ignorant of autism or the risks associated with it. But autism is neither a mental illness or a learning disability, and unless co-occurring with one of those other disabilities, people with autism are excluded altogether from those more protected services. Only a revised, universal Autism Act that gives people real rights rather than merely good intentions, together with the implementation of Lord Bradley’s proposals into law (with specific reference to autism), will ensure that autistic people can no longer be denied support, discriminated against and criminalised in the manner they currently are today.


PLEASE NOTE: Use the "Contact Form" at the very bottom of this web page if you have a similar story that has already been reported in the press and want to share it. I'd be happy to add it or help in any way I can.

My MP has tabled an adjournment debate on criminalising autism and is also working together with the Chief Executive of the National Autistic Society to raise the profile of these injustices in Parliament via the All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism. Again, please use the Contact Form to get further details and press your own MP to be involved.

An Afterword on Homelessness:

This comment is not specifically related to autistic people but recent reports in the press describe the leader of Windsor Council making a formal request to the police to remove homeless people from the streets of the town prior to the royal wedding. The Council leader was seeking action against “aggressive begging and intimidation” and the “bags and detritus” accumulating on the streets. He suggested to the police that they use their powers under the 1824 Vagrancy Act, to criminalise rough sleeping and begging, and the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 to issue ASBOs.

I’m not sure if it ever crossed the Council Leader’s mind, but I well remember news images of the young Prince Harry, whose wedding he is so anxious to sanitise, being taken by his mother to various homelessness charities of which she was a patron. Harry's brother, Prince William, remains a patron of Centrepoint today. Now of course, I suspect that, like the citizens of Hamja Ahsan’s fictitious Aspergistan, many autistic folk, homeless or not, are not that bothered about public displays of fawning at royal events. But one response to Windsor Council’s request, is that homeless people from across the Country that are so inclined and able, make their way down to Windsor en-mass for the wedding, and turn out on the streets for a couple of nights along with all the other well-wishers to celebrate the event in a style that Princess Diana would surely have approved of.

I voluntarily run a weekly writing group for the autism charity Autism Spectrum Connections Cymru that provides a drop-in, a range of support and social groups, and help and advice with employment, housing, education, etc, for over 600 adults. One of the exercises we did recently was to write a fifteen minute response to the Leader of Windsor Council. I am indebted to the following two members of the group for allowing me to publish their pieces of writing on this post. Its a pity that the subjects of Marcus Potter's videos are unable to display the same problem solving skills, irony and humour as is evident from the contributions below:

Dear Mr Dudley,

Can I suggest that in light of your stated objective of removing homeless people from the streets of your city prior the upcoming royal wedding, you also ban tourists, who have no fixed abode in the area.  How would you stop the removed homeless from returning?  Perhaps you could surround Windsor with a wall to prevent any outsiders from straying into the city.  If this proves too costly, why not just hold the celebrations inside Windsor Castle?  Perhaps you are confusing homelessness a terrible thingwith militant fundamentalisma terrorist thing.  Perhaps you could be part of the solution.  I wonder how many empty rooms there are in the Council offices, or for that matter in your own home?

[Damian Sawyer]

Dear Sir,

RE: Your request that homeless people be removed from the streets of Windsor whilst the Royal Wedding takes place.

I couldn't agree more and would like to make some suggestions as to how this might be achieved:

House all the homeless people in the large building in the centre of Windsor. It has many rooms, most of which are unused by the elderly occupants, Elizabeth and Philip.

House all the homeless people in a marquee in Elizabeth and Philip's garden. It is massive and extends to Virginia Water, some miles away. In fact, Virginia Water itself is technically part of the garden.

Dress all the homeless people as Beefeaters and pay them to act as Good Will Ambassadors—guiding tourists to the best place to eat, urinate, sleep in a doorway, etc.

As above, but dress all the homeless people as famous figures from British history. One gentleman near McDonald's has a beard and is virtually Henry VIII already.

Ask the homeless people to act as guard of honour to the happy couple—they could link their sleeping bags and cast them on the cobblestones to form a sort of multi-coloured red carpet.

Ask local people to stop washing and shaving and to sleep rough themselves during the wedding—that way any homeless people will stand out far less.

Spray the homeless with red, white and blue food dye. They will still be homeless but they will have an instant air of patriotism.

Hold the wedding itself in Slough and have the reception in Windsor—that way, Windsor will seem amazing in comparison, even with a 'homeless problem.'

Equip each homeless person with clothes covered in tiny mirrors—that way, they can better reflect the rest of society.

I'm sure any of the above strategies will do the trick.

Yours faithfully,

A fellow concerned citizen

[Jethro Bradley]

Jethro was winner of the BBC Radio New Comedy Awards 2016. 
Watch his video here

27 Jun 2017

Lord Open Road, by Jim Christy

Lord Open Road, © Myfanwy Phillips

James H. Langford was the real name of a man that I and so many other habitués of the knockabout life knew as Lord Open Road.
His moniker might just as well have been the Rhyming Roadster or the Vagabond Versifier. In other words he spoke in rhyme—a style now familiar with rap. I met him at the annual Britt, Iowa hobo convention in 1977, although I might have encountered him in Britt way back in 1964. He looked familiar.
He was a stocky friendly man who dressed in railroad garb and still rode the rails whenever it was possible. He had the air of authenticity about him, something he shared with Frisco Jack, Adam Ydobon (Nobody spelled backwards), and few others. 
By the 1970s it was a vanishing way of life although recently it has become something of fad with punk rock types jumping freights and tagging them. Some of these go home and maintain websites and post photos and their hobo names on social media. The notion of the old time 'bos maintaining websites and texting is pretty funny, surreal even. I can just picture A-No.1 and his pal Jack London tweeting each other. James Langford would have had nothing to do with that kind of thing. He was too unusual—in a good way—for anything so conventional.
I’ve been thinking of him lately because I received a letter out of the blue—Texas, in this case—from his niece Barbara Saunders Jones. She had a clipping from decades past of a magazine article I wrote about one of the hobo conventions. There was an accompanying photo of Open Road, by Myfanwy Phillips, who accompanied me to Britt. The first one Barbara had ever seen, not only of him, but of anyone on her mother’s side of the family. She was later surprised to hear my description of him as a friendly man who illustrated no tendencies towards violent or abusive behaviour. It seems, according to family legend, that Uncle Open Road—they knew him only as James—was a rough, tough mean character. Although none of the 'bos spoke ill of him neither did they flock to his side. He simply came across as too strange even for these decidedly unusual people. 
Barbara writes that Uncle Road ardently desired to be crowned King of the Hoboes. I’m sure he did covet the title but must have known deep down that his coronation was about as likely as there being freight trains in heaven. By the Eighties contenders were actively politicking for the honour. Unlike some, Road was not what is known as ‘media friendly’. He wasn’t really rough and tough; he just looked it. The position of King was nothing to be laughed at either. There were advantages to it. For instance, free trips to speaking gigs that paid, having your opinions solicited and getting the opportunity to see one’s picture in the papers.
Invariably the men voted in as Hobo King were either wizened, non-intimidating characters like Sparky Smith and Frypan Charlie or the extremely photogenic such as Steamtrain Maury Graham who could also double as the Santa Claus nonpareil.
Steamtrain Maury Graham, © Myfanwy Phillips

James H. Langford was born in Oak Grove, Missouri in 1920. The next information the family has is that he was sent to Reform School in 1935, age fifteen. I have heard rumours that Road wasn’t the most reliable source of information about himself. When I asked him when he had first left home, he replied, “One morning when I was eight, my mother sent me down to the railroad tracks to fill a bag with coal for the stove. A train was coming and I left on it.”
Jim Christy (right) with Frisco Jack, © Myfanwy Phillips
Each would-be King has to appear on a makeshift stage and cite his credentials. Most speeches are usually reminiscent of something the mayor says at the county fair. But Road’s might have gone something like, “Hello, dere. I know you come to stare but I don’t care. On my boots I have wings. I don’t dig any sedentary things. I’m always going down that road like old Tom Joad. In comparison my opponents are mostly ersatz, stay-at-home cats. I’m a real Bo, I just got to go”, . . .  etc.

Steamtrain and I had a falling out because I backed Frisco Jack for King and not him. I pointed out to him that he lived in a big house in suburbia, owned a business, and that his only time away from it was to visit Britt once a year.

I believe Open Road wasn’t so much unfriendly as socially awkward, and he stumbled when called upon to speak in the manner of ordinary people. But he was eloquent when rhyming. In this he reminds me of certain stutterers who sing effortlessly such as Country singer Mel Tillis. He added that a few years later he got into some trouble which curtailed his railroad adventures for a good amount of time—which can be attested to by the dates of the reform school episode. In 1942 he enlisted in the Army but served only a year. 
When I returned to the Convention after a ten or twelve year absence, I asked a couple of the men if they’d known Floyd Wallace, my old hobo mentor with whom I’d first traveled to Britt. One said he’d heard of Floyd, another shook his head. Road nodded, “Oh, yes. The Greeley Kid.” Which was indeed Floyd’s moniker. “He fought bravely in Spain. Wish I could see him again but word got around he went and caught the Westbound.” Catching the Westbound means departing this Vale of Tears.
In the late Seventies and early Eighties I exchanged a few notes with James H. Langford. The last I received was from Herington, Kansas on April 8, 1981. He opened with "Hey, Dere", his usual salutation, and said he regretted he wouldn’t be able to meet up with me in Florida as we’d previously discussed because he “needed to go west to get some rest.” The editor of the Britt newspaper had told Langford that he could, “get me the crown because I have the background but I have to stop using big words.” He signed the note “Open Road.”
Nine days later Lord Open Road caught his own Westbound, having been attacked in the train yards at Dalhart, Texas. According to the autopsy, he died of “multiple stab wounds to the chest.” His killers got $2.81 for their efforts.

More hobo portraits by Myfanwy Phillips from her visit to the Britt Hobo Convention with Jim Christy in 1977. 

Top Hobo Bill and Frypan Jack in front of Bill's trailer, second Adam Ydobon, third unnamed hobo, and fourth Sparky Smith:

NOTE: A biography of Jim Christy's own adventures, A Vagabond Life, will be published by American History Press in the Fall

29 Dec 2016

Guest Contributor—Donald Kerr

Antipodean Musings on a Friend: Jim Christy

by Donald Kerr

Donald Kerr in the Press Room, University of Otakou, Dunedin
It was about 1989 when I first met Jim Christy. I was working in the rare book collection at Auckland Public Library (now Sir George Grey Special Collections), starting there on the auspicious date of 8 August 1988 (a fire at the library that day prevented me from actually starting work). My surrounds included a plush blue carpet, a number of exhibition cabinets, three reading tables, and an office, enclosed with sliding glass windows. It was heavenly, and visitors calling had to have persistence to battle through the public floors, and take the stairs or lift to the rare books collection, the only public area on the second floor. I cannot remember what time of the day it was, but Christy walked in and peering through the glass windows said – in his distinctive drawl – ‘Donald Kerr’. I replied in the affirmative. I have no distinct recall on what was said after that, but we did end up mentioning Blaise Cendrars. Indeed, that was how we connected. Christy had seen my name in Feuille de Routes, the bulletin of the Blaise Cendrars Society, and although only my home address was listed (see No. 17, November 1987), he had somehow tracked me down. In New Zealand. Christy is good like that! And we would have talked about Henry Miller, the American writer whom I had corresponded with briefly, and who had introduced me to Cendrars, John Cowper Powys, Knut Hamsun, and a whole host of other writers through his Books in My Life (1952), a passionate appreciation about all those writers, stories and narratives that had influenced Miller. (Miller dedicates a chapter to Cendrars in Books in My Life, pp. 58-80). I probably took Christy to tea in the staffroom and continued our discussion. However, on this first fleeting meeting there is one thing I do remember. At one stage, Christy asked me if he could borrow $100. He was not ‘skint’; it was for tyre repairs on a rental car that he had. He promised to pay it back. Librarians are not rich, and I was pretty typical; first real job, mortgage, and the usual expenses. I did not hesitate. ‘Of course’, I said. And so ended this rather vague first meeting. One thing, however, was certain. I liked Jim Christy. This vagabond fellow was my kind of guy, and I was sure our bookish relationship would continue.
Through my work at the Grey Collection at Auckland Public Library, I came to know Sir John Galvin, a private book collector who lived in Vancouver. On learning that we (my wife Jude and I) were visiting family in Vancouver and Montreal in October 1991, Sir John invited us to call. We did visit, and it was a great thrill to see his private collection of books and manuscripts, which included a first edition Audubon, rare Mayan and Aztec maps, and medieval manuscripts. However, the first day in ‘Van’ was a real Christy day. We arrived at Jude’s sister place in West Vancouver in the early morning and in order to keep awake, we decided to head to town. Before walking to the bus stop to catch the 10 Dunbar bus, I gave Christy a quick call. With no answer, I left a message, saying that we were in town and that we would catch up – somewhere.
The bus arrived, and we paid the fare to downtown Vancouver. We walked to the seats at the end of the bus, and ended up looking twice. There was Christy, sitting at the back, downing a beer. Jokes like ‘you come here often’ and ‘I always catch this bus’ followed. It had turned out that Christy was returning from working as a gardener for an Arab sheik. And I told him of Galvin’s treasure-house in Vancouver. Really? Truly Cendrarsian. I saw much of Christy while in Vancouver, especially at McLeods bookshop. Indeed, another accidental meeting occurred. While in a music store on Seymour (Sam’s?), Christy was there, with a girl called Nicola. We ended up in a Punjabi restaurant for a nosh, and then to Sylvia’s Hotel to hear some jazz. I think Oscar Peterson’s brother was playing. No matter who, Christy likes his jazz. Without doubt, talk on Cendrars, Miller, Hamsun, Powys, and all the others would have continued. And there was talk of our own writings – his poetry and novels, and my books on book collectors.
In February 1996, we adopted Samuel, a 12 day old boy. And Christy arrived in Auckland. He did not stay long at our West Auckland home, realising that it was such a momentous occasion for us. And he was on the job; from memory a commissioned journalistic piece from National Geographic about some part of the country – Gisborne, Napier, the Coromandel. Christy has always been good at this. Somewhat amazingly, he always comes up trumps with a commission that enables him to visit places around the world. ‘Where are you today old chum?’ I often ask in a letter (now email). Burma – doing an article on Indian elephants; Costa Rica – an article on the poor; Portugal – an article on buried treasure.
In August 1997, we visited Jude’s family across Canada: Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. In Vancouver he enjoyed a BBQ at my sister-in-law’s, bringing with him Carmen, one of his girl-friends. She was fun. Christy was still at Gibson, but had an apartment somewhere downtown. One topic of conversation was eccentrics, those out of the ordinary folk with their mad schemes and plans. On leaving Vancouver and traveling to Toronto, I ended up in Montreal, at another of Jude’s sisters. It was a time to relax. One afternoon I turned on the television and found a documentary on the schemes of one Captain Francois Elie Roudaire, who proposed the building of a 120 mile canal that would connect the Mediterranean Sea to a part of the Sahara Desert. This crazy mad-cap scheme was estimated to cost 25 million francs, and involved the visionary ‘engineer’ Ferdinand de Lesseps. I kept watching it, somewhat amused. And lo, friend Christy appeared on the screen; a character witness-cum-expert talking about this mad scheme. Believe me, this sort of thing occurs often with Christy. Over the six or seven times we have actually met, there has always been some strange coincidence; some very strange happenstances.
In October 2002, we moved to Dunedin, which boasts the oldest University in New Zealand. Christy had never been this south before, and his visit in 2006 was an excuse to visit this fine city. Another girl-friend was in tow; Virginia I think. And as he likes his privacy, he booked a hotel in the downtown area; mixing with us at nights. Dunedin’s weather can be variable; super fine one day – dropping to very cold temperatures the next. Christy came unprepared for the cold. I remember lending him a puffer jacket emblazoned with ‘Champion Spark Plug’ on it. It not only buffeted the winds, but he looked cool. A snappy dresser – as he always is. It was also on this occasion that he met my friend Ralph Lawrence, another raconteur and kindred spirit. Christy and ‘Ralphie’ still keep in touch.
In June 2012 we visited Kingston, Ontario. Christy was living on a farm in Belleville, having got Gibson and Toronto out of his system. The latter did, however, provide a closer connection to publishers and readers. I made an arrangement to meet him outside the apartment block of Jude’s father’s in Kingston. I thought the instructions were clear, but obviously not. I sat on the seat outside waiting for him to turn up. Nothing. A no-show after two hours. Disappointed, I knew there were a few bookshops in Kingston that deserved attention. So I headed towards the first on the list. I remember walking into the shop, which was crowded with shelves of books. A large double shelved bookstand stood in the main area of the store, with the owner sitting behind a desk in the corner. Rather than browse (something I enjoy) I asked the owner: ‘I am looking for books on Henry Miller, and Knut Hamsun’. And who popped his head up from behind the bookshelf: Christy. ‘I knew I would find you here!’ he said. We laughed and joked about the lack of communication and mis-directions, and repaired to a local pub for fish and chips and a few drinks. And I bought a Miller book that day: the Hallmark edition issue of The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder (1971). My note in this book reads: ‘Purchased 30 June (Summer) 2012 for C$12.00 in a bookshop in Kingston, Ontario, where I bumped into Jim Christy.’
Somewhere in the few meetings we have had, Christy got new teeth – gold ones from Vietnam. The operation was, according to him, cheap. They made an impression on Sam. One day he awoke from a dream. He relayed that there was a knock at the door of our villa in Dunedin. The door opened and it was Christy, with his gold teeth all a-smiling, and he was holding an axe. Sam did not say what happened next, but he still remembers this Stephen King ‘Shining’-like episode and Christy.
And over the years I have garnered a number of letters from Christy, and books – many signed. Four excerpts from his emails (pencil gone years ago) give the flavour of conversations: ‘Donald. Are you a celebrated author yet? Receiving kudos? Basking in the attention of nubile young (female) fans? If so, please tell me your secret! I had a dream last night that I and my new lady friend (who I've known for 20 years), a half - gypsy singer were staying at your and Judy’s home in probably Dunedin, although it wasn’t like any home of yours I've ever seen. You both were out of town and lent it to me for a few days. You left a wire-haired terrier there and it was starving, (you heartless creature). We went for a walk and saw you and Ralph carrying bags and on your way to the gym. We had a flight and had to leave. Why such a ridiculous dream? What is the significance? Feed the dog! Jim’ (date unknown); ‘I’m in Holguin Cuba....only have a minute on internet.....second trip to Cuba but this time have had more of a lot inside, so to speak. ... Lots to tell...hope we get a chance to meet in person sometime soon........and hope you weren’t effected by the quake....best, Jim’ (3 October 2011); ‘Morocco is old hat, Suva too wet, New Orleans underwater, New Delhi too spread out so I’m here in Ivanhoe (real name). We’re having the same weather you have in Dunedin! Otherwise all fine. I think I mentioned that I had a play in workshop for three nights last Feb. Well it got picked up by a real producer who will stage it next Feb. at a major theatre in Toronto. For me, I suppose it’s beginner’s luck...Just came across the info that Blaise wrote a song for Edith Piaf that she recorded. ... best, brother from Yogi Jim’ (5 November 2011); and ‘I’d like to see a list of the strangest libraries, ones that cater in a fulsome way to esoteria and odd corners of learning. Don’t think I’ll be using the Iowa law library. Spent a few days in jail decades ago in Cedar Rapids. Was befriended by the deputy and his mother.  But that’s another story.’ (1 November 2012).
And on the preliminary page of his The Buk Book. Musings on Charles Bukowski (1997) is the inscription: ‘For Donald, I’m sure you will find this fellow to be a worthy role model! Jim.’ The above is the bare bones of my friendship with Christy, most of it true. I have failed to mention Dave Mason, bookseller extraordinaire; Christy’s turn as poet-singer in Artspace, Dunedin; and the death of the elastic man in the circus. But that, as Christy states, is another story.

Dr. Donald Kerr is Special Collections Librarian at University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand