"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

19 Feb 2012

A Philosophy of Tramping—The Right to Tramp

Consider for a moment what might occur if Diogenes the Cynic were to miraculously reappear today and was encountered masturbating and shouting abuse at passers by in one of our city centre parks. Our hero would almost certainly be whisked away by the forces of law and order for an urgent psychiatric assessment. How LESS civilised are we today than Athens of 200 B.C., and what would Diogenes make of the current fate of the Greek people? Asceticism as a positive choice of lifestyle, such as that demonstrated by Diogenes, Jesus or the Wandering Jew, has a long and honorable tradition. But as Jack Kerouac observed as long ago as 1960, society’s increasing intolerance of the tramp or hobo is proving a challenge for those who choose to live on the margins of that society:

“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 civilised nations -- in America you spend a night in the calaboose if youre caught short without your vagrancy change.”
‘The Vanishing American Hobo’ from Lonesome Traveler

Such are the themes discussed in my book in progress, a study made all the more pertinant by my recent decision to downsize my own lifestyle and devote more time to writing. Coincidently, my wife Angela is also addressing these themes in her current book in progress, Windows, an autobiographical tale of obsession and surveillance. Bettie passes Angela’s writing window most days but we also frequently encounter her tramping around the neighbourhood. We don’t know if she has a home to return to, as although we talk to her, she has few words of English, neither do we know if she tramps out of choice or necessity.
     Homelessness, joblessness, poverty, isolation, vagabondage, etc., can be both cause and effect of the subject under discussion. And if it’s tough these days for those who choose poverty as a lifestyle, how much tougher for those who have poverty thrust upon themthose who, like Yosser Hughes in my last post, attempt to end their life rather than face a life without work, partner, kids, home, and ultimately one’s own identity. For the millions of people today facing the personal catastrophe of joblessness, homelessness and loss of selfall because of the personal greed of those who already had more than is dignifiedsociety itself must change.
'No direction home'
     But if it refuses, and there is no other way of maintaining one's personal integrity in the face adversity, maybe we should rehabilitate the more positive notion of the tramp (from the Middle English verb meaning to ‘walk with heavy footsteps’  hence trample or go hiking). The Vagrancy Act 1824 (and subsequent amendments) makes it an offence to sleep on the streets or beg for sustenance, hence it's a crime in England and Wales to be a homeless beggar. And we do not have to look that far back into European history to see just how advanced cultures respond to certain groups of those citizens it regards as socially unacceptable. For along with the yellow star and pink triangle, we can include the black triangle identifying vagabonds also for extermination in the Nazi death camps. How we love categorising peopleand why those who have any sense at all should refrain from ticking boxes on ethnic monitoring forms in the ridiculous belief that this equates to a fairer society. 
     The diminishing number of those who reject society for a more ‘real’ experience (the tramp), are lately having their ranks swelled by those who reject society for political and ideological reasons (pitching their tents outside St Paul’s, the New York Stock Exchange and other public and private spaces), and increasingly, those rejected by Governments in their belief that sacking thousands from their jobs will help to fix  what? The economy stupid! The more society attempts to force it’s citizens to conform and fit in with its bankrupt rules and prohibitions, particularly when it demonstrates that rules of acceptable behaviour do not apply to those in power themselves, the more likely it is that many of those citizens will start to find ways of occupying their own space, in the edges or even outside the margins of society altogether. 

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